Geohistorical Materialism

By Mark Pingree
Issue 1 February 21, 2016 Download PDF

“But, in the end, it is the threat of universal extinction hanging over all the world today that changes, totally and forever, the nature of reality and brings into devastating question the true meaning of man’s history.”

—James Baldwin[1]

 

“What if the always already might explode? What if the always already were self-destructive and able to disappear…?”

—Catherine Malabou[2]

There’s a certain irony, or comedy if you like, in the realization that the philosopher of history has ended up so comprehensively on the wrong side of history. Taking into account the many ways Hegel has been discredited leads Frank Ruda to admit that, surely, Hegel must be the worst philosopher. Rather than regard this as a weakness, however, Ruda’s opening gambit is to take this worst-ness seriously not by reading Hegel as a teleological thinker advocating for the status quo, but as an apocalyptic fatalist, a thinker of the end of all things. The philosophy of history is not a tale of progressive unfolding but a tale of inevitable decay and inexorable worsening. The mere existence of philosophy as such indicates that the worst has always already happened. Philosophy, in other words, is not destruction, but destruction thinking itself—a reactive and intrinsic endeavor to think the end. From this central insight, Hegel emerges as an absolute fatalist whose radically subtractive approach reveals that philosophy can only emerge out of the dissolution of futurity, finitude, history and even Spirit itself.[3] When the air clears, philosophy can reveal only that there is nothing to reveal; it is a groundless ground, a vanishing of vanishings (109-111). Thus, philosophy’s first and most fundamental principle is the conceptualization of the end of all things. Philosophy is not concerned with what is to come but with what is always already gone. The realization that the worst has always already happened is crucial for Ruda as it abolishes illusory notions of freedom and gives rise to true freedom in the form of the fatalist subject. In an era of catastrophic climate change—and now with the rise of a neo-fascist, ecocidal U.S. President—anything less than an apocalyptic fatalism, perhaps, can only fall short of addressing the full weight of our contemporary moment. Addressing climate change directly, Ruda defends fatalism as an “assumption that makes it possible to prepare for what one cannot prepare for—that is, for what Badiou calls an ‘event’ […], a final (for example, ecological) catastrophe that would end the present order of things”; an event which is “absolutely certain based on our present knowledge” (19-20). Ruda is right, we are already living in the dust of this planet, or as Roy Scranton punctuates, “we’re fucked.”[4]

Facing the end of all things, Ruda asks us to gaze into the abyss once more and cast off our fears that the worst is to come: “Act as if the apocalypse had always already happened! Act as if everything were always already lost! Act as if you were dead!” (129). While these fearless slogans are potentially mobilizing, questions remain surrounding Hegel’s transcendental approach to the material question of extinction, the unfolding of which poses a direct challenge to the notion that the worst has always already happened. In light of extinction, a contemporary fatalism must maintain a fidelity to the materiality of the event by admitting that geologic shifts underfoot very well might (re)ground conditions of possibility for theoretical formulation. Geologically speaking, we live in the shadow not of Hegel, but of the Anthropocene. The history of the latter cannot be subsumed by the history of the former without misdiagnosing the crisis.

For this reason, the friendly provocation I offer here is not intended as a critique, but rather as an attempt to think the consequences of extinction against the merits of Ruda’s central maneuver, the “inversion of the apocalypse” which holds that the end is not “something we will have to face in the future,” but something “that already took place” (10). The “always already” gesture is central to Ruda’s analysis, for without it the definition of philosophy is rendered wholly incoherent—that the worst has always already happened is the implicit condition of philosophy insofar as philosophy is destruction thinking itself. Climate change introduces a challenge to this definition by calling into question the tenuous link between Hegel’s destruction-thinking and material destruction as such. It is not the case that philosophy is indifferent to the actuality of extinction, strictly speaking, but that extinction is indifferent to the destruction philosophy thinks it thinks. The always already totalizes destruction, history, and philosophy into a posture of thought and thereby runs the risk of losing sight of the particularities that shape any material event. As a consequence, philosophy becomes anthropocentric, sealed up in a hermetic conceptualism, the groundless ground of which can no longer be moved, changed, or influenced by the very material events that presumably give rise to philosophy in the first place. The geohistorical, material reality of the Anthropocene, in other words, is a negation of the conditions of thought requisite for a Hegelian conception of world history.

