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Barbarism or Barbarism?

Truth be told, nobody really knows how to respond to the slow motion emergency in which we find ourselves. Even at the level of language. There’s no rhetorical device that seems destined for clarity. In Molecular Red, I took the path of taking the language of the Anthropocene seriously, and looking for new genealogies from the archive to meet it. Donna Haraway and Jason Moore prefer to call it the capitalocene, to name the historical form of that which is killing the earth.

Timothy Morton proposes an ecology without nature. In Molecular Red I thought it made more sense to think a nature without ecology, as nature is the more capacious and historically variable term, whereas a logos of the oikos – ecology – is precisely what can no longer be said to exist. Paul Burkett and others prefer to talk, after Marx, about metabolic rift. Rob Nixon speaks of slow violence. Isabelle Stengers revives and recasts the figure of Gaia.

Is that a better rhetorical gambit? Nobody knows. But it is a compelling one. Stengers’ book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism has just come out in English, thanks to Open Humanities Press and Meson Press, so let’s take a look at what kind of grip on the world it afford us.

Rosa Luxemburg famously said that the choice of futures lay between socialism or barbarism. For Stengers the choice has narrowed to a more infernal alternative: barbarism or barbarism. In the absence of a combined counter-proposal from green and social movements, the choice becomes one between runaway climate change or a geo-engineered future, which mobilizes public finance for private gain. The planet then becomes hostage to corporate interests.

It is time then for a new kind of movement that addresses itself to both what is usually thought of as the social and the natural. For Stengers the prototype of this is already in Felix Guattari’s book The Three Ecologies, although one could think also of other examples. For Stengers, as we shall see, it’s a four-part plan: naming Gaia, paying attention, calling-out stupidity and creating artifice. “It is a matter of learning to inhabit what henceforth we know, of learning what that which is in the process of happening to us obliges us to do.” (19)

We are suspended between two histories, the first being modern growth with its arrow of time and constant development. The second is more obscure and as yet without name or image. It is no longer a matter of protecting nature as an environment but of a nature that challenges our modes of thinking and acting. It begins from the stupefying contrast between what we know and what we can do

Stengers wants a way to inherit the history of struggle against capitalism but without its grand narrative of truth and progress. This would be the problem with the figure of the capitalocene. It tends to default to standard ways of thinking about capital and puts off to the distant future any project but its overcoming. But there is no longer time for that. Stengers wants to reach out to those who are experimenting with a new mode of production already, whether it is slow food, or permaculture or what have you. (On which see the New York based group, Woodbine).

Not much can be expected from what Stengers calls the guardians, and they know it. Whether elected or appointed, the guardians simply manage a state of “cold panic.” (32) Their exhortations aren’t even coherent: keep consuming but be ‘green’ about it! They have lately added schools and universities to the list of institutions to be broken up for kindling and fed into the boiler room of commodification. Even there, open ended inquiry and collaboration is getting harder. Interestingly, Stengers thinks that rather than denunciation the guardians deserve even less: laughter, rudeness and satire.

The model for thought and action on which Stengers dwells is the movement against Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and its modestly successful attempts to get them banned from European food. The anti-GMO movement refused the guardians’ mode of perception and refused to accept their good intentions. It came up with its own questions and created a genuine dynamic of learning. It questioned technical authority, and would not accept ‘trade secrets’ as a reason for withholding information.

The GMO issue divided ‘expert’ opinion, but for Stengers, too much of scientific and technical research has ceased to be in any sense ‘public’ as it has been coopted by private interests through the patenting of the results. Hence questions about whether GMOs just lead to more resistant strains of pests can’t really be asked or answered. Particularly when such resistance is itself something that agribusiness can profit by in selling more and herbicides and pesticides. The general policy of agribusiness regarding public inquiry is in any case neatly summed up as: “Lie first, then say its too late.” (40)

The guardians won’t help us. The institutional forms of technical and scientific inquiry won’t help us much either. We’re on our own. Stengers:  “…we cannot impose on those who are responsible for the disasters that are looming the task of addressing them. It is up to us to create a manner of responding for ourselves.” (41)

That to which we have to respond Stengers names the intrusion of Gaia. We have to think in the manner this naming calls into being. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Gaia is the first mother who brought forth Uranus, the sky, and with him bore the Titans, including Chronos, their leader. Chronos overthrew Uranus and ruled over the Golden Age, before being defeated in turn by his own son, Zeus. For Stengers, Gaia is a blind and indifferent God, a figure for a time before Greek Gods had scruples.

