Yesterday I gave a talk at a weekly philosophy seminar hosted by a prominent South African university. The talk was called Humanity as it has been historically constituted: what lies beyond. The first half of the talk was a short summary of Badiou and Žižek’s depiction of the role of philosophy ‘in the present’. They argue that philosophy occurs when confronted with the incommensurable; that it involves the creation of new problems; that it pertains to the redefinition of human nature. Philosophy can cut through ‘particularities’ and focus on universals and the ‘inhuman’; it changes the terms and concepts of the debate, elucidates choice, and spreads light on the distance between power and truths. That philosophy cannot confine itself to the established model of humanity, because each time that it does so, its only function becomes that of conserving and spreading the established model. I write in-depth about these ideas, as well as others, in the first half of the seventh chapter of my PhD, which can be accessed at this site.
The established model of humanity is Promethean; or, reworded, humanity as it has been historically constituted is Promethean. It does not take a huge leap in reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that if the role of philosophy is not to conserve the established model, then this role involves not spreading the Promethean. I define the Promethean attitude in my study as one “inspired by audacity, boundless curiosity, the will to power, and the search for utility”, and it “penetrates the secrets of nature… through violence” (Hadot 2008:91-98). Hadot points out that Promethean ‘man’ “demands the right of dominion over nature” (2008:95) and furthermore that the attitude “has engendered our modern civilization and the worldwide expansion of science and industry” (2008:101).
Hadot is demonstrably correct. If one does any research on the following industries – fossil fuel, petrochemical, agricultural, construction, mining, meat and fish industries, ‘bio-tech’, and fractional reserve money industry – then one will see a clear cause-effect relationship between the industries and large-scale phenomena such as loss of biodiversity, greenhouse gas and carbon emissions, anthropogenic climate change, deforestation, loss of topsoil, fresh water loss, landfill waste, associated pollution, toxic and chemical waste, overpopulation, and so on. As Hadot suggests, the Promethean attitude has driven the expansion of what I call ACID (under inspiration from the Norwegian philosophers Hoyer and Kvaloy), the Promethean writ large: ‘advanced’ (Christian) competitive consumer capitalist industrial democratic dominion. After a few years of research, I found the pieces of the puzzle I’ve just mentioned – these pieces constitute the established model of humanity. I am confident that I offered no ‘argument’ in describing the established model. Instead, I simply did the research, and compiled it into a few chapters constituting the first half of my PhD.
The first half of the seminar talk was the summary of Badiou and Žižek’s description of the role of philosophy in the present. Thereafter I pointed out that the established model is Promethean, and that the relevant industries and ecological destruction are part and parcel of the established model. I then moved on to point out, more or less, that the realm of ‘the Orphic’ is something of a counter-balancing force to the Promethean. “Orpheus… penetrates the secrets of nature not through violence but through melody, rhythm, and harmony”; and “the Orphic attitude… is inspired by respect in the face of mystery and disinterestedness” (2008:91-98). The research I did for my PhD led me to consider the following as helpful for the Orphic agenda, if indeed there is such a thing as an Orphic agenda: older cultures, Hancock’s civilization with amnesia, Sheldrake’s morphic resonance, Hawken’s blessed unrest, Eisenstein’s sacred economics, the Occupy Movement, the Zeitgeist Movement, and deep ecology.
I covered a few other things in the talk, like the fact that ACID does not ‘do real dialectical change’ (a conclusion for which I provided premises in the seminar and in my study), and that the Orphic realm in general, as well as permaculture principles, are attuned to philosophical universality, but I’ve mentioned most of the main focal areas in this post. Important to mention is what I included as a caveat: I am not throwing the babies of Promethean ‘progress’ out with the bathwater of Promethean ecocide. I fully acknowledge that there are many benefits for humans that have arisen from the reign of the Promethean. There is also a real and worrying ‘flipside’ to Promethean ‘progress’ that can be seen if one looks at the disease, discomfort, inequality, patriarchy, racism, and so on, that is demonstrably caused by the spread of ACID. These (and other) issues aside, it is clear that benefits have come at the expense of a diverse and healthy ecology, the very thing needed for human beings to survive on this beautiful planet. I also made it clear that I am not advocating a radical shift from the dominance of the Promethean to a mostly Orphic dispensation – this would be completely unrealistic, because such giant strides are prevented for various reasons, some of which I uncover in the fourth chapter of my study.
