Tag Archives: climate change

Dogen Zenji

Dogen relates the words of an old Zen master: “Formerly I used to hit sleeping monks so hard that my fist just about broke. Now I am old and weak, so I can’t hit them hard enough. Therefore it is difficult to produce good monks. In many monasteries today the superiors do not emphazise sitting strongly enough, and so Buddhism is declining. The more you hit them, the better.”

The Kyõsaku

In the Soto and Renzai sects of Buddhism the kyōsaku, the “encouragement stick” is used to sharpen a slacking student’s flagging focus, to snap attention back one-pointedly toward the practice and to do so without words “interjecting mind into the seed of awareness.” This pre-emptive concretization of what Arran elsewhere refers to as the “concussive blunt force trauma of nihilism” becomes the post-nihilist realization that there are no carrots (they’ve gone extinct) yet we still require motivation – that we caused the extinction and such extinction in return must be our ultimate stick.

The essential purpose of the kyōsaku is to arouse the “last vestiges of dormant energy” in someone sitting in zazen, to shake the foundation to test for weaknesses, to push one through the shell of self-delusion and into true Self-understanding. Used to rouse drowsy sitters, to spur on striving ones. When the body slumps and the attention loses tautness, opening the way to invading hordes of anxious computation, Bassui tells us the stick is “unequaled for raising one’s concentrative intensity” and anyone that has faced a physically painful reminder of task knows how this kind of blow has the ability to knock all such computation from the head. The dangers to one that grasps on tightly to the outcome of the task reveal themselves in the anxious spiralling feedback of believing the computation necessary is intrinsically accomplished by the individualized self-conception, and that this loss of awareness of active computation is indicative of lost control and a failing.

In this light I have begun to view socioeconomic/political/climatic currents and futures as the escalating attempts to command our attention, rising beyond dismissable events into a space in which we find ourselves “fundamentally pummeled by the lunatic potency of nature” but a nature in Timothy Morton’s words that is beyond simple ecology. A Nature of physical laws commanding infinite dissolution of all Objects into the darkest (non)matter. It is within the eye of all our future storms that I find myself most completely at a kind of strange brutal peace, at the receiving end of this prolonged, protracted, yet sharp crack of the kyōsaku in which I’m reminded that the only tool is Self and the sharpening of the tool of Self upon the unyielding stone of the Real reveals the ultimate ever-becoming/ever-being-eaten ourobouros of Mu that only appears savage because we are genetically terrified of our one true purpose as biologicals – to disintegrate.

That nature is regarded as ultimately alien by those committed to a technocratic future betrays the inconsistence of any kind of transhuman drive-to-life. When Death is considered the ultimate horizon and not simply one horizon, the inherent fear of uncertainty in the mind of one endoctrinated toward the ideal of Control embodied by Burroughs’ so-called One-God Universe (think monotheism/governmental oversight/language as dominant mode of communication/mathematical formalism pre-Cantor/Gödel/ego-driven default mode self-reflective brain operation) becomes rampant and infects all nodes of calculation with its top-down oscillatory anxiety that vibrates the entire webwork of conceptual thought. Error-correction goes offline, and the mind is evolutionarily trained to retreat to any conception of stability and safety it understands. The modern mind is uniquely mismatched against an “opponent” that is the ultimate perfect exemplar of sitzfleisch.

The kyōsaku attenuates this vibration.


The webwork becomes taut.

In the hands of a sensitive, enlightened godo, able to strike when the iron is hot, or for that matter to make the iron hot by striking, the kyōsaku intelligently applied can, without paining the sitter, elicit that superhuman burst of energy which leads to one-pointed mind becoming spontaneously realized. In the temple the heaviest blows are reserved for the earnest and courageous and not wasted on slackers or the timid. It is never administered as chastisement or out of personal punishment. The one struck raises their hands in a reverent gesture of gratitude known as gassho and the godo in turn acknowledges this with a bow in the spirit of mutual respect and understanding. “The adage that a poor horse can’t be made to run fast no matter how hard or how often he is whipped is well understood in the zendo.”

There is no denying, however, that for the Euromerican mind, unable to disabuse themselves of the notion that beatings with a stick are an affront to their dignity, the kyōsaku will always remain a menace rather than a goad. It has been said that love without force is weakness and force without love is brutality, and it cannot be emphasized enough that the administration of the kyōsaku is not a matter of simply striking one with a stick. Indeed, if the stick is to be a spur and not a thorn, the act must be of compassion, force, and wisdom conjoined. The godo in the temple must be one of strong spirit and a compassionate heart, that has undertaken to identify themselves with the deepest spiritual aspirations of those sitting in zazen.

Although this post can be read alone, it might make sense to read it in sequence. The previous posts can be found here and here. I have at least two further posts planned in this sequence.

