And You May Find Yourself Living in an Age of Mass Extinction
Exactly what is the current state of play, ecologically speaking? Let’s explore this first. When I’ve told some people about the title of this chapter, they have accused me of being weak. That’s right: this chapter is really lame. Some people wanted me to say “You ARE Living in an Age of Mass Extinction,” as if the “You may” was the same as “You are not.”
This in itself is interesting, this understanding of “may” as “not.” It has to do with the logical “Law” of the Excluded Middle. It affects all kinds of areas of life. The normal rule for voting interprets abstaining as saying “No” when it comes to counting up the votes. You can’t interpret it to mean “Maybe yes, maybe no.” We live in an indicative age, an active one indeed, where a word pro- cessing program is prone to punish you with a little wavy green line for using the passive voice; heaven forbid we use the subjunctive, as in “you might.”
Not being able to be in the middle is a big problem for ecological thinking.
But not being able to be in the subjunctive is also a big prob- lem for ecological thinking. Not being able to be in “may” mode. It’s all so black and white. And it edits out something vital to our experience of ecology, something we can’t actually get rid of: the hesitation quality, feelings of unreality or of distorted or altered reality, feelings of the uncanny: feeling weird.
The feeling of not-quite-reality is exactly the feeling of being in a catastrophe. If you’ve ever been in a car crash, or in that minor catastrophe called jet lag, you probably know what I mean.
Indeed, editing out “may” edit out experience as such. “You ARE” means that if you don’t feel like it, if you don’t feel some- thing officially sanctioned about ecology, there’s something wrong with you. It should be transparent. It should be obvious. We should deliver this obviousness in an obvious way, like a slap upside the head. “You may find yourself in” includes experience. In a sense, it’s actually much stronger than a simple assertion. Because you can’t get rid of yourself. You can agree or disagree with all kinds of things—there you are, agreeing or disagreeing. In the words of that great phenomenologist Buckaroo Banzai, Wherever you go, there you are.There is something rough and ready about truth, just as there is something rough and ready about philosophy. Philosophy means the love of wisdom, not wisdom as such. It’s definitely a style of philosophy to delete the philos part. There are too many philosophers to mention, and I blush to name them, but you know the type: the kind of person who knows they are right and that you are talking nonsense unless you agree with them. Needless to say, this is a style I don’t like at all. Love means you can’t and don’t grasp the beloved—that’s what you feel, that’s what you realize when you love someone or something. “I can’t quite put my finger on it...I just love that painting...”
Throughout this book, we’ll be seeing how the experience of art provides a model for the kind of coexistence ecological ethics and politics wants to achieve between humans and nonhumans. Why is that?
In the late eighteenth century the great philosopher Immanuel Kant distinguished between things and thing-data, as we have begun to see. One reason why you can tell there is a sharp distinction here, argued Kant, is beauty, which he explored as an experience, the kind of moment in which we exclaim “Wow, that’s so beautiful!” (What I’m going to be calling “the beauty experience.”) That’s because beauty gives you a fantastic, “impossible” access to the inaccessible, to the withdrawn, open qualities of things, their mysterious reality.
Kant described beauty as a feeling of ungraspability: this is why the beauty experience is beyond concept. You don’t eat a painting of an apple; you don’t find it morally good; instead, it tells you something strange about apples in themselves. Beauty doesn’t have to be in accord with prefabricated concepts of “pretty.” It’s strange, this feeling. It’s like the feeling of having a thought, with- out actually having one. In food marketing there is a category that developed in the last two decades or so called mouthfeel. It’s a rather disgusting term for the texture of food, how it interacts with your teeth and your palate and your tongue. In a way, Kantian beauty is thinkfeel. It’s the sensation of having an idea, and since we are so committed to a dualism of mind and body—so was Kant—we can’t help thinking this is a bit psychotic: ideas shouldn’t make a sound, should they? But we do talk all the time about the sound of an idea: That sounds good. Is it possible that there is some kind of truth in this colloquial phrase?
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger is a controversial figure, because for some of his career he was a member of the Nazi party. This very dark cloud is a big shame, because it pre- vents many people from engaging with him seriously. And this is despite the fact that Heidegger, like it or not, wrote the manual on how thinking should proceed in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. I hope I’ll be able to demonstrate this as I go along, and in addition I hope I can show that Heidegger’s Nazism is a big mistake—obviously, but also from the point of view of his very own thought.
