Transcript: In conversation with Dipesh Chakrabarty
Ashish Ghadiali: Hi, my name is Ashish Ghadiali, I am an Activist-in-Residence at the Sarah Parker Remond Centre. Thank you for joining us for this podcast interview with Professor Dipesh Chakrabarty. Professor Chakrabarty is the Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He was a founding member of Subaltern Studies and was the winner of the 2014 Toynbee Foundation Prize and the 2019 Tagore Memorial Prize. His books include The Crises of Civilization: Exploring Global and Planetary Histories and The Climate of History in a Planetary Age which was published earlier this year by the University of Chicago Press. It's about the idea of the planetary that we are going to speak today, Professor, thank you very much for joining us.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.
Ashish: I was really keen to talk to you because I am fascinated by the concept of the planet or the planetary, and I thought that you were an important thinker on this subject to engage with.
Dipesh: I try.
Ashish: For my benefit and for all of us, maybe we could start with the basics. What is the concept of the planetary and for you, in terms of your intellectual trajectory, how did you come to it?
Dipesh: So, from the 1980s, and particularly from the 1990s, social scientists and humanist scholars, who’ve been studying colonialism, post-colonialism, questions of racial and other kinds of difference, have been focused on the global as a way of either understanding empires or understanding the local and understanding migration, understanding the global itself as an imperial arrangement, as Hardt and Negri would say.
For me, the planet as a category emerged from, you might say, the interfacing of two concepts or two expressions. One was globalisation, of which the central category was globe and the phenomenon of global warming, which uses the word 'globe' but I found that it uses it in quite a different sense. It’s really in exploring the differences between the globe of globalisation and the globe of global warming, I felt in a way to rename that second globe the planet in order to make the distinction clearer between what I’m now calling the globe and the planet; once I made the distinction, I realised that in different contexts, both humans in general and purists in particular, have thought about the planet. It was not like I was the first person to use the word planet in planetarity, there have been other discussions of planetarity, but I developed my own understanding of it along particular lines, but really it was to indicate what happens to your thinking when you think globalisation, the process of globalisation and the process of global warming together, and the globe and the planet then for me became almost two vantage points from which to think about human history and the human condition in somewhat different ways.
Ashish: Let’s unpack that then. What does happen to your thinking; what has happened to your thinking by holding those two distinct concepts?
Dipesh: So, first of all, I need to clarify that, even though I think of them as distinct concepts, they’re not concepts opposed to each other. They don’t constitute a binary opposition. So, it’s not an either / or relationship. In fact, I argue that historically it’s the intensification of the process of globalisation that creates the planetary perspective. So, in a way, the planet is an older entity historically than the global but it kind of becomes visible to us through an intensification, as we tunnel our way through globalisation, we see it. Whereas the object I’m calling planet existed before as object of specialist knowledge, like geologists or earth systems scientists or astronomers or others who would have thought about it differently.
So, going back to your question, what’s the difference? There are many differences, but the key difference means are these: that to the global, it makes me think of the story of how humans came to understand that the thing we live on is almost spherical and how we kind of made the sphere our domain of activity. So, it’s a story of Europeans inventing the technology to make ships that could negotiate the deep oceans, so that they could then go to other peoples’ land and take their land or steal their bodies as labour power or set up factories or set up trade connections. So, the global is fundamentally a story of how we created this world, that we kind of converted this planet into a spherical human domain, at the centre of which are the stories of technology, empires, capitalism, inequality, those sorts of questions, and race is fundamental.
And some people now argue that the technology has become such a driver of human history that a) it connects us all over the world in different ways, and b) that one might now conceptualise even the planet in terms of there being an ethosphere, the rocky surface of the planet, a biosphere where life occurs, an atmosphere, a troposphere, a pseudosphere; but they said we should also imagine a thin technosphere surrounding this planet. And they argue that without the technosphere, it would be impossible to sustain the lives of eight billion human beings or ten billion human beings. One of the calculations suggested if you took all this technology that’s developed over 500 years away, the human population would crush to about ten or eleven million. So, their argument is that technology has become the pre-condition for biology.
Ashish: Is that a position that you agree with?
