Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene

Notes from a talk I gave at CIIS this past March titled “Politics and Pluralism in the Anthropocene”

Here’s the video of the whole panel:


Foucault on Hegel:

“[T]ruly to escape Hegel involves an exact appreciation of the price we have to pay to detach ourselves from him. It assumes that we are aware of the extent to which Hegel, insidiously perhaps, is close to us; it implies a knowledge, in that which permits us to think against Hegel, of that which remains Hegelian. We have to determine the extent to which our anti-Hegelianism is possibly one of his tricks directed against us, at the end of which he stands, motionless, waiting for us.” (Discourse on Language, Inaugural Lecture at the Collège de France, 1970-1971. tr. A. M. Sheridan Smith)

Begin with Hegel’s claim to have achieved absolute knowledge of Spirit, and to at least foreseeing the becoming concrete of this Spirit in the historical, social, and ethical life of the human community.

Marx read Hegel upside down, but still read Hegel. He was a materialist, but a dialectical materialist who recognized the potential of the human spirit, and this potential’s degradation and alienation from itself at the hands of capitalism. Marx tried to shake human beings awake, out of their slumber, out of the false consciousness that commodifies labor, life, and value.

It is not easy to do better than Hegel and Marx in terms of understanding, diagnosing, and prescribing action to overcome the contradictory situation in which humans find themselves as neoliberal capitalist subjects. But the dawning realization that we live in the time of the Anthropocene is fundamentally changing our situation. We can no longer talk about the nonhuman world, about what used to be called “Nature,” as though it was something separate from us, some kind of inert background or stage upon which human history progresses. As good dialecticians, Hegel and Marx fully recognized this entanglement of the human and the physical world, but they did so in a rather anthropocentric way that still presupposed and celebrated the idea of mastering nature. The Anthropocene signals, yes, the end of history, but also the beginning of (or at least the beginning of human recognition of) what Latour refers to as geostory. From Latour’s point of view, Hegel would never have expected our current situation, where Spirit, after its millennial march of dialectical progress, suddenly finds itself at risk of being suffocated, sublated, by carbon dioxide. As Latour describes it, the ecological crisis is pushing us into a profound mutation in our relation to the world. When the world as it has been known to the Western metaphysical project ends, we are left not with no world, but with many worlds. For Latour, politics is the composition of common worlds through the negotiation of differences. Political negotiation cannot be undertaken with the presupposition that unity has somehow already been achieved. If politics fails, we are left with a war of the worlds. A pluralistic politics asks us to forgo the desire for the premature unification of the world, to accept that “the world” has ended and diplomatic negotiation is the only viable way of “worlding.” Ours is always a world-in-process, and any unity we do achieve is fragile and must be continually re-affirmed and maintained.

Latour has been deeply influenced by William James. James positioned his ontological pluralism against Hegel and Marx’s dialectical monisms. William James was appreciative of Hegel, but certainly he was an counter-Hegelian thinker. As far as Marx goes, James was too American to ever fully reject at least the individualist spirit of capitalism, even if he was suspicious of capitalism’s larger cultural impact and its relation to American imperialism. In a letter to H. G. Wells in 1906, for example, James lamented “the moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS.” James thought worship of success, by which he meant money, was “our national disease.” James championed the individual, but an individual who is sympathetic to meeting and being transformed by novel differences, whose selfhood is leaky and perforated by human and nonhuman otherness, whose identity is always in-the-making and open to question and revision.

