Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene

Life in the Posthuman Condition: Critical Responses to the Anthropocene
S.E. Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė, Editors

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2023
312 pp., illus. 13 col. Trade, $120.00; eBook & pub, $120.00
ISBN: 9781399505277; ISBN: 9781399505307; ISBN: 9781399505291.

Reviewed by: 
Jacob Thompson-Bell
April 2023

This new edited collection embodies its posthumanist ambitions through sheer disciplinary diversity. The collected essays, edited by S.E. Wilmer and Audronė Žukauskaitė, constitute a trans-disciplinary assemblage of divergent artistic, scientific, and philosophical reflections on what it means to be human in a more-than-human world. The essays are organised into three sections, the first dealing predominantly with climate change and eco-activism, the second with interspecies translation and boundary crossing, and the third with ontologies of life and the human.

In drawing together different, and sometimes competing, theoretical and disciplinary perspectives, the editorial approach is very much in line with calls from posthumanist scholars such as Rosi Braidotti and Francesca Ferrando to suspend theoretical dogmatism in favour of a more nomadic methodology. However, as with any trans-disciplinary enterprise, the breadth of discipline-specific terminology can be a little overwhelming. A small sample of terms covered includes: the Anthropocene, critical posthumanism, new materialism, vital materialism, neo-vitalism, transhumanism, Gaia theory, Marxism, Bergson, symbiogenetic evolutionary theory, epigenesis, phenomenology, object oriented ontology, and actor network theory. I also found that, despite disciplinary breadth, the theoretical focus remains predominantly Euroamerican in scope, with comparatively little room given to, for example, African, Asian, or Indigenous perspectives (with the exception of Patrica Ybarra’s essay in chapter three), so this is perhaps a dimension that could be further expanded in subsequent editions or follow-ups to this volume. These criticisms aside, I found the collection to be stimulating and thought-provoking, and there are plenty of themes, especially in part one and two, that might help to galvanise immediate practical action toward more equitable, sustainable (posthuman) ecologies.

In part one, Bruce Clarke (chapter one), Patricia Ybarra (chapter three), and T. J. Demos (chapter five) each offer critiques of the ‘Anthropocene’ as politically and ethically problematic. They argue that the exploitation of environmental resources and devastation of Indigenous lands and peoples continues to be led by Euroamerican powers, so the principle implied by the Anthropocene, that all humans are responsible for climate change, is at best inaccurate, perhaps even disingenuous. These writers understand human-induced climate change not as a recent phenomenon, or sudden crisis, but as a process with an already long history. I found time to be a central concern of the essays in part one, specifically the need to re-situate our understanding of human duration within geological, or Gaian time. What is required is not a speedy resolution of a humanly-posed climate ‘question’ - how to reverse climate change - but a long-term project of aligning human activity with interspecies and broader ecological cycles. As Małgorzata Sugiera argues (chapter two), this is not so much a matter of renewal, or reinvention - no more Man as master and protagonist of a world from which he is separate - but of entanglement, absorption - humanity as the “humus of a speculated future” (50). Mintautas Gutauskas (chapter four) proposes that “waste”, in its ubiquity during the Anthropocene, may be a medium through which this phenomenological horizon of human activity can be redrawn.

Part two is concerned with boundaries between species, specifically, where to draw them, and how to cross them. Where Graham Harman (chapter six) seeks to identify an ontological “punctuation” between single-celled and multi-cellular organisms, Anna Barcz and Michael Cronin (chapter seven) hope to join bacterial (biosemiotic) and human (linguistic) forms of communication through forms of “eco-translation”. Jussi Parikka (chapter eight) and Agnė Narušytė (chapter nine) each focus on examples of such speculative interspecies collaboration, Parikka in the work of Studio Tomás Saraceno with spiders and spider webs, and Narušytė in the documentation of beavers by Lithuanian artist Aurelija Maknytė. Both Parikka and Narušytė interrogate these interspecies communications through the lens of STS, characterising Saraceno’s web architectures and Maknytė’s photographs of beavers as material resources through which human-nonhuman networks might be invented, rather than mimetic representational works.

Ontological distinctions between life and non-life, and between human and nonhuman, are taken up in more theoretical detail in part three. The writers in this section engage with a variety of themes, including autonomous self-reference of living systems, organism-environment coupling, temporal distinctions between different scales or planes of reality, and relational ethics. The essays in part three are often reactive in scope, and it is refreshing to see authors genuinely engaging with dominant threads in agential realism and new materialist theory, rather than rehearsing the same arguments. In particular, there are some substantive critiques given of flat ontologies, such as those put forward through ANT (especially Cary Wolfe in chapter 10) and vital materialism (Thomas Nail in chapter 12). I enjoyed John Ó Maoilearca’s proposal (chapter 11) to reintroduce “spirit” to new materialist ontologies, based on the unfolding of differently scaled temporal processes across material reality. Although more theoretical in scope, Ó Maoilearca’s essay calls back to the themes in part one, namely the focus on embedding human durations within Gaian cycles. I also found Catherine Malabou’s brief meditation on epigenesis (chapter 14) thought-provoking, particularly the idea of artificial intelligence as a new form of epigenesis, an “auto-affection of technique by itself” (287). It will be interesting to see how STS scholars might take up the theoretical challenge posed by the emergence of such self-referential inorganic systems.

The disciplinary breadth of this new collection should be abundantly clear, even from the brief summaries I have been able to offer above. At its best, the collected essays demonstrate how many seemingly distinct theoretical and practical traditions can be examined to ask important ethical, political, and ecological questions about our (human) place in the wider planetary ecology. By drawing together writers from across political theory and activism, art criticism, and philosophy, the volume also acts as a useful reader for those looking for an introduction to posthumanist scholarly themes, and challenges even those readers with expertise or experience in one or several of the areas represented to engage with adjacent disciplinary perspectives.