TURN TO STONe

Can we disturb anthropocentrism by dissolving the boundary of life, non-life?

ONGOING RESEARCH PROJECT

stonemorph.png
 

PART 1. A DISSOLVING OF WORLDS

Anthropocene - the human epoch

Sometime relatively recently ago, perhaps a few decades, perhaps a few centuries, planet Earth (i.e. all of This), entered a new epoch - and they called it, the Anthropocene. [1–5]

Big, planetary-scale, systems of balance were disrupted - the carbon dioxide cycle, the nitrogen & phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification, etc. This curtailed death and suffering, destruction and devastation on a scale not seen for millions and millions of years, if ever, in the history of the planet.

The cause, the error in the program, the bug, was (surprisingly) difficult to pin down. Like a wicked hydra, the Problem (capital p), seemed to entangle many different systems and structures and institutions and corporations and cultures and algorithms. But undeniably, all arrows pointed to the shadow of a single species - the Anthropos.

So they named the epoch after themselves, perhaps as a way to blame all of them (rather than a few), perhaps as a way to tell themselves that they were righteous masters of their (dispossessed) spaceship, perhaps as a realization that it was all their fault, perhaps as an indication that somewhere in the direction of the anthropos, the program run awry, but we are not sure how we could let it happen.

Could it be that the reason the Problem escaped all political solutions was because it lie at a deeper level?

Anthropocentrism

Underneath the Problem of the Anthropocene is a view that humankind has the right to manipulate (create, destroy, alter) other species and our surroundings. This view is called Anthropocentrism - placing the human in the center and on top. Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans have a unique, significant, and exceptional position on the planet. It is the idea that humans are more real than non-humans, because we can think. But thinking is not the only access mode into the world, and as we shall see, it is not necessarily the best access mode either.

The first place we look for cracks in this throne is trying to distinguish the human from the non-human. Where does “the environment” end and humankind begin? The human body for example is a symbiotic marriage between the cells that carry “your” DNA and the numerous bacteria that inhabit your gut. Since one cannot survive without the other, it is hard to determine who is the host and who is the parasite. 30% of human milk is not digestible by the baby, instead, these indigestible carbohydrates serve as a prebiotics, being “selectively fermented by desirable gut flora”. [6] Symbiosis stems from the greek “sumbioun” - live together. The living of humankind is something created together with our surrounding. As we interact with other beings and objects, it is as if we overlap and flow into each other. Why is it that when multiple humans spend time together their menstrual cycles synchronize? The boundary of the human body is open; we are permeable and porous, as we share our worlds with others.

This idea of how we value humankind in relation to the non-human can also be related to the idea that different humans have different value, also known as racism, sexism, ableism, etc. The Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss describes a study of a group of indigenous villagers where the people were asked to draw a schematic image of how their village was structured. The images drawn by the upper-class turned out systematically different than the images from the lower-class. The privileged people viewed their society organized as multiple concentric circles, with themselves as the center of the village, and the rest living in the outer rings of town. The view of lower-class people was radically different, with a circle that was split in half, showing the privileged people on one side and the unprivileged on the other side. [7]

We transfer this to the topology of anthropocentrism, putting humans as the concentric core of the world, with human like animals further out (apes, dogs, pigs), distant relatives further away (mice, fishes, insects), plants further still, and bacteria and fungi at the outskirts. Non-sentient objects usually doesn’t even make it into the drawing, a stone is just the background upon which the circles of Life (capital L) are drawn. Seen from the stone’s perspective, this topology might be radically different. As the contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton shows in his work “Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People”, the task at hand is to transition from this perspective to one where the worlds of all beings are considered equally real, and thereby equally valuable. Replacing anthropocentrism with a solidarity with the non-human. [8]

To find a space where we can establish this solidarity, we must deconstruct reality even further, delving into the world of metaphysics; the field of philosophy that attempts to answer the two fundamental questions: 

Who am I? What is this?

 
anthropocentrism.png
anthropocentrism2.png
To treat the stone
as a being,
turns no man’s land to rush hour.

Dear friend and stone,
I listen deeply.

