It’s the Indifferent Universe That Brings Us Together

by Rick Elmore


There is a deep affinity between what is called Speculative Realism (SR) and pessimism, insofar as both of these philosophical approaches understand the universe as, on a fundamental level, indifferent to human existence. This affinity is most clearly marked in the work of Ray Brassier, for whom the realist commitment to a world independent of human thought leads necessarily to the nihilist conviction that the world is “indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable” (Brassier 2007, xi). From this perspective, realism undermines all that might make humans feel at home in the universe. This basic undermining of the human is, of course, an essential tenet of pessimism. As Eugene Thacker writes, echoing Brassier, pessimism “is the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups” (Thacker 2011, 17). From Schopenhauer to Ligotti, pessimism rests on the assertion that “while there may be some order to the self and the cosmos […] it is an order that is absolutely indifferent to our [human] existence” (Thacker 2011, 18). Hence, there is a basic sense in which realism and pessimism agree that, for humans, the universe is not all smiles and noodle salad. We may need the universe, but it certainly does not need us, and this non-reciprocal relation challenges the privilege we’ve so often accorded ourselves. This basic commitment to an indifferent universe is not, however, merely a tenet of pessimism or Brassier’s realist nihilism, but is an implicit assertion of all anti-correlationist realisms, I think.

There have been a number of posts on this site illustrating the way in which SR encompasses an array of philosophical realisms and materialisms (and it is a term that, for various reasons, I think we should move away from). However, what all these positions generally have in common is a resistance to what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism: the belief that the human-world correlate forms the central element of philosophical investigation (Bryant, Srnicek, Harman 2011, 3). For thinkers such as these (and here I am thinking of Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, Iain Hamilton Grant, Jane Bennett, but also, as Katerina Kolozova shows in her recent article, “Thinking the Political By Way of ‘Radical Concepts’,” Quentin Meillassoux and François Laruelle, among others) any serious realism rejects the assumed importance of human thought to the constitution of the universe. In their own way, each of these thinkers asserts an indifference of the universe to human existence, that is, they assert a basic pessimism. Now obviously there is much to argue for here, as one would need to show that “indifference” is the fundamental basis of pessimism, and that each of these thinkers, in their quite different philosophical systems, articulates a basic indifference. However, it seems right to me that there is a parallel between the realist assertion of a world independent of the human mind and the pessimist contention of a fundamentally indifferent universe, and that this parallel suggests that realism (understood as an anti-correlationism) necessarily entails a certain pessimism. I think this connection between pessimism and realism helps to clarify the growing interest among realists in the question of horror and the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in particular. However, it also suggests a connection between realism, pessimism, and environmental philosophy, insofar as the critique of anthropocentrism entails a significant displacement of the importance of the human as well.

The critique of anthropocentrism is a commonplace of environmental thought. From Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson to Val Plumwood and Warwick Fox, there has been a recognition that the overprivileging of the human or of certain human capacities contributes to the instrumental, exploitative, and destructive relationship between modern culture and the natural world. From this perspective, it is difficult to imagine a serious environmental philosophy that would not question the place of the human. Yet despite this thoroughgoing critique of anthropocentrism, few environmental thinkers go as far as arguing that the universe is fundamentally indifferent to human existence. (I’m indebted to my friend and one of my favorite environmental philosophers, Keith Peterson for this insight. He’s good stuff, and you should all be reading his work). There are naturally exceptions to this rule, mostly in the tradition of deep ecology. For example, the Australian philosopher, William Grey articulates what he calls a “cosmic anthropocentrism,” the belief that “[t]he intellectual history of the past few centuries can be characterized as pedestal bashing: a succession of successful demolitions of comforting myths through which we have sought to locate ourselves in the world” (Grey 1993, 463). For Grey, modern scientific and social scientific thought develops through a continuous challenge to the place and importance of the human, from the Copernican undermining of the centrality of humans in the universe and the Darwinian displacement of humanity’s biological privilege to Freud’s contestation of the human as uniquely rational, Grey sees the intellectual history of the West, much like Brassier, as an unseating of the supposed importance of the human. It is this unseating that marks an affinity between realism, pessimism, and environmental thought. What I find interesting about this affinity is that it raises the question of whether a thoroughgoing critique of anthropocentrism requires that we accept the ontological and metaphysical claim that the universe is indifferent to human existence?   Put differently, is a certain pessimism requisite of environmental thought or requisite for any robust critique of anthropocentrism? And if it is, how might this connection suggest a realism in environmental thought that goes deeper than the dominant, scientific realism? (This is a question already at play in Tim Morton’s work). In short, I wonder how deep our critique of the human needs to go in environmental philosophy, and in what way realism and pessimism help us to think this critique? And, conversely, are realism and pessimism forms of environmental thinking, forms that could be assisted by a more explicit “ecological” focus?

