This latter question lies at the heart of Jean-François Lyotard’s ‘Can Thought go on Without a Body?’, the opening chapter from his collection The Inhuman. Lyotard invites us to ponder philosophy’s relationship to the terrestrial horizon which, in the wake of the collapse of the metaphysical horizon called ‘God’ – whose dissolution spurred the Nietzschean injunction ‘remain true to the earth!’ (Nietzsche: 42) – has been endowed with a quasi-transcendental status, whether as the ‘originary ark’ (Husserl), the ‘self-secluding’ (Heidegger), or ‘the deterritorialized’ (Deleuze).
But as Lyotard points out, this terrestrial horizon will also be wiped away, when, roughly 4.5 billion years from now, the sun is extinguished, incinerating the ‘originary ark’, obliterating the ‘self-secluding’, and vaporizing ‘the deterritorialized’.
The extinction of the sun is a catastrophe, a mis-turning or over-turning (kata-strophe), because it blots out the terrestrial horizon of future possibility relative to which human existence, and hence philosophical questioning, have hitherto oriented themselves. Or as Lyotard himself puts it: ‘[E]verything’s dead already if this infinite reserve from which you now draw energy to defer answers, if in short thought as quest, dies out with the sun’ (Lyotard: 9). Everything is dead already.
Solar death is catastrophic because it vitiates ontological temporality as configured in terms of philosophical questioning’s constitutive horizonal relationship to the future. But far from lying in wait in for us in the far distant future, on the other side of the terrestrial horizon, the solar catastrophe needs to be grasped as something that has already happened; as the aboriginal trauma driving the history of terrestrial life as an elaborately circuitous detour from stellar death. Terrestrial history occurs between the simultaneous strophes of a death which is at once earlier than the birth of the first unicellular organism, and later than the extinction of the last multicellular animal.
Paraphrasing a remark Freud makes in Beyond the Pleasure Principle, we could say: ‘In the last resort, what has left its mark on the development of thought must be the history of the earth we live on and its relation to the sun.’
This mark imprinted upon thought by its relation to the sun is the trace of stellar death, which precedes and succeeds, initiates and terminates, the life and death with which philosophers reckon.
Lyotard juxtaposes two antithetical perspectives on the relation between thought and embodiment prompted by the prospect of solar extinction: one for which the inseparability between thought and its material substrate necessitates separating thought from its rootedness in organic life in general, and the human organism in particular; another according to which it is the irreducible separation of the sexes that renders thought inseparable from organic embodiment, and human embodiment specifically.
Although the prospect of solar death is in some sense little more than a pretext for Lyotard’s ingenious dramatization of the differend between the extropian functionalism endorsed in the first perspective, and the phenomenological feminism espoused in the second perspective – a differend which Lyotard refuses to adjudicate – it is the former which is most significant for our purposes, for it suggests that the extinction of the sun challenges the prevalent philosophical understanding of death – more specifically, it shatters the existential conception of death codified in Heidegger’s phenomenological analysis of ‘dying’, so that the latter can no longer be held up as what sets human existence apart by endowing it with a privileged relationship to the future. If the extinction of the sun cannot be construed in terms of any existential possibility concomitant with the human relationship to death, this is not so much because the sun is not the kind of entity that dies, so that to speak of its ‘death’ would constitute an illegitimate anthropomorphism, but on the contrary, because humans can no longer be described as the kinds of entities privileged by the relationship to their own inexistence: the sun is dying precisely to the same extent as human existence is bounded by extinction.
Extinction is not to be understood here as the termination of a biological species, but rather as that which levels the transcendence ascribed to the human, whether it be that of consciousness or Dasein, stripping the latter of its privilege as the locus of correlation (cf. Chapter 3).
Thus, if the extinction of the sun is catastrophic, this is because it disarticulates the correlation. Unlike the model of death which, at least since Hegel, has functioned as the motor of philosophical speculation, it does not constitute an internal limit for thought, providing the necessary spur for thought to overstep its own bounds and thereby incorporating what was supposed to be exterior to it. Thought is perfectly capable of transcending the limits it has posited for itself. But the extinction of the sun is not a limit of or for thought. In this regard, it annuls the relationship to death from which philosophical thought drew sustenance.
Or as Lyotard puts it:
With the disappearance of earth, thought will have stopped – leaving
that disappearance absolutely unthought of. It’s the horizon itself
that will be abolished and, with its disappearance, [the phenomenologist’s]
transcendence in immanence as well. If, as a limit, death
really is what escapes and is deferred and as a result what thought has
to deal with, right from the beginning – this death is still only the life
of our minds. But the death of the sun is a death of mind, because it
is the death of death as the life of the mind.
The only way of rendering this death conceivable, and hence of turning the death of death into a death like any other, is by separating the future of thought from the fate of the human body:
Thought without a body is the prerequisite for thinking of the death
of all bodies, solar or terrestrial, and of the death of thoughts that are
inseparable from those bodies. But ‘without a body’ in this exact
sense: without the complex living terrestrial organism known as the
human body. Not without hardware, obviously.