New Materialism and Post-Humanism: The Philosophy of Nature, Information, and Technology
Philosophers Patrick O’Connor, Bill Ross, and David Webb are based at Staffordshire University. There they have recently constructed a new, online philosophy MA in the philosophy of nature, information, and technology, that “brings together philosophy, the sciences, information theory, and technology studies”. In this discussion we look at some of the new materialist and post-humanist theory that informs the degree, and how these ideas can shed light on the modern world and its dynamics.
This interview was conducted by John C. Brady.
John C. Brady: You three have created a new degree, entitled “The Philosophy of Nature, Information, and Technology”. We will get to the information and technology aspects in a moment, but I just wanted to start with an observation that just this “Philosophy of Nature” strikes me as a surprisingly under-used and under-determined heading. What do you take the “Philosophy of Nature” to consist in?
Bill Ross: In actual fact it’s not so much that it’s undetermined as now fallen out of use. It’s gone out of style. Lee Smolin, one of the scientist-philosophers that we treat in this course really wants to bring it back. He says that the philosophy of nature has at its core a sense of the mutability of things in nature, in a way that has been lost or been paradigmed out in recent construals of science. There is a construal of nature by science, which he believes is overly restrictive; what science tends to do is ‘science in a box’, to use his phrase. It tends to think of one aspect of nature or several aspects of nature altogether, usually what we call the degrees of freedom of a particular system. Whereas in the past, we were quite happy to discuss the philosophy of nature. It wasn’t particularly that we meant by that “science,” but it was more so that we thought of the whole of nature in terms of holism, and in terms of its entirety. Much as cosmology when it first began did. So, it is a different style, then, for sure, one that is not entirely given over to the precepts of science, it’s a different style of thinking scientifically, when we think of nature as a whole. So, philosophy of nature has its roots in the tradition, but the idea of it and the actual use of the term has tended to be phased out as we’ve become more ‘scientific’ if you like.
JCB: Bill and David, I know you deal a lot with the work of French thinker Michel Serres, and he has a similar inflection, of looking to the past to re-think science, even going as far back to examine Lucretius. What’s the purpose of this ‘returning to’? Why shouldn’t we just see a figure like Lucretius, or Leibniz for that matter, as just a curiosity in the history of science?
David Webb: Lucretius, a first century BCE Roman, wrote about the universe, the formation of the world, society, and human life in a book entitled De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) and, to follow on from Bill, Michel Serres saw there an account of nature that runs counter to the prevailing vision of modern science. As an Epicurean atomist, Lucretius describes an open and complex universe in which order emerges from chaos and turbulent flows, and where laws are emergent regularities. In Serres’s reading, which pairs Lucretius up with the mathematics of Archimedes, his work prefigures our own interests in complexity and entropy and in this sense he can be read as a contemporary, rather than just an old Roman poet. And this ties in with the way Serres himself understands time and history as far from linear. Lucretius is closer to us than we might think. Incidentally, an important part of De rerum natura deals with meteora – weather systems, mists, clouds, and everything that belongs between the heavens and the earth – and Serres remarks that for Aristotle and up to Descartes at least no one was worthy of the title of philosopher if they had not written on the meteora. Today, it’s usually scientists who study them, not philosophers, but for the most part without the sense of nature that Bill was describing. Anyway, for Serres, Lucretius speaks directly to problems which are ours right now – not least, the tension between a narrow deterministic vision of things and a more open, plural, complex perspective. Let me put it this way, it’s not so much that we can go back and retrieve a couple of ideas from Lucretius but rather that his work is part of a current of thinking about nature that has, so to speak, been driven underground by dominant models of science, but which has never gone away. In certain ways, one can say the same about Leibniz, whose philosophy is all about relations, networks, and de-centered ways of thinking. There’s a lot that we can learn from each of them about science, how we think, and our relationship to the material world now.
JCB: That’s quite at odds with the popular conception of science as being ahistorical insofar as it deals in facts, or universal truths. A lot of the material that comprises your new MA seems to make this argument that these simplified conceptions, that we’ve sort of inherited from the culture, cause problems. How would you characterize that inherited conception, which forms the critical target of these thinkers?
