A few days ago Paul Ennis posted a blogpost on humanism. In this post he asks why people associate speculative realism with anti-humanism, saying:
What I cannot understand is why people think speculative realism is out to debase the subject. Or why it is an anti-humanism.
I responded at the time with this:
I can only answer for myself here, but I am an anti-humanist (and I have argued before that [neo-]vitalism is as well).
I am an anti-humanist in two important ways. First, the human being is absolutely not the centre of the universe, not all things happen for humans. Second, the human being is not “the top” of philosophy either. Let me explain, in certain forms of vitalism (Schelling and Bergson for example), while there can and does exist phenomena outside of human thought, there is a generally teleology to nature whereby it is shown to have always progressed to the human, and now that there are human beings, nature has in some way achieved its goal. I reject this. While I agree that all of nature is an infinite striving and does indeed have a goal (infinite presence and/or absence), it is an impossible one to achieve and yet all of nature is this perpetual drive towards being. The point being that the human being is not the be-all, end-all of existence and so shouldn’t be considered as such for philosophy. The human being is different from other things, but it is not any more special. In this way, anti-humanism is not “against humans,” but “against humanism.”
What I wanted to do was expand on this comment, and give perhaps a clearer explanation of my anti-humanism.
I am not against the subject. I’m not about to buy into the Transcendental Subject or what have you, but I’m also not going to reduce the human being to nothing but a chemical abnormality or whatever. I’m not a reductionist. At least not in that way. I propose an ontology of drive, but that is not an ontology of sameness. Actually, sameness is precisely what I deem the impossible goal of all existents, with all beings exerting themselves on others. This is not the present state of reality however, there is difference and one of those differences is the human being. The human being is unique among other things, but that doesn’t make it better or more special. The human being is not the height of creation but neither does that mean it is nothing.
What does this mean exactly? Well, I can’t be against the subject and still follow psychoanalysis, which I do. I think psychoanalysis gives us an understanding not just of the human being, but of beings generally. There is a tendency however, which I tried to get at in my comment on Paul’s entry, and which Ian picked up on, that humanism acts largely as a form of prejudice. If I talk about the conatus of all existents, that seems to be fine, but if I talk about specific animals or beings or the general structure of reality, without talking about humans, I’m somehow debasing humanity. Anti-humanism is not anti-human. I am not going to advocate that humans beings should all die or that we are a worthless lot, but neither am I going to sing our praises and talk about how all of Nature and History were just building up to The Human ™ as if we are the be-all, end-all of all existents. Man, that cat over there must be jealous knowing that I am the height of achievement in nature!
The problem with “humanism” is that it leads to these ideas, these fantasies of the human being as royalty or even worse, as detached from Nature. In my first entry on survivalism, I included a video of Michael Pollan that I got from Reid. In the video he mentions the effect of the Cartesian model of subjectivity as leading to the idea that the human being remains fundamentally detached from Nature. The idea here is that our precious Egos are pure and rational and that we are not a part of dirty Nature with all of its sex and death. No! We are sex and death! But that doesn’t mean we don’t also have thought and culture and dignity. It just means that maybe we shouldn’t imagine ourselves as being so special and unique.
So by anti-humanism, I mean that we are not the centre and neither are we the top. The world exists without us, and we are not some grand achievement. Neither are we the masters of the universe, the Lords of Being, or any other ridiculous title. What Nature teaches us is that we are small and fragile. We do not command Nature, even as we destroy it (not that we could ever hope to destroy it totally).
Essentially, I would follow the general idea that the human arises out of the same mess of forces that all other things have, emerging as unique beings which long to be in a more complete (total) way. I think this is evident by the destruction we wreaked on the Earth. We generally have a problem with non-humans, as is evidenced by human history. That isn’t to say that human-caused extinctions or natural destruction are somehow excused on such an ontology, but is at least understandable. This is precisely why I have been attempting to think through a form of vitalist ethics that does not fall into the “might makes right” mentality that often comes from claiming that Life is the proper name of Being. This is why I try to emphasize stability as the goal of ethics, leading me to what I have this far termed “survivalism.” The biological/ecological emphasis of survivalism lends itself to a non-human-centric form of ethics, looking at the health and harm of systems rather than focusing on specific actions or intentions. Biology and ecology strive for stability, that of course means that things will die, that things must die, but what must be stopped is the collapse of systems of equilibrium. Slavery is a state of instability, as are racism, genocide, the destruction of habitat, environmental pollution, etc, etc. This also means, I hope, to get out of the Levinasian-Derridean ethic of the Other, which is lopsided and, as I have argued, impossible. Infinite responsibility and hospitality certainly sound nice on paper, but is more than a little impractical when it comes to ecological disaster. Do forests or oceans meet me in the Face-to-Face?
The first step, as I see it, is to take the human out of the centre. Not out of the system, we cannot escape Nature, but rather, we should view the system without centre, but as a network. Our ethical priority should not be questions of whether or not we understand Justice or whether we are following the moral law, but are we creating or destroying existents? Do the networks we live in function? This does of course include our human relations as well as all of the beings we are connected to on this planet. We should strive for the benefit of all or as many existents as possible. I could see how someone would raise the issue of this leading to an asceticism, but ultimately what I think it leads to is not a letting-things-be, but an ethic of creative involvement. It is not possible to exist without destroying other beings, we need to eat after all, as do all living things. But by looking at the system as a whole rather than the individual things, we can perhaps get a better perspective on whether we are creating new life or simply destroying it.