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BETWEEN ANTHROPOCENTRIC HUMANISM AND CRITICAL POST HUMANISM.

Updated: May 8

Zainabu Jallo

In Conversation with Thomas Claviez, Professor of Literary Theory, University of Bern.



Prologue

“When everything is human, the human becomes a wholly other thing”.

- Viveiros de Castro (Cannibal Metaphysics)


This E-conversation hinges mostly on the lecture, The Post Human Knowledge given by Prof. Dr. Rosi Braidotti at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in March 2019 and ongoing conversations around the Anthropocene and agency with Prof. Thomas Claviez from some three years ago when I was his student. I am very interested in the scholarship of Critical Post Humanism because it lends a voice to some of my critique on the concept of the Anthropocene that I wasn’t adequately equipped to make explicit (I still am not). The notion of human exceptionalism is what I cannot wrap my head around. The Anthropocene narrative nonetheless needs to be accorded due praise in bringing critical attention to issues on climate change. The Anthropocene interprets humankind as a species intensifying its destructive dominance over the rest of the Earth System. Capitalism, Colonialism, slave labour, the diffusion of radioactive isotopes through nuclear weapon testing and a number of exploitative events in human history have been charged within different discourses of the Anthropocene as responsible for the predicament of a planet on the brink of collapse. This awareness through the Anthropocene conduit has been remarkable, however, geologists tell us that tracing our footprints in deep time could seem unfathomable. If this geological era has not been accepted as the Anthropocene, what exactly are we doing with this terminology? And what are the inferences of adopting it in different fields?

From Atmospheric Chemist, Paul J. Crutzen’s “Geology of Mankind” [1], we read that as far back as 1873, the Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani acknowledged the increasing power and effect of humanity on the Earth’s systems and referred to it as an “anthropozoic era”. The biologist, Eugene Stoermer coined the term Anthropocene, but Crutzen it was, who popularised the term. Crutzen explains in Fred Pearce’s With Speed and Violence (2007), how the term came about: “I was at a conference where someone said something about the Holocene. I suddenly thought this was wrong. The world has changed too much. So I said: `No, we are in the Anthropocene. ‘I just made up the word on the spur of the moment. Everyone was shocked. But it seems to have stuck.” [2]


©Zainabu Jallo

ZJ: Ever since Anthropocene was proposed as a new geological age, it seems that the Humanities took the narrative, ran with to a point where according to Rosi Braidotti, has become an “Anthropomeme”.[3] She goes on to say, …it has gone berserk…entered a spin”, which she defines as “epistemic accelerationism”. Epistemic accelerationism is a situation where “you take a good idea, a minute later, it goes wild”. She suggests that Anthropocene is a terminology that is too fluid and in many respects, misses the crucial point of the convergence effect. The notion of Anthropocentric Humanism is, therefore, characterized by “swinging moods” an “imaginary of disaster” that, according to Braidotti, prevents us from seeing the other elements of a “complex affective landscape”. It has become a “scholarship of anxiety”. She maintains, “…as people of science, as scholars, we really owe it to our intelligence to rejoice in what we have produced as a most extraordinary scientific-technological apparatus”. She describes the Post Human Convergence as a concurrence of events between the critique of the human and a critique of the anthropocentric. Braidotti claims that the Anthropocene has no scientific value “do not use it in your applications …you use Climate Change Science”.