James on excess: “Every smallest state of consciousness, concretely taken, overflows its own definition. Only concepts are self-identical; only ‘reason’ deals with closed equations; nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into the more; and the only question, with reference to any point we may be considering, is how far into the rest of nature we may have to go in order to get entirely beyond its overflow. In the pulse of inner life immediately present now in each of us is a little past, a little future, a little awareness of our own body, of each other’s persons, of the sublimities we are trying to talk about, of earth’s geography and the direction of history, of truth and error, of good and bad, and of who knows how much more? Feeling, however dimly and subconsciously, all these things, your pulse of inner life is continuous with them, belongs to them and they to it. You can’t identify it with either one of them rather than with the others, for if you let it develop into no matter which of those directions, what it develops into will look back on it and say, ‘That was the original germ of me.’” (A Pluralistic Universe)

James leans strongly in the direction of particular, unique, once-occurrent individuals (even if he does not see individuals as autopoietic, but as sympoietic). In contrast, some historical performances of communism have leaned in the other direction, toward some abstract conception of communal will, and when individuals stood in the way of this abstract will, as we saw in Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China, they were crushed. Our capitalist society claims to prize the individual highest, but it is corporate individuality that we really cherish. We human individuals are mere cogs in the labor machine, and Earth is a store of raw materials and a garbage heap. So either way, in either situation, capitalism or communism, human and nonhuman communities and individuals are in trouble.

Our challenge today, in the Anthropocene, is to think individuality and community concretely, to think relation, difference, and particularity concretely. Normally thinking seeks out universals, essences, substances, and to the extent that the Western metaphysical project has sought out universals, essences, and substances that failed to align with the particular contours of the sensory, social worlds that we inhabit, it has done great violence those worlds. As a result of the failure of our ideas and concepts to cohere with reality—that is, to sympoietically relate to the communities of actual organisms composing the living planet—these concepts have functioned to destroy them. Humans, whether we like it or not, are in community with these organisms, our worlds overlap and perforate one another; we touch interior to interior, my inside bleeding into your inside bleeding into all nonhuman insides. But our subjectivities do not just add up or sum to some seamless Globe-like Mind. Gaia, Latour is constantly reminding his readers, is not a Globe! To the extent that we are all internally related to one another, we form a network of of entangled, overlapping perspectives, where each perspective is still unique and once-occurrent, novel; and yet each is also related to what has come before and will be related to what comes next. We are individuals-in-communion, communities whose wholeness subscends the individuals who compose them. Subscendence is a concept developed by Timothy Morton to refer to the way that wholes, like Gaia, are actually less than the sum of their parts. He calls this “implosive holism” and contrasts it with “explosive holism,” the sort of holism that led Stalin to murder millions of individuals for the sake of the Soviet Union, or that leads some environmentalists to emphasize saving species or even the whole planet without paying enough attention to individual organisms (a species doesn’t feel pain; only individual organisms feel pain, etc.).

So the question becomes, how do we think pluralism, difference, and diversity concretely, and not abstractly. Because when we think particular identities or individuals abstractly, we do violence to them, we try to universalize them in an overly abstract way without being sensitive to their unique contours. This is a form of reductionism. We can reduce individuals “up” to the whole, or reduce them “down” to their parts. Pluralism is trying to find a middle path between both forms of reductionism: It seeks a “strung-along” sort of holism (as James put it), not a global or continuous holism where each thing is connected to everything else in exactly the same way. Instead, as Donna Haraway puts it, “Nothing is connected to everything” even though “everything is connected to something.”

Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping out of a sense of exclusively human society, out of the self-enclosed social bubble that used to insulate us from any access whatsoever to something called Nature, or “the environment” standing in wait “over there” for science to objectify into knowledge or for the economy to commodify into money. Thinking pluralism concretely means stepping outside of the monetary monism of contemporary capitalism, where all value is reduced to exchange value in the human marketplace, to instead become part of a democracy of fellow creatures, as Whitehead puts it, where values pervade the biosphere, and “Nature” is no longer just a realm of inert, law-abiding facts but of creative, expressive agencies. Thinking pluralism concretely means walking out of the old Copernican universe, forgetting the mastery-seeking knowledge supplied by the monotheistic gaze of Science, in order to inhabit a new cosmos composed of infinitely many perspectives, more a pluriverse than a universe.