Not Symbiosis, Not Now

Colebrook, C., 2012. Not Symbiosis, Not Now: Why Anthropogenic Change Is Not Really Human. Oxford Literary Review 34, 185–209.

[…] theory and the humanities in general (along with humanity ‘itself’) have not been eager to consider this rather awkward problem, especially given that unlike questions of social justice, personal ethics and political freedom, climate change does not seem to offer solutions in which anyone might win or even improve their current lot.


It seems that liberal and anti-foundationalist models of ethics preclude just the sort of taking note of reality or deference to science that impending climate change disaster would seem to require. Put more provocatively: if humanity were to survive it would require a ‘state of exception’, a suspension of the legitimating processes that have constituted the law, and all this for the sake of saving the law.


Would it not make more sense to ask how it is that life generates this strange animal—man—who has behaved with such enclosed and self-englobing reason to the point that he has become the first species to have impact beyond species existence? For all the seeming radicalism of the recent attempts to think everything from ‘bare life’ to ‘living labor,’ adding concepts of life to the polity will only maintain rather than rupture ‘the political.’

If it is the case that ‘man’ is no longer a rational animal whose forms of respect and recognition might be extended to include the rest of life, but is instead something like a geological event, then we might be compelled to think destructively, if not deconstructively. What is required is not a shift in extensity (including more, respecting more, furthering our historical imagination), but a shift in intensity.

The Anthropocene is a threshold at which all ‘our’ concepts of horizon, milieu, ethos and polity are voided: our dwelling is no longer inhabitation, nor do we partake in an organic interdependence or ecology. Rather the human is not so much an event within life as a rupturing in the very figure of life: not one being among others so much as a violent symbiosis (or ‘sym-thanatosis’).


Should we continue to think in terms of ethics, if ethos or our conception of dwelling is precisely that which is brought under threat by our very belief in ourselves as ethical animals? Is not the notion that the earth is our place precisely what has blinded us to the ravages of our mode of life?

Thinking destructively—in the Heideggerian sense—would require some abandonment of our current locus. We might at least strive to think once again of what it might be not to have a world.


And yet one might say that while this gesture is more urgent than ever now, today, when ‘we’ face the end of all possibility of world and ownness, it is precisely this gesture—this universalising comportment in which one’s world opens to consider life in general— that has exacerbated the contaminating, polluting, encompassing and englobing violence of what has constituted itself as humanity.

Today, as ‘humanity’ appears less as an enabling ethical transcendental horizon and more as a scar on the landscape we might consider whether the various post-deconstructive ‘turns’ (to ethics, embodiment, life, affect or vitalism) were wise moves.


The // past few decades of what is left of theory now appear to have been misguided in their affirmative turns to life, affect, bodies and the vital.

The criticism of deconstruction, and the turn to life, was not only peremptory, but also a reaction formation: ‘life’ appeared as the one overwhelming site of genuine thinking and redemption precisely at that point in history when the continuation of life was anything but certain.


What if, as Derrida suggested in his essay on Foucault, the attempts to step outside Cartesian man and break with the history of dominating reason were the most Cartesian of gestures, enabled only by man’s capacity to imagine himself as other than a history that he can view as one distant panorama?


Today when we are witnessing (while not witnessing) the destruction of life, the enclosure of man within himself, the calculating rationale of viewing the earth and future only in terms of the sense it holds for man, should we not ask about this supposedly proper truth and dynamism of life that ‘theory’ or ‘Cartesianism’ mistakenly failed to consider?

Precisely when life, bodies and vitality have reached their endpoint and face extinction, and this because they have been vanquished by technology and non-living systems (including the systemic and psychotic desires of man)—precisely at this point in history—‘theory’ has retreated into an affirmation of life.


If we want to understand the present, it will do us no good to will away technology in order to think ecologically, for both tendencies are just that—logics—or conceptions of a proper and immanent end.

If technology determines the world as standing reserve awaiting its formation into useful products, then ecology draws upon the earth as oikos (or the dwelling of all living beings), but does so as a logic; for ecology concerns the inter-relatedness of all beings (with the commitment or axiom that everything lives and interacts for the sake of one over-arching web of life). Technology could not be overcome or tempered by ecology, precisely because both are logics, and emphasise the existence of present systems.


The self-enclosure and myopia of man cannot be considered as an accident: if an event or deviation is possible, then this potential cannot be placed outside a supposed proper essence. The Anthropocene epoch is possible because man is epochal in his capacity to take all the world as his own, and epochal in his capacity to step back from that ownership and view the world as such.


First, as a mis-reading of Derrida: far from being a way of accounting for reality as being mediated by systems (or language), text was a way of thinking about anarchic and radical dispersal, or the potentiality and tendencies of forces that could not be grounded upon self-furthering life. One could contrast a ‘textualist’ notion of life—a life of unbounded, inorganic, errant and deathly forces that operated beyond any maintenance or survival—with the dominance today of organicism, where ‘we’ consider the polity, humanity, life, ecology, Gaia, and earth as having a worthy identity that demands due reverence.

To argue that we need to overcome the linguisticism or idealism of deconstruction in order to consider life and genesis is both a relapse into a pre-Heideggeran literalism and a fantasmatic lure in which we once again posit a vital normativity that might redeem us from our supposedly accidental self-enclosure.

Second, the naïve, linguistic or stupid reading of textualism—that the world is mediated by a system of our own making—far from being the opposite of ecology is its secret truth. For ecology, or the notion that we might overcome our narrow boundedness and self-enclosure and once more find our place in the unified cosmos, considers anthropocentrism to be an isolated and delimited figure, as though there were the history of self-regarding humanism on the one hand, and then a life beyond man to which we might turn or return. The literal truth of the Anthropocene era is that man is not a being within the world, nor a fragment of life, but has existed as a geological force that has irrevocably altered a world that is no longer an earth, but is now an imbricated man-world complex.


