Summary of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman (Part 2)

Dave Shaw
Dave Shaw
Jun 15, 2015 · 10 min read

(You can find part 1 of my Braidotti summary here.)

from Daily Minimal

Chapter Two

Post-Anthropocentrism: Life beyond the Species

Braidotti opens the second chapter with a quote from George Eliot:

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk around well wadded with stupidity. (55)

This passage, taken from Eliot’s Middlemarch, identifies a theme that informs much of Braidotti’s argument against anthropocentrism. Following Spinoza, she argues that the anthropocentric leanings of modern humanism that allow the development of urbanism and civilization function to keep humanity in isolation from the rest of the “raw cosmic energy” (55) of an absolute reality. Braidotti advocates a vital materialism that identifies the whole of the universe as one infinite and indivisible substance. Life is a property not of individual entities, but rather a property of the substance as a whole. This monistic understanding of the universe, argues Braidotti, is the foundation of a critical posthumanism that avoids traditional anthropocentric humanism, and allows for the development of a new understanding of the individual. She writes: “there is a direct connection between monism, the general unity of all matter and post-anthropocentrism as a general frame for reference for contemporary subjectivity” (57). The project of this chapter, then, is to provide an outline for what the post-anthropocentric subject would actually look like.

Braidotti then outlines the problematic nature of the increasingly globalized economy in relation to the individual posthuman subject. She admits that she will “always side firmly with the liberatory and even transgressive potential of these technologies, against those who attempt to index them to either a predictable conservative profile, or to a profit-oriented system that fosters and inflates individualism” (58). Her awareness of her biases is praise-worthy, but her technophilic enthusiasm does not seem to inhibit her from exploring the degree to which technological progress, in our advanced capitalist climate, is almost always tethered to profitability for corporate interest (the “planned obsolescence” model that has brought us iPhones 1 through 6 over the course of 7 years is a good example of this). The individual drives this innovation through a desire for novelty, such that it is within the interests of corporations to ensure (via television or other corporately-controlled media) that individuals are continuously interested in novel innovation that can be appropriated as an expression of the subject’s own identity as an individual, as opposed to, say, innovation with the goal of reducing global suffering, etc. The implication seems to be that the globalized consumerist structure of advanced capitalism already treats the consumer not as an individual subject, but rather, as a collection of statistics that religate him or her into a specific prefabricated identity. Advanced capitalism effectively profits from the commodification of life itself, both in the emerging field of biotechnologies as well as the commodification of individualist identity.

Braidotti goes on to present an alternative to this consumerist individualism, advocating an emphasis on zoe, or the generic animating life force which is a property not of an individual or species, but rather of the monolithic universe of matter. Zoe is the “dynamic, self-organizing structure of life itself” (60), of which anthropos or bios is just a thin segment. Braidotti points to a zoe-centric worldview, or a worldview that values generic life in all of its iterations, as the central tenant of the post-anthropocentric turn, in that it effectively decentres bios as the “measure of all things”. A posthuman theory of the subjective, therefore, could emerge as “an empirical project that aims at experimenting with what contemporary, bio-technologically mediated bodies are capable of doing” (61).

This non-profit-oriented and experimental model for testing the boundaries of technologically mediated bodies is in direct opposition to the values of advanced capitalism, the success of which seems to be tethered to a predictable model of what the neo-liberally individualistic subject wants. Braidotti points out that the global economy is already perversely post-anthropocentric, “in that it ultimately unifies all species under the imperative of the market and its excesses threaten the sustainability of our planet as a whole” (63). That is to say, advanced capitalist values create a kind of pan-humanity through our collective vulnerability: the commodification of life itself is linked to the high demand for products which in turn is linked to growing crisis of climate change. Crucially, advanced capitalism’s post-anthropocentrism is not post-humanistic, in that it still advocates individualism such that consumers can continue to pursue their own desires (i.e., products) while ignoring the environmental or planetary implications of their consumerism. What is needed, argues Braidotti, is a post-anthropocentric model that places the preservation of zoe at the centre. To do this, Braidotti outlines a three-phase process, which she labels “becoming-animal, becoming-earth and becoming-machine” (66).

