Affect, Epistemology and the Nonhuman Turn

By Rebekah Sheldon

Artwork by Tara Donovan

Over drinks the other evening, a dear colleague posed the following question. He asked: “Is affect nonhuman?” He was thinking about the upcoming Nonhuman Turn conference and the sorts of topics registered by the panel titles. While categories like “animals,” “objects,” “ecology,” and “technology” seem uncontroversially nonhuman, he mused, others such as “rhetoric,” “media,” and especially “affect,” appear on their face to require an experiential locus in the human subject. Does this undermine the internal coherence of the nonhuman turn, he wanted to know, or was there some way to reconcile this apparent contradiction?

This was not the first time I had been presented with this sort of question, and its repetition gives me pause. One thing that seems clear about the question and others like it is that it operates around the binary pair human/nonhuman. While the nonhuman might contain any number of things, the category itself is most often metonymically invoked by way of the animal. In symmetrical fashion, the human emerges as consolidated, easily referenced, and transparent, the better to serve as the stable background through which the nonhuman might be espied. This is a troubling outcome, one the nonhuman turn shares with its confrere “the posthuman.” And yet it is also a revealing outcome, especially of the difference between the two closely (and semantically) aligned fields.

A major ambition of posthumanism is to trouble the self-evidence of the category “human.” Taking off from Michel Foucault’s famous conclusion that “man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (387)[i], posthumanism seeks to produce an account of the human and its subtending epistemologies that would hasten its end—not the end of the human-qua-human, but of the “species Homo sapiens as a stable ontological category.”[ii] Like many critical modalities of the late 20th century, posthumanism is intensely concerned with epistemology and its ramifications, particularly as it takes up the ontological. [iii] Thus for Cary Wolfe, it is precisely because of humanism’s insistence on the separability and stability of taxonomic orders that it is so difficult to apprehend the material indistinction between the human and nonhuman.[iv] And it is because of that epistemological problem and the enormous and crucial analytic effort required to undo it that we need a category like posthumanism at all.

And yet it is all too common to find that the subtleties of posthumanist analysis collapse into what Wolfe calls “bad posthumanism” (xvii), or the tendency to equate the posthuman with the machine-human hybrid. As Wolfe points out, such figurations–think Robocop or the Cylons of Battlestar Gallactica— result from the historic “decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks”(xv). While many the resulting posthuman figures are compelling in their own right, they are also as fixed, stable and visually self-evident as the human was supposed not to be, and far too easily redeployed in the hoary and humanist agon of freedom and self-mastery.

For the nonhuman turn, on the other hand, the indexical clarity of the human serves an important function. In their recent edition of Feminist Theory entitled “Feminists Theorize of the Nonhuman,” Myra Hird and Celia Roberts explain that one important function of the term “nonhuman” is to call attention to those myriad ecological, biological, and physical processes that have no truck with human epistemological categories whatsoever. “The majority of Earth’s living inhabitants are non-human,” they write, “and nonhuman characterises the deep nonliving recesses of the Earth, the biosphere and space’s vast expanse” (111).[v] The world these nonhumans occupy “exists for itself, rather than for ‘us’” (111).

In this way, Hird and Roberts’ nonhuman is the obverse face of Wolfe’s posthumanism. If humanism is built on the value-laden distinction of the human from its nonhuman others, and posthumanism’s analytic effort is to expose that distinction as historically specific and materially delusory, than one of its successes has been to clear the air enough for us to see that there are a lot of nonhumans that are actually not a part of the human at all. To adopt a construction from Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, a part of the intellectual project of the nonhuman turn is to foster the recognition that viruses are different from computer codes which are different again from novels.[vi]

This recognition of the robust and vibrant world of autonomous entities is the guiding vision of object oriented ontology, as elaborated in particular by Quentin Meillassoux and Graham Harman. (It is also the reason why writers in that field tend to favor long lists of different kinds of objects.) But it is also an important point of departure between especially the feminist nonhuman turn of Hird and Roberts, and the intellectual commitments of object oriented ontology.

