A Guide to Timothy Morton’s Humankind
“A specter is haunting the specter of communism,” Timothy Morton announces in Humankind (2017), “the specter of the nonhuman.” For Morton, haunting begets more haunting, and it’s specters all the way down. The category of “humankind” put forth by Morton becomes an inexhaustible reservoir of existential alienation, in which the human and the nonhuman must coexist in the strangest of places. Perhaps this is why Morton begins Humankind with a dedication to the water protectors at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, yet does not discuss their struggle at length.
Humankind was written, after all, with a particular audience in mind: one steeped in the post-industrial identity politics of the New Left, which largely overlaps, through sheer transcontinental osmosis, with the collective experience of every graduate student who has sat through a class on Critical Theory or Marxism. And so a dedication to the water protectors, coming from Morton, can’t help but be read as a challenge to the patience of this intended audience. Humankind, however, is more than a self-serving gesture towards some vague and faceless Other, even though it reads likes a handbook for Not All White Guy Philosophers.
But worse than coming off as insincere is the opposite: as coming off as too sincere. Attempts at solidarity risk outright dismissal as too sentimental; as lacking the necessary pragmatism needed for meaningful support. Talk is cheap they say, with their glass half empty. Instead of saving Marxism from itself, Morton risks infecting Marx with the kind of New Age, panpsychic animism that haunts the eyes of The Serious Scholar, as they roll back into their head like a child ducks under their blanket to shield themselves from ghosts.
Academia, to use Morton’s example, does not allow for the unironic enjoyment of songs like The Muppets’ “We Are All Earthlings.” For the “we” of The Muppets appropriates the beliefs of indigenous people in order to make white people feel better about their ability to “co-exist” with what they are passively destroying. So how exactly is a white man supposed to talk about anything outside of their own white-male-ness when others want them to sit down and be humble? This is something Morton is painfully self-aware of, stating, “there are no pronouns entirely suitable to describe ecological being.”
The I And Thou of Martin Buber needs an update. The pronoun I either conflates something with how it is processed through (and for) our Ego; or it flattens the ecological landscape of things by privileging notions of themselves as extending naturally from the whole of Nature. You reinforces the “not-you” of the I that speaks it. He and she: too heteronormative. It: too dehumanizing. We presumes that I can speak for them. And they does the exact opposite. Morton settles on using versions of it and they. These will form “the thou” that Morton will use to address our ongoing ecological being.
Correlationism and Cultural Relativism
The classic, philosophical trope of subject versus object is retold by Morton through a metaphor on mixing and mastering audio:
“Correlationism is like a mixing desk in a music recording studio. It has two faders: the correlator and the correlatee. Strong correlationism turns the correlator fader all the way up and the correlatee fader all the way down. Thus arises from strong correlationism the culturalist idea that culture (or discourse or ideology or…) makes things real.”
The subject, or audio engineer, is the correlator of reality, foregrounding certain audio channels or “tracks” that make up their “recording,” as they privilege others to the forefront of the song’s final mix. The correlatee comprises the different channels that comprise the various “inputs” of these tracks. The differences in each track are mixed and mastered by the correlator, as they try to produce the ultimate version of the song from these recordings (i.e. into a coherent output). This act of privileging certain channels over others (re)forms reality as the set of what is correlated for us, the listener, in which the correlatee, and its various audio tracks, become blended into the final mix, or “single,” produced by the correlator.
Reality, as we know and experience it, comes to resemble the modes in which they are correlated–under culture, language, ideology, etc.– until they are impossible to distinguish from reality itself. Once one culture starts to delineate (or territorialize) its own boundaries, it generates its own mechanisms of exclusion like nationalism and xenophobia in relation to other cultures and groups of people. The more monolithic a particular culture seems, the more the whole enterprise of communicating across cultures risks collapsing into unbridgeable, cultural relativism. In the absence of some universal standard shared across cultures, might makes right and only the fittest of the fittest shall survive.
The alternative is a deferral to pre-Kantian metaphysics, in which the particularity of all objects are subsumed into “a colorless lump of pure extensionality.” This mechanical picture of causation, according to David Hume, operates like billiard balls colliding in a chain of events that set off other events. Under this picture, it seems like humans were destined to discover agriculture, transform resources into consumer goods, and burn fossil fuels until they ultimately destroy themselves alongside the ozone. Or to put it in another equally unhelpful way, humans will keep being humans until they aren’t.
To reroute these deterministic feedback loops from pushing us towards our own extinction, Morton suspends the law of non-contradiction, which states something cannot be both itself and not itself at the same time. Thus Morton argues, “Step one of including nonhumans in political, psychic and philosophical space, must therefore consist in a thorough deconstruction of the concept of nature.” In order to deconstruct our concepts of nature, Morton builds on some foundational concepts in the contemporary Speculative Realist movement.
Morton draws from Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, which privileges the ontology of all kinds of objects: be they material, ideal, or virtual. All these objects exist simultaneously, in different modalities, both independent of and in service to human subjectivity, which is itself a type of collectivized or hyper object among a plethora of others. And though he’s not explicitly mentioned, Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude introduced the problem of correlationism in post-Kantian philosophy. Philosophers now wonder if it’s even possible to break out of the correlationist merry-go-round.
This constant back and forth can be seen in most post-Kantian philosophers: like Hegel’s absolute idealism, Heidegger’s hermeneutic circle, and Wilfrid Sellars’ manifest and scientific image. All three engaged in versions of correlationism by bracketing reality on one side, and on the other, a particular mode of accessing and mediating that reality in an “authentic” way. All three have their own particular, respective mode of accessing reality, which entail different standards of epistemological authenticity. Yet the conceptual dependence on correlationism remains. Morton is writing in response to this malaise, set deep in the heart of Western philosophy.
The closer Harmon and Meillassoux are read together, the more Speculative Realism veers between these two pictures: (1) a flattened ontological landscape of things that recede into themselves (and away from us) the more we explore them and (2) one that points to a radically contingent future, with the possibility to suspend the law of noncontradiction: allowing for novel conceptual schemas like set theory and other forms of higher mathematics and abstract logical reasoning.
