Friday, July 19, 2013

Posthumanism, Antiessentialism, and Depersonalization

1. Belatedism — Reductionism — Ceasing to treat “human” as an invidious term of distinction; 2. General problem of antiessentialism — From ethics to epistemology and ontology — Living in the flux — Essences as stabilities — Making distinctions; 3. Taking humans for granted — Taking humanism for granted — Special problem of demarcation — How to make a human less special; 4. Bennett on actants and assemblage — Giving out intentionality — Doing an action, causing an effect; 5. What intentions are for — Global problem of anthropomorphism — Properties vs. attributions; 6. Instrumentals rationality — Tools of our tools — Ancient science as spiritual exercise — Knowledge as depersonalization — Theoretical practices

1.      “Posthumanism,” in the last 20 years, has become the latest popular entry into our post-’60s craze for being after something, usually some “ism.” Also in the last 20 years, nearly all promulgations of isms come attached with increasingly anxious qualifiers about the promulgator not wanting to reduce the perceived proponents of the ism to his or her formulation, or not wanting to suggest the essence of what the ism is. [1] I find such hand-waving pointless—partly because I take any good reader or listener to have the good sense to feel free to disagree at any point without the author’s encouragement—but this anxiety plays a special role in my topic because of the way reductionism and essentialism have been tied by theorists into a story about the degradation and oppression of humanity—and, of course, now more than just humanity.

In what follows, I’d like to perform two services: 1) I hope to clarify three problems that any posthumanist theorist will encounter in articulating their view: the general problem of antiessentialism, the special problem of demarcation, and the global problem anthropomorphism. What all three of these problems revolve around is the practical aspect of living the theories we propound. Since many posthumanist perspectives articulate themselves in terms that are inherently paradoxical, I hope by clarifying these three problems to point in the direction of a nonparadoxical mode of articulating the central motive of posthumanism—ceasing to treat “human” as an invidious term of distinction. 2) I will re-tell a familiar story of the last 300 years as a means of bring into focus the problem of our practices as the primary object of our ethical inquiries. Posthumanism is nothing if not ethically motivated, so when posthumanist theory finds itself moving away from ethics to epistemology or ontology, it behooves us to reexamine our priorities and their interrelationships. The basic problem central to the “scientific revolution” of the European 17th century—which typically stands in as the moment the dam broke, flooding our landscape with instrumental rationality—is the assertion of purely egocentric interests. Working through this conceptual and historical exercise, seeing posthumanism’s broader concern with purely human interests, will put us in a position of seeing a larger project of thinking through ethical authority in a world structured only by material, as opposed to supernatural, agencies.

2.      If the central motive of posthumanism is to cease treating “human” as a term of ethical distinction, then one of its central moves has been to cease treating “human” as a term of distinction at all. This shifts the central theoretical terrain from ethics to epistemology and ontology, from how we treat X to how we know what X is. The primary theoretical current that this move draws power from is the antiessentialism common to Heidegger, Sartre, the American pragmatists, and the Continental poststructuralists. We might embody it in Sartre’s slogan that “existence precedes essence.” [2] By overturning the ultimately Platonic relationship that envisions the flux of lived appearances as conceptually beholden to an order of stable essences, antiessentialism emits a panrelationalism—things are not what they are in themselves, but only as they relate to other things. [3] This dissolves any particular thing into a web of relations, and can ultimately cause a fear for stability—how does the antiessentialistic reversal not just flip us into a nasty flux of relations with no footholds for understanding? I think it is fairly clear that no person actually lives their life as if there were no foothold for understanding, as if they did live a flux like a tempest (as opposed to a flux like an oscillating fan). Sartre’s word for this was “metastable.” [4]

