Deep Time, Dark Times: On Being Geologically Human

Deep Time, Dark Times: On Being Geologically Human

by David Wood


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The new geological epoch we call the Anthropocene is not just a scientific classification. It marks a radical transformation in the background conditions of life on Earth, one taken for granted by much of who we are and what we hope for. Never before has a species possessed both a geological-scale grasp of the history of the Earth and a sober understanding of its own likely fate. Our situation forces us to confront questions both philosophical and of real practical urgency. We need to rethink who “we” are, what agency means today, how to deal with the passions stirred by our circumstances, whether our manner of dwelling on Earth is open to change, and, ultimately, “What is to be done?” Our future, that of our species, and of all the fellow travelers on the planet depend on it.

The real-world consequences of climate change bring new significance to some very traditional philosophical questions about reason, agency, responsibility, community, and man’s place in nature. The focus is shifting from imagining and promoting the “good life” to the survival of the species. Deep Time, Dark Times challenges us to reimagine ourselves as a species, taking on a geological consciousness. Drawing promiscuously on the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, and other contemporary French thinkers, as well as the science of climate change, David Wood reflects on the historical series of displacements and de-centerings of both the privilege of the Earth, and of the human, from Copernicus through Darwin and Freud to the declaration of the age of the Anthropocene. He argues for the need to develop a new temporal phronesis and to radically rethink who “we” are in respect to solidarity with other humans, and responsibility for the nonhuman stakeholders with which we share the planet. In these brief, lively chapters, Wood poses a range of questions centered on our individual and collective political agency. Might not human exceptionalism be reborn as a sort of hyperbolic responsibility rather than privilege?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823281350
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 12/04/2018
Series: Thinking Out Loud
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

David Wood, W. Alton Jones Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University, is the author or (co-)editor of eighteen books, including Eco- Deconstruction: Derrida and Environmental Philosophy; Thinking Plant Animal Human; Time after Time; The Step Back: Ethics and Politics after Deconstruction; and Thinking after Heidegger. He is also an earth-artist and Director of Yellow Bird Artscape in Tennessee.

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Herding the Cats of Deep Time

In history, a great volume is unrolled for our instruction, drawing the materials of future wisdom from the past errors and infirmities of mankind.

— EDMUND BURKE, Reflections on the Revolution in France

If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.

— JOHN MCPHEE, Basin and Range

Never before has a species possessed both a geological-scale grasp of the history of the earth and a sober understanding of its own likely fate. The question that drives this book is whether we can take on board in an affirmative way what such a deep time consciousness teaches us or what such a terrestrial responsibility would look like. Our situation forces us to confront questions both philosophical and of real practical urgency. We need to rethink who "we" are, what agency means today, how to deal with the passions stirred by our circumstances (resignation, anger, despair), whether our manner of dwelling on Earth is open to change, and ultimately — What is to be done? Our future, that of our species, and that of all the fellow travelers on the planet depend on addressing these questions.

Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote a famous essay addressing the burden that history can pose to the affirmation of life. Although he was talking about human history and human life, the dawning of the Anthropocene invites us to expand the scope of the question from human to geological history, and from human life to life more generally. With specific reference to climate change, this sense of debilitating burden is common; it was the predominant response to Al Gore's film Inconvenient Truth, for example. The Anthropocene, and the issues surrounding climate change, are sites of not just resignation but also anxiety, fear, hope, and many other passions. And the political space within which such issues might be addressed is equally marked by passion. I take up here the difficulty of the geological expansion with respect to time and history by working through Nietzsche's essay within the framework of the affective, with sideways glances at Heidegger.

Herding the cats of Deep Time is no easy task. I have sought to align various scientific and pre-philosophical angles on history with the many reflective and methodological remarks that need to be attached to them. I provide many lists and some lapses into naivety. But while I lay out various dimensions of Deep Time, the avowedly philosophical dimension is to be found in what Wittgenstein would call the reminders I am assembling. If not quite what Derrida dubs the undecidable, I try to bring out at least the shape of some of the difficulties we face in thinking about Deep Time. And although it must be thought both forward and backward, I begin by focusing mostly on the past.

The Past

But what is the past? I confess, as I am writing, and with authentic Augustinian head scratching, that I cannot get over that today's breakfast, so recently real, is now over. I start with some everyday ruminations. A few weeks ago, a friend brought me two geodes, orange-brown in color and about the shape and size of cauliflowers, which now sit on my porch. A quick Google search informed me that they are each about 350 million years old and have been together, so to speak, all that time. That's about one-tenth of the age of Earth. There are snapping turtles in my pond whose ancestors evolved about 40 million years ago. At the bottom of my garden one can find arrowheads that date back 10,000 years. There is evidence of farming on the ridges around here some two hundred years ago, and a pile of rocks from the Civil War about 150 years old. A neighbor who was born on my farm some eighty years ago recently died. The old barn, designed for loose hay and now obsolete, was probably built after the Second World War. At the edge of the lake, which I dug ten years ago, dragonflies skim the surface for tiny insects. In an instant they themselves are eaten by swooping barn swallows. All this, so far, with little need for memory.

