Who the hell starts a serious reflection on critical theory with a quote from a Mel Gibson movie? Why, that would be me! Read on, if you dare:
“And a Man sat alone, drenched deep in sadness. And all the animals drew near to him and said, “We do not like to see you so sad. Ask us for whatever you wish and you shall have it.” The Man said, “I want to have good sight.” The vulture replied, “You shall have mine.” The Man said, “I want to be strong.” The jaguar said, “You shall be strong like me.” Then the Man said, “I long to know the secrets of the earth.” The serpent replied, “I will show them to you.” And so it went with all the animals. And when the Man had all the gifts that they could give, he left. Then the owl said to the other animals, “Now the Man knows much, he’ll be able to do many things. Suddenly I am afraid.” The deer said, “The Man has all that he needs. Now his sadness will stop.” But the owl replied, “No. I saw a hole in the Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking, until one day the World will say, ‘I am no more and I have nothing left to give.”
-Tribal Elder in Apocalypto
In my short and painful lifetime, I’ve seen far more than my share of the death and destruction that Man’s “hole” has wrought upon the animals and the planet. So when I hear academic philosophers turning their attention to the possible extinction of humanity…see, for example, Claire Colebrook’s “Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction,” I feel like I have something to say. Even though I’m not academically “qualified,” I am more than personally qualified, after losing my family to various terminal illnesses, and struggling with my own. I know what it feels like to question whether human existence is worthwhile, and that should be qualification enough.
I don’t think I’m the only one in this boat. It seems these days that everyone who pays attention to the world outside their immediate personal circles has a feeling that something is going to happen… something vaguely apprehended, something yet to be decided…something maybe apocalyptic or tragic, something maybe transcendental and defining. But our guts are screaming that business as usual is not forever.
We humans are the first instantaneously, globally interconnected species in the history of the planet. And we instinctively know that this is an incredibly brief instant, even though it feels deceptively like an eternity. We live in a limbo of global industrial capital overlaid with exotic virtual realities of all species–“social” media, financial ghost gamblers, MMORPGs and the celebrity theater.
And we fear its inevitable demise, yet we also dread its continuation.
Many of us secretly wish our treadmill-grinding homeostasis would end in some glamorous apocalypse and relieve us of our ennui (or is “limbo” a better word)? Yet we equally fear the apocalypse because, how much does it hurt just to lose our smartphones for a day, much less to lose safe water supplies, shelter or a life-sustaining prescription?
The thorn of industrial civilization is in our hearts, not our sides. The system can’t continue as it is–it must either mutate and accelerate or collapse–yet either option feels intolerable: a sense of existential horror, in the case of acceleration, or terror, for collapse.
Never before, even as hunter-gatherers, have we Homo Sapiens been so directly confronted with our unclothed nature. For postmodern man, stripped by efficient communication of the fedoras and greatcoats that covered his animal body, there is no more speculation…
Communism doesn’t work.
Living like sages and fools in the streets of San Francisco gave us drug addiction and sex scandals, not peace love and freedom.
And even freedom itself is likely an illusion generated by our brains, if we take neuroscience seriously.
There is absolutely no ideology, institution, or infrastructure untainted by the tragic evolutionary imperative to survive, procreate, and eliminate the competition at all costs. And the most expensive cost: the blood sacrifice of our own descendants and our own future selves.
Most disturbing in all this is that despite our very real human beauty, famously described by Robert Ardrey as “risen apes,” our unique self-awareness lets us look upon our defects and aspire to change them. The basic law of nature rules that those non-risen apes among us (also known as psychopaths) are certain to rise to power in the Psychopathocene Age, leaving us in a game-theory nightmare from which there is no escape, or at least no intentional exit.
If we humans escape our predicament in good health, it will likely be some tragic stroke of luck, an accidental deluge of death and suffering for many people and communities; a painful “market correction,” literally or figuratively, in the near term future.
And in the midst of this, which we all know consciously or otherwise, academia’s credentialed experts stand up and try to tell us how we should feel and think about ourselves.
This intellectual disease called “critical theory” probably began much earlier, but let’s for convenience sake start with humanism, the doctrine that replaced Nietzsche’s dead God. Humans, said the humanists, are what is most important. We must define our own meaning, said Camus and Sartre, in an indifferent universe; or with Beckett, we must carry on heroically to our inevitable tragic end. (I actually have a weakness for Beckett; for a magnificently indescribable cinematic take on his approach to life, see Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s The Turin Horse.)
