8. Post-human Humanities
There was something odd about Stanley Fish’s speedy intervention in the ‘debate’ about the closure of certain humanities departments:
In the general milieu of non-debate that pitched economic rationalism against an unquestioning right for the humanities to continue existing in its current form, Fish admitted that certain nineteenth-century ‘pieties’ would, today, not be believed. Fish himself did not disclose whether he believed these pieties or whether they ought to be believed; he went on to admit that keeping the valued humanities alive would require possibly coercive means. These means would not be a justification of the humanities but ‘aggressive explanation’ of the ‘core enterprise.’ Along the way Fish laments that it would be French departments—French, the once hot-bed of real ideas—that seem to be expendable in the way that Spanish is not. Now, such a paean is odd given that one might have thought that if one really valued and wanted to sustain what ‘we’ learned from the French in their high theory heyday it might have been that education as a ‘core enterprise’ might be worth questioning (both for reasons of politics in Foucault’s sense, or the way disciplines constitute illusions of ‘the’ polity, and for reasons of good thinking, such that ‘keeping something you value alive’ might best be achieved not by clinging to survival but by a joyously destructive and active nihilism). Fish already suggests in his title—‘The Crisis of the Humanities Officially Arrives’—that the crisis was implicit up until now. Indeed the humanities have been in crisis, and for good reason. If, as Husserl already noted very early in the last century, the ‘sciences’ were in crisis because of a certain notion of ‘man’ as a natural animal blessed with technical reasoning capacities, then such a crisis could not but affect the humanities. Even Husserl accepted the impossibility of grounding any new knowledge or future-oriented discipline on man as he actually is and suggested that dealing with the crisis would entail opening a new line of thought beyond natural ‘man.’
Today, in a century that can begin to sense, if not articulate, humanity’s capacity to destroy its own species-being, along with the milieu that it has constitutively polluted to the point of annihilation, what sort of defense might one make for the future of humanities disciplines? Should one not, rather, say ‘no’ to everything that has defended and saved man and his future, especially to the concept of life and potentiality of which man would be the utmost expression? Do we not require a new discipline? This would need to take the form not of the humanities, especially if the humanities were to take on a certain motif of the post-human. That is, if the humanities were to live on by consuming, appropriating and claiming as its own the life of animals, digital technologies, inter-disciplinarity (or the rendering of science as human) then there would merely be a continuation of a reactive nihilism.
Post-humanism, as I will define it here, is not an overcoming of the human but takes a similar form to the structure of nihilism. Here is Nietzsche’s diagnostic account if nihilism: a ‘higher’ world of truth is positied behind appearances, so that this actual world is given lesser value. When science fails to establish that greater foundational higher world, we fall into despair, left as we are this only this given world. If belief in a transcendent redemption negated the force of this world for a higher world, then a reactive nihilism responded to the loss of transcendence with despair, the horror that there might be nothing more than this world. Similarly, humanism affirms all value and being on the basis of the human logos: what is true and right is that which can be rendered rational. When that belief in a rational and grounding humanity falls away, what we are left with is a world minus man, a world in which there is no longer a truth or being, only observation. We subtract man’s logical supremacy from the world and are left with the contingency of observation (Wolfe 1995). In this respect, the retreat to a world in which there is only man, not God, remains theological—for God has been subtracted but the world as God-less (abandoned to man) remains. The post-human, similarly, renounces human privilege or species-ism but then fetishizes the post-human world as man-less; ‘we’ are no longer elevated, separated, enclosed, detached from a man-less world, for there is a direct interface and interconnection—a mesh or network, a living system—that allows for one world of computers, digital media, animals, things and systems. There is a continuation of the humanities, which had always refused that man had any end other than that which he gave to himself, in the post-human notion that man is nothing but a point of relative stability, connected to one living system that he can feel affectively and read. Not only have motifs such as ‘affect,’ ‘post-human,’ living systems and digital media been explicit topics—giving the impression that ‘the’ humanities can survive criticisms of the illusions of a once-dominant (supposedly) Cartesian rationalism, these motifs have intensified and entrenched the strategies that have always marked the humanities. They allow for business as usual—in the same manner that nihilism allowed for a continued theologism; we have abandoned God and man, but now live this world as what is left after the subtraction of God and man. What we have are living interconnecting systems, with no point of exception, privilege or transcendence. If a world devoid of God and man continues a certain myopia of insisting that what is is that which can be observed, this ultra-human post-humanism is conducted in a reactive and resentful mode. For what have ‘the post-human,’ ‘affective’ or ‘ethical’ turns licensed? There has been an avowed reaction against a supposed linguisticism or textual narcissism (also referred to as linguistic idealism), so that the God of language is dead, and we no longer believe that this world of ours is given order from without by ‘a’ system of language or structure which it would be the job of literary critics or cultural studies to decode. There has been a return to life, bodies, animals, ecology and the inhuman in general, as though we are once again liberated from the prison of our humanity, no longer distanced from the world and now able to find a truly post-theory, post-human world of life. We turn back to history, contexts, things, bodies, life and nature.