BR: Okay. My two pennies’ worth here would be that, in a sense, the critical theorising should be pushing at an open door because there’s no self-respecting scientist who is convinced that we’ve got the right answer now, they can’t possibly think so. Because (as a big example) relativity is incompatible with the quantum story. And everybody knows this. So, to say that we’ve, in any sense, arrived at the kind of culmination of a history that’s been leading this way, would be an argument in bad faith, which nobody really is making. But, perhaps the corollary of that is, well, nobody, or few people, perhaps, in the scientific community, are making the positive case that we should, in actual fact, take a step back perhaps a little and loosen up the strictures that seem to be preventing us from finding a way forward. If there’s a continual confrontation between our main stories about nature, then, what’s the way forward from that? And to date the answer has been in terms of resolving the quantum and the relativistic pictures with models of what’s come to be known as quantum gravity. The person who solves that, or has a viable theory confirmed empirically will win the Nobel Prize. That’s a possible outcome. But equally it’s quite possible that the quantum story is incomplete, as Einstein claimed. In which case we can’t relativize the quantum or quantumize relativity. We need a deeper, different paradigm. So the critique should be pushing at an open door. In effect, all the arguments are already there and pretty much accepted on the part of the scientific community, certainly on this particular issue. Nevertheless the thinkers we’re interested in put the case more positively that scientific frameworks are just too important to proceed unreflectively (and here I’d include more philosophically-minded scientists), and therefore, there is a philosophical traction that perhaps is insufficiently acknowledged in the way that we do science.
Patrick, do you want to come in?
Patrick O’Connor: Sure. Following on from Bill’s point, I think what is at stake is how we grasp the philosophical status of ‘matter.’ Generally, in the dominant trends in Continental Philosophy, such as Phenomenology, Vitalism, Post-Structuralism, ‘matter’ is the bad guy. We can understand this as a very basic antipathy to reductionism or mechanism. Materialism is the thesis that all explanations are material explanations, which works by reducing reality to its constituent parts whether those parts are monads, simples or atoms. This though is quite an old theory of materialism harking back to a 17th century corpuscular concept of matter. A cursory glance at modern physics shows that is really not a primary consideration of science. We can even see Hegel challenging this view of matter in the early 19th Century when he was recasting Isaac Newton’s concept of force. Here ‘matter’ was beginning to be understood in an active and energetic way. I think the important thing is to engage in a type of meta-reflection, which is to say we need to think about how the contemporary scientific understanding of matter shapes our own self-understanding. This is one of the things we are trying to accomplish on our course.
As well, I agree with David, Lucretius is such an interesting thinker. Lucretius was certainly an influence on the corpuscular theory of matter. But he was also a lot more. Although you often get a kind of interpretation of Lucretius as this poetic, effusive, intuitive and ultimately misguided subterranean influence on modern science. But, on another level, what is valuable about Lucretius is that he tells us a different story about matter. He synthesises metaphysics and materialism, and that’s a different project. This recasting of materialism I think is what separates what we’re doing on this particular MA from the more conventional post-Kantian tradition version of Continental Philosophy.
BR: To just add a one point on that, that’s kind of what Whitehead was trying to do. He asserted that there is a metaphysics, which is in dynamic movement alongside physics, so you don’t have a static set of precepts or principles that are not in direct cross pollination with science, but that metaphysics is a moveable feast itself.
DW: I could add something here that doesn’t quite follow on from exactly from what Patrick and Bill just said, but it just goes back to your question, John, about what is the vision of science. The traditional and common-sense view, which may not be the majority view of working scientists but is nonetheless quite pervasive, is that science is somehow a separate activity, this thing which is separate from the world, because it’s about objectivity and knowledge: people think scientists go off into laboratories and do strange things, and they find stuff out, and then they come back and tell us, tell us what the world is like, or about how the world is in itself, in fact. This can encourage the idea that science is there to save us because it will give us a true, objective, and universal vision of “The World,” which will allow us to control everything and also to put an end to all our quarrels because we’re all now in the same world understood in the same way. This may have a certain appeal, but it’s unrealistic, as well as being a great example of a kind of intellectual imperialism – scientism. In any case, the idea that science is separate from the world, that it can achieve objectivity, as I’ve rather caricatured it here, is problematic in many ways. As Bill said earlier, it’s not so easy to do science in a box. If instead we understand science as an engagement with matter, as Patrick was saying, then we start moving in a different direction. We can still think about what it means to talk about facts, or to talk about things as objective in certain ways, but we need to begin from the point that science is an engagement with the material world, and to think of it as a form of communication with the material world.
