The anthropocene or what comes down to a return to clues



In his essay “Why the rush to declare the anthropocene,” James Westcott writes (full essay here): “Copernicus displaced humans from the center of the universe: now we’re trying to put them back.” 

Obviously, there is more in this pronouncement; among others, it is essential that we locate this center: universe for astronomy or physics; text for linguistics; human culture for anthropology; name your ‘center’.

Our time is no longer friendly to Freud but his concept of condensation may perhaps help us re-locate this center, far beyond what science has offered so far. (In this light, the function of Freud I guess is the single greatest strength of Zizek’s Lacanian return to his works, especially, the death drive. This is not however an endorsement of Zizek’s Hegelian twist wedded onto the return to the drive). In fact there is already decentering at play in the unconscious. But the unconscious is a speculative concept: the decentering produces a trace of a fundamental operation whose positivity nonetheless cannot be pinned down as a measurable content, like a golden spike, for instance (in the case of proving the Holocene. See full essay of J. Westcott).

By identifying the unconscious as this liquid trace, we are presented rather with a contingent entity that is not subject to verification (unlike if it is scientific).  But it fulfills a certain expectation—if it is a scientifically unverifiable entity, it lends itself to the field of human perception, presumably, a field where the most contingent is allowed to function AS IF it contains, in the same language in which, for instance, it is ever-present in Mallarmé’s celebration of contingency, the VIRGIN CLUE. This is where arguably the Freudian concept of condensation is helpful. Take note also that the virgin clue, the as if clue is as contingent as any scientific clue (more on this later).

In the process of identifying it (as an effect of displacement), the virgin clue condenses into a trace that we can point at, such as something that is either present or absent, or perhaps a play between the two. The effect of displacement is carried over to the next—what condenses is actually already an effect, removed from the object (the effect of the object effectively assumes the place of the object) as if it lost its positivity. One may liken it to the Heideggerian draft to which we may point as if we are pointing to that which withdraws. That which withdraws is the Human, according to Heidegger. The human in this sense may also be seen (or not seen, a way of seeing obliquely) as a condensed clue of something displaced out of an anterior clue, a hominid, then a non-human, then an immanent line, then a blob, then an altogether unintelligible ‘as if’ for knowledge to pursue retroactively. It is of interest to note that the as if clue is always already taken out of a certain ecology, a swarm which may even refuse to allow a clue to isolate itself; hence, the conjectural nature of any clue. (Science would prefer to call an isolated clue as an effect of fine-tuning. This topic of ‘fine-tuning’ is the subject of another wonderful essay that appeared in Aeon magazine. See here).

To digress a bit more, the Heideggerian withdrawal of the Human is the ‘as if’ character of the transitional nature of Man. Heidegger preferred that this transition would produce Da-sein. As a virgin ‘as if’ clue, the ‘draft’ lends itself to human perception—the field where philosophy, through its speculation, can challenge science (which, according to Heidegger, ‘does not think’). It is well to emphasize here that if science does not think, it can only mean for Heidegger that it does not really think the clue. The most decisive clue for him is rather the transitional or ephemeral character of the ontological difference. 

Enter Meillassoux. I am not going to discuss in detail what he had labored to explain in his book AFTER FINITUDE (for some this rekindling of Meillassoux may raise eyebrows).* Meillassoux argued that the Copernican revolution of Kant (which emboldened the phenomenological tradition that takes perception to be the ‘clue’) simply restates the speculative flavour of the Ptolemaic paradigm, thereby one can question how radical the supposed break this revolution had really initiated. Or, as it might perforce indicate, are we actually witnessing the revenge of Ptolemy? (This ‘revenge’, a disaster in its own right, can be a candidate for a clue to the anthropocene).

This contradiction (arguably, between the epistemic effects of the Copernican and Ptolemaic paradigms, which is rather settled in Kuhn: the effective winner is of course Copernicus) is not without a conflict of media narratives. I am referring to the ‘medium’ as what suffices as a clue for both science and philosophy. For science, it is verifiable. For philosophy, it is subjective in terms of deflationary movement or descent of being into the shadow of something still unknown to it. For lack of a better term, let us assign it the name experience (not in the empirical sense).