Rosi Braidotti ©Zainabu Jallo

TC: There are several things to say about the Anthropocene. First of all, it is, as Braidotti rightly claims, in the meantime simply another catchword or fashionable metaphor that, per se, might address, but in no way, solve anything, but that suits itself for selling books and organizing conferences; as does its predecessor, “sustainability.” Thus, I share some of the reservations that you mention with regard to Donna Haraway below. Amongst those things that it points to is the problem you mentioned at the beginning: It designates, if anything, just and firstly that: Human exceptionalism. It does so, however, rightly so. We HAVE achieved a state where men have, to an unprecedented degree, been “fruitful” and have “increased in number,” have “filled the earth and subdued it, and “rules” over almost any “living creature,” as Genesis has it. But the problem is not whether we tell ourselves stories of anxiety or success about it – although I think stories are immensely important. But as in other fields, our technological advances haven’t kept up with the responsibilities that come with power. That is, the concept of the Anthropocene both describes a matter of fact – almost absolute human dominion over nature – and designates a moral problem: That this power is being abused. That is, it has both descriptive and prescriptive aspects to it. In my view, however, the FACT that we have reached such an influence should not – in a short cut – be turned into a question of guilt. That is, we most probably simply won’t give up on that power, or what Braidotti calls the “most extraordinary scientific, technological apparatus.” It is only refining this apparatus, with having its implications in mind, that we avoid something like a “cheap Romanticism.” And when I am saying “cheap” Romanticism, what I mean is that we have to get beyond what caused Romanticism’s end: its irony. In one form or another, all contributions that are being labelled “posthuman” are indebted to Romanticism. Their attempt to overcome the subject/object divide – most recently by the concept of agency – can philosophically only be viewed in this way, in my opinion. If we are trying to go this way, however – and specifically with the help of the concept of agency – then we are opening a keg of worms, as I have tried to outline in a recent essay.[4]


ZJ: It is also important to note that idea for the naming of the geological era as the Anthropocene has neither been approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences nor the International Union of Stratigraphy for the reason that there is not enough evidence of human activities on the Earth’s strata. Human Geographers, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg frame this better:

In the crucial field of climate change, this entails the attribution of fossil fuel combustion to properties acquired during human evolution, notably the ability to manipulate fire. But the fossil economy was not created nor is it upheld by humankind in general. This intervention questions the use of the species category in the Anthropocene narrative and argues that it is analytically flawed, as well as inimical to action. Intra-species inequalities are part and parcel of the current ecological crisis and cannot be ignored in attempts to understand it. (Malm, Hornborg 2014)

On the one hand, we appear to be using terminology that is not valid scientifically. On the other, the approach of separating the human (and activities) from nature seems counterproductive.


TC: To be honest, that is one of the minor concerns. As I said, I do think that we have reached a point – whether or not we are equipped to designate it precisely is not of special importance. It could be the end of subsistence economy, Darwin, or the discovery of the genome. In fact, almost all of what is called ‘Western metaphysics’ is geared toward establishing the subject/object divide, with all the ramification that this carries.



ZJ:In Religion and Ecology : Developing a Planetary Ethic (2014), Whitney Bauman uses the concept of the “ecotone” as a metaphoric example of the way human society should or could embrace the non-human, in order to change our relationship with the physical world (I use ‘physical world’ here to avoid the pitfalls that come when referring to nature). The ecotone—a permeable edge of an ecosystem—is always in flux. On one level, it acts as a metaphor for the permeability of species boundaries. Bauman also uses Deleuze & Guattari’s notion of becoming to get at this sense of how being should not be taken as static. She wants to find a way to philosophically enable a paradigm shift, whereby we begin to prioritise for environmental ethics, and sees religion as a possible route. She claims her position to be agnostic, in that she cannot see evidence of God, but can see the paramount importance of the human endeavour of meaning-making, and hence the centrality of mystery (or “unknowing”) to ethical responses to human-caused environmental change, and inter-species relationships.



TC: Well, I think we have to make a distinction here between how we – metaphorically or not – describe the relationship between the species (the IS), and what conclusions we draw from it (the OUGHT). That is, what normative conclusions we draw from certain descriptive attempts to describe the connections and distinctions between the species. If, as Bauman admits, there is a ‘paramount importance of the human endeavour of meaning-making,’ then a lot, needless to say, depends a) on how we do create meaning (one of the strategies being to create the subject/object divide), and b) whether or not these strategies of meaning-making collide with our ethical prerogatives. I am not sure whether it is conducive to cast these two realms in the vocabulary of knowing and not-knowing, because that implies that ethics can only be based on a certain form of ignorance. There ARE other forms of knowledge than those dictated by instrumental reason. Lévi-Strauss’ work on myth I think shows that. The problem is that what he calls ‘analogical’ forms of mythopoetic knowledge are – when compared on the basis of their respective “instrumentality” – considered inferior, and thus discarded. Their other aspects – what I would, for a lack of a better word would call ‘consolatory’ quality (since they mostly do not explain why things happen, but why things happen TO SOMEONE) – are very often ignored.


