(reading notes for Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, Timothy Morton, 2017.)
In symbiosis, it’s unclear which is the top symbiont, and the relationship between the beings is jagged, incomplete.
The term “host” stems from the Latin hostis, a word that can mean both “friend” and “enemy.”
Curiously, it’s a very fine literary-critical essay that illuminates this best: J. Hillis Miller, “The Critic as Host,” Critical Inquiry 3:3 (Spring 1977), 439–47.
an attunement to the fact of living in a biosphere, a fact that I call “the symbiotic real.”
Relying-on is the uneasy fuel of the symbiotic real; this relying-on always has its haunted aspect, so that a symbiont can become toxic or strange-seeming relationships can form, which is how evolution works. The right word to describe this reliance between discrete yet deeply interrelated beings is “solidarity.” Without the tattered incompletion of the symbiotic real at every scale, solidarity would have no meaning. Solidarity is possible and widely available because it is the phenomenology of the symbiotic real as such. Solidarity is how the symbiotic real manifests, the noise it makes. Solidarity also only works when it is thought at this scale.
“Yes, it’s possible to include nonhuman beings in Marxist theory—but you’re not going to like it!”
(I capitalize Nature to de-nature it, like frying an egg, revealing its artificial constructedness and explosive wholeness.) Humankind is violently opposed both to Humanity and to Nature, which has always been a reified distortion of the symbiotic real. (I will now begin to capitalize Humanity for the same reasons as I capitalize Nature.)
WHERE IS THE ECOLOGICAL PRONOUN?
There is no pronoun entirely suitable to describe ecological beings
I cannot speak the ecological subject, but this is exactly what I’m required to do. I can’t speak it because language, and in particular grammar, is fossilized human thoughts: thoughts, for example, about humans and nonhumans. I can’t say “it” as opposed to “he” or “she,” as I’ve just argued. I can’t say we. I can’t say they.
Economics is how lifeforms organize their enjoyment. That’s why ecology used to be called the economy of nature.6 When you think of it like that, what the discipline of economics excludes is nonhuman beings—the ways we and they organize enjoyment with reference to one another. If we want to organize communist enjoyment, we are going to have to include nonhuman beings.
Capitalist economic theory is far worse at including nonhumans. Anything considered to be outside of human social space, whether supposed to be alive or not (rivers or pandas), is considered to be a mere “externality.” There is no way to include them in a way that doesn’t reproduce an inside–outside opposition untenable in an age of ecological awareness, in which categories such as “away” have evaporated. One doesn’t throw a candy wrapper away—one drops it on Mount Everest. Capitalist economics is an anthropocentric discourse that cannot factor in the very things that ecological thought and politics require: nonhuman beings and unfamiliar timescales.
Eric Posner and David Weisbach, “Public Policy over Massive Time Scales” (lecture), The History and Politics of the Anthropocene, University of Chicago, May 17–18, 2013.
communist solutions to ecological-scale problems have so far strongly resembled capitalist ones: put more fertilizer in the soil, become more efficient … This is the kind of thing that reactionary ecocriticism used to observe in the early 1990s: the Soviets and the capitalists are just as bad as the other, green is neither left nor right.
Since capitalism relies on the appropriation of what are handily called “externalities” (indigenous lands, women’s bodies, nonhuman beings), communism must resolve to not appropriate and externalize such beings. It seems fairly simple put like that.9 Unfortunately, including nonhumans in Marxist thought will just be disconcerting, and there is a good reason for this.
Environment is not quite the same as race or gender, because these domains are “strongly correlationist” and therefore irreducibly anthropocentric. Correlationism has been part of the Western philosophical consensus since Kant. It’s how science functions, as well as the humanities, so playing with it or rejecting it involves tackling some very deeply ingrained strictures on what counts as thinking and what counts as true
Correlationism means that there are things in themselves (as Kant would put it), but that they aren’t “realized” until they are correlated by a correlator, in the same way a conductor might “realize” a piece of music by conducting it. The correlatee requires a correlator to make it real: sure, things exist in some inaccessible sense, but things aren’t strictly real until they’ve been accessed by a correlator.
It allows us to study things with great precision, unhampered by metaphysical baggage. But it also means that science can never directly talk about reality, only about data.
Kant unleashed a picture of the world in which things have a deeply ambiguous quality. Now, we could accept that some things can be contradictory and true, and so accept that things are what they are yet never as they appear. Or, we could try to get rid of the contradiction.
Step one of including nonhumans in political, psychic and philosophical space must therefore consist in a thorough deconstruction of the concept of “nature.” It only sounds counterintuitive because of the anthropocentric ways in which we think. The anti-theory philistine ecocritics and the pro-theory “cool kids” are really aspects of the same syndrome. Either nothing is socially constructed, or everything is, and in both cases “socially” means “by humans.”
brushing against, licking or irradiating are also access modes as valid (or as invalid) as thinking.
But allowing for others to exist in some strong sense, joining their ways of accessing things or at least appreciating them, just is solidarity. Solidarity requires having something in common.
“Solidarity” is an intriguing word. It describes a state of physical and political organization, and it describes a feeling.12 This itself is significant because “solidarity” cuts against a dominant ontological trend, default since the basic social, psychic and philosophical foreclosure of the human–nonhuman symbiotic real that we call the Neolithic.
Let’s call it “the Severing.” Why such a dramatic name? What the Severing names is a trauma that some humans persist in reenacting on and among ourselves (and obviously on and among other lifeforms). The Severing is a foundational, traumatic fissure between, to put it in stark Lacanian terms, reality (the human-correlated world) and the real (ecological symbiosis of human and nonhuman parts of the biosphere). Since nonhumans compose our very bodies, it’s likely that the Severing has produced physical as well as psychic effects, scars of the rip between reality and the real
Humankind will cleave closer to Jean-François Lyotard’s way of thinking the difference between the correlatee and the correlator. For Lyotard, the real–reality boundary must be spongy. Stuff leaks through such that the real manifests not just as gaps and inconsistencies in reality. There is a loose, thick, wavy line between things and their phenomena, expressed in the dialectical tension between what Lyotard calls “discourse” and what he calls “figure.”
Worlds are perforated and permeable, which is why we can share them.
Worlds malfunction intrinsically. All worlds are “poor,” not just those of sentient nonhuman lifeforms (“animals,” as Heidegger calls them). This means that human worlds are not different in value from nonhuman ones, and also that non-sentient nonhuman lifeforms (as far as we know) and non-life (and also by implication the non-sentient and non-living parts of humans) also have worlds.
Something like a permeable boundary between things and their phenomena is highly necessary for thinking solidarity. If solidarity is the noise made by the uneasy, ambiguous relationship between 1 + n beings (for instance, the always ambiguous host–parasite relationship), then solidarity is the noise made by the symbiotic real as such. So, solidarity is very cheap because it is default to the biosphere and very widely available. Humans can achieve solidarity among themselves and between themselves and other beings because solidarity is the default affective environment of the top layers of Earth’s crust. If non-life can have a world, then at the very least we can allow lifeforms to have solidarity.
A functional definition of “child” is “someone who is still allowed to talk with an inanimate stuffed animal as if it were not only an actual lifeform but also conscious.” A functional definition of an adult book is one in which nonhumans don’t speak and aren’t on an equal footing with humans.
Saint Paul’s definition of being grown up, in, “I put away childish things.”
The Severing is a catastrophe: an event that does not take place “at” a certain “point” in linear time, but a wave that ripples out in many dimensions, in whose wake we are caught.
We are caught in the Oxygen Catastrophe that began over three billion years ago, the ecological crisis created by bacteria excreting oxygen, which is why you can breathe as you read this sentence. The Oxygen Catastrophe is happening now. In the same way, the Severing is happening now.
Hiding in very plain sight, everywhere in post-agricultural psychic, social and philosophical space, is evidence of a traumatic Severing of human–nonhuman relations. The difference between modernity and deep premodernity (Paleolithic cultures) is simply that sophisticated technological instruments and contemporary science tell us explicitly that the Severing is produced at the expense of actually existing biospheric beings and their relations
Our scientific instruments tell us what old stories told us too, that humans and nonhumans are deeply interconnected. But our ways of playing and our speech say something quite different. The amalgam of these two contradictory planes (what we know and how we talk and behave with regard to nonhumans) must give rise to immense social, psychic and philosophical intensities.
An algorithm is automated human “style,” in the very broad sense in which phenomenology means it. Style is one’s overall appearance, not just the parts of which you’re in control; not a choice (certainly not a fashion choice), but the mode in which one appears, and not just in a visual sense, but in all physical (and other) senses. Style is the past, appearance is the past, a fact that has deep ontological reasons (as we will see). Thus, an algorithm is a snapshot of a past series of modes of humankind, like a musical score.
An algorithm is an automated past
Solidarity must mean human psychic, social and philosophical being resisting the Severing. This is not as hard as it seems because the basic symbiotic real requires no maintaining by human thought or psychic activity.
