THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, #4–Thinking in End Times: Axial Consciousness Now.
By Michael Cifone
THE NEW YORK SPACETIMES, by Michael Cifone, is a series about philosophy, society, politics, and everything else, starting from New York City and radiating outwards, borderlessly and unboundedly.
He has worked on the philosophy and metaphysics of natural science, with a special focus on relativity and quantum theories, and on the philosophy of science more generally, especially including “Continental” treatments of science and the scientific worldview.
You can find out more about his work HERE.
IV. Axial Consciousness Now
Part of the persistent difficulty of axial consciousness is trying to maintain it. To achieve axial consciousness requires the capacity, the ability, to “externalize” oneself, to conceive of oneself as outside of the system, group, or whatever phenomenon of which one is a part — to see oneself as from the outside, looking in. This requires an internal split: on one side, the “you” that is internal to, or identified with, the phenomenon of which you are a part; this is the “you” absorbed in or (sub)merged or identified with the group, the system (of thought or whatever), and so on. On the other side is the “you” looking on yourself and that which you identify with as if from the outside — an outsider looking in, an alien to what is already familiar.
Existentially, this is both impossible and yet a necessary feature of our own experience of ourselves. We are after all, an axial people, living a world built up well into the Axial Age. Yet we still feel the pull of absorption into and uncritical faithfulness to the idea, a people or person, a system or structure with which we might identify. Given the impossible existential position axial consciousness inevitably puts us in, we nonetheless seek to live up to its ideal in various ways. And external, social institutions have emerged as a kind of compromise solution: they, not we, are supposed to embody the kind of objective “externality” and indifference to that within which we are uncritically absorbed. Social institutions replace subjective absorption with objective, universal access and resource indifferent to who or what we are. Of course, this only constitutes an ideal — perhaps even, as Kant might say, a “regulative idea” — given that every social institution must be managed and operated precisely by those who suffer, as it were, from this internal dilemma or dichotomy between axial reflexive and critical consciousness (“objectivity”) on the one hand, and the pre-axial uncritical, un-self-aware absorption into an idea, person, group, system or structure on the other. We who realize the social institutions and structures that are established to overcome the narrowness and insufficiency of uncritical absorption into things, that allow us to collectively step out of ourselves for the greater good, are ourselves subject to those same forces we would escape. Thus, by its very nature, axial consciousness and the society it establishes is deeply unstable — necessarily so, it would seem.
A whole host of problems arise within axial consciousness that were unknown before. Indeed, many of the central intellectual and material difficulties we face may be located at the site of the split, the emergence zone of axial consciousness. From the vicious Cartesian circle, to the problem of determining the “outside” of the Marxian totality, to the cluster of deadlocks associated with the Heideggerian problem of the “transcendental horizon,” to the attempt to move beyond the “correlationism” of philosophy — these are all the intellectual or speculative manifestations of this split. In society itself we see these problems manifest as the tension between the dynamics of capitalism, with its insistence on internalizing and absorbing everything into the logic of commodities, and the politics of democratic societies, which seeks always to determine a definite zone of moral-political reflection and action exterior to its internal socioeconomic dynamics.
We also see it in the tensions between the open liberal democratic ideal of governance and the political remnants of pre-axial consciousness that persist to this day in the form of monarchy, or various forms of totalitarianism and dictatorship that demand a absolute allegiance to the Party or the Leader.
Perhaps the single most important manifestation of this split — itself caught up in the very emergence of axiality — is radical, irreversible, catastrophic climate change. As the sciences become profoundly aware of the fact of its sudden appearance (geologically and even historically speaking), we face a kind of ultimatum. We can either ignore our own constitutive role in catastrophic climate change and face certain devastation (in uncertain ways), or we can acknowledge our constitutive role in the phenomenon, in which case we are forced to confront the reality of our own agency and then have to face a series of difficult implications that follow from it. Two such stark implications can be noted here, both of which challenge axial modernity to the core: (i) that nature (or better: “Terra”, the Earth, the Planet) is not “out there” but we are in there and it is in here (it is us, we are it) — there is a co-productive, co-constitutive relationship of agency which neither science nor politics nor the economy (nor any other of the institutions or intellectual disciplines of modernity) can ignore, and (ii) the Earth is neither an infinite energy resource nor an infinite garbage dump (the political-economy as social formation is not external but internal to the very resources it exploits). Hence, advanced capitalism is self-exploitative, and so our political-economy which assumes as much therefore rests on two fatally flawed assumptions — assumptions which put our unique political-economy on the path of inevitable climate catastrophe.
