Beyond Palliative Care

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By arranjames

Source: Synthetic Zero

Not all that long ago the curators of this blog started talking about the possibility of the palliative care of the Earth. Recently dmf posted up a podcast dealing with the same topic. I haven’t listened to it yet so won’t be drawing on it in this post. I wanted to take a few minutes to experiment with the senses of the phrase “palliative care of the Earth”.

First of all, what is palliative care? Like all attempts at sense it is a contested battleground rife with bullet holes and no-man’s lands with various armies massed and pressing on it. One such army is the global institutional Roman legion that is the World Health Organisation. The WHO loves definitions. One could almost assume it employed nothing but glossophiliacs who spent their days and night writing endless variations on definitions who, in their frenzied madness, ended up trying to murder the words they were seeking to play midwife to. The WHO definition is long. And vague. You can read it here. Operationalising a little we can extract the fundamentals: palliative care seeks to make life as liveable as possible for the dying body and for the bodies who will mourn it.

The Earth as a system of ecosystems, an ecological metasystem, is considered as a body composed of bodies that play habitat and inhabitant, catalyst and anticatalyst, metabolism and metabolite, and so on, to one another [1]. Not all of these bodies are living but as with any machinic assemblage this Earth emerges as a necessarily heterogenetic improvisation (the imposition of unpredictability) that depends on both organic and machinic kinds [2]. A cyborg of a different order than Robocop the Earth is more akin to the Half-Faced Man, a machine that wants to be human. This isn’t to say the Earth wants to be human, or that it wants anything in any way we’d recognise as desire, although interspecies sexuality clearly indicates a queer promiscuity among nonhuman organisms, but that the Earth has assembled in such a way that the organic has come out of the inorganic. From a certain perspective: so what? It’s all just interlocking mechanism. Well, fine. But its dying is what.

But the Earth won’t die. Not yet. Far more likely- and if we stop being so anthropophobic- we’re talking about ourselves. It is us that is dying. It is the palliative care of the human that we should really consider. We open with a discussion of the dying Earth because it is this dying that is killing us: a vicarious species-suicide? These are dark thoughts that imply a loathing so great in our species that we’d take out everything else just to slit our own throats once and for all. But we’re not that grand, we’re all too limited, all too human still. Like smokers in the 1950s we didn’t know what we were doing, then we did and did nothing about it, then everyone said it was too late. We’re not quite sure of the periodicity. We don’t know if it is too late. What we do know is that we’ve had a mass terminal diagnosis and there is no consensus on the prognosis. What are we dying of then, if not some anthropathology [3]?

Does the species have a body? Or is the species also a hallucination? Hallucinations can die too- ask a “schizophrenic” on Clozapine. The WHO is an ensemble of equipment and technique in the same way Guattari once spoke of the unconscious. It is almost as if the WHO invented health (“a total state”) and must administer it. What is it that the WHO wants to say about palliative care? It has things to say about the reduction of suffering; the affirmation of life and death; it seeks neither the hastening nor the postponing of death; it looks to psychology and spirituality; produces support systems; is multidisciplinary; is life enhancing; it’s never too early to start.

How does this map onto humanity? We’re just scale in a sense, where “humanity” stands in for “person”. So it is the reduction of the suffering of species and the enhancement of its existence. This follows nicely from Lacanian ideas that we live both by the reality-principle and jouissance, by both aversion and hedonics. We’re also not talking about killing ourselves off, so no reproductions of Zapffe’s conclusion to ‘The Last Messiah’- we aren’t about to go forth to be fruitless and let the Earth be silent after us (as if it would be). I think it’s safe to say fuck Messiahs, especially last ones.

