Category Archives: Affect and Ecology

Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People

 Humankind

In his characteristically eccentric and predictably enthralling new book, Humankind, Timothy Morton argues that Marxism has erred in excluding nonhumans from “social space,” but is capable of correcting its course because of its commitment to solidarity.  The exclusion of nonhumans is a bug, rather than a feature of Marxist thought.  Capitalism, based on property ownership and various forms of slavery, conversely, is necessarily exclusive and hierarchical.[i]  Resources, including humans and nonhumans, are subordinated to the transcendent value of capital, and human beings, in effect, develop kinship bonds with capital rather than human and nonhuman beings.  Folding anarchy back into Marxism, Morton argues that solidarity with nonhuman beings simply effaces our ties to consumer capitalism (“Kindness,” 2300 – 2313).  Though Morton criticizes the New Left’s focus on identity politics for reproducing essential difference and thus undermining solidarity, his vision is certainly a boon for the Left (“Things in Common,” 207-261).  I’m not quite sure if Morton’s radical reconfiguration of social space is Marxism as we know it, or as it was conceived, but Humankind might encourage intellectuals to trade their chains for an optimistic New New Left.  Humans and nonhumans in solidarity, willing Trump’s last tweet.

One of Morton’s most radical concepts is the symbiotic real.  I say it’s radical not because symbiosis is new, but because Morton presents non-hierarchical symbiosis as an integral feature of political life. When we become aware of the symbiotic real, solidarity is no longer a value, choice, or decision.  It simply is, and any social, economic, or political theory that externalizes nonhuman beings is recognized as inoperable—an insolvent fantasy (“Things in Common,” 66 – 87).  Another important element of Morton’s project here, and I think it’s his most significant one to date, is interrogating life, categorically. “Life” based on substance ontology, and specious distinctions between its various forms, is antithetical to life (“Life,” 807).  Rather than subordinating life to the “agrologistic” principles of non-contradiction and the excluded middle, that create mutually exclusive categories of life and non-life, and identify life with autonomous being, Morton rediscovers and celebrates life as quivering, shimmering, spectral (“Life,” 770, 776, 846, 850, 860).  He sings of life forms that overflow their boundaries, downward and upward.  Human beings, composed of myriad nonhuman beings, and haunted by what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects; nonhuman beings composed of what have heretofore been considered inanimate objects, and haunted by human beings. “[T]he intrinsic shimmering of being” (“Life,” 860).

The “correlationism revelation mode” is like a magic trick (“Specters,” 893 – 916).  First we see a subject and an object, and then suddenly the two are collapsed into the transcendental subject. The symbiotic real is supernatural, occult.  Everything has agency, and everything also withdraws (“Specters,” 942, 987).  While we are engaging with a nonhuman, even an inanimate object, it is also engaging with us, and hiding.  And this includes nonhuman aspects of ourselves (“Specters,” 942).  Humankind comprises the nonhuman aspects of the human, including the unconscious.  Both human and nonhuman beings are haunted by spectral others and spectral selves.  This is spectral phenomenology (“Specters,” 942).  Ecological awareness is being with a “ghostly host of nonhumans” (“Specters,” 1089).  “To encounter an ecological entity is to be haunted” (“Specters,” 1113).  Every life form has a spectral double, and “[b]eing alive means being supernatural” (“Specters,” 1323).

Subscendence is the most theoretically important concept of the book, and possibly the most important piece of Humankind’s political argument.  Under the sign of subscendence, Morton illustrates that wholes are smaller and more fragile than the sum of their parts (“Subscendence,” 1767 – 1794).  And this applies to menacing hyperobjects such as neoliberalism.  Though we imagine it as Cthulu, Morton suggests neoliberalism may be ontologically small and easy to subvert.  It pervades social space, but it cannot contain or rule its parts.  Our fear and cynicism is based on an assumption that neoliberalism is a transcendent whole, but solidarity with human and nonhumnan beings can help us dismantle it.  Locally unplugging from fossil fuel energy grids seems trivial, until we rediscover solidarity and begin to replicate such local forms of resistance (“Subscendence,” 1726 – 1828).

