Down to earth

(c) Routledge 2014

(c) Routledge 2014

Cosmology, secularity, worldliness

My new book , International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity, Routledge, 2014 (see here for a synopsis) is coming out in the next couple of weeks. As is the case with most academic publications, it will make its appearance long after I’ve moved into a new area of research, and one that seems, on the surface to be very different. So I wanted to reflect on a question I’ve been asking myself, and trying to explain to colleagues, more frequently as the publication date nears. Simply put, what is the link between this analysis of Western secular cosmology  and the ‘worldly’ security ethics I’m now working on? Or, in other words, how did I get here from there?

IISA is not (directly) about non-humans. It is an analysis of how Western secular notions of life and death shape practices of international intervention, and how this contributes to the production of the category of ‘humanity’. But it does focus on the links between cosmology, ontology and ethics , the perceived border between human and inhuman, and the dangers of treating the universe as a dull, ‘disenchanted’ object. This has a number of implications for thinking about a more-than-human universe and conception of security.

First, one of the main features of Western secularity is that it hones human thinking and ethics on the mundane  (or worldly) – that is, the immanent realm, or the concrete, ontic sphere experienced by humans. As IISA argues, Western secular beliefs are not entirely devoid of transcendence, but they entail a limited concept of transcendence which takes place on earth. For example, instead of positing life after death on a higher plane, Western secular beliefs tend to focus on providing a lasting legacy of lives, or forms of life, in ‘this world’ (that is, in human time, space and social structures). This focus on the immanent, and on the various forms of semi-transcendence within it led me to move away from transcendental and metaphysical notions of harm, and towards the worldly  approach.

Second, IISA is a study of cosmology – not in the scientific sense, which deals with the physical aspects of the universe, but rather in the anthropological sense, which focuses on human beliefs about how the universe is ordered. Indeed, one of the central arguments of the book is that Western secular cosmology frames humans as the highest beings in a hierarchy, and simultaneously places the full responsibility for maintaining their status into human hands. It explores how humans carve out the ‘category of the human’ within what appears to be a totally immanent, human-dominated universe. Thinking about cosmology in this way helps to explain the sources of extremely anthropocentric ethical models – for instance, those of liberal cosmopolitanism and human security – which treat human well-being as the only possible bottom line, and exclude everything else in the universe from ethical consideration. Recognizing this is, I think, crucial to developing notions of harm that are not limited by the boundaries of the human (as they are perceived at a given historical juncture).

Third, and in a related sense, writing IISA made me think a great deal more critically about the idea of agency, in particular agency exercised on a large scale. I argue that ‘intervention’  – whether in the form of military action or the gradual processes of peace-building – is a distinct conception of agency. It’s also one that humans have usurped from somewhere else. Specifically, I argue that the traditional Judeo-Christian image of ‘divine agency’ has been transferred, at least within Western secular belief, into human hands. This means that humans are now held responsible for defining the parameters of humanity, responding to the ‘evils’ that beset it, shoring up its boundaries and deciding on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ forms of human  life and death. Placing these beliefs within the context of a specific and contingent cosmology (Western secularity) helps to denaturalize them, and to recognize them as one account among many possible ones. This led me to think much more carefully about alternative forms of causality, including new materialist, object-oriented and other more-than- human analyses of causation and force in the universe.

Fourth, IISA explores how the category of ‘humanity’ has been carved out and defended largely by drawing a sharp, qualitative distinction between humans and the rest of the universe. Many eminent philosophers (including Arendt and Agamben) have given convincing accounts of how humans distinguish themselves from other kinds of beings – for instance, by positing criteria for humanity or disavowing ‘animal-like’ traits. What I wanted to know was why they do this, and the conditions that make it seem possible to do this. So, I decided to look more closely at the different ways in which dehumanization can happen. Ultimately, I argue that it is based on the belief in (or one analogous to),  ‘disenchantment’ : the stripping of intrinsic meaning from the nonhuman universe.  Moreover, without an external (that is, a divine) guarantor, to the Western secular mind it looks as if humans are entirely responsible for creating and maintaining the category of humanity. This makes it seem necessary for humans to distinguish themselves against other beings, and a belief in disenchantment makes it appear possible to do so. This, I argue, is how dehumanization happens: because we believe that it can, and because we stake our humanity on our ability to enact it.  IISA focuses mostly on how this process affects humans, but of course it also has important implications for everything excluded from the category of the human. Indeed, if dehumanization involves the disenchantment of humanity, then disenchantment as a process involves the dehumanization of the entire universe except for those beings deemed to be ‘fully human’.

Fifth, one of the major tenets of Western secularity is the idea that humans are ‘alone in the universe’. This is quite a scary thought when we think about the kinds of challenges  or ‘global catastrophic risks’ with which we, and our world(s) are faced.  At the risk of massive over-generalization, many transcendent systems of belief offer some sort of recourse in the face of such harms.  Perhaps one or more deities might intervene to protect humans, or total meaninglessness might be avoided if there is a divine plan. Or, alternatively, the promise of a ‘higher’ plane of being, or perhaps an afterlife, might take the edge off the horror of total annihilation. But in most Western secular belief systems, it is entirely up to humans to confront and respond to these threats, using only their powers of cognition, rationality, imagination, affect, agency, and so on. This raises a difficult question: what kinds of options does a person living in a Western secular framework have for confronting the enormity of these threats and harms? She could go it alone, even if this means accepting that the universe is meaningless, and that all of our attempts to project meaning onto it are doomed. Or she could adopt a transcendent framework that might help us to cope with our horror and might even guarantee our place in the universe. Alternatively, she could reject the notion of disenchantment and try to find meaning, beauty, attachment and other forms of value in planet that is frightening, volatile, indifferent to our well-being and potentially facing catastrophic transformations. This third option is the one I’m currently pondering.

So, thinking about Western secularity is a great starting point for exploring the more-than-human aspects of politics, security, ethics and ontology. In fact, I would argue that it’s no coincidence that many of the authors working in this area are rooted in Western secular lines of thought and institutional settings.  Indeed, my goal is not to denigrate Western secularity, which deserves as much respect as any other belief system. Nor do I want to valorize it, or to reproduce its deeply problematic dichotomies and hierarchies. Instead, I want to think about the various possibilities within Western secular forms of thinking, in conjunction with insights from other cosmologies and Western secularity’s less dominant variants. In short, I think that paying attention to cosmology is crucial for thinking about how we can live well in the face of an unknowable universe and ‘unthinkable’ threats.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: