What Does More-than-Human Perspective Mean?
Kick-off essay for the thematic Forum on the «More-than-Human Perspective»
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
What if the challenge of more-than-human perspectives could be assumed by human imagination?
What if the Anthropocene was an obvious, human construction?
The Anthropocene defines the epoch of the evil arrogance and violence of human beings towards all other beings and the whole planet. Salvation from destruction and self-destruction will come only if we let animals, plants and minerals get their rights back. The Other (-than-human) will prevail: Nature will triumph over human misdeeds. Are you comfortable with this narrative? For my part, I am not completely comfortable with it, and yet this narrative appears to make the “more-than-human perspective” – the perspective of animals, plants, minerals, probably sheer matter too – to be an increasingly popular topic among artists and intellectuals. The themes of the residents of Filmexplorer’s Berlin Hub bear further witness to this.
In need of clarity and precision, I propose starting a discussion of the idea of more-than-human perspective in four steps:
1) What does the expression “more-than-human” express in comparison to “non-human” or “other-than-human”?
The more-than-human perspective paves the way for a possible continuity between the human and the non-human or other-than-human… In this way, it challenges the Anthropocene from within.
2) Insofar as the more-than-human perspective is clearly connected to and challenges the idea of the Anthropocene from within, we should understand the limits of this idea. For example, concerning the effective systemic relevance of the human and the problem of temporal scaling.
In an essentialist approach, the systemic relevance of the human, that is necessary for the idea of the Anthropocene to be defined in natural sciences, is quite difficult to find and, if we find it, cannot be temporally universalised.
3) The limits of the idea of the Anthropocene lead to reframing it as a “cognitive Anthropocene”, and make it an evident as well as uninteresting idea. The broader field of the cognitive Anthropocene makes the challenge of the more-than-human perspective even more compelling.
It is not the naturalist Anthropocene that will represent the dominance of the human perspective but the human perspective that is the condition for the naturalist Anthropocene to be defined.
4) It is within the framework of human imagination and the (human) construction of science that the more-than-human perspective can be studied and embodied. This is the exercise of Border Epistemology.
It is not the question of trying to see the world from the point of view of animals, plants, minerals, or base matter. This would be absurd and finally end up with a delusive (human-all-too-human) projection. It is rather the question of studying… the specificities of their functioning… and then trying to apply that functioning to our situation.
In this way, practicing more-than-human perspectives also becomes an exercise in interactive and reciprocal responsivity.
This proposal is meant to trigger an open discussion on the topic.
I am fascinated by works that question the non-human perspective - assume it, elaborate from it, etc. I am speaking about the perspective of animals, plants, minerals, and probably pure matter as well.
The themes of the last five residencies at Filmexplorer’s Berlin Hub have all focused on this type of perspective: looking at the world, researching and creating from the point of view of the objects (Jodie McNeilly), the water (Georgia Nowak), the clay (Elin Eyborg), the octopus (Matthias Wittmann), and the vegetable (Adina Ionescu-Muscel) respectively. This coincidence proves the widespread popularity of the topic, which is appropriated by artists and writers in very different ways. This is the reason I found the need to begin a discussion, on a general but precise level, about the non-human perspective as a concept.
In an informal exchange, Jodie McNeilly recalled to me that a terminological issue has been largely discussed, and the expression “more-than-human perspective” seems to prevail over the one of “non-human perspective” or “other-than-human perspective”. Why? “Non-human” seems to presuppose a separation of realms, between the human and the non-human – everything else – thereby stressing the human exception which is often interpreted in terms of human supremacy. In refusing the expression “non-human”, one already takes a position against a modern dualism, the one of exceptionalist or supremacy humanism. The same would apply in refusing the expression “other-than-human”. This last expression can convey a less anthropocentric and more pluralist attitude than “non-human” but as with “non-human” it will continue to share a dualism where the human is the decisive pole.
One nuance that the non-duality of the expression “more-than-human” brings is that the more-than-human perspective is a perspective that could be “also human”, partially human, and also to the extent that this perspective could be not non-human. This nuance paves the way for a possible continuity between the human and the non-human or other-than-human.