The humanities would, through all its demarcation disputes, attacks, defenses and mutations be defined not by a normative notion of the human but by an anti-normative insistence that man is not, for he has no positive being other than that which is given to him by virtue of his historical and living becoming. The humanities would be primarily critical and interpretive, and would be entwined with a logic of negation and refusal. The sciences would be procedural, operating from within paradigms (however sophisticated, reflected upon or provisional) while the humanities would occur through self-distancing or reading: whatever life or system is given, it is the task of the humanities—because there is no such thing as the human—to open a space of conversation, legitimation, questioning or critique. Without such a space one would be reduced to the ruthless actuality of metrics or utilitarianism. ‘Man’ as given in the humanities is not the man of science (subjecting the world to so many repeatable, efficient and quantifiable functions). Nor is the humanity of the humanities the ‘man’ of the human sciences (whereby man’s social and political being can be read as an expression of what Foucault refers to as his ‘empirical density’: man speaks and labors because of the needs of life, and it is this emergence from life that allows man to read himself in today’s anthropology, social linguistics, evolutionary psychology and cognitive archaeology). The man of the humanities was already post-human, possessing no being other than his reflexive capacity to read his own ungrounded and utterly flexible becoming. ‘At the very moment that we are acting physically for the first time on the global Earth, and when it in turn is doubtless reacting on global humanity, we are tragically neglecting it’ (Serres 1995, 29).
For Michel Serres humanity is not a concept that grounds the humanities, nor is ‘man’ a concept expressed by the various disciplines that comprise the humanities. Rather, ‘humanity’ is a meteorological imperative, a concept that needs to be created today in order to confront the change in techno-geological climates. Serres’s work, despite its manifest humanism in The Natural Contract, does not take the form of a resistance to the technical reduction of man to systems. (What his work demands, in a manner similar to Deleuze’s affirmation of differential calculus, is not an overcoming of calculation but a more subtle differential calculation: a reckoning of the quantities and systems produced by the relations among the bodies of the human species and the other forces upon which it is parasitic.) Serres’s theorization of the human is not a post-humanism that would happily conflate human existence with life in general. Such post-humanisms are, as I have already suggested, ultimately ultra-humanisms insofar as they attribute all the qualities once assigned to man—qualities such as mindfulness, connectedness, self-organizing dynamism—to some supposedly benevolent life in general that needs to be saved from the death of merely calculative systems. Against this Rosalyn Diprose has re-asserted the role of human meaning, perception and value in providing an opening of the event in an otherwise leveled world:
That is, supposedly, the value of the humanities today, lies both in its ideal resistance to a culture of economic rationalism and narrow utilitarianism and its less pious claim to educate students with transferable skills or critical reasoning or rhetorical flexibility. The humanities of post-humanism has happily abandoned species-ism and exceptionalism—man is no longer adjudicator or hermeneutic arbiter outside the web of life—for there is one de-centered, mutually imbricated, constantly creative mesh, system or network of life. According to Timothy Morton:
Morton’s project differs both from the simple ecological affirmations that would reunite humans with a lost nature (for he aims to think ecology without grounding and unifying nature), and also from the strands of ‘object oriented ontology’ that would insist that not everything is connected (Harman 2012, 132). And it is this latter possibility of disconnection or detachment that is, I would suggest, productively inhuman. Yes, most avowed post-humanisms have celebrated the destruction of man as the ground of all reason, but what they have brought back is one grand whole of interconnected systems of observation (often readable in terms of some grander system of class, power or life). But it is the sacrifice of man as Cartesian subject in favor of a posthuman ecology of systems that allows the humanities to live on. If the human is assumed to be nothing more than an interface, already at one with a world that is one living system, then posthumanism is nothing more than the negation of a humanism that never was. It is an ultrahumanism precisely because once man is abandoned as a distinct system or inflection he returns to characterize nature or life in general, just as the death of God left an implicit and widespread theologism that no longer had a distinct or explicit logic. Posthumanism is an ultrahumanism and partakes of the same metaleptic logic of reactive nihilism. In nihilism, a higher world is posited to justify or grant worth to this world. This higher world is posited from a reaction against the force of this world. When that supposed transcendence is no longer affirmed, this world becomes a world minus transcendence, godless, worthless, void and negated. Humanism posits an elevated or exceptional ‘man’ to grant sense to existence, then when ‘man’ is negated or removed what is left is the human all too human tendency to see the world as one giant anthropomorphic self-organizing living body. Not surprisingly, there become increasingly shrill calls for human meaning (including a pragmatic or humanized religion, and a certain substitution of literature for God as the ground of human sense-making). ‘Man’ is effected as that animal who would be especially poised to read the logic of life, and this because of his capacities for speech and sociality; it is the creation of man that enables a certain concept of life. When man is destroyed to yield a post-human world it is the same world minus humans, a world of meaning, sociality and readability yet without any sense of the disjunction, gap or limits of the human. Like nihilism, the logic is metaleptic: the figure of man is originally posited in order to yield a sense or meaning of life, and yet when man is done away with as an external power what is left is an anthropomorphic life of meaning and readability. A certain idea of man—Foucault notes—was intertwined with the possibility of the human sciences and of a concomitant notion of life. If, for Foucault, both ‘man’ and ‘life’ emerge in the eighteenth century this is because there is a new distribution in the table of knowledge, a new fold between inside and outside. Rather than examining the forms of living being in a world of analogies—with humanity being an expression of a broader cosmology, there is now something like life as such with its specific temporality and imperatives. Whereas humans had been privileged beings (blessed with reason) it is now man who is at once empirically constituted by life (required to speak, labor and constitute polities because of the needs of his species being) and yet also capable of reading that logic of life as transcendental: psychoanalysis, Marxism, ethnography, structuralism and (today’s) evolutionary psychology or cognitive archaeology all account for the modus of the human organism according to a certain logic of life.