Ecopsychopathology: Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder

In 2012 a psychiatrist and United States National Wildlife Federation published a study on the psychological effects of climate change. The report is full, considered and features some pragmatic words of advice around “awakening” people to existential threat of ecological collapse and discusses how ‘psychology can help us understand what ignites an environmental consciousness and steers it into action’ (Coyle and Susteren, 2012). It also details how woefully unprepared the US psychiatric system is for the escalating psychological fallout of climate change. Nature is about to unlock all our repressed and hidden madness.

One of the authors of the report, forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren, has coined the term “pre-traumatic stress disorder” to discuss the effects on the psychological state of the scientists, academic and their assistant who are gather, analysing and reporting on the hard data of climate change. In an interview from September of this year, Van Susteren explained the term as ‘what I see. It’s what I live. It’s what I see others living’. In a story in Grist we are told that

“It’s an intense preoccupation with thoughts we cannot get out of our minds,” Van Susteren says. And for some, it’s a preoccupation that extends well outside of the office. “Everyday irritations as parents and spouses have their place, they’re legitimate,” she says. “But when you’re talking about thousands of years of impacts and species, giving a shit about whether you’re going to get the right soccer equipment or whether you forgot something at school is pretty tough.”

What’s even more deflating for a climate scientist is when sounding the alarm on climatic catastrophes seems to fall on deaf ears. “How would that make you feel? You take this information to someone and they say they don’t believe you, as if it’s a question of beliefs,” says Jeffrey Kiehl, senior scientist for climate change research at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “I’m not talking about religion here, I’m talking about facts.

The 2012 report also details the effects that studying climate change is having on these researchers. An example comes from a researcher who has invested 10 years studying one coastal reef:

It’s gotten to be so depressing that I’m not sure I’m going to go back to this particular site again because I just know I’m going to see more and more of it dead, and bleached, and covered with brown algae (Coyle and Susteren).

Climate science as thanatology. The investigation of marine ecosystems become the assessing of a graveyard. Encounters with a dying a ecology: the local material eco-collapse as the causal occasion for the neuropsychological one. You go to work to find your dream job of charting the vibrancy of life revealing to you only death and the promise of more death- of extinctions. Powerless witness to the violence of the demonic will to live,  you are a mortuary attendant and morgue worker for the world. You passively register the dying off the Earth. And no one listens. No one cares.

Another report, this time from Esquire:

Among climate activists, gloom is building. Jim Driscoll of the National Institute for Peer Support just finished a study of a group of longtime activists whose most frequently reported feeling was sadness, followed by fear and anger. Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a practicing psychiatrist and graduate of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth slide-show training, calls this “pretraumatic” stress. “So many of us are exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of posttraumatic disorder—the anger, the panic, the obsessive intrusive thoughts.” Leading activist Gillian Caldwell went public with her “climate trauma,” as she called it, quitting the group she helped build and posting an article called “16 Tips for Avoiding Climate Burnout,” in which she suggests compartmentalization: “Reinforce boundaries between professional work and personal life. It is very hard to switch from the riveting force of apocalyptic predictions at work to home, where the problems are petty by comparison.

The despair is easy to understand if we consider that reputable climatologists like Paul R Ehlrich are providing us information that leads them to conclude that

The evidence is incontrovertible that recent extinction rates are unprecedented in human history and highly unusual in Earth’s history. Our analysis emphasizes that our global society has started to destroy species of other organisms at an accelerating rate, initiating a mass extinction episode unparalleled for 65 million years. If the currently elevated extinction pace is allowed to continue, humans will soon (in as little as three human lifetimes) be deprived of many biodiversity benefits. On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify. (Ehlrich et al. 2015)

At the risk of overloading this post with quotes culled from elsewhere, the same Esquire article manages to report some of the most worrying data regarding my generation, and the kids coming up after me:

A 2007 poll of more than a thousand middle schoolers found that almost 60 percent feared climate change more than terrorism, car crashes or cancer. Roughly the same percentage thought more needed to be done to combat the threat, and more than 40 percent reported that concern about climate change occasionally occupies their minds.

“Unlike adults who can put their heads in the sand … kids are very aware of what’s going on,” said Chris Saade, a North Carolina-based psychotherapist, in a 2014 interview with The Globe and Mail. “Children often ask me questions that we, as adults, try to evade: ‘What is going to happen to the human race?’ ”

Most of the middle schoolers from 2007 are now in their early 20s. For a generation that was born after the Cold War and came of age in the Anthropocene, to what extent does climate fear persist into young adulthood?