We’re also looking to the psychology and spirituality of humanity? Doesn’t this translate quite well to looking at the cognitive biases and metacognitive illusions and the affects and emotions in their normativity and pragmatics? Support systems like what? New technologies and alternative energy sources? Sure. But it can’t be limited to that- what if extinction is much closer than this than we think? Well think about it for a second. The process has already begun. And I’m not just talking about Tim Morton’s plutonium, or irreversible glacial melting, or any other particular doomsday protocol. If we’ve been paying attention to the three ecologies then we should have spotted multiple extinctions have been in process for a long time now. Systems of systems have been disintegrating within whatever it is- or was- that we called the human for decades. By 2050 or so even the strange hominid form will have been eradicated, recorded in images that no creature surviving us will care much about.

So palliative care is about easing our way into dying off. It is about quietly doing our best to assemble societies in which we can humanely coexist with wild being until our time’s really up. That was certainly my feeling two years ago when I wrote a post on extinction. Back in 2012 I declared that

Any post-nihilistic pragmatics will require that we operate consciously within catastrophic time and that we surrender the impossible task of removing precariousness from the human condition. These are the same project in fact, given that the former reveals to us the anthropocentrism of the latter…the benign revelation that precariousness is the condition of all things. IF this garners the accusation of privelging the perspective of extinction and heat death then this is a necessary part of the pragmatic ethics of a self-management of extinction. As I have said before, the task now is to think the ethics of palliative care for the species. The dream of species-being is realised at last.

Today I wonder at the sadness of that post. At the time I’d thought of it as realistic, hard-headed, unsentimental. All that. But ultimately, I think it was a depressive position. If 2050 is the time limit then maybe it is too late, and maybe we should be looking at harm-reduction and palliation. But for me this could lead us to a politics of the worst in which we try to stave off the ‘least of all possible evils’, a mode of thought that Eyal Weizman has convincingly shown to be at work in some of the worst atrocities in modern history. In trying to create the conditions of the least possible harm the scale of the species we might actually end up with a resigned sigh in the face of forces we might be able to do something about. As such, the only way to “self-manage our extinction” has to be truly palliative in that it doesn’t just avoid suffering but also seeks jouissance. In fact, I’d concretise the program into what David Roden has been talking about in terms of a speculative posthumanism in which posthuman beings that emerge out of the human bear as much intuitive relation to us as we do to our ancestral forebears. The jouissance of this is less Lacanian and more about a sweeping mutative recombinatory innovation in the normativity of posthumanity.

In fact the pessimist and transhumanist programs belong together when we view harm reduction without the depressive targeting system, when in fact we dare to accelerate palliative philosophy into a praxis of assisted dying. What is born from the uneven unity of these programs is what I’m (stupidly; deliriously; in a state of panic) calling transpessimism: the speculative conviction that humanity must become extinct by becoming something else.

[1] From wikipedia:

System of systems is a collection of task-oriented or dedicated systems that pool their resources and capabilities together to create a new, more complex system which offers more functionality and performance than simply the sum of the constituent systems. Currently, systems of systems is a critical research discipline for which frames of reference, thought processes, quantitative analysis, tools, and design methods are incomplete.[1] The methodology for defining, abstracting, modeling, and analyzing system of systems problems is typically referred to as system of systems engineering.

[2] I’ve stolen the term “heterogenetic improvisation” from David Malvinni’s study of Roma music: “heterogenic improvisation…the divided interval where improvisation orginates out of otherness while identifying with itself…grows out of a desire for a purely involved performance, a symbiosis of listener and sound, via an identification of the same with its unpredictable mutation” (p. 47-48).

[3] The term “anthropathology”, a neologism of the “anthro” pertaining to the human and “pathology” pertaining to disease, was coined in 2007 by a practicing counselor and counselling theorist, Colin Feltham, turned pessimist philosopher. Feltham defines the condition of anthropathology at length in his book treatment of the “condition”- as valid as most psychopathological categories- but also presents a condensed definition as follows:

‘the marked, universal tendency of human beings individually and collectively towards suffering deceptiveness, irrationality, destructiveness and dysfunction,including an extreme difficulty in perceiving and freeing ourselves from this state’ (What’s Wrong With Us? The anthropathology thesis. 2007. p.256).

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