Summary of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (Part 1)

For people interested in Critical Posthumanism, Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman is probably a good place to start. Throughout the book, Braidotti gives a really concise summary of what exactly posthumanism is, as well as an explanation of where she is coming from critically (this turns out to be something of a trend for posthumanist scholars: because the term “posthumanism” is so varied in use, often scholars will have to really explicitly point out what exactly they mean when they use the term, and why their particular usage of the term is more useful than other usages). Braidotti is coming at posthumanism from a distinctly anti-humanist tradition, so the first bit of the book is a very focused take-down of humanism and all the anthropocentric values that make it problematic. A central theme from the work is her Zoe-centric ethics, or an ethical model that values a sort of generic, not-specifically-human life force, which, she suggests, would decentralize “The Human” from questions of ethics, and instead encourage us to make choices that take into consideration all forms of life. Throughout these summaries I’ll be citing pages from this edition of the book, which is available as a fairly cheap paperback.

Chapter One

Post-Humanism: Life beyond the Self

Braidotti opens with a sketch of the history of the concept of “Man”. From Protagoras’ assertion that it is “the measure of all things”, to Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the privileging of the human (and, specifically, the human male) instills a set of “mental, discursive and spiritual values” (13) which come to form the basis for political policies of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Europe. Man (and, crucially, this explicitly refers to White Men) is understood as an “intrinsically moral” being, functioning as a kind of vessel for perfect rationality and reason. Armed with these tools, Man is capable of a limitless expansion toward his own perfection, and entitled to claim, as his own, whatever objects or others he encounters along the way.

This humanist ideology was adapted by Europe, in the twentieth-century, into a cultural model that allowed Europeans to view themselves as an unequalled force on the planet, therefore entitled to use its resources as they saw fit. As Braidotti opines: “[t]his makes Eurocentrism into more than just a contingent matter of attitude: it is a structural element of our cultural practice, which is also embedded in both theory and institutional and pedagogical practices” (15). Humanism became the ideological backdrop to Europe’s imperialist foreign policy, in that it help develop the dynamic between “self” and “other”. Europe views itself as the site of genesis for rationality, therefore elevating itself above the non-European nations: Otherness, therefore, becomes synonymous with subordination. Entire populations are reduced to non-human bodies upon whom the will of Europe can be projected. For this reason, Braidotti points out that “Humanism’s restricted notion of what counts as the human is one of the keys to understand how we got to a post-human turn at all” (16).

Braidotti goes on to outline the decline of humanism in the 1960s and ’70s, starting with the rise ideologies like fascism and communism. Both of these ideologies represent a significant break from European Humanism: fascism promoted a “ruthless” departure from the Enlightenment-era reverence for human reason, while communism advocated a “communitarian notion of humanist solidarity” (17). Braidotti points out that one of the main reasons for communism’s popularity in post-war Europe was the role it played in defeating the intellectually- and culturally-destructive forces of fascism, suggesting that “for all ends and purposes [communism] came out of the Second World War as the winner” (18), as Communist parties became emblematic of the defeat of fascism across Europe. Even in the U.S., anti-humanism began to take hold of intellectual circles in response to the Vietnam War. Braidotti quotes Edward Said, who opines that America’s revulsion at the war was in part “the emergence of a resistance movement to racism, imperialism generally and the dry-as-dust academic humanities that had for years represented an apolitical, unworldly and oblivious…attitude to the present” (18–19). The anti-humanist Left that emerged in the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s represented an opposition “not only to the Liberal majority, but also to the Marxist Humanism of the traditional left”(19).

Up until the ’60s, the universality of human reason in philosophical discourse went largely unchallenged. Even Sartre and Beauvoir, who connected the “triumph of reason with the might of dominant powers” (20), advocated a universalist view of human rationality and attempted to resolve these contradictions through a dialectical model. It wasn’t until the publication of Foucault’s The Order of Things that intellectuals began to seriously consider what exactly was meant by “the human”. In this way, radical intellectuals post-1968 rejected both classical and socialist Humanism, and the Vitruvian ideal was “literally pulled down from his pedestal and deconstructed” (23). What was learned from the deprivileging of the human was, crucially, that “[i]ndividualism is not an intrinsic part of ‘human nature’…but rather a historically and culturally discursive formation” (24). That is to say, the individualistic greed that characterized much of Post-Enlightenment Europe’s foreign and domestic policy was demystified to reveal that it was not the manifestation of Man’s Destiny, but rather a sort of psychosomatic cultural malady.

