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Re-worlding Planetary Thought and Species History in the Anthropocene: An Interview with Dipesh Chakrabarty

By Mursed Alam and Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha

An Interview with Prof. Dipesh Chakrabarty, historian, one of the Founding Members of the Subaltern Studies Collective and currently Lawrence A. Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of history, South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. 

On behalf of Café Dissensus, Md Mursed Alam and Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha approached Prof. Dipesh Chakrabarty for a dialogue on issues related to the Anthropocene, Species-thinking, Planetary thinking, and Capitalism. Initially, Prof. Chakrabarty decided to have the interview through Skype but as subsequently he fell ill, he permitted us through email to use his interview to “Cultures of Energy” scholars at Rice University and we express our deep gratitude to Prof. Dominic Boyer, Director, CENHS (Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences), Rice University, for providing us the audio link of the interview from where we got the transcript of the interview.

The original Rice University interview was quite long and in what follows we have kept selected portions of the original long interview. The selection was made by us to focus primarily on issues of climate change, capitalocene, and species history. While planning to talk with Prof. Chakrabarty for this special issue of Café Dissensus, we had in our mind the two seminal essays by Dipesh Chakrabarty, namely, “Climate and Capital: On Conjoined Histories” (2014) and “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (2008). In these essays, he enunciated his argument for species history in the Anthropocene and we felt our conversation with Prof. Chakrabarty should pivot around these arguments as they have a direct bearing on the theme of this special issue.

Q: Welcome Dipesh Chakrabarty. We are so really happy to have you here kind of virtually in the studio by telephone speaking with us. It is good to get a chance to talk to you again. So welcome to the cultures of energy podcast.

Dipesh:  Thank you for having me in this virtual space. It feels good.

Q:  We were looking into our note. Three and half years since we had you here, too long to come back again.

Dipesh:  I had such a good time.

Q: So we are also remembering one of the funny very Houston things that happened while you were visiting. You may or may not remember but we were laughing about it because you stayed at one of our more posh hotels here. It’s called hotel ZaZa.

Dipesh:  Remember I told you the story about the outdoor.

Q: Dipesh, Yeah. You got to tell that story. So, what happened? They offered you a table and…

Dipesh: I was asking the young lady at the dining hall reception for breakfast, where I might sit and she said, oh you could sit indoors or you could sit outdoors. And remember it was hot and I asked, would not outdoors be hot? And she just told without batting an eyelid, literally told that it’s all air-conditioned!

Q: That somehow captures both Houston and the anthropocene in a nutshell. Is not it?

Dipesh:  Yeah it does. And it also shows the inertia of a certain lifestyle.

Q: And the fact, as you said, that she didn’t even bat an eyelash suggest that it is so normative, there is no question about it.

Dipesh: Yeah, another normal. That is what it is to explain about it.

Q: This is like those horrifying stories you hear out there in the suburb in Houston that during the winter the people want to have the experience of a roaring fire. So, they have these fire places in their homes. But it never really gets cold enough to burn a fire.

Dipesh: I know. So they pull it down to a point so it makes sense. Is that what they are doing?

Q: Exactly. They crank up the air conditioning so that it’s 50 degree in the house and they start the burning logs.

Dipesh: It’s very perverse. There are true believers, as you said, whose faith is in the market to constantly create growth and benefits and wealth. There is a belief that we can somehow get to a world that has no problems. And I find it’s like almost an engineer’s utopia because you know once I was talking to an engineer friend about climate change and he said, “Dipesh you have to understand that engineers are trained to be optimistic. You know we are trained to say, ‘can do’!”

Q: Absolutely. I was amazed by the absence of any discussion of poverty in this completely technological imagination of the world. What we wanted to do Dipesh is really to mention this seminal article you wrote in 2009 which really has set the stage in many ways for discussions in the humanities and social sciences and beyond about the Anthropocene and this is of course about your article and the four theses. I imagine a lot of our readers have already read the article several times and have marked copies on their computer desktop. But just for those who have not had the chance yet to read the article to just very quickly work through the four theses and just repeat that for our readers. Our first question to you is, whether you would add to these theses or whether you found another thesis that you would like to add or would subtract or delete or modify?

