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Why we need feminist posthumanities for a more-than-human world

by: Cecilia Åsberg and Marietta Radomska

Today, the environment is in us, and we humans are fully in the environment. That much is clear in this new planetary era of uncertainty some call the Anthropocene. This new geological period, the environmental Age of Man, is often defined by unparalleled human disturbance of the earth’s ecosystems, climate, and biological systems. For instance, half of the wildlife on Earth has been lost in the past forty years, but we have also soon perhaps made more lab-created species, synthetic biologies or artificial intelligences than we asked for. It seems, philosophically, that in the age of the Anthropocene, humans have become a ‘force of nature’, making nature in its classical sense over. Yet, then so is also the notion of the human reaching its limits. Actually, both in terms of planetary sustainability and in terms of how we have gotten used to thinking the human as some kind of Universal Man, a bounded individual, safely zipped up in a white skin of his own, guided by only rational thought (rather than desires) and, so to speak, living on top of things—as the world (nature/the planet) seems to be his oyster.

Emerging now in Anthropocene discourse and in diverse planetary struggles are the many embodied subjects we thought were less-than-human, nonhuman, or ahuman. They range from subalterns living (and dying) on wastelands of richer people’s making, insects subject to mass extinction rates, whole new media ecologies, to the crip and the queer in all of us discovered by biologists, or to, for instance, CRISPR Cas9 technologies, or everyday algorithms that reproduce and multiply our cultural biases on a global scale. They all call for attention. The “death of nature” (a notion from the trail-blazing feminist environmental historian Carolyn Merchant) mirrors the “death of Man” (a poststructuralist theory notion) in the Anthropocene, in eerie and unsettling ways. It also evokes curiosity over the postnatural and the posthuman forms of life now available to us, in these days of need to rethink our categories and our options for the present and the future as the past comes back to haunt us. In such a dire situation, what are now the available arts “of living on a damaged planet” for us? (See Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, Nils Bubandt 2017).

If the humanities and the arts can be said to be broadly concerned with the self-reflection and understanding of the human species, the posthumanities comes about when we recognise the relationships between the multiple planetary alterations that go sometimes under the name the Anthropocene. We have drastic ecological changes to air, soil and biological reproduction, we have rapid species extinction rates, ubiquitous toxic embodiment and environmental health concerns, and non-sustainable climate changes ahead. Posthumanities also comes about with growing computational systems, security terrors, new biomedical ways of life, re-arranged life forms and synthetic biologies, amongst many many many things. All this impel us to recognise the wider forms and constituents of the condition that is no longer nameable simply as humanity. The world is not the same, now more humanised than ever (perhaps even all too human?), so why should the thinking habits and concepts we live our life by be the same? In fact, especially as it seems those old categories or thinking habits have not done us justice or any good in the past.

The troublesome “universalisation of humanity” into the figure of Universal Man, denying sexual differences and social inequities following along the lines of race, gender, bodily ability, age and other historical norms have long been a pinnacle of feminist critique. Longstanding feminist theory-practices of decolonizing the domains of the Universal Man-idea thus mark a particularly critical and creative source for the planetary forms of posthumanities we claim is needed now. Feminist analytics deal with changes, with what constitutive relations make a specific society or situated formation possible. It basically ask who gets to suffer, prosper or die, who gets to live and play, and to the benefit of whom (cui bono)? Furthermore, recent feminist theory is drawing attention not only to creativity and potentiality of bodies, but also to that which delimits or wounds conditions of life on earth at large—especially within hybrid fields such as feminist environmental humanities. And importantly, it asks how we may learn to live with those wounds and limitations with some grace together. Mutualism and symbiont ethics, biophilosophy and eco-humanities, companion species or cyborg connections for earthly survival (following Donna J. Haraway’s rich oeuvre) are keywords for such feminist posthumanities.