I certainly was suggesting that a useful ‘philosophical tool’ is the Orphic-Promethean spectrum, on which one can conceptually position different actions, activities, lifestyles, choices, industries, attitudes, beliefs, ventures (business and otherwise), manifestations of government, theories, and so on. I’m not sure if I mentioned this in the seminar, but there is surely no ‘purely Promethean’ or ‘purely Orphic’ manifestation of being. But ACID is definitely a form of ‘civilisation’ with heavily Promethean features, features I identify in my study and which I identified in the talk. ACID, when placed on the conceptual spectrum I have described, is weighted almost at the far Promethean end of the spectrum. My contention is that the conceptual process (of considering where between the two ‘incommensurable positions’ of the spectrum an activity or action or choice lies) is a philosophical activity. How one actualises a repositioning toward the Orphic may not be philosophical; it may be informed by a philosophical process, but the following remark by Badiou makes clear that particular decisions are not necessarily philosophical: a philosophical commitment “is foreign. And when it is simply commonplace, when it does not possess this foreignness, when it is not immersed in this paradox [of incommensurability], then it is a political commitment, an ideological commitment, the commitment of a citizen, but it is not necessarily a philosophical commitment. Philosophical commitment is marked by its internal foreignness.”
So in the final few minutes of my talk, I made it excessively clear that I may be stepping beyond the philosophical ‘commitment’ highlighted by Badiou. I may have offered a commitment of a citizen, a researcher, an academic, a human being, a person who knows the value of treading softly on our home planet that has been stomped upon for so long. In one presentation slide – the final one – I pointed out that the legalisation of Cannabis in South Africa would be – in my opinion – one of the only ways to shift the general collective societal attitude slightly away from the far Promethean end of the spectrum toward the Orphic end. A brief look at the legalisation of Cannabis in the USA will show how successful legalisation has been. Economically it’s a no-brainer. Cultivation is instrumentally and inherently uplifting. Millions of meaningful jobs can be created where cultivators spend time working with plants and natural medicines. I need to write a post about just how socially, economically and ecologically uplifting I contend the legalisation of Cannabis will be in South Africa, and about how I contend the legalisation process can roll out, but for now I simply would like to reinforce what I was suggesting yesterday: that this relatively small change could go a considerable way to shifting attitudes away from the now-dominant Promethean end of the spectrum toward somewhere closer to the middle of the spectrum.
I then pointed out that very reputable experiments and research are being done at Johns Hopkins University and at MAPS (and elsewhere) on the benefits of controlled use of Psilocybin, and suggested that controlled, legal use of the substance would go quite far in initiating people into the Orphic attitude. I am not suggesting that anyone be forced to use the substance, but rather that if one wishes to have such an experience, then it could easily be incorporated into South African culture. Indeed, the dominance and growing prevalence of Promethean attitudes in our country has turned our culture into a consumer-culture, which is to say no culture at all. Huxley’s Island demonstrates what such a ritual use of Psilocybin could look like – and, to me, it looks great. The novel demonstrates a culture I would proudly call a culture. And, I contend, introducing an optional ritual affords possibilities to further create meaningful jobs in a ‘health industry’ that can have many (Orphic) side-branches. Legalisation of Cannabis, and the eventual availability of ‘initiatory’ experiences like those associated with Psilocybin, are, in my considered opinion, aspects of a society that is transforming in a manner not completely dominated by the business-as-usual of the established Promethean model.
That’s what I presented, more or less. Then I was crucified, more or less! The responses were brutal. Okay, one young man with a glitter in his eye agreed that the ‘mystical experience’ facilitated by Psilocybin were extremely helpful. But all the other responses were extremely critical… despite my caveats and explicit drawing of attention to where the ‘safe’, summarised philosophy ended and the ‘un-philosophical’ commitments of a ‘citizen’ began. I was told that I was being Promethean in ‘othering’ aspects of ACID, which is a strange response seeing as I had made the disclaimer that I am not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but rather trying to encourage a process whereby a spectrum is delineated and ‘particulars’ can be placed on the spectrum, with the hope that the imbalance toward the Promethean end is identified and problematised, and where the “distance between power and truths” (2009:8) is brought to light – which, by the way, are aspects of the role of philosophy as depicted by Badiou and Žižek. I was told that I was bundling all of the world’s problems into “one thing”, which was a surprise seeing as I identified dozens of industries and components of underlying attitudes that constitute the Promethean. ‘Stoners’, I was told, would achieve nothing in response to the world’s problems, because they would sit around and do nothing all day, except for maybe party; strange then that Silicon Valley is populated by ‘stoners’ and ‘trippers’ of all sorts who have pioneered some of the most influential endeavours of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. I was told that in older cultures humans died at age 35, so things are better now; how many times have we heard that one, and how few people know that it is at worst a complete myth (see here), or at best a complex issue that cannot be reduced into the view that was leveled at me as criticism of my argument.