Dipesh: I think I broadly stand, I mean I might modify each of those things in some minor respect and we could talk about the minor revisions that I might want to make, we could talk about that later on. But overall the only shift in my understanding, if I might call it a shift on climate change from the 2009 essay has been this, that when I was writing the essay in 2009, I was very focussed on climate change alone, very focussed on the phenomenon of global warming and the phenomenon of the whole question of the greenhouse gases and their contributions to atmospheric warming – that’s what I was focussed on and I was deriving all my propositions out of that concern. Increasingly, as read in the literature more widely, I have come to see climate change as something that belongs to a larger family of problems – like water scarcity, food insecurity, plastic as a problem. So, I kind of now think that there has been overall, what you might call using William Catton’s 1982 term, ‘an ecological overshoot’ on the part of humanity. Otherwise, I now think that like all other species, we created a niche, humans and we became so good at exploiting that niche for our own flourishing in the last 200 years, but I would say mainly in the period of the great acceleration – mainly in the post-Second World War times. We became so good at flourishing as a species in spite of all the internal differentiations that we kind of over-consumed the base on which we rested. So, we now have created a problem for ourselves by becoming too comfortable in that niche. So, our flourishing itself is causing problems. And I now think of climate change as one of the major symptoms of it. But you could also think of the way the human beings have transformed the sea bed and you know this shift in my position, as I see it is actually reflecting the shift in the discussion of the Anthropocene as an idea because when it was first mooted by Crutzen and others, it referred to greenhouse gas emission. Right?

Q: Rigt. It was really about CO2.

Dipesh: But now they are increasingly realising that CO2 as a signature or footprint of human presence on the planet is not that enduring…

Q: For example, plastics.

Dipesh: Yeah, plastics or other techno-fossils what they call them. But they have also realised that human beings have completely transformed the seabed because of fishing and other kind of technologies and that geological evidence is going to last much longer. So, in the book that I am writing I would say my shift has been from a position that was focussed much more closely on the greenhouse gas emission and the atmospheric  warming – I am still focussed on that but I am putting it in the larger context of a process of human development in which for a long time for actually tens and thousands of decades humans depending on this great boon of a big brain have made technological and other kinds of advancements which has proceeded much faster than the pace of evolutionary change. So, if you look at most animals that have historically been the top carnivores on the planet or historically have been at the top of the food chain in their own times, these animals are all individually majestic animals. You know they can scare another animal off. Humans are individually puny.

Q: Big brained but puny. That’s nice.

Dipesh: I mean, if suddenly a wild fox turns up we would be scared. The fox would be scared too. But we would be very scared. You know when now in India frequently Cheetahs get into human areas and people run helplessly in fear as I would do. The cheetah that was more agile than my pace of running … So we were part of evolutionary process and then through evolution we developed a big brain and the symbolic systems so that we could create larger affiliations. We are basically the hunting packs. If you look at fishing that is hunting and we used the brain for doing all these. So, in a way we overall have advanced in, we Homo Sapiens, in the last thousands of decades at a pace that has been faster than evolutionary change as a result of which, you know, the argument often goes in the literature that when lions become very efficient hunters, the graziers also learn to run faster or the hippopotamus developed a bad temperament. We have evolved so fast that the animals and the ecological systems around have not had time to re-adjust. This is a point which Hans Jonas makes in a book, The Imperatives of Responsibility. He was studying technology and he was making the point that technological advance is much fast-paced than evolutionary advance. So, in a way, the cost of an evolutionary mistake is not as high as the cost of a major technological mistake because it happens much faster. But you can actually expand that argument to human advancement as a whole. So, in a way the canvas, you know I was talking about humans as geological agent in that article, the canvas has become wider. As part of this, the second understanding that has grown in me since that article is about the deep connection between geology and biology. If you remember that article I was saying that human beings have always been biological agents but now they have become geological. And there is a limited sense in which what I say is right. But in a larger sense biology and geology on this planet, because life exists, are profoundly connected processes. Those would be the two shifts but they are in the direction of making the canvas even larger.

