Towards a “Thermopolitics” (question for Levi Bryant)

Levi Bryant just posted on what he is calling “thermopolitics.” He wants to shift the discourse in philosophy away from its exclusive focus on linguistic analysis and the critique of ideological superstructures toward the energetics of the universe that provide the condition for their possibility.

Bryant writes:

This is not a metaphor.  At this very moment as I write this post I am both burning calories and fossil fuels.  This blog post is– as Negerastani might put it –ultimately “solar”, in that all of that energy is ultimately captured from sunlight, is ultimately transformed sunlight, concentrated sunlight, like the orange concentrate you buy at the supermarket, that was first transformed into a solid by plants, and then other solids whether in the form of fossil fuels or in the form of animal bodies that ate these plants.  All living and social being is solar in its origin.

I can definitely get behind Bryant’s call for a thermopolitics. We are all children of the Sun, indebted to its self-immolating generosity. But then what is energy, anyway? After several hundred years, techno-science has achieved wonders through the instrumental mastery of energy. But what is it? How is it that the energy studied by physics becomes the libido studied by psychologists? If we are to take thermopolitics seriously, don’t we also need an account for how free action is possible in a world described by physics as (at least statistically) deterministic? If it is all just the playing out of the laws of thermodynamics, where is there any room left over for politics? It seems to me you want to marshall a discourse surrounding energy on behalf of a movement for political liberation. But for this to make any sense, aren’t we going to need to define energy in a more general, perhaps more speculative way than the instrumental definitions of physicists?

Even the Christian mystic Teilhard de Chardin granted that “To think we must eat.” “The highest speculation and the most burning love,” he continues,

must be coupled with, and must be paid for by, an expenditure of physical energy, as we know too well. Sometimes we need bread; sometimes wine, sometimes the infusion of a chemical element or hormone; sometimes the stimulus of color; sometimes the magic of sound passing through our ears as a vibration and emerging in our brain in the form of an inspiration…But on the other hand, so many different thoughts come out of the same piece of bread! Just like the letters of an alphabet, which can produce incoherence as well as the most beautiful poem ever heard, the same calories seem to be as indifferent as they are necessary to the spiritual values they nourish.” (The Human Phenomenon, p. 29-30).

Teilhard is committed to the rejection of any dualism between physical and spiritual energies, and he dismisses the idea that these two might somehow transform one into the other. He ends up articulating a form of evolutionary panexperientialism, which rests on the same family of process ontologies articulated in detail by Bergson and Whitehead. There is plenty to be suspicious of in Teilhard’s thermopolitical framework, but nonetheless, he recognizes the profundity of the problem.

Here is Teilhardian evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme relating the thermodynamic expenditure of the Sun to the ethical life of human beings:

For more on Teilhard’s contribution to a thermopolitics, see my essay Seeing With Teilhard: Evolution and the Within of Things. Also see my short essay on the thermodynamics of capitalism and Burning Man.

[Addendum (1/19/2014)] Having heard from Bryant that I misrepresented his position, I should probably amplify my statement above that I fully agree with him regarding the need to focus not simply on semiopolitics (discursive regimes/ideological illusions, etc.), but also on thermopolitics. To be clear, Bryant wasn’t claiming that semiopolitics should be ignored in favor of a focus on the energetic basis of discursive practices. I don’t think I implied this in my initial response and question for him. My question has to do with how we are to think about the relationship between human meaning-making and physical energetics. Bryant has dismissed both the Peircean pansemiotic and the Whiteheadian panexperiential approaches to this question, which is why I am curious to know how he avoids an unscientific dualism.

I was first clued into the physical/energetic dimension of global capitalism by Alf Hornborg’s The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001). Reading his book lead me to write this long essay on the relationship between mechanistic biology, thermodynamics, and techno-capitalist economics.

The Ethics and Esotericism of Eating

Bourdain says the analogy between animal and human flesh (PETA: “you eat cow, eh? so would you eat human meat, too?”) is the last irrational wail of the animal rights activist. His response: “If I were two weeks out on the life boat, hell yeah I would!” Gill then makes an especially poignant response about how we are all already eating other people (their labor, their emotional well-being, their air and water, etc.). He then says, if he is honest, he really doesn’t give a fuck about animal suffering.

I am left wondering if these popular chefs/food critics are not consciously parodying themselves. I can only hope that they are at least aware of the way that their big media personas reflect the decadence and ethical decay of consumer capitalist society, with its autistic ‘relationship’ with the rest of the community of life on earth.

I ate a turkey sandwich for dinner. I can’t justify it ethically. Not only my eating the turkey flesh, but my eating a “product” (a living creature) produced in an unsustainable industrial factory. Plants receive their energy directly from the Sun, and when we eat them, we are eating the light of our local star at only one remove. Animals receive their energy from plants and other animals, two or three levels removed from the Sun’s physical energy. In an esoteric sense (which for me has a lot to do with Rudolf Steiner), the situation might be construed this way: Eating other animals, as some humans and non-humans do, is eating a being who was ensouled. This behavior seems to me to represent the confusion of a spiritual with a physical reality. Christians might call this the Fall. In some ways, however, I think “the Fall” was evolutionarily inevitable, at least if you take a Teilhardian perspective on evolution. Life has always been hell bent on complexification, a process wherein matter continually transcends itself by adding new organismic rungs to its thermodynamic ladder to heaven. Bacteria began by eating the solar-and earth-heated chemicals around them, then quickly graduated to eating other bacteria, which then hitched a ride in the guts of larger protists who ate them, who in turn supported larger and more neurologically complex creatures who ate them, and so on… Matter “cried out and raised itself to spirit” (as Hegel put it, echoing Luke 19:40) by learning to more effectively (i.e., symbiotically) eat itself.

