Inside the Away

Overcoming anthropocentrism enables ecological thinking

The trace of man

It is widely accepted that the current geological era is known as the Anthropocene, referring to the period in which the Earth’s environment is profoundly affected by human action. This is the case, for example, with the accumulation of microplastics in the soil and aquatic environments or the increase in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere.

If the imprint that human beings are leaving on the Earth is so pronounced, the interdependence between individuals and Nature becomes inescapable, and it is necessary to rethink the relationship between these two ‘poles’. Indeed, it is now clear that not only is man dependent on Nature, but Nature itself is also linked to the actions of human beings.

This close interdependence places all agents, i.e. protagonists (both Nature and human) acting in the world on the same level. As the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour writes: «The sense of living in the age of the Anthropocene is that all agents share the same changing destiny, a destiny that cannot be followed, documented, recounted or represented using any of the old characteristics associated with subjectivity or objectivity»[1].

It is precisely by re-evaluating these two categories, subjectivity and objectivity, that it is possible to overcome the anthropocentric attitude that has characterised modernity and move towards a different type of reflection, towards ecological thinking.

Forgotten entities

We have always been accustomed to thinking in terms of the concept of Away, a concept that implies an imaginary fracture, a crack, that divides our perception of the world into two distinct fields: what we see exists; everything else does not affect us because it is, in fact, away.

This term was used by the philosopher Timothy Morton to highlight the radical nature of the opposition between subject and object: the human being forgets and ignores everything that he believes does not concern him. We consider natural elements, such as black holes and meteorites, as well as artificial elements, such as radioactive waste and plastic waste, as distant and inaccessible.

Morton denounces this kind of vision and shows how it can no longer make sense to think in these terms, because the serious problems that threaten our existence as a species (e.g. climate change) are nothing more than the consequence of thinking that separates the here from the elsewhere.

As always, it is only when a mechanism breaks down or jams that we realise it exists and what it is really made of: «Now we know how things really are: instead of the land of the Away, the waste ends up in the Pacific Ocean or in a waste water treatment plant. […] there is no Away on this surface, neither here nor anywhere else»[2].

Thus, the Away is the hinge through which to think of another conception of reality. On the one hand, consequent to the existence of the Away is the reinvigorated separation between Nature, understood as all that is not human, and Culture, that which is instead a product of man. On the other hand, the intensification of natural disasters and pandemics has ‘broken’ this dichotomy, revealing a much more complex mechanism. Latour’s thought is grafted onto and develops precisely between these two representations.

Between the extremes

We are faced with a dual opposition: Nature and Culture; object and subject. The human being inspects Nature and relates to it as if he were faced with an object, an external reality to be analysed or a subject to be studied in a laboratory. At the same time, he believes that he has autonomously constructed his own society and that he is free to choose his own destiny.

Latour’s operation is a real reversal: instead of observing reality from the entrenched poles of Nature and Culture, he decides to examine the space of their hybridisation. There are two main consequences: reality is no longer configured from the extremes, but from the median zone; the objects of the world are no longer “pure”, in the sense that they do not belong either to the sphere of Nature or to the sphere of Culture, but are hybrids. This new conception makes it possible to think of the world in a non-dual way:

«We do not need to hook our explanations to the two pure forms of the object and the subject/society, because it is the latter, instead, that are partial and purified results of the central practice, the only one that interests us. […] Nature does revolve, but not around the subject/society. It revolves around the collective that produces humans and things. The Middle Empire is finally represented. Its satellites are natures and societies».[3]

The representation given of the world, therefore, is not that of a line with two extremes, but of a series of reticular interdependencies. For this reason, Latour calls these ‘quasi-objects’ that inhabit the intermediate space between Nature and Culture hybrids, but which occupy the position of neither objects nor subjects.

In the net

Similar to Latour’s hybrids, Morton’s hyperobjects are configured. This term refers to «entities widely distributed in space and time»[4], which are extremely difficult to observe, impossible to objectify and have a continuous influence on our existence. which are extremely difficult to observe, impossible to objectify and which have an ongoing influence on our existence.

Examples of hyperobjects are global warming, a black hole or all the nuclear material on Earth. They have always been there, but it is only in recent times that we have become aware of their existence and changed our perception of them. The fundamental point is that hyperobjects are constantly influencing our lives and are not in a different dimension from the one we live in: nothing is external to anything else; we are inside the hyperobjects, we are inside the Elsewhere.

This is precisely why ecological thinking can begin: «It is the hyperobjects that lead us to ecological thinking, not the other way around. It is not an abstract model of the environment that makes us think in this perspective; it is entities such as plutonium, global warming, pollution, that have given rise to ecological thinking»[5].

Since there is no longer a contrast between Nature and Culture, the contrast between object and subject is also blurred. The human being no longer objectifies Nature, but is immersed in it and relates to it according to a network model. Being inside the hyperobjects means placing oneself on the same level as all the other quasi-objects and, therefore, configuring reality by overcoming the anthropocentric attitude. Only through this conception is it possible to give life to a radically ecological way of thinking.

[1] Latour B., Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene, in «New Literary History» Vol. 45, No. 1 (WINTER 2014), pp. 1-18, tr. it. di E. D’Angelo in «Kabul Magazine».

[2] Morton T, Hyperobjects, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013, tr. it. V. Santarcangelo, Nero Editions 2018, p. 48.

[3] Latour B., Non siamo mai stati moderni, Elèuthera, Milano 2018, p. 105.

[4] Morton T, Hyperobjects, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013, tr. it. V. Santarcangelo, Nero Editions 2018, p. 11.

[5] Ivi, p.69.

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