These conceptual rifts have produced some of the most promising and fecund spaces for thinking through the post-human turn, as it coincides with the history of human intervention in the present geological epoch and the emerging era of the Anthropocene. This context, which is bound to the historical rise of agriculture, will help us in exploring:
(1) How ecological being bears on our deeply embedded notions of both nature and what is natural.
(2) How consumerism takes the form of the correlationism between our self-identity and how it bears on the possible identity of others.
(3) How we allow for consumer goods to bear on our self-identification.
(4) How the human of humankind is always-already the nonhuman.
In order to resist the anthropomorphic tendencies of these different strains of correlationism, Morton examines how our notions of what it means to be human preclude our more shadowy or spectral notions of the nonhuman. Capitalism is presented as the prevailing or default mode of human reality, because it dictates how we relate to other beings: be they human or nonhuman. In short, capitalism determines who should do what; what should be produced; and how we should transform something or someone into property that may be used as their owner feels fit. But how exactly did we get to this to hyper-capitalistic reality?
To paraphrase Adorno: true progress looks like regression. True progress, for Morton, means a regression to a childlike solidarity we once upheld between the human and the nonhuman. Morton claims, “We are supposed to get behind the idea that playing is a way to adjust to reality, so that eventually we can chuck away the teddy bear like Wittgenstein’s ladder.” Teddy bears, for example, become transitional objects that condition us away from childlike play and wonder, towards adult maturity: as dictated by the capitalist superstructure of norms, informal rules of conduct, and governmentality.
Capitalism tells us that growing-up is supposed to be traumatic, but at least we can distract ourselves by earning money and buying things. When that stops working, we have children and pass the cycle of trauma on to them. Morton argues that the allegory of Adam and Eve narrated this trauma as the original severing of humans from the always abundant Garden of Eden: who are now castaway, forced to perpetually toil for food in the increasingly barren dirt of agrilogistics. Instead of hunter-gatherers that eat to live, agrilogistics has made us live to produce as much as possible. Our reality has been severed from the real it presumes to capture. Morton advances ecological being as a way outside of this conceptual trap.
Ecological being is more primordial than human being. The Dasein or “being” in Heidegger’s philosophy is not an account of being offered by human species. This relationship, Morton argues, is actually reversed: it is Dasein or being that offers us different accounts of what it means to be human or nonhuman. Through agrilogistics, humans have increasingly tried to distinguish the quality of their own being as separate from ecological being. Instead of ecological being as something that has and will continue to unfold, regardless of the birth and extinction of our species, this domain has been severely curtailed by humans as something that merely amounts to “the environment.”
If capitalism has established itself as the preeminent domain of thinking about all forms of human relationships, then from this perspective, “the environment” will be seen as an externality (i.e. as the domain of the nonhuman). The severing of the real, and reality itself, was not a decisive moment in linear time, but rather “a wave that ripples out in many dimensions, in whose wake we are caught.” Through agrilogistics, humans were increasingly able to distinguish themselves, as human, from what they produced (i.e., nonhuman). The nonhuman is also rooted, within a more phenomenological register, through the transcendental void Kant discussed between the thing in itself and the thing as presented to and for us.
In a way, this conceptual gap gives birth to the human as we know it (or I should say, as we are fundamentally unable to know it). But humans should not abandon their search for “the real” by resigning themselves to an existence fraught with an irreconcilable, ontological relativism. Humans, after all, are born into a world that has developed for over 4.5 billion years without them. Ecological being, more so than human being, operates through the longue durée of geological events, which continue to bear on the changing climate of the Earth and the resultant life-forms that inhabit it.
Solidarity reimagines what “we have in common.” From the perspective of our shared ecological being, the introduction of agriculture was fundamental in shaping the most enduring aspects of our present, shared reality between both human and nonhuman. The severing of the real from reality, according to Morton’s genealogy, coincides with the Neolithic era. This agricultural age set the terms of our cultural fragmentation by dividing entire classes of people as agricultural laborers. Agrilogitics operates on the logic that more is always better.
In order to continue our extraction of food from land, humans migrated from Africa to Eurasia and beyond. As we expanded our geological reach, entire populations were left unable to synthesize adequate amounts of Vitamin D from inadequate amounts of sunlight. These newer climates lended themselves to the cultivation of wheat and rice, which also failed to nutritionally supplement this lack of Vitamin D. Whiteness, in this picture, emerged through an evolutionary mutation that produced less skin pigmentation in humans, allowing for greater absorption of Vitamin D through existing sunlight.
Over time, agrilogistics has become synonymous, Morton argues, with patriarchy, racism, and speciesism. The resulting differences in melanin between humans were used, among others, as a basis for distinguishing entire classes of people: amounting to sophisticated systems of subsistence farming, slavery, and colonialism. The rise of agriculture, and the resulting wave of agrilogistics, set forth the ripples of alienation between humans and the aspects of the nonhuman entailed by what consumer goods they produce. Humans, in turn, further fragmented themselves into castes, like cogs set to churn out more and more consumer goods for the edification of the capitalist machine.
Those privileged few at the top of this hierarchy, or at the center of these ideologies, are shielded from this hard labor by reproducing the ideologies that justify their role in extracting the surplus value of the lower classes. We have become alienated from our very alienation through the logic of consumerism. Unable to see ourselves in the boundaries we maintain between others, humans will simply presume the most anthropocentric relationships between them and their ecosystems–desiring for the smooth continuation between what we presume as real and as reality itself.
Ecological being, however, is far from continuous. And humans, according to Morton, are not the only beings with a “world of their own.” All objects have worlds. In fact, the world of the human is no richer than the world of dancing tables or dormant rocks. Worlds become cheap, and to appreciate the world of others through solidarity is even cheaper. Solidarity, at its cheapest, provides a framework in “making a difference” between the symbiotic real and the status quo. Innumerable worlds are continuously reconfiguring themselves conceptually, in relation to each other, offering new perspectives and scales of reference.
