(My final paper for Contemporary Voices class, and also my last philosophy paper ever at PLNU. So so grateful for how my life has been changed by these classes and these thinkers and these conversations.)
Dasein/Hospitality in the age of the Anthropocene
The urgency of the climate crisis in this Anthropocene age raises the question of what it means to be in a rapidly changing world where there is immense human and ecological suffering. To confront, and respond to, the Anthropocene requires that we examine what we mean by ‘world’ and rethink what it means to exist as a human being in a more-than-human world. Heidegger’s notion of Dasein’s radical entanglement and shared vulnerability, as well as Derrida’s deconstruction and concept of hospitality, can be possible places to begin to think about how respond to the crisis at hand as we move our imaginations toward a nonhumanist philosophy of relational difference.
What is the ‘Anthropocene’?
The term refers to the current geological age in which human activity has been the dominant force on the environment. According to Steffen, Crutzen and McNeill in “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature,” there are three stages: stage one beginning in the 1800s with the “Industrial Era,” the second stage following WWII as “The Great Acceleration” of rapid human population, expansion and economic growth until 2015 when stage three began, although stage three is posed not as a term but as a question: “Stewards of the Earth?” (Steffen): an unknown, a where-are-we-now—revealing uncertainty about “our” place in the world (Kelly).
What is interesting is that the Anthropocene, defined in Steffan’s three stages, begins during the time of the Enlightenment in the Western philosophical tradition. Discourses of reason, individualism, freedoms, rights of “men,” private property and the sovereignty of nationstates ruled the cultural imagination. Immanuel Kant, after an earthquake in Lisbon in 1755, was deeply unsettled by the ways the Earth acted and caused trouble—without reason, uprooting societal order. Kant attempted to distinguish human beings from the ‘natural’: “…thought takes its directive from within, and not from any prompting by, the external world. Nature must comply with our capacity to recognise regularity and order, and not the other way around” (Kelly). Martin Heidegger challenges this “within” of humans as individual entities distinct from ‘nature’—for him, it is the other way around, and that is where we encounter the truthfulness of Being and of the world, when we allow it to be in its radical otherness, allowing its alterity to speak-forth, in all of its so-called “irregularity” and “disorder.” “But what are we asking ontologically about the ‘world’?” Heidegger writes, “But even if it succeeds in the purest explication of the being of nature, in comparison with the fundamental statements made by the mathematical natural sciences about this being, this ontology never gets at the phenomenon of the ‘world.’ Nature is itself a being which is encountered within the world…” (Being 63).
The problem with modernity is that it has extracted the human condition from its rootedness in world, histories and environments. Dasein, the relational existence of human beings, exists ‘out there’ in the world. It is completely in the world and particular as worlded. There is no such thing as an interior, individual self for Heidegger. Whatever it means to be is inextricably woven with the external world, including the terrifying and uncontrollable havoc of an earthquake.
Modernism extracts the human from their world by projecting ideas onto it and categorizing in order to grasp and understand. This categorization has led to a capitalistic valuation of both humans and nonhumans, land and animals. This trying-to-understand by grasping and extracting has covered over the truth of Being. Even so, it is part of who Dasein is in Dasein’s finitude that much of the world and of life is hidden from us. To be authentic in Dasein, then, is to confess our radical inauthenticity that we cannot escape, including the recognition that the world massively exceeds me. My body is the medium of connection I have to the world, and even this is wrought with implications of violence and my failure to allow the world to be in its radical alterity. Understanding the world as a particular discourse of ‘nature’ becomes a way to separate the world into categories and make it comprehensible, knowable, exploitable. The scientific categorizations and framing of nature for comprehension is, for Heidegger, what covers over the truth of the world. The paradox is that the very thing we are trying to understand, we have covered over.
For Heidegger, Dasein is thrown into the world, and in this throwing Dasein finds itself in relation to the world as a fallenness. I am fallen as I am thrown into the world, which is beyond my subjective control, a situation I am always already unable to escape. This is part of Dasein’s inauthenticity and profound weakness towards death. This is where we must begin to ask questions about Dasein’s existence and entanglement in a world beyond appropriation or understanding—in a world radically affected by structural exploitation that will respond in a way we do not and cannot know or prepare for—a world with unanticipated Lisbon earthquakes that disrupt our ‘mastery-over’ discourses. Human beings must situate themselves in this particular shared vulnerability and finitude that already lies beyond any categorical notion—including those of human/nature or human/animal differentiation.