If this seems to dissolve the problem surrounding antiessentialism, why am I calling this a general problem for posthumanism? The reason is that though practically we have no problem living in the flux, our theoretical descriptions still tend to contort themselves when describing this practical situation. At root, I think, is the suspicion that existence only precedes essence, that essentialism will always reconstitute itself in the process of understanding. This comes out as a sense that definition, i.e. giving conceptual shape to any particular X, is essentializing. (Need I add “is essentially” or “by definition” to complete the contortion?) This suspicion can largely be traced to origins in poststructuralism, and is best embodied by Gayatri Spivak’s resignation about the state of affairs we must find ourselves in that demands her notion of “strategic essentialism.” [5] Because of the history of oppression through conceptual means that an entire host of cultural critics in the last century have been busily excavating, what was once Plato’s fear for stability has turned into a fear of stability—that any stable entity is covering over the oppression required to achieve that stability. If at one very real extreme is the actual use of linguistic categories to justify the continued oppression of cultural groups and persons, then at the other extreme is the absurdity of thinking that my body’s stable existence at a particular set of spatiotemporal coordinates is papering over my body’s right to exist at every over set of coordinates. There are stabilities, and then there are stabilities. What we need—but what theorists like Spivak are conceptually unable to provide resources for—is the ability to distinguish between the range of stabilities on that ethical scale. So the general problem of antiessentialism is: how do you de-privilege one distinction without harming your ability to make any distinctions? The way to do this, I think, is to replace Sartre’s existentialist formula with a pragmatist formula like, “practice precedes theory.” This turns all theoretical conundrums back to their origins in practice. This makes one’s fear of stability negotiable by turning the suspicion of a particular stability back to the practice being enabled by it—still suspicious given any kind of oppression, but hardly suspicious at all given a body’s continued existence at a set of spatiotemporal coordinates qua continued existence (though the why for, e.g., the prisoner’s continued existence in the jail cell might be up for grabs).

3.      I suspect, as I somewhat suggested before, that theorists have no problem resolving these theoretical problems of definition and essence in practice as persons or citizens (rather than as theorists). But working through the general problem of de-privileging can give us a handle on a second, special problem that emits from the first: how do we demarcate humans from other things? The problem of antiessentialism and the fear of stability are marks of a desire to not privilege anything—but now how do we tell the difference between us and other animals? The amused self-consciousness that accompanies most articles about posthumanism is, I think, not nearly nervous enough about this as a problem. Most theorists of the posthuman seem to take it for granted that we can just tell the difference, but what their work needs to do is provide some handle for how to tell the difference between a human res and a nonhuman res so as to keep the critical edge of their polemic while not resting on either an unarticulated practical grasp or a paradoxical run around wherein we find, ultimately, that we have to ask some portentous “question of the human” every time we want to articulate the difference between a human and a beaver. The former is antithetical to the project of theorizing and the latter I suspect has become popular because 1) people like imitating Derrida, but more importantly 2) they are beholden to the fear of stability that produces the problem of antiessentialism.

Posthumanists do much better when they state their opposition as “humanism,” or “liberal humanism,” or “liberal subjectivity.” What they want to pick out and contest are particular ways in which the human subject is picked out of a crowd. As my use of “res” indicates, we are going to be led back to Descartes—since he distinguished between res cogitans and res extensa, “the mind” has too often been used as the repository for our dreams of difference. But as Rorty retails in his opening chapter of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, there are as many ways to pick out what demarcates the mind—and thus the human—as there are fingers on your hands. [6] The typical approach of posthumanism has been to select one of these marks and reappropriate it for res extensa, thus making the human a little less special. So the special problem of demarcation (which is really just a species of the more general problem of antiessentialism) is: how do you make the human less special while retaining the conceptual ability to tell a human from a nonhuman? Darwin’s naturalism made it possible for Nietzsche to think of us as a diseased animal precisely because of our desire to be special, [7] but the flipside of Nietzsche’s cynicism is John Dewey’s suggestion that Darwin made it possible for us to really get to the bottom of our human cultural practices: “the influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition….” Dewey saw Darwin as making possible antiessentialism, as overturning “the assumption of the superiority of the fixed and final” and finally alleviating our desire to “lay hands upon the sacred ark of absolute permanency.” [8]