Time is scaled. The past is disclosed both to a close-up and a telescopic lens. It reaches back from a moment ago to unthinkably distant events. It traverses days, personal events, lifespans, wars, the birth of nations, and other momentous historical events. It encompasses the evolution of our own and other species, indeed the origin of life itself.

I am confident about this story because of the evidence presented to me and my fellow humans, to historians and scientists as well as our various personal and collective memories. This evidence is interpreted according to theories that, as they say, have stood the test of time. But these theories are, at least in principle, revisable (or so we learn from history).

This picture of the past would fill out what we might call a nested retrospective temporality. Such a temporality accommodates everything from the fading memory of the present (such as the beginning of this sentence) to the origin of the universe.

These "events" are not just different points on a long line; they also correspond to different scales of significance, different orders of event. This is important, for although we have not begun to problematize the objectivity of time, we have found it hard to resist acknowledging such scales or orders of dimension. There have been genuinely significant events in the past whose identification does not just reflect our parochial interests — geological events such as volcanic eruptions, meteor impacts, ice ages, the formation of continents, and eager predecessors crawling out of the swamps.

The so-called history of civilization is more problematic. We typically and without difficulty navigate with commonsense distinctions between the past memories of people we know and have known, the culturally commemorated past (books, monuments, artifacts), infrastructural realities (roads, buildings, cities, bridges), the past available to archaeology, geology, and so on. Much of this mapping is at some level just there, taken for granted. But human history, especially when dealing with the legitimating impact of cultural memory, spawns occasions for debate and dissent. Invading armies destroy the cultural treasures of their victims. Nations write slanted histories for political purposes. Turkey denies the Armenian genocide. China deleted Tiananmen Square (1989) from its books. America pretends Guantánamo is an aberration.

These remarks do not themselves seriously question the objectivity of time. But they do make it clear how any idea that we cannot responsibly move forward without looking back must address questions about the scale, scope, and selectivity of our retrospection.

This account may seem aloof and detached. But while history is nested and complex, in some respects it is there to be discovered. Precisely in the name of truth, adopting a certain neutrality reflects the need to move away from a historiography wedded to the unfolding of meaning and progress in order to embrace a genealogical approach that honors contingency, interruption, and discontinuity and is suspicious of classically canonized events. Foucault acknowledged here a certain positivism on his part — that his patient documentation revealed the slower penumbral emergence of standard practices, frames of reference, ways of discursively organizing the world.

Naturalistic Narratives

Yet, if geological time might be said to be nested, as soon as we consider human history, the nest metaphor breaks down. For we find ourselves dealing with multiple incommensurable temporal series, each marked by their own narrative, not to mention complex interpenetrating relations that break down the silos suggested by "nests." Think of the reverberating echoes of historical trauma down the ages.

The simplest naturalistic story would arguably have four phases: the creation of the universe/Big Bang; changes of material states (gases to liquids to solids), the formation of planets, the solar system, the cooling of the earth; the dawn of life and evolution; the appearance of hominids/humans, (opening onto another series: Stone Age, Bronze Age ... the Industrial Age, and today the Digital Age).

An energetic history would center on thermodynamics and the appearance of negative entropy, especially in the form of life processes, which contradict the general drift toward disorder. The question then would be how to locate the specifically human form of life, whether as biocentric inclusion (see Aldo Leopold's land ethic, in which we humans are just plain citizens), or as a step beyond mere life, not least in being able to think about life. This step might be thought of in terms of technology or information as ways in which negentropy gets harnessed to life. A cyborg future, or one that detaches itself from life itself, would take this a step further, as in Ray Kurzweil's idea of a singularity. An energetic perspective would be one take on how the human is in important respects colored by and infused with what makes it possible, in ways that cannot be dialectically sublated. Think of the idea of emergent evolution, for which something radically new has come on the scene. This opens up the question of whether we are still stardust and how we are connected to our evolutionary past.

There are other naturalistic histories, those that trace the evolution of Life to "Man," and those that trace the history of the humanoid from the earliest hominid, "Ardi," or Ardipithecus ramidus, to Homo sapiens. This can raise strange passions. After the famous Scopes "monkey trial" in Tennessee (1925), one man reportedly said that he didn't know what all the fuss was about — being descended from apes was one thing, but it was the earlier link to fish that he couldn't swallow!

The history of the West, sometimes confused with the history of civilization, would include such moments as the Garden of Eden, Greek philosophy, the birth of Jesus, the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the death of God, the Information Age, and the Anthropocene.

None of these accounts need be philosophically sophisticated, though they can be taken up by philosophers such as Kant and Hegel. But the very diversity of accounts is the common property of any culture. This bevy of histories, and there are an indefinite number of them, are our legacy in the West. We pick and choose between histories, and/or critically reflect on them. Even "naïve" history is not one thing; its plurality is both qualitative and quantitative. This is the landscape of the past that Deep Time confronts, drawing along its own agenda.