ZJ: Post Humanism is concerned with the questioning of the foundational role of ‘humanity’ as it has been constructed in modernity. Rejecting clear distinctions between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, it also rejects dualisms and the binaries we have tended to draw on to define what it means to be human in the world: human/machine, human/animal, subject/object, self/other and so on. From Braidotti’s Workshop, Critique, Power and Affirmation (2016) in Bern, I understood that one of the agendas of Post humanism is to look at life differently from the predominant humanist metaphysics in thinking past the human as a species, as a body and as a subject. How would you distinguish in clearer terms, Anthropocentric Humanism from Critical Post Humanism?


TC: Well, Anthropocentric Humanism has been at the heart of European (and Eurocentric) humanism right from the start, with very few exceptions. But as such, it has not only served as a retrospective legitimation to a process that now is called the Anthropocene, but that has actively cooperated in creating a present that exists as it does. This is something that one can be critical about, interrogate, and criticise. But we are there. The question then is: What is Critical Post Humanism critical about? About the status quo? About what brought us there? About a way of (philosophical) thinking? About humans wanting to survive, and taking drastic measures to ensure this? One of the problems is – to come back to it – the subject/object divide, that Romanticism tried, not to overcome, at least to reduce. And, as I have mentioned to question the basis, legitimacy and (potentially disastrous) consequences of this divide is necessary. I am not sure, however, whether to start this inquiry – which is inherently ethically motivated – through the concept of ‘agency’, as many Critical Post Humanists do – is highly problematic in my view. On the one hand, the ability to act is, in the Kantian moral universe that we still inhabit, highly important, and is what distinguishes the subject (as end in itself) from the object (as pure means). On the other hand, if we accord objects agency, then the question immediately arises as to the responsibility for the act or the agency, which forms the core not only of Kantian moral philosophy, but all of our juridical systems. That is: How can we possibly grant objects agency – and do so for ethical purposes – when our ethics are based upon the very distinction that we want to leave behind? On the other hand, looking at Kant’s moral philosophy and our jurisdiction with such an endeavour in mind, we suddenly realise a highly problematic facet in them: That it is only action that creates a moral person, while those who ARE BEING DONE TO, or SUFFER another’s agency, are by default NOT.



Rosi Braidotti and Thomas Claviez in Bern (2016) ©Zainabu Jallo


ZJ: At the centre of critical Post Humanism is a return to Spinozist philosophy. Preceding 16th and 17th-century scholarship, were other Non-Western philosophies that thrived on the Monistic outlook as against dualisms or dichotomies. Post Humanism/Critical Post Humanism are not new philosophical concepts to many non-western civilisations. Amerindian and African Indigenous philosophies, for example, have always lived through this knowledge. In my research, I see this with the convergence of similar cosmological beliefs and indigenous ancestral spirituality of West Africa and Brazil within a religion (Candomblé). I am incredibly delighted in what appears to be the beginning of a centrifugal shift towards non-western perspectives on the entanglements of nature and society; they ought to be acknowledged. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, for example. In Cannibal Metaphysics (2014)

He writes:

“If Western relativism has multiculturalism as its public politics, Amerindian shamanic perspectivism has multinaturalism as its cosmic politics…. Thus, if a subject is an insufficiently analysed object in the modern naturalist world, the Amerindian epistemological convention follows the inverse principle, which is that, an object is an insufficiently interpreted subject…. When everything is human, the human becomes a wholly other thing.” (60, 62)

We see a similar strand with Donna Haraway`s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016) from which, I am reading snippets, and would have to say-even before reading the entirety of it -that her propositions on the term “Anthropocene” is delightful to me. In a 2016 interview with ARTFORM She says of her critique of the Anthropocene:

"IT’S NOT LIKE I have a vendetta against the word Anthropocene—I understand the intentions of the scientists who initially proposed it in 2000 and the important work it does. But as with other big terms, it’s both too big and too small, and it proposes itself as a kind of universal in several senses, as if it’s humanity or man that did this thing, as opposed to situated human beings in complicated histories. Many people now—for example the Inuit of the circumpolar north—are acutely aware of deep and troubling changes in the world they live in. But calling it Anthropocene does not gather them together, nor does it set up alliances that might be necessary."[5]

What do you make of this shift?