The silence beckons
— Nonhuman Nonsense

Technic & Magic

The philosopher Federico Campagna describes in his book “Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality”, our current metaphysical world, called Technic, as one built on absolute language - only that which can be described exists. It is built on measurability - only that which can be measured has value. It is built around the principle of technology, reducing all things and beings to instrumentality, with purpose created only in potential. Technics world orders everything into a system, reduces every object to a position, a point on a scale. But it never succeeds in avoiding the very kernel of existence, life, consciousness - it only goes so far as to reduce it to a “something”, all while claiming it is of little importance. [9]

Campagna constructs a new reality, which he calls Magic, that takes this “something”, existence, the ineffable as life, and puts it front and center, as the very base of reality. Central in this new world is the realization of a hidden layer inside/outside/beside all objects, transcending their linguistic dimension, that we can never access. And that this ineffable kernel is the same in all things, all beings, all persons - transforming all entities to centers of the world.

Campagna uses the word Magic as the opposite of what is currently in power. He doesn’t mean anything to do with darkness or the exotic, but as an alternative reality system that seems troubling to the current paradigm: “The specular opposite of technic - not it’s shadow”. [9]

One way to understand how the ineffable creates reality is to see the conscious, or existence, as a light (classically God) and objects/symbols as the transparent glass that constructs the world through which we perceive existence. The glass has different thickness in different places, with less light shining through, containing less meaning and existence. As all beings and objects and symbols are traversed by an axis connecting the ineffable with the linguistic, we can find a solidarity in the unity with all beings, no matter the form that they take. A unity in multiplicity (a term Campagna uses from the 17th century islamic philosopher Mulla Sadra). [9]

Non-Human Worlds

As we have now dissolved the Anthropocene all the way down to Campagna’s description of the ineffable as life, we can attempt to coagulate the worlds of Non-Humans as well.

The concept of worlds is a term used by the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger. To him, Humans are the only beings that are full in worlds: world is a process, worlding, and humans are the worlding beings. Heidegger says that “animals” are “poor in world” (Weltarm) and that inanimate beings such as stones have no world at all. [8]

Returning to Timothy Morton’s ideas of solidarity with the non-human, we see that all worlds are poor:

Because world is inherently lacking, inherently ragged and faulty. World is perforated. There are not perfect, smoothly functioning worlds, and poor people’s versions. To have a world intrinsically is to be Weltarm.[...] This is also marvelous in another way: if there is no such thing as a full world, there is no such thing as no world at all. So even waterfalls [or stones] have worlds! World is cheap enough for everything to have it. In this reality, there is not (full) world or no world at all; there is a range of overlapping worlds. [8]

This does not mean upgrading all beings and inviting them to share the anthropocentric throne, it means allowing all beings to have worlds and to notice that our perforated worlds can overlap. Morton explains that they can be shared to say 20%, or 60%, it’s not a question of all or nothing. The reason that worlds are a process, worlding, is because they emerge as a property of a doing:

You cook, go to the shops, kiss your boyfriend, start a reading group, break your toe and hobble to the hospital, quit your job, go on a march. That’s your world. [8]

When Morton describes worlds as a results of doing, they are a matter of more or less, rather than full or poor or not-existing. Sometimes worlds are the result of very complex algorithms of doing, such as a stone being hurdled at a police officer for example.

But how do we translate this to an understanding of the world of a stone? What worlding process do they have? What are they doing?

stonesworld.png
Pebble

The pebble
is a perfect creature

equal to itself
mindful of its limits

filled exactly
with a pebbly meaning

with a scent that does not remind one of anything
does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire

its ardour and coldness
are just and full of dignity

I feel a heavy remorse
when I hold it in my hand
and its noble body
is permeated by false warmth

—Pebbles cannot be tamed
to the end they will look at us
with a calm and very clear eye
— Zbigniew Herbert

World of a stone

Initially this seems problematic, because, as Morton describes, what we expect stones to do is to stay absolutely still and do nothing. They are supposed to be part of Nature (capital N), that background canvas that we paint our foreground lives on. Sometimes they refuse playing their part, they refuse being totally passive and take the upper hand, which we find terribly frightening and call Earthquake. On a geological timescale, stones behave like liquids, coming and going, forming and dispersing, moving, shifting, melting. Stones fail to sit there doing nothing. On an inhumanely small quantum scale, stones do something much worse than moving; they move and not move at the same time. They are not passive because they are not being pushed, they are not active because they are not doing anything to anything else, they just vibrate all by themselves. [8] Or consider a stone falling on your car. There are signs warning you that it might happen, but we don’t interpret them as if the stone jumps off the cliff and skips down towards us. Morton says:

We are hampered even from beginning to ascribe intention to stones, the issue that lurks in the background of the notion of agency. We are wary of letting stones do things because we are wary of letting agency be about doing things. [8]

At this point, the distinction between life and non-life becomes impossible to maintain. All beings are somewhere in between; we are all undead, at least not not-alive.

