You could call it the Clov thesis, after the character from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame who declares ‘There’s no more nature.’ Ecological thought, from Bill McKibben to W.G. Sebald to Tim Morton, has increasingly taken up Clov’s proposition. Human culture has so transformed natural processes, the argument runs, that it no longer makes sense to think of these processes as natural. Our grubby fingerprints can be found plastered across every worldly entity and ecological function from genetic codes to planetary geological cycles, from landforms to biospheres, from extinct life-forms, background radiation and bird-calls to the chemical composition of the air we breathe, the water we drink and the ground we stand on. All are now identifiable as our own clumsy handiwork, the externalised residue of our collective dream of progress and enlightenment. Visions of pristine wilderness today are nothing more than a failure of vision. The wilderness looks back with a human face, and if you don’t see this, it just means you’re closing your eyes to your own horrified reflection. In a late essay, Felix Guattari provides a striking illustration:
Neither human labour nor the natural habitat will ever [again] be what they once were, even just a few decades ago…To symbolize this problematic, I need only refer to an experiment once conducted on television by Alain Bombard. He produced two glass tanks, one filled with polluted water—of the sort that one might draw from the
—containing a healthy, thriving, almost dancing octopus. The other tank contained pure, unpolluted seawater. Bombard caught the octopus and immersed it in the ‘normal’ water; after a few seconds the animal curled up, sank to the bottom and died. Now more than ever, nature cannot be separated from culture. port of Marseille
When abstracted from its ever-present ambient cultural conditioning, the ‘natural’ world can no longer survive. All we have now is second nature, the humanised nature of our own making.
The geological term for this newly human age is the Anthropocene. As Adorno comments in his gloss on Clov’s thesis, this is the phase of the completed reification of the world. It is, as Fred Jameson has written in another context, ‘an immense, all-encompassing ceiling of secularity, which shuts down visibility on all sides even as it absorbs all the formerly natural elements into its own habitat, transmuting them into its own man-made substance.’ And as the finely counter-pointed dialectic of Jameson’s sentence suggests, this humanization of the world is also profoundly alienating. On the one hand, it is ‘drawn from the fibres of our own being, at one with us in every post-natural cell.’ But on the other, it is also ‘more alien to us than nature itself.’ Things become even stranger and more remote after nature’s end, more impervious to our grasp, more exterior, more recalcitrant and opaque. We are even less at home in this world of our own construction.
If you take the terms of the Clov thesis—that human culture has displaced nature—and invert them, then you arrive at the hypothesis of The World Without Us. The 2007 book of this title by Alan Weisman imagines the condition of the planet following the sudden and total extinction of humans. Rather than the post-natural world, this is the post-human world. Perhaps, as in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, some bio-engineered supervirus exterminates the species; perhaps we are all raptured away, or kidnapped by intergalactic aliens: what then would happen to our world? What would the Earth look like in the absence of any human observer to perceive it? Weisman’s book may not sit entirely comfortably within the generic parameters of climate change fiction: it is, as the back cover of my copy announces, a work of ‘General Non Fiction/Popular Science.’ But it remains a work of fiction inasmuch as it is written under the condition of a generalised subjunctive mood of irreality. Whether implicitly or, as often, quite literally, its sentences are always prefaced by a basic counter-factual premise: if there were no humans on the planet, then…
Visions of the post-human apocalypse have proliferated across the cultural landscape of the last decade or two. Atwood’s recent novels and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are notable literary examples, but the form’s stronghold has undoubtedly been
. Sometimes works with this form offer a redemptive promise of a regenerated humanity, purified in the alembic of an almost total extermination. They sometimes instead hold fast to a conviction of our inescapable finitude. In either case, what these more ostentatiously fictional tales invariably share is that they are presented from the perspective of a sole survivor or minimal group of survivors. Perhaps this reflects their largely unquestioned commitment to a zero-order level of naturalist narrative. They all rely, that is, on retaining a character with whom their audience can identify, some recognisably human personality to act as the representational prism of experience. Weisman’s book dispenses with this limitation, following the hypothetical logic of apocalypse through to its non-human endpoint. It tells the unnarratable story of the dawn with no survivors. As such, Weisman sharpens a paradox that is also at work, if usually somewhat fudged, in these other less formally rigorous accounts of post-apocalypse. This is the paradox of presenting a world that excludes any possibility of its own presentation: of telling a story that refutes the existence of the story-teller. A similar paradox underwrites scriptural authority from the first words of the Bible: ‘In the beginning…’ God later challenges Job: Hollywood
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof;
When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?...
Knowest thou it, because thou wast then born?
