Lukáš Likavčan: Autonomy and Necessity / ŠUM#12

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“[M]ost of our freedoms so far have been energy-intensive.”

– Dipesh Chakrabarthy, The Climate of History


  1. The climate of antinomy

One of the key notions of the 20th– and 21st-century ecological scholarship is that of limits. From Donella Meadows’ Limits to Growth (1972) through closed system perspective on future Earth in Kenneth Boulding’s Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966) to contemporary ecological economics with their emphasis on overall planetary limits of material and energy throughput of the human economy,[1] we encounter the figure of the limit as posing constitutive boundaries to maintenance of economic assemblage developed by these bipedal mammals, whatever future form it may take. In other words, the figure of the limit brings external reasons or necessities that inform space of viable trajectories for human survival on the Earth. Yet, we are at pains to reconcile these necessities with the predominant liberal idea of freedom, which assumes existence of transparent individuals capable of self-determination—self-determination which is in turn realized as a historical process. At times, we oscillate between harsh militaristic imaginaries of future war-like economies that climate crisis might lead to, and images of a pristine retreat to local economies, ranging from degrowth or solarpunk on the Left to protectionism and eco-fascism of blood and soil on the Right.

Climate emergency thus heralds the return of the scene of external necessities that has been historically supressed in 20th century, sometimes called the age of “Great Acceleration”.[2] This acceleration has been described by scholars such as John Bellamy Foster, and it is not my aim to repeat their arguments here.[3] Suffice to say that what this acceleration reveals is a peculiar disjunction between self-realization of the human subject governed by its own internal reasons (that is an exercise of freedom in its liberal sense) and external reasons that temper down this movement of self-realization. To reconcile this grand disjunction, political ecology has tried to rewrite borders between nature (as the realm of external necessities) and culture (as a realm of self-realization governed by internal motifs)—be it Murray Bookchin’s concept of second nature[4] or Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory.[5] These attempts share a common trait of opposing what they find as a very basic presupposition of modernity: that it maintains a clear division between the realm of the natural and the cultural. Either by dialectical synthesis or horizontalization of hierarchical ontologies, they “hybridize” what was so far held in distinction.

In this essay, I take these attempts as a groundwork that stages a new philosophical dilemma we are familiar with from the history of modern Western thought, and which finds its paradigmatic formulation in Kant’s third antinomy of pure reason, the one between “causality according to law of nature” and “causality through freedom”.[6] Kant rephrases here the problem we have just postulated—the (im)possibility to reconcile internal reasons with external limits, the dilemma articulated in climate emergency. As we know, the Kantian solution of this antinomy would be to split the powers of reason between two realms, holding both sides of antinomy true, but in different registers: while the thesis is operative in the phenomenal realm, the antithesis operates in the ideal realm. In the Kantian framework, it is the latter realm that would be the site of the unfolding climate emergency.

However, this ontological delamination of reason’s competences rehearses the nature–culture dichotomy thoroughly criticized in contemporary environmental thinking. For this reason, it seems that we need either to devise another pre-emptive manoeuvre that would prevent the collapse of internal and external necessities into one domain, or to abandon one term in favour of another. The Western liberal mind will surely tend to sacrifice everything to save the pure realm of internal necessities—the causality through freedom—to guarantee the subject’s capacity for self-determination. That might happen either by supporting the dichotomy of the internal and external (complementary to nature/culture dichotomy), or by denouncing exteriority in favour of interiority. I will proceed in the opposite direction, examining what is left of the subject’s power of self-determination under the full pressure of external necessities. In doing so, I will first sketch the ontological terrain of my inquiry by using the picture of metabolic multitude, and from that point, I will follow the black feminist thinker Denise Ferreira da Silva in uncovering how fundamentally flawed are the basic philosophical coordinates from which the very idea of self-determination in modern thinking arises. The split between internal and external necessities will be re-interpreted on racial grounds, and mapped onto the environmental domain, leading to the final reconstruction of the notion of autonomy that opposes the liberal idea of freedom, since it is deduced from the scene of (external) necessities staged by climate emergency.


