Did you eat the stone?

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A vending machine (allegedly) sells “cures for anthropocentrism”. A strangely familiar entity in an uncivilized context. To obtain the cure you must sacrifice the shiny capsule you just received, breaking it open to reveal a stone that you (allegedly) can eat. The stone is accompanied by a short message, claiming that when you eat this stone, you will (allegedly) never look at stones the same way again. Claiming that stones are not dead, and that you should think about what they want. Thinking about the world differently changes the world. Eating the stone, you become the stone - existence/consciousness is not something exceptionally human.

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I found this vending machine in a circle of stones. It gave me a message and a stone to eat. Finding the machine initiated a shift in my metaphysical world: How do stones exist? Eating the stone made me view stones differently: as if they are alive.

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Underneath the problems of the Anthropocene is a view that humankind has the right to manipulate (create, destroy, alter) other species and our surroundings. This view is called Anthropocentrism - placing the human in the center and on top, the idea that humans have a unique, significant, and exceptional position on the planet. It is the idea that humans are more real than non-humans, because we can think. But thinking is not the only access mode into the world, and it is not necessarily the best access mode either.

It is impossible to show that humans are acting and non-humans are just behaving. This means that they might be just as rich in worlds. Which non-humans do we grant worlds? Can we even include stones?

A move away from human exceptionalism to establish a space of awareness, meaning and solidarity with the non-human. Radically redefining what we allow to exist.

Stones are not not alive.

 

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WHY?

Anthropocene - the human epoch

Sometime relatively recently ago, perhaps a few decades, perhaps a few centuries, planet Earth (i.e. all of This), entered a new epoch - and they called it, the Anthropocene.1–5

Big, planetary-scale, systems of balance were disrupted - the carbon dioxide cycle, the nitrogen & phosphorus cycle, ocean acidification, etc. This curtailed death and suffering, destruction and devastation on a scale not seen for millions and millions of years, if ever, in the history of the planet.

The cause, the error in the program, the bug, was (surprisingly) difficult to pin down. Like a wicked hydra, the Problem (capital p), seemed to entangle many different systems and structures and institutions and corporations and cultures and algorithms. But undeniably, all arrows pointed to the shadow of a single species - the Anthropos.

So they named the epoch after themselves, perhaps as a way to blame all of them (rather than a few), perhaps as a way to tell themselves that they were righteous masters of their (dispossessed) spaceship, perhaps as a realization that it was all their fault, perhaps as an indication that somewhere in the direction of the anthropos, the program run awry, but we are not sure how we could let it happen.

Could it be that the reason the Problem escaped all political solutions was because it lie at a deeper level?

Anthropocentrism

Underneath the Problem of the Anthropocene is a view that humankind has the right to manipulate (create, destroy, alter) other species and our surroundings. This view is called Anthropocentrism - placing the human in the center and on top. Anthropocentrism is the idea that humans have a unique, significant, and exceptional position on the planet. It is the idea that humans are more real than non-humans, because we can think. But thinking is not the only access mode into the world, and as we shall see, it is not necessarily the best access mode either.

The first place we look for cracks in this throne is trying to distinguish the human from the non-human. Where does “the environment” end and humankind begin? The human body for example is a symbiotic marriage between the cells that carry “your” DNA and the numerous bacteria that inhabit your gut. Since one cannot survive without the other, it is hard to determine who is the host and who is the parasite. 30% of human milk is not digestible by the baby, instead, these indigestible carbohydrates serve as a prebiotics, being “selectively fermented by desirable gut flora”.6 Symbiosis stems from the greek “sumbioun” - live together. The living of humankind is something created together with our surrounding. As we interact with other beings and objects, it is as if we overlap and flow into each other. Why is it that when multiple humans spend time together their menstrual cycles synchronize? The boundary of the human body is open; we are permeable and porous, as we share our worlds with others.

This idea of how we value humankind in relation to the non-human can also be related to the idea that different humans have different value, also known as racism, sexism, ableism, etc. The Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss describes a study of a group of indigenous villagers where the people were asked to draw a schematic image of how their village was structured. The images drawn by the upper-class turned out systematically different than the images from the lower-class. The privileged people viewed their society organized as multiple concentric circles, with themselves as the center of the village, and the rest living in the outer rings of town. The view of lower-class people was radically different, with a circle that was split in half, showing the privileged people on one side and the unprivileged on the other side.7

We transfer this to the topology of anthropocentrism, putting humans as the concentric core of the world, with human like animals further out (apes, dogs, pigs), distant relatives further away (mice, fishes, insects), plants further still, and bacteria and fungi at the outskirts. Non-sentient objects usually doesn’t even make it into the drawing, a stone is just the background upon which the circles of Life (capital L) are drawn. Seen from the stone’s perspective, this topology might be radically different. As the contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton shows in his work “Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People”, the task at hand is to transition from this perspective to one where the worlds of all beings are considered equally real, and thereby equally valuable. Replacing anthropocentrism with a solidarity with the non-human. 8

To find a space where we can establish this solidarity, we must deconstruct reality even further, delving into the world of metaphysics; the field of philosophy that attempts to answer the two fundamental questions: 

Who am I? What is this?

