Ours is the age of the global dump. And the information without form that sometimes lends a name to postindustrial societies, economies, and ways of crafting knowledge is but a brushstroke in its portrait, the still or already unframed world-picture of our actuality.
We live and die in a dump of ideas, bodies, dreams, materials, snippets of relations, soundbites and memes, decontextualized and dehistoricized, produced as waste, reproduced ad nauseam, clipped, isolated and thrown together in a massive jumble in the wake of a world. What do the words we live comprehend?[i] How to apprehend them without arresting their referent? According to the preeminent ancient sensibility, they mean “we animate and are animated, move and are moved”;[ii] in the modern paradigm, they are likely to convey that we produce and reproduce (ourselves). Living in a dump, we are moved, produced, and reproduced by the dump, as by ourselves. For the most part and despite being alive in the technomedical sense of the term, we are dying there, dismembered, thrown out, trashed, alienated from our alienation, coming to love it or altogether indifferent, apathetic, no longer involved, anaesthetized with pharmaceutically and ideologically manufactured painkillers. The dump lives us, lives for us. It takes over the movement, production, and reproduction of world destruction, wrecking the very being-world of the world. One might say that the dump is unloaded on the world’s frame—which it disjoints—more than on what is framed as worldly.
Metaphysical, religious, and moralizing proselytisers, living and dead, scream in our ears that we must wake up from the nightmare of our individual and collective lives while it is not too late, in time for repentance and conversion. They urge us to open the eyes of the mind or of the soul and finally to begin living, even if we are already in the concluding phases of our biological lives, abiding for the first time with truth or with god. As we shall see with yet another set of eyes, on the brink of every sort of vision turning inutile, the dump that lives us and lives for us is the coveted “true life” realized. To be precise, the dump is that life’s unforeseen side effect, the result of persistently devaluing and trashing existence here-below, of treating the world as a vast wastebasket or, at best, as a mere springboard for the noblest, luminous, ideal, eternal being.
In the middle of a terrible nightmare, we wake up to a worse nightmare, falling deeper into troubled sleep. (Is it possible not to fall but to be dumped into sleep? If so, this is what’s happening to us, not least thanks to our exhaustion, general sleep deprivation, and a growing reliance on sleeping pills among other pharmaceutical or biochemical aids.) The dismantling of old metaphysics has been declared complete. Yet, the work of disassembling its scaffolding and edifice is not a demolition derby: one cannot accomplish such a task once and for all. A brief pause is fertile grounds for resurrecting the tired, frayed, tattered instantiations of the metaphysical project that unabashedly claim to be new.
To add fuel to the fire, the work of mourning metaphysics, ongoing since the nineteenth century, has been not just paused but brusquely terminated. In exchange for metaphysics and for mourning it, we endure a narcissistic reopening of the wound in a melancholia that, beyond this or that human subject or group, is afflicting the world as a globalized whole. The business of the Anthropocene is one symptom of this malaise, this melancholic navel-wound gazing. Another is the reconstruction of ontology after metaphysics that culminates in being-as-residue. Being is leftovers,[iii] morsels that fell from the table of nothing. Following the thread of both symptoms, the dump is an outgrowth of nihilism in all its positive splendour. Give the floor to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “The desert grows: woe to the one who harbours deserts! [Die Wüste wächst: weh Dem, der Wüsten birgt!]”[iv]
The global dump is a desert extending on land and in the hypoxic zones of the oceans. The more of it there is, the more it grows—mimicking the activity of what the Greeks called phusis and the Romans knew as natura—, the fewer the opportunities for future flourishing and finite growth. The vastness of devastation is at once vacant and full, spacious beyond measure and running out of room, barren and strewn with debris, a desert and a dump. Devastation de-vastates itself: we are aimlessly traversing the hyphen between the prefix de- and the vastness it at once negates and affirms.[v] Many species will not make it across this line, as short syntactically as historically, if grafted onto deep evolutionary time. It is uncertain that humanity will, either. With the desertion of being, the desert grows outside and within those who harbour it. We are deserted by being to the extent that we desert being. Today (better: tonight, in the creeping boundless night of the world), in today’s tonight, being is being dumped.
