- Series: Posthumanities (Book 8)
- Paperback: 400 pages
- Publisher: Univ Of Minnesota Press (December 31, 2009)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0816666156
- ISBN-13: 978-0816666157
- Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #329,341 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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What Is Posthumanism? (Posthumanities) Paperback – December 31, 2009
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What is Posthumanism? is divided into two parts. The first, Theories, Disciplines, Ethics, is a manifesto for the role of critical animal studies/posthumanism in the posthumanities. Wolfe starts the book by explaining what posthumanism is not: it is not an exploration of the posthuman (eg Hayles) or the transhuman, but an embodied critique of philosophical, ethical, and/or metaphysical versions of humanism. Wolfe's ability to apply and think through Derrida's complex later workThe Animal That Therefore I Am (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy) along with the systems theories of Luhmann and others is refreshing for this reviewer. For those unfamiliar with the intricacies and nuances of systems theory, Wolfe's earlier chapter "In the Shadow of Wittgenstein's Lion" (which appeared in the edited volume Zoontologies: The Question Of The Animal as well as Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory) provides an excellent overview. Chapters 1-5, all largely theory focused, provide extremely exciting developments for the posthumanities.
The second half of the book, Media, Culture, Practices, is a collection of essays which apply many of the theories to particular traces - art, architecture, literature, and music. I found these essays to be rather inconsistent, although the last chapter on Brian Eno and David Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts was rather interesting. Yet because the theoretical meat of the book was towards the front of the book, little new territory was developed in the latter half. Furthermore, I am a bit unsure exactly what Wolfe's engagement with these profoundly human traces (or texts, if you want) adds to his theoretical arguments. What is it about these particular instances that deserves exploration? Where are the relationships among nonhumans (or more-than-humans)? [addendum: this could just be the social scientist coming out in me...] I feel both Derrida and Wolfe grappling with these questions, but both seem limited by their engagement primarily with the trace and not embodied or material encounters.
No doubt, Wolfe's work is not for the faint of heart - it is laden with quotations and citations but all the more rewarding in its complexity. His engagement with Derrida and Luhmann can be intimidating and overbearing at times, and I would have appreciated a bit more engagement with other big thinkers in animal studies/posthumanism today (especially Deleuze and Guattari, Agamben, Latour/ANT, and especially Haraway's When Species Meet (Posthumanities)). That said, I am profoundly supportive of the goals of this book: The promises of posthumanism(s) will not come easy, and Wolfe provides ample ground for further development.
Finally, as a previous reviewer noted, like many recent University of Minnesota Press books, What is Posthumanism? has a beautiful cover/jacket and typeset.
Starting from a different methodological perspective, Michel Callon and Bruno Latour introduce the agency of nonhuman actors in social theory. Humans and nonhumans--their canonical example is the scallops, but nonhumans also include artefacts--are connected together by a web of relationships that undermine the classical distinctions between self and other, mind and body, society and nature, organic and technological. These material-semiotic networks come together to act as a whole, and they remove the human and Homo sapiens from any particularly privileged position in relation to matters of meaning, information, and cognition.
This is the posthumanism I was expecting to find in Cary Wolfe's book, as the book cover--an insect perched on a net--seemed to me a silent invitation to "follow the mosquito". In this respect, What Is Posthumanism was a huge disappointment. To be sure, Cary Wolfe warns his readers that they won't find references to the cyborgs and genetically enhanced human creatures that are introduced in the science-fiction literature as our post-human horizon. This is a book of theory, not fiction. But the theory he offers is a hodgepodge of abstruse academic fads, loosely connected under the heading of "cultural studies" or, to borrow from the title of a journal in which one chapter was published, "theoretical humanities".