To go back to that rather traditional slightly caricatured vision of science that I’ve sketched out there for a moment in terms of objectivity and the pursuit of facts and universal truths and so forth. If that’s your model, when it becomes problematic, as it does, science can then easily be criticised as somehow weaker than it should be, discredited as only a matter of interpretation and not fact at all, and so on. It can be perceived as a fallen version of what it should be – what was supposed to save us has let us down. Of course, in reality science always deals with the hypothetical and the probable, but very often this is still seen as a failing on its part. Whereas if one begins with the idea that science is an engagement with the material world and thinks about what knowledge becomes then in terms of communication with the material world, then you have other options besides universal truth on the one hand and this relativistic, fragmented, and somehow treacherous version on the other.
JCB: Do you see recent events, I mean the pandemic, and how science has been summoned in the discourse surrounding it, as an example of this kind of ‘brittleness’, a case of science being held to too high a standard, and then doomed to fail, so then many flip in the other direction, to a kind of cynicism or nihilism about it?
DW: Yeah, I think you’re right, there is a real sense of this. Science, through the pandemic, has been perceived either as our saviour or, by some, as the enemy. But what’s interesting is what happens in the middle when politicians are trying to figure out what to do and making decisions about public health and so on. What is their relationship to science? Here again, you find that same split in miniature in effect; that is, between some politicians (at some times) saying “we’ll follow the science” and others saying “we don’t have to follow science because scientists can never make their minds up and they’re always disagreeing with each other.” When science comes into contact with politics, it’s still really unclear what status it is seen as having, how it speaks to people, how we listen to it.
JCB: And here I’m curious about the minority vocally opposed to, or perhaps just silently apprehensive of, the vaccine, and the political messaging there. Because I think with the vaccine it goes beyond just trust or not in science, and more into bio-political themes, and technology. And I think here, too, there’s a kind of deficient, inherited image. For example, Patrick, you’ve developed a unit on post-humanism, working with the ideas of Haraway, and A Cyborg Manifesto. She affects a kind of reversal here too, right? The classic image of the cyborg being one of body-horror, a cautionary tale about technological excess. But she turns this around into something positive. How does this work in post-humanism?
PO: A Cyborg Manifesto is an interesting text, which Donna Haraway wrote in the early 80s. It largely emerged out of her concern with forms of feminism that emerged through the 60s, 70s and early 80s. She was wary of what she called “goddess feminism.” So basically the idea that the woman is an ideal, like a carer, nurturer or “mother nature” and that type of rhetoric. However, within that, she looked to emergent technologies for recasting what feminism could look like. The cyborg she thought had radically transformative powers. Haraway argued that the figure of the cyborg could rearrange forms of cultural reproduction through uncoupling replication from reproduction, and thereby disrupting our understanding of technology as only a masculinist techno-fetishist toy. Her claims about technology, and this was remarkably prescient – remember she wrote this prior to expansion of the Internet, the development of virtual reality, prior to nanotechnology – was that we have become cyborgs. Cyborgs generate our ontology, and cyborgs generate our politics. The cyborg, I suppose, is easily enough comprehended, it is a hybrid of the machinic and organistic. But yes, she does have a more optimistic take on technology. Technology can have an emancipatory potential, and that is where she retains the spirit of a Marx rather than say a Heidegger. She is not Heidegger! Heidegger famously said ‘‘only a god could still save us,” which basically means we’re screwed! Haraway goes “actually, no.’’ All these technological innovations can actually enable us to reconstitute and reshape our identities in new and interesting ways. I suppose Haraway, coming out of the post-structuralist and post-humanist tradition, is undermining the idea that the human being has an essence, or is a thing, something objective and something that can be objectified, or in a technological sense as something purely determined and instrumental. She wants us to move away from the idea of the human as something essentially finished, natural or given. This is why A Cyborg Manifesto rejects one version of the practice of science. The idea, that David touched on, is that science can seem an abstraction. We don’t understand science from the perspective of life itself, or life as lived.
