Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Negative Scientific Humanism

Very powerful essay by Dipesh Chakrabarty in the Winter 2009 Critical Inquiry on global warming and its consequences for theories of history:

…climate scientists posit that the human being has become something much larger than the simple biological agent that he or she has always been. Humans now wield a geological force … To call human beings geological agents is to scale up our imagination of the human. Humans are biological agents, both collectively and as individuals. They have always been so. There was no point in human history when humans were not biological agents. But we can become geological agents only historically and collectively, that is, when we have reached numbers and invented technologies that are on a scale large enough to have an impact on the planet itself. To call ourselves geological agents is to attribute to us a force on the same scale as that released at other times when there has been a mass extinction of species. We seem to be currently going through that kind of a period. (206-207)

Chakrabarty goes on to adopt the term (suggested by scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer) "Anthropocene" for the geological period we're currently living in: meaning that human activity is, for the first time in planetary history, the determining climatic and geological factor.

What's so amazing — and, in the context of Critical Inquiry, provocative — about these formulations, familiar enough to scientists or even newspaper readers of the past ten to fifteen years or so, is that they invert or reverse the standard anti-humanist theoretical move, which tries to convince us that human agents are less important than we've been socialized to think (here I'm thinking primarily of Foucault, Althusser, and all their various progeny). Modernity is often seen as precisely this: a loss of power for the individual human being, a demotion from agent to subject or from subject to construct. So when Chakrabarty writes that "[t]o call human beings geological agents is to scale up our imagination of the human," he's implicitly invoking that "scaling down" that we in the increasingly misnamed humanities have been struggling to do for the past forty-odd years.

But he's not doing this, of course, in order to reclaim the positive values of the old humanism; rather, he's trying to make us understand the negative or harmful aspects of our humanity, the immense destructive power that we inevitably wield over the planet and each other. All of which entails not only a new theory of history but also a new ethics, new politics, even a new ontology maybe. I'm struck by how close Chakrabarty's current position is to what Michel Serres was saying in 1991 in Eclaircissements, about the recognition of human strength being the primary ethical imperative of our scientific era (I just returned the book yesterday or I'd quote exactly — he says it a lot more elegantly than that). I'm tempted to make a new category for these guys (which could also include Bruno Latour and, maybe, Pierre Bourdieu): negative scientific humanism. (Which should not suggest pessimism or fatalism: quite the opposite.) What they all have in common is an affirmation of science and rationality, or at least an acceptance of its findings, along with a deep dismay about the ethical consequences of science's unprecedented level of power; but also a dissatisfaction with the existing left critique of technoscience, whether Marxist or Heideggerian (Chakrabarty says all kinds of smart things about reconciling natural scientists' views of "deep history" with materialist critiques of capital).

So it seems to me that what Chakrabarty is on to is really quite extraordinary: a way out of the humanist/anti-humanist binary that's become so sterile over the decades. Of course this is, in planetary terms, the least important stake in this debate, but if the future of the world does indeed depend on how human beings view themselves and their activities, then it doesn't seem crazy that the humanities might play a significant part.