In either case, for the humanist it is our lived, individual experience, and not our lives’ socially ascribed or linguistically constructed “meaning,” that matters. Each human being is uniquely responsible for her decisions, and possesses an inalienable set of dignities that define her as human: free will, rights, the social contract, and ethics.
But humanism, like theism before it, fell under the weight of its own contradictions. After the failure of the global “isms” that our grandparents trusted to deliver humanity to its Edenic potential–communism, fascism, nationalism, capitalism–we reluctantly accepted that there would always be sexism, racism, classism, misery and poverty. Once we failed to lift minorities out of their disenfranchisement, we realized that no individual is self-determining, but instead a product of both nature and nurture, and most of all, he is not even really an “individual.” We are inextricable and even indistinguishable from our contexts and the systemic defects of our societies.
And we also saw, as scandals beset every single institution we could possibly hope to exemplify the virtues of humanity–first capitalism, next government and the media, then medicine, then religion, and now even science and academia–that there are no human virtues left–at least not in human institutions.
So in reaction, the new crop of theorist-priests, the postmodernists, turned to antihumanism. Antihumanism promised to do for humanism what humanism did for theism. It acknowledged that humanity is flawed, contingent and contextual, not self-defining and individually sovereign. It learned from the insights of the animal rights and civil rights movement, and the discipline of ethology, that there was and never could be any set of virtues by which one could define “humanity.” More problematically, by my assessment, antihumanism proposed that lived experience could not be the primary site of critical engagement, because experience is always already constructed through theory.
But what of critical theory, and philosophy as a whole? If we can’t trust any institution, can we trust academic humans’ ability to self-assess? Strange things have come to pass after antihumanism. They are strange because they are so unexpectedly familiar.
A new crop of “post-antihumanists” like Colebrook are extending the genealogy of the humanists and antihumanists before them. They realize that antihumanism is deluded by hidden anthropocentrism. The diverse, context-bound world of both human and non-human actors that antihumanists imagine is yet still determined by a human-bounded theoretical or cognitive structure. Antihumanists still project of human values–illusions of unity, connection, stability, subjectivity–onto the nonhuman universe.
Belief in Original Sin as the Motivation for Critical Theory
So yet again, like Adam and Eve, we fall, except we fall not from a garden, but down giant stairs.
Our book of original sins writes itself page after page into an all-too-short eternity as trees are cut down for its printing. Philosophers and theorists have changed their job description from the “lovers of truth” to the atheist theologians of original sin, each one vying to find the Sin of Life more original, more necessary or inevitable than the theorist before.
We fell from theism, to humanism, to antihumanism, and now to post-antihumanism. What of it? Can this end? Should it? Should anyone even care about critical theory, philosophy, or any of the humanities at all? Maybe we should just lose ourselves, damn our progeny, in the ancient frenzy to strive and survive?
My feeble attempt to answer this seemingly intractable question hinges on the crucial issues of lived experience, self-perception, and the human desire for change.
Before I turn to these three issues, I’ll make a short point about the problem of anthropocentrism: it’s not as simple as it seems. The problem is not only these antihumanist thinkers who inappropriately project “human” qualities to nonhuman entities. There is also the opposite and more complicated problem that humans assume that such projected qualities are, in fact, uniquely human. What I am suggesting is that anthropocentrism may be a different animal than we suspected. Ask a respected ethologist such as Robert Sapolsky and you will find that these “human” qualities which we “mistakenly” project onto animals are in fact not unique to humans. We’re not so special after all–not even in a bad way.
“Humanity” is likely to be a continuum, not a discrete state.
As to what we should substitute for critical theory, I suggest an ethos based on the findings of neuroscience, and most crucially, a basic compassion for *consciousness*, rather than “life,” in any form (which I will address in a different essay.)
The Hope That Feeds Extinction
Returning again to the issues of lived experience, self-determination and the desire for change, it may be that the endless book of original sin may only stop writing itself once we move beyond “subverting,” “retheorizing” or “criticizing” our biases, and return instead to lived experience.
But as Heraclitus said, we cannot step in the same river twice. I don’t propose we resurrect the old cry of “Lived, Unmediated Experience”–we should not forget the original insight that lived experience is inevitably intertwined with ideology. But instead of responding by “working on” that ideology to approach some “correct” configuration, I suggest that we recognize, counterintuitively, that it is the desire for change itself, whether ideological or experiential, which traps humans on the one-way down elevator into Godless original sin, and feeds our endless self-condemnation. How can we ever be free of Yahweh if we insist on sitting in judgment of ourselves?