Solidarity, a thought and a feeling and a physical and political state, seems in its pleasant confusion of feeling-with and being-with, appearing and being, phenomena and thing, active and passive, not simply to gesture to this non-severed real, but indeed to emerge from it. Solidarity is a deeply pleasant, stirring feeling and political state, and it is the cheapest and most readily available because it relies on the basic, default symbiotic real
Houston, we have a problem.
Why the allergy to positive, juicy, robust-seeming solidarity? Is the allergy itself a symptom of the Severing?
What is the default characteristic of this thought mode? Let’s call it “explosive holism”: a belief, never formally proven but retweeted all the time, that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. The alternatives are limited.
One very obvious instance of explosive holism is the concept of the invisible hand, developed in Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism and first promulgated by Bernard de Mandeville in The Fable of the Bees, the subtitle of which is Private Vices, Public Benefits. That difference between private and public is a metaphysical difference between parts and wholes that is also a difference between lesser and greater. The invisible hand has evident theistic overtones, conjuring up images of divine providence. Capitalist ideology has relied strongly on explosive holism. The invisible hand concept is emergent and teleological. A benevolent group telos is said to emerge from the selfish actions of individuals. From this teleology springs social Darwinism, which differs from actual Darwinism on this key point, the strong sense of “survival of the fittest,” a phrase of Herbert Spencer’s inserted into The Origin of Species out of fear for the implications otherwise. Selfish, greedy aggression is good in the long run.
The second obvious contemporary instance of explosive holism is fascism. The Latin term fascis means a bundle of sticks, expressing the bundling of the folk in a whole that transcends its parts and gives it a firm, constantly present depth. Notice the agricultural provenance of this image: it’s not an accident, and not simply in the sense that there is an ideology of the rural versus the urban (black, Jewish, or Islamic social space, and so on). There is an ideology of agricultural social space as such, agriculture as it was conceived in the Fertile Crescent. Agricultural space must be kept together, precisely because of the obvious ways in which, as soon as it starts up, it causes social space to be torn apart: patriarchy, hierarchy, desertification.
Does this rip in social space mean that lovely, organic, indigenous (and also explosively) holist Edenic prehistory has been torn apart? Far from it. What humans did was to sever their ties to an implosive, ultimately meaningless and contingent symbiotic real. The violence of post-Mesopotamian civilization is precisely not a deracination from Nature. The violence is the establishment of a human “world,” cozy, seemingly self-contained and explosively holist, walled off from the disturbing/wonderful paranoid play of the symbiotic real. A world bounded by wild Nature on its physical outside, and by Eden on its historical outside.
Humankind is not a fragmented being trying to stitch itself back together again into Adam Kadmon or Hobbes’s Leviathan. The Severing consists precisely in the stitching-together itself, one of whose logical conclusions is fascism; a schizophrenic defense against the void of the symbiotic real. Religion in this sense is the prototype of anti-Semitism, a conspiracy theory (Fall narratives, for example) that provides a reason for the weird palpations and shifty affiliations, the illusory play and physical intensity of the symbiotic real.
Neoliberalism turned social space into a wafer-thin sheet through the gauze of which could be glimpsed the wafer-thin sheet of a planet ravaged by neoliberalism. This double void provoked an intense regressive reaction, akin to the schizophrenic defense, in which non-white, non-male humans are dehumanized and made inhuman, thus opening up an Uncanny Valley across whose foreshortened-to-nothing space anthropocentrism sees the decisively nonhuman Other.
If there is no inside–outside boundary, social space must already include nonhumans, albeit unconsciously. Thus, its contradictions must be structural: they transcend empirical differences. It’s not the case that there are “real” or “more real” beings toward the center of a mandala of concentric circles. It’s that differences are always arbitrarily produced by acts of violence (social, psychic and philosophical) on beings that cannot in any sense be arbitrarily divided in such ways (hence the violence).
The crack in social space is an artifact of the Severing. Trying to visualize how the world (“reality,” or how we access the real) would look if it wasn’t there is almost taboo. The taboo means that at some point our visualization defaults to the right-wing circle. Visualize just a circle without a crack—again, this is impossible since there is no inside–outside boundary! Solidarity would then begin to mean something like religious communion, the circle of the elect protected from the beings they excluded in some way. We claim that human solidarity couldn’t be like that because we claim that differences are irreducible without violence. But if someone starts considering whether porpoises can be part of revolutionary struggle, some will balk and default to a view that looks like the mandala of concentric circles.
The struggle for solidarity with nonhumans must therefore include a struggle against the agricultural-age religion that still structures our world, down to the most basic logics of part–whole relations.
Fully transcending theism and its various upgrades would be equivalent to achieving ecological awareness in social, psychic and philosophical space. It would be tantamount to allowing at least some of the symbiotic real to bleed through. Marx argues that communism begins in atheism, and undermining the Severing by subverting theistic thought modes and institutions would necessarily include nonhuman beings in the march toward communism.32 Doing so would be tantamount to abolishing at least one gigantic chunk of private property: nonhuman beings as slaves and food for humans. It would be wrong to see this as giving nonhumans rights, because rights discourse is based on notions of private property. If nothing can be property, then nothing can have rights—simply not appropriating nonhumans would be a quick and dirty (and therefore better) way of achieving what “animal rights” discourses machinate over.
It would be difficult to catalog the profusion of communist incorporations of the nonhuman, and the lack thereof. The nonhuman is a vexed place in Marxist theory, somehow with one foot inside and one foot outside—or any number of paws and tendrils, bewilderingly shifting from inside to outside. Marxism is already haunted by the nonhuman. Anarchism, that pejorative term for a penumbra of multiple communisms that haunt official Marxism, has done much better than the dominant theory. Humankind will be exploring how to add something like the modes of anarchist thought back in to Marxism, like the new medical therapy that consists of injecting fecal matter with helpful bacteria into another’s ailing guts. In particular, anarchism helps to debug communist theory of lingering theisms.
Marx Already Thought of That, or MATT.
FANNI stands for the Feature of Anthropocentrism Is Not Incidental
FANNI has a younger, weaker and less popular sister, called ABBI: Anthropocentrism Is a Bug That’s Incidental
Like her less charitable older sister, ABBI also believes that Marx is incapable of washing those plates and that no amount or reminding will do; and like her sister, she’ll never be convinced that Marx was already attending to them, but only we weren’t looking. However, ABBI does hold that given the right tweak—say, she injects Marx with a mind-altering drug—Marx will suddenly turn around, notice the plates and start washing them as if nothing ever happened. She believes that anthropocentrism is a bug, not a feature, of Marxist theory. This book was written by ABBI.
Just for a moment put aside thoughts about the common flash-mob moralism that can descend on anyone at any time, like Hitchcock’s birds (it’s called Twitter for a reason)
Empathy isn’t as expensive as we suppose. Since I’m not a spirit in a bottle, facing the problem of how to get out of that bottle to act on things that aren’t me, since thinking doesn’t exhaust beings anyway, and since thought isn’t a privileged access mode, we’ve been looking for empathy in the wrong place. An anthropocentric place. Maybe it really is easier to identify with a lion than we thought. Wittgensteinian truisms about lion speech (we could never understand one even if one spoke) are, to risk a mixed metaphor, barking up the wrong tree.38 Understanding, or even being-in-the-same-shoes-as, was never quite the point.39 The point is that no effort at all is required; that whenever effort is brought in, solidarity fades. Adam Smith theorized that aesthetic attunement (reading novels) is a training ground for the ability to identify with other people, and that empathy is the basis for ethics.40 Identifying with a fictional character raises the specter disavowed by novelistic realism, the specter of telepathy, in which whose thoughts and feelings I am tuning in to becomes moot, in which the boundaries between me and another are far less rigid than Western thought has supposed.41 But why would such an effort of training in telepathy (passion at a distance) be possible at all, if we weren’t already an energetic field of connectivity, the symbiotic real and its hum of solidarity? Communist affects are lower than empathy, cheaper and less difficult to access, too easy. The point is to rappel “downwards” through the empathetic part of the capitalist superstructure, to find something still more default than empathy.
The year 2015 was when a very large number of humans figured out that they had more in common with a lion than with a dentist.
The reduction of the human to the nonhuman and the reduction of the nonhuman to the brutal also suggests a way out. An ontology (a logic of how things exist) that didn’t reduce humans and nonhumans—thus preventing the sour taste that comes from being compared with wind or water—would contravene the implicit logic of capitalism, which makes an ontological noise that exactly resembles materialist reductionism.
The first section of Agenda 21 makes noises about reducing poverty and changing patterns of consumption, about containing the explosion of human beings on the planet, and about making agreements in an ecologically “sustainable” way. The second section introduces the concept of biodiversity. The third section delineates the groups of (human) stakeholders involved in Agenda 21’s vision. The fourth section talks about implementation. “Sustainability” is the key term, and just as when Goebbels heard the word “culture” he reached for his gun, when I hear the word “sustainability” I reach for my sunscreen. “Sustainability” is an even more vacuous term than “culture,” and the two terms overlap. What is being sustained, of course, is the neoliberal, capitalist world-economic structure. And this isn’t great news for humans, coral, kiwi birds or lichen. This adds up to an explosively holist political and economic agenda. Individual beings don’t matter; what matters is the whole that transcends them.
