Discussions about the human, more specifically about what constitutes the basic unit of reference to define what counts as human, are by now part of daily conversations, public discussions and academic debates. Historically, however, questions such as ‘what do you mean by human?’, ‘are we human enough?’, or ‘what is human about the Humanities?’ are not what anybody – let alone we, Humanities scholars, were accustomed to asking. The force of habit led us to talk about Man, Mankind, or civilization (always assumed to be Western) as a matter of fact. We were encouraged to teach Western civilizational values and to endorse human rights, delegating to anthropologists and biologists the far more irksome task of debating what the ‘human’ may actually mean.
Even philosophy, which is accustomed to question everything, dealt with the question of the human by casting it within the protocols and methods of disciplinary thinking. There it conventionally fell into a discursive pattern of dualistic oppositions that defined the human mostly by what it is not. Thus, with Descartes: not an animal, not extended and inert matter, not a pre-programmed machine. These binary oppositions provided definitions by negation, structured within a humanistic vision of Man as the thinking being par excellence. Whereas the oppositional logic is a constant, the actual content of these binary oppositions is historically variable. Thus, as John Mullarkey (2013) wittily observed, the animal provides an index of death for Derrida (2008), an index of life for Deleuze (2003) and an index of de-humanization for Agamben (1998). But the effect of these variations is to reassert the central theme, namely the pivotal function of the human/non-human distinction within European philosophy.
It is important to keep in mind from the start, however, that the binary distinction human/non-human has been foundational for European thought since the Enlightenment and that many cultures on earth do not adopt such a partition (Descola 2009, 2013). This is the strength of the insights and understandings that can be learned from indigenous epistemologies and cosmologies. As Viveiros de Castro eloquently put it, this theoretical operation implements the Great Divide: ‘the same gesture of exclusion that made the human species the biological analogue of the anthropological West, confusing all the other species and peoples in a common, privative alterity. Indeed asking what distinguishes us from the others – and it makes little difference who “they” are, since what really matters in that case is only “us” – is already a response’ (Viveiros de Castro 2009: 44). He argues that indigenous perspectivism posits a ‘multinatural’ continuum across all species, all of which partake of a distributed idea of humanity. This means they are considered as being endowed with a soul. This situates the divide human/non-human not between species and organisms, but as a difference operating within each of them (Viveiros de Castro 1998, 2009). This conceptual operation assumes a commonly shared human nature that includes the non-humans. To call this approach ‘animism’ is to miss the point, because Amerindian perspectivism teaches us that ‘each kind of being appears to other beings as it appears to itself – as human – even as it already acts by manifesting its distinct and definitive animal, plant, or spirit nature’ (Viveiros de Castro 2009: 68). In other words, each entity is differential and relational. Which, incidentally, is also the source of Viveiros de Castro’s explicit – albeit critical – alliance with Deleuze. I shall return to this in the next chapter.
For now, the point is that the posthuman condition encourages us to move beyond the Eurocentric humanistic representational habits and the philosophical anthropocentrism they entail. Nowadays we can no longer start uncritically from the centrality of the human – as Man and as Anthropos – to uphold the old dualities. This acknowledgement does not necessarily throw us into the chaos of non-differentiation, nor the spectre of extinction. It rather points in a different direction, towards some other middle ground, another milieu, which I will explore in this book.
Theoretical and philosophical critiques of Humanism have been carried out in an outspoken and explicit manner in modern Continental philosophy ever since Nietzsche. More recently critiques of Humanism have been advanced by movements of thought such as post-structuralism (Foucault 1970); vital materialism (Deleuze 1983; Deleuze and Guattari 1987), critical neo-materialism (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012), feminist materialism (Alaimo and Hekman 2008; Coole and Frost 2010), and anti-racist and post-colonial movements (Said 2004; Gilroy 2000).
