Colonial Ends/Ends of Life (pt 1)

16Nov20

Recently I did two overlapping talks (one in Brussels one online) on the question of the ends of life (genocide, apocalypse, extinction) and how this relates to the philosophy and history of biology (thinking about ends in terms of goals or thinking life teleologically in the overarching sense in that life is defined by having either local or future-oriented goals). Looking at the past few entries on Sylvia Wynter’s work the connection to the history of colonialism should be relatively straight-forward – namely the question of the definition of the human (especially if it is a narrow definition that thinks it is a universal definition) is central to the various disasters of European expansion.

We have a tangle of problems concerning how, and whether to, define the human vis a vis the history of biology and its theological and colonial inheritances both implicit and explicit:

-life as fundamentally intentional/goal oriented and whether this is founded about spirit or reason (as defined according to the Judeo-Christian tradition)

-human life as radically or not radically different from animal life (esp leading up to and immediately after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species) and how this in turn plays into race

-the question of whether the human is better defined as a historical or technological being over and above relying on a particular form of life or particular biological form.

-the question of recasting human animal comparisons in light of anthropogenic climate change and planetary extinction and the ‘we’ of the human that causes/faces extinction

The tensions between these various categories again were discussed via Sylvia Wynter’s texts esp in terms of the fact that the conquistadors could doubt whether the Aztecs were humans or not because the question was about their status as rational or not (not about biological similarity). Similarly, post-Darwin, one could not hold onto race as marking a difference in terms of different species but was a gradient internal to humans vis a vis their relation to animals. Hence why in The Descent of Man Darwin entertains proto-eugenical notions about some races being more animal like than others.

The categories of the ends of life (genocide/apocalypse/extinction) pull on these threads in incompatible ways. Genocide indexes a historical event and one that we often think (or did at the time of its coinage) as the intentional killing of a people or a culture made possible by a certain level of technological development. The term was coined in the wake of the Armenian genocide that was followed not long after by the holocaust. But assuming it primarily mean the intentionally killing of a people or destruction of a culture we often see the term applied backwards in history – the treatment of native and indigenous people by colonial forces as genocidal.

Of course as we have just seen these people may very well may not have been seen as human and this dehumanization or animalization is at times applied to the genocides of the 20th century. But the local or faux-universal character of the human seems very different in each case – with the holocaust there was a complex internalization of speculative racist anthropology that allowed other races to be seen as impure or inferior. The justifications of the conquistadors took a completely different path as their appeal to being human or privileged being had no need of the kind of anthropological thinking coupled with technological distanciation.

Emphasizing technology pushes one into the realm of thinking the apocalyptic, of the end of the world. The problem here of course is the assumption of the singular world when world often means civilization, or the west, or the first world when it is presented in post-apocalyptic fiction. With its theological baggage the apocalypse is about an unveiling of a different world, a world after the world while assuming that world is equatable with technologically advanced and ‘civilized.’ The question of life is diffused in apocalyptic thinking, it becomes a question of what the future will hold for ‘the human race’ – it becomes a question of survival and the hope for something more than survival.

This question of the more than obviously lends itself to articulations of the human that separate them from biological existence. The question becomes whether this can be done in a way that does not fall back into a paraochial westernism as comes up in the debates around Chakrabarty’s call for a new concept of species being by way of something like a negative universal history. This of course causes trouble in terms of the category of extinction. In the case of extinction or fighting extinction surviability seems paramount (ie that a species continue is a good in and of itself) and furthermore the claim is often made to say humans (or some well to do humans) are the cause of climate change ignores the various non-human elements, that it runs the risk of inflating human capacities and therefore repeating a definition of the human that led to such crimes in the first place.

Furthermore, those that champion certain forms of the posthuman or nonhuman approaches to ecology may often engage in human-animal comparisons to minimize the gap between us and other species in order to attempt to foster an aesthetics/ethics that is is ontologically charged in some way. Writing from a decolonial perspective Wynter will argue that we still require the construction of a human as a narrative or historical being (in place of judeo-christian Man and socio-bio-economic Man) and this very much pushes against any continuum building between humans and animals as well as any ontological claims about colonial and post colonial life. Various afropessimist writings for instance utilize ontology as a hard block between the trauma and negativity of black life and any attempt to connect or engulf it. In one sense the afropessimist move is one means of attempting to weaponize the internalization of race post-Darwin.

This building of an alternative narrative being is not only challenged by the disastrous failures of european attempts to do so but is also internally riven by the structural and historical aspects and the appeal to experience. This is very much visible with the reception of Fanon’s work – how he is to be read in relation to the shared or specific structures of colonialism and the ways he inherits but also critiques Hegel on the one hand and Merleau-Ponty on the other. This distinction between history and experience again casts a certain light on the confusion or collapse of apocalypse and extinction.

Thomas Moynihan’s new book X-Risk spends a great deal of time holding up the distinction between apocalypse as the sense of an end and extinction as the end of sense. Going extinct can be experienced but being extinct cannot be experienced while one can experience the end of one’s world or witness the ending of another world. Confusing apocalypse and extinction can also have the consequence of seeing extinction as a future event rather than as a slow continuous and already ongoing process. Planetary history bolsters that view in the sense of thinking extinction in terms of the KT impact which annihilated the dinosaurs.

And yet because so many indigenous people and people of color have experienced genocide and apocalypse and because they are often facing the brunt of the effects of climate change and their uneven distribution, one can see why extinction might be viewed as a western or scientistic category. I believe it is mistake to deny the universality of extinction but it is also deeply flawed to be confused by those who might reject any ill-conceived universalism that is historically or globally myopic.



2 Responses to “Colonial Ends/Ends of Life (pt 1)”


  1. 1 review of X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction by Thomas Moynihan (2020 Urbanomic Press) – _o_megatiron
  2. 2 1690 – X-Risk: How Humanity Discovered Its Own Extinction by Thomas Moynihan (2020 book) | TimeSpace Warps

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