 
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Technic & Magic

The philosopher Federico Campagna describes in his book “Technic and Magic: The Reconstruction of Reality”, our current metaphysical world, called Technic, as one built on absolute language - only that which can be described exists. It is built on measurability - only that which can be measured has value. It is built around the principle of technology, reducing all things and beings to instrumentality, with purpose created only in potential. Technics world orders everything into a system, reduces every object to a position, a point on a scale. But it never succeeds in avoiding the very kernel of existence, life, consciousness - it only goes so far as to reduce it to a “something”, all while claiming it is of little importance.9

Campagna constructs a new reality, which he calls Magic, that takes this “something”, existence, the ineffable as life, and puts it front and center, as the very base of reality. Central in this new world is the realization of a hidden layer inside/outside/beside all objects, transcending their linguistic dimension, that we can never access. And that this ineffable kernel is the same in all things, all beings, all persons - transforming all entities to centers of the world.

Campagna uses the word Magic as the opposite of what is currently in power. He doesn’t mean anything to do with darkness or the exotic, but as an alternative reality system that seems troubling to the current paradigm: “The specular opposite of technic - not it’s shadow”.9

One way to understand how the ineffable creates reality is to see the conscious, or existence, as a light (classically God) and objects/symbols as the transparent glass that constructs the world through which we perceive existence. The glass has different thickness in different places, with less light shining through, containing less meaning and existence. As all beings and objects and symbols are traversed by an axis connecting the ineffable with the linguistic, we can find a solidarity in the unity with all beings, no matter the form that they take. A unity in multiplicity (a term Campagna uses from the 17th century islamic philosopher Mulla Sadra)9

Non-Human Worlds

As we have now dissolved the Anthropocene all the way down to Campagna’s description of the ineffable as life, we can attempt to coagulate the worlds of Non-Humans as well.

The concept of worlds is a term used by the 20th century philosopher Martin Heidegger. To him, Humans are the only beings that are full in worlds: world is a process, worlding, and humans are the worlding beings. Heidegger says that “animals” are “poor in world” (Weltarm) and that inanimate beings such as stones have no world at all.8

Returning to Timothy Morton’s ideas of solidarity with the non-human, we see that all worlds are poor:

Because world is inherently lacking, inherently ragged and faulty. World is perforated. There are not perfect, smoothly functioning worlds, and poor people’s versions. To have a world intrinsically is to be Weltarm.[...] This is also marvelous in another way: if there is no such thing as a full world, there is no such thing as no world at all. So even waterfalls [or stones] have worlds! World is cheap enough for everything to have it. In this reality, there is not (full) world or no world at all; there is a range of overlapping worlds. 8

This does not mean upgrading all beings and inviting them to share the anthropocentric throne, it means allowing all beings to have worlds and to notice that our perforated worlds can overlap. Morton explains that they can be shared to say 20%, or 60%, it’s not a question of all or nothing. The reason that worlds are a process, worlding, is because they emerge as a property of a doing:

You cook, go to the shops, kiss your boyfriend, start a reading group, break your toe and hobble to the hospital, quit your job, go on a march. That’s your world.8

When Morton describes worlds as a results of doing, they are a matter of more or less, rather than full or poor or not-existing. Sometimes worlds are the result of very complex algorithms of doing, such as a stone being hurdled at a police officer for example.

But how do we translate this to an understanding of the world of a stone? What worlding process do they have? What are they doing?

 
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World of a stone

Initially this seems problematic, because, as Morton describes, what we expect stones to do is to stay absolutely still and do nothing. They are supposed to be part of Nature (capital N), that background canvas that we paint our foreground lives on. Sometimes they refuse playing their part, they refuse being totally passive and take the upper hand, which we find terribly frightening and call Earthquake. On a geological timescale, stones behave like liquids, coming and going, forming and dispersing, moving, shifting, melting. Stones fail to sit there doing nothing. On an inhumanely small quantum scale, stones do something much worse than moving; they move and not move at the same time. They are not passive because they are not being pushed, they are not active because they are not doing anything to anything else, they just vibrate all by themselves.8 Or consider a stone falling on your car. There are signs warning you that it might happen, but we don’t interpret them as if the stone jumps off the cliff and skips down towards us. Morton says:

We are hampered even from beginning to ascribe intention to stones, the issue that lurks in the background of the notion of agency. We are wary of letting stones do things because we are wary of letting agency be about doing things. 8

At this point, the distinction between life and non-life becomes impossible to maintain. All beings are somewhere in between; we are all undead, at least not not-alive.

When it comes to the question of how it’s like to be a stone: we don’t know. Sometimes when you say that you mean: “That is what I need to say philosophically, but actually, I kinda do know”. But here I mean, we really really don’t know. In the same way as death, it is not within the space of knowledge.