In a June 2015 Pew poll, 51 percent of Americans aged 18 to 29 rated climate change a “very serious” problem, compared to 47 percent of those 30 to 49, 44 percent of those 50 to 64, and 41 percent of those 65 and over. Fifty-one percent may seem a slim majority, but in light of what we know about human psychology, it’s actually quite striking. A 2009 report on climate-change psychology by the American Psychological Association explains that people tend to underestimate the danger of events perceived as having a “small probability.” Climate risks, which are believed by many to be uncertain, far off in the future, or occurring in remote parts of the planet, should follow this logic.

Yet a majority of millennials rate the threat as very serious. While polls shed some light on young people’s concern levels, no large qualitative surveys exist to illuminate the depth of their worries or how the emotional impact of climate change influences their life choices.

Gillian Calderwell has listed the symptoms of pre-traumatic stress on her own blog: anxiety and stress, fear and hopelessness, the sense of “living in a parallel universe” – ‘Don’t people see that we are headed straight off a cliff?’- and depression, irritability and anger. It is all too easy to imagine that in these situations people suffer intrusive images of apocalypse: the desertification of the earth, the boiling away of the oceans, a desiccated, husk of a lifeless world. At its extreme edge this is the vision of the future that has led to advocates of near-term human extinction such as Michael Ruppert to kill themselves. The mad black environmentalist suicide-priest of the NTHE movement is Guy McPherson. While McPherson’s data has been the subject of controversy and he is usually painted as an irresponsible hysteric, it seems like spending any amount of time with the psychological literature gives his words an existential weight. For instance, he is quoted as saying:

We’re human animals, and I know animals require habitat to survive…when there is no ability to grow food or secure water, humans will exit the planetary stage. [-It is worth reading the full article, titled “Suicidal Environmentalism”].

Enter the retro-futurist nostalgia of space capitalism and terrestrial escape. Red Mars for everyone!
Speaking from my own first-person perspective, I have been sunk into exactly these symptoms myself. It is impossible to genuinely attempt to cognize the full horror of catastrophic climate change without lapsing into this pre-traumatic despair. I have spent time wilted and enraged and shredding my nerves, unable to float along with daily living, and seriously questioning the sanity of all those whose politics does not or cannot begin to mitigate the worst near-term effects of such an unprecedented disaster of such an enormous scale.

As a final quote I want to take the most basic definition of Post-Traumatic Stress. Here is Wikipedia’s take on PTSD as

a condition of persistent mental and emotional stress occurring as a result of injury or severe psychological shock, typically involving disturbance of sleep and constant vivid recall of the experience, with dulled responses to others and to the outside world.

Driving me onward here is the question- what is it to experience an anticipatory psychopathology in which the effect precedes the cause? In this strange new landscape time itself appears to appear in a psychotic or demented form that defies the typical phenomenology of temporal linearity, contorting the principle of sufficient reason into a hideous and bizarre shape, effectively ruining its organization of experience as such? How can one experience the psychic effects of events that have not yet taken place in that experience? Far from being a simple matter of fear of a wave about to crash is it possible that pre-traumatic stress disorder enacts a psychosis at the very core of human cognition? Is this the outcome of our self-mutilating striving after knowledge we are ill evolved to handle?

These questions are haunted by the image of the scientist who is driven to suidice by her research into that which has not yet happened but is nonetheless happening.

In the next post in the sequence I plan to look briefly at the phenomenology of pre-traumatic stress disorder and a couple ways we have attempted to cognize catastrophe without falling prey to it. I also plan to return to Lovecraft in another post, before concluding the sequence by examining this disturbing psychotic temporality of pre-trauma.

Coyle, K. and Susteren, LV. 2012. The Psychological Effects of Global Warming: And why the US Mental Health System is not Prepared. Here.

What is a human? An ape stumbling quite stupidly through a world threatening to collapse. An organism that considers itself to be thriving. It has done quite well in its own estimation. It has colonised almost everywhere on earth. It transforms things, environments. It makes the uninhabitable into habitation, environment into home, Earth into World. All that is coming to a close. In the midst of ecological breakdown we are being reduced to nothing- to jabbering madmen, survivors staring into the eyes of their own corpses.

We are told that by 2100 the planet could be 6C hotter than it is today. There is a 10% chance. This is not a negligible figure. Such a rise in average global temperatures will deliver a mass extinction- a great biotic die-off. The organic survivors of this catastrophe will face collapsing civil and material infrastructures, food poverty, severe shortages of drinking water, an increase in violence and psychopathology, and the prospect of a life that is nasty brutal and short. This is the merest and most cursory picture of what will become of these little humans.

HP Lovecraft gave us a glimpse at what such a world would be like in his story Till A’ the Seas. In that story we join a nameless man who serves as our anonymous human perspective on the inexorable dying of an Earth that is plunging into the sun. From the narrator’s perspective it is

as if the planet meant to return to that source whence it was snatched, aeons ago, through the accidents of cosmic growth’ (Lovecraft & Barlow).