The problem is, however, that the very form and practice of science, and the political economy concomitant with it (Galilean/Newtonian science and Capitalism took shape together), cannot truly face catastrophic climate change without themselves radically changing. Climate change represents both a kind of apotheosis of Galilean/Newtonian science and advanced capitalism (in science: total power over the forces of nature, if not complete control; for advanced capitalism: near-total absorption of all aspects of the life-world into the logic of commodities), and its absolute liminal point, beyond which it will be irreversibly changed. The question, then, is: how?
We cannot, of course, know the answer to this question since it will be answered only in the fullness of time. So, we are not trying to prognosticate, nor are we engaged in prediction. Asking “how” is really an act of determination, not a genuine question: it is really asking how must it change.
What is clear, it seems to me, is that axial consciousness is being fundamentally challenged. It operated by means of a series of myths, all of them attempts to express its innovative, idiosyncratic mode of knowing: “objectivity.”
We have the ideal knower, captured by Wolfgang Pauli’s formula for Newtonian science’s epistemic gold-standard: the “ideal of the detached observer” — a standpoint from nowhere, or at least, from outside of the system being observed. Using Kantian terms, we must remember that this was always and only a regulative idea — not an actual reality. The “detached observer” is literally impossible. Indeed, on Kantian terms, it is nothing but an empty concept which in principle transcends the limitations imposed on human understanding by experience; as such, it points reason in the direction of the antinomies — irresolvable deadlocks of thought.
We have representational truth which Heidegger theorizes was an intellectual development following a series of misunderstandings and misappropriations of Plato, starting with the confusion surrounding whether he taught a so-called “two-worlds” doctrine (a “true world” of ideal unchanging forms vs. a shadowy material world of radically misleading, changing forms). That Plato did teach this leads eventually, Heidegger argues, to the notion of truth as representational: the knower re-presents in conceptual form what already exists before the concept is determined. This in turn forces metaphysics to become a study not of Being as a whole, but beings as a total system of merely externally determined and preexisting interrelationships — leading to Cartesian dualism, skeptical empiricism, and finally Kant’s (incomplete) attempt to reset the map by showing how this kind of purely representational truth is actually meaningless and without foundation.
The problem with representational truth, according to Heidegger, is that it already sneaks in an unanalyzed, foundationless metaphysics of oppositional subjectivity (subject against object, re-presenting these objects to itself as if from the outside), forcing thought to confront a dualism it needn’t have bothered with. The result is an unfortunate but constitutive ideological myth haunting modernity, which serves to dominate science and, eventually, political economy and an entire age: complete mastery and domination of nature through scientific technologies. Prometheus truly unbound….
One of the determining ideas of modernity is the figure of the globe — the sphere that encompasses all life. It is the paradigm of enclosure, demarcation, parceling, and property. And it is this figure that is challenged, as Bruno Latour elegantly points out in Down To Earth, by the “new climatic regime.”[i] For the moderns, the climate is what happens within and upon the globe; but exactly because it tries to conceive of a kind of totality at once (too fast), the concept “globe” alienates and renders the Earth in Galilean terms as merely one body among many others (one object among many — all equal in principle to each other). It neutralizes the agency of Earth and conceives of the climate as yet another thing that happens to it from the outside. We look upon Earth as if from Sirius, detached. Opposed to this, in the coordinates of modernity, is the local — the place, not the planet.[ii] And yet, being reactionary, the concept is still dialectically related to ‘”globe” in that the local is still the bounded: it still requires an inside/outside duality which is epitomized by the figure of the globe itself. This dichotomy between the global and the local establishes the horizon of modernization, the very meaning of what it is to be Modern: progressives on the left push towards more and more global (inclusionary) visions, whereas the reactionaries on the right push back towards more and more localism (Trumpism being an extreme case). And yet with the sudden appearance of catastrophic climate change, Latour argues, there is the sudden emergence of a new, unexpected attractor: the terrestrial. But it does not fit into the coordinates of modernity. It is neither progressive nor reactionary but is like a higher-dimensional object that suddenly lands into our 3- or 4-dimensional spacetime, disclosing only a distorted slice of itself within our narrow coordinate system.