  1. Metabolic multitude

In her comprehensive overview of the historical developments in the field of ecological economics, Inge Røpke formulates a basic intuition of this discipline as follows:

[E]conomic processes are also always natural processes in the sense that they can be seen as biological, physical and chemical processes and transformations /…/ [and] should consequently also be conceptualized in terms usually used to describe processes in nature.[7]

In ecological economics, human economy is not a closed loop—it is a transitory assemblage of matter and energy; a metabolic flux, an unstable moment of larger geophysical and biochemical drama.[8] This metabolic perspective is championed also by early founders of ecological economics, especially Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen. His account suggests that economy is an evolving apparatus functioning as a thermodynamic differential—it sucks low entropy and spits out high entropy, while ideally keeping its internal entropy on a stable level, much like organisms do.[9] What is crucial here is the overall “carrying capacity”[10] of the environment that hosts the economic assemblage—if the assemblage produces too much high entropy, it undermines environmental conditions allowing for future existence of this very assemblage. Here, the figure of the limit gets reinscribed in its dynamic version. If we are to follow this metabolic metaphor further, we might even say that just as organisms, economic assemblages obey what Sanford Kwinter—while discussing Jakob von Uëxkull’s idea of Umwelt—labelled as principle of immanentism, which states that “the distinction between organism and environment, inside and out, is but one of degree: a greater or lesser compression or dilation of information”.[11]

From the perspective of post-modern philosophy, the becoming of the metabolic of economy (which is more a revelation that every economic assemblage has always been metabolic) is a paradoxical achievement of modernity. The emphasis on this metabolic metaphor can be found in Georges Bataille’s general economy[12] or in Paul Virilio’s Speed and Politics (1977). In the vehicular visions of Virilio, it is modernity and its logistical infrastructures that realize the economic assemblage as an artificially smoothened space populated by vectors of human, commodity and energy flows, all of these standing for different raw elements of a general metabolic multitude.[13] In this picture, instead of us being sovereign subjects, we are treated as exterior objects, on a par with the rest of the planetary (bio)mass; transient ensembles of chemical compounds, biological substrates and geological processes.[14] One might even propose—together with Kwinter—that “we free ourselves from the common assumption that we are in the world when, in fact, as a great deal of the science /…/ implies, we are the world itself..[15]

Although logistical modernity generates the metabolic multitude, it instrumentalizes it as a space of power—the elements of the flux are treated as interchangeable and easily governable, slowing down here and speeding up there, moving around on pre-established trajectories. Hence, modernity per se is incapable of mobilizing emancipatory potentials of metabolic multitude, where belonging to the flow (or strictly speaking being the flow itself) opens a space of positive elaboration through one’s limits—a principle of one’s self-actualization in the world. The reason is that in modernity, the principle of realization of one’s subjectivity lies completely elsewhere, that is, in the form of a liberal conception of freedom. This conception imagines freedom as a principle exempted from the confines of worldly matter and fully evacuated to the realm of interiority; a type of liberty that is sealed off from the exterior reality. Powered by this aethereal substance of freedom, the subjects of modernity return to Earth as some metaphysical landing party.

At once, we might ask: Does metabolic multitude praise alienation? Yes and no. No insofar as alienation continues the oppressive regime of modernity. Yes insofar as alienation is a productive force generating an outside view on ourselves, one where we see our own image, but we cannot recognize ourselves in it.[16] My argument is that scientific projects of ecology and climate science bring this productive perspective, and make it central to the politics of climate emergency in the 21st century. In this way, the most important take-away of climate science is not that the world is weirdly different from what we have assumed for most of modern history, but that we are weirdly different: a transient media of geological and geophysical processes, not sovereign subjects of history. The problem is not the vision of metabolic multitude, but the way how subjectivity is treated in modernity—as something exempted from the exterior, planetary reality. This gesture of exemption is incorrect not only from the standpoint of ecology and climate science, but it can also be accused of following the logic of racialization, which attributes real interiority only to those subjects that are white.