Q: Right. We are seeing these interconnections because we can hardly write about the Anthropocene now by only focussing on the kind of geo-morphic changes that human beings have created. We always bracketed also, you know, with the sort of biosphere, the lithosphere, the earthosphere, the technosphere. So, it all comes into play here because it really does have instantaneous effects. Let me just work through the thesis really quickly just to remind people. So there is no one anthropogenic explanations of climate change that spell the collapse of the age old humanist distinction between natural history and human history and the animal throughout the human history. Thesis two, the idea of the Anthropogenic, the new geological epoch when humans exist as a geological force severely qualifies humanist history of modernity and globalisation. Thesis Three, the geological hypothesis regarding the Anthropocene requires us to put global histories of capital in conversation with the species history of humans. And finally the cross hatching of species history and the history of capital is a process of probing the limits of historical understanding.

Dipesh: How would you like to discuss that?

Q: I would like to jump into the middle of one of them and ask. This I think really rewards Thesis Three. And I think one of the remarkable things about the essay is that you really anticipated what is now a very vibrant conversation between the folks, unfortunately it has  become a little polarised, between the Anthropocene and the capitalocene.

Dipesh: And I think the polarisation is in my judgement a little silly.

Q: I would love to hear you talk about that. What are your thoughts about that?

Dipesh: My thought is that, and sometimes I think of it as zooming in and zooming out. So basically, to begin with, you have to remember that the evolution of capitalism, as well as the evolution of the study of capitalism, the history of environmentalism as well as the history of the study of environmental problems … did not arise fully formed overnight … But the history of capitalism – if you think through somebody like Marx, like Carl Schmitt – is a history of, is a process of human beings arriving through interactions, through connections through trade, through industry eventually arriving at this realisation that what connects our lives together is a spherical object called the planet. So, if you read Carl Schmitt’s The Nomos of the Earth, you will find that he is not alone – he uses the word, it’s in translation but is in German too – he uses the word ‘global’ and ‘planetary’ to mean the same thing. It both refers back to what we call the earth. If you look at the history of the science of climate change then … the science basically comes post-Second World War out of a process of looking at this planet from the outside as it were. So basically it comes out of the post-Second World War interest in atmosphere and space. Why was there that interest? One was of course both US and eventually USSSR were interested in measuring the fallout of nuclear tests. The other reason was the space competition. So, even questions like – Can you weaponise weather? Can you create floods and droughts in your enemy territory? – were strategic questions that were driving a lot of space research. And it was in that context that the whole question of search for extraterritorial intelligence, quest to make other planets particularly Mars habitable for human beings came up. So the Carl Sagan Unit was opened in NASA. And you will remember this James Lovelock, the Gaia Man, comes there in 1966 to precisely work on this issue of whether or not Mars had a history of life and whether or not that life could teach us how to make Mars habitable once more. And the question that came out of that is, why is our planet, so right and so friendly to complex forms of life and it has been so for a long period, say, hundreds and millions of years, unlike Venus and Mars. So, Gaia theory comes out of this comparative study, what makes, the central question was what makes this planet so friendly to life? … So, in a way scientists were looking at this planet within a comparative framework. They were also looking at Venus and Mars. So, that is why I always say that it is not an accident that Lovelock was working on Mars and James Hansen, the godfather of American climate science, was working on Venus. I often say that climate change comes out of inter-planetary study. And one of my colleagues in the geo-physics department, Ray Piere Humbert, has a text book called Planetary Science which is taught to under graduates. If you go to that book, there is a chapter called planetary warming – that warming and cooling are processes that take place on the planet. So, global warming, what we call global warming, is only one kind of planetary warming. So it’s an element within a larger set called planetary warming. So, these people were looking at this planet by zooming out of the planet as it were.  So, that’s why the whole cultural significance of that famous photograph called the Earthrise taken in 1968 around the moon or the Blue Marvel of 1982 arises. Their cultural significance precisely was that they kind of give us a look at this planet from the outside as it were.

Q: And they offer the kind of possibility in the early seventies of creating a sense that one planet meant one kind of collective and connected sense of humanity. But, you know, that humanity as a whole does not exist for the social scientist.

Dipesh: Right. That’s why climate science is a separate discipline, because it inherits the heritage. If you look at the language of the ICCC, they are always posing a problem to the humanity as a whole. But, you know, that humanity as a whole does not exist for social science.