Perhaps, a poisonous flower of nihilism, the desert blossoms from the inside, irradiating outward. Or, perhaps, the desert we harbour within arrives to us from the outside, searing with its dry heat every one of our thoughts, aspirations, retinal cells and intestinal tissues, the bronchial tubes and the lungs. In the outdated quarrel of materialism and idealism, it mattered where growth had commenced: in being or in consciousness, actuality or idea. None of this is significant any longer. The expanding desert is outside in and inside out, in the middle where existence used to be lodged.
It is not that the dump is over there, at a safe distance from the well-off members of affluent societies, who dwell at several removes from polluted water sources and open-air landfills. Radioactive fallouts know no national boundaries. Microplastics are as ubiquitous in tap and bottled water as mercury is in wild-caught fish. Smog does not stop at the municipal borders dividing the city’s poor neighbourhoods from the rich. The toxicity of the air, the clouds, the rain and the snow; of the oceans and their diminishing fish and crustacean populations; of the chemically fertilized soil and the fruit it bears—this pervasive and multifarious elemental toxicity is also in us. At the physiological level, the outside slips in when we inhale and ingest it, the body’s “hollow” interiors—the lungs and the stomach—exposed to the atmosphere, water, and food. But a philosophical explanation for this primordial infiltration is, I think, no less persuasive.
In keeping with a line of ancient reasoning, the body and its senses are microcosms that set apart, for the time being and in varying proportions, a tiny fraction of immense elemental regions: the heat of fire and its luminosity in the heart and the eye, the earth in the bones and the joints, water in the vital fluids. The elements are not the fundamental particles from which, brick by brick, cell by cell, molecule by molecule, we are cobbled together. The elements are not in us, or, if they are, only secondarily so. It is we who are in the elements as their proportionate and temporary circumscriptions. When proportions are out of whack, the imbalance restitutes a bulk of the delimited to exteriority. When the outside regions themselves are deranged and contaminated, so are their bounded segments. Toxic elements toxic bodies and senses make. And, since the mind is embodied, the list remains partial without toxic thoughts, desires, fantasies, and modes of reasoning that have, to be sure, also occasioned the evisceration of the world. With the acceleration of a positive feedback loop between exteriority and the psychophysical interiority that sets a bit of the outside world apart, their contents do not filter, ooze, seep, or percolate into one another. They are massively discharged, mutually dumped, instead.
Involving huge quantities of data and construction debris, the stuff of junkyards and a unilaterally declared end of an intimate relationship, excrements and a snapshot of a computer program’s working memory at a given time, the flooding of foreign markets with extraordinarily cheap products and dreary living conditions, the dump is both outside and within. It relinquishes distinctions in physical space and the pivotal metaphysical opposition between the inner and the outer. Through its global reach, the dump swallows up and spits out what is together with the beyond of being, to which it was possible to elope as recently as the second half of the past century.[vi] Its impact disorients and unsettles; it renders useless the habitual signposts for navigating complex, wrinkled, rippled, emplaced space. Tailored to the dump’s uncanny measure, the world becomes a gigantic projection of the cave where Antigone was imprisoned by Creon, rather than an iteration of Plato’s cave. There—that is, here—the death sentences meted out to all sentient beings living in the dump hinge as much on the deprivation and limitation of access to the basics of life as on the prisoners’ exposure to a poisoned elemental “exteriority.” And then the thought strikes us: there is nothing outside the cave (or, more exactly, there is no outside-cave: il n’y a pas hors-caverne), because the life-giving elements are by now a hotchpotch of toxicity.
Conceptually speaking, the global dump is an achievement, indicating the way in which the much-maligned subject/object dualism has been overcome. Crude differentiation may be resolved either into finer differences or into indifference and undifferentiation. The crudeness of the subject/object relation is now replaced with the disorderly collection of –jects, often paleonymically called objects, and the haywire movement of –jection, oblivious to questions regarding points of departure and destinations. Late postmodernity has exchanged one of modernity’s most important, if faulty, distinctions for an amorphous heap, which is not at all unheard-of in mythology and in the history of philosophy.