Gaia is a name that conjures up ancient myths, and became something of a hippie mantra, but oddly enough was popularized by a scientific theory offered by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, in which organisms co-evolve with their environments and form ‘ecological, self-regulating systems. For Stengers, the complicated history of the deployments of the term is actually part of its appeal.

Stengers wants a name for a nature that is neither vulnerable nor threatening nor exploitable, but which asks nothing of us at all. Gaia is a “forgotten form of transcendence.” (47) Maybe a negative one, as Gaia is neither an arbiter, guarantor or resource. Gaia intrudes into human lives and perceptions, but there’s no reciprocity. There’s no channel for what elsewhere I called xeno-communication. Nobody can claim to the the high priest or priestess of Gaia. But there is no future in which we are free to ignore her. “We will have to go on answering for what we are undertaking in the face of an implacable being who is deaf to our justifications.” (47)

It’s a rhetorically risky move, perhaps especially in the United States, where talk of Gaia might naturally default to a kind of hippie romantic mysticism. But then there are only rhetorically risky moves available, so perhaps its worth a shot. Stengers insists that her invocation of Gaia is not anti-scientific, and may even encourage scientists to think. But in general, she thinks that when it comes to the present danger, the scientists have done their work of warning us about where we really are.

One’s sense of rhetorical tactics may be more a product of perceptions of local contingencies than of anything else. In the context in which I find myself, I feel obligated to tack a little harder towards shoring up respect for scientific forms of knowing the world. In the United States, the tactics being used against climate and earth scientists can only be described as a McCarthyite witch hunt.

But as Stengers makes plain, there’s a lot of different things one can mean when one says ‘science’. Some of which are not really forms or practices of knowing at all. There’s no shortage of economic ‘science’ being deployed to justify business as usual. Those who pledged their soul to the eternal forward march of commodification are incapable of panic or reflection. For them, there is no situation, not matter how God-forsaken, that is not an ‘opportunity.’

Stengers: “Those who say to us ‘Marx is history’, with an obscene, satisfied little smile, generally avoid saying to us why capitalism as Marx described it is no longer a problem. They only imply that it is invincible. Today those who talk about the vanity of struggling against capitalism are de facto saying ‘barbarism is our destiny.’” (51) Capitalism fabricates its own necessity, which for Paul Burkett is what the rule of exchange value basically amounts to. Capitalism is a mode of transcendence that is not inevitable, just radically irresponsible. “Capitalism doesn’t like noise.” (54) It is hell-bent on eliminating signals that are not market signals, which are what appear to it as noise.

And yet for all that, Stengers is reluctant to collapse everything into the figure of capital. As I have argued elsewhere, talking about the capitalocene runs the risk of ignoring certain new information, what Stengers calls the intrusion of Gaia, for which I have used the more conventional designation of the Anthropocene. Stengers: “I also dread that is might incite those who resist only to pay lip service to the idea that global warming is effectively a new problem, following it immediately with the demonstration that this problem, like all others, should be blamed on capitalism, and then by that conclusion that we must therefore maintain our heading, without allowing ourselves to be troubled by a truth that must not upset the prospects for the struggle.” (56)

It is a matter of learning to compose with Gaia instead: “Naming Gaia, she who intrudes, signifies that there is no afterwards.” (57) That means letting go of an epic materialism in which nature is there as a resource for human conquest. Where obstacles exist only as the narrative pretext for Promethean leaps – as in children’s stories. One can no longer claim a right not to pay attention to all that Gaia stands-in for. Both those who think capital can be negated and those who think it can only be accelerated are called to account for their inattention here.

This civilization, such as it is, turns out the be as blind as its predecessors. Even when there is attention to the ‘environment’, it is so often still framed as a question of a resource to be preserved rather than used. Precautions against dangerous products do not really challenge the “sacred right of the entrepreneur.” (63) Which is to not pay attention to anything much other than the aura of the brand, and tactics of competitors and maximizing shareholder value. Risk is the price of progress. The entrepreneur makes the Promethean leap, even if nobody much believes any more that anyone else is likely to benefit.

The dirty secret however is that these magnificent men in their profit machines don’t really want to take risks. They want security. This is what for Wendy Brown and others is the characteristic of neoliberalism: the role of the state becomes the securing of profit with minimal extra-economic risk. They want to be indemnified against the results of their own actions. They want everything to be an opportunity for them.