Out of this negation, new material and conceptual problems arise. If Hegel seems ill equipped to address the particularities and nuances of geohistory, it is because, according to Tom Cohen, “the aporia of an era of climate change are structurally different from those that devolved on the torsions of Western metaphysics […]; the logics of extinction compromise the aims of an emancipatory future along with all else.”[5] Extinction immobilizes the dialectic by encroaching on thought itself and by asserting of the temporal that the worst is actually happening, which threatens to foreclose the conditions through which Ruda’s emancipatory, future-oriented subject might be actualized.[6] And while ecocide might afford some form of interim subjectivity, I fear that this provisionality is already compromised by the nexus of postfordism and disaster capitalism, which presupposes and profits from the logic of the always already (disaster capitalism) and undermines conditions of subjectivation by way of machinic enslavement (postfordism). Before addressing post-fordist (de)subjectivation, however, I will first offer a materialist addendum to Ruda’s Hegel, lest all that is solid about the end of history melt into air.

Extinction at the Limit of Thought

As outlined above, philosophy’s most fundamental procedure entails an inversion of the end. The always already, Oxona Timofeeva explains, ensures that “a fear of the future and anxiety about some indefinite event (‘we will all die’) is easier to suffer than a certain, irreparable, and irreversible horror that has just happened (‘we are all already dead’).”[7] For Ruda, philosophy must affirm and maintain a fidelity to the inversion of the end, in this case to the irreparable horror of the always already. With climate change, we have to invert this inversion once again. This is not to suggest that the always already is made redundant by the Anthropocene—for the philosophically uninitiated, this remains a crucial step—but to suggest that its inversion no longer holds the emancipatory power it once held. Inverting the inverse, today we must maintain that the notion of extinction (‘we will all die’) is in fact more difficult to suffer than some indefinite, primordial catastrophe (‘we are all already dead’). Having surpassed major climate tipping points (20+ years ago no less), extinction is a transpiring material event, the catastrophic effects of which we are already witnessing. Our predicament suggests that a philosophy such as Hegel’s, one that “thinks that the end has already happened, and is awaiting its actualization,” is not yet a philosophy of the end of all things (105-6, emphasis added). Ecocide introduces a materialist totality, the universal destruction of (human) life on earth, and “unlike a Hegelian universal,” as Dipesh Chakrabarty observes, geohistory “cannot subsume particularities […] it is not a Hegelian universal arising dialectically out of the movement of history.”[8] Extinction offers no “reconciliation with destruction,” as Ruda claims, no synthesis, no next step. If destruction has always already happened, it fails to materialize. Thus, Ruda accidentally ends up on the side of the climate change denier who affirms, “the climate has always been changing!” “The situation is always already bad!” “The worst has already happened!” While the threat of catastrophe may refer to a primordial, transcendental destruction that dwarfs all others, ecocide is not a conceptual event that refers to a transcendental past, but a material event that refers to the terminating present.