Is the Anthropocene responsible for this “partial humanity” of animals, plants, minerals, or elemental matter, insofar as it would encompass all that seems to be non-human, in making it partially human? If that is the case, the alternative to “non-human” should rather be “more-than-non-human”. Why should we call their perspective “more-than-human”? Even if it is not dualist the more-than-human perspective seems to continue to underline the human as the starting point from which we can take the perspective of animals, plants, minerals, or base matter into consideration. With this expression the all-encompassing aspect of the Anthropocene is both confirmed and challenged. As more-than-human, their perspective appears to exceed the Anthropocene, and in this way it corrects its limits.
Therefore, one can ask in which sense would the human perspective have something less than the perspective of animals, plants, minerals, or sheer matter? A possible answer is that they would embody a functioning perfection and harmony which the human would lack, to the extent the human would also be able to dysfunction, to break the functioning perfection of the world. In this way, the expression “more-than-human” would indirectly refer to a kind of “privative anthropology”.
In any case, independently of this interpretation in terms of privative anthropology, I would say that the enormous interest for the more-than-human perspective is – at least today – effectively bound to the discussion around the Anthropocene. The more-than-human perspective has a quite interesting connotation in comparison to a non-human or other-than-human perspective, because it hints at a possible continuity between the human and the non-human or other-than-human. In this way it challenges the Anthropocene from within and not as the perspective of something ideally outside the domain of the Anthropocene (the non-human or other-than-human perspective). More-than-human would not mean “more than what the Anthropocene has been able to saturate”, but “more than what the Anthropocene is able to saturate”.
This last nuance will allow us to make the more-than-human perspective distance itself from any nostalgic approach to nature, which is popular among many critics of the Anthropocene. In fact, the external criticism of the Anthropocene, that is one that is coherent with non-human or other-than-human perspectives, often comes with the flavour of a “coming back to” a pre-Anthropocene reality, where the human perspective did not yet saturate the world.
However, before discussing the relationship between the more-than-human perspective and nature, it is important to clarify the human perspective as defined within the context of the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene is first of all a tool for periodisation. In order to make it an interesting idea the reference to the anthropos for the periodisation should of course not merely be conventional but also capture an essential aspect of the period. In an essentialist approach, not one of many possible candidates will conventionally connotate the period in question (as is the case in other kinds of periodisation) but will in fact be an element that describes a factual hegemony – or at least an element which any other aspect of the world would be dependent on, influenced by, significantly modified through, etc. Without going into detail on how scientific the actual procedures are in order to establish that the human is this kind of element, I would like to hint at the problematic status of any essentialist categorisation in science.
Dependency, influence, modification or change alone are clearly not enough to determine a factual hegemony. Not only must everything have these kinds of relationships with the human being but the human being should also be the only element to which everything has said kinds of relationships and, moreover, these kinds of relationships all together – or at least should be the only element to which everything has these kinds of relationships in the strongest possible way.
This precision is important because everything is actually dependent on, influenced by, or modified through many other things. It would be enough to recall Edward Norton Lorenz’ “butterfly effect” – already anticipated by Henri Poincaré (a moderate conventionalist himself…) – in order to highlight the global interconnectedness of the physical world. Not a simple relevance, but only a specific and unique systemic relevance can describe a factual hegemony (and therefore something akin to the essence of a period). Now we are ready to ask: is the human being really systemically relevant in this specific and unique way? This is the right question to ask for the Anthropocene to be stated.
Moreover, this specific and unique way should take the temporal dimension into account: is irreversibility – of influence, of modification, of change – a necessary criterion? The answer naturally seems to be positive. Now, for this positive answer to be interesting, one should ask whether an effectively reversible physical phenomenon would make sense when considered in general. In this way, we realise that - more than the irreversibility - it is the radicality and the breadth of the irreversible changes that matter. Also, more than the irreversibility, it is the reflection on scaling that will assume a critical role in order to find the specificity and uniqueness of systemic relevance. What does it mean?