4.      In order to see better how the blurring motions of antiessentialisms can make it hard to see what makes humans, if not special, at least their own peculiar selves above and beyond physiology, we might turn to Jane Bennett’s recent book, Vibrant Matter (2010). Bennett wouldn’t call herself a posthumanist, but her book works in the same vein, and its utility lies in how thoroughly Bennett wishes to rethink our ontological assumptions—Bennett pushes to the limit certain strategies commonly used by posthumanist theorists, in particular an effort to rethink ontology with ethical implications. Bennett’s ontology centers on the attempt to reinscribe “things” with a “power” she says they’ve been denied by Kantian accounts of agency, thus giving “the force of things its due.” [9] She does so by using Latour’s notion of “actants” as a way of inscribing intentionality in the nonhuman-thing so as to gain a better picture of the “human-nonhuman assemblage” (her term taken from Deleuze and Guattari). [10]

What this power amounts to, however, doesn’t seem much more than being an active force in the material world. Bennett feels this as a point of resistance that deserves the edge of her polemic because of the old notion of the “passivity of matter.” [11] But what extra power is gained by intentionality, alongside causal power, is unclear—and nobody has denied the material world’s causal ability to blot us from existence. Bennett says that “the question is whether other forces in the world approximate some of the characteristics of intentional or purposive behavior on the part of humans” (29), but this makes the mistake of thinking we know what intentionality is. By assuming she already has a conceptual grasp of intentionality, Bennett is able to show how other things have it, too. But this doesn’t seem very hard. Giving out intentionality is easy—just do it, and you’ve done it. Thinking the rock intended to fall to the floor is enough for the rock to have intentionally fallen to the floor. Who, after all, is going to contradict you (except for theorists not assuming we already know what intentionality is)?

Intentionality is simply things behaving as if other things are behaving intentionally. [12] The problem is that the rock behaves the same way whether we attribute intentionality to it or not—or whether the rock attributes intentionality to us or not. So the only question is whether it is useful to attribute intentions to any particular X. To answer this question about a rock falling, we might compare it to a hand going up in a classroom. If the person whose hand goes up gets “called on,” it is because of a practice the caller-on (and all those who expected the person to get called on) is embedded in. If the person was “lifting their hand” rather than “raising their hand,” we can say that the person “unintentionally raised their hand”—we need this locution to distinguish between doing an action (intentionally lifting a hand to get called on) and causing an effect (lifting a hand and unintentionally getting called on). The movements are the same, but only when embedded in a practice can the movement have a certain effect. So, returning to the rock, what is the added bonus of saying the falling rock intentionally crushed my foot if the effect is the same whether I ascribe an intention to the rock or not?

5.      The moral of this story is that one reason we attribute intentions is because by making actors aware of the effects of their actions, we can get the actor to not perform the effect-causing action. This, at least, is not the case with the rock, though it might be with the person who dropped it on my foot. It is clear that Bennett wishes her new ontology to have an effect on our moral discourse. She gives a series of imperatives toward the end of her book that punches up this problem of intentionality: “Give up the futile attempt to disentangle the human from the nonhuman. Seek instead to engage more civilly, strategically, and subtly with the nonhumans in the assemblages in which you, too, participate” (116). But what could it mean to engage civilly with rocks? Do rocks respond differently if you are rude to them? While behaving more strategically and subtly with rocks might make sense, civility would seem to only be in play if you could change the rock’s behavior by doing so. But what the analogy is for politely dropping a rock and it not crushing my foot because I treated the rock civilly rather than rudely isn’t clear.

