Thursday, October 20, 2011

Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us and Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude

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 port of Marseille—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.

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 Hollywood. 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:

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 Hamm’s reply to Clov in Endgame: ‘No more nature! You exaggerate.’

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 Hamm’s response to correlationism, parallel to his riposte to Clov: ‘So I can’t think a world outside of my thinking it? You exaggerate!’

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?


  1. The animal’s poetic lie.

    Honestly speaking, nothing is as impenetrable to us as the animal life of which we are a prolongation. Nothing more foreign to the way we see, nothing more inevitable than the earth at the centre of the mute universe, lacking both the meaning humans give things and the meaninglessness of things that aren’t reflected in some consciousness, that no presence ever limits. In fact, we can represent things to ourselves independently of consciousness only arbitrarily, since figuring, since we, necessarily imply beings not being things but reflecting them. No doubt these beings die, life might cease to infest the finally bare universe, wherein only things would remain. Truly, this representation of a total absence of representation passes for knowledge without being knowledge: in fact these objects are claiming to make knowledge out of an absence of knowledge, if not from the objects represented. They are given in consciousness; if not, they lack that alone without which they would not be what they are. I’m expressing a common truth, but animal life halfway from our consciousness proposes a more bothersome enigma. If I represent this universe without humans, where the gaze of the animal is all there is to be opened before things, an animal is neither the thing nor the human, and the representation that I create is also an absence of representation. However, a slipping is possible from the animal to things stripped of meaning, if they are alone in a world filled with meaning, a world ordered by man who makes use of this world or compares those things that he uses to those that are of no use to him. Even at the heart of humanity, a lot of men, having known it from childhood, never attain the defined sense without which they would not know how to question our world, which finds it cohesion in the knowledge that it represents it. The slipping I’m talking about, which passes from isolated things to known things, would not therefore know how to be rejected in any way, but this is where the animal appeared: I never forget this if I talk about it.

    From the beginning, in the difference between the animal and me, the unknowable intermingles with what I know: I know my consciousness, but only insofar as one or more known objects are available to it. This is not to say that there is no consciousness without an object. If this proposition is justified, its bearing is quite narrow: this means that consciousness reveals itself in the first place to itself, as consciousness of an object, or better yet, consciousness only ever reveals objects. In the end, this also means that understanding means understanding objects and that the consciousness that knows would not know itself if it did not first know an object, then itself from outside isolation taken as an object, then this object as other than an object. But the object and nonobject consciousness that I’m talking about is my consciousness inasmuch as humanity determines me. […]

    - Georges Bataille

  2. My apologies, there are two miss-types in one of the above sentences. The sentence should actually read thus:

    "Even at the heart of humanity, a lot of men, having known it from childhood, never attain the defined sense without which they would not know how to question our world, which finds its cohesion in the knowledge that represents it."

  3. For what is in play is the progressive destruction of social relations ruled by value, which is a political phenomena, and not at all economic. Political economy and the political economy of the sign cease to exist, yet lead a secondary existence, in simulation, as a "phantom principle of dissuasion."

    [It's the] End of the dialetic of the signifier and signified which permitted the accumilation of knowledge and meaning, the linear syntagm of cumalitive discourse. [It's the] Simultaneous end of use value and exchange value which alone allowed accumilation and social production. End of the linear dimension of discourse. End of the classical era of the sign. End of the era of production.

    The contention here is that the discourse and critiques of Marxism and semiology cease to have a truth referent in reality. If Baudrillard appears to destroy them, it is only in their existence as simulacra. When all references are shorn from determinist and objectivist sciences, or from the dialectical visions of history and knowledge, then they themselves are reduced to the status of those bygone objects, declined in that past-perfect tense and sustained as alibis for the hyperreal sciences of the third order: genetics, cybernetics and the aleatory mutations of the indeterminacy principle.

    Julian Pefanis, Heterology and the Postmodern, Allen & Unwin, 1991.

  4. "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."

    Anthropogenic sheath, is it? Whatever happened to Gottfried and his darling Monads?

    Not to mention,

    "Philosophy, as you would agree is an intellectual discipline. It is therefore necessarily formal and must work through concepts which seek for clarity and exact definition both in themselves and in their systematic interrelation. It is right to hold firmly to the substantial problems, however metaphysical and elusive, which form the centre of gravity of the philosophic enterprise. It is an important contribution to the progress of the enterprise to trace them to their origins in the strains and stress of personal life. But if this results in the dissolution of the formal structures of traditional philosophy, what is required is the search for a new form which shall be not less but more logical and intellectual than the inadequate forms that have to be discarded... The cultural crisis of the present is indeed a crisis of the personal. But the problem it presents to philosophy is a formal one. It is to discover or to construct the intellectual form of the personal."

