Watch the Critters: A Reply to Stefan Herbrechter

Watch the Critters: A Reply to Stefan Herbrechter

John Bruni

In this riposte to Herbrechter, John Bruni suggests that the pivot from humanism to posthumanism is not without peril. Thus, Bruni enjoins readers, even as the posthuman discourse incorporates them into its post-anthropocentric milieu, to “watch the critters” as the machine of capitalism trudges ever onward.

I want to start, as I did with the book review, with the premise that there are multiple forms of posthumanism, ranging from Marvin Minsky’s technological fantasies about robots being the next evolutionary phase to Cary Wolfe’s interrogations of humanism as it structures cross-species relationships. We need to be careful when we examine the cultural work that each form of posthumanist thinking does—I certainly share Stefan Herbrechter’s “radical scepticism” (as he puts it in his book) that compels us to disarticulate technology, as an a priori ideological complement, from posthumanist discourses.

Something else that has to be dealt with initially is the relationship between humanism and posthumanism. Herbrechter (as others, such as Wolfe) points out that posthumanism does not come after humanism; rather, posthumanism might be thought of as working through the way the privileging of the human has resulted in discriminatory practices such as colonialism, racism, sexism, and speciesism.

Now, far from declaring that posthumanism is at an end, I would propose that the posthumanist project has just begun. But I am concerned with what trajectory the project takes—to suggest it is a question of global power relations is almost beyond the obvious. What is less obvious is what focal point is taken up.

Which is why I would say, watch the critters. They would be the first to insist that even going beyond technological determinism in thinking about posthumanism, the biopolitical remains, which has shifted significantly, as Michel Foucault has stated, from taking life and letting live to making live and letting die. Posthumanism has to address which specific lives we value; as Wolfe memorably puts it, any choice that is made has to leave someone/thing out. Because of this, I think we have to watch for the return of oppressive systems of control and surveillance—witness for example the ongoing exploitation of human- and non-human animal lives in factory farming—in our decision making.

I brought up David Harvey, at the end of the review, because he reminds us of this point, writ large in a struggle against capitalism’s globally destructive effects. As I quoted from him in the review: “Any struggle for freedom and liberty must be prepared to confront at the very outset that which it is prepared to dominate. It also has to recognise that the price of maintaining its freedoms is eternal vigilance against the return of either old or new forms of domination.”

Perhaps the point could be made without Harvey’s entering the conversation. After all, he remains, as Herbrechter remarks in his reply, a throwback to humanism, even if it is radicalized.

At the same time, one thing capitalism does rather well is flatten the past, if not eliminate a sense of history all together. Critters would testify to the immense environmental changes we all have experienced over time. The tensions owing from humanism remain to haunt us—as posthumanists (I certainly have no reservations about calling myself one). And thus the animal question: the primary case for why humanism is beyond repair, as Herbrechter argues, because it cannot and will not give us an answer to this question.

It bears repeating: posthumanism does not come after humanism. We need to respect the tensions inherent in this idea, opening a world that I think invigorates the re-examination of the relations between humanist and posthumanist thinkers.

It is a kind of paradox that, as systems theorist Niklas Luhmann would say, makes posthumanism possible. Humanist ideas persist—to interrogate them means dealing with the past of humanism. From this perspective, posthumanism gives us a critical awareness of, materializes, the discourse of humanism which has hidden in plain sight.