Dr Eva Giraud is a member of the Centre for Critical Theory and lecturer in the Department of Culture, Film and Media, University of Nottingham. As part of our series of interviews ‘On Theory’, Samuel Grove discussed with her the ‘posthumanist’ thought of Donna Haraway.
Donna Haraway is known as a posthumanist thinker. What is posthumanism and what does it mean politically to be a posthumanist?
Firstly, I’ve just got to say that posthumanism is a heavily debated and contentious term: so much so that Haraway herself has distanced herself from it slightly in her more recent work! However, the fact remains that she is an incredibly influential thinker who is still generally thought of as posthumanist. What this means in the context of her work, is that she challenges the series of dichotomies that have tended to structure modern thought: such as nature/culture, human/animal, man/woman, western/non-western, human/machine… the list goes on!
These distinctions have framed how we understand and interpret the world, but are intensely problematic due to the way that each pairing is hierarchical: one term is always privileged over the other and this is used to justify the exploitation of the other category in the opposition. So nature is somehow lesser than culture (which legitimises human mastery over nature), or animals are lesser than humans (which makes it somehow ethically acceptable to use animals any way we want), or man is privileged over woman (which legitimises patriarchy). These oppositions are therefore deeply problematic and justify racist, sexist and anthropocentric world-views. For this reason, Haraway tries to move beyond these oppositions in her work and develop an ethics that doesn’t rely on this sort of logic and to do this, she draws on a series of what she describes as ‘figurations’: real entities that also embody important concepts or metaphors. Her most famous figuration is the cyborg, a human-machine hybrid that both literally messes up distinctions between humans and machines and challenges the epistemological integrity of these categories.
The difficulty is that so much of modern thought has grounded itself in these categories, that when Haraway challenges them she also has to challenge a lot of things that are bound up with them (such as humanist political subjectivities and rights frameworks). For Haraway this opens up the possibility of thinking through new forms of ethics.
You mentioned at the beginning that Posthumanism is heavily contentious...
Posthumanism has been problematized: mainly due to the vulnerability of many of its concepts to appropriation. For instance, originally radical concepts (such as Haraway’s cyborg) have frequently been co-opted for politically conservative ends; which is ironic as her cyborg was itself designed to re-appropriate technology from being positioned as instrumentalist—a tool used by humanist man to enframe nature—to being seen as something that could challenge the very category of the ‘human’. The problem is that the cyborg figure is often taken in a very literal sense, as Matthew Wilson points out in his excellent article ‘Cyborg Geographies’, often the ontological dimension of the cyborg (as a human-machine hybrid) is focused on, which allows the concept to fall prey to discourses that see technology as having the ability to enhance existing human capacities. To cite a distinction made by Richard Twine, this has led to the cyborg becoming an emblem of transhumanist discourses, which celebrate technology for enabling new forms of mastery over nature, as opposed to being a figure for the critical posthumanist politics advocated by Haraway.
To combat these problems, Wilson suggests that it is vital to move back to Haraway’s epistemological understanding of the cyborg as a hybrid figure that troubles the boundary between human and machine, in order to unsettle the positioning of humanist man as the locus for politics. This is a vital political project, due to the problematization of humanism from a huge range of perspectives (particularly postcolonial, feminist and anti-capitalist theorists). Haraway’s critical posthumanism is really intended to re-think what sort of politics and ethics can exist once humanism has been challenged as a rights-framework.
Why would we want to challenge a rights based framework?
The problem with a ‘rights framework’, for Haraway, is that it leads to a form of political ventriloquism where the voice of marginalised social actors is displaced by that of activists. This is a line of argument that has persisted in her work from 1992’s useful essay ‘The Promises of Monsters’, but has really come to the fore in her recent work about animals. For instance in her 2011 essay ‘Species Matters’ she claims that: ‘Advocacy is an act, a very particular kind of act. An advocate pleads the cause of another. This is a power relationship not unlike those of guardianship or parenthood’ (23).
But what is Haraway’s alternative? Doesn’t this pose a barrier to political action?
Yes, and that’s the difficulty I have with Haraway: even though her work is incredibly powerful at unsettling normative, anthropocentric, social relations and asking difficult ethical questions about the political frameworks we take for granted (right down to challenging the category of the human), her work does run the risk of stultifying potential for political action.
Her critique of representation, in particular leads to the danger of not being able to challenge exploitation if representational forms of advocacy are foreclosed. In activist praxis this problem of representation has been resolved through processes such as direct democracy and dialogical processes of decision making: but (arguably) it is difficult to apply these principles to animals.
