Performing Arts Forum, Ste Erme, 05/03/2016
Can we (and if so how) imagine the Earth without humans ?
Imagine, in a literal sense, produce an image, a sort of picture, a description: a desolate beach, gray sand, threatening waves, inhabited by monsters like in H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. But then there is a human, the time traveler. A usual argument would say that we can’t imagine the Earth without humans because by so doing we would reintroduce something human on the Earth. This is still true in various versions of speculative realism. Neither in Q. Meillassoux’ nor in G. Harman’s perspectives, can we imagine the Earth without humans. For G. Harman, we can only proceed by “allusions”. A description like H. G. Wells only concerns apparent objects which are defined by the relations between us and real objects: the Earth that we can describe, picture, is always humanized and must be distinguished from the realm of real objects which we can not properly speaking describe. For Q. Meillassoux, all we can do is prove that the universe is mathematical and hope that our science will finally come close to the true mathematics of the universe. A description like Wells’ is flawed for two reasons: not only it implies secondary qualities which only make sense when referred human perception but, as we will see, it also implies a kind of time paradox.
In a nutshell, a description like Wells’ seem to bear many features that refer to humans (colors, waves, sunset), so how could it give a picture of an Earth without humans?
My aim, in this discussion, is to convince you that this way of formulating the problem is wrong. I will argue that it relies on several implicit assumptions. One of them is a principle of co-presence which denies any temporal difference between “given” and “givenness”. Another one is the model of the “thing”, which refers to a certain form of life which is not exclusive (non human life does not necessarily cut up things out of the continuum of perception, Bergson) and which, even from a human point of view, is inadequate on a desolate beach (how many things do you see? Almost none. The sea, the sand, are not things but elements in Bachelard’s and Merleau-Ponty’ sense).
I claim it is perfectly possible to imagine the Earth without humans. In fact, we do it all the time. One should give a speculative function to fictions such as Wells’. But this requires both to reformulate the opposition between correlationism and speculation, and to discuss again the distinction between appearance and reality.
Part I. On Q. Meillassoux, After finitude
Both Q. Meillassoux’ attack on “correlationism” (on the topic of ancestral statements) and his own way out of correlationism (by reference to our possible annihilation) rely on a “presentism” according to which “the given cannot be anterior [nor posterior] to the givenness”. Bergson’s theory of memory offers a counterexample to this principle. I argue that there is no reason to accept this principle of co-presence between the given and the givenness and that, in particular, considering fiction as a form of givenness enables one to introduce a temporal difference between given and givenness. This in turn undermine Q. Meillassoux’ opposition between correlationism and the speculative perspective.
It is then possible to outline a theory of fictions giving a speculative function to fictions while remaining inside correlationism.
Part II. Metaphysics of the seaside
I will start with various descriptions of the sea-side by an XVIIIe century geographer, Claude Masse. In a sort of thought experiment, I will then try to imagine the life of a being indigenous to this landscape: a husserlian subjectivity, if you wish, who instead of waking up on the Earth, with various things that (s)he can touch, would only know waves of water and waves of sand: what kind of body would (s)he feel to have, what kind of space and time would (s)he live in?
My point is that our usual metaphysics, the examples we take as philosophers (touching a thing instead of feeling the wind on our skin, walking instead of swimming) is related to a certain environment. The sea-side as described by Masse would call for a completely different metaphysics.
Part III. On G. Harman and T. Morton’s theory of objects and hyper-objects.
In a way, T. Morton has introduced the notion of hyperobjects to qualify beings such as the sea, climate change, nuclear waste) which cannot be considered as objects properly speaking. I will compare Morton’s hyper-objects with Merleau-Ponty’s elements. They have many aspects in common. Both admit that the object of perception bears a kind of surplus but, for T. Morton, as for the OOO, this surplus distinguishes the real object from its phenomena, whereas, for Merleau-Ponty, it is the phenomenal object which bears an indefinite surplus.
The question is: which of them, hyper-objects or elements, will enable us to imagine the Earth without humans?