Only God can speak with authority on the subject of the universe’s ultimate beginning because only God was then present, pre-existing that beginning. He was already there as the word, as language, which is the reason why this beginning can itself enter into language and be spoken of at all. For scripture, any beginning that includes the coming into being of the human subject cannot be reported by that subject. Only the subject who stands outside all beginning can narrate beginning. All us humans can do is echo God’s narration of that beginning, and we can only do this insofar as we continue to participate in the language that preceded beginning. So the scriptural claim to divine authority—the claim that the words of the Bible were ultimately authored by God—is encoded in the very first words of scripture itself. ‘How can you speak about beginning?’ God asks Job. ‘You weren’t there.’ Job’s only answer is ‘I cannot answer.’ He puts his hand over his mouth, stifling his own speech. To speak of the beginning that preceded him would be to fall into a performative contradiction, to claim a knowledge that excludes himself as a subject of knowledge. And so instead, not wanting to be trapped in a contradiction by God, he wisely keeps schtum. It’s as if he is convinced whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent.
To speak of the world without us is to speak of a parallel condition—that of ending rather than beginning. It is to lay claim to post-mortal knowledge, just as if Job were to answer God, he would have to articulate an impossible knowledge of pre-natality, indeed, of pre-existence. Most post-apocalyptic fictions seek to evade this formal paradox by retaining a subject who endures after the end, someone who can speak to the experience of what properly lies beyond the boundaries of language and experience—the demise of all human society. These evasions are never entirely successful. It seems to me that any unlucky individual who were somehow to survive the generalised extinction would be very unlikely to be able to speak about it in any coherent way. Such a person (or minimal group) would much more probably resemble the characters of Beckett’s Endgame than he or she would the largely sympathetic characters of most contemporary post-apocalyptic imagining. Living in the world without the rest of us, such a person would likely exist, as Adorno suggests, in a post-psychological state akin to torture victims or those suffering from Alzheimer’s, no longer properly capable of symbolic manipulation. The continiuity of experience and the shared community of language that underlie all narration would have been so thoroughly destroyed as to have rendered any communication of this state impossible. Indeed, communication would be quite strictly impossible, for who would the sole survivor be telling her story to, even if she were miraculously still able to speak comprehensibly?
To circumvent this difficulty, nineteenth-century ‘last man’ novels were often given some narrative frame that could help legitimate their communication of a post-human future: they were staged as a dream, for instance, or transmitted via ‘Sibylline’ prophecy, as in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man. Cormac McCarthy’s preference for non-sentences in The Road could be seen as serving a similar function. His repeated elision of verbs, this characteristic refusal to link subject to predicate, fuses present and future in a timeframe of unyielding stasis, as if to foreclose questions about the relation of the future time of the narrative to the present in which it is read. One strength of Weisman’s book is that it stages the paradox of representing the world without us quite explicitly, rather than seeking to escape it through these types of narrational sleight-of-hand.
For Dipesh Chakrabarty, this paradox corresponds to our current understanding of the present as history:
Weisman’s thought experiment illustrates the historicist paradox that inhabits contemporary moods of anxiety and concern about the finitude of humanity. To go along with Weisman’s experiment, we have to insert ourselves into a future “without us” in order to be able to visualize it. Thus, our usual historical practices for visualizing times, past and future, times inaccessible to us personally—the exercise of historical understanding—are thrown into a deep contradiction and confusion. Our historical sense of the present, in Weisman’s version, has become deeply destructive of our general sense of history.
In these terms, the merit of Weisman’s book resides in its formulation of the impossible viewpoint presented by an historical consciousness envisioning the time of its own non-existence. This self-cancelling position is understood to register the crisis of our existing forms of historical knowledge when confronted by the acute awareness of human finitude that climate change imposes on us. For Chakrabarty, the narrative stance of Weisman’s thought-experiment even foreshadows one possible resolution of this conceptual crisis, that of a ‘negative universal history.’ The World Without Us allows us to apprehend our human totality or ‘species-being’ via its absence. We come to recognise what we collectively are by visualising how things would be if we were not.
For Slavoj Zizek, by contrast, Weisman’s book exemplifies a very contemporary form of ideology. Rather than a mechanism for thinking through ecological crisis, the narrative position premised on the impossibility of narration is instead a way of evading our knowledge of this crisis:
This is the fundamental subjective position of fantasy: to be reduced to a gaze observing the world in the condition of the subject’s non-existence—like the fantasy of witnessing the act of one’s own conception, parental copulation, or the act of witnessing one’s own burial, like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. “The world without us” is thus fantasy at its purest: witnessing the Earth itself regaining its pre-castrated state of innocence…the notion of Nature as a balanced and harmonious cycle derailed by human intervention.
