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The Last Post

Michael Cronin

The Posthuman, by Rosi Braidotti, Polity Press, 180 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0745641584

It’s our party and you can write what you want to, write what you want to. Timothy Garton Ash, on the fiftieth birthday of The New York Review of Books, was invited to do just that. He was asked to comment on what he felt had fundamentally changed in the world since the NYRB first appeared on the magazine racks in 1963. Seeing the magazine as a “lighthouse at the center of the Western world”, he wanted to show “how the world has changed under its steady illumination”. “Human rights” and a concern with same is what is first picked out under the sweeping beam of retrospection. He then sheds light on the rise and staggered fall of the US as “hyperpower”, the increased prominence of the Arab world, the inexorable ascent of China and the explosion of “digital opportunity”, the binary revolution that leaves expression gloriously unbound. Not a word, however, about the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change. Not a line about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. No melting ice. No rising sea levels. No acidic oceans. No species loss. For Garton Ash, all is gloriously quiet on the weather front. Our duty in this changing world, if we have one, is to “remain true to the core values of a modernized Enlightenment liberalism, Western in origin but universal in aspiration”.

Rosi Braidotti was not invited to this particular bash but it is unlikely that she would have seen the journey to the lighthouse in quite the same way. Fundamental to her new work on the notion of the posthuman is that “modernized Enlightenment liberalism” is no longer effective or persuasive as a means of liberation. Central to her argument is an idea that she has borrowed from the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and his collaborator, a marine biology specialist, Eugene F Stoermer, namely, the idea of the “Anthropocene”. Crutzen’s contention is that in the last three centuries, the effects of human action on the global environment have escalated. As a result, anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide are very likely to significantly affect the climate for millenia to come. “It seems appropriate to assign the term ‘Anthropocene’ to the present [...] human-dominated, geological epoch, supplementing the Holocene – the warm period of the past 10-12 millennia.” The Anthropocene is traced back to the latter half of the eighteenth century, when analyses of air trapped in polar ice showed the beginning of growing global concentrations of carbon dioxide and methane. The principal consequence of anthropogenic climate change is that humans have now become capable of affecting all life on the planet. As Dipesh Chakrabarty pointed out a number of years ago, when the collective actions of humans fundamentally alter the conditions of life on the planet they move from being biological agents to becoming a geological force in their own right: “For it is no longer a question of man having an interactive relationship with nature. This humans have always had, or at least that is how man has been imagined in a large part of what is generally called the Western tradition. Now it is being claimed that humans are a force of nature in a geological sense.” With this shift in status comes a shift in perspective. It is no longer tenable to conceive of humans as a species apart. We must think again about what it is to be human and if we think again about what it is to be human then we must inevitably think again about what we mean by the “humanities”.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man becomes the icon of reference for Braidotti’s critique of humanism. Underlying this ideal of bodily perfection she detects a specific view of what is human about humanity: “That iconic image is the emblem of Humanism as a doctrine that combines the biological, discursive and moral expansion of human capabilities into an idea of teleologically ordained, rational progress.” A core element of the high humanist creed is a belief in the “unique, self-regulating and intrinsically moral powers of human reason”. The image of the individual, white man in the full of his health captured within the rationally conceived circle and square of Leonardo speaks to the confidence of a credo that is unashamedly Western and patriarchal in origin. History and critique will eventually undo this confidence. Gender and race theorists will begin to ask questions about how representative this single, white man is of the human given that he is a member of a minority group on the planet. They point to the manner in which the human gets defined to exclude others, whether on the basis of race, gender or class. Definition is not simply a matter of passive exclusion but of violent subjection. The history of slavery, populist and state violence against migrants, domestic abuse and the continued sexual trafficking of millions of women show that differences make a difference. In addition, positing Western humanist values as guardians of moral integrity began to pall in the aftermath of the Belgian Congo, the Somme, the death camps, Hiroshima and the Gulag. The response of progressive intellectuals to this crisis has been to renegotiate the universal claims of humanism, to argue, in effect, that what the historical record shows in not so much humanism repudiated as humanism betrayed. Thus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir will seek to confront reason as evolved in the Western tradition with its own historical responsibilities and point up the conceptual shortcomings in humanist thinking revealed by particular kinds of embodied experience such as being Jewish or being Woman. This form of situated critical universalism sat well with a social constructivist emphasis on the man-made and historically variable nature of social inequalities. In her first chapter, “Post-Humanism: Life beyond the Self”, Braidotti details the various feminist, post-colonial, post-structuralist and post-modernist strictures on the humanist project as routinely conceived in the West. Her contention, however, is that it is no longer useful to shore up the ruins of humanism with the fragments of critique. The notion of what it is to be human is changing so fundamentally that even the most radical gestures of post-structuralist or deconstructionist anti-humanists are beginning to appear oddly dated. For Braidotti the figures of this mutation are Becoming-animal, Becoming-earth and Becoming-machine.

