On The Status of the Human in a Vitalist Metaphysics

I’m posting this as a new blog entry rather than attaching it to my last post. I’m hoping to draw together the last couple of entries I’ve written, in an effort to explain, really explain, what the point is that I’ve been trying to make. I was contacted and asked fairly explicitly, what the point of such pop-culture references, and also why I would essentially tie my wagon to a dead horse like vitalism.

What I like about vitalism, my reading of vitalism, which I don’t think has been adequately stated in any single work, or maybe even any single thinker (Deleuze is probably the closest on this front), is the possibility of de-centering the human being in philosophy. Even Bergson goes in the direction of mysticism (although I am poorly read on Bergson, I’m basing this almost exclusively off of secondary sources; also, it should be said that I am generally pro-mysticism, and don’t see it as inherently anthro-centric, but from what I’ve read on Bergson, that is the direction he goes [PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I’M WRONG HERE!]). I think the age of the human subject is due for an overhaul, and the vitalism gives us an interesting, and I think accurate, view of the cosmos. My posts on Swamp Thing(s) and Batcats are attempts to show the metaphysical contingency of the human subject. The subject is not the center of the cosmos, only Nature is! (Nature of course being taken as the totality of metaphysical processes and products, of which we are but tiny instances.)

The example of Swamp Thing is especially helpful here: it shows the possibility of Nature making a humanoid (a vegeman) that in it’s mere delusion of being human, becomes more than human, actually becomes more powerful than the human being it dreams of being. The Swamp Thing as Nature embodied, in an attempt at mimicking the human, surpasses the human. Both the Batcat and the Swamp Thing (along with Lovecraftian Old Ones) show clearly that the human being, while imagining itself as lord and master of Nature, of the whole cosmos, is really insignificant, and easily snuffed out.

We need not even go into (science)fiction to see this, although the examples are more vivid. Parasites, bacteria, fungi, and viruses all trounce humans on a regular basis, while weather and geology can ruin our greatest cultural achievements. We depend wholly on Nature and yet often forget that we are its product, and not its master. The human subject, rationality as a whole, cannot conquer the drive of infinite Nature. You can’t reason with a parasite, and for this reason, Nature always wins. That is, human reason is finite, and easily extinguishable. We should never forget this, least of all in our speculative philosophy.

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4 responses to “On The Status of the Human in a Vitalist Metaphysics

  1. Will M.

    I’m all for diminishing the status of the human in philosophy, but is this really a distinguishing mark of vitalist thought? How is vitalism singular in some way to similar projects of (materialist/naturalist/realist) anti-humanist de-privileging? Or is the ‘cosmicism’ which you here ascribe to vitalism equally appropriate to other philosophies?

    Honestly, it strikes me as odd that a philosophy so concerned with Life would also interest itself in anti-anthropocentrism. If you want to do away with human significance, why not vital significance as well? If you say that Life ‘just is’ Being within vitalism and deny the existence of anything in-animate, then I’m curious as to the salient features of such an ontological equivalence. What is ‘vital’ about existence that cannot simply be reduced to the possibility of novelty or potentiality itself? I guess my confusion stems from vitalism’s strong historical interest in actual biology. A philosophy of novelty which chooses to be known as vitalist is fine, I suppose, but if biological life comes to be mixed with it to the detriment of other forms of novelty which have nothing to do with biology – the phenomena studied by physics and mathematics, for example – there must be something ‘other’ to Life. And I’m curious as to why you would automatically privilege ‘Life’ over that to which it is other.

    Clearly stated, is the ‘problem’ to which vitalism responds really the false centrality of the human being? Or is this de-centralization the result of something deeper which other anti-humanisms are unable to grasp? I’m sure your answer will be an emphatic ‘yes’, but I’m curious as to what that deeper aspect is. If you identify it with the infinite productivity of Nature or Nature’s essential ‘openness’ or what not, I’m still confused as to what separates vitalism from a, somewhat eccentric, metaphysical naturalism.

    Ultimately, what is at stake for you in the continued use of the term ‘vitalism’?

    (I apologize for my babbling. I’m truly confused by all of this.)

  2. Will – I think you’re confusing my own vitalism (which I’ve called Spectral Realism) with the popular caricature of vitalism. I don’t privilege Life, what I say is that at bottom, reality is a duel of drives, which I have called the two Death Drives (aka. Expansion and Contraction, the drives towards Absolute Being and Absolute Non-Being). All products of Nature, all things, are in effect ‘ghosts,’ in that they are always only ever quasi-beings, eternally torn between these two impossible extremes. What is ‘vital’ in my system are the drives themselves. I connect myself with vitalism insofar as I take the basic claims of vitalism seriously (anti-mechanistic, anti-dualistic, anti-humanistic) and as I see vitalism saying that the proper name of Being is Becoming (or Life). It is not an organicism that I am spouting, nor is it a biologism, as all entities that have ever existed (and will ever exist), exist as imperfect spectral beings, never able to achieve either eternity or nullification. I am not privileging Life either, as I take Death to be an important part of Life, and as such, take all things to be alive insofar as they are eternally moved by the dueling drives.

    While other systems of thought certainly share my desire to de-privilege the human being (Object-Oriented Philosophy, for example), I feel that only a properly understood vitalism gets to the heart of the matter.

    I would suggest you go back in the archives a little and check out some of my posts on Spectral Realism to get a batter idea of what I’m talking about.

  3. kvond

    A possibly related interview subject. At least it contains your favorite Schelling, and contextual reference to monsters:

    http://www.logosjournal.com/issue_6.3/sloterdijk.htm

  4. Thanks for that, I’ll check it out.

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