attempts at living

to make a system out of delusions

Tag: ecology

What is philosophy?

But what is philosophy? Does it not mean making preparation to meet the things that come upon us?

Things that come upon us. Why limit this to those ‘externals’ such as poverty, illness, exile, and death? Things that come upon us are things that exist outside our control. They are things that press up against us. They surprise us and make demands of us. They give themselves to us asymmetrically in that we do not approach them as they do us. This is the thought of objects as undomesticated predators: tumours, toxic clouds, global warming, radiation. It might also be objects in their more exuberant complexion. Given the current state of philosophy and of the world, Epictetus’ definition of philosophy seems apt.

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The sixth extinction

Somehow the Guardian’s series entitled The Sixth Extinction has managed to escape my attention. With the strap line ‘How humans are driving animals and plants to extinction’, it certainly bills itself as sad, but provocative reading.

It features a visually arresting ‘interactive map of the world’s extinct and endangered species’, which introduces itself with the intro-blurble ‘Over the past 500 years, human activity is known to have decimated 869 species. Habitat destruction, hunting, alien species, disease and climate change are among the forces responsible for the vulnerability and loss of the 12,000 species on the IUCN’s red list of endangered species. With a total of 16,928 plant and animal species at risk, life on Earth is populated by creatures poised at the brink of extinction. Today, one in eight birds, one in four mammals, one in five invertebrates, one in three amphibians, and half of all turtles face extinction’. It isn’t pussy footing around.

The series also features an interview with musician and naturalist Bernie Krause and includes samples of audio he has recorded from habitats before and after extinction- and produced some haunting silences therein, as well as the deploying the immediately appealing term ‘bioacoustics’. Ocularcentrism has a tendency to make us forget that life is an acoustic phenomena as much as it is visual. Krause writes that ‘A great silence is spreading over the natural world even as the sound of man is becoming deafening’- although I can’t say I’m too happy with hierarchising or playing off industrial or commercial noise with against that produced by more organic beings- after all, I doubt Krause is talking about the sound of talking.

There is also a report on the conservation model of Ecuador, which hosts the most biodiverse area in the world and is the only country in the world to have included nature in its constitutional rights…and the claim that ‘Pharmaceutical companies have based countless patents on results from the forest, where the chemical mix and match is immeasurably more dynamic than that of any science lab’, is interesting if ultimately anthropocentric.

Yet this blog considers that cosmological extinction is a real but not yet actually accomplished fact, that human extinction is not a distant possibility, and agrees with Timothy Morton’s reminder that climate science knows that the disaster has ‘already occurred and that we are now living in its aftermath’. For Morton the Krause recordings are ‘fragile sonic worlds’ that are ‘objects of sadistic pleasure and Schadenfreude’. The entire Sixth Extinction, with its desire to watch the extinction events, to be a kind of panoptic overseer of the processes of extinction, and to situate itself within a classificatory system (Extinction VI, rather like DSM-V?) speak of a kind of mania for the whole thing. It

This might sound like it would be part of Catastrophia’s remit (‘love of collapse’, after all)…but Catastrophic ethics are an ethics of compassion, and they want to be nonanthropocentric. Sadism is incompatible with Catastrophia. The end of all things is precisely the immanent fact of creation that Catastrophia names in the term Catastrophy. It is in this sense that its pessimism is still one that is attached to what is, even if stubbornly and ambivalently. Death and extinction are not problems we can solve, either through evasion or mastery. The Guardian’s Sixth Extinction series may be interesting but it remains afraid of destiny, of cosmic fate, and for this reason it is a good example of the domestication of thought, specifically the domestication of the thought of the end of though, life, and perhaps being itself. Catastrophia orients us to the intimate precariousness of everything that catastrophically exists. Everything is a fellow traveller towards the last moment. Everything, is heading at every moment to extinction. Everything living, indeed everything that exists (in my terms, ‘Cosmos’) is attempting to cope with that, to survive it’s own death a little longer. In this way, perhaps we are melancholic- perhaps this is why we are so confused and stupid when it comes to ecological politics- melancholic in Freud’s sense… we can’t let go of a lost object.