Dipesh: It’s a persuasive position. I’m not a technosphere specialist to be able to controvert the proposition in a way that somebody else studying technology and the history of it might, but clearly, if you include medicine in technology and public health as part of that technology, so if you include the invention of the microscope without which the microbes would not have been seen, then clearly it makes sense to think of technology in that broad sense as supporting so many lives, because the amazing thing about human population is that we were about 1.6 billion at 1900 and in 100 years we went up to six billion. Homo Sapiens have been around, they say, for 300,000 years. So, it took us almost that period to get to number one billion, and then what happens that we suddenly jump to six billion and then to eight now, maybe nine or ten before we stabilise. And also, humans live longer. I was recently reading something about colonial Calcutta and privileged people, really, really rich people, their biographies, short collections of biographies and people were dying at 39, 41, 49. Somebody who lived up to 60 was seen as having a very good constitution. So, if you think of even the expansion of the longevity just of the privileged, forget the poor, clearly public health, medical technology, all of these things had something to do with it.
So, the global is a story about what human beings have done, both to each other as well as to the planet, to nature and, therefore, it’s a human centric story, but what happens through the intensification of globalisation, and one part of the story of the intensification that interests me a great deal - sorry, you asked a small question and I’m kind of carrying on, but it would really help to at least do the groundwork for what we are going to talk about later, so at least to get the distinctions clear. So, one part of this story of intensification of the global that interests me is the Cold War and the competition in space and the interest in the state of the atmosphere, so that you see the rise of atmospheric sciences, both in the Soviet Union just both before and after the war and in the US, and this has to do partly with the explosion of nuclear bombs, so people were interested in the radiation fallout and measuring that, partly to do with the competition in space which had military implications, partly to do with the interest in the Soviet Union and the Americans had in weaponising weather, in experimenting with droughts, floods, if you could cause these things in your enemies state.
And out of this, NASA was very much a part of this and in 1960, the British chemist James Lovelock, the Gaia man, joined Carl Sagan’s unit and worked there from, I think, 1961 to 1966, and one of their projects was to find out if Mars could be made inhabitable for humans, if Mars could be colonised or not. And that led to a very interesting question among scientists who are mostly not biologists but then, of course, biologists joined them, like Lynn Margulis, Carl Sagan’s wife, and one question that came up was, so what is life and how does a planet become friendly to life? And the only planet they could study to answer this question, even though they were applying the question to another planet, was this planet because we don’t know of any other planet empirically that sustained life over such a long period of time. So, they began to look at life on earth and this question of what sustains life on earth as a way of thinking about what might sustain life on Mars. So, in a way, earth became part of a comparative study of planets, so if you can think of something called comparative planetology, then this question arose, why is this the Goldilocks planet? That Venus is so hot, Mars is so cold, but we seem to be right. And when you investigate that question, you realise that, in a way, different forms of life play a role in maintaining complex life. One of the things that they talked about a lot is the nature of our atmosphere and the fact that you survive, I survive because oxygen is 21% of the atmosphere. People who are dying in the pandemic die because of breathing problems, they don’t get enough oxygen. So, we are oxygen breathing animals, the atmosphere is critical. And they worked out that the atmosphere has maintained oxygen roughly at that level to sustain oxygen breathing animals or even plants or creatures for 375 million years.
So clearly, this atmosphere that we depend on so critically wasn’t created with us in view, it was created by different forms of life. It’s still maintained by different forms of life like planktons, fungi or bacteria or plants, forms of life that humans normally have considered inferior forms of life. And it’s amazing to see that they keep supplying the air with fresh oxygen, because oxygen chemically is very reactive, so it doesn’t stay as oxygen, so you have to keep supplying the air with oxygen. So, for instance, if we heated up the planet so much that the average temperature of the sea is warmed by an extra six degrees Celsius, the planktons would die, the phytoplanktons, which would be shutting off the source of the oxygen for ourselves. And to get to this, technology was critical to the story of space exploration, satellite data, but also getting ancient air bubbles to know that the carbon dioxide concentration in the air is now the highest it’s been in 800,000 years and the only way you could do it was by boring into polar icecaps because you get this trapped air, ancient air, but how do you bore the icecaps? You bore the ice with the same technology that the oil companies use. So, you can see the technology that’s created global warming, that’s helped to create global warming, was also being used in finding out data about ancient air.
