Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
One could be easily forgiven for thinking that the present is a troubling time to be human.
The specter of catastrophic climate change looms larger by the week, rapidly appearing technological advances threaten to destabilize societies that already look quite unstable, while individuals come to feel ever more entangled with their various techno-gizmos. These questions – of what it means to be human in the human-built world – represent a lot to think about. Such issues are undergoing something of a new heyday thanks to the current discussions of the academic topic du jour “the Anthropocene.” Though many individuals seem to be fiercely committed to not thinking about these troubling things. Yet it can be useful to take a step back and to recognize that, to a certain extent, we have been here before. The anxieties – hopeful and fearful – regarding what it means to be human in a world transformed by humans is a topic that has troubled historians, philosophers and activists for many years. And by revisiting past analyses it becomes possible to draw up a sort of typology of such hypotheses regarding human reconfiguration.
What follows is a – lengthy! – paper that wrestles with the above mentioned questions. In trying to map out four distinct examples of variously opposed visions of the human in the human-built world it draws heavily on the thinking of Donna Haraway, Günther Anders, Ernst Jünger, and Chellis Glendinning. It was written in fulfillment of the MA graduate thesis requirements for the Media, Culture and Communication Department at New York University in the Spring of 2016. It is being posted here, because it is always a rather odd thing to spend months researching and writing for the finished product to wind up being read by only a couple of people – and thus it is being posted here so that it can (perhaps) be read by a couple more people. This thesis is being actively re-worked and altered in hopes of turning it into a publishable article/chapter or several conference presentations. Yet it is being posted in the present form in the hopes that the typology it sets out may prove useful as a framework not just for thinking about the past, but for thinking about the future as well as the present.
As this is a rather long paper, what follows is only the introductory section – but the entire thesis can be read and/or downloaded as a pdf.
“We are living in times of the beginning of mankind, and it cannot be completely ruled out that this incipient mankind might be the beginning of the end of mankind. Perhaps no age has ever seen the end of the world looming so dangerously before its eyes as our does.” – Gustav Landauer, 1911[i]
The history of the planet Earth has involved the eruption of massive volcanoes, the drifting of continental plates, the cataclysmic impact of asteroids, the rise and fall of dominant species, and more other types of upheaval than can be cleanly summarized in an opening sentence. All of which is to say: the geological epochs into which the planet’s history are delineated are filled with their tumult, catastrophes, extinctions, and the changes that seismic shifts – of the literal and metaphorical kind – bring in their wake. Amongst the most significant of these events, at least from an anthropocentric perspective, is surely the bolide that is credited with creating the Chicxulub crater and bringing an end to the Age of Reptiles. After all, it is the move from the Mesozoic Era to the Cenozoic Era that heralds the onset of the Age of Mammals an age that eventually resulted in a species that would come up with terms like “Mesozoic,” “Cenozoic,” “bolide,” and of course “extinction.” These “zoic” eras are themselves made up of “cenes” and though the Cenozic has passed through many of them eventually it came to pass that some members of the species bestowing the names saw fit to name a period after themselves: the Anthropocene.
Though a grim irony lurks at the heart of the Anthropocene, for it may be that the period that designates that humans have become a geological force is also a period in which the future of humanity is less than certain.
Coined by the scientists Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer (Crutzen and Stoermer, 2000) the term Anthropocene denotes a period beginning at a non-specific point in the latter part of the 18th century. A moment roughly coinciding with the expansion of industrialization, as it is from this period that glacial ice cores “show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentration of several ‘green house gases’, in particular CO2 and Ch4.”[ii] The Anthropocene represents a variety of impacts related to human activity: the human driven rise in the extinction rate, the creation of the ozone hole in the Antarctic, and the despoiling of the oceans.[iii] In Crutzen and Stoermer’s estimation, unless there is some unforeseen calamity (like an asteroid), the effects that humanity has had on the planet will continue leaving a dangerous mark for years numbering in the millions[iv] – for even if humanity should go the way of the dinosaur and the dodo the impacts of humans upon the planet are not going anywhere. The Anthropocene is not a particularly celebratory term, as the list of human wrought planetary dangers with which Crutzen and Stoermer associate it suggests. Indeed, in presenting the concept in the journal Nature (Crutzen, 2000) the fact that, thus far, a great calamity has not occurred is presented as something that has happened “more by luck than by wisdom.”[v] Thus, once more, it is clear that there is a certain irony present in the term Anthropocene – it seems that the human built world is one wherein the continued existence of humans, and contemporary civilization, is made precarious. An instability that can be easily understood when one considers that the term emerged at a historical moment in which human impacts on the planet, as reified by climate change, indicate that the “collapse of modern, globalized society under uncontrollable environmental change is one possible outcome”[vi] of the Anthropocene. And while doom saying is a recurring feature throughout human history, including in regards to the environment (Killingsworth and Palmer, 1996), the Anthropocene does not couch these predictions in religious rhetoric, but in a cold scientific analysis that states that the future is looking worryingly uncertain.