It is as if the Earth itself were invested with some residue of consciousness, or if not consciousness then a desire to set right this ‘accident’. The expansion of the universe and the formation of the celestial bodies is construed as a cosmic disequilibrium so great and distressing that the Earth wills to set it right. Lovecraft’s narrator speaks of the Earth’s movement into the furnace of the sun’s thermonuclear ferocity as if it were a familial scene: the sun is conceived of as the ‘fiery parent’, and so the Earth must be positioned as child who has been separated, indeed ‘snatched’ away from the maternal embrace. The bonds of attachment resemble some invocation of a natural order beyond the merely material order. The Earth cast as the victim of a kidnapping that is identical to the formation of the solar system, the sun as the parent who welcomes the child’s return. Our very existence is a sideshow to this great cosmic Oedipal drama, an unimportant irritant like a bruise sustained by a kidnap victim bundled into the back of a van.

Along with this weird family scene that seems to mock our human families and the self-importance of the myths and structures founded upon them, is the idea of the Earth returning to its preferred state. The preferred state of the Earth is its own non-existence.

Lovecraft’s resolute materialism conveys itself in the trappings of a lunatic mythologisation, but this time not that of Cthullu or the Old One’s. Instead we are given something more akin to theosophical or gnostic superstitions: the Earth has a soul with desires. And yet we must pay attention to the “as if” that operates as to suspend such a concrete interpretation. The Earth has no soul and no desire and no will of its own, although it seems to. Beneath such seeming then is a blind and senseless drive- The Earth is blindly driving towards its own destruction as if it were a return to some state of equilibrium. It is hard not to think of Freud speaking of the death drive as a primitive inhuman urge subtending individuated organic entities to return to the state of inorganic “quiescence” prior to the emergence of life.

Regardless of whether or not Lovecraft or we as his readers believe in an actually existing death drive is irrelevant. The sense of horror is already given over to us. The “as if” secures it in our minds: the only way to cognize the Earth being swallowed into the sun is to imagine it blindly enacting an absolutely inhuman suicide. In this context the Earth becomes the Planet that operates according to its own geologic that has absolutely nothing to do with human enterprise, ingenuity or invention. In this setting our death is like the death of a parasite on a supremely more important host. The Planet is the Dark Gaia that neither knows we are here nor would care if it were even capable of doing so. We aren’t its victims or its puppets but the totally insignificant biotic fauna that happens to populate its scorched epidermal layers: tics on the skin of the Planet, burnt to a cinder, forgotten.

For all the horror of the cosmic indifference of planetary suicide, the story is packed with more immediately material and proximal terror. Take the description of the slow unfolding of the catastrophic temporality that we are already caught within:

The ever-present heat, as Earth drew nearer to the sun, withered and killed with pitiless rays. It had not come at once; long aeons had gone before any could feel the change. And all through those first ages man’s adaptable form had followed the slow mutation and modelled itself to fit the more and more torrid air. Then the day had come when men could bear their hot cities but ill, and a gradual recession began, slow yet deliberate. Those towns and settlements closest to the equator had been first, of course, but later there were others. Man, softened and exhausted, could cope no longer with the ruthlessly mounting heat. It seared him as he was, and evolution was too slow to mould new resistances in him (Lovecraft & Barlow).

It is this “ever-present heat” that leads the narrator to speculate on the possibility of the Earth’s secret suicidal drive- an inhuman and totally impersonal suicide, having nothing to do with psychologies or moralities whatsoever. It is as if the narrator shares in the story’s protagonist’s heat derangement as the last man at the end of things. Lovecraft describes this heating world perfectly, and despite the form it appears in it describes the consequences and gives some sense of the world we face. Or that our descendants face.

Lovecraft tells us that cities are abandoned when chronic sickness sets in, that wars would rage, that agriculture would fail due to arid lands, and that, after a migration to the artic regions, mankind will succumb to a universal insanity, complete with new cults and prophesies and human sacrifices as the museums are reclaimed by a wilderness that smothers out the last remnants of Enlightenment and civilisation. Finally, it is the boiling away of the oceans, at first a balmy succour that gives rise to improved agricultural conditions, that does for humanity. We drown in thirst.

It is as if Lovecraft were himself the possessor of a terrible prophetic power. To imagine the New England writer of weird tales huddling in his New York apartment, plagued by visions of the end of humanity as the temperature rose slowly around it to suffocate it- as the temperature rises to suffocate us. In this most material of horrors there is no need to invoke an Old One as the Old Ones are the Earth and Sun themselves.

Lovecraft’s climate of horror becomes a horror of the climate.

