ENTROPOLOGY – Part I/II

Entropology

At the end of the second decade of the twentyfirst century, it has become de rigueur to speak not only of an Anthropocene but of a post-Anthropocene, whose template has been provided by that historical fissure in which the late industrial World Order was cracked open & prised apart by a rapid succession of wars, nuclear armament, the Marshall Plan, cyberneticisation & neoliberalism, exposing the vista of an ideal (because viewed from the perspective of monolithic power) tabula rasa – like a virgin resource just beyond the frontier, on the other side of History. It is possible that the discourse of the End of History & its reversal within that of a resurgent transcendentalism have become more pervasive, more insistent, more determined than at any previous time, even if, as is frequently said, “the ability to conceive of the history of hominids & the destiny of the Earth in the same temporal trajectory seems particularly deceptive today.”[1]

The question that would still need to be asked is, In what does this deception consist & what is the nature of its seeming? For it cannot simply be a matter of overturning this relation – this identity – between the socalled human & the “destiny of the Earth,” yet the imperative to comprehend it, under the sign of a “call to order,” is caught in a double-bind. The deception that lies at the heart of the discourse of the Anthropocene – as both an objective error imposed upon the world & its recoil in a Rousseauesque return of nature (above all the “natural disaster”) in the register of the real – is no less a humanist delirium than is the claim of a disinterested Reason over the task of its correction. Yet the metaphysical foundations on which Reason’s disinterest stands, as that which is unbounded by the worldly confines of “the history of hominids,” are precisely what must be maintained here against the universality of an Anthropocenic movement that threatens to erase all such prior claims to an exteriorisation of the world

Yet just as metaphysics is created in the (abstract) image of “man,” so too this “deception” is made to prevail over what is in fact most alienating to “man” in the Anthropocene: a world that is not the object of Reason, but which stands fully in place of Reason; a world not subsumed by technology, but constitutive of it; a world not alienated by “human” forces that have obtained, in its termination, an irrefutable ascendancy & mastery (“the destiny of the Earth”), but which is that alienation in all its radical ambivalence. To submit this deception to the work of Reason – in order to dispel the error, or rather superstition, to which this act of comprehension (of the world in its relation to History & of its singular inscription or destiny) risks succumbing – requires firstly that we submit Reason (whether idealised or instrumental) to the very critique that this “deception” necessitates. In the final analysis, it may be that what are summoned under the terms Reason & Anthropocene can in no way be opposed to one another & that, in pretending to stand apart from the “deception” it would seek to remedy, such a Reason can only remain true to its object by deceiving itself. The object, so to say, of truth, in the relation of Reason, of History, of The Human, to that which by definition exceeds it & yet which, in the same movement – & by an equivalent logic – it precomprehends. That it comprehends in advance, standing before it, as the mirror of this Weltgeist, and by such means brings it into view

What this question concerns isn’t simply the deception at work in any of those “simulated or simulating (& dissimulating) representations” of this beyond (this “exteriorisation,” as we will come to see), to which Reason itself must also make recourse, but rather, as Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us, “a matter of what does not pertain to representation at all.”[2] Not simply the point at which representation encounters its own impossibility (of the unpresentable, etc.), but of that which cannot be thought within or by means of any regime of mimēsis whatsoever: the socalled return of the real (in which the figure of “nature” is thus subsumed). Within the abundance of this resource of the unpresentable lies that void upon which – through the entire course of its history – Reason has nevertheless most desired to gaze. In this nascent figure, this trope of the void, Reason seeks to finally break with “the terrifying insufficiency of all the various assurances of knowing”[3] through an experience of the impossible. Which is to say, of its non-experience. Of the impossibility of any experience as such. A movement that both exceeds & recoils from its limits, which in any case it has already figured as an empty circularity. Far from marking Reason’s failure, this subversion (its empty circularity) presents itself today, in the pentecostal tones of a post-Anthropocenic philosophy, as its ultimate affirmation: the impossibility of ending

