Towards a Critical Public Pedagogy of Predatory Anthropocene

Michael B. MacDonald I Ecology & Sustainability I Analysis I August 19th, 2015

In 2015, a group of scientists published " The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration ". They showed that rising consumption and increasing rates of impact on Earth Systems began after the Second World War. It was the expansion of economic activity charged by increasing resource use that created new technologies that expanded rates of consumption. This was a celebrated new socio-economic phase called the Great Acceleration that was supposed to lead to full employment and a bright future for all. It was also the beginning of a next phase of world capitalism accelerated by increasing urbanization. By 2008 humanity officially entered a new urban phase where 50% of the earth's population lives in urban spaces. More cities will be built in the next thirty years than in all previous human history. Earth System scientists have shown that all of these changes are having unprecedented impacts on the Earth. Human life is changing the Earth, they call it anthropocene.

But the Great Acceleration did not lead to full employment nor a bright future. In fact, it has led to massive inequality created by a very small percentage of people controlling a staggering amount of wealth. In 2010, OECD countries had 18% of the earth's population but accounted for 74% of GDP. But only .1% controlled this vast wealth through a system that I call predatory anthropocene.

The system of predatory anthropocene can be found in changes to the global economy and a fundamental shift in the way the economy works through its transformation of subjective, social and environmental ecologies, what Felix Guattari called the Three Ecologies. One aspect of this change has been called semiocapitalism, the blending of imagination, ideas, language and capital. Semiocapitalism works by capturing evolutionary life. Belonging, for instance, is now produced by the consumption of psycho-social products that gain economic value in consumption and are financed by increasing debt. The GDP of the United States is now 70% consumption.

Making community through mass consumption is eroding the anthropological basis upon which human life is built. We need a language for this. Perhaps we need to recognize that the communicative and biological systems of the human species have habitats. The biosphere sustains biological life while the ethnosphere sustains communicational life. The biosphere is quite well known but the ethnosphere less so. Wade Davis suggests that the ethnosphere is a global quilt of local cultures, a band of cultural life functioning in tandem with the biosphere for the creation, organization, and expression of human communicational life.[1] The ethnosphere is a collection of languages, ideas, and dreams. It is the anthropological rituals that have accompanied human evolution, has organized social reproduction, it is the institution of language [2] in all its complexity, but is also beyond language.[3] When people talk about humanity in general, they mean the biosphere and ethnosphere, the cultures of the world in their physical, expressive, subjective dimensions. But now ethnosphere complexity is reduced by global commodities, unique cultures consumed by Hollywood-hegemony, human imagination consumed by consumer products, dreams being replaced by corporate produced and globalized desires. A single system is producing hegemony in ways that no single system was ever before capable. It is necessary for us to see that our species is under threat by a monster system that we have created, a monsterous, cancerous, predatory system poisoning the Earth. Henry Giroux has argued that:

What makes American society distinct in the present historical moment are a culture and social order that have not only lost their moral bearings but produce levels of symbolic and real violence whose visibility and existence set a new standard for cruelty, humiliation, and mechanizations of a mad war machine, all of which serves the interest of the political and corporate walking dead-the new avatars of death and cruelty-that plunder the social order and wreak ecological devastation. We now live in a world overrun with flesh-eating zombies, parasites who have a ravenous appetite for global destruction and civic catastrophe. (2014, xi-xii)[4]

Because I follow Guattari's cybernetic view I am less certain than Giroux appears to be, that is it possible to tell zombies from non-zombies in a period where a) agribusiness replaces agriculture and transforms all aspects of domestic life that b) creates stretches of suburbs that wipe out, without social discussion, the farmland that has laid the foundation of human flourishing, c) as mounting debt continues without slowing and without discourse in the public sphere, as d) waves of fellow humans are dislocated everyday due to military, economic, and environmental calamities. And none of this is news, we watch all of it studiously, staring at our displays unmoved by the misery and pain we see on the faces, and hear in the cries of fellow humans. Too many of us escape our responsibilities to confront this pain by fleeing to walled-in communities whose walls are maintained, not by bricks but by the capacity to carry the mortgage debt (that machinically contributes to predatory anthropocene) in the hopes of living in relative safety while the poor (who can not access debt) are left in decaying city centers. But as foreclosures swept across America after the housing bubble burst, suburban safety was shown to be precarious. It is important for us to take notice of the fact that we know all of this and collectively do very little to change it. We sign petitions on Facebook, but we still shop at malls that we built on farmland and we clearly have little access to empathy. And I am not saying this to be critical of you. I am truly stuck. After many years of being inspired by Adbusters and semio-politics and culture jamming I'm not sure what the next step is. I feel free space disappearing. I'm looking for options.