For this reason, we must think of climate change according to Catherine Malabou’s notion of Ereignis, which she defines as a “meaningless interruption of the transcendental itself,” a shock large enough to “erase personal histories, destroying the very notion of psychic destiny, of childhood, of past, even of the unconscious itself.”[9] We might therefore conclude that subjects of climate trauma, from today’s estimated 20-30 million climate refugees per year (rising to 50 million by just 2030),[10] to the rest of us rendered lithic by the horror of fossil capitalism’s unopposed race to extinction, are “living examples of the death drive and of the dimension beyond the pleasure principle that Freud and Lacan both fail to locate or to expose. Beyond the always already principle is the true beyond the pleasure principle.”[11] Perhaps, then, ecocide marks the absolute limit of conceptual thought, of the always already; or perhaps, rather than a reactive endeavor to think the end, extinction introduces different speculative imperatives and expressive opportunities that can and must escape Hegel’s orbit by giving rise to a mode of post-philosophical inquiry. Martin McQuillan reminds us, for example, of Derrida’s assertion, “it is the closure of philosophy by nonphilosophy that gives thought a future.”[12] Taking Derrida seriously, we might consider the merits of those contemporary theories that pursue post-philosophical methods by resisting philosophy’s tendency to shift discursive registers from empirical to transcendental, a shift that often insulates philosophy against any materialist intervention that might force an amendment of some of its fundamental methodological assumptions and procedures.[13]

One need not be a speculative realist to admit that theory in the Anthropocene needs to proceed from materialism, that is, from destruction itself rather than destruction-thinking. After all, one crucial implication of the fact that human beings have become a collective geologic agent in their own right is that the stratigraphic layer archiving the Anthropocene is, strictly speaking, neither natural nor unnatural, neither human nor non-human. We do not discover archefossils in our contaminated sedimentary layers and Antarctic ice cores so much as technofossils, radioactive geochemical signatures, plastics that constitute new forms of rock, hydrocarbons, pesticides, and so on. Unlike the Holocene, the passive background of which allowed “autonomous” human agents to emerge and act out the entirety of their human drama against a relatively passive background, the Anthropocene blurs the line between subject and object as both science and philosophy are forced to confront and confuse one another in unexpected ways. As Bruno Latour states,

humans are no longer submitted to the diktats of objective nature, since what comes to them is also an intensively subjective form of action. To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy […] we have to shift away from dreams of mastery as well as from the threat of being fully naturalized. Kant without bifurcation between object and subject; Hegel without Absolute Spirit; Marx without dialectics.[14]

While for Ruda autonomy must be abolished by the subject who internalizes the transcendental truth of the always already, for Latour autonomy is abolished by the intrusion of the object, that is, by a “nature” which is no longer natural, if it ever was.

The Subject and the End of Promissory Time

If Latour’s materialism can help illuminate a deficiency in Ruda, Ruda’s recuperation of the subject might help inform a more coherent politics without the pitfalls of neo-vitalist “new materialisms” that risk becoming so immersed in relations that they lose sight of essential political lines of asymmetry necessary for resistance. As Frédéric Neyrat’s ecology of separation reminds us, “when everything is connected, everything is dangerous.”[15] However, while Ruda clearly draws a line of political asymmetry, his recuperation of the subject also recuperates a notion of futurity (of and for the subject) at a time when there can be no promise of either futurity or subjectivity. Much like philosophy itself, peering behind the mask of Ruda’s subject reveals that there is nothing to reveal and that any defense of true subjectivity can follow only from the realization that the subject is impossible. This impossibility, however, is necessary to counter naïve notions of both freedom and subjectivity and to pave the way for a subjectivity rooted in fatalism (the always already), which is “the very precondition of preparing for that which we cannot prepare […], the precondition for the emergence of a genuinely free act” (127). Here, Ruda recuperates notions of both futurity and subjectivity, while also gesturing towards a foundation for an ethics or a politics ‘to-come.’[16] Through the realization that the worst has always already happened, the subject is killed in order to be saved. What is gained in the process is an implicit yet unmistakable promise; first, an unequivocal promise of futurity and, subsequently, the promise of a future-oriented ethics.

