Philosophy . Politics, Philosophy and Religion

A Conversation with Graham Harman and Monika Kaup on ‘New Ecological Realisms’ (Part 4)

Graham Harman and Monika Kaup

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Graham Harman: Finally we come to the somewhat unorthodox pairing of your fifth chapter: Jean-Luc Marion and Alphonso Lingis. Granted, both authors are deeply indebted to phenomenology. But in Marion we have a deeply religious figure who is interested in the uppermost level of phenomenology: the very givenness of a world, which immediately raises the question of something elsewhere and divine. The phenomenology of Lingis is focused in almost the opposite direction: what Levinas called “the hither side” of being, which Lingis takes in the direction of carnal exoticism, foreign customs, the shadings of light in the forest or on the glistening bodies of samba dancers in Brazil. It is almost like the difference of Christian versus pagan phenomenology. What made you bring those two together?

Monika Kaup: What a great question! If the goal of phenomenology is to distill the invariant structures of first-person experience, Marion and Lingis both chart new paths in the recovery of the “first-person singular” (Lingis) after poststructuralism. I agree that their paths are distinct (albeit compatible, even complementary, in my view), so I will discuss them separately.

Reconstituting self after the “death of the subject” proclaimed by linguistic determinism, Marion’s phenomenology of givenness models a post-individual and de-centered self that arises in response to an overpowering event (“givenness”). Marion contends that the successor to the Cartesian autonomous subject is a reduced self he names “the gifted,” a term that identifies the figure that arises from its response to the world to which it is given over (givenness). The new self that emerges as a result of this experience is a non-autonomous self, a recipient first—“a me to whom” the given is gifted— and an agent second. Depending on the response by the recipient, phenomena will arise, eventually resulting in the rise of a new self whose nature is defined by this dynamic (the gifted). Marion pictures a call and response structure whose circular organization expresses the holistic outlook of Marion’s phenomenology. Givenness has primacy, but it is manifest only in the response it is met with. On the other hand, the response that phenomenalizes the call is secondary. In other words, the organized ensemble of givenness is the ontological base unit of call and response, not the individual self. Unlike Althusser, who contends that the realm of first-personal experience is the domain of ideology, for Marion, the gifted’s response is intrinsically free, in that it cannot be determined by outside forces but is governed by rules internal to the receiver. S/he may even opt to reject the call, as does the boy’s mother in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, who commits suicide rather than accept the horrific burden of post-apocalyptic parenting.

It is helpful to think Marion’s phenomenology together with Gabriel’s fields of sense ontology to highlight its context-orientation. For Gabriel, larger fields ground individual objects that appear in them. In parallel ways, for Marion, the larger field of givenness, and its reciprocal structure of call and response, ground the self that emerges from this dynamic. To put it another way, by using the language of autopoiesis and enactivism, Marion’s self remains marked by the “structural coupling” to a constitutive Otherness whose encounter makes its emergence possible. As for your point about Marion as a religious figure, in his work, the divine is only one among several possible manifestations of givenness, an entity that is defined in universal terms, as a “saturated” phenomenon that stands out due to its shocking excess, such as being unforeseeable, unbearable, and beyond compare. In addition to encounters with the divine, Marion’s other instances of givenness are catastrophic events (such as revolutions or wars), or powerful works of art. Marion’s notion of “being gifted” also has a deeper and darker dimension of “what befalls me,” which is why post-apocalyptic fiction is an excellent match for Marion’s phenomenology. The post-apocalyptic script of surviving after the world-end calls for new models of selfhood that can account for radical breaks and transformations. The unnamed protagonist of The Road has been given a terrible responsibility, to raise his son, born shortly after an unspecified cataclysm that has destroyed almost all life on earth, with the exception of some scattered humans. A similar burden falls on the protagonist of Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Jimmy, who has been spared death to mentor the Crakers as they settle in the post-apocalyptic world. Jimmy renames himself “Snowman” to mark the irreversible discontinuity between his lost former life and his existence as the last human alive. The drama of both novels revolves around the demoted, non-autonomous post-apocalyptic selves both Jimmy and the father develop as a creative response to catastrophe.