This difficulty of expressing empathy tells us something about hegemony under semiocapitalism. We now know that empathy is not something we develop, but something that we shut down. Vittorio Gallese in " The Manifold Nature of Interpersonal Relations: The Quest for a Common Mechanism" has shown that for us to "know that another human being is suffering or rejoicing, is looking for food or shelter, is about to attack or kiss us, we do not need verbal language" (Virno 2008: 175) we only need the activation of what Gallese called mirror neurons a "class of premotor neurons [that] was discovered in the macaque monkey brain that discharged not only when the monkey executes goal-related hand actions like grasping objects, but also when observing other individuals (monkeys or humans) executing similar actions" (Gallese: 522). Experiments successfully illustrated that mirror neurons were also in the human brain "positioned in the ventral part of the inferior frontal lobe, consisting of two areas, 44 and 45, both of which belong to the Broca region" (Virno: 177). Mirror neurons allow us to experience what we see. When we see someone doing something that we've never done, our brain reacts as if we are doing it, what Gallese calls "embodied simulation." This means that empathy is not something that we need to develop it is something that is functioning in our brains whether we like it or not. But as Paulo Virno points out, humans are clearly adept at seeing other humans as not-humans in order to override "embodied simulation". We are constantly unmoved watching violent death in both fiction and non-fiction, and constantly enacting laws to restrict sexuality and eroticism in the social sphere. In this context there is little doubt that a public pedagogy of human negation is taking place that values violence and negates the erotic energy that produces new human life! What this means is that "every naturalist thinker must acknowledge one given fact: the human animal is capable of not recognizing another human animal as being on of its own kind." How does this public pedagogy of negation occur? Virno argues that verbal language, "distinguishes itself from other communicative codes, as well as from cognitive prelinguistic performance, because it is able to negate any type of semantic content."(176). Through language we are able to negate others as not-human, shutting down the empathy that is produced by mirror neurons. But all is not lost as Paulo Freire points out, pedagogies of dehumanization can be countered through critical pedagogy. That we might learn to negate dehumanization is our hope, to dissolve the oppressor-oppressed binary through the creation of new anti-predatorial segnifications. Virno suggests that while language introduced human-negation into communication it also provides us the technology to negate-negation. In this way critical pedagogy is the negation-of-negation. But only when it is used in this way. I make one amendment to Virno's suggestion, that it is necessary to go beyond the notion of linguistic negation to identify the ways that negation is in the production of subjectivity, not just in the linguistic negation but in complex existential negations that occur within complex machinic semiotics. It is necessary to see the ways that the production of aesthetic systems produces collective subjectivities that produce We'ness as well as Other'ness.

Cultural technologies produce cultural workers who reproduce subjectivity-producing systems that produce subjects who reduce the ethnosphere and pollute the biosphere. Theodore Adorno was right to be concerned about the culture industry just as Walter Benjamin saw with clear sight the dangers of the absorption of aesthetics into politics. They both saw that the industrialization of the satisfaction of desire, what we might call affective-capitalism, has significant socio-political-economic impacts. There is a real danger when anthropological rituals developed for the social life are replaced by capitalist products. The production and satisfaction of desire on the marketplace is a constantly undermining of love of the local, a replacement of belonging with having the same mass manufactured private property, the replacement of environmentally-embedded anthropological bonds with capital resource consuming exchange. The production of subjectivity is consumed by the factory, negating living, thus extending the contractions of capitalism beyond the factory into all aspects of live time. Giroux has called this a "new kind of authoritarianism that does not speak in the jingoistic discourse of empowerment, exceptionalism, or nationalism. Instead, it defines itself in the language of cruelty, suffering, and fear, and it does so with a sneer and an unbridled disdain for those considered disposable. Neoliberal society mimics the search for purity we have seen in other totalitarian societies" (2014, xvii). And it does so through the production of subjectivity, in the distribution of social subjection and the institution of machinic enslavement. Together these form the contents of the public pedagogy of culture industry, the negation of lived time that blocks access to mirror neurons, limits our ability to negate the negations of the neoliberal culture industry, thus limiting our ability to resist through the production life affirming social machines, liberatory and collectively produced social subjectivations and life affirming machinic enslavements.

