Clark’s wager: radical asymmetry


Here are a few thoughts to get us started in discussing Chapter 2 (and what follows) of Inhuman Nature. I’m also copying Harlan’s notes from the comments section of the previous post, since they are relevant here.

The bulk of this chapter ventures into a kind of internecine conflict among social theorists. This is not a conflict at the center or in the mainstream of social theory. Most social theorists continue their work in blissful disregard of the natural, the nonhuman, the extra-human, the more-than-human, or what have you. (There are debates about which of these terms is best, but we’ll sidestep them for now.)

The debate here is between “relational materialists,” such as Bruno Latour and the actor-network theorists with which he’s been aligned, and the position Clark is distinguishing in this book, which he calls “radical asymmetry.” As Clark writes (and Harlan quotes):

“We … need to think of the entire zone of human-nonhuman interchange as itself nothing more than a concrete, localized and contingent region in the midst of an overwhelmingly inhuman expanse” (48-49).

Here’s another way we could redescribe Clark’s question:

What do we do with the human-nonhuman “Interzone”? Is that Interzone everything? Or is there more, an excess, a beyond to it, which we need to factor into our thinking, our ethics, and (perhaps) our aesthetics?

Clark’s position is that there is more. If the Interzone woudl be everything, then everything would be “accessible to collective deliberation,” even if it’s a kind of deliberation whose underlying principles we cannot specify in advance — the kind of vague and hesitant deliberation implied by Latour’s form of “cosmopolitics.” (Latour takes the term from his friend, philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers, but Clark argues that she pushes further beyond that Interzone than does Latour.)

According to Clark, relational materialists like Latour concede that there is a beyond, but they fail to do much with it. Their focus is on the Interzone. A minority among them, however, push further.  These include Stengers (who has collaborated with Latour as well as with biochemist and complex systems theorist Ilya Prigogine) and “corporeal feminists” like Elizabeth Grosz and Vicki Kirby.

They also include those we’ll call “Deleuzians,” including philosopher Gilles Deleuze, his collaborator psychoanalyst Felix Guattari, and many who follow them in the direction of an “immanent materialism” — a focus on the relational forces and flows that assemble, reassemble, and disassemble into the pulsing networks and unstable strata that make up the universe. What the Deleuzians share is an interest in conceiving of everything in the unvierse as a form of “generalized creativity”: emergently self-organizing, and containing multiplicitous “virtualities” that infuse the present and render the future open-ended. Deleuze’s work — especially as it’s been taken up by philosopher and architect Manuel DeLanda — takes us into nonlinear dynamical systems theory as a framework for reconceiving everything. We can revisit that later.

Then there are the “speculative realists,” a set of mostly young philosophers including Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Ray Brassier, and Quentin Meillassoux. They do, in different ways, push further outside the Interzone. Specifically, their work starts from a rejection of the Kantian “correlation” between thinking and being, i.e., the idea that thinking always implies being and that being always implies thinking. For the SRs, there is being without thinking — it’s found in that vast expanse beyond the human.

That’s an oversimplification of a complex set of theorists, and it begs the question of whether there is thinking beyond the human; at least some of the SRs would say there is, even if it’s not human thinking. But Clark seems to be aligning himself generally with this anti-correlationist move.

Finally, there are the outliers, of which Jacques Derrida seems to play a particularly important role for Clark. Derrida’s work always points to the “outside” — that which doesn’t fit any system. It’s a kind of perpetual reminder that no effort at encompassing things will ever quite succeed. The universe is too dynamic for that.

Let’s finish with Harlan’s comments on Clark’s “radical asymmetry” move:

“In part, what I see Clark providing is a substantive critique of some of the more hyperbolic claims found in some (but not all, contra Crist!) discourses of the Anthropocene, especially those that suggest that humanity has become a primary driver of global environmental systems. I see Clark’s challenge working in two interrelated ways.

“First, there are distinct material processes that persist independent of any relationship humans might have with them (plate tectonics, expansion of the universe, fusion, etc.). That these things persist, and clearly have significant bearing on material conditions of reality, places into question the notion that humanity has ascended to such a point as to overshadow such autonomous processes.

“Second, Clark states, “This is the bottom line of human being: we are utterly dependent on an earth and a cosmos that is, to a large degree, indifferent to us” (50). Similar to the first point, this challenges aspects of Anthropocene discourses that aim to fix humanity as a kind of culprit – a not-unproblematically aggregated subject that has succeeded in dominating Nature in service of its own voracious, collective greed. Following Clark, despite the ostensible destructiveness of contemporary ‘humanity’-global environment relations, it seems a little hyperbolic to frame these relations purely in terms of domination. Domination, in this sense, implies a one-way transfer of power, within which one might lose an important sense of dependence.

“To close off, Clark’s contributions thus far have had the effect of reigning in some of the hyperbolic rhetorical flourishes of an emerging discourse, reminding us that humanity is not nearly as all-powerful as some narratives of the Anthropocene might imply. This, I think, is a welcome intervention since I’ve long had the feeling that aspects of the more alarmist narratives are merely crudely fashioned inversions of Enlightenment-era dreams of mastery over the realm of nature. That is, “Finally we have succeeded! But we arrive not as rational beings, but insatiable monsters!” Fair enough, but some of us are more monstrous than others…


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