I was well predisposed towards this book. Cary Wolfe uses many references that are consonant with mine: Bruno Latour gets a few mentions, and there are long discussions on Foucault, Derrida, and Zizek, as well as Martha Nussbaum and Stanley Cavell. I agree with his starting point: along with Michel Foucault in "What is Enlightenment?", Wolfe underscores that "the point is not to reject humanism per se--indeed, there are many values and aspirations to admire in humanism--but rather to show how those aspirations are undercut by the philosophical and ethical frameworks used to conceptualize them." Or to paraphrase Zizek, "Enlightenment rationality is not, as it were, rational enough, because it stops short of applying its own protocols and commitments to itself." I also agree with the observation that man is "fundamentally a prosthetic creature that has coevolved with various forms of technicity and materiality, forms that are radically 'non human' and yet have nevertheless made the human what it is."
But I don't follow the author in his infatuation with Niklas Luhmann's systems theory, which is presented expunged from all its sociological apparatus. In its most abstract form, systems theory evolved from the work of Norbert Wiener or Gregory Bateson on "first-order" systems", which were typically concerned with processes of homeostasis, positive feedback loops, and cybernetic steering. "Second-oder systems theory", associated with the names of Luhmann, Heinz von Foerster, Maturana and Varela, is more concerned with complexity, contingency, and emergent processes of self-organization. Its key words are "openness from closure", "co-ontogenies", "self referential processes", "structural coupling" and "autopoietic systems".
In trying to "sell" systems theory to his fellow colleagues in comparative literature departments, Wolfe claims that "much of what they like about deconstruction is also much of what they should like about systems theory". What American scholars in the "textually oriented humanities" like about Derrida and other French theorists is not made clear, but it may have to do with these Frenchmen' habit of peppering their intellectual musings with trendy scientific references. The author quotes approvingly "Foucault's interest in Jacob and Canguilhem, Lacan's in cybernetics, Lyotard's in chaos and catastrophe theory, and so on." But it is precisely what makes these intellectuals prone to gross approximations and nonsensical mistakes that the Sokal hoax most famously exposed. No doubt Niklos Luhmann and his followers could provide a new entry in Sokal and Bricmont's debunking of pseudoscientific nonsense.
In a moment of candid lucidity, Wolfe wonders what "literary and cultural studies" could contribute specifically to intellectual theory "that could not be handled just as well, or better, by other fields such as history, or sociology, or philosophy". The answer is: very little. They can claim new terrain that has not yet been properly enclosed: problems in search of a discipline, free pastures and green meadows. Such is the case of animal studies, which is described as "a vibrant emergent field of interdisciplinary inquiry" in which the author has specialized. Or there is always the option to return to the basics of a liberal arts education: namely, the arts, or more specifically to the new artworks that have not yet entered the Western canon. This is what the author does, with long discussions on artists such as Eduardo Kac ("Glow-in-the-Dark Bunnies"), Sue Coe ("Dead Meat"), Lars von Trier's Dancer in the Dark, Wallace Stevens' poetry, and contemporary architecture projects such as a cloud blown over the lake of Neuchâtel. But I only skimmed through these chapters, as they are only loosely connected to the main theme of posthumanism.
In short, my advise to the potential reader is: don't get caught by the catchy title and cool book cover. Don't follow that mosquito. If you are interested in our posthuman condition, reread Foucault. If you need an introduction to Luhmann's systems theory, find another book. And if you get your kick out of cyborgs and superheroes: well, forget it.
In short, Wolfe's Posthumanism seems to be a little more humanist than he leads the reader to believe. The language is dense and new (obscure) theories are never introduced (though he, at times, acknowledges that they are little known, even amongst academics). His density is not the problem, however. What becomes problematic is that after unpacking the language, the reader is left without much at which to grab. Where theorists such as Bhabha, Spivak and Heidegger (to name a few) are equally dense, their works present valuable, tangible, insights, upon unpacking. Between Wolfe's adherence to the idea that humanism is a necessary element of posthumanism and his ardent unwillingness to admit the humanist base of his method of argument--instead pushing for a deconstructionist approach--Wolfe leaves the reader trying to figure out just what humanism is through and argument of what it is not. Just as deconstruction seeks to avoid definitive answers, Wolfe avoids ever tying himself to one central argument for a posthumanist model.