Subscendence replaces mastery.  Because parts exceed wholes, and because all objects withdraw, increasing knowledge does not result in mastery.  The more objects and levels of objects we discover, the more objects withdraw. And this includes our knowledge of ourselves.  The more we know about ourselves the more we perceive our withdrawl. “You are a haunted house” (“Subscendence,” 1965).  The dream of access to the thing itself is replaced by a real feeling of being followed or watched.  Intimacy is paranoia, and truth is being haunted (“Subscendence,” 1912; “Kindness,” 2649)

Humankind, like human beings, is “a fuzzy, subscendent whole that includes and implies other lifeforms, as a part of the also subscendent symbiotic real” (“Subscendence,” 2013).  This quote reminds us not to reify the symbiotic real—it’s not a new transcendent whole, God or Gaia. Just as humankind is haunted by the inhuman, so the symbiotic real is haunted by spectral beings in a spectral dimension (“Specters,” 1198; “Kindness,” 2274).

As an explosive whole, speciesism is a violent form of exclusion, predicated on racism and substance ontology (“Species,” 2016, 2243).  Morton argues that agrologistics not only severed humans from nonhuman beings, but created technologies like caste systems, and property ownership, that severed humankind from itself (“Species,” 2206, 2243).  Institutionalized, systemic, racism (subsequently) naturalized difference, and telegraphed social hierarchies into the domain of the nonhuman (“Species,” 2206).  The symbiotic real, conversely, undermines hierarchies.  In a symbiotic relationship both members are dependent on one another.  Neither is on top (“Things in Common,” 70).  If human beings are dependent on each other and on nonhuman beings in non-hierarchical ways, what maintains social hierarchies?  The severing of kinship with human and nonhuman beings.

“The Severing” is a “traumatic fissure” between the “human-correlated world” and the “ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere” (“Things in Common,” 272). Solidarity is the “default affective environment,” but anthropocentrism suppresses solidarity between humans and nonhumans, and erects boundaries between humans (“Things in Common,” 296 – 299). The effects of this intergenerational trauma are widespread, resulting in a desert landscape “from which meaning and connection have evaporated” (“Things in Common,” 312, 355).  This results in alienation, not from some transcendent presence but from “an inconsistent spectral essence we are calling humankind,” as well as the spectrality of nonhuman beings (“Species,” 2197-2201).  “What capitalism distorts is not an underlying substantial Nature or Humanity, but rather the ‘paranormal’ energies of production” (“Species” 2204).

Ultimately, Morton argues that solidarity is kindness, and kindness is an unconscious aspect of ourselves, which we share with nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2283- 2306). Acknowledgement, awareness, and fascination are all aesthetic and ethical/political acts of solidarity (“Kindness,” 2296 – 2368).  And since our origins lie in the symbiotic real, these “styles” of being also belong to nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2294, 2453, 2835).  Indeed, recent animal behavior studies suggest that solidarity is inherited from nonhumans (“Kindness,” 2860).  Morton ends by queering the active and passive categories, and “veering” love toward the environment (“Kindness,” 2963, 3119).  Solidarity requires nonhumans because we are inseparable from the symbiotic real (“Kindness,” 3123 – 3127).  We are them.  “Solidarity just is solidarity with nonhumans.”

[i] “Things in Common,” 416, 430. All in-text references are to chapter titles and locations.

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Filed under Affect and Ecology, Animals, Capitalism, Objects, OOO, Tim Morton

The Upside Down World

by Jeff Tangel

The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.    –Voltaire

 . . . and the working, and middle classes.   –Tangel

In the comic hit movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard character—who, as you might expect is always hungry—turns to Mini-me and demands, in his bellowing mock-Scottish bravado, “I’m bigger than you—and higher up the food chain.  Get in my belly!”  And then licks his chops while singing, “I want my baby back . . . baby back, baby back . . . ribs.”

Perhaps this is a telling example of being utterly absorbed in, and deeply confused by one’s worldview.  Mini-me simply scoots away of course, ironically into the loving arms of Dr. Evil, leaving Fat Bastard un-sated, yet nevertheless deliriously full of himself.

Despite appearances—and our hubris—we humans “on the top of the food chain” are actually the most dependent beings in existence—we rely on everyone and everything “below” us.   Author Michael Pollan’s lengthy and eye-opening essay for the NYT Magazine, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” reveals to us that we humans are, in reality, a mere 10% ourselves. The other 90% is actually an ongoing project of other beings, primarily bacteria and microorganisms going about their business.[1]

But for them we’d be nearly-nothing.

So what sense does it make to imagine ourselves at the top of anything?  Don’t we ordinarily think of dependent beings at some sort of bottom?  The child and the invalid are dependent on their caretakers.  So too are we humans dependent on the entire structure of ecology—which, as we are just beginning to understand, includes not just the flora and fauna all around us, but other people too.  Perhaps we can understand Max Ehrmann’s line from the Desiderata in a new way.