Today, even though man as a privileged being has been incorporated into a posthuman plane of interacting living systems what remains is the reactive and ultrahuman logic of finitude: it is because there is life (or a being’s relation to an ecology) that one can only know the world as it is given through organic conditions. A being is alive insofar as it maintains itself and does so in relation to a milieu that it perceives according to its own capacities; humans and animals have worlds, and the world is not so much data to be represented by an imposed order nor a book of life but an interactive and dynamic mesh of living systems. One can account for language, labor and life according to a single logic of man: a being emerges from the needs of self-maintenance (which in the case of man require language, the polity and labor), but it is man who has the capacity to read the enigmatic density of life. His empirical being is the sign of a broader logic (a transcendental logic of life).
If the humanities—for Foucault—had any value it would not be as an extension of this logic—such that we might see literature as emerging from evolving and self-furthering life, or as somehow the means by which the empirical being of man might be awakened to his proto-transcendental powers of critique. Rather what Foucault referred to as literature would evidence something like a force beyond life, a machinic power that could not be referred back to the self-furthering human organism (Deleuze 2006, 110). Language would not be the system through which we could read man’s emergence from a general order of life as self-maintenance; it would not be world-disclosive, nor an extension of organic and organizing imperatives of life.
Now if it is this man (of finitude) that has been removed from exceptionalism in the posthuman landscape, and if the humanities disciplines have abandoned poetic assumptions of human speech as a special or privileged domain for revelation, what remains is a negative or reactive continuation of anthropomorphic projection by other means. Self-maintaining organicism and auto-poeisis are everywhere. In terms of theory this has led to a posthuman landscape in which there is one general dynamic system with animals, machines and digital codes all woven to constitute a single ecology; the knowledge procedures are generally extensive, subsuming more and more events within the domain of one evolving and efficient life. It is for this reason that Rosi Braidotti has marked out two distinct modes of post-humanism, one of which would draw attention to the ways in which lines of life and thought are ‘topologically bound’—not considered to be one expressive aspect of one single system of life. The post-humanism of which Braidotti is critical is of a single-system where all observations can be grounded on a single self-expressive living whole (Braidotti 2006, 199). What is not considered in the post-humanisms of living systems are radically differing intensities, or intensive multiplicities, in which different speeds and economies open different and incompossible systems. I would suggest that it is no surprise, then, that certain Luddite modes of literary Darwinism have gained literary vogue. Despite the sophisticated achievements of Darwinism in philosophy and science (from thinkers as diverse as Elizabeth Grosz and Stephen Jay Gould) that have stressed a certain divergence from function in evolutionary life, there has been a proclamation of the return of literary studies to purposive and meaningful life. Not only have explicit versions of literary Darwinism led to a rejection of high theory (a high theory that had supposedly imprisoned thought in language [Carroll 2004,29]); there has also been a more general proclaimed posthumanism that considers the absence of man to be a license for a new literalism, with direct talk of life, affect, bodies and ethics/politics.
The ethical turn, like the affective turn, is a turn back away from a supposed human imprisonment within language to the real and collective conditions of existence. One might cite, as an example, Eva Ziarek’s critique of Agamben. Agamben had already attacked the deconstructive attention to limits in order to retrieve the event of saying or opening of the political (Agamben 1999, 209). Ziarek, in turn, wants to take Agamben’s general concept of potentiality, from which the polity would open, and locate this force in intersubjective communality: ‘potentiality cannot be understood, as Agamben seems to suggest, in terms of the isolated subject and what “he can or can not do,” because it is fundamentally a relational concept, emerging from the encounter with another “you.”’ (Ziarek 2010).
In a similar manner Hardt and Negri also want to turn away from the locatedness of centering points of view, and therefore from language and other constituting, inhuman and transcendent (to human life) systems, to the commons, the multitude—immanent political bodies that would have nothing outside or beyond themselves (and certainly not any imposed norm of humanity):
In addition to these general affirmations that would now return man to the one common life of which he is a political and benevolent, and ultimately productive, expression, new ‘post-human’ objects of interest also return differential structures to purposive, self-maintaining, fruitful and generative life.
Digital media studies and animal studies affirm a continuous milieu of exchange in which there is neither a radical outside nor any limit to human comprehension. There has emerged in addition to a post-humanism that affirms a simple, continuous interface a critical post-humanism that affirms embodiment. In reaction to those who feel that humanity may extend or overcome itself through technology, there have been those who stress the resistance and significance of the embodied substrate, directly rejecting the ‘substrate neutral’ claims of those who stress computation (Dougherty 2001). Critical post-humanism reacts against the idea that the body is nothing more than contingent hardware or a vehicle for an intelligence or humanity that is primarily informational; this counter-technophilia is more critical of the residual humanist (or Cartesian, or rationalist) assumption that ‘we’ have now arrived at a point in history where technology might overcome the body. Critical post-humanism is nevertheless—like other affective, ethical, corporeal or post-linguistic ‘turns’—a retrieval of the lived body that follows the same logic of reactive nihilism. That is, whether one uncritically affirms the capacity for humans and life to evolve to a point of post-human freedom from all grounded biology, or whether one maintains an insistence on bodies and interests, one nevertheless grants the human (and the humanities) a continued critical role of reading and meaning. What is left out of play is the rigid separation or malevolence of the human that can neither be willed away in a mode of techno-vital euphoria, nor retrieved as some point of re-creating invention.
