inadequate futures

tagged with posthumanism:

This summer, i was lucky enough to participate in the inaugural modern and contemporary studies initiative summer institute at penn state. Necessarily germinal, the paper i presented gestures the first dissertation chapter i'm working on, tentatively titled 'the subject after postmodernism: Barad, Levinas, and Intra-Active Ethics'. A pdf of the presentation can be found below.

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Juliana Spahr's That Winter the Wolf Came offers solace in a moment of ecological anxiety and disaster. As Trump pulls the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord (indeed, a largely symbolic act but with very real ecological, economic, and political ramifications), I'm struck by the right's oxymoronic stance on the country's autonomy, or the ability to be autonomous in an age of intensified globalization. It's easy to see the tension between the way the nation-state holds open the door for transnational capital---i.e. producing fluid borders rather than locking them down and securing the reproduction of a specific citizenry---and the insistence that somehow the U.S. can stand alone, or dictate the terms by which its borders function. The travel ban, increased racist violence, and the dream of an economy sustained by coal all play into this fantasy of the autonomous nation, and by proxy the autonomous masculine figurehead Trump longs to become.

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One thing I'm having trouble articulating and working through in the dissertation proposal is the extent to which posthumanism and posthuman subjectivity (interrelated but definitely not coterminous) are either local and site specific or transcendent and ontological. It's clear to me how posthumanism as a discourses arises in the latter half of the 20th century: globalization, transnationalism, and the onset of network culture force us to think differently about how humans are connected. The cellphone (and really, the smartphone) shifts attention away from the human body to the human with(in) a network. The smartphone has become a very literal and felt extension of one kind of cyborg subjectivity. In this way, it's like what Nathan Jurgenson says about identity performance: 'Social media surely change identity performance. For one, it makes the process more explicit' ('The Disconnectionists'). Our imbrication in technology makes explicit something we might have missed before---how the human and tool are woven together into assemblages or amalgams---but that then seems ontologically grounded.

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Rereading Karen Barad's Meeting the Universe Halfway is a refreshing reminder of everything I find useful in new materialism and posthumanism. Concerned primarily with how quantum physics might reshape the way we think about matter, agency, and ethics, Barad's work if helpful for articulating where ethical commitments beyond the human, or the human-to-human, might reside. Her reworking of agency is particularly important for her interweaving of the philosophy of physics and poststructural, as she repeats throughout. For Barad, agency is not something humans have, or even particular bodies possess, but rather a distributed enactment across an intra-active assemblage (my word) or apparatus. She argues, 'Agency is "doing" or "being" in its intra-activity. It is the enactment of iterative changes of particular practices---iterative reconfigurings of topological manifolds of spacetimematter relations---through the dynamics of intra-activity. Agency is about changing possibilities of change entailed in reconfiguring material-discursive apparatuses of bodily production' (178). This emphasis on intra-activity reminds us that we (and let's leave this as a slippery signifier) are involved in agency with other matters we tend to not consider imbricated in ourselves. Matter comes to matter through 'iterative reconfigurings;' states that both continually change but also remain the same---cells perpetually dying and being replaced in bodies human and otherwise, for example. Agency is less a deployment of force here than the tipping over of a system into something else or towards a different state---a storm tipping over from rain and thunder into a tornado and back again. In a more anthropocentric mode, it's also about admitting that who and what we are is heavily influenced and perhaps even dependent on the matter that surrounds us, both discursive but also (new) material. It's here that I see Barad linking up rather explicitly with poststructuralism, as if to intensify the performative and disciplinary sutures provided by Butler and Foucault.

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