The promise of futurity that arises in the recuperation of the subject resembles what Claire Colebrook calls “an almost automatic promissory response in humanities inquiry.”[17] Promissory ethics are constructed on a conceptual plane of futurity. If not justice now, then justice to-come. Futurity lost, the Anthropocene does not offer a promise but a prediction. According to Colebrook, there is a beauty and creativity to the promise in its optimistic structure of deferral. The prediction, meanwhile, is ugly insofar as it makes the promise far more difficult to fulfill. Predictions have a different temporal structure than promises; they do not rely on retention and anticipation, rather they “they happen to us, from elsewhere.” And it is this elsewhere—the elsewhere of the Anthropocene—that “seems to be destroying once and for all the future arrow of promissory time. By suggesting geological impact, and not just change within the human milieu, human time […] is now displaced.”[18] While Ruda’s recuperated subject relies on the promise of futurity, the Anthropocene’s only promise is the foreclosure of the future arrow of promissory time.

Disaster Capitalism: Worse than the Worst

Before the last dam breaks, however, some provisional form of subjectivity must be in play, prompting us to read Ruda’s subjectivation in relation to the contemporary economic and ideological conditions of (de)subjectivation at work in post-Fordist disaster capitalism. Pace Ruda’s absolute fatalism, my concern is that today’s capitalism has already occupied the true fatalist camp, and that perhaps even Ruda’s absolute fatalism is, rather depressingly, too optimistic in light of cognitive and machinic processes of desubjectivation already at work in everyday digital life. The emancipatory potential of Ruda’s always already, therefore, will have to account for the dramatic implications that stem from the fact that (digital, networked) machinisms have invaded every aspect of our lives. Experience is always mediated, of course, but with the rise of digitality a new temporal dimension is introduced into lived experience. While Marx could not have foreseen the full extent of post-Fordism, his Grundrisse already envisages what Jason Smith calls “a tendency, a limit point in the process of the valorization of capital: the impossible possibility that capital might circulate ‘without circulation time,’ at an infinite velocity, such that the passage from one moment in the circulation of capital to the next would take place at the ‘speed of thought.’”[19] Marx was able to see a false logic of infinity at work in capitalism, both on the level of the general economy and on the level of the commodity. When the object becomes an exchangeable commodity it also introduces a different temporality, one that transcends finitude, by becoming forever replaceable, iterable, exchangeable, reproducible, consumable, and so on. In short, the fetishized object is gilded with an aura of abundance and immortality.[20]

Under post-Fordism, the mass dissemination of networked devices tether the subject to a digital conception of time as capitalism’s false logic of infinity comes to appropriate the lived time of the subject. Unlike the Fordist worker who physically winds the clock to the rhythms of factory life by clocking in and then clocking out, post-Fordism introduces an infinite, digital perception of time that removes the distinction between work and leisure—there is no more clocking out, you have always already clocked in. Meanwhile, the sheer speed of digital capitalism short circuits the temporal foundations of attention as experience is impoverished by an overwhelming barrage of stimuli.[21] Moving from sovereignty to discipline and on to endless habitual conditioning, machinic deterritorialization has become a vehicle for forms of social management that bypass discursive subjectivation by reducing the subject to a series of pre-linguistic, physical inputs and outputs divorced from both historical and lived-time. Post-Fordism, in other words, no longer produces subjects as the individuals of a discursive politics, but as the dividuals of a machinic economics—desubjectified component parts in the business, financial, media or welfare state assemblages that have become contiguous with machines.[22]

