Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Fighting Modernity with Modernity? No Thanks

“Progress means: humanity emerges from its spellbound state no longer under the spell of progress as well, itself nature, by becoming aware of its own indigenousness to nature and by halting the mastery over nature through which nature continues its mastery.” Theodor Adorno, “Progress,” The Philosophical Forum 15.1–2 (Fall–Winter 1983–1984), 55–70 (61–63; 62).

Which ecotopia? According to one view, humans emancipate themselves from Nature into a more total freedom over its pure plasticity. Yet this would be to continue in the aesthetic-sadistic thought that Nature is a malleable cartoon character who can be stretched and shaped to our whim. And which sadist gets to decide what to do next?

Žižek argues, this infinitely malleable plastic is the fantasy stuff of idealism, not materialism (ironically). His view appears to be in line with my growing suspicion that there are more than traces of idealism in Marx himself. I've argued this from the notion of emergence in Capital 1.11 in an earlier post, which you're welcome to look at now, but it will take you somewhat away from this argument. It's relevant however if you want to delve into it.

Idealist or no, the idea of Nature as infinitely plastic is certainly a correlationist fantasy: Nature fits what human subjects are, or, as Ross Wolfe puts it in a comment on a previous post, the idea of nature is “historically variable.” Nature means something because humans are using it. Esse est percipi, or in this case, esse est usurpere.

How different is this kind of Marxism from Berkeleyan idealism, really? Nature here is always Nature-for—no wonder Wolfe is okay with keeping the concept of Nature in this form, since stated this way it falls non-threateningly within the correlationist circle. Nature is raw materials (Bestand): what comes in at one end of the factory process. It's not hard to give this a Marxist spin. Liberate humans, and you liberate their capacity to shape these raw materials. Terraform away.

No: the problem in the ecological era is that we humans are confronted with the existence of actual unique entities (living and non-living) that exist from their own side. These beings are not Natural, none of them: they are unique (strange strangers in my terminology), which rules naturalness out completely. Marx himself loved the nonteleological properties of Darwinism so much he sent Darwin a copy of Capital 1: a point still lost on many Marxists.

These unique beings that ecological knowledge confronts aren't raw anything. That's the trouble: we can see outside the factory door and we see that there is no “raw” in sight: no nature.

Every lifeform and non-life form is busy terraforming. How come the human story is such a special one in this plenum of terraforming agents? Notice that this is not the usual reactionary argument against Marxism. Notice that I'm not sticking up for a pristine wilderness, which is just the reified flip side of the infinite plasticity model. Notice that I'm saying that every object in the universe is ruthlessly at work reifying every other object to its own nefarious ends.

Now notice, however, the reason why this is the case: because there are real objects, most of which have nothing to do with humans, and all of which exist without us (including us!). Infinite malleability sounds great until you confront a large enough hyperobject, such as a black hole, or entropy. Malleable Nature is a dream about a certain tiny set of these objects, a set that is malleable enough to maintain the stability of the dream. Since to be an entity at all is to be vulnerable to 1+n entities that can destroy you (there is always some externality), this dream must be limited. It cannot talk about the entire set of objects in the universe. To be physical is to be fragile. Your dream ends somewhere.

The question is, now that we know what we know, do we want to continue imagining different kinds of malleability (capitalism, communism) and is that all we want to do? Note that on my view, even if we achieve some kind of physical enactment of our dream—say we have enough political power and enough Earth shaking equipment—we will still be dreaming.

Dreaming in a world in which we (yes let's hear it again) coexist with a plenum of actual entities, a very large finitude of real beings such as glass, potato viroids, kerosene, gar and oyster catchers. They are now, we find out to our chagrin, on this side of social space. Always have been. The trouble is, whose social space is it, now that we know that?

Do we keep on using tools from modernity's toolkit to fix a problem created by that toolkit? Or do we see that the toolkit is a rather confusing part of a much wider configuration space?

Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 imagines a post- or transhuman liberated from Nature, able to do what it bloody well likes. But I prefer the allegory of Solaris, ironically bankrolled by the Soviets (click to read my essay). In that movie, a human decides simply to coexist with a unique being: a sentient planet. Hope you had a good Earth Day.


Ross Wolfe said...

Thank you for writing what has doubtless been the most interesting and thorough response to my musings on humanity and nature to date. I am going to read this over a couple more times before I give a more detailed reply.

Ross Wolfe said...

All I'll say about "modernity fixing modernity" so far is that I'm an Hegelian to the extent that, dialectically, the only way to sublate the content of something is to perform a "negation of a negation," an "expropriation of the expropriators," and perhaps a "modernization of modernity," insofar as modernity can be conceived as a sprawling mass of negativity.

Ross Wolfe said...

All right. I think your judgment of my position as "Berkeleyan idealism" is a bit unfair, a mischaracterization. Of course the objects of the natural world (if I may use the phrase) "exist from their own side" -- i.e., on their own, without us. But I am perfectly happy to admit that nature has an existence in-itself, apart from humanity entirely. But insofar as "nature" exists as a social concept, the way it presents itself for-us has varied widely. And I would argue that this phenomenal "for-us" is just as important as its noumenal existence "in-itself."

I state as much at the end of the first section of my essay:

Nature, though it probably does operate according to an unchanging set of uniform physical laws, has a significance beyond its mere existence in itself. The concept of “nature” also carries with it a great deal of ideological baggage, and reflects the superstructures of thought in any given age. The problem, going forward, is thus not merely to find some sort of solution to the prospect of a potential ecological collapse, but to formulate nature as a social problem.

The allegory of Solaris illustrates your position well, but there is one problem: there is nothing on our planet Earth (that we've discovered, at least) that even approaches the inchoate, quasi-omnipotent intelligence of the sentient ocean. If we did, then perhaps letting it exist alongside us would make more sense. And in any case, Kris Kelvin chooses to stay on Solaris precisely because it allows him to transform his surroundings as his imagination and memory see fit. Should there be an equivalent ability to reshape the reality around ourselves, through technology or social organization, I would say we embrace that opportunity.