Explosive and Implosive Holism
Morton’s use of hyper-objects complicates the neat distinction between a phenomenological subject vs. some object this subject presumes as outside or ontologically distinct from themselves. In actuality, this distinction is just one way of understanding why we separate ourselves conceptually from other objects through categories like “inside” and “outside.” But what would “our” reality look like if we employed other distinctions? What if we argued for something contradictory, such as human beings, for example, who each exist simultaneously inside and outside the generalized category of nonhuman?
How then do we differentiate between the human and the nonhuman given our default anthropocentrism? The answer lies in how humans differentiate themselves from other humans. Morton highlights the anthropological fieldwork of Claude Lévi-Strauss on the upper and lower classes of an indigenous society. The upper classes of this society viewed both themselves and reality in general as a series of concentric circles, like a mandala (presumably with them in the center). The lower classes, however, saw their reality as a circle with a sharp line drawn between themselves and everything else; between those who rule and those who are ruled over; between the human and the nonhuman:
Morton can now introduce the mereological underpinnings of Humankind, which examines how parts are presumed to relate to their greater whole. The whole of agrilogistics is an explosive holism that thrusts the Paleolithic–distinguished by increasing human intervention into climate change–towards the current apocalyptic threat looming over the present Anthropocene. Explosive holism presumes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Immanuel Kant had, likewise, characterized human subjectivity as bounded by a greater, transcendental force that subsumes the fundamentally inaccessible reality of any given part.
Other examples of explosive holism discussed by Morton include Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” which presumes the smooth, natural back and forth relationship between supply and demand; Herbert Spencer’s insertion of the “survival of the fittest” into Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species; and the forceful re-bundling of people under totalitarianism, which alienates and concentrates entire classes of humans like cattle, transported in trains and rounded up with barbed wire.
Each of the preceding cases operate on a model that distinguishes the inside as greater or more authentic than what it conceives as standing outside of it. But Morton argues that, “If there is no inside–outside boundary, social space must already include nonhumans, albeit unconsciously.” The figure of the mandala that ranks things by their proximity to the center needs to be abandoned. The social spaces we “share” with humans and nonhumans are predicated on hierarchies, which reduce the implosive differences of the real to schemas that only reinforce the status quo as reality.
Esoteric mandala theory operates in reverse by reimagining the center as a different, yet equally explosive (and problematic), holism that subsumes the increasingly disparate parts of reality into an ineffable whole (see: Negative Theology). Or as Morton puts it, “No matter how different and disparate my parts are, as a whole I am Tim all the way through and all the way down.” The rigid inner boundary of Tim as “all the way through and all the way down” is just another form of holism, except it doesn’t presume that the whole of Tim is comprised of a finite set of attributes.
The sum of Tim and not-Tim do not form a single circle, with a line drawn in between that separates the two parts: which together equals the finite totality of all possible things, in which everything is either Tim or not-Tim at all. The sum of both will always, contra the law of non-contradiction, be greater than the “whole” of its presumed reality. Instead, Tim is one hypothetical circle and not-Tim is another, together they overlap in a site-specific way that is dependent on the context provided by its respective model. Particular relationships of extension and subordination may exist between the two; yet with the caveat that these particular relationships may or may not have anything to do with reality in general.
Instead, we must embrace both the malaise of correlationism and the menace of ontological and cultural relativism by acknowledging that whatever “reality” we attempt to describe has less to do with the whole of reality and more to do with how we are able to perceive that reality as continuous with our existing modes of self-identification. Morton proposes that humans, including Tim, are better understood as being ontologically broken inside. If we were not fundamentally “broken inside,” then how can we possibly expect to find ourselves in other things, concepts, and places?
Explosive holism is concerned with how the parts of something extend or subordinate themselves in relation to some presumed and backwards glancing whole. Implosive holism, however, acknowledges how this or that part is “actually” or “virtually” greater than the whole it helps in forming. Rather than extending or subordinating these parts into a coherent and non-contradictory whole, the difference of each part is always undermined by its possibility to reemerge in the strangest of circumstances.
The whole, in relation to the radical contingency of its parts, implodes into one possible world-view among many possible world-views. The resulting combination of potential frameworks emerge less from the “intrinsic logic” presumed to operate within, and in between, each framework; and more by the extrinsic needs of the people who set-up these frameworks. In short, the extrinsic or emotional needs of each person determines the overlapping “content” of their respective frameworks.
Cecil The Lion vs Karl Marx
Morton fleshes out a working theory of implosive holism, by way of rehabilitating Marxist thought, in which certain parts of Marxist thought are greater than the whole. In academia, philosophers are generally expected to produce “scholarly contributions” with each publication–lest someone were to confuse scholarly output with something generally worth reading. The “serious scholar” performs “their mastery” both of and for their respective sub-field, which in Morton’s case is Marxism.Mastery entails recapitulation, the privileging of certain interpretive claims over others, and the streamlining of augmentation put forth by the masters themselves.
The way Morton models possible modes of reading, in a general sense, is more interesting than the championing of some ultimate strain of rehabilitated Marxism. Instead, these particular models speaks to the more general possibilities of reading and rehabilitating the work of any great philosopher. Morton coins the following acronyms for these models: Marx Already Thought of That (MAAT) is the more charitable mode of reading, finding room in Marx’s work for the incorporation of non-humans in a communist framework (even if Marx had not made these connections explicit in his own work).
Conversely, FANNI stands for the Feature of Anthropocentrism Is Not Incidental. FANNI claims that Marx is fundamentally unable to incorporate non-humans, because Marxism pertains only to human economic relations. Morton advocates a version of this type of reading, which he labels ABBI (Anthropocentrism Is a Bug That’s Incidental). ABBI argues that with the right interventions, Marxism can learn to acknowledge its own anthropocentrism and incorporate more of the non-human into its engagement with reality. Marxism, however, does not form the emotional core of Humankind.
In the introduction, for example, Morton directly segways from Marx to Cecil: a lion that was shot and killed in Zimbabwe on July 1, 2015 by Walter Palmer, an American dentist. Hordes of people came together to express their disgust and anger at Palmer. In turn, others, like Jean Kapata, Zambia’s minister of tourism, expressed bitter cynicism: “In Africa, a human being is more important than an animal. I don’t know about the Western world.” Morton attacks such cynical reasoning, which “wants to find aggressive motives hiding within passionate ones, or motives that aren’t aggressive enough.”
