Towards the posthumanities


Bij nostalgische ideeën over de Geesteswetenschappen is niemand gebaat , zegt universiteitshoogleraar Rosi Braidotti. De veranderingen in de wereld en in het mensbeeld vragen om nieuwe antwoorden.

Bij nostalgische ideeën over de Geesteswetenschappen is niemand gebaat , zegt universiteitshoogleraar Rosi Braidotti. De veranderingen in de wereld en in het mensbeeld vragen om nieuwe antwoorden. (Engels)

There is much talk today about the need for change in both the institutional and the content structure of the Humanities, especially within the project : ‘Science in transition’, which is making headline news across the country. I empathize very much with the spirit and the aims of this campaign, partly because I am sick and tired of the public discourse about the so-called ‘crisis ‘ of the Humanities, which forces us to defend our sheer existence. I do not even believe in the notion of crisis, I just see some formidable opportunities that require intellectual creativity, methodological courage and optimistic energy. I agree that we need to move on and this is what I propose as my agenda for change.

My position is simple: the Humanities can and will survive their present difficulties to the extent that they will show the ability and willingness to undergo a major process of transformation in response to both technological advances and geo-political developments. The task for Humanities is to develop creative ways of representing, analysing and responding to the changes and transformations currently on the way. We already live in states of high mobility, in multi-ethnic societies with high degrees of technological mediation. The Humanities therefore need great creativity to cope with these challenges.

The starting point for me is to analyse what is the notion of the human implicit in the Humanities such as we know it and to update it in the light of contemporary concerns. The classical idea of the ‘Human’ implied in the Humanities, is the image of Man as a rational animal endowed with language. This is the humanist core of the classical vision of ‘Man’, which includes both an ideal of bodily perfection and a set of mental, discursive and spiritual values. Of course this image is far from consensual. Anti-humanists over the last thirty years (Foucault 1970, 1977) as well as feminist and postcolonial scholars questioned both the self-representation and the image of thought implied in the Humanist definition of the Human, especially the tacit assumption that is Man is actually male, white, speaking a European language, able-bodied bodied and activated by the ideas of transcendental reason and the notion that the subject coincides with rational consciousness. How culture-specific is in fact this allegedly universal ideal?

There has been special criticism of the ways in which Humanism historically developed into a civilizational model, shaping a certain idea of Europe as coinciding with the universalizing powers of self-reflexive reason. This makes Eurocentrism into more than just a contingent matter of attitude: it is a structural element of our cultural and pedagogical practice. The first challenge is therefore to move beyond this Eurocentric perspective, which Ulrich Beck calls: ‘methodological nationalism’(Beck, 2007) : for as long as the image of Man is equated with male, white, middle-aged legal residents of nation states, the lack of respect for diversity is dwarfing the relevance of the Humanities thy are allegedly defending.

The second flaw of the Humanities is their structural anthropocentrism, which translates into sustained hostility towards, or genuine incompatibility with, the culture, practice and institutional existence of science and technology, notably the rise of ‘Life’ sciences and technologically mediated communication and knowledge transfer. Anthropocentrism is based on species supremacy. The emergence of ‘Life’ as the central concern of scientific research today however displaces both the centrality of the humans and the boundaries between human life – bios - as categorically distinct from the life of animals and non-humans, or zoe. What comes to the fore instead is a nature-culture continuum which makes the boundaries between ‘Man’ and his others go tumbling down, in a cascade effect that opens up unexpected perspectives for research.

What follows from this, as far as I am concerned, is a new opening , based on the idea that the proper object of study for the Humanities today is no longer Man, either in the humanist ideal or as anthropos, but all sorts of living organisms: animals, insects, plants and the environment, in fact the planet and the cosmos as a whole are called into play. The fact that our geological era is known as the ‘anthropocene’* stresses both the technologically mediated power acquired by anthropos and its potentially lethal consequences for everyone else.

Can the classical disciplines of the Humanities raise to the posthuman challenge, in the double sense of post-humanism and of post-anthropocentrism? Against the prophets of doom, I want to argue that technologically mediated post-anthropocentrism can enlist the resources of bio-genetic codes, as well as telecommunication, new media and Information Technologies to the task of renewing the production of knowledge within and across the Humanities. Today, environmental, evolutionary, cognitive, bio-genetic and digital trans-disciplinary discursive fronts are emerging around the edges of the classical Humanities and across the disciplines. They rest on post-anthropocentric premises and technologically mediated emphasis on Life and foster species egalitarianism (Braidotti, 2006), which are very promising for new research in the field.

Therefore, instead of turning backwards to a nostalgic vision of the Humanities as the container for classical Humanism, based on universal transcendental reason and inherent moral goodness, such as Martha Nussbaum (1999, 2010) proposes, I suggest that we move forward into multiple posthuman futures. We need an active effort to reinvent the academic field of the Humanities in a new global context and to develop an ethical framework worthy of our posthuman times.

*The term was coined by Nobel Prize winning chemist, Paul Crutzen in 2002 and has become widely accepted. 

Beck, Ulrich. 2007. ‘The Cosmopolitan condition. Why methodological nationalism fails’. Theory, Culture & Society, Vol. 24, No. 7/8, pp. 286-290.
Braidotti, Rosi. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh (2009) ‘The Climate of History: Four Theses’. Critical Enquiry 35, pp. 197-222.
Collini, Stefan. 2012. What Are Universities For? London: Penguin Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaelogy of Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon Books.
Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon Books.
Glotfelty, Cheryll and Fromm, Harold (eds.). 1996. The Ecocriticism Reader. Athens and London: University of Georgia Press. 
Gross, Aaron and Vallely, Anne. 2012. Animals and the Human Imagination: A Companion to Animal Studies. New York: Columbia University Press..
Nussbaum, Martha. 2010. Not for Profit. Why Democracy Needs the Humanities. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Noot redactie: Rosi Braidotti publiceerde dit voorjaar het boek 'The Posthuman'.

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