What Stengers calls the entrepreneur I would call the vectoralist class. It is no longer much interested in making things, let alone growing things. It just wants skim the interest off from asymmetrical flows of information. It wants the state to foot the bill for basic research while it reaps the rewards when it privatized as patents. It wants to shape the agenda for state-funded research to the template of its own interests. And it wants the state to go to extraordinary lengths to privatize the information commons and police its enclosure. To me that’s a whole new regime of commodification that Marx’s thermodynamic model of ‘capital’ does not quite cover.

Stengers has an interesting read on what happened to science in all this, although in this text it gets very abbreviated treatment. One way to express it might to say that she defends the sciences against Science. Stengers: “It was a matter not of attacking scientific practices but of defending them against an image of authority that is foreign to what makes for their fecundity and relative reliability.” (69)

In her version, Galileo conducted an all-too successful propaganda mission on behalf of a rather limited and idealized version of the scientific method, which then got elevated into a kind of authority to be wielded against mere ‘opinion.’ This had the unfortunate effect of giving capital-S Science the role also of determining the real questions as those that can be settled objectively. One is reminded here of André Breton’s who dared declare that “Science is useful for the solution of many problems, unfortunately all of them of secondary interest.”

The problem for the sciences is that many had aligned themselves with the state, and with agendas in part set by the state. But with the hollowing out of the state they are unable to defend themselves against new regimes of management. Resentful researchers feel betrayed by the state, losing their little niche. But the state is not a bulwark against the intrusions of Gaia, on the one hand, or the demands of commodification, on the other. The state enables commodification without any reference any more to progress. It still produces rules and norms, and in the process eliminates the local, traditional, the commons, and destroys resources that might nourish an art of attention.

But Stengers is wary of institutionalized Science, not the practices of the sciences. “We need researchers able to participate in the creation of the responses on which the possibility of a future that is not barbaric depends.” (73) She is not a critic of an abstract technical rationality, as if it were to blame for all our predicaments. For “…to attribute all that to technical rationality is to go a bit too quickly. As practitioners, technicians could be capable of many other things than subjecting everything that moves to categories that are indifferent to their consequences.” (74)

This is however, a crucial problem. The very terms of public debate are set in advance by what is in the interests of what Stengers calls the Entrepreneurs, or what I would call the vectoralist class. “What has been conquered for all has been redefined by categories that are addressed to whoever, categories that produced amnesia and which are then vulnerable to the infernal alternatives concocted by capitalism.” (75) Nobody’s particular needs or interests or desires are taken into account. The state maintains public order; the Entrepreneurs maintain a right to responsibility. Between them they generate a hostility to paying attention.

And so what needs to be collectively reclaimed is an art of paying attention, something with which the state can’t help. We need consensual narratives about what is supposed to matter. Stengers highlights the narrative of the ongoing enclosure of the commons. The so-called knowledge economy – what I would call a vectoral rather than capitalist mode of production – erases the line between public and private research. The state lets the vectoralist class appropriate public knowledge production, while making the state responsible for enforcing its version of ‘intellectual property.’ Or as in the case of the Trans Pacific Partnership and similar treaties, creates para-state formations to do it. There’s a need to invent new modes of resistance to enclosure.

But for Stengers, there’s two kinds of story one can tell here. One version, which she associates with Hardt and Negri, restates the Marxist “conceptual theater.” This is a story about something like a proletariat of the immaterial whose use value is immediately social. Cognitive capitalism exploits this sociality itself, which is a sort of postindustrial commons that is anonymous and abstract. A new figure, such as the multitude replaces worker as the agent of liberation.

I have always dissented from part of this narrative. I think the category of the ‘immaterial’ is meaningless, and prefixes such as ‘cognitive’ and ‘semio’ don’t really capture what is distinctive about the forces of production and reproduction in our times. I also think it best not to assume in advance some sort of collective or class unity when really one is talking about quite different experiences and implications within the production process. Thus, in A Hacker Manifesto I was careful to see the hacker and worker as different figures that need to find ways combining their interests through cultural, political and organizational means.

Nevertheless, I think the Italian and French writers such as Negri, Virno, Moulier Boutang, Lazzarato and Berardi were at least asking the right questions and trying to capture in a conceptual net some of the features of this stage of commodification. It would appear that Stengers also accepts part of the shared terrain here. She draws attention to those working in computation who invented a form of resistance to the appropriation of what was common to them, of which Richard Stallman and the Free Software movement might be the most conscious element. “It was as ‘commoners’ that they defined what made them programmers, not as nomads of the immaterial.” (85)

However, to Stengers, the commons is not a new conceptual guarantor of a universal beyond oppositions. She is resistant to the reinstalling of a teleological version of the narrative in which the socialization of the commons must burst through the fetter of private property, even in its advanced ‘intellectual property’ form. In A Hacker Manifesto I relied on a kind of ontological argument about the nature of information itself as something inimical to property and necessarily existing only as something shared. I’m not quite ready to give that up, but Stengers certainly puts me on notice as to the problems with this line of thinking, as she does with the kinds of arguments of the autonomists.

