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Life Forms vs. Trump

Edited transcript of Timothy Morton's talk "Life Forms vs Trump" at Goldsmiths

In Tibetan, the word for Earth means "temporary support".

The word Vajra, the indestructible wisdom lighting, means "permanent support". We think of the ground as no ground at all.

One of my very favorite architects, Tom Wiscomb, who teaches in L.A, likes to make buildings that question, in all kinds of ways, the idea that the notion of ground in philosophy and religion is expressed in the ontic-ground a.k.a. the one you can walk and sit on. What about the idea that cities could have another ground, like above your head? What if there was several grounds like this? What if buildings had flaws? What if they didn't totally intersect with the ground but dove into it or lifted themselves off of it on one corner? Buddha's first gesture when he became enlightened was to touch the earth. That's the thing you see, to all Anthropocentric intents and purposes, the ground goes on forever. The ground isn't infinite or eternal. It's what I like to call a very large finitude, a hyper-object, a new kind of God that isn't omniscient or omnipresent or omnipotent just really, really, big and powerful compared with us. These new gods, these titans are a bit nicer than the near platonic Christian God who can see and know everything. Whose demonic version Satan is an anagram of Santa, about whom my son Simon asked, when 4 years of age, while Santa was being used as a way to keep children in line at his daycare, "He's making a list, He's checking it twice, Daddy! Can Santa see me naked?"

The current ecological crisis ungrounds human beings by causing human history to intersect decisively with geological time marked by the coinage of the term, ‘Anthropocene’, referring to a period that started around 1790 with human industry's deposition of a thin layer of carbon in Earth's crust and continued after 1945 with the Great Acceleration marked by the deposition of a thin layer of radioactive materials. Actually, recently they've specified that it's 1945. I'd have a slight argument about that if you want me to bore you with it just ask me later, yeah?

Since the UN's Earth Summit which was in Rio, June 13th to the 22nd, 1992- what has underpinned the fascist right in the USA has been opposition to solidarity with non-humans. We can draw many conclusions from this. George Bush’s announcement of a post-Soviet New World Order is indeed sinister but so was the fascist interpretation of the announcement. What is fascinating is how explicit the fascists are about it. They combine the Bush administration's image of the New World Order, and Agenda 21, of the non-binding agreement signed by all the 178 participants in the Earth Summit, to produce a global banking conspiracy theory that fuses anti-Semitism and hostility to non-human lifeforms. The first section of Agenda 21 makes noises about reducing poverty and changing patterns of consumption, about containing the explosion of human beings on the planet and about making agreements in an ecologically sustainable way. The second section introduces the concept of biodiversity. The third section delineates the groups of human stakeholders involved in Agenda 21's vision. The fourth section talks about implementation. Sustainability is the key term and just as when Goebbels said the word ‘culture’ he reached for his gun:

When I hear the word ‘sustainability’ I reach for my sunscreen.

‘Sustainability’ is an even more vacuous term than ‘culture’ and the two terms overlap. What is being sustained of course is the neo-liberal, capitalist, world economic structure. And this isn't great news for Humans, Coral, Kiwi birds or Lichen. This adds up to an explosively holist political and economic agenda. Individual beings don't matter. What matters is the whole that transcends them. We require another holism if we're going to think at a planetary scale without just upgrading or retweeting the basic agricultural theological meme, a meme that justifies a human, non-human boundary. Fascism is an atavistic reaction to the reality of this oppressive failure; attempting to replace the new god with a fantasy old God, Making America Great Again. The fusion in the fascist imaginary of Agenda 21 with the New World Order results in geometrical triangulation in a virtual image of an international a.k.a Jewish banking conspiracy. Like the schizophrenic defense of paranoid hallucinations papering over the void of extreme anxiety, the overlap between anti-Semitism and a positive fleshed-out image of an explosively holist bias (I keep saying this phrase and you'll understand why in a minute) by the disparate, international community, defends against the void of actual ecological awareness. I mean to talk about the fact that I'm a holist in a moment.

I'm a holist but I'm not your Granddaddy's holist.

What I now call the Symbiotic Real is necessarily ragged and pockmarked. That's because symbiosis is always an uneasy relationship between beings for whom the most parasite distinction isn't clear or resolved and who is top and who is bottom at any moment can shift. Within the world, "host" is both a word "friend" and the word for "enemy". If it wasn't an easy relationship it wouldn't be capable of happening. In other words the unease is a possibility condition for its happening. A further conclusion to be drawn is something that may sound counterintuitive and we have certainly heard more seemingly intuitive arguments recently. It seems that racism is underpinned by speciesism but it is exactly the opposite. Racism suspends speciesism finely grained violent distinctions between who gets to count as a human and who doesn't generate an uncanny valley. A term in robotics design in which the non-human, dolphins for instance or R2D2, is sharply different from the Human. Separated from the human by an unbridgeable chasm. If you look out over the chasm, of the definite non-humans, it is if the chasm doesn't exist because of the full shortening but far from being a thin rigid boundary that might as well not exist, the uncanny valley is a sloppy hole like a mass grave containing thousands of abjected beings. The Left should take heed that the far Right underpins speciesism with racism by fusing paranoia about biodiversity with anti-Semitism. The struggle against racism thus becomes a battleground for ecological politics, environmental racism isn't just a tactic of distributing harm via slow violence against the poor. Environmentalism as such can coincide with racism when it distinguishes rigidly between the human and the non-human.

Thinking about the human in a non-anthropocentric way requires thinking about the human in an anti-racist way. 