There might be little to separate Catastrophia from Tim Morton’s own dark ecology in the end, save his greater depth of thinking.

Alva Noë and ‘the space of access’

Alva Noe visits Google’s San Francisco, CA office to discuss his book “Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness.” This event took place on April 16, 2009, as part of the Authors@Google series.

The notion that consciousness is confined to the brain, like software in a computer, has dominated science and philosophy for close to two centuries. Yet, according to this incisive review of contemporary neuroscience from Berkeley philosopher Nöe, the analogy is deeply flawed. In eight illuminating, mercifully jargon-free chapters, he defines what scientists really know about consciousness and makes a strong case that mind and awareness are processes that arise during a dynamic dance with the observers surroundings. Nöe begins with a sharp critique of scientists, such as DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick, who insist that nothing but neurons determines our daily perceptions and sense of self. He then examines studies of human and animal behavior that demonstrate an inextricable link between identity and environment. Nöe regrettably limits his treatise by ignoring considerable research from transpersonal psychology suggesting that consciousness transcends physicality altogether. Still, the resulting book is an invaluable contribution to cognitive science and the branch of self-reflective philosophy extending back to Descartes famous maxim, I think, therefore I am.

From an interview in Third Culture:

We should reject the idea that the mind is something inside of us that is basically matter of just a calculating machine. There are different reasons to reject this. But one is, simply put: there is nothing inside us that thinks and feels and is conscious. Consciousness is not something that happens in us. It is something we do.

A much better image is that of the dancer. A dancer is locked into an environment, responsive to music, responsive to a partner. The idea that the dance is a state of us, inside of us, or something that happens in us is crazy. Our ability to dance depends on all sorts of things going on inside of us, but that we are dancing is fundamentally an attunement to the world around us.

 

And with that a question that has been bothering me. Among all the new realists, the new materialists and so on, with the eternally repeated Spinoza quote that we know not what a body can do, why is dance- which physically, materially wants to know what a (human) body can do- so neglected by philosophy?

Ethics: to make friends with death

Knowledge Ecology has posted a  rich, dense , and frankly fantastic audio interview with Timothy Morton that introduces the idea of dark ecology, an ecology coated in ‘shame, and horror, and disgust’. If you haven’t already, I urge you listen to it here.

The collision between human history and geological time began the ecological emergency- where we ‘directly intervened with the earth’s crust- occurs at the same time that philosophy is denying material reality and establishing human exceptionalism. Human beings remain in a state of denial; the denial that follows a grief. This ecological emergency is one of what I call situated catastrophes that follow the original catastrophe of creation, of things becoming manifest as cosmos.

What I especially like is the idea that the world has already ended. Morton states that we have this ‘uncanny sensation of angst’, of the meaninglessness of our junkward world which is already over, as the ecological emergency is already underway, has already happened.

I would be more hyperbolic than Morton. The ecological age, the ecological catastrophe, is merely the proximate situation. We are actually inside a cosmological age; cosmos itself is a catastrophe which is headed towards it’s inevitable conclusion. That is not to say that the ecological catastrophe is of no importance (or no more non-importance than anything else); we are coping-beings that by and large can’t help but go on. If it is the case, as Morton says, that the ecological catastrophe has already happened then here we have a way to make sense of my question of a politics that is a question of the self-management of extinction.

Morton doesn’t talk about pessimism in this interview but I think that his outlining of a dark or black ecology is precisely part of a pessimism. I haven’t read a great deal of Morton’s work but from this interview I feel as though I ought to.

Finally, the most important part of this interview for me, Morton states that we have already given up and that we must ‘make friends with death’. This is the essence of my idea of the coalition in favour of death. 