The reason why this third attractor doesn’t quite fit into the coordinates of modernity is precisely because it doesn’t quite share its form of consciousness — it requires a different mode of knowing and relating: not objects and subjects, but agencies relating to other agencies. The Earth is an agency, not an object; likewise for all living beings and systems: they’re all various kinds of agencies relating to each other in complex ways. On this view, everything is alive — or not. It makes no difference. The dichotomy between living and non-living is arbitrary and temporary. The totality (Terra) is a self-regulating agency of agencies. We can expand or contract the agency to encompass more or less as we see fit, but the figure here is not that of a globe, says Latour, but that of critical zones on a surface (one composed of folded layers upon layers).
With a surface (and let’s say it’s an infinite surface, and return to Anaximander’s concept of the “unlimited” or “boundless” — apeiron), there in a sense is no horizon. Or rather, the horizon comes to an absolute point at infinity (think of the “vanishing point” in artistic perspectivism). There is no “beyond” on a surface, just more of the surface itself which is inescapable (limitless and boundless). Yet there is an above and a below: but above can simply be a stack of more surfaces; likewise for below. In this way the surface becomes truly unbounded and unlimited in all directions. At its absolute infinite limit, the surface is in a way nothing — it vanishes. This is exactly the opposite for a circle or sphere: it is first limited and circumscribed only to have to be expanded to infinity to encompass everything, and even so, at infinity the very notion of its curvature seems to make no sense: into what is it curving in order to maintain its circularity or sphericity? An infinite sphere or circle — an infinite shape of any kind — is simply the same: the unlimited, the boundless surface. In this way the notion of a “globe” is an approximation: the world, the universe, circularity or sphericity; these are all approximations to the boundlessness of a surface, limiting cases of what has no limits.
Thus, if we return to the intellectual, material and moral problems faced by axial consciousness (by the moderns) in the new climate regime (that of catastrophic climate change), the terrestrial attractor is pushing us towards a laminal[iv]consciousness: a mode of knowing and relating dominated by the figure of the surface, rather than the sphere or globe. What does philosophy, politics, ethics, the economy and the sciences look like in the new climate regime — if they are challenged by Latour’s “third attractor,” the terrestrial?
We can certainly say what it cannot be: a return to some kind of “pre-modern” or pre-axial epistemology. Nor can it be the kind of hyper-modernity seen in certain intellectual quarters (the neo-enlightenmentism of the “New Atheists”; the linguistic neo-empiricism of “Analytical” philosophers; the political-economic neoliberals, etc.). It must be something new, but adequate — that is, responsive — to Terra itself. Its epistemology (and ontology) cannot leave Terra behind, nor can it obscure its agency or our co-dependency. This is what we search for as we look at philosophy in end times, as we glance back through its history to see the way forward into its future.
But it is certainly, decidedly, decisively not modern. It is indeed the end of modernity — but certainly not in the way that the prematurely declared age of the “posts” would have suggested just a decade and a half or two ago. The failure of modernity was theorized (to death, we might add) — but not the “end” as in, the fulfillment of its leading, albeit largely tacit, question. It was Foucault in a 1981 television interview that correctly stated it: the question “who are we?,” “what is this present, this ‘now’ we inhabit” after Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?” It is repeated in various ways by all subsequent philosophers; in all subsequent disciplines; it haunts the moderns — the Specter; the “Evil Eye” and “Evil Ear” (Nietzsche) that sees in itself a most untimely, out-of-joint glance askew of the present, alienated, perhaps marooned and trying to escape to greener pasture. This is the flip side of “progress”, that great theme of the Moderns: the past now is dark and the future brighter, in which hope for (and of) the better things our progress promises us — the inevitable march of history. “Now” is lost in the middle. Precisely this sense has been lost. We are no longer “modern” if we had ever been.