When it comes to the question of how it’s like to be a stone: we don’t know. Sometimes when you say that you mean: “That is what I need to say philosophically, but actually, I kinda do know”. But here we mean, we really really don’t know. In the same way as death, it is not within the space of knowledge.

As Morton describes, not knowing induces a sort of paranoia: I do not know whether you or I or this stone is alive, therefore I am paranoid. And as with death, our tool to try to grasp any concept of the ineffable, is mythology and ritual. We are forced into a reverence for the mystery of having no view. All we can do is to attempt to transcend the linguistic and point in the direction of the ineffable.

 
sensing_2.jpg
 
A Measuring Worm

This yellow striped green
Caterpillar, climbing up
The steep window screen,

Constantly (for lack
Of a full set of legs) keeps
Humping up his back.

It’s as if he sent
By a sort of semaphore
Dark omegas meant

To warn of Last Things.
Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I, too, don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.
— Richard Wilbur

Part 2: Coagulation

Anthropomorphism

Since the world of a stone seems to share relatively little with the world of a human (compared to say another human or a dog), there is a risk that any attempts finding an overlap will feel like it comes out short. An important note here, is that as we extend the Heideggerian concept of world to “non-sentient” beings, we use it in a different sense than the Jakob von Uexküll concept of “self-centered world” (Umwelt), which describes the world created by the semiotics processes of an organism.14 With von Uexküll’s view, every Umwelt is a separate environment, based on “the sensory experiences of the organism”.15 We instead use Morton’s cheap worlds, based on doing, as previously described. [8] Instead of Umwelt, Morton talks of having different Access Modes, that we are not capable of venturing outside of:

We are shrink-wrapped in [our acces modes], so that we anthropomorphize everything. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no outside at all, or that we are caught forever within anthropocentrism. There’s a big difference between saying that we anthropomorphize and that we are anthropocentric. [8]

 
The Marrow

There was a word inside a stone.
I tried to pry it clear,
mallet and chisel, pick and gad,
until the stone was dropping blood,
but still I could not hear
the word the stone had said.
I threw it down beside the road
among a thousand stones
and as I turned away it cried
the word aloud within my ear
and the marrow of my bones
heard, and replied.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
 

Affect

Framed in other terms, what we are trying to achieve in breaking down Anthropocentrism is to establish a relationship with the non-human that is affective.

The first step to such a transformation is looking at how we share our worlds with animals, something that the philosopher and theorist Donna Haraway does in her work “When Species Meet”. Haraway breaks down Cartesian models of separation and shows that we are always part animal, and part human - the human body is not simply human. This overlapping of beings is expressed in terms of co-evolution, co-constitution and co-enactment. Sharing worlds is phrased as “the developmental aspect of the becoming of the dog human”. [16] What we suggest is that we can simply project these ideas further and apply them to “non-sentient” beings as well; the becoming of the stone human.

Affect is crucial for such a becoming to be meaningful and useful. We can now apply the thoughts of the philosopher Vinciane Despret, who in her paper “The becomings of subjectivity in Animal Worlds” describes the importance of not assuming that the human condition is something unique and superior to be able to talk to animals. Despret takes the example of Alex the parrot who is trained by scientists to talk, and stresses the importance of treating Alex as an equal, of letting the parrot speak:

Alex doesn’t talk in the name of a ‘‘we’’ of parrots successfully imposed by scientists, but in the name of a ‘‘we’’ constituted by the assemblage of a parrot and human beings equipped with an apparatus aimed at making the parrot talk well. [17]

There is a dissolving of human and parrot in the becoming of the human parrot. Pushing this thought even further into the world of non-sentient beings; we have to treat the stone as an equal and we have to let the stone speak.

Since speaking concerns the expression of an intention, we are forced back to face the notion of agency, a term that we usually think of as a property held (or not held) by a being, or person, or in this case, a thing. But here we can apply the thoughts of the physicist and theorist Karen Barad, and her theories of “Agential Realism”. In Barads terms, agency is not something that someone has to a varying degree, but an enactment; “a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements”, that “enlists, if you will, “non-humans” as well as “humans.”” She attempts to remove the entire notion of independently existing individuals, using instead the term intra-acting; we are symbiotically connected and can’t be separated out. So the question of the agency of the stone is not the right question to ask ourselves, the crucial point is instead one of power imbalances. [18] In Barads terms, by listening to the stone, we attend to an imbalance in power, we are open to the possibility of mutual response - a response-ability. 

