Claire Colebrook

The Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Volume One

    2. The Sustainability of Concepts: Knowledge and Human Interests

    Climate change studies—a burgeoning field prompted by government research initiatives and academic opportunism as much as by the impending crises associated with global warming and resource depletion—is, in general, formed by combining the ‘hard’ sciences (geography, geology, physics, biochemistry, biology and genetics) with the social sciences (geography again, psychology, political science, demographics, sociology and economics). As a consequence of most major research institutions having produced some type of climate change research network the humanities, too, are beginning to contribute to understandings of the problems presented by climate change. Before considering why any simple inclusion of the humanities in climate change studies needs to be questioned, I would like to open a series of considerations.

    First, the combinations of the hard sciences and human sciences that make up climate change studies—even though interdisciplinary research networks bring these sciences together—keep the disciplinary borders of various fields in place. There are, of course, some sciences—geography, psychology—that are in part both hard and social sciences, but even this division within the subject presupposes something like the idea of a human science. That disciplinary distinction, as Michel Foucault argued in The Order of Things, is not simply a division of labour that takes a single subject such as nineteenth-century natural history and then divides the same practices of gathering information into different disciplines: what counts as true or false alters dramatically, with the very idea of a distinction between hard science and social or human science creating ‘man’ as a distinct object of knowledge (Foucault 1970). Foucault argues, for example, that we cannot see natural history as simply preceding biology or the science of life. Nor can we read Adam Smith’s theory of wealth as leading seamlessly to economics; nor can we see theories of grammar as similar in type to the social science of linguistics.

    To understand how these new disciplinary distinctions create a curious new object of knowledge—man—we can take our lead from the present. Even popular economic theories, such as Freakanomics (Levitt and Dubner 2005), or the Chicago school theories that directly influence government policy (Overtveldt 2007) presuppose a certain concept of man. Either—as Freakanomics theories posit—we constantly miscalculate the effects that our ‘choices’ will have on our well-being (by being lured into paying more for our daily coffee if only we can be seduced by a special offer that will create a habit); or, we are naturally competitive and self-interested animals who, if left to themselves, will allow the most efficient players to rise to the top while the muddling remainder of the population can benefit from economic prosperity in general. What economics as a social science assumes is a ‘subject of interests’ (Montag 2009): it is not sufficient just to look at relations among goods and prices but also to have some notion of human behavior, especially if the operations of human behavior are not immediately apparent to humans themselves.

    Questioning the extent to which capitalism presupposes normative concepts of the self is hardly new. C.B. Macpherson’s 1962 classic theory of possessive individualism is perhaps now widely accepted, with the concepts of the free individual or the level playing field now recognized as being barely veiled assertions of liberal market norms. What is slightly more nuanced, and not so widely acknowledged, is not the critique of liberal normativity but the shift from the normative to the normal. If behavior is based not so much on (even implicit) regulatory ideals regarding the proper life that one ought to live, but more on some preceding and determining life, then the mode of decision or axiology shifts from self-determination to alignment—bringing human existence into accord with the life of which it is an expression. We tend to explain human actions by appealing to some prior logic of life from which they emerge. There is a shift from assessing human action according to its manifest sense to regarding ‘man’ as a strangely doubled animal who is the outcome of a longer history of life processes that he can only dimly discern. And yet man is also able to read and interpret the life of which he is an effect. In this respect certain historical theses—ranging from MacPherson’s claim that the supposed neutral individual of capitalism is in fact the outcome of a specific politico-economic historical period, or Louis Dumont’s argument that modern homo economicus needs to be explained anthropologically—rely on some ultimate horizon (history, anthropology) that would gather and explain human positivity. Foucault (1970) agued that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations of 1776 explained how human interaction produced commodities, how these could be exchanged, and how a system of circulating goods produced an overall stability and system that benefited all concerned (Smith 1976). When Karl Marx forms a theory of labor the life or species being of the human animal is added to the way questions are posed: why, we might ask, do human beings labor and enter into exchange? For Marx the answer presupposed man’s species being: we must labor, collectively and with the help of technology, in order to meet our needs. This, in turn, explains the existence of ideology for there are forces that determine the relations we establish to each other—forces of production that place some bodies in greater servitude to production than others. The very concept of ideology in its Marxist sense—not what we believe but belief as grounded in a preceding and hidden life—relies upon situating the human species in a collective history that originates from an initially life-serving aim. These initial forces determine our social being, even if they are not directly experienced, and are capable of being interpreted only after the fact. Marx’s theory of ideology, in a manner shared by social or human sciences more generally, relies upon interpreting the way in which we live our social relations: what we experience as natural—that I go to work for an employer who pays me for my time—needs to be understood as the outcome of a historical process whereby those in command of the means of production that will ultimately reduce human effort (factory owners, for example) are capable of buying the labor of other individuals from whom they profit (Foucault 1970, 257). The human sciences, such as economics, do not just chart the circulation of goods (as did Adam Smith’s theory of wealth) they presuppose something like human interests that can explain systems of exchange.