The first process she discusses is Becoming-animal. She focuses her discussion on the discursive practices that allow anthropos to set itself away from and above the rest of the animal kingdom. To do this, she utilizes the mock taxonomy of Louis Borges, who classified animals into three groups: those we watch television with, those we eat, and those we are scared of. Braidotti compellingly uses these three categories to demonstrate the way in which our relationship to the nonhuman animal is wholly confined within classical parameters: “an oedipalized relationship (you and me together on the same sofa); an instrumental (thou shalt be consumed eventually) and a fantasmatic one (exotic, extinct infotainment objects of titillation)” (68). The Oedipal relationship between human and nonhuman animals, Braidotti observes, is inherently unequal and structured around the anthropocentric assumption that these other animals exist primarily in relation to humans. This is expressed most explicitly in our relationship to our pets, but is also in our language. Braidotti points out that animals have long been reduced to metaphorical indicators of human virtues. In this way, nonhuman animals become problematically reduced to symbols for human attributes, and thus violently reinterpreted through human norms (trivial example: my understanding of what a mouse is has less to do with the minimal experiences I’ve actually had with real mice and more to do with people who I’ve heard described as “mousy”, or whatever). Braidotti points out that to change this violent imposition of human attributes on nonhuman animals, what is needed is a “system of representation that matches the complexity of contemporary non-human animals and their proximity to humans” (70). Nonhuman animals can no longer be used as symbols to reaffirm human centrality, but must instead be approached “in a neo-literal mode” as entities independent of human construct.

She then turns to the rest of our animal relationships: “those we eat” and “those we are scared of”, or animals that are understood through their instrumental or entertainment value to humans. This category, she argues, is explicitly linked to the market economy. She outlines the ways in which animals are embedded within advanced capitalist structures not as individual entities but as statistics or products. In this sense, she argues, Orwell’s ironic suggestion that some animals are created “more equal” than others has been flipped on its head: In our post-anthropocentric globalized economy, “no animal is more equal than any other, because they are all equally inscribed in a market economy of planetary exchanges that commodifies them to a comparable degree and therefore makes them equally disposable” (71). The effect of this, interestingly, is that humanity is no longer at the top of any constructed hierarchy. All individual animals, both human and not, are levelled in their interchangeable place within the market economy. Again, what is needed is a turn to zoe-centric ethics, in which the sustained preservation of generic life is the primary goal, and therefore living things are not reduced to their utility or their market value but rather, are understood as distinct and non-symbolic entities.

Braidotti then turns to recent developments in the field of animal rights. She outlines the influence of post-anthropocentric neo-humanist Frans de Waal, who, through his work with higher primates, popularized the idea that empathy and moral responsibility were characteristics not exclusive to humans. This is a significant move for many reasons, but most crucially it functions to reinscribe the human within the animal kingdom. Virtues that were previously understood as tenants of humanism, and thus indicators of our elevation from the rest of the animals, were reconceptualized as developmental or evolutionary tools. As Braidotti explains, “[t]he emphasis falls on the ethical continuity between humans and upper primates” (78). While Braidotti agrees that this turn is important (noting triumphantly that Waal’s empathy theory dethroned Dawkins’s selfish gene theory, which she describes as “definitely out”(78)), she admits that she is still skeptical of post-anthropocentric neo-humanism, on the basis that “it is rather uncritical about Humanism itself” (78–79). She explains that the “compensatory efforts” on behalf of nonhuman animals is a deeply overdue realization, as humanity is still reeling from two centuries of a self-inflicted superiority complex, such that the response has been largely ambivalent. That is to say, we may be able to recognize that humanity is not inherently superior to other animals, but our societies are still structured largely as if we were. In this gesture of interspecies good will, humanism has kind of subtly reinstated itself.

