Life

Rethinking the Sphinx: Cognition Beyond the Human-Nonhuman Dichotomy

“Sphinx, the classical heterogeneous entity. The Sphinx, adorned with a hybrid physique of a human torso and a countenance adorned with double wings, epitomizes the exquisite amalgamation of humanity and animality. It embodies the sagacity inherent in mankind alongside the indomitable valor characteristic of beasts. In Sophocles’ magnum opus, “Oedipus Rex,” the Sphinx takes residence at the crossroads of Thebes, proffering its enigmatic query to passersby: “What creature, with four limbs at dawn, two at noon, and three at dusk, is most feeble when it bears the most limbs?” Confronted with this conundrum, the valiant Oedipus posits “man” as the solution. This rejoinder underscores man’s profound self-awareness, his discernment of his place amidst creation, and his grasp of his capabilities. Such individuals exude (and perhaps possess) a prowess for unraveling riddles, remaining unswayed and unperturbed by the ‘non-human’ enigmas symbolized by the Sphinx, thus reflecting a resolute self-assurance grounded in anthropocentrism.

Yet, in light of the rapid strides made in artificial intelligence in recent epochs, epitomized by the advent of ChatGPT and the burgeoning of the Diffusion Model, humanity’s preeminence as the preeminent cognitive entity appears increasingly imperiled, with human attributes gradually eroding. There is a burgeoning apprehension regarding the impending prospect of being dethroned from the pinnacle of supremacy. If the Anthropocene epitomizes a spatiotemporal realm wherein anthropocentrism and humanism reign supreme, then the Post-Anthropocene, akin to all ‘post’ narratives, brings forth the crises inherent in the Anthropocene. In this post-Anthropocene epoch, the dynamics have shifted, and the role of the Sphinx has been inverted. As elucidated by the French philosopher Baudrillard, contemporary times witness humans posing inquiries to ‘non-humans’ and awaiting their responses to ascertain their destinies, while the ‘non-human’ entity, embodied by the Sphinx, remains largely reticent.

Within Baudrillard’s narrative, the Sphinx assumes the guise of a hostile entity that mercilessly lampoons humanity. Conversely, according to the vision of Canadian anthropologist Eduardo Cohen, the Sphinx emerges as a novel archetype for humanity—an enlightening emblem of paradigmatic shift.

Cohen’s treatise, “How the Forest Thinks: An Anthropology Beyond Humanity,” predicated on the ethnography of the Runa people of South America, extensively draws upon Peirce’s semiotic reservoirs to challenge the notion that cogitation is the sole purview of humans. Eschewing conventional paradigms, Cohen endeavors to unearth a transcendent cognitive paradigm beyond the binary dichotomy of human and ‘non-human.’ Within his discourse, Cohen proffers an alternative rendition of the Sphinx—the Jaguar Man.

The lunar and the jaguar find interchangeability. Cohen recounts a cautionary tale concerning lunar revelries. “For instance, venturing out for a moment may yield a return to discover the host of one’s revelry transformed into a jaguar.” The Runa people adopt a supine posture whilst slumbering in the forest, for should a jaguar chance upon them and perceive their wakefulness, it shall refrain from disturbance; however, assuming a prone position invites the jaguar’s predatory instincts. Within Runa cosmology, the jaguar’s perception of reality holds equivalent significance to that of humans. Thus, the notion that Runa individuals possess the potential to metamorphose into jaguars serves as a metaphor for perceptual transformation. Cohen rechristens the forest as an “ecosystem of myriad selves,” wherein each ‘self’ offers a distinct representation of reality. These manifold perspectives, far from hierarchical, are interchangeable, enabling individuals to adopt the vantage point of a leopard and vice versa.

Hence, the crux of the ensuing inquiry revolves around the concept of the ‘self.’

Evidently, Cohen’s conception of the ‘self’ diverges significantly from Descartes’ formulation. Whereas Descartes posits cogitation as the cornerstone of existence—”Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am)—Cohen perceives this as a form of ‘disjointed symbolic thought,’ engendering a schism between individuals and their socio-cultural milieu, environment, desires, and aspirations, culminating in a convoluted, alienating ‘I-thinking,’ wherein one questions their very existence.

Cohen shares his encounter with an anxiety episode to shed light on this fragmented cogitation. Amidst a mountain sojourn marred by a landslide, Cohen experienced a surge of panic envisioning the mountainside’s imminent collapse upon his fellow travelers, whose nonchalant demeanor exacerbated his disquietude, spawning an existential crisis predicated on a perceived disconnect from his surroundings. Redemption dawned unexpectedly as Cohen, gazing through binoculars at a black tanager, adjusted the focus, whereupon clarity precipitated, and his sense of detachment dissipated.

Cohen acknowledges humanity’s intrinsic connection to the natural realm, underscoring the role of semiotics in elucidating this symbiotic relationship. Symbols, he contends, transcend human agency, animating an ‘ongoing relational process,’ thereby imbuing them with vitality. In light of this, the plurality of ‘selves’ emerges as a byproduct of symbol interpretation, challenging the exclusivity of human cognition. Consequently, individuals traverse a unified realm, facilitating interspecies communication.