Nonetheless, the industrial diet cannot be justified. It has taken the necessary carnage of the evolutionary process and exploited it to produce an unsustainable amount of surplus gustatory pleasure. It misses the mark that evolution is aiming at (i.e., it is sinful). Unlike plants, which do not have an astral body (as Steiner calls the soul) and feed only on the locally supplied light of our planet’s star, animals feed (spiritually) also on the light of distant (in space and time) extraterrestrial stars. When we eat animals, we are killing not only the work of our local parents (the Sun and the Earth), but also the work of our great, great grandparents, our eternal ancestors in heaven. The non-chalant eating of animals (raised and killed industrially) is not only physically unsustainable and biologically unethical, but also spiritually blasphemous.

Ecology of Mind, Economy of Play, Energy of Delight

Meaning is infinite because language is indefinitely recursive, because “world” is a word, such that “word” has no world to refer to. Words refer only to themselves, except Yours, your Name, who is the Word but mustn’t know it. “Reality” is a word referring to a set of alphanumeric-audiovisual symbols inherited from an ancient alchemical cult. Sense is infinite because even as we reach out and touch the world, it continues to recede away from us, to withdraw from our ears and eyes into darkness behind a veil beyond the silence of all horizons. The sensory world is sublime, infinite. “Nature” is our differentiated hyperbody, our shared space of bioeconomic (re)production and cosmopolitical (re)action.

9macrina9:

From Means to Ends, From Work to Play, From Number to Pneuma

When was the day that money became an idol instead of an instrument? Was it August 15, 1971, when Nixon shocked the world by erasing the Gold Standard, thereby unilaterally making the value of the US Dollar the standard of the world economy? Or was it in the waning months of 2008, when the central banks of the industrialized nations purchased $2.5 trillion of debt from certain corrupt institutions operating in the private sector (the largest single transfer of wealth in the history of the world)? When was it, exactly, that money became the lifeblood of our civilization? I ask not to condemn this elevation of the symbolic above the material, but only to wonder at what will become of it once the material can no longer provide what the symbols demand of it. The human economy has almost entirely detached itself from the earth economy. Economics has been designed as if human civilization were a closed system capable of perpetual motion. In reality, the technoindustrial machine within which our daily lives take place must seek out ever-increasing amounts of exergy (usable energy) extracted from the non-human and human environment (in the form of oil, coal, minerals, labor, knowledge, etc.) in order to sustain its constant growth. The earth system is not “external” to the human economy; the human economy is within the earth economy.

Perhaps it does not matter when money became an idol. It may be more important to recognize how it is that such a fetish is able to take root and sustain itself in the collective psyche. To do this, let us examine the categories through which we perceive the world we live in. Most fundamentally, the postmodern person relates to the larger world and greater society mediated by monetary instruments. This mediation takes place primarily in the workplace. Work, above all else, defines the individual’s life in the techno-industrial capitalist system. Among the first questions asked in polite conversation among newly aquatinted strangers is “what do you do?,” as in “what do you do for work?” Work is what earns us money, and money is what makes the world go round. Or so it seems.

Even in physics, the very stuff, or process, out of which everything is “made”–that is, energy–is defined in socioeconomic terms as the ability to do work. Wouldn’t it make more sense–and in fact, wouldn’t it have world-shaking effects–to redefine energy as the ability to play and to creatively reproduce?

Why would it make more sense to say this? Because energy, as Blake put it poetically, is eternal delight; which is to say that energy is not merely the mechanical transfer of force, but the spiritual and emotional conveyance of value.

How would an economy of play work? This has always been the question, if energy is truly disporting in its own light. The human economy has never truly separated from the earth, though it may have made the pretense of such a separation the basis of an imperial fantasy. How can money continue to breath life into the human adventure if its value is detached from the cosmos, from something alive and real? How can merely working for a living motivate us to wake up and bring forth civilization each morning? The ends of all work should always be to secure more time to play. Money is not an end in itself, unless it has become an idol. Working for money is worshiping a false idol. No amount of money or number of notes will ever buy us the pneumatic gnosis we seek.

Physical and Spiritual Energy

Energy. The science of thermodynamics defines it as the ability of a physical system to do work. But in the case of a human being, how does this work relate to the conscious experience of the person performing it? That is, what is the relationship between physical and spiritual energy?

We might start trying to answer this question by comparing gravity and love. Gravity is the physical equivalent of love, giving matter an attraction to itself. Love is often said to be fallen into, much like apples fall from trees. But what is it about the love shared by humans that makes it discriminatory, whereas matter always falls at first sight? Why do people love selectively?

It may seem that this added element of choice and freedom is what distinguishes physical from spiritual energy…

But is love really a choice? Aren’t we, when transfixed by the eyes of another, drawn toward them out of necessity?

Love, like gravity, is the Law.

No one can transgress it without great harm, but such harm is also the engine of involution. Gravity has a counter-balancing force: call it flight. In spiritual terms, flight is the desire to form a face of one’s own, to rise above the melded masses of our ground and home to become a figure, free and known.

Love brings us together, while fear chases us apart. But faces formed by fear are known only when loved. Your own face is invisible until faced with another, when it glows with the warmth of recognition.

Physical energy is the fear that spiritual energy focuses into love, turning round its run away from home.