We require another holism if we are going to think at a planetary scale without just upgrading or retweeting the basic agricultural theological meme
The symbiotic real is necessarily ragged and pockmarked.
Thinking humankind in a non-anthropocentric way requires thinking humankind in an anti-racist way.
Having a world needn’t mean living in a vacuum-sealed bubble, cut off from others.
It’s not that there is no such thing as world, but that world is always and necessarily incomplete. Worlds are always very cheap. And this is because of the special non-explosively holist interconnectedness that is the symbiotic real; and because of what OOO calls “object withdrawal,” the way in which no access mode whatsoever can totally swallow an entity. “Withdrawn” doesn’t mean empirically shrunken back or moving behind; it means—and this is why I now sometimes say “open” instead of “withdrawn”—so in your face that you can’t see it.
An owl is an owl
Claiming that “Marx Already Thought That” means that ecological politics and ethics amount to “saving the Earth,” which means “saving the world,” which means “preserving a reasonably human-friendly environment.” This isn’t solidarity, this is infrastructural maintenance. What is preserved is the cinema in which human desire projection can play on the blank screen of everything else.
Ecological reality is suffused with a ghostly, quivering energy that cannot be contained as “spirit” or “soul” or “idea” or “concept” without violence. It pertains to phenomena that we call “paranormal,” which is easiest to think as action at a distance, non-mechanical causality: telepathy, telekinesis, nonliving things moving by themselves—life as a subset of a vaster quivering, movement itself as a subject of a deeper shimmying. To think the human without recourse to reactionary essentialism, to embrace other lifeforms and other humans in solidarity, would need to allow for the possibility of tables that can dance.
To submit to a system that doesn’t even require belief, only acquiescence? What kind of left ecology is this?
Yes, I really am going to argue that commodity fetishism is saying something true, in a distorted way, about the way things are, the symbiotic real. I really am going to argue, moreover, that consumerism is saying something true about the symbiotic real.
Why are we suddenly so interested in humans as a species, and what might need adjusting in how we picture ourselves to ourselves? The main reason is ecological: it’s what we have been doing to other species that is enabling us to think ourselves as a species. Thinking this way supplies the missing piece of the jigsaw of leftist thinking since the 1960s—how to integrate ecology with social revolution.
At the very least, other lifeforms should be thought as participating in metabolic economic relations, if not cultural ones. There are octopus economic metabolisms and mountain goat economic metabolisms. The name for all these metabolisms used to be the “economy of nature,” which Haeckel compressed into the term “ecology.” Ecology names a scale larger than only human metabolisms.
Trees may not have agency, but cans of soup and hedge funds have plenty, another reason for a reflex against the object-oriented view.
It’s perfectly possible and indeed necessary to think nonhumans in a leftist way. Denouncing attempts to do so as “hippie” and denouncing ways of proceeding to do so as “phenomenological” (the polysyllabic version of “hippie”) will no longer suffice.
“Species” means an entity that is real but not constantly present beneath appearances, not constantly the same. “Human” means me plus my nonhuman prostheses and symbionts, such as my bacterial microbiome and my technological gadgets, an entity that cannot be determined in advance within a thin, rigid outline or rigidly demarcated from the symbiotic real. The human is what I call a “hyperobject”: a bundle of entities massively distributed in time and space that forms an entity in its own right, one that is impossible for humans to see or touch directly.
The Anthropocene is the time at which the human becomes truly thinkable in a non-teleological, non-metaphysical sense. The waste products in Earth’s crust are also the human in this expanded, spectral sense, as if what the human becomes is a flickering ghost surrounded by a penumbra of flickering shadows that seem to hover around it like a distorted halo. This is what we shall call “spectrality.”
actual “life” as opposed to Life with a capital L inhabits this excluded middle zone. What is called “life” is a hesitancy between two different kinds of death: blind machination and total nonexistence.
“Because they wanted to transcend the web of fate and the anxiety-provoking loop structure of being, the Paleolithic realm of the Trickster, humans doubled down, further entangling themselves in the web of fate. Isn’t this the plot of every tragedy?”
The thin, rigid life–non-life boundary established by the functioning of agrilogistic software is a key component of the world this functioning has created. If we don’t like what has happened, we are going to need to find a different concept of whatever a life-form is. We are going to have to relax the life–non-life boundary.
More existing at any cost implies a substance ontology whereby objects are mere lumps of extension decorated with accidents. Long before this was formalized (by Aristotle or by reductionist atomism), and thousands of years before the formalization of utilitarianism at the start of the Anthropocene, the default substance ontology was directly coded into social space. Undoing it implies dismantling that social space. The ontological project of dismantling the metaphysics of presence and the anthropocentric definition of nonhumans as manipulable extension units is a political project when considered at this temporal scale—the scale of global warming and extinction.
“The death drive is precisely the soothing survival mode of agrilogistics, and it is in charge of the concept of Life. The relentless pursuit of relentless life just is death and extermination. The capitalist concept of growth, for example, is a mode of this pursuit.7
Art and human sexuality are two of the very few places left on Earth in which the death logic can be played with, subverted, parodied, bent.”
We Mesopotamians are forbidden from stepping outside Mesopotamian thought space. To do so designates you as insane or stupid—for instance, you might be accused of being a primitivist or of appropriating non-Western cultures. All that stuff about how nonhumans have spirits shimmering around them, or is it within them, or is it beside them, is reserved for the distant past and for those who in French are called “aliens” (the mad), a telling term for beings beyond the pale, the boundary marker of the agrilogistic dwelling structure.
Whether a shimmering entity is alive or not is impossible to determine without prefabricated concepts. The life–non-life distinction is impossible to maintain; all beings are better thought as undead, not as animate or as inanimate.
A shimmering, undead, spectral being—an electron, a mouse, a skyscraper, a social movement—is an X-being, intrinsically endowed with superpowers. We can comprehend this precisely through the X that Kant himself uses to describe the one thing he allows to be withdrawn: transcendental synthetic judgments a priori. He calls them the “Unknown = X.”
“Yes, the whole world is haunted! Only is haunted? Nay, it itself “walks,” it is uncanny through and through, it is the wandering seeming-body of a spirit, it is a spook. —Max Stirner, The Ego and Its Own”
I’m out of the loop! I’m out of the loop! I’m out of the loop!
Religion melted in mid 1700s Europe and the “paranormal” leaked out; thinkers became fascinated, often trying to contain it or bowdlerize it. The historical sequence, then, is from animal magnetism to hypnotism to psychoanalytic transference.
If one de-privatizes correlationism, one arrives quickly at some idea that everything has agency, everything is “alive,” possibly “conscious”; or that consciousness is just another mode of access among equal others, and so on.
What we encounter in the case of correlationism surprise mode is the specter of paranormal action. Distilled into its most basic form, what is haunting communism is the specter of spectrality itself. Why? Because spectrality is the flavor of the symbiotic real, where everything is what it is, yet nothing coincides exactly with itself. Communist thought needs to embrace the spectral and figure out exactly what comprises it: not spirits in a divine realm, even if that realm has been relocated in the human—that’s the concept of Humanity. Spectrality is nonhumans, including the “nonhuman” aspects of ourselves. A convocation of specters will aid us in imagining something like an ecocommunism, a communism of humans and nonhumans alike.
The more we think ecological beings—a human, a tree, an ecosystem, a cloud—the more we find ourselves obliged to think them not as alive or dead, but as spectral. The more we think them, the more we discover that such beings are not solidly “real” nor completely “unreal”—in this sense, too, ecological beings are spectral. Since the difference between life and non-life is neither thin nor rigid, we discover that biology and evolution theory are actually telling us that we coexist with and as ghosts, specters, zombies, undead beings and other ambiguous entities, in a thick, fuzzy middle region excluded from traditional Western logic.
It simply cannot be proved, as Marx wants to, that the best of bees is never as good as the worst of (human) architects because the human uses imagination and the bee simply executes an algorithm.7 Far more efficient than showing bees have the capacity of imagination (some science begins to move toward this possibility) is to show that it’s impossible to prove that a human can.
There are two possible reasons why I can’t prove that I can imagine. Number one: there is no such thing as imagining at all; whatever we call “imagining” can be reduced to some material process. If this first were true, it would also drastically reduce reasons we have to care about lifeforms. An architect is just a deluded bee, and bees are just mechanisms. Number two: what is called “imagination” isn’t directly present; it can’t be pointed to straightforwardly; it has a spectral existence that includes a basic ontological uncertainty. On this view, a bee is a mislabeled architect.
In a world where it is hard to distinguish definitively between life and non-life, it is also hard to distinguish between bees and tables. Since we can’t distinguish very rigidly between humans and bees, the difference between humans and tables shrinks. We are moving toward the object-oriented ontology view that all beings have agency, even mind.
we have confused time with the measurement of time
Production is biting into a peach. Production is enjoyment, of one’s biting and of the peach, of the nonhuman. Production is love, which includes sheer solidarity with the nonhuman—putting that peach right into your mouth and biting. Production is something you can’t help doing. Production is a silkworm oozing out silk. And so, production is a bee building a hive.