III. Race, exteriority, necessity

At the beginning of Toward a Global Idea of Race (2007), Denise Ferreira da Silva revisits a letter from the Portuguese knight Pêro Vaz de Caminha to his monarch, dated May 1, 1500. The knight recounts his impressions of the native inhabitants of Brazil encountered by the Portuguese fleet: “They seem to me people of such innocence that, if we understood them and they understood us, they would become Christian soon; /…/ for it is sure this is a good and humble people, which will absorb anything given to them /…/.”[17] Notice the crucial phrasing toward the end of the citation—they will absorb anything given to them—the statement of certain incompetence to decide one’s belief on one’s own terms; an incompetence attributed by Western perpetrators to native Americans. Ferreira da Silva illustrates here the emergence of the decisive split in modern philosophical thinking about the human subject: on the one hand, there are those governed by interior motives and capable of self-determination and, on the other, those prone to exterior affectability, as if they were some sponges absorbing whatever they encounter.[18] As a result, those “affectable subjects” are destined to be governed by a force external to them, be it sovereign God of Christianity, sovereign reason of Enlightenment, or sovereign nation state of modern geopolitical order; they are always situated in the waiting room for the exercise of freedom. Such is, according to Ferreira da Silva, the strategy of justifying the violence on black and brown bodies that has been perpetuated to this day.

For Ferreira da Silva, the emergence of affectability as a constitutive moment of racialization results from a conceptual split between internal and external necessities that is characteristic of modern Western philosophy. On the one hand, we have a stage of interiority ruled by universal poiesis, which stands for the productive force of reason—the capacity for self-determination; on the other hand, we have a stage of exteriority governed by universal nomos, which stands for the regulative force of reason—the constraining, limiting capacity of the world we occur in.[19] In the constitution of the modern theory of subject, primacy is given to the stage of interiority, which is the site of the transparent “I”, instituting self-consciousness as a basis of political, ethical, and juridical subjectivity of liberalism[20]—a subject that knows why and what it knows and wants. This transparent subjectivity is, in Ferreira da Silva’s account, subsumed only to the regulation from within, i. e. from its own internal reasons, and exempted from the regulation from without, i. e. by the force of natural laws.[21] For this reason, modern Western philosophy unlearns to treat subjects as exterior, “affectable” things, even though as bodies, we all daily experience a myriad of external pressures and affectabilities, whether they concern our mental life or physical health. Consequently, affectability as a quality of the human subject is recognized only in the realm of the geographical difference between bodies and minds, a difference that results from the play of universal reason governing exterior reality. The racial appears here as a signifier of those bodies that from the Western point of view are affectable first—the fact of the body’s affectability is dislocated on racialized bodies. It is geographical difference—which translates into geopolitical relations of modernity/coloniality—that marks some of us as affectable subjects and some of us as transparent subjects.[22]

Ferreira da Silva reveals how in modern Western thought, a racialized subject is treated as “pathological”[23]: an affectable subject that lives in a state of necessity. Such a subject is taken as exempted from political society, since it supposedly lacks the capacity for internal regulation. The way how necessity concerning subjecthood is fully invested on racialized subjects and deemed as pathological proves crucial for the whole project of modernity and its relation to exteriority: if it cannot consume or engulf something exterior to itself, modernity throws such an opaque object onto the cosmic background of reality, treating it as secondary to the continuation of its own project. If modernity is a grand march of interiorization, consuming planetary reality in human affairs, the ecological emergency shows how this project fails, since the space of interior reasons is in the last instance governed by external necessities, not the other way around. Or to put it more crudely, modernity is plotted as the great escape of Man from his own limits he is so frightened of.[24] Ferreira da Silva’s critique of the split between interior and exterior necessities on racial grounds thus aligns surprisingly well with the ecological critique of modernity. Indeed, it even seems that racialization as a technique of colonial capture reveals how coloniality presents a complementary “darker side of Western modernity”, in the words of Walter Mignolo.[25] While political ecology describes how modernity develops a split between the interior and exterior on the substrate of planetary ecosystem processes, the analysis of the category of race reveals an intertwined critique of the same split on the fine matter of human subjectivity.