Postdisciplinary practices and situated knowledges (Haraway again!) are of course especially salient in this regard: a brute necessity. The planet knows no disciplinary borders, it does not separate between nature and culture. Our planetary issues can not be solved by demarcations where sciences do nature and humanities do culture. In truth, our Anthropocene predicament belies the whole classical distinction between nature and culture! The needed efficacy of such postdisciplinary work is evidenced in many new, old and déja vu fields like feminist science studies and networked new materialisms, in bio-art and eco-art, in somatechnics, new media studies, post-continental philosophy, in anthropocene studies or transcorporeal theory, in multispecies- and medical humanities, in transgender studies, xenofeminism, cyborg- or techno-humanities, ecological or environmental humanities, queer death studies, critical veganism, and a mounting range of posthumanisms, inhumanisms and ahumanisms. Yes, critical and creative scholars in and around the humanities have not been lazy in the face of the many issues that face us today. Feminist posthumanities cover or converse with such postdisciplinary practices. It labels a wide-spread, multi-sited, evolving and growing effort to rework the role of the humanities and their relation to science, technology, art and contemporary society on the basis that our idea of the human is fundamentally reaching its limits, and changing. Feminist posthumanities thus responds to the need for more-than-human humanities.

Accordingly, the feminist posthumanities of the postconventional research group The Posthumanities Hub at the Division for History of Science, Technology and Environment, KTH Institute of Technology in Stockholm (and Linköping University), focuses on critique and creativity of such planetary arts, on issues of technological and environmental embodiment, on relational ecologies of death and environmental health, on infrastructures of waste and deep time ethics of sustainability, on contemporary technocultures, science communication and popular media cultures but, especially, also on multispecies relations as crucial points of empirical interventions, methodological inventions and theoretical innovations.

The assumption behind this bold mission is that feminist and other kindred forms of the posthumanities are in fact already creating institutional changes, providing novel insights for researchers and civic society, and new sets of post- or trans-disciplinary practices. Take the environmental humanities as a case in point! The research we do has already changed narratives about, for instance, the role of gender and climate change, the importance of thinking with the nonhumans of the planet, and the extent of toxic embodiment in daily life, along with the impact of science, communication as well as digital mediation on our social practices and ideas of ourselves (and others) in society. Luckily, we have been able to convince research funding bodies in Sweden, the North, Europe and Canada, in spite of (or thanks to?) our postdisciplinarity and our use of the f-word. Moreover, new research in our international networks and in our own ranks explores the global infrastructures of technological surveillance and security issues of today; the multiplex processes of translation characteristic of new media; and, last but not least, process ontologies (“world-makings”) at work in both the life sciences, in the creative arts, and in philosophies of subjectivity.

At large, the feminist posthumanities of The Posthumanities Hub aims to map out and chart, but also provide deep insight into, pursue and develop a partly novel and inventive agenda, which stems from, but is not limited to, either humanism or anthropocentrism, feminism or environmentalism. We represent an intervention in contemporary research practices and habits of thought. For our research and for our problems, we need at least a more-than-human approach. At present, there are a plethora of new research initiatives and individual scholars testifying to effervescent activities of a new field coming of age. Just check out the work on biophilosophy and eco-/bioart by Marietta Radomska, or the community building soil art by Janna Holmstedt, or the plant theory put in practice by Lauren LaFauci, the science- and art infused environmental humanities of Vera Weetzel, the Baltic Sea research of Jesse Peterson, the deep time insights and more-than-human sustainability ethics developed by Christina Fredengren and Cecilia Åsberg, or the emerging insights from all the students of the KTH module Gender & Technology (AK2202)! This embarrassment of riches that we are developing from KTH is evidenced all over the academic landscape with new networks and research groups, and art-science communities popping up like mushrooms in the soil on a rainy autumn. The Posthumanities Hub as a postconventional research group anno 2008, one of the first of its kind in the world, supports the establishment of new scholar-activists, new research environments, and explores novel collaborative practices and bold postdisciplinary methodologies, sustainably. For the long run. We believe that it is only through strategic and curious alliances—across differences—that we can survive, in academic settings as on the planet.