I, Terminator

Some people however, are arguing that the changes I call predatory anthropocene are a step forward for humanity. Luciano Floridi, for instance, imagines a new humanity as interconnected informational organisms (inforgs) active in "sharing with biological agents and engineered artifacts, a global environment ultimately made of information" (2011,9). Collectively these inforgs produce an infosphere that either replaces or contributes to the ethnosphere. But Floridi does not account for political economy and therefore misses that his dreams of the infosphere are enslaved by the algorithms of capitalism.

Franco 'Bifo' Berardi however, shows that inforgs are not liberated informational workers but are 'cognitariate' (exploited proletarians of information) controlled by the automatisms of machinic enslavements, no longer disciplined but under subjectively captured within the new means of control. Machinic enslavement is not discipline, but it is none-the-less controlling. No longer is there a need for an authority to hover over your shoulder to keep you in line. Machinic enslavement works to lead you into accepting the circuits of capture and control embedded cybernetically in modes of production, exchange and consumption. In the machinic enslavement of predatory anthropocene your only value is through economic consumption, and control is located in your desire to fulfill your consumptive role. Desire (libidinal, economic, social) is no longer a location of liberation, but a mechanism of discipline. This is power within predatory anthropocene.

Floridi's infosphere and its cognitarians are colonizers machinically enslaving dreams and desires. Their colonization does not in fact produce the infosphere but instead a nightmarish mechanosphere. The mechanosphere converts the anthropological ethnosphere into capitalist products, cognitive capitalism "produces and domesticates the living on a scale never before seen" (Boutang 2011, 48). Felix Guattari and Franco Berardi "emphasize that entire circuits and overlapping and communicating assemblages integrate cognitive labor and the capitalistic exploitation of its content"[5] in a model they call semiocapitalism, that captures "the mind, language and creativity as its primary tools for the production of value"( Berardi 2009, 21). Our language is being transformed into capitalist value, our words, dreams, desires and subjectivities are lost to the mechanosphere, "the authoritarian disimagination machine that affirms everyone as a consumer and reduces freedoms to unchecked self-interest while reproducing subjects who are willingly complicit with the plundering of the environment, resources, and public goods by the financial elite" (Giroux 2014, xxi).

Predatory anthropocene not only massively increases earth system impacts but creates massive inequality. In early 2015 year Oxfam released Working for the Few a terrifying document that shows, "Almost half of the world's wealth is now owned by just one percent of the population" and that, "The bottom half of the world's population owns the same as the richest 85 people in the world," and that this already extreme economic disparity is getting worse.

But we do not tell stories of predatory anthropocene to our children. Instead we tell myths of consumption, stories of gleeful elves happily working in non-unionized factories making toys for unproblematically good children, all the while supported by a covert group of elf spies that complicit parents move around their house for weeks. This is the childhood public pedagogy of predatory anthropocene where domestic life is machinically enslaved to global capitalism, domesticated to surveillance-of-consumption, young lives converted to effective consumer-citizens. Perhaps it's time to start telling our children the very true story of predatory anthropocene, the killer system that we have created and released into our world but refuse to name, refuse to accept, and spend a great deal of money and words denying. There is no sense denying predatory anthropocene, we need to talk of the monster that is killing our planet, we need to develop a critical pedagogy of predatory anthropocene, to learn to negate the negation.


[1] Davis, Wade. (2007). Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. Vancouver, BC: Douglas &McIntyre Ltd.

[2] Virno, Paolo. (2008). Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation. Los Angeles, California: Semiotext(e)Foreign Agents Series.

[3] Here I am thinking about post Spinozist philsophers that argue for a semiotics beyond language signification and even beyond logocentric significations and include Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Michel Foucault, Maurizio Lazzarato, Rosi Braidotti. Most compelling is the Deleuze and Guatarri suggestion that Lazzarato has picked up on in Signs and Machines and Governing by Debt that there is a machinic order as well as a logocentric order. My argument here is that predatory anthropocene functions through a machinic order that is little impacted by traditional semiotics, by political sloganeering, or even by radical critique. That there must be a politics of doing, or dropping out of predatory anthropocene in the way that Franco 'Bifo' Berrardi suggests in After the Future.

[4] Giroux, Henry (2014). Zombie Politics and Culture in the Age of Casino Capitalism New York: Peter Lang Press.

[5] Genosko, Gary. 2012. Remodeling Communication: From WWII to WWW. Toronto, Can: University of Toronto Press. (pg. 150)