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Reza Negarestani on the political inadequacy of New Materialism

On Facebook, Negarestani writes:

<< The human is a hybrid and protean idea. It is not merely animal, not merely the agent of theoretical and practical cognitions and not merely the god. Human is an idea which is historically constructed and judged. In line with Hegel, we can never elide the distinction between the totality of the human idea (the totality of history which is not merely the time of nature sans geist) and what we appear to ourselves in a specific historical moment and yet we consider it as either a metaphysical exception or an apex in the chain of beings. If we arrive at such a confusion, we have written a recipe for disaster for ourselves and others. The historically completed human is a distasteful metaphyseal notion which wreaks havoc in the world, not only because such a notion that is perceived as free from the laws of nature and its constraints is illusory, but because it only claims history—as a thinkable sequence of conceptions and transformations—in favor of the human as a species being, an index of metaphysics rather than of method, episteme and historical ideas. But here the falsity of such claims can be intercepted and neutralized: If the human is an idea which is not constrained by history as a sequence of judgements, then it is truly of nature, of networks of material actants. But then can such an index of the human say anything critical or axiological about the ecological crises? No, it cannot because it is now a denizen of a liberal new materialist society where you as a human sapiens should ask ‘but what about the termites? Shouldn’t they also have a role in architecting the polis with its all axiological injunctions? Isn’t it the case that termites are very good at stigmergy, making something together?’ And at this point, you see your account of politics as a hogwash of certain claims about the scientific facts about the nature. If you are rather modest, you tell yourself but where these scientific facts come from if not from the labor of the theoreization and technique which are by all means historical through and through. In a nutshell, you just don’t get all the jazz about science and its theories of evolution without also saying something significant about the human idea as an idea which is historically bound. To this extent, what are the root problems of engaging with ecological habitats and the planet today? One might retain the residues of an exceptional notion of the human or else, one might subsume the human in the ever-expanding web of material influences of a naturing nature, or natura naturans. Yet to what extent can such positions deal with the problems which are at stake today? One is an instruction for a metaphysical and essentialist conception of the human in favor of the ruin of the planet (climate denialism), and the other is an instance of a liberal indecisiveness which tells us that as long as you go back to the natura naturans, so long as you shed your human arrogance on behalf of other materialities such as rocks under the persistent intrusion of a water drop or those small earthworms cited by Darwin, you will be all fine because small worms have also an agency, they are actants just like you, so your bloated agency is nothing but a community of small actant worms. The sheer disingenuousness here is almost a testament to how conservative strains of humanism can even today fool themselves under the guises of posthumanistm and new materialistm. The actual question that remains at the end of the day is that so you successfully turned the human agency into a conglomeration of small worms a la New Materialism (and not Darwin), so are you now finally happy to see every genuine quality in the light of the number of sentient worms. Well, you have done the greatest favor for the ideological landscape today from which you always wanted to escape: All qualities and all sui generis form shall be once again explained away by the quantities, of either small sentient worms or market fluctuations. You have reenacted an old miracle, it is just that it doesn't impress either the worms or the humans at this point.>>

Prompted by Zé Antonio, I just responded trying to think through Negarestani's challenge to New Materialists and indeed to any position in what I call the roughly animist cosmopolitical party (which includes dissidents like the geontologists) - as opposed to the inhumanist cosmopolitical party which includes Negarestani himself (I keep trying to bridge the gap between the parties and imagine a broad alliance bringing the best of both together). I wrote:

<< The trouble with inhumanism (in an opposition to animism which shares its rejection of human exceptionalism) is that it is grounded on the divide between logos (and techné) on the one hand and physis on the other. Inhumanism holds that there is a working life of spirit (call it Geist) which builds on an ever more artificial norms and rules that tend to departure from nature - and from human nature. Inhumanists claim quite correctly that the best way to escape from a humanist fascination with humans (i.e. with human nature, with human condition) is to have a firm grip on the idea that humans can improve out of their initial conditions whenever we decide to set the initial conditions. Further, it is not them but Geist (Logos, to echo Heraclitus) which promotes this improvement towards artificialization. The issue for inhumanists seems then to be whether Geist can really do that alone - and they tend to answer yes. Donna Haraway's Camilles, which will be placed in the cosmopolitical party opposite to inhumanism on my distinction mentioned above by Zé Antonio, are also based on the improvement of the human but this is done through genetic (material) moditication. To some extent, we can see improvement taking place through (material) recombination as something that is as open-ended as the one sponsored by the internal workings of Geist. In both cases, the end is indeterminate and thinking of a recursive line through these possible moditications can persuade us that they will never reach a ceiling. The inhumanist unbound autonomy of Geist, its artificial character, spell some difficulties. First, one can say it mirrors the geography of classical humanism which places us in an independent (and central) sphere, relying on the rest of the world merely as its enabling conditions. I don't think that this is in itself a problem. But, second, it isolates the improved human sphere - the sphere of Geist - from anything else, making our norms and rules spin frictionless in the void, that is, receiving no genuine justificatory or political input from elsewhere. In my distinction between the two cosmopolitical parties, what distinguishes them is nihilism - in the sense that Heidegger sees in Nietzsche. Nihilism is not only the destitution of all values through the extraction of intelligibility but also the political destitution of nature through by capturing its intelligibles. The nihilist procedure is that of metaphysics - and of a certain approach to science and technology. What Heidegger has in mind could be summarized in the first sentence of his third Bremen conference: "Das Ge-Stell bestellt den Bestand". What is made into a standing reserve is what was previously uncontrolled - what was in nature, including, of course, what was in human nature. The proximity of Ge-Stell and Geist is what makes the inhumanist cosmopolitics one that cis-nihilism (while its detractors tend to be ready to reject, destruct , abandon or overcome nihilism). In fact, the run of Ge-Stell is such that it is also possibly non-ending. That is, not only human impulses, instincts and drives can become controlled, but also human capacities indeterminately close to argumentation can be placed in a standing reserve. If Geist is also Ge-Stell, it turns the world into sheer submission and hands its control to anyone - this is what Nietzsche thought was the endpoint of mere will to power. The inhumanist picture is similar but there are important differences. First, there is no control (and perhaps no Ge-Stell) without interactions, the very operation of intelligence and thinking depends on a community where interaction takes place. Adopting a resolute left-Sellarsian stance, the idea is to side with Kripke and Crispin Wright against McDowell's reading of Wittgenstein's remarks on rule following. That is to say, if God is on her own expanding pi, it is not only that she will never be sure whether or not she is correct but really there will be no sense that could be given to correct - even if God has properly learned what the community of mathematicians mean by being inculcated with mathematical practices. As a consequence, there is no reason (no logos) independent of the community interaction - no community, no logos. To be sure, this doesn't entrench logos in human nature (or more-than-human nature) but rather in the nature of interactions between any reasonably prepared poles. This is where the bets are high: could the nihilist machine go on and extract the intelligibility of interactions in general? If this cannot be done, we arguably will never fully understand (and replicate) the emergence of reason through interaction. But if it can be done, there is very little room for politics left as the disputes forged by the will to power could themselves be replaced by an appropriate mechanism. (This is maybe due to the immanence of reason; the inhumanist rejects naturalism but cannot fully embrace the transcendence of reason.) The opposite cosmopolitical power here has maybe something to contribute: if techné (and logos) are understood in a continuum with physis (and human nature, and the nature of artificial autonomous agents), straight nihilism could be dissolved in favor of a picture of human transformation that is informed by its alliances and networks with environments - i.e. with the matter around us. Whether this would be a common ground for both the inhumanist and the other cosmopolitical party I don't quite know.>>

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