One slice of nonhumanity

These thoughts are prompted by a puzzle I have been considering for quite a while. The puzzle can be expressed in several ways, but here’s a brief, stark version:

Why has human power gone hand in hand with human insignificance?

What do I mean by that? If you believe the standard western history of human progress, then the last six or seven hundred years have seen ever greater evidence of human insignificance. We were once God’s chosen species, to whom the earth was given as our domain, to go forth and multiply. The son of God was born human, not giraffe or whale and his sacrifice saved us all. Human dominion was our birthright.

That birthright started being questioned a few hundred years ago, as the earth was toppled as the center of the universe, and subsequently, we discovered that we are nothing but a minor species in a minor planet in a minor star system in a minor galaxy. Perhaps in a minor universe as well. Darwin’s claim of evolutionary change was the final nail in the human coffin.

Meanwhile, another movement was taking place, one that multiplied human dominion to a scale unfathomable to the writers of the bible. Today, human dominion extends to the earth as a whole — we are in the anthropocene. Our lives are entangled with mechanical processes that extend our dominion to the Sky and the netherworld. We have never been more deeply enmeshed in the non-human world and we have never had as much power over it as we do today.

So here’s the contradiction: on the one hand lies the immensity of space, an utterly alien wasteland. On the other hand lies the kingdom of the earth that we rule with great violence. Which one is truly us?

There’s a seemingly simple answer to the conundrum: knowledge. It’s knowledge that makes us aware of our insignificance and it’s the same knowledge that helps us rule the earth. Now that we don’t believe in childish fairy tales about immaculate conception, we are empowered — and I use that term with some care — to give birth to babies in a petridish. Our insignificance makes us powerful.

Is that all? Does epistemology explain our condition? Is our accidental possession of certain cognitive capacities our secret to wealth and power? Should we all listen to the business consultants who preach about the power of innovation?

It’s true that our power is characteristically human; no other species is vying for the throne. That knowledge, in turn, is based on specifically human capacities and extended by the vast mechanical assemblages that we have marshalled on our behalf, alien nature serving our purposes.

However, the contradiction returns again in epistemic garb: if our capacities are specifically human, then what knowledge can we ever acquire of the non-human? Perhaps our capacities aren’t discontinuous with the rest of nature after all; that chimpanzees and bacteria are more like us than we are willing to accept. The counter to that argument is Nagel’s famous claim about what it’s like to be a bat, the answer being: we will never know. In other words, we we increase our knowledge we are faced with new limits. Instead of dissipating, the contradiction gathers energy as it sails down the river of knowledge.

My claim is that the contradiction is really a dynamic dialectic, for each half of the dialectic contradicts the other only when contrasted as static oppositions rather than a spur for the other half. The two go hand in hand, that one cannot happen without the other, that the dialectic between the two plays out everywhere in modern society, in academia, where it’s enshrined in the division between the sciences and the humanities, in politics where it shows up as the clash between development and conservation and so on. In other words, there’s a tacit arms race between the two, but there’s also increasing interpenetration, so much so that it’s hard to tell where human ends and the rest of the universe begins. That’s what we now call the nonhuman turn.

Beyond the Non-Human

If blockbuster movies and dense screeds by English professors are to be believed, we no longer live in a human world. Whether it’s robots and aliens taking over our jobs and governments, the climate collapsing or people engineering their microbiomes to achieve their dream weight, we increasingly live in a world in which the non-human impinges on our careers and our conscience.

This non-human turn is different from other turns toward the non-human; after all, ever since Copernicus (or his Greek, Indian and Arabic counterparts) declared that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe, humans have continuously receded from the limelight. The nonhuman turn takes for granted that we are just another species in just another planet in just another solar system in just another galaxy. Where the nonhuman turn shows its radical agenda is in questioning (perhaps the last) bastion of anthropocentrism, namely, the uniqueness of human subjectivity, agency and autonomy.

In the non-human world, robots, microbes and even rocks and stones have their own way of being, their own propensities, a world far removed from human agency and its desire to dominate the earth.

I think the nonhuman turn is a good development, but for obvious reasons, it presupposes the human, for the non-human, like the non-linear and the non-vegetarian presupposes the non-non- that comes before the non-; without humans there’s no non-human. That human was discovered Plato and Aristotle, Sacralized by Christianity and secularized by Kant. Even as we move into the nonhuman world, we continue to use human categories to describe them, to believe that politics and power are the lens through which we describe the nonhuman world as well. If anything it’s the hyper-human, the human who straddles the earth like a god who confronts the non-human. Therein lies a contradiction.

Like Bohr confronting the quantum world, we are stuck with a problem: we believe that beyond the veil lies a world that’s frighteningly alien; yet, the only instruments we have at our disposal to understand this alien world is nothing more than our all too human infrastructure. Further, all our successful attempts to transcend the barrier involve the creation of concepts and technologies that are — as far as we know — abstractions of the kind that only humans are capable of. Until we confront this deep contradiction, we are stuck.

We can constitute the world as an object, but then we get constituted as the subject; if we destabilize the objectivity of the world and hope to release the imprisoned human subject from their all too human bonds, we find ourselves even further imbricated in the non-human world, that in fact, the non-human recedes further into the mist along with the human. Then there’s the romantic hope of the wilderness, an entirely non-human world untainted by human presence, but our hope for such a world confronts the reality of ever greater human control. Wherever we look, there are only contradictions. What is to be done?