I think she obliges us to confront a world, as Stuart Hall used to say, without guarantees, in which barbarism or barbarism may well be an accurate description of the political-economic choices. The challenge is to respond to the intrusion of Gaia in a way that isn’t barbaric and that makes no appeal to a pre-given outcome.

Certainly one form of barbarism attends the decline of attention occasioned by the transformation of both the arts and the sciences into endless versions of the same gamespace for professional ‘moves.’ The sciences in particular have had the ability to “populate reality with new beings and agencies.” (91) But not when they are constrained by capital-S Science to a kind of gatekeeping role for the state and the vectoralist class. Science becomes a kind of totem for Promethean man, able to brush aside all obstacles in the race to turn all of nature into a resource.

This is why Stengers is reluctant to concede too much to Science as a mode of practice and belief. It isn’t really what the sciences at their most creative were about, and it forecloses other ways of knowing and organizing. So on the one hand, the sciences have to be uncoupled from belief in Science, while other forms of organzing ‘in the streets’ have to be uncoupled from the epic grand narrative of liberation or belief in spontaneity.

Stengers: “we live in a veritable cemetery for destroyed practices and collective knowledges” (98) But while trying to create new or revived forms of commons, one has to bear in mind that it is no guarantee. The commons has its dangers too – one of which is fascism. Witness the crypto-fascist rhetoric of friend versus enemy and the glory of action that finds its way even into contemporary forms of anarchist thinking, such as the Invisible Committee.

We may have had enough of the figure of the pharmakon, but Stengers deploys it here as a name for the undecidable, for that which can have good or bad effects that can’t always be known in advance. Those from the world of computing who challenged its rather narrow commodification with free software are one of her examples of thinking one’s practice as a pharmakon.

But why did the sciences not respond in the same way as some of the programmers? Why did Science link itself so completely with the state and the vectoralist class? Actually, this is just as true, if not more so, of programming today. But the question remains. One element is a hatred of pharmakon, of the undecidable, a desire for scientism even where Science has no viable methods. Another is an ethnocentric belief in Science as a rationality of the west – Joseph Needham’s debunking of the myth of a China without science not withstanding.

It is time then for a way of paying attention that is not wedded to guarantees in advance, be they of Science or some sort of ontology of the Political. “Every creation must incorporate the knowledge that it is not venturing into a friendly world but into an unhealthy milieu.” (104) It has to be an experimental era. “The pharmacological art is required because the time of struggle cannot postpone the time of creation. It cannot delay until ‘after’, when there is no longer any danger…” (104)

This could be an Enlightened age, but only if enlightenment is though once again as a taste for free thought and imagination as insubordination. It cannot continue in any useful way under the sign of the Enlightenment as rentier, as as representative of established privilege, combatting with critique any forms of mystification or regression, but at the expense of attacking forms of social life that have not been entirely obliterated by reasons of state and exchange value. Stengers offers, paradoxically enough, a critique of critique, in the name of a more constructive and constructivist thinking, after the style of Deleuze.

It is time to declare a truce in the ‘science wars.’ The critique of the ‘social construction’ of knowledge was unable to see how, as it is in Donna Haraway, that sciences can at one and the same time be saturated in social and historical forms and yet still crystalize out stable results that point to a nonhuman world. On the other hand, Science really does need to be held to account for its pandering to industry and complicity with the state.

The enemy of both humanistic thought and the open inquiry of the sciences is a kind of stupidity. This now even affects the rentiers who defend the enlightenment, who really defend privilege, and have lost all sense of adventure and risk. (Stengers gives no examples, but I can’t help thinking of the sad trajectory of Richard Dawkins.) Rather than critique which claims to see through to the root or the essence, or to ground everything else in an ontology of first things, Stengers like Deleuze prefers the world of second and third things, of thinking through the middle, or the milieu.

