Saturday, 15 December 2012

Toward Prehumanism (Extract from THE THING)

Overthrow of the Copernican theory in usual interpretation of a world view. The original ark, earth, does not move
(Husserl, Foundational Investigations of the Phenomenological Origin of the Spatiality of Nature)
For too long philosophy has laboured under the assumption that post-humanism offers us the only ethical escape route from anthropomorphism. Part of this tendency is legitimate. In invoking a world after humanism, we are reminded of the absolute finitude of the species termed “homo sapiens.” After humanity, the world will go on. This great call to a post-apocalyptic imagery has long since folded back upon itself, becoming a distinctly human—alas, all too human—fantasy fixed at all times on the perennial question: will the Earth remember us? Of course, this appeal to a post-apocalyptic memory is but one way in which the legacy of post-humanism remains tied to the narcissism of human vision.

Today, as I stand before you in the Theodore von Kármán lecture theatre, here in Cape Canaveral, I would like to turn the tide on this tendency by directing your attention, not to the afterlife of humanity but to the world that predated humanity. This turn toward prehumanism forces to the surface a series of questions that are occluded in post-humanism, not least the status of the Earth as a concept independent of humanity. In the wake of humanity, too much thought is spent encircling the ruins that will invariably prove fertile in humanity’s extinction (though sadly there will be no "urban explorers" to translate this landscape into a glorified aesthetic vision via the medium of a coffee table book). In this break from a post-humanism that sublimates the apocalypse into a human ideal, the Earth as an original problem becomes a defining feature in our new philosophy.

The problem has a form: what is the relationship of the human body to the materiality of the Earth it presently finds itself? Put another way: is the human being necessarily a terrestrial body and if so, then how can the history of the Earth help us to understand the body? Of the origins of the Earth, we know that it was 4.54 billion years ago that it formed. For the sake of convenience, let us suspend any panspermic tendencies and assume that life on this planet originated approximately 3.5 billion years ago with human life entering the scene of the drama merely 2 million years ago. Into this narrative, the body of the scientist appears, evaluating a history anterior to the existence of humanity itself. How is this ecstatic search for a prehuman Earth possible?

Whether or not we can have an understanding of the Earth as an independent entity hinges upon the terrestrial structure of the body. What is the Earth? It is a planet, the third planet from the Sun, which it orbits around. The Earth is also a world, a native home to its many inhabitants. It is host to a wide variety of life—over a millions species dwell here, some of which are on the verge of extinction while others thrive and re-populate. Species of life on the “blue planet” are largely finite, with a lifespan ranging from 30 minutes (mayfly) to 405 years (a quahog clam named, “Ming” discovered in 1997).

But the Earth is also a mass of materiality in the vast columns of unending space and time. How can it be thought of within the context of this nonhuman space? In his posthumous writings, Husserl approached the problem of the Earth by attending to it within the context of surrounding space. For him, the original starting place for a phenomenology of the Earth is to begin with how it appears as a non-moving appearance, which is then developed into the more familiar idea of the Earth as a moving body. We do not experience the Earth as moving even though scientifically, of course, it is. In the fact of this, what follows is an account of the bodily status of the Earth. As bodily the Earth can move and rest, anchored at all times by the idea of the “earth as a basis.” To reconcile the phenomenological approach to the Earth with a Copernican view, Husserl develops the idea of a “basis-body” (bodenkorpcr). The basis-body is the analogue of the human body: without the Earth, movement of the terrestrial body would be all but impossible. Merleau-Ponty mirrors this account of the Earth as an originary body, writing that “It is something initial, a possibility of reality, the earth as a pure fact, the cradle, the basis and the ground of all experience.”

Phenomenologically, the task is to return to this origin of the Earth, to assess the extent to which the Earth is necessarily constituted by the body. In his time, Husserl lacked the means to depart from the Earth’s surface in order to gain a phenomenological vantage point of the Earth. Instead, he compensated by imagining a bird flying to another planet. How would it experience itself? Merleau-Ponty replies: “From the sole fact it is the same bird, it unites the two planets into one single ground … To think two Earths is to think one same Earth … The Earth is the root of our history.”

This is a striking set of claims. Anecdotally, however, another case can be made. Of bodies that have left the horizon of the Earth, some have reported a realization that the terrestrial body is also a cosmic entity. To quote Edgar Mitchell, one of the astronauts of the Apollo 14 launch: “I realized that the molecules of my body and the molecules of the spacecraft had been manufactured in an ancient generation of stars. It wasn’t just intellectual knowledge – it was a subjective visceral experience accompanied by ecstasy – a transformational experience.” (See my article, "The Real Cape Kennedy is Inside Your Head"). This reconstitution of the body presents a challenge to the Husserlian account of the body as being involved in an Earthly terraformation of other planets. In fact, as Mitchell makes clear: it is the prehuman stars that “terraform” the body rather than vice-versa.

By the end of his reflections, Husserl remains committed to the singularity of the relation between Earth and the human body. For him, we remain insulated in a kind of cosmic correlationism, against which the possibility of truly departing from the soil is undermined at all times the primitive origin of the Earth as a human realm. And yet, perhaps there is a way out of this Earth bound relationship. From within the body as it finds itself, another body intervenes. Alien and incommensurable with human experience: a prehistoric fragment that masquerades as an earthly entity. From a textual point, it is already hidden within the history of philosophy, only now can it be unearthed. Here is Merleau-Ponty: “Underlying myself as a thinking subject, who am able to take my place at will on Sirius or on the earth’s surface, there is, therefore, as it were a natural self which does not budge from its terrestrial situation and which constantly adumbrates absolute valuations.” Much of the reach of this passage will depend on the scope of the natural self in relation to its “terrestrial situation.” For so long as we remain open to the reversibility between Earth and Sirius, then the body as we know it becomes a portal, through which other planets converge, there articulating an order of life older than humanity.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

"Confessions of an Agoraphobic Victim"

  (New York City, September 2012)
Like Vincent, I too am a victim of agoraphobia. In our shared disdain for ugly architecture, vertiginous hills and strange bodily afflictions, Vincent and I are kindred spirits, separated by time but united by neurosis. As with Vincent, it has become customary for me to adhere to a series of rituals and superstitions in order get through the world. Faced with an empty lecture theatre or a sparsely populated conference hall, I will grip the contours of the room in order to get from one point to another. There, I will seek refuge in doorways or behind a column, if one is available. Fluorescent light, which Vincent may have been lucky enough to have avoided owing to its increased usage at the end of the 1920s, is my anathema. In the absence of dark glasses, it would not be unusual for me to feel as though my body were about to give way should I find myself in the midst of a brightly lit supermarket.
Me at The White Review writing on my agoraphobic episodes.