By contrast, both Serres and Deleuze focus on the inhuman multiplicities of systems: Serres’s concepts of parasitism and pollution allow for an examination of what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as stratification (Deleuze and Guattari 2004, 176). While systems are relational, it is also the case that appropriations, overcodings and disturbances produce distinct registers. The human, as a concept, would be one way of thinking technological, meteorological or disciplinary thresholds that create intense ruptures. Humanity would be a disturbing outcome of systemic events, not an origin. Given that both Serres and Deleuze’s concepts of humanity or ‘the people’ are futural—gestures towards how we might think the ways in which the human-sensory motor apparatus has intersected with and created new speeds for other systems—it is not surprising that both Serres and Deleuze and Guattari have a counter-interdisciplinary mode of linking discourses without commensurability. What occurs is cross-contamination or discursive germinal warfare rather than communication and a common life world.
It was the genius of Foucault to take the modern logic of life and show its direct consequences for human disciplines. It is the turn to life—the idea that social historical man can be explained by a more general process of species being (or man as a laboring political animal)—that enables social sciences. These disciplines are reactive because they no longer present norms as direct imperatives but as following on from the needs of life; there can only be biopolitical management of populations if there are human sciences that enable an ethics of knowledge, an organization of the human species according to broader requirements of existence. The humanities, if they react against this reduction of man to a material body and affirm either the capacity of man as a speaking, laboring being not to speak or work (Agamben’s impotentiality) or more standard humanist affirmations of that which is not quantifiable because embodied, affective and lived, do nothing more than maintain the normative logic of life that would entail their redundancy. That is: let us say that the human sciences and bio-politics reduce ‘man’ to bare life, to being manipulable and manageable data. It follows that either the humanities becomes a supplement to this model—business ethics, bio-ethics, the production of transferable skills or critical reasoning—or, it argues that ‘humanity’ is never simply data, information, animality or bare life but has an excess of potentiality that remains unactualised. This would allow certain versions of post-humanism—those that argue for the ways in which animals or digital media complicate any simple Cartesian or rationalist model of the human—to keep the humanities alive. Man would not be mere biological mass, nor an information machine, and for this reason his ‘rights’ could neither be saved in themselves nor extended to animals and humans: on the contrary, the embodied interactions of humans, machines and animals would evidence a richness of the lived, of the affective, or suffering or lived body. So if man as a particular and exceptional being has been vanquished, what is saved is nevertheless a highly normative (theological-organic) logic of life in which the bounded and self-separating body with a world of its own is affirmed against various calculative reductivisms.
So what of the humanities, if anything at all, might we say is really worth saving? Stanley Fish’s objection to the closing of humanities departments never makes quite clear just what mode of humanities he wishes to save, or why such survival would truly be worthy. He does refer to the horror of closing French departments when it was precisely French culture that was the breath of life for humanities departments in the 1980s. One might note as an aside the odd objection to losing French (French!!!!); Jean-Luc Nancy even protested, ironically, that it would of course be more efficient to learn ‘Java’ or Chinese (as the language of business). Was he really, in leaping to the defense of the humanities, suggesting that saving French was properly open and futural, while emphasizing Chinese was mercantile—akin to reduced ‘languages’ to ‘Java’?
Leaving aside what French might contribute to the twenty-first century, one needs to ask what aspect or consumed fragment of this mourned French theory yields a properly viable mode of humanities study. A certain strand of French thought—one highly suspicious not only of ‘man’ but of certain structures of knowledge in which the emergence of systems and idealities might always be returned to the lived—is precisely what has been occluded in so called post-humanism today. Indeed, the humanism that has been rejected is Cartesian computational or cognitive rationalism in favor of embodied, affective, distributed, emotional or subjective life. The humanities would somehow return disengaged logics and structures to the properly living or embodied plane of life from which they emerge. It is not only Habermas (1987), then, with his insistence that sciences always emerge from a lifeworld who domesticates and anthropomorphizes knowledge systems. It is what currently passes for French-inflected theory that celebrates the primacy of the lived. N. Katherine Hayles, one of the key figures of contemporary post-humanism, proclaims her distinction and theoretical sophistication from a naïve computationalism in a return to embodiment, and the lived. For Hayles:
The computational universe becomes dangerous when it goes from being a useful heuristic device to an ideology that privileges information over everything else. As we have seen, information is a socially constructed concept; in addition to its currently accepted definition, it could have been, and was, given different definitions. Just because information has lost its body does not mean that humans and the world have lost theirs.
