One can easily get lost in the language of something like posthumanism. Indeed, if one is new to the study, it might seem as though Rosi Braidotti’s and Maria Hlavajova’s Posthuman Glossary (2018) is more than essential reading.
Given this, I think it’s worth (in the first instance at least) to focus one’s attention on something that captures the spirit of such a complex and nuanced idea as posthumanism. On the understanding that at base the discourse of posthumanism resolves to an encouragement to re-evaluate ontological hierarchies – and specifically the human’s directing presence within such hierarchies -, the idea of utopia proves particularly interesting (and instructive).
Giving a seemingly uncontroversial working-definition of utopia, one critic writes that “The word describes an ideal community free from conflict which incorporates a clear set of values and allows the complete satisfaction of human needs.” But is utopia such a human-centred concept as this passage seems to suggest?
I’ve recently been re-reading HG Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and I think Wells would take this definition of utopia to task. You’ll remember that the main protagonist of the novel is Prendick – a man who, by hook or by crook, finds himself resident on Moreau’s island. Hosted in Moreau’s compound, Prendick’s first nights are plagued by the cries of an animal in pain. This is how he describes the cries:
They were painful at first, but their constant resurgence at last altogether upset my balance. I […] began to clench my fists, to bite my lips, and pace the room […] The emotional appeals of these yells grew upon me steadily, grew at last to such an exquisite expression of suffering that I could stand it in that confined room no longer.
Such is the visceral affect on Pendrick of the cries of the puma that the reader soon discovers Moreau is in the process of vivisecting in his pursuit of making human the non-human.
But here is the evidence that one cannot be satisfied to think of utopia solely in terms of its “complete satisfaction of human needs.” The cries of the puma impose themselves on Prendick, and they do so in such a way that he cannot ignore them. The cries become an act of communication – that which finds a true sympathy that reminds us of the etymology of the word (sumpatheia, sumpathēs, sun- “with” + pathos “feeling”). That is to say, the cries of the puma remind Prendick that he exists with others, with non-human others.
In this way, the notion of human exceptionalism reveals itself as myth. Humans are in this world (universe) with others; not outside of it and therefore different to others. The common idea of “Man and Nature” or “Man against Nature,” which discloses the hubris of a mind that thinks of itself as fully half of ontology, has always been a fiction. Better, it seems, to talk of “Man with Nature” or, as Rosi Braidotti puts it, a (relational) subjectivity that recognizes that “we are all in this together, but we are not one and the same.” Why? Well, imagine a scenario…
You are walking down the street in a beautiful utopia that seems to have captured all your dreams. Then, suddenly, you hear an animal in distress. Like Prendick, the cries affect you on a visceral level (you cannot control the affect that they are having on you), and immediately the utopia begins to close in on itself as it becomes something else. In this moment of sympathy with the animal you are reminded of how you sit in relation to all other living things – and you quickly realize that a true utopia must also depend on the “complete satisfaction of non-human needs,” too (…something which might stand as the final indicator of the impossibility of utopias).
But, nonetheless, this scenario captures the spirit of posthuman thought. That seemingly very human ideas like utopia are not only for humans. Utopia is also (or perhaps just is) something that depends on its relationship to non-human others. However, we can only arrive at this kind of conclusion if we are willing to question the very foundations of how we have thought about the world since the birth of modern philosophy – of humanism; of the self/other partition of the world demanded by rationalism.
The interesting aspect of all this for me is that posthumanism – something that most of us associate with the avant-garde or at least with cutting-edge contemporary thought – might end up circling back to pre-rationalist positions where people weren’t so quick to accept the exceptionalism of Man and the will to stand in relief to the rhythms of Life. Perhaps the future depends on us finding again our past…