Crucially, Tim’s continued returns throughout the interview to ideas of fragility (I have, in the past, written about humans as ‘fragile systems’), coexistence and so on also form the kind of ethics that I am beginning to think through constantly, even if I am not writing about it. This is the idea that I first found in Judith Butler’s Frames of War where she writes about the precariousness of life as the founding moment of any ethics or politics worth its name. This is vitally important to me in my clinical practice as a psychiatric/mental health nurse and in the role I play in helping my partner to raise her child in a non-authoritarian way.

Yet Butler remains caught within the anthropocentric image of thought wherein the interdependence that reveals precariousness remains that which exists between human beings. What projects like Morton’s, and he is by no means alone in this, is illustrating and calling attention to the ways in which such an interdependence is simply not reducible to anthropic relationships. Interdependence is what all flat ontologies show us as the condition of all objects/entities in existence.

All of this leads us to the point where we can speak about pessimist ethics. The dark knowledge of extinction leads us to what I have ironically called an ‘autopsy vitalism’; a perspective from which all living things are already dead but continue to live. They still live because their death, although an accomplished fact, has not yet occurred. Isn’t this akin to Morton’s view that the ecological emergency has already befallen us? All that remains is the dying dead existing among one another. An interdependent community of dying. Beyond this, pushing it further in the realisation of life as a negative concept  (a la Schopenhauer or Thomas Ligotti) we are really a community of interdependent beings on the road to destruction, or disappearance. And this is the key to pessimistic ethics because for the pessimist the question is the alleviation of suffering. To speak in the discourse of my profession for a moment, we are the first patients in the hospital to realise that all that remains to us is the self-administration of palliative care.  I think this leads us towards the kind of sentiment based ethics of Schopenhauer. I will end on a quote that will serve merely to illustrate this connection- I have to return to the banal world of housework- a quote that comes from the latter German miserablist and pessimist but which, I feel, wouldn’t have been out of place in Morton’s interview:

 

 

The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? … this … reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.

 

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms, p.50.

 

That things ought not to exist. There is no hierarchy or preference here. All things that exist deserve compassion, indulgence. I would venture the uncontroversial claim that we can’t help but feel this all the more forcefully for other beings like us; sentient, conscious, living. An equality of being, but still an inequality of feeling. In this regard Morton’s is the ethical dictum that follows undecidability (the ethical situation as that in which there is no manual, no technique to unconsciously deploy); the cultivation of a mindful relationship with death itself.

 

Extinction

If extinction looms over us as a vital material possibility or, as is becoming more and more apparent, as an approaching likelihood then this brings with it a more immediate threat. Pseudo-anarchists known as Primitivists (cf. John Zerzan) have long attempted to ground their paleolithic Romanticism on the terms of ecological collapse, and have seen a kind of forced industrial collapse as the great act of exodus from this world we must leave. It should come as no great leap of the imagination to see a Primitivism based on the threat of human extinction. More than this, we ought to anticipate that there are others who will be discussing extinction…others who might want to harness it to less than desirable means. The forces of sovereignty, of the state-form and the police, will also have their eyes on the catastrophic horizon. Our extinction should not be seen as simply a material fact; it is also a political field with multiple points of occupation. This is another reason why we ought to consider the self-management of extinction as a live political question.  What politics might the thought of extinction produce?

Resilience

On the one hand I can’t help characterise the stubborn going on of human lives as driven by compulsion, irrationality and addiction. The same thing stated outside the language of deficit; we human beings are the bearers of an incredible existential resilience. Yet this isn’t just the idea of psychological resilience, though surely it includes it. Rather, the individual human being, being only the name of a particular kind of system among others, owns its share in an ecological theory of resilience. Typically defined, ecological resilience is said to be: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity, and feedbacks”.[1]. An important reminder here; all systems eventually fail, all resilience reaches thresholds beyond which it is incapable.

Resilience, first of all, in the face of Exhaustion.