Animism for the Anthropocene: A Hyperobject-Oriented Analysis

[The following is a proposal for a paper in a panel on new materialism and its significance for religion, affect, and emotion in the Anthropocene.]

Articulating multifarious ways that agency is distributed across all things—human and nonhuman—various theoretical schools are emerging that move beyond the anthropocentrism for which affective agency is solely or most fully embodied in humans.  Including (but not limited to) new materialism, speculative realism, object-oriented ontology (OOO), and actor-network theory (ANT), each of these schools affirms the vibrant dynamics and unique capacities of nonhumans.  They are particularly timely insofar as they address the challenges of the emerging geological epoch, the Anthropocene—a time when human actions, magnified by technoscientific media, are so pervasively intertwined with Earth’s systems that it is becoming increasingly superfluous to attempt to neatly separate humans from nonhumans. Among these new schools, object-oriented approaches stand out for their provocative claim that adequate theories must focus on objects—things.  That contrasts starkly with more common theoretical orientations toward relations, processes, events, networks, biopower, and material conditions.

This paper provides an object-oriented account of affect in the Anthropocene, drawing specifically on Timothy Morton’s (hyper)object-oriented ontology and his claims that the Anthropocene is the age of ecology without nature and the age of animism without animism, that is, animism “under erasure” (sous rature).  To facilitate an exploratory engagement with animistic affects in the Anthropocene, this paper presents Morton’s conception of objects, elucidating his relationship with new materialism, speculative realism, and ANT, and indicating how one can develop an intimate feeling for a hyperobject like global climate change by attending to the lameness, weakness, and hypocrisy of coexistence in the Anthropocene.

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Integrating Deconstruction

It’s easy to use a philosopher’s concepts and stylistic strategies without actually confronting some of the serious challenges that the philosopher is engaging.  A case in point: Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory, in its extremely comprehensive treatment of various perspectives, discourses, and ways of knowing, often picks up on important conceptual and stylistic elements of philosophers without fully engaging those philosophers’ problems.  Wilber’s treatment of Derrida is a fine example.

Wilber attempts to integrate Derrida into this Integral framework, yet fails to come to terms with the deconstruction of the transcendental signified.  Gregory Desilet discusses this problem of the transcendental signified in an essay on “Misunderstanding Derrida and Postmodernism” (on http://www.integralworld.net/desilet.html ), where he shows how Wilber has simply misread and misquoted Derrida on this issue.  In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000, p. 629) Wilber refers to an interview of Derrida’s (in Positions), arguing that Derrida therein accepts “genuine transcendental signifieds” on the grounds that translation is not possible without them.  The problem is simply that Wilber improperly interpolates when he cites this interview.  When Derrida says “no translation would be possible without it,” the “it” to which he is referring should not be understood as “the transcendental signified.”  Rather, the “it” refers to the “difference” between signifier and signified.

That this opposition or difference cannot be radical or absolute does not prevent it from functioning, and even from being indispensable within certain limits—very wide limits. For example, no translation would be possible without it. (Derrida, Positions, 2004, p. 19)

This is not to say that there is nothing undeconstructible for Derrida, but what is undeconstructible is not a transcendental signified—not a pure or absolute transcendence that is free from shifting contexts and sliding chains of signifiers.  It is quasi-transcendental.

Not a stable or substantial foundation, a quasi-transcendental condition is insufficient and disordering.  Quite different from a sufficient and empowering transcendental, it is always deferring in further temporal unfolding, constituting horizons of possibility by transgressing them.  Although Wilber claims that Derrida posits a transcendental signified necessary for translations, a transcendental signified actually closes the door and translation, cleaning up the slippage and deferral that keep translation in transit.  There’s no getting around the groundless play of events.  There is no transcendental signified, no first or final frame of reference, no ground, not even Nonduality or some kind of groundless ground.  Moreover, this doesn’t mean that Derrida is a nihilist.

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that Derrida, in his autobiography, says that “the constancy of God in my life is called by other names” (Derrida, “Circumfession,” 1993, p. 155).  He says that while also declaring his atheism.  God is a name, and it but one name among many for the impossible effects of an event (l’événement), which names a coming (la venue), the arrival of a newcomer (arrivant), a stranger to come (à venir).  If what happens is reduced to its position in a rigid program or a homogenized order where no surprises occur, then the event is reduced to an economy of the same—a systematic order that precludes the differences that would accompany the arrival of what is coming.

An event occurs when the future (l’avenir) breaks through the economy of the same, opening the rigid order of the system to the absolute surprise of what is to come (à-venir).  This absolute surprise is something for which no anticipation, expectation, or horizon of waiting is available, because this surprise is precisely the e-vent, the coming-out of that which is wholly other than any program or order.  It is impossible to prepare for this coming, to let in the other, because preparation would assimilate the alterity of the other into one’s own horizon of expectations.  It is impossible, and it is precisely the task of deconstruction to somehow prepare a way for the impossible to happen.

Deconstruction is a process of preparing for events through the invention of the other, an evocative and provocative invention.  It is the invention of messianic justice—an impossible justice that comes with the arrival of the other, an arrival that is undeconstructible and irreducible to any particular messianisms or particular religions.  In a sense, Wilber was right to say in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (2000, p. 562) that the deconstruction of presence “has almost nothing to do with mystical Presence,” but only because deconstruction is more messianic than mystical.  In any case, that “almost nothing” poses a much more serious challenge than Wilber has taken up.