Fortunately, not all theorists agree that it makes sense to think about information as an entity apart from the medium that embodies it. Let us revisit some of the sites of the computational universe, this time to locate those places where the resistance of materiality does useful work within the theories. From this perspective, fracture lines appear that demystify the program(s) and make it possible to envision other futures, futures in which human beings feel at home in the universe because they are embodied creatures living in an embodied world. (Hayles 1999, 244)
This ‘critical’ post-humanism is reactive in two inextricable senses, morally/politically and epistemologically. As Nietzsche described the logic of ressentiment: the lesser value of my life, the suffering or weakness I feel, is caused by some evil other—an other whose power and mastery proves their evil and my valued innocence. Like nihilism, which posits a higher world, diminishes the worth of actuality, and then falls into despair when the higher world is lost and there is nothing other than the actual, so ressentiment attributes all the world's ills and evils to the Cartesian man of rationalism and instrumental reason, and finds enchanted life and unified nature to be worthy because innocent and other than human. One posits a value outside life (humanity) that would render life meaningful or worthy, and when that value is no longer affirmed or believed in one lives on in a state of weak, mournful and enslaved subjection. Only the humanities can grant meaning to the world: in the absence of both God and man all we are left with is meaning. Various calls to save the humanities rely upon an asserted ‘something’ that must be irreducible to the quantitative materialism of economic rationalism. Methodologically or epistemologically this mystical ‘x’ can either be the return of the multitude as self-creating whole as event (Hardt and Negri), the human as bare potentiality witnessed in its impotentiality (Agamben), the affective or lived experience that is manifest precisely in its alienation, or just a general weak affirmation of meaning (Cottingham 2003, Wolf 2010; Eagleton 2007). Just as Foucault (1978) argued that man would be maintained by a process of enquiring into his hidden sexuality that must be the cause of his being, so the human and humanities survive by continually searching for that ultimate cause from which calculative and scientific reasoning must have emerged. One reacts against theory and disenchantment by a return to the lived. Mark Hansen, self-proclaimed new philosopher of new media, insists that it is precisely when digital media produces images with which I strive (but fail) to identify or empathize that ‘my’ lived and affective embodiment is, by default, re-affirmed:
That is, the more inhuman, dehumanizing, replicating, alienating or simulating the image—the more the human appears as nothing more than appearance susceptible to inauthentic doubling—the more my alienated and impossible human feeling persists. It is as though the intensity of the despair I feel at your claims that God does not exist simply proves—through my very sense of loss and sadness—that really there must be a God or spirituality after all, known in His retreat or in my mourning. I feel a loss of meaning, ergo it is.
The second example of subjective recuperation comes from Žižek, who draws upon Rancière and Badiou to criticize a postmodern politics of a single domain of circulating opinions and tolerated identities in order to affirm the event of the subject. In a mode akin to St. Paul’s universal Christianity in opposition to Greek sophistry or ‘the Jewish discourse of obscurantist prophetism’, the subject is not an affirmed substance within the world, nor a messianic visitation from another world, but is given only in its act of break or disorder—again known only in its not being known:
The problem with humanism, so it seems, is that it is deemed to be rather inhuman. The Cartesian subject of calculative reason, along with computational theories of mind or representation, including both older humanisms of man as supreme moral animal and post-humanisms envisioning a disembodied world of absolute mastery, cannot cope with the complexity and dynamism of affective life. The humanities should, supposedly, be post-human in this quite specific sense: the destruction of man—the being who represents a world to be known—would give way to one single domain of life as living system. There would no longer be a privileged centre of knowing, nor ‘a’ world in general, just a web, network or mesh of multiple worlds. This would either yield a macro-organicism of Gaia and deep ecology along with a humanities oriented towards care, concern and eco-criticism or deep ecology, or—and these two paths are not mutually exclusive—a highly interdisciplinary mode of humanities in which words and texts are part of the same circulating web of things, bodies, technologies, images or any other event. It is not surprising then that philosophy has argued for connecting the mind back to the world (Clark 1997) or putting mind into life (Thompson 1997), and for thinking of societies and living bodies, as well as political systems and languages as assemblages of interconnected and immanent, but always realist and material, registers (De Landa 2006; Protevi 2009; Latour 2005). But if systems theory, assemblages and living systems approaches allow the humanities to live on, no longer as privileged decoders of culture but just as readers of systems alongside other (possibly more scientific) readers, then perhaps the most valiant post-human ultra-humanist modes of humanities have been those that appeal to science for a grounding of their modes of reading; no longer are they seduced by the specialness of literary objects. It is in this manner that Brian Boyd neatly points out Derrida’s ignorance of the scientific findings for language’s emergence from life, a point that then allows Boyd to pursue a science-based literary Darwinism that, like the work of Joseph Carroll, corrects the ‘high theory’ notion of linguistic construction:
Like many other turns, returns or reassemblings Boyd’s argument takes the form of a redemption narrative: we used to be Cartesian, computational, humanist, linguistically enclosed, but now we have discovered life. The humanities now takes everything in and in abandoning the closure of the literary object regains the world—the living, dynamic and interdisciplinary world. Manual De Landa also writes about materialism’s capacity to save us from linguistic narcissism or idealism (De Landa 2006, 12-13), while Andy Clark specifically refers to putting the world back together again (although his culprit, as with Evan Thompson, is not French theory but Cartesianism and computationalism) (Clark 1998 xi-xii).
Would the humanities be worth saving in such a world? Would not humanities scholars be better replaced by journalists—reporting and disseminating findings from the sciences—or by scientists themselves? If, as Boyd claims, understanding literature really requires understanding evolution would you not rather trust someone with a rigorous training in that area? And if the body and its neural responses were really the basis for what goes on in digital media, who would you save, a critic who can correct Deleuze by looking back to Bergson or someone who just received a NSF grant for a new fMRI machine?
There is a definite historical sense and teleology here: language, literature and the objects of the humanities—including ‘man’—emerge from life. Man, unfortunately, made the mistake of regarding himself as distinct from life, leading to Cartesianism and linguisticism, but science has redeemed us. Neuroscience has returned the brain to affective emotional life, and evolutionary theory has returned that living affective life to a broader narrative of the organism’s efficiency. Interdisciplinarity will save the humanities as will a sense of historical emergence or genesis. We will become post-human via consumption—absorbing information and methods from the sciences—and extension: no longer limiting human predicates such as thought, affect, pathos and signification to humans.
