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 ANTHROPO(S)CENE

Jonathon Turnbull &

Adam Searle

Rest By the Wayside by Glenn Morris

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What follows are the first three installments of Jonathon Turnbull and Adam Searle's Anthropo(s)cene column on "Posthumanisms", "Animals", and "Matter", all published in 2019. Following these three, another two on "Affect" and "Extinction" were published this year. Jonathon and Adam are now working with Lauren Van Patter of Queen's University (Canada) to expand the existing columns, write several more, and solicit responses from leading thinkers. The result will be published, with a foreword from renowned Oxford geographer Jamie Lorimer, in 2021.   

1) Posthumanisms
 

Anthropo(s)cene is a column dedicated to the philosophical concepts and theories most relevant to our proposed current era: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is defined as the era in which humans become a planet-changing force through inflicting geologic intrusions, biological disturbances, or climatic alterations. In this column we will detail how the actions and impacts of humans on global scales necessitate a thorough re-thinking of the human, the environment, and the awkward nexus in-between.

Understandably then, “Generation Anthropocene” thinkers begin by critically engaging with the question of who we are, or what it is to be a human. Dissatisfied with traditional humanisms rooted in Enlightenment ideas of human exceptionalism, or what philosopher Rosi Braidotti has called “the self-referential arrogance of a dominant Eurocentric notion of the human”, posthumanisms encompass an extraordinary explosion of conceptual creativity and theoretical innovation from a range of thinkers drawing from myriad disciplinary canons.

Readers might wonder why we opted for posthumanisms rather than a singular posthumanism. This was a deliberate decision to reflect the plurality of approaches and claims (ontological, epistemological, and ethical) that are made in this broad body of work. While any attempt to try and isolate core commitments of this rapidly moving field risks oversimplification, we feel it is uncontroversial to claim that posthumanisms are united by: 1) the critique of traditional humanisms outlined above,  2) a  critique  of anthropocentrisms that  define  humans in  separation  from  the  non-human  realm, 3) a critique of forms of dualistic or binary thinking,  for  example  the  divide  between nature and culture, and  4) a  commitment to a new kind of ethics arising from an awareness of our profound relationality and interconnectedness.

THE HUMAN BODY IS BEST CONCEPTUALISED AS A MULTISPECIES ECOLOGY COMPRISED OF BACTERIA, ARCHAEA, FUNGI, AND SOME ANIMALS, TOO – WHICH ARE ALL INVISIBLE TO THE NAKED EYE

It would be easy to think of posthumanisms as related to or even identical to transhumanism, but this would be a mistake. Transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil and Nick Bostrom believe in an ethical imperative to reduce the overall suffering of human beings through the “enhancement” of humanity via technological, intellectual, and physical interventions,  justified from broadly utilitarian perspectives. This field borrows heavily from futurology and science fiction narrative,  and  at  its  extreme  it posits immortality as a goal for humans. Transhumanists believe  that  we  are  entering a post-human era but only in the sense that   we will leave behind the last vestiges of our animality, our materiality, maybe even our physical bodies. As critics of transhumanism like Cary Wolfe  point out, transhumanism is  in fact a radical intensification of humanism, with its promise of human assimilation into artificial intelligence and biotechnologies reminiscent of the Blade Runner-esque vision of a world “more human than human”. By contrast, posthumanisms give rise to an array of movements aiming to decentre the human as the focal point of enquiry through accommodating the multiple nonhuman forces and agencies at play within our evolutionary, ecological, and technological engagements.

 

To take one prominent example of the imbrications of human and non-human agency, the Human Genome project, conducted between 1990 and 2003, was an international scientific research project that set out to determine the entire sequence of nucleotide base pairs in human DNA. Approximately 22,300 protein- coding genes were revealed to exist in human beings. These 22,300 genes, however, on their own could not account for certain functions or processes that occur in the “human” body. Digestion, for example, is aided by a range of non-human actors with non-human genes. This led to The Human Microbiome Project being established in 2007 to investigate the role of the microbial flora involved in the human body, human health and disease. Recent findings from the project suggest that our human bodies are only 10% or 1% human, depending on whether you define human as cellular or genetic, respectively. This means that 90% of cells in the human body and 99% of genes are not human!

The human body is best conceptualised as a multispecies ecology comprised of bacteria, archaea, fungi, andsomeanimals, too– whichare all invisible to the naked eye. Microbes, however, have often been portrayed as pathogenic – as infectious towards our sovereign human bodies. But recent research suggests they are in fact essential to the functioning of healthy human bodies, being linked with everything from our immune system to our cognitive capacities and moods, exemplified by the rise of allergies and autoimmune issues associated with the rise of anti-microbial resistance.