Not so innocent, ecological, environmentally friendly, “green” discourses are implicated in the growth of the desert and the dump they abhor. As they rave about the butterfly effect adopted from a key figure in chaos theory, Edward Lorenz,[vii] and aver that everything is interconnected, ecologists destroy much more than the category of causality and predictability with its illusion of control; they harm the fragile logic of articulation, the prelogical arc of logos, and the precondition for establishing relations. The moment everything is linkable to everything else with the same intensity of association, nothing is related to anything. Relations are stitched together of varying energies, degrees of exclusivity, the push-and-pull of the inbetween. In a word, of differences. It follows that undifferentiation combined with indifference is lethal to relations.[viii]
Starting from the mental act of paying attention that singles out, is provoked or convoked by, and relates to a this, consciousness is partiality and discrimination, selective adherence and devotion. It neither predates nor survives its unique attachments.[ix] The unconscious, as well, consists of multiple cathexes, the irregular investments of libidinal energy into an object. But the impersonal consciousness that predominates in the dump is a consciousness torn out of its relational dynamics, uncathected, and dumped, unable to rise even to the level of the unconscious.
In existence where everything is interconnected, everything plummets haphazardly into the same heap. It all ends up on a global dump, which englobes us on the outside and clutters us with its desert emptiness from within. The cognitive state suited for this condition is the unmitigated distraction that tears to shreds the ties of consciousness to that of which it is in each case conscious. Dumping someone after a period of infatuation does not just terminate a relation; the act disposes of relationality. As does fusion with the other. Trendy entanglements barring a modicum of disentanglement contribute to the dense mess of dumped being. Although they proceed from opposite directions, the act of cutting relational bonds and the pathos of suffocating in their indiscernible proximity converge. Resigned in the face of the nascent dump, Heidegger had a premonition of its global approach: “Unavoidable is a confused entanglement [die wirre Verstrickung] in the massiveness, the boundlessness, the hastiness of the present at hand.”[x]
***The above is a fragment from Michael Marder’s just published Dump Philosophy: A Phenomenology of Devastation (Bloomsbury, 2020)***
[i] The plural form of the question is not accidental. In a dump, I do not live; we live, or carry on something resembling acts of living, a “we” without togetherness, neither sharing in difference nor aired amongst ourselves, in the interstices between us. “I,” in turn, am biomass, a massified and massed life.
[ii] We arrest our comprehension in its tracks as soon as we reduce movement to mechanical kinesis. With movement as locomotion or mere displacement conquering every sense of kinetic unfolding, our comprehension stops in its tracks; it, too, ceases moving, growing, changing forms so as to be or become more adequate to what it tries to comprehend, or even decaying and nourishing new growths with its own decomposition. These senses of movement are, incidentally, the ones Aristotle puts on par with locomotion. So, the cipher of living as movement, in movement, is incomplete without these variations, themselves organized along the “active” and “passive” dimensions.
[iii] Santiago Zabala explores the theme of postmetaphysical being as the leftovers (or “the remains”) of being in his The Remains of Being: Hermeneutic Ontology After Metaphysics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).
[iv] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (London & New York: Penguin, 1982), 417, translation modified. For more on my reading of this line and its reception by Heidegger, see my Heidegger: Phenomenology, Ecology, Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), esp. chapter 5, “Devastation.”
[v] For more on de-vastation, see chapter 5 of my Heidegger.
[vi] Think back, for instance, to the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, with its two main titles Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority (1961) and Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence (1974).
[vii] Thomas Sherratt and David Wilkinson, Big Questions in Ecology and Evolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 133
[viii] I write “combined with” (and, accordingly, interrelated) because, taken separately, indifference to a singularity qua singular and thus incommensurable can be a wonderful thing, mindful of the other’s transcendence, whereas care for the undifferentiated may help its undeveloped potentialities along.
[ix] That is the core insight of Husserl’s notion of intentionality, the idea that consciousness is always a consciousness of…, tending toward that of which it is conscious.
[x] Martin Heidegger, Ponderings II-VI, Black Notebooks 1931-1938, translated by Richard Rojcewicz (Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2016), p. 124.