Philosophically, the question of the posthuman was pioneered by feminist scholars such as N. Katherine Hayles, Donna J. Haraway and Rosi Braidotti. The postnatural and posthuman ideas we use and develop today follow on the realisation that we were never human to begin with in the double sense of a) not part of the Universal Man club of society, and b) not biologically even purely human but rather a multi-species assemblage in ecological relationships with other companion species, like bacteria or other organisms that moderate our embodied and environed existence. These ideas derive from both advanced cultural critique and science. Posthuman theory, explored in wildly diverse empirical studies and projects, as we deploy it within our research, is not an issue of technologically enhancing the human for the future but of realising how vulnerable we are as socio-biological assemblages on an all too humanised planet. Technofixes, history tells us, have a tendency of solving some problems and creating new, bigger ones in turn. Clearly, we take our clues and insights from, and work in close collaborations with, scientists, engineers, artists and social communicators, and we contribute to research fields like environmental humanities, medical humanities, continental philosophy, intersectional gender studies, queer theory, feminist cultural studies, science and technology studies (STS), art and design practices, societal activism and insights for the decolonial option, software studies, cognitive and educational sciences, animal behavior science and epigenetics research as well as critical animal studies. To this effect, we emphasise the multi-species ecology and (somewhat unacademic) kindness of humankind (following on recent work by Timothy Morton). A longstanding concern for us have been how to analytically bridge the arts and sciences, and how to help engineering and natural science and get humanities’ involvement with the aforementioned and other life-sciences recognised. We are currently witnessing a genuine proliferation of new feminist or pro-feminist work on the posthumanities, in art and research in Sweden and all over the world. Perhaps because of this wealth of options (even “embarrassment of riches” as Braidotti would say), there is, however, no consensus either in terms of terminology or key-concepts in the field of posthumanities. That is ok. Different words for a different world. We let a thousand flowers flower, so to make available thoughts and practices (thinking, theory and practice is tightly linked after all in our daily lives) that can be useful for our pressing planetary issues and “thousand tiny anthropocene” situations.

With the critical, creative and curious activities of The Posthumanities Hub, we underline that this situation does not constitute a crisis for the humanities. Quite the contrary. Feminist and other critical posthumanities  constitute an opportunity for the arts and humanities. Feminist posthumanities entails really the reinvention of the humanities, making it societally salient. It generates new ideas pointing in the direction of the overcoming of anthropocentrism, eurocentrism, androcentrism, etc, on a planet modestly described as “naturecultural” in character, while reimagining the legacy and sophistication of previous work in the humanities, in history, philosophy, gender studies, science and technology studies, and other fields. Our motto is that it is crucial for the contemporary posthumanities to generate the networked communities, literacies and the methodological schemes needed to establish productive dialogues with these new developments, and with predecessor imperatives of “oppositional consciousness” as Chela Sandoval would call it, within the arts and sciences. Building on the historical emphases of the humanities, we want to keep questions germane to (embodied and environed) subjectivity (personhood) and its sociability. However, we must also always ask what the status of the subject and of subjectivity is today with the change of relations between technology, institutions, and society. After all, the historical context we work in is also one in which now both democracy and human rights are anything but given issues any longer (if they ever were). In our research, questions of knowledge production and world-making fuse with those of power, politics and ethics. Such overarching themes also impel the renewed questions of social responsibility and societal relevance of the arts and the humanities at large. Feminist posthumanities, like art and science, have the ability to expand our much too limited humanist imagination in society, and to explore best-practices of planetary conviviality across societies of both human and nonhuman kinds.

In our empirically diverse research we ask: what (and whom) gets to count as natural, as human, as animal, and to the detriment of benefit of whom? And of course, how could it be different? Such queries drives this postconventional research group but also some seriously humorous feminist creativity and desires to make (for) better connections in the world. The postdisciplinary challenge of the planetary situation today requires simply radical new forms of human and more-than-human humanities. And we are here to meet up.

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