· by Patrick jennings
Throughout the Covid crisis, the use of the war metaphor, as means of persuasion and matrix of explanation, has become pervasive in politics and the popular media.
Both practices have been able to make use of such rhetoric because the discourse on war, attrition and the destruction of enemies is so deeply embedded in the structure of public discourse, from ubiquitous and seemingly benign tropes valorising competition, to the outright eulogising of violence as the natural mediator between individuals, groups, classes, ethnicities, cultures, and nation-states.
Moreover, it seems entirely plausible to extend the metaphor of war and struggle to our relation with the natural world, enabling a discourse in which natural processes, set in motion by bio-molecular mechanisms, are capable of being mastered by science.
Science just is, from this perspective, a series of feed-back loops in which the accumulation of knowledge and experimental know-how leads to mastery over nature and mastery over nature leads to more knowledge and know how, ad infinitum.
This is a version of the Baconian trope in which nature is put to the wrack and interrogated for it’s secrets but one in which cybernetics, systems theory and big data allow for an expansion of the field of knowable objects to include the system of the interrogator and his acts of interrogation.
Defeated, abased, nature must yield.
In this war on nature, in which the war on Coronavirus is but one “theatre of operations”, the techno-scientific industrialised exploitation and extermination of non-human and human animals is it’s quintessential modus operandi.
What is good and true for science just is, necessarily, good and true for the human as such. But human here is an image abstracted from and other than the human-animal and it’s symbiotic connection with the ecology of living entities. It is, rather, an excess of the human animal carried over after an operation in which experience is subsumed under a system of bifurcations. This excess is an illusory mode of transcendence.
The Covid crisis is most probably a dry run for what awaits us down the road as the climate crisis intensifies.
During the unfolding of the pandemic, it was notable that scientists and doctors remained, for the most part, wary of presumption in the face of the unknown, choosing to concentrate instead on the behaviour of the virus in particular human environments before attempting generalised pronouncements.
Grounded in observation, this was good science, a science in which anthropomorphic presumptions played only a small part. It was made possible by wide-scale testing and the correlation and analysis of data on the actual unfolding of the pandemic, which, for all science knew, could have included the annihilation of the species.
Here, for all to see, was an example of the difference between the actual practice of science, always localised contingent and rather anarchic in it’s evolution, and the ideology of mastery, control and expertise; an ideology enabled on a philosophical structure in which the real is bifurcated, producing a thought-complex of human subject-agents and a field of objects and processes subjected to a regime of mastery.
One productive way of looking at the ideology of mastery is as the explicit expression of an implicit or philosophically esoteric sufficiency in which science becomes the arbitrator of what is known and knowable and what is known and knowable just is scientific, in all but name.
Science, taken up into the ideology of mastery, arbitrarily sets it’s compass and draws, godlike, the arc of the world.
As with Covid, the evolution of the climate crisis will most probably unfold unevenly across geographical regions as a series of local emergencies, each set on its own trajectory by the generation and replication of feedback loops in which human agency is only one strand in a complex of becomings.
As with Covid this “dance of agency” between human and non human entities will unfold inclusive of the decisions, actions and reactions of the presumed primary actors – those who are supposed to exercise control over outcomes by “managing” the crisis on our behalf.
The ideology of management and eventual mastery is a doubling in thought of the always and already immanent unfolding of the real, inclusive of the subject-object dichotomy which enables the illusion of transcendent knowing and techno-mastery.
Such a real never enters into the realm of the scientific or philosophical subject and it’s field of knowable objects and systems of objects.
Recent climate discourse has taken on board talk of the “Anthropocene” as evidence for the emergence of an epoch of human dominance over nature in which the human “footprint” is literally inscribed on geological strata.
The inscription of the human onto planetary geology is often accompanied by speculations about an acceleration in human technological prowess leading to a “singularity” at some time in the near future; at which point technological civilization will make a qualitative leap, establishing the dominance of the human over the planetary system and it’s myriad life forms as an accomplished fact.
Thus, a positivist rhetoric of acceleration, mastery and control sees the human take charge of the contingent, variable and complex earth-system to impose a consciously interested anthropomorphic regime on what is perceived as a complex of “mechanical” and therefore “manageable” processes.
Such rhetoric almost always includes a naturalization of capitalism in which acceleration is a spontaneous result of the free reign of market forces, an unruly energy domesticated by a corporate or state structure, more often than not presided over by a charismatic individual.