More ironically, if we were to admit that there is something “fallen” about humans, our brains or behavior, or if we were to propose something apely about us that is not adequately risen, then whatever it is, it must have also arisen from the human desire for change, just as the endless self-condemnation of critical theory arose from our desire for change.
Our original sin is not our desire for knowledge, but our dissatisfaction with what we learn.
This brings us back to lived experience. Our neocortex guarantees that lived human experience will almost invariably be metaphorically mediated. Yet it is hard to deny that this mediation lies on a continuum, just as humanity lies on a continuum between humans, monkeys and dogs. An intellectually disabled adult who can only comprehend basic survival has more unmediated experiences than a crusader for a cause who is willing to defy his bodily drive for survival in service of ideology.
I would make an educated guess that the more neocortically mediated our lived experience, the more we desire change. And is it not exactly the self-aware critical theorists, who recognize this mediation most, who most desire change?
So instead of blindly accepting the neocortical mediation and seeking to work with it (ie, change it to some ideal configuration), maybe we should simply give up, and overthrow the tyranny of the prefrontal cortex. Academics laugh at saints and sages like Ramana Maharshi, who told us to simply surrender, and surrender completely: “Surrender is complete only when you reach the stage ‘‘Thou art all’ and ‘Thy will be done’”
In practice, this would mean that we construct Taoism from the Cartesian and Kantian blocks of Western logic: that we do philosophy, as Wittgenstein suggested, to free ourselves from philosophy. But let us not make Wittgenstein’s mistake and limit ourselves to language. Change-hungry philosophy hides in images, in relationships, in desire, and its greatest concentration is in hope, our hope for change.
One charge against this approach is that it could open us to a morally indefensible inaction. This is a valid criticism on the individual, specific level–but activists, this is not a message to stop fighting! If we must act, and we must, to relieve suffering is paramount.
But on the existential and civilizational level, if we truly understand that we never had a choice, and if we wake up, look at the big picture, and see that it was only ever *action*, never *inaction*, that got us into this global human predicament in the first place, then things look very different.
My White Flag is Raised
So, as a personal veteran of death, existential horror, and extreme trauma, I propose a different change… the rejection of change. The one thing we heirs of the Western mind have never tried, since first Pandora spoke–the rejection of hope. I hope to write non-theory that gives our overloaded brains a break. We must allow ourselves to at last stop hoping and fighting, stop making sense, stop comparing, calculating and integrating, and surrender unreservedly to what appears. To accept death.
Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could forget original sin and learn to celebrate destruction as well as creation? What would be so wrong if we let humanity grow old gracefully in peace and nostalgic reflection, rather than drown in extinction anxiety and disappointed self-castigation? If Oswald Spengler was right to compare civilizations to organisms, then the death of a civilization–or even the death of humanity itself–is not shameful or sinful. It is no more tragic than the death of a great king. Let us die with a dignity that befits our achievements. Doom without gloom.
Let’s Learn from our Ancestors
An elder of a hunter-gatherer tribe would not curse herself for dying. Unlike us moderns, she would not frantically search to stave off her death; instead she would rest, accept and remember. Maybe we, as a species, can do the same. After all, we had no real say in our destiny.
As for me, I say yes! I will remember fondly, rest and celebrate, free from guilt, sin, or judgment. I will celebrate and bear witness to the wondrous story of both risen and non-risen apes, of mammals and reptiles, plants and even the bacteria that made me sick, and I will witness the witnessing stars that always shined above us and will continue to shine long after we are gone.
I will tend the last crowning blossom of the sinless risen ape, the one that shall only appear when it has confronted its own mortality. This is what Hegel meant when he wrote, “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Only in death do we earn the freedom to theorize without criticism. As a dying man returns to infancy, I will return humanity, in my blind human brain, to that universal mythological time before humans’ hearts became sucking voids of sin.
And how? It’s very simple and peaceful. It happened only after I’d lost all existential hope: as soon as I abandoned the fight for hope, life’s magic returned. Maybe the same is true for us on a broader level: once we abandon hope, all the other demons of Pandora’s box will return to their proper place and we will be at last free of original sin and the critic who assigned it to us, whether he be of godly, human or cosmological origin.