Being Not Us
Being Not Us
John Bruni suggests that Cary Wolfe’s new essay collection explores the various cognitive fictions of humanism and carves out a functional role for systems-influenced theory and art.
This review is a simultaneous publication from the current issue of American Book Review.
Every book should have a soundtrack. For Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism?, I would recommend David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). In Wolfe’s chapter-length analysis/conclusion, he cites Byrne as saying the record offended people who wanted “to believe in the artist as someone with something to say.” That is because it used a precursor of digital sampling to layer found vocal tracks (taped, for example, from radio broadcasts) over dense, complex, and dazzling rhythmic grooves.
What the record does to dismantle the authenticity of the human voice, how it signifies presence, is rather similar, I think, to what Wolfe does to the larger notion of humanism. Referencing Jacques Derrida’s “The Autobiographical Animal,” Wolfe powerfully expresses his book’s thesis:
“[W]e” are not “we”…. Rather, “we” are always radically other, already in- or ahuman in our very being - not just in the evolutionary, biological, and zoological fact of our physical vulnerability and mortality, our mammalian existence but also in our subjection to and constitution in the materiality and technicity of a language that is always on the scene before we are, as a precondition of our subjectivity.
Not only does Wolfe’s statement memorably describe, in his view, the current attitude about posthumanism, it makes a point highly relevant to this special issue: what we believe defines us as “human,” and thus different from nonhuman animals, is perhaps the most supreme cognitive fiction of them all. In the introduction, Wolfe clarifies that “posthumanism in my sense isn’t posthuman at all - in the sense of being ‘after’ our embodiment has been transcended - but is only posthumanist, in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism itself.”
In making such a point, the book convincingly argues for the centrality of literature to discussions about cognition. That the discipline of cognitive science tends to insist on having the last word on the matter, Wolfe contends, is far from valid. For one, if language is fundamentally ahuman (“before” us), that suspicion has long been taken seriously by literary scholars, yet not, as we will soon see, adequately considered by cognitive science. Literature, especially poetry, belongs to the “disciplines of ‘slow thought’ ” that reaffirm the temporal as a crucial component of the process of interpretation (an issue covered in several later chapters). Wolfe takes the idea of “disciplines of ‘slow thought’ ” from Tilottama Rajan. And, more visibly, authors, such as J. M. Coetzee, reflect upon the constraints on our thinking about our relationships with nonhuman animals, which turn on our own sense of who we think we are. Coetzee’s literary narratives, Wolfe says, disclose the moral “gravity” of our responsibilities toward nonhuman animals; this disclosure, as it “unsettles the very foundations of what we call ‘the human,’” becomes an “unnerving weight” difficult to speak of that “resists” our thinking.
Language, therefore, is inextricably connected to how we think. For Wolfe, the language “question” underscores the difference between cognitive science, epitomized by Daniel Dennett’s work, and Derridean deconstruction, that question being “what language is and how it is related to our ideas about subjectivity, consciousness, and the like.” Wolfe singles out Dennett for a specific reason: Dennett is regarded for moving cognitive science away from the limitations of a Cartesian model and a humanist viewpoint. Dennett, however, retreats time and again to this mode of thinking, a problem, as Wolfe advises, because it is through such backpedaling that Dennett makes his case for the cognitive differences between human and nonhuman animals. And how these differences are made, Dennett insists, does no less than set the ethical parameters for the treatment of nonhuman animals. More specifically, Dennett claims that nonhuman animals do not know they are thinking - a premise derived from their being seen to not respond but react, their inability to grasp secondorder meanings (the meanings of meanings) through language - and on the basis of this claim, he declares nonhuman animals are not subjects and hence do not “experience” pain as suffering. Wolfe considers Dennett’s flawed argument as symptomatic of a larger (Cartesian) idea of the “human” as an abstracted fictional representation of subjectivity, an idea that, in successive chapters, he will carefully deconstruct.