Joseph Stalin, no friend it is fair to say of humanists, in his Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938) claimed that “changes in geographical environment of any importance require millions of years, whereas a few hundred or a couple of thousand years are enough for even very important changes in the system of human society”. Stalin’s distinction between natural history and human history had a certain credibility as long as the human remained, in Fernand Braudel’s words, a “prisoner of climate” rather than a maker of it. In the era of the Anthropocene, however, the distinction no longer holds. Once humans move from being biological agents to geological agents, dominating and determining the survival of many other species on the planet, they then become not so much subject to nature as a condition of nature itself. This dominance comes, of course, at the cost of the very survival of humanity. For this reason, trying to conceive of a sustainable future for humans means the convergence of human history with the history of life on the planet to produce a form of “deep history”.

The biologist Edward O Wilson, in The Future of Life (2002), sees such long-range historical thinking as crucial to curbing humanity, as “planetary killer, concerned only with its short-term survival”. Wilson argues that it is only when humans begin to think of themselves as species that they can begin to take the longer view, not only as an important exercise in critical self-understanding but as a means of securing the future. Braidotti treats this move towards species awareness as a necessary step towards post-anthropocentric identity. Critical at this juncture is the decentring of anthropos, “the representative of a hierarchical, hegemonic and generally violent species whose centrality is now challenged by a combination of scientific advances and global economic concerns”. Where she parts company with “deep ecologists” like Arne Naes and James Lovelock is that she sees this post-anthropocentric turn not as simply a recognition of mutual vulnerability with human empathy extended to the rest of the animal kingdom but as a movement towards a radical materialism which has its origins in the work of philosophers such as Spinoza, Toland, Deleuze and Guattari. In this view, there is a dialectical relationship between life as matter/life as it is felt (zoe) and life as it is spoken of/constructed (bios). In a vision of matter where all is connected in the endless circulation of energies, materials and forms, there is a notion of life itself as an endlessly generative force. In this world of pure immanence there is no transcendental principle (“Man”, “God”) to guarantee the coherence of what is there. Life emerges from the flow of creative currents that inform the human and the non-human alike. Out of this vision comes a notion of relationality and ontological equality that does not privilege one life form over another. Life forms are bound up in this shared participation in the zoe. As Braidotti points out, contemporary capitalism has no problem with a notion of zoe egalitarianism as all forms of life become tradeable and marketable commodities in a system of planetary exchange, in everything from the mass slaughter of animals for the fast food industry to the burgeoning trade in human organs and genetic data. The difference, of course, is in the ethical responses that might emerge in response to the demise of the anthropocentric.

