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.