Humankind advances a renaissance of the naive and the pre-theoretical. Yet sophisticated forms of silliness are only one aspect of a range of emotional content being exhibited. Morton demonstrates how we can cultivate passion for nonhumans at a distance, with enough space to prevent the object of this passion from becoming fetishized and objectified in all the wrong ways. Morton does not start off his book with the story of Cecil because a preoccupation with performing the scholarly act of saving Marxism from itself; and for, I guess, the “serious scholars” out there looking to spice up their own reading of Marx with references to Peter Kropotkin and Theodor Adorno.
Yet there is more to Humankind than what it has to say about the study of Marx. To understand why this book begins with an open-ended dedication to the water protectors of Standing Rock is to climb the ladder of Marx, as reconstructed by Morton, and then to push it away. The following case study was inspired by both the emotional range and charge of Humankind and the particular arguments it puts forth, which I have outlined in part two of this guide. But now it is time to take the leap towards Standing Rock. We can reconstruct the ladder of Marx afterward.
The Globalization of Standing Rock
The Battle of Little Bighorn bought together the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho across the Black Hills, 250 miles away from what would form the Standing Rock reservation in present day North and South Dakota. It took a century for the US government to give back the Black Hills, which they stole through economic coercion and the threat of starvation. The history of indigenous people in the Americas and beyond often begins with the documentation of colonists implementing and maintaining systems of extracting indigenous resources that amount to genocide and ecocide.
Yet the histories of the indigenous refuse to end the same way they began. Standing Rock is a collective reaction to this ongoing genocide and ecocide, which persist under the promise of so called democracy and modernism. If this is what democracy and modernism entails for entire classes of indigenous people, then there is something wrong with both. I ask:
(1) Can the same democracy that subjugated Natives for centuries be able to address their needs through the current formal and informal legal structures that have descended from this history of subjugation?
(2) Will modernism be able to reflect upon the greater ecological consequences of its overriding drive for efficiency and the further extraction of natural resources?
(3) Can we instill the proper “extra-legal” mechanisms into democracy and modernism, which could then allow them to stop or reform themselves before they veer further into ecocide and genocide?
(4) And if not, then can we stop it ourselves?
One of the contemporary mechanisms of neo-liberal expansion takes the form of ISDS, or Investor-State Dispute Settlements. Companies “invest” internationally by setting up in their host country, gradually pressuring them to further acquiesce to their demands. These corporations expect, and even claim, an overriding right to “a rate of reasonable return.” They undermine the sovereignty of their host country, which forgoes their public’s own self-interests: including such unreasonable things like breathable air, drinkable water, and a standard living wage.
To give but one example, Sitio del Niño is a small village 20 miles from the capital of El Salvador. For over ten years, the inhabitants of Sitio del Niño have been poisoned by the neglect of a local lead-battery plant established in 1998. The factory owners are from an elite El Salvadorian family, who were able to exploit their American citizenship to flee prosecution by the El Salvadoran attorney general, in 2007, for crimes against the environment. The US refused to extradite this family, claiming that they do not acknowledge crimes against the environment as grounds for extradition.
The owners hid out in Florida while their lawyers mounted their case against the El Salvadoran government through ISDS. They claimed that the government had no right to shut down their factory, which amounted to the unlawful “expropriation” of their private factory, costing them an estimated 70 million dollars. Expropriation is the most dreaded word someone can utter in the face of neoliberalism, which loathes the possibility that natives will take back their land from the globalized, corporate interests that disregard their livelihoods as they seek to maximize and protect their ability to extract resources from their land.
This echos the post-colonial narrative that the local elite have always benefited from the formal institutions of colonialism, which were first established and maintained by settler colonists, and then carried on by the local elite once they formally pushed the colonists out and simply swapped roles to continue these systems of extraction. By using the threat of ISDS, the lawyers representing the factory were able to exert pressure on the El Salvadoran government, which quickly settled their criminal case against them.
The factory agreed to perform a limited clean up, help pay for the prosecution’s legal fees, establish and fund a local clinic for three years, and donate a nominal amount of money to the locals that they have poisoned for years. A government report estimated that it would take four billion dollars to effectively clean the water supply of Sitio del Niño. But who is going to pick up this tab? It’s not going to be the factory found guilty of contaminating the local water supply with lead. There is no justice for indigenous people the world over…yet.
Deterritorialization and the Right of Free Spaces
Standing Rock has produced a working model for resistance against the genocide of indigenous culture and against the ecocide that has ravaged the once Great Plains. This model embraces different, concurrent strategies that all work together to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). Their physical and media presence occupies the spaces where the DAPL tries to resurface. They exert pressure on the banks and other financial backers to pull their capital from the construction of the DAPL. A legal fund protects everyone’s right to protest peacefully.
One thing is clear: if this working model is to be adopted by other indigenous and dispossessed communities across the world, then they need access to extensive legal representation. The latter safeguards their continued occupation of disputed space, which is crucial in excluding the use of that space for others.
The right to occupy a particular space is a form of free speech that leverages the collective bodies of the occupiers, over and against the use of that same and/or overlapping space by corporate or governmental bodies. Under modernism, the government functions as the sole arbiter of which modes of violence and coercion are deemed as legitimate means to further their own ends. These particular choices are foregrounded by their protection and enforcement of private property claims made by certain types of bodies over others.
The corporate and governmental bodies use their own immense legal funds to represent and further their claims over these disputed spaces through legal mechanisms, like lobbying groups that claim eminent domain through the legislators they buy off and then puppeteer. This serves only to establish the rights of governmental and corporate entities over the rights of the citizens. Democracy, as the will of the people, has been hijacked to serve the interests of the few: to the exclusion of the overwhelming interests of the people and the land.
In turn, the act of occupying space becomes a form of collective de-privatization by the occupiers. True democracy safeguards the collective sovereignty of the people, which is threatened by forms of collective dependency. We have ceded our sovereignty to the neoliberal impulse to open up our markets to international trade and further the conspicuous consumption of consumer goods. Citizens have a right to occupy their commons and all so called democracies should protect their public’s interests in maintaining their control over them. True democracy and sovereignty, as an expression of the will of the people, should therefore entail the “expropriation” of the formal machinery of neo-imperialism: which in this case is their construction and maintenance of transnational pipelines or the abandoned factories that remain after they pulling out from their host country.