  1. Autonomy in planetary entanglements

Returning to the original point of departure, we can now foresee the implications of the analysis of the category of race for a politics of autonomy in the age of climate emergency. Autonomy should not be derived from interiority, as is the case with the liberal concept of freedom, but should be treated as a regulative principle of affectable bodies that we all are from the ontological standpoint of metabolic multitude. It is crucial that politics is thus not about deliberating in some special zone of human affairs, but about distributing human autonomy in the field of planetary entanglements. Here, the concept of justice remains operative as one of the pivotal political values, because it helps us reflect power dynamics between different bodies and their identities—otherwise, it would be too easy to jump away from the past of racial injustices and into the future of subjects emancipated from the historically entrenched power dynamics of modernity. My point in aligning the analysis of the category of race with political ecology is therefore not to give strategic advices in fight against racial oppression—that would be arrogant of me as a white male. Instead, I write in close proximity to these battles, and I seek to unveil productive affinities between these two analytic standpoints that might help us reformulate the philosophical baseline of politics in climate emergency.

Any political doctrine relying on a liberal understanding of freedom runs into significant trouble, for as Dipesh Chakrabarthy states, “most of our freedoms so far have been energy-intensive”.[26] The thesis about the Anthropocene states that “the geological agency of humans” becomes in fact “the price we pay for the pursuit of freedom”.[27] Fantasies of exiting the metabolic multitude—mirroring the fantasies of the supremacy of transparent subjects of modernity—bring us to a point where we are in fact enmeshed in the planetary assemblage deeper than ever. The intimation is that we have always been less autonomous than we imagined ourselves to be, and that while we commonsensically accept some very unjust constraints, we are biased against those that make us actually well aware of our position as agents in the metabolic multitude. The age of climate emergency demands a thorough perspectival rotation in this respect, a new economy and geometry of freedom; a sort of redistribution of competences, gerrymandering the territories of limits and liberties.

Take the following example. While I am not in favour of personal surveillance in the context of managing global CO2 emissions—monitoring on the level of municipalities or bioregional clusters seems preferable, given that it allows for communal, transactional solidarity—it remains to me a great paradox that we are able to defend the existence of such an unjust and arbitrary armature of power as borders of nation states are, and yet we easily freak out when it comes to proposals to monitor our consumption habits or per capita CO2 emissions. While we do, for some reason, understand that movements of our bodies in space are to some extent governable, since they are realized in the realm of exteriority-spatiality, we utterly refuse consumption to be managed in the same vein, since it stands—in our late capitalist culture—for the expression of freedom, a sacred articulation of interiority. Fortunately, we have exorcized many holy cows out of our Western culture in the past—it is high time to let one more go.

The notion of a constraint—or simply “a limit to growth”—also hints at how to reconstruct the principle of one’s self-actualization. Autonomy is no longer an exemption from limits, but becomes an elaboration through one’s own limits; limits are then, in fact, constitutive to one’s operative principles of action. The motivation behind this idea is similar as in Reza Negarestani’s or Pete Wolfendale’s rationalist inhumanism, where it is “the space of reason that harbors the functional kernel of a genuine collectivity, a collaborative project of practical freedom referred to as ‘we’ whose boundaries are not only negotiable but also constructible and synthetic.”[28] Indeed, autonomy in climate emergency becomes a synthetic project of practical freedom, where what both “we” and “I” mean is conditioned by boundaries. However, the negotiability of these boundaries is limited to the degree to which climate emergency codifies the new normal of our era—the relative primacy of exterior necessities. How we can collectively inhabit the inhuman exteriors of the Earth is a question that is open only to a certain degree: some modes of inhabiting, especially those based on prolonging racial injustices, simply must go. In this pursuit, we might also discover that rationality is certainly a very strong and useful tool of producing spaces of autonomy, but a certain multimodality of autonomous existence is even more welcome—some external constraints are better articulated in registers that are affective, aesthetic or, properly speaking, corporeal, and these articulations do not transparently propagate into the space of rationality.