Heidegger argues that there are no such things as truth and untruth, rigidly distinguished like black and white. You are always in the truth. You are always in some kind of more or less low res- olution, low dpi jpeg version of the truth, some kind of common, public version, truthiness (we first met Stephen Colbert’s handy term in the Introduction). I know the jpeg analogy doesn’t work properly. No analogy works properly. The analogy of truth as more or less pixelated is itself more or less pixelated.
And beauty is truthy. Actually, since I’m not Kant I’m going to say that beauty isn’t thinkfeel, it’s truthfeel. If you want to use the language scientists now use you can say truthlike. So if you think about it, we are now at a point where we must acknowledge a subtle flip in our argument. We’ve been criti- cizing factoids as misleading, but why can they be misleading at all? It’s because somehow we don’t always recognize false things as false. Which means that there isn’t a thin or rigid true versus false distinction. In a strange way, all true statements are sort of truthy. There is not a sudden point or rigid boundary at which the truthy becomes actually true. Things are always a bit fumbly and stumbly. We are feeling our way around. Ideas sound good. Truthfeel. And you may find yourself living in an age of mass extinction.
The Anthropocene is the name given to a geological period in which human-made stuff has created a layer in Earth’s crust: all kinds of plastics, concretes, and nucleotides, for example, have formed a discrete and obvious stratum. The Anthropocene has now officially been dated as starting in 1945. This is an astounding fact. Can you think of another geological period that has such a specific start date? And can you think of anything more uncanny than realizing that you are in a whole new geological period, one marked by humans becoming a geophysical force on a planetary scale?
There have been five mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth. The most recent one, the one that wiped out the dino- saurs, was caused by an asteroid. The one before that, the End Permian Extinction, was caused by global warming, and it wiped out all but a few lifeforms. Extinctions look like points on a time line when you look them up on Wikipedia—but they are actually spread out over time, so that while they are happening it would be very hard to discern them. They are like invisible nuclear explosions that last for thousands of years. It’s our turn to be the asteroid, because the global warming that we cause is now bringing about the Sixth Mass Extinction. Maybe it would make it more obvious if we stopped calling it “global warming” (and definitely stopped calling it “climate change,” which is really weak) and started calling it “mass extinction,” which is the net effect.
Now it may sound strange, but something about the vagueness of kinda sorta finding yourself in the Anthropocene, which is the reason why the Sixth Mass Extinction event on planet Earth is now ongoing—something about that vagueness is in fact essential and intrinsic to the fact of being in such an age. This is like saying that jet lag tells you something true about how things are. When you arrive in a very distant strange place, everything seems a little uncanny: strange, yet familiar, yet familiarly strange—yet strangely familiar. The light switch seems a little closer than normal, a little differently placed on the wall. The bed is oddly thin and the pillow isn’t quite what you’re used to— I’m describing how it feels whenever I arrive in Norway, by the way. Day begins about 10 a.m. during winter. It’s pitch dark at 9 a.m. It’s still the day, but not quite as you have become habitu- ated to it.
Heidegger’s word for how light switches seem to peer out at you like minor characters in an Expressionist painting is vorhan den, which means present-at-hand. Normally things kind of disappear as you concentrate on your tasks. The light switch is just part of your daily routine, you flick it on, you want to boil the kettle for some coffee—you are stumbling around, in other words, stumbling around your kitchen in the early morning light of truthiness. Things kind of disappear—they are merely there; they don’t stick out. It’s not that they don’t exist at all. It’s that they are less weird, less oppressively obvious versions of them- selves. This quality of how things seemingly just happen around us, without our paying much attention, is telling us something about how things are: things aren’t directly, constantly present. They only appear to be when they malfunction or are different versions of the same thing than we’re used to. According to this, you go about your business in the Norwegian hotel room, you go to sleep, and when you wake up, everything is back to normal— and that’s how things actually are; they are, as Heidegger says, zuhanden, ready-to-hand or handy.3 You have a grip on them, as in the phrase Get a grip! Or the slightly more amusing English version, Keep your hair on! (Implying before you quite notice that you are wearing a wig...)
Things are present to us when they stick out, when they are malfunctioning. You’re running through the supermarket hell bent on finishing your shopping trip, when you slip on a slick part of the floor (someone used too much polish). As you slip embarrassingly toward the ground, you notice the floor for the first time, the color, the pattern, the material composition— even though it was supporting you the whole time you were on your grocery mission. Being present is secondary to just sort of happening, which means, argues Heidegger, that being isn’t present, which is why he calls his philosophy deconstruction or destructuring.4 What he is destructuring is the metaphysics of presence, which is saying that some things are more real than others, and the way they are more real is that they are more constantly present.