    Second, this production of ‘man’ in the human sciences would also yield the possibility of the humanities. Not only would we have social sciences looking at the mechanisms of ‘life, labour and language’ (Foucault 1970, 345) through which social systems are effected, we can also have humanities disciplines that would be interpretive in their examination of human cultural production, and would also presuppose ‘man’ as an historical, social and productive animal. Anyone working in a literature department today may well recognize that Foucault’s notion of literature—a mode of human production not grounded in purposiveness or a theory of human function—has well and truly been overtaken by logics grounded on a normalizing theory of man, whether that be a theory of literature as ideology (allowing for smooth social functioning and the reproduction of capitalist social relations) or a theory of narrative and story-telling as a human survival mechanism (or so literary Darwinism would claim). Foucault, referring to the knowledge practices of his own day, was critical of some of the key discourses that made up the humanities, such as phenomenology, structuralism and psychoanalysis (Foucault 1970, 355). These approaches would examine cultural production while presupposing what Foucault referred to as man as an ‘empirical-transcendental’ double. Man is empirical—a being whose language, social relations and bodily habits are determined by the material relations he must take up in relation to his environment and others; but man is also a being who can analyze those material forces and thereby ‘read’ the ways in which he has come to be the specific social being that he is. Psychoanalysis, for example, will argue that we can only exist and live if our desires take on some acceptable, socially-sanctioned form; we can, however, always read these socialized forms to discern something like desire as such. (Other less humanizing or organic forms of psychoanalysis would not ground desire in the function of man as a social animal, but Foucault’s target was a psychological form of psychoanalysis, one grounded on a desire that would be explicable according to the human animal as a self-furthering and survival-oriented being). Phenomenology, also, insists that we exist only insofar as we make sense of ourselves and our world; we need to see all that we do—from daily habits to great artworks—as a mode of world-production. Structuralism, too, regards language, culture and social relations as a product of a transcendental need for ordering: the specific forms of social ordering are empirical (or to do with how this or that social formation comes into existence); but the requirement that there be some mode of ordering is necessary or transcendental—characterizing any and every culture.

    We can pause and look at how these first two considerations—both involving normalizing theories of man—open up questions for climate change studies. For it is not just that we address questions of climate on the basis of certain values, including assumptions regarding market viability and social fairness; it is also the case that we adopt normalizing forms of reasoning and calculation, both assuming that individuals may act more benevolently towards the climate (and future others) if narratives can be formed that are sympathetic and coherent, and that the values of survival and the future are shared by all humans here and now. There is also division of labor between the predictive hard sciences concerned with climate change research and data, and the interpretive projects of the humanities.