Under such a scenario democracy is optional at best, at worst a hindrance to the generation of what is conceived as the proper management and eventual mastery of the eco/social system.
It is still unclear how such a planetary wide consensus among ruling elites could be achieved, taking into account the resurgence of the ideology of the nation state and the discrediting of the idea of inter-state unions, international bodies and structures of trans-national governance.
The Covid crisis has intensified the contradiction between a strong version of nation-statehood and a neo-liberal valorisation of free markets, deregulation, free flow of labour and capital, international supply chains and minimal state interference.
The axioms of neo-liberal ideological orthodoxy have been, almost universally, unceremoniously abandoned, if only for the present.
More importantly Covid has driven an even bigger wedge between liberal, democratic and rights based ideologies of reform, “new deal” regeneration and green transition and the more authoritarian forms of “new nationalism”.
As we emerge from the first phase of the pandemic, the struggle between these two tendencies will probably intensify. Already, international bodies such as the U.N are aligning themselves with those who see the transition from lock-down as an opportunity to establish the structural changes necessary for a more ecologically sustainable economy.
Capitalism has, of course, always had to negotiate a balance between the model advocating for a strong public sector, fiscal and regulatory intervention, forward planning and a welfare state and the neo-liberal free market, anti-state and anti-regulatory model we have endured for the last thirty years.
In reality this ideological difference masks periodic shifts from one one extreme to the other as cycles of boom and bust override ideological preferences. Both the climate crisis and the Covid pandemic underscore the limitations of all existing capitalist models to adequately account for the real cost of the consumption driven economy.
The real cost has always been borne by the human and non human animal, that is by the ecological community of life forms.
As the pandemic has made clear, even something as unvarying in its constitution as a virus will have varied consequences as it interacts with local economies, social systems and cultures.
This “uneven development” is equally applicable to the spread of capital, which must negotiate local conditions as it expands and contracts, mutates and recalibrates according to the complex of human affordances of which it is a particular expression.
This network of relation extends beyond the economic, the social and the cultural and includes, ultimately, all of the extended complexities of the planetary eco-system. As a species we are dependent on a complex of ecological checks and balances all of which have been progressively undermined by human activity.
At a more fundamental level we are subject to entirely arbitrary events beyond our present understanding and indifferent to our interests.
The ideology of techno-mastery, management and expertise is based on a vision of control over the variable and the contingent. This fallacy is exposed time and again, even within the supposed confines of the social and economic system. Indeed, it is this very act of conceptual enclosure which makes possible the belief in some future state of absolute control over the social/ecological/planetary system.
Paradoxically, this very ideology of control, more often than not, acts as a top-down hindrance to the bottom-up exercise of a plurality of collective and individual responses. It is out of this anarchic mech of knowings and doings that forms of relative control arise as a collective orientation around workable solutions.
In a network of contingencies, in which our own agency forms only one strand in a myriad of becomings, it is this diversity of response which enables the sort of open-ended social, political, administrative and scientific plasticity necessary for our continued existence as a species.
The ideology of mastery, management and control, despite it’s claim to have transcended the particular and the local, is itself enabled on contingent processes and diverse responses. It’s claim is a reworking of the religious impulse on the secular plane, in which knowing has ascended to a level of sufficiency akin to godlike omniscience.
It’s undoing, likewise, will most likely proceed from the ground up, inclusive of the political, ethical and philosophical practices of those who consciously set themselves against the existing state of the situation.
This, of course, excludes the possibility of sheer bad luck and the unfolding of an unexpected disaster, against which our life would be seen to have been bracketed as a moment of contingent grace.
The struggle against Covid could have been our swan song. That possibility is the simple and absolute refutation of the theory and practice (the ideology) of mastery.
I use the term animal, human animal, becoming and the real interchangeably, as free floating placeholders, in the spirit expressed below by Deleuze and Guattari:
“Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing; neither is it corresponding, establishing corresponding relations; neither is it producing, producing a filiation or producing through filiation. Becoming is a verb with a consistency all its own; it does not reduce to, or lead back to, “appearing,” “being,” “equaling,” or “producing.””
This puts the series of terms in some sort of relation with Laruelle’s use of “The Real” or “Man-in-person” and distinguishes it from the forms of empirical knowledge which are taken up into ecological or systems theorising of a strictly scientific nature or into loose scientific/philosophical combinations.