Having sketched the genealogy of the anti-humanism that informs her view of the posthuman, Braidotti goes on to examine the tricky nature of actually enacting anti-humanist ideals, writing: “it is one thing to loudly announce an anti-humanist stance, quite another to act accordingly, with a modicum of consistency” (29). She points out that while humanism is in many ways problematic, its individualist nature also makes it a valuable pragmatic mechanism for progressive social change (i.e., individualism is what drives oppressed groups to realize that they are oppressed). Braidotti admits that this is something of a bind: “For me it is impossible, both intellectually and ethically, to disengage the positive elements of Humanism from their problematic counterparts” (30). There is a similar bind inherent in the very act of declaring the end of humanism, in that such an act ironically seems to help itself to a humanist conception of agency. In this way, Braidotti demonstrates what she characterizes as “The Posthuman Challenge”, suggesting that rather than further enforcing the binaric differences between humanism and anti-humanism, “Posthumanism is the historical moment that…traces a different discursive framework, looking more affirmatively towards new alternatives” (37). That is to say, Posthumanism can still base itself on the assumption of decline of traditional humanism while productively avoiding the rhetorical paradoxes embedded in the crisis of Man, instead focusing on new ways of understanding the human subject.

With this in mind, Braidotti goes on to outline what she sees as the three “major strands” of posthumanist thought: The first is (1) reactionary posthumanism, which essentially denies the decline of humanism entirely, arguing rather that humanist ideals provide the only workable model for adaptation to the globalized economy. What is so problematic about reactionary posthumanism, argues Braidotti, is that it depends on a universalist understanding of the individual, ignoring the insights of the anti-humanist movement, and therefore is constricted to traditional humanistic norms. As Braidotti observes: “There is no room for experimenting with new models of the self” (39).

The second strand she identifies is (2) analytic posthumanism, which comes from science and technology studies. This approach provides productive insights into “crucial ethical and conceptual questions about the status of the human” (39), but is reluctant to approach the development of a theory of subjectivity (Braidotti points to the influence of Latour’s anti-subjectivity position as a possible source for this reluctance). Analytic posthumanism is proving to provide a lot of practical insight into advances in technology and science while ignoring the question of subjectivity, which creates what Braidotti describes as a “highly problematic division of labour on the question of subjectivity” (42), as thinkers such as Hardt and Negri avoid discussing technology and science with the same level of sophistication with which they discuss subjectivity. Braidotti suggests that this segregation of thought should be examined such that we can work toward a “reintegrated posthuman theory that includes both scientific and technological complexity and its implications for political subjectivity, political economy and forms of governance” (42).

With this in mind, she turns to the third strand of posthuman thought, namely (3) critical posthumanism. Braidotti identifies herself as a part of this third strand, and states that the goal of critical posthumanism is to “move beyond analytic posthumanism and develop affirmative perspectives on the posthuman subject” (45). Critical posthumanism, she argues, is rooted in critical schools like the poststructuralists, anti-universalist feminists, and post-colonialists, in that each of these groups is concerned with an understanding of the individual subject, as well as each subject’s place within the structure of humanity as a whole. She points to post-colonial theorist Edward Said, who argues that “[i]t is possible to be critical of Humanism in the name of Humanism and that, schooled in its abuses by the experience of Eurocentrism and empire, one could fashion a different kind of Humanism” (47). This is an idea that seems central to Braidotti’s project. She is a self-proclaimed student of anti-humanism who seems to believe, deep down, that humanism is not fundamentally flawed but sort of warped or infected by Eurocentrism. She points to contemporary environmentalism as another valuable source of a reconfiguration of the posthuman subject, as it resituates humanity within nature, and values generic life force over the self-centred human subject (Braidotti will echo this sentiment in her advocation of zoe-centric ethics in the next chapter). The primary goal of critical posthumanism, then, can be understood as an effort to reject individualism and turn not to nihilism or defeatism, but rather, forge a wholly new understanding of a non-unitary subject, who is inherently embedded within a planetary (or, even universal) whole.

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