inadequate futures

[015 - provisional notes towards a posthuman politics]

November 07, 2018 by alex christie

I'm excited to be presenting at this year's ASA conference in Atlanta with the incredible Suzanne Bost, AnaLouise Keating, and Kelli Zaytoun. Our panel/roundtable, titled 'Ethical Emergency and Posthumanist Emergence' interrogates, broadly, alternatives to humanism for and within compromised times. My offering is framed as a series of notes on post- or more-than-human theories and methodologies ranging from Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, to Kathleen Stewart and Erin Manning. Here, I'm trying to tap into more explicitly political theories to find resonances that posthumanism might attune with, allowing us to thinking beyond the individuated subject of humanism towards a more processual conception of subjectivity, relationality, and politics. I'm really looking forward to the conversation. You can read the notes and view the presentation below.

presentation slides

I’ve been thinking a lot around Fred Moten and Stefano’s Harney’s concept of “studying,” which they outline in The Undercommons as a perpetual laboring that maps the terrain of new knowledge and questions without predetermined answers. Part of studying as it intersects with my work has been about mapping resonances, affinities, entanglements across thinkers, theories, and media. It constantly feels like I’m just taking notes.

Note taking is provisional. It often leads to something else--a more fully formed, presentable thing. But note taking is also a practice that itself modulates subjectivity. It’s about noticing the minor, pulling it out and placing it somewhere for later--for safekeeping. Notes become effective when we least expect, activating memories long forgotten that suddenly become vital in the present. They contain disparate figures and thinkers, incongruous terms occupying shared space, novel entanglements or new relational figurations.

These are provisional notes towards a posthuman politics.

  1. Posthumanism and the Drag of Humanism

Much of this research emerges from my dissertation, which is concerned with posthuman ethics. Does posthumanism allow for an ethics? Can posthumanism, by dispensing with the human, allow an ethics? Is a posthuman ethics written about by and for humans not, necessarily, human? What I found over and over in my reading is the process by which posthumanist theory would describe a world teeming with both human and nonhuman participants and forces, but ultimately reinscribe an agential human as the primary actor. Read the book; realize you’re not the center of the world; here’s how you should act. What I was noticing was what Suzanne helpfully referred to as the drag of humanism—the difficulty of actually relinquishing much of what we’ve described as humanism (autonomy, volition, agency) even as we critique it or recognize it’s political and descriptive inadequacy.

  1. Individuation and Disentanglement

Posthumanism and new materialism remind us that individuals do not exist a priori. Instead, individuation is a process of disentanglement, offering a privileged and seemingly objective vantage from which to observe the world. What Donna Haraway calls the “god-trick.” Bruno Latour’s work—recently on public display in the Times—demonstrates how objectivity is constructed by a select few, drawing connections among the Enlightenment, rationality, and the violent tenets of humanism we’ve outlined. For Karen Barad, individuation is processual all the way down, enacted by an agential cut within an intra-action when discrete entities blink in and out of existence. From this vantage, disentanglement is a pernicious fiction, simultaneously absolving us from our response-ability towards others while rendering us hyper-responsible for our selves. This might be related to what Judith Butler calls “responsabilization,” the double bind produced by neoliberalism that renders self-sufficiency a moral obligation and a pathology: “The more one complies with the demand for ‘responsibility’ to become self-reliant, the more socially isolated one becomes and the more precarious one feels; the more supporting social structures fall away for ‘economic’ reasons, the more isolated one feels in one’s sense of heightened anxiety and ‘moral failure’” (Butler 15). While Butler alerts us to the precarity felt under neoliberalism, I’m interested here in the process by which the individual seems to come into being.

The difficulty of attending to the individual and collective simultaneously is a problem for both posthumanism and politics more generally. We need a “unit of analysis” other than the individual subject, be it human or nonhuman. For Alexis Shotwell, ethics presents precisely this friction between part and the whole: although ethical systems always describe the individual as simultaneously taking shape and shaping specific socio-economic-political milieus, “each predominant system takes as its unit of analysis the thinking, willing, and acting individual person” (109). For Shotwell, this problematically presumes individuality as a kind of purity, with the ethical subject simultaneously imbricated (with)in but distinct from the world they inhabit. Her articulation of this paradox emphasizes the violent imposition of ethics itself as an individuating and individual practice. Shotwell notes, “When we look to assess ethical decisions or actions, when we attempt to hold someone responsible, when we recommend action, we look to individuals” (110). Responsibility, however, resides not (only) with(in) the individual or the collective, but both, simultaneously. Indeed, we face issues that cannot be rectified by the individual--I can recycle all I want, but I’m not part of the 100 companies that produce 71% of global emissions. If posthumanism offers the tools to recognize the subject as porous, vulnerable, and contingent, then a posthuman politics and ethics must also re(con)figure this reliance on the individual and processes of individuation.