The figural and critical truth // of the Anthropocene is that just as there is no pure earth than might be reclaimed, so there is no thought that is not already contaminated and made possible by the very logic of man that ecology might seek to overcome.


Even beyond Butler the return to the body was never a return to some pre-linguistic or originating flesh, but the body—as the site from which differentials emerged—seemed to cure theory of its overly zealous embrace  of language. If Butler was cautious about an affirmation of the body, the turn to the body and all the increasingly less textualist vital grounds that followed, were insistently opposed to the linguistic paradigm.

Not only was Derrida reclaimed by arguing that his thought was ultimately a form of naturalism, Darwinism or neuro-theory, he was also surpassed or replaced by a turn to Deleuze that would supposedly help us move beyond language to living systems. (Never mind that Deleuze was primarily a thinker of the deterritorialisation of life, and the capacity of the virtual to enact lines of life beyond organic or living purposiveness.)


Second answer (and the one I will pursue here): deconstruction was a textualism, and it is only textualism with its accompanying scandalous horror of idealism that might allow us to retrieve thought from the myopias of post-humanism.

In the remainder of this I want to conclude by looking again at three Derridean motifs, all with one side facing towards post-humanism (which is really nothing more than an intensified humanism) and another side facing away from life towards text.

First motif: the ends of man. The idea that we are post-human—that we can now consider ourselves as either one animal among others, or as capable of being interfaced with a world of technology—is perhaps the only humanism that thought has ever known.


The very concept of man yields, and has always yielded, a post-humanism.

What might be more radical is not a celebration of the overcoming of man, but a focus on the perpetual, insistent and demonic return of anthropocentricism. Rather than say that we are post-human and now at one with life, we might say—deconstructively—that all those tendencies that have been projected onto the figure of Cartesian man (self-enclosure, self-regarding destruction of alterity, blindness to milieu) already characterise life ‘as such.’

Both in the early essay on the ends of man, but also in the later work on animality (including a criticism of Heidegger’s exceptionalism), Derrida demonstrates the impossibility of maintaining an essential distinction between man and what man refers to as ‘the’ animal.

That is, from destroying man’s linguistic separation from the domain of life, Derrida opened the possibility that there was no such thing as ‘the’ animal, and that the splitting or dehiscence of the signifier pertained in its own way to various gestural potentialities of the animal.

The same could be said of any figure of the organism: is there anything in life that is an enclosed self-sufficient being unto itself, that is not already—in a manner that might be referred to as textualist—split from itself?


The figure // of Anthropocene ‘man’—the animal that turns against the milieu and sustenance of his own life—is neither accident nor exception, for ‘life’ as such—in its lure of self-maintaining organisation—is an anarchic, order-destroying tendency towards extinction.


Not only is this splitting from itself a counter-logic (in the sense of not gathering or assembling), and a force that goes beyond man and organic life, it might enable a critical conception of the Anthropocene. The ‘earth’ has evolved to produce a species capable of altering the earth’s own limits: if, today, we talk about survival or of ‘dealing’ with climate change, just what are we hoping to save or negotiate with?

Second motif: the apocalyptic. Today, finally, in the genre of the post-apocalyptic, there is a thought of life beyond man.


Derrida’s two major reflections on the figure of apocalypse demonstrated that a sense of annihilating revelation was already installed in western metaphysics, and in the structure of experience. Intentionality, or the meaningful aim of all experience towards the fulfillment of perceptive sense has the structure of tending towards the destruction of all difference.

Not surprisingly, ecological imperatives have tended towards modes of decision that act against man for the sake of man. It is not only the case, though, that our post-apocalyptic imagination has blinded us to the extent to which we are already inhabiting a world after annihilation, and in which the thought of the future already does violence to the present.


Any truly futural future is apocalyptic, which is to say that it is destructive of the present, and can certainly not be contained by any thought of saving, surviving, enduring, or maintaining life as cosmos or oikos.

Third and final motif: the nuclear.

Like the figure of hyperbolic doubt, nuclear acceleration—or the fact that ‘I’ might annihilate myself and my enemy by a calculation of my enemy’s potentiality and readiness to destroy, is not outside the structure of the possibility of thinking. Thought is not pure self-presence, but a capacity to anticipate, and to consider the future in terms of retained and multiple past potentialities. There is something suicidal in thinking: insofar as I think I am already not of the present, already imagining what is not life itself.

In the nuclear age a certain speed of anticipation might reach a certain threshold, such that a capacity to assess the potentialities of others, and their capacities to calculate my decisions pushes us into an arms race.


But this race, or anticipation of the other in advance of the other, is what has marked // the human species as a race, as an animal capable of thinking of itself beyond itself (capable of imagining humanity in general.) Man is a suicidal animal, always racing to surpass himself by anticipating himself.


Today, new limits appear, and we might say that the suicidalnuclear fields of force (while still operational) have been refigured into logics of extinction; if suicide is a body turning against itself, taking itself as an object within life, then extinction occurs as a process of mutation—still necessary for the species, but one that overtakes the species beyond its own sense or perception of species life.


Literally, the concept of the Anthropocene is that of an irrevocable and inhuman humanity: man is that animal who has detached himself from putative ecological animality and lived in such a way that his life is destructive of his milieu.

Literally, the concept of the Anthropocene is that of an irrevocable and inhuman humanity: man is that animal who has detached himself from putative ecological animality and lived in such a way that his life is destructive of his milieu.