What do these new modes of inquiry at the intersection of philosophy and science offer to the emerging discourse of the Anthropo(s) cene? Posthumanist thought has contributed to the deconstruction of the human as a separate material entity and has highlighted our inseparability from Nature. At the same time it has also helped make sensible the nonhuman partnerships that allow the healthy functioning of our bodies. These perspectives can help to elucidate a politics which recognises the existence and agency of the innumerable nonhuman forces, bodies, and materials that populate the webs in which we are enmeshed. They offer a refreshing take on what is often painted as a dark future, and encourage an introspective humility that has been missing under the aegis of humanistic tendencies in
philosophy. We have always been, and always will be, posthumans; a truth that our philosophy should reflect.

2) Animals

Philosophical scholarship is often punctuated by epistemic moments which create renewed interest and excitement in the world around us. Often these intense academic atmospheres are calls to interrogate or make deeper sense of something that has been previously understudied or even ignored. Sudden rushes to think through the overlooked are often referred to as “turns”. In the history of modern philosophy, the most wide- reaching turn has undoubtedly been Kant’s Copernican turn which aimed for nothing less than a total rethinking of the nature and limits of philosophy. Many would argue that contemporary speculative realism (which frequently pits itself against Kant’s Copernican turn) constitutes a similar such turn, opening up whole new vistas for philosophical exploration. We feel that of all these revolutionary moments in philosophy, none has greater importance for the way we understand the Anthropo(s)cene than the animal turn.

 

It is hard to pinpoint the exact introduction of animals into contemporary philosophical debate, but an incredibly significant publication is Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation which was published in 1975. Aside from catalysing the global animal rights movement, Singer argued that human society was built upon the oppression of and systematic violence against other lives justified entirely on the basis of their species,   a position that has come to be known as speciesism. Given the marginalization of animals within modern philosophy, most famously in Descartes’ dismissal of them as mindless machines, to bring animals and their suffering to the forefront of philosophy is a monumental achievement, and Singer is unquestionably one of the most important living philosophers. However, in order to warrant our grand claims of an animal turn, we need to go further than Singer is prepared to do. We will shortly see what this may involve.

 

The animal turn was profoundly influenced by ethology, the biological study of animal behaviour under the close inspection and co-habitation of  the  spaces  and practices of animals themselves. A key change in understanding the lived worlds of animals came through the conceptual work of Jakob von Uexküll, a German biologist and pioneering thinker in the field of ethology, whose work attracted the attention of many prominent thinkers such as Martin Heidegger. His concept of Umwelt, the spaces and cognitive experiences of animals which rooted them in material worlds, called attention to the fact that different animals perceive the world differently, as subjects meaningfully navigating their own unique lifeworlds. In philosophy, the social sciences and humanities, this ethological work is beginning to produce more-than- human forms of knowledge and understandings of the world. In geography, for example, a range of scholars are beginning to question what it means to collaborate with animals to produce knowledge for, with and about them: how do we represent their experience of space? How do we account for the agencies and experiences of nonhuman actors in interspecies relations? What methods are most appropriate for doing so? And what are the ethics around involving animals in the research process?

Many early accounts of animals in philosophy took them as mere symbols or totems onto which human meaning is impressed or derived. The human-animal encounter is thus always culturally coded. This is why animals have been analysed and conceptualised as symbols or totems in many philosophical inquiries, often as routes into thinking about humans. Claude  Lévi-Strauss, for example, famously noted that animals are good to think with. Although traditional philosophy has largely been concerned with defining the differences between humans and animals, critical animal scholars are interested in the human-animal binary for a different reason. They believe that the deconstruction of this binary would result in the better treatment of animals in agriculture, laboratory experimentation, and other forms of anthropogenic animal use. One of the seminal deconstructive engagements with this binary came as a result of Jacques Derrida’s encounter with his cat as he stepped naked out of his shower.

Jacques Derrida (clothed) with cat 

Under the scrutiny of his cat, Derrida feels compelled (with a nod to Sartre we may say shamed) to address fundamental ontological and ethical questions regarding how we share our world with animals. We have inherited a concept of “the animal” through which the very notion of the human has been constructed by way of opposition. That this opposition is also a diminution is clear from the many ways in which particular groups of humans have been compared to animals in order to justify their exploitation. As Cary Wolfe puts it, this manoeuvre has been historically effective “because we take for granted the prior assumption that violence against the animal is ethically permissible.”

