(The following is taken from a text called ‘What are the Digital Posthumanities?’. It forms the basis of a chapter of a book I am currently working on, the provisional title of which is Pirate Philosophy. For reasons of time and word count, it was not possible to include this section on Zombie Materialism in the version of ‘What are the Digital Posthumanities?’ that was first given as a keynote lecture at the DigitalHumanities@Leuven conference, University of Leuven, September 18-20, 2013, and then published on Media Gifts (here). It is therefore being made available now in this supplementary form. In the longer book chapter version, Zombie Materialism appears immediately after the passage that discusses how, in her book The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti pushes her work as close to the extremes of the humanities as she can without it actually becoming posthumanities; and how we therefore find ourselves once again being pulled back toward humanism.)
Significantly, Braidotti does not consider the contradiction between the humanities and the anti-humanism inherent to posthuman critical theory to be a fundamental problem in The Posthuman:
The best examples of the intrinsic contradictions generated by the anti-humanist stance is emancipation and progressive politics in general, which I consider to be one of the most valuable aspects of the humanistic tradition and its most enduring legacy. Across the political spectrum, Humanism has supported on the liberal side individualism, autonomy, responsibility and self-determination. On the more radical front, it has promoted solidarity, community-bonding, social justice and principles of equality... These principles are so deeply entrenched in our habits of thought that it is difficult to leave them behind altogether.
And why should we? Anti-humanism criticizes the implicit assumptions about the human subject that are upheld by the humanist image of Man, but this does not amount to a complete rejection.
In fact as far as Braidotti is concerned ‘one touches humanism at one’s own risk and peril’. Which is all very well, but it does rather beg the question: how does this continued support for humanism and the values and practices of the (post-anthropocentric and posthuman) humanities relate to the importance she attaches to affirmative alternatives to dominant visions of the subject and self, to non-profit, collectivity, open source and so forth? If we accept that we live in posthuman times and do want to act according to the rules, guidelines and criteria she sets out for posthuman critical theory and posthuman ethics, does this not require us to ‘move beyond’ the ‘standard parameters and practices’ of the humanities, as Cary Wolfe’s Posthumanities’ suggests?
The very first reference Braidotti makes in The Posthuman is actually to this short (hard to find in its full version) text by Wolfe in which he argues that, instead of ‘reproducing established forms and methods of disciplinary knowledge’, posthumanists need to ‘rethink what they do - theoretically, methodologically, and ethically’. Braidotti mentions it, however, not in relation to any discussion of the possibility of becoming posthumanities, but simply to draw on his description of what is meant by the human after the Enlightenment: ‘The Cartesian subject of the cogito, the Kantian “community of reasonable beings,” or, in more sociological terms, the subject as citizen, rights-holder, property-holder, and so on’. Braidotti does not refer to Wolfe’s ‘Posthumanities’ again in her book. In fact, the only other time she mentions Wolfe (according to her index: actually, Wolfe is also cited on p.70) is in a discussion of the relation of the posthuman to the humanities that immediately follows the above passage about the intrinsic contradictions generated by the anti-humanist stance:
The difficulties inherent in trying to overcome Humanism as an intellectual tradition, a normative frame and institutionalized practice, lie at the core of the deconstructive approach to the posthuman. Derrida opened the discussion by pointing out the violence implicit in the assignation of meaning. His followers pressed the case further: ‘the assertion that Humanism can be decisively left behind ironically subscribes to a basic humanist assumption with regard to violition and agency, as if the ‘end’ of Humanism might be subjected to human control, as if we bear the capacity to erase the traces of Humanism from either the present or an imagined future’ (Peterson, 2011: 128). The emphasis falls therefore on the difficulty of erasing the trace of the epistemic violence by which a non-humanist position might be carved out of the institutions of Humanism. The acknowledgment of epistemic violence goes hand in hand with the recognition of the real-life violence which was and still is practised against non-human animals and the dehumanized social and political ‘others’ of the humanist norm. In this deconstructive tradition, Cary Wolfe (What is Posthumanism?) is especially interesting, as he attempts to strike a new position that combines sensitivity to epistemic and word-historical violence with a distinctly trans-humanist faith in the potential of the post-human condition as conducive to human enhancement.