    How does the distinction between the physical sciences and moral sciences not only alter the way we approach climate change (as something with a physical base that may affect different humans differently) but produce the very concepts through which we think about ways of tackling climate change? First, as long as we assume something like the possibility of a social science, in its distinction from hard sciences, we will not only have a bifurcation between data (such as the evidence yielded by the earth sciences for global warming) and social impact (such as the work done by social geographers who gauge how gender, class and race produce disproportionate and unequal impacts of climate change); we also presuppose a subject of interests. That is, it is assumed that there is a physical world of material forces and constraints and that this physical world is the milieu, environment or climate within which we are located. The concept of climate may be the most telling of all, deriving from concepts of surface and habitation, when in fact what ‘climate change’ indicates is that there is not a distinct milieu that we can observe and manage but a mesh of overlapping, divergent, interconnected and dispersed systems with certain factors such as clouds and even human hope itself, operating in two directions at once: too much hope and we don’t act, not enough hope and we don’t act; clouds may both increase and lessen global warming, trapping or deflecting. But rather than consider the dispersed, diverging, multiple and incongruent forces of multiple planes (where economics, politics, technology, knowledge and industry operate by divergent timelines and logics) the concept of climate reinforces the sense of ‘a’ milieu or habitus. Climate change would therefore refer to a material and physical locale that may be treated as material resource for goods and data (by the physical sciences) or as a restraining and determining condition that will alter how we produce our world and our polity (by the human sciences). The word ‘climate’ originally refers to a specific region, indicating different modes of human life, but once we refer to ‘climate change’ and have something like the climate, we also generate the concept of something like humanity in general. That is, if we now have something that is not a specific ‘clime’ or territory but a single condition for all living beings then there is also something like a general concept of life that comes to be threatened.

    Second, this leads to the specific possibility of the humanities. This possibility might seem, at first glance, to produce something quite distinct from either the physical being of the hard sciences or the social systems of the human sciences. If political theory, economics and sociology can examine the impacts of climate change and climate change policy on different nations, social groups, ethnicities and gender—and if these social sciences can also explain non-physical aspects of climate change, such as the needs of developing nations and peoples to maximize production without being able to afford strategies of mitigation—what they cannot do is examine the meaning of climate change: how it is lived by ‘us’ and what modes of understanding and cultural production led to climate catastrophe and disdain for the environment upon which we depend and which also produces us as the beings that we are. This is where the humanities may, and has, entered climate change studies. One might even argue that the humanities has always taken the form of climate change studies: has always asked what humanity or ‘the human’ is such that it may have come to treat its own milieu as so much raw material for profit, consumption and energy maximization and not as a body worthy of care. The humanities, we might say, has always considered the earth as climate or environment—the home of our being, or our unavoidable terrain and surround—and never as mere stuff, matter or potential energy. The humanities originates both in a unified sense of the human, and in a commitment to the cultural, historical and textual variability of humanity across time and space. In a humanizing mission, reacting to the disenchantment of the world by the supposed ‘hard’ sciences, the humanities open a space for human variability. This humanizing motif occurs as early as the first formulations of English Studies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, concerned to develop a moral framework in an increasingly secularized and disenchanted world, and is reiterated—today—in various calls for the humanities to be led by life and praxis against the mechanizations of globalization and capitalism (Baldick 1983; Bérubé and Nelson 1995). By the time the humanities explicitly take up these concerns of eco-criticism or environmental philosophy it has a wealth of material to draw upon that would demonstrate that we are, primarily, ecological beings. The humanities could not do without the ecological motif, or the commitment to historical cultural variation across a comparative and meaningful plane. By the time universities form explicit networks for climate change studies there is already a demarcated niche for the humanities: neither assuming the brute facts of the world, nor dealing with humans statistically in the manner of the human sciences, the humanities nevertheless presupposes a ground of life that expresses itself in human self-creation.