So, that’s why I say that it’s the intensification of globalisation that kind of led to this realisation that there are processes that we might think of as planetary, which are both geological and biological in nature, and that work in tandem to keep life going, which doesn’t mean that it’s eternally stable because it lurches from one condition to another, it goes through extinctions of major forms of life, but you suddenly realise that there is this entity which is active, dynamic, almost systemic. And NASA created a committee called Earth System Science in 1983. So, it’s this earth as system that I call the planet and the point is that the planet in its construction - and these are both human constructions, humans have thought up these categories - but the global is a category too, in which the humans are central because it’s all about what humans do to each other and what they do to nature. The planet, the earth system, is a category which then decentres humans because in the story of geology and in the story of the evolution of life, humans come so late that you can’t make humans the centre of the story.
Ashish: So, fundamentally, the difference that you’re describing is one that it's an experience, like it’s a perception?
Dipesh: So, I’m not a scientist, so I read geologists and biologists and earth system scientists as kind of fellow historians who work with different archives, different methods. So, what I take from them are the conclusions on which they have provisionally agreed in spite of all the internal debates, and I take that to then create two perspectival vantage points. One is human centric, the other that decentres humans. One asks the questions exclusively about humans and what they do to each other. The other actually tells the same story about humans but decentring them. It also tells the story about how the planet works. And the scales of time are very different, the global is 500 years old, the planetary is as old as the age of the earth and you have to remember that oxygen was toxic for the first creatures. So, this oxygen did not become an important part of the earth’s atmosphere until two billion years ago, and so many creatures had to either die or dive underground, the nitrogen-fixing bacteria, that sometimes scientists call that oxygenation event the oxygen holocaust. So, if you looked at the story of the oxygen in the air from our point of view, it’s a blessing; but if you look at it from the point of view of bacteria that subsisted mainly on nitrogen, it was a holocaust. So, it shapes your perspective.
Ashish: And for you that relativity, what does that breed in terms of temperament?
Dipesh: The first experience was, honestly, surprise and shock because in the story we tell under the rubric of globalisation, and whether we tell a story about racism, struggle against racism, struggle for socialism, struggle for human rights, struggle for democracy - and I was a historian completely of that stable. I was not trained to be a scientist. I did some undergraduate science. The experience was, first of all, of recognition that we have taken the world for granted, that the everyday given-ness of the world, you wake up and this tree stands in the same place and the mountains stand in the same place, this realisation that to take this as given, to take the world as given as it seems to me was fine so long as humans themselves had not become a geological force, capable of changing the landscape of this planet.
Let me explain it this way. Take an artefact as common as a tourist guidebook, then what will it do? It will tell generations of tourist travellers, let’s say since the coming of Thomas Cook, so over the last hundred-something years, it has told people to go and visit the same sites again and again, go to that beach, that mountain’s beautiful, because in human terms we take all that to be stable. But when your timescale expands, you suddenly realise how restless this planet is and all that you take to be stable is very unstable and when you remember the instability of it, of mountains for instance, you remember it today because of the crisis that this attitude of taking it for granted has produced. My example of that is the Himalayas. There are so many projects, India alone has more than a thousand projects of blasting the mountains, either to create dams or bridges or roads or whatever, that all the nations that possess the Himalayas - China and India in the main - are carrying out, and the kind of problems that they’re producing for human beings today, landslides, avalanches, those crises remind you that the Himalayas are a young mountain range. It’s growing every year because the Indian plate goes and hits the Asian plate. It reminds you of all this geology, the crisis reminds you that you have to keep in mind that it’s a very active mountain and if you keep blasting it, then your blast can somehow multiply or act in sync with the instability of the mountain because of its youth.