My favourite criticism came when most seminar attendants had departed: there is no ecological crisis, I was told. That what human beings do with our industries and our capitalist economy is progress. When I asked what was meant by the word ‘crisis’, and when given the example of stage one cancer, the response was that stage 1 cancer is not a crisis; stage 4, I was told, is a crisis, which I take to mean that stages 2 and 3 are not seen as crises either. Stages 1, 2 and 3 are problems, I was told, not crises. This was very odd to me. It is easy to demonstrate that the planet does have early stages of cancer – maybe not stage 4, granted, but I would think stages 2 or 3 – but the situation is not akin to when a person gets cancer and seeks treatment, because for the earth, under the current Promethean regime, there is no treatment. Some very respectable thinkers have made the cancer analogy. Joel Kovel (2002:51), for example, speaks of “the cancerous imperative to expand” that is characteristic of the global economy. Paul Hawken (2007:3) suggests that we live on a planet with “a life-threatening disease”, and James Lovelock (2009:46-47) also uses the ‘sick patient’ analogy. Foster, Clark and York, in their book The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (2010:1) all agree and argue that “a deep chasm has opened up in the metabolic relation between human beings and nature – a metabolism that is the basis of life itself. The source of this unparalleled crisis is the capitalist society in which we live”. They also add (2010:14) that if “business as usual continues, the world is headed within the next few decades for major tipping points along with irreversible environmental degradation, threatening much of humanity”. Thomas Princen (2010:32) explains the following paradox: “the economy depends on increasing consumption, but ever-increasing consumption strains ecosystems, both resources (soil and water, for instance) and waste sinks (the oceans and the atmosphere). Before tackling this paradox head-on, let’s turn the question of consuming less on its head. A system that grows endlessly crashes. Think of cancer cells, debt-ridden mortgages, fisheries. It defies logic, not to mention a few well-known laws of physics (like thermodynamics), to presume that with continuing growth in consumption – that is, continuing growth in the total throughput of material and energy through our economy – the current economy will not crash.” So maybe the Promethean dispensation of ACID is only in stages 2 or 3 of having cancer, not 4, but the fact that the Promethean trajectory continues unabated (i.e. no treatment), if not at an increasingly accelerated speed, should give every sober-minded individual cause for alarm. Whether or not you call this a crisis is up to you, but it is certainly more than ‘a problem’.
Strangely, I was happy to take the criticisms. I gave the talk because I feel something of a responsibility to try and create awareness of the issues of the Promethean gone mad, and to try and suggest what remedies could look like. This was not well received yesterday, but I feel like I am at least trying to do something in the face of such overwhelming odds. On reflection, I feel that my ‘less orthodox’ suggestions were more in the spirit of the role of philosophy in the present: as I have quoted already, a philosophical commitment “is foreign. And when it is simply commonplace, when it does not possess this foreignness, when it is not immersed in this paradox [of incommensurability], then it is a political commitment, an ideological commitment, the commitment of a citizen, but it is not necessarily a philosophical commitment. Philosophical commitment is marked by its internal foreignness.” The responses I received from various members of the group highlighted the foreignness of my contributions, and also highlighted something incommensurable between us. I was certainly not offering commonplace contributions.
The group consisted mainly of analytical philosophers – they are used to knit-picking away at arguments. I have done this too, and there is value to this commonplace activity. But I spend more time these days trying to conceptualise and actualise ‘alternatives’ (for lack of a better word). I do this for my own sake, but also for the sake of others who are trying to introduce ‘alternatives’ into the mix and thereby, ever so slightly, together inoculate the Promethean pot with Orphic spores and keep hope alive that little by little we can balance ourselves away from the far Promethean end of the spectrum. I am not sure if this will amount to much, but I am dedicated to continuing this “strange commitment”: “Genuine philosophical commitment – the kind which is immersed in the incommensurable and summons the choice of thought, staging the exceptions, creating distances and, especially, distancing from forms of power – is often a strange commitment” (Badiou 2009:23). I am happy that I tried to “change the concepts of the debate” (2009:51), and I wonder how members of the group would feel when revising some of the features of the role of philosophy (as depicted by Badiou and Zizek) and thereafter reflecting on the ‘feedback’ I was given – ‘criticisms’ is a far more fitting word. Are you, as philosophers, happy to purely occupy a place in the established model of humanity, and if you are, are you a philosopher? Pure pen pushing is not an act of philosophy, unless, perhaps, the pen is pushed in the ‘transformative’ spirit depicted by Badiou and Žižek. With this in mind, I will conclude with the words of Karl Marx, and remind one that ‘the world’ in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is characterised by a massive imbalance of Promethean characteristics: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”