Before we get into it, let’s recall the opening paragraph of his explication in Capital:
A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use-value, there is nothing mysterious about it,
whether we consider it from the point of view that by its properties it satisfies human needs, or that it first takes on these properties as the product of human labour. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing that transcends sensuousness. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.
To hold that objects have agency, even simply to hold that they are thingly (“dinglich,” Marx’s own word in this passage in Capital), to think objects as sensuous, is not only irrelevant to capitalist operation, so that OOO definitely isn’t a manifestation of commodity fetishism.
Thinking that tables can dance is not commodity fetishism.
The Enlightenment idea of vanilla mankind and its postmodern flip side, the not-all set of incommensurable differences, are both reflexes of capital. Both are anthropocentric. Both distort humankind. Un-distortion of humankind requires amplifying the nonhuman symbiotic real implied in the concept of species-being. So, what happens when we turn up the volume of the nonhumans within Marxism?
Ecological awareness is coexisting, in thought and in practice, with the ghostly host of nonhumans. Thinking, itself, is one modality of the convocation of specters in the symbiotic real. To this extent, one’s “inner space” is a test tube for imagining a being-with that our metaphysical rigidity refuses to imagine, like a quaking peasant with a string of garlic, warding off the vampires.
It is not that capitalism flirts with the spectral but that capitalism is not spectral enough. Capitalism implies a substance ontology that sharply divides what things are—“normal” or “natural” fixed essences (extensional lumps without qualities)—from how things appear, defanging and demystifying the things, stripping them of qualities and erasing their data. Imagine an ecological future.
The phenomenology of encountering an ecological being—how the encounter unfolds—will give us clues for thinking the spectrality of lifeforms. Meeting an ecological being is a moment at which I encounter something that is not me such that even if this being is obviously part of me—say, my brain—I don’t experience it as part of the supposed whole that makes up “me.” Ecological thought is Adorno’s ideal of thinking as the encounter with non-identity.18 When it isn’t simply pushing preformatted pieces around, thought meets specters, which is to say, beings whose ontological status is profoundly and irreducibly ambiguous.
To encounter an ecological entity is to be haunted.
Givenness is the condition of possibility for data (in Latin, “what is given”). There is already a light in the refrigerator before I open the door to see whether or not the light is on. The light’s givenness—it’s a light, not an octopus—is not something I have planned, predicted or formatted. I cannot reduce this givenness to something expected, predictable, planned, without omitting some vital element of givenness as such. Givenness is therefore always surprising, and surprising in surprising ways: surprisingly surprising. Yet in haunting, the phenomenon of the disturbing, surprising given whose surprise cannot be reduced, also repeats itself.
Ennui is the quintessence of the consumerist experience: I’m stimulated by the boredom of being constantly stimulated. In ennui I heighten the Kantian window shopping of the bohemian or Romantic consumer.
Since in an ecological age there is no appropriate scale on which to judge things (human? microbe? biosphere? DNA?), there can be no pure, unadulterated, totally tasteful beauty. Beauty is always a little bit weird, a little bit disgusting. Beauty always has a slightly nauseous taste of the kitsch about it
Since beauty involves me in organizing enjoyment, it is a profoundly economic phenomenon in the interesting sense that its use-value has not yet been determined.19 Beauty provides a way to think economics that crosses over the correlationist boundary between things and data, between what things are and how things appear. Beauty provides a channel through which nonhuman specters can enter. They do not have to be left out in the prefabricated “nature” of bourgeois ideology.
Rather than abolishing beauty, we can remix it for our own purposes. Beauty is always a love letter from an unknown source, a nonlocal telepathic mind-meld with something that might not be conscious, might not be sentient, might not be alive, might not even exist … beauty is a feeling of unconditional solidarity with things, with everything, with anything. Beauty is the nonhuman footprint of a nonhuman—a not-me experience arising in my inner space that bears the trace of a specter. And ennui is when we allow beauty to begin to lose its anthropocentric equalization. In ennui I am not totally turning my back on this sickening world; where would I turn to anyway, since the ecological world is the symbiotic real? Ennui is the correct ecological attunement!
The pathway to nonhumans is through a trapdoor in the ideological superstructure of capitalism, which is exactly why it seems so unacceptable. The very consumerism that haunts environmentalism—the consumerism that environmentalism explicitly opposes and finds disgusting—provides the model for how ecological awareness should proceed. Moreover, this ecological awareness would not depend on the “right” or “proper” ecological being, and thus would not depend on a metaphysical pseudo-fact. Consumerism is the specter of ecology. Ecological awareness must embrace its specter.
“Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts:
Nature is the inorganic body of a man … in so far as it is not itself a human body. That man lives from nature means that nature is his body with which he must maintain a constant interchange so as not to die. That man’s physical and intellectual life depends on nature merely means that nature depends on itself, for man is a part of nature.20”
Ecological awareness interrupts my anthropocentric mania to think myself otherwise than being surrounded and permeated with other beings, not to mention made up of them? Which is to say, isn’t ecological awareness a spectrality that consists of awareness of specters? One is unsure whether a specter is material or illusory, visible or invisible.
Somewhere within consumerist possibility space, between defiant rejection (like punk) and perverse acceptance (like pop art), resides this Baudelairean structure of feeling, and it might be very useful for imagining the location of the trapdoor toward the symbiotic realm. You can’t get out through rejection, because the skylight is always within consumerist space: we enter the endless dialectic of authentic versus sell-out. You can’t get out through perverse acceptance either, although this is more promising than rejection: rejection is (because of the paradox I just outlined) a form of acceptance-in-denial. Something like uneasy acceptance of disgust, disgusted acceptance of unease, accepting disgust at ambiguity, accepting ambiguous feelings about disgust … these provide the chemicals that might melt the floor and allow a way through to the symbiotic real and its solidarity hum, a way we locate underneath consumerist possibility space.
When thinking becomes ecological, the beings it encounters cannot be established in advance as living or non-living, sentient or non-sentient, real or epiphenomenal. Biology is founded on this confusion. What we encounter when we access the symbiotic real are spectral beings whose ontological status is uncertain to the extent that we know them in detail as we never have before
“Explosive holism is part of Marx’s theory of capitalism. Industrial capitalism, the truest face of capitalism, is an emergent property of enough machines making enough machines, linked together in a complex-enough network.24 Capitalism for Marx is another version of the invisible sadist who wants to kill you.
The trouble is, such an idea is itself an example of the very ideological displacement Feuerbach and Marx want to invert: human powers displaced onto a transcendental superbeing”
Feuerbach argued that religious statements such as “God is love” are alienated expressions of human powers (“Love is god”). Debugged Feuerbachian ideology theory would proclaim that the seemingly paranormal superpowers displaced onto an explosively holist superbeing are common to all lifeforms, and, since there is no convenient way to contain the concept of non-life within a thin, rigid boundary, to all beings whatsoever.
“We are in fact living in an age of mass extinction, the sixth one on this planet so far—“so far” meaning the roughly four-and-a-half-billion-year history of life on Earth. There have been five others previously: the Ordovician-Silurian mass extinction; the late Devonian mass extinction; the Permian mass extinction; the Triassic-Jurassic mass extinction; and the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction. The objective content of the Anthropocene is the gigantic die-off of lifeforms, as all are sucked in some sense or other into the one-size-fits-all, narrow-diameter temporality pipe of agrilogistics, a program that is still running.
This mass extinction is invisible. It’s the most significant moment for lifeforms on this planet since the dinosaurs got wiped by that asteroid, and we can’t see it directly—we see only spatiotemporal pieces of it. We are the asteroid.”
Our world is now malfunctioning sufficiently for us to begin to glimpse the darker, weirder malfunctioning—the sinister mal that might be intrinsic to functioning as such. Spectrality is the mal of this functioning, not just a superficial appearance, but exactly the sound of extinction faintly audible behind the din of the motorcars, its incredible weakness a horrible symptom of its colossal power.
“Spectrality has become the tool with which the pattern is to be found. Pincelli Hull refers to spectrality as a signal of mass extinction: “The researchers note, that the modern ocean is full of ecological ‘ghosts’—species that are now so rare that they no longer fill the ecological roles they did previously, when they were more abundant. Species rarity itself, rather than extinction, can lead to a cascade of changes within ecosystems, long before the species goes extinct, the scientists explain.” Or: “The ecological ghosts of oceans past already swim in emptied seas.”27
Spectrality isn’t just an ineffectual aesthetic flicker on top of a mechanical bumping about of flavorless reality cakes. Spectrality is a very precise ontological category, not just a haze that makes anything metaphysical impossible”
“Just in the same way as Irigaray talks about sexuality, a species isn’t one and it isn’t two.28 What is the case is a species shadowed by an X-species. Parrots and X-parrots. Men and X-men. Women and X-women. Live oaks and X–live oaks. Cyanobacteria and X-cyanobacteria, which have the special ability to live inside other single-celled organisms: these X-cyanobacteria are called chloroplasts and they are why plants are green and can photosynthesize. Likewise, some anaerobic bacteria hid in differently-evolving single celled organisms, and now you have them in every cell of your body. They are called mitochondria and they are why you are capable of reading this: they provide your energy. Your eyes are moving down this page because of a bacterial superpower.