In my book I quote Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein has a wonderful saying; humans look at a building and say how old is it? Why don’t we ever ask it of a mountain? That’s because when we think of a mountain, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter, it’s always there. It’s that kind of scale of shift that the globe and the planet does, and I suddenly began to see that, unless we realise our geological agency and the geomorphological role we play that is changing the landscape of the planet, we won’t realise the depth of the predicament that we’re in, that goes by the name of climate change or global warming. It’s a profound predicament that human beings have fallen into. That’s why I say that the human condition has changed.
Ashish: What do you mean by that, what do you mean by the human condition has changed? And actually, what can this awareness that you’re describing actually point us towards tangibly in terms of the climate crisis?
Dipesh: In terms of the human condition changing, one easy way of describing that would be to go Hannah Arendt's book, The Human Condition, which was written in the shadow of the Russian Sputnik going up. And Arendt ends the book thinking of the Sputnik, what does it mean that human beings are looking at space? The first in human history, desiring to be somewhere else and she actually says, now we have a guarantee that the species won’t go extinct, even though we might suffer from alienation because we’re earthlings. So, just in the way that when migrants travel - where’s your family from?
Dipesh: There you go. So, your family travelled obviously in a generation earlier to yours as you have a pukka English accent, and in my family I’m the first-generation migrant. And every migrant family goes through the experience, or most do, the experience of seeing their children lose the language. The first-generation experiences that. There’s a sense of loss involved with it, but we think of it as a trade-off. We think England doesn’t feel like my country, but my child will be better able to adjust to it and maybe my child will have a better life than I did. And there are these small pains that actually parental generations endure and think of them as trade-offs we have made.
Similarly, Hannah Arendt was thinking human species will be making a trade-off, we'll miss the earth, but we'll survive. Whereas today the question has become an existential question, will we survive? Because in taking the world for granted with our scale of technology, what we’re also doing is hastening species extinction. Some people say there might be the sixth great extinction in 300 to 600 years’ time. Some people argue that we’re already in the first phase of it because 300 to 600 years is nothing in geological time, it’s a moment. And the experience of every extinction is that when the extinction happens, the dominant species may not go totally extinct. It might mutate and dinosaurs survived as birds, the aviatory dinosaurs, but it doesn’t dominate anymore. So, instead of the moment of the Sputnik when Hannah Arendt thinks, I can think of it as a trade-off, I think now we’re in a moment where there are no trade-offs. Elon Musk might say go to Mars or whatever, but I don’t think the solution actually exists because it’s not obvious that Mars is habitable or will be. That’s why I say the predicament is deep because the global expansion of humanity, for all the internal inequalities and battles and racism and class warfare and casteism and all of those things that have marked it, have also spoken to certain human notions of welfare, wellbeing, flourishing. If you look at the number of humans who consume, purchase consumer gadgets, if you think of them as the global consuming middle class; so again, interestingly, we reached the figure one billion in 1986 or 1985 and it took 21 years to add the second billion. Then it took nine years to add the third billion and seven to add the fourth. So, you can see that, not only are more people living better but they’re doing so faster and faster, and all this has an impact on other forms of life.
The pandemic is an example of what this kind of expansion of human, expansive, extractive, human flourishing does to the planet. It destroys the habitats of wildlife. Most animals know to avoid humans, so when we get diseases from them today, we get them because we force them to come close to us because we force them to lose their habitats. And 70% or 75% of the new infectious diseases of the last 20 years have been zoonotic, have come from wild animals and the destruction of forests has a lot to do with it. In a way, what’s happened over the last 200 years, humans have lived so well or as well as they’ve never done before and if you could bracket the climate crisis and then the pandemic, then a thinker like Steve Pinker from Harvard would say, fantastic, the way to go, and our intelligence will solve our problems. We’re a very clever species, technology will solve all problems, don’t worry about this, we’re doing better and better. But if you’re not a Steve Pinker, and if you take these other crises seriously and what earth system scientists are writing about history, then you realise that we are in a deep, deep predicament because you can’t ignore the question of human wellbeing but at the same time, you can’t afford this cost that we’re currently paying to live well.