In After Finitude[vii], his influential attack on correlationism (“the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”[5]), Meillassoux points to the vast realms of the nonhuman. Though his example is drawn from time rather than space, the rhetorical intent is similar. Against correlationism, he poses the ancestral: “I will call ancestral any reality anterior to the emergence of the human species” (11). This evocation of a nonhuman past then allows Meillassoux to land his blow in the form of what he calls “the correlationist codicil” or “the codicil of modernity” (13). As it is the crux of his analysis it is worth reproducing at length:

Consider the following ancestral statement: ‘Event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans.’ The correlationist philosopher will in no way intervene in the content of this statement […] he will simply add […] something like a simple codicil […]: event Y occurred x number of years before the emergence of humans–for humans (or even, for the human scientist). […] Accordingly, when confronted with an ancestral statement, correlationism postulates that there are at least two levels of meaning in such a statement: the immediate, or realist meaning; and the more originary correlationist meaning, activated by the codicil. (13-14)

This description is not inaccurate, and in its terms Foucault’s quip about the recent invention of man would serve as a prime example of the correlationist affront to naïve empiricism. Where this description goes awry, in my estimation, is in its insistence on the separation of being and thinking, as if the only way to understand thinking is as a species of idealism. His account not only advocates for attention to nonhuman, it also argues for a particular kind of attention, and restricts the effects of interpretation. As he puts it flatly: “There is no possible compromise between the correlation and [the ancestral]: once one has acknowledged one, one had thereby disqualified the other” (17).

Whatever we might make of the validity of this claim, what is undeniable is that feminist theorists, particularly feminist science studies theorists, have been engaged in exactly this “impossible” task for a good quarter century already—at least since Donna Haraway’s 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto”[viii]—and, especially more recently, under the banner of realism. What is at stake in these different realisms is the question of whether thinking is a form of being, that is, whether human knowledge systems are agents, and if so what kinds of agents they are. Or to rephrase that from a slight different vantage, to ask whether thought is strictly human—as a naïve realism would certainly have it—or whether it might be counted as nonhuman, and in what sense.[ix] This is what I take as the fullest version of the question with which I opened this examination.

For Karen Barad, whose “agential realism” I was principally citing above, epistemology is an agent. “According to agential realism,” she writes, “knowing, thinking, measuring, theorizing and observing are material practices of intra-acting within and as a part of the world” (90).[x] Subtending this description is an ontology that foregrounds movement, transition, causality and relationship. In so posing, Barad takes into account the way that ideas effect the constitution of things like measuring device while also attending to the responsiveness—and sometimes the surly intransigency—of a fully agential material world.

In my current project, I explore this notion of thinking as a material practice, less (a la Barad) through conceptual categories that inform the shape of the apparatus, and more as itself a material event that begins—much like emotion—in affective impingement. We tend to call this event of thought invention or intuition or even revelation—all of which register that movement by which thought happens through and across human subjects. This account differs markedly from a Kantian conception of an internal self, but neither is it exactly the Romantic sublime. Rather it is something like what Brian Massumi calls “thinking-feeling” (125 and throughout), based not in content but in rhythm, speed, sound, and shape.[xi]

So, finally, back to the human and the nonhuman. The point here is that it is not sufficient to note that bacterium line our throats, nor that we rely on technologies like glasses, nor that horseshoe crab blood is the basis for biomedical testing, or conversely to show the universal dissemination of plastic, or the mutagenic properties of certain heavy metals, or the terraformation of the Earth in industrial modernity, or even that old-standby climate change, although all of these are important. An account of the nonhuman turn must also include an understanding of the human as itself nonhuman, caught up in molecular flows of matter and force—rhythmic milieux, repeated refrains, gestural affordances, hormonal fluxes, audiovisual surround—that might also provide us with new ways to discuss such apparently “human” acts as writing, reading, watching, and attending conferences.

[Rebekah Sheldon is a C21 Provost Fellow who has helped organize the upcoming C21 Nonhuman Turn Conference.  While at the center, she is working on her book project, “Affective Futurities: Non- Representational Criticism and the Physics of Reading.” Sheldon posits a bio-poetics that suggests how literature elicits meanings, as well as a physics of reading, in order to consider how meaning moves beyond the human. Specifically, “Affective Futurities” concentrates on four formal properties of texts—composition, mimesis, rhythm, and movement—that allow her to reconfigure the relations among these aesthetic strategies, the excitations of the body, and the ideas that circulate through a text.   Look for her at the Nonhuman Turn conference – she’ll be introducing Brian Massumi and moderating a panel]

[i] The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. (New York: Routledge, 2002)

[ii] Robert Azzarello, “Review of What is Posthumanism?” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment. 17.4 (Autumn 2010): 832-833

[iii] Here I am thinking particularly of gender theory recorded for example in Judith Butler’s title Undoing Gender.

[iv] What is Posthumanism. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

[v] Feminist Theory. 12:109 (2011): 109-117

[vi] Here I am thinking of her assertion in Touching Feeling that we must find a way to accept a nature in which there is a “coarsely reductive possibility that red is different from yellow is different again from blue” (114).

