Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, June 17, 2017

in responsibilities begin dreams

Lately I've been reading the philosopher Timothy Morton, who has a lot to say about living in the Anthropocene, and I see that he has a forthcoming book called Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. On his website the book is described thus:

What is it that makes humans human? As science and technology challenge the boundaries between life and non-life, between organic and inorganic, this ancient question is more timely than ever. Acclaimed Object-Oriented philosopher Timothy Morton invites us to consider this philosophical issue as eminently political. It is in our relationship with non-humans that we decided the fate of our humanity. Becoming human, claims Morton, actually means creating a network of kindness and solidarity with non-human beings, in the name of a broader understanding of reality that both includes and overcomes the notion of species. Negotiating the politics of humanity is the first and crucial step to reclaim the upper scales of ecological coexistence, not to let Monsanto and cryogenically suspended billionaires to define them and own them.

The book isn't out yet, but I find this description worrying. The idea that "becoming human ... actually means creating a network of kindness and solidarity with non-human beings" sounds wonderful, in the most abstractly theoretical terms, but I doubt we can solve our and the world's problems simply by "negotiating the politics of humanity" — at least if Morton means, as I suspect he does based on what I have read so far, redefining the sphere of the political to include the whole range of nonhuman creatures, including the vast and ontologically complex phenomena he calls hyperobjects. Because we don't have a great track record of treating one another well, do we? I'm all for "kindness and solidarity with non-human beings," but first things first, you know? A good many people out there can't even manage kindness and solidarity with parents whose children were murdered in school shootings.

I'm reminded here of a comment made by Maciej Ceglowski in a recent talk. Responding to the claims of Silicon Valley futurists that we're just a few decades away from ending the reign of Death and achieving immortality for at least some, Ceglowski said, "I’m not convinced that a civilization that is struggling to cure male-pattern baldness is ready to take on the Grim Reaper." Similarly, I'd encourage those who plan to achieve kinship with all living things to call me back once they can have rational and peaceable conversations with people who live on their block.

I have the same concern with Morton's project as I do with Donna Haraway's theme of "making kin," which I wrote about here. I suspect that much of the appeal of seeking communion with pigeons, plutonium, and black holes (to use examples taken from Haraway and Morton) is that pigeons, plutonium, and black holes don't talk, tweet, or vote. If projects like Haraway's and Morton's don't reckon seriously with this problem, then they are likely to be in equal parts frivolous and evasive.

Such projects raise, for me, a further question, which is whether the language of kinship and solidarity is the right language to accomplish what its users want. Because you can achieve a feeling of kinship or solidarity without taking on any particular responsibility for the well-being of another creature. Here the old Christian language of "stewardship" seems to me to have greater force, and a force that is especially applicable to the Anthropocene moment: We do not own this world, but it has been entrusted to our care, and only if we seriously strive to live up to the terms of that trust will we have a chance of achieving true kinship and solidarity with all that we care for. It seems to me that Yeats had it backwards: it is not the case that "in dreams begin responsibilities," but in responsibilities begin dreams.

After posting this I realized that I'm not done. Morton, Haraway, Graham Hartman, and others working along similar lines are keen to bridge the gaps between humans and nonhumans — or, perhaps it would be better to say, deny the validity of the gaps that human beings perceive to exist between themselves and the rest of the world. They thus conclude that we require a new philosophical orientation to the nonhuman world, though one that employs quite familiar concepts (kinship, solidarity, intention, purpose, desire) — those concepts are just deployed in relation to beings/objects which formerly were thought to be outside the scope of such terms. We're not used to thinking that hammers have desires and black holes have consciousness.

This strategy of employing familiar language in unfamiliar contexts gives the appearance of being radical but may not be quite that. It strikes me as being largely a reversal of Skinnerian behaviorism: the behaviorists said that human beings are nothing special because they're just like animals and plants, responding to stimuli in law-governed ways; now the object-oriented ontologists say that human beings are nothing special because animals and plants (and hammers and black holes) all possess the traits of consciousness and desire that we have traditionally believed to be distinctive to us. The goal of the philosophical redescription seems to be the same: to dethrone humanity, to get us to stop thinking of ourselves as sitting at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being.

And underlying this goal is the assumption (often stated explicitly by all these figures, I think) that our belief in our unique and superior status among the rest of the beings/objects in the world has led us to abuse those beings/objects for our own enrichment or amusement.

I think this whole project is unlikely to bear the fruit it wants to bear, and I have several reasons for thinking so, which I will just gesture at here and develop in later posts.

(1) I doubt the power of philosophical redescription. Changes in our practices will lead to changes in description, not the other way around. The failure to recognize the direction that the causal arrow points is the signal failure of people who, being symbol manipulators by profession, think that the manipulation of symbols is the key to All Good Things. (I have written about this often, for instance, here.)

(2) I don't think we have taken the role of Apex Species on the Great Chain of Being too seriously, I think we have failed to take it seriously enough.

(3) I believe that all of these difficulties can best be addressed by living into certain ancient ways of thinking — which, in our neophilic age, is a hard sell, I know.

People will say, "Go back to Christianity? We tried that and it got us into this situation." To which the obvious rejoinder is the Chestertonian one that Christianity hasn't been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried. But perhaps more to the point: everything has failed. Every day I hear lefties say that capitalism has been tried and didn't work, and righties say that socialism has been tried and didn't work — to which each side retorts that its preferred system hasn't really been tried, hasn't been implemented properly and thoroughly.

And all of these people are correct. Every imaginable system has been put into play with partial success at best, and the problems result from incomplete or half-hearted implementation of that system and from flaws inherent to it — which flaws are precisely what make people half-hearted or incomplete in their implementation of it. Everything has been tried and found wanting, and found difficult and left untried. This is the human condition. Attempts to remedy social and personal ills always run aground on both the sheer complexity of our experience and our mixed and conflicting desires (mixed and conflicted both within ourselves and in relation to one another).

New vocabularies, or even the deployment of old vocabularies in supposedly radical new ways, won't fix that. Which is not to say that improvements in conditions are impossible.

Much more on all this later.


  • I might add that all of this is quite closely related to Jeff VanderMeer's Borne, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago.

  • So that's where Bono got that line in Acrobat.

  • First scarlet flag is the timeless poser, “What is it that makes humans human?” Anyone who trots out that philosophical puzzle is about to offer his or her own bogus answer. (I’ve done it, too.) As to “creating a network of kindness and solidarity with non-human beings,” that sounds suspiciously like a project to regain animism. That book as been written at least once before decades ago: Morris Berman’s The Reenchantment of the World. Others interpret The Bible as another book that, among all the other things it contains, bemoans the loss of animism (specifically, The Fall and expulsion from Eden). These are interesting responses to the puzzle, but our day-to-day perspective is that everything (including other humans) is essentially a resource to be exploited much without kindness or solidarity unless they’re house pets. Our treatment of animals we consume ought to make that pretty clear: farm ’em, kill ’em, eat ’em.

  • I'm glad you're reading and thinking about Morton; I look forward to your further thoughts. He's a trip, and I haven't read many responses to him from a Christian perspective. If you're interested, I reviewed The Ecological Thought for Christianity and Literature a couple years ago. I've also written about his aesthetic and the way it privileges distance and space rather than responsibility in ways that, I think, parallel your critique here: "Sublime Failure: Why We'd Better Start Seeing Our World as Beautiful".

  • Thanks for these links, Jeff — I'm looking forward to reading them!

  • “Did he not believe, for example, that the political generality was meaningless? That only the particular in life had value for him now? That in the hands of politicians grand designs achieve nothing but new forms of the old misery?”

    John Le Carré, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

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