Louis Borges once grouped animals into three classes: those we watch television with, those we eat, and those we are scared of. Another more psychoanalytically inflected way of classifying these relationships might be the oedipal (you and me on the same sofa), the instrumental (you will end up by being eaten) and the fantasmatic (how exotic, sleek, dangerous you are). In Braidotti’s view a posthuman ethics implies an end to forms of “anthropolatry” which not only obscure emergent forms of species thinking but consign all other species to dangerous, destructive and ecologically untenable forms of subordination. If “becoming animal” in Hiberno-English is an occasional and unfortunate consequence of excessive alcohol consumption, for Braidotti it is a way of realising the irretrievably embodied, material nature of our existence on a planet that we share with innumerable other species that we continue to destroy in vast numbers. The current rate in the loss of species diversity alone is similar in intensity to the event that 65 million years ago wiped out the dinosaurs. As against this, the emerging fields of eco-criticism and animal studies show the new kinds of transdisciplinary formations that are coming to the fore in the wake of the crisis of the human in the Anthropocene. In a post-Orwellian move, some animals are beginning to recognise that they might not be more equal than others and are starting to wonder what this might mean for the planet.

The backdrop to the end of anthropolatry is the rise of geo-centrism, the notion that the planetary must now be figured into all our thinking. This includes everything from the Great Coral Reef and the Gulf Stream to the future of the honey bee. In Braidotti’s interpretation of Spinoza’s monism, she emphasises not so much the tyranny of oneness or the narcissism of separateness that is often associated with monism as the freedom of relationality: “[Monism] implies the open-ended, inter-relational, multi-sexed and trans-species flows of becoming through interactions with multiple others.” Being “matter-realist”, to use her term, is to take seriously our multiple connections to natural and material worlds. If we conceive of the notion of subjectivity to include the non-human then the task for critical thinking is, as Braidotti herself admits, “momentous”. This would involve visualising the subject as “a transversal entity encompassing the human, our genetic neighbours the animals and the earth as a whole, and to do so within an understandable language”. An understandable language, indeed, is part of the problem. The difficulty is that cutting-edge critical theory can, on occasion, be indistinguishable from New Age fudge. When the author declares “I am a she-wolf, a breeder that multiplies cells in all directions; I am an incubator and a carrier of virtual and lethal viruses”, the heart sinks at the inevitable invitation of parody. Braidotti, notwithstanding the occasionally overheated sentence, is, however, acutely conscious of the limits of greenwash. In her advocacy of geo-centrism she continually argues for a politics that is grounded in real-life, world-historical conditions, though as we shall see, the ends can be more persuasive than the means.

One of these world-historical conditions is the rise and rise of the machine, or of a particular kind of the machine, the digital. In “The Posthuman as Becoming-machine”, Braidotti speculates on what digitally mediated environments might signify for a notion of what it is to be human. Her argument is that information technology has so deeply penetrated the lives of so many people, in everything from online dating to killing (the US use of drones) that nature/culture distinctions are increasingly menaingless. In chapter three, “The Inhuman: Life beyond death”, Braidotti gives over much space to how the digital enables the pursuit of a new kind of “tele-thanatalogical” warfare where people can be tracked down and assassinated from many thousands of miles away, with scant respect for sovereignty and civilian loss of life. One surveillance drone, the Delfly, the size and shape of a dragonfly, weighs less than a gold wedding ring, camera included. She draws on the work of Achille Mbembe, who has spoken of the emergence of “necro-politics” which is power as primarily expressed through the administration of death, “the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and population”. A dimension to “Becoming-machine” is the way the posthuman opens up the way for the inhuman. In other words, the transition to the posthuman does not undo the bloody legacies of imperialism. On the contrary, the forms new kinds of domination take and the forms of resistance to them must factor in the Becoming-machine of the posthuman condition.

So if this posthuman condition – the Becoming-animal, Becoming-earth and Becoming-machine – is upon us, what are we to make of it and how should we respond? One way, Braidotti argues, is that we have to rethink radically that area of thought that takes the human as its specific brief, namely, the humanities. The humanities can no longer continue with a notion of the humanities that no longer corresponds to what human beings are becoming or have become. The continual rise of the life sciences with a dramatically altered genetic and neural view of human possibility, the importance of technologically mediated communication and knowledge transfer and the marked cultural diversity of most societies in an age of migratory flows mean that the risk of epistemic business as usual is social and political redundancy. As against this, Braidotti argues for an affirmative vision of the Posthuman Humanities:

Against the prophets of doom, I want to argue that technologically mediated post-anthropocentricism can enlist the resources of bio-genetic codes, as well as telecommunication, new media and information technologies, to the task of renewing the Humanities.