Now, in terms of your question, cyborgs for Haraway, well, they’re not robots, you know that sort of crude sci-fi idea of a lumbering robot which is aped in a silly dance when footballers score a goal. What the cyborg shows for Haraway is the intellectual necessity for recasting our self-understanding as human beings. Whether we like it or not, for Haraway, we are becoming distributed networked-beings, prosthetically, through technological assemblages, and through information and communication networks. So really, she is trying to do a political intervention in order to try to reshape our sense of self-understanding in light of the newest forms of technology. And that is what I am trying to do in my Posthumanism and Technology module. I am trying to help students get a sense of what our technological selves are after the radical technological innovations which have occurred in the last 20-30 years. Haraway’s cyborg is one way of thinking about that. I should note Haraway is no wide-eyed optimist about technology either, she is not idealising the cyborg. A Cyborg Manifesto was written in the 1980s against the backdrop of President Reagan’s ‘Strategic Defence Initiative,’ or ‘Star Wars’ as it was commonly known. This was a plan to create a network of laser armed satellites, missiles and rail guns to blast down incoming intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now, I am no military expert, but I don’t think it is too much of a leap to say shooting down nuclear missiles with space lasers is conducive to the health of anyone on the planet, whether belligerent, victim or innocent. Haraway is acutely aware of this, the cyborg is not innocent, it has a military history, and if unchecked can result in humanity’s ultimate telos, that is, the end of humanity. However, Haraway’s cyborg demands that we reject a view of reality as finished, and instead endorses a thought of life as interminably open to revision and renegotiation. But to do that we have to in some sense accept the lived reality of ourselves as machinic-creaturely hybrids.
To respond to your point about vaccines, I think we can see how the philosophy of technology helps us navigate the scientific picture of ourselves which has emerged after the Coronavirus. Now, I have to be careful here, otherwise, I might sound like an anti-vaxxer. But the idea is what is the world-picture of ourselves that emerges out of the technocratic order of science which is entangled with our daily lives? What do we look like now? That’s what the philosopher is interested in. More power to the elbow of scientists down in Oxford who developed the vaccine. I’m a big fan. But the point is scientists do the experiments, they introduce innovations, but the question is, how does it change our sense of self-understanding, how does that then inform our view of governance, and what kind of commitments can or should we make in the light of such technological transformation. The science kind of leaves things as it is. And we are left to pick up the pieces and explain what has happened to us and where are going. That is where the philosopher comes in. At this moment the vaccination drive has been hugely popular in the UK, I think just shy of 69% of the UK’s population are fully vaccinated. That is popular. If a political party or a referendum got that in a vote we would call it a landslide. This popularity does tell us something about how we understand ourselves vis-à-vis scientific innovation. The consequent uptake of scientific innovation, experimentation and invention, has led to a new picture of ourselves, at this particular point in time, and it’s a really interesting one. It’s a picture of ourselves as holding a shared sense of a common factuality, or perhaps a lived factuality with shared sets of common commitments on things which matter. And that’s not an abstraction, it’s actually something very much lived, but of course, that picture is also contested. Intriguingly, this picture also runs counter to the view of ourselves as atomized, electronically siloed, conspiracists. But these are the debates we relish on our new course!
JCB: I understand that self-caveat you had to make there, about not wanting to sound like an anti-vaxxer, because on this issue there is such a polarization. How can we make reasonable critiques of this deficient, ‘fact collecting’ view of science without sliding into its opposite? Like, it’s a difficult line to walk, because facts are facts, you can’t argue with facts, etc. So, it becomes difficult to establish any critique of the status-quo image that presents itself in terms of ‘having the facts’. How can we walk that line?