Against the posthuman perspective, Zizek sides with Clov, advancing
the thesis of an environmental scientist that, while one cannot be sure of the ultimate result of humanity’s interventions in the geosphere, one thing is certain: if humanity were to stop its immense industrial activity abruptly and let nature retake its balanced course, the result would be total breakdown, an unimaginable catastrophe. “Nature” on Earth is already “adapted” to human intervention to such an extent—human “pollution” being already deeply implicated in the shaky and fragile equilibrium of “natural” reproduction on Earth—that its cessation would cause a cataclysmic imbalance.
Here, the denatured world and the dehumanised world constitute the two logically exclusive alternatives we must choose between. For Zizek, the dehumanised world is an ideological fantasy that masks our real truth, that of the denatured world. The dehumanised world is easily to identify as ideology because it strips out reflexivity from knowledge. It lays claim to knowing the state of the world in the absence of someone to know it. And it does so to serve our contemporary self-deception, to excuse our acknowledging what for Zizek we know about the world but cannot accept—that there is no more nature.
But it is worth noting that this denatured world is also subject to a performative contradiction. For any rigorous formulation of Clov’s thesis necessarily invokes a paradox analogous to that involved in the representation of the world without us, of consciousness looking its non-existence in the eye. In saying that there is no more nature, I presume that there once was, and that I can know this. So my statement entails that I still have access to some element of the non-humanised world, albeit one now present only as past. But if we take Clov’s thesis literally, if we accept that all possible manifestations of the natural world are now in fact artificial marionettes dancing to the still sad music of humanity, if cultural contamination is indeed all-pervasive and inescapable, then not even the past could be said to remain ‘natural.’ Whatever present traces of this lost nature we might find will always betray some human provenance. Walter Benjamin wrote that not even the dead will be safe from fascism if it wins. The end of nature proclaimed by Clov exercises a comparable retroactive re-alignment. The total loss of non-human alterity erodes our capacity to register that loss. A trivial example would be that, if indeed there were no more nature, then it would be impossible to kill a pollution-adapted octopus by immersing it in ‘pure’ unpolluted seawater, as such water would be unobtainable. All the seas would be Marseille. When advanced consistently, Clov’s thesis is paradoxical, canceling out the possibility of the knowledge required for its assertion. Hence
’s reply to Clov in Endgame: ‘No more nature! You exaggerate.’ Hamm
These two paradoxes—the dehumanised world and the denatured world—correspond to the two side of an aporia at the heart of contemporary philosophy that Quentin Meillassoux’s diagnoses in his recent and audacious book After Finitude. On one side, Clov’s thesis aligns with what Meillassoux calls ‘correlationism.’ This is the philosophical position that thought can never get outside itself to encounter the world as it really is. All we can ever know is how the world is for us, not how it is in itself. Indeed, we don’t even possess sufficient reason to say that there is a world out there ‘in itself.’ This is because any thought (or perception or intention and so on) always retains the form and status of a thought. You can’t think your way out of thinking: all you end up with is more thought. For correlationism, the only world we have access to is:
a cloistered outside, an outside in which one may legitimately feel incarcerated… because in actuality such an outside is entirely relative, since it is—and this is precisely the point—relative to us… This space of exteriority is merely the space of what faces us, of what exists only as a correlate of our own existence. This is why, in actuality, we do not transcend ourselves very much by plunging into such a world… Contemporary philosophers have lost the great outdoors, the absolute outside of pre-critical thinkers: that outside which was not relative to us, and which was given as indifferent to its own givenness to be what it is, existing in itself regardless of whether we are thinking of it or not; that outside which thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory—of being genuinely elsewhere.
We are philosophically enclosed in a world we have ourselves unwittingly devised. The outdoors is really inside the human carapace of thought, that all-embracing and windowless anthropogenic sheath.
What provokes Meillassoux’s rupture with correlationism is what he calls ‘ancestrality.’ Empirical science produces knowledge of things that long pre-date any human who could guarantee that knowledge. We can date the origin of the world, for instance, to some 4.5 billion years ago. And for Meillassoux correlationism cannot admit that such statements are literally meaningful. The correlationist response to an ancestral statement is to say, yes, the world began 4.5 billion years ago for us. On the one hand, this statement appears to accept that the world predates thought—this is the basic meaning of ancestrality. But on the other hand, it still demands that the world can only ever be a correlate of thought. It maintains, that is, that the world can only ever be contemporary with the thought that thinks it, but it also maintains that in chronological terms the world long pre-dates that thought. And these two ideas cannot be reconciled. This contradiction is parallel to that involved in Clov’s thesis, that we still somehow retain access to a nature that we no longer have access to. For if we did not retain some access to this nature, how could we know that there is now no more nature to be found? One can imagine
’s response to correlationism, parallel to his riposte to Clov: ‘So I can’t think a world outside of my thinking it? You exaggerate!’ Hamm
The inverse of Clov’s thesis—the world without us—also has its parallel in Meillassoux’s book. For Meillassoux the world without us is in fact the basic premise of scientific knowledge, its bedrock spontaneous realism:
It was science that made it meaningful to disagree about what there might have been when we did not exist, and what there might be when we no longer exist—just as it is science that provides us with the means to rationally favour one hypothesis over another concerning the nature of a world without us… For the truth or falsity of a physical law is not established with regard to our own existence—whether we exist or do not exist has no bearing on its truth.