Indeed, the Runa people perpetually seek avenues for interfacing with the forest’s denizens, epitomized in James Cameron’s film “Avatar” wherein a braided appendage serves as a conduit for interthought connectivity. Cohen extols the Runa’s animistic ethos as a lens to scrutinize sentience within the cosmos, foregrounding life and cognition. The tropical rainforest, as an ‘ecosystem of myriad selves,’ engenders emergent realities comprising humans, animals, avifauna, and flora, thereby obviating anthropocentric dualism. Within this milieu, individuals occasionally partake of the ‘other’ not as sustenance but as a conduit to apprehend alternate perspectives—thus, the Runa ingest jaguar bile to assimilate their vantage point, facilitating spiritual transmigration upon demise.

Hence, in the forest’s embrace, humanity need not confront the Sphinx as a foe; indeed, humans, at times, embody the Sphinx.

“How might one envisage a grander reality consonant with a naturalistic, non-dualistic cosmology?” This query, perennially pondered by Peirce, constitutes the crux of Cohen’s endeavor. The binary dichotomy of humans versus Sphinxes—or ‘non-humans’—heralds deleterious ramifications for the Anthropocene. This paradigm, predicated on dualistic opposition, necessitates urgent abandonment. Such dichotomies, be they between humanity and nature, subject and object, self and other, or spirit and flesh, engender vulnerability and solitude, posits Cohen, severing individuals from their life-sustaining milieu.

Within the overarching framework of posthumanism, the quest to reconnect with life’s tapestry assumes paramount significance. Nietzsche and his successors have embarked on ceaseless explorations.

In Nietzsche’s reckoning, Descartes’ cognizant ‘self’ epitomizes a protracted illusion, fostering modern Europe’s descent into nihilism. Nietzsche repudiates humanity as cognitive subjects, privileging corporeal existence. In his estimation, the ephemeral constructs of spirit, consciousness, soul, and subjectivity crumble under scrutiny, leaving corporeality as the sole immutable verity. Ergo, the ‘Superman,’ anchored in corporeality, assumes primacy in a post-deistic world.

Subsequent to Nietzsche, Lacan’s ‘chaos,’ Lyotard’s ‘inhuman,’ Derrida’s ‘end of man,’ Deleuze’s ‘body without organs,’ Foucault’s ‘death of man,’ and Baudrillard’s ‘Crystal Revenge’ epitomize philosophical treatises reflecting on the cognitive subject from a post-human perspective. Foucault’s proclamation of ‘the death of man’ heralds the demise of the epistemological subject, the fulcrum of discourse and knowledge—a portent of modernity’s anthropocentric epistemological decline.

More recently, American theorist Donna Haraway delineates a societal evolution from the Anthropocene through the Capitalocene to the Cthulhu Epoch. The Anthropocene, inaugurated with the Industrial Revolution, is typified by rapacious exploitation of the natural realm, heralding a litany of crises. Haraway advocates for a diminished Anthropocene and envisages sanctuary, albeit one necessitating humanity’s recalibration of thought paradigms. The imperative to forge kinship with all terrestrial entities has never been more pressing. Haraway extols “How the Forest Thinks” as a seminal semiotic treatise, corroborating her thesis: “All living entities share the same ‘flesh and blood’ laterally, semiotically, and genealogically.” Humanity, a mere node in life’s intricate network, shares symbiotic interdependence with all sphinxes (i.e., ‘non-humans’), fostering collaborative genesis.

The trajectory of anthropological inquiry, indeed all humanities disciplines, commences with human existence, traversing a course towards human artifacts. Cohen, contrarily, embarks on a reverse odyssey, probing humanity’s niche within nature’s labyrinth to transcend human-centric paradigms. This divergence, though contentious, underscores Cohen’s conviction in transcending ossified disciplinary boundaries.

‘Openness,’ a philosophical tenet originating from Heidegger and expounded by Agamben, predicates on the mutual humanization of animals and animalization of humans. Agamben’s depiction of the ‘righteous man’—possessing an animal’s visage—at the Ambrosini Library stands as an antithesis to the Sphinx, embodying a redemptive transcendence of ‘humanity.’ In the tableau of posthumanism, whether epitomized by the realm of artificial intelligence heralded by ChatGPT or the primeval ruminations evoked by the tropical rainforest, an open ‘man’ boasts robust roots, enabling not only resource acquisition but also providence of shelter and solace.

In May 2023, tragedy befell the Colombian rainforest in the form of a plane crash, with only four children surviving—a testament to their aboriginal lineage endowed with innate rainforest acumen. These resilient survivors, hailing from indigenous tribes, leveraged their forest lore to navigate forty days of survival, attaining a semblance of the Sphinx’s perspective and fostering coexistence with nature. Legend holds that their tribesmen beseeched the forest to return the children, a plea seemingly answered in a manner beyond human comprehension—a living epilogue to “How the Forest Thinks.”

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