From Catastrophic Messianism to Comic Fatalism – Part IV

By Frank Ruda
Issue 1 September 24, 2020 Download PDF
Intro Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI

 

Part IV. Fatalism and the Anthropocene: On Mark Pingree’s “Geohistorical Materialism”

Against this background, Mark Pingree presents me, for several reasons, with a greater challenge. This is not because he criticizes my overall project, but rather because his critical reconstruction takes shape through an interpretation of the contemporary world that I take issue with. To elaborate this in more detail: Pingree rightly identifies me as someone thinking in the shadow of Hegel, but he believes that Hegel’s thinking cannot help us anymore because we are today “living in the shadow” of the Anthropocene.[1] The latter is a name for the insight that a certain way of thinking is historically invalidated, notably all the positions that are pre-anthropocenic. I am thinking in the wrong shadow and am thereby oblivious to actual historical transformation, even if the “Anthropocene” is supposed to represent the end of the human concept of history and even if such an end is also and precisely what is at stake in Abolishing Freedom. In and with the Anthropocene we have to accept that there is no reason in history anymore; what was contended before by all great rationalist is outdated. Modern rationalism is pre-anthropocenic. There is no reason in history because reason is a human concept and we are living in an age where things are way more out of control than any human, including any kind of fatalist, could ever have imagined. We are facing not only a limit of human sovereignty of a totally new kind but also an out-of-jointness that goes beyond all previous deconstructive radicality. Fatalism is for Pingree, therefore, still too optimist, because it is fatalism for subjects, so to speak—it is as if I were to Pingree a more disappointing version of what Sorel has been to me.[2]

But here problems occur: if the critique is that Abolishing Freedom is supposedly not sufficiently materialist or realist—since comic fatalism is a position unfit for the Anthropocene—this attack is even more trenchant when the fatalist maneuver is understood as if it were nothing but an attempt to again assure ourselves of our powers. Fatalism in Pingree’s reading is an expression of the (metaphysical and outdated) assumption that if we, human beings, were to realize our own involvement in and with the situation that we want to change (because it is problematic, since it is upheld by a misconception of freedom), we will ultimately be able to do so. Fatalism is thus ultimately an optimist position expressing the unbroken belief in our capacity to determine our own fate and that of our world—in short: a belief in what people over centuries called freedom. It pretends to attack a problematic concept of freedom (as capacity) but ends up endorsing if not the same then one that is as problematic (freedom as the human capacity to determine history). My position thus attempts excavating a forgotten subject (not only of fatalism but also ultimately of history). And indeed, Abolishing Freedom describes itself an attempted philosophical preparation for a (practical or theoretical elaboration of a) real concept of freedom. Does this condemn me to a form of anthropocentric, pre-anthropocenic humanist idealism? To defending the very concept I attack?

Unsurprisingly, I do not think so. I think the Anthropocene is a conceptual cannon that sometimes fires too broadly in too many directions at once, which is why its apparent clarity can at times produce conceptual obscurity. Here it is so, because Pingree’s reply reads at points as if he ignored the fact that I am tackling a very specific problem. This problem arises from what I take to be an ideological misconception of freedom (as capacity)—producing what I call ontic indifference, which describes the fact that the potential or capacity that freedom is supposed to be remains indifferent to (the very form of) its actualization—that is linked to a specific form of the organization of society (in very short: capitalism, as I indicate by starting with its pre-history in Luther) against which I am playing out an ontological indifference (i.e., the idea that there is nothing, not even nothing we could cling to or that is a priori on our side, etc.). Working through this ontico-ontological indifference, we do not simply become aware that in the end we are the ones we were waiting for (which is part of Pingree’s critique of my position). We become aware that we might only become the ones we are waiting for if we transform our understanding of who, what, and how we are, accept the painful fact that it is absolutely impossible that there will ever be the ones we are waiting for, and thus stop waiting. Only if something impossible happens, this could create the very conditions for us to become those who we are waiting for. But this is impossible. So, this is not precisely endorsing the principle of hope. Nor is it immanently about indicating a possible futurity (as Pingree claims with Claire Colebrook). It is rather about accepting to be fucked—indeed: always already, but this also means: forever. It is impossible that this will ever change. More concretely, this means that there is no chance that there will ever be (again) any future or politics worthy of its name, or any form or even attempt of emancipation. To affirm this impossibility is the only starting point beyond delusion, and as far as possible from any optimism (and thus any claim to futurity).[3]

