Alien Tongues and the Language of Things
by Adam Robbert
PART 1 OF A DRAFT IN PROGRESS
That aliens have occupied central roles in philosophy, science, and politics is not debatable; what gets to count as an “alien,” however, is. The term implies irreducibility, otherness, exteriority, depth, darkness, concealment, and difference. “Alterity” is, in the most general of terms, the concept or principle of which “alien” is perhaps an anthropomorphic instantiation. But in some cases the term is expanded to include not just alien bodies (illegal, extraterrestrial, or otherwise) but also spaces, presences, or artifacts. Thus we speak not only of alien beings, but also alien spaces, alien presences, and alien artifacts. “Alien-ness” is a qualitative dimension that different kinds of beings can emit like a dark halo; a mist that conceals and accentuates the features of a mysterious presence that, whilst completely present, is in some significant way unrecognizable within the common parlance of perception. My stake in exploring aliens is not driven by posthuman fantasy, or by sci-fi indoctrination. Rather, aliens interest me for cosmopolitical reasons.
The term “cosmopolitics” implies a merger of the two fragments that create it: cosmology, on the one hand, and politics, on the other. Cosmology and politics engage one another in a dynamic tension, the former seeking principles of generality to be tested by empirical means, the latter seeking justice and ethics regardless of cosmological first principles. That the alien might occupy a dimension at once ontological and political is why it is a concept that deserves deep exploration. The alien raises important questions for cosmopolitics; challenging the limits of what cosmology can do and forcing the limits of what politics can accomplish. If cosmology (a term I use in Whitehead’s sense) is meant to provide a basic general description of everything in the cosmos, what does this mean for a rigorous conception of the alien? Isn’t the alien precisely that which cannot fit into any such schema? This contradiction in terms is something we must remain attentive to. But, just as troubling, is that if we deny the cosmological impulse and claim total ignorance as to the nature of things, does this not pose great problems for ethical and political behavior as well? The current ecological crisis calls out for both cosmology and ethics, even as both try to negate a reified version of the other. What I want to explore, then, is how the alien might be re-conceptualized within a cosmopolitical frame.
Much of the theoretical and practical history behind concepts of the alien have been entirely too anthropocentric in nature. That’s not to say that we should abandon the hard won insights found in the writings of Sartre, Levinas, or Derrida (all of whom engage alterity in deep ways); but it does mean that the alien needs to be reconsidered from a cosmological perspective in order to address the needs of a more-than-human cosmos. Indeed, progress has already been made in thinking alterity in nonhuman terms, much of which has come from potent blends of feminism, critical theory, and ecology (e.g., ecofeminism, ecophenomenology, critical animal studies). But neither the anthropocentric nor ecocentric readings of alterity provide a thoroughly cosmological account of the alien in all its multitudinous forms. By cosmological I don’t just mean that we need to investigate the metaphysical implications of alien theories already written; such commentaries can be found in many of the theorists and schools listed above. By proposing a description of cosmic alterity, I mean coming to terms with the alien dimension of things themselves, whether mediated by a human presence or not. In this sense, I am interested in alterity as it might exist between Jasmine flowers and the Sun and not exclusively between sentient animals. Such a project is, by necessity, a speculative task. Speculation might seem an irresponsible endeavor in the context of situated ethical needs; but, as I will argue below, speculation emerges as one of three necessary practices that will need to be forged in order to conceptualize a cosmopolitics of the alien. In this sense, speculation is no more antithetical to situated knowledges and ethical particularities than mathematical concepts are to the needs of specific architectural projects. In fact, speculation aids us in thinking a deep particularity that might just forge a better notion of alterity.
Cosmological alterity emerges, paradoxically, in a conceptual space characterized by general descriptions of things that, for the remainder of this essay I will simply call “beings.” To understand the alterity of beings we need three basic philosophical components: (1) real beings that exist apart from our conceptions of them; (2) something that it’s like to be a real being; and (3) a way for the real beings that exist to experience the existence of other real beings. In other words, cosmological alterity requires a form of panexperientialist realism. I use the phrase “panexperientialist” but there are a variety of other terms I could use without feeling any hostility towards (e.g., panpsychism, pansensism, pansemiotics, micropsychism, or panbiotism). Each of these terms is an imprecise attempt to locate a dimension of beings that is at once real and qualitative. Some of them get inflected for religious purposes (e.g., phrases like “animism,” “vitalism,” “panentheism,” or the “anima mundi”). Others use the same phrase but in very different ways (e.g., panpsychisms include functionalist, emergentist, and reductive variants). Some collapse terms into one another, as is the case when Galen Strawson provocatively asserts that physicalism is panpsychism. Still others choose elements of the major labels but modify them in important ways. Gregory Bateson, for example, holds something like a panpsychist cosmology but limits “psyche” to systems of interaction rather then to individual atoms, particles, or elements themselves. More recently, Graham Harman has suggested the term “polypsychism” to suggest that an experiential dimension is inherent to all beings, but that the prefix “pan-” is too general in scope to capture the variation of experience between things.
My aim here is not to examine the variations among these positions with scholarly depth, but to situate a trajectory of thought as it attempts to think cosmology and alterity within the same breath. Does an account of alterity require that we rout dominant trends in modern epistemology and ontology? I think the answer is, “Yes.” To help make my case many of Whitehead’s concepts are operating in the background, enabling us to tune-in to a deeper notion of the alien. As we noted before, the alien dimension is not something new to philosophical or contemplative practices. I think of Pascal’s famous phrase, “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me” as a paramount case of a human that is living, breathing, and thinking in a vast, alien cosmos. But Pascal’s universe is alien for very different reasons then the kind of alien-ness I have in mind. In Pascal’s universe there are humans that are experiencing, perceiving, emoting subjects living within a terrifyingly large, unfeeling cosmos expanding mechanically in every direction. There is a strange ontology at work here; one that I would argue is more bizarre than anything I am proposing. It’s a common ontology that emerges out of the cultural practices of modern-era Europe. Galileo is the opening act, Descartes the main performances, and Locke and Hume show up for the encore. By the end of this festival of reason throngs of intoxicated fans are convinced that humans are the only bearers of subjectivity, the other beings in the cosmos possess no qualities of their own, and that the main goal of thinking is to separate “primary” from “secondary” qualities. The person who performs the purification most successfully gets the grand prize: a glimpse at the most “real” stratum of existence.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I don’t rail against reason for the sake of replacing it with superstition. I rail against reason because that’s what reason is supposed to do. Ironically then, the attempt to overcome so-called “critical philosophy” to generate a new cosmology is, in a way, the most critical of the critical philosophies. Speculation has never meant uncritical and as we continue to re-conceptualize practices of the alien we will find this to be increasingly the case.