The concept of the Anthropocene is not without its critics. And while there is a long history of climate change denial (Oreskes and Conway, 2010), some of the criticism of the Anthropocene emphasizes that humans have been making a dramatic impact on the planet long before the onset of industrialization (Ruddiman, 2013). Beyond the questions of exactly when the Anthropocene began (or the utility of the concept) the term has also been seized upon as a convenient way for arguing that new action is required in the present period – with many of these calls occurring once the term had filtered out from the scientific community and into the broader discourse. These range from calls for a revitalized democratic politics (Purdy, 2015), to arguments for the need to revitalize critical theory in response (Wark, 2015), to calls to recognize the ways humans are entangled with the planet (Parikka, 2015), to analyses of what a concept like freedom means in such a period (Stoner and Melathopoulos, 2015) to questions of who is meant by the “anthro” in Anthropocene (Haraway, 2015), as well as ruminations on what will survive in the ruins (Tsing, 2015). Indeed, the term Anthropocene has given rise to a variety of derivatives, including: the Capitlocene, the Pantationocene, the Chthulucene,[vii] the Misanthropcene,[viii] and the Anthrobscene,[ix] While these various responses to the Anthropocene all mobilize the term in different ways they share a certain sense that the present moment, the now, is a vital time to act. Granted, at least in the estimate of some theorists, “now” may already be too late (Oreskes and Conway, 2014).
In an article about the Anthropocene written several years after one of its authors helped coin the term (Steffen, et al. 2007), the Anthropocene is broken down into several segments: Stage One denoting the “industrial era” from roughly “1800-1945,” Stage Two “the great acceleration” from “1945-ca. 2015,” and the present Stage Three beginning in 2015 “stewards of the Earth System?”[x] Perhaps the most significant aspect of the name of Stage Three is the presence of the question mark. For what that humble piece of punctuation suggests is that the Anthropocene is a sort of anxious “sociotechnical imaginary.” Sheila Jasanoff defines a “sociotechnical imaginaries” as “collectively held, institutionally stabilized, and publicly performed visions of desirable futures, animated by shared understandings of forms of social life and social order attainable through, and supportive of advances in science and technology.”[xi] What the Anthropocene represents is an odd future existing simultaneously with a hopeful sense that perhaps a desirable future can be eked out if only the “anthros” can take action. The Anthropocene is not synonymous with the apocalypse, and it is not inevitable that it will result in catastrophic results. In the act of naming the problem there is a hope that this call to awareness and responsibility might prevent the worst from occurring.