As Morton describes, not knowing induces a sort of paranoia: I do not know whether you or I or this stone is alive, therefore I am paranoid. And as with death, our tool to try to grasp any concept of the ineffable, is mythology and ritual. We are forced into a reverence for the mystery of having no view. All we can do is to attempt to transcend the linguistic and point in the direction of the ineffable.

 
 

Anthropomorphism

Since the world of a stone seems to share relatively little with the world of a human (compared to say another human or a dog), there is a risk that any attempts finding an overlap will feel like it comes out short. An important note here, is that as we extend the Heideggerian concept of world to “non-sentient” beings, we use it in a different sense than the Jakob von Uexküll concept of “self-centered world” (Umwelt), which describes the world created by the semiotics processes of an organism.14 With von Uexküll’s view, every Umwelt is a separate environment, based on “the sensory experiences of the organism”.15 We instead use Morton’s cheap worlds, based on doing, as previously described.8 Instead of Umwelt, Morton talks of having different Access Modes, that we are not capable of venturing outside of:

We are shrink-wrapped in [our acces modes], so that we anthropomorphize everything. But that doesn’t mean that there’s no outside at all, or that we are caught forever within anthropocentrism. There’s a big difference between saying that we anthropomorphize and that we are anthropocentric.8

Affect

Framed in other terms, what we are trying to achieve in breaking down Anthropocentrism is to establish a relationship with the non-human that is affective.

The first step to such a transformation is looking at how we share our worlds with animals, something that the philosopher and theorist Donna Haraway does in her work “When Species Meet”. Haraway breaks down Cartesian models of separation and shows that we are always part animal, and part human - the human body is not simply human. This overlapping of beings is expressed in terms of co-evolution, co-constitution and co-enactment. Sharing worlds is phrased as “the developmental aspect of the becoming of the dog human”.16 What I suggest is that we can simply project these ideas further and apply them to “non-sentient” beings as well; the becoming of the stone human.

Affect is crucial for such a becoming to be meaningful and useful. We can now apply the thoughts of the philosopher Vinciane Despret, who in her paper “The becomings of subjectivity in Animal Worlds” describes the importance of not assuming that the human condition is something unique and superior to be able to talk to animals. Despret takes the example of Alex the parrot who is trained by scientists to talk, and stresses the importance of treating Alex as an equal, of letting the parrot speak:

Alex doesn’t talk in the name of a ‘‘we’’ of parrots successfully imposed by scientists, but in the name of a ‘‘we’’ constituted by the assemblage of a parrot and human beings equipped with an apparatus aimed at making the parrot talk well.17

There is a dissolving of human and parrot in the becoming of the human parrot. Pushing this thought even further into the world of non-sentient beings; we have to treat the stone as an equal and we have to let the stone speak.

Since speaking concerns the expression of an intention, we are forced back to face the notion of agency, a term that we usually think of as a property held (or not held) by a being, or person, or in this case, a thing. But here we can apply the thoughts of the physicist and theorist Karen Barad, and her theories of “Agential Realism”. In Barads terms, agency is not something that someone has to a varying degree, but an enactment; “a matter of possibilities for reconfiguring entanglements”, that “enlists, if you will, “non-humans” as well as “humans.”” She attempts to remove the entire notion of independently existing individuals, using instead the term intra-acting; we are symbiotically connected and can’t be separated out. So the question of the agency of the stone is not the right question to ask ourselves, the crucial point is instead one of power imbalances.18 In Barads terms, by listening to the stone, we attend to an imbalance in power, we are open to the possibility of mutual response - a response-ability. 

* Hinting to the next question of the responsibility of the stone as it speaks.

As a quick comment, we note that this thinking is not new, but has a vast history and depth in eastern philosophies, such as the Buddhist concept of Anattā (no-self), the Shinto concept of Kami (spirits), or Polynesian concepts of Mana (spiritual energy).

We close full circle by rephrasing power in terms of metaphysics. In realising that the stone is as undead as we, that it is not not-dead, that we share the ineffable kernel of existence, and seeking to allow it to speak, we find that we have shifted the boundaries of possibility - that what was previously impossible suddenly becomes possible. In Anthropocentrism there is little escape from the extractivist mentality that has been amped up to a scale that is threatening the existence of billions of beings, and causes a suffering previously unheard in the history of our planet. Using the terms of the philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi,  transitioning into the world of Magic, “changes the form pressed on the world that determines what can and can’t happen”:

The impossible is precisely that which escapes the respective cosmological paradigm.19

Ending

In the end, we overview what the effects of this shift in metaphysics has in practice.

The whole intention of this intervention can be neatly summarized in three words: solidarity, awareness, meaning. We are never alone, but are constantly overlapping and sharing our world with other porous beings, constantly co-constituted in a flux of impermanence. With this perspective, the way forward is one of awareness of how our actions have consequences, how we are enmeshed in a network of becoming with others. Therefore we must establish solidarity with the non-human and consider what other beings are saying. Meaning is constantly created through attuning to an affective exchange in relations, and death becomes the final transcendence of which we know nothing, but are softened in a reverence of it’s mystery.