TC: As I mentioned, I subscribe to most of the things Haraway criticises. And again, it is not only necessary, as she mentions, to historicise the process as such, but also the ramifications that it has had and still has for our concepts of ethics and morality.


ZJ: Within the context of COVID-19 that has hit all of humanity and put a spanner in the wheel of the most basic of human activities, what does this say about the “new age of Man,” the Anthropocene? Past the overwhelming death tolls, we are seeing economic, political, biospheric and cultural corollaries emerging across the globe at extraordinary scales beyond human control. We didn’t see this kind of ungraspable chaos coming.


TC: I guess this raises exactly the questions I mentioned above. The problem that we have with our environment – and the very contingencies that it presents us with – is that we have made (most blatantly so since the Enlightenment, but actually parallel to the emergence of the Anthropocene) – the overcoming of contingency the hallmark of human evolution. Hegel only sums this long development up when he claims: “The sole aim of philosophical inquiry is to eliminate the contingent.”[6] What is rather striking is that we have tended to define contingencies exclusively as negative, and to simply discard all of the positive ones that our environment offers us as well. In fact, as two rather recent books on evil show,[7] evil is basically co-extensive with contingency, philosophically speaking. And yes, all this is mostly about ‘control’; and what we cannot control is, by default, evil. All attempts to achieve control, however, have relied on the very subject/object distinction we have started out with; and though the COVID 19 virus might point out that not all omnipotence fantasies usually connected with the Anthropocene have come to fruition, the result of it will most probably NOT induce humankind to rescind control, but even to enlarge it.



Thomas Claviez studied Political Science, American and Italian Literature at the University of Konstanz and the University of Padua. He taught American Studies at the University of Stavanger, Norway, before joining the English Department of the University of Bern as Professor for Literary Theory in 2009. His publications comprise books and essays on Environmentalism, Aesthetics, American Philosophy, Native American and African American Literature, American Studies, Otherness and Ethics, and, most recently, Theories of Community.


[1] http://courses.geo.utexas.edu/courses/387H/PAPERS/Crutzen2002.pdf


[2] https://archive.org/details/withspeedviolenc00pear/page/8

Pearce, Fred (2007). With Speed and Violence: Why Scientists fear tipping points in Climate Change. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press


[3]See, The Post Human Knowledge, a lecture Rosi Braidotti delivered at Harvard Graduate School of Design in March 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0CewnVzOg5w

[4]Claviez, Thomas. “The Road Not Taken: Ethics, Environment, and Non-Negative Non-Agency.” In Thomas Claviez and Viola Marchi (eds.). Throwing the Moral Dice: Ethics 2.0, Contingency, and the Problem of Dialectics. New York: Fordham University Press. Forthcoming.

[5] https://www.artforum.com/interviews/donna-j-haraway-speaks-about-her-latest-book-63147

[6] Hegel, Introduction to the Lectures of the Philosophy of World History, 28.

[7]. Richard J. Bernstein: Radical Evil: A Philosophical Interrogation. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002; Susan Neiman: Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2002.

WORKS CITED

Bauman, Whitney. Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic. Columbia Univ. Press, 2014.

Braidotti, Rosi. Post Human Knowledge. Harvard Graduate School of Design. March, 2019.


Crutzen, Paul J. “Geology of Mankind.” Paul J. Crutzen: A Pioneer on Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Change in the Anthropocene SpringerBriefs on Pioneers in Science and Practice, 2016, pp. 211–215.


Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.


Malm, Andreas, and Alf Hornborg. “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative.” The Anthropocene Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 2014, pp. 62–69.


Pearce, Fred. With Speed and Violence Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. Beacon Press, 2007.

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