Lectures on Timothy Morton’s “Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People”

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse
(opening lecture)

My Spring course at CIIS.edu finishes up this week with a set of modules on Timothy Morton’s book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (2017). Earlier in the semester, we read works by Plato, William James, Catherine Keller, William Connolly, Bruno Latour, Anne Pomeroy, and Donna Haraway. Below, I am sharing a series of lecture fragments about Morton’s book, as well as a panel discussion formed around the course topics.

Process and Difference in the Pluriverse: Plato, William James, & W.E.B. Du Bois

I’m sharing the lecture from the first module of my course this semester at CIIS.edu, PARP 6135: Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. The lecture discusses Plato’s Republic, William James’ pluralism, and W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical inheritance of James’ philosophy.

Here’s a PDF transcript of the lecture

Process & Difference in the Pluriverse, an online course at CIIS.edu

A trailer for my course being offered this Spring at CIIS.edu.

PARP 6135 Process and Difference in the Pluriverse will explore the ethical, social, political, and ecological implications of process-relational philosophy. You could call it a course in applied or experimental metaphysics. We will read and discuss texts by radical empiricist William James, revolutionary sociologist WEB DuBois, pluralist political scientist William Connolly, process theologian Catherine Keller, philosopher of science Donna Haraway, Gaian sociologist Bruno Latour, and object-oriented ecocritic Timothy Morton. Each in his or her own way brings the process orientation down to Earth by articulating it’s relevance to the struggle for social, economic, racial, and ecological justice.

I hope this course provides a space for us to imagine a more symbiotic future together. I doubt there will be any answers that emerge from what we study together, but I do hope we will get closer to asking the right—that is, the life enhancingcreativity engendering—questions. My goal is to infect your political passions with process-relational ideas, to invite you into the role of philosopher-activist. Activism becomes philosophical (in the process-relational context explored in this course) when it affirms an ethos rooted in relational alterity and creative becoming. Such an orientation provides an antidote to the neoliberal ethos rooted in private identity, property ownership, and wage labor.

“Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic” by Whitney Bauman

“From a planetary perspective, truth is seen as the coconstruction of truth regimes. Our understandings of the world and the technologies of those understandings begin to create those worlds that we are persuaded most toward. In other words, one of the reasons modern science became so pervasive is that its truth regime–including the medical, communication, and transportation technologies derived from its way of understanding–is quite persuasive. It gives us results; it gives us things. However, at no small cost: atomic bombs, environmental ills, species extinction, global climate change, and gross economic inequities are just a few…Every truth regime, and its corresponding habits for becoming in the world, has benefits and costs, and this is what it means to understand truth from a pragmatic perspective. From a planetary perspective, the question is not which truth regime is really real, but rather toward which truth regimes do we want to live? Given the costs of the contemporary truth regime of the globalization of free-market capitalism and its modern scientific technologies, I would argue we need ways of becoming into the future that respect the multiperspectival reality of the becoming planetary community” -Whitney Bauman (p. 61)

I’ve been enjoying Whitney Bauman‘s new book (Colombia University Press, 2014). By developing the ideas of thinkers like Michelle Foucault, Tim Morton, Judith Butler, Catherine Keller, Deleuze and Guattari, Bruno Latour, Carolyn Merchant, Donna Haraway, Zygmunt Bauman, Karen Barad, Terry Deacon, Jane Bennett, Mary Evelyn Tucker, and Gayatri Spivak, he has succeeded in furthering the case for a robust ontological pluralism.

Bauman spends much of the book overcoming the various materialist and idealist reifications of human and nonhuman identity that prevent the world’s sciences and religions from having meaningful dialogue with one another.

In an effort to overcome the colonialist pretenses of Scientific Materialism, Bauman re-interprets Western science as itself a form of “traditional ecological knowledge.” He remains a “naturalist,” however, where nature, as his “all-inclusive term,” includes

“humans, cultures, religions, ideas, imagination, atoms, ecosystems, the earth, the universe, and all other levels of reality. Nature is multiscalar [it consists of multiple levels, none of which can be reduced to the other] and emergent [nature is a process by which ‘new’ levels emerge in the course of planetary and cosmic evolution]. Thus nature is a multiperspectival emergent process…” (25).