Q: So, do you think there is a place for this concept called capitalocene or…

Dipesh: What I often say is that today we need to both zoom out and zoom in. Until you zoom in into the human history, into more details, into the finer resolutions of the story, you don’t see what human beings are doing to one another; you don’t see the injustice between humans. But if you don’t zoom out you don’t see the human story as a whole in the context of other species, in the context of history of life. You don’t see in seven or whatever million years ago the branching out, then may be two hundred thousand years ago there is a thing called Homo Sapiens. You don’t see there were several – five or six or seven – genus of homos going around, some survived, and some don’t. You don’t see that story. You don’t see the coming of the weak brain. You don’t see that a particular species is developing cultural and technological institutions and at a pace that is much faster than the pace of evolutionary change. And it goes to step jump. At different points, it develops the capacity to influence the planet. So, one instance of such evolving up is the European colonisation of other group’s land, another instance is what they call the great acceleration. Another instance is the whole human quest for development and throughout you can also see that we are a species where individual members have the capacity to learn from one another. You can write the entire history of European colonisation and then the Third World towards modernisation as a history of learning. In other words, thanks to all kinds of fortunate incidents, some of these Homo Sapiens have learned the art of living well and flourishing well. So, these are Europeans who learned by taking other people’s land – they can decrease population pressure by exploring the planet. And do you think other human beings are going to sit idle? So, the Japanese, without ever being colonised, decided to modernise themselves. And the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905 is a huge fillip to Asian Nationalism. Japan is seen as an Asian power that defeated Russia which is seen as a European power. So, our desire to modernise in India and China at one level is a very rational desire to attain the same level of flourishing following the Western example except that what we never imagined is that the model that worked for a fraction of humanity may  fail when we try to generalise it for seven billion human beings or twelve billion human beings and in my view, remembering that those numbers are made possible precisely by things like fertilisers, things like irrigation technology, things like the use of fossil fuel, etc. And human life puts pressure, our consumption puts pressure. So what I see now is that our flourishing in the end has produced profound disturbance in the distribution of natural life on the planet, natural reproductive biological life of the planet. And that is why some might talk about the possibility of another great extinction. But at the same time the predicament that I see and this is why I think the Captalocene and Anthropocene polarisation is silly – the predicament that I see is precisely the institutions that have allowed us to flourish have also led us to this problem. The irony of this historical situation is that we have to use the same institutions to cope with this problem, which is why certain kinds of dreams linger that you might just green capitalism to keep up the limits of profit and consumption. That’s a very widely shared dream.

Q: Yeah.  Sustainable growth whatever that means! It’s paradoxical.

Dipesh: But it means that we don’t want to give up our flourishing.  But we want to reduce our impact. Honestly, there is a profound contradiction.

Q: And that even goes beyond flourishing because I think that we could flourish with our growth and acceleration but we almost have collectively refused to quit accelerating our use of planetary resources and our own population growth and our own consumption and I think that’s where the really tricky pieces come together.

Dipesh: The problem is that, you see, if there were something like global humanity that could make wise decisions collectively, it would be one thing. Yes there are rational solutions to these problems.

Q: You are a historian by training and I think you can affirm that there has never been such a constellation of human agreement on the planet. We never had an entire planetary population who are in agreement. But I wanted to get back to something that I think is very important to what you have been saying and that brings us to this notion of the human species and flourishing and this question of species thinking. So, this is something that you discussed in the essay and this mandate that you draw out is that in species thinking what we are doing is connecting human history to the history of life on the planet as a way to kind of thinking with other species as humanity at large.

Dipesh: Right. Because, you know in other words, our thinking – again if you go back to the documents of 1950s – our thinking is very broadly anthropocentric in the sense that most of the time we are focussed on the question of justice between human beings and the question of human welfare. And now we are getting more aware, of course. Animal rights people from the seventies have brought in the question of extending our moral sphere to include some animals…

Q: Then it becomes very anthropocentric.

Dipesh: That’s right. That’s what I am actually saying …  But on the other hand increasingly we are becoming aware, from all the literatures, that lives are connected. So, for instance, there is a bacteria in our guts called H pylori bacteria. Have you heard about it?

Q: I think there is a lot of gut bacteria out these days.

Dipesh: But this one is connected to ulcers.