As ever Lovecraft makes use of his technique of describing that which defies description. For me this technique resembles nothing so much as the panic stricken survivor who cannot believe what has happened and yet nonetheless must desperately try to parse traumatic events. This stammering contradiction is the result of a brain that demands that things must make sense and that these things cannot make sense all at once. For the senseless to make sense is to destroy the navigational schemas that constitute the safe banality of our worlds and usher in an ontological lunacy that belongs to the order of the real itself.  So he stammers, or rather draws us on, an unbelieving witness nonetheless speaking from a detached position of cool certainty:

It cannot be described, this awesome chain of events that depopulated the whole Earth; the range is too tremendous for any to picture or encompass. Of the people of Earth’s fortunate ages, billions of years before, only a few prophets and madmen could have conceived that which was to come—could have grasped visions of the still, dead lands, and long-empty sea-beds. The rest would have doubted . . . doubted alike the shadow of change upon the planet and the shadow of doom upon the race. For man has always thought himself the immortal master of natural things. . . .(Lovecraft and Barstow)

Our narrator existing after the end of the world freely admits he cannot fulfil the role of the one in the world-without-us. Lovecraft positions himself as the prophet or the madman seated comfortably in the “fortunate ages” of the civilisation. It invites us to ask whether we are still within the boundaries of that fortunate age, or whether we have stepped out into the beginning of the desolation. The narrator continues, giving us the valuation of humanity that is typical of Lovecraftian fictions:

And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind were summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been! Now indeed had come an end and climax to all the efforts of humanity—how monstrous and incredible a climax in the eyes of those poor complacent fools of the prosperous days! Not ever again would the planet know the thunderous tramping of human millions—or even the crawling of lizards and the buzz of insects, for they, too, had gone. Now was come the reign of sapless branches and endless fields of tough grasses. Earth, like its cold, imperturbable moon, was given over to silence and blackness forever (Lovecraft and Barstow) .

Is this a piece of speculative writing? a prophetic vision? a message sent back from the future? or is Lovecraft himself a bearer of the dark potency of some primal schizophrenic hyperstitional invocation? Is the narrator of “Til A’the Seas” in fact some alien intelligence- machinic or extra-terrestrial- recording the final endnotes in the history of the human race? Are we privy to these concluding lines as a torture? or as a warning, a kind of “brace for impact”? Is Lovecraft little more than the recording device of some analogue to Uatu the Watcher? Even that last comic suggestion would still inspire only the nervous laughter of minds pulled towards the notion that in this short story they are reading the actual obituary of their species. “The humans died, and it didn’t matter”.

Either way, reading this story undoubtedly inspires an uncanny sense of both foreboding and resignation. Here it is all to come, and already happened. Time- the basic coordinate of human existence- lies mutilated. What happens to the mind when time and space are wrenched from it?

And here we are somewhere in the middle of a process we cannot hope to reverse, despite all our arrogance. So much of this slowly unravelling doom is already here in the present day, and so much of what is not yet here is here already as if in latency- as if waiting to pounce. The catastrophe has already happened, it is just unevenly distributed.

Of course in Lovecraft’s story, co-written with anthropologist, the catastrophe isn’t caused by humans or by capitalism. He would not be interested in the masochistic narcissism of “The Anthropocene”, and despite his romantic anti-capitalism one couldn’t really see Lovecraft going in for talk of a Capitalocene either. The speculative moment of Lovecraft’s tale- that the Earth is making a suicide bid according to an involuntary terrestrial death drive- can be restated in more deflated terms: here is a concept of nature that is wildly indifferent, and hostile to human life because of it.  It is nature that destroys us.

At the outset I asked what is a human? It is an ape that can

 see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos…’ (From Beyond).

Curiously, Lovecraft’s writing reveals that the function of horror is to expose human beings to images and scenarios that might drive them insane in the hopes of this providing a therapeutic function against nature. To borrow a phrase from Frederic Jameson it is as if Lovecraft’s fiction operated as a “homeopathic expropriation”: an immersion into the primordial chaos of matter to better prepare us to survive the latent threat of insanity contained within it- or at least to mitigate the impact on collision of its furious demolitions.

As a rigorous materialist Lovecraft knows that humans are apes and that apes are part of nature. Yet nature is set up as a malignant force operating against the human, working towards its own extinction and dragging us down into fiery destruction with it. If Lovecraft will elsewhere maintain that humans are hardly any better he nonetheless sets up a kind partition between humanity and nature. The schism cannot be healed. One will destroy the other, or the other will destroy the one.

And the final verdict of mankind’s fate, given in the closing line:

a broken figure that lay in the slime.

Amidst all this, cries go out that we must

Save the Earth.

Save the Whales.

Save the Children.

Salvation and redemption: our last and most desperate religious sentiments.


