Book Review: Braidotti’s Vital Posthumanism

Contemporary posthumanism comes in two bitter-sweet flavours: speculative and critical. For speculative posthumanists “post-human” implies a relation of historical succession. They hold that descendants of current humans could cease to be human as a consequence of some process of technical change, such as an AI apocalypse (Vinge 1993 – see Roden 2010; 2012). Critical posthumanists, by contrast, dismiss these concerns, claiming that the Western humanist view that people are the only significant moral agents is already past saving. Humans should not run scared of Bad Borgs and immortal uploads because, as the title of Katherine Hayles’ seminal work of cultural history suggests, we are already posthuman (Hayles 1999).

Various reasons are cited for the demise of the human-centered (anthropocentric) worldview. Some critical posthumanists argue that the idea of the human as a sovereign, free agent “unmarked by its interactions with the object-world” is rendered obsolete by philosophical and scientific theories which show us to be embodied and embedded in cultural and technological environments (Hollinger 2009). They cite developments in the sciences of cognition and computation which suggest that intelligence and agency are distributed liberally among nonhuman and human cybernetic systems. As Donna Haraway writes in her justly famous “Cyborg Manifesto”:

Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert (Haraway 1991)

Critical Posthumanists are fond of quoting Michel Foucault’s declaration that “man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end”, comparing its erasure with that of a human profile “drawn in sand at the edge of the sea” (Foucault 1970, 387). But if they are right about the diffusion of agency beyond the human, they need to do more than memorialize its traces in close deconstructive readings of literary history and contemporary technoculture. They need to devise an ethics that will help us understand what agency can mean in a post-anthropocentric age.

Rosi Braidotti’s recent work The Posthuman gives us a timely and accessible formulation of such an ethics. Braidotti acknowledges the levelling of nonhuman and human agency implied by the new cognitive and life sciences. However, she is impatient with a disabling political neutrality that can follow from junking human agency as the arbiter of the right and the good. She argues that a posthuman ethics and politics need to retain the idea of political subjectivity capable of constructing new forms of ethical community and experimenting with new modes of being:

In my view, a focus on subjectivity is necessary because this notion enables us to string together issues that are currently scattered across a number of domains. For instance, issues such as norms and values, forms of community bonding and social belonging as well as questions of political governance both assume and require a notion of the subject.

However, according to Braidotti, this is no longer the classical self-legislating subject of modern humanism. It is vital, polyvalent connection-maker constituted “in and by multiplicity” – by “multiple belongings”. It is not a single type of being but a capacity for self-assembly immanent in all matter. She designates this power with the ancient Greek term for non-human/non-political life (zoe) – as opposed to the cultivated life (bios) of the human citizen. Zoe is, is not a thing or type of individual but the tendency of living matter to affiliate with other living systems and to form new functional assemblages:

The relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all non-anthropocentric elements. Living matter – including the flesh – intelligent and self-organizing but it is precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life.

‘Life’, far from being codified as the exclusive property or unalienable right of one species, the human, over all others or of being sacralised as a pre-established given, is posited as process, interactive and open ended. This vitalist approach to living matter displaces the boundary between the portion of life – both organic and discursive – that has traditionally been reserved for anthropos, that is to say bios, and the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life also known as zoe (Braidotti 2012: 60).

Clearly, not everything has the capacity to perform every function. Nonetheless, living systems can be co-opted by other systems for functions neither “God” nor Mother Nature ever intended. As Haraway writes:  “No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language” (Haraway 1989: 187). There are no natural limits or functions for bodies or their parts, merely patterns of connection and operation that do not fall apart all at once.

Zoe . . . is the transversal force that cuts across and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains. Zoe-centered egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the post-anthropocentric turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism (60).

This passage exemplifies the political open-heartedness that pervades The Posthuman – a characteristic many will find refreshing in a genre characterized by diffident or cool abstraction. But while Braidotti’s left-liberal sentiments are not in doubt, there is a frustrating absence of arguments showing how these might be supported by her posthumanist philosophy of life.

For example, why should zoe-eyed view motivate an egalitarianism that opposes the “trans-species commodification of Life” undertaken by advanced capitalism? Braidotti accepts that capitalism produces a form of posthuman subjectivity by radically disrupting the boundaries between humans, animals, species and technique:

Advanced capitalism and its biogenetic technologies engender a perverse form of the posthuman. At its core there is a radical disruption of the human-animal interaction, but all living species are caught in the spinning machine of the global economy (7).

