Non-human agency, but human after all

 

By Javier de Rivera

This paper, HUMAN AFTER ALL, overviews some issues addressed in Johanna Drucker’s PhD seminar in Information Studies at UCLA (Spring 2013)  around the topic of New Materialisms. In it, I critique and argue against the influence of Latour’s philosophy on some authors of New Materialisms and of some accounts of the (post)human condition. Particularly, the authors quoted and examined are Jane Bennet (Vibrant Matter, 2010)  and Katherine Hayles (How we became Posthuman, 1999), and their accounts of non-human agencies and consciousness respectively; and the subsequent idea that there are not substantial differences between living beings and mechanic systems (aka humans and machines).

My argument is trying to oppose these ideas from four different approaches:

1. Ontologically: that living beings are just different than non-living, even if it is only because they are autopoietic.
2. Epistemologically: that knowing and thinking is an activity that comes from sentience, and sentience comes from life.
3. Agency: that agency means a reference to the origin of an action, not of its effect, therefore it refers to the “subject” who acts, even though we are not sure how to define the subject, actions come from somewhere. An action introduces something new in the course of events, something that was not already there. There is a difference between things that happen because of systemic interactions, and actions performed by subjects: Rain happens, nobody “rains”.
4. Politically: machines are produced to perform certain means, humans are not “produced” and should not be used. Bennet and Latour’s rhetoric neglect this basic thought (of the Enlightment), and by claiming to incorporate the animal rights in the picture, they degrade humans (and animals) as machines.

It is not my intention to revitalize Enlightment, nor humanism, nor the concept of the individual subject (the individual is a social construction of modernity), nor the idea of the “rule of reason”. I support posmodernism and posthumanist as a normal consequence of the history of Western thought. What I fight against is these particular accounts that I believe are introducing spurious ideas in social sciences. It seems like a false dichotomy, that if you do not accept the ideological concept of “non-human agencies”, you are a rationalistic, humanists, pro-Enlightment thinker. There are not two parties, but a lot of people trying to contribute to collective knowledge.

Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology have a long history of trying to explain human actions, and some accounts (Bennet and Latour, i.e.) are just neglecting all the work done in those fields. Knowledge is a process of collective construction, in which we build on the knowledge raised by previous works – which means taking the stronger insights and elements of their theories, reframing the acceptable ones, and superseding the weaker ideas with better ones. A collective shared process in which we cannot add as individuals with opinions, but as part of  common currents of thought: logos is common.

About their political agendas, although Bennet claims to be progressive, that is not the consequence of her claims. I criticized that in the review of Latour’s Aramis. In short: Latour masks political motivations behind non-human agencies. So does Bennet when she denounces the “blame game” when talking about war. What they do not see is that it is not about individual persons to blame, but about human, political motivations to understand – and change.

DOWNLOAD THE TEXT: HUMAN AFTER ALL

 

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