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Filed under Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology

9 responses to “It’s the Indifferent Universe That Brings Us Together

  1. While realism can’t help but inspire pessimism (whether it’s realism about the indifferent nature of the universe or of humans TO the universe), I don’t believe that framing environmentalism under the banner of either/or would be a particularly constructive approach – that is, if we’re attempting to be constructive.

    The sense of urgency we should be feeling to reconcile the social and natural world really ought to eclipse any contemplation over whether human beings are inherently averse to nature. That is, at some point we need to be realistic about how much, whether we like it or not, we are dependent on something that is not dependent on us. We can only hold out for so long, or defer the responsibility to “deal with” nature to other, “lesser” human beings before it becomes apparent that the indifferent world is ready to consume us. This is ostensibly why cultures past (and some present) have made sacrifices to the earth or otherwise tried to maintain a sense “oneness” with it.

    This is, of course, not to downplay the importance of thinking about these issues in the way you’ve described them (quite intriguingly) here. Rather, I’m posing a sort of realism that rejects the idea that even our own attitudes towards nature will be of much significance when we are forced to confront it head on.

    • Thanks so much for the comment, Nick. I think you are absolutely right, of course. The inescapability of our current climate situation is undeniable. And I certainly don’t think that some kind of change of “worldview” or of human recognition is the solution by any means.

      I also didn’t mean to imply a firm either/or approach as much as to push the question of what it means to really confront the “reality” or our situation (a reality that would certainly include the fact that we seem hell bent on destroying the natural world and one in which, as you so nicely put it, “our own attitudes towards nature” wont be of “much significance.” In fact, I think that the link to realism precisely throws into question the whole concept of environmentalism as a kind of “change in worldview” and the implicit assumption that you have to change people’s minds (or worldviews) as a primary step to saving the environment. Or I hope it does. In any case, the question of indifference seemed like an interesting and potentially productive connection. Thanks again for your comment.

  2. nothing is “requisite” in waxing philosophical/theoretical/political/etc, anything can be added to the mix (nothing is essentially alien/ruled-out/antithetical/etc) and the only limits to such projects are dependent on whether or not one is trying to convince other people.

    • I think this is only true if you have an ahistorical and purely conceptual understanding of what philosophy and perhaps thinking more generally are up to. Certainly, in grand sense, nothing is essential probably, but given that there are material and historical realities on the ground, one can’t just add whatever one wants to one’s analysis. For example, one could perhaps imagine a capitalism that doesn’t depend on a market logic or a marxism that doesn’t include a critique of wage labor, but given the real development of these concepts, one can certainly claim that these things are “requisite” to them in some sense.

      Things have histories, logics, material conditions, and realities that one must confront if one hopes to say anything real or important about them, and, in this sense, we can’t abandon the notion of some things being potentially requisite, I think.

      • you have that exactly backwards, only an a-historical view of philosophy (and human-beings) would say that speculations/reifications like histories/logics/etc are the same as say actual material conditions in terms of affordances and resistances, what does “real” development for example mean where/how would one find such a thing?

  3. Pingback: Southern Reach IV: Annihilation and the Strange Origins of “the Novel” | environmental critique

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