Nonfiction book “The Climate of History in the Planetary Age” – Culture

On January 17, 2016, Rohith Vemula, a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, took his own life. In his farewell letter he wrote about his fate as a Dalit (“untouchable”) in Indian society. He was always perceived as a member of the lowest caste, not as a spiritual being ultimately composed of “stardust.” And this is almost seven decades after the legal abolition of the caste system. Indian historian Dipesh Chakrabarty uses this suicide note as a magnifying glass to take a closer look at the big questions of our time. Using the example of his mother, who – although imbued with the ideals of modern democratic India – scrupulously avoided any contact with Dalits, he shows how the preconscious shapes our social interaction more than the conscious. The ostracism of the Dalit body is not only a form of social oppression, but above all a deeply rooted collective repression of death and the associated creatureliness of the human body. It symbolizes what many cultures exclude: our indissoluble interdependence with the growth and decay of all life.

Recognizing and acknowledging this interdependence has become a matter of human survival, writes Chakrabarty in his new book, The Climate of History in the Planetary Age. The doctoral student Rohith Vemula repeats exactly the repressions from which he tries to free himself when he demands recognition as a spiritual being and “stardust”. In an age of enduring biospheric crisis, we would need to reverse the focus: the untouchables should not adopt the disembodied paradigms of upper castes and Western cultures. Rather, the latter would have to understand that as humans we are always dependent on non-human life, with which we have a long history of coevolution.

Our enthusiasm for the artificial worlds we create has made us ignorant

Chakrabarty sees us at a geohistorical turning point. The collective impact of demographic and technological developments in human history and their enormous intensification through fossil industrialization have made Homo sapiens a geological actor. Part of this supposed success story was to regard yourself as a spiritual being made of “stardust” and to make nature more manageable through high abstraction achievements.

But our “estrangement from earth”, as Hannah Arendt called it, our enthusiasm for the artificial worlds we have created, has made us ignorant. Ignorant of our corporeality and our earthiness – or to put it in contemporary jargon: of our biospheric identity. The more we “‘work’ the earth in pursuit of the worldly prosperity of large numbers of people, the more frequently we encounter the planet”.

Dipesh Chakrabarty wants to explain the connection “between human and other life forms and their close connection with the Earth system processes”.

(Photo: Alan Thomas/Suhrkamp)

For Chakrabarty, the term “planet” is the opposite of the “globe”, i.e. the networked technosphere created by the globalization of capitalism. The planet is what emerges when we alter the chemical macrocycles and earth systems in ways that make our own living conditions precarious. The planet is our repressed biospheric identity – what we hide under our frenetic globalization. The ecological catastrophes of the globe show how much the planet is the condition of our lives. That almost sounds like Heidegger.

In general, it is fascinating to see the intellectual agility with which the post-colonialism theorist Chakrabarty, who once set out to “provincialize” Europe, questions German traditions of thought in order to reflect on our historicity in the Anthropocene. He sees the result as preparatory work for a “philosophical anthropology” for our “planetary age”, which is characterized by a new “climate of history”: We can no longer hide behind the facades of human history, but must finally become clear about it that we are part of the history of life and the history of the earth. The general climate for our sense of history has changed radically.

There are only a few who are able to reflect so subtly on the global historical and postcolonial dimensions of the fossil madness

On the one hand, this offends the narcissistic idea that human history takes place outside of natural history. On the other hand, it forces us to recognize that we are deeply interfering with the history of life, not least through species extinction and climate change. According to Chakrabarty, both points are also blind spots in Marxist criticism. This remains anthropocentric and refuses to look at the biosphere for what it is: our inevitable condition of life, which, however, always remains alien and unavailable to us. However, Marxist critique is still essential to understanding the role played by capitalism in accelerating fossil-fuel industrialization.

As a crucial ethical category, Chakrabarty lists “thriving” (flourishing) a. Our political thinking in the Anthropocene can no longer be based on the greatest happiness of the greatest number, as in classical utilitarianism, or on the mature individual, as in enlightened humanism. Politics today means understanding and communicating “the connection between human and other life forms and their close connection with the Earth system processes”. This results in “habitability” as a new goal of political action (habitability) of the biosphere for human life.

Dipesh Chakrabarty: "The climate of history in the planetary age": Dipesh Chakrabarty: "The climate of history in the planetary age".  Translated from the English by Christine Pries.  Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2022. 443 pages, 32 euros.

Dipesh Chakrabarty: “The Climate of History in the Planetary Age”. Translated from the English by Christine Pries. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2022. 443 pages, 32 euros.

Paradoxically, however, this livability is linked to our ability to make even non-human life an object of concern. This perspective is also a critique of the mantra of sustainability, which is always aimed at perpetuating existing structures. Rather, we should painfully recognize how much our ideals of freedom are intertwined with these structures – with the rapidly accelerating burning of fossil fuels and their unfit grandchildren consequences.

Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine has many causes. One is that he wants to extend the fossil age at all costs. Germany has played the game of blindness and greed for far too long. There are few historians who are able to reflect as subtly as Chakrabarty on the global historical and postcolonial dimensions of this fossil madness. His new book is the result of 15 years of intensive reflection on the situation in which humans are placed in the Anthropocene. It offers deep insights, but the deepest is also the simplest: We are all Dalit bodies, not Brahmins. If we don’t manage to understand this and align our culture to be together with other creatures, this culture is doomed to fail.

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