This discourse of human supremacy over the Earth is long-standing in the Western tradition. Even now, how to address the climate change crisis is often discussed in human-centric terms, privileging technology and science, adaptable to late-stage capitalism and the profitability/security of nation-states. Derrida’s deconstruction of hospitality as that which draws ‘dwelling’ and ‘home’ into question, as well as Heidegger’s notion of what ‘world’ means, begin to challenge the prominent but violent discourse of human supremacy in a way that reconsiders our human entanglement in a more-than-human world.
What is a ‘world’?
“Is world indeed a character of being of Dasein? And then does every Dasein ‘initially’ have its own world? Does not ‘world’ thus become something ‘subjective’? Then how is a ‘common’ world still possible ‘in’ which we, after all, are? If we pose the question of ‘world,’ which world is meant? Neither this nor that world, but rather the worldliness of the world in general” (Being 64).
For Heidegger, Dasein is always already in the world. I am a particular Dasein with my particular world, but the world is not reduced to me. The standing-out into Being called ek-sistence reveals the limits of my world as the world massively exceeds me: “Thought in terms of ek-sistence, ‘world’ is in a certain sense precisely ‘the beyond’ within existence and for it” (Letter 252). Dasein as being-in-the-world brings up the question of what it means to be in the world: “Being-in-the-world, and thus the world as well, must be the subject of our analytic in the horizon of average everydayness as the nearest kind of being of Dasein.” (Being 66). This nearest kind of being is the world at-hand, a nonmetaphysical and embodied world in which I live, breathe, work, sleep, eat, etc—radically entangled with other humans and nonhumans, in my specific and particular environment.
World, as both my own and that which massively exceeds me, becomes a kind of paradox or confession of limits. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” writes Wittgenstein, and these limits, for Derrida, are the beginning of ethics, for this particular world we share is never simply ours, and is not ours to control or understand or know.
Cary Wolfe, using Derrida’s deconstruction as a model, writes that the source of ethical responsibility lies “precisely in that each world is unique but mortal—that is, uniquely vulnerable. It is the scene of address, among humans and across the human-animal divide, that results from this nonsharing of world but sharing of finitude… We have to act responsibly, then, but without grounding in the one world, and without being able to see what is good for all” (Fritsch). This nonsharing of world but sharing of finitude is perhaps what beckons Dasein to confront one’s own death, and thus confront the death of the Other. Derrida, in his essay “Uninterrupted Dialogue,” writes of the “earth (including sky and sea) or else the world as the world of life-death. The common world is the world in which one-lives-one-dies, whether one is a beast or a human sovereign, a world in which both suffer, suffer death, even a thousand deaths.” Standing-out into the world means confronting one’s own death and the death of the other whom I am called to respond to—each death as serious as the end of the world.
Derrida, in his essay, considers a line from a Paul Celan poem: “the world is gone away, I must carry you” as the beginning of ethics, for it is precisely this finitude we share across a world we do not that beckons us to respond to the call of the Other. Perhaps to carry is a kind of confession, a responsibility that is never fulfilled but always calls us into being and into question, where Dasein “obeys and listens” (Being 65) to the world it knows is radically beyond its understanding, but is beckoned to respond to nonetheless: “In the least, he feels solely responsible, assigned to carry both the other and his world, the other and the world that have disappeared, responsible without world (weltlos), without the soil of any world, thenceforth, in a world without world, as if without earth beyond the end of the world” (“Uninterrupted Dialogue”).
Lynes writes that Derrida reads finitude and mortality “not as a power, activity, or agency that would be proper to this or that form of life, but as a radical passivity, as an unpower or nonpower at the heart of power” (Lynes). This inappropriable, unnameable differance that is woven into all things “everywhere comes to solicit” the “domination of beings… in the sense that sollicitare, in old Latin, means to shake as a whole, to make tremble in entirety. Therefore, it is the determination of Being as presence or as beingness that is interrogated by the thought of differance” (Differance 414).
This trembling and shakenness of beings from their “domination” is, for Heidegger, a recognition of vulnerability and authentic confrontation of one’s death. For “Man is not the lord of beings. Man is the shepherd of Being.” In this trembling and shakenness humans “attain the truth of Being. [They] gain the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being itself into the preservation of Being’s truth.” This call “comes as the throw from which the thrownness of Da-sein derives… Man is the neighbor of Being” (Letter 245).