1. Anthropocene, or the Historical Mission of Capital

The lesson of cybernetics & of the physical sciences is that there is no movement from organicity to abstraction upon which a teleological view of History can stake its claim. No devolution from “life” to “technology.” No decline from a prior pristine “nature” to “artificiality”; from a “human condition” to one of “alienation”; from “work” to “commodity.” Not even of the entire work of an epoch, as Nancy says.[4] And if these terms do not devolve into one another on the basis of a teleology, it is because their co-implication is itself the defining logic of evolutionary processes: “life” itself must be understood “technologically” in its very origin, constituted by & through operations of “alienation,” & so on. This rupture in neo-Humanist & neo-Vitalist discourse has come to constitute something like a trauma in contemporary thought, above all in the heterogeneous figure of the Anthropocene, in which appeals to ecological values, against the spectre of “humanly mediated” global climate catastrophe, go hand-in-hand with a return of a “technical” or “instrumentalist” Reason. (And ipso facto, its duality in a metaphysics of “pure” Reason.) That is to say, with a return – via an appeal to an objective geological register – of precisely those abstractions that the critique of the Anthropocene has apparently sought to negate or overcome & in which, as Nancy argues, “humanity” has never taken place so exactly.[5]

The form of this trauma can be detected in the sort of remarks that have been directed by Peter Sloterdijk against the re-emergent genre of “alarmist ecological literature,” as he calls it. In an article entitled “The Anthropocene: A Process-State on the Edge of Geohistory?” Sloterdijk writes:

it seems that the proliferation of this term can be explained above all by that fact that, in the guise of scientific neutrality, it transmits a message of nearly unsurpassable moralist-political urgency; a message which, in explicit language reads: Humans have become responsible for the inhabitation & business administration of the Earth as a whole every since their presence on it stopped unfolding in the mode of more or less traceless integration.[6]

Sloterdijk’s argument identifies several key strains in this traumatic register, in which the ideological agency of the Anthropocene is sublimated & transferred successively onto: 

    1. the human (as a collective subjectivity), to which is attributed “an ability to perpetrate crimes of geo-historical dimensions”; 
    2. technology (as human prosthesis), retrieved via an obscure characterisation of labour in Marx as “the metabolic interaction between human beings & nature,” & thus the “continuation of natural history in another register”;
    3. history (qua materialist teleology), posed as an “attempt to evaluate the world from the perspective of its end,” & thus implying “a cosmo-moralistic sorting process.”[7]

This schema, in which “humanity” is posed as a “meta-biological agent,” operates to produce an image of “‘capitalism’ as global fatality,”[8] wherein the Anthropocene may be regarded as the accelerated spiral of an abstract vicious circle principle in which “capitalism” (as an expression of the amplitude of Reason itself) has been swept along. It is a schema entirely contiguous with the discourse of technological singularity, for which the primitive industrial phase of the Anthropocene will have served as an evolutionary prologue. Under the constellation of technological singularity are thus gathered the various discourses of post-history & post-humanism, in which collective responsibility for this geo-historical terminus immediately transforms into the abstraction of a technological Weltgeist marked by human obsolescence.

The apparent paradigm shift from the biological to the technological is supposed to accomplish itself, moreover, in a purely autonomous fashion, in which the socalled “human” is not only alienated from its privileged position vis-à-vis Reason but is so in a seemingly spontaneous, yet also fatalistic, way, as if divorced from ideology. It is the “human species” (& not capitalism for example) that bears responsibility for those world-negating actions conjured by the Anthropocene, & it is the “human” (& not capital) that is sacrificed to obsolescence in the coming singularity – a purely rhetorical sacrifice, of course, since “human” here merely refers to an opportunistically “ethical” category that supersedes itself in the (posthumanist) narrative of transcendental capitalism: which is to say, the seeming inversion of the old Marxist paradigm in which capitalism is delimited as the revolutionary process of a necessary transition to world socialism.[9] This would appear to correspond to what Vincent Garton has called “the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation”[10] towards its reformulation in what Primož Krašovec terms alien capital. “Capital is alien,” Krašovec writes, “not (only) as an unconscious or unforeseen dimension of human activity, but as an additional actor, the ‘eighth’ passenger of capitalist economy: alien.”[11]

2. Entropy is the Meaning of the Real

Marx himself had already observed that only in its self-alienation does capitalism represent the operation of its own transcendence – firstly by transforming the crises of production into an expanded “means” of self-propagation –

    • the same vicious circle would be described once more under expanded conditions of production, with an expanded market & increased productive forces

– then by its generalisation of crisis (the totalisation of its internal contradictions) as the very logic of its system of control: 

    • it becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object.[12]

This objectification, like that of the Anthropocene in which its entire movement is inscribed, becomes ever more concrete just as the entropic production of “human obsolescence” is ever more accelerated & ramified towards its ideal form in the automation of globalised & financialised capital. This is not due simply “to the development of autonomous machines & artificial intelligence in the direction that anthropocentric theories of capital are unable to detect, i.e. towards an ever-greater independence of capital from humanity,”[13] but rather to the alien basis of humanity in capital.