Ashish: It sounds to me like you’re describing clearly in macro terms a moment of crisis and a language that we can grasp the nature of the crisis that we’re in. It sounds to me as though this is also coming out of an experience of crisis. You talk about your own training, and it would be good to hear more from you about your background. I know that by background, you’re a Marxist historian, and as you’ve articulated, this is terrain that is far from your background. I'd love you to tell me the story of the moment of that rupture.
Dipesh: Personally speaking, the rupture happened in 2003. I was not a student of climate science before then, and if you ask what made you go to this side, it was a very personal experience, and the deeply personal experience was this: I went to Australia in the end of 1976, December, and before that I was born in Calcutta, I’d grown up in Calcutta. I didn’t belong to a family that dreamt of sending their children overseas, I had a very middle-class family. My parents’ dream for me would have been for me to have a good job, own a car, be affluent, but to be in Calcutta and look after them and live with them; and part of that was my desire too. That was not like it wasn’t my desire, but other things happened. So, I went to Australia to do my PhD and went to a city that couldn’t have been more different from Calcutta, it was Canberra. Calcutta was so many millions of people, Canberra had 200,000 people. Calcutta was chaotic, ramshackle trams and Canberra was picture-postcard clean, squeaky clean, the sky was a wonderful blue. And the wonderful thing about Canberra was what Australians call the bush, nature or hills where you could go hiking, it runs through the entire city. The city is built around it, the suburbs are built around these mountains. Almost every suburb has a mountain at the back, a hill, and you can go for a walk in the morning and it’s beautiful and there are nature spots. And my Australian friends were all into outdoors, so they helped me discover something that I’d never discovered in my Bengali life in Calcutta, something called nature, outdoors nature. Nature that I loved in Calcutta was in poetry, on screen, but not something that I’d actually experienced. In 2003 a horrendous fire burned about 300 houses in Canberra, killed, I don’t remember, quite a few people, in the 10s, 20 or 30 people, and destroyed all the nature spots and killed a lot of the birds and the animals. Canberra had beautiful birds, it was like a bird sanctuary, and I felt totally bereft.
After I came to Chicago in 1995, ANU offered me a series of visiting positions for about 20 years. I used to go back every year and then I would drive to a waterfall outside of Canberra, I’d go to these spots and take friends, take visitors because that was my kind of going back from Chicago. Leaving Chicago in summer was like my journey into nature and to see all that burned down and look like scenes out of Mad Max always gave me a deep, deep sense of loss and bereavement and grief. And people were scared of what was going to happen. There was a huge drought in Australia, there was a water scarcity, water was rationed, you couldn’t water your garden and I saw Australians being scared. They were saying, maybe the land is too dry and do we have to go somewhere else to live? Do we have to become a water importing nation? And that increased worries about security and war. I saw a white, relatively affluent nation being totally scared and it became, eventually in 2007, an electoral issue that brought Kevin Rudd as the Prime Minister in Australia signing the Kyoto Protocol, which they hadn’t done then but I’m still talking about 2003.
And Australia has a very good number of excellent environmental historians and when you go to Australia, it’s very hard to ignore knowledge about the land. It just comes to you. So, I knew that Australia had cyclical wildfires because the gum trees need fires to regenerate themselves, so there had been prehistoric fires. So, I went to my friends and I said, but why were these fires so bad? And they said this is not an ordinary drought, this is climate change and I said, what’s climate change? And then I began to read up and what blew me away was the statement by many scientists that humans had become a geological agent. I’ve grown up on EP Thompson and the social history of the 1960s, Subaltern Studies where we talked about looking on women as the agents of their histories, peasants as the agents of their histories. Now, that word 'agent' meant your capacity for autonomy, your capacity to project yourself programmatically out of yourself onto the world to do something. But a geological agent, the word 'agent' has a very different meaning. It means almost a Newtonian force and I thought, wow, these are the same words, two different meanings.
