Tuesday 11 March 2014

Anti-anthropocentrism: it's not a competition

There's a long history of one-upmanship in leftist academe (and in leftism generally). Whether it's trying to be further 'left,' more 'radical' or more 'critical' than everyone else it seems that there's always a rush to go further, faster, more fastidiously, lest one be accused of being 'conservative,' 'unradical,' 'uncritical' or whatever.

It seems to me that anthropocentrism might be taking on that mantle - that is, there's an ongoing competition to be ever more anti-anthropocentric than everyone else. No narcissistic wound is ever fatal enough; no number of decentrings will ever spin the human subject far enough into oblivion; no amount of uncritically imbibed pop science will ever cement the deep, dark nihilism that is apparently necessary to properly cleanse thought of its subject-centred pretensions.

Now, I'm broadly on board with the notion that anthropocentrism is a supreme vice that philosophy, the humanities, the social sciences and perhaps even the Western world at large have been unpardonably guilty of; I fully accept the need for decentrings, for the need to recognise and cognise our narcisstic wounds, to understand our smallness and insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things, etc.

However, anti-anthropocentrism can't be a competition. An absolutely non- anthropocentric philosophy would be a rather self-indulgently pointless thing, even if it were possible. If thought isn't motivated by worldly concerns from an embodied, socialised, air-conditioned point of view then what can it be motivated by? What animates it? What's its purpose?

There's a degree of anthropocentrism that is not only inevitable, it's also desirable, is it not?

All this stuff about how we have to be able to think the absolutely inhuman in order to properly understand our natural, natal, cosmic predicament - this has some merit. Certainly we have to come to understand that existence is in no way given to us or predisposed towards us; that all we have is this planet, one planet only; that Earth, even in its terrifying fragility, is vastly more powerful and enduring than we are; that it (and life) will comfortably outlive us, and so on.

But even this urge to cut human pretensions down to size, this kind of will-to- diminution is anthropocentric in quite an irreducible, unavoidable sense. Stengers writes: 'Of the Earth, the present subject of our scenarios, we can presuppose a single thing: it doesn’t care about the questions we ask about it.' If we accept this it must also mean that the Earth doesn't care if we think about it in a mathematical, scientific or nihilistic way or in a way that reduces it to images and poetry or spirits and demons. So, who or what are we trying to impress with our absolute, unreserved decentredness?

I'm not sure that I can 'think' the absolutely inhuman but I can certainly imagine something like it. It takes very little effort to mentally conjure up an image of a world after humans, all overgrown (or rather regrown) and moved on with its life, all traces of human existence either crumbled or buried. All this I can imagine quite readily, in fact, thanks in no small part to film and literature. But I find it difficult to maintain an entirely disembodied, affectless point of view on the scene (and utterly impossible to imagine the scene with no point of view at all). It provokes feeling; it's melancholy, like walking past a former lover who doesn't recognise you. The viewpoint is inextricably part of that world so long as I inhabit it; it is a precondition of that world's imagining.

So, no, I can't imagine the absolutely inhuman, absent all filterings and formattings. And yet imagining (rather than 'thinking,' whatever that means) the almost-but-not-completely-inhuman doesn't seem to be particularly difficult. And isn't this good enough?

The whole 'thinking the inhuman' thing seems to be a rather bloated, overblown, overstated problem. Representations of the literally post-human are a problem for art and science as much as they are for philosophy, perhaps even more so. If we are able to vividly imagine the world beyond, before and after humans and their attachments it is because of these very same well-nourished, expertly-assembled, diligently-arrayed complexes, networks, assemblages.

And, so, why bemoan the impossibility of thinking the outside in all its purity? The inside is what draws the outside in and paints it in such vivid colours. Shouldn't we spend a little more time mixing our paints and a little less hankering after transcendence?