More than three hundred tribes have now converged on the Dakota plains in collectives that are working out what these notions of democracy and modernism will entail for everyone. Together they fight against the fast-tracking of corporations trying to mutilate and extract the life force from their indigenous landscapes. This land is more than the ground beneath them. They defend this land as sacred and spectral. They protect the ways in which they and their ancestors have moved through the world. To dance is to reproduce their shared history with this land — both of which are the manifestation of parallel and interlocking rhythms that mark the cycles of life.
To protect the water is to protect the life force that moves through everything. The land and the water that circulates through it, set distinctive rhythms under which their inhabitants have lived in harmony with for generations. To dance is to rock back and forth with this land. To dance, then, is to communally express and amplify these lively, haunting rhythms. To dance is to, therefore, participate in one of the most direct and purest forms of representational democracy ever.
The first chapter of Timothy Morton’s Humankind discusses a common reading of Survival In Auschwitz (1947), the first of a series of memoirs written by Primo Levi. In this reading, the types of lives Levi documents in Auschwitz are stripped bare of anything that does not serve their immediate survival, until the whole of life is radically foreclosed as the will to merely live on. In this picture, there are “no moments of reprieve,” to quote the subsequent title of Levi’s tragically overlooked follow up to Survival.
People, however, are not merely handed over to bare life: somewhere between hanging on and waiting for death. This rigid notion of survival forecloses actual life, which operates in the excluded middle: outside the purview of inductive logic. Contra the law of non-contradiction, things are never what they seem (or I should say that they both are, and are not, precisely what they seem). Creativity, according to Morton, occurs under even the bleakest of circumstances:
“If a thing is exactly what it is yet never as it appears, it is broken from within. To exist is to be disabled. […] Creativity can happen precisely because of this ontological disability, not in spite of it. Living on is a continual thread, very thin but continual. Creative life is a miracle that can only be achieved by the disabled. Humankind is disabled in an irreducible way.”
Humans are not just alienated from their surplus value. They are fundamentally alienated from themselves on an ontological level, which virtually determines the “what-ness” of how things hang together. To say that humankind is “disabled in an irreducible way” is to insert an implosive holism into any possible account of our being in the world. The “kind” in “humankind” forms the back and forth between “human” being and “all kinds” of beings. This framework rejects the law of noncontradiction, because all kinds of humans entail the simultaneous inclusion of all types of non-humans.
Moreover, life is not distinguished by what is not alive, as dictated by our anthropocentric notions of sentience. A utilitarian picture of life emerged under agrilogistics: “more existing is always better than any quality of existing.” Bare life subordinates entire classes of people under the logic of survival, which amounts to life for the sake of more life, regardless of the quality of life being experienced. Yet objects persist outside of this rigid designation of living and nonliving. They give way as they shimmer before the mind’s eye.
The utilitarian picture of life, however, becomes numb to the shimmering spectrality of these objects–the denial of which necessitates the further compartmentalization of life (i.e. into living and nonliving). We systematically exclude the strangeness of the object, unable to grasp its dual nature as both living and undead. Or as Morton says, “We really, really, don’t like entities to shimmer without mechanical input.” Instead of the life-not-life dichotomy of agrilogistics, “all beings are better thought as undead, not as animate or as inanimate.”
Morton diagnoses the whole of post-Kantian Western philosophy as obsessed with chasing its own correlationist shadow in more “surprisingly” novel ways. The phenomenological logic that animated Enlightenment era thought, from humanism to existentialism, must open itself to all classes of entities. All life (and by extension non-life) is better understood as undead. We channel the spirit of the undead by tracing the wavering spectrality of life that shimmers around all the objects that languish between being and appearing.
The “thing-ly-ness” of things are reduced under the processes of commodity fetishization. In this streamlined picture of the instrumentalization of formal logic and appearance, things are predisposed to serving as means to our ends, in which they correlate most with their “intended” purpose or function. Algorithmic functions merely formalize this pursuit through constant data analysis that further keys in on existing surplus value that can be further mined for profit. The spectre of surplus value haunts the greedy capitalist, always thirsty to turn a buck.
Morton severs the surplus value of goods and services and stretches it over the whole of nonhuman entities, imbuing everything with their own dancing, paranormal superpowers. Objects are now distinguished “by a quantum jump rather than a smooth transition.”
The Economy of Pleasure & The Ecology of Sensualities
Under capitalism, both humans and nonhumans are alienated from their own sensuousness. Morton rejects the distinction between humans on one side and the commodities they produce as nonhuman. Furthermore, objects do not stand in their respective mode of commodity fetishization on one side, with the notion of humans as incommensurable with the production of X things on the other side. The inexhaustible sensuality of things elude our embedded frameworks for how we subjectively perceive and experience them. The strangeness of sensuality is the byproduct of how sensuality is estranged from itself in real time, through an always-already embedded economy of pleasure.
Sensuality is best understood through aesthetics, which lends itself to thinking through “the objective” implications latent in all subjective modes of thought. Aesthetics brackets the phenomenological encounter between us and all entities: be they human and nonhuman. Life generates itself through the already embedded frameworks of co-existing with other spectres of life. One does not just engage or play with the work of art, they are haunted by its flickering qualities.
An ecology of sensualities emerges as each observer encounters something as art. Morton argues, “beauty is a feeling of unconditional solidarity with things, with everything, with anything.” Beauty means “being haunted by another entity, which may or may not be me, [and] this is radically undecidable. Metaphors escape their creators. They sputter out truth through their own misbehaving.” The uncanniness of all things reemerge as strange beauty.
Humans are not thrown into the world of which they are most “naturally” suited for inhabiting. There are, in actuality, a lot of possible worlds for any presumed entity, which exist simultaneously with other worlds; themselves suited for other entities. Any two entities must necessarily overlap worlds on some level: be it materialy, conceptually, or virtually. All entities share possible worlds modally: ”it does not have to be all or nothing.” Any given theory is necessarily subsendent to the meta-theories it entails.
