Posthuman Ethics
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Posthuman Ethics

Embodiment and Cultural Theory

Patricia MacCormack

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eBook - ePub

Posthuman Ethics

Embodiment and Cultural Theory

Patricia MacCormack

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Posthuman theory asks in various ways what it means to be human in a time when philosophy has become suspicious of claims about human subjectivity. Those subjects who were historically considered aberrant, and our future lives becoming increasingly hybrid show we have always been and are continuously transforming into posthumans. What are the ethical considerations of thinking the posthuman? Posthuman Ethics asks not what the posthuman is, but how posthuman theory creates new, imaginative ways of understanding relations between lives. Ethics is a practice of activist, adaptive and creative interaction which avoids claims of overarching moral structures. Inherent in thinking posthuman ethics is the status of bodies as the site of lives inextricable from philosophy, thought, experiments in being and fantasies of the future. Posthuman Ethics explores certain kinds of bodies to think new relations that offer liberty and a contemplation of the practices of power which have been exerted upon bodies. The tattooed and modified body, the body made ecstatic through art, the body of the animal as a strategy for abolitionist animal rights, the monstrous body from teratology to fabulations, queer bodies becoming angelic, the bodies of the nation of the dead and the radical ways in which we might contemplate human extinction are the bodies which populate this book creating joyous political tactics toward posthuman ethics.