It might seem to follow, then, that a combination of the work of Gilles Deleuze and Michel Serres would finally be in order. Consider the key motifs of their works: an inter-weaving of different disciplinary registers (mathematics and poetry), a refusal to isolate the human animal from life, a sense of life as a multiplicity, a complex historical sense that would destroy the history of man in favor of a history of bodies (where bodies would include technological objects, words, languages, animals, polities, cities and images) and an emphasis on sense. The latter term would not be meaning or the way in which the world is for ‘us’ but would open out onto a broader domain of interaction and relations (as well as that which is devoid of relation and connection). What I would suggest, though, is that there is an inhuman (rather than posthuman) approach to knowledge offered by the ways in which Deleuze and Serres approach the problems of history and sense, and that such an approach would not extend the life of the humanities by melding it with a single interdisciplinary domain of which the sciences would also be a part, but would intensify certain dimensions of the humanities only by destroying certain majoritarian, anthropomorphic or dominant components.
It is true that Deleuze and Guattari weave together insights from science linguistics, art, philosophy and the social sciences, not only in A Thousand Plateaus but also in What is Philosophy? The latter volume poses the question of philosophy as a genuine problem; it does not so much define philosophy extensively (generalizing from what has already actually occurred) but rather creates an intensive plane: if we can see science, art and philosophy as they are already given, what are the distinct forces that make these lines of thought possible? On the one hand, philosophy art and science emerge from virtual powers (such as the capacity, in art, for sensations to be presented as such); on the other hand, Deleuze and Guattari also specify the economic, imaginary, geographical and historical conditions for something like the philosophical practice for creating concepts. They also locate art, not in human practice, but in animal life. However, it is precisely through the expansion of a disciplinary tendency beyond its human form that Deleuze and Guattari destroy a certain model of inter-disciplinarity. If one could think of concepts, affects and functions not as practices grounded in a self-maintaining human life, then one would not only have to rethink the supposed self-evident good of inter-disciplinarity and the unity of the humanities, but also the future and survival of disciplines and the dominant image of the (now highly humanized) humanities. Such a future would not assume the value of living on in its current form, either of humanity or the humanities, and it would abandon such assumed values precisely because of what we might refer to—after Serres—as climate change. If we could imagine the radical sense of climate, from clima and inclination, or the inflection that yields a certain patterning of what surrounds us, then we might say that now is the time to question the human and post-human basis of thinking, especially when the post-human has been a return of the human into one single life with one single inclination, that of ongoing self-maintenance. To conclude with a more positive—which is to say, destructive—approach to thinking beyond the interdisciplinarity of the humanities I will conclude with drawing upon two concepts from Serres—parasitism and pollution—and two concepts from Deleuze and Guattari: concepts/affects and higher deterritorialization. Assembled together these concepts can yield a new sense of sense and a new sense of history.
At its broadest the concept of parasitism would at first seem to place Serres’s approach within a single and unified field of knowledge, as it yields a model not just for relations among living bodies, but for information systems and—one might say—life in general. But if the relation of parasitism, and its capacity to displace the illusion of predator-prey relations, is general , then what parasitism discloses are irreducible differences and singularities that require highly discerned cuts and judgments. Whereas a predator would be a vaguely self-sufficient body, capable of maintaining itself and using some other body as means of sustenance, the parasite would have no existence other than that of supplementarity: ‘And that is the meaning of the prefix para- in the word parasite: it is on the side, next to, shifted; it is not on the thing, but on its relation. It has relations, as they say, and makes a system of them. It is always mediate and never immediate’ (Serres 2007, 38-39).
To claim that man is parasitic, rather than a predator, and that this occurs in a life of parasitism in general entails several consequences for humanism, post-humanism and the ‘disciplines’ that might be adequate to thinking the inhuman. If one abandons the concept of predator then one also abandons the concept of the good and just relation: it would not be the case that a proper humanity would use ‘its’ natural milieu according to reasonable or ecological needs, maintaining a balance with a world he uses but towards which he could also contribute (by cultivating, re-planting, mitigating, adapting, capping, trading and offsetting). There would be no good humanity of reasonable predatory use that might be morally distinguished from a parasitic humanity that would be nothing more than a consumer or digester of energies not its own. For that is the nature of distinction and being: one is not a unified body that then might produce good (self-sustaining) or evil (ultimately short-term and destructive) relations to one’s milieu.
Let us accept that humanity is and must be parasitic: it lives only in its robbing and destruction of a life that is not its own. Our current predicament of climate change, whereby we have consumed and ingested blindly—bloating and glutting our body politic through the constant destruction of resources without recompense—would not be a late accident, nor a misjudgment of a post-industrial age. To be a body is to be a consuming body, to be in a relation of destructive consumption with what is effected as other, as resource, through consumption. Climate change would be the condition of human organicism in general: for there would be no climate, only clinamen, an inclination, deviancy or parasitism that creates a supplemental body (of man) who would then retroactively imagine that he has an environment, a klima, for which he ought to have been more mindful. But if this places humanity as one aspect of a general parasitism, then it is also the case that ‘man’ occurs as a specific inclination or deviation, and it would be the task of thinking to examine each parasitic swerve (human and non-human) according to its own differential. The deviation that enables mathematical systems, for example, would occur when the counting procedure deflects from living praxis and becomes a formalized supplemental system. From here one could then examine the geneses of formalization and ideality. Similarly, one could see poetry as a specific parasite, taking the language of speech and action and developing a relation among sounds and rhythms of the voice and script, but with no benefit from the organic or living bodies and practices from which it emerged.