We need ask no longer “what does the present mean?” or “who are we, where are we going?” We know the answer, the apocalyptic answer. We know what nature is — no stranger and not alienated. We know who we are — a stranger to ourselves (yes) but one who can recognize its handiwork all around. We know where we are headed, for The Four Horsemen give us the message, and history is clear: (i) ecological catastrophe — the end of ice, desertification, mass extinction, increasing geographic uninhabitability, radical material simplification, (ii) widespread political and economic instability likely signaling the end of advanced capitalism, at least as we know it,[v] radical socioeconomic inequality, diminishing returns on investment in infrastructure, trenchant and debilitating partisanship, the rise of radically anti-democratic authoritarian states, (iii) the reengineering of species with the capability to exterminate any — including ourselves — as needed (through “gene drivers”[vi]), the engineering of future “editions” of the human and beyond, the capacity to steer the course of evolution itself (so that the biological is, as with the climate and geology before it, as much a reflection of human activity and choice as a factor determining it), (iv) the inevitable pull of the machine to be incorporated into the human (cyborgs), as the human is (has been) mechanized/mechanizing into the machine (completing a kind of Cartesian circle).
These are no longer the dark prophesies of Moderns obsessively yet fancifully fearful of the potential Frankenstein arising from the (un)dead matter of nature demonically brought under man’s scientific hubris. These rather are the banal facts of climate science and of biogenetics and biophysics; the theoretical models of political economy; and the latest advances in cybernetics, machine learning, AI, and so on. To be sure, there is still the residual Frankenstein monster, or messianic prophet of techno-triumphalist salvationism (let us not forget the incipient neo-gnosticism emerging among Silicon Valley tech gurus — one thinks of Google’s Ray Kurzweil, and the Singularitarian movement). The modern will always be with us, as one more fossilized stratum atop which we build new ideas and new ways. But we need no longer ask “what does the present mean?” We only need ask “how can we understand what appears to us just around the corner?,” which in turn leads to “so now what do we do?” It is a time for action — but not without thinking, for that is the very first “praxis.”
Everything must be made to respond to these zones of crisis: the climate catastrophe; the revolutions in biogenetics and information technologies; and the political-economic instabilities. They are The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. We may say that history has ended here, with the appearance of these horsemen. And so we need no longer refer to ourselves as modern. We need no longer even refer to ourselves as such. It is Terra which speaks to itself; it is the Terrestrial, ageless, timeless, boundless (for being bounded) that focuses our cares, concerns, worries, anxiety, anticipations, and our longings. It is the techno-scientific wonderers, the off-world techno-escapists who cling to the dying soul of modernity who stand forth as the true reactionary, the ultra-right, the “conservative.” The non-modern, after-modern Terran says “you can’t escape your fate — amor fati! We build with the conditions of Terra in mind; how do we do so? How do we build as if we are on the inside of the Terran surface (not merely above but also below it)? How do we think as if the thinking is from within Terra? For no other perspective — not least that from “Sirius” (Latour), or the fabled “view from nowhere” (Thomas Nagel) — seems to make much sense anymore.”
This really is the jetztzeit or nowtime (Benjamin) that is forgetting “past only in the way that fossils and geologic strata forget the past. The remains remain — but the difference is profound: they no longer act, but only condition and mean — establishing the ground from which new growth, new action springs. History is itself “past,” fossilized. And yet we read the future through these remains.
[i] B. Latour, Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge: Polity, 2018).
[ii] Latour, Down to Earth, pp. 51–56.
[ii] Derived from the word ‘lamina’ which means “a thin layer, plate, or scale of sedimentary rock, organic tissue, or other material.”
[iv] Available online at URL = <https://youtu.be/gNQWAh4tvb4>.
[v] See, e.g., Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? (London: Verso, 2016).
[vi] See J. Doudna’s and S. Sternberg’s A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017) for an account of the deadly potential of “gene drivers” for targeted extinction of biological species.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 443
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Tuesday 23 June 2020
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