Claire Colebrook

Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Volume Two

    7. Ethics of Extinction

    Here is the problem: faced with extinction the human species might, finally, be presented with a genuine ethics, with a sense of what it owes to place (ethos) and to those beyond its own organic life (the future). Alternatively, it is perhaps the possibility of annihilation that once and for all destroys ethics. Certainly, if ethics is a question of how one ought to live, of one’s sympathy for others, of an art of the self, or the creation of a virtual community, then ethics would seem to be the least appropriate and perhaps least viable of projects for today. If we consider ethics to be the problem of forming oneself then it could be argued that the arts of self-formation are reaching their limit, and that it was precisely this conception of the ethical—as self-production, self-maintenance, ongoing self-recognition—that precluded concern for the milieu within which that self-production was sustained. Three ethical models here, in the Anthropocene era, would require questioning, if not complete disposal. It may be the case that we could apply our philosophical models to the new problems of the twenty-first century, and that these models—like all else—would need to adapt in order to be sustainable. It may also be that the new ethical problems ‘we’ face (including the viability and justification of who ‘we’ are) would require new forms of questioning. The new form of content would require a new form of expression (Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 158). Ethical theories that presented themselves as formal might really operate only with the form of a human life, while ethical forms of naturalism would be limited to a certain conception of nature that would no longer be sustainable.

    First, a contemporary form of Kantianism insists that insofar as I am a self I am also intrinsically structured by normativity: to act without principle would be a form of contradictory and impossible suicide. Not only can I not will to extinguish myself—for any decision I take regarding self-annihilation is already bound up with a world of others and therefore with an essential respect for the human—I can also not act without ongoing norms. Christine Korsgaard has insisted, following the refutation of the possibility of a private language, that normativity is intrinsic to language: ‘The private language argument does not show that I could not have my own personal language. But it shows that I could not have a language which is in principle incommunicable to anybody else. When I make a language, I make its meanings normative for me’ (Korsgaard 1996A, 138). An even stronger Kantian account of an essential normativity lies in the argument against suicide (Korsgaard 1996B, 17): destroying my own being would demonstrate a disregard for humanity as such, and would be contradictory insofar as one reasons to do away with reason. I am always already a member of the human community, and therefore cannot choose to end my life without extending that desire for extinction to all other humans. As human and capable of a free act I cannot make an exception of myself; insofar as I decide I can do so only as a being not determined by contingency, as a being who may act lawfully, deciding for oneself. And this necessary maintenance of oneself, as human and therefore free to will, but not free to will the end of willing, extends to the relation I bear to others and my own acts. To act now in one way and now in another—to have no sense of myself as a continuous identity—is to end oneself, is to destroy the being that I am.

    Now that the human species faces its own annihilation, and does so precisely because it has remained committed absolutely to its own survival as uniquely human and blessed with a duty to live that distinguishes it from other species, quite different questions from that of self-maintenance, normative consistency and the necessity of living on need to be addressed.

    Alternatively, if ethics is taken to be tied inextricably to ethos or habitus, then this would seem to be just the sort of ethical turn required today. If we accept, following the Aristotelian tradition, that asking how one ought to live can only make sense in relation to the others through whom we define ourselves, and through the traditions that grant those relations meaning and complexity, then the confrontation with the possible loss of all narrative continuity might at once be the Aristotelian question par excellence, but also a question that destroys the possibility of the ethical. On the one hand, it might be argued that what we need today is a retrieval of communal narratives, along with an awareness that the world is never mere standing resource of manipulable matter but always a world for this or that intentional organism. The sense of place that is so crucial to Aristotelian ethics is a place of meaning: any world, any person, any event to which I am exposed is always given to me in terms of my own sense of personhood. And this is so even if the event is of such a nature as to disturb or refigure what counts as a person. There has recently been a widespread return, beyond neo-Aristotelian ethics, to a phenomenological argument that there is no world in general, only a world as it exists for this or that bounded form of life. There is no milieu other than the surrounding range of perturbation that prompts a body to respond and adapt. This notion of the inescapable bounds of sense is articulated in three forms: traditional Aristotelian ethics, theories of living systems or embodied mind and various forms of Gaia hypothesis or life as a global brain. In response to a widespread sense of disaffection and disenchantment, philosophy, senses of community, or religion are now proffered as practical means that enable us to give order and sense to life; they are not exercises in truth or ways of transcending one’s locus. One can consider here popularizing uses of philosophy, such as Alain de Botton (2000) and A.C. Grayling (2001) and more academic reactions against a philosophy and society diagnosed as overly technocratic. Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy as therapy (Nussbaum 1994), or contemporary Western philosophy’s recent embrace of eastern traditions of meditative thought (Flanagan 2011), answer the present potential loss of the world with a return to a more connected relation to one’s milieu. So, whether it is the return to some sense of self-creating community in Aristotelianism, an insistence on the embodied mind’s coupling with its milieu, or the recognition of the interconnectedness of all life in one global brain, this widespread attention to the human organism’s thorough worldliness suffers from one over-riding problem of blindness: the world in which we will be extinct, the world that ‘we’ have extinguished and the world that increasingly takes on forms of distinction that we cannot directly perceive is not the world that has had meaning for ‘us.’