DW: I wish we had a ready answer to that one. That’s a big, big question. And I’ll just offer something here, something I touched on a little bit earlier. What do we do when we are faced with facts? Facts, as we know from plenty of perfectly mainstream philosophy of science, are dependent on certain conditions, conditions about how we observe things, how we measure things, and so on. If we follow that path, we move towards a position where facts seem to be constructed, and if we go a little further perhaps they’re even socially constructed, and we’re back with the alternative between there being real facts out there on one side and our interpretations and opinions on the other. The challenge is how to work between these positions, or, rather, how to rethink the configuration that we started with, so that we don’t end up splitting our view of the world, and what science does, between hard facts on the one side and just opinions and subjectivism and relativism and social conventions, and so forth, on the other. Now, there’s no easy way to do this, but it seems valuable to go back to think about what we mean by nature and materialism, as Bill and Patrick were saying – and new materialisms are doing this today. Looking further back, Gaston Bachelard, writing on the philosophy of science from the late 1920s, regarded modern science as distinctive insofar as mathematics plays a central role in constructing the world for us in new ways which are not drawn from our common sense, or from observation. Science produces new phenomena. But on the other hand, he also understands that the material world resists, and that we can’t just make things up. The material world pushes back. He talks about science being an inter-materialism, because it’s trying to understand how matter interacts, or communicates, with matter. It’s a lovely expression. So we have both invention and constraint. There’s an exchange going on not just between the matter the scientist is addressing, but also between the scientist and the material world. This is still something we don’t really understand very well. It’s something that thinkers such as Karen Barad and Bruno Latour address in their work in different ways. It’s also something that Michel Serres thinks about in terms of the way we strike ‘contracts’ with nature, which includes the complex business of translating our engagement with the material world into sense. It starts with the idea that the material world is already a world of information.
JCB: To stay with the idea of nature, the pretty big elephant in the room is the ecological catastrophe that is global warming. And the way our thinking about it ties in ethical and technological elements, and a whole way of conceiving the human relationship to nature. It’s like a little story about humans being so greedy and creating these machines and destroying the resources on which they depended. And in the end, they get their comeuppance. How do some of these new ways of conceptualizing what nature is, even on a purely physical level, allow us to rethink, perhaps in a more optimistic way, our chances in the oncoming ecological catastrophes?
PO: One thing I would say I have learned from the thinkers I have studied in getting this course together, such as the new materialists, the post-humanists, is that one of the most important thing to do when thinking about the costs and benefits of technology is not to think of technology as a ‘zero-sum’ game, which is quite often what you will find people doing when they talk about technology. As in, “if we embrace technology, we will have an apocalypse, or we will have a utopia”. So, we get everything, or we get nothing. And the same goes I think for the environmental crisis. There is no response to the environmental crisis that does not incorporate technology, or technologies. I don’t know whether it’ll be wind, solar, geothermal, or nuclear even. But technology will be involved in some sense. But so much of the discourse thinks that “technology is the problem.” This consequently leads to a very misanthropic view of humanity where consumption, and the technologies that amplify consumption are driving the environmental catastrophe, this is another way, by extension, of saying humans are the problem. Now that is not at all inaccurate, but short of self-inflicting an apocalypse on ourselves, we are going to have to do other things. To respond to your question directly, philosophy saves the world by battling for the best possible sets of ideas to shape humanity’s self-understanding. The thing is philosophy actually does solve the problem. We know what to do, and that is some new form of communism. We need to disrupt existing patterns of consumption, we need different forms of economic sharing, we need to overturn the shibboleth that our economies are purely derived from growth, we need shorter working weeks, and we need less crap in our lives. But these are utterly unpalatable and undesirable thoughts for all of us to have. As thoughts they are necessarily discomforting. Where philosophy comes in is helping us towards a sense of self-understanding where we can, in a meaningful way, realise the sets of commitments we collectively need to adopt if we are to overcome imminent ecological collapse. This is where I would deviate from Marx. Philosophy necessarily changes the world. We cannot really change the world without understanding it; philosophy helps us see, and see where we are not seeing, what we are, who we are, and what we are trying to be.
JCB: I’ll pick up a point that you mentioned there. You mentioned, of course, the solution is simple. We just need a radically new form of economy, right? And perhaps economics here has its own inherited, deficient image. The way we understand economics today seems central to the political discourse, and there we find it is about quantification (all of the various discrete indices), and optimization, almost for its own sake. I wonder here, assuming this image of economics is one quite close to our common image of science, whether the new materialisms and post-humanism can do for economics, in terms of rethinking the fundamental terms, what they do for science and technology?