The posthuman, however, is not just a critique of Humanism. It also takes on the even more complex challenge of anthropocentrism. The convergence of these two lines of critique, in what I call the posthuman predicament, is producing a chain of theoretical, social and political effects that is more than the sum of its parts. It makes for a qualitative leap in new conceptual directions: posthuman subjects producing posthuman scholarship. The point about the convergence of posthumanism and post-anthropocentrism needs to be stressed, because in current debates the two are often either hastily assimilated in a sweeping deconstructive merger, or violently re-segregated and pitched against each other. While insisting that the posthuman convergence is decidedly not a statement of inhumane indifference, it is important to emphasize the mutually enriching effect of the intersection between these two lines of enquiry. At the same time, it is crucial to resist all tendencies to reduce posthumanism and post-anthropocentrism to a relation of equivalence, and to stress instead both their singularity and the transformative effects of their convergence. Unless a critique of Humanism is brought to bear on the displacement of anthropocentrism and vice-versa, we run the risk of setting up new hierarchies and new exclusions.
Stressing the convergence factor helps avoid another risk, namely that of pre-empting the effects of the current juncture, by pre-selecting a single direction for the developments of new knowledge and ethical values. What the posthuman convergence points to instead is a multi-directional opening that allows for multiple possibilities and calls for experimental forms of mobilization, discussion and at times even resistance. The keyword of posthuman scholarship is multiplicity. The range of posthuman options is wide and growing, as the chapters in this book will track and trace. Posthuman knowledge will also provide some guidelines for assessing these developments.
Instead of proposing a single counter-paradigm, the point of the posthuman convergence is to issue a critical call: we need to build on the generative potential of already existing critiques of both Humanism and anthropocentrism, in order to deal with the complexity of the present situation. In this book I stress the heterogeneous structure of the posthuman convergence in order to reflect the multi-layered and multi-directional structure of a situation that combines the displacement of anthropocentrism – in response to the challenges of the Anthropocene – with the analysis of the discriminatory aspects of European Humanism. Considering the perpetuation of violent human activity and interaction, I keep the emphasis on justice as social, trans-species and transnational. In earlier work I have called that zoe-centred justice (Braidotti 2006). A zoe-centred justice has to be backed by relational ethics. These are key elements of the posthuman agenda, because let us not forget that ‘we are in this together’.
Critiques of European Humanism pertain to the very tradition of European Humanism, or, as Edward Said (1994) shrewdly pointed out, you can critique Humanism in the name of Humanism. These critiques are as essential to the Western project of modernity as to the modernist project of emancipation. They have historically been voiced by the anthropomorphic others of ‘Man’ – the sexualized and racialized others claiming social justice and rejecting exclusion, marginalization and symbolic disqualification.
Relinquishing anthropocentrism, however, triggers a different set of actors and a more complex affective reaction. Displacing the centrality of Anthropos within the European world view exposes and explodes a number of boundaries between ‘Man’ and the environmental or naturalized ‘others’: animals, insects, plants and the environment. In fact, the planet and the cosmos as a whole become objects of critical enquiry and this change of scale, even just in terms of a nature–culture continuum, may feel unfamiliar and slightly counter-intuitive.
The critique of anthropocentrism that is entailed in posthuman knowledge is highly demanding for scholars in the Humanities because it enacts a double shift. Firstly, it requires an understanding of ourselves as members of a species, and not just of a culture or polity. Secondly, it demands accountability for the disastrous planetary consequences of our species’ supremacy and the violent rule of sovereign Anthropos. Most people with an education in the Humanities and the Social Sciences are neither accustomed nor trained to think in terms of species.
In this regard, Freud’s insight about evolutionary theory remains sharply relevant. Freud warned us that Darwin inflicted such a deep narcissistic wound upon the Western subject, that it resulted in negative responses to evolutionary theory, such as disavowal. Thus, scholars in the Humanities uphold as a matter of fact, that is to say as a commonsensical given, the classical distinction between bios – human – and zoe – non-human. Bios refers to the life of humans organized in society, while zoe refers to life of all living beings. Bios is regulated by sovereign powers and rules, whereas zoe is unprotected and vulnerable. However, in the context of the posthuman convergence, I maintain that this opposition is too rigid and no longer tenable. In this book I explore the generative potential of zoe as a notion that can engender resistance to the violent aspects of the posthuman convergence.