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Chapter 1 Posthuman Ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9781315601670-1
Posthuman theory asks in various ways what it means to be human in a time where philosophy has become suspicious of claims about human subjectivity. Those subjects who were historically considered aberrant and our future lives becoming increasingly hybrid show we have always been and are continuously transforming into posthumans. What are the ethical considerations of thinking the posthuman? Posthuman Ethics asks not what the posthuman is, but how posthuman theory creates new, imaginative ways of understanding relations between lives. Ethics is a practice of activist, adaptive and creative interaction which avoids claims to overarching moral structures. Inherent in thinking posthuman ethics is the status of bodies as the site of lives inextricable from philosophy, thought, experiments in being and fantasies of the future. Posthuman Ethics examines certain kinds of bodies to think new relations that offer liberty and a contemplation of the practices of power which have been exerted upon bodies.
The privileged site of Posthuman Ethics is historically and philosophically the oppressed site of life which does not register as entirely viable within humanist operations of knowledge, power and majoritarian systems. Michel Foucault states: ‘I wonder whether, before one poses the question of ideology, it wouldn’t be more materialist to study first the question of the body and the effects of power on it’ (1980, 58). Posthuman Ethics could have been called Posthuman Bodies in reference to the crucial status of bodies in posthuman philosophy. The body, reconfiguring relation and ethical emergences of bodies beyond being received through representation, external and within consciousness negotiating reality through representative perception, is the foundation and the site of the event of the posthuman encounter. Thought and flesh, the distance between bodies, and ethics constituted through aesthetics are three trajectories along which Posthuman Ethics attempts to delimit prescriptive relations to formulate joyous extensions of expression and force by encounters with and events of alterity. Benedict Spinoza’s ethics directly challenges the Cartesian necessitation of the bifurcation between mind and body which act upon each other in turn. Whichever turn precedes the other, their alienation is complete and thus the distribution from internal body to the body of the polis as the state imposing upon docile bodies and obedient or resistant bodies acting upon the state failed to account for some basic but foundational tenets of the post-human: that there is no body without the mind and that they are not separate, because they are not separate they cannot be ordered hierarchically, that the mind as corporeal thus proves consciousness is not given, thereby will and affects are never entirely accounted for, predictable or discrete. Spinoza pre-empts the posthuman body which exceeds humanism, metaphysics and God but in its most ethical emergence reminds us all we are is bodies with the capacity for experiencing more and less beneficial affects and degrees of appetite. In Spinoza, will comes from the mind, appetite from the body, but these are different ways of expressing the interactions which occur within and uniquely for each thing. The desire to persist is all that constitutes a thing and that which makes the thing unlike any other, which gives the thing its essence. Between things there is no commonality except a harmony which enhances joy or exercises destruction. Things are specific unto themselves and each interaction between things creates further specificity. The endeavour to exist defines the existence of the thing but the nature of its existence is not transparent. Taking the central notion of desire around which much Continental Philosophy resonates, will of the mind – at once clear, distinct and confused – and appetite of the body:
is, in fact, nothing else but man’s essence, from the nature of which necessarily follow all the results which tend to its preservation … further, between appetite and desire there is no difference … whatever increases or diminishes, helps or hinders the power of activity in our body, the idea thereof increases or diminishes, helps or hinders the power of thought in our mind. (Spinoza 1957, 36)
Gilles Deleuze summarizes Spinoza’s contribution by stating ‘what is action in the mind is necessarily an action in the body as well, and what is a passion in the body is necessarily a passion in the mind. There is no primacy of one series over the other’ (Deleuze 1988b, 18). A thing’s essence comes from its capacity to act as a form of preservation. Preservation is developed by a thing’s sustenance of its essence. Preservation is essence and the capacity to act the freedom of the thing as an involution of flesh and mind. The tendency to preservation is what makes each thing a singular event of life, but preservation is of life alone, over its inherent nature or quality. Preservation is active as expressive and is separate from any notion of the preservation of a thing’s sameness to itself. For Spinoza thought is a thing’s power to increase, that is, to alter, transform, develop and expand, so the differentiation of the thing directly correlates with its liberty. Ethics as a system of relation makes each thing’s essence come from preservation irreducibly independent from confirmation of similarity to itself at each moment. The gift of liberty is allowing the power of the other to expand toward unknown futures. To diminish the other’s capacity to multiply and extend its capacities is in Spinoza hate. Hate is a form of pleasure – ‘he who conceives the object of his hate is destroyed will feel pleasure’ (1957, 41). Thus all force, both love and hate, is desire. And all force is affect.1 But further Posthuman Ethics will base ethics on the premise that all conception is hateful ethics, in a deliberate truncated reading of Spinoza’s claim this book will claim that ‘he who conceives the object destroys the object’, imposing a claim upon a body conditional on monodirectional exertions of perception as conception, limiting expressivity without limit. Ethical encounters are different to Kant’s morality of benevolent totalizing ascension without qualification for which aesthetics (and thereby a certain definition of representation and perception) is responsible. The distance, even though unknowable, between things by which Kant and Hegel operate, even taking into account Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s claim natural beauty is co equivalent with spiritual and artistic, is closed with Spinoza’s intimacy of organisms liberated or oppressed by expression of the other by the self and the openings to joy which seek to expand through thought without knowledge.2 Serres opposes perception as a war waged against creation as an act of love: ‘The text on perception ends with conception’ (Serres 2000, 38–39). Further to this Spinoza says ‘the world would be much happier if men were as fully able to keep silence as they are to speak’ (1957, 30 original emphasis). Bodies in inextricable proximity involve a threefold ethical consideration – the critique of the detrimental effect a claim to knowledge of another body perpetrates; address as creative expressivity opening the capacity for the other to express; acknowledgement and celebration of the difficult new a-system of bio-relations as an ongoing, irresolvable but ethical for being so, interactive, mediative project of desire. Fèlix Guattari calls this ‘sense without signification’ (2011, 59), a language of sensation between.