[vii] After Finitude. Trans. Ray Brassier (London: Continuum, 2010)

[viii] Why feminist would find this question imperative is one of the points I pursue in my larger project.

[ix] In his recent work In the Dust of This Planet, Eugene Thacker poses just this question.

[x] Meeting the Universe Halfway. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007)

[xi] Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts. (Cambridge, MA: MIT press, 2011)

4 thoughts on “Affect, Epistemology and the Nonhuman Turn

  1. Hi Rebekah,

    I found this piece elegantly provocative. I’m immersed in some of the same concerns that you raise, though through a rather different theoretical stream issuing from James, Bergson, and Whitehead, and I have to admit that I’m having a hard time articulating to myself what it is that you’re saying. Is it partially that human minds are evolved from and embedded in the world they seek to know, so the separation of human and nonhuman is an artificial construct derived from the invention of language and concretized in the Cartesian cogito and the Kantian incommensurability of subject and object? I’m not sure I understand what you mean when you say: “Where this description goes awry, in my estimation, is in its insistence on the separation of being and thinking, as if the only way to understand thinking is as a species of idealism.” Are being and thinking necessarily separate for idealism? It seems to me that the crux of idealism, at least in its Hegelian form, is that oppositions inevitably lead toward emergent syntheses.

    I suppose I’m wondering if the issue troubling me is that you’re trying to think your way out of thought into the animal body, when it seems to me that the only way to really know the nonhuman is to learn to consciously surrender thought to shift the locus of one’s attention from verbally mediated intellect to the nonverbal, affective felt presence of immediate experience. As James, Bergson, and Whitehead all argue in different inflections, one can theorize this prerational domain of experience in advance or in retrospect, but the body, prior to verbal formulation, seems the appropriate site for genuine commerce with the nonhuman. When you write: “An account of the nonhuman turn must also include an understanding of the human as itself nonhuman,” although I appreciate the general trajectory of the thought, I have a sense that this formulation is getting at the issue backwards. It’s almost as if you’re explicitly valuing the apparently unique human capacity for verbal consciousness too little, but implicitly valuing it too much.

    I think what I’m saying is that the idea of the “nonhuman” itself bothers me because it’s still an anthropocentric term, just as atheism is a mere rejection of religion or postmodernism is a rejection of modernism, not the overcoming of these concepts. It feels like the term nonhuman and the theorizing that it engenders is paradoxically denigrating humanness by means of the most sophisticated kind of human language so that, on the face of it, the nonhuman is being elevated, but behind this façade, it is merely a more subtle form of the human trying to master the nonhuman than the more overt subjugation characteristic of modernity. So I guess it’s not specifically your thinking that I’m arguing with so much as the idea of the nonhuman turn, which I feel a great deal of kinship with, making the problem that I’ve tried to articulate (if it is in fact a problem) all the more charged for me. Why not merge the nonhuman turn with the participatory turn, which seems to be getting at many of the same concerns from a different angle, and avoid this problem altogether?

    I think I’ve just written an abstract for an essay that I now have to write. Anyway, I hope this all comes off as gently provocative rather than contentious. You’ve certainly incited my thinking, which is usually a good thing. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    I hope you’re well.


  2. Cool beans. All these issues are big, big themes in my novels.

    Your last statement captures the problematic in its most relevant sense. The fact is, the ‘human,’ which has been an open philisophical question since the beginning, is also now an open scientific question in a way it has never been before. (Given the way science has historically monopolized theoretical credibility once it gains purchase in some domain, I’m inclined to be pessimistic about the ability of theory to make any real substantive (culturally relevant) contribution pending what, for instance, cognitive neuroscience has to say over the next few decades. But I continue theorizing, nonetheless!)

    The problem posed by your friend can be summed up, I think, by the question: Is anthroporphism itself an anthropomorphism? Or in other words, how deep does the antithesis between the semantic and the natural run, on the one hand; and how wedded is the semantic to the human, on the other?

    This is why I think there will be no ‘Nonhuman turn’ in thinking comparable to, say, the ‘linguistic turn.’ Thought tends to cluster about those discursive modes that seem to offer a way out of ongoing interpretative impasses. Since the question of the nonhuman/posthuman is an impasse (I think it will become more and more clear that it’s really the problem of Nihilism we’re talking about), my quess is that the next great turn in thought will be informatic (it’s already happening in myriad places) and that the fate of these questions will be hashed out in its idioms.

    If semantics are ultimately abandoned as a scientific nonstarter, then the ‘human’ will come to seem a hallucination through and through, and all of us are simply pissing in the wind of the singularity.

    Here’s a little spec piece on a post-semantic literary future:

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