If thinking, in the Cartesian formulation, pronounces, “I am,” then a posthuman model of language reflects a profound skepticism about who “we are.” Again referencing Derrida, Wolfe contends that “ ‘we are not ‘we’…always covers over a more radical ‘not being able’ that makes our very conceptual life possible.” This idea becomes a unifying theme (what we could call, in line with the earlier analogy to the Byrne/Eno record, a “groove”) for the first half of the book. That is, while we share “finitude,” the “physical vulnerability, embodiment, and eventually mortality” with nonhuman animals, such an experience “is paradoxically made unavailable, inappropriable, to us by the very thing that makes it available,” which is “the radically ahuman technicity of language.” We then move to a critique of the fantasy of transcending academic “disciplinary and discursive finitude” that reopens the space between human and nonhuman animals. In an elaboration of the book’s thesis, Wolfe writes, citing Derrida, that fantasy is guided by a “concept of ‘the human’ that the human falsely ‘gives to itself’ to then enable its recognition - from a safe ontological distance, as it were - of the nonhuman other in a gesture of self-flattering ‘benevolence’ wholly characteristic of liberal humanism.” As Wolfe observes, with regards to Derrida, Niklas Luhmann, and Michel Foucault, “not only do they make it clear that disciplines aren’t persons; they also make it clear that persons aren’t persons, in the sense of the definition of ‘person’ that humanism ‘gives to itself.’” Stephen Clarke aptly sums up the bad-faith logic of humanism when it addresses animal ethics: “We are absolutely better than the animals because we are able to give their interests some consideration: so we won’t.”
From there, we arrive at the closing chapter of the first half of the book on Temple Grandin, who has argued that her experience with autism allows her insight into how nonhuman animals engage the world. This chapter does not just unfold the crucial point that “the too-rapid assimilation of the questions of subjectivity, consciousness, and cognition to the question of language ability” overlooks other, more visual, ways of thinking, such as Grandin’s; it prepares us, through a discussion of Grandin’s “visuality” that “is anything but ‘human,’” to consider how “what we think of as ‘normal’ human visuality does not see - and it does not see that it does not see.”
The second half of the book takes up this second cognitive fiction: that there is a unified, uninterrupted visual field which supports and maintains human subjectivity. Art has long struggled with such a fiction - Wolfe suggests our inability (despite ourcritical resources) to express an issue, say animal ethics, in a way not limited by a dominant cultural framing is related to how forms of artistic expression get defined in humanist terms. Thus in his reading of Sue Coe’s Dead Meat (1995), a set of drawings, paintings, and sketches of the treatment of animals in North American feedlots and slaughterhouses, Wolfe shows how her intention to “expose” or “reveal,” for the viewer, what is being done to these animals is formally articulated through “normative modes of humanist subjectivity” that convey the very tropes of human superiority/dominance that Coe wishes to critique.
Against the humanist visual field, which, as we have just seen, problematically reinserts the humanist subject into posthumanism, Wolfe counterposes the idea of the sublime. Here is a rather clear connection to systems theorist Niklas Luhmann, who has rigorously addressed the contingencies of second-order observation (the observation of observation): every system is constitutionally blind to itself, a blindness that can only be recognized by another system that is blind to itself in the same way, and so on. Rewritten as a paradox, through Luhmann’s formalization of the blind spot of observation, the sublime becomes “the problem of ‘representing the unrepresentable.’” This paradox shifts the focus from the humanist dichotomies of culture/nature, mind/body, reason/feeling to the “functional distinction” of system/environment. Such a distinction, Wolfe reminds us, structures Luhmann’s description of the cognitive process in Art as a Social System (2000) and the larger “ ‘functional differentiation’ of modern society” which art (as a system) both produces and responds to. Wolfe explains that “in responding to environmental complexity in terms of their own self-referential codes, subsystems build up their own internal complexity (one might think here of the various subspecialties of the legal system, say, or the specialization of disciplines in the education system discussed in chapter 4). In doing so, systems become ever more finely grained in their selectivity, and thus - in increasing the weblike density of their filters, as it were - they buy time in relation to overwhelming environmental complexity.”So too does the idea of form get retranslated - as the means by which making distinctions and staging observations are carried out.
