Oh how the humanists and human exceptionalists have bristled with outrage. “OOO/SR hates humans!” “OOO/SR wants to treat rocks as every bit as important as persons!” “OOO/SR denies the agency of humans!” “OOO/SR is nihilistic!” No, I don’t hate humans, nor do I think the rights of rocks should be treated as absolutely equal with those of humans. But perhaps, with this last charge of nihilism, the proper gesture is not one of disavowal, but embrace. However, the nihilism here is not the subjective nihilism described so well by Nietzsche, but rather an objective nihilism characteristic of the material reality of our times. It is our circumstances themselves, the material reality of our world, that has become nihilistic, not the thought of this or that thinker. Indeed, I suspect that many of us are terrified and anguished by this objective nihilistic darkness that approaches and that may very have happened, as Timothy Morton suggests. Perhaps we are already dead and we just don’t yet know it.
Everything hinges on asking why the critique of correlationism– the most contentious and controversial dimension of SR –has arisen at this point in history. Why have so many suddenly become impassioned with the question of how it is possible to think a world without humans or being without thought? It is such a peculiar question, such a queer question, such a strange question. Why, after all, would we even be concerned with what the world might be apart from us when we are here and regard this world? There are, of course, all sorts of good ontological and epistemological reasons for raising these questions. Yet apart from immanent philosophical reasons, philosophy is always haunted by a shadow text, a different set of reasons that are not so much of the discursive order as of the order of the existential and historical situation and which thought finds itself immersed at a given point in history. Over and above– or perhaps below and behind –the strictly discursive philosophical necessity for a particular sort of thought, is the existential imperative to think something. Here the issue is not one of establishing how a certain philosophical imperative demands a response to a strictly philosophical question, but of addressing the question of why a particular question begins to resonate at all at this point in history and not in others.
It is likely that answering this historical question entails always contending with overdetermination; with an overdetermination where many existential imperatives address us and no one answer is the answer. However, if I were to hazard a guess as to why the critique of correlationism, the thought of a world without humans, has suddenly become a burning one, then my suggestion would be that this is because we are facing the imminent possibility of a world that is truly without humans. If it has become necessary to think the possibility of a world without humans, then this is because we face a future– due to the coming climate apocalypse –of a world that truly is without humans.
As I wrote long ago, culturally this thought of the possibility of a world without humans has been approaching us for quite some time. Among the Christian right we have seen the rise of apocalyptic fantasies announcing the immanent destruction of a decadent and sinful world. During the 90’s and early 00’s, we saw the rise of apocalyptic natural disaster films. These films had not yet reached the full clarity of thought, but were instead yarns about how all of society must be destroyed to make the sexual relation possible (Timothy Richardson’s thesis), and about how man always triumphs in the face of alien invasions, climate chain, meteor impacts, etc. Yet in recent years, we’ve seen the full culmination of the thought of the possibility of a world without humans in films such as Children of Men, WALL-E, and above all Melancholia. Indeed, Melancholia marks the zenith of a cultural thinking of the possibility of our own absence… A depiction of that absence without exit, redemption, or escape. It is here that we see the possibility of our own annihilation without remainder. One wonders if von Trier’s did not consult Brassier when writing his script.
Culture can be seen as a symptomatic thinking through– veiled and concealed, while nonetheless present and on the surface right there before our eyes –of the Real of its historical moment. This seems to be the case with apocalyptic films and movements in recent decades. What we seem to be thinking through is the possibility of our own extinction or, at the very least, the extinction of the world as we know it. This thinking through that leads to cultural production is, in its turn, a reflection of the objective nihilism of the circumstances in which we live… An objective nihilism in which we see what is approaching us yet experience ourselves as utterly in capable of acting in response to it. Everywhere the traces of this objectively nihilistic situation are intensifying in their appearance. The pictures above are of my grandmother’s house destroyed in the derecho that swept the northeast United States last week, and the tornado that we experienced here in Texas a month or so ago. The weather has become strange, climate change now speaks with a bellow. This Real of our circumstances becomes registered in SR/OOO as the thinking of a world without humans or of a being without a suture to thought. The hope, however, if there is any, is that this terrifying thought of the Real might be a spur to action of some sort.