So, that’s how I came into it. What happened was I couldn’t help thinking through the consequences of this realisation for my thinking as a historian and I wrote up whatever I felt, thinking about these consequences and I wrote them in my mother tongue actually, in Bengali, first because I’d promised an old teacher of mine in Calcutta that I’d write something for his magazine every year. So, I submitted this essay and he published it and my friends in Subaltern Studies were there and said we don’t think about these things, it’s interesting but not our problem. It kind of sank without a trace. Then I came back to America and I was then on the editorial board of this journal called Critical Inquiry in the Humanities and the editor came to me and said, we’re short of articles, do you have something you can give to us? And so I wrote it up in English and added more footnotes and made it more academic than the Bengali article was and it people were immediately interested, and in Europe, Turkey, China, Latin America - so many languages the article got translated into and then, while I got a lot of appreciative reception, I also ran into a maelstrom of criticism, with people saying what’s this got to do with history, why is he interested in species? This is all about capitalism. I had actually spoken about capitalism and its role and I’d actually said that capitalism is the rabbit hole through which we fall into this predicament. So, I hadn’t ignored capitalism, I actually even said that climate change will increase inequalities, exacerbate them, but then I’d also said that we have to talk about the deep history, the history of us as a species and our relationship to other species, and many Marxists took umbrage at that and they thought that to talk about species was to sidestep the question of who was responsible for greenhouse gas emissions, obviously the rich people and the rich nations were. So, I got intellectually pummelled, but I still didn’t give up because I thought there’s something about this exposure to deep history that these guys are not acknowledging.
So, in arguing my position against these positionst I eventually came to the globe-planet distinction. And other people helped me, Catherine Malabou, the French philosopher, she first said- she wrote a very good critique actually of my article and Dan Smail, the Harvard historian's book On Deep History, and in that critique, she was saying the two words - globe and globalisation don’t mean the same thing. So those things kind of acted as the first sparks of ignition but eventually I developed this idea of the planet, mainly by reading into earth systems science. The planet is very much what they call earth system, with Bruno Latour and Tim Lenton in following James Lovelock to call the Gaia, and there are interesting differences between earth systems and Gaia.
Ashish: Would you say that that has shifted in terms of the pushback from the orthodox left, the climate crisis has now been mainstreamed in a way that it wasn’t in 2003?
Dipesh: Well, as the crisis gets deeper and deeper, it also becomes more urgent in a practical sense. And as Michael Mann, the climate scientist, says in his book, that if you really think that we first have to get rid of capitalism in order to deal with the climate problem, then the climate problem is not urgent enough for you because we don’t know when we’ll be rid of capitalism but this problem is here. But also, I think some people, now that the book is out and I’ve had some discussions, it’s also clear that some people are seeing more my point, that I was not denying the role of capitalism or the role of inequalities. But then also I find that in the social sciences or in the humanities there are two kinds of deeply personal relationships to knowledge. Some people, once they come at an understanding of the world that they’re comfortable with, they basically want the world to go on affirming the understanding they’ve reached, and that’s a deeply personal thing. I’m not blaming them, I’m not accusing them, I’m not belittling them. I’m saying your relationship to the knowledge you have is a deeply personal relationship. So, every time something happens, they go back and work on their Marxism, they might tinker with it but their project really is to update Marxism.
Whereas, for whatever reason temperamentally, I love it when the world ambushes me and shows some holes in my understanding because I kind of feel psychologically, and again I’m not defending myself, I’m just sharing my temperament, but if you told me to live with the same understanding for the remaining years of my life, I would feel imprisoned. I would find that to be a trap, because I operate from the assumption that nobody gets it right. We never fully understand it and ‘it’ meaning everything else, everything that’s around you, including yourself, your body, everything. I think, therefore, understanding is a constant struggle and one has to be open and be positive about the moments when your understanding breaks down; and for me 2003 was a moment like that.
Ashish: So, you talk about race, caste and class in terms of the body, in terms of the planetary body in your book. Are you attempting to bridge the language of the planetary and relations? Is that what you’re trying to do there?
Dipesh: In a way I am but remember a massive amount of help came from this personal discussion with Rohith Vemula, who himself was a very interested reader of Carl Sagan. So, he himself had a scientific cosmological perspective in which he knew that his own body, that the Brahmins felt disgusted about, was actually made up, like the Brahmins body, of ancient molecules. So, that’s why he said I’m made up of ancient stardust, the glory of ancient stardust.
