Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Fallen Kingdom: Living in the Anthropocene with Spinoza and Marx


Bento in the Anthropocene 

Humanism, and the debates for and against it, is less a perennial philosophical question, returned to again and again, than a moving target, one that reflects the different political, cultural, and economic situation of the moment. The humanism of the renaissance is not the same humanism that was at the center of debates about Stalin and Marx in the sixties. Moreover, I would argue that the question of the human now is profoundly transformed by the Anthropocene, by the awareness that human impact has had an ecological and geological impact on the planet, transforming it for the worst. This does not mean that old debates and discussions of different humanisms in the history of philosophy are relegated to the dustbin of history--just that they take on a different sense and meaning today. Spinoza and Marx's debates with the humanism of their time take on a different sense today. 

One of Spinoza's central critical statements is against the tendency, shared by rationalists and romantics, philosophers and theologians, to view ourselves as a "kingdom within a kingdom." As Spinoza writes, 

"Indeed they seem to conceive man in Nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of Nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself. And they attribute the cause of human impotence and inconstancy, not to the common power of Nature, but I know not what vice of human nature, which they therefore bewail, or laugh at or disdain, or (as usually happens) curse. And he who knows how to censure more eloquently and cunningly the weakness of the human mind is held to be godly."

First, a few words about this passage, filled with the rhetorical fire of the scholia, Spinoza weaves together two forms of humanism, two ways of being a kingdom within a kingdom. The first is that of superiority, of humanity as something more than another thing in the world; the second is that of something less, of something fallen from its place in the natural world. These two ideas, humanity as more than nature and humanity as less, rational virtue and depravity, are two sides of the same coin. What would seem to be opposed in the various oppositions of rationalism to romanticism are closer than they would appear. This image of humanity is as much a philosophical position as it is a matter of everyday common sense. It is a spontaneous ideology. It stems from our basic tendency to be conscious of our desires and ignorant of the causes of things. These two things, desires and causes, become two different things, different kingdoms, one governed by causes and the other by our supposed free will. 

It is primarily as an ideology, an inadequate idea that Spinoza critiques this humanism. It is a way of thinking that makes it difficult to grasp not only what is true, that we are part of nature, but most beneficial. It is only by understanding ourselves as part of nature, as determined like all other things, that we can actively change and improve our condition, rather than alternatively celebrate and bemoan it, by seeing ourselves as part of nature we can transform our nature. 

As Franck Fischbach has demonstrated, the idea that we are part of nature, and, with it, the notion that it is by seeing ourselves as part of nature that we can increase our capacity to act on it, is a fundamental point shared by Spinoza and Marx. Moreover, as Fischbach also argues, this idea takes on a particular valence in Marx, as Marx often refers to "man's inorganic nature." This idea appears first in the 1844 Manuscripts but continues up through Capital. It is in the latter that we get the formulation "...nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, which he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible." I assume the second part refers to the divine image of man, and, if one wanted to continue the Marx/Spinoza connections, this could be considered Marx's criticism of the anthropocentric universe and the anthropomorphic god. Marx's overall emphasis, however, is on the way in which the history of humanity is constantly adding organs to itself, transforming the limitations and shape of the human body. We add to our own feet the wheels of the railroad, to our own ears the power of the telegraph, and, all in in all, to our own mind, the power of the general intellect. To quote Marx, 

"Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are the products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge objectified [vergegenständlichte Wissenskraft]. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect."

We could add that in capitalism this process of extension of our inorganic body, as tools and machines extend our capacities and actions, is coupled with its opposite, with as Marx also says in the Grundrisse the reduction of human beings, of human labor, to conscious organs of the machine. The formation of industry is both an increase of our capacities, our ability to see, hear, move, and act, and, in current conditions, a reduction of our capacities. That is a matter for another discussion. 

I would like to tie Marx and Spinoza's criticism together, not by stressing their shared ontology or anthropology, but by instead arguing for the historical intertwining of these two processes, the tendency to see ourselves as a kingdom within a kingdom and the tendency to transform nature and our natural existence. I would say that it is precisely because we extend our capacities beyond our body and mind that we are able to see ourselves, to misrecognize ourselves as kingdom within kingdoms. In other words, it is through our transformation of nature that we are able to see ourselves as separate from nature. We live a dual lives, in our conception of ourselves we see ourselves as something distinct from nature, as a unique being, but in our practical lives, we endlessly act on and transform nature. The famous two cultures, science and the humanities, is as much an anthropological division as anything else, a division between our two sides--one that transcends nature materially, producing a world outside of its rhythms and another that transforms nature conceptually, producing an understanding of ourselves as something apart from it.

I know that this is not necessarily a shocking point, but I still think that it is worth pausing over all of the technological transformation and devices that make it possible for us to remove ourselves from natural limitations, cycles, and events. Electric lights make me indifferent to the cycle of day and night, heat and cooling make me indifferent to the seasons, and, now thanks to containerization and shipping, I am unaffected by the climates and conditions that dictate and determine the seasons of food production. I am able to see myself as a kingdom within a kingdom because humanity in general has transformed its inorganic body. Nature still has its effects, the occasional storm that disrupts power or snow day that shuts down a city, but for the most part humanity, especially those within the elite in the global north, live in an artificial kingdom untouched by nature, as a kingdom within a kingdom. 

This transformation has its effects on nature as well as society. In part we could call the Anthropocene as the period in which our transformation of nature begins to have its unintended effects. It turns out that make nature the background of our little human kingdom entails burning a great deal of fossil fuels, among other transformations, and the end result is a different, more volatile and active nature. It is thus harder and harder to see oneself as a kingdom within a kingdom as heatwaves take hold of entire regions, intense storms become more and more frequent, and even the air we breathe is filled with viruses that did not exist earlier.  The nature we are a part of, that our kingdom collapses into, is not the nature that we left, it is one thoroughly transformed by industry and technology. It is going to be harder and harder to see ourselves as a kingdom within a kingdom. Spinoza and Marx would both remind us, however, that old illusions die hard, a change of circumstances does not entail a change of conception, especially when this idea, of humanity as a kingdom within a kingdom, is how we are governed and ruled. 

Since I illustrated this with pictures of Bento on our walks. I will tell a brief anecdote that is part a recounting of the initial provocation that became this piece. Walking Bento is a big part of my life, and a bigger part of the summer, where the walks become an excuse to explore local trails and parks. I used to only think about nature before going on walks by checking the temperature and seeing if I needed a raincoat or sunblock. This summer has been different, an abnormally wet June and July has made so that I have to plan our walks around flash flood warnings that threaten the local rivers while also avoiding the beaches that have been contaminated due to storm runoffs. The warmer summers also mean that ponds are now contaminated with toxic algae blooms that used to be foreign to this state. It is not just travel to such places as Greece, beset by forest fires, or Spain, experiencing record high temperatures, that has been changed, but the simple act of walking the dog has been transformed as well. I find myself having to think about nature in a way that I did not before, being aware of risks that previously did not exist or at least where marginal. The idea of nature as the background noise of our artificial lives is transforming, being replaced with something that is harder to ignore. The question is, will we recognize this, change ourselves and our understanding, or will we go on living in our kingdom even as it collapses around us. 

1 comment:

pure_sophist_monster said...

This is supremely helpful.