This, at least, is a clear consequence of Braidotti’s account. If zoe is a transversal power then certain kinds of technology seem apt for revealing it and catalysing its flows better than others. But why imply that these can sometimes pervert life? A perversion is a diversion of a thing from its proper aim or natural state. Perversion is thinkable only in a nature with intrinsic or God-given ends. This anti-modern view of nature is at odds with a post-modern materialism for which, as Keith Ansell Pearson writes, “there can be no pre-established boundaries and no fixed determination of what constitutes the parameters and identities of individuated entities, such as organisms and machines” (Pearson 2002: 143).

To be sure, Braidotti argues against the commercialization of life on the grounds that some of the animals used in the bio-technological industries have been mistreated (8). This may be so, but it is an argument against cruelty rather than the disruption of species boundaries or commodification per se. Any conscientious capitalist could sign up to this (and make a buck out of cruelty-free products besides). What could be a greater expression of the zoe’s “transversal” potential than Monsanto’s transgenic cotton Bollgard II? Bollgard II contains genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produce a toxin deadly to pests such as bollworm. Unless we believe that there is some purpose inherent to thuringiensis or to cotton that makes such transversal crossings aberrant – which Braidotti clearly does not – there appears to be no zoe-eyed perspective that could warrant her objection to this form of commodification. Monsanto’s genetic engineers are just utilizing natural affordance in living systems which cannot be realized without gene transfer technology (Ronald 2013).

Cognitive and biological capitalists like Google and Monsanto seem to incarnate the tendencies of zoe – conceived as a generalized possibility of connection – much as any non-profit experimentation might do. Doesn’t Google show us what a search engine can do?

We could object to Monsanto’s activities on the kinds of welfarist grounds cited above (save the Bollworm!) or on the grounds that all technologies should be socially rather than corporately controlled. Traditional Marxist humanists would presumably agree with the latter claim, but it is not obviously supported by a vitalism which identifies life with a polymorphous power of self-assembly.

However, an earlier essay “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible” provides a more explicit philosophical justification for the political positions enunciated in The Posthuman. Taking its inspiration from the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, this argues for an ethics that enables entities to actualize their powers to their fullest “sustainable” extent. A becoming or actualization of power is sustainable if the assemblage or agency exercising it can do so without “destroying” the systems that makes its exercise possible. Thus an affirmative posthuman ethics proposes a recipe for flourishing whereby each life can exercise its powers to the fullest extent. This extension requires a certain moderation and self-discipline since there is always the danger that a system may fall over the edge:

To live intensely and be alive to the nth degree pushes us to the extreme edge of mortality. This has implications for the question of the limits, which are in-built in the very embodied and embedded structure of the subject. The limits are those of one’s endurance – in the double sense of lasting in time and bearing the pain of confronting ‘Life” as zoe. The ethical subject is one that can bear this confrontation, cracking up a bit but without having its physical or affective intensity destroyed by it. Ethics consists in re-working the pain into threshold of sustainability, when and if possible: cracking, but holding it, still (Braidotti 2006).

So Capitalism can be criticized from the zoe-centric position if it can be shown to constrain powers that could be made more vital by another feasible form of production and distribution. For Braidotti, this constraint on vital powers and experimentation arises through the capitalist demands of possessive individualism and accumulation.

The perversity of advanced capitalism, and its undeniable success, consists in reattaching the potential for experimentation with new subject formations back to an overinflated notion of possessive individualism . . ., tied to the profit principle. This is precisely the opposite direction from the non-profit experimentations with intensity, which I defend in my theory of posthuman subjectivity. The opportunistic political economy of bio-genetic capitalism turns Life/zoe – that is to say human and non-human intelligent matter – into a commodity for trade and profit (Braidotti 2013: 60-61).

Thus she supports “non-profit” experiments with contemporary subjectivity that show what “contemporary, biotechnologically mediated bodies are capable of doing” while resisting the neo-liberal appropriation of living entities as tradable commodities.