You can’t be a lifeform unless you have this spectral double, this mutant shadow. Being alive means being supernatural.”
The monotheistic concept of soul and body is a way of domesticating this spookiness, tying it down to a non-migrant hierarchical social structure.
Ecological awareness is saturated with nothingness, a shimmering or flickering, a shadow play of presence and absence intertwined. What does this feel like from moment to moment?
the essence of a thing, its being, is the future. Entities are not entirely caught like algorithms in the gravitational pull of the past. There is also levity: the lightness of futurality. The future is also an abyss.
We will revisit this idea frequently: appearance is the past; being is the future; nowness is the relative motion of future over past, not touching. A thing is a junction of two abyssal movements. Solidarity is the noise the symbiotic real makes in its floating, spectral nowness, conditioned by the past (otherwise known as trauma), yet open to the future. Creativity and enjoyment are a “disabled,” malfunctioning relative motion between past and future, appearance and being.
Meaning as such is its spectral shadow. Who knows what a poem is really saying? But this poem is this poem, not that poem.
“It seems necessary to soften the edges between “act” and “behave” if we are going to create a communist theory of action. “To act” and “to behave” need to be seen as dual aspects of one being. They slide over one another, generating a spectral, breathing nowness. This nowness is open and so it is capable of novelty, or as Marx says, the poetry of the future.31 Nowness is the mode in which solidarity appears. It can’t be found in the past or in the future, but in the nowness of lifeforms in the symbiotic real. It is the default way in which the past (trauma) sliding underneath the future (openness) generates a relative motion that doesn’t have to be chosen, only appreciated.
When it becomes impossible to distinguish between behaving and acting, between executing an algorithm and being a person, we have entered a spectral realm. The notion of nonhumans as spectral is not cute or trivial. Indeed, spectrality could be thought as an index of reality or accuracy. How so? It has to do with the fact that ambiguity is a signal of accuracy.”
The lenses have been tuned to your vision. The space of attunement is a spectral realm that is “analog,” thick, not rigidly bounded, so that more than one choice becomes available. The floating of decision in this spectral attunement space is accurate. And highly determinate.
Nonmeaning is haunted by meaning; meaning is a ghost that arrives yet never arrives. We can’t find it at the end of the sentence—we can’t find it at the end of all the sentences. Yet, sentences depend on it. Meaning is a specter that haunts signification. Justice, as Plato demonstrated, can never be directly seen, only embodied in imperfect instances of itself. Justice haunts the impossibility of perfect justice in any one instance. Forgiveness is haunted by the idea of forgiving the unforgiveable, which would be the ultimate kind of forgiveness—and also impossible.
Spectrality, the way a thing keeps exceeding itself, or is displaced from itself, or is ecstatically outside itself (ekstasis, “ex-sistence”), doesn’t just belong to human being, as Heidegger thought. Humankind is flickering, displaced from itself, ec-static, rippling and dappled with shadows. Shadows made not only by some other entity interacting with it, like the sun through the trees, but shadows that are an intrinsic part of the thing.
Uncanniness, paranoia and ambiguity are indices of reality, not of unreality.
One surprising conclusion we can draw now is that paranoia is a possibility condition for empathy. It’s counterintuitive, but we can only conclude that empathy becomes distorted when it assumes that there is a definite person over there with definite shoes I can definitely walk in. What empathy requires is the energy of solidarity, vibrating away in the basement—I join with you even though I can’t check in advance whether there is a you there. More and more and more detailed uncertainty as to the ontological status of a being looks and quacks like love. Empathy might involve a reification that is amplified in fully condescending sympathy, with its intrinsic power relationship. I am to decide whether or not to give you a coin as you beg on the street corner. Paranoia is co-emergent. It could go either way, toward reification when I try to reduce the paranoia, or toward solidarity when I don’t.
Utility is hugely overrated as a driver of lifeforms and of evolution. Sexual display is ridiculously expensive from DNA’s point of view. Why even evolve it? It must be because of the way things are: reality isn’t actually something bland “underneath” appearances, so that utility isn’t something bland underneath more “pointless” goals. This distinction very much has to do with the profound ambiguity between acting and behaving.
Beauty is a strange experience because in it I get a feel for something I can’t feel, or as Keats put it, “the feel of not to feel it.”37 I can’t grasp the beauty experience without ruining it, so I need to leave it alone in its deep ambiguity, an ambiguity I often experience as a floating sadness without anything in particular to be sad about. “Sadness” here is happiness without a concept: “Sad is happy for deep people.”38 Sadness here does not have an object in particular: we aren’t talking about melancholia, which is the trace of lost objects. Sadness is precisely without objectification, a spectral floating pleasure that cannot attach to an object because it is incapable of reification. It haunts me to the extent that it isn’t cooked up by my ego, yet it is happening in my experiential space. It is part of me, yet it isn’t. Sadness is beauty in all its spectral strangeness
How come I can have an experience that is beyond my ego? Because I’m not completely me! I’m full of holes because I am like everything else, a living, breathing malfunction made up of all kinds of things that aren’t me, that misbehave constantly.
world is inherently lacking, inherently ragged and faulty. World is perforated.
we can share worlds. Our human world is shared with all kinds of other tattered, broken worlds. The world of spiders, the world of tigers, the world of bacteria. Wittgenstein was wrong: we can understand lions—at least to some extent. This isn’t because we condescendingly expand our world, but because our world is perforated—we don’t quite understand ourselves, either.
World sharing requires regular violations of the Law of the Excluded Middle.
World is always spectral. World is the noise your behavior makes. World has a virtual, modal quality about it that you can’t delete. Worlds are partial objects, like everything else. They are more than the wholes of which they are parts. There are many, many worlds in the biosphere, and these worlds are not just components of the biosphere, in the same way that the family isn’t my family in particular.
Georg Cantor showed that there is a gap between numbers and sets of numbers. Likewise, there is a gap between lifeforms and sets of lifeforms. We can think of these sets as ecosystems, biomes, biospheres—we can think of these sets at any scale, and there is no easy continuity between these sets. An environment just is a certain set of lifeforms. The way one does ecological research is to establish a somewhat arbitrary set: to define a boundary sometimes called a mesocosm, in which one observes lifeforms coming and going, reproducing, struggling.
An ecosystem is vague, in the sense that sorites paradoxes arise when one attempts to define them precisely. How many blades of grass do I have to remove for this meadow not to be a meadow? One—surely not. Two—still a meadow. Three, four, and so on—and the same logic applies until I have only one blade of grass left. I conclude, wrongly, that there is no meadow. These paradoxes plague sets of lifeforms at any scale, and therefore it’s strictly impossible to think ecological reality via a metaphysics of presence, namely, a belief that to be a thing, you have to be constantly present.
“It’s much better to think that there is a meadow and there is not a meadow at the same time. We will violate the supposed Law of Noncontradiction, but it wasn’t that great for lifeforms anyway. There is a meadow, but we can’t point to it directly, because it’s not constantly present. And yet here is the meadow, with the butterflies, the cowslips, the voles. Just as a vole is a set of things that are not voles, so the meadow is a set of things such as voles that are not meadows. A meadow is an implosive whole made of partial objects.
Thus, a spectral strangeness that haunts being applies not only to lifeforms—a vole is a not-vole—but also to meadows, ecosystems, biomes and the biosphere.”
“So many specters, so little time. Anarchism is the specter of Marxism and some of its spectrality must be let back in to allow Marxism to breathe in an environment in which it accommodates nonhumans. And consumerism is the specter of environmentalism, such that the future enhancement and multiplication of pleasure modes implied in ecological awareness and ecological social policy draws on and amplifies phenomenological chemicals manufactured in the heart of the enemy of vanilla environmentalisms.
To repeat: Marxism doesn’t work and therefore will not survive without including nonhuman beings. And including nonhuman beings implies also including spectrality.”
What comes next is not an expansion of rights, but an attunement of solidarity, to varying degrees of sharpness and amplitude. Spectral space is highly differentiated. It is nothing to do with life as survival. Yet it is not in the service of a one-size-fits-all life-as-abundance. It isn’t so easy to tell between a ghost and a person, between a person and an algorithm, between intelligence and computation, between number and counting. They each entail the other. And yet there is a very sharp difference at the same time.
Humankind is humankind, not some abstract being but a very specific one. Yet this doesn’t mean we can point to it directly. Humankind is specific and spectral. The quality of humankindness floats spectrally like a halo around humans, precisely because of the specificity.
‘‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’’ This truism is one of the most profound inhibitors of world sharing.
Why not rewrite holism such that the whole is always less than the sum of its parts? Let’s call it “subscendence.”
Wholes subscend their parts, which means that parts are not just mechanical components of wholes, and that there can be genuine surprise and novelty in the world, that a different future is always possible. It is good to regard things such as capitalism as physical beings, not simply as fictions that would disappear if we just stopped believing in them. But what kind of physical being are they? If they are subscendent, it means that we can change them, if we want. What if some things could be physically huge, yet onto-logically tiny? What if neoliberalism, which envelopes Earth in misery, were actually quite small in another way, and thus strangely easy to subvert?
