A throw-away thought: Despite being profoundly influenced by a variety of vitalistic philosophers– Deleuze, Bergson, Nietzsche, Whitehead, and so on –I confess that my skin literally crawls whenever I hear thinkers defend vitalism. What profound disappointment I experience when I hear a thinker I admire– Deleuze, Massumi, Braidotti, Bennett (?), Whitehead, Bergson, etc –defend either vitalism or something that is basically equivalent to vitalism. I realize part of my reaction here is purely linguistic. For example, when Braidotti defends vitalism, she’s not– I think/I hope –defending some “life force” that animates matter and differs fundamentally from matter. No, Braidotti, inasmuch as I understand her, is referring to the capacity of matter to self-organize such as we find in the case of chemical clocks.
But if that’s true, why use a term as obnoxious as “vitalistism”. We don’t need some special vitalistic forces to account for chemical clocks. Chemistry alone will do the job. I just can’t help but feel like something magical is being snuck in the back door here, that something warm and happy is being introduced into our philosophy of nature; and– Lucretian that I am –I just can’t help but feel that such moves are retrograde. Oh how I want to puke when Stuart Kauffman, an otherwise great theorist, talks of things like “being home in the universe” and “reinventing the sacred”. No Stuart! No! You’ve done so well analyzing the mechanics of self-organization, and now you recoil from what you’ve accomplished to some sort of mystical life-force? Lucretius got it right when, in Book V of De Rerum Natura, he wrote,
Another fallacy comes creeping in whose errors you should be meticulous in trying to avoid– don’t think our eyes, our bright and shining eyes, were made for us to look ahead with; don’t suppose our thigh-bones fitted our shin-bones, and our shins our ankles, so that we might take steps; don’t think that arms dangled from shoulders and branched out in hands with fingers at their ends, both right and left, for us to do whatever need required for our survival. All such argument, all such interpretation, is perverse, fallacious, puts the cart before the horse. No bodily thing was born for us to use, nature had no such aim, but what was born creates the use. There could be no such thing as sight before the eyes were formed, no speech before the tongue was made, but tongues began long before speech was uttered, and ears were fashioned long before a sound was heard, and all the organs, I feel sure, were there before their use developed; they could not evolve for the sake of use, be so designed.
No teleology, no purpose, no goal, no ultimate ontological meaning. I guess, on these points, the Sartrean existentialism of my teen years and early 20s is just too deeply written in my bones, my DNA. The universe of Lars von Trier’s Melancholia is more my speed than The Life of Pi. It’s an absurd universe, a contingent universe, a
cruel universe. Scratch that. Cruelty would imply intentionality and malice. No, it’s an indifferent universe. It’s a universe where sometimes there are tremendously beautiful things, where amazing things take place, but where also horrible things take place on a daily basis, both among humans, in the animal world, and elsewhere in other galaxies. Somewhere, right now, there’s a solar system with a planet with a rich culture and ecosystem that’s in the throws of being devoured by a star whose energy has become so depleted that it can no longer prevent its own fiery expansion. There’s no malice to this. There’s no meaning to it. It’s just what happens. And so it goes.
And maybe that’s it with vitalism. Vitalism, even though it allegedly moves in a posthuman direction, still seems a little too close to human narcissism. It still seems a little too close to the idea that all of this somehow has a meaning, that it can somehow be redeemed, that there’s still somehow a purpose behind things. While I think we have many purposes, I just can’t accept the idea– here I have my Ivan Karamozov moment –that there’s a purpose to the cancer that fells a person, to the tsunamic that tears a family apart, and all the rest. And honestly, at the end of the day, I just can’t help thinking of both all the psychological misery caused by the idea of divine plans as well as all the horrific violence that’s been committed in the name of eschatologies, weather religious or secular. Melancholia depicts a cold, absurd, indifferent universe, but at least they embrace each other in those final moments, despite not liking one another. Perhaps the more we come to understand just how indifferent the universe is, perhaps the more we come to understand just how contingent life is, perhaps the more we understand that we’re not at the center of creation, the more we will have regard for each other and this biosphere.