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Species thinking

Posted on June 9, 2014 by admin


Dipesh Chakrabarty uses the phrase species thinking to characterize a major twist in social theory. This is a
mode of thinking that takes humanity-as-species for its object: a shift from the condition of species being as
invoked by Marx, towards an analytic awareness based on a recognition of boundary parameters of human
existence.[i] For an historian and critic of globalizationthat earth-encompassing phenomena, feeding on
and reproducing inequality wherever it travelsthis is a notable shift in focus for Chakrabarty, because it
entails thinking humanity in universal terms. He elaborates: These parameters are independent of
capitalismThey have been stable for much longer than the histories of [its] institutions . These parameters
come into view out of a breach between the present historiography of globalization and the historiography
demanded by anthropogenic theories of climate change.
Species, he acknowledges, is a word that will never occur in any standard history or political-economic
analysis of globalization. In contrast, species thinking is connected to the enterprise of deep history (213) or
the Anthropocenethe idea that humanity has impacted the planet in such a thoroughgoing manner as to
constitute a distinct, new geological era. Revoicing Walter Benjamin, he suggests, species may indeed be the
name of a placeholder for an emergent, new universal history of humans that flashes up in the moment of
danger that is climate change. In this precarious moment, the power/history frame of social theory proves
singularly inadequate: The critique that sees humanity as an effect of power is insufficient in dealing with
the crisis of global warming (221). In this view, a cultural analysis limited to assessing the social conditions
of possibility of an idea or life formprivileging capital and politics (e.g., neoliberalism), reinscribing or
delimiting the social as a uniquely humanreproduces anthropocentrism and is insufficient for grasping our
species predicament.
For a species that has given a good deal of thought to species, Chakrabarty concept is a notable development.
The fact that species are good to think provided the basis for articulating sociality for perhaps as long as
humans formed into durable group arrangements. As well, this theoretical formulation crucially opened an
enormous intellectual capacity to recognize logical or analytical thought operating on and through a variety of
nonhumans, while leveling the hierarchical contrast between civilized and primitive thought. Strikingly, the
recognition of species being was also central for the transformation of social theorizing with Marx. In the
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx declared, In the mode of life activity lies the entire character
of a species, its species character, and free conscious activity is the species-character of man that odd
species that bears the history making capacity to transform life itself.
Markedly underscoring the fundamentally social orientation of this concept, species thinking arises out of an
analytical intuition, rather than a phenomenological sensibility. Thats because, in Chakrabartys formulation,
it is not possible to grasp species thinking experientially: We humans never experience ourselves as a
species.There could be no phenomenology of us as a speciesno one ever experiences being a concept. This
arguably matches the central tenet of biological thought: that natural selection works on the individual, rather
than the species; the phenomenological experience of species being is continually forestalled by the operation
of selective pressures on individual, competitive, reproductive units. But if not phenomenologically, then
through our capacity to recognize both culture, generally, and its similar operations amongst other species. For
the very recognition of this moment of peril is linked to the transformative efficacy of the Anthropocene to
raise artificial selection onto a competitive plain with its natural counterpart.
Aesop's Anthropology
Theorizing culture across species lines
[i] Dipesh Chakrabarty. 2009. The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry 35 (2): 197222.
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Aesop's Anthropology
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