Joanna Latimer on Wolfe, Barad and Posthuman Ethics

Joanna Latimer photo

In this commentary piece, Joanna Latimer responds to Florence Chiew’s TCS article ‘Posthuman Ethics with Cary Wolfe and Karen Barad: Animal Compassion as Trans-Species Entanglement’ (published online first March 2014)

Chiew’s paper is a rather wonderful thought experiment that addresses ethicality in the context of the need for a shift from the dominance of economy to ecology as central to modes of existence (Latour 2013); that is, a shift to what Isabel Stengers (n.d.) calls a ‘planet eye level’.   The underpinning issue that the paper is addressing is a very interesting problem: how can we escape the thinking shackles of humanism because it is humanism, and its production of the human as not just outside but as above the world, that is unethical in the context of a planet eye view.  Chiew is concerned with how we can get out of the circularity of humanism’s clutches when we write philosophically about asymmetrical and unethical relations – between humans and other humans, between humans and other animals, and between humans and the world.  What is offered here is an argument that it is only a truly post-human ethics that can help generate this shift and address ‘humanity’s responsibility for and within the ecological order’. 


The paper works as a series of moves that unfold what a truly posthuman ethics might look like.  This requires a shift in the underpinning conceptions of what it is to be a human being, specifically a shift in language and thought.  From, for example, positioning humans as in relations to or even with other non-human forms, ‘nature’ or ‘the world’, to an imaginary of humans as of world.


Chiew begins the paper by setting up the need for a new kind of ethics between human and non-human others.  She then offers an analysis of Carey Wolfe’s phenomenology and his proposal for a more ethical relation between humans and other non-human animals that holds in tension the unique capacities of the human and a need to repudiate humanism’s production of human exceptionalism.   Chiew shows how it is not enough for a posthuman ethics to propose transpecism, underpinned by compassion as the shared animal condition of mortality, vulnerability and suffering.  The argument here is extremely complex but rests on unpacking how Wolfe’s transpecism reproduces some of the problems at the heart of the relation between the human and the world that a shift from economy to ecology demands we overcome. 


Specifically, the author deconstructs Wolfe’s ethics as the exemplar of a posthumanist ethics.  In summary, Wolfe’s project involves a doubling: he offers a posthuman philosophy of compassion or ‘transpecism’; a shared animality that involves generalized sensorium (mortality, vulnerability, suffering), at the same time as he insists on the notion of the particularities of the human, including  culpability and responsibility.  What she shows is that Wolfe in his advocacy for transpecism does not escape the linearity of humanist agency – that it is the human who impels the world, and from whom and by whom ethics can be extended to non-human others. This is summed up by Chiew as: Wolfe’s insistence on the ‘ontological status of the human as always already a human animal is at odds with his investment in the question of ethical culpability as a responsibility that originates in the human and is extended toward the non-human animal”. In other words, Wolfe’s ethics reproduces the figure of the human as the ethical, compassionate subject, a subject that has the capacity to feel with non-human others, and to engender subject-subject relations with non-human others.  Wolfe in Chiew’s hands thus becomes reentangled in humanism’s trope because ethicality as a property of interspecies suffering and vulnerablity flows from the human ‘side’ of those relations to reproduce a form of human exceptionalism because it is the humans who are to have the ethical impulse: it is the human who is mastering and enabling ethicality.   


As contrast, Chiew mobilises Karen Barad’s ontology for a shift in thinking and imagining human being that enables a truly post-human ethics.  Barad’s work ‘undoes’ the figure of the defined, discrete individual subject of enlightenment thought, as in relations to or with non-human others.  Instead Barad offers us a position in which persons emerge both as the effect of the intra-action of different forms of matter and vitality.  From within this perspective humans emerge not just as acting on the world, or in relation to the world, but as an expression of world.  Barad emerges in Chiew’s hands as getting us out of the human as “the originating source of responsibility” and into a way of speaking about the ethical that is routed in relations of diffraction and insights from wave-particle duality.  This is not just that ‘observer and observed are fundamentally entangled in ways that make them ontologically inseparable’.  Rather it is the insight that ‘the emergence of one entity (or part) is somehow also (an expression of) its entire frame of reference’.  Chiew shows how transposed to the human this would mean that the figure of the human, at the same time as it appears as particulated, is also an expression of its entire frame of reference, namely ‘world’.   Chiew develops this different ontology, as an ontology not either of division into species or connection as animal, but of intraconnection, entanglement, and uncertainty.  This ontology gets us out of both subject-object as well as subject-subject binaries.  Specifically, Barad’s work is explicated as offering an alternative epistemological-ontological relation that admits the co-constitutive nature of world-making.    The difficulty of course is over the articulation of differentation in the context of getting out of object-subject divides, and the problem of sentience, and how to articulate beings as much more than dust.  Thus there are other possibilities here for getting us out of object-subject divisions, as well as part-whole imaginaries, including Whatmore’s (2013) more-than-human-world and Latimer’s (2013) ‘being alongside’, that both preserve notions of division at the same time as they argue for an endless partial connection. 


Latimer J (2013) ‘Being Alongside: Rethinking Relations amongst Different Kinds’. Theory Culture & Society, 30(7-8): 77-104:


Latour B. (2013) An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.  Transld, Cathy Porter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.


Stengers I. (n.d.) Cosmopolitics. St Mary’s University, Canada. Available at:


Whatmore S (2013) Earthly Powers and Affective Environments: An Ontological Politics of Flood Risk.  Theory Culture & Society, 30(7-8): 33-50:



Readers may also be interested in:

Florence Chiew’s video-abstract for her article ‘Posthuman Ethics with Cary Wolfe and Karen Barad: Animal Compassion as Trans-Species Entanglement’ (published online first March 2014)


The TCS Special Section on ‘Naturecultures: Science, Affect and the Non-human‘, edited by Joanna Latimer and Mara Miele




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