    John Macmurray, The Self as Agent, Faber & Faber, 1953.

  5. Which leads me to conclude,

    "In short, the author's judgement is always present, always evident to anyone who knows how to look for it. Whether its particular forms are harmful or serviceable is always a complex question, a question that cannot be settled by any easy reference to abstract rules. As we begin now to deal with this question, we must never forget that though the author can to some extent choose his disguise, he can never choose to disappear."

    Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, University of Chicago Press, 1961.

    The same could of course be said of your humble "critic". Though I'm not quite convince - are you?

  6. Thanks for the comments, Anonymous.

    In his review of Meillassoux’s book, Simon Critchley refers to Bataille’s encounter with A.J. Ayer, a notorious collision of analytic and continental philosophical perspectives that is described in Bataille's essay on un-knowing. The question they discussed at a bar until 3 a.m. was whether there was a sun before humans existed. Bataille argued the correlationist position:

    ‘This proposition is such as to indicate the total meaninglessness that can be taken on by a rational statement. Common meaning should be totally meaningful in the sense in which any proposition one utters theoretically implies both subject and object. In the proposition, there was the sun and there were no men, we have a subject and no object.’

    This position was incomprehensible to Ayer. And so Bataille writes: ‘there exists between French and English philosophers a sort of abyss.’ For Critchley, Meillassoux’s book marks a possible reversal of these long-standing national philosophical affiliations, suggesting the emergence (or resurgence) of realism within the continental tradition. But the long Bataille passage you have pointed to also raises another set of questions, which concern the animal as neither quite object nor subject and as something between naive realism and correlationism—adrift in the English Channel, ‘halfway from our consciousness,’ so to speak.

    It is striking that some of the most prominent animals in recent climate change fiction (and here I’m thinking of Margaret Atwood but also of Will Self) are bio-engineered or geno-morphed creatures shaped as much by proprietary human techniques as by ‘natural’ processes. Striking too in these fictive worlds is the way the consequences of climate change present these animals with the opportunity to display an increasingly ‘human’ and linguistically mediated set of behaviours: love, altruism and self-sacrifice, but also strategy, malevolence and ressentiment. In effect, climate change is figured as the ‘becoming human’ of animal life, as if it marks the point when animals begin to speak back to us.

    This could be seen as a consoling fantasy of the mute world brought to speech to warn us of our hubristic ignorance, like Siegfried coming to understand birdsong. Or it could merely express the banal ethical imperative to own the consequences of our actions (something like this seems to form the crux of Self's novel).

    But the Bataille passage suggests a third reading: that there is a specifically animal mode of experiencing the scrambling of subject and object relations that is set in train by climate change. The Anthropocene, after all, compels an awareness of human biology as geological. It requires us to understand the future of our present species-being as so much limestone desublimated from the atmosphere over the next 100 millennia. What is needed is a structure of feeling that allows us to sense our participation in animal life as a movement towards the icy silences of a world without us, and still to retain some acknowledgement of the absolute foreignness of that animal universe, its irreducibility to human meaning, even as human history transits through it on its way to petrification.

  7. I conjecture Bataille implicating something to similar effect as Feuerbach's, "Der Mensch ist was er isst." Though by Georgy Porgy's account, consciousness construes itself via mediate instrumentality: man determines more through how he feeds (himself), than specifically by what he feeds on - unless, that is, he happens to perchance be feeding on another man and/or woman? In so far as this may be a necessary likelihood, it's difficult to discern a clear distinction between the possibility of a singular exception and the improbabilities of the generally held rule.

    Could our supposed thirst for knowledge be little more than an abbreviated warrant for actual blood?

    (The relative length of the Bataille 'passage' is due to its completeness.)

  8. I'm developing a rather perverse enjoyment of your prolixity, not to mention, your drastically conflated metaphors. So much so in fact that I've decided to ape you (somewhat).

    This opaque, inequitable differential, distinguishes nothing but its own inviability and (virtual) collapse. Hence constitutionally displaced, we habitually disguise and shi(f)t this imminent, erratic concern from ourselves onto our environment. In order to dissuade ourselves of the crucial absence of discernible meaning at the hollow core of the human enterprise we 'paradoxically' situate ourselves in perpetual retreat. Yet however removed and/or remote, human culture by its very origin and projected status, retains a ceaseless and ever remoreless violence, simultaneously to the 'animal' within and those phantasms, our spectral avatars, populating the wildly vague peripheries of our failing existential disambiguation.

    If it helps, you can picture this as a parrot "speaking" to itself in a mirror...