    On the one hand environmental philosophy—even though generalizing this area covers over many complexities—reacts critically to the fundamental concepts that are deemed to constitute Western metaphysics. The idea that we are self-determining ‘subjects’ whose relation to the world is one of representation (knowledge) or use (with the world as mere raw material) needs to be supplanted by a relation of care, concern or respect. The humanism and anthropocentrism that have marked Western thought need to give way to a new relation to the environment. This would not be a shift in the value we attribute to the planet and atmosphere that is our home; it would not be a question of valuing the environment more, or of granting it greater worth, importance or significance. We would require what Nietzsche referred to as a transvaluation of values (Nietzsche 1968). Rather than generating values on the basis of instrumental reason or utility—rather, that is, than assuming that the worth of an object or action is gauged by how much it furthers our own purposes—we would criticize means/ends rationality. We would not assume that all valid means are justified if they serve to maintain humanity in its current mode. We would, at the very least, consider values as if from a point of view different from that of ‘man.’ This would occur if, for example, we granted non-humans (animals, trees, ecosystems) rights, or if we questioned the concepts of rights and entitlement and instead developed values of mutual care, concern and deep ecological connectedness. On the other hand, while insisting upon the need to alter the very structure of our thought away from instrumental (or use-oriented) and cognitive relations to the world in which we live, eco-criticism has already uncovered an implicit and long-running awareness of a complex relation to nature that might be unearthed in canonical literature (Bate 1991; Bate 2000). Despite a manifest assumption that humans are given the world as so much available property, eco-critical readings can show the ways in which there has always been an awareness that the earth is not mere matter, but an environing and meaningful place that is as much constitutive of our sense of self as we are of the significance it has for us. Again, like environmental philosophy, eco-criticism cannot be reduced to a common set of principles. What can unify both these ways in which the humanities disciplines have anticipated current attempts to approach our climate differently is both their target and some of their key concepts. What is targeted is the notion of human beings as self-sufficient and primarily rational agents whose relation to the world is ideally one of disinterested or disenchanted knowledge; the use of key concepts, ranging from environment and ecology, to the privileging of place over space, along with concepts of care, concern, indebtedness and most importantly life also serve to move from a philosophy based on individuals and matter to a mode of thought that is more relational, more sympathetic and ultimately more concerned with meaning. That is to say, there is never a world as such, in itself, that we then have to manage and quantify, for ‘we’ exist and have a sense of ourselves only insofar as we have a specific place that is always embedded in, and generative of, an entire world of possible futures (which involve other timelines and potentials beyond ourselves).

    Perhaps the strongest mode of this critical relation to Western knowledge takes the form of James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, where he insists that not only is it not a question of taking up a different attitude to nature, it is also imperative that ‘nature’ no longer be seen as a distinct object that would be more worthy of our care. On the contrary, the Gaia hypothesis presents the world as a single organism, so that human life would not be placed within the world, or in relation to the world, for human life would be just one aspect of an intricate, complex, dynamic, interacting and homeostatic system (Lovelock 1979). The Gaia hypothesis was formulated to challenge conventional ways of thinking about humans and their relation to the environment. It suggests that any adequate response to climate change would require a radical reassessment of our conceptual terrain.