This brings us to the final, global problem of anthropomorphism. Bennett sees clearly that she must face the problem of whether she’s anthropomorphizing non-anthropo-stuff by, for example, attributing intentions to stuff we might normally withhold it from. The global problem of anthropomorphism is: how do you use categories of understanding that are not human categories? Bennett sees that what she calls her “vital materialism” seems to “entail a performative contradiction”: “‘Is it not, after all, a self-conscious, language-wielding human who is articulating this philosophy of vibrant matter?’ It is not so easy to resist, deflect, or redirect this criticism” (120). However, there would only seem to be a performative contradiction if you haven’t been able to provide an account for what separates humans from nonhumans. More particularly, it is by treating intentionality as a property instead of an attribution that heaves Bennett’s project into paradox when she admits she has no separate method for ascertaining the properties of rocks except for the regular human one’s we’ve always employed.

6.      Bennett’s confrontation with anthropomorphism, like Spivak’s confrontation with essentialism, emits a general helplessness—for, almost all admit, we can only use human categories. But why should we feel helpless? The reason I think we find ourselves to be helpless or stuck in the position of humanity, rather than, say, thankful or unashamed, is because of the way scientific innovation, technological development, economic consumption, and liberal democracy have all dovetailed into a story about instrumental rationality. This is the story, familiar to us from Germany—be it the Frankfurt School of Horkheimer, Adorno, et al or Heidegger—that the history of the West is the history of Reason increasing our ability to control stuff, including ourselves. In its initial form, the concern seemed to be primarily with us, with succumbing to a “blindly pragmatized thought [that] loses its transcending quality.” [13] Horkheimer and Adorno’s concern was that, not only was our thought simply a means to carry out preexisting and unreflectively held ends, but that the end or purpose of thought had simply become the increased efficiency of means. Unreflectively held purposes dovetails with Heidegger’s discussion of the rhetoric of mathematics and method that took over the natural sciences in the 17th century and was encroaching on the social sciences at the end of the 19th. [14] But what’s worse is that, in Thoreau’s phrase, “men have become the tools of their tools.” [15] The central idea is that we are caught up in the practices we’ve created and have become beholden to them, and that these practices are working out a destructive teleology. And since the increasing obviousness of the consequences of global industrialization, this sensed destruction has become both to ourselves and nonhuman nature. As should be clear, this is a pessimistic narrative that implies that we no longer have the hope of changing (Horkheimer, Adorno, and Heidegger’s conclusion) or that we no longer have the desire to (Thoreau’s fear).

I think it is something like this story that stands behind most posthumanisms. [16] Without it, it's hard to make sense of why we should go in for all the arid metaphysical talk. And while I think there is sufficient plausibility for Thoreau’s fear, I want to quickly sketch an alternative narrative about our theoretical practices that takes the edge off the conclusion that we are now hopeless. This story is drawn from Hans Blumenberg’s account of the transition from ancient and medieval cosmology to modern. Central to this account is the notion that for the ancients, theoretical descriptions of the nonhuman were spiritual exercises meant to relieve the pressures of theory itself. [17] For example, as Blumenburg writes, Epicurus’s “atomistic physics was not meant to satisfy a theoretical interest in reality but rather to argue for the irrelevance of the physical answers to the shaping of life in the world.” [18] “Only insofar as physics could be thought of as producing real human power over nature could natural science potentially serve as the instrument by which to overcome the new radical insecurity of man’s relation to reality” (155). Only when science could demonstrate its practical mastery over life, its “real human power,” could science serve as a mode of overcoming. But overcome what turns out to be the real question. It behooves us to make a distinction between our increased mastery over nonhuman forces indiscriminately killing us off and other forms of overcoming—overcoming our parents, parts of ourselves we dislike, our political enemies, precursor poets, etc.