 

For Derrida, the very fact that there is a single catch- all term for “every living thing that is held not to be human” is a way of blinding us to the differences that exist amongst animals, just as scholars in fields like postcolonial studies have felt it necessary to highlight questions of difference amongst humans as a response to attempts to homogenize colonized populations. With Uexküll’s Umwelt, we find a way of acknowledging profoundly different ways of inhabiting a world while at the same time avoiding the tendency to slip into hierarchical evaluations. Although what Will Kymlicka calls “human supremacism” runs deep and may seem so commonsensical as to be beyond question (after all,  people  will  say,  woodpeckers  don’t  peck  works equivalent to Shakespeare), one of the profoundest challenges of the animal turn is to try and get our head around the fact that, as Cary Wolfe has put it, human evolution is itself “a specific form of animality, one that is unique and different from other forms but no more different, perhaps, than an orangutan is from a starfish.” To think otherwise in a post-Darwinian era may be simply to engage unreflectively with inherited religious ideas about humanity being created in God’s image.

In the sphere of ethics, an experience of vulnerability was awakened when Derrida found his cat gazing upon him. Human beings often only show their bodily vulnerabilities through the exposure of their face – a person’s face is their unprotected and fragile outer layer. But in seeing his “naked” cat seeing him naked, Derrida is shaken by the mortal vulnerabilities of both lives in their shared space. This leads him to reformulate questions of ethics in terms of the finitude we share with animals – physical embodiment, vulnerability to illness, and mortality. It is here that we find another profound challenge represented by the animal turn. For whereas thinkers like Singer ground their ethical responses to animals in terms of their capacities to exhibit human capacities like reason and agency (because, as Wolfe puts it, they are “inferior versions of ourselves”), Derrida grounds it in our shared passivities, frailties, and vulnerabilities. To consider the ethical domain in this way is potentially deeply unsettling, bringing us to the limits of our reasoning capacities.

HUMAN AND ANIMAL LIVES, BOTH DOMESTIC AND WILD, ARE NOW MORE ENTANGLED THAN EVER BEFORE

Cora Diamond argues that “an understanding of the kind of animal we are is present only in a diminished and distorted way in philosophical argumentation”. What she terms “the difficulty of reality” is the experience of some aspect of reality pushing us beyond what we can think with the concepts at our disposal, such that “to attempt to think it is to feel one’s thinking come unhinged”. For Diamond, our treatment of animals is one such disruptive or transgressive phenomenon, an affliction that forces us to deflect from its reality into the moral debate “in which the livingness and death of animals enter as facts that we treat as relevant in this or that way, not as presences that may unseat our reason”. What Diamond refers to as “deflection”, Derrida refers to as “disavowal” – both are pointing to the ways in which our reasoning serves to deny an aspect of reality that may be potentially traumatic. In their refusals to deflect or disavow, we find that both Derrida and Diamond are prepared to invoke the highly controversial comparison of our systematic killing of animals with the Holocaust. In responding to this comparison, Kari Weil notes that Derrida’s work is “aimed at undercutting the kinds of humanist hierarchies that oppose such analogies as scandalous simply because they compare human and nonhuman life.”

All animals in the Anthropocene are marked by anthropogenic activity. Humans  are  changing animal lives in myriad ways that  are  meaningful  for animals themselves. From the recent global rise in veganism and attempts to revive extinct species through cloning, to plastic pollution and widespread ecosystem contamination, human and animal lives, both domestic and wild, are now more entangled than ever before. Studying human-animal relationships is thus profoundly important if we are to live in a shared and sustainable world. Accounting for animals in political, environmental and economic controversies is an ethical imperative for animal studies scholars from a diverse range of disciplines. Ecologies in the Anthropocene seem to have a prevailing novelty to them; understanding how they are experienced by nonhumans and humans alike is a key concern for researchers. In an era of mass extinction we are all affected, all vulnerable, yet pertinently different.

3) Matter

In this third instalment of the column, we aim to show why matter matters to philosophers, and why considerations of materiality are more important than ever in the Anthropocene, the proposed epoch during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment. A focus on matter comes from an overarching philosophical monism – materialism which suggests that matter is fundamental in Nature; the fundamental substance, in fact. Under materialism, all things, including consciousness, are produced from material interactions, and the universe is ultimately a physical entity. But what kind of matter is this that constitutes everything from rocks to humans? What is the relationship between matter and life, between the apparently inert materiality of rocks and the vibrant materiality of human life? Faced with certain unhelpful yet seemingly intractable dualisms inherited from Descartes (e.g. mind-matter, nature- culture), contemporary thinkers are challenging us to rethink the understandings of matter we have inherited from classical science. And the results, as we shall see, can be pretty radical.