    Indeed, insofar as ethics relies upon something like a subject of enunciation we might say that an ethics of extinction would have to be a counter-ethics or possibly an anti-ethics (working against ethos, or the sense of locatedness of self.) It was Kant who insisted that without the possibility of attributing actions to a subject whom we would hold responsible—a subject who must be free—morality would have no sense. Freedom is a practical requirement, even if it cannot be known or intuited. And similar requirements of coherence and personification characterize other ethical models: one of the neo-Aristotelian laments, against Kantianism, is that ethics is not formal but has to do with forms of life, sympathy, and the imagination of others’ worlds (MacIntyre 1984); recent work on cognitive science and the embodiment of mind has, more than any other paradigm, stressed the locatedness and concreteness of human decisions (Churchland 2011). There is, in all these emphases upon the ethical and its requirements of personhood, narration and practical engagement with the world, a reaction against theory, against the perniciously distanced, impersonal and disembodied observer. Ethics is not a question of calculation and formalization but of what to do, here, in this locale, in this world with others. Ethics is praxis, not logos. But do the problems that face ‘us’ today have that type of practical requirement?

    Is the situation of extinction a problem of praxis, response and sympathy? Is it not, rather, an occasion for a mode of calculation that insists neither on the freedom and openness of a radical future irreducible to the material world nor on the communicative horizon within which all action, as some form of proto-speech, would take place? It is not only the global climactic crisis that demands forms of thinking that take account of forces beyond those of human intentionality, the same could also be said for milieux as (seemingly) human as global terror and global finance. It is not only the case that such threats posed to human existence have no single, locatable agent to whom ‘we’ might address certain ethical demands for justice; it is also becoming increasingly clear that there has been a catastrophic attribution of subjectivity and mastery to processes that are without located agency. Consider the recent and widespread financial crises, ranging from the global financial crisis of 2008, emanating from something as seemingly humble as a series of home mortgages, to the precipice of collapse of the European Union in 2012. On the one hand, as capitalism hurtles towards its seemingly inevitable demise, there appears to be no shortage of guilty persons: those in government who failed to regulate, those liberated from regulation who failed to exercise foresight, prudence or concern, those who blindly consumed, spent and borrowed without a sense of time or consequence and, when the crisis became all too apparent, those who maintained all the old privileges of bonuses and conspicuous spending precisely when these practices were deemed to be responsible for the widespread chaos. The same follows for climate change, worsened by large corporations answerable only to shareholders, and by governments incapable of looking beyond electoral terms. Terrorism, too, for all its figuration through certain faces and types of crowds, becomes upon examination a diffuse toxin that is exacerbated by anti-terror legislation, xenophobia, resentment caused by constant surveillance, fear of terror and the panic it causes, and the fear of the panic that the fear of terror causes. How would one respond to this ethically? Is there a ‘one’ who, in the traditional terms of ethics is called upon to respond? One might say that we are given a hyperbolic ethical situation: it is precisely because we are at a point of extinction with the stakes not being this or that act within the political but the survival of any possible polity, that we are impelled finally to decide. But if there were any possible response to this situation par excellence would it not be, at least in part, to imagine that there is no ‘we’, no agent to whom this hyperbolic demand is addressed: would it not require the annihilation of the imagination?