Braidotti takes this as further support for her decision to argue for the development of a posthuman humanities studies, rather than a posthumanities, as a means of moving beyond the contradictions and tensions between humanism and anti-humanism.
It is interesting, then, that one place where the issue of the violence implicit in the assignation of meaning has been raised in relation to The Posthuman is precisely with regard to Braidotti’s reductionist and rather negative attitude toward philosophical theories associated with so-called ‘post-structuralism’ and deconstruction. (And this is in spite of what she says about wanting to avoid, indeed transcend, negativity, and support a ‘monistic philosophy which rejects dualism’ in order to ‘overcome dialectical oppositions’ and engender ‘non-dialectical understandings of materialism’.) Braidotti’s complaint about critical thought ‘after the great explosion of theoretical creativity of the 1970s and 1980s’, is that it was as if ‘we had entered a zombified landscape of repetition without difference'. Now I can understand why she might say this (although zombified does seem a rather a harsh word to use). Without doubt post-structuralism did in certain hands become yet another orthodoxy (the usual move is to castigate literature departments in the US as being the chief offenders). Still, if we are going to make statements about the zombified landscape of theory it’s probably best to try to avoid slipping into similar zombie repetitions ourselves as much as we can. Unfortunately, this is not something Braidotti manages to achieve, as her comments about the ‘limitations’ of deconstruction’s ‘linguistic frame of reference’ being the reason she prefers to take a more ‘materialist route’ when dealing with the posthuman bear witness.
Oversimplified position statements of this nature are not confined to Braidotti’s book of course. In fact, if there isn’t one already, someone should set up a blog to record them all. They could do worse than begin with examples of the repetitive rhetoric that is often used to divide the history of critical theory into movements, moments, trends or turns (the cultural turn, linguistic turn, affective turn, visual turn, computational turn, materialist turn and so on). And from there the associated attempts to replace one mode, orientation or attitude of thought with another (e.g. textualism with realism and materialism, negative critique with constructive and creative affirmation, representational with non-representational theory, and the emphasis on lack of post-structuralist psychoanalysis with the ‘desiring theory’ of much ‘Deleuzianism’), by declaring that we ‘no longer’ live in one era and now belong to another (be it that represented by the shift from hegemony to post-hegemony, social constructivism to monism, or indeed the ‘speculative turn’ away from the previous ‘deconstructionist era’ and the subsequent ‘period dominated by Deleuze’).
Another reason I am interested in Braidotti’s book in addition to those I have already provided, however, is because I can’t help wondering if her uncritical repetition of certain reductive refrains regarding critical theory – despite the respect she professes to have for it and for her post-1968 teachers, who included not only Deleuze but Foucault and Irigaray too - is connected to the (non-)decisions she makes over non-profit, open source, and collective ways of acting, working and thinking as a philosopher and theorist, and about not pushing further toward becoming posthumanities. Take Braidotti’s claim that:
The posthuman subject is not… poststructuralist, because it does not function within the linguistic turn or other forms of deconstruction. Not being framed by the ineluctable powers of signification, it is consequently not condemned to seek adequate representation of its existence within a system that is constitutionally incapable of granting due recognition….
The posthuman nomadic subject is materialist and vitalist.
What is being given yet another outing here, as Stefan Herbrechter points out, is the by now all too familiar antagonism over ‘affirmation and negativity, action and decision’, the material and language, between those approaches inspired by Gilles Deleuze and those more influenced by Jacques Derrida. Given the emphasis placed in The Posthuman on being both critical and creative, the issue here is ‘where and at what level the “critical” would “bite”’, or 'cut' as Karen Barad would have it. For those steeped in a rigorous engagement with the philosophy of Derrida - with whose name deconstruction is most closely associated, but with whose texts Braidotti does not engage in any detail in The Posthuman, often relying on commentaries instead - ‘this would at least also have to occur at the level of language (or discourse)’, as Herbrechter rightly emphasizes. This would in turn render problematic Braidotti’s attempt to distance her theory of the posthuman subject from modes of critical thought concerned with representation, signification and the linguistic:
Not only does Braidotti here somewhat betray her own intellectual ‘cartography’ but she is also arguably ridding the future humanities of their most important methodology on which, precisely, the critical potential of posthumanism will depend: namely making sure everyone remembers that the argument about the posthuman is fought precisely at the level of representation, symbolic meaning and thus (amongst other ‘media’) in language.