To turn to Lingis: like Marion, Lingis charts a first-personal experience that emphasizes ethical commitment, but unlike Marion, he emphasizes affect. According to Lingis, the sense of self arises from, and peaks in, impassioned states. Emotions, marginalized in rationalist modern philosophy founded on the cogito, need to be acknowledged as the source of self. As Lingis states, “The I is an I enjoy, I endure, I suffer.”  Passionate identification gives special force to the word “I,” the first person singular. At the same time, however, such emotional identification is also a form of ethical commitment. On Lingis’s account, “To say ‘I am a mother’ is to commit my body to set free the child, and the adolescent and adult it bore, or to care for the genetically defective child it gave birth to until its death.” For Lingis, the “I am” of passionate identification and commitment are “oracular words” that open up an imaginary counter-reality to the status quo, which is precisely the function of instances of such language in The Road. In McCarthy’s novel, the man and the boy intone mantras such as “We are the good guys” and “We are carrying the fire.” Such watchphrases affirm the principles of life and humanity against the entropic wasteland of the post-apocalypse.

You have elsewhere described Lingis as a “carnal phenomenologist,” which I think is a very accurate characterization of his work. But the meeting between Marion and Lingis—at least the one staged in the chapter in which they both appear—is not so much an encounter of heaven and hell, but of different dimensions of a search for the reconstruction of self outside of the Cartesian lineage of self-sufficient rationalism.

Graham Harman: And then, in what struck me as one of the biggest surprises of the book (though I was already surprised by Latour’s pairing with Atwood) you match up the already very different Marion and Lingis with Cormac McCarthy, an author who specializes in –among other things– senseless random violence. Please help us out by describing the point or points of union between these three authors?

Monika Kaup: Unlike Atwood, who explores Latourian territory in imagining the rise of a multispecies ecology of humans and non-humans, McCarthy’s The Road places humans at the center of its postapocalyptic scenario. The only species still alive on a dying planet without renewable food sources about a decade after a conflagration of unspecified origin covered the world in ash blotting out the sun, the remaining human survivors face the ethical challenge of choosing between starvation or survival at the cost of sacrificing their humanity by preying on each other (cannibalism). This humanist orientation of The Road is well-matched to Marion’s and Lingis’s phenomenology, for their parallel focus on human experience. The Road is about what befalls humans and how humans respond to the shock of the saturated phenomenon—the apocalyptic destruction of almost all life and the seemingly inevitable prospect of human extinction–the terrain of Marion’s phenomenology of the given. As discussed above, the characteristic of Marion’s self is its paradoxical constitution as at once non-autonomous and unpredictable.

Marion models the human self as a being whose nature arises from its response to a confrontation with an overwhelming force, which can take different forms (catastrophe, divinity, etc.). I argue that The Road is organized around a similar idea. At an abstract level, this could be said of all post-apocalyptic novels, which are narratives of survival about remaking self and world after the world-end, and which thus call for new models of discontinuous selfhood. Marion’s phenomenology of givenness, as well as Lingis’s phenomenology of passionate identification formulate a model of selfhood as unstable stability, a self punctuated by sudden changes and reversals. Because The Road is perhaps the darkest of all post-apocalyptic novels where destruction is most complete, the dynamic of subjection (confrontation with catastrophe) and the recipient’s subject-making response (behavior that is non-determined and unpredictable) are thrown into greater relief.

I argue that this response takes place at two distinct levels of The Road, the intradiegetic level of the fictional plot on the one hand, and at the higher-order level of narrative style on the other.

