Critical Ecologies of Posthumanism

Cary Wolfe | Ghazal Jafari | Mariano Gomez-Luque

Originally published in New Geographies 09: Posthuman, 2018.

The ninth issue of the journal New Geographies, titled Posthuman, surveys the urban environments shaping the more-than-human geographies of the early 21st century. Seeing design as a geographical agent deeply involved in the territorial engravings of contemporary urbanization, New Geographies 09 embraces the “planetary” as the ultimate spatiotemporal stage of the posthuman condition.

The journal’s final interlude features a conversation with philosopher Cary Wolfe, in which various theoretical dimensions of posthumanism are taken up in connection with the social, political, and ecological challenges facing us today.

New Geographies: In What Is Posthumanism? (2009), you claim that the “human” occupies a new place in the world, among a larger constellation of other life-forms and “nonhuman subjects,” each with their own “temporalities, perceptual modalities, and their own forms of environment.” On this last point, specifically, how would you articulate an understanding of the environment from a posthumanist perspective? And how would this notion challenge the (humanist) logic of the production of environmental space as a differential field in which humans appropriate, design, and administer—often through institutionalized techniques of exclusion and subjugation—the space of the nonhuman? 

Cary Wolfe: For me, a posthumanist understanding of the place of the human in the world is both new and old—in this sense, “post-” does not simply mark a chronological succession in which, for example, posthumanism comes after humanism. This is not simply a matter of the old schema of temporality as a site of overlapping “dominant,” “residual,” and “emergent” tendencies, but something far more radical and paradoxical: a “strange loop” (as I called it in my second book, Critical Environments, 1998) in which the past, the present, and the future are caught in a ceaseless reconjugation and redefinition of each other. To put it in slightly more familiar terms, the sense here is genealogical rather than historical (touching on Michel Foucault’s classic essay “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” [1971] which also makes it clear why a dialectical schema is not adequate to the context either). In any case, a posthumanist understanding of the place of the human is “new” in that it draws upon contemporary philosophical and theoretical resources that challenge humanist anthropocentrism and show how the radically de-centered human is enmeshed in relation to its environment and the other life-forms that populate it: a fact that is dramatized at the current historical moment of the Anthropocene, characterized by global warming, species loss, and so on. But it is “old” in the sense that those very same resources allow us to see that the human has never been “master in its own house,” so to speak, that it has always been the product of a multitude of relations and forces that are not properly its own—and not even living, or organic. Thus posthumanism actually sees the human as coming before the domestication of that heterogeneous set of forces and relations in the historical development that we now call “humanism.” (I’ll simply note here that I am using shorthand, because humanism is obviously a huge, rich, and diverse area on its own.) This means that the posthumanist perspective on the human is always already radically nonhuman (or better still: ahuman) down to its very core (as so much recent work on the microbiome has shown in quite literal terms), and it also means that the term “environment” cannot be understood as an autonomous entity antecedent to any particular set of relations, but as something that is always part of a dynamic, enfolded system-environment relationship. To the microflora in your gut biome—without which “you” could not function as a “human”—“you” are the environment. So the outside is the inside—but it’s always a particular, nongeneric environment that is enfolded in highly specific ways; a necessity, from a systems theory point of view, since any system has to cope with an environment that is, by definition, exponentially more complex than the system itself. We do indeed have to administer the environment in the old-fashioned sense; this just helps explain why the blind spots created by the tautological self-reference of our own organism-environment relationship create so many “unintended byproducts” (to use Kenneth Burke’s wonderful phrase), even when we’re trying to be sensitive and responsible about what we’re doing. This is not a problem that one can simply make go away—either by appeals to immanence or transcendence. Indeed, ethical and political responsibility begin with the fact that there is no given ground or foundation from which to work, from which the inescapable blindness and partiality of our own situatedness might be surmounted.

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