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.
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 & Technology, 21(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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