“Very well, a tree exists in the same way as a forest. The forest is ontologically one. The trees are more than one. The parts of the forest (the trees—but there are so many more parts in fact) outnumber the whole. This doesn’t mean they “are more important than the whole.” This is the kind of anti-holist reductionism that neoliberalism promotes: “There is no such thing as society; there are only individuals.” We need holism, but a special, weak holism that isn’t theistic.
Climate is ontologically smaller than weather. Weather is a symptom of climate, but there is so much more to weather other than simply being a symptom of climate”
Humankind is ontologically smaller than the humans who make it up! There is so much more that humans do other than be parts of humankind. Humans modify their bodies to change their gender and add electronic and decorative prostheses. Humans form relationships with nonhumans. Humans contain nonhumans such as the bacterial microbiome in such a way that if the nonhumans left, the humans would die.
Economics is really just about how you organize enjoyment. And ecological politics just means allowing and enhancing all kinds of enjoyment that aren’t obviously to do with you. Well, not that they’re nothing to do with you—that’s too tight. It’s just that you let yourself be perforated.
Spectrality means that a being is a symbiotic community consisting of itself and its spectral halo. A being is less than the sum of its parts.
Neoliberalism is physically vast, but ontologically small. We are able to dismantle it, by crawling out from underneath in solidarity with the other lifeforms it now threatens.
however absurd and amazing it sounds, we need to say “the whole is always smaller than the sum of its parts.” The fact that hyperobjects subscend their parts is why you can’t find them. Global warming and the biosphere are ontologically small, which means that they are fragile since they can be overwhelmed by their very components—even black holes evaporate after emitting too much Hawking radiation, and nothing at all other than themselves can destroy them.
Appearance never expresses the whole, or let alone anything greater than the whole. Hyperobjects disappear “downwards,” not upwards, into something paradoxically more physical and thus more fragile than the beings that comprise them. This explains for instance the viscosity of hyperobjects, the fact that they stick to you phenomenologically wherever you are. Their hyperphysicality is what makes them so sticky, closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet: the mercury in my cells, the radiation streaming through my DNA.
Subscendence is not the same as individualism. Individualism means that individuals are more real than groups or wholes. Individualism in the political sphere is well expressed by neoliberal politicians: “There is no such thing as society” (Margaret Thatcher). According to subscendence, wholes and parts are just as real as one another. It is simply that the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
Subscendent wholes are fuzzy and ragged. They involve an uncountable number of parts. The effect of this is to cause the whole to be weirdly shrunken.
The thing about ecological contexts is that you can’t draw a line around them in advance, because ecology is profoundly about interdependence. The biosphere depends on Earth’s magnetic shield to protect lifeforms from solar rays, and this depends on the way Earth’s iron core is spinning, and that depends on how the Earth formed in the early stages of the Solar System, and so on. We are dealing with a potential infinity of entities on a potential infinity of scales—there is no way to ascertain whether the pleroma of beings has an end point, at least not in advance. Ecological awareness just is this context explosion.
Age of Asymmetry
Infrasound is literally the sound of context, exploding
Subscendence means, therefore, that we humans really aren’t nihilistic negation monsters, but chameleon-like entities that are susceptible to colors, surfaces, sound waves
Susceptibility is very good news for ecological ethics and politics. I can be touched. Thinking itself is touching and being touched, not a guarantee of full metaphysical presence, but a disorienting flicker that haunts me or pleasures me or hurts me, and so on. A visual artist knows that visuality is badly misrepresented by philosophies that use the language of sight to establish constantly present things-to-be-seen, and the too-easy linkage of seeing and knowing. Perhaps ecological philosophy needs to generate a whole new language that inclines more toward touch, toward the haptic. This is really because seeing is subscended by touching. It’s not that seeing is reducible to touching, as if touching were more constantly present, the equivalent of a doubting Thomas thrusting his hand into the wound and feeling it for himself; it’s that seeing, like hearing, is a part of touching, a whole that is not greater than the sum of its parts. The touch is lowly, susceptible, risky, humble—it subscends being able to see around and above and beyond a thing. It subscends because it is nearer, more intimate, quite the opposite of ‘‘more encompassing and less intimate.’’
We can talk about the human species while acknowledging difference because humankind forms a subscendent whole.
Humankind is not a negation of a human being, but rather an implosive whole that is susceptible to all kinds of phenomena. The Anthropocene is one of the first truly anti-anthropocentric concepts because via thinking the Anthropocene, we get to see the concept of “species” as it really is—species as a subscendent hyperobject, brittle and inconsistent. The Anthropocene is the moment at which humans come to recognize humankind, insofar as it subscends its parts (such as plastics and concretes in Earth’s strata). The Anthropocene is the moment at which species as such becomes thinkable in a non-metaphysical way, such that humankind cannot rigidly exclude nonhumans. The human becomes visible as a species, that is to say, as a whole weirdly smaller than the sum of its (human, bacterial microbiome, prosthetic) parts. Humankind is, as I said before, intrinsically disabled without hope of a “healthy” (explosive) wholeness.
when it comes to a choice between Spot the Hypocrite or Burst the Spider Egg, we should be playing the latter game.
Ideas always come bundled with ways of having those ideas. You can’t have the idea without being in a certain mode. Ideas aren’t colorless and flavorless. They have a specific frequency, a specific smell, they have ways of being thought.
remixes are neither copies nor separate things, but spectral bags full of eyes that haunt the seemingly individual house of a song.
Something about language shows you something about how meaning is also spectral. Being authentic doesn’t really mean being totally and utterly something that transcends its parts. Being an author and being authentic in that sense aren’t things we need to abolish or feel bad about or reduce to something else, because authorship already contains all kinds of other beings, a spectral, haunting otherness. A line of a Björk song doesn’t shout “I love you” but instead shows you all the fuzzy little filigrees of wispy seaweed around and between and inside the “I” and the “love” and the “you.”
We don’t have to choose between incremental rearrangements of the deck chairs on the Titanic of the political and economic system, and some massive apocalyptic change of everything. We don’t have to choose between life and death with a gun to our head, like hardcore pro-life arguments try to force us to. We don’t have to cling for dear life to the idea that we should cling to things for dear life, aka our normal belief about belief, the one Richard Dawkins shares with fundamentalists, aka our normal idea of what the word “survive” means. We don’t have to agree that the Buddhist idea of no-self means that you’re just a bunch of atoms. What it means instead is that you are open. You are a haunted house. You contain gaps, voids, incomplete parts—like the universe according to Gnosticism.
“We are many all the way down, because we are wholes that are always less than the sum of their parts. We don’t just combine into multitudes, we contain multitudes, as any self-respecting stomach bacterium will tell you.
We are many in the ontological sense too, and this implies that we can, should and will achieve solidarity with at least some nonhuman beings. The pathway toward this solidarity is about increasing and enhancing and differentiating more and more pleasures.”
Talk of efficiency and sustainability are simply artifacts of the relentless use of fossil fuels. In a solar economy, you could have a disco in every single room of your house and way fewer lifeforms would suffer, perhaps vanishingly few, compared to the act of simply turning on the lights in an oil economy.
Economics is about how we organize enjoyment. As we begin to think about what ecological society would look like, we will begin to talk about how we organize enjoyment at the largest scales of our coexistence. An ecological society that doesn’t put pleasure enhancement and diversification at its center is ecological in name only.
In a solar economy, the economic whole will subscend the parts. In an oil economy, oil subsumes everything in its explosive-holistic wake. In a solar economy, the question of who siphons and sells the solar power is a different type of question than the question of who owns the oil. In many more senses than we can now enact, humankind will have seized the productive forces, which is different from saying that nonhuman lifeforms will continue to be exploited. This is because humankind is a fuzzy, subscendent whole that includes and implies other lifeforms
Utilitarian holism sets up a zero-sum game between the actually existing lifeform and the population. One consequence is the trolley problem: it is better to kill one person tied to the tracks by diverting the trolley than it is to kill hundreds of people on the trolley who will go off a cliff if we don’t divert the trolley. There’s the left-wing variant: talk of wholes is necessarily violent (racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and so on) because what exists are highly differentiated beings that are radically incommensurable. In this leftist thought mode, there’s as little chance of imagining you’re a member of a group as in neoliberal ideology!
Gaian holism, the current ecological-political holism, also sets up a zero-sum game. An actually existing lifeform is a replaceable component. There is the right-wing version of this, often called Mother Nature. How dare we assume that we humans are more powerful than Mother Nature! If the Earth warms, Mother Nature will just replace her extinct parts. Then we have the correlationist versions of explosive holism. The Decider acts like population or Gaia, in a decidedly religious key. History, or progress, or destiny, gets to decide what’s real. I had to run over you with this tank, it’s the march of history. I may feel personally upset, but don’t blame me, I’m just carrying out God’s will.
we’ve decided to be holists but to reject the explosive concept of the whole
Species subscends me. Humankind exists, and I am a member of humankind. But there is so much more to me than being a member of humankind. So it’s perfectly possible for us to achieve solidarity with nonhumans: I am not bound in an impervious whole and there are parts of me that also belong to other lifeforms, are common to them, or just are other lifeforms. We discover this solidarity down below the anthropocentric, murderous-suicidal idea of who we are. We are clouds, not metaphysically solid. You can’t point to us directly, but we still exist.