Many of these calls to action, in the Anthropocene, are framed around the issues of climate change, but as Jebediah Purdy writes this is not without reason, for climate change is “emblematic of the Anthropocene: it is both a driver and a symbol of a thoroughly transformed world.”[xii] And such sentiments, to revisit Jasanoff’s definition, are “publicly performed” beyond the pages of academic texts – animating bestsellers (Klein, 2014) and resulting in massive protests that fill the streets of major cities. The Anthropocene is the world in which humans now live, it is the imaginary shaping much current discourse, but it is a world that bears the peculiar shape of human influence. It is as Hannah Arendt noted, several decades before the term Anthropocene was first used, “today we have begun to create, as it were, that is, to unchain natural processes of our own which would never have happened without us, and instead of carefully surrounding the human artifice with defenses against nature’s elementary forces, keeping them as far as possible outside the man-made world, we have channeled these forces, along with their elementary power, into the world itself.”[xiii]
To consider the term Anthropocene is to be confronted first and foremost by the human – the “anthro.” And yet, in reading the texts in which Crutzen (and others) propose the term, and expand its definition, one is quickly confronted with the prominent role that technology plays in the creation of the Anthropocene. In “The Geology of Mankind” Crutzen places the technological connection in his initial paragraph, noting that even though the date picked to mark the onset of the Anthropocene is linked to deposits in polar ice, “this date also happens to coincide with James Watt’s design of the steam engine in 1784.”[xiv] Such technological synchronicities are drawn out in greater detail in the article “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” wherein the move from early industrial civilizations into “the great acceleration” revolves around the spread and increased usage of energy intensive technological systems.[xv] In that article technology is presented as Janus faced, it has been integral to the damages wrought during the early parts of the Anthropocene but now, in stage three, “technology must play a strong role in reducing the pressure on the Earth System” and yet “improved technology…may not be enough on its own.”[xvi] It is the type of observation reminiscent of Melvin Kranzberg’s “first law of the history of technology” that “technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”[xvii] This tension animates much of the writing about the Anthropocene – unthinking use of technology may have helped get humanity into its present mess, but it is a topic of active debate as to what types of technology can help humanity moving forward, even as it some emphasize that the machines themselves are not the culprits but the ways in which they have been developed and used by humans. And at the fringes of this discourse some groups call for even greater technological “acceleration”[xviii] whilst at the other extreme others call for a return to a neo-pastoral way of life.[xix] Jasanoff argues that sociotechnical imaginaries provide a way to “engage directly with the ways in which people’s hopes and desires for the future—their sense of self and their passion for how things ought to be—get bound up with the hard stuff of past achievements”[xx] and one sees this in the mix of mournful and hopeful stances that various thinkers and groups take towards the challenge of the Anthropocene. What has become clear, as Rosalind Williams writes, is that “instead of being a stage for history, the world has become part of the historical drama. Even when the drama has brought what is usually called progress, it has also inevitably brought loss.”[xxi] Or, to put it in the even starker terms of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway “lately science has shown us that contemporary industrial civilization is not sustainable.”[xxii]
And yet, have we not been here before?
“You should not begin your day with the illusion that what surrounds you is a stable world”[xxiii] – though it may seem that they easily could, those words do not in fact come from a recent text discussing climate change or the Anthropocene. Instead they are from Günther Anders “Commandments in the Atomic Age,” and though their date of publication syncs rather well with the onset of “the great acceleration” they are cited not to demonstrate the onset of that stage, but to emphasize that the anxieties being presently expressed in Stage Three of the Anthropocene are not new to the present era. The era of industrialization, pinned as the start of the Anthropocene, coincides with the shift between what Lewis Mumford called the “paleotechnic” and “neotechnic” eras, but Mumford fervently illustrated that the shift of technological eras did not mean that human wisdom and ethics matured along with their technological capabilities – for “the new machines followed, not their own pattern, but the pattern laid down by previous economic and technical structures.”[xxiv] And to this list of structures could also be added the terms “colonial,” “imperialistic” and “gender” as advances in the sciences and technology have been seized upon as a sort of steely proof superiority of one culture over another and of proof of power within a culture (Adas, 2014, Adas, 2006, Harding 1986, Wajcman 1991). True, the particular concerns as related specifically to climate change may be of a more recent vintage but the fear that human’s use of technology may jeopardize “industrial civilization” and life broadly construed goes back nearly to the onset of the Anthropocene (Marx 2000, Thompson 1966, Williams, 2014) – granted associating utopian longings with technology also has a sturdy lineage (Tresch 2012). This is not simply a matter of the fear that technology has slipped from the control of humans (Winner, 1989), but of a deeper sentiment that – perhaps – catastrophe is the direction in which technology has been pointing humanity for some time (Kroker, 2004).