But that is the clue—at least for phenomenology (its similarity to the ludic provocation of postmodern and postructuralist thinking is not unrelated at all)—that is to say, the virginal AS IF. We have the landscape of Cezanne as an example of experiencing the landscape itself without mediation of knowledge; or the water lilies of Monet; but also, the subconscious alterations of consciousness in Artaud’s body without organs, the messianic clue of Benjamin, the ephemeral punctum of Barthes, the Deleuzian virtuality, etc. (the sequencing is not necessarily in historical order)—all of which are not verifiable as detached clues, that is, detached from the human who experiences these alterations. Kant would have said otherwise that experience is already transcendental, meaning it is empirically so in terms of the a priori status of intuitions, namely, time and space immanent to consciousness without which experience would not be experience.

And yet within philosophy, this clue is not a single enjoining term. Starting with the Copernican revolution in philosophy exemplified by Kant (an example of science penetrating the analytic curiosity of philosophy), the clue was wasted, if Meillassoux is to be believed. The clue in the end simply revived the spirit of Ptolemaic centering. In short: the universe was decentered but displaced onto the subject as the new center (providing impetus for Kant to locate the center in morals which he believed would settle the problem of free will vis-à-vis determinism). 

The heliocentric model takes the human as a medium, albeit an active, reflexive one. In contrast, the Ptolemaic model takes the medium, the human subject, as an instrument of the divine. More so, in the Copernican, the subject is the medium that consciously interferes in the narrative, yet on many occasions hesitant to proclaim its radical immanence, which perhaps is the meaning of consciousness: always a victim of an apprehensional process which it cannot fully control, thus lending itself entirely serviceable to what Laruelle would describe as decisionality, not without its hallucinatory tendencies.**

To push a bit more, is not the Copernican recentering also a validation of the theological support to Ptolemy’s rather unstated project, that is, to interfere in the narrative of the cosmos, rather inspired by some divine sanctions, except that in the Ptolemaic the interference is supposed to be not as reflexive [the medium is simply an instrument] as the Copernican [where the medium is a sign whose arbitrariness, in the Saussurean sense, points to the metaphysical capacity of the human subject to appropriate language] in terms of conscious invention of a model that works as if it is how reality behaves independently of the model? It may be well to emphasize that Copernicus believed that his model of the cosmos is a necessary fiction. His belief may be restated into a conscious belief, a conscious interference in the manner of a hypothesis but which could only go as far as saving the appearance of a divine order (the model wedded onto a theological inspiration). Suffice it to say that this re-centering is both a displacement and a condensation. Overall, at work here in Freudian terms are the processes of the unconscious behind the ‘media narrative’ or the cosmic model of the Copernican (a linguistic model for all intents and purposes as Morton argued [cited by Westcott in his essay]).

All these narratives (Copernican and Ptolemaic) fulfill certain expectations—the expectation that narratives or models of presentation, the mediate representing of presencing supposed to be immediate in essence, cannot be transparent—each must contain in itself the very kernel of its refigurations (the likeness to Ricoeur’s concept of refiguration is accidentally broached upon here) which build themselves on the supposition that the original cannot do anything more than to hold something back. In the Ptolemaic, what is withheld is the unconscious impulse (a trace) of interference of the medium that it valued for its relationship to the divine. In the Copernican, what is withheld is the impulse of interference of the medium that it valued for its relationship to functions or necessary fictions (what save the appearance). The common ‘unconscious’ of the two is what contemporary scholars would define as the ecology of thinking (the impulse of Guattari, despite his known anti-Oedipal outburst, resonates in this Freudian conception) which predisposed these alterations of the media that each medium (a cognizable object or clue) proposed. (I am more inclined however at this point to recast it in the manner of Benjamin whose appropriation of Freud is well known: a “nonsensuous archive” where the ‘nonsensuous’ is understood not in its metaphysical or idealist sense, but rather in the simple sense of ‘distorted simile’, say, between two things that mimic each other creating a distortion, indicating a crisis on the way). Take note: there is no way each medium could have taken a thoroughly objective standpoint, or an external position from which it can see the entire ecology. It can only assume it has the actual optics necessary to see things in this magnitude.

The human capacity to interfere is already history. What we would like to underscore, apropos the anthropocene debate, is to what degree this interference has reached the threshold where the human is now actively interfering in the semiotic function of evidence distinct to geological science. But there are two clues to the human; or rather, human-clues: the human as the phenomenological clue, the as if clue, and the human as a reflexive clue. (We underscored previously that these two clues are both contingent, not to mention predisposed to the kind of alterations they propose, without saying that this predisposition is deterministic). Arguably, in light of the debate over the exact status of the anthropocene, the question becomes which clue can qualify as a valid sign for our age, or which is more likely to be taken as interfering in the most intense manner possible with the scientific process of verification. But this will have certain implications.