Q:  Okay

Dipesh: So at the moment it is thought of as non-friendly or unfriendly or hostile bacteria.  But it lived in this world for a very long time and some people actually argue that it may have begun its life as a friendly bacteria. It is because of human intervention, particularly with anti-biotic something, its role may have changed.

Q: Right.

Dipesh: You begin to realise that we are in, what Jason Moore calls ‘the web of life’ after Darwin. He picked it up from somebody else, but Darwin also used it. So, we are in the web of life and that’s why we need to see ourselves as part of a history of life – the interconnectedness of life. And while as humans it’s very hard to know what a cow thinks or what a horse thinks. But we can see ourselves in the larger perspective. If you read Economics, most of Economics is focussed on human welfare. I mean I have not even come across a right wing Economist who says I really want the world to remain completely divided between the rich and the poor. They always say I want the world where both the rich and the poor benefit and are better off compared to what they are now. Sociology, anthropology, what we do have, on the whole, are guilty of that anthropocentrism. History we have all mainly been focussed on humans. But now the situation requires us to at least read at a certain level biology and zoology. And I often tell people that these are sciences where you cannot tell stories and these are all story-telling sciences and you can’t tell their stories by always imagining the humans to be at the centre of things. (A) the story begins long before the humans arrived, and (B) the story does not end with the humans. So we are not at the climactic point. So, I think these bring us to, for my purpose what I call, some non- anthropocentric perspective to bear on our anthropocentric concerns about intra-human welfare and justice. So that’s why I think we need to do these things together and for me it’s a question of zooming in and out. It’s a question of sustaining statements that are valid at different levels of abstraction and at different realms of revelation of the picture. So I don’t see any innate contradiction between wanting to see human beings in the context of the history of life and the story of capitalism. And now it is becoming clear, so even in Jason Moore’s book on Capitalism. But it’s very clear that we now have come to the realisation that the price of petroleum includes the cost of extraction of the fuel. But the fuel comes free. I mean that which is the ore or the basic fossilised material – that comes free even though it took the planet hundreds of millions of years to produce.

Q: It comes as free – only if we humans believe that we have the dominion.

Dipesh: If you still think through capitalism and the market mechanisms, so you kind of say may be we should pay the planet some price.

Q: Right

Dipesh: And I find it a little weird because using what the planet has produced is not peculiar to human beings. All animals do that. And everything that the presently existing animals eat or consume whatever, everything has taken a very long time for the planet to be there, to have been fashioned by the planet. So in a way you are realising that you can also think of the story as something that tells you about the limits of thinking through just capitalism or market mechanism. You have to think geology.

Q:  And I think that’s where species thinking is so provocative and interesting. It provides us so many inroads because as we were saying before we don’t have a history where we thought together as a species, at least collectively and in agreement. And yet also you are bringing up Marxian readings as well.

Dipesh: The difference is that the Marxist version of species being assumes that the species has a particular kind of being.

Q: And an exceptional one at that and you know that you are exceptionally creative…

Dipesh: And the species recovers at the end – at the end of the history – that is the history of alienation from its own species.

Q: Right. From those creative potentials. You know Marx just …

Dipesh: Communism is where you recover your species.  When you read Darwin, species has no such being. Any species is eternally diverse. So Jason Moore for instance in an article says – he is critical of the species thinking point – and he says, species! What do you mean by species! And then says sarcastically, guess what? Of course, there is no homogenous unified species. You have to read two pages of Darwin to understand species by definition cannot be homogenous. If species were homogenous natural selection would not work. You know species has to be diverse for natural selection to work.

And I would actually argue that even for Marx, given his resolutely Hegelian dialectical mode of thinking that even the concept of species being, that he was working towards was something that could have evolved too. That the post-communist species being might not be the same as the pre-capitalist one.

But could it expand to other species? And I think that he would not allow.

Q: I agree. He was sensitive to certain issues like metabolism – scholars have shown that. But that does not mean he was ego-centric. I think he was very anthropocentric.