Just as Marx advised the necessity of Ricardo’s insight into the distinction between “human beings” & the “development of productive forces” (whose development was “the historical task & justification of capital” without consideration for humanity in its moral appeal), so too the Anthropocene must be grasped in its relation to its forces of production, being also the forces of that self-supersession of the Anthropos implied by a terminal technological singularity. And to the extent that such forces can be attributed to a generalised “evolutionary” movement, it would be no less the case that this “evolution” would place no higher premium on human obsolescence than it would on the human exception. It is in this sense that Sloterdijk’s observation that the Anthropocene contains “the spontaneous minima moralia of the current age”[14] makes sense as a kind of Kantian imperative arising upon a foundation of radical ambivalence.

In either case, it is necessary to recognise that these seemingly opposed terms – obsolescence & exception – merely function here to resituate the “human” as the privileged term within a binary relation in which the non-human, the alien & the technological retain what amounts to a distinct eugenics that denies not a general miscegenation along the lines of the cyborg or some other form of biotech hybrid, but the fact that the “human” – & by declensions “nature” & “life” in general – is always already technological, & that it is so from its origin. It is only by preserving or re-inscribing the nature/technology dichotomy that such concepts as the “technological singularity” & of the “posthuman” obtain their meaning, whereby one might continue to speak of a certain “technological” future as a posthumous condition, ruled over by a principle of non-life, of artificiality, of virtuality. And by an impeccable dialectical logic, this would also serve as an extension, after the fact as it were, of the “human” & of a Humanist rationale, via the prostheses of the non-humansuper-humanin-human, etc

In such a way, this transcendental itinerary of the “alien,” as that element which governs experience from “beyond life”), would not describe the negation of the “human” but its apocalyptic return, as the definitive form of an evolutionary process whose author it will have become. It is indeed this preoccupation with the spectral valences of the “human” that permit a certain alien capital to inscribe the “epoch” of the posthuman through a reinvention of the discourse of the perfectibility of man, while simultaneously announcing “man’s” obsolescence – the two terms are in fact interchangeable – thereby producing this ultimate form of the completion of History out of its own circular & (seemingly) paradoxical itinerary. It remains, in any case, that the belated & all-too-human status of the Anthropocene – as a purview in retrospect – is, has always been, ideological to its core. That is to say, a technē politikē. Which does not mean that it is not real or that its is merely an “externalisation” of human agency onto some other abstract entity (a scapegoat of some kind, some “alien capital” for example); rather it means that what continues to be posed as the ideologically neutral counterpart of a Humanism – whether by appeal to the “real,” to “nature,” or to “technology” as externalised prosthesis – demonstrates itself to be ideological from its origin: this inhabiting “alien” element that assumes the form, as Freud says, of a “thing that thinks.” 

It is only in this sense that Sloterdijk can speak of the Anthropocene as a “cosmo-moralistic sorting process” that effectively redistributes its means of production onto the supposedly objective categories of the human,technology & history, & away from the system of ideology that inscribes them. The work of responsibility for the Anthropocene is thus vested in purely “material” processes which – in being indifferently ascribable to humanity, technology or history – can for all intents & purposes be subsumed into the “natural metabolism” of a kind of autonomous planetary agent or Weltgeist. This work – which bears all the marks of a fetishism – is the very apotheosis of alienated labour. Through its alienating effects upon the very “fabric of the real,” & by “externalising” itself from its own processes, capital operates as the alibi of the world, by promising a world to come. Just as “production of surplus value” is conventionally regarded as “the social form of the process of production in capitalism,” so too the production of a certain futurity as world-prosthesis is given as capital’s assurance of a transcendental surplus, beyond the apparent eschatology of the Anthropocene. 