    Early in the twentieth-century the two great philosophers of life, Edmund Husserl and Henri Bergson, conducted two different but equally provocative thought experiments. Husserl asked us to imagine the world’s annihilation (and by world he was not referring to the material object planet earth but to the experienced horizon of that planet as lived, the lived planet as world that so many phenomenologists today regard as the sine qua non of all life):

    The existence of a world is the correlate of certain multiplicities of experience distinguished by certain essential formations. But it cannot be seen that actual experiences can flow only in such concatenated form[...]. It is instead quite conceivable that experience, because of conflict, might dissolve into illusion not only in detail, and that it might not be the case, as it is de facto, that every illusion manifests a deeper truth[...];  in our experiencing it is conceivable that there might be a host of irreconcilable conflicts not just for us but in themselves, that experience might suddenly show itself to be refractory to the demand that it carry on its positings of physical things harmoniously, that its context might lose its fixed regular organizations of adumbrations, apprehensions, and appearances—in short that there might no longer be any world […].

    Now let us add the results reached at the end of the last chapter; let us recall the possibility of the non-being of everything physically transcendent: it then becomes evident that while the being of consciousness, of any stream of mental processes whatever, would indeed be necessarily modified by an annihilation of the world of physical things its own existence would not be touched. Modified, to be sure. For an annihilation of the world means, correlatively, nothing else but that in each stream of mental processes certain ordered concatenations of experience and therefore certain complexes of theorizing reason oriented according to those concatenations of experience, would be excluded. But that does not mean that other mental processes and concatenations of mental processes would be excluded. (Husserl 1983, 109-119)

    Bergson asked us to consider the speeding up of cosmic time. For Husserl the thought of the natural world’s non-existence would compel us to imagine human subjectivity as radically altered but nevertheless remaining. Bergson asked us to imagine the speeding up of cosmic time, with all the natural material events of the globe occurring twice as fast:

    Outside ourselves we should find only space, and consequently nothing but simultaneities, of which we could not even say that they are objectively successive, since succession can only be thought through comparing the present with the past.—That account by science is proved by the fact that, if all the motions of the universe took place twice or thrice as quickly, there would be nothing to alter either in our formulae or in the figures which are to be found in them. Consciousness would have an indefinable and as it were qualitative impression of the change, but the change would not make itself felt outside consciousness, since the same number of simultaneities would go on taking place in space. (Bergson 1913, 116)

    For Husserl the lived or ‘natural’ world’s annihilation would not alter transcendental subjectivity in its essence as pure potentiality for the synthesis of time. For Bergson, not quite in opposition, a speeding up of the world would not change its nature; consciousness, though, would be fundamentally different if it took place at a different speed. Consciousness endures, so that it is not just a series of events placed next to each other; each event is what it is because of all the past events, and if the rate of events were sped up then the nature of events themselves would alter essentially. Quite simply, if I were to slow down the viewing of a film I would experience a play of light, a series of small movements, and the flicker of an emotion that would not be perceived were that film played at the standard speed or sped up. I would not experience more or less of the film but would have a different experience entirely, and in turn would have a different experience of all else in my life precisely because ‘I’ am nothing other than my singular duration, altered perpetually by what is perceived and its speed or slowness of affect: ‘duration properly so called has no moments which are identical or external to one another, being essentially heterogeneous, continuous and with no analogy to number’ (Bergson 1913, 120). At first Husserl and Bergson seem to present opposite cases: for Husserl transcendental subjectivity is not bound to the world of natural time, and would even exist (though radically altered) without the world altogether; for Bergson consciousness is its flow of the world, and while matter is what it is and can be sped up in its rate of change and still remain matter, the speed of conscious events determines what consciousness will be, what it will endure.