In re-thinking the human relationship to the world and Being as neighbor, the question of at-homedness and ‘home’ is raised. What does it mean to respond to the call of one’s neighbor, one’s neighbor who is the radically inappropriable Earth and truth of Being that I encounter which is already beyond my understanding and language? And what then is my responsibility as neighbor in this “call” of Being that constitutes my thrownness in the world? Can thrownness become a condition of awakening to realities, an opportunity for confession and reconsideration? Stewardship and shepherding beckon one to claim responsibility as neighbor, while rejecting modern ‘mastery-over’ or technological mindsets. It is in this ‘care’ that Dasein, who asks the question of the meaning of Being, asks the question of the meaning of Being in a more-than-human, radically ‘Other’ world.
Anthropocene as ‘autoimmunity’: the demand of hospitality
Kelly argues that the Anthropocene can be considered in terms of Derrida’s concept of ‘autoimmunity.’ His term, which draws on the medical term but is distinctly philosophical and rhetorical, describes autoimmunity as that which “works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its ‘own’ immunity”: “To lose itself all by itself,” Derrida writes, “to go down on its own, to auto-immunize itself, as I would prefer to say in order to designate this strange illogical logic by which a living being can spontaneously destroy, in an autonomous fashion, the very thing within it that is supposed to protect it against the other, to immunize itself against the aggressive intrusion of the other” (Kelly). Anthropocene as an “illogical logic,” Kelly writes, opens up a critique about the ‘self’ doing the destroying. This critique undoes the deeply-held modern foundations of sovereign nation-states, capitalism, the autonomous self, the home, the host. This autoimmunity exposes humans’ radical inextricably with nature and the world, undermining and rejecting Kant’s attempt to separate humans and nature. Humans have been agents in their own self-destruction due to this attempted separation. “Humanity” is positioned as both the possible cure for the climate crisis, via mitigation and adaptation techniques, and “the disease or parasite—that which is infecting the life support system… ‘Humanity’ is becoming a self-conscious, active agent… Thus, we are simultaneously entering into unknown and unknowable terrains and we are uniquely aware through science of our impact and place” (Kelly).
Hospitality, for Derrida, is an unconditioned and unexpected welcoming of radical alterity—of the other who is irreducible to me and unknown to me. Hospitality “is always about answering for a dwelling place, for one’s identity, one’s space, one’s limits, for the ethos as abode, habitation, house, hearth, family, home” (Kelly). Derrida’s interest in hospitality is drawn to the fact that “by virtue of its etymology, the word ‘hospitality’ carries its opposite within itself… the word is derived from the Latin hospes, which is formed from hostis, which originally meant a ‘stranger’ and came to take on the meaning of the enemy or ‘hostile’ stranger (hostilis) + pets (potis, potes, potentia), to have ‘power.’” (Caputo 110). Thus there is an essential ‘self-limitation’ built into the idea of hospitality, and the possibility of it is sustained by its impossibility. Whatever it means to be at-home is questioned, including categories of belonging, authority, sovereignty, citizen, and anthropocentrism.
The climate change crisis beckons us to ask these questions of what dwelling, responsibility and welcome mean in our current context. “Belonging” to a nation-state, the globe, or the human race is called into question, as well as the “relations between host and guest, self and other, nature and culture, citizen and non-citizen, and human and nonhuman” (Kelly). This implicates hospitality in that we must answer for, Derrida says, “a new figure, a new shape of what one calls humanity” (Kelly). This is important in a world where categories of borders and nationstates, citizens and foreigners, and a dominant discourse of ownership of land, sea and resources are often included in definitions of hospitality. Through deconstruction we are implicated and beckoned to examine our conditional, nationalistic, ‘human sovereign’-assumed hospitalities: “Are we the heirs to this tradition of hospitality? Up to what point? Where should we place the invariant, if it is one, across this logic and these narratives? They testify without end in our memory” (Of Hospitality 155).
Thus the aporia and impossibility of hospitality remains, as decision-making and responsibility are held in tension as we navigate the demand that the Anthropocene makes on us. Policies, framed by humans, are absolutely vital but will always be limited and can never truly do enough. For hospitality “really starts to happen when I push against this limit, this threshold, this paralysis, inviting hospitality to cross its own threshold and limit… to become a gift beyond hospitality… Hospitality, if there is such a thing, is beyond hospitality… it never exists, not ‘present,’ is always to come” (Caputo 111). The impossibility of hospitality and the ethical is ‘to come,’ it is an open-ended question. Also ‘to come’ is the revelation of the truth of Being and of the Earth (the revelation of the Other), and we wait in anticipation for this as we deconstruct the ways in which we have done violence to the Other calling out to us.
