Sunday, February 21, 2016

Animal warmth

I finished reading this little book today. It's the book version of the essay whose title I'll be gesturing at in my reflections on the future of the philosophy of religion on Friday. It's a well written diatribe, which starts with a bracing synthesis of the evidence for galloping climate change and a depressing review of the failure in political responses to it at every level . Then comes a rather grim assessment of human destiny: Roy Scranton thinks the inevitability of conflict is something we've been sheltered from by optimism about "infinite perfectibility," an optimism itself floated by the promises of unending growth made possible by carbon capitalism in the last few centuries. ([San Francisco: City Lights, 2015], 22)  An unsentimental but somehow beautiful history of humanity in the context of the opening and closings of eras and aeons in the history of life on earth follows.

It's not a pessimistic book. There is hope that humanity can survive in the Anthropocene, in new cultural forms - but only if we learn to "die" to the desires, behaviors and expectations of fossil fuel civilization. Needed is a "new enlightenment," a philosophy of interrupting natural-seeming flows of feeling and fear. (That philosophizing is learning to die, Scranton reminds us, has been known since Montaigne, citing Seneca, invoking Socrates, though Scranton also has Dōgen's Zen in mind; the interrupting language comes from Sloterdijk.) And although we're doomed to fail - all of us will die - there is hope yet in memory. A reading of Gilgamesh offers it as an emblem for a concrete hope. Not only does it survive, but it itself preserves a memory of even more ancient times, including a civilizational shift - that from agricultural to herder - perhaps as jarring as the one we'll be going through as the carbon civilization bites the dust. The cosmos, an oracular ending which quotes the Bhagavad Gita and sounds Spinozan and Nietzschean bells intones, started with a flash of light, a light which we too participate in and can take some kind of comfort in being part of.

I can't follow to the end. It was bothering me already with the inescapability of Heraclitus "compulsion of strife," and really lost me when this was connected to our "animal" selves.

But while dying may be the easiest thing in the world to do, it's the hardest thing in the world to do well - we are predisposed to avoid, ignore, flee, and fight it till the very last hour. We are impelled in our deepest being to struggle against it. Every time you feel hunger or taste ambition, every time your body tingles with lust or your heart yearns for recognition, every time you shake with anger or tremble in fear, that's the animal in you striving for life. (88)

Animals are mentioned before in the book - the many species doomed to go extinct because of the Anthropocene - but there are no further references after this one. This is a problem. I don't think that the "ambition" and "recognition" named here are follies of other species. They connect more (on Scranton's own account) to our supposed distinctiveness as meaning-makers, but Scranton's sublime hope lies in imagining meaning-making as somehow inorganic, disconnectable from our animal life or, indeed, any life. The transcendence of death he offers is figured as light, not warmth.

I'm surely not the only person to think that we've made such a mess of things in part because of our inability to be merely animal, our sense that we must leave (or are entitled to leave) the animal behind for reason, will, light. (This is a familiar feminist criticism of the supposed dualism of mind/body so important for modernity, and confirms other feminists' worry that the very name "Anthropocene" reinforces the mayhem-producing machismo it claims to call in question.) Even following Scranton's narrative, I feel more solidarity, sympathy and community with other animals - the species still alive and yet to come - than with humans already dead. Indeed, my sense of the Anthropocene as a great (if unwitting) crime against other life forms makes me feel the more aware of the life we share with other species - plants, too, of course - and the incredible interdependence that has made human flourishing, such as it is, possible. From this perspective, Scranton's view doesn't just look like another iteration of the problem he is diagnosing. It smells of fossil fuel! The image of light from the big bang which might also glow in our philosophizing seems a spark from the worldview of a civilization which can no longer imagine its own life, a reflection of the furnaces of coal mines, not the light of photosynthesis. We're all not only already dead, but already fossils.

Scranton cites Arendt - required, I suppose, since he studied at The New School! But it's the wrong Hannah. He cites from On Revolution Arendt's claim that only our continuing to work over human history "saves" us from "the futility inherent in the living world and the living deed" (99). But what about natality? Imagining newness - the newness that erupts confoundingly all around us, emblematically in birth - is the hardest thing. There's none in Scranton's book, for all his manly cheer. (I'm not claiming moral superiority here. My own attraction to affinities between the organic and inorganic may be a failure on this count.)

In invoking natality I hope I'm not playing what my colleague Ken Wark calls "Anthropocene denial bingo." Those many species are going extinct in the Anthropocene, as might we. But life is greater than that. And might we not do better in mitigating the damage our civilization continues to do if we attend to the predicament of all of life? There's anguish there, but maybe not nihilism.

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