Given this context, Ruda’s Hegel enters the scene at a time when the subject has already been revealed to be nothing—not by way of discourse or the dialectic, but by cognitive capitalism and machinic enslavement. By prescribing a mode of subjectivation that hinges on the discursive recognition that the worst has always already happened without taking into account contemporary processes of desubjectivation, Ruda risks falling prey to a form of capitalism that assumes his very logic. Capitalism has welcomed the notion that the worst has always already happened, not only because it operates under a (false) logic of infinity, but also because it has (d)evolved to thrive on crisis rather than crumble under its weight. To avoid profit-loss, disaster was once something to be avoided, whereas today the rich get richer no matter how many points the Dow Jones drops. The oil industry, a disaster industry writ large (the ongoing struggle at #NoDAPL comes to mind), traffics not in life but in death as biopolitics dissolve into necropolitics and capitalism mutates into thanaticism.[23] Disaster capitalism, like the climate change denier, is unaffected by the notion that the worst has always already happened, for it is precisely this logic that fuels what Jodi Dean calls “left anthropocenic enjoyment,” which “thrives on the disaster that capitalist enjoyment produces. In this circuit, captivation in enjoyment fuels the exploitation, expropriation and extraction driving the capitalist system: more, more, more; endless circulation, dispossession, destruction and accumulation; ceaseless, limitless death.”[24] This circuit is only reinforced by endless notifications, advertisements and, yes, disaster-filled news feeds perpetually reminding us that the worst has always already happened. What emerges is a crude formula for an ideology of post-Fordist disaster capitalism where adding infinite destruction to infinite time results in the figure of the always already. If we are quick to normalize the catastrophic, perhaps it is because catastrophe has become so common that it is insipid, blasé. Through the speed of digital capitalism, the post-Fordist subject has become so familiar with the ubiquity of the always already that it has become wholly unremarkable; it has become ideology par excellence.

The Future is Now

To break the cycle, perhaps we can no longer affirm that the worst has always already happened since on these grounds no line of asymmetry can be pursued. Critics of the environmental humanities sometimes see the discourses surrounding extinction as overly optimistic, an approach that amounts to a symptomatic, if not eschatological, fervor to end it all; passive attitudes, in other words, that get us nowhere. The situation, we are told, is in fact much worse than this precisely because the end has always already happened. With this sentiment, the radical left risks racing past extinction, dismissing it as yet another hysterical apocalypse narrative that smacks of conservatism. And yet, might not these dismissals miss a central insight? Might they not also serve to repress the singular, unimaginable horror leering at us from our peripheral vision?

Facing ecological and philosophical feedback loops that only serve to perpetuate disaster circuits and endless death cycles, perhaps the always already no longer holds the subversive potential it once did.[25] Beneath these dialectical feedback loops, however, lies the (im)mobilizing potential of ecological Ereignis, the logic of which does not refute so much as refuse the possibility of endless dialectical unfolding. Accordingly, theory in the Anthropocene requires a fidelity to the materiality of finitude against the transcendental, infinite logic of the always already; after all, extinction is not the absolute negation of truth, but the absolute truth of negation.[26] Thus, as the din of human history dissipates into the ominous silence of T.S. Eliot’s whimper, we might return to Ruda’s provocation: “Act as if the apocalypse had always already happened! Act as if everything were always already lost! Act as if you were dead!” (129), and add an even more shocking materialist provocation of our own:

The apocalypse is happening! Everything is lost! You’re dead!

_____________________

[1] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage Books: 1993), 56.

[2] Catherine Malabou, “Post-Trauma: Towards a New Definition?,” Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change. Vol. 1. ed. Tom Cohen (Open Humanities Press: Ann Arbor, 2012), 229.

[3] Frank Ruda, Abolishing Freedom: A Plea for a Contemporary Use of Fatalism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016), 108. All further page references will be given parenthetically in the text.

[4] Roy Scranton, Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2015), 16.

[5] Tom Cohen, “Murmurations—‘Climate Change’ and the Defacement of Theory,” Telemorphosis, 19. Cohen expounds elsewhere: “The new aporia of ‘climate change’ are refreshingly bracing and absolutely ruthless, like the future prospect of a geo-engineering scramble that can patch up one catastrophe at one time (e.g., aerosol deflection) but exacerbate another (e.g., monsoons, droughts, pollution)” See, Cohen, “Anecographics: Climate Change and ‘Late’ Deconstruction,” Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change Vol. 2, ed. Henry Sussman (Open Humanities Press: Ann Arbor, 2012), 37.

[6] Despite Ruda’s claim that futurity plays no role in Hegel whatsoever (103), a notion of futurity is recuperated in his theory of the subject, who actualizes and implicitly assumes a future by internalizing the notion that the worst has always already happened.