Dipesh: That’s what I am trying to say. We have to really accept that even though Marx dedicated the first volume of Capitalism to Darwin, there is no reason to assume that Marx’s grasp of Darwin was very strong. I mean Darwin was highly debated in his own life time. And Darwin’s theory was very revolutionary just as Marx’s thinking was very revolutionary in a different sense .So, anyway, I actually find this polarisation coming out of an anxiety on the part of many thinkers that somehow to talk about life of species would take the focus away from the immediate struggle against capitalism. So one question that I have for them is that, is the response to climate change a struggle against capitalism? If so, what is the programme? Where is the struggle? What should we do? Struggle against capitalism might take a hundred years, who knows. I just think capitalism might get into bigger and complicated problems because of the ecological devastation that is happening. So, it might actually come undone because of its own contradictions.

Q: One of the points that you made, when you were here for your lecture is very interesting. And it had something to do with this question of capitalism vs species or anthropocene and just now, as you said, that climate change is a deeply political and moral problem. We got that. But it cannot be reduced to capitalism alone because of these two points – those who oppose capitalism are going to say that climate change shows the faults of the capitalist order. But those who are in favour of capitalism – those one percenters, let’s call them – will take climate change as evidence of how market and technology can pull us out of its dire consequences. So it’s sort of a catch twenty-two in a way.

Dipesh: Exactly. If you argue for capitalism, then people on the other side might also say that capitalism has the means to actually tackle these problems.

Q: Right. Just give us more freedom and the market and we are out of this.

Dipesh: Right. You can do all kinds of capitalisms. I mean Trump, there is a report in today’s New York Times that Trump has said that if he becomes the president, he would cancel the Paris agreement. But, you see, the problem is that the people who are looking at the climate from outside, like the scientists and who are addressing as if they are talking of the planet as a whole, humanity as a whole, there is a kind of holistic form of address…

Q: Right. Something more programmatic needs to be in place if it is actually going to happen.

Dipesh: Yeah. We need a programmatic thing and you are going to say this is how we are going to change capitalism on. Simply saying that capitalism is bad and it is causing problems… Yeah we all agree on that.

Q: Can I take the conversation certainly to a different direction? This is following on what you have mentioned a bit ago about Trump – how not to mention that! But one of the most provocative parts of the essay I thought was where you said that actually in the anthropogenic age we need enlightenment, that is, reason more than ever. And that certainly does not seem to have been the trend since the recognition of the Anthropocene. At least political reason seems to have suffered in the era of the recognition of the Anthropocene. And I am curious what you think about that specially when we also have the enlightenment as a very convenient whipping post and you know a lot of the post-humanist debates too and that is why one of the reasons I thought your piece is so powerful that was actually saying no, actually that’s not the way we can go, we cannot sacrifice… reason?

Dipesh: Sorry for interrupting. First of all I think climate change – let’s stay with climate change – climate change is a problem that is defined by the scientists. The humanists don’t define the problem per se. Now what planetary climate change is? It requires planetary observation, it requires other sorts of observation. That’s why we need comparative inter-planetary studies. So in that sense you can’t even define the problem without giving due recognition to science. Now what does that due recognition do? In a world, where we know that what we call human politics includes fights over interests – perceived interests, includes psychology, includes non-rational factors, and includes imagination and all kinds of things. So in a way I fall back on what Karl Jasper wrote in facing the prospect of a nuclear winter. He created this category that he called epochal-consciousness where, he was saying, we could try to find a way of grounding our conflict and therefore our diversionary politics in a literally pre-political perspective on the world where there is a place for reason. In other words, he was saying that reason does not have to dictate what politics we pursue. So, lets the field of politics entails everything as it does. But is it possible for us to create at least a reasonable understanding on which to situate ourselves? And then fight for our interests. So, for instance, even if we agree that the question of the human species that is flourishing is involved in this crisis, that understanding does not have to stop us from pursuing what India and China might see as justice in a climate consuming world. That understanding may be what fills out the content of a word that is, otherwise rhetorically empty in the Rio formulation of our having common but differentiated responsibilities. Does everybody know what differentiation means? The word ‘common’ is a lazy word put in there to placate the Americans. That’s my understanding of it. This kind of an understanding may actually give some content to the word common.