Human Temporality

What of the role of human temporality? The study of history, of the various levels of past we have alluded to, can be compromised by naivety. This happens when we do not recognize the constitutive role of both our fundamental human temporality and specific shaping interests, each of which recede into the background when we presume we are studying the facts of history. It will be Heidegger's claim, for example, that the very possibility of history as a discipline rests invisibly on our existential historicity. He distinguishes between historicity and historicality/historiography. The latter concern the course of events, and our study of them. While historicity has to do with how Dasein, our manner of being in the world, is historically engaged (or not), how it enacts or performs itself in and as history, which is itself a dimension of our fundamentally temporal existence.

If performativity turns out to be constitutive of historical engagement, how should we best accomplish that engagement? In a strong form, this problematic generates Nietzsche's concern that our scientific understanding of history can be a burden that threatens human vitality, life. I take up this sense of burden into a broader discussion of emotion, mood, disposition, and the affective. Is there perhaps an intimate relation between (lived) time and mood?

The Present Age

If the present is where we start in any reflection on history, there is something special about this present. Ours is not the first to witness a radical displacement in human beings' relation to the earth and to history; Copernicus and Darwin did too. Nor is it the first time we have become aware of geological time; Hutton highlighted this. Rather, our moment is marked by the birth pangs of the Anthropocene, the idea that the human impact on the planet has reached geological proportions. It is insufficient to see ourselves only in the light of historical development (civilization, conquest, enlightenment) and evolutionary development from other forms of life. Instead, we must have a broader perspective, a geological perspective, one that prompts the idea of Deep Time. To this should be added an increasingly strong sense of a potentially catastrophic future awaiting us. We are surrounded by visions of dramatic change, crisis, and extinction. We are already witnessing the sixth extinction of nonhumans.

A sense of the apocalyptic has itself a long history. An Assyrian clay tablet (circa 2800 BCE) bears the words "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end." And it has been coming to an end regularly ever since, some today waiting for the Christian Rapture. Is this history of the end of time just another history? Should skeptical academic rationalism triumph? What would it be to say, "But this time, it's real"? That is the moral of the tale of "The Boy Who Cried Wolf"!

If we must, in some sense, start with the present, with now, how can this be characterized? Should we draw our preliminary understanding of the present from our surrounding culture, or approach the very idea of the present in a critical way? As an example of the latter, one would have to understand that the present contains within itself various relations to the past (and future), that there are multiple and contested versions (politically, nationally, ethnically, and so forth), and that philosophical characterizations of "the present age" have been offered by Socrates, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Marcuse, Arendt, Irigaray, Guattari, and Derrida, to name but a few. This trail of accounts of the present age is itself the product of repeated sophisticated critique, not just unreflective cultural malaise. I argue later for the plausibility of a benign blend of some popular activist accounts, such as Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, with the more hermetic diagnoses of a Heidegger.

Contemporary Rethinking of Time

I am not the sole proprietor of the idea of deep time. Ted Toadvine writes: "Our everyday experience of time has been transformed by the scientific discovery of the geological past and predictions of anthropogenic environmental impacts extending into the far future." He continues "the deep past and deep future ... are ... radically heterogeneous ruptures within our everyday temporal experience." He calls this "catastrophic intrusion of deep time within lived temporal experience. Anachronicity."

David Morris writes of "An inaccessibly deep temporality." He describes it as "radical contingency", as a transcendental condition of phenomenology. He alludes to the sense inherent in things, connected up with "Merleau-Ponty's etre sauvage, 'Raw being' and Schelling's barbarian principle." Glen Mazis also speaks of "The depths of time" with reference to geological time, memory, and selfhood.

Some thinkers, myself included, were released from dogmatic temporal slumbers by Husserl, Heidegger (whose views themselves developed over time), and Derrida. Rethinking time has been at the heart of efforts to rework the scope and limits of phenomenology. For example, John Sallis refers to elemental temporality and polytopical time, including lithic time (a time of the earth). Daniela Vallega-Neu's sense of "disseminating time" also gives voice to the (often importantly embodied) constitutive time of subjectivity and cosmic time, as well as all the other times released when these poles melt. Finally, Joanna Hodge's "looping time," the future perfect time of Nachtraglichkeit, draws from Derrida.

There are other efforts relevant to rethinking the traditionally humanistic premises of our understanding of time, from Foucault through Steigler, Deleuze, and the new materialists. I discuss these briefly in Chapter 7. Popular books also testify to this broader trend, such as John McPhee's poetic Annals of a Former World (1998) on America's geological past (what he calls "deep history") and Henry Gee's In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life (2000). My point here is simply that our time, a time "out of joint," itself harbors many layers of strange loops. These include both the advent of the Anthropocene, as a cultural and scientific arrivant, and this expanding space of philosophical reflection on time. And such reflection is not just "on" time, but adverbially, performatively temporal, and historical, as we will see with Nietzsche and Heidegger.


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Table of Contents

1. Herding the Cats of Deep Time 1

2. Who Do We Think We Are? 26

3. Cosmic Passions 36

4. Thinking Geologically after Nietzsche 47

5. Angst and Attunement 60

6. The Present Age: A Case Study 73

7. Posthumanist Responsibility 82

8. The New Materialism 96

9. The Unthinkable and the Impossible 107

10. What Is to Be Done? Democracy and Beyond 121

Acknowledgments 137

Notes 139

Index 157

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