ONE WAY we might think about the present is by way of an all too natural epidemic of hunger confusion. Here is what we are so often told by those experts who explain a series of disorders ranging from hunger in its literal sense, to broader problems of consumption (of information and resources, for instance): “we” evolved as hunter-gatherers with metabolic and psychic systems that favored short-term high consumption that would serve us well should times get tough. The very brain that will later give us the right to say “we” and to consume other animals by way of industrial technology is what required and allowed us to develop an energy-rich diet. In order for “us” to evolve with big technology-creating brains, “we” had to develop a taste for fat.
Sadly, those same brains that have discerned this evolutionary genealogy are not so quick to adjust to the high availability of energy-rich foods. In short, we are suffering from an obesity epidemic precisely because the most natural thing in the world—hunger—is confused. One might say that this confusion is not accidental but essential: we developed undue hunger to feed our brains, with our brains then able to detect high-energy foods, and then able to develop technologies to produce those high-energy foods. It is not only our bodies that are weighed down by the fat we consume and carry. Cognitive performance becomes sluggish when a high-fat diet is combined with the sedentariness that our big-brained techno-science made available: what does not kill us makes us weaker.
It is perhaps no wonder that a “paleo” diet has such a lure: if our brains cannot speed up and notice that they have altered the world and the speed of consumption, then we should act and eat as if we were still subjected to a world of simple scarcity. If our hunger is constitutively confused—oriented to high-consumption in a world overburdened with consumables—then let’s create a private paleo world where we eat as if there were only the scarcest and simplest of foods. (And hasn’t the same thing happened to liberal ecological morality: whatever the complexities of the globe, act privately as if our world were otherwise—eat organic, recycle, drive a smaller car…).
The confusion of hunger is also, again according to those who know our species’ history better than we supposedly know ourselves, altering our relation to information. In a world of scarce resources, competitiveness and fear it made sense that we would develop a capacity to consume multiple sources of information quickly.
But, then, with a long (colonizing) history of enabled leisure we allowed ourselves, as Katherine Hayles put it, the luxury of “deep attention” rather than “hyper-attention”. Because of all that hunting and gathering that generated the big brain and, hence, generated technology, we could sit down and read Jane Austen, and start to think deeply about profound moral questions and the history of “man.” Our moral theory could liberate itself from mere survival and the minimal moralism of being decent only to those with whom we were adjacent; we could—as Henri Bergson argued—develop from a morality of mutual cooperation towards a spiritual religion concerned with a completely virtual and futural humanity.
We might say that our spiritual hunger is constitutively and felicitously confused: we act towards others not only with a sense of self-interest, but with a broader concern for humanity to come. Unfortunately, as with the hunger for food that developed to the point of gluttony, the hunger for information and cognition has—as Bernard Stiegler tell us in States of Shock—developed to the point of stupidity. We are now falling back into the hyper-attention from which deep cognition evolved. This may help us with video games and day trading, but it is perhaps the worst skill of all if we are to think the complex temporalities of climate change.
And so, before we even consider the temporal complexity of the problem of climate change, we might note this: what we have come to think of and esteem as “the human”—man as a political animal with a sense of himself as a being oriented towards the care of others—is already under the pressure of its own constitutive hunger. The “original” desire for complexity and technology has positively been folded back into desire and allowed the human organism to over-consume the world’s resources and then over-consume the resources of those it does not deem to be sufficiently human.
“Man” is an effect of hunger confusion; when “he” finds that the planet he so successfully mastered and rendered consumable is starving, his thought is not of rethinking the dialectic of hunger but of going on a diet. If we manage consumption now, we might develop a little more, and then live a little longer—sustain, survive, adapt, mitigate, but do not rethink the trajectory of this thinking animal.
Rather, then, than argue that we should de-confuse hunger—have us all return to a simpler, frugal, paleo or eco-friendly appetite—I would suggest that we embrace hyper-confusion. Rather than say that “we” evolved but that our hunter-gatherer and simple narrative brains cannot cope with the moral and resource-complex worlds that “we” generated, we might think of refusing that simple confusion of economy. Rather than say that we have been too clever for our own good that we have developed techno-science without thinking enough about what it took from the planet and stole from most humans other than those who think of themselves as the “we” of humanity—let us shift that confusion of hunger out of the temporal narrative.
It is not the case that there was ever a “we” that embarked upon a journey of complexity, riven by a time lag (between a body that is over-fed and a brain that is stuck in a too simple past). That split is always among some who think of themselves as the “we” (the “we” who unfortunately destroyed the planet and who now declare “us” to be anthropocene humans) and some who have no hunger for any future “we.”
Let us imagine this at its simplest: there are those whom the “we” consume—not only animals, but future and present humans not blessed with the burden of cognizing the wonder and blessedness of the species. Do we think the various species on the red list have even the simplest hunger for the future? Or are most modes of life living on with the most confused of hungers, a hunger that is constantly thwarted and not even granted the luxurious temporality of thinking of a future that is tragically bereft of life as we know it. Perhaps, then, the “we” who are so hungry for a future—the “we” that dreams of geo-engineering, colonizing other planets, averting existential risks and enhancing the species— perhaps this “we” should thwart its hunger for the future and think of desires not tied to the rational self-interests of this wondrous history of brain-heavy man? That hunger might be radically con-fused: conjoined and fused with a life not its own, a life that does not appear as a personal surviving life of one of “us.”