Whether the Constraint Claim is true depends on whether an independent non-capitalist posthuman (in Braidotti’s sense of the term) is possible or whether significant posthuman experimentation – particularly those involving sophisticated technologies like AI or Brain Computer Interfaces – will depend on the continued existence of a global capitalist system. I admit to being agnostic about this. While modern technologies such as gene transfer do not seem essentially capitalist, there is little evidence to date that a noncapitalist system could develop them, or their concomitant forms of hybridized “posthuman”, more prolifically.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a significant ethical claim at issue here that can be used independently of its applicability to the critique of contemporary capitalism. For example, I have recently argued for an overlap or convergence between Critical Posthumanism and future-oriented Speculative Posthumanism (See also Roden 2014). Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability is pertinent here because SP in its strongest form is also post-anthropocentric – it denies that posthuman possibility is structured a priori by human modes of thought or discourse – and because it defines the posthuman in terms of its power to escape from a socio-technical systems organized around human-dependent aims and purposes (Roden 2012).

The technological offspring described by Speculative Posthumanism will need to be functionally autonomous insofar as they will have to develop modes of being outside or beyond the human space of reasons. Reaching “posthuman escape velocity” will require the cultivation and expression of powers in ways that are sustainable for such entities. This presupposes, that we can have a conception of a subject or agent that is grounded in their specific capacities or powers rather than principles applicable to human agency alone. Understanding its ethical valence thus requires an affirmative conception of these powers independent of humanist conceptions such as moral autonomy. Braidotti’s critical ethics of sustainability might provide terms of reference for formulating an ethics of becoming posthuman in the speculative sense.

References

Braidotti, R (2006) “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible”, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2006, pp. 133-159.

Foucault, Michel (1970) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock Publications.

Haraway, Donna (1989) “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s”. Coming to Terms, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), London: Routledge, 173-204.

Hayles, K. N. (1999) How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hollinger, V. (2009) “Posthumanism and Cyborg Theory”. The Routledge companion to science fiction, 267-287.

Pearson, K. A. (2002). Viroid life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the transhuman condition. London: Routledge.

Roden, D. (2010) “Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism”. The Journal of Evolution & Technology21(1), 27-36.

Roden, D. (2012) “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypotheses. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 281-298.

Roden, R (2014). Posthuman Life: philosophy at the edge of the human. Acumen Publishing.

Ronald, P. (2013, September 6) The Truth About GMOs. Boston Review. Retrieved from http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/pamela-ronald-gmo-food

Vinge, V. (1993), “The Coming Technological Singularity”. Whole Earth Review, 81, 88-95.

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6 Comments

  1. I think the reason that capitalism represents a perversion is because it is an alienation, in Marxist terms. My continued existence depends not upon what I can or need to create/procure for myself or even for greater social needs (which may be constructed but with which I identify, just the same, by virtue of being part of a human social system); rather, it depends on what I can do to engender myself to corporate interests which may or (as often) may not be aligned with either my own interests or the interests of my society. The value of corporation is instrumental, not intrinsic, and thus it is always perceived as an other.

    I feel I risk slipping into a teleological mindset in saying so, but assuming that my continued existence is dependent upon meeting the needs of other individuated entities (i.e. corporations and the individuals who control them) which incidentally constitute the zoe, and not the greater needs of those things which necessarily constitute it, means that I am in fact beholden to a system which is bios in its nature.

    And also, I don’t think that saying that there’s little evidence to date that non-capitalist methods of socioeconomic organization are capable of developing modern technologies is a very strong argument against those non-capitalist methods.

    On the contrary, we do, first of all have some evidence that non-capitalist methods can work in some ways; the USSR was, in its early decades, a technological power as well as a military one. But even if you don’t want to count those achievements, the simple absence of attempts at other methods of socioeconomic organization cannot be used as evidence of their failure to develop modern technology.

    • Communism fails because it lacks a motivating factor. Why work harder if it never benefits you. Why should your factory work harder to produce better goods when their is no competition to compete against. Other non-capitalist systems are also very easy to corrupt. Not every job is equal, you will have people in charge and even if paid the same they will find other ways to exert their influence to leverage wealth. So even if you have some method to maintain a level of effort and success someone has to be in charge of overseeing that and in the real world that person will trade favors fudge the numbers.

      Capitalism of course has its own issues. Wealth makes it easier to generate more wealth. Though I doubt I need to explain its failings to you.

      There is a reason most developed nations used a mixed economy. As I said in my own post there is more than just the self imposed dichotomy. Both pure systems are flawed, only by using the strengths of each to temper the problems of the other can we see success.

      Ideally we want base needs of all individuals to be met and keep barriers of entry low to grant the opportunity for upward advancement. True not everyone will, or even can, life isn’t fair. Point is you can try, you aren’t stuck, and even if you fail you will be ok.