Unspoken Friendship

‘As the colour of the human soul as well as the colour of human becomings and of cosmic magics, affects remain hazy, atmospheric and nevertheless perfectly apprehensible to the extent that it is characterized by the existence of threshold effects and reversals in polarity’ (Guattari, 1996b, 158). Just as Spinoza claims perfection is the finitude of the human mind whereas ‘nature does not work with an end in view’ (1957, 79), the liberated soul apprehends very well the perfection of something without needing to have made an exhausted judgement. Perfection is found in encounters with the nature of things and their nature is their expansive quality that therefore expands the qualities of thought of we who encounter. For Guattari, this ethics of perfection comes from threshold effects. The liminal encounter with the luminal body both expands a thing’s expressivity and allows the other to be without finitude, that is, without knowledge diminishing a thing’s capacity to preservation through its own essence free from the bondage of another’s claim to know that essence. Ethical encounters with liminal bodies (of which our own is also always one) are good for both things. It is an act of love between things based on their difference. Thingness itself is hazy, atmospheric and fuzzy but is connected with and belongs harmoniously to all other planes of expression; ‘To assume that there was a power of being affected which defined the power of being affected of the whole universe is quite possible’ (Deleuze 1997, 9).
Importantly Deleuze calls Spinoza’s a practical philosophy; that is a philosophy of practice3, where ethics takes us away from the God toward which humanist metaphysics aspires – be that capital, logic or religious dogma – toward the flesh which constitutes life. The posthuman as an ethical practice is a practice toward life itself, or rather, lives – real, singular and connective, uniquely emergent without predictable development and directly addressed lives for which we seek to expand the capacity to express. ‘Spinoza projects an image of the positive affirmative life, which stands in opposition to the semblances that men are content with’ (Deleuze 1988b, 12). For humanism’s compulsion to taxonomy and hierarchy in science and religion, philosophy and art, semblance often emerges as resemblance. The field of posthuman Ethics deal with life which resembles nothing except itself and not consistent with itself temporally, only tactically. Posthuman ethics sees the dividuation of life in opposition to identity, as it acknowledges the inevitable connection between living bodies as the point of ethical address and, in a seeming postmodern conundrum, the individual is constituted only by its connection to other individuals. The connection is from where the ethical activation of the body is delivered from its place in the taxonomy atop which rides the human occurs. No body without mind, no individuality without connection, no connection without another dividuated life with its own concomitant reality, no affect without expression, will as appetite beyond consciousness and, perhaps most importantly, no thought or theory without materiality. Resonant with Spinozan ethics is Guattari’s emphasis on the body as site of machinic operation between knowledge and flesh. Guattari calls the act of interpretation or ‘knowing’ a body the massacre of the body. He writes:
It is the body and all the desires it produces that we wish to liberate from ‘foreign’ domination. It is ‘on that ground’ that we wish to ‘work’ for the liberation of society. There is no boundary between the two elements. I oppress myself inasmuch as that I is the product of a system of oppression that extends to all aspects of living… . We can no longer allow others to turn our mucous membranes, our skin, all our sensitive area into occupied territory – territory controlled and regimented by others, to which we are forbidden access. (1996a: 30–1)
As a post-structural invocation Continental philosophy’s emphasis on desire as constituting the expressive affects of subjectivity replaces volitional will from a self-knowing human with the infinite series’ of relational forces. Desiring bodies do not seek an object, but as an ethics of desire, interactive forces seek the best possible affects, those which bring joy. Liberty for the other is the joy of opening the other’s capacity for expression without conditional attribution of equivalent qualities which match the self or are subjugated through a failure of equivalence. If deconstruction challenges and critiques the machines that occupy the territories of our appetite-flesh then ethics seeks to resist that compulsion toward the other. Maurice Blanchot describes ethics in this passivity that is constituted not by absence or powerlessness but friendship. Against responsibility for the other that needs to know to what we are responsible, friendship is the response without condition: ‘it is in friendship that I can respond, a friendship unshared, without reciprocity, friendship for that which has passed, leaving no trace. This is passivity’s response to the un-presence of the unknown’ (Blanchot, 1995: 27). Passing and passivity evoke encounters beyond demand and within an absolute present/presence with a context defiant of any positive/negative possibility of emergent qualified presence, just presence as un-presence, and thus passivity, open to unknowability, is the ethical activity of passivity. Their subtle relation is of the co-emergent and indivisible. Describing passivity as active shows the dynamism of ethics and the quiet magnificence of grace. Charles Stivale’s interpretation of force as affect states: ‘The force of “this [Blanchot’s] unpredictable” then, would serve paradoxically as much as a potential for grasping the friend’s thought as it does to limit that accessibility’ (2008, 72) Just as many Continental philosophers have associated creativity, thought and subjectivity beyond subjectification with a kind of madness (schizoanalysis, delirium) Blanchot states:
but when ethics goes mad in its turn, as it must, what does it contribute if not a safe conduct which allows our conduct no rights, leaves us no space to move an ensures us of no salvation? It allows only the endurance of a double patience, for patience is double too – speakable, unspeakable patience. (1995: 27)
Posthuman Ethics share in Continental philosophy’s end of master and metanarrative discourse, where the end of discourse opens up to life. In as much as Posthuman Ethics are ‘about’ certain forms of life, they are ultimately about the end of speaking of life as the beginning of lives being ethically open to living. Opening to bodies considered de-human, devolved, aberrant or outside requires a speakable patience which speaks only its own patience. The other is outside discourse therefore unspeakable. Our own human need for rights to equal some kind of equality pay-off which the other neither wants nor needs if it requires fulfilment of human criteria are our need, not that of the other. Blanchot points out that ethics is the madness of the doing/not doing, of passivity of a certain kind as activism, silence as allowing the other to be heard. Posthuman Ethics attend to the turn in Continental philosophy that when we speak of the I/Other we are speaking of the self as its own othered multiplicity, that dialectics have little relevance and opposition is discarded as inherent in the ethical turn. The space between the I/Other is one of inevitable connection and we are always and already othered/otherable, whether we belong to the bodies explored in Posthuman Ethics. Indeed it must always be remembered while reading Posthuman Ethics that any and all references to the other body refers to our bodies as those others othered. My use of the external referent is only to avoid essentializing collectives. To be friend to flesh involves being friend to self, if the posthuman body is always taken as specificity, neither lacking nor reducible to its perceived intent, but a kind of remembered present which is also renewed as dissemblance. This act of friendship is to be friend to subjectivity as concept. Experimenting the subject (both as self and concept) constitutes the third and most crucial of Guattari’s three ecologies, the others being social relations and environment (2000: 28). Guattari maligns signification as a social(ogical) terror slaughtering the body (1996a: 29). The desire for asemiotic bodies and revolutionary consciousness means ‘we want to open our bodies to the bodies of other people, to other people in general. We want to let vibrations pass among us, let energies circulate, allow desires to merge, so that we can all give free reign, to our fantasies, our ecstasies’ (1996a: 34). Guattari sees the bodies lived in reality as material of desire because of their materiality; because they can bleed, rupture, suffer and die and because signification can hurt while it oppresses. He does not see aestheticized bodies as more or less revolutionary than minoritarian bodies but part of similar tactics. The posthuman ethical body, ours and others, others as ours and all salient oscillations, need neither be object, problem nor even self-expressive subject but are only and always connectivities. This can be explored through Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the concept when referring to the Other Person.
The concept of The Other Person as expression of a possible world in a perceptual field leads us to consider the components of this field for itself in a new way. No longer being either subject of the field nor object in the field, the other person will become the condition under which not only subject and object are redistributed but also figure and ground, margins and centre, moving object and reference point, transitive and substantial, length and depth. (1994: 18)