    We might, then, consider some of the key terms that orient climate change policy, ranging from ‘cap and trade,’ adaptation and mitigation to sustainability and viability. These terms remain managerial and instrumental. Cap and trade is, of course, an explicit adoption of a calculative framework. Policy and negotiations focus on a single variable (carbon emissions) despite the volatility and complexity of factors that the physical sciences have consistently demonstrated to make up the problems of climate change. The very notion of trading carbon emissions—that as long as a payoff is made somewhere or by someone then further destruction can be sanctioned—not only (again) places human response in the mode of homo economicus, it also precludes any genuine thought of the future. If carbon emissions can be managed, traded, and held at ‘acceptable’ levels then we fail to confront the scientific evidence that indicates that even a halt in current carbon emissions would leave a tailing effect that would continue to wreak havoc; continued trade in emissions presupposes that the future will be different in degree, or a continuation of the present, and not different in kind. There is something anaesthetizing in the idea of trading carbon emissions and allowances: as though something like an economy were at work, an enclosed system of more and less, and not—as is becoming apparent—a future that will be unmanageable and have entirely different terms. One might make a similar remark about the concepts of sustainability, adaptation, mitigation and viability. Sustainability assumes the value of continuity: if one changes it is only insofar as is required in order for human life to continue, an implication that is less subtly contained in the strategy of mitigation. Not only do all these terms accept that humanity exists as something that has the right to continue, and that it must do so now only in the mode of damage limitation; they also have a primarily calculative conceptual base (where the calculations are arithmetical, concerning more and less, rather than differential). Climate change is perceived as a problem of disturbance, precluding us from continuing life in the same manner; and it is only for that reason that changes need to be made. Such changes will not be global in the full sense of the word; they will not alter the fundamental or entire system within which we are imbricated. They will rather occur as responses to a predicament. Life may have continued unperturbed—had we been wiser and more cautious, perhaps less profligate and wasteful—but unfortunately we plundered nature excessively and with short-term thinking. Our response is therefore to extend our calculative approach to the future to include not only our maximal efficiency here and now but our ongoing existence, our sustained existence.

    All these terms are aligned with what Gilles Deleuze referred to as extensive multiplicities: certain multiples have their units determined in advance, and are composed of equivalents (Deleuze 1994). In general we might say that the very possibility of the social sciences is built on calculations of extensive multiplicities: in relation to climate change studies one can look at how different members of populations respond to, or are affected by, policies or climatic disasters. More importantly, the timelines take the mode of more or less: what practices do we need to adopt to live longer? how might ‘we’ adapt? can we use less? can we be more like developing nations? how much suffering and sacrifice will be demanded from our future generations? All such questions assume that the future would be a continuing time of more or less. Such extensive calculations also presuppose a general underlying substrate—human life—that may vary culturally and historically, that may have to adapt, but will have nevertheless have some mode of continuity. Rather, then, than continue a late Romantic project of re-enchanting the world, following a science of calculation that disenchanted the world, I would suggest that what is required is a more intensified disenchantment and evacuation of meaning, or what Timothy Morton has referred to as an ecology without nature. As long as we regard the world as our lived world, as an organic and meaningful whole that is the milieu of our being then our approach to the future will be bifurcated: split between an increasingly multiple and intensive mode of scientific calculation, concerned with positive and negative feedback loops and multiple timelines, and an englobing environment. In intensive quantities it is not a question of equivalent units of more or less, but of speeds and thresholds that have the capacity to produce differences in kind. Climate change calculations, models and scenarios have long been characterized by quantities that are not those of a single unit (beneficial or detrimental) but will alter in kind and relation depending on speed and quantity; not only are there tipping points (or thresholds where one more degree of heat will alter the entire system) there are also unpredictable feedback effects and incalculable productions of disequilibrium. Had the social sciences taken on a similar complexity they would have to consider the possibility that the units with which they work—humans, societies—would alter in kind, beyond recognition, at certain speeds and thresholds. This could be seen positively, whereby one might say that climate change will not simply disturb human life, requiring it to sustain itself in a more viable manner, but will alter the very unit of ‘the human.’

    Here, one would have to rethink the very being of ‘man’ that was produced by the division between hard and social sciences: there could no longer be this animal blessed with language and history, who produces himself socially and technologically, but who can also study and read himself as an object of historical and cultural production. For there would no longer be man (historically and socially determined and determining) but a species tied to rhythms that were geological and beyond the historical and familial imagination. This would require us to consider that the question of the humanities and the human is not something that might be added to the problem of climate change, as though the environmental and policy problems could benefit from an examination of some concepts. Here is where we might return to how theories of ecology, environment and—of course—climate as terrain or habitation have already been considered by the humanities. For perhaps what may need to be rethought is the very concept of the human as it subtends the humanities.