We are used to spatial examples to grasp the puzzles of scaling: locally relevant changes can turn out to be globally irrelevant while locally irrelevant changes can become globally relevant. The same will actually apply to temporal different scales as well: an atomic war will certainly be globally relevant if our perspective is focused on hundreds of years, while it won’t be impossible to imagine it as an organic local perturbation of the planet if our perspective will extend to millions of years. This means that an essential systemic relevance is not only useful for periodisation, but is already necessarily bound to periodisation and its specific scale. The idea of the Anthropocene was born after a task of periodisation in natural sciences, but periodisation cannot consequently be reduced to the status of an occasion to speak about the Anthropocene condition in general. The temporal relativity of the “naturalist” Anthropocene cannot help but be overcome and the Anthropocene cannot be temporally universalised.
In an essentialist approach, the systemic relevance of the human, that is necessary for the idea of the Anthropocene to be defined in natural sciences, is quite difficult to find and, if we find it, cannot be temporally universalised. The holistic interconnectedness – the butterfly effect – and the temporal scaling give two arguments that make the essential(ist) idea of the Anthropocene difficult to define, and yet at the same time they are two arguments that define the limits of this idea.
Let’s come back to the example of the atomic war. What does it mean that an atomic war is considered as an organic local perturbation of the planet if our perspective will extend to millions of years? This is an imagination that can be scientifically produced but is still definitely unusual for us. Now the unusual and the non-useful, or even the useless, are never completely disconnected, and science must proceed through focuses and fundamental parameter choices that do nothing but reflect the usefulness of science itself. Is this perspective in terms of millions of years nothing more than a simple curiosity?
With an affirmative answer, we could put aside the doubts I have just cast on the idea of the Anthropocene through the reflection on temporal scaling, but science has largely demonstrated that considerations in dimensions that are far away from our usual perceptions finally reveal themselves very useful. Therefore, the perspective in terms of millions of years can matter, and the scaling issue cannot be avoided. In this framework, the privilege that we can accord to the Anthropocene is simply dependent on our usual perspective.
The consequence of this reframed argument in favour of the Anthropocene, as dependent of our usual perspective, is that the systemic relevance that would be able to define the Anthropocene can only be gained from a specifically human perspective – where “specifically human” means the usual human perception and not imagination or the construction of science (which are also quite human). It is not the naturalist Anthropocene that will represent the dominance of the human perspective, but the human perspective that is the condition for the naturalist Anthropocene to be defined.
This reflection introduces the odd situation of the definition of the physical hegemony of the human species in a certain period of time through a perspective that is specifically human. “Is the human species hegemonic in our time? Yes, if considered from the point of view of the human species itself”. Such a statement sounds awkward, doesn’t it? The physical Anthropocene seems to be pre-empted by a “cognitive Anthropocene”, and a cognitive Anthropocene appears to show the redundancy of tautology: how could something that is seen from the human perspective be other than intrinsically human? The idea of the Anthropocene, insofar as it is cognitively connotated, will be evident as well as uninteresting.
In a suggestive way, this consequence leads us back to the issue of the holistic interconnectedness. If everything were equally interconnected with everything we would lack the relevant elements in order to define a period in an essential way. This is what the consequences of the butterfly effect demonstrate; that is, not only the production of an effect – be it very far from itself and everywhere – but the production of an effect whose impact potentially equals the impact of any other effect (just because we would not be able to determine whether one impact is more relevant than the other within the global scopes of a search). All sort of X-cenes would be absorbed in a non-periodisable “Petaludocene” – from the Greek petalúda for “butterfly”.
However, science usually recurs to ancient Greek words in order to coin neologisms and the ancient Greek word for “butterfly” is nothing but psyche. For a perfectly balanced interconnection of all the elements in the world, we should then speak of the “Psychocene”! Here is the suggestive connection with what I called the “cognitive Anthropocene”. In fact, an interconnected whole where every contribution is equally important evens out any candidate for systemic relevance. In a similar way, the human perspective of the cognitive Anthropocene recognises the redundancy of any anthropic relevance, thereby putting all candidates for systemic relevance at the same level of the human being. Through two different paths, the Psychocene and the cognitive Anthropocene effectively lead to the same consequences, so that their connection is more than a suggestive play on words.
