By Jamie Goldrick
In the worldview of the Cree, life is lived along a trail of experiences. Sharing experience with others is a result of the crossing of two life trails. Life is experienced as a tangled pattern of all beings. In this way, beings do not occupy one world, as in the Western sense: they inhabit their own relational field.
To the Cree, even the wind is alive. It interacts and has agency, and it has the capacity to come into contact with other beings and be affective. In this respect the wind too has the capacity to be alive as it can give shape to the world. For the Yukaghir in Siberia, Elk have the capacity to enter into personhood depending upon which relational field they enter.
In animist cosmology, objects can be ascribed personhood simply by the fact that they have potential to enter into relations with the environment and other living beings. According to Anthropologist Tim Ingold, “different creatures have different points of view of the world, because of different capabilities and perception they attend to the world in different ways”. Thus to the animist, life is lived through the relational field that objects enter into with each other. Regarding all beings and objects, we exist, therefore we are.
Edward Tylor coined the term animism in 1871. He used it to describe the idea that inanimate beings and objects were attributed with spirits. To Tylor, an evolutionist, this was just an aberration on the part of the animists, a “magical philosophy grounded in error” and nothing more than the simple mistake of a basic society on the path to modernity.
Steeped in the western philosophical tradition, Tylor naturally found focus in rational inquiry and scientific progress. He is a product of the Enlightenment, espousing such values as the natural rights of humans to life, liberty and property. Roy Porter, describing Immanuel Kant, observes:
For Kant enlightenment was man’s final coming of age, the emancipation of human consciousness from an immature state of ignorance and error. He believed that this process of mental liberation was actively at work in his own lifetime. The advancement of knowledge – understanding of nature, but human self-knowledge no less -would propel this giant leap forward.
Yet even to this day Enlightenment values have yet to break free from the shackles of Christianity, perhaps even the Classical Period that came before it as well. There are blind spots and limitations to rational inquiry and scientific progress. Our thinking is infected by it.
One such blind spot presumes a nature-culture divide, the notion that we are different than other sentient beings. In this worldview, animals exist as mere automata. They are machines without consciousness, all body and no mind, or to use Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum, the definitive difference between us and all other beings on this planet is consciousness: I think, therefore I am.
Thus the environment, the humans who had yet to achieve enlightenment and the animals alike who inhabited it were objects to be manipulated and used by us, the subjects. This is the ontological basis that the West is built upon. It is the foundation that provides the philosophical conditions for capitalism to flourish. The gulf between what is theorized in the minds of men and what is a lived environmental reality was alluded to by one of the foundational thinkers of the Enlightenment, Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations:
The same division that caused the social organism to grow also causes the individual worker to become impoverished …the man whose life is spent in performing a few simple operations generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.
The Wealth of Nations relied upon the bodily suffering of the disempowered to function at the expense of an abstract social body and to those in possession of the means of production. Written in 1776, things have somewhat changed in the past 240 years.
Briefly, it has been a long, arduous, and somewhat brutal journey for capital to the present day. Capital, in its search for surplus value, has penetrated through domestic markets, foreign markets, future markets, even now to our very sociality via the technological advances that have allowed for online social networking to occur. The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement, which eliminated the gold standard, allowed the dollar to become symbolic and abstract, facilitating a new definition of economic worth, as evinced by the liberalization of capital markets, the emergence of futures markets, and the notorious derivatives. Economic value has become anthropocentric, a closed human based value system, abstracted from the material environment.
Take for example Google’s $66 billion turnover in 2014, Facebook’s 1.3 billion users, or Twitter’s initial stock market flotation of 23 billion. This value is located in the climate cooled data centers of financial institutions, abstracted from reality. This descent into the digital ether compounds as these abstract value systems begin to play a greater and more influential role in our lives. At a time when our relationship to nature urgently needs to be re-examined, the gulf between nature and culture grows exponentially. Nature – earth’s ‘free gifts’ – becomes further objectified, commodified and excluded from our sense of being-in-the-world.
Maurizio Lazzarato notes that Neoliberalism relies on the individuality of its users, which has a profound effect upon our understanding of the new digital labor. To Lazzarato, digital labor functions by uniting and bringing together extreme individualization and dividuation (the collection of individuals’ idiosyncrasies into data banks) of individuals. The appendages of digital labor feed off our subjectivity and thus enslave us. As Marx argued, machinery enslaves and is manifested as a form of fixed capital. Today these machinic processes have invaded the daily. Lazzarato observes that we are currently enslaved by the mega-machine. Once our individual identity is stripped, a process called machinic enslavement, the individual is rendered as “a gear, a cog, a component part of business and financial assemblages”.
Today the circulation of capital is now the principal means of generating profit. Capital is reliant on human activity to function and flow. Immaterial capital flows are reliant on dividuals to •connect the circuits• between entities. This modern machinic enslavement does not subscribe to traditional categories of subject/object or human/machine binaries. The dividual does not stand by an external machine, for as Lazzarato notes “together they constitute a human machine apparatus in which humans are but recurrent and interchangeable parts of production and consumption. The individual is part of the machine: part-mineral, part-mind and integral to the functioning of modern day capitalism. By habitually updating a status, Googling a mundane thought, or checking into any given establishment, the bodily language of non-engagement now screams: I think, therefore I am capital.
Technology, paced by notions of progress and modernity, has always had an ambivalent place in Western discourse. The obsession with progress obfuscates the objective effects of technology. Technology once demarcated the distinction between work time and leisure time. According to E.P. Thompson: “Before the industrial revolution, time was task based, with the introduction of the machine to the factory floor, this brought the time-keeper, the informer and the fines.” Capital intensive machines had to be attended to round the clock to function. With the advent of the steam engine, the shift from organic to carbon power, a new proletariat was born. Today technology is once again blurring the boundaries by creating a social factory from out of our leisure and private time. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. Innovation within the dominant paradigm of capitalism serves to innovate existing forms of domination. In this case, those who control the visions of the future control the present.
The predominant discourse of think therefore I am, and our obsession with progress blinds us to the realities of the day. We are within its apparatus when we work, or when we play, when reaching out to others, or solitarily in our own homes. What if we could see the true effects of this mega-machine? Strip away Cartesian subjectivity and take on the oft forgotten worldview of the animist. Proclaim “what manner are these things, part mineral, part mind that serve the few and enslave the many, while fouling the land, the water and the air! “We can no longer see objects as they truly exist in the world. To use Descartes’ term, now we are the automata, cogs and gears, the circuitry of the mega machine, assembled on the false logic of a nature/culture divide.
Set to the backdrop of species collapse, the disappearance of the rainforests, the acidification of the oceans, the mega-machine operates faster than ever before. The creatures outside look in, from person to machine, and then from human to person, and from person to machine again; but already it is impossible to say which is which….
-Jamie Goldrick is a filmmaker and contributing editor to Rabble magazine in Ireland.