Morton gives the example of the meadow: if one continuously removes a blade of grass, then at what number of grass does the meadow stop being a meadow? The idea of a meadow is more powerful than the empirical attempt of trying to reduce its presence to a working standard that can measure and distinguish all meadows from non-meadows. Morton concludes, “It’s much better to think that there is a meadow and there is not a meadow at the same time.” To claim that something exists is to claim that it exists like something else.
Subscendence and Cynical Reasoning
Chapter three introduces the concept of subscendence, which “rewrite[s] holism such that the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.” The human is “of a partial object in a set of partial objects, such that it comprises an implosive whole that is less than the sum of its parts.” Hyper-objects, which connote ongoing processes, are situated in more fragile worlds that are, paradoxically, more “real” than the individual parts that form them.
Subscendence offers the concept of humankind as an alternative to the human, which lies concurrent to notions of the latter and not as its mere negation. There is a picture of a human as being greater than the sum of its parts. This is why the concept of human rights persists in spite of all the things that might differentiate or “sever” one human from another, like language, skin color, or gender.
Morton’s concept of humankind sidesteps the radically different realities that emerge under one collective of humans compared to another collective. Humankind turns humans into something smaller than the sum of its parts. The parts we consider as integral to what a human looks and acts like are fundamentally nonhuman in an implosive way. Or as Morton puts it, “We don’t just combine into multitudes, we contain multitudes, as any self-respecting stomach bacterium will tell you.” Humans are haunted by what they do or do not consider as nonhuman.
By contrast, the virtues of individualism, as advanced by Enlightenment thought, are subsumed by an overarching drive for efficiency and globalization endemic to neoliberalism. Individualism brackets the individual as the rational, unitary actor that competes with other individuals that are trying to maximize their own self-interest. Neoliberalism needs individualism to validate its systems of modeling “rational” choice through situations that can then be inserted into “empirical frameworks” (See: Game Theory).
The explosive holism of Smith’s “invisible hand” re-inserts itself into competing pictures of, on one level, beautifully complex and multifaceted individuals coming together to maximize their collective self-interest — approaching their life choices “rationally,” in a way that smoothly corresponds to their well-measured “intentions.” Consumerism, however, views this individual as someone perpetually (re)organized around the pursuit of their own enjoyment, which is always-already mediated through an overarching economic system that is utterly indifferent to the neoliberal “feel good” notion of the individual it tries to sell to and market towards.
Morton describes how this insidious individualism reasserts itself by the very people who critique this false dichotomy:
“What if neoliberalism, which envelopes Earth in misery, were actually quite small in another way, and thus strangely easy to subvert? Too easy for intellectuals, who want to make everything seem difficult so they can keep themselves in a job by explaining it, or outdo each other in competition for whose picture of the world is more depressing. “I am more intelligent than you because my picture of neoliberalism is far more terrifying and encompassing than yours. We are truly enslaved in my vision, with no hope of escape–therefore I am superior to you!” Isn’t this a tragic consequence of what some call cynical reason, the dominant way of being right for the last two hundred years?”
The Angst of Ecological Attunement
Morton states, “Ennui is the correct ecological attunement.” Ecological thinking falls largely outside the modus operandi of neoliberalism, which it excludes and compartmentalizes as externalities. Cynical reasoning obsesses over this fundamental inability to “properly” think through ecological being outside of the prevailing mode of neoliberalism. Instead, Morton thinks that there is something “boring” about trying to constantly reconcile ourselves with the persistent provocations of others’ ecological being.
Morton asks, “Who hasn’t become “bored” in this way by ecological discourse? And who really wants to know that in a world where there is no “away” to flush our toilet waste to, it phenomenologically sticks to us, even after we have flushed it?” Without boredom we literally would not be able to function if we, for example, tried to fully think through the persistent reality of all the trash currently decomposing in landfills.
Biology, Morton argues, is founded on the confusion that ecological beings can only be thought of in advance “as living or non-living, sentient or non-sentient, real or epiphenomenal.” In actuality, we are always interconnected both inside and outside these various binaries. “Because of interconnectedness,” Morton continues, “it always feels as if there is a piece missing. Something just doesn’t add up, in a disturbing way. We are never clear of embodiment.”
Roughly ninety percent of the cells in our body are, for example, made up of bacteria that are decidedly non-human. Yet our “clear embodiment” is dependent on their presence, which cycles through us alongside the harder, seemingly more rigid boundaries formed, for example, by the skin cells that we believe are actually holding us together and tracing the outline of ourselves for the world. But what actually makes us human?
The quintessential pursuit of pleasure persists beyond the infinite regress of all our human and non-human parts. “Economics is about how we organize enjoyment” and not the mechanistic pursuit of pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Pleasure exists in multiple human and non-human scales. It is not the mere diversification of human pleasure pitted against the exploitation of nonhumans. The problem of sustainability lies in its neutered call for a more “restricted economy” that deems what practices are “sustainable” in relation to what still amounts to an implicit, overriding drive towards efficiency.
This picture of economics is, Morton claims, the by-product of a system dependent on fossil fuels. Oil is something that is owned and then distributed by their owners for our use and pleasure. But if we reverse engineer what this or that form of pleasure entails, then we can sever the default mode in which we pursue them through other systems with different channels of redistributing energy. Solar energy, for example, is not yet “owned” or monopolized as strictly as fossil fuel. Humankind must “seize the productive forces” of its own pleasure.
Who You Calling Uncanny?
Chapter four distinguishes a symbiotic collective from a community. The concept of humankind is irreducible to a collection of human communities. The communities formed by humans over time exist as another hyper-object among many. Communities should not be thought of as existing in “ontic space-time,” which implicitly reinscribes them in the explosive holism of teleological thinking, synonymous with the racism and speciesism of Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” as the presumed, and thus upheld, state of Nature.