Are the strong limitations of the idea of the Anthropocene through the Psychocene (or the cognitive Anthropocene) a preparation for a new consideration of the more-than-human perspective? The human perspective as condition and not as consequence of the Anthropocene is paradoxically a liberation from the anthropic hegemony in terms of factual supremacy. The unsurpassable situation of the human perspective has nothing against a serious consideration of more-than-human perspectives – both equal challengers of the Anthropocene. Of course, the more-than-human perspectives will not surpass the human perspective: concretely, it is not the question of trying to see the world from the point of view of animals, plants, minerals, or pure matter. This would be absurd and finally end up with a delusive (human-all-too-human) projection. It is rather the question of studying, obviously within the human perspective, the specificities of their functioning, trying to avoid any projection of human patterns for the sake of easy explanations, and then trying to apply that functioning to our situation. The projection, if there is one, would be upon us, not from us. In this way, the human perspective is shifted through a (quite human) exercise of imagination or better of “imagination at work” – that is, the factual validation of imagination, the realisation of imagination.
Through this exercise, we can explore the limits of the actual epistemological area of our perspective, and possibly expand or reduce it, according to the successful sustainability of the consequences of the exercise. This practice describes what is often labelled as Border Epistemology, and makes the human perspective not larger or better but certainly more elastic. This is a typically artistic practice but also the practice of the imaginative scientist, the genuine scientist, whose work is “hard” (in the sense of the so-called hard sciences) only in the methodology, not in the content.
In the framework of the practice of Border Epistemology, the continuity between the human perspective and the more-than-human perspective clearly won’t be a difficult objective anymore as it is the starting point of the practice itself. Even if the first step of the exercise, the step of studying the foreign functioning of animals, plants or minerals, is certainly an exotic job to the extent we try to avoid easy human projections, the most exotic experience of all will be the second step of the exercise: the embodiment of the foreign patterns studied in our situation, even if it will only determine small shifts in our perspective. Thanks to this second step, the exercise will turn from tourist exotism to learning exotism.
The consideration of the more-than-human perspective in the context of Border Epistemology will be useful to distinguish the ideological supremacy of humanism – implied in the non-cognitive Anthropocene – from an “eccentric humanism”, where imagination and the construction of science lead to embodied more-than-human perspectives. For this eccentric humanism, the human or rather the image and the value of the human are constantly (and humanly) decentred, challenged, reformulated.
The consequences of an elastic perspective on the world through a practice with more-than-human perspectives will have a tremendous social and political impact, for the simple reason that this elasticity cannot help but mean a welcoming or at least attentive approach towards the Other, that is an interactive and reciprocal responsivity. One could even imagine the perspective of the second person (you) as the perspective of the Other, and thus as another example of a more-than-human perspective.
A further question to be explored is whether the perspective of death and of the ancient tradition of memento mori could equally be thought as more-than-human perspective.
To sum up
The current sensibility of artists and intellectuals for the more-than-human perspective has certainly arisen in the context of the discussion around the Anthropocene. It is important to underline how a non-naïve approach towards this perspective needs a sharp revision of some dogmatic features of the Anthropocene: for example, its useless (and non-scientific) striving for being recognised as hard science, its concealed nostalgia for a presumed pre-Anthropocene aera of harmony between human beings and nature, and the indirect presupposition of an (actually impossible) non-cognitive reality that would be independent of any human construction or imagination. This is the reason for me to propose a first, simple, short assessment of what a more-than-human perspective would mean.
As a richer notion than a non-human or other-than-human perspective, it hints at the possibility of a continuity of human and non-human or other-than-human. This constitutes an internal challenge to the “naturalist” idea of Anthropocene, where the systemic relevance of the human is difficult to find and constitutively challenged by the problem of temporal scaling. The naturalist Anthropocene can be paradoxically defined only presupposing the usual human perspective. This reframes the naturalist Anthropocene as a cognitive Anthropocene, an idea that is as evident as it is uninteresting. However, in the framework of cognitive Anthropocene, the more-than-human perspective will appear both as internal or eccentrically human (based on imagination and the construction of science), and also as more compelling. Studying and embodying the more-than-human perspectives of animals, plants and minerals, is the exercise of Border Epistemology as the ultimate challenge for human beings that cannot but be assumed and practised by human beings themselves.
I look forward to hearing and reading any feedback and further questioning.