Friday, February 26, 2016

No hook for Leviathan

A funny thing happened to me on my way to the Anthropocene. My contribution to the "2nd Symposium on the Future of the Philosophy of Religion" was a thought piece on what role phil-of-rel might play in making sense of the Anthropocene, a set of questions more than any answers. (I started by saying "I won't pronounce on the Anthropocene - I don't even know how to pronounce it!") The funny thing is that it wound up taking on more than a few features of the structure of the Book of Job.

I started by naming three recent Anhropocene-related things I'd encountered around The New School (Roy Scranton's Learning how to die in the Anthropocene, Ken Wark's Molecular Red, and a talk Amitav Ghosh gave a few weeks ago), and then offered some insights from each which might be useful for us to chew on - along with a fourth, a talk Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing gave at Barnard called "A Feminist Approach to the Anthropocene." I could have listed this at the start, of course, but it wasn't New School-related, and it let me make a joking aside about the Book of Job (and also Douglas Adams' Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, a four-volume "trilogy"). I also found her insights particularly exciting, and liked their showing up unannounced. Then, after I proposed some rudimentary ways we might as philosophers of religion engage each of those points, my talk ended. "I'm out of fuel," I said, "over to you." I was waiting for the discussion to help me figure out what I haven't figured out yet. I was going to let the discussion play the part of God's speeches in the Book of Job.

It's probably just a coincidence, my too-associative mind at nervous work. But as I think about it, a talk on religion and the Anthropocene patterned on the Book of Job might be a cool thing. Job too, after all, encounters a breakdown of expected patterns of causality in his world, and neither he nor his friends are able to make convincing sense of it; the fourth friend makes at most a little headway. Sense, when it comes, it sublime and inhuman - the divine speeches are about everything in creation but the human. And then, well, then comes an ending none of us really likes: things can't really go back to the way they were, can they? They do, in the biblical book, and both the God who wagers with the Accuser and the God who controls the morning stars, the ostrich and the great monsters disappear from view.

Is there a meaningful sense in which the theorists of the Anthropocene (and today's discussion made me realize anew how hard it is to say anything helpful or human-sized about it) are in the same situation as Job and his friends? Let's see. Who is Job in this case? The people - and other animals - whose lives been upended by anthropogenic climate change, I guess. The best of received wisdom is missing its mark, for reasons they don't know. (Only the reader of the book knows about the wager in heaven.) But we do know, sort of. It's not some deus ex machina letting us prove some point. And it seems of the essence that, by contrast with the biblical book, the way things were is over, never to be returned to. Hmmm. Perhaps I'm in really in denial: we're in the dark, as Job and his friends were, but there's a reason, and it's just an aberration, even if they never find that out.

So (this was one of my questions in the talk) will we find all of our old religious resources wanting, articulated, as they were, in those stages of the holocene when regularity, cycles, balance were the basis of reality?

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