The upshot of Blumenberg’s story is that we should make finer distinctions among the different projects and practices we’ve put into play over the course of cultural history in order to better grasp why we originally created them so as to better understand why we might continue them. One of the central distinctions Blumenberg makes about the outcome of the 17th century scientific revolution is that philosophers took two divergent paths, that of Cartesian “self-foundation” and Baconian “self-assertion” (see 181-203). [19] As Blumenberg understands it, the mode of self-assertion preceded self-foundation because the central cultural concern they both had eschew was the authority of the ancients (as read by the Scholastics). Thus we find Bacon bashing idols and Descartes retreating to his fireplace. However, as Steven Shapin notes, there was an intense suspicion that accompanied this “intellectual individualism and the rejection of trust and authority.” [20] At this point, it is helpful to make a distinction between the personal and the individual. The individualism common to Bacon and Descartes states that knowledge begins with an individual’s personal experience. The concern, then, is how to make this knowledge portable, intersubjective. This produces different practices intended to depersonalize the knowledge gained firsthand. As Shapin suggests, this amounts to the elaboration of different “practical procedures” (93) such as Boyle’s recommendation “that experimental reports be written in a way that allowed distant readers—not present as firsthand witnesses—to replicate the relevant effects” (107). But another method of depersonalization lies in Descartes’s search for a foundation to knowledge in indubitable certainty. If one could once establish the foundation upon which all knowledge must repose, then one can gain the assent of all inferences from it as common to all because of the necessity created by the demonstration.

It is now generally agreed that Descartes’s foundationalism is an off-shoot of Platonic essentialism, what Dewey called “the quest for certainty” grounded in a “search for the immutable.” [21] What I articulated as the problem of antiessentialism is the problem of searching for replacement practices for the specific theoretical practice of hunting down immutability. Thus this problem becomes paradoxical only if one thinks that a certain set of theoretical practices inevitably ties us into a certain set of self-descriptions and problems—e.g., thinking linguistic practices are necessarily essentializing or thinking intentionality necessary for ethical consideration. Seeing these practices in the light of history, however, can give us a sense of their continuity with other practices motivated for similar purposes and their contingency as practices that can be altered given new situations that require new purposes.


[1] Two examples—N. Katherine Hayles, a major figure (displaying only slight anxiety): “What is the posthuman? Think of it as a point of view characterized by the following assumptions. (I do not mean this list to be exclusive or definitive. Rather, it names elements found at a variety of sites. It is meant to be suggestive rather than prescriptive)” (How We Became Posthuman (1999), 2); Neil Badmington, writing an introduction (displaying acute anxiety): “What would it mean to view this as an example of posthumanism? The use of such a term is, of course, far from straightforward. Writing in 1947, Martin Heidegger drew attention to the paradoxical status of an ‘-ism,’ observing that…[etc., etc.]. Was I in danger of giving currency to yet another ‘-ism’ devoid of clarity, coherence and credibility” (Posthumanism (2000), ed. Badmington, 1)?

[2]L’existence précède l’essence” is from Sartre’s essay, “Existentialism Is a Humanism” (translated in Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre—see 348). I pass over the irony of using this essay in this context, though the kernel of my reply is embodied in my discussion of anthropomorphism below.

[3] This is the lesson Richard Rorty draws from “philosophers as diverse as William James and Friedrich Nietzsche, Donald Davidson and Jacques Derrida, Hilary Putnam and Bruno Latour, John Dewey and Michel Foucault” (“A World without Substances or Essences,” in Philosophy and Social Hope, 47). Rorty immediately goes on to say that being an “antidualist,” which is how they articulated their antiessentialism, does not mean “that they are against binary oppositions; it is not clear that thought is possible without using such oppositions. It means rather that they are trying to shake off the influences of the peculiarly metaphysical dualisms which the Western philosophical tradition inherited from the Greeks: those between essence and accident, substance and property, and appearance and reality.”

[4] Being and Nothingness, 90. In the context of Sartre’s discussion, metastable seems to connote something closer to instability. But see Rorty’s use of Sartre in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity: “Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one’s way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old. I call people of this sort ‘ironists’ because their realization that anything can be made to look good or bad by being redescribed, and their renunciation of the attempt to formulate criteria of choice between final vocabularies, puts them in the position which Sartre called ‘meta-stable’: never quite able to take themselves seriously because always aware that the terms in which they describe themselves are subject to change…” (73-74). Something being subject to change is much different than something ceaselessly changing. I think the lesson is that Sartre’s term is a good description of the terrain of antiessentialism, though it originally had to be deployed with more of the polemical edge of flux.

