“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

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Say "I'm not happy with the Anthropos of the Anthropocene" One More Time: More Dark Ecology

Fourthly, some of us are anxious that Anthropocene is hubristic, elevating the human species by assuming it has godlike powers to shape the planet. This is, on the face of it, infuriating—unfortunately not all humanists feel infuriated, trained as they are to suspect anything with “human” in it (in particular the Greek for man) and anything that seems like upstart straightforwardness, like using “we” in a lecture just because you think it might draw people together (wait a minute). But consider how it would sound as a rather eyebrow-raising defense. Say I caused a car accident that killed your parents and your best friend. In court, I argue that it would be hubristic to blame myself. It wasn't really me, it was my right arm, it was the bad part of my personality, it was my car. Eyebrow-raising, and perfectly isomorphic with one mode of reactionary global warming denial: how dare we assume that much power over Nature! Now imagine that I represent the human species in a court in which many lifeforms are deciding who caused global warming. Imagine the “hubris” defense: “It would be hubristic of me to take full responsibility—after all, it's mostly the fault of this bad aspect of me, it was just an accident, I wouldn't have done it if I'd been riding a bike rather then using an engine…”

The fact that humans really have become a geophysical force on a planetary scale doesn't seem to prevent the anxious spirits from accusing the term of hubris. Quibbling over terminology is a sad symptom of the extremes to which correlationism has been taken. Upwardly reducing things to effects of history or discourse or whatever has resulted in a fixation on labels, so that using Anthropocene means you haven't done the right kind of reducing. But what if you are not in the upward reduction business? Scientists would be perfectly happy to call the era Eustacia or Ramen, as long as we agreed it meant humans became a geological force on a planetary scale. Don't like the word Anthropocene? Fine. Don't like the idea that humans are a geophysical force? Not so fine. But the two are confused in critiques of “the anthropos of the Anthropocene.” Consider that the term deploys the concept species as something unconscious, never totally explicit. No one decided in 1790 to wreck the planet by emitting carbon dioxide and related gases. Moreover, what is called human is more like a clump or assemblage of things that are not strictly humans—without human DNA for instance—and things that are—things that do have human DNA. Humans did it, not jellyfish and not computers. But humans did it with the aid of beings that they treated as prostheses: nonhumans such as engines, factories, cows, and computers—let alone viral ideas about agricultural logistics living rent-free in minds. The reduction of lifeforms to prosthesis and the machination of agricultural logistics is hubristic, and tragedy (from which the term hubris derives) is at least the initial mode of ecological awareness. But this doesn't mean we are arrogant to think so.


Unknown said...

Are you doing an event with zizek?

Derek Woods said...

I think the term anthropocene is fine and that to describe the cause of the anthropocene one has to take nonhuman actors into account as part of the anthropos. But the part about being in a court of life forms (there is one in burroughs's nova express) seems like it depends on audience. If it were deniers, I'd want to say that humans are responsible. If it were misanthropic environmentalists or philosophers arguing about causation, I'd wonder whether the car crash analogy or any analogy based on legal responsibility is really scaleable enough for thinking at earth magnitude. Maybe scale variance means we needs some kind of counterintuitive way of thinking about responsibility that has a relation to court-scale responsibility like that electron spin does to pool ball spin.