To claim that this condition—that there is and will never be any politics or any collective political subject—is drastically altered because of tectonic shifts in the understanding of the relation between human beings and the planet does not so drastically change the framework or coloration of the image I painted, leaving aside all colors—except for grey maybe. Because how precisely can it get worse? The problem here is not only the attempt to crack (or rather smash) the problematic walnut of misconceived human freedom with the conceptual sledgehammer of the Anthropocene; rather the problem lies in Pingree’s claim that my argument is incompatible with what for the understanding of human freedom the Anthropocene stands for. As Peter Sloterdijk has argued, the Anthropocene implies that we have to realize that we are essentially helpless: “everything suggests we ought to understand the term ‘Anthropocene’ as   an expression that only makes sense within an apocalyptic logical framework.”[4] For Sloterdijk, the revelation linked to it is that we have to become aware that we are astronauts on a cosmic ship that we not only do not know how to steer but for which even the manual is missing. Well, is this not precisely a version of why the worst already happened?[5] And are not a number of beliefs circulating that are effectively working as defense mechanisms against this insight (the idea that science and technology will come to save us; or taxation, or Greta Thunberg; or recycling; or a return to nature, to a stable balance, natural rhythms, etc.)? The strong claim of the Anthropocene—nature is no stable background of our actions—and comic fatalism do not seem overly incompatible to me.

Pingree might here again intervene and emphasize that I seem to ignore the important difference between the human world and the earth as geological entity—the first being the anthropocentric space of human action and intention, the latter providing the material ground for the former. The Anthropocene is a coming to the fore—an excavation—of the earth that forces upon us a radical dehierarchization: we are as much agents on this planet as are what we have perceived as objects or as not even that (like geological forces, etc.). This is already the case because ultimately we are forced to acknowledge that we are non-autonomous, too.[6] This means that we are just another animal species among many, interacting in an environment that is not very welcoming, that we have already ruined, and that we moreover are not even in control of. And for Pingree comic fatalism misses the outreach of this claim. For him, Abolishing Freedom is still indulging in a kind of ideology critique directed against misconceptions of freedom and their practical effectivity—and therein Pingree identifies a primacy of the subject[7]—which is a symptom of the metaphysical belief that only subjects can change the world (but who, at least after the invention of psychoanalysis, thinks that a subject is in charge and the real doer behind the deed anyhow?). The proper lesson of the Anthropocene for him forbids this belief and should lead to a transformation not only of our ontology and of the nature-culture divide (there is essentially no divide) but thereby also to a new relation to or conception of nature. For Pingree, Latour does a better job at this than I do: “for Latour autonomy is abolished by the intrusion of the object, that is, by a ‘nature’ which is no longer natural.”[8] But does this dispense with the task of ideology critique? Finally, there are real problems and no ideology (recall: this is what any crisis brings out). But if this were so, problems could not be greater. For, why bother at all with pre-anthropocenic thinkers (who do not get it)? Why bother with the wrongs of comic fatalism and its too-subjective bias (if they did not yet experience the intrusion of the object, they at some point will)? Or worse: why are there still pre-anthropocenic thinkers at all? Should they not have been converted to a transformed self-understanding? Are they too stupid to see it (and how could one be too stupid)? Is there an ideology-bias? Do they know but do not want to believe what they know?