Greater emphasis on bio-literacy, on cyber-nautical skills and a more explicit concern with intellectual challenges at a planetary level would enliven and renew what she refers to as the “subtle sciences”, disliking the implied condescension of the term “soft sciences”. The new subject of the posthuman is a mixture of the human and the non-human, the planetary and the cosmic and the given and the manufactured and for this reason new ways of thinking are required. The kind of transdisciplinary formation that Braidotti has in mind to respond to this need would be the Anthropocene Humanities or sustainable humanities, where the social order would be reconnected to its environmental and organic foundations. An example of the kind of subject that might be taught within the remit of anthropocene humanities would be Chakrabarthy’s “deep history” mentioned earlier where the earth sciences, literature, history and anthropology would be mobilised in order to arrive at an understanding of what it means and has meant to be human when the status of the human shifts from that of biological to geological agent. In other words, the conventional spans of human history (from the rise of city civilisations, for example, to the present day) would be embedded in the much longer stretches of time that have traditionally been the unique preserve of disciplines like geology. When Braidotti speaks of the university in the twenty-first century as a “global multi-versity” deeply implicated in global flows of information and exchange and equally involved in a politics of local sustainability she envisages the posthuman Humanities as including, “Humanistic informatics or digital humanities; Cognitive or neural humanities; Environmental or sustainable Humanities; Bio-genetic and Global Humanities”. In the posthuman era of the anthropocene, sticking to the “human” as the proper object of study for the Humanities, could prove fatal. The move to a post-anthropocentric vision means being able to access “issues of external and even planetary importance, such as scientific and technological advances, ecological and social sustainability and the multiple challenges of globalization”.

In an era of intense demoralisation in the university sector and wider society, Braidotti’s hopefulness and energy are welcome. She is committed to a politics of life and affirmation that demands to be heard in the twilight chorus of decline that drowns out much else in the contemporary moment. The difficulty for readers sympathetic to her ethical impulses and intellectual project is that one keeps wondering how to get from “ought” to “can”. In other words, in the absence of any credible version of an alternative political economy, for example, it is difficult to know how we will ever possibly see a university which is “in tune with basic principles of social justice”. When she includes among her criteria for a new posthuman ethics, “non-profit” and the “emphasis on the collective”, the reader might be tempted to agree but ask whether aspirations that are disconnected from any plausible sense of collective agency and material transformation can be anything other than a pious prayer for the future rather than an effective claim on the present. The difficulty arguably lies in an overinvestment in the notion of subject. Braidotti is attracted to the flexibility of the notion of subjectivity. It allows her to bring together different perspectives but not to lose sight of any subject’s situatedness in place and time. The problem is that the volitional tends to take over from the possible. The subject becomes the medium for a vision of the world as it should be rather than it could be. So when Braidotti declares that “We need to become the sorts of subjects who actively desire to reinvent subjectivity as a set of mutant values and to draw our pleasures from that, not from the perpetuation of familiar regimes”, the thought that comes to mind is that desire is never enough. Reinventing subjectivity is about the means at the disposal of a collectivity to change the lives of its members. Unless there is clarity about how collectivities in the present moment are going to re-establish economic sovereignty over their lives, the “familiar regimes” of debt terror will contine to make subjectivity synonymous with submission. As we ponder the fate of the human in the posthuman age ‑ and Braidotti is an excellent guide in this respect ‑ there can be no more urgent task than trying to work out how we fend off the inhuman. If we do not, the view from the lighthouse for the NYRB’s hundredth birthday may be one of unremitting desolation.

Michael Cronin teaches in Dublin City University. He is co-editor of The Irish Review.