Paradigm shift is not the evacuation of power, but rather its redistribution. Speaking at the University of Toronto in early February, feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti speculated on the impotence of the classical humanities to explain the entwined nature of contemporary life, offering instead the post-humanities as an intellectual paradigm worthy of the times. She calls the method cartographic, implying an immediate use-value to the practice (imagine the post-humanities as a kind of intellectual Google Maps) in order to counter the retrospective theorization associated with classical modes of humanities scholarship (like a map to a city that no longer stands). Braidotti’s philosophy is new to me and my understanding provisional, but I’m taking her up on an offer to think with her, to investigate the points of rupture she provoked in me: can we ever be post-human?
As a type of academic discipline, the humanities are concerned with “the study of human culture,” or how it is that we are social beings—through language, music, religion, philosophy, literature et cetera.[i] Here, the individual (constituted through various social systems) is understood as fundamental, and the humanities a practice of mapping explanatory paradigms back onto phenomena that is both produced by and produces specific forms of collectivity. But, as technology advances and as ecosystems collapse, the conceit at the heart of the humanities—the human as a suitable unit of measure to register the complexity of social co-existence—crumbles. In response, the burgeoning field of post-humanities examines culture in its embedded becoming alongside other agencies and orders, such as technology, the non-human animal, and the environment. In doing so, the post-humanities displaces anthropocentric arrogance as the gravitational force around which understandings are constructed. Key early texts in the field include Michele Serres’s The Parasite (1980) and Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto (1985), though the field of posthumanities did not congeal until much later, in the latter half of the Aughts. Cary Wolfe, the editor of the University of Minnesota Press’s Posthumanities series defines the whole endeavour as such: “When we talk about posthumanism, we are not just talking about a thematics of the decentering of the human in relation to either evolutionary, ecological, or technological coordinates (though that is where the conversation usually begins and, all too often, ends); rather…we are also talking about how thinking confronts that thematics, what thought has to become in the face of those challenges.” In practice, the posthumanities takes seriously the ethical consequences of how we humans think our relationship to non-humans, especially other animals and the environment; it considers how the field of disability studies forcefully challenges normative relationships between language and thought and identity; it explores the way the human experience is currently entwined in a mutual becoming with computer technologies.
Despite the critical self-reflection post-anthropocentrism generates (the human animal is greedy and violent, technologically mediated, and morally obligated to consider sustainability beyond our own species perpetuation), it does not offer an alternative orientation to knowledge production. At its best, post-anthropocentrism is a conceit. We do not suddenly become fluent in non-human ways of knowing by virtue of thinking it would be cool to do so. Even the gesture of prioritizing paradigms of understanding that diminish our self-importance still rely upon judgments made from the human perspective. At base, in a quest to position ourselves post-anthropocentrically, we must be suspicious of our capacity to think outside of our social conditioning and intellectual biases while simultaneously encouraging an awareness of what we may be otherwise be blinded to because of the nature of the self. Productively, this is to embody an interstitial space between anthropocentrism and its undoing: what is possible from this position of thwarted desire?
The limitations of cultural homogeneity were implicitly acknowledged in Braidotti’s lecture when she repeatedly pointed to non-western humanisms as “where it’s at.” This makes sense to me: I can trouble my western, euro-centric ways of knowing by inhabiting what Braidotti called trading zones: places where ideas are exchanged and disagreements occur. I can situate my intellectual activity as listening and I can attempt to increase the interdependencies between my patterns of knowing and other ways of making sense. But I’m really not sure how this resists becoming just another example of colonization, of seeking out the resources of other cultures and appropriating them for my own gain? There’s all of history to tell me that the human is a colonial machine, and to think that non-western humanisms can be utilized to recuperate the use-value of the humanities in the west is, once again, to use the resources of others cultures to rescue my own.
Listening to Braidotti’s lecture, I was was reminded of other instances where the demand for social change requires that I account for my own position within a shifting terrain in order to assume an appropriate and transformative responsibility. As protests swept across the US this winter to express outrage at the murders of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, white people were asked to protest from their subject position: do not carry signs proclaiming that “I am Mike Brown,” but rather, carry signs that challenge white supremacy. As Braidotti encouraged me to recognize the value of destabilizing my own subject position in ways of knowing and relating, I kept asking myself: how to be post-human from the position I occupy as already always human? How to engage otherness in the key of anti-oppression? How can we translate what we already know about how we are human, in order to be post-human with a touch of grace?
[i] Carey Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? (Minnieapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), page xvi.