To begin with the intradiegetic level of the fictional characters and events: stranded on a corpse-strewn wasteland (described as “cauterized terrain”) and facing the daily threat of starvation, freezing to death, and murder by human predators, McCarthy’s protagonists suffer a dramatic loss of self. Father and son lead a nomadic life, crossing the country on abandoned roads pushing a shopping cart with their few possessions, in search of warmer climate in the south. The most moving instance of this dispossession comes at a moment when the father finally disposes of his wallet, because its contents (credit card, driver’s license, a picture of his dead wife) have become useless. Symbols of his lost pre-apocalyptic social identity, they are discarded. He spends a moment looking at the picture of his wife, and then places it on the road also. This is an excellent example of the radical transformations of selfhood characteristic of post-apocalyptic fiction. But the shock of dispossession (in Marion’s terms, becoming a demoted self, an “unto whom”) is followed by a positive response that leads to renewed self-fashioning, the emergence of a new self (the gifted). The father receives the call (in Marion’s language) of parenting after the cataclysm. Giving himself over to the task of raising a child in the post-apocalyptic world, the man becomes “the gifted,” in other words, a father. The man’s passionate commitment to fatherhood is as extreme as the circumstances: he views it as a religious mission (“My job is to take care of you. I was appointed to do that by God.”) He also drives his body to the point of collapse to carry his son to safety. Marion illustrates the core dynamics of his phenomenology of givenness (the call of givenness, the response of the receiver, which manifests the phenomenon of the gift, followed by emergence of a new self, the “gifted”) through an ekphrastic reading of Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew, a choice that indicates what you describe as the religious undercurrent of Marion’s phenomenology. As the passage just quoted indicates, there is a corresponding thread of religious rhetoric in The Road. Somewhat like the dual face of sublime givenness in Marion (God, and death), its analogue in The Road, the apocalypse, is at once death-dealing and divine. The redemptive dimension (which is of course also a key element of ancient religious apocalypses such as The Book of Revelation) often appears in the man’s reflections: “he knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” To continue with the connection to Lingis: the father’s passionate affirmations alsoconfirm Lingis’s claim that sense of self peaks in passionate commitment and passionate identification. The affirmations of faith in which the father brings forth his parental identity are, in Lingis’s terms, “oracular words.” Elsewhere, father and son cement their bond by reciting their shared beliefs like a mantra: “Because we’re the good guys. Yes. And we’re carrying the fire.”

These intradiegetic intersections between Marion, Lingis, and The Road are complemented by additional connections that unfold at the higher-order diegetic level of McCarthy’s narrative style. Passages depicting post-apocalyptic ruin in The Road employ a distinctive narrative style, the baroque. A rhetoric of excess, the literary baroque’s hallmarks include digressive and lofty rhetoric, labyrinthine, hypotactical sentences, arresting, far-fetched metaphors and a vocabulary of rare and obscure words. Paradoxically, however, baroque excess is a symptom of its opposite, loss and uncertainty, as suggested by the baroque byword, “horror of the void.” Since its emergence in the 17th century, the baroque has been associated with melancholic reflections on transience, ruin and mortality. It is no surprise that McCarthy should employ baroque style to memorialize the apocalyptic holocaust in The Road.

Interspersed through The Road are baroque epiphanies on annihilation and destruction. Grasping the baroque as a rhetoric of loss (for which stylistic excess is a compensation) explains the baroque’s affinity with Marion’s phenomenology of givenness.  The parallels are deep structural. According to Marion, “saturated” phenomena “set forth a surplus that the concept cannot organize.”  They “exceed and decenter” every intention.  The baroque rhetoric of abundance in The Road—words to fill the painful void—is an artistic coping strategy that incorporates the challenge (disruption) into the fabric of its response (the new aesthetic order). This is exactly how Marion pictures phenomena—“the gift”—as co-constituted by givenness and response. The unsayable is brought into the said. McCarthy’s baroque rhetoric phenomenalizes the unspeakable horror of the post-apocalyptic destruction in The Road. Baroque irregular forms were typically maligned as imperfections and deformations of proper classical style. For example, the quintessentially baroque ellipse is viewed a deformation of the circle, classical symbol of perfection.  At the higher-order level of narrative strategy, thus, McCarthy’s baroque narrative form thus manifests a stylistic deformation that mirrors that which marks the post-apocalyptic de-centered self, an “I” “demoted” to an “unto whom.”

Graham Harman: You certainly made interesting choices in your book, of both philosophers and literary authors. Can you tell us if there were any surprising “near misses,” in the sense of authors who almost made the cut for this book but were finally excluded for length or other reasons?