In our culture and world dominated by modernity and its emphasis on mastery-over, assimilation and valuation of human bodies and land, we must begin to “change our cultural and conceptual infrastructure… [which] is as necessary as taking the time to change, say, our energy and transportation infrastructure” (Bretz). As we consider our limitations and capacity for self-destruction in these particular modern frameworks, we must examine how we got to where we are (this age of urgent environmental degradation). Slow and careful thinking about these concerns seems necessary if we want to change our violent systems of thought and valuation, while at the same time, it can also seem unjust to take the time to do so when so many humans and nonhumans are suffering and dying because of the “environmental violence constitutive of the world we have inherited” (Bretz).
Likewise, the deconstruction of the ‘at-home’ of hospitality is not simply a thought-experiment, as climate change threatens, and already has left, many without a home and displaced, and those who suffer the most will be, and are, the already disadvantaged and marginalized in society (Kelly). The many endangered animal, plant and insect species that are losing their habitat-homes will suffer and are suffering as well.
This philosophical task, then, is an impossible one. We are called to respond to these others and their sufferings and their deaths, for, Derrida writes, “every time, and every time singularly, every time irreplaceably, every time infinitely, death is nothing less than an end of the world… Death marks every time, every time in defiance of arithmetic… the end of the unique world, the end of the totality of that which is or can be presented as the origin of the world for any unique living being, be it human or not” (“Uninterrupted Dialogue”).
It is important to note that the framing of hospitality “within the Western philosophical and political tradition of sovereignty (by Derrida and others) perhaps cannot account for or do justice to Indigenous relations to places, hospitalities and sovereignties” (Kelly). The colonizer/colonized question of hospitality relates directly to the destruction of the earth and violence leading to the Anthropocene. It is a question that will continue to implicate Western philosophical frameworks, including the framework this paper works from.
The Limits of Language
Our language and interpretation of various texts (which for Derrida includes every aspect of the material world), determines how we engage with the world. We should be constantly examining and questioning our interpretations of texts, and must remain open to the uncertainty and ambiguity of the irresolvable tensions in our interpretations, paying “attention to the way that language guides the ways we think and act” (Bretz). This is important, especially considering that for Heidegger, language is “at once the house of Being and the home of human beings” (Letter 262). If language is the house of Being and the home of human beings, in what ways must we examine our at-homedness in language in terms of hospitality? How do we unconditionally welcome alterity in our language-home, when the Other we encounter is already beyond language, beyond our frameworks and ability to assimilate or understand?
For Heidegger, plants and animals lack language, meaning that even though they are “lodged in their respective environments” they “are never placed freely in the clearing of Being which alone is ‘world’” (Letter 230). The word ‘environment’ though “converges all that is puzzling about living creatures. In its essence, language is not the utterance of an organism; nor is it the expression of a living thing. Nor can it ever be thought in an essentially correct way in terms of the character of signification. Language is the clearing-concealing advent of Being itself” (Letter 230). In consumer-driven, late-capitalism America, for example, our lack of language regarding waste covers-over the truth about the exploitation of the earth and what the marginalized will have to endure because of the system’s wasteful, violent patterns. When language is thought of as a signification, utterance or categorization of understanding, instead of as the “clearing-concealing advent of Being,” we will not be able to address the realities and ethical responsibilities of the Anthropocene outside of these violent, technological, human-centric systems themselves, because we will still be under the illusion that we are ‘in control’ of technology and of ‘nature’ through our grasping language. But, this has alienated us from nature itself. When the unassimilable Other reveals itself to us outside of our language-home, we recognize that we are not in control and cannot grasp this world of radical alterity. Human beings encounter the meaning of the earth—the shining-forth, revelatory truth of Being, but do not give the earth its meaning. And this ‘human-master’ attempt to give the earth its meaning through violent discourses has ushered in the Anthropocene.
For Derrida, there is a kind of posthuman promise of the earth, a “preoriginary engagement, gift, credit, debt, and duty anterior to any social or natural contract” (Lynes). This promise is what Derrida calls “the silent call of the earth…. That language without language or correspondence with the earth and the world” (Lynes). The ethical lies outside of language—any contract, law or policy—even outside any ‘solution’ to the climate crisis within the realm of technology, science and capitalism. And it is the world, which is outside language, outside our “home,” calls us to confront and confess our limitations within our language-home as we recognize that we cannot assimilate the Other into our language, into our home—it is again the impossibility of hospitality.