Although one of the undeniable strengths of Humanism is the multiple forms of criticism that it has historically given rise to, even radical critics of Humanism, with their emphasis on diversity and inclusion, do not necessarily or automatically tackle the deeply engrained habits of anthropocentric thinking. Yet, in order to denaturalize economic inequalities and social discrimination, critical cultural and social theory is also called to task as long as it rests methodologically on a social constructivist paradigm that upholds the binary nature–culture distinction. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a post-anthropocentric sensibility has made only a relatively recent appearance in scholarship in the Humanities (Peterson 2013).
In this book I develop a framework for posthuman knowledge by creating a balancing act between post-humanism and post-anthropocentrism. I do so by building on, but also leaving behind, the established controversy between Humanism and anti-Humanism. This controversy preoccupied Continental philosophy in the second half of the twentieth century, in what became known as the postmodern moment, with consequences that were far-reaching, notably for ethical and political thought and practice. We cannot possibly ignore or dismiss this controversy, some aspects of which are returning to haunt the posthuman convergence. Nonetheless, we could gain by moving beyond the polemic – which is what I try to do in this book. The central challenge that the posthuman convergence throws open is how to reposition the human after Humanism and anthropocentrism. No, I’m not a robot, but that begs the question what kind of human I am, or we are becoming, in this posthuman predicament. The primary task of posthuman critical thought is to track and analyse the shifting grounds on which new, diverse and even contradictory understandings of the human are currently being generated, from a variety of sources, cultures and traditions. Addressing this task raises a number of challenges that defy any simplistic or self-evident appeal to a generic and undifferentiated figure of the human, let alone to traditional, Eurocentric humanist values.
To start accounting for the human in posthuman times, I suggest to carefully ground the statement ‘we humans’. For ‘we’ are not one and the same. In my view, the human needs to be assessed as materially embedded and embodied, differential, affective and relational. Let me unpack that sentence. For the subject to be materially embedded means to take distance from abstract universalism. To be embodied and embrained entails decentring transcendental consciousness. To view the subject as differential implies to extract difference from the oppositional or binary logic that reduces difference to being different from, as in being worth less than. Difference is an imminent, positive and dynamic category. The emphasis on affectivity and relationality is an alternative to individualist autonomy.
Rejecting the mental habit of universalism is a way of acknowledging the partial nature of visions of the human that were produced by European culture in its hegemonic, imperial and Enlightenment-driven mode. Suspending belief in a unitary and self-evident category of ‘we humans’, however, is by no means the premise to relativism. On the contrary, it means adopting an internally differentiated and grounded notion of being human. Recognizing the embodied and embedded, relational and affective positions of humans is a form of situated knowledge that enhances the singular and collective capacity for both ethical accountability and alternative ways of producing knowledge (Braidotti 2018). The posthuman predicament, with its upheavals and challenges, gives the opportunity to activate these alternative views of the subject against the dominant vision. This is what is at stake in the posthuman convergence.
The posthuman doubles up as both an empirical and a figurative dimension. The posthuman is empirically grounded, because it is embedded and embodied, but it is also a figuration (Braidotti 1991), or what Deleuze and Guattari (1994) call a ‘conceptual persona’. As such, it is a theoretically-powered cartographic tool that aims at achieving adequate understanding of on-going processes of dealing with the human in our fast-changing times. In this regard, the posthuman enables us to track, across a number of interdisciplinary fields, the emergence of discourses about the posthuman which are generated by the intersecting critiques of Humanism and of anthropocentrism.
The itinerary is as straightforward as it is breath-taking: the notion of human nature is replaced by a ‘naturecultures’ continuum (Haraway 1997, 2003). The idea of naturecultures brings to an end the categorical distinction between life as bios, the prerogative of humans, as distinct from zoe, which refers to the life of animals and non-humans, as well as to de-humanized humans (Braidotti 2006, 2018). What comes to the fore instead is new fractures within the human, new human–non-human linkages, new ‘zoontologies’ (de Fontenay 1998; Gray 2002; Wolfe 2003), as well as complex media-technological interfaces (Bono, Dean and Ziarek 2008). The posthuman predicament is, moreover, framed by the opportunistic commodification of all that lives, which, as I argue below, is the political economy of advanced capitalism.