Such anxieties are reflective of a deep, and historically stubborn, fear that humans have built a world for which they are unfit – in which they gradually make themselves obsolete (Anders, 2014). This worry has been a recurring theme not so much in the history of technology, but in terms of the history of reactions to technology as demonstrated by theorists, artists and activists. It should be noted that this worry, and the forms it takes, have hardly been monolithic though they are often united by a sense that “once underway, the technological reconstruction of the world tends to continue.”[xxv] A recurring way in which this anxiety has manifested itself is through a focus on the human being, as such, while raising the question of what the human being needs to become in order to survive in the new period. The “plain old” human often appears as outmoded, as if the species has not been able to keep up evolutionarily with the speed of technological change. And though attempts to re-imagine and reconfigure the human are common, these visions are far from monolithic. Writing in the aftermath of World War One and within earshot of the early rumblings of the coming storm (1931), Walter Benjamin somewhat playfully deployed a range of versions of the human in his essay “Karl Kraus”[xxvi]. In the essay Benjamin writes of the “Allmensch” (cosmic man), invokes the Nietzschean “Ubermensch” (superman) and ends with a discussion of the “Unmensch” (monster). Of the “unmensch” Benjamin writes that this “monster stands among us as the messenger of a more real humanism. He is the conqueror of the empty phrase. He feels solidarity not with the slender pine but with the plane that devours it, not with the precious ore but with the blast furnace that purifies it…not a new man—a monster, a new angel.”[xxvii] The “unmensch” is the “mensch” (human) for the new era – a reconfigured “new angel” that by feeling “solidarity” with “the blast furnace” demonstrates that it is at home in the technologically built world.
This paper seeks to expand upon the typology that Benjamin develops in Karl Kraus – it treats Benjamin’s thinking on the move from mensch to unmensch as an attempt to theorize what humans need to do to survive in a world that has been reconfigured by humanity’s deployment of increasingly powerful technologies. Thus, this paper aims to construct a rubric by which to analyze and assess visions of the human, one that does not see such visions in a vacuum but attempts to think of them in a dialectical relationship with other competing visions of the human.
In building this framework this paper places the notion of the mensch (the human) at the center and maps the other terms around it (see figure above) – on the x axis it places time with the past vision of humanity being the urmensch (primitive humanity) and with the future vision of humanity being Benjamin’s unmensch (monster). In addition to a temporal aspect this graph considers that which is portrayed as above and below the human,this could be considered as a sort of evolution and de-evolution – above the human appears the superior ubermensch (the super human) while below the human appears the inferior untermensch (the subhuman). It is the hope of this paper that this framework will act as a useful theoretical tool for considering (past and present) attempts to imagine (or actively reconstruct) humans in the human built world – and it is meant to function as a way of assessing competing visions of human life in the Anthropocene. While this method may place the various terms on axes and place the “human” at the center it does not attempt to assign ethical value to these permutations and new incarnations of humanity – it instead aims to illustrate the ways in which imaginaries and ideologies about the reconfigured human are themselves ideological tangles. Thus, for example, an ideology like that manifested in anarcho-primitivism may appear somewhere in the lower left quadrant of the map – existing in relation to the urmensch and the untermensch; while the singularity fantasy of humans becoming one with computers may appear somewhere in the upper right quadrant between ubermensch and unmensch. Thus each section on the graph provides a space in which to fit various ideas that can be mapped based on four groups: Past, Superior; Future, Superior; Past, Inferior; Future, Inferior. In this case the element from the x axis is not specifically linked to a date on a timeline but to the sense of direction – is humanity moving forward or backwards? Granted, moving backwards needs not be a sign of regression. As the “Past, Superior” quadrant allows for a mapping of ideologies that see a return to an earlier state as being a mark of superiority. The y axis, of superiority and inferiority, acts in relation to the central point of the human and emphasizes the question of whether or not a given viewpoint sees the version of the human it puts forth as one that is better or worse than the previous notion of the human figure. The ambition, to restate it, is for this framework to function as a useful tool for thinking about visions of a technologically reconfigured humanity – that functions by grounding these visions within the history and philosophy of technology and by demonstrating that each of these new visions has a mirrored version in odd ways across the various axes. While it is true that placing the human at the center point may seem to be anthropocentric, the placing of various philosophies in distant points hopefully evokes deliberate attempts to pull away from such a human centric vision. And yet in the human built world it is important not to lose sight of the human. If for no other reason than for the need to maintain the human as a point of reference.
