Beyond Repair: A Reply to John Bruni

Beyond Repair: A Reply to John Bruni

Stefan Herbrechter

Stefan Herbrechter replies to John Bruni’s review essay, “Where do we find ourselves?” Building upon a dialogue that has developed across several manuscripts, Herbrechter pushes the discussion of critical posthumanism towards its radical implications. Not merely a new wave of theoretical fashion, Herbrechter identifies the posthuman as an intellectually necessary reframing of criticism altogether.

John Bruni’s review raises a number of important questions about what I’d still be inclined to call an emergent and major theoretical paradigm, namely posthumanism. In Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis (Bloomsbury 2013—an updated translation of my Posthumanismus—Eine kritische Einführung, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft 2009) I argued that the best way to understand the phenomenon of posthumanism is by looking at it as a discourse (more or less in a Foucauldian sense). Everything that directly or indirectly says something about the “posthuman,” including the no-longer-quite- and the more-than-human, constitutes the disputed object of that discourse (comprising all sorts of texts, practices, subjects, institutions, etc.). This discourse, like all social discourses, is a display of power struggles, subject positions, identities, and is thus full of conflict and dissensus. So, within this discourse, which is mainly contemporary but does of course have a history, there is no agreement about what the posthuman is, whether it’s the best or the worst thing to happen to the human, humanity and humanism; whether it is “inevitable,” already a reality or merely a mirage; whether it is politically, culturally, socially “progressive” or “regressive”; whether it is induced by technological change alone (technological determinism) or ideologically driven (social or cultural constructivism), or a combination of the two. There are also different opinions about whether the accent should be on continuity or discontinuity with previous social formations (i.e. is posthumanism a break with or the logical outcome of modernity?). Because of the inherent ambiguity of the prefix “post” (which works exactly like the post- in postmodern or postmodernism, as analysed by Lyotard) a simple supersession of humanism is impossible—posthumanism is more like a rereading or an ongoing deconstruction of humanism, which upsets a causational and chronological relationship between the two, and between the human and the posthuman, and between any notion of humanity or posthumanity. There is also no agreement at all whether posthumanism (or the related process of posthumanisation—i.e. “becoming posthuman” or “other-than-human”) is actually an adequate “label” or descriptor of what is going on. And finally for some, and that seems to be what Bruni is insinuating, whatever posthumanism may be, it’s already on its way out….

I’d like to insist on a couple of points within the coordinate system I’ve drawn up above: the first concerns the persistence of theory; the second I’d call the necessity for a counter-intuitive or “unfashionable” posthumanism; the third concerns the reopening of the question: what is technology?; fourth is the question of a posthuman/posthumanist politics; fifth is connected with what could be called the “post-anthropocentric” or “nonhuman turn”; sixth, and finally, a reminder of what’s wrong with humanism and why people say such awful things about it.