PO: Yeah, that’s about right I think, and it would be a good start. The first thing we need to see is that economics, as it understands itself, is not really a science. Economics just doesn’t do the things that science does, at least in the traditional view of science as a practice requiring experimentation, observation, a recounting of facts of the world, proceeding with trial and error, having predictive success derived from a replicability of results. Sure there are versions of econometrics, which adopt the empirical spirit, and trial and error too, through the use of statistical and probabilistic models. Also, there are areas of science that now does the same, running models through computers, and climate science is one area where this plays a major part. But this logic also extends to technologies of finance capital, which basically work through leveraging micro-temporalities precipitated by high-speed fibre-optic cables which optimize the trading of stocks and shares, derivatives, are all so divorced from reality. I’m sure these are all internally successful as forms of modelling, but ultimately they remain abstractions. Posthumanism philosophy does have things to say about these technologies. N. Katherine Hayles, who we study on the course, devotes a lot of time to this in her recent work. But the point is a bit more straight-forward, economics can only count when we see why it matters. I have always had sympathy for that lady who shouted “That’s your bloody GDP. Not ours.” during a debate in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. If economics, as a discipline, is not connected to the people it is supposed to serve it is pointless. Basically, we need to re-philosophize economics, and philosophy too needs to engage with heterodox economics, and this is a big part of the story we are trying to tell on the course. Of course, I don’t think I am saying anything original here. Yannis Varoufakis has been saying that for years, as have other economists like David McWilliams, Eric Lonergan and Kate Raworth.
BR: I can take up that, and perhaps from the flip side. The question had to do with how to remobilize people around a relationship to nature that is not based solely on the kind of faux justifications we might offer from within our own political economy. Well, the main set of resources offered by new materialism, posthumanism, and so on, are around that reconceptualizing, not necessarily from a political-economic point of view. What we could say is at stake in that kind of reconceptualization, or remobilization, is a reconfigured sense of what nature is in us and what we are in nature, how we relate to nature. And there are a number of ways of doing this. I’m just going to refer to Michel Serres on this, who’s one of our preferred thinkers on this course.
In The Natural Contract he proposes that we no longer think of agency in the world as solely the preserve of the human being. By which he means not just to extend it to thinking animals, but to a kind of agency, that you could attribute to natural processes. How do you do that? Well, there’s two things you’ve got to steer away from. One is a kind of religious mysticism. The other is a kind of vitalism that is inherent in that particular project. But I think he does do that. And in The Natural Contract, what he proposes is to think of the feedback mechanisms in nature as, in essence, the same kind of fundamental underpinnings of agency in nature as it is in us. We as living beings have a negentropic relation to order or disorder, the nice comfortable, breathable air and the pollution that is all around us. We tend, as human beings, in our entirely local situations, to increase order for ourselves. That, unfortunately, increases disorder for everything else. So the two things are the same side of the coin, we have to think ourselves on both sides of that coin, at the same time, and one way to do that is to recognize nature in ourselves, by which he means something like the negentropic processes that are always and everywhere in operation alongside the entropic processes, which go on within us and without us. So, that they are present, for instance, in the self-assembly or self-organization of a chemical cycle, just as much as they are in the activity of wolves tracking down prey. And what Serres says is that essentially this boils down to a renegotiation of our understanding of our relationship to science and what science is and what science can do. It is, as David says, for Serres, just as much as for the previous generation of philosophers, a recognition that we are engaged and negotiating with nature.
But he breaks it down into two essential elements, of what we can understand as law, operating against each other in our culture. One is legalistic law, or the kind of ‘laws’ understood in a more broad sense, which come down to us from culture, and from TV, and religion and so on and so on. These are what he calls performative laws, because what they say goes, not by dint of any reference to evidence, but when you make a law, that’s the law. And that’s the truth of that law. So it’s performative, he says, when it’s said it’s done. Whereas the kind of law that you find relating to nature, a scientific law, is descriptive. I’m coming back around to the anti-vaccine thing. These two senses of law seem to me to be in tension here. It’s useful to think in terms of that distinction here because on one hand you have the anti-vaccine movement and on the other the attempt on the part of the medical profession, in good faith, to prophylaxize the population. In the first case the vaccine resistance seems to take its convictions from the first type of law, the performative kind, which offers certainty – once the law is spoken, it’s done, regardless of how much factual grounding is offered alongside. TV and religion and the ‘values’ of culture.