[7] Oxana Timofeeva, “The End of the World: From Apocalypse to the End of History and Back,” e-flux no. 56 (June 2014); http://www.e-flux.com/journal/56/60337/the-end-of-the-world-from-apocalypse-to-the-end-of-history-and-back/ (accessed February 2017).

[8] Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (Winter 2009): 222.

[9] Catharine Malabou, “Post-Trauma: Towards a New Definition?,” Telemorphosis, 235. While Malabou’s angle is a neuropsychoanlytic account of material trauma, she opens the door for ecology by granting, “Our socio-political reality imposes multiple versions of external intrusions, traumas, which are just meaningless brutal interruptions that destroy the symbolic texture of the subject’s identity and render all kinds of internalization/interiorization impossible” (238). The material for Malabou is a fourth dimension that escapes Lacan’s tripartite formulation of the real, imaginary, and symbolic and shuts down the always already, which she synonymizes with Freud’s claim that psychic life is indestructible (237-8).

[10] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, trans. David Fernbach (New York: Verso, 2016), 25.

[11] Malabou, “Post-Trauma,” 227-228; my italics in only the second quoted sentence.

[12] Martin McQuillan, “Notes Toward a Post-Carbon Philosophy,” Telemorphosis, 271-272.

[13] While Quentin Meillassoux could never quite arrive at a coherent notion of correlationism, his lament that we might have lost sight of “the great outdoors” remains relevant. See, Meillassoux, After Finitude, trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2008), 7. And while Meillassoux and Graham Harman seem to have overshot the great outdoors for the cosmos, evacuating the political in the process, other materialisms are on offer that might help point a way forward. See, for example, Katerina Kolozova and Eileen A. Joy, eds., After the “Speculative Turn:” Realism, Philosophy and Feminism (Brooklyn: punctum books, 2016).

[14] Bruno Latour, “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” New Literary History 45.1 (2014): 5.

[15] Cited in Jodi Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change,” e-flux no. 69 (January 2016); http://www.e-flux.com/journal/69/60586/the-anamorphic-politics-of-climate-change/ (accessed February 2017).

[16] While Ruda is able to simultaneously nullify and defend the subject (through the dialectic), the affirmative gesture alone is enough to also affirm the emancipated, if inverted, subject. And while Ruda claims Hegel’s philosophy offers no concept of futurity, a future of and for the subject is inevitably recuperated.

[17] Claire Colebrook, “What is the Anthro-Political?,” Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols, ed. Tom Cohen and Claire Colebrook (London: Open Humanities Press:, 2016), 99; my emphasis.

[18] Colebrook, “What is the Anthro-Political?,” 104-5.

[19] Jason Smith, “Soul on Strike,” preface to Franco “Bifo” Berardi, The Soul at Work: From Alienation to Autonomy, trans. Francesca Cadel and Guiseppina Mechia (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), 11.

[20] This false logic of infinity can only function to repress scarcity and therefore has played no small role in precipitating the present ecological death spiral.

[21] A simple Google search reveals that the average smart phone user interacts with her device somewhere between 46 and 150 times a day, roughly between two and six times per hour.

[22] Maurizio Lazzarato, Signs and Machines: Capitalism and the Production of Subjectivity, trans. Joshua David Jordan (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 23-29.

[23] McKenzie Wark defines thanatacism as “a social order which subordinates the production of use values to the production of exchange value, to the point that the production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the conditions of existence of use value”; like “fanaticism, a gleeful, overly enthusiastic will to death […] the mode of production of non-life.” See, Wark, “Birth of Thanatacism,” Public Seminar [April 2014]; http://www.publicseminar.org/2014/04/birth-of-thanaticism/#.WKI0qYVExgo [accessed February 2017]).

[24] Dean, “The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change.”

[25] The always already is nothing new. According to Catherine Malabou, the always already originates in the Cartesian subject, “from Descartes to Damasio via Lacan there would, once again, be one and only one principle: trauma has always already happened” (“Post-Trauma,” 229).

[26] Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2007).

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