Like all hyper-objects, communities persist in haunting ways, outside of chronological or universalist terms. Morton claims, “A [symbiotic] collective, rather than a community, is a faint subscendent whole.” Appeals to a universalist notion of humanity are politically dangerous. Positing certain features of humanity as necessarily shared between human communities risks excluding the communities that do not appear to exhibit these feature, recasting them as somehow inauthentic and undeserving of existing under their own terms. We need to think of extinction outside the logic of the survival of the fittest, bare life, and genocide.
Morton employs an analogy to a heap of sand to demonstrate how symbiotic collectives persist. You can keep removing “individual” grains of sand from the heap and it will still remain a heap of sand, even as you remove its last, solitary grain. This is the paradox of heaps. The heap of all heaps is itself both a separate heap and the heap of all other heaps it claims to encompass. That’s because heaps are not real. The more a given heap of things shares with another, the more real it seems to become. That no single transcendent heap can subsume all other heaps is what Morton wants to instill in Marxist thought, which becomes more totalitarian with each claim it increasingly purports as inevitable and universal.
Transcendence differentiates between something in and of itself versus how that thing appears to us. Under this picture, something can never truly become extinct once it stops appearing to us. Subscendence, however, allows for things to go extinct in their own way. Or as Morton says, “Extinction happens and I can think it, but I can’t know it or see it or touch it.” Anthropomorphism is integral to being human. We implicitly anthropomorphize all the ways we extend notions of ourselves to other beings.
These things, in turn, morph the possibilities for how we are able to further retract deeper into our subjective selves. Grapes, for example, morph the shape of our hand into something that allows us to experience its grape-ness. Its grape-ness thus exists on the side of the grape and on the side of the person that wants to hold it in their hand and then consume it. The anthropocentric “tendency to see nonhumans as unthinking and even unfeeling machines is predicated on the objectification and dehumanization of other humans, [and] not the other way around.”
Morton illustrates this through a critique of The Uncanny Valley, which Masahiro Mori explored through his work on robotics. The following illustrates the intersection between (a) our familiarity with something in relation to (b) its purported verisimilitude (or how closely it resembles our notions of human likeness). Things that bear our human likeness gradually present themselves as more familiar to us until they dip sharply into the uncanny valley. As they approach greater human likeness, the line that represents inanimate or still objects produces a significantly smaller valley than animated ones.
An immovable prosthetic hand, for example, is depicted as more familiar the less it is able to mimic the “natural” movements of a hand. Ironically, the more the prosthetic hand can do the less it represents human likeness, which makes sense considering the “superhuman” strength it could potentially endow humans with. Moreover, the unmoving corpse represents the nadir of human likeness in relation to its familiarity to us. Its moving counterpart, the zombie, bears the same likeness as the corpse, but becomes the most alienating and unfamiliar example in relation to familiarity.
Morton believes that The Uncanny Valley both explains racism and is itself racist, in addition to being profoundly ableist. The “healthy person” is posited as the apex of human likeness and familiarity. Everything is uncanny “because we can’t say for sure whether it’s alive or not alive, sentient or not sentient, conscious or not conscious, and so on.” In reality, there is no uncanny valley: it “flattens out into the Spectral Plain.”
Distinctions like “me-versus-nature, human-versus-nonhuman, subject-versus-object and health-versus-pathology” are not just arbitrarily determined in the way orthodox cultural relativism claims; they are a reflection of how those in power reinscribe “likeness” and “familiarity” onto others as a function of the power they hold over them. Morton explains, “Racism has to do with thinking one can point to certain physical features as indicators of the proper: it has to do with a metaphysics of presence and a substance ontology whereby one color is non-marked (it’s not treated as a color but as the default quality of the substance, totally bland, “white”).”
In order to escape this type of racist thinking, white people must acknowledge how their passive whiteness is always-already active in the (in)validation of others, based on their “likeness” and “familiarity” to them.
Timothy Morton untangles a series of artificially constructed binaries between need and desire, action and passivity, and altruism and selfishness. Humankind concludes with an extended analysis of the film Interstellar, which is perhaps the whitest note it could have ended on. I’ll side step this discussion, alongside his discussion of “Hyperballad,” which also happens to be my favorite Bjork song. These digressions help demonstrate the arguments Morton makes through a delightful, and artfully executed, cultural shorthand that puts these abstract philosophical ideas into sharp relief. By the end, we are ready to take the quantum leap into humankindness.
The last syllable of humankind is kind. To be kind is to acknowledge the politics of what counts as kindred. The word kind is, after all, descended from the word kin. Morton argues, “We have specific [kinds of] qualities–we are humans, not toasters–but in such a way that we can’t abstract some bland (usually white, male) essence of “human” from the parts of being human.” We are caught up in the wrong kinds of discussions: like if humans or other other animals are machines that merely behave through a kind of operant conditioning; or if humans are the quintessential political animal, sanctioned by his Creator, to venture into the world of politics and action.
“What really needs to happen,” Morton argues, “is that we need to get to a place that when we hear the word “materialism,” we don’t hear the words “reduce” or “eliminate.” We must acknowledge how objects withdraw from our world. This withdrawal is presented to us as the inverse of the modes we use to access particular objects. Every mode of access, however, is framed under the default mode of consumerism as it relates to how we experience and quantify pleasure.
Consumerism creates a loop between us and other objects, privileging our desire of the object over our need for it. Consumerism gives us the illusion of individuals successfully styling themselves with what they buy and identify themselves with. As Morton untangles one from the other, a very sophisticated account emerges with respect to how we bracket phenomenological time.
Need is frequently couched in the past: “I needed that.” Needs, Morton argues, “are desires that have been actualized or abstracted in some way so that they stand over [and] against us.” Needs are actually an alienated form of desire, which is not synonymous with the symbiotic real, since the former, like the latter, is never presented to us in reductive or essentialist ways. To use his example, who actually knows how much salt our cells need to function properly: “In truth, you live to eat salt. You eat salt until you die.”
Agrilogistics and Marxism both, in their own ways, reinforce this neat distinction between desire and need. Agrilogistics severed the presumed transparency of our pre-agricultural age, in which hunter-gatherers are believed to have lived a leisurely life: with an abundance of resources they could readily gather to meet their “basic needs.” This is falsely presumed as more “naturally sustainable,” allowing for smaller scales of co-existence with ecological being. After the “Fortunate Fall” of Adam and Eve, the needs of humans became too opaque and merely collapsed into the utilitarian “more is always better” mode of access.