Bauman’s goal is to re-politicize both science and religion with the help of a new posthuman planetary ethic. Rather than a search for scientific or religious forms of transcendence, a planetary ethic is satisfied with “an open and becoming immanence” (33):

“This understanding of an immanent and ongoing nature provides a viable option for redefining nature as a transformative political space-time of planetary possibilities rather than a transcendent source for foundational claims” (38).

Rather than going along with the standard Weberian reading of modernity ushering in an age of disenchantment (recounted most recently by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), Bauman follows Latour by arguing that, in effect, we have never been modern. Similar to my reading of modernity (also building on Latour) as a form of “misenchantment,” Bauman writes:

“the enchantment of making the world dead matter is found in the marvels of modern technologies that such a mechanistic truth regime ushers in: the wonder and marvels of skyscrapers, space travel, air travel, the Internet, and the very sciences that emerge out of the mechanistic model of science (even if those sciences contain the ultimate demise of mechanism) are all quite enchanting” (41).

Rather than lionizing the standard heroes of modernization, like Galileo and Descartes, Bauman offers the panpsychic philosophers of immanence Nicholas of Cusa, Giordano Bruno, and Baruch Spinoza as visionaries of an alternative form of modernity. (Along these lines, I also recommend Arran Gare’s essay “Reviving the Radical Enlightenment: Process Philosophy and the Struggle for Democracy“).

The one bone I’d pick with Bauman concerns his desire to entertain the idea that nature is all naturans and no naturata (44-47). Obviously, I’m on board with the idea that nature is creative process, but natural process gives rise to natural products whose relative individuality should be respected. This individuality is always in-the-making and becoming-with others, and so never an “identifiable essence” or reified substantiality. I think some sense of nature natured must be preserved in order not to overlook the particularities brought forth in the course of the creative advance of nature naturing.

Another exciting aspect of Bauman’s thought is the way he explodes substantialist notions of a linear pre-existent/objective space-time by drawing on Barad’s work (Meeting the Universe Halfway). Barad’s “agential realism” construes spaces and times as “intra-actively produced” by a network of human and nonhuman agents, rather than determinately given once and for all (55). Similarly, the so-called “laws” of nature are re-read as tendencies or “pathways, scripts, or habits that get performed” (58).

Bauman preserves a role for polydox theologies after the death of God by reconstructing theology along poetico-imaginative lines. Theopoetic projections are part of what it means to be human, the meaning-making species par excellence. Further, our theopoems are as much introjected as they are projected: we may be the inventors of our gods, but what creator has ever been left untransformed by his or her creation?

Bauman comes down hard on liberal notions of identity and monogamous family structure. To overcome capitalism, we will need to realize that “identities are all messy assemblages”; we will need to become multiple, hybrid, queer:

“Our subjectivities are multiple in that we are made up of many human and earth others: histories, societies, actions, earth, air, water, fire, other molecules, other plants and animals. We are quite literally not the creators ex nihilo of our own identities, but we are created by multiple earth others. In a very real sense, we cannot cut off our understandings of the self from the whole 13.8-billion-year process of cosmic expansion and 4.5-billion-year process of geoevolution…From this perspective, perhaps planetary technologies of becoming will encourage us to think with earth others–and think with the in-between rather than as isolated thinking things” (120)

“It is not just that we are made of histories and biologies of evolving plants, animals, and minerals, nor that we will become part of future plants, animals, and minerals. Rather, it is that these companions literally make up our multiple, evolving, and open subjectivities. Just as queer theory recognizes our subjectivities as always already multiple, so from a radical materialist perspective we can say that our embodiments are always already multiple. As such, our agency is not just the agency of the Cartesian skin-encapsulated ego, nor are our thoughts and emotions our own. Our actions, thoughts, and emotions are always multiple. They involve multiple histories of planetary becomings or communities of plants, animals, and minerals, all of which are evolving beyond their own boundaries and diffracting into proliferations of subject-objects” (155).

Bauman’s prescriptions are not easy pills to swallow for middle class white people who belong to the elite 1/5th of the world (or really for any of the “global mobiles,” those of us in “the West” who live in a bubble floating atop the rest of the human population, the “immobile locals”). But perhaps our times call for strong medicine.