In light of these problems then, why draw on Haraway?
I think the difficult ethical questions that she asks are important in unsettling normative rights frameworks and making visible the sorts of social actors excluded from these frameworks, even though the conclusions she draws might be problematic. Above all her work provides tools for really challenging the process of animalization, which allows the term ‘animal’ to function as some sort of ethical bypass that circumvents the need to ask difficult ethical questions about how we treat animals (or indeed any other social group).
Beyond this Haraway’s destabilisation of the human/animal dichotomy is increasingly important for analysing the cultural logic of biocapitalism. This is hugely politically important, as it actively disrupts processes that are integral to the logic of this system. In other words, it prevents the category of ‘animal’ being projected onto particular social groups, which legitimises these groups being stripped of political life: a mechanism that is at the heart of biocapitalism in its ever-expanding attempts to commodify all aspects of life.
Do you mean this projection metaphorically?
The process occurs both on a material and a metaphorical level, where human and animal exploitation are constantly intertwined. For instance, the Fordist factory system originated in slaughterhouses and rendering plants in the late 19th century, and in these plants profit was literally reaped from every aspect of animals, which corresponded with the careful regularisation of workers’ movements, to maximise profit from them. On a metaphorical level, these workers were also ‘animalized’ in order to justify everything from poor working conditions to social hierarchies that legitimised this maximisation of surplus value.
Your last point about the ‘animalization of workers’ suggests Haraway might have quite a broad application?
Yes. This opens things up to another set of interesting conversations with cultural geography, which really pin-point how intersections between different forms of exploitation are built into the physical geography of the city. There is a substantial body of writing that has focused on the physical changes that have taken place, firstly, in the shift to modern cities and subsequently in the move to postmodern urban landscapes, which secure certain configurations of exploitation. As thinkers such as Chris Philo and Nicole Shukin have pointed out, there has been a physical removal of spaces where human and animal intersection intersect (such as slaughterhouses and rendering plants) from city centres, which has intensified in recent years, with both animal and worker bodies subject to ever-increasing scrutiny and regulation of movement, in order to maximise profits. There’s a really horrifying article in Cary Wolfe’s Zoontologies that puts these intersections into stark perspective: highlighting the raced and classed nature of contemporary slaughterhouses in the US, where immigrants get the lowest paid, dirtiest, most precarious work; whilst white employees go straight into management positions. Similarly, Philo provides a historical perspective (focusing on Smithfield market in London at the turn of the 20th century), which shows how animal markets were removed from the city centre in the first place due to the perceived ‘bad influence’ animal sexuality and hygiene supposedly had on the working classes! Where Haraway comes in useful, for me, is making explicit how the process of animalization legitimizes exploitation in these types of context: with the category ‘animal’ being used to support other forms of social hierarchy, by making certain actors legitimately ‘killable’ (or at least ‘exploitable’) without the need for ethical reflection.
Aren’t these forms of exploitation less a result of the human/animal dichotomy and more the result of certain humans not being privileged enough over animals? More generally in the context of politics, surely privileging the human in the human/animal dichotomy is entirely justified. After all humans can be political agents—they are capable of conscious participation in democratic procedures and revolutionary sequences. Animals are not.
Firstly, I think that’s a dangerous line of argument as, historically, a wide range of social groups have been excluded from being ‘political agents’ and participating in democratic and revolutionary contexts because of their perceived social inferiority (in fact, that’s exactly why animalization is so problematic!).
Secondly, excluding animals and the broader environment from politics means really reducing the scope of what politics is! Environmental destruction and human rights abuses often go hand in hand; this has been really demonstrated by indigenous-led challenges to environmental destruction. For instance, in her essay “the Promises of Monsters” Haraway focuses on the Kayapo, from central Amazonia, who have engaged in political action that rejects both the exploitation of the environment by western corporations and attempts by western environmentalists to protect the environment by preserving it from human encroachment: as both would destroy their ability to subsist in their environment. Challenging the nature/culture distinction in this context is about survival: and (apologies for the cliché) it doesn’t seem get more political than that. This is a specific example, but increasingly the fate of humans, animals and the environment are intertwined, and separating them into different categories means that cultural relations between them that are – literally – a matter of life or death for human and non-human alike, aren’t given political consideration.
Samuel Grove is an independent researcher and journalist.
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