HP Lovecraft and RH Barlow, “Till ‘A The Seas”. Here.

Survival, in the sense Desert suggests it to me, is something completely different, for in it any social group or kin network, as it attempts to live on, cannot draw significant lines of difference (of identification, therefore) between itself and others. It melts into a humanity collectively resisting death. Needless to say this is something entirely different than the revolutionary process as it has been imagined and attempted. There is no future to plan for, only a present to survive in, and that is the implosion of politics as we have known it- Alejandro de Acosta, Green Nihilism or Cosmic Pessimism.

The wilderness of unknowing

In the short text Green Nihilism or Cosmic Pessimism we see a step towards the development of a speculative and survivalist anarchism. The author of the text states that Desert, a pessimistic essay on the catastrophic future, was dismissed by most anarchists who read it as being entirely depressing. The same author holds out little hope for their own writing, predicting that it will be met with ‘revulsion’ by most readers. I regularly describe myself as an anarchist…so what do I mean? How can anarchism sit with post-nihilist praxis without retaining an attachment to one of those 19th century ideologies that would serve only to blinker us to the present and to the conditions now being born… the wasteland of the future?

‘Green nihilism’  really gets going when it sits Desert alongside Eugene Thacker’s In the dust of this planet in order to discuss the unpredictability and the unknowability of the real:

As Desert invokes the present and coming anarchy and chaos, it admits the weirdness of the future (for our inherited thought patterns and political maps, at least); when Dust of this Planet gestures to the weirdness and unthinkability of the world, it invokes the current and coming biological, geological, and climatological chaos of the planet.

As the Alejandro de Acosta, author of Green Nihilism, notes there is a slippage, a movement, a reciprocity between these two positions. One takes climate science as the lens by which to know the world whilst also asserting that any linear continuation of the present coordinates of understanding and anticipating the world are in the process of being shattered; the other reveals the world-without-us that Thacker names the Planet and this corresponds to a non-image of the world in itself in its withdrawn and inaccessible state, a name that stands only to represent our cognitive inability to penetrate the real all the way down. Our scientific discourses capture aspects of the Planet and freeze into an image- what we might call the Scientific Image of the Earth- that is made accessible for human endeavors and finally must be shackled to such. We generate scientific knowledge always for ourselves, to maximise our capacities, to make better interventions into the materiality of the flesh, so we can power our machines, extract ore from the crust, sail across oceans or fly between continents or escape the atmosphere of our little blue and green speck, and, of course, to make life both easier with labour saving technologies, and harder with their consistent meshing as part of the machinic interfaces of capitalism. So we measure, we record, we make an impression of the environment and the ecologies we are structurally and existentially involved in the processes of coping with, and in doing so produce all our fields of knowledge, chief among them, in terms of our access to the matters of materiality, being the natural sciences.

Thacker names this Earth the ‘designation we have given something’ that reveals itself to thought by way of the scientific method. It corresponds to an anthropocentric view of the real and to a strong anthropic principle that states that the cosmos necessarily had to give rise to the kind of creatures that could make such observations and recordings. In the language of the moribund speculative realism this Manifest Image belongs to a variety of correlationism: being and thought, the structure of things and the means to access them, coincide and must always be taken as part of  mutual circularity from which nothing is excluded in principle. The strong anthropic principle holds that “Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being”- the presence of the observer and the presence of the real are logically coextensive. Thacker counters that there is also the Planet

By necessity there are characteristic that are not accounted for, that are not measured, and that remain hidden and occulted…this remainder, perhaps, is the “Planet” (Thacker, 7).

The Planet as remainder is both the excessive and the residue that denies the supremacy of the observer and proclaims that the Planet is neither for-us or for-itself but “occult”, an abyssic dimension that refuses us knowledge- it is the world passed over into silence, that about which we cannot speak. It is what Michael has called the wilderness of being and which is characterised by its autonomy from the low-res improvisational field work of human cognition and is marked by ‘spaciousness, ‘wildness’ (precariousness, chaos)’ and partial knowability. Impersonal, anonymous, appearing on the horizon like the inverse image of God derived from mystical negative theology, except that this is still a register of the real that we have contact with, simply it is a dimension that can’t be described or made to appear to phenomenality. With Michael’s wilderness we have the sense of the fullness, the density, the complexity and richness of entanglement that images of a truly wild green space conjure in our imagination; but the term ‘remainder’ is altogether more stark, more austere, and distinctly less vibrant. In fact the Planet is the obliteration of all terrestrial horizons- there is nothing here that could form the horizontal limit for a finite subjectivity. The Planet is dispenses with subjects and objects.