Thoughts on Tim Morton on the Ecological Emergency

HERE is a recent interview of Tim Morton I found over on Knowledge-Ecology. I’ve made some notes while listening:

I absolutely love what he is saying. Really, I dig it. His ontology has style, and I don’t just mean he is rhetorically skilled and so persuasive to us as subjectivities, I mean he has tapped in to the semantic subtext of reality itself. He’s plucking the harp strings of the world. He is speaking as earth’s flower, from the inside of this thing being whatever reality is becoming. He is not outside the world pondering nature, thinking about it without feeling as it. He thinks nature as nature thinking. His metaphors (metapherein in Gk.). express a sense of thinking with and through nature, a nature no longer hidden from itself beneath the traumas of collective human history but conscious of its own destiny. That destiny, even if we learn to live with the earth through the current geological transformation, is still ultimately individual death and collective extinction. Even if life on earth survives for another 5 billion years, at that point, the sun will commit cosmic suicide, taking all the planets with it into the dark abysses of elemental gravitation. In those dark spaces, what once were the metals of mars, earth, venus, and mercury will  re-center themselves around a new spinning orb of nuclear light. The atoms who escape the death of our solar system will shine again as the life of some future system. Thinking this transformation of the substance of our being through deep cosmic history is perceiving hyper-time. Death no longer represents a problem in need of a solution, it is simply a return to oneness with the world we only thought we’d lost while alive. Only getting over the death anxiety that drives modern industrial civilization will get us through this ecological emergency.

It’s not that history has already ended, says Morton; its that it is just beginning. If it didn’t start in 1790 when the first layer of carbon was laid down over the crust of the planet, then it was on July 16, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated.

Cause and effect are spooky. We don’t know how they connect because there is a crack in the universe. Contradiction seeps in through this crack in the real to give it life. This isn’t a life opposed to death, it is the undying and ever-born becoming of things themselves.

Reason isn’t necessarily human. Philosophers knew this in the 1790s. Politicians and capitalist have been slower to catch on. Icy reason, for its own sake, makes atom bombs and Vicodin. The human is not special. The whole universe is in a human situation, not just our species.

“Ecology must mean making friends with death.”

An overwhelming conversation indeed.

Tim Morton lecturing on object-oriented poetry.

Romanticism 20: Keats and Shelley and OOO.

I’m reminded of an earlier reflection on Whitehead’s and Schelling’s process ontology of organism and the principle of non-contradiction.

Keat’s Ode on a Grecian Urn.

Knowledge Ecology on an Object-Oriented Ecology, and some reflections on substance

Adam Robbert over at Knowledge-Ecology has posted a great piece on his conception of an object-oriented ecology. He draws primarily from Graham Harman, Tim Morton, and Isabelle Stengers. I’m re-posting my comment to him below:

Really well written, Adam. You’ve definitely provided an outline for a robust OOE. I agree with your assessment that it promises to overcome the various “-centrisms” hampering other approaches to environmental ethics.

My one concern is the idea of substance in OOO. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but in short, I wonder why we need to bring back substance in order to secure the notion of withdrawal when a process ontology already secures it quite well. Objects withdraw even from themselves, which suggests to me that objects are not fixed substances of any kind, but concrescual occasions perishing into objective immortality just as they open into subjective novelty. Objects are not substances, but subject-superjects. An object’s withdrawal is constituted by the subjective pole of its concrescence, which hides from the environment of the object, and from the object’s own habitual prehension of its past.

Instead of talking of “real” v. “sensual” qualities, I prefer to take Schelling’s route, wherein both the dark and the luminous aspects of entities are equally real:

“Every entity,” writes Schelling,

“everything that is, wants to be in itself and out of itself at the same time. It wants to be in itself inasmuch as it posits or collects itself together as what-is [als Seyendes], as a subject; to this extent it opposes development and expansion. It wants to be out of itself inasmuch as it desires to be what it is in itself once more, and hence externally. In the first case, it is something withdrawn by itself, which sets itself in opposition to what is outside of it; but it sets itself in opposition only in order to reveal and declare itself against this outside as what it is in itself. It cannot, therefore, remain in this withdrawn condition” (Ages of the World).

In short, a process ontology polarizes what Harman et al. seem to dualize. The essence of an object is no more withdrawn than it is apparent; it is essentially the budding pulsation which includes both as moments in its concrescence. With Schelling/Whitehead’s position, we get everything useful about OOO without the, to my mind, unnecessary dichotomy between real and sensual. Perhaps I am just oversimplifying Harman’s position, however.