    Returning to Foucault’s genealogy of the emergence of the human sciences in modernity, we can recall that ‘man’ becomes possible as an object of knowledge only with the strict distinction between the hard sciences of matter, and the social sciences that chart man as a socio-historical cultural production. If we accept that construction of man that is coterminous with a normalizing ground of life, splitting the world into the hard sciences of matter, and then the temporal-cultural expression of man in the social sciences, then it follows that the discipline of the humanities forms both an enabling condition and presupposed axiology: for discipline is both a set of conditions of knowledge and an art of formation. In the disciplines of the humanities ‘man’ not only studies himself as determined, in part, by his climate, for he can also reconfigure his intellectual climate, rewrite his concepts and vocabularies. He can alter himself from within his own history, sustaining himself, and rendering himself more viable by becoming more attuned, more sympathetic, less instrumental in relation to what will always be his climate and his environment. Indeed, in theories such as the Gaia hypothesis, man can project his organic being onto life as a whole. No longer would he be fragmented from a climate that is unfortunately not bending to his will and knowledge; he would, rather, be part of a living form that in its dynamically self-sustaining manner would guide him away from self-seeking politics to a naturally forming politics of the whole. Ethics and politics—what ‘we’ ought to do—would follow directly from the natural and vital norms of the one living earth. Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, like any theory that assumes a natural or proper connectedness (however occluded), reinforces what Foucault referred to as the specifically modern nature of bio-power (Foucault 1978), and maintains an extensive and bourgeois approach to values. That is, despite the recognitions of ecology, environment, climate and biosphere, it is man who will read the conditions of this system, discern its proper order, break free from merely instrumental attitudes and arrive at a proper mode of self-regulation.

    The alternative to this privileging of climate, environment, ecology and biosphere as continuations of self-sustaining life was already prefigured when Foucault spoke about the possible erasure of man. Here, one would not assume that the future would only need to be altered in degree in order for life to continue: one would ask whether the future would be one of life. That is, would all those disciplinary norms, including a distinction among hard sciences of data, human sciences of self-management, and the humanities as self-interpretive, not be fragmented following their dissolution and failure in the face of impending catastrophe? If we did not assume that life (as it is) were self-evidently worth sustaining, if life were not viable, could not be adapted, then we would no longer be reading and managing the human, via the humanities, but would be asking how we might think in the absence of sustained human life. This would lead, in turn, to thinking climate intensively—and this, in turn, would require not only adjusting concepts but creating new concepts, or even thinking beyond concepts. At its simplest, climate change ‘policy’ would have to shift from being political—the coming together of bodies in common via a common language of sustaining and adapting—to become impolitic. What ways of speaking would fragment, disturb and destroy the logics of self-maintenance that have always sustained humanity as an animal that cannot question its existence? (Humanity has, of course, always questioned the essence of its existence—who is man?—but it has rarely questioned the actuality of its existence: that it may not be.) To consider the future intensively we would at least begin with the possibility that an event might occur to ‘us’ that would create a mutation of such a force that ‘we’ would no longer exist. What we have known as human life, supposedly marked by instrumental reason, self-maintenance, risk-assessment, management of resources and exchange with a view to relatively short-term futures, would give way to a being that does not have a future.

    As long as we calculate the future as one of sustaining, maintaining, adapting and rendering ourselves viable, the future will differ only in degree; this would mean of course that there would be no future for us other than an eventual, barely lived petering out. If, however, we entertained the erasure of the human (especially as defined through the discipline of the humanities, whereby humanity is that fragment of a self-maintaining nature that can sustain itself through reading itself) then there might be a future. This would not be a future of the climate, of a terrain or habitation, and certainly not of an environment—as that which environs or encloses. For if the experience of climate change were to be experienced it would disclose that there is no climate, biosphere or environment. There is not ‘a’ world, existing in the manner of an organism, that maintains and sustains itself.