And it can be done. We can get there by appropriating and modifying Heidegger's concept of ‘world’. Having a world needn't mean living in a vacuum sealed bubble, cut off from others. World, needn't be a special thing that humans construct, least of all the German humans whom Heidegger seems to think are the best. We will disarm Heidegger from within. It's not that there is no such thing as World but that World is always and necessarily incomplete. Worlds are always very cheap. And this is because of the special non-explosively holist interconnectedness that is the Symbiotic Real. Because of what object-oriented-ontology, which is sort of like part of my day job calls "object withdraw". The way in which no access mode whatsoever can totally swallow an entity. ‘Withdrawn’ doesn't mean empirically shrunken back or moving behind. So in your face that you can't see it. Everything in existence has a tattered lane world. You can quite easily reach through your shredded curtain to shake a Lion's paw and the Lion can do the same. An Owl is an owl, and the reason to care for her is not that she is a member of a capstone species. We don't need her to be a brick in a solid wall of world. We need to take care of her. Play with her. This gives us a strong reason to care for one another. No matter who we are and for other lifeforms. It gives us a leftist way of saying that we have things in common. We are, and here I'm going to use the word that I now use as a technical term, brace for impact. We are "humankind". 

I'm not setting up Human as another substitute God being; omnipresent, omnipotent or omniscient or whatever and more real than little you, or little me or than America and Capitalism. The nihilism that sub pins the idea in Platonism is that there is a more real world beyond this fake photocopy which in turn sustains Christianity. I totally agree with Heidegger that Christianity is Platonism for the masses. It's based upon a kind of holism by which that world beyond sort of Pacmans this one. The parts that we see are transcended by a whole or a one that is bigger, better, more real. That's why in a moment I'm going to argue for another kind of holism. What I'm saying in fact is that what is called humankind here is a species in a non-racist and therefore non-speciesist sense. A life form among other lifeforms, surrounded and penetrated by them as a possibility condition for existing. There's that symbiotic-real again. Humankind shares the world with nematode worms, butterflies, chimpanzees and bracket fungi. Humankind is thus opposed in principle not only to the concept of 'nature' but to its dyadic counterpart the concept, 'humanity'. 

You can't point to it, you can't say, "This is the bit of the Fox where the Fox appearance stops and the Fox reality begins. The Fox appearance, also being all kinds of relations with the Fox such as using foxes as examples of an ontological gap between being and appearing or pictures of foxes or interactions between foxes and house cats. All these are parts of the Fox if you like and these parts are glued to the Fox. Not to mushrooms but they are not the Fox at the same time". 

Hegel reduces the anxiety implicit in this insight by arguing that all this is just an idea happening in the subject and therefore there is no actual gap. Allowing non-humans to be part of revolutionary theory means allowing tables to dance or at least the possibility because it means allowing things to be shiveringly, self-contradictorily moving all by themselves. Which is the objective content of the paranoia the right now I might well be an android. A paranoia that you can only delete if you close off the contradictions. It also means allowing for some kind of spectrality. Not just in principle as Derrida argues but actual spectres like in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. These spectres don't sit neatly inside you and are called 'Souls'. They hover within and without you and they aren't quite human but they aren't quite non-human either. Every life form is haunted this way

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you'll see a life form, ghosted. Say it's a fish that can breathe out of water for five minutes. If they're fishes, the fish’s colleagues might think that this fish is a bad mutant fish. But at every step in the evolutionary process you can't tell the difference between monstrosity and variation until with 20/20 hindsight you figure out, "Wow lungs all evolved from swim bladders". 

Object-oriented ontology is saying that if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as anything else. That's what flat ontology actually means. Not that viruses have just as much right to exist as victims of viruses. I'm pulling this new holism subsentence just like transcendence but with the word sub. Sub-sentence means that you can't achieve a permanent top down one-size-fits-all communism. Sorry guys, it means that there can be lots of communism and then they could intersect and that they're all fragile and finite. You can participate in lots of different types all the time. We're in one now in this room. This participation has the flavor of the symbiotic real that it's uneasy and uncanny and spectral and fragile and the noise it makes is solidarity. Solidarity, just is the noise made by the symbiotic real, the cheapest most default affect we can share with frogs and raindrops and the amoeba. Solidarity is actually the aesthetic experience, it's a feeling of solidarity with at least one other being for no reason. Solidarity includes non-humans by default. It's not that Communist theories were better when they include non-human, it's not that we can condescend to extend them to non humans; it's that they imply non-humans, they only work when they include not humans. And there are so many more of us than there are of them, them being the holes of which we are parts. A frog is part of the biosphere but so much more than just a symptom of the biosphere. A rain shower is a symptom of global warming but so much more than just a symptom of global warming.

Don't get me wrong, like a shower of rain is obviously a symptom of global warming at this point, right? But it's also this beautiful sensation on my skin, right? It's also this nice little bath for these folks that I keep talking about. Neoliberalism covers most of the earth and is very powerful and scary but it's ontologically tiny compared with all the humans and the dust mites and piles of wood in the corner of the fireplace. Communist theory must stop trying to Pacman. Instead we need to think about how to flop out subsequently from underneath because a thing always has more parts than it has whole. So Trump will undercut by beings that decompose him from underneath. From underground, Trump, whether the individual even just the hairdo, or the especially violent version of America, is massively substandard to his parts. And since those parts include in some sense all the parts of the biosphere it is correct to talk of Lifeforms vs. Trump in a strong sense. All lifeforms are lined up against Trump. After all, he is positioned his massive bulk as a bulwark against them. The objective truth of this positioning is that all life now has Trump in its sights. Trump and what Trump stands for is the Antagonist. 

Thank you.

 

Excerpt of transcription of Timothy Morton’s talk “Lifeforms versus Trump”, from the event “Underground Ecology, Politics, Mythology,” organized by Teodora Pasquinelli. A dialogue shared between Timothy Morton and Federico Campagna at The Showroom at Goldsmiths University on the 18, March 2017. Appeared in Print AWC Issue 5

 

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