  1. Relational Affectivity

Affect theory, especially as theorized by Erin Manning, attunes us to the relational—what happens among human and nonhuman forces co-composing in tandem. For Manning, bodies and subjectivities are intensely relational, affected by and affecting what is encountered within the ecologies we co-inhabit. Human subjectivity becomes one affective force within and beside a myriad others, even as affect theory blurs the distinction between discrete entities in favor of a processual conception of embodiment. Because affect is nonconscious, affective encounters are delinked from linear and causal logic of volitional or agential subjectivity, attending instead to the messy chaos of the unfolding event. For Manning, “The event is where experience actualizes. Experience here is in the tense of life-living, not human life per se, but the more-than human: life at the interstices of experience in the ecology of practices. From this vantage point of an ecology of practices, it is urgent to turn away from the notion that it is the human agent, the intentional, volitional subject, who determines what comes to be" (Manning 3). We don’t so much emerge from the event, but co-constitute and are co-constituted by the event even as the event seems to exceed itself or become something other than itself. In this way, responsibility doesn’t get caught up in an exchange between individuated subjects, but instead circulates among subjectivities as they are perpetually de- and re-sedimented.

Affect theory opens up the political questions to the more-than human, especially as we reconceive the human subject and reimagine embodiment at radically porous and contingent. Displacing agency from the individuated body or even the process of individuation might allow us to think political questions without the individual by shifting the question from “What should I do?” to “What can be done? How can this ecology of practices we co-compose be shifted to multiply rather than homogenize experience?” This is not to absolve the individual of responsibility, but to rearticulate the individual as itself processual, reframing habituated assumptions and units of analysis.

  1. Affective Attunements

What practices open intensified modes of relationality? How can posthumanism resonate with more explicitly political theories and methodologies? Two brief examples by way of affect:

i. Manning’s recent work intersects with disability studies, framing neurotypicality as one of humanism’s violent and foundational tenets, demonstrating how the work of artistic artists helps us think experience otherwise. In her discussion of poets and writers who utilize a facilitator—someone who’s literally doing the typing, “facilitating” language use—Manning foregrounds the distribution of labor among, not only between, various human and nonhuman forces, insisting, “In the navigation of experience, no one is ever alone, and no experience ever emerges without the facilitation of a process that carries the event in its coming to formation” (137). In addition to multiplying our understanding of experience, Manning’s work foregrounds the importance of recognizing the way all experience is facilitated or co-composed. What are the relational facilitators that allow affect to flow, and how might they be redirected towards alternative and novel political ends?

ii. Sarah Ahmed’s work is exceedingly enabling for thinking affect precisely because it maps and disrupts our collective imbrication within white patriarchy. “Against Students,” in which Ahmed maps the production of the “problem student” who identifies and reroutes the pernicious flows of power in higher education only to be dismissed as the problem, offers some resonance with Moten and Harney where we began. In describing students whose complaints are dismissed by universities as being “over-sensitive” such that difficult issues like racism, sexism, and other power asymmetries cannot be addressed, Ahmed insists, “We need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.” This notion of intense sensitivity confronts us with differential attunements to a shared event and lays clear the production and protection of asymetrical power relations. Where and how might we also reconfigure the event from within?

  1. Futurity

Considering the relation between politics and futurity--or, as Lee Edelman reminds us, politics as reproductive futurity--posthumanism asks us to relinquish our human (all too human) hold on the future to dwell, instead, in the present. Haraway suggests “staying with the trouble,” while Stacy Alaimo asks us to “dwell in the dissolve.” In the work of each, what we find is not a future that will come, but one that is enacted from within. Affect theory and posthumanism remind us that there is movement in the middle, in the midst, wherever, or whatever “we” are. Kathleen Stewart notes, “Agency can be strange, twisted, caught up in things, passive or exhausted. Not the way we like to think about it. Not usually a simple projection toward a future” (86). What would it mean to give up the idea that the future could be determined in advance?

//Works Cited

  • Ahmed, Sara. “Against Students.” The New Inquiry, The New Inquiry, 29 June 2015.
  • Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway, Durham, Duke UP, 2007.
  • Butler, Judith. Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Cambridge, Harvard UP, 2015.
  • Edelman, Lee. No Future. Durham, Duke UP, 2004.
  • Haraway, Donna. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs.” The Haraway Reader. New York, Routledge, 2004.
  • Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Trans. Harvester Wheatsheaf, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1993.
  • Manning, Erin. The Minor Gesture. Durham, Duke UP, 2016.
  • Moten, Fred and Stefano Harney. The Undercommons. New York, Minor Compositions, 2013.
  • Shotwell, Alexis. Against Purity. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2016.
  • Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, Duke UP, 2007.