Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The urgency for ‘critical theory’ to wake up to the extinction of the ‘human’

I recently attended an exciting event: the inaugural symposium of what is set to become the South African Society of Critical Theory (SASCT) at the University of the Free State, arranged by colleagues in the philosophy department, where I work. ‘Exciting’ because its formation is long overdue in a world that is facing a bigger crisis than it faced on the eve of World War II. That was when critical theory of the Frankfurt School variety rendered fearless interdisciplinary social critique at the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt, from where the likes of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer had to flee to the US to escape persecution by the Nazis, only to find in America a state of affairs – the so-called ‘culture industry’ – that signified what they saw as a regression of the human spirit, which adumbrated worse to come.

The latter (the ‘worse’) is more or less where we are today globally, which is why a society that promotes critical theory – not only the Frankfurt School variety, but other kinds too, such as poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, gender studies and ecofeminism, to mention some – is more needed than ever before, in the hope that it could help spread the awareness among people that it is time for collective critical thinking about current global developments, and even more importantly, for critical ACTION (see my post: http://thoughtleader.co.za/bertolivier/2017/10/03/does-theory-guarantee-emancipatory-action/).

But what could be worse than the Second (or the First) World War? Claire Colebrook helps one understand the magnitude of the crisis (in Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 1; The Open Humanities Press, 2014, p. 11-12): “There is a widespread lament regarding a trajectory of self-extinction occurring in the human brain. According to Susan Greenfield, in her book ID, we are losing identity: where our brains once operated by a synthesizing power of grammar, syntax and critique we are now seduced by a culture of stimulus… We are not just losing one of our critical powers — our power to represent or synthesize what is not ourselves — we are losing our very selfhood. For ‘we’ are — as human, as identities— just this evolved synthesizing power.”

This ‘self-extinction’ is part of a more encompassing crisis of extinction, all aspects of which are interlinked. Colebrook (2014: 9) distinguishes three kinds of extinction: the “sixth great extinction event” pertaining to all living species, “extinction by humans of other species” and “self-extinction, or the capacity for us to destroy what makes us human”. The latter is the type indexed by Greenfield, and comprises the nucleus of the crisis, insofar as it is arguably what, in principle, conditions and has historically conditioned the other types of extinction.

Not surprisingly, Colebrook draws attention to the important role played by the concept of ‘climate’ in relation to extinction, noting that it, too, is a complex notion. Not only does it denote the “standard meteorological notion of climate” (p. 10), but also entails a combination of spatial and temporal signification, insofar as it is inclusive of the spatial “surface or terrain” on which we live, as well as that which “binds us to this time on the earth, with its own depletions and limits” (p. 10). Moreover, it is only within the context of ‘climate’ that the geological epoch of the ‘Anthropocene’ makes sense, as the era when humankind’s destructive power has left its imprint on the earth, to the point where, as Colebrook notes, it will be perceptible in geological strata in the future (should anyone be around to examine these).

Not that the widely publicised effect of human activity on terrestrial climate systems has had any effect on governmental or, for that matter, collective public action aimed at arresting the process in the interest of human (and other species’) survival. Quite the contrary, which is why, she points out (2014: 11):
“…recently, climate change scientists have started to play with new strategies for awakening public affect: perhaps the focus on hope needs to give way to mobilizations of fear, whereby we learn to ‘hug the monster,’ in order to shift from inertia and quiescence to action. How is it that the human species, seemingly so hungry for life and dominance, has conveniently forgotten its own self-extinguishing tendencies?”

One (arguably the main) reason for public apathy or inattention has already been touched upon above (but bears repeating) – where Colebrook alludes to Greenfield’s observation, that the human brain, “once operated by a synthesizing power of grammar, syntax and critique” is “now seduced by a culture of stimulus…”, which marks a loss of “one of our critical powers” as well as our “very selfhood”. If this does not strike a chord of recognition in you, reflect for a moment on what has been happening to our species during the last five decades or so: ever since the advent of television, many studies have confirmed the phenomenon of the increasing, systematic depletion of the human capacity for sustained (intellectual, mental) attention for an appreciable time.

Why? Because contemporary society is predicated on speed, or ‘acceleration’ – mainly of productivity, economically speaking, but also of activities on every social terrain, for example those of electronically mediated communication and social relations (on social media like Facebook), where Sherry Turkle has noted a certain ‘performance exhaustion’ on the part of teenagers (in her book, Alone Together; 2010). By contrast, in this era of the ‘space of flows’, the ability to sustain intellectual attention, as when one is reading a demanding book, or writing something that demands close, sustained attention to logical coherence and linguistic lucidity, has become a rarity.

This is what Greenfield means by living in a ‘culture of stimulus’. Instead of amusing themselves, as children used to do before the era of television, video games and smartphone addiction, by playing outside the house (getting good exercise into the bargain), children and teenagers (and many, if not most adults) of today need constant stimulation in the guise of television sport and other televised spectacles, combined with constant attention to electronic devices like smartphones and tablets, lest they should miss any texting, Whatsapp messages or tweets. ‘Staying connected’ is the name of the (to my mind rather pointless) game.

To be sure, one must be able to enjoy the ephemeral moment of pleasure that some stimuli bring, as long as this is counterbalanced by what makes us human in the first place. Colebrook puts it this way, referring to Greenfield’s work (2014: 12): “A certain self-loss is required for stimulus and pleasure, but a certain neural extension and order is required for meaning and self. In her earlier work Greenfield had argued for a healthy or normal balance between the capacity for the joy of fleeting sensation (such as the first taste of morning coffee) and the ability to link sensations into some broader network of selfhood and significance … If there were no capacity to enjoy the simple moment we would suffer from depression, or an extreme search for meaning that we may never be able to fulfill; drugs that treat depression enable a release from the grip of significance. But today — perhaps — it is the fleeting insignificance that is taking over twenty-first century neural architecture. The diagnostic dimension of Greenfield’s work lies in its lament regarding the new modes and temporalities of visual culture, where the transient ecstasies of video games overtake the sustained focus and pleasure of complex narrative and argument.”

Greenfield is not the only thinker who draws attention to this, of course; Bernard Stiegler, to mention only one of many, argues along similar lines (see http://thoughtleader.co.za/bertolivier/2015/12/22/the-stupidifation-of-our-societies-and-failure-of-universities/ ). Clearly, these manifestations of a broad cultural crisis, which bears on ‘extinction’, should be the focus of critical theory today. In its broadest formulation it comprises the field where advanced technology is enlisted by the dominant economic system to capture consumers’ attention, in the interest of massive profits, and at the cost – as Colebrook points out (with reference to mainly Greenfield’s work) – of what makes us human. The latter is that capacity for a certain ‘synthesising ability’, without which the ‘human’ would be reduced to a passive stimulus-registering apparatus. And this appears to be already happening.

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