Tag Archives: new materialism

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.


A world of harm

ImageA few words on my new article, Only human? a worldly approach to security‘, Security Dialogue, Vol. 45, 1, pp. 5-21.

It’s hard to get a handle on harm. Almost any act of harm we can think of  – from full-scale wars to the gradual erosion of ecosystems – impacts on multiple beings and forms of being. This means that harm is always worse than we think it is, and perhaps more complex than we can ever grasp. But my new article argues that this is no excuse for ignoring the depth and multiplicity of harm – or for not trying to grasp it.  International relations, and the field of security, are largely pragmatic, operating in a context of limited resources, competing demands and entrenched interests. So they tend to respond to harms by simplifying them and making them actionable within this context. Usually, this means focusing on just one (or at most a few) subjects: humans, or states, or occasionally objects such as the artefacts designated as ‘heritage’ and protected under international law. Even highly critical and generous conceptions of harm such as those of Andrew Linklater, usually draw the boundary line around humans or the animals with which they identify.

But if we really want to get a handle on what harm is and what it does, we need to keep two things in mind. First, harm happens to multiple beings. Second, these beings cannot be treated separately or simply added up. Rather, the beings harmed are inter-twined and co-constitute each other, so what is harmed is not a single being or a group thereof, but a whole, unique world. So, if we want to respond ethically and practically to harm, we need to see worlds and the conditions of worldliness as what Rob Walker calls the ‘subject of security’. “Only Human” is my first stab at addressing this problem. I argue that we should understand harms not in terms of human subjects (however broadly construed), but rather in terms of complex, co-constituted worlds. Then I explore a series of approaches (largely from philosophy and applied ethics) to dealing with harm beyond the human.

First, I ask whether we need to ditch anthropocentrism entirely in order to understand harm. Drawing on weak anthropocentric ethics, I argue that there it’s not possible fully to escape an anthropocentric perspective. But there is nothing wrong with a perspective that starts from the human, as long is it is not one that instrumentalizes all other beings to human needs. But I also argue that we need to rethink humans as part of worlds – that is, as beings that co-constitute and are co-constituted by, a range of other beings.

Second, I explore the ‘expanding circle’ approach to ethics that has been popularized by Peter Singer, Paola Cavalieri and many other key thinkers in the area of animal studies. But I also discuss arguments to protect artifacts and made objects on the basis that they help to make us human, put forward by authors such as Hannah Arendt, Elaine Scarry and, more recently, Martin Coward. This approach allows for some other beings to be protected within existing laws and norms of security. But it also means that myriad other beings are excluded, and that harm is treated as an aggregate, rather than the property of a whole. So this approach can’t help us to understand harms to worlds, either on an ontological or an ethical level.

Third, I discuss the more recent contributions of ‘new materialism’ (especially the work of William Connolly and Jane Bennett). This includes the notions that all material beings participate in be(com)ing, and that humans should cultivate responsiveness to the quasi-agential powers of other beings. New materialism, I argue, offers a powerful ontological challenge to existing practices and norms of security by forcing us to look more carefully at causality and to reconsider the inertness of the ‘stuff’ of security (and of being). But it doesn’t expand enough on what kind of ethics this shift might entail, which makes it hard to think about security ethics – that is, about what we harm and what we should protect.

Taking all of this into account, the article reconciles aspects of all three approaches. It goes on to show that there is no need to throw out categorical thinking entirely in order to comprehend harms to worlds, and that there is no inherent inconsistency between weak anthropocentrism and new materialism or ‘expanding circle’ approaches. Rather, I argue that a ‘worldly’ approach to security involves transforming existing concepts of harm to reflect the ontological conditions of worldliness. This approach offers a new concept – ‘mundicide’- to capture harm through this lens. Mundicide is not intended to be a legal category, but rather a phenomenological concept to help us think harm to worlds and worldliness.  Instead of going into detail here, I’ll let interested readers see how I approached this – and whether or not they think I’ve succeeded.

An important caveat: I’m still convinced that it’s impossible to grasp harm in its full enormity, whatever its scale. And it’s definitely beyond the capacity of humans to prevent or respond adequately to all forms of harm.  But I think that we can still make more of our (limited) human perspective and capacities to gain a better sense of what harm entails and how we might respond to it. In fact, I think that our current understandings of harm can be expanded massively, and in multiple directions – for instance, through awareness of other forms of being, of multiple timescales, of multiple physical scales and properties, and so on.  And I think that discussions of security (international or otherwise) are an important place to do this. Let me know what you think!

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