“You are a child of the universe . . . ” indeed.

And wealth works similarly, reflecting in parallel the imagined hierarchy we impose on Nature.  The wealthy hallucinate, seeing themselves as independent, as above everyone else.  But in reality, the wealthy are wholly dependent on all of the people “below” them, from their own workers to the teachers who educated those workers, to the people who maintain and operate buildings, the means of transportation, systems of exchange, and so on, and on and on . . .

Monopoly

The wealthy are utterly dependent on the entire infrastructure of nature/culture—they are dependents—more so than any other economic strata.  Think about this. Please.

The wealthy are not inter-reliant; the wealthy are held aloft by the compliance and work and servitude of others—some of whom they pay, or exploit, or from whom they simply receive unacknowledged and unearned benefits.  Yet many strut about the world, full of themselves, like Fat Bastard(s), as if they fashioned it all from their own hands.

Thus, shouldn’t we think of the wealthy as residing at the bottom of our society? And therefore, shouldn’t they be treated just like many of them treat the poor?

Reality bites! 

Of course I’m just having fun.  We certainly can’t cure dystopia with the “technologies” that created it.  We need to treat the rich the way most of us try to treat the poor: we help them because we feel for them.  I know, I’m asking a lot. But most of us are chock-full of empathy—plenty to go around—even if it doesn’t show that often.  For me, the older I get—the more I’ve seen—the more I cry, as if the world has been waiting for me to notice.

We need to dismantle the illusory hierarchy that encourages destructive arrogance, leaving the wealthy empathically poor and all of us poorer, so we can welcome them into human inter-dependency.  As Thict Nhat Hanh might say, such a generous and compassionate act could bring multiple benefits, to those helping as well as to those helped.  Who knows how far that wind may blow?

How do we help the wealthy and ourselves at the same time? We refuse to participate in their charade. We drop out of their hierarchically structured economy-world and build a new world that acknowledges our relational dependence on each other and all others; the whole nature/culture shebang. To start, this may take the form of public banking, co-ops and so on, but we can’t limit ourselves to economics. We need a new way to live, one that recognizes our inter-relational dependence.

 

Intertwined-4

Fortunately, the world is a rich place for ideas. But to unlock real creativity and enable a critical and kinetic mass, first we have to be unchained from the hegemony of imagined hierarchy. We have to begin to see more clearly. Start with this:

Humans are the most dependent beings, and the wealthy are the most dependent humans.

The older I get the more I come to understand that reality is the opposite of the proffered convention—because the profferers of convention have a vested interest in keeping the world structured just so.  The poor suffer a lack of justice, which is what Voltaire meant when he said: The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.

But willful poverty—call it minimalism if you like—as both a personal and political act, is something to be achieved. Or better, it is something to be created, with others, as one might make art from detritus.  Finding satiety for yourself, and providing satiety for others, is a means and ends united; the wholeness of the individual secure in the inter-reliance of the community of beings. Think of this as an emancipating intervention, a reclaiming of justice by refusing to aid and abet the accumulators—the wealthy—and heal them, and us, at the same time.

Free from the servitude that feeds Fat Bastard, the willful poor weaken him and are empowered to seek authentic concert with the world—real relationships with each other and the ecosystem—and thereby change the world.

This won’t be easy.  Begin with the dismantling of illusory hierarchy that is itself a direct cause of suffering and planetary degradation.
 holypalace


Jeff Tangel
is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, an Associate of  DePaul’s Institute for Nature and Culture, and a regular contributor to Environmental Critique.  His individual blog is The Tecumseh Project.  E-mail tangel@sxu.edu

[1] Some of My Best Friends are Germs, Michael Pollan, NYT Magazine May 15, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 accessed June 13, 2013

 

Image Sources:

  1. New York Times: https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/voting-in-and-out-monopoly-games-faux-riche/?_r=0
  2. Richelle Gribble, Intertwined-4: http://richelle-gribble.com/interdependent/
  3. David Friedman, The Holy Palace: http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com/holy-palace

 

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The Sustainability Delusion?

year-of-the-monkey-2016

 

Here is the position “paper” I delivered earlier this month at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) conference, After Biopolitics.  The paper tile is “Vegans Mock Humans Who Don’t Eat Gods.” Thank you so much to Tim Morton, Randy Honold, all the organizers, and all the participants for a great conference.  (See below the call for next year).

The human species is a set that defines itself through multiple and diverse acts of self-reflection. Among these acts is regarding ourselves in other species, though we also see through, or don’t see through, our misconceptions of ourselves and others. One technology we tend to elide, of late, is the comparison of humans and gods. We’re embarrassed by the association. If self-definition is multiple and diverse, however, why would we dismiss a category of non-human beings by which many human beings define themselves?

And maybe we protest too much. I wonder if we don’t secretly carry a torch for gods. Whether or not humans are particularly creative or destructive, many of us still feel inspired, at times, and at other times, possessed. Gods, archetypes, ghosts, emotions, and unconscious drives—I don’t meant to collapse these species into one another, but I do see common threads—alien invasion, alien intimacy, alien birth. (Thank you Dirk Felleman at synthetic zero for suggesting gods as emotions.) Few of us would deny that we have unconscious drives, but if so, then, could it be that we are still attached to gods?

Is belief in the reversibility of global warming and an infinitely sustainable society like belief in a coherent god? (This is Stoekl in Pettman’s Human Error). I think it is. Some of us are credulous in this sense. But sustainability, like balance, need not be universal. We don’t have to be Modern, monotheistic, or dogmatic in our attachments. Self-defining “right action,” including cultivating good habits and “gracious relationships” (thank you Bill Jordan at Environmental Prospect), may have some intrinsic value and broader influence.

CS

P.S. I really like the trope of gods as tools or machines. I find it genuinely persuasive and productive. Gods, demi-gods, and idols are surely products of metallurgy and alchemy.  I do believe we fashion gods. But this doesn’t preclude the possibility that we are tool-making tools, also fashioned, by industrious monkey gods (for example).

Call for Papers: Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.  Atalanta, November 3 – 6, 2016.  Creativity.

 

 

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SLSA After Biopolitics Abstract: How We Look at Species

The King

Having done some time in the history of rhetoric, I have a double vision of the term “species.” In common parlance it means something like an essential difference; at other moments it meant something like the opposite—appearance, or form—to look at. This is similar to the paradox of substance, as intrinsic (the old matter) and peripheral (a pedestal).  I don’t mean to juxtapose these two meanings of “species” as an OED-fetishist, but to take my inspiration for reflecting on species from the idea of “looking at,” and to consider if we might consider how we might appear to other species.

The human is a set that defines itself, plays itself, through collective and diverse acts of self-definition. Part of that play is a theory of human mind, inextricably bound up with language; our mind (they say) is categorically different. But this awareness of difference comes about through observing other species. How we look at other species is a central act.  We are a species that regards other species and tends to conclude that it is exceptional.

This reminds me of Levi Bryant’s remarkable diagrams in The Democracy of Objects (20 – 22). Here we are objects regarding ourselves as subjects regarding objects. To me the names of the categories aren’t as significant as our acts of seeing ourselves as categorically different, though, given “subjectivity,” being seeing objects seems a much needed corrective.

If other species have a “theory of mind” based on their experience of themselves, as they look at others, and if those theories of mind overlap with our theory of mind, could we keep drawing Venn diagrams until we arrived at a huge ring species of consciousness? Might we then come round to a new notion of species as appearance or apparent difference? And could we imagine inquiring how other species regard us?

Image source: The KING, the MICE and the CHEESE

“Theory of mind” credit to Dorothy L. Cheney and Robert M. Seyfarth, Baboon Metaphysics: the Evolution of a Social Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).

See another oblique Environmental Critique references to their thesis here.

And more about Object Oriented Ontology here.

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Environment of Concern (October 9th – November 27th)

CTU_INV_GALL_OCT2015_FNL2sides(2) CTU2_INV_GALL_OCT2015_FNL2sides(3)

Details also in Calendar at left

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vibrant matter, zero landscape: bennett vs zizek

More Jane Bennett c/o DMF at synthetic zero.

synthetic zerø

“Can ecology (as a complex system of words, sounds, deeds, affects, narratives, propensities) really ever fully merge into the allegedly totalizing system of capitalism? Here I follow Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that “from the viewpoint of micropolitics, society is defined by its lines of flight […] There is always something that flows or flees, that escapes […] the resonance apparatus, and the overcoding machine. Things that are attributed to a ‘change in values’, to the youth, women, the mad, etc.”[3]Perhaps this is a question of a strategic choice between a rhetoric of purity (Zizek) and a rhetoric of encouragement.”

read the rest @ http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2011-10-19-loenhart-en.html

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talking Reality Machines w/ Tim Morton & O. Eliasson

Thanks again to DMF at synthetic zero.

synthetic zerø

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