      • You’ve committed the common mistake of conflating capitalism with a market economy. When evaluating a system of economic organization, there are two aspects to consider: whether the means of production are privately owned and operated for profit or publically owned and operated for social benefit, and whether those means of production are operated in response to central planning demands or the market.

        Communism (which I don’t actually support, given current technology) is public ownership of the means of production for a social good as determined by a central planner. Capitalism is the private ownership of the means production for profit as determined by the market. There’s also, as in China, planned capitalism: public (in this case, state) ownership of the means of production operated according to a central planner, for a profit.

        However, no one has tried the fourth combination: true market socialism, i.e. public ownership of the means of production operating for a system of social benefit according to the market. It would address this issue of the bios/zoe distinction quite well, and in theory, would rid us of the inefficiencies of a mixed economy, as well as the natural hazards of accumulation or resources with various parties (political entities in the broad sense, or individuals) as property wouldn’t be individually owned–claims to a certain, fundamentally immaterial idea of social benefit would.

        By democratizing ownership of the means of production, those means are better able to respond to social interests (again, note: not state interests, at least not necessarily) primarily because that is their only reason for operation, but also because the operaters of the means of production would also be their end-use consumers. With a mixed economy, the means of production must respond both to social interest (e.g. laws regulating labor conditions, pay, production processes, etc.) and corporate interest (i.e. profit), and often the owners of the means of production do not consume their own product, at least not entirely, thus the need for things like customer satisfaction and corporate surveys, another point of potential, and often real, inefficiency). The way this could work is interesting in that it’s quite similar to what we have now, but it’s better because the democratization of the system is absolute.

        Say a large number of people have an ownership stake in a corporation (this time purely meaning an organization of economic production) because, historically, the goods it produces are in line with what a large number of people believe amounts to social good; these can be material goods (e.g. food, housing) or social goods (e.g. education, social events). Then assume that, at some point in the future, it stops operating in a way those same people consider adequate to meeting their definition of social good; they then move onto another corporation which they consider to be producing goods meeting their definition of social good, and if it stops operating in a way…so on and so forth. This free movement and responsiveness to the market is possible because no private entity owns property (except for a democratically-elected state body…which, being elected, isn’t really a private entity)

        This sounds exactly like the stock market today, and that’s because it is. However, in this case, the definition of a performing stock is not one which produces profit, but one which produces social benefit. The stock market is an immensely powerful tool for gathering data, and there’s no reason something like it couldn’t be utilized to provide social good instead of profit. Those stocks belonging to corporations which produce social good/benefit that are in high demand would thus be more “expensive” (read high in demand), but as all means of production are socially owned, everyone would always have at least one “share”—akin to a vote–to allocate as they please.

        The motivating factor for owner-workers in this system is a belief in the fact that what their corporation provides is genuinely a social good (not just to others, but themselves as well). It’s also beneficial in that this would therefore require that people have a well-thought-out and clearly-articulated definition of what they consider to be social good; at present, there’s little requirement for that other than some of the most basic rights-and-wrongs (generally, anything which inhibits, diminishes, or disposes of others’ agency in very broad terms, but that’s an altogether different discussion). It would thus necessarily settle a lot of the back-and-forth that you see within democratic nations today, further increasing socioeconomic efficiency.

        This type of social organization would’ve been difficult (though not impossible) to institute in the past due to the difficulty of collecting a sufficient amount of information to adequately direct the actions of a socialized ownership structure (thus the necessity of central planning with socialized ownership in the past). But with so many people producing so much information about their consumption habits and demands (of both economic and social systems and goods) due to the ubiquity of social networking, it could work quite well now. The best part of this form of economic organization is that any particular corporation which consistently failed to meet its owner-workers’ demands, or failed to attract enough owner-workers in the first place, would simply disappear as the remaining owners (i.e. everyone) moved their shares elsewhere, with no one worse for the wear.

        P.S. Sorry about the length.

  2. I think the reason for two main opposing views is because of internet communities tendency to create dichotomies either by merging or ignoring other views. This is for two main reasons, one is a desire to belong and to form a more unified front against opposition. So even if individuals have differing nuanced views they will still seek to push the larger movement.

    The other is the inherent desire for competition. To have something to beat and triumph over. An enemy to point to and say “this is what opposes us”. This is also why it is the extreme ends of the spectrum manifest as the two oppositions. A loop of each side pushing the other further to the fringes as their supporters follow as to not risk alienation.

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