    Bear in mind before we consider these experiments any further that both these philosophers were concerned with the extinction of philosophy. For Husserl certain philosophical forms, such as historicism and psychologism, had accounted for the origin of truth and logic by placing these possibilities of thinking within human and material time: logic, mathematics and geometry were deemed to be grounded on actual human subjects who had lived in concrete time and who had either founded (in the case of historicism) or reflected upon (in the case of psychologism) truth procedures. Such explicating maneuvers were responses to scientific criteria for rigor but in their capitulation to such standards reduced philosophy to one more worldly act of observation that threatened philosophy’s very life. Philosophy could only survive if it were to release itself from the grip of such already constituted modes of judgment and instead question the possibility of judgment as such:

    To be human at all is essentially to be a human being in a socially and generatively united civilization; and if man is a rational being (animal rationale), it is only insofar as his whole civilization is a rational civilization, that is, one with a latent orientation toward reason or one openly oriented toward the entelechy which has come to itself, become manifest to itself, and which now of necessity consciously directs human becoming. Philosophy and science would accordingly be the historical movement through which universal reason, ‘inborn’ in humanity as such, is revealed.

    This would be the case if the as yet unconcluded movement [of modern philosophy] had proved to be the entelechy, properly stated on the way to pure realization, or if reason had in fact become manifest, fully conscious of itself in its own essential form, i.e. the form of a universal philosophy which grows through consistent apodictic insight and supplies its own norms through an apodictic method. Only then could it be decided whether European humanity bears within itself an absolute idea, rather than being merely an empirical anthropological type like ‘China’ or ‘India’; it could be decided whether the spectacle of the Europeanization of all other civilizations bears witness to the rule of an absolute meaning, one which is proper to the sense, rather than to a historical non-sense, of the world.

    We are now certain that the rationalism of the eighteenth century, the manner in which it sought to secure the necessary roots of European humanity, was naïve. But in giving up this naïve and (if carefully thought through) even absurd rationalism, is it necessary to sacrifice the genuine sense of rationalism? And what of the serious clarification of that naivete, of that absurdity? And what of the rationality of that irrationalism which is so much vaunted and expected of us? Does it not have to convince us, if we are expected to listen to it, with rational considerations and reasons? Is its rationality not finally rather a narrow-minded and bad rationality, worse than that of the old rationalism? Is it not rather the rationality of ‘lay reason,’ [Vorgegebenheiten] and the goals and directions which they alone can rationally and truthfully prescribe? (Husserl 1970, 16)

    For Husserl, saving philosophy from itself would also be a redemption of human life: the human subject, in its rigid or ‘naïve’ scientism, is extinguishing itself. But Husserl saw this self-extermination as a sign of possible renewal; it is in the nature of consciousness, as a synthesis of the external world, to mistake itself for one already existing object. The positing of the subject as one more concrete thing within the world is no unfortunate error. It is precisely because we live in a world of things that are ready and present that we also take ourselves to be similarly natural objects. Such a ‘natural attitude’ works perfectly well for the sciences but will not only lead to the crisis and death of a properly scientific or rigorous philosophy, it will also mark an end to responsibility. As long as we accept logic, mathematics or the sciences as self-evidently true systems we will fail to recognize the genesis of those systems and will, in turn, fail to recognize the power of subjectivity—not as some given term upon which truth can be founded, but as that which gives itself foundation. Bergson also thought that the intellect’s capacity to manage the world efficiently was responsible for taking mind and its experiences as similarly manageable data. He, too, thought that only by annihilating man as a rational animal within the world would there be some future for a spirit or consciousness liberated from natural calculations—a spirit that did not yet exist:

    Our freedom, in the very movements by which it is affirmed, creates the growing habits that will stifle it if it fails to renew itself by a constant effort: it is dogged by automatism. The most living thought becomes frigid in the formula that expresses it. The word turns against the idea[…]. Like eddies of dust raised by the wind as it passes, the living turn upon themselves, borne up by the great blast of life. They are therefore relatively stable, and counterfeit immobility so well that we treat each of them as a thing rather than as a progress, forgetting that the very permanence of their form is only the outline of a movement. At times, however, in a fleeting vision, the invisible breath that bears them is materialized before our eyes. We have this sudden illumination before certain forms of maternal love, so striking, and in most animals so touching, observable even in the solicitude of the plant for its seed. This love, in which some have seen the great mystery of life, may possibly deliver us life’s secret. It shows us each generation leaning over the generation that shall follow. It allows us a glimpse of the fact that the living being is above all a thoroughfare, and that the essence of life is in the movement by which life is transmitted. (Bergson 1911, 127-28)

