All that matters isn’t just human

The human has been finally forced to confront a special situation: we are not sovereign

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 5th Apr 2021   12:31 am

The space beyond the earth, commentators frequently tell us, is filled with junk and creations of the human race: radio waves, satellites, assorted debris from space missions, etc. This is however, infinitesimal, given the spectacular dimensions of space.

Yet humanity has been influential, and this is a matter of scale – of influence. Yet, on this scale, our (human) bonds are with the nonhumans.

Human Scale

Exactly what percentage of space on earth is occupied by the human race? In terms of scale, how much, literally, do we matter?

The question itself matters because the form of the question determines how we see humanity, in relation to the rest of the earth. New ways of measuring knowledge, of classifying what counts as facts, will indicate how humanity has and will evolve. The historian of systems of thought, Michel Foucault, put it this way:

“As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility – without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises – were to cause them to crumble”

Foucault is suggesting that the “arrangements” of knowledge-making and meaning-formation define what it means to be human, to possess humaneness. If the arrangements and apparatuses of meaning-making were to change, the modalities of seeing and understanding the human would change and our sense of being human would change as well.

Then, following from the above, rather than asking how many humans exist, the question perhaps should be how we have mattered in terms of impact upon the earth.

Given the impact humans have had on the earth, we are extremely large in scale. After Nobel-winning meteorologist-chemist Paul Crutzen everyone speaks of the “Anthropocene”, a notional geological age measurable in terms of human impact on the earth. In terms of sheer scale, this is unprecedented. Our work has affected ocean currents, the flow of air, the surface temperature of the earth. Our forms of living have altered the lifecycle of forests and deserts, resulting in changes to the habitats of countless creatures. Within a short stay on earth, the impact has been profound, to say the least.

New Dimensions of Scale

While the above account may seem to capture the sense of scale in terms of impact, we have not seen it all yet. Take, for instance, the collective that humanity is now. The collective human being, networked, with feedback loops and continuous exchanges or flows, irrespective of time zones and national borders, gestures at a whole new scale of how humanity operates.

It is no longer possible, one postulates, to think of individuals, given the amount of connectivity in which we are embedded. The “arrangements” that Foucault spoke of when marking the genealogy of The Human now includes structures and processes that mathematise individuals and database them. Even sickness becomes the grounds for connectivity through PatientsLikeMe, so that sociality morphs into a biosociality through the sharing of symptoms, treatments and aetiologies.

What we are looking at then is a human scale that is measurable only in ever widening bytes. This data-sublime, if one were to aestheticise it using 18th century philosophical theories, is on the scale of the earth itself – one only has to look at images of the electronic network covering the earth – so that we can safely say humans and their processes cover the earth.

There is one further point. The structures that make humanity one large collective are themselves massive in terms of scale, from the underwater cables, radio and communication towers or energy harvesting structures to understand the magnitude of what we have done and continue to do. And yet, something else remains, survives.

Nonhumanisation of Outside

Critic Bruce Clarke speaks of the “nonhumanization of the outside” where the nonhuman is simply overwhelming and humanity is a speck. Clarke notes how other forms of life and non-living matter populate the universe. It can be argued that it is our inability to see the extent of the nonhumanisation that makes us live with the illusion of our sovereign – in terms of both monarchic and autonomous aspects – existence on earth.

The scale of nonhumanisation approximates to what the eco-critic Tim Morton would call hyperobjects: objects so vast or processes so supremely fast or slow as to be incomprehensible, such as the slow melting of glaciers or the scope of the night sky when we look up. The stark incomprehension is the result of human cognitive limitations, of the scale of our perception versus the scale of the world around.

With the work of critics like Morton, Ursula Heise and Stacy Alaimo, philosophers like Karen Barad and others, the significance of nonhuman forms of life and non-living matter has been reiterated. Whether these are tectonic plates, the slow shifts in water levels, the transmission of bacteria or viruses, the human, we are now informed, rightly, has been finally forced to confront a special situation: we are not sovereign. On geological, temporal and any other scales, we share this space with all kinds of matter, all of which matter.

This situation has, of course, been interpreted morally, theologically and legally. Be that as it may, what is crucial is, this realisation of the role of the nonhuman has altered our self-perception (at least to those humans who think about such matters when watching Netflix). That humanity’s scale of impact on nonhumans, its own survival among and along with nonhumans and the possible decimation – no, am not running the extinction argument here although that is also relevant – of vast numbers of humanity and other life forms have alerted us to connectedness, of forms that matter.

From infinitesimal life forms to gigantic earth formations, the scale of mutual dependency and mutually assured destruction (acronym: MAD) and the intractable role of the nonhuman have ushered in, we could say, the posthuman age.

All that matters is not necessarily human.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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