It seems to me, there’s a curious misstep here. What the anti-vaxxers want from science is a certainty it self-professedly will not offer because certainty is the opposite of science. And scientists will sit down, Dawkins repeatedly sits down, and tell us that uncertainty is the mark of a higher scientific outlook than certainty could ever be, and your certainty is a marker of how unscientific you are. So, what the anti-vaxxers don’t get from science is translated into a reason to condemn it; ‘we’re looking to you for certainty, you’re not offering it, therefore, we don’t believe in science’. So anti-vax is anti-science, for the wrong reason. And it’s then essayed out into the culture whereby evidence is downplayed. So, science and anti-science and facts and post-facts go hand in hand, for the wrong reason. And it seems to me also that there are questions here where this difference between performative and descriptive modes of approaching the world can be helpful. It’s a great insight on Serres’ part. He says that we have to make laws and we have to decide, we can’t just let our entire culture become scientistic because that’s a dystopia. So, he proposes a way of equilibrizing both, the law understood as a kind of performative enactment of truth and science understood as a negotiation with facts and a kind of reading of the world which is always patient and progressing.
So that’s one perspective and it offers insight, I think, into the kind of ambiguities that you might find running deeper in the human and the post-human skin than you might expect. Just as with modernism and postmodernism, there are great knots which are hard to disentangle; where does the line fall between ‘humanism’ (assuming that was ever the dominant paradigm) and posthumanism? One of the great engagements in fact when we think about posthumanism is that you find yourself asking questions like, ‘were we always posthuman?’ Far from being a marker of muddled territory, I think this kind of multiple perspective is the marker of a properly challenging set of questions. What is the posthuman? How can we be posthuman well? For example, again with respect to the anti-vaxxers, you might say this is a human resistance to the Terminators. This is the war conducted by the human resistance against the Terminators. We don’t want to be injected with Nanobots, thereby making us cyborgs. So, the human aspect here is on the anti-Vaxxer side (at least as the anti-vaxxers might read it) and the posthuman is on the side of the pharmaceutical response to the pandemic, again, from the anti-vaxxer’s point of view. But to take a different reading, I think what Theweleit says is interesting here, and suggests ways in which strands of the human/posthuman distinction cut across each other. He says that the male psyche, or the fascist psyche (let’s not conflate them, but he does) are all about maintaining the integrity of the border to the body, a kind of iron-man body. And this is in service of becoming a kind of Terminator form of indestructible, self-reliant, autonomous, and military ready, citizen. So, where does the posthuman story figure here? Well, it figures on both sides of the anti-vaxxer movement. And in all kinds of ways for the wrong reasons. But nevertheless, posthumanism must deal with culture. And it must deal with science at the same time. And these distinctions that we find in Serres between the performative and the descriptive law go a long way to opening such questions out for me. I think that is one good way to open up the questions that are circling this course.
JCB: I was curious, because we’re here talking about a new degree that you’ve created around these issues, hopefully developing new ways of thinking about our predicament and our human future and where we are at right now, how does education itself play into this? Like, what do you personally see as your aims in designing a whole new degree around these ideas, rather than, say, writing a monograph? Is composing a curriculum a kind of philosophical argument or act?
DW: Again, I’ll refer to Michel Serres here. A characteristic of his thinking is his refusal to give any one particular approach priority over another. So, ways of thinking connect with other ways of thinking, but none of them are the original and the proper and the true way of thinking, with the others simply derivative. Instead, there are variations which connect with each other and multiply or bifurcate one from another. So, you can begin to map certain ways of thinking or tell certain histories but these histories can become complex. Something we’re trying to do with this course is to accentuate this. If I write a book, then I develop a certain track of ideas and do it in a certain way. Whereas by providing a course on this, we have Patrick and Bill and myself doing slightly different things in slightly different ways that are connected, but nonetheless moving in slightly different directions, and so forth. We can bring in different people to contribute to this, and then, of course, we have the people taking the course, who we work with, and who will bring their own perspectives on how these ideas can be developed and what problems that they want to address. Then we hope also to be able to extend some of the work that we’re doing to the work that colleagues around the university, and outside the university. So that there are various ways in which one can think about this as a vehicle to multiply perspectives and variations on these problems. To involve others with a view towards an interdisciplinary approach that makes connections and encourages people to think through problems in multiple ways. And I think that’s something which we hope to achieve with the course that can’t simply be done by writing a good book.
JCB: Here’s hoping for many more productive discussions to come! Thank you, gentlemen. It’s been a pleasure.