From the point of view of what one might still call the “theoretical humanities”—i.e. the humanities as they were shaken up beyond recognition from traditional national-humanist disciplinarity to international or even global interdiciplinarity by so-called “French” theory (or poststructuralism, deconstruction, cultural constructivism, and postmodernism)—posthumanism is at once a continuation and a critique. As explained above, similar to the post- in postmodernism, it is a rewriting process, not so much of modernity (although this process is still ongoing) but of humanism and its concept of humanity. Indeed, the program of the theoretical and critical engagement with the posthuman as a figure and the posthumanist as an aesthetic, basically, could be named “rewriting humanity.” However, at the same time, the location of the humanities within the academy has been changing dramatically over the last few decades. As a result of the well-documented process of managerialization and corporatization of the university, the humanities have been displaced from the center of the old humanist (Humboldtian) model of the university to its margins. This appears most clearly in the decrease of funding, recruitment, and research income over the past few decades. The crisis of the humanities as far as their institutionalization is concerned, however, coincides with an immense extension of their “reach.” Posthumanism in this context refers to new alliances, following on from theory and its linguistic and cultural turns, with new “transdiciplinary” ventures. New objects of investigation shared by the humanities, the social sciences and a new breed of science (informed, in turn, by an engagement with the idea of science as a social practice, i.e. with critical science studies, as well as the process of digitalization which requires scientists, social theorists, and humanities scholars to engage with the shared fact of computerization and the new role of the media) have led to the constitution of what might be called the “posthumanities” (cf. the name and program of Cary Wolfe’s influential Minnesota series). These posthumanities have started engaging with a theoretical investigation of topics like climate change and the anthropocene, globalization and migration, terrorism and security studies, biogenetics and biopolitics, etc. It is clear that “theory” in this context is unlikely to disappear, but instead, keeps diversifying. Within this context, which is the context out of which the discourse of posthumanism has been emerging, my own position—critical posthumanism—attempts to point both forwards and back and thus stresses critical continuity, against the apparent consensus that “we” need to “move on” from theory’s poststrucuralist and deconstructive phase to, for example, actor-network-theory, systems theory, object-oriented-ontology, new materialism or new realism, etc. Maybe “we” do—and it would be foolish to exclude the innovative potential of any of these attempts to come to terms with “our” new place within the current situation and environment—but the “critical” in critical posthumanism signals that it would be equally foolish to let go of the terrain that has always constituted the humanities’ stronghold, namely language and, for want of a better word, philology. The critical expertise that is arguably needed most in such uncertain and hyper-political times is the kind of radical but also caring critique of language practiced by poststructuralism and deconstruction at their best. In short, to be critical of posthumanism (the discourse) one must pay close attention to what it says (about itself, the posthuman, the future, and the past).

The “critical” in critical posthumanism also refers to a problem that has been bugging Anglo-American academia in particular during the past decades, namely its obsession with “fashions,” “turns” and “wars.” Theory, understood in this “fashionable” way, is unsustainable in its focus on supersession, breaks, factions, and fashions. What is at stake in posthumanism—and which I see as a possible endpoint to theory as fashion—is in fact difficult to outdo. The questions posthumanism raises are impossible to ignore and are likely to exercise if not “humanity” then humans as long as they exist: namely, how to survive “ourselves”? What is a good life? And how to do justice to the specific responsibility that the human species carries? As a starting point, what Ivan Callus and I have been proposing is a return to the question concerning technology as it had been raised by Heidegger. In imagining a “posthumanism without technology” we’re not promoting technophobia or in any way diminishing the transformative potential (for better or for worse) of new and ever more converging technologies. Instead, we advocate an attempt to think through Heidegger’s statement that the “essence of technology is by no means anything technical,” but rather something “po(i)etic.” It is important to engage with this thought experiment in order to disentangle technological change from the ideology of science, economy, and politics in contemporary Western, globalized societies. The “critical” therefore here means historical, genealogical, or simply philosophical. This is why we have been arguing for a kind of “unfashionable” posthumanism that focuses at least also on prefigurations of the posthuman, on anti-humanist counter-traditions, on forms of resistance to posthumanization and on the strategic role of “proto-humanity” within narratives of evolution and hominization. Again, this chimes with the inherent ambiguity of the prefix post-, which cannot (merely) signify a chronological supersession but in fact calls for anamnesis, working through, a rewriting of imagined origins. We have thus tried to argue that the specific mirror function of early and late modernity might also apply to early and late humanism, and indeed early and late humanity. In each case, the implied transition and change, with hindsight, effectuated a repression of many other possibilities—paths not taken by philosophy, culture, science, evolution. In the face of current extinction threats and “species angst” these possibilities might instead be seen as “unfulfilled potentialities” which are at least worth exploring.