Attempts to return systems to the sense of their origin—to see literature as benefiting the bodies from which it emerged, to see digital media as grounded in affect and embodiment, or to see all disciplines as expressions of one self-maintaining life-world would be to suffer from the illusion that parasitism goes in two directions. Not only does Serres insist that it does not; this irreversibility can be evidenced by any semi-autonomous or parasitic system. A system develops its own laws of survival irrespective of its host, and this is so even if the complexity of relations often confuses—for observers—who is host and who is parasite. Not only could there be no general inter-disciplinary humanities, whereby each discipline recognized its place in the ongoing self-understanding of man; each declination or parasitism would have its own inflection. As parasitic it could not be grounded in ‘the’ body of a single life.
This leads to pollution, which cannot be seen as some late-industrial nor specifically human inclination. It would not be the deviation from proper inhabitation, for inhabitation as such involves not just added markers or territorial inscriptions but contributing something like waste or matter that elicits disgust or revulsion to an approaching outsider (Serres 2008, 29). There is a connection here with parasitism that further debilitates (or ought to debilitate) ‘our’ usual notions of ecology, environment and symbiotic interconnectedness. Pollution is not simply making a niche, having a world that would, in turn, contribute to other worlds; to pollute or mark a space as one’s own habitus is to subtract, diminish and defile the origin’s integrity. If there is only pollution, and if there is no clean or ethical living, or if ethos is entwined with abjection then one could not attribute climate change to man alone. That is another way of saying that climate change would not be recognizable as long as one remained in a human or post-human mode of thinking: for such a mode would begin with man destroying his milieu (anthropogenic climate change would then require man to mitigate, adapt or trade in order to live on). And post-human celebrations of a single ecology would not be able to face a condition of climate change in general. To live and inhabit is to be parasitic, to pollute, to alter the clima, to effect an inclination that cannot be remedied or mitigated by some return or retrieval of the proper.
This suggests several critical and positive conclusions. Critically one could no longer ground ethics on an understanding of a proper humanity: not only humanity in general but any living form—any being that marks or territorializes itself—must distinguish itself from its milieu. In the beginning would be neither mutual exchange nor symbiosis but theft (Deleuze and Guattari 2004a, 203). Survival and self-maintenance, or the creation of a specificity or identity, require deviation and distortion.
Where does this leave notions of ecology, symbiosis and Gaia? On the one hand Serres’s focus on the clinamen reinforces the relational aspect of all being: there are not identities or terms that then enter into relation, nor a world of individuals or beings who must then somehow contract with or contact each other. But this is not to suggest either that there is one harmonious world, expressed each in its own way by each living form. On the contrary, as in Deleuze’s monadology, Serres’s Leibnizian world is one of incompossibility. Not only is each inclination or deviation an opening and disruption of a quite specific or singular differential—a quite singular creation of a field—it occurs always as disruption of other differentials and relations. The emphasis on parasitism and pollution precludes any nostalgia or restoration; in the beginning is defilement. This then yields a far more positive conception of a natural contract, which would not be man becoming one with nature as one living and symbiotic whole. Rather, it is precisely the supposedly ethical position of man as an interdisciplinary animal—man as assembler and negotiator of a single field of knowledges—that would give way to a natural contract that is a multiplicity, with divergent rather than harmonious lines of inflection. Climate change in a positive sense, following on from this parasitism and pollution, would occur as a negotiation or natural contract of the infinitely multiple. The contract is at once epistemological and legal, for it requires not only that man recognize his natural milieu, but that the very concepts of milieu, environment and climate in their singular sense would have to be rendered obsolete if nature also ‘contracts’. Nature also has its inflections, worlds, multiplicities and differentials. We could not, then, imagine a grounding or ideal (even inaccessible) nature that is lost in the creation of technical systems. There has always been globalization; each event in the world is a disturbance or distortion that enables something like an inflection or inclination to occur from chaos. (A new threshold occurs with modern post-industrial humanity precisely because its inflections do not just radiate outward and create local distortions but deterritorialize or become inflections of the whole, capable of infecting or polluting every other line of system or parasitism.) The ‘contract’ of the natural contract is therefore not a signature (an act of the hand, inscribing a blank surface) but a contraction (the introduction of a noise or pollutant that ramifies throughout the open whole). Here is where Serres’s work connects with Deleuze’s similarly divergent Leibniz-ism. The world is a monadology, an infinitely divisible chaos in which smaller and smaller differentials will enable subtler and subtler relations and encounters—so that there is no nature in general outside or beyond the multiplicity of contractions: ‘organs fully belong to matter because they are merely the contraction of several waves or rays: the nature of a receptive organ is to contract’ (Deleuze 2006b, 111). If, today, networks of technology and techno-science have, in their parasitism, effected something like a totality of nature in general, this is not as an object of scientific knowledge so much as a field of implication:
In a manner that seems close to Hardt and Negri’s positing of a new global humanity effected through the immaterial networks of technology Serres suggests that a global ‘we’ has emerged, requiring a reflexive discipline concerned with humanity’s total polluting power. Here is where one might note a disjunction between the affirmation of the people as ‘missing’ in Deleuze and Guattari (1994, 176) and Serres’s almost mournful lament of this new ‘we’ with unforeseen destructive powers that finally produces nature as a totality (not so much as on object of knowledge but as a consequence of destruction).