Q: So, Dipesh, I want to float an idea. This is something that I have been newly around with, I have been thinking about and I would like to hear your feedback or your thoughts on it. So you know we have been talking about how there has been this proliferation of ‘cenes’ – the capitalocene, the anthropocene and many more … So we are now prompted to come up with another ‘cene’ – here is one, the ‘betacene’. Let me explain. So ‘beta’ of course is the second letter in the Greek alphabet. So of course it’s a way of sort of displacing ‘alpha’ from that primary position. But beta is also the mode that they use in Silicon Valley in all of its apps where if you have a new technology – not even necessarily digital, though they’re usually digital – you have a new technology when you put it into the beta mode. You put it out there for your users to experiment, to see what really works and really importantly to see what goes wrong. So the beta mode is all about finding out what fails and what can be done better. And it’s experimental and propositional and it’s importantly massively distributive. It happens among users. So I was thinking about the troubles with anthropocentering it, exploring what if the humans put it in the experimental mode of trying out, recognising that things have gone wrong, that things have been screwed up in several different dimensions and so if there is a way that we can think of this time as an exciting creative and experimental time and may be that a little too utopian like your engineer friend.

Dipesh: The idea of it appeals to me. But you know it is hard to tell how far a term will go but the idea of it makes sense to me. Because the way I understand the problem today is that there is a mismatch between the process that led up to the Cop 21 meeting of the last December and what the climate scientists have been saying. The climate scientist looking from outside in have been speaking as though they were addressing the humanity as a whole and the planet as a whole. We don’t have any governmental system that runs the planet as a whole. Our governing institutions are all distributed between nation-states, across nation-states internationally – a UN type thing. So,  in a way that’s  what  capitalist globalisation did allow us to develop and we are using those instruments to kind of stand in the  place of that  planet as a whole or  humanity as a whole and that, as Cop 21 shows, we can’t quite do that. There is always something missing. So the amount of money that was actually put aside by the rich nations to pay the poor nations is paltry. The argument has no legally binding aspect to it. It is still a progress if you can open every country up to a sort of peer group pressure and review and it’s a good thing. But at the same time there is no guaranty that it will necessarily match the calendars of action to produce the same kind of synchronisation that the ICCC is requiring of human action. And I think that is a very interesting phenomenon. So cognitively we have the capacity to address the planet as a whole and see it as a whole and that’s what the place of reason is. And that is what I was talking about regarding the epochal consciousness. But it’s very hard to translate it back into a programme of actions. What takes its place are precisely the governing institutions. You can think through the ideas of the French philosophers from, let’s say, like Ranciere and Alain Badiou and people.  But they would never see these governmental institutions as again taking the place of the political. They would see these institutions as claiming what might be the creative potential of the political.  So what I am saying is that if you think politically, you don’t see that we are actually working our way through this mismatching that takes the planet as whole and thinks through the planet as a whole. And then our governmental institutions which often displace the field of the political or squash it or substitute it for the political. Rambling through these governmental institutions to come to a consensus which has lots of holes in it and I think in some ways the idea of the ‘betacene’ or the beta process is precisely good because it actually illuminates the necessarily experimental aspect of politics or governance. You know Gandhi used in his auto-biography, My Experiments with Truth, and I think it is a very powerful word, ‘experiment’. So in that sense it brings us back to a field of experiment that cannot afford to be doctrinaire if it is going to be experimental. That cannot afford to be completely deterministic. That has a huge room for uncertainty and errors which is part of the human existential reality as I see it…

Q: Dipesh we are going to leave it there. Thank you so much. It was a fascinating conversation. Thank you for taking the time.

Mursed Alam is Assistant Professor in English in Gour College, University of Gour Banga, India. His area of research engages with remapping subaltern studies through an analysis of new forms of subalternities in contemporary times. He has contributed in journals such as Rethinking Marxism, South Asia Research, Economic and Political Weekly, Journal of Postcolonial Writing, Café Dissensus, Contemporary South Asia, etc. He has presented papers in the University of Oxford, University of Munster, Germany, University of Antwerp, Belgium, Ruhr University, Bochum, Germany, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, etc. He is a part of the Postcolonial Studies Association o the Global South (PSAGS) and Kairos Team.

Anindya Sekhar Purakayastha is Associate Professor, Kazi Nazrul University, India. His current research engages with issues of the Anthropocene, radical political theology and postcolonial governance. He has been a fellow in the New School for Social Research, New York in 2017. He co-edits Kairos, the Journal of Critical Symposium and is one of the founding members of the Postcolonial Studies Association of the Global South (PSAGS). He can be contacted at


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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