* Hinting to the next question of the responsibility of the stone as it speaks.

As a quick comment, we note that this thinking is not new, but has a vast history and depth in eastern philosophies, such as the Buddhist concept of Anattā (no-self), the Shinto concept of Kami (spirits), or Polynesian concepts of Mana (spiritual energy).

We close full circle by rephrasing power in terms of metaphysics. In realising that the stone is as undead as we, that it is not not-dead, that we share the ineffable kernel of existence, and seeking to allow it to speak, we find that we have shifted the boundaries of possibility - that what was previously impossible suddenly becomes possible. In Anthropocentrism there is little escape from the extractivist mentality that has been amped up to a scale that is threatening the existence of billions of beings, and causes a suffering previously unheard in the history of our planet. Using the terms of the philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi,  transitioning into the world of Magic, “changes the form pressed on the world that determines what can and can’t happen”:

The impossible is precisely that which escapes the respective cosmological paradigm. [19]

 
Listen.jpg
Conversation with a Stone

I knock at the stone’s front door.
It’s only me, let me come in.
I want to enter your insides,
have a look round,
breathe my fill of you.”

“Go away, ” says the stone.
“I’m shut tight.
Even if you break me to pieces,
we’ll all still be closed.
You can grind us to sand,
we still won’t let you in.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I’ve come out of pure curiosity.
Only life can quench it.
I mean to stroll through your palace,
then go calling on a leaf, a drop of water.
I don’t have much time.
My mortality should touch you.”

“I’m made of stone, ” says the stone,
“and must therefore keep a straight face.
Go away.
I don’t have the muscles to laugh.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I hear you have great empty halls inside you,
unseen, their beauty in vain,
soundless, not echoing anyone’s steps.
Admit you don’t know them well yourself.”

“Great and empty, true enough, ” says the stone,
“But there isn’t any room.
Beautiful, perhaps, but not to the taste
of your poor senses.
You may get to know me, but you’ll never know me through.
My whole surface is turned toward you,
all my insides turned away.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I don’t seek refuge for eternity.
I’m not unhappy.
I’m not homeless.
My world is worth returning to.
I’ll enter and exit empty-handed.
And my proof I was there
will be only words,
which no one will believe.”

“You shall not enter, ” says the stone.
“You lack the sense of taking part.
No other sense can make up for your missing sense of taking part.
Even site heightened to become all-seeing
will do you no good without a sense of taking part.
You shall not enter, you have only a sense of what that sense should be,
only its seed, imagination.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.
I haven’t got two thousand centuries,
so let me come under your roof.”

“If you don’t believe me, ” says the stone,
“just ask the leaf, it will tell you the same.
Ask a drop of water, it will tell you what the leaf has said.
And, finally, ask a hair from your own head.
I am bursting with laughter, yes, vast laughter,
although I don’t know how to laugh.”

I knock at the stone’s front door.
“It’s only me, let me come in.”

“I don’t have a door, ” says the stone.
— Wisława Szymborska
 

Ending

In the end, we overview what the effects of this shift in metaphysics are in practice.

The whole intention can be neatly summarized in three words: solidarity, awareness, meaning. We are never alone, but are constantly overlapping and sharing our world with other porous beings, co-constituted in a flux of impermanence. With this perspective, the way forward is one of awareness of how our actions have consequences, how we are enmeshed in a network of becoming with others. We therefore establish solidarity with the non-human and consider what other beings are saying. Meaning is constantly created through attuning to an affective exchange in relations, and death becomes the final transcendence of which we know nothing, but are softened in a reverence of it’s mystery.

 
Aura2.jpg
 
The Six Elements Speak

I am Earth.
I am rock, metal, and soil.
I am that which exists in you
As bone, muscle, and flesh,
But now I must go,
Leaving you light.
Now we must part.
Goodbye.

I am Water.
I am ocean, lake, rivers and streams,
The rain that falls from clouds
And the dew on the petals of flowers.
I am that which exists in you
As blood, urine, sweat, saliva and tears,
But now I must go,
Leaving you dry.
Now we must part.
Goodbye.

