Brain Power

Catherine Malabou, “The Brain of History, or, the Mentality of the Anthropocene,” South Atlantic Quarterly 116:1 (2017), 39–53 (preprint, here)

Malabou’s penetrating essay begins with the seeming antithesis between Dipesh Chakrabarty and Daniel Lord Smail. Chakrabarty and Smail both propose powerfully innovative ways of thinking about deep history that have masses to contribute to discussions of the Anthropocene. The apparent contrast between them is that Chakrabarty is on the side of the geological, and Smail on the side of the biological—or more specifically, the neurological. Malabou’s aim is to undo and recast that antithesis.

Chakrabarty’s indispensable recent work has sought to identify the birth of the Anthropocene with the emergence of human species-being as a geological force. He’s outlined a new geological dimension of human agency that runs alongside, but is irreconcilable with, the dimension  properly concerned with intra-human justice and freedom. In his starkest formulation (in “Postcolonial Studies and the Challenge of Climate Change, p. 14),

humans now exist in two different modes. There is one in which they are still concerned with justice even when they know that perfect justice is never to be had. […] Climate scientists’ history reminds us, on the other hand, that we now also have a mode of existence in which we—collectively and as a geophysical force and in ways we cannot experience ourselves—are “indifferent” or “neutral” (I do not mean these as mental or experienced states) to questions of intrahuman justice. We have run up against our own limits as it were.

A certain excessive plenitude of human being (carrying on all the way to “our own limits”) becomes realised as a blankness or negation: a collective “neutrality.”

In his On Deep History and the Brain Smail likewise tries to explode the normal bounds of historiography . World histories that begin with the literate Mesopotamian city-states unwittingly imitate those old narratives that started at the gate of the Garden of Eden, he says. He calls for a historical practice that is attuned instead to evolutionary time: a neurohistory that tracks the evolution of the brain, from the distant past to the centuries of colonialism when the worldwide trade in psychoactive goods—tobacco, sugar, coffee, tea—provided the impetus for economic change and enabled ever new inflections of neurological states. Chakrabarty has a lot of praise for Smail in “The Climate of History.” “But,” he says, “it is the history of human biology and not any recent theses about the newly acquired geological agency of humans that concerns Smail” (p. 206).

All this is Malabou’s starting point. But her aim is to undermine or complicate that opposition between biology and geology. I’ve previously pointed to reasons for being sceptical of that same opposition, on the simple enough basis that the Earth system is composed throughout of biogeochemical loops in which matter cycles freely through both living and non-living states. Malabou’s argument is subtler.

Rereading Smail, she turns to epigenetics. “Epigenetic crossing and interaction,” she writes, “take place through things, through matter, that is also through the inorganic.” Thus Smail’s neurohistorical modalities “are not ‘strictly’ biological, but include, as a central element, the inorganic materiality of things. […] As archaeological, the brain/environment relationship is already also geological” (pp. 4–5 of the preprint version).

Bringing Smail’s position closer still to Chakrabarty’s, Malabou makes his theory of history above all a theory of addiction. Against the liberal rhetoric of environmentalist awareness and responsibility, she sees both modernist ecological destructiveness and any possible alternative as forms of psychotropic addiction—and thus, as involving a measure of narcotic torpor akin to Chakrabarty’s famous “indifference.” The environmental crimes for which “we” are deadeningly called to accept responsibility may in fact be “the result of an addicted and addictive slumber of responsibility itself. It seems impossible to produce a genuine awareness of addiction (awareness of addiction is always an addicted form of awareness). Only the setting of new addictions can help break old ones” (p. 10, silently amended).

Smail’s thought is implicitly open to the indifferent force of geology, then. What about Chakrabarty? For Malabou, the brain is the occluded term in Chakrabarty’s account of species being. Picking up on the passage I quoted above, she asks: why shouldn’t that new mode of existence be an “experienced state” after all, at least under some conditions? “Why could we not be [able] to experience mentally and psychically the indifference and neutrality that have become parts of our nature?” (pp. 6–7). In fact, “the neutrality Chakrabarty talks about is not conceivable outside a new psychotropy [of “the addicted subject”], a mental and psychic experience of the disaffection of experience. … The man of the Anthropocene cannot but become addicted to its own indifference” (p. 9).

Malabou pursues these, well, heady claims partly through a supposed similitude between Chakrabarty and Quentin Meillassoux by which I’m not quite convinced: her talk of the “resonance” between the two doesn’t really acknowledge the difference between metaphysical and historical experience. More fruitfully, I think, she turns to the Annales school, to read Chakrabarty’s recent work as implicitly and willy-nilly belonging within the tradition of the history of mentalities.

The history of mentality, for Malabou, doesn’t remain limited by the biological, any more than Smail’s neurohistory does: it too can find its origins in the inorganic, in the Earth. The historians of the longue durée were accused of depoliticizing history just as Chakrabarty has been. But in truth “the narcolepsy of consciousness constitutes an irreducible dimension of history.” For Malabou it’s not the case that, as Chakrabarty thinks, “the geological becoming of the human” lacks any phenomenal dimension and can be known only in the abstract. On the contrary, it is possible to have an “empirical and sensuous” realisation of humanity’s species-being as a geological force. “There necessarily exists a mental effect of the numbness and paralysis of consciousness, a mental effect of the new narcoleptic structure of humanity’s (impossible) reflection on itself” (p. 13).

Perhaps this is more suggestive than definitive. In my literal-minded way I’d appreciate some specific examples of these supposed “empirical and sensuous” encounters with the geological indifference of the human. An awful lot rides on that “necessarily.”

But Malabou’s invocation of the Annales historians does seem like a tempting signpost, at the very least. Is it plausible to imagine a history or an anthropology that would actually be conducted these terms? A micrological study of mental outlooks in the present day through which we might somehow tune in to the psychic dimension of humanity-as-geologic-force? Something like a dark, inverted version of Gaia Vince’s Adventures in the Anthropocene, whereby the inquirer would encounter not a rich diversity of active bottom-up responses to environmental crisis (like those upon which the real Vince brilliantly reports) but its converse, a certain unspoken collective sensibility that would represent the “sensuous” dimension of the neutral, narcoleptic geological force that Chakrabarty (or at least Malabou’s version of Chakrabarty) identifies as the decisive new “mode of existence” of the human species?

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