If the Anthropocene is taken here to signify a final (authentic) End-of-History, then capital is nevertheless imbued with the special capability of teleporting the world into the beyond (this end-world is in fact nothing other than a perpetual forethrow of the beyond). Yet what constitutes the alien-in-capital is not the autonomous agency attributable to this process, or to the “surplus” produced by it – as if it were a detachable logos – but rather to the absence of any beyond as such. The true characteristic of alien capital is that what appears to be surplus-production is in fact a movement of dissipation: dissipation accumulating dissipation. It is this movement – known from thermodynamics as entropy – in which the “externalisation” of capital has always been constituted. It is a movement that does not extend outward from the world, or from one world to another, but which constitutes the world in its very limits. That is to say, by inflation. As Bataille has argued, in re-orientating the theory of capital towards a general expenditure, dissipation isn’t simply a “middle term between two expropriations,”[15] but capital’s raison d’être. It is, in a manner of speaking, its own movement of alienation, but an alienation that orbits around a nucleic void: there is no prior, more authentic Being of capital, nor is capital capable by itself of inaugurating a positive “productive force” that is not already an operation of entropy. In this sense, too, the alienation of capital is not something that merely befalls the world – an “Anthropocene,” for example, that could simply be detached under conditions of a post-capitalism; it is endemic to the world. Moreover – & this is perhaps the most radical implication of this line of argument – its very “logic” is generalised to such a degree that it’s longer possible (were it ever) to separate this alienation from the constituency of “life itself.” 

3. Dissipative Structures

The thought of “alien capital” – as an autonomous dissipative principle – can be said to relate to what Bataille calls the “insufficiency of the principle of classic utility” in the manner of a potlatch. Everything that up until now has been subsumed under the category of “productive forces,” can be shown (in principle) not to conserve a “surplus” or “reserve” but to be wholly orientated towards an increase of expenditure. This general dissipative economy ramifies itself through a system of feedback, in which “growth” is determined as an accumulation of dissipative effects. Dissipation produces more dissipation in the mode of an eco-ideological struggle to maximisation. Ecology is this struggle; & it is ideological on the level of dissipation as the determining rationale of its operations – which is to say, its system of meaning. Sloterdijk attributes such a view to the advent of cybernetics, in particular the viewpoints set out in Buckminster Fuller’s Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969): 

    • From this moment on, good old Earth could no longer be thought of as a natural force, but was to be regarded as a gigantic artefact. It was no longer a base; it was a vehicle. It was no longer the epitome of material; it was the sensitive system of all systems.[16]
  • From this moment on, good old Earth could no longer be thought of as a natural force, but was to be regarded as a gigantic artefact. It was no longer a base; it was a vehicle. It was no longer the epitome of material; it was the sensitive system of all systems.[16]

In fact, Fuller’s text appeared two years after Bataille’s major work on general economy, The Accursed Share, but already 35 years after the “Notion of Expenditure,” a blueprint for Bataille’s later thesis. All three texts, however, are connected through Vladimir Vernadsky’s The Biosphere (1926),[17] to which Bataille refers in his notes & to which Fuller was obviously indebted, yet of which Sloterdijk appears unaware. Vernadsky’s concept of Earth as biosphere was predicated on a global system of “circular” metabolism, by which the expropriation (transformation) of solar energy allows the production of entropy to amplify itself through feedback cycles of consumption & expenditure. This in turn permits the overall rate of dissipation to increase also, tending towards conditions of what biologists call extremal forcing – & of what Ilya Prigogine in the 1970s called dissipative structures. While the “conditions for dissipative structures are readily encountered in living systems, which are (i) open, (ii) governed by nonlinear evolution equations, & (iii) operate far from thermodynamic equilibrium,”[18] they are also encountered in other forms of self-propagating dynamic systems not conventionally considered to be alive. For example, cybernetic or economimetic systems exhibiting a general technicity, extending from microsystems to the biosphere & beyond.

By proposing the existence of the biosphere as “a specific life-saturated envelope of the Earth’s crust” – in addition to the atmosphere, hydrosphere & lithosphere – Vernadsky was not only proposing that the entire planet should be viewed as an ecosystem analogous in its process to “life itself,” but that “life processes” in general must be understood differently, extending beyond any restricted notion of organism to encompass the “inorganic body”[19] of, for example, geological processes:

    • No chemical force on Earth is more constant than living organisms taken in aggregate, none is more powerful in the long run… Life is, thus, potentially & continuously disturbing the chemical inertia on the surface of the planet… The outer layer of the Earth must, therefore, not be considered as a region of matter alone but also as a region of energy & a source of transformation of the planet. To a greater extent, exogenous cosmic forces shape the face of the Earth, & as a result, the biosphere differs historically from other parts of the planet. This biosphere plays an extraordinary planetary role.

