The Unexceptional Hubris of Exceptionalism

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I recently got back from Alaska, which as you can tell from the picture above was quite nice. Naturally, while I was there I had to continue my now two years on reading quest into speculative materialism. One of the works I was reading was ‘Unthought: The Power of Cognitive Nonconcious‘. Though not strictly in the canon of that school of philosophy, the overlaps were palpable-especially when it came to combating the trend of human exceptionalism in western philosophy. Katherine Hayles dives into multiple fields, from biology to technology, to show how so much of what we do-by far the vast majority-is running on autopilot. That is, in effect, running on instinct. This has large and obvious questions for our definition of consciousness and its status in other animals as well as in increasingly complex automated systems we ourselves create. Good timing with that Blade Runner sequel, by the way.

Just a few days ago, PBS Nature had an excellent documentary on how red foxes are thriving like never before due to canny adaptations to human civilizations. Most people know rats, cockroaches, mice, and other animals benefit from our existence, but larger more independent animals like the fox are often overlooked. Perhaps even more remarkable is the story of the coywolf. In addition to being the name of a band I like, the Coywolf is also a remarkably successful wolf/coyote hybrid who, taking advantage of the coyote’s impressive success in the human era, has been migrating steadily eastwards and then southwards for the past few decades, becoming a new dominant land mammal predator throughout much of North America and fueled not in spite of, but by human civilization. One can hope a larger more aggressive hunting animal can also take advantage of too-numerous deer in the east and get them moving again, saving much of eastern flowering plant life and reducing overall lyme disease rates. Nature needs its predators, and as part of nature, so do we to even keep our systems running at peak performance.

What is nice to see is how so much of speculative materialism is clearly striving not only against bad European philosophical ideas but a common human hubris that most likely was engendered by the rise of monotheism itself, and certainly exacerbated by certain trends in modern and postmodern thinking alike in more recent times. We should, in some sense, be able to view our own species with the detached study of instinctual behavior we often only reserve for wild animals. Perhaps, one day, we will be doing the same thing with robots. Robots who will be programmed to behave as if they have a consciousness and thus cause us to question our own ideas about consciousness and what it really is. Many Speculative Materialists would answer, ‘the small self-aware tip above the water line of a very, very large ice berg of automated processes.’ And there is an excuse for another photo, even though its of a glacier and not an iceberg:

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So many of our presently debilitating blind spots, be it climate change, sustainable resource extraction, or loss of biodiversity come about by a human hubris that makes one question the utility of the level of self-awareness we have. It is becoming increasingly clear as hurricanes batter the shores, sea levels rise, and honey bees enter a critical terminal phase that our hubris must be scaled back to see our impact objectively. One of the more harrowing things I have seen is the boat pilot for the trip pictured above pointing to where the glacier *used to be* when they started running that route 17 years ago. It was a loss of over a mile.

This hubristic exceptionalism can be broken down into smaller more humanistic units as well. A country earnestly and honestly believing in its own special providence certainly strikes me as one of the more dangerous things that can happen on the world stage. Though revisionist powers seeking a re-orientation of the balance of power in their favor is hardly new, the utter calamity of German and Japanese exceptionalism in the Second World War, fueled by ideologies of nations with a unique and inherent destiny of supremacy, made the process a far more horrific affair then even the already terrible cost of conventional war alone necessitated. In the Cold War both major powers held themselves in high ideological regard, but as they competed for the ‘third world’ they had to make themselves accessible and attractive to do well. But with the fall of the U.S.S.R. checks and balances were removed, and the United States began to believe it had won the future and the world itself through virtue and being ‘on the right side of history’ alone. But since then American Exceptionalism has brought us over-extension, endless war, a rise in religious fanaticism, and a power so successful it has crossed the dangerous threshold into having its policy making elites actually believe its own propaganda. Much like humanity and man-made environmental crisis, this is to court disaster through hubris and complacency alone. When you think you are the solution, its hard to see how you might also be the problem. The outside perspective is needed, and that becomes almost impossible to achieve under hubris.

In Tlingit and Haida mythology the lines between humanity and the rest of nature was extremely blurred, with shamans that could transform into animals and animals that could masquerade as people. While not literally true, this kind of dethronement of self-centering certainly could have its uses.

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