In response to my black ecology post, Ben raises an interesting question. Ben writes:

Insofar as for Marx humans are supposed to eventually achieve agency over their own social formation by destroying its basis in capital and transforming itself into the simultaneous subject-object that autonomously ‘makes’ its own history, shouldn’t humanity also seek to liberate itself from the heteronomous bonds imposed on it by nature and seek to remake nature as well?

First I must apologize for taking so long to get back to Ben. His posts keep going to spam and I don’t notice them until later (Ben, if you’d like to email me to let me know when you’ve posted, I’ll get back to you more quickly). In response to his question, my answer is “yes and no”. Yes, I believe we should strive to be self-directing as much as possible. But that’s really the issue. Who and what is the human that’s doing the directing here? Ben’s conception of our aims seems to be premised on the existence of a transhistorical essence of the human that remains the same and invariant throughout history. The idea here would be that since the beginning of time there’s been a telos operative in human history, such that all human action has been directed to the sake of some goal that would finally come to actuality. I just don’t think this is the case, nor do I believe that such a transhistorical essence of the human exists.

read on!

Much of the work I’ve done here and elsewhere over the last few years argues that what “we” are is utterly transformed and changed as a result of the technologies that we produce and use. Through our technologies, the nature of our affectivity and cognition is fundamentally transformed. For me the pre-industrial farmer and the industrial worker aren’t simply two variations of the human but are quite literally different species. Physically, at the level of their phenotypes, they resemble one another, yet at the level of their cognition and affectivity they are extremely different. Following thinkers such as Derrida, McLuhan, Havlock, and Kittler, I’ve often made this point in terms of writing. Writing, I’ve argued, is not simply a prosthesis that allows us to record thoughts that we already had in our mind. No, writing transforms the very nature and style of our cognition and affectivity in a way that is fundamentally different from that found in oral or pre-literate cultures. Marx and Engels make a similar point in their Manifesto about the difference between agricultural societies populated by farmers and industrial societies populated by workers. In this transition there’s a mutation in norms, forms of cognition, and forms of affectivity.

But it’s not just that the technologies we use transform our forms of cognition and affectivity, it’s also that they transform our aims, ends, or goals. Ordinarily, laboring as we still are under and Aristotlean conception of technology, we think of technologies as a product of pre-existent goals and aims. We have a problem, the story goes, and create a tool or machine to solve that problem. The technology is the result of a pre-existent goal or aim that merely solves this problem. I believe this conception of technology is untenable. It’s not that this isn’t part of the story. The point is that with the emergence of technologies new goals and aims also come into being that weren’t anticipated in the invention, nor the original purpose of the invention. Do the aims come from the humans that fabricated the technology here or from the technologies themselves? We can’t really say.

So here’s the first point: I just don’t think there are a priori norms and goals that would allow us to speak of something “humanity” has always-already been aiming for. Here I think I’m actually closer to Marx (at least the Marx of Grundrisse on). The only way in which I can make sense of Marx’s historical materialism is as the thesis that norms and goals are not atemporal, eternal essences floating around in some sort of Platonic heaven, but rather are emergent and invented realities that come into being and can pass away. In this regard, I see Marx’s style of analysis as designed to investigate the emergence of new norms and goals that come into being as a result of historical and material processes so as to both subject them to critique and so as to intensify emancipatory potentialities that are becoming available in our historical setting. Take the example of Marx and Engels’s analysis of the “bourgeois revolution”. They talk about how the bourgeois revolution turned old oppressive traditions into dust and generated all sorts of new individual freedoms. In their analysis they don’t make the claim that there was always already some set of values and goals wherein traditional, agrarian, pastoral values should be overcome or dissolved such that individual freedoms can be advanced. No. Their point is that changing historical and material conditions generate this new set of values and goals and that with the emergence of these new values and goals new antagonisms or problems arise suggesting, in their turn, the possibility of new forms of emancipation. Just as in, evolution, we don’t treat life as having an inherent telos, I don’t think we should treat society or humans as having an inherent telos.

Second, I see your suggestion that humanity should free itself from the heteronomous as a formula for catastrophe. This thesis, I believe, is premised on the idea that we can perfectly calculate and master both other human beings and nature. In my view, this way of thinking, identity-thinking, is a key instigator of some of the greatest human atrocities to both one another and nature. Our emancipatory aims, I believe, should always contain a healthy awareness of the limits of our ability to master both other humans and the planet, premised on our embeddedness within being, rather than sovereignity over being. Does this mean I believe we should wallow in complete heteronomy, allowing us to be completely directed by everything else? Of course not. It does mean that I believe we should be aware of the limitations of our autonomy and ability to master and dominate and should be cautious in our projects to control the social and natural world.