If it is the phenomenological as if that qualifies as a clue, we may assume it is already taken away from the human by science in the sense that it is now in its possession. Science explains away another clue in order to pinpoint this clue–the phenomenological human–as the perpetrator of the anthropocene. In a word: the integrity of subjective experience, which used to be the defining moment of will to power, has then ceased to be an index of the human at the same time that this loss is wrecking havoc in its death throes. (Nietzsche otherwise defined this as nihilism resulting from scientific or theoretic rationality). The question that comes next is–can the reflexive enterprise of science which exposes this hallucination of free will give in to what is then reduced to, at least until it is decided to be scientific, a quasi-phenomenological as if clue (the anthropocene possesses this characteristic)? In this sense the anthropocene satisfies the ‘clue’ as a crisis on the way (in the Benjaminian sense). 

The thing is there can never be an exact agreement of what the human is. (The cave paintings of Neanderthals can belie, for instance, the humanistic claim that artistic pursuit is unique only to our species). There can only be a performative agreement of what constitutes the human, which does not mean that each clue is as valid as the next one. It is in this context that a functional definition is summoned to universalize what in the first instance is simply an accidental claim, that is, accidental to being. And yet this accidentality is not a thing to be ignored for in the end it has sedimented into history that affects all of us. Science is one such and rather successful sedimentation. 

Westcott adds:

“Everything is known or knowable in the anthropocene, except the impulses that got us here and where to go next as a species.” 

The real debate is that there is an increasingly aggressive impulse (a claim by the proponents of the anthropocene to replace the Holocene). This impulse aggressively states that the ecology of things is resulting in a crisis of functionality—the human. If we missed the argument so far: are we still the same human today? The idea is that the ecology of things is drastically changing that it is only logical to assume that the human is also altering itself. Whether it is correct to say that this human alteration through the degree of its interference in the medium (in the sense we have discussed so far) is superseding the traditional function of nature (another example of a media narrative) will determine the outcome of the anthropocene debate. 

It pays to note here that the Holocene Man was a ‘maker’ (homo faber) like us. The degree of difference is however obvious–we have the kind of technology that interferes in the media narrative in an invasive manner never been seen in the history of humankind in contrast to the simplicity of Holocene there-ness, dominated by the ecology rather than, as the anthropocene proponents suggest, overpowering it (which of course will have collateral damage–the human species as the collateral itself). One may be surprised to find out that this Holocene there-ness may be the exact condition of being sufficient to Heidegger’s (rather conservative) Dasein. On hindsight, Heidegger proposed a transition from human to Dasein. Is he already suggesting that we have understood the point wrongly because the only real way forward is backward? And if science is suggesting a way forward, does it amplify Heidegger’s charge that science does not think? (This may be up to another post).

To conclude, albeit, tentatively, we can agree with Westcott’s argument that what matters is the impulse, if only the emphasis on ‘impulse’ can describe the anthropocenic. The anthropocene is the return arrival in the land of clues, and this ‘land’ is shaking, literally. One returns to the virginal clue before everything else becomes clueless. But one returns to the clue with several other clues (a democracy of clues, perhaps, this time parodying a Latourian proposition that may perhaps be already dated) allowing themselves (phenomenological and reflexive scientific clues) to be organized under a tentative clue—AS IF.

And yet, this clue has to be presupposed this time, and with Barthes here in mind, as having no longer history, or biography, gender or psychology (thus, the as if ceases to be exclusively phenomenological), if not on the way to becoming these absentee terms. The latter aspect points to the uncanny similarities between Barthes’ and Deleuze’s positions, perhaps, a distorted one, which, as any distorted simile, indicates a crisis on the way. But also perhaps more relevant, and to caricature Deleuze: save the clue, nothing is more important. (This can be treated as such–as saving the clue–in the background of condensation where any clue can stand for several associations in which no single association is privileged. But already this is a crisis: Deleuze is averse to Freudianism). Deleuze actually said—save the contour. But the contour can always be negated by underground pressures. The earth is shaking which releases rather a Schellingian clue, the abysmal.

* Part of my decision to rekindle this interest in Meillassoux is my excitement over his new book ‘Science Fiction and Extro-science Fiction’ which I hope I can have time to review in this blog.
** Laruelle’s books ‘Introduction to Non-Marxism’ and ‘General Theory of Victims’ that I have ordered online have yet to arrive, so, besides the Meillassoux book I mentioned, these will certainly demand of me to return to their earlier works, perhaps, for some clues [the perennial uses of clues!]

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