If the Latour argument is supposed to hold up, does this mean that there are only some blessed with the insight into the equality between subject and object, those who experience the intrusion of the object? Shall the others wait? Does an intrusion of the object force us—automatically—to admit that objects and subjects are equal? Might we not need to be converted by a form of ideology critique? You see where I am going…. Notably, where it becomes clear that the debate about the Anthropocene is clearly historically over-determined by the particular economic and cultural system we are living in, in short, by the particularity of capitalism (for example, class struggle[9] and capitalism’s notion of freedom)—a symptom of this is that we are not automatically converted by an intrusive object experience as if being hit by a stone.[10] We do not leave the terrain of Abolishing Freedom.[11]

The philosophical implications of Pingree’s critique can also be made explicit in a different way: mankind has reached a historical moment where any logic (of negation) has reached its limit and endpoint. The Anthropocene marks the end of (human) intelligibility. This is the case because the uncontrolled and unforeseen effects of our actions confront us with a situation where we have to realize that we never were the subjects of our and the earth’s history; we were rather one of many agents in an agential collective that we were ignorant of before. We unknowingly tampered with the true subject of history, that is, with all the hidden, non-rational, non-conceptual, geological and objective forces that we mobilized when we, for example, inadvertently produced climate change. The Anthropocene is the name for a time wherein a material condition that, even if it may have been brought to the fore by a logic of negation (depicting the workings of human action) at first, and may thus seem to be describable in dialectical terms, negates any logic of negation. Yet, this “negation” is itself not logical but “material.” Such material manifestation of the end of thinking, logic, and negation “immobilizes the dialectic… by asserting… that the worst is actually happening.”[12] The Anthropocene in this description is not an impossible event; it is the worst actually happening (in the present) or more precisely actualizing itself.[13] We have to realize it was possible all along. And if we really understand that we changed the climate and transformed the material workings of the earth, mankind is thus not simply a biological but also a geological agent. And here we materially encounter the supposed end and limit of dialectics.[14] We no longer produce consequences that differ from what we intended to achieve (the simplified structure of Hegel’s concept of action), we rather encounter the unintendable (which escapes rational analysability altogether).[15] So, does a rationalist fatalist have anything to say to this end (of dialectics—apart from the obvious insight that all dialectics is a dialectics of the end of dialectics, as I extensively argued)? The problem is linked to the insight that sometimes the (supposed) “apocalypse becomes the new normal.”[16]

Any rationalist fatalist will cheer about Dipesh Chakrabarty’s rendering of this, notably that the Anthropocene fundamentally transforms our conception of what we are able to take as given—in this sense not even earth is a stable and unchangeable given, since for comic fatalism the critique and refutation of the given is a—crucial part of any—critique and rejection of the present and of everything that exists.[17] Yet, it is precisely here that the problem with (inter alia) Pingree’s position becomes conceivable. In general, there is a danger of introducing even more givenness (and thus metaphysics) through the supposed cancellation of givenness. Take the case of human beings as geological agents who are producing totally unintended results that are absolutely beyond their control. Does this not mean that in this very act humans are bringing to the fore a previously obfuscated dimension of givenness (of all the geological non-human forces, etc.)?[18] If the Anthropocene brings to the fore a previously hidden but nonetheless present dimension—and then we would be dealing with another logic of an all too possible “always already”—it is the epoch of the activation and actualization of an already existing potential;[19] it names the age of the awakening of the real and material subject, subiectum, i.e., ground-layer, of all earthly existence. The Anthropocene in this rendering at least is the earth as Aristotelian subject. After the human subject, we get the anonymous, material, planetary super-subject, be it vibrant, geological or non-human in its manifold forms (and could there ever be anything more anthropocentric than this fantasy wherein we deny ourselves?—as if imagining what happens at one’s own funeral). It is in charge of our future as much as it is our present. It is a subject that does not subject us, but rather diminishes all our (metaphysical) hopes of ever again being subjects, yet strangely seems to have inherited many if not all of the features that previously were attributed to the subject.[20]

The Anthropocene in this rendering paradoxically entails subjectivizing the non-human (which is also an old fetishistic practice). Yet the main new feature of many positions that defend such a reading is that this new subject is a non-unified one. It is inherently heterogeneous, multiple, vibrant, etc. But a critique of the given (primacy of the subject) that introduces an even more given (if givenness knows grades)—even if inherently multiple and dynamic and messy[21]—ground layer as ultra-subject does not succeed all too well in its critique of the given.[22] Fatalism rejects any reference to an always already constituted sujet supposé de l’histoire,[23] supposed subject of history, be it human or non-human.[24] Deprived and cured of any belief in the myth of the givenness of freedom, a rationalist fatalist is also rather allergic to the myth of the givenness of a subiectum.[25] This is not the expression of a “passion for abolition”[26]—but a demand of reason itself, freeing freedom from all guises of its mythical givenness.