[5] Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is a virtuoso performance showing how ethical and epistemological issues are bound together. Spivak’s term, however, comes from the fact that she does not believe there is any alternative to essentialism, or rather that language is in its nature essentializing. For philosophers like Rorty, as I articulated in note 3, this would be like saying that Platonic dualisms were at the heart of language and unavoidable.

[6] See PMN 32-37. Rorty distinguishes nine different marks of the mental and groups them into three different problem-piles: the problem of consciousness, the problem of reason, and the problem of personhood. I take such refinement of distinction to be the first step toward wisdom in this area.

[7] See On the Genealogy of Morality, 3.28: “If one disregards the ascetic ideal: man, the animal man, has until now had no meaning. This existence on earth contained no goal…. Precisely this is what the ascetic ideal means: that something was lacking, that an enormous void surrounded man—he did not know how to justify, to explain, to affirm himself; he suffered from the problem of his meaning. He suffered otherwise as well, he was for the most part a diseased animal…” (117).

[8] From "The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy" (1909).

[9] VM, 29

[10] See ibid., 9 for Bennett’s introduction of Latour’s “actant”; her second chapter discusses the “assemblage.”

[11] See ibid., vii.

[12] I am blithely taking on board Daniel Dennett’s mode of discussing intentionality, principally from The Intentional Stance, as if it is obvious, but clearly this is contentious for philosophers of mind. The general idea is that intentionality is a holistic game that a community weasels its way into by members attributing intentionality to each other. This is how functionalists avoid the Cartesian problem of Other Minds—intentional minds are created when all the members attribute them to each other, and there is no deeper problem than that. What is interesting is that, on Dennett and Rorty’s understanding, Dennett is the heir of Darwin and it is only theorists who wish to retain the mind as a mark of humanity’s specialness that resist Dennett’s functionalism.

[13] Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), xiii. I’m quoting from the John Cummings translation, though Edmund Jephcott’s recent translation is likely to become canonical. This line in particular just rings better in Cummings’ translation, though I have no other reason for choosing it.

[14] See Heidegger’s “The Age of the World Picture” (in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays) especially of the notion of a “procedure” being a “fixed ground plan” (118). This kind of rhetoric about math and method is charted succinctly by Steven Shapin in The Scientific Revolution—see especially 57-64 on the problematic notion of the “mathematization of the universe” (63) and 89-96 on the notion that “method was meant to be all” (90). Shapin’s comment that “there is much to commend a revisionist view that formal methodology is to be understood as a set of rhetorical tools for positioning practices in the culture” (95) might be expanded to include the use of mathematics. See also the opening section of Rorty’s “Method, Social Science, and Social Hope” (in Consequences of Pragmatism) for a pithy polemic about what the philosophical upshot of the scientific revolution should have been.

[15] Walden, Ch. 1

[16] My use of Thoreau is partly intended to lend plausibility to this narrative standing behind Bennett. Bennett has a previous book on Thoreau as a political philosopher.

[17] “Spiritual exercises” is a term taken from Pierre Hadot. See, for example, his Philosophy as a Way of Life.

[18] Legitimacy of the Modern Age, 181

[19] My understanding of self-assertion owes much to Rorty’s use of Blumenberg. See, e.g., his “Habermas and Lyotard on Postmodernity” (in Essays on Heidegger and Others), especially where he calls Bacon “the prophet of self-assertion as opposed to self-grounding” (172).

[20] The Scientific Revolution, 72

[21] “Philosophy’s Search for the Immutable” is the second chapter in Dewey’s The Quest for Certainty, which attempts to locate a tradition of philosophical inquiry—specifically metaphysical and epistemological—in our historical and existential condition as beings in the world.


  1. After reading this twice and going to the dictionary about a dozen times, I think I prefer Carlin. But, I'm getting there. Will there be a test later?

    1. That's the lovely thing about amateur work--you can just put it down whenever you like and move on with your life.


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