Monika Kaup: For several years, I have been interested in indigenous versions of environmental apocalypticism. As is often pointed out, indigenous peoples are ahead of Westerners in having a deep familiarity with apocalypse, because they have been experiencing it for 500-plus years. Native American contributions to this genre (such as by Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich) have been receiving critical attention, but there is another peerless Brazilian-French collaborative work that needs to be introduced to contemporary environmentalist and new realist debates. I am currently preparing an article on this work that takes the discussion in New Ecological Realisms into a new direction.

Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert’s 2013 collaborative work, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, centers on a prophetic warning of impending apocalyptic collapse due to anthropogenic environmental destruction. Co-authored by a Brazilian indigenous leader and a French anthropologist and co-founder of a NGO defending Yanomami land rights, The Falling Sky is a first-person account of the life story of a Brazilian shaman, activist and spokesperson for the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon. It offers an exposé of the environmental, demographic and cultural catastrophe that Western resource exploitation has inflicted on the rainforest and its indigenous peoples. 

The centerpiece of the environmental imagination in The Falling Sky is Amerindian apocalyptic thinking, the eponymous Yanomami myth of the falling sky, an Amazonian myth of the end of the world. As Albert explains, “the falling sky” refers to a myth explaining the cataclysmic end of a first humanity, which the Yanomami think prefigures the fate of our world, invaded by the deadly smoke of metals and fuels. Kopenawa’s prophecy of the falling sky updates the ancient Yanomami myth of prehistoric apocalyptic world destruction to respond to contemporary Amazonian environmental destruction. Religion is a difficult subject in the modern West, and contemporary environmentalism for the most part sticks to secularism. The Falling Sky unsettles this view through an unfamiliar constellation of reason and unreason, where shamanic prophecy appears more rational than modern resource exploitation, and capitalist development more irrational than Yanomami ecological supernaturalism.

Kopenawa and Albert’s The Falling Sky presents an indigenous contribution to the contemporary search for a new social order organized around the principle of ecology. Its critique of Amazonian environmental destruction due to illegal goldmining (“the smoke of gold”) and rapacious capitalism (“the people of merchandise”) dismantles modern reductive anthropocentrism to describe how humans and nonhumans are bound into a larger functional whole.  The Falling Sky engages one of the key concepts of ecology, the network concept of life, which states that all organisms—including humans—are interconnected with other species and the non-organic environment through mutual relationships. Kopenawa/Albert characterize the Yanomami Amazon as an ecosystem: “We are inhabitants of the forest. We were born in the middle of the ‘ecology’ and we grew up in it.”  Reflecting on differences between Western notions of “nature” and “ecology” (from the Greek oikos “household”) they stress that—better than “nature”—the concept of ecology—new in the West—captures a time-honored Yanomami understanding of reciprocal relations between humans and the world.

In an illuminating discussion of The Falling Sky in their recent study on the contemporary burst in apocalyptic writing, The Ends of the World, Deborah Danowski and Viveiros de Castro consider The Falling Sky in connection to speculative realism, exploring the ontological implications of this work, and its rich contributions to the current search for new ontologies. Unlike the Western universe founded on the dichotomy between nature and culture, according to Danowski and de Castro, the Yanomami cosmos is best described as a “relational multiverse.” The living forest is home to societies of many species including humans, but humans are not the only human species—everything was human at some time. Rather than conceiving humans as descending from animal origins, the Yanomami conceive of animals as metamorphosed humans, or ex-humans. Kopenawa and Albert offer an Amerindian version of what Latour terms “political ecology,” a society of humans and non-humans, and in the new work I will explore The Falling Sky’s contribution to the challenge of constructing an ecological social imaginary.


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About the book

Book Cover of New Ecological Realisms
New Ecological Realisms
Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Contemporary Theory

Presents post-apocalyptic fiction as a unique source of new realist ontologies

  • Shows how new realism reshapes humanistic inquiry in the age of climate change
  • Contributes to the rehabilitation and reframing of realism after postmodernism
  • Introduces a new contextual and ecological realism that reconnects the human cultural world with non-humans and the environment

About the author

Monika Kaup is Professor of English at the University of Washington. She is the author of Neobaroque in the Americas: Alternative Modernities in Literature, Visual Art, and Film (University of Virginia Press 2012) and she is co-editor of Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest (Duke University Press 2010).

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