A hysterical shaking up of all given foundations—even of hysteria—and certainly its un-/de-, or af-form[27] must be historically appropriate—which is why Abolishing Freedom sought to formulate a provisory morality; a manual for what one might describe as “hystorization”[28] of freedom—and maybe it is here that one should recall that Chakrabarty himself argued that what is needed more than ever is something he also deemed at the same time absolutely impossible: a new historical subject, mankind as species.[29] Yet, maybe the only option here is to take such an impossible landmark as starting point. As Alenka Zupančič has shown elsewhere, already Maurice Blanchot formulated the argument that the first time mankind as species became thinkable was when it faced the threat of the atomic bomb and thus of collective annihilation—so when it seemed impossible for mankind to survive.[30] Taking what appears as impossible as certainty might actually be the only certainty there is.[31] To oppose such impossibility with a “The apocalypse is happening!,”[32] right now, is to forget an important conceptual claim made by many, including most famously Kant: the end of all things cannot appear as a moment within time and history, otherwise it would be the end of all things except time and history and thus it would not be the end of all things. The sense of urgency that is displayed in the assumption that it is happening now either means we are dealing with a category mistake or what is happening is not really apocalyptic (it might nonetheless be very bad, obviously.)

For Kant the insight that the end of all things, the apocalypse, cannot be an element of the present framework of things (otherwise it would be part of the things and not their end) meant that it is not only difficult to conceive of it because it challenges the ways in which we understand ourselves and necessitates that we have to come up with a new and different form of how to relate to earth and to ourselves. For Kant it was quite difficult to conceive because conceptually it confronts us with something that is unthinkable (since for Kant thought has a temporal structure). It confronts us with something that is impossible to think. Yet, he also emphasized that if we want to understand who and what we are and our relation to the space of our actions, we must think it; we thus must think the impossible qua impossible. And it is in this very sense that Abolishing Freedom is Kantian or, to put it differently, why Zupančič’s addition to the canon of provisory moral slogans is applicable here: “The world will surely end, but it won’t be the end of our troubles.”[33]

 

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[1] Mark Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism: Philosophy and the End after the End,” Provocations 1 (2017), 19; https://www.provocationsbooks.com/2017/02/20/geohistorical-materialism/.

[2] Pingree could read the well-known argument of Anders along these same lines, notably that “we are apocalyptic only so we can be wrong”; see Günther Anders, Endzeit und ZeitendeGedanken über die atomare Situation (Munich: Beck, 1972), 26. And one should add that Anders’s figure of thought remains essentially poetic. For a more formal interpretation of this, which is closer to my argument, see Jean-Pierre Dupuy, “Nuclear Deterrence and the Metaphysics of Time,” Problemi International 2.2 (2018), 25-55.

[3] As much as hope is—as I have argued—mostly reactionary, so, too, is the claim and reference to the future a mostly reactionary claim.

[4] Peter Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene: Process-State at the Edge of Geohistory?,” Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, ed. Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015), 330. And Sloterdijk therefore—absolutely compatible with comic fatalism—refers to the German poet Friedrich Grabbe who claimed in 1836 (five years after the death of Hegel): “Nothing but despair can yet rescue us!” (ibid., 338). Can it get any more Lutheran?

[5] Another way of putting it: “The Anthropocene is the Apocalypse, in both the etymological and eschatological senses. Interesting times indeed” (Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, trans. Rodrigo Nunes [Malden: Polity, 2017], 22).