Materialisms are proliferating like never before.  Within  modern  continental  philosophy  alone,  we find speculative materialism (Quentin Meillassoux), transcendental materialism (Adrian Johnston),  and vital materialism (Jane Bennett) sitting alongside well-established formulations such as eliminative materialism  and   dialectical   materialism. Choosing a focus for this column has therefore proven quite a challenge.

In the end, we decided to focus on what have been labelled the “new materialisms” (following an influential 2010 collection by Diana Coole and Samantha Frost) as these have in many cases been formulated as a series of responses to questions provoked by the rise of the Anthropocene. New materialisms offer an account  of  matter  that  extends  beyond  the  human,  a development apt for the Anthropocene epoch in which nonhuman agency is increasingly intervening in contexts once thought of as the sole domain of human culture, as materials exert themselves into political spaces through extreme weather events, electricity blackouts, and glitches in informational systems. Geographer Sarah Whatmore has noted a similar shift in cultural geography, with a renewed engagement with materialisms that aim to understand the “livingness” of the world. As Whatmore puts it, “this return to the livingness of the world shifts the register of materiality from the indifferent stuff of a world ‘out there’, articulated through notions of ‘land’, ‘nature’ or ‘environment’, to the intimate fabric of corporeality that includes and redistributes the ‘in here’ of human being.”

 

In addition, increased concern about the impact of humans on nonhumans – as reflected in phenomena such as climate change and sharp declines in biodiversity – have resulted in calls to rethink human relationships with other beings. More specifically, there has been a call to find new ways of conceiving of and acting in the world that unsettle the deep-rooted sense that humans are somehow exceptional: removed from and holding dominion over the so-called “natural” world. In this context, emphasising the agency of matter  has been seen as ethically important in challenging anthropocentrism.

HOW CAN LANGUAGE, CONSCIOUSNESS, VALUE, MEANING, IMAGINATION, EMOTION, AND SO ON SIMPLY BE REDUCIBLE TO “BRUTE” MATTER?

One of our main Cartesian inheritances that is being challenged by the new materialisms in response to these  developments  is  the  split  between,  on  the one hand, the rational soul whose essence, as Descartes puts it, “cannot be derived in any way from the potentiality of matter”, and, on the other hand, beings whose essences can be derived from the potentialities of matter, including animals, rocks, and all other conglomerations of brute matter. While the extremity  of  Descartes’  dualism  has  routinely  been brought into question, the equation of consciousness and rationality with that which appears to transcend the material realm has persisted, not least because it seems to capture something commonsensical: how can language, consciousness, value, meaning, imagination, emotion, and so on simply be reducible to “brute” matter? However, while contemporary events have illustrated a need to unsettle this persistent divide between mind and matter, it’s unclear that we actually overcome  the  core  of  Descartes’  dualism  by  simply subsuming all these phenomena  into  the  category of “material”. As Elizabeth Robson noted in a recent review in this journal, we “appear to be faced with an unattractive choice between a Cartesian-style dualism and a reductive materialism. In the former, the world is composed of two substances (the mental and the physical), while in the latter it is composed of only one, the physical, to which the mental is then reduced.”

For us, Jane Bennett is an exemplary new materialist insofar as her project brings together ontology, ethics, and politics. In the preface to her highly influential 2010 book Vibrant Matter, Bennett captures many of the characteristic features of the new materialisms by noting that she aims to 1) offer a “positive ontology” of matter, 2) overcome various deeply entrenched binaries or dualisms, and 3) offer an account of what an ethics and politics might look like that builds from her ontological picture. The idea of a “positive ontology” of matter aims to overcome the Cartesian picture of matter (or res extensa) as extended, uniform and inert. One way Bennett hopes to achieve this is by rethinking the nature of agency for our new geological epoch, undermining the idea that humans are the only beings imbued with agency, and moving us towards a picture of agency that emphasizes the fragility and interconnectedness of humans, nonhumans, and the material substrate we call earth. We only have to look at the way the earth has responded in increasingly violent ways to human activity to realize that our vision of ourselves as separate agents with dominion over an inert material earth was an illusion generated by a deeply flawed ontological picture.