Unless you allow for modal, paraconsistent and even dialetheic logics (that can say things are more or less true, or both true and false under some circumstances), you can’t allow ecological beings to exist.
To allow ecological beings such as ecosystems and global warming and humans and DNA to exist, we need to allow heaps to exist, and we need to allow heaps to be radically different from their members.
“Now we also know that ecological action only takes place at the heap level. Destroying or “saving” Earth is a matter of collectives.
What about all the species, the biosphere—the heap of heaps? The same logic works here. If we remove a heap, the heap of heaps is still a heap.”
So, it’s perfectly possible to talk about species without resorting to universalist language that deletes, for instance, the obvious uneven distribution of responsibility for global warming.1 We don’t have to stay at the level of specific human groups, populations or cultures. We can talk about ourselves at a larger space-time scale, without compromising our politics. The Left had better be able to talk about humankind, because if we don’t, we will have ceded that level of discussion to BP and Silicon Valley.
Subscendence is the half-sister of transcendence, which has to do with gaps between things and how they appear, gaps that can’t be pointed out in ontic space-time. Whereas immanence, which is a very popular way of talking in an ecological way, eliminates these gaps.
A symbiotic community—we are all symbiotic communities—is a perfect example of a subscendent whole. (Indeed, it would be better to call it a “symbiotic collective” for that reason.) I am less than an individual qua human with “This is a human being” engraved on every single piece of me. I am a human insofar as I have bacteria and prostheses such as cows and fossil fuels
“To exist is to subscend one’s parts. It’s not that I don’t exist, that my parts are more real than me. It’s that I faintly exist. Likewise, humankind exists faintly. Thus, we can know ourselves because we don’t set ourselves up as especially different, which would require another especially different being with whom to compare ourselves.2
One of the things disrupting our human world is … humankind.”
Species is spectral, and the human is a near-at-hand example of this spectrality. Communism is a specter not only because it frightens the capitalists, but also because it involves spectral beings who do and do not coincide with themselves at every point. It involves specters by allowing their full spectrality to manifest.
the human being, but also the brick, the Jim Henson puppet, Frank Oz’s voice, goldfish and black Audis
Production isn’t about working on sheet metal in a factory, necessarily. Production is the pleasure of biting into a fresh juicy peach
Everything is in the –morphizing business.
The fundamental problem with dancing tables is that I can’t distinguish myself from one very rigorously, which doesn’t mean I’m a table, and doesn’t mean that the table is definitely a person.
“Prove that you are imagining or acting rather than executing or behaving. Prove that your concept that you are imagining is not the very thing that humans have been programmed to picture about themselves! Like Descartes you will find there is no way out of this bind. Everything you can think concerning your personhood could be an artifact of being an android.
What are we to conclude from this? That you’re not a person? Far from it. What we conclude is that our concept of person must be inaccurate. It is far too rigid and dogmatic. Perhaps people are cheaper than we like to think. Perhaps it’s not so difficult to be a person, because person isn’t quite as intense as all that. Not that there are no people, but that person is cheap. Lo and behold, we have just extended personhood to nonhuman beings, without discriminating between conscious and nonconscious, sentient and nonsentient—or for that matter alive and not-alive. Person is a spectral category that can apply to all such beings.”
Part of this admission is that we are caught in the subjunctive mode that Descartes wants to collapse into the indicative. “I might be an android” is as unacceptable to him for its “might” as for its “android.”
Such a thought process wants to eliminate doubt and paranoia. But what if doubt and paranoia were default to personhood? What if being concerned that I might not be a person were a basic condition of being one? This seems to be what the Turing test is pointing to. It’s not that personhood is some mysterious property that we grant to beings under special circumstances, or that it doesn’t exist at all except for in the eye of the beholder, or that it’s an emergent property of special states of matter. It’s that personhood now means “You are not a non-person.”
Which comes first, racism or anti-environmentalism? This has to do with a deep philosophical issue: which subtends the other, racism or speciesism? Does racism exist because we discriminate between humans and every other lifeform? Or does speciesism exist because we hold racist beliefs about people who don’t look exactly like us?
Being kind means being-in-solidarity with nonhumans: with kind-red. This includes acknowledging the spectral dimension of existence that is a necessary aspect of the symbiotic real.
Reductionism wants to eliminate the possibility of finding anything outside the narrow bandwidth of beings already defined as people. It’s not surprising that the current state of agricultural society has spawned the most violent version yet, called eliminative materialism. What really needs to happen is that we need to get to a place that when we hear the word “materialism,” we don’t hear the words “reduce” or “eliminate.”
Style exceeds intentions. A character trying not to execute their style is funny because, as Stirner observes, “toil[ing] to get away from [oneself]” is what one can’t do
Style as such is species-being, a non-intended, “nonhuman” and unconscious aspect of ourselves. If humankind exists, then humankind has a style: being kind.
Consumer products are a place where nonhumans are found inside social space, which means that social space was never exclusively human. Consumer products are made from the symbiotic real: they act as an interface between human reality and the symbiotic real. Consumer products count as nonhuman beings in their own right. It’s simply a matter of the amount of nonhuman styling of ourselves to which we are susceptible; nonhumans constantly impinge on our world.
Let us now define kindness as acknowledgment of nonhumans in the terms I just described, whether acknowledgment is in its quantum or ground state (what is conventionally called “aesthetic experience”), or whether acknowledgment is in its more classical state (what is conventionally called “ethical or political action”). Again, we are going to need to modify “active” and “passive.” Forging solidarity links is a matter of always already having been caught in the general solidarity mode of the symbiotic real.
Acknowledging ourselves to be –morphized by a nonhuman means acknowledging that the nonhuman is sharing its world with us.
Access modes are modes of pleasure. The realms of access are necessarily limited by object withdrawal, and consumerism has a determinate shape to it—it’s a set of these but not those performance styles. There must be pleasure modes that can’t be co-opted, yet we can only discover them by embracing consumer pleasure modes that “say” something true, namely that access is in a loop with what is being accessed—a loop commonly referred to as desire rather than as need.
Kindness means including nonhumans in our social designs, not because it’s nice or because we need to condescend to things and make them ersatz humans with rights. Not for any reason involving good or evil at all, because that’s an artifact of agricultural-age religion. We need to include nonhumans because it’s fascinating. Because we can’t help it. Because we know too much. We’re not trying to be kind. It’s that this is our kindness in the sense that this is how we are. We want to be maximum chameleons.
The fascinating is one of two aspects of the numinous, along with the tremendous: the fear-inducing or awe-inspiring. The numinous is a displacement of human-kindness into a lordly, divine dimension. The capacity to be fascinated by the numinous is aesthetic appreciation restored to its wider-bandwidth, subscendent version, the one fringed with an aura of the sexual and erotic, with disgust, or horror, or excess. Our capacity for fascination is what fuels solidarity, not some pre-theoretical, prefabricated concept of need. Fascination is the aesthetic gravitational pull of entities toward one another, the dynamics of solidarity, within a forcefield-like matrix of sensitivities.
Human-kindness goes beyond tolerance, which is based on an emotional economy of need, to appreciation, appreciation for no reason, based on an emotional economy of desire. This entails the possibility not of refraining from pleasure (which is simply displaced pleasure, or pleasurable restraint as such), but of allowing other beings to have pleasure.
Kindness means being kinda-sorta, because one is permeated with other beings, physically and experientially and everything else.
Motivations for ecological ethics and politics can no longer be trapped in theistic discourses of good and evil, or biopolitical discourses of sickness and health, or petrocultural discourses of efficiency and sustainability.
We live in a world in which the past is trying as hard as possible to eat the future as efficiently as possible. Every year the past gets better at eating the future. Keeping the future open, refocusing humankind on the specter of futurality: this is a key task of ecological politics.
Here’s a new twist on the Kantian injunction. Not you must because you can, nor you can because you must. In terms of ecological politics that acknowledges the symbiotic real, it’s you must because you can’t.
This is not a compromise position between activity and passivity, but a whole new dimension that we might call wiggle room
This new form of action has a necessarily silly component. It’s interesting that the silly is the one affect we never ever think of as politically or ethically effective. Indeed, we might usually regard it as a nuisance or a waste. But silliness appears to be a pathway toward finding the wiggle room that joins us to nonhumans, including our pre-Severed actually existing symbiotic selves.
Any good author will tell you that they do not in fact have authority, that they are involved in a hopeless chase of the wild goose of themselves through the necessarily temporal medium of narrative: “I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought. I think of what I am where I do not think to think.”8
Paranoia, the feeling of being haunted and watched, becomes a possibility condition for solidarity
There is a thing called humankind, and we can access it, albeit in an anthropomorphic way, yet strangely in an anti-anthropocentric way. This is because humankind is a heap of things that aren’t humankind.