If language is our home, then language also houses our imaginations about what is possible. How then do we respond to the silent call of the earth—the language without language—in a way that broadens our imaginations? We need new language and imagination that accounts for waste, for example. We need new imagination that steps outside of capitalist-economic frameworks for how to address climate change. We need an imagination that reaches beyond our very language, our very home. It is the call of the Other, the vast, unassimilable Earth, that calls me into Being and that I am beckoned to respond to, recognizing my radical vulnerability and inability to respond truly ethically as I remain and dwell in the aporia of hospitality.
Time and possibilities
For Heidegger, it is part of who Dasein is that things are hidden from us—it is part of Dasein’s finitude that the world is hiding from us—that time, space, the past and the future are all hidden from us. Space, time, the past, present and future are not extracted from existence for Heidegger, rather, they are radically entangled in what it means to exist as Dasein. This entanglement of time calls us to “find ways to acknowledge all the ways in which past violence is built into the very fabric of our present” (Bretz), including the degradation and exploitation already done to the earth.
Ted Toadvine argues that “our times are characterized by a hollowing out of the present,” the result of a fast-paced, ever-accelerating time defined and exploited by capitalism’s emphasis on productivity and profitability: “In such a time, all presents are equivalent; no moment, person, or place is allowed its singularity, and the future is there only for a calculative management seeking to maintain the status quo” (Toadvine).
In our current situation of a global pandemic, our consumerist, capital-driven, fast-paced, economic lives have been uprooted. The stay-at-home orders and lockdowns have significantly reduced air pollution and CO2 emissions. Of course, a global pandemic where many are suffering should not have been what allowed for this to happen, but it does present the question of what this particular moment we find ourselves in means, as well as an examination of our shared vulnerability—including how often the Third World suffers radically from the economic habits of the First World.
Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst for the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, said that “The big question is whether government stimulus measures lead to pollution levels rebounding above the levels before the crisis, like happened after the 2008 financial crisis” (Ellis-Petersen).
It is an open-ended question, though it is an urgent question with serious, life-threatening implications. Naomi Klein explains in her video “Coronavirus Capitalism” that in times of crisis such as these, “seemingly impossible ideas become possible.”
“Ideas that have been lying around for a long time are exposed,” she says—ideas like no-strings-attached corporate bailouts (including for fracking companies) that are already being discussed. In times of crisis, governments have the ability to exploit the population’s disorientation and fear to push policies that help the rich. At the same time, she says, “it’s possible for crisis to catalyze an evolutionary leap… ideas that seemed too radical just a few weeks ago now seem like the only reasonable path to get us out of the crisis and prevent future ones.”
Thus the future remains open to possibility—possibility for renewal as well as destruction. The ‘to come’ of hospitality makes a demand on us to act vigilantly now, to demand justice now, even while we realize it is always ‘to come.’ The silent call of the Earth—the language without language—continues to make an impossible demand of unconditional hospitality. And we must begin to ask the questions, challenge our anthropocentric, modern, mastery-over frameworks.
Our imaginations must be challenged and widened as we rethink what it means to be in a drastically changing climate and its urgent demand. We can ask new and different questions and get a sense of ‘dwelling’ less centered around human design. The world remains Other to us. Derrida considers another one of Celan’s poems that reminds us of the language without language, the “illegibility of the world.” The poem, Derrida says, “speaks itself of itself,” a text that we are encountered by, like the text of the Earth we are encountered by:
world. Everything doubled.
Staunch clocks confirm the split hour, hoarsely.
You, clamped in your depths, climb out of yourself
for ever.” (“Uninterrupted Dialogue” 15).
For Derrida, the “‘you’ whom this poem apostrophizes” one hesitates to identify, for “no matter who, more than one, the poem itself, the poet, the reader, the abyssal profundity of this or that other singularity forever encrypted, any or an entirely other, God, you or me… climb out of yourself for ever.’” And maybe this is where we can begin to rethink the ethical and encounter the truth of Being as we climb out of ourselves and “climb back down into the nearness of the nearest” (Letter 254) — to being-in-the-world in our inextricably entangled and embodied existence. Our shared vulnerability and the demand of hospitality in the Anthropocene constantly reminds us of our limitations as we everywhere encounter the vast, unassimilable silent call of the earth—the language without language—the differance that calls us to carry and confront the end-of-the-world.
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