    So if Husserl appears to dismiss the constitutive role the world’s or earth’s own duration plays in consciousness, and if Bergson refuses a subject in general that would be a pure potential for logic outside any specific duration, both philosophers nevertheless thought that the way of dealing with the human capacity to extinguish itself—to imagine itself as nothing more than a mere thing among things—was not to appeal to the imagination of a common humanity. Rather, Husserl’s world annihilation experiment suggested that a destruction of all that has come under the name of humanity, including the archive of constituted disciplines, would at least disclose some power of humanity that might begin to think of itself as something not already given. And Bergson’s speeding up of cosmic time also tries to distinguish between a cosmos whose speeds are not its own, for the cosmos would not lament hurtling to its end at twice the rate, and a consciousness that is certainly not fully actualized as a common human species. Elsewhere, in The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, Bergson distinguishes between morality’s reliance on a body of common interests defined against external threats, and dynamic religion that has the capacity to orient itself to no one in existence, towards a virtual other to whom I am not bound by either interest, or passion or sympathy.

    Now, a mystic society, embracing all humanity and moving, animated by a common will, towards the continually renewed creation of a more complete humanity, is no more possible of realization in the future than was the existence in the past of human societies functioning automatically and similar to animal societies. Pure aspiration is an ideal limit, just like obligation unadorned. It is none the less true that it is the mystic souls who draw and will continue to draw civilized societies in their wake. The remembrance of what they have been, of what they have done, is enshrined in the memory of humanity. Each one of us can revive it, especially if he brings it in touch with the image, which abides ever living within him, of a particular person who shared in that mystic state and radiated around him some of that light. If we do not evoke this or that sublime figure, we know that we can do so; he thus exerts on us a virtual attraction. (Bergson 1935, 68)

    Mankind lies groaning, half-crushed beneath the weight of its own progress. Men do not sufficiently realize that their future is in their own hands. Theirs is the task of determining first of all whether they want to go on living or not. Theirs the responsibility, then, for deciding if they want merely to live, or intend to make just the extra effort required for fulfilling, even on their refractory planet, the essential function of the universe, which is a machine for the making of gods. (Bergson 1935, 275)

    Where does this leave us today? Certainly it is inadequate to turn back to Husserl or Bergson and try to retrieve a humanity or subjectivity that would be other than the calculations and interests of warring interests. These early twentieth-century gestures of appealing to a virtual spirit or transcendental subjectivity occurred in the face of philosophy’s possible extinction; if humanity were a potentiality beyond the calculus of matter then it, too, would have an existence outside those disciplines and bodies of thought. Something similar occurs today with an appeal to an ethical or political subject who must, supposedly, be in existence (if only virtually) in any claim of interest; there must be an ‘I’ who speaks or demands and, therefore, a ‘you’ or ‘one’ from whom consensus is sought. But what Husserl’s world annihilation experiment and Bergson’s cosmic time experiment disclose is that questions of extinction, annihilation and the acceleration of cosmic time destroy a subject or humanity as we know it. Further, whereas Husserl and Bergson thought that the task that would save thought and philosophy would be the annihilation or acceleration of the natural world, and the destruction of man as a natural body within the world, today it is the possible extinction of the man of ethics and philosophy that may allow us to consider the survival of the cosmos. At the very least, it is time to question the ‘we’ who would subtend and be saved by the question of ethics and politics. If that ‘we’ is annihilated what remains is less a subject of thought, a common humanity, a proto-politics, but a fragile life that is not especially human. And once that is all that remains one might ask about the viability of living on: if humanity values life, rather than imagining itself as that which supervenes upon or survives beyond life, then that valuation would have to consider those modes of life beyond humanity, beyond ethics and politics. This would not yield an environmental ethics, for an environment is always that which surrounds or houses a living being as environs or milieu. What it might be is a counter-ethic for the cosmos.

    If it is not presupposed that the only life worthy of consideration is ethico-political—to do with a sense of ethos, polity, abode or dwelling—then one might consider those modes of life that are not defined by milieu. In relation to the human one might ask whether modes of living and modes of relation could exist without the assumption of a ‘we’, and without the assumption that ‘we’ are worthy of living on; one might ask whether the future should not be saved for another mode of life altogether. Such a question might force a consideration of what is worthy of survival, even if such survival appears, today, to be less than certain.