One of the fascinating things that now people study and people talk about and my friend, Julia Adeney Thomas, was the first person to bring it to our attention, is the whole question of the human body and the microbiome inside your body and the fact that your body is actually a kind of a nodal point for zillions of microbes inside you, and the fact that microbes make up the majority of forms of life by weight of numbers. So, I wanted to sort of bring that knowledge to bear upon the very humanistic knowledge of inequality, caste and race. Caste and race are not the same thing, but they’re connected in particular ways. So, I was trying to do that in that chapter, but also trying to recognise the Indian practice of untouchability, as a very perverse way of recognising the connection between human bodies and the world of bacteria, the world of death and dead bodies. So, Dalits produced disgust in the Brahmins, structurally, because they deal with either faeces, which is about bacteria and stuff, waste products, or dead products of life and, in a way, in consigning that task, relegating that task to a particular group of humans, it’s like the Brahmins have this absurd attempt to separate ourselves from everything that is inside my body and outside. But there’s a peculiar perverse recognition of the connectivity and the point in my book is that we’re becoming aware of this connectivity over the last 30-40 years, medically and in every other way. If you have an ulcer, nobody’s going to blame you, people are going to treat the microbiome for it. We have known for a while, but we don’t know how to politicise it.
So, in the political world, you still think of a Lokean person, you think of people as culpable. So we’re becoming aware of this connectivity and Latour and Isabelle Stengers and Jane Bennett and Donna Haraway - these are all people trying to give us a language to bring this within the fold of the political. It hasn’t happened yet and it’s damn difficult to do because the political has come out of very human constructions, of time, space relationships and the political itself is so human centric that we don’t know how to make that which is not human centric also political. So, that’s another question I raise in the book.
Ashish: You’ve mentioned Vemula but you also write about Tagore. I was particularly interested to understand more from you about the significance of Tagore.
Dipesh: Tagore, as you know, was a highly privileged person, by caste they were Brahmins. They didn’t acknowledge caste and also because the family had had some marital transactions with Muslims, so they were actually called Pirali Brahmins, like Pir Ali was added to the Brahmin category. But he was a clearly high-status person and he was engaged in this debate where he had once claimed that, while the sea did not know about him, he knew about the sea, intimately. He was acknowledging the sense of connection but in a poetic cosmological register. And Rohith Vemula coming from his experience of being treated as Dalit comes to a cosmological perspective through Carl Sagan and his readings into scientific cosmology, but they’re both using cosmology to dissolve the humanistic ego in them. So, they’re kind of acknowledging a bigger connectivity and trying to situate themselves as part of the connectivity. So, I was sort of saying, as you'll remember in that chapter, that Tagore is registering on a poetic note with his connectivity. Vemula is registering it on an emancipatory note, that I want to be emancipated, but they’re both pointing to a connectivity which we’re now increasingly recognising as factually true.
Your microbiome even has a role in producing the chemicals that produce the feelings you feel. So, as Bruno Latour says jokingly, you think you’re craving chocolate, it’s your microbiome wanting some chocolate. So, we’re becoming aware of these things. But we still don’t know how to bring it into the political. People are trying. People are trying with extending human notions of rights, but it’s not unproblematic. It creates other problems of who becomes the spokesperson. If you give human notions of rights to fish or animals or to rocks and stones, do you legislatively create permanent minorities, because they can’t vote?
So, there are all kinds of political theoretical problems. I’m simply saying but we’re at a moment, a fascinating moment in human history, where the knowledge of our connectivity is accumulating, increasing and even the pandemic is a peculiar negative way of finding it out. But if you look at the pandemic, the crisis it produces is a very human political crisis, a problem of management. Should it be globally managed? Should it be nationally managed? These are all crises of sovereignty, the crisis of biopower that Foucault talked about. But at the same time, it’s true that your body and my body has become an evolutionary pathway for the virus, and it’s true medically that every time we’ve tried to deal with viruses and bacteria, the very means we have actually invented to deal with them have produced new evolutionary pathways for them because that’s how you get antibiotic resistant bacteria.