Ethical Time

The prefix post- seems to make little sense in contemporary culture. When all is post, post reduces all to a beyond that is both immanently graspable and imminently aspired toward, the human limiting hope against Spinoza’s definition of nature. Post theories establish a future-now. Post is what is to come and what interrogates what has been and what is. It is duplicitous of and treacherous to its seeming dependence on time. As post takes narrative and linearity as one of its hostages this is not an unsurprising treason. Post is inspired by many frustrations in philosophy – impatience at the speed with which novelty may be introduced, a need not to further established trajectories but multiply and fracture them, a leap over a chasm for which no paths have yet been built toward a territory with which no one is familiar. In this renegade movement post also interrogates its motives for moving – demarcating the blind spots in theory which are presumed unimportant or non-existent, acknowledging and reworking the conditions under which knowledges emerge, decentring the homogenization and unification of the ordering of ideas and perceived truths. By deconstructing the present and being the nomadic, parentless destiny it refutes taxonomy, genealogy and guaranteed futurity. In its generative, reconnective comings post seeks to disorder the ordering of thought converted to knowledge. Jean-François Lyotard’s seminal The Postmodern Condition traces the critics of post, in the case of postmodernism, as crying out for a demand – the demand for a referent, objective reali...

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Citation styles for Posthuman Ethics
APA 6 Citation
MacCormack, P. (2016). Posthuman Ethics (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
MacCormack, Patricia. (2016) 2016. Posthuman Ethics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
MacCormack, P. (2016) Posthuman Ethics. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
MacCormack, Patricia. Posthuman Ethics. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2016. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.