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(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.)


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.”

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