 

We can see, then, that one of the entrenched binaries that Bennett overcomes is the actor-object binary through her insistence on the agency of nonhumans. Elsewhere, Bennett and her fellow new materialists force us to question the life-matter binary as well, asking how a standard materialist picture can account for the emergence of life, as if at some point inert lifeless matter suddenly takes on the quality of life. The phrase “emergent property” is often thrown in to explain (away) this kind of question, especially when we are discussing phenomena like consciousness. However, Bennett would be wary of any account that equates (non-living) material conditions for consciousness,

e.g. neurons and brain processes, with (living) consciousness itself. For Bennett, the only way this kind of move could work is if we undermined the life- matter binary itself such that neurons are understood as forms of matter always already imbued with life. As James K. Stanescu has put it, “Life, rather than being some outside force to matter, as with Descartes, comes from the potentialities of matter itself.

The ethical and political consequences of this kind of picture can be summed up by the word entanglement. Far from being isolated Cartesian subjects standing in a spectatorial or masterful relation to a material world of which we are not a part, we are in fact deeply entangled with the material world around us. From a new materialist perspective, the world is not seen as composed of individual entities that are pre-formed and subsequently interact with one another, but instead the properties of different actors (including humans) emerge from their relations with one another. A consequence of this entanglement is what is often called a “flat ontology”, i.e. one in which human exceptionalism or any notion of ontological hierarchy or priority is collapsed within an impossibly complex web of relations. We can certainly see why this flat ontology is seen to have appealing ethical and political consequences as it forces us to question our dominance over animals, nature, and so on. However, the question that then naturally arises is: “If all matter is vibrant and lively, then why should we act differently in relation to cats, trees or stones?” Or, as Peter Gratton has put it, “where everything is due justice and respect, then nothing is.” 

 

As Gratton underlines, one of the issues that is often hinted at by this body of work but remains under-developed is the recognition that some ways of being, or relating, are incompatible with others. Evocative examples of this problem can be found in work by animal geographers. Franklin Ginn turns to the everyday ways that gardeners try to secure the health of their garden to illuminate this point: as it is impossible for slugs, plants, and indeed gardeners themselves to thrive in the same space at the same time, at some  point a decision has to be made that privileges some relations at the exclusion of others.

Entanglement by Ben Kenning

In a political context marked by mass extinction, such decisions carry significant freight. As Thom van Dooren argues: “Inside rich histories of entangled becoming – without the aid of simplistic ideals like ‘wilderness’, ‘the natural’ or ‘ecosystemic balance’ – it is ultimately impossible to reach simple, black-and-white prescriptions about how ecologies ‘should be.’ And so we are required to take a stand for some possible worlds and not others.”

In her recent book What Comes after Entanglement?, Eva Haifa Giraud draws on this work to sum up one of the main problems with a flat relational ontology: “The paradox of relationality ... is that it struggles   to accommodate things that are  resistant  to  being in relation, including forms of politics that actively oppose particular relations.” Though this problem has been hinted at in new materialist thought (influential theorists such as Karen Barad, for instance, emphasise the “cuts” that privilege certain realities over others), Giraud suggests that the focus more broadly has been on the ethical value of entanglements. In contrast, she calls for a renewed emphasis on finding ways to understand which relations to push for at the expense of others by centralising and politicising questions  of exclusion. To do this, Giraud argues, it might be necessary, for instance, to re-engage with the histories, political contexts, and technological infrastructures that have brought particular realities into being, in order to ask “who or what is being excluded when certain realities are materialized at the expense of others” and “find ways of taking responsibility for these exclusions, and in some instances to contest them.”

 

Others, such as Kim TallBear, have developed important critiques of the “new” in new materialisms, suggesting that the upheavals this body of work promises can have the consequence of re-centring Cartesian (and hence European) ways of conceiving of the world in the very act of promising to move beyond them. As TallBear puts it, “we should remember that not everyone needs to summon a new analytical framework or needs to renew  a  commitment  to  the  ‘vitality  of  [so-called] things’” as epistemological traditions exist that have never perceived of matter as inert or the world in terms of a nature/culture bifurcation.

 

Overall, what the new materialisms point towards is that in the Anthropocene epoch, as matter is violently asserting itself into politics and human affairs in a variety of forms – from extreme weather events to the failures of geoengineering to tame the material systems it has been designed to control – the illusion of human mastery over Nature is becoming clear in new and profound ways. Combined with this, unequal access to natural resources along class lines is growing around the globe. The new materialisms have succeeded in offering a politically relevant and non-anthropocentric account of environmental change. Only by staging this conversation can all matter actually come to matter in ways that can spur thoughtful action whilst also accounting for a diversity of vibrant agencies and actors.

Jonathon Turnbull and Adam Searle are both PhD students in Cultural Geography at the University of Cambridge. Their Twitter accounts are: @jonnyjjt & @admsrl

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