Critical posthumanism is also critical because it tries to tease out the fundamentally political nature of any discourse that attempts to construct the human or humanity (human nature, truth, essence, etc.). In this context, it is a critical engagement with the current inevitability of the “biopolitical” and the “postanthropocentric.” In recent work, following Foucault, Agamben and Esposito—and within the historical context of the so-called “War on Terror,” as well as the radical advance of biotechnologies and the “life sciences”—all (modern) politics must be understood as biopolitics, since modern politics uses a form of governmentality that relies on “disciplining the (human and nonhuman) body.” In fact the entire metaphoricity and analogy of governmentality is “bodily”—the state as a body politic, which can succumb to disease and therefore needs protection and healing. When nation states start displaying symptoms of autoimmunitarian reactions due to real and imaginary threats—like globalization, terrorism, extinction—the traditional boundaries between that which constitutes humane and inhumane behaviour are likely to become unstable. This threatens a political and also ethical vacuum that has the potential for regression as well as progress, the best and the worst (which is always the sign of what I would call the “tragic” tone in humanism). This vacuum demands first and foremost vigilance and critique (though even critique must be regularly checked for its own autoimmunitarian symptoms of course). It demands a radical imaginary that looks for and evaluates alternatives. A posthumanist politics, and maybe a politics of the posthuman, must be a departure from a pre-given consensus as to what it means to be human today. On the contrary, what constitutes humanness is exactly what needs to be rethought by revisiting and changing existing patterns of exclusion and inclusion, by challenging human exceptionalism, and by rethinking human responsibility anew and without preconceptions (while remaining very aware of such existing preconceptions of course).

This is where the connection between posthumanism and post-anthropocentrism becomes most obvious. The global agreement that there’s something like climate change, that the ecological impact of the human species on this planet is irreversible (cf. the idea of the Anthropocene), and that therefore new forms of social, political, ethical, and ecological ways of thinking are vital for the survival not only of the human species but also—and this is the special responsibility that humans bear today—of other species, life in general, environments, and ecosystems. And this requires thought that is up to the magnitude and the complexity of the challenges the near future is likely to pose, with the depletion of natural resources, a still growing global population, a widening gap between rich and poor, global warming, ongoing automation and virtualization, and so on. In a sense, therefore, the (transformed or post-) humanities have never been more in demand, but what they cannot rely on is their subject. The subject of the posthumanties is no longer “man,” nor even the “human,” at least exclusively so. It is in fact about forming new allegiances with the “caring” parts of other disciplines and knowledge formations. And this leads to my final point, namely the question of “what’s wrong with humanism?”

Arguing for a critical posthumanism under these conditions might sound counter-intuitive to some, in the sense that, if you care so much about humans and their environment, surely what you need is a renewal of humanism, not some kind of weird “post-humanism.” Bruni, again, insinuates as much when he refers to David Harvey’s notion of “revolutionary humanism.” Undeniably, there is some revolutionary potential in the humanist tradition—depending whether you take the long or the short term view. If you understand humanism as a predominantly nineteenth-century atheist and scientist affair (the Richard Dawkins view) you might think of it as a radical anti-clerical, existentialist, and demythologizing power that needs to be resurrected. There are, however, at least two other humanisms—and from a contemporary vantage point they are all inseparable; one which begins with the Renaissance, and one, even before, with Greek antiquity, Ciceronian rhetoric and Christian Neoplatonism. A critical posthumanism indeed needs to “post” all of these and, arguably, goes even further by treating humanism as maybe the arch-discourse, namely as that “social” construction that has always taken “ourselves” as both objects and subjects, by asking “who am I/who are we?” The figure of the human (and its associated ontological question: what does it mean to be human?) comes before any shared sense of humanness and any abstract concept of humanity. It is the beginning of the anthropological adventure as such. By presupposing a common essence, shared by all humans, which then in turn constantly needs to be proven but which equally constantly fails to appear, you open up a self-fulfilling dialectic “machine” (or “dispositif,” as Foucault and Agamben would say) that works on the “fuel” of “exclusion/inclusion” and unattainable promises of equality. The history of colonialism, racism, sexism, and speciesism tell that story. For the sake of humans (but not exclusively for them anymore) it has to be acknowledged that the humanist “engine” has stalled, and that a mere attempt at repairing it will not suffice.

Matt Moraghan:

View Callus’s essay, “Cover to Cover” in the ebr archive.