I am Fire.
I come from the Sun, travelling through space
To sleep in wood, flint, and steel.
I am that which exists in you
As bodily heat, the warmth of an embrace,
But now I must go,
Leaving you cold.
Now we must part.
Goodbye.

I am Air.
I am wind, breeze, and hurricane.
I am that which exists in you
As the breath in your nostrils, in your lungs,
The breath that gently comes, that gently goes,
But now I must go,
For the last time,
Leaving you empty.
Now we must part.
Goodbye.

I am Space.
I contain all,
From a grain of dust to a galaxy.
I am that which exists in you
As the space limited by the earth, water, fire, and air
That make up your physical being,
But now they have all gone
And I must go too,
Leaving you unlimited.
Now we must part.
Goodbye.

I am Consciousness.
Indefinable and indescribable.
I am that which exists in you
As sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch and thought,
But now I must go
From the space no longer limited by your physical being
Leaving nothing of ‘you’.
There is no one from whom to part,
So no goodbye.

Earth dissolves into Water,
Water dissolves into Fire,
Fire dissolves into Air,
Air dissolves into Space,
Space dissolves into Consciousness,
Consciousness dissolves into - ?
HUM
— Sangharakshita

References

1. Waters CN, Zalasiewicz J, Summerhayes C, Barnosky AD, Poirier C, Gałuszka A, et al. The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene. Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science; 2016;351: aad2622. doi:10.1126/science.aad2622

2. Steffen W, Crutzen PJ, McNeill JR. The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences; 2007;36: 614–621. doi:10.1579/0044-7447(2007)36[614:TAAHNO]2.0.CO;2

3. Steffen W, Broadgate W, Deutsch L, Gaffney O, Ludwig C. The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review. SAGE Publications; 2015;2: 81–98. doi:10.1177/2053019614564785

4. Ruddiman WF, Ellis EC, Kaplan JO, Fuller DQ. Defining the epoch we live in. Science. American Association for the Advancement of Science; 2015;348: 38–39. doi:10.1126/science.aaa7297

5. Williams M, Zalasiewicz J, Haff PK, Schwägerl C, Barnosky AD, Ellis EC. The Anthropocene biosphere. The Anthropocene Review. SAGE Publications; 2015;2: 196–219. doi:10.1177/2053019615591020

6. German JB, Freeman SL, Lebrilla CB, Mills DA. Human milk oligosaccharides: evolution, structures and bioselectivity as substrates for intestinal bacteria. Nestle Nutr Workshop Ser Pediatr Program. 2008;62: 205–18; discussion 218–22. doi:10.1159/000146322

7. Lévi-Strauss C. Structural anthropology [Internet]. Basic Books; 2008. Available: https://monoskop.org/images/e/e8/Levi-Strauss_Claude_Structural_Anthropology_1963.pdf

8. Morton T. Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People. Verso Books; 2017. Available: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2465-humankind

9. Campagna F. Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality [Internet]. Bloomsbury Publishing; 2018. Available: https://www.bloomsbury.com/us/technic-and-magic-9781350044036/

10. Corcoran PL, Moore CJ, Jazvac K. An anthropogenic marker horizon in the future rock record. GSA Today. geosociety.org; 2014; Available: DOI: 10.1130/GSAT-G198A.1

11. Jung CG. Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. (From Vol. 8. of the Collected Works of C. G. Jung) (New in Paper) [Internet]. Princeton University Press; 2010.

12. Jung CG. Man and his symbols. Laurel; 1964.

13. Wikipedia contributors. Kōan [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2018. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=K%C5%8Dan&oldid=840299687

14. Wikipedia contributors. Umwelt [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2018. Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umwelt

15. Morton T. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics [Internet]. Harvard University Press; 2007. Available: http://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674034853

16. Haraway DJ. When species meet. U of Minnesota Press; 2008.

17. Despret V. The Becomings of Subjectivity in Animal Worlds. Subjectivity. 2008;23: 123–139. doi:10.1057/sub.2008.15

18. Barad K. Matter Feels, Converses, Suffers, Desires, Yearns and Remembers: Interview with Karen Barad [Internet]. 2009. Available: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/11515701.0001.001/1:4.3/--new-materialism-interviews-cartographies?rgn=div2&view=fulltext

19. Berardi F. Futurability: The Age of Impotence and the Horizon of Possibility. Verso Books; 2017. Available: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2486-futurability