Marxism, on the other hand, saw history as something that ultimately moves forward toward the abolition of human inequality and the satiation of needs. Instead of gazing back longingly to the fabled pre-agricultural Garden of Abundance, Marxism tried to traverse the inherent alienation reproduced between man and the commodities he produces. Its maxim, “to each according to his need,” merely presumed that there was an essential standard of human needs that could be fulfilled; if only, they hoped, we could reinvest the surplus value of the commodities we produce back into the more “perfect” fulfillment of our underlying desires.
Marxists mistakenly claim that consumerism gives us too much pleasure; that if we sacrificed some of this pleasure for the greater good, then we can fundamentally reform capitalism.
Towards A Spiritual Consumerism of Experiences
But Morton argues, “The revolutionary cry is not that consumerism gives us too much pleasure, but rather that consumerism isn’t enough pleasure; we desire a lot more than that.” The old picture of consumerism merely posits what we buy and consume both through and as the quantification of pleasure as use-value. The cost of something is presumed as an accurate reflection of how much pleasure it brings to the consumer–given how difficult it was to produce it via the law of supply and demand (i.e. market forces).
Pleasure becomes something that is entirely transparent and inescapable. There is no meta-language of pleasure that can acknowledge its own irony. Yet what is pleasurable for us (on the level of immediate self-gratification) can stop being pleasurable once we acknowledge the displeasure it causes others and the alternative pathways of self-gratification that can help minimize this displeasure for others. Morton advocates for a romantic, spiritual consumerism of experiences. We are not simply floating above our consumer goods, rather we swoop down and “slide into” them as we consume them.
This complicates the picture of how we form our tastes according to, for example, the sociological work of Pierre Bourdieu. Consumerism is not the mere unfolding of social space, in which the cultivation and curation of taste is synonymous with membership to a social class. If one follows Morton’s notion of spiritual consumerism to its logical conclusion, then what consumerism needs, for example, is more vegetarianism and less vegetarians –especially if the latter exist merely to distinguish themselves from lesser omnivores.
Vegetarianism is thus a mode of solidarity that allows us to slide deeper into what we consume (frequently by virtue of what we do not consume): continuously trying to acknowledge what our consumerism entails for both humans and nonhumans alike. There is no sober vegetarian. We are all addicted to consumerism, even as we try to subtly repackage our drug of choice into a more innocuous analog.
Humankindness is not an affectation we put on like niceness. Rather, the default mode of humans toward the nonhuman world is fascination. Solidarity is an expression of our fascination with others. Fascination exists outside of the Good and Evil of agrilogistics. It is fascination for the sake of being fascinated. Tolerance, by contrast, is too tethered to “an emotional economy of desire.” As if tolerance was something we could “afford” to do by putting up with others until it becomes “too expensive” and impinges on the pursuit of our own desires. Morton’s early work on Romanticism now comes full circle:
“Being–being a rock or a lizard, not just a human–means being a chameleon who picks up impressions of every surface she touches. That’s the definition of genius that Keats likes; it’s why he says Shakespeare is brilliant, because he can allow himself to be taken over by so many types of people.”
To acknowledge “this always-already quality of nonhuman impingement” requires a new theory of action and passivity. Morton claims, “Individualism is a mode of traumatized survival.” It curtails the futurality of the symbiotic real by severely narrowing the scope of the individual, in relation to both what they presume they are acting upon and the possibility for other kinds of action that entail the messy quantum entanglement between the “individual” and the symbiotic real. Anthropomorphism cuts both ways, since “the nonhuman is [always-already] sharing its world with us.”
Conversely, “anthropocentrism is directly opposed to the interests of humankind.” It displaces our ability to both see ourselves in the nonhuman or imagine how the nonhuman sees itself in us. Morton makes a powerful point: “what is most futuristic is to observe the continuity between ourselves and all other agrilogistic eras. It’s futuristic because thinking the contours of this continuity is part of how to exit from it: you have to figure out what form of prison you are in before you can escape.”
An Interstellar Leap
Humankindness is “a return to inconsistency” and unpredictability (i.e. to contingency). If the symbiotic real is always possessed by shimmering spectrality, then so too is humankind. Humans and nonhumans do not exist either to act or to be acted upon. The symbiotic real is always rocking back and forth like “a gathering of resonances” — as we try to pinpoint its location, it unexpectedly reappears somewhere else. The quantum state of action is fascination.
Morton muses, “At the ground state, the quantized particles of action turn out to be fascinated appreciation, as we will see.” We cultivate fascination by acknowledging the wiggle room between us and the ways we bracket the symbiotic real. The silliness of which is deemed as incompatible for what passes as “politically or ethically effective.” Our actions are neither purely altruistic or selfish. Instead, a framework of mutual aid better allows for both us and them to “rock” back and forth in their own way.
Humankind amounts to a very circuitous way of saying that emotions matter. Fascination takes the form of passion at a distance. Paranoia creeps into our fascination, the object of which might be too close to our own self-serving interests for us to realize. Or that we somehow cannot really care about others, because we “are in actuality” only capable of caring about ourselves or how we come off to others (as opposed to directly, and altruistically, caring about their wellbeing).
Passion is our saving grace. “Action isn’t different from passion,” Morton clarifies, “Action is made of little quantized dots of passion. The quantum of action looks like passivity because it’s receptivity, not because it’s inertia.” Passion and fascination rock our world back and forth. In turn, the object of our passion and fascination then shimmers under its sway. An existing picture of the world thus picks up and carries forth another resonance.
In the film Interstellar (2014), Joseph Cooper was able to recede into his feelings of love until he literally lost himself. On a quantum level, these feelings are both his own and something that continuously loops itself between him and other dimensions in ways he could not explain if he was busy trying to actively communicate them. Instead he felt them deeper until they were felt by others in strange ways. When we lose ourselves in passion and fascination, we find ourselves in strange places. “It’s not possible! No–it’s necessary.”