Lukáš Likavčan is a researcher and theorist focusing on political ecology and philosophy of technology. He teaches at Center for Audiovisual Studies FAMU, Prague, collaborates with the Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design, Moscow, and is a member of Display – Association for Research and Collective Practice, Prague.


[1] RØPKE, Inge, “The Early History of Modern Ecological Economics”, in: Ecological Economics, no. 50, 2004, pp. 293–314.

[2] STEFFEN, Will, BROADGATE, Wendy, DEUTSCH, Lisa, GAFFNEY, Owen, LUDWIG, Cornelia, “The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration”, in: The Anthropocene Review, no. 2(1), 2015, pp. 81–98.

[3] BELLAMY FOSTER, John, CLARK, Brett, YORK, Richard, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, Monthly Review Press, 2010.

[4] WHITE, Damian F., Bookchin. A Critical Appraisal, Pluto Press, 2008, pp. 108–109.

[5] LATOUR, Bruno, Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Oxford University Press, 2005.

[6] KANT, Immanuel, Critique of Pure Reason, Hackett Publishing, 1996, p. 473.

[7] RØPKE, “The Early History of Modern Ecological Economics”, p. 294.

[8] See also SPASH, Clive L., “The Development of Environmental Thinking in Economics”, in: Environmental Values, no. 8, 1999, pp. 413–435.

[9] RØPKE, “The Early History of Modern Ecological Economics”, p. 300. See also GEORGESCU-ROEGEN, Nicolas, “Energy and Economic Myths”, in: Southern Economic Journal, no. 41(3), 1975, pp. 351–353.

[10] GEORGESCU-ROEGEN, “Energy and Economic Myths”, p. 372.

[11] KWINTER, Sanford, “Neuroecology: Notes Toward a Synthesis”, in: NIEDLICH, Warren (ed.), The Psychopathologies of Cognitive Capitalism: Part Two, Archive Books, 2013, p. 316.

[12] BATAILLE, Georges, “General Economy”, in: BOTTING, Fred, WILSON, Scott (ed.), The Bataille Reader, Blackwell, 1997, pp. 166–219.

[13] BRATTON, Benjamin, “Logistics of Habitable Circulation”, in: VIRILIO, Paul, Speed and Politics, Semiotext(e), 2006, p. 10.

[14] According to V. I. Vernadsky, “[w]e are walking, talking minerals”. See BENNETT, Jane, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things, Duke University Press, 2010, p. 11.

[15] KWINTER, “Neuroecology: Notes Toward a Synthesis”, p. 314 [italics by L. L.].

[16] NEGARESTANI, Reza, Intelligence and Spirit, Urbanomic, 2018, pp. 123–129.

[17] DA SILVA, Denise Ferreira, Toward a Global Idea of Race, University of Minnesota Press, 2007, p. 1 [italics by L. L.].

[18] Ibid., p. 33.

[19] Ibid., p. 31.

[20] Ibid., p. 52.

[21] Ibid., pp. 39–40.

[22] Ibid., p. 116.

[23] Ibid., p. 8.

[24] TSING, Anna, “Earth Stalked by Man”, in: The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology, no. 34(1), 2016, pp. 2–16.

[25] MIGNOLO, Walter, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Duke University Press, 2011.

[26] CHAKRABARTHY, Dipesh, “The Climate of History”, in: Critical Inquiry, no. 35, 2009, p. 208.

[27] Ibid., p. 210.

[28] NEGARESTANI, Reza, “The Labour of the Inhuman, Part I: The Human”, in: e-flux journal, no. 52, 2014.