To illustrate the functioning of this framework this paper will discuss, albeit in abridged form, some of the manifestations at these poles. This is not an attempt to exhaust all of the attempts to imagine humanity in relationship to its technology – but provides examples to begin building a rough constellation of sorts. Instead of looking at ideas that would be mapped into the various quadrants, this paper aims to look at ideas that would best be mapped directly onto one of the axes. In considering the ubermensch this paper will examine the work of Ernst Jünger – in particular drawing upon the figure of the technologically enhanced worker/soldier that he developed in texts such as On Pain and The Worker. Moving from superior to the human the paper will then reorient to considering a view of those rendered inferior to the human by looking at the thought of Günther Anders in whose estimation humanity’s construction of technological systems had resulted in a world in which humanity had made itself obsolete. Turning from the evolutionary axis to the temporal one this paper will turn its attention to the past (or the nostalgia for the past) by reading Chellis Glendinnig’s “Notes Towards a Neo-Luddite Manifesto,” and other texts related to the 1990’s Neo-Luddite movement, to draw out the ways in which some orient their vision of the future by relying upon a returning to the human past. Speeding along the temporal axis the paper will consider the figure of the cyborg/post-human as it has been theorized by figures including Donna Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles and Rosi Braidotti – a technologically enhanced human for the technologically altered world. Finally this paper will conclude by turning its attention, with the aid of Hannah Arendt, and Erich Fromm, back to the question of the human. These sociotechnical imaginaries occupy various places on the continuum between hope and despair, and this framework is developed out of a similar sentiment, though it aims to keep from forgetting Arendt’s comment that “Progress and Doom are two sides of the same medal…both are articles of superstition, not of faith.”[xxviii]
Though this paper provides a tool for mapping sociotechnical imaginaries, it does not claim to definitively illustrate where humans are going nor does it claim to definitively demonstrate where humans have been. Instead it is best to view the framework as a compass – a tool for orienting oneself wherever that person may find they are standing. Be it amongst the gray ruins of collapsing civilizations or amongst its VR Technicolor heights.
(full bibliography can be found in the full/pdf version)
[i] Landauer, Gustav. For Socialism. Candor: Telos Press, 1978. pgs. 112-113.
[ii] Crutzen, Paul J. and Stoermer, Eugene F. “The “Anthropocene”” in IGBP Newsletter. 2000 pg. 17.
[iii] ibid. 17.
[iv] ibid. 18.
[v] Crutzen, Paul J. “Geology of Mankind” in Nature 2002. pg. 23
[vi] Steffen, Will, Crutzen Paul J., and McNeill, John R. “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?” in Ambio 2007. pg. 619.
[vii] Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities. VOl. 6, 2015: 159-165.
[viii] Clover, Joshua and Spahr, Julianna. #misanthropocene: 24 Theses. Oakland: Commune Editions, 2014. https://communeeditions.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/misanthropocene_web_v2_final.pdf
[ix] Parikka, Jussi. The Anthrobscene. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 2014. pg. 1.
[x] Steffen, et al. 616-620.
[xi] Jasanoff, Sheila. “Future Imperfect: Science, Technology, and the Imaginations of Modernity” in Jasanoff, Sheila and Kim, Sang-Hyun. Dreamscapes of Modernity: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and the Fabrication of Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. pg. 4
[xii] Purdy, Jebediah. After Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. pg. 249.
[xiii] Arendt, Hannah. The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. 148-149.
[xiv] Crutzen. “Geolog of Mankind.” pg. 23.
[xv] Steffen, et al. pg. 617-618.
[xvi] Steffen, et al. pg. 619.
[xvii] Kranzberg, Melvin. “Technology and History: ‘Kranzberg’s Laws’” in Technology and Culture v. 27, no. 3 (July 1986) 544-560.
[xviii] Williams, Alex and Srnicek, Nick “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” Mackay, Robin and Avanessian, Armen. #Accelerate#: The Accelerationist Reader. Falmouth: Urbanomic, 2014
[xix] Hine, Dougald and Kingsnorth, Paul. Uncivilization: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. London: The Dark Mountain Project, 2013.
[xx] Jasanoff. 22.
[xxi] Williams, Rosalind. The Triumph of Human Empire. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014. pg. 335.
[xxii] Oresekes, Naomi and Conway, Erik. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2010. pg. 237.
[xxiii] Anders, Günther. “Commandments in the Atomic Age,” in Burning Conscience. New York: Monthly Revie Press, 1961. pg. 11.
[xxiv] Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. pg. 236.
[xxv] Winner, Langdon. Autonomous Technics. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1989. pg. 208.
[xxvi] Benjamin, Walter. “Karl Kraus.” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings – Volume 2, Part 2, 1931-134. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. pg. 433-458.
[xxvii] Benjamin. “Karl Kraus.” pg. 456/457.
[xxviii] Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: A Harvest Book/Harcourt Inc., 1976. pg. vi.