I sometimes think about what makes the difference between a student of philosophy and a philosopher. One idea that I keep returning to is that a student defines his philosophical perspective with terms that are already part of the vocabulary: reliabilist, utilitarian, Hegelian, Davidsonian. A philosopher just carries out her conceptual explorations and arguments, and other philosophers are obstacles or fellow travellers.
Rosi Braidotti is definitely a fellow traveller, almost to the point where she’s anticipated ideas of my own. She pitches her philosophical project of post-humanism as part of the Spinozist tradition that understands all matter as inherently active, that moving bodies interacting to constitute more complex bodies and structures basically amounts to self-production. Physicality itself enables freedom because all bodies have the potential to articulate all that they can do. Braidotti calls herself a vital materialist, but unlike Jane Bennett, who figured into a small role in my thesis, she is able to escape the mystical metaphors of historical alchemy and the phenomenology of metallurgy and actually develop this idea as a philosophical concept.
My imperative in crafting my own take on the vital materialist concept was the ecological crisis. The human self-conception that saw nature and humanity as inherently opposed and alienated, two poles of an everlasting zero-sum conflict, has only gotten us into the trouble of a potential extinction, so we really should drop the whole idea and think of something else. So I developed a vision of the subject as constituted from a complex field of interacting affects out of some concepts from molecular biology and standing on the shoulders of Deleuze and Guattari. Free of the mystical mumbo-jumbo that too often still haunts environmentalist philosophy, I built a conception of the self that was also its world. She and I share this basic environmentalist imperative, but she has some additional imperatives that arose from her lifelong professional dialogue with feminism, post-colonialism and the related race theory, and 20th century anti-humanism.
|A challenge of 20th century philosophy is whether the|
Enlightenment's concept of social progress through
technocratic science could lead anywhere other than
One of the particularly interesting bits of argument to arise from her book in relation to these other traditions, at least for me, is her conception of anti-humanism. Basically, the 20th century in Europe, especially leading up to the barbarism of the Second World War, was interpreted as the crash of the Enlightenment conception of humanity. The notion that scientific knowledge could control every aspect of human life for the better ran up against the fact that, far from enabling the moral progress accompanying the technological, that vision resulted in moral degradation as humanity was ignored in favour of mechanism. The hypocrisies of colonialism also fed anti-humanism, as the end of Europe’s military empires led to the imperial governments rightly being called out as hypocrites for all their talk about universal freedoms while carrying out serious political, social, and racializing oppression.
Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer project is part of this extended calling out of the European/Western humanist tradition. His angle revolves around a distinction of two conceptions of life: bios and zoê. Bios is the conception of a life as a human citizen with full political rights and capacities. Agamben contrasts this with zoê, or bare life, the organism whose killing is permitted, and even rather unremarkable. I first encountered Agamben during my Master’s degree, when a class I sat in on slowly read through his first book of the Homo Sacer series. It’s clear from the connotation of the term that zoê is the conception of life that emerges from the camps: a human whose death is unremarkable, of no more consequence than exterminating a mouse. If this is where Enlightenment humanism takes us, then there’s no use for Enlightenment at all.
Braidotti has a more hopeful point of view here: she redefines zoê in the vital materialist sense of life, the fundamental activity from which all the complex structures of the biosphere (and the universe as a whole, if you take a wide enough view) constitutes itself. Bios in this view is the problematic concept, because what matters on that conception is an exception from the material world. Only in the anthropocentrically human conception of participation could a life be politically relevant; all other forms of life and matter were ethically immaterial. Braidotti and I make no exceptions when it comes to political relevance, only how that relevance occurs. It requires an entire redefinition of what a political process is, but we’ve been working on it. And we’ll keep working on it. What else is philosophy for, but radically rethinking what we once presumed to be true?