It is a time, then, for minor knowledge, which questions the order words of Promethean modernization. The guardians keep the floodgates – as they see them – closed to questioning. We have to learn to pose our own questions. And refuse the answers when the questions to which they answer are answers for nobody, for whoever, rather than answers for us. And all that without investing too much faith in one or other belief that we know what we’re doing: “… it is not a matter of converting us but of repopulating the devastated desert of our imaginations.” (132)

Among the traps to avoid are being captured by expertise, and avoiding confrontations that polarize the terrain and empty them of everything but the interests of opposing camps. One must try to “make the experts stutter” in a milieu poisoned by stupidity. (138) One must fabricate trust which not only respects differences but divergences. We’re not on the same path or ever going to be. There’s no way to totalize differences. There’s no way to ‘penetrate’ appearances and get to the truth in advance. “The desperate search for that which, being ‘natural’ would supposedly have no need of any artifice, refers in fact, once more and as ever, to the hatred of the pharmakon, of that whose use implies an art.” (144)

I would count Stengers (as I count myself) as a realist of the procedure rather than of the object of knowledge. We can know something of how we got the result. We can’t know much about ontology, or nature, or the real. It takes an inhuman apparatus to make the nonhuman appear to the human. Stengers: “a scientific interpretation can never impose itself without artifice, without experimental fabrications, the invention of which empassions them much more than the ‘truth.’” (146) Stengers goes elsewhere than the recent ontological turn in thought, but not back to the old obsession with epistemology, which was just as prone to want rules for proper ways of knowing as ontology wants methods for the proper way to the unveiled object.

Hated of artifice is hatred of pharmakon. It’s a desire for guarantees in advance for the true and the good. It can be a hated, in particular, of democratic artifice (here Stengers gestures towards Rancière). Stengers: “those who feel themselves responsible demand that the only legitimate means for political action be those that are guaranteed to be without risk, like children’s toys.” (147) Politics as that which forms a disjunction with the ‘natural’ order.

None of this will appease Gaia, but might help with a less barbaric future. Naming Gaia, confronting stupidity, paying attention, honoring divergences, creating artifices might be a recipe or an algorithm (for that is what I take pharmakon to mean) for mitigating the barbarism to come. Of these procedures, naming Gaia stands apart. It is indeed a kind of transcendence, even though certain other kinds of transcendence are a big part of the problem. Naming Gaia names a kind of transcendence that interrupts. There’s no dialog, no xeno-communication, and hence nobody who can claim to be ‘in touch’ with it. It speaks to us on its terms, and in the negative. All of the other steps Stingers recommend sit comfortably with what I call a realism of praxis, but naming Gaia does not. It is the other way of relating to the world, to ‘nature’, through an other kind of (non)relation.

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

  • patkane

    Fascinating as ever. I’m reminded that Stengers wrote a few books with chaos mathematician Ilya Prigogine. The belief in minor knowledge fuelling an experimentalism in socio-scientific-technical forms fits very well within complex adaptive systems thinking, which invites local energy/initiative but warns against confidence about outcomes. Paul Mason invokes CAS in his recent Postcapitalism book, hoping for – like you with the hackers – a “mutation” within the network-capitalist form (and retains your residual faith in information’s intrinsic commons-generation). But there’s a few t-shirt slogans here: “… it is not a matter of converting us but of repopulating the devastated desert of our imaginations.”

    • mckenziewark

      Thanks Pat. Stengers may be too much of a 68-er for my taste, or yours. “Imagination” is a bit of a 68 theme. Haven’t read the Mason yet, but looks like i should…

      • patkane

        You should – it’s an interesting parallel with the Inventing the Future book you reviewed (and cited me in!) the other week. I think Paul is genuinely interested in extrapolating new forms of organisation (indeed, forms of the human) from current sci-tech landscape.

        • mckenziewark

          I now have a copy, but have yet to read it.

  • Jørgen Bruhn

    Thank you, interesting!: what’s the relation between Latour’s recent re-use of the Gaia-concept, and Stengers’ I wonder?

    • Do

      I get the impression that their respective uses are rather similar.

  • Nikolai Windbichler

    Stenger’s chapter on GMOs is a bit silly. It mixes (incorrect) scientific and (correct) social arguments to an unsightly brew.
    If GMOs == Monsanto == Evil it must be concluded that Ken’s Hacker class excludes us Biohackers! We should have seen this coming: Ken “Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world.” There is a code ominously missing here the original code the one with As, Gs, Ts and Cs which, trust me on this one, is the one that can create truly miraculous new things.

    I guess when people read that the “possible transformation of production and labor rests […]
    on the distinction […] between the existent form of the use value dimension, which is molded by value, and its latent potential.” they don’t think of transgenic crops or bacteria.

    But we do.

    • mckenziewark

      Yes, i’m probably closer to you than to Stengers on that point.

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