Ecological awareness is claustrophobic. You find yourself surrounded, permeated, composed of not-you beings. And you are phenomenologically glued to Earth. Say we do travel to another planet. We will need to recreate a terrestrial biosphere, possibly from scratch—we will have the same problem as we have down here on Earth, only magnified.
Ecoclaustrophobia means that we can be more cynical than cynical reason. Think about another sentence: All tactics are hypocritical. This must mean that the sentence is also hypocritical. Something is always missing from the ethical and political ecological jigsaw, which means that there can be no top-level political form to rule them all. How to exit from a trap in which expected exit strategies are just different ways of reinforcing it?
Stranger-logic means that the whole that is the biosphere is subscendent: it is tattered and jagged, it has pieces missing, it’s less than the sum of its parts. It might then be the case that there can be no totality to rule them all, and that if this is only what communism means, we cannot think communism without metaphysical universalisms concerning the human. If, however, it is possible to imagine a host of communisms then we will be able to include nonhumans in communist thought. Interdependence (the basic fact of ecology) means that one lifeform is always excluded from a group: caring for rabbits means not caring for rabbit predators. Communisms can only be contingent, fragile and playful.
not only Kropotkin, but also Stirner.
The frenzied decisionism of correlationist action theory has led to an overemphasis on the death drive: “Standing in the place of the death drive,” as Lacan puts it, maniacal blind machinating, as opposed to the pleasure orientation we are exploring here
If solidarity is the noise that the symbiotic real makes, we could imagine that mutual aid is just a paraphrase of the term symbiotic. Mutual aid is the slogan of the anarchist Peter Kropotkin. We need to haunt Marxism with another specter: the specter of anarchism. Anarchism split from socialism after the First International, in 1872. But what if Marxism only thrives when it is ghosted by its spectral halo, anarchism?
What Kropotkin helps us to think through, however, are the issues around altruism, anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism, because the last two need to be disambiguated in such a way that we can rewrite “altruism” to mean something that could actually work.
“It is not love to my neighbour—whom I often do not know at all—which induces me to seize a pail of water and to rush towards his house when I see it on fire; it is a far wider, even though more vague feeling or instinct of human solidarity and sociability which moves me. So it is also with animals. It is not love, and not even sympathy (understood in its proper sense) which induces a herd of ruminants or of horses to form a ring in order to resist an array of wolves.”27 [Kropotkin]
Peter Kropotkin, Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (The Anarchist Library, 1902)
Brilliantly, Kropotkin takes the burden off the individual lifeform while allowing species to be thought as groups and collectives. We don’t have to look for “love” or “even sympathy.” What we are after is much more basic: solidarity.
Kropotkin goes so far as to say that our own human tendency to solidarity is inherited from nonhumans:
I have tried to indicate in brief the immense importance which the mutual-support instincts, inherited by mankind from its extremely long evolution, play even now in our modern society, which is supposed to rest upon the principle: “every one for himself, and the State for all,” but which it never has succeeded, nor will succeed in realizing.
Kropotkin takes play to be deeper than parenting. Solidarity is a possibility condition for play. Because entities are structurally incomplete, they require solidarity to play themselves out. If play is a deeper category than reified notions of work or labor, then what does that say about how we act? What is political action, taking humankind into consideration? A communism that allows for nonhuman beings requires nothing less than a strongly de-anthropocentrized rewriting of action theory.
Political action theory tends to be deeply anthropocentric. This depends on current concepts of event. There are two main types of event concepts: the cutting-into-a-continuum type, and the continuum type. The latter is the new Whiteheadian kid on the philosophical block. The former is the Badiou-style theory of the Event, or indeed the Deleuzian theory of desiring machines, or the structuralist theory of language. The problem is, there is no such thing as this continuum! Instead, there are actually existing lifeforms.
why do humans have any tendency to undermine mutual aid at all? Unions keep reconstituting themselves even when suppressed. The violence of neoliberalism is necessary to break through mutual aid to the extent that mutual aid is intrinsic to humankind. Kropotkin is not sentimentalizing working-class people when he writes, “For every one who has any idea of the life of the labouring classes it is evident that without mutual aid being practised among them on a large scale they never could pull through all their difficulties.”30 What is meant is that cooperation is the zero-degree, cheapest coexistence mode, something you rely on when all else fails. Mutual aid is not teleological. Symbiosis cannot be thought teleologically.
How do we come back down to Earth? By a spectral pathway. We need to reintroduce what is called passivity into our theory of action. Not the radical passivity of the Levinasians, but a spectral passivity that must haunt what is called activity as a condition of its possibility.
I am going to define rocking as spectral action, namely an action that subscends hardcore correlationism and hardcore materialism and includes the spectral, the spectral nonhuman
Spectral action will look spooky, or like nothing at all, or impossible, or magical, depending on what kind of a person you are. The revolution will not be televised, but that’s not all: it won’t be possible to point to it in any way whatsoever, because quantum action can’t be located in one region of space-time, nor can it be reduced to smaller, easier-to-identify bits.
Ecological awareness means that in any political grouping something is necessarily excluded—there is a fundamental fragility and inconsistency about any set of political beings. This necessary exclusion is the locus of violence, such that solidarity is always in the structural position of wishing it could encompass more, encompass everything. But this wish is just exactly the feeling of compassion, in its most default, least hyped-up state, a passion-to-coexist, a striving-to-be-with.
If we pay attention, we can glimpse something very strange in these resonances: a whole new theory of action. This theory of action has to do with a highly necessary queering of the theistic categories of active versus passive, categories that are deeply caught in the way we think sexualities and the cultures and politics of those sexualities. These are categories that, going further, violently interfere with the way humans have treated nonhumans in social, psychic and philosophical space. Only consider how sexuality and in particular queerness in rock music has been expressed and policed, since its inception, to begin to intuit how urgent and quiveringly sensitive this issue is. It is high time to retire the concepts active and passive as we commonly think them, and time to start rocking.
We are wary of letting rocks do things because we are wary of letting agency be about doing things. We talk about distributed agency, or emergent agency, as a way to signal our discomfort, but this is the merest hint. Calling agency “distributed” means that one doesn’t really need to claim that this rock is acting. It is part of a network of actants, instead, acting insofar as it has effects on other things. It would be indecorous to pin the acting down to any one part of the network. There is an unspoken prohibition on appearing a philistine in these matters; to acknowledge distribution is an aesthetic preference in an age of anxiety about authority.
Philosophers should never be allowed on the dance floor. Or maybe they should only be allowed on dance floors, because that’s where their intellect might become confused enough to say something of significance.
MDMA or ecstasy seems to enhance awareness of what some Asian medical and spiritual systems call the subtle body, which is not exactly physical in a crude (as those systems say, “gross”) sense, but not exactly mental either. The drug appears to operate “between” these categories, although between is also the wrong word, because the sensation of subtle body awareness is not unlike becoming aware of an alien entity, yet an alien that is more intimate than one’s concept of oneself or one’s sense of physical embodiment, aptly named, with its associations with that dreaded notion of property and propriety, proprioception
Western scholarship can now say “mindfulness” (a term originating from the discourse of Buddhist meditation) because neoliberalism loves mindfulness. This is for a reason, however, far from that which Žižek assumes, namely that it turns the practitioner into a blissed-out, passive person (like other theorists of the Event, Žižek is averse to passivity). Mindfulness turns the practitioner into a maniacally active worker who now has a whole new job to do both at work and at home, namely to remain calm. Scholarship continues to be incapable of saying “awareness,” by which meditation manuals mean something effortless, something the practitioner is not “doing” at all, something that occurs more as a self-sustaining flash. This is a shame, because mindfulness is in Buddhist meditation manuals a tool that can allow awareness to happen—at which point the meditator is supposed to drop the mindfulness.
Ecological awareness is knowing that there are a bewildering variety of scales, temporal and spatial, and that the human ones are only a very narrow region of a much larger and necessarily inconsistent and varied scalar possibility space
On an inhumanly large timescale, rocks behave like liquids, coming and going, moving, shifting, melting. Rocks fail to sit there doing nothing. Humans aren’t caught in anthropocentrism without an exit, because they can discern rocks to be liquid, attuning to the timescale on which that liquidity operates, letting it affect them, becoming excited or horrified. Furthermore, on an inhumanly small spatio-temporal scale, tiny slivers of rock vibrate all by themselves. As we observed earlier, they do something much worse for the active–passive binary. They vibrate and not-vibrate at the same time.
Philosophy requires a new theory of action, a queer one that is neither active nor passive nor a compromised amalgam of both, to help us slip out from underneath physically massive beings such as global warming and neoliberalism, to find some wiggle room down there so we can wriggle or rock our way out of the hyperobjects.
Love is not straight, because reality is not straight. Everywhere, there are curves and bends, things veer.
It’s not just that you can have solidarity with nonhumans. It’s that solidarity implies nonhumans. Solidarity requires nonhumans. Solidarity just is solidarity with nonhumans.