This is the case, as Meillassoux acutely suggests, even for those notorious quantum processes that are influenced by the presence or absence of an observer, for ‘the very fact that an observer can influence the law is itself a property of the law which is not supposed to depend upon the existence of an observer.’ Science thinks reality as it is in itself, independently of that thought that thinks it. It reveals a world that can do without humanity, laying bare our essential superfluity. And the correlationist response to this scientific realism closely follows the paradox of the world without us that I’ve discussed above. The correlationist says ‘I can’t know what reality would be without me… If I remove myself from the world, I can’t know what would be left.’ There is no sight without an eye to see it, no knowledge without a knower.
Meillasoux’s argument unfolds in a purely philosophical register. He leaves unmentioned the extra-philosophical historical forces that may be informing these philosophical positions in various subterranean ways. What he calls correlationism, for instance, was diagnosed by Lukács in 1923 as the limit imposed on philosophical thinking by capitalism. Meillassoux’s aporia is what Lukács calls the antinomy of bourgeois philosophy: correlationism is how market societies think. Such connections are not explored by Meillassoux. And yet it is striking how closely his survey of the faultline running through the contemporary philosophical landscape corresponds to these two prominent formulations of our contemporary ecological predicament—that of the world without us, and Clov’s thesis about the end of nature. One might be tempted to see this as a second-order correlation: to view correlationism itself, along with its opposite, the scientific world-view, as a form of thought entrenched in the practices that have led to the present and future being conceivable only as a denatured or dehumanised world. And if that is indeed the case, then Meillassoux’s proposed solution to his aporia should be of interest to all those concerned with discovering a way out of our contemporary ecological impasse. The second-order correlation, that is, invites Meillassoux’s post-metaphysical speculations to be translated back into the ecological terms that may be more familiar to readers of this blog.
Meillassoux’s escape from this correlationist/scientific realist bind proceeds from what he terms ‘facticity’—the absence of fundamental rationale for any reality, the final absolute contingency of the existence of any being. We can never demonstrate that any thing must necessarily exist. All ontological arguments (that God necessarily exists, for instance, because we can conceive of him) can be shown to be invalid. Meillassoux ‘absolutizes’ this absence of necessity. We can imagine not just a world without us, but even the lack, the contingency, of that world. The world is no more necessary than we are. And this absence of an ultimate reason, Meillassoux claims, is something we can be certain of—it is a solitary plank of knowledge that survives the otherwise total relativisation of everything we know about the world that is effected by correlationism. The one sure thing we can latch on to, given that we can never think our way out of thinking and across to the thing itself, is that both thought and thing might never have existed, and may indeed cease to exist at any moment. Everything is contingent except contingency itself. ‘Unreason,’ in Meillassoux’s words, is in the things themselves. In a remarkable lyrical passage, Meillassoux spells out the consequences of this position:
If we look through the aperture which we have opened up onto the absolute, what we see there is a rather menacing power—something insensible, and capable of destroying both things and worlds, of bringing forth monstrous absurdities, yet also of never doing anything, of realizing every dream, but also every nightmare, of engendering random and frenetic transformations, or conversely, of producing a universe that remains motionless down to is ultimate recesses, like a cloud bearing the fiercest storms, then the eeriest bright spells, if only for any interval of disquieting calm. We see an omnipotence equal to that of the Cartesian God, and capable of anything, even the inconceivable; but an omnipotence that has becomes autonomous, without norms, blind, devoid of the other perfections, a power with neither goodness nor wisdom, ill-disposed to reassure thought about the veracity of tis distinct ideas. We see something akin to Time, but a Time that is inconceivable for physics, since it is capable of destroying, without cause or reason, every physical law, just as it is inconceivable for metaphysics, since it is capable of destroying every determinate entity, even a god, even God. This is not a Heraclitean time, since it is not the eternal law of becoming, but rather the eternal and lawless possible becoming of every law. It is Time capable of destroying even becoming itself by bringing forth, perhaps forever, fixity, stasis, and death.
What might this entail for ecological thought? That there has never been nature, nor will there ever be, even in a future world without us, the world that will follow the extinction of humans. We are embarked, certain only of uncertainty, travelling on strange seas accompanied by mutant octopuses and other polymorphous monsters (albino alligators!), in which the traces of our own actions are indistinguishable from the terrible dynamism of contingency itself. How might such a vision change our conception of environmental change? How might it change the climate of our times?