[6] The argument against (this conception of) autonomy is obviously crucial for Abolishing Freedom. Pingree confusingly describes the point above with Latour such that what is needed is a “Hegel without Absolute Spirit; Marx without dialectics”—to steal a witticism from Mladen Dolar, does the latter not sound like moving from a dialectic in standstill to standstill without dialectic? Hegel without absolute spirit supposedly means that in the Anthropocene art, religion and philosophy become useless, as they are unable to tell us anything about the objective and natural world. We are, in Hegel’s terms, then stuck within objective spirit and nature and there is no time or use for art, religion philosophy. But does this mean anything else than “Don’t think! The worst is happening now! So, act!”—a slogan which is indeed a manifestation of the problems that Abolishing Freedom tries to tackle. For more on Marx, see John Bellamy Foster, Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2000); or Ian Angus, Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System (New York: Monthly Review, Press 2016); see Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism,” 21. The reader should also be reminded of Badiou’s actualization of Marx’s early claim about religion and take into account that “ecology is the new opium of the masses!” It is important that it is an opium of (and not simply for) the masses (which raises the stakes in evaluating the current climate movements).

[7] And in a sense, different from Pingree’s intention, he is right; I am trying to think a preparation of that for which one cannot prepare by conceiving of a subject that does not exist. Such a paradoxical subject that philosophy seeks to install in “eventless” times, I called elsewhere an “anticipated subject.” See Frank Ruda, For Badiou: Idealism without Idealism (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2015). To be precise: such a subject is impossible, and it will thus never ever come into being… unless it does.

[8] Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism,” 21.

[9] This is why, for example, Latour symptomatically speaks—not of class struggle, but—of a war between those who are on the side of the object-experience (Terrans) and those who are not (metaphysically disoriented humans); see Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (London: Polity, 2017).

[10] The old saying that it is easier to imagine the end of all life on this planet than the end of capitalism proves here to be very tellingly true.

[11] On another note: already in 1845 Marx and Engels remarked that “nature, the nature that precedes human history… no longer exists anywhere” (Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology, Collected Works, Vol. 5 (London: Lewis & Wishart, 2010), 40. And is it really a surprise that in a time in which Marx’s theory is de facto more true than ever (and thereby really shows all its limitations, so there is again only bad news), when capitalism appears as nature, we start talking in theoretical discourses about anonymous, pre-subjective forces that are at work everywhere and determine the life of our planet?

[12] Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism,” 20.

[13] I frequently state that comic fatalism is a preparation for something for which one cannot prepare, i.e., for an event. An easier rebuttal would thus have been to minimize my claim and state that comic fatalism only applies for this kind of preparation (which is one reason why it seems obvious to me that I am in no way obligated to deny climate change, yet climate change is not an event of the kind that I am describing with Luther, Hegel or Badiou). Another way of responding to this is to point out that it seems rather obvious to me that the current climate disaster is a result of a problematic assumption of the myth of givenness (not of climate stability, but of freedom and sovereign control of the consequences of our actions) and hence does endorse my critical take on misconceptions of freedom.

[14] Unless, as an easy, yet risky answer might run, one is an Engelsian, since then there is a “dialectic of nature”; see Engel’s Dialectics of Nature and other texts on Science: A Reader (London: Pluto Press, 1995).

[15] In this sense, the Anthropocene is also supposed to confront us with a dimension about which psychoanalysis does not have to say anything anymore, as we are leaving even the domain of the unknowingly intended.

[16] P. Krugman, “Apocalypse Becomes the New Normal,” New York Times, January 2, 2020.

[17] See Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (December 2009), 197-222.

[18] Obviously one could avoid this problem if we were—in whatever way—responsible for the constitution of these agents; but then they would obviously also be dialectically related to our actions. And this obviously could not simply mean that we are fully in control and could just turn everything back to “normal.”

[19] I here counter Pingree’s claim that the “always already”—a logic that I do not (!) endorse in all cases—loses its emancipatory edge in the Anthropocene; see Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism,” 20.