So, there is a history of life unfolding and we’re at the interface of biopower which contributes to human welfare and life in general, what Giorgio Agamben would call 'zoe', the bare of productive life. The pandemic is right at the interface. And the fact that we’ve become the evolutionary pathway, individually our bodies are potentially, unless you get Covid, for the bacteria producing new mutants, new variants, means we’re actually in the middle of an event in the history of life. But our political discourse is really about management, and that shows the limit of the political and that shows how the planetary and the deep historical constitutes a limit at the moment to our political imagination, and that’s what Bruno Latour and others were trying to break down.
Ashish: So, where does it point?
Dipesh: See, the difference between Latour’s position and mine would be that, in my reading, Latour, for instance in his book on Politics of Nature, he designs a space - the parliament of things or whatever - where we want to be, and my point is to say that I totally agree with the vision of this space. I don’t know how to get there. And that partly is a historical task that has to be created through our arguments, through our discussion active on particular projects in particular places. I don’t think there’s a grand highway that’s going to open up. Human beings will get there because we are a species that eventually learns. We may not learn immediately, we learn through suffering, we learn through having lost. But we learn, it’s not that we don’t learn. Sometimes in our terms, the learning happens at a glacial pace. So, we’ll get there but at the moment I sometimes, respectfully, think of Latour’s text as Thomas More’s utopia for our times. But we need these visionaries.
Whereas my project is really to map out the predicament, to understand the shift in the human condition from Hannah Arendt. But if you think of ourselves as partaking differentially of the human condition, the changed human condition, if we acknowledge that, then we can still go on arguing about the differences, our political differences. So, in various ways, it’s a question of where do you find the ground for coming together, without giving up on the differences that you want to fight for?
And that’s in the book I say I’m trying to produce a new philosophical anthropology. At the end of chapter one I say, following Kant, that I’m not trying to solve the problem, I’m not trying to create policy and I’m not an activist in this book. I’m not thinking as an activist. Nor am I going into the question of what can we get from religion, although I touch on that in the last chapter a little bit in terms of spirituality and reverence and all that. But I’m really trying to understand the shift in the human condition, and it seems to me that the more we acknowledge the depth of this predicament, then the more we acknowledge our desire to flourish, and I don’t make small of that desire. At the same time, how do we flourish as human beings without creating this problem for ourselves? And there we have to acknowledge what kind of connections we had that become innate, that we have become a dominant species and there’s another way to come to the same problem. So, I raise this question that if we’re a minority form of life and let’s say the microbes are the majority forms of life, but we’re in a situation where we dominate the hell out of them because we make other life forms go extinct and stuff, then if you thought about it politically in purely human terms, then it’s a bit like South Africa in Apartheid times when a small white minority dominated the huge black majority. Or if you looked at the way we gain knowledge about bacteria and viruses and some of these little things, you’ll find that we gain knowledge about them in order to control them, in order to defeat them, in order to manage them. If those were human beings, bacteria and viruses, then you’d call it colonial knowledge but they’re not human beings. I’m not saying that the knowledge is unnecessary, but you can see the problem that if similar things were happening between human beings, we could easily politicise them. You could easily say we need to develop minoritarian forms of thinking or this is not the way to know our people, just to manage them, that’s orientalism. But that’s exactly what we do with respect to other forms of life.
So, if you say but we have to extend these categories to that domain, then I’ll say fine but I’m again coming back to my proposition, that you’re at the limit of your political in dealing with these things. I’m still trying to think my way through this question of how to develop minoritarian forms of thinking at a species level, at a human level. How could one? What would it mean? And I’m trying to learn from people who have thought about minoritarian forms of thinking intrahuman.
Ashish: So, is that what you’re working on next?
Dipesh: Working would be glorifying, but I’m thinking about it, yes.
Ashish: What are you working on?
Dipesh: I’m not working on a big project, but I’m trying to think my way through some of these problems and the problems that the book ends with, and giving lectures. I’m just trying to take my thinking a step forward.
Ashish: Well, I really appreciate you sharing your time and talking with me. So, your book is called The Climate of History in a Planetary Age. It’s published by the University of Chicago Press. I highly recommend it to all of our listeners.
Dipesh: Thank you.