“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Underlying the Phobia about the Term "Anthropocene"

The complaint that the term is anthropocentric is naturally a consequence of correlationism, which holds that one can't access things directly, but only through some kind of correlation (such as the (human) subject etc.).

The Kantian meme has propagated through scholarship and opinion very well: evidence is precisely the dislike of the term "Anthropocene," which names a time that began exactly when Kant was writing.

I see these two facts as what Adorno would call two halves of a torn whole that don't add up together.

Speculative realism gets a strange boost from the debate about this term. Scholars who are not aware of what has happened in philosophy are now having to grapple with the same sorts of issue: whether or not we can access it, there is a reality that is mind independent and (human) culture independent.

The intensity of the allergic reaction against this idea underlies the reaction against the term "Anthropocene."

The quilting point is precisely the human insofar as the human is now a geophysical force on a planetary scale. We are now compelled to see ourselves as actors in and on the real, not simply correlators or measurers or perceivers or PR people.

The term "Anthropocene" reinserts what was unconscious back into humanities scholarship: the human as a real agent, in the real. And in an awkwardly PC way: who can deny that modernity was toxic, at this point?


Adam said...

It was disappointing to read this account of philosophy in the Guardian:


Seems the relevant philosophies here aren't showing up on radar...

Adam said...

It was disappointing to read this account of philosophy in the Guardian:


Seems the relevant philosophies aren't showing up on radar...

Unknown said...

Could you say more about why you believe suspicion that the term “Anthropocene” is anthropocentric, is driven by correlationism?

My own take is that a commitment to correlationism (or its alternative) is not essential to the suspicion. And that it is likely that most critics of the term are also critics of correlationism.

Here’s how I’d break it down. Anthropocentrism is a core western belief. It underlies Judaism, Christianity, Islam, capitalism, communism, transcendentalism, etc. Thus when geology and biblical literalism were at war at the start of geologic timescale naming, the one thing they absolutely agreed upon was anthropocentrism. The presumption was so fundamental, that it was never even addressed. All simply presumed this was the Age of Man and all plants, animals and objects on the planet were rightfully available for unencumbered human use. The scripturalists were more philosophical about it in that they had a theory of why this was so (i.e. providence). The geologists rarely explained the basis of their presumption with anything more sophisticated that references to human dignity, capacity for reason, creation by God, etc.

They also invoked an interesting kind of naturalism, which you still hear today: Since geological times, whether at the Era or Epoch level are largely determined by extinction events (i.e. visible changes in the fossil record), you find in the early Age of Man descriptions detailed, fairly glowing description of all the species we have driven extinct and all the species we have introduced. In other words geologic importance=extinction, humans=pinnacle of the geologic planet, so humans=extinction. And because it was not necessarily clear (to some at least) that enough of this had happened to base a formal timescale change on, you also find an assurance that anthropogenic extinctions and introductions will escalate and eventual cause a statistically significant change in the fossil record. They were correct on this point at least.

Back to correlationism. Neither the scripturalists nor the geologists reasoned from epistemology. Whether one believed that the world was phenomenal or actual, did not affect the certainty that humans were the central, most important and only beings to which immediate ethical limits applied. In this regard I agree with critics of transcendentalism (whether Kantian, Cartesian or phenomenological) that anthropocentrism is more fundamentally a driver of, than a product of correlationism (at least if understand your use of that term, perhaps I do not).

In sum…since at least the Old Testament, the fundamental Western outlook has been anthropocentric. In the intellectual collapse of theism, anthropocentrism seamlessly carried in secular mode through the Enlightenment and Modernity. Realists and transcendentalists alike were anthropocentric. The commitment is so deep, that one the first profound critics of humanism, and thus one the founders of post-modernism (because modernism is humanism)—Martin Heidegger—ends up (as you have noted elsewhere on this blog) reinscribing anthropocentrism in Dasein. It is no accident that Derrida, who points this out in The Ends of Man, later becomes obsessed with “the question of the animal”. The post-human, is not only a linguistic turn (though many have limited themselves to that), but a bodily, evolutionary, ecological, species turn.

Because they are not fundamentally (i.e. causally) connected, a critic of the term “Anthropocene” (which is very different being a critical of the idea that humans dominate the earth), is not necessarily a realist or transcendentalist. Nonetheless, my experience with them indicates a broad suspicion of transcendentalism as well.

Kieran Suckling
Executive Director
Center for Biological Diversity