Man at the Centre of Everything (has Failed)

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 25.05.2020

About the German-American anthropologist Tobias Rees

Stephen Fry in a conversation with Sam Harris I believe, told how, once, in the deep English countryside, he and the charming Maggie Smith had been waiting a long time for filming to begin. Maggie, gazing at the bucolic landscape behind the window, the distant meadow, and the cows within, suddenly exclaimed in her inimitable style: "Do they never get bored?"

The seemingly childish question shocked Fry, because indeed - by standing in the meadow all day in the rain and sun, constantly chewing their cud, rarely moving and looking around from time to time, they inhabit their "cowness" one hundred percent, while we, for some reason seem to be in constant doubt of our humanity. Cows being cows seem to have reached a state of absolute mindfulness, while we wake up in a constant state of anxiety every morning, either with a sense of guilt about what we have done previously, or anxious about what is yet to come. On the other hand, a person who is unaware of his or her human imperfection, has deliberately accepted it, or has given up the effort to become a "better person", would be viewed with great alarm by Fry. At best.

From such a trivial, yet at the same time equally awkward place, I began to look at the writings of the German-American anthropologist Tobias Rees (1973). From the outset, he only exacerbated this ontological unrest revealed by Fry (and shared by me). Firstly, by showing how recent, precarious and outdated the generally accepted notion of “being human” or “becoming one”, is, and secondly, by significantly expanding the field of uneasy and quite confusing issues not with answers, but with additional questioning.

In the essay On Being Human after The Human [An excerpt of the publication and its translation will be made available by the Riga Biennial- Ed], Tobias Rees identifies two equally questionable concepts of "the human" - "generic" and "ascetic". The ascetic man, he says, quoting Aristotle, had already been formulated by the Greeks, and this tradition was continued by medieval authors. “As they saw it, only few had the full potential to be truly human and even those few had to work –– live an ascetic life –– to perhaps get there.”

According to Aristotle, such an opportunity "from nature" was given only to free (from work) men, endowed with intelligence, but not to slaves and women, and not even to artisans, who can participate in the life of the mind only as performers of their given duties. Insofar as such segregation may seem unacceptable to the current epistemic, it is in these notions that the origins of a guide to the teachings of a good and virtuous life in philosophical literature and the aforementioned anxiety about inability to correspond to this ascetic ideal, lie. (As well as suspicion of all those who do not try hard enough.)

Even more robustly, Rees attacks the idea of a "generic human", or one who has been given to be a reasonable person since birth, regardless of origin, place, time, gender, and so on. Descartes is mentioned as the originator of this concept, but the future heavyweights of modernity and the Enlightenment are mentioned as its standard bearers: Hobbes, Hume, Kant and others. Alongside the sublime principle of equality of human beings, their "crime" to the world, in Rees's view, is the attempt to explain the "human" as something apart from both living and non-living nature.

On the one hand, each person's inherent ability to know and have knowledge of, both the world around him, or his or her "human condition", can free him or her from oppression, but on the other hand, it places him or her out of being in the world. For this reason, I'm looking forward to his online talk to see if I have misunderstood this in my interpretation, especially as Rees continues with the remark: “At stake is not the correction of some error. I don’t think that the human –– modernity –– has been a mistake, as the Latourians or the ontologists or the post-humanists and the Heideggerians would have us believe. I don’t think that what was before was ethically and existentially superior. I am not interested in –– and distrust the claim that –– the prior is the saving grace of the present or for the future.”

One of the topics of interest to academics is the history, development and change of knowledge (Erkenntnis), and the contradiction between the entrenchment of ideas and how the world has changed in the meantime under the influence of the images projected onto it. As a professional anthropologist and passionate storyteller himself, in his latest book, After Ethnos (2018), he criticizes conventional methods of research and the division of science into the humanities and exact disciplines, arguing that they do not usually question the "nature" of their objects.

Interdisciplinary studies enthusiasts praise his work and laud his courage and daring, while academic authorities aim lightning bolts at him. When, in an interview after the book was published, Rees was asked: What are the stakes of this destabilization of the human? What do you hope to achieve with it? He answered “In a way, it isn’t me who destabilizes the human. It is events in the world. As far as I can tell, we find ourselves living in a world that has outgrown the human, that fails it.”

For example, a major blow to human exceptionalism are the latest discoveries in microbiology, to which Rees often refers. Microbiome is the most common, most widespread and by any measure, the largest form of life in the world. It is becoming increasingly clear how inseparable the bacteriological background is from the existence of any other living organism, including humans, and that it has influenced and continues to influence gene mutations from the outset and neurogenesis in embryos and adults (therefore, also thinking, even if it later only manifests itself in hysterical mysophobia).

It is practically impossible to rely on this knowledge and still continue to consider a person as something exclusive, Rees believes. He also appeals to artists who, although usually seemingly free to cross genre boundaries and in many cases are the first to examine them, themselves now often indulge in the frameworks and practices of generally accepted norms and comforts offered by institutions.

Perhaps that is why Rees willingly agrees to get involved in art projects, in order to promote his critique of traditional "human nature". For example, in 2017, he created a "shy robot" for the mysterious Italian artist Norma Gina at the Palm Springs Biennale, whose programmed task was to avoid the presence of humans as well as plants and stones. Its disappearance into the wilderness shortly after its launch was even reported by The New York Times.

Precisely this is what struck me first and foremost after my first cursory reading of Tobias Rees: perhaps he is one of those for whom the next logical step after the demystification of the "crown of creation" is the primacy of artificial intelligence and transhumanism. He says that man, in current common sense, is a recent fiction that needs to be rethought urgently, while my social animal instinct screams that we have barely, barely, just begun to understand something about man, and he is already slipping out of his fingers again. (Rees does not deny that, although we know "about man" only recently, as the undocumented history of the species is already 200,000 years old.)

Of all the concerns that have been expressed about artificial intelligence, this is the one that I probably would agree with - that before we have managed to live as people with adequate self-understanding (not as animals, not as creatures of God, and not as biological mechanisms, but as humans), we may soon lose this opportunity with the next irrevocable wave of “augmented  intelligence". (Keep in mind that maybe there is nothing to a man, but one with a tool in his hands. With a stone, a chisel, a pencil, a smart phone. And he is nothing else. Although I can’t say I’m entirely convinced. For at which point does the loved one disappear, whose every tiny micro – movement of the eye, the nose, the corner of the lip you, a moment ago, could read and translate, and well as any other person's micro - movement you needed to reckon with - where do they disappear when they look into their phones? Where do they disappear when you look into your digital calendar? Getting lost “into their lives”?

On careful reading however, Tobias Rees doesn’t dismiss man. Furthermore, he doesn’t belong to those extremists who think that without the human world, fish and moss would fare better either. But I, like him, have a lot of questions in this regard. For example, what it means to love the world but not people. And cows as such.

Tobias Rees’ lecture took place on May 28, 2020 as part of the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art weekly Series of Talks and Conversations, which bring together outstanding thinkers, researchers, and writers from various fields.

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