For Serres something like humanity has been rendered possible and effective not because of knowledge as recognition but because of a general polluting and parasitic power that has overtaken the locality of systems and relative disturbances. If we align this new ‘subject’ with Deleuze and Guattari’s recognition of capitalism as an axiomatic then this provides us with a new way of thinking about a positively destructive ‘humanities.’ This would be inhuman, rather than post-human, precisely because the creation of the single system or axiom where work and production overcode all other relations, including supposedly environmental or ecological imperatives of survival and adaptation, would need to be annihilated to give way to differentials along a different axis.
Consider, here, Deleuze and Guattari’s created concepts, in What is Philosophy? which are not extensive insofar as they do not name or generalize actually existing disciplines but are intensive: they create or mark out speeds and rhythms for thinking. Consider concepts: although it is possible in a weak and general sense to locate concepts as one part of everyday speech, Deleuze and Guattari create a concept of concepts. A concept, considered philosophically, possesses a unique speed and rhythm. The concept of the cogito, for example, did not label an already existing entity, nor did it perform a move in an already practiced language game. Rather, when Descartes creates the concept of the cogito he slows thought down, retreats from action and efficiency, and from practical communication and institutes a thoroughly new, virtual and philosophic terrain. Doubt is oriented to a perception of the world as calculable, of ‘a’ subject as self-present, of philosophy as a mode of questioning and of bodies as suspended or placed in parentheses. Similarly, Deleuze and Guattari also create the concept of affects/percepts and functions. The former do not describe already existing art practices, nor what art always is. Like the concept of philosophy and its capacity to create concepts, the concept of art (as the production of affects/percepts) intuits a potentiality that may exist in a mixed or impure form in thinking as it currently is, but that can be intimated and gestured to futurally in what thought might be. What would it be to create a percept that would not be the perception of some observer, or an affect that would be neither the affection of an author nor an affection produced in the reader/viewer?
By creating the concept of the concept in What is Philosophy? Deleuze and Guattari allow for a new mode of philosophy: if democracy is a concept then the problem of democracy is not so much what it is (what social systems are really democratic) but the orientation it creates in thinking. What would it be to develop a socius with no other power than its own capacity for decision? Similarly, by creating the concept of affects and percepts they enable a new mode of art theory: how might we imagine a work, not as the communication of an author, nor as the representation of a world, nor as the meaning it yields for its readers, but as a ‘stand alone’ or monumental detachment of percepts and affects from the lived? The affect or percept would yield color as such, melancholy as such: one might think here of the attempt to capture light in paint, to capture the sounds of the earth in synthesizers, or the striving to sculpt courage in stone. Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts—the concept of philosophy as the creation of concepts, of art as the production of affects—allow us to think beyond ‘the humanities’, beyond ‘interdisciplinarity,’ and they do so in ways that intersect fruitfully with Serres’s concepts of parasitism, pollution and a new humanity.
For Serres a threshold is reached with current extensions of pollution that create a difference in kind. Humanity is no longer one pollutant or polluter among others, creating a territory, milieu or inclination. Humanity effects a climate change of climates; there are no longer multiplicities of inclinations, but an inclination or clima that has extended to such a degree that is constitutes a difference in kind—a pollution of such intensity that it now precludes the dynamisms, systems and disturbances of anything outside its own terrain. Serres argues that this calls for a concept of humanity. Such a concept would not be a reflection upon man as he is or has been, would not be a critical uncovering of the specific life of man. As a futural concept it would, like Deleuze and Guattari’s created concepts of philosophy, art and science, require and enable an interrogation into humanity as inclination. How is it possible that in a life or earth that is nothing other than a multiplicity of inclinations and parasitisms one specific line or disturbance has taken over the whole, at the very expense of its own tendency? If all life is improper, noisy, disturbing and deprived of any grounding or proper form—if, in the beginning, is the swerve—then how might one account for both the overtaking of the plane of disturbances and the emerging desire for a survival not of man as he is—a humanity that would manage its polluting tendencies—but that might create a new concept of itself?
The very concept of the humanities in its dominant form—as critical and interdisciplinary—would need to be destroyed in a productive manner. This is because the idea of man that underpins the humanities as an interdisciplinary problem has been extensive: disciplines are activities, achieved by a division of labor, with man examining himself as a historical animal whose life creates him as a social and linguistic being capable of self-reflection and communication. It is not surprising that this man of reflexive knowledge and moral self-management confronts climate change as an extensive and managerial problem: how might we use less in order to live longer, how might we act more frugally in order to survive? But if we accept that there are capacities or potentialities that are not those of managerial man—either Serres future humanity or Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘still-missing people’—then we would have to abandon the idea of earth as environment to which we might bear our proper and restorative relation, along with the humanities as some domain of communication that might return us to our better selves. A futural approach to disciplines would embrace and intensify the distinct inclinations of thinking—the differences of thinking in concepts, colors, sounds, affects—and would not assume precisely what climate change forces us to question: Why, if information regarding our polluting and parasitic existence is so extensive, are we so incapable of thinking intensively, of imagining a different inclination beyond that of the adaptation and survival of man?