There is a sense in which the remainder, a concept we could unpack almost endlessly, can be framed against the wild-ness of wilderness as the gleaming whiteness of the skeleton beneath the flesh of the soft knowable and experiential organic body. The skeleton, that physical memento mori, speaks of a durability that exceeds our soft tissues, our sensuality , and opens us up to coming-undone of our illusions, reveals the temporary aggregation of the ensemble of our body, which is our being, and so to the existential territories that coagulate into our worlds. The Planet serves in our cognitive matrix embodied in synaptic operations and text on the page and screen as an exercise in the coming-to-be of ourselves and our worlds, the passing-away of ourselves and our worlds, and thus recalls the carnal, machinic, and ontological vulnerabilities of both. It short, the Planet outlasts us, came before us, and exists beneath us, without us, in abject indifference to us (as such it could be called evil: what is evil except absolute indifference?).

If Thacker’s work goes towards an atheist mysticism this isn’t simply an inheritance of philosophical pessimists like Schopenhauer and Cioran; it is because humanity is still a “theological animal”, thanks to our heuristics for building representations of the world, and even more than this it is because the real itself is, to mutate a mystical term, a wilderness of unknowing. This is the planetary and cosmological ecology of the real: a ruined vibrant darkness; an austere wilderness. No one lives here. No one survives.

In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard famously described the coming age of postmodernism as a the dissolution of grand narratives, that is, overarching schemes or horizons of thought that move the unifies social forces. “…it is possible,” he wrote, “that these narratives are already no longer the principal driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge.”[1] From then on, postmodernism became a buzzword, bound up in a nebulous array of definition, counter-definition, debate, celebration, and disgust. It found its application rapidly in the worlds of art, literature, and architecture: postmodern allowed the creator to step outside the conditions of progress and time itself, blending effortlessly the old and the new, the high-brow and the low-brow, the abstract with the concrete.

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The Postmodern Condition is name-checked endlessly, yet something that seems to be repeatedly glossed over is that fact that the argument put forward by Lyotard is a discourse grounded in techno-scientific development, or more properly, an analysis of a new mode of organization emerging from within a new techno-economic paradigm[2] – that of the rise of computing power, and the regime of post-industrial capitalism that it empowered. This is clear from the book’s opening paragraph:

Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. This transition has been under way since at least the end of the 1950s, which for Europe marks the completion of reconstruction. The pace is faster or slower depending on the country, and within countries it varies according to the sector of activity: the general situation is one of temporal disjunction which makes sketching an overview difficult. A portion of the description would necessarily be conjectural. At any rate, we know that it is unwise to put too much faith in futurology.[3]

By pointing to the 1950s as the moments in which postmodernism began its ascendancy, Lyotard is grounding his discourse in the development of the information theory and systems thinking, both interrelated byproducts of World War 2 era scientific research. In the models advanced by these theories, the lines demarcating man and machine – and nature by extension – collapse into an array of feedback loops, distributed flows, and emergent patterns following shifts from equilibria to disequilibria and back again. From one perspective these developments point towards the possibilities of new ethical formations – such was the work, for example, of Gregory Bateson, among others. Yet the sciences were born in the hull of the so-called military-industrial complex, and it was to the twin powers of war and industry and they have largely remained coupled. In elliptical fashion, Lyotard acknowledges this historical composition: coupling “society” to ‘postindustrialization’ and cultural to “postmodernism”, he argues that the “decline of narrative can be seen as an effect of the blossoming of techniques since the Second World War, which has shifted the emphasis from ends of actions to its means; it can also be seen as an effect of the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism after its retreat under the protection of Keynesianism…”[4]

Neither of these trajectories, in fact, is capable of being separated from one another. As the history traced in Philip Mirowski’s difficult – yet essential – Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science[5] illustrates, the theories that became neoliberal capitalism were themselves honed in the military’s think-tanks alongside research into cybernetics, game theory, operations research and systems analysis, as well as the correlated evolutions in computer technology necessitated by the war effort and the demands of the rising Cold War. These trajectories broke upon unto the international stage in 1972, when the crisis of the dollar’s imminent devaluation led President Nixon (under the advice of Chicago School economist Milton Friedman) to remove the US currency from its gold standard, thereby undermining the worldwide monetary order and demolishing the international regulatory scheme arranged by the post-war Bretton Woods institutions. The result was the dizzying explosion of finance markets: without gold, global interest rates were no longer fixed, and became instead free-floating and flexible. Computerized marketplaces proliferated, opening spaces where futures contracts could be traded across a variety of international currencies. The rise of finance economies around these trading hubs played directly into the evaporating of industrial bases of the dominant world economies, and aided by dynamic modelizations and enhanced communication techniques made possible by information technologies, vast transnational supply chains cris-crossed the globe. No longer did corporations have to kowtow to the regulatory and taxation demands of the state and the costly worker protections of the unions – they now had the freedom to move anywhere in the world, seeking out the lowest possible costs for production. Under the reorganization of global economic systems through neoliberal governmentality and computerization, the largest narrative of them all – that of the state – was repurposed into something else, awash in the dizzying logistics of electronic flow and uneven planes of development.