  9. One last thing.

    "What is needed is a structure of feeling that allows us to sense our participation in animal life..."

    Whilst we don't necessarily agree with the subsequent progression of your sentence, the quoted section is worth considering in itself. Though in this instance, only to the extent that 'structure' is superseded by 'deconstruction'; if not specifically appropriate to your evident concern, ‘deconstruction’ in its historical development and use as a critical term more accurately accords with that which we consider to be of immediate, substantial import to the increasingly dialogical tenture of contemporary theoretical involvement.

    We posit that "this quintessence of dust" on and of which you so concretely and compactly prognosticate is nonetheless currently present and most vitally alive; and that being endowed, and in full genetic possession, of the respective 'feeling' on which you so aridly speculate, that the structure of your supposition is self-evidently intentionally mystical and provocatively elusive.

    There's no doubt that we're messing things up. Though surely it isn't inconceivable that we can both gradually and practically desist from continuing doing so, if not exactly now, then, eventually at least. This 'at least' is the cut and dry of it, the veritable rub that must be realized before 'at least' perhaps becomes 'too late'. It must happen now, there is no, "or never".

    It's crucially important that we accurately account the negligence and waste of what we have been doing, so as to realistically acknowledge what we can actually do, how we can effectively (not simply evocatively!) ecologically adapt to our own behaviour/s.

    You dismiss Enlightenment ethics, fine, but regarding what is in fact a tangible given to anybody sensitive enough to be able to discern such intellectual profiteering and devious obscurantism as you profess, the alternative your advocating is tantamount to despicable in our minds. You proffer nothing but empty rhetoric (ah, do we hear the vacuous interstellar reaches becoming?)

    We need to deconstruct our vapid conjecturing, de-densify the dense weave of our intellectual obstinacy. As the fibers release, maybe, just maybe, we can eventually open our eyes and not be horrified at what we actually have been seeing all along. All wonderful world, wild and almost completely beyond our comprehension.

    'This kind of sensitivity is exquisitely delicate. It resembles the perception of a man about to be toppled by winds of gale force, who in one moment will lean forward ever so slightly to brace himself for the next onslaught, and in the next moment bend a little to deflect the head-on force he faces. Unlike the fly who pounds again and again against the windowpane, a man remembers and comprehends the last rush of wind in his attempt to face the next one. So to speak, he negates the mere pastness by creating a new effort in which the meaning of the past is dialectically transformed. The name of this quality is courage, without which time merely buries memory - with it, memory may be transformed.'

  10. Admittedly there are those among us that feel 'despicable' to, perhaps, be too harsh an adjective - not to mention their grammatical distain of the sentence in which it was inadequately utilised.

    As such we make amends by replacing 'despicable' with 'laughable' - though leave the structural ambiguity of the original sentence uncontested, to despairingly play itself out is it may.

    'The very movement in which man negates Mother Earth who gave birth to him, opens the path of subjugation. Human beings abandon themselves to petty despair. Human life is represented then as insufficient, as overwhelmed by sufferings or deprivations which reduce it to ugly vanity. Earth is at its feet like some sort of refuse. Above it the sky is empty. Failing a pride large enough to stand up to this void, it prostrates itself face against the earth, eyes riveted to the ground. And, in fear of deadly freedom of the sky, it affirms between it and the infinite void the bond of the slave to the master; desperately, like the blind man, it looks for a terrified consolation in laughable renunciation.'

    Georges Bataille, Inner Experience, SUNY, 1988.

  11. That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the comfort of the Resurrection

    Cloud-puff ball, torn tufts, tossed pillows flaunt forth, then
    chevy on the air-
    built thoroughfare: heaven-roysterers, in gay-gangs they
    throng; they glitter in marches.
    Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm
    Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and
    Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats
    earth bare
    Of yestertempest's creases; in pool and rut peel parches
    Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches,
    Squadroned masks and manmarks tredmire toil there
    Footfettered in it. Million-fueled, nature's bonfire burns on.
    But quench her bonniest, dearest to her, her clearest-selved
    Man, how fast his firedint, his mark on mind, is gone!
    Both are in an unfathomable, all is in an enormous dark
    Drowned. O pity and indignation! Manshape, that shone
    Sheer off dissereval, a star, death blots black out; nor mark
    Is any of him at all so stark
    But vastness blurs and time beats level. Enough! the
    A heart's-clarion! Away grief's gasping, joyless days,
    Across my foundering deck shone
    A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
    Fall to the residuary worm; world's wildfire, leave but ash;
    In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
    I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
    This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal
    Is immortal diamond.

    Gerard Manley Hopkins

  12. Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul? - Keats