Braidotti then turns to the process of Becoming-earth. She identifies the two goals of this section: “the first is to develop a dynamic and sustainable notion of vitalist, self-organizing materiality; the second is to enlarge the frame and scope of subjectivity along the transversal lines of post-anthropocentric relations” (82). To achieve these goals, she first points out the problematic aspects of previous approaches to humanity’s relation to the earth. She looks specifically at James Lovelock’s “Gaia” hypothesis, which advocates “a return to holism and to the notion of the whole earth as a single, sacred organism” (84). Although Braidotti admits that this is an extremely seductive worldview in the face of our current ecological crises, she points out that Lovelock problematically reinstates humanist values, through the dichotomizing of nature and culture and earth and industrialization. In this way, Lovelock fails to account for humanity’s situation within nature, and in doing so, problematically reimagines technological progress as a wholly negative enterprise. In his efforts to understand the earth as an organism, Lovelock simply imposes humanistic values onto the earth (i.e., essentially imagining what he would want if he was the earth), and therefore fails to understand the earth for what it is to itself. Lovelock helps himself to Spinoza’s monism, but filters it through a distinctly humanist lense: the earth becomes a kind of idol in its relationship to humanity.

Braidotti offers another interpretation of Spinoza, influenced by the previous rereadings offered by Deleuze and Guattari: “[c]ontemporary monism implies a notion of vital and self-organizing matter, as we saw in the previous chapter, as well as a non-human definition of Life as zoe, or a dynamic and generative force” (86). That is, Spinoza does not call his infinite substance “God” because it is something to be worshiped; he calls it “God” because it is the vital and animating force of the entire universe. For this reason, a posthuman notion of subjectivity has less to do with flattening out all species to the organs of a planetary animal, and more to do with empathetic recognition of an inter-species goal of keeping the planet, as the only known habitable environment for all known iterations of zoe, alive.

Finally, Braidotti turns to the process of Becoming-machine. Similar to the process of Becoming-animal, the move is beyond symbolism. The machine can no longer be understood as a metaphor for humanity, but must be conceived as an object on its own. Braidotti advocates a model of becoming-machine inspired by Deleuze and Guattari as well as the surrealists, one of a “playful and pleasure-prone relationship to technology that is not based on functionalism” (91). This technologically bio-mediated process is beneficial as it allows us to think of ourselves as “bodies without organs”, that is, without a teleologically defined organized efficiency. Rather, the posthuman subject is able to account for the increasingly technologically-mediated environment in a manner that is experimental and not exclusively profit-driven. The playful and mutually beneficial relationship between human and machine, then, is reimaged not as a relationship between product and consumer, but as two distinct and nonhierarchically ordered species experimentally pursuing a common ethics (which, again, should be the zoe-centred ethics outlined above). This would inherently require empathetic understanding of the evolution of machines outside of their relationship to humans, which Braidotti identifies as an important aspect of the posthuman turn: “the point of the posthuman predicament is to rethink evolution in a non-deterministic but also post-anthropocentric manner” (94).

Braidotti concludes the chapter by noting that in her focus on these processes of humanity’s posthuman becoming, she does not mean to undersell the different aspects of humanity or treat all of humanity as one largely self-similar whole, but in fact the opposite. In blurring the distinction between Man and his naturalized others, Braidotti draws attention to the dynamics of power that exist in society. Power, understood in the Foucauldian sense, functions on a grid that the posthuman subject can experimentally resist. As Braidotti observes: “power is not a static given, but a complex strategic flow of effects which call for pragmatic politics of intervention and the quest for sustainable alternatives” (99). Ultimately, Braidotti’s focus is on the “not-One-ness” of the material field as the medium through which diversity (both inter- and intraspecies) can be valued and celebrated.

Open Objects

Writing about the Posthumanities

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Dave Shaw

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Open Objects

Writing about the Posthumanities