The Planetary Thought
and overflowing hatred
A couple more short pieces on ‘thinking the planet’ and ‘overflows’ before I get back to the readings from Feb.
Planetary thought starts with a census. Who is in and who is out?
Where I live, many houses - including mine - have bird feeders. They are the only sign of human openness to the wild, i.e., the non-human world outside of explicit human control (which is why gardens and pets don’t count). There are plenty of rabbits and squirrels but as far I can tell, most people don’t host spaces where those creatures can flourish.
Homes and neighborhoods are designed to fence out the wild; shared living is for pets and terror for the caged and slaughtered. We use the catchall term ‘pest’ for all other creatures.
Cities have a deserved reputation as being hostile to nature. The anthropocene is the city writ large, with the urban mode of living sucking resources from the hinterland, which is increasingly criss crossed with the instruments of urban order: power lines, commodity markets and internet cables.
Most people who protest planetary urbanization look to villages and small towns. But why not bring the forest into the city?
I have always wanted to design homes - perhaps even a sub-division - that have designated spaces for all varieties of beasts and bugs - tubes for snakes and rodents, small doors and cubbyholes for cats, dogs, bunnies etc. What would such a house look like?
The situation in India is grim; this past trip I heard poisonous opinions everywhere - family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances.. For the first time in my life, the battle isn’t to create a progressive society but to prevent genocide from happening and the best case scenario is looking like an apartheid state.
There's an overflow of hatred. But how did that come about?
There are many suspects, but I want to point to one overlooked possibility: secularism. Wait: is it possible that an overflow of religious hatred has a secular explanation?
My previous essay hinted at how capital has replaced divinity as the reigning idea of our times. Copying the terminology used in the west, many activists and scholars call the Indian disease ‘Hindu Fundamentalism’ but that’s a terrible phrase, because it ignores the origins of the phrase ‘fundamentalist.’
What are the fundamentals about which one is fundamentalist?
Christian and Islamic Fundamentalists have a theological doctrine that motivates their fundamentalist reading, a doctrine that’s about a return to a root text whose original meaning can only be recovered through a fundamentalist reading. It’s even possible to be a secular fundamentalist through an ‘originalist’ reading of a document such as the US constitution - some US Supreme Court justices have taken that position. As people’s of the book, the Abrahamic faiths and their secular American successors have the possibility of fundamentalism in the above sense.
Hindu religious practices are way too diverse to admit a fundamentalist turn in the religion itself. There’s no book at the origin. Instead, the arena in which an ‘originalist’ interpretation can be sustained is in the secular arena of nationhood and identity. In fact, the only way the term ‘Hindu’ can denote a homogeneous field is if that field is created as an ethno-political identity.
BTW, most concepts resist homogenization - Wittgenstein’s example of ‘game’ is a famous argument as to why: there’s nothing common to all games, for not all of them are played on a field or with balls or for winning. Nevertheless, there’s a sense in which we know what’s a game, for we feel the difference between games and other human activities.
Hindu used to like that - a diverse range of practices - some profound, some objectionable - that don’t fall under a common definition or sourced from a single book but are experienced as part of the Dharma family. That’s gone. Instead, we are left with an identity asserted in the secular arena. It’s revealing to notice the specific ways in which this secular Hindu identity is asserted.
Sometime in the 80s, people started saying ‘garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’ - ‘say with pride that I am Hindu.’ That saying is a speech act, i.e., use of language that creates the very thing it’s asserting - in this case a new Hindu identity alongside strengthening an existing one. Just as by saying ‘I do’ in a wedding ceremony, the parties to the marriage declare themselves married (and formalize a longer process by which they came to marry each other), by saying ‘garv se kaho hum Hindu hain’ people started declaring themselves Hindu.
Self attestation and self declaration are central to identity, showing up in a host of places, such as when people say their personal pronouns are ‘she-her’ or ‘they-them.’ That Hindu is revealed via self attestation or in a mob like setting these days makes it clear that it’s an identity first and religion a distant second.
TLDR; India is supposedly a deeply religious culture, but in fact, its religions have been swallowed by modernity and spit out as politics.
Hinduism is not the only religion that’s being torn apart by forces that it can’t control; I think that’s the fate of religion in general. However much religious people experience themselveas as being faithful and however much faith continues to inform their lives, I don’t think it’s possible to live a truly religious life today. At best such a life is the preserve of ‘heroic’ figures, similar to climbers who ascend the Himalayas without oxygen - fantastic achievement, but not the way we get up in the skies as a norm.
Faith is not a ruling idea even for the faithful. Our condition has changed irrevocably.
Postmodernists are often blamed for asserting that we live in a post-truth age, but there’s a genuine sense in which that claim is true (see what I just did 😬) - that without faith, truth becomes an instrumental value that competes with other instrumental values. Nietzsche famously said ‘God is dead’ but that’s just the first stage of disenchantment; science and reason will be executed in the next round of the revolution.
Dharma has a life beyond faith, and a deep exploration of dharma might reveal ways in which we can imagine a world beyond the dead hand of faith and the knife’s edge of identity but we are running out of time - the new Hinduism will crash and burn either under its own weight or by a planetary force:
The overflow of hatred and the overflow of carbon aren’t unrelated; if you’re a sober human being (I am deliberately staying away from adjectives like ‘compassionate’ since moral concerns aren’t compelling the powers that be) you know that targeting 20% of your population for harassment and worse is monumentally stupid when the response to climate change needs all the creativity and resilience that the nation can summon.