The retranslation of form, as Wolfe deftly demonstrates, offers a radical and potentially gamechanging perspective on posthuman systems theory, one that recharges the political meanings of art. In just one of the examples that displays Wolfe’s commendable range and interpretative energies, he explores Ricardo Scofidio and Elizabeth Diller’s Blur project (2002), a building without a building - it consists of a human-created cloud and a viewing deck situated over the Lake of Neuchatel in Switzerland - intended, Diller & Scofidio explain, to create a “ ‘technological sublime’ ” framed, explicitly, in “ ‘post-moral and post-ethical terms.’” Wolfe calls Blur posthuman art because “the human and the non- or anti- or ahuman do not exist in fundamentally discrete ontological registers but - quite the contrary - inhabit the same postontological space in mutual relations of intrication and instability.” In such a space, we are led right to Luhmann; the “uncanny effect” of Blur, Wolfe remarks, is “art can be said to imitate nature only because nature isn’t nature,” repeating Luhmann’s adage, ” all observations, including those of nature, are contingent and of necessity blind to their own contingency.” As Wolfe elaborates, “second-order observations take account of the fact that the two sides of a distinction, which appear in first-order observation as opposites, are in fact, when seen by second-order observation, dependent on a deeper unity…. [I]t is that paradoxical identity-of-difference to which the first-order system must remain blind if it is to use that code to carry out its own operations and observations. But the same is true for any second-order observations as well.”
That, as Wolfe puts it, the “joke” of Blur is on buildings that think they really are buildings brings to mind the “con games” of postmodern art is, arguably, not that far afield. See Ira Livingston’s Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics (2006).According to Luhmann, form effects the observation of art, and, so, to rewrite this “joke” in the parlance of systems theory, it becomes a distinction between formal choices pitched at the level of first- and second-order observation. Yet if a postmodern reading of Blur might be expected to end at the “joke” or “game,” the systems theory reading is just getting started. Relocating the meanings of art in its observation opens a new perspective on “art’s ‘critical’ function in relation to society.” That is because, for Luhmann, perception and communication are separate, not synonymous, and run atdifferent speeds; consequently, Wolfe states that art
copresents the difference between perception and communication, and this difference is what allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what iscommonly invoked as the “ineffable” or “incommunicable,” and it uses perception to “irritate” and stimulate communication to respond to the question “what does this perceptual event mean?”
This has political ramifications: in the case of Blur, communication, as mass media, can no longer pose as first-order observation, as transparent, if you will. Wolfe explains, because Blur provokes us to ask what it means, perception (as “spectacle”) is released from “the service of immediately meaningful, prefab ideological content.”
By, moreover, redefining form through the act of observation, by, in other words, dematerializing form, we can, Wolfe proposes, get a handle on the formal use of paradox found in literature. In his reading of Wallace Stevens, we revisit “the disarticulation of consciousness and communication,” with an important note added - processing “the difference between first- and second-order observation…takes time.” Here Wolfe remarks that “the less ‘poetic’ Stevens is - the more we find an absence of the traditional prosodic devices (rhyme, alliteration, etc.) that foreground the difference between perception and communication - the more poetic he is in the specific sense of formally modeling the very dynamics of the observable-unobservable that Luhmann describes.” Overall, such a “disarticulation” in time (staging “the experience of something that, in a way, is impossible and yet ‘oscillates’ before us”) anchors cognitive fiction in the very paradoxes of observation that, for Luhmann, enable and make possible the formal expression of art.
The temporal is another reason why (as addressed earlier) “we” are not “we.” In the conclusion to the discussion of art’s critical function, we encounter a final example of cognitive fiction, Byrne/ Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, a project begun as a “series of recordings based on an imaginary culture.” While Byrne comments that, over time, he and Eno, “abandoned the imaginary-cultural-artifact idea…. I suspect this fantasy continued to guide us in a subconscious way.” Wolfe ties Byrne/Eno’s conceptual vision to how their sampling technique constitutes nonpresence, how “the ‘living present’…is haunted by the ghosts or specters of what will have been once any kind of archive, analog or digital.” Such a haunting prevents the foreclosure of the future, for time does not map, but un-maps, identity; the Byrne/Eno record, as it participates in a resistance against the “digitization” of identity in the era of globalization, performs “the subjection of any ‘we’ to the alterity and radical otherness of time.” In other words, “we” are not “we,” because “the present is not itself.” Like the Byrne/Eno record that ushers in a new way of making art through sampling, Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism? introduces a new way of looking at art, one that advocates for art’s function in drawing the cognitive map for us to navigate a new identity - one that is not “us.”