[20] One could strengthen this critique by introducing a dialectical concept of nature (one without dialectics in nature) that one can find in Hegel’s philosophy of nature. Its basic feature would be that it is a production of spirit attempting to imagine the absence of itself and then forgetting about being the one who produced it, whereby spirit is actually absent from its own imagination of its own absence. I will develop this more systematically in the future. For first remarks in this direction, see Frank Ruda, “A Squinting Gaze on the Parallax between Spirit and Nature,” in Dominik Finkelde, Christoph Menke, Slavoj Žižek (eds.), Parallax: The Dependence of Reality on its Subjective Constitution (London: Bloomsbury 2020).

[21] See Latour, Facing Gaia, 68.

[22] In fact, it introduces: 1. a primacy of the multiple over the two of dialectics (and such multiplicity, as one can learn from Spinoza to Deleuze, is ultimately always a hidden form of the One—its principle is: “PLURALISM = MONISM”) (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi [Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987], 20); and 2. thus re-introduces a very classical ontological—actually: onto-theological—framework as what is supposed to be apt to confront the new epoch.

[23] Alain Badiou, Qu’est-ce que j’entends par Marxisme? Une conférence donnée par Alain Badiou au séminaire étudiants Lecture de Marx (Paris: Les éditions sociales, 2016), 24.

[24] And is not the ultimate danger, less that cognitive capitalism appropriates the subjective destitution constitutive of comic fatalism (see Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism,” 23), but that the Anthropocene is nothing but what was called the Capitalocene wherein these sub- or non-human processes are identified with, or media and expressions of, market mechanisms (that are increasingly addressed as much in religious terms—“the markets were not satisfied”—as in natural ones—the earthquake as a frequently used metaphor for financial uproar)?

[25] It is this claim that might prove as an important “tipping point of (in)action”; see Danowski and de Castro, The Ends of the World, 45.

[26] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 229.

[27] Hamacher, “Afformative, Strike.”

[28] Jacques Lacan, The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, trans. Alan Sheridan, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller (New York: Norton, 1981), ix.

[29] Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” 220. Here it is important to remark that against Chakrabarty’s pessimism, Latour sees it as his “duty to be optimistic”—a claim which should be read against the background of Sorel’s elaborations above. See Bruno Latour, “Antropólogo Frances Bruno Latour Fala sobre Natureza e Politica, Interview with Fernando Eichenberg,” O Globo, December 28, 2013; https://blogs.oglobo.globo.com/prosa/post/antropologo-frances-bruno-latour-fala-sobre-natureza-politica-519316.html; accessed April 2020.

[30] See Zupančič, “The Apocalypse is (still) disappointing.”

[31] And therefore I think one should oppose dreams of regressing to previous—more naturally embedded—forms of life and their ontologies (from cultures that even experienced their own end of the world before). This version of a literally new “down to earth” politics and its respective ontology seems to be hardly able to avoid many of the traps linked to problematic readings of authenticity and essentialism, alternate modernity, etc. But ultimately it shares with Sorel the great Heideggerian temptation to return to what appears to be lost with the advent of modernity or civilization or the west (in whatever scope or name one prefers); see again Danowski and de Castro, The Ends of the World, 120 and passim.

[32] Pingree, “Geohistorical Materialism,” 24.

[33] Zupančič, “The End,” 9. One might add here a line of thought that Mladen Dolar developed vis-à-vis Shakespeare, Hegel, and Beckett, notably that as long as we can say “this is the worst,” this is not the worst (see Mladen Dolar, “The Endgame of Aesthetics: From Hegel to Beckett,” Problemi International 3.3 [2019], 202)—which is quite similar to the story about the origin of Anna Akhmatova’s poems (retold by Agamben), notably that she was waiting for months in line outside the Leningrad prison in the 1930s and when asked by some other women “Can you speak of this?,” she answered, “Yes, I can” (see Giorgio Agamben, “On Potentiality,” Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, ed. And trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999], 177. This is one way of pointing out what it means to avoid a category mistake. And does it not make things worse if we cannot even say that this is the worst?

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