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“I have been vacillating between depression and acceptance of where we are, both as victims – fragile human beings – and as perpetrators: We are the species responsible for altering the climate system of the planet we inhabit to the point of possibly driving ourselves extinct, in addition to the 150-200 species we are already driving extinct. Can you relate to this grieving process?”


On Matters of Concern:
Ontological Politics, Ecology, and the Anthropo(s)cene

Adrian Ivakhiv 

Ontology is in; epistemology is out. The question is no longer how we know what we know, but what is: what are the fundamental constituents of the universe, what is their nature, how do they relate and differ, and so on. Ontology, furthermore, is political. Or so a certain glean of the intellectual and philosophical landscape might suggest. Ontology has become an issue (again) among philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, science and technology scholars, and others, in a way that it has not been for perhaps a century.

This paper arises from an entanglement of conversations in ecologically informed philosophy. Most specifically, it emerged from debates within the movement of “speculative realism” around the subspecies of that genre known as Object-Oriented Ontology (“OOO”) and its defense of an ontology of objects rather than processes. More broadly, the paper attends to conversations in the “ontopolitical” milieu of contemporary social, cultural, and environmental theory, a milieu in which posthumanism, critical animal studies, actor-network theory, assemblage theory, critical realism, agential realism, nonrepresentational theory, enactive and embodied cognitivism, post-phenomenology, multispecies ethnography, integral ecology, and various forms of “new materialism,” “geophilosophy,” and “cosmopolitics” fashion themselves as intellectual responses to the predicament indicated by such terms as the ecocrisis, the climate crisis, and the Anthropocene.

One of the lines of debate to which this paper responds is that between those who believe we have lost a sense for the objects that make up the world and those who believe that what we need is a more nuanced account of processes, both those encompassing human-nonhuman relations today and those encompassing all dimensions of the knowable universe. Object- oriented philosophers, like Graham Harman (2005, 2009, 2011), Levi Bryant (2011, 2014), Ian Bogost (2012), and Timothy Morton (2013), begin from the premise that the best description of the world is one that attends closely to the objects that make it up. This is their “realism” more broadly, and their “objectivism” more specifically. While this premise sounds, at first blush, not unlike phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s call “back to the things themselves,” the difference is that Husserl approached those “things” through the human perception of them—to which Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others added an emphasis on interpretation, language, discourse, embodiment, decision, and other contextual determinants of human experience. Object-oriented philosophers are more interested in decentering human perception and experience, so that it is no more valued in principle than any other kind of experience. In part, this is out of a desire to account for a world that, as Bryant (2010, par. 1) has put it, “far from reducing the number of existing objects as alleged by reductive materialisms, has actually experienced a promiscuous proliferation and multiplication of objects of all sorts.”

This desire to acknowledge the proliferation of objects is a valuable step for philosophers insofar as it returns us to a concern for the world, and not merely for humanity. Yet it is important to recognize that this proliferation results, in large part, from the tremendous proliferation of commodities in a capitalist world-economy—the most productive economy the world has seen, whose productivity relies on the extraction of substances from their processual relations to produce things that appear to have no such relations—objects that are simply there, for us to admire, desire, purchase, and use. The “objectivity” of these objects is a product of a set of relations; it is illusory, or partial in any case, to the extent that these objects are not simply objects as such, but that they, for all their specificity, arise out of certain kinds of processes (extractive, productive), give rise to others (consumptive, waste-producing), and entangle their owners in relational ecologies that are morally imbued, materially generative, and dramatic in their effects on the world that is passed on to future generations.

The approach I advocate in what follows shares object-oriented philosophers’ goal of a metaphysical realism, but approaches it from a direction that is in some respects the polar opposite. It begins from the premise that, in an ultimate sense, there are no objects, only events, and that what defines those events is a relational encounter in which subjectivity is central. This does not mean that it begins as a “revolt against substance,” for the world of relational process is as substantive as any world of objects can be. It begins, however, from the subjective encounter. It begins, following Alfred North Whitehead (1933), Martin Heidegger (1962), Bruno Latour (2003), and Isabelle Stengers (1997), from matters of concern, and it does this because it is such matters that we are always in the midst of. It begins with a refusal to extricate the “knowing self” or “subject” from the relations that constitute it. This article proposes an evocation of what a “process-relational” ontology entails at its phenomenological and hermeneutic outset: a beginning from matters of concern, yet a beginning that allows a reaching outward to others who are similarly bound up—openly and not deterministically—within their own matters of concern.