The biosphere is at least as much a creation of the sun as a result of terrestrial processes.[20]

This last point is central to Bataille’s reinterpretation of the biosphere as a general economy, defined as a system of constantly enlarging processes of dissipation, driven by what we might call a solar technology. It is in this conjunction of solar expenditure & biotechnical amplification that an alien capital can be seen to operate, not as the derivative of human-dependent operations, or even of evolution in general, but as their agent. Moreover, by its implicit relation of globally-consequential life-processes to planetary-scale technological transformation, & in its economy of metabolic force-feedback, Vernadsky’s concept anticipates the logic of the Anthropocene. And just as Bataille’s general economy encompasses forces of destructive expenditure that are nevertheless productive of ideology, so too Vernadsky’s biosphere encompasses those industrial forms of “systematic destruction” wrought by “civilised humanity,” themselves productive of biogenic impact.[21] Thus:

The release of [carbon dioxide] by Man in the process of his technical work… has already reached such an order that it must be taken into account in the geochemical history of the biosphere.[22]

But where the Anthropocene is generally taken to describe a geological “epoch” defined negatively by such impacts, Vernadsky instead envisaged the inauguration of a new sphere of geological activity, the Noösphere (from Gk. nous: mind, intelligence), in which “the increase of the cultural biochemical energy of mankind is advancing steadily without fundamental regression… There is a growing understanding that this increase has no insurmountable limits, that it is an elemental geological process.”[23] This Noösphere isn’t just a product of a technological intelligence, it is itself that intelligence, productive of its own transformative processes of expenditure & aggregation.

The essay first appeared in the Alienist VII magazine (January 2020).


[1] Liaisons [Collective], “The Evil to Come,” The New Inquiry (23 April 2019): https://thenewinquiry.com/the-evil-to-come/

[2] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Changing of the World,” trans. Steven Miller, A Finite Thinking, ed. Simon Sparks (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003) 22.

[3] Nancy, “Changing of the World,” 31.

[4] Nancy, “Changing of the World,” 6.

[5] Nancy, “Changing of the World,” 30.

[6] Peter Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene: A Process-State on the Edge of Geohistory?” trans. Anne-Sophie Springer, Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments & Epistemologies, eds. Heather Davis & Etienne Turpin (London: Open Humanities Press, 2015) 327.

[7] Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene,” 329-30.

[8] Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene,” 334.

[9] See chapter 15 of Karl Marx, Capital, vol. III, ed. Friedrich Engels (New York: International Publishers, 1967 [1894]).

[10] Vincent Garton, “Accelerate Marx,” Cyclonotrope (7 March 2017): https://cyclonotrope.wordpress.com/2017/03/07/accelerate-marx/

[11] Primož Krašovec, “Alien Capital,” trans. Miha Šuštar, Vast Abrupt (July 2018): http://vastabrupt.com/2018/07/11/alien-capital/

[12] Marx, Capital III, 259.

[13] Krašovec, “Alien Capital,” 2.

[14] Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene,” 338.

[15] Georges Bataille, “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade,” Visions of Excess, trans. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985) 99.

[16] Sloterdijk, “The Anthropocene,” 335.

[17] The book was written in Paris, but not translated into French until 1929.

[18] Albert Goldbeter, “Dissipative Structures in Biological Systems: Bistability, Oscillations, Spatial Patterns & Waves,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: Mathematical, Physical & Engineering Sciences 376.2124 (June 2018): https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2017.0376

[19] Marx, in the 1844 Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts, famously states that “nature is man’s inorganic body.” Here, however, the transformation of nature isn’t accomplished by human labour, but is an apriori condition of generalised technicity (alienation): the inorganicity of nature in which the human is thus embodied. It’s in this sense that Marx’s formulation needs to be understood.

[20] Vladimir Vernadsky, The Biosphere, trans. David Langmuir & Mark McMenamin (New York: Springer, 1998) 56-7.

[21] Vernadsky, The Biosphere, 143.

[22] Vladimir Vernadsky, Geochemstry & the Biosphere, ed. Frank B. Salisbury (Santa Fe: Synergetic Press, 2007) 185.

[23] Vladimir Vernadsky, “The Transition from the Biosphere to the Noösphere,” trans. William Jones, 21st Century (Spring/Summer, 2012): 27-8.

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