Review of Richard Grusin (ed): The Nonhuman Turn (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 255 pages
Reviewed by Astrida Neimanis
Abstract: This edited collection gathers the keynote addresses from the 2012 Center for Twenty-First Century Studies conference on “The Nonhuman Turn,” authored by some of the leading figures in this area of contemporary cultural and philosophical thought. Given the very broad strokes that such an area might cover, the collection is not strongly cohesive, even as it includes various exceptional contributions. For better or worse, the red thread that runs through the book is an implicit and explicit confrontation between object oriented ontology and other ways of thinking the nonhuman that challenge OOO’s notion of the non-relationality and withdrawal of things.
Keywords: nonhuman, feminist materialism, Object Oriented Ontology, correlationism, technology, animality, vital materialism.
One way of thinking about an edited collection is as a memorable dinner party: the host (or editor) assembles an interesting group of participants. They probably won’t know each other all that well, but have been chosen because of the balance of overlapping interests and divergent positions they offer. A good host knows their togetherness will spark great conversation, new insights, new connections—and perhaps some enlightening disagreements.
Hosting a dinner party on “the nonhuman turn” turns out to be a particularly challenging endeavour. In the first place, given that “almost every problem of note that we face in the twenty-first century entails engagement with non-humans” (vii), the potential guest list for this party is wide-open. Moreover, as editor Richard Grusin notes in the book’s introduction, the nonhuman turn has long been turning. He points out that a deep genealogy of scholarship attests to the rich history of interest in the nonhuman (a point which Jane Bennett also makes in her chapter “Systems and Things,” as she sketches a lineage from Lucretius through Erasmus Darwin, Spinoza, Whitman, and contemporary feminist theorists of embodiment). Grusin further notes that this turn is internally heterogeneous. Not only does it encompass a variety of scholarly orientations, from Animal Studies to Affect Theory, to Object-Oriented Ontology and beyond (viii), but it also includes a variety of possibly incommensurable intellectual and ethical commitments, as suggested by the various kinds of turns (“ontological, network, neurological, affective, digital, ecological, evolutionary” [x]) that it gathers up.
Grusin clearly understands the need to argue for the purpose of a collection with this name, and suggests various ways that we might think the nonhuman turn and why. Yet, in the end the introduction doesn’t offer a specific orientation toward the question of the nonhuman, and Grusin’s various propositions here don’t map onto the content of the book in an obvious way. These chapters are, after all, a restaging of the keynote talks at a conference in 2012 by the same name, and as Grusin admits, these choices are “in part of product of accident and contingency” with availability, limited funding, and current theoretical trends all playing into the end result. Accidental dinner parties can be thrilling, but sometimes they are also disjointed, as guests end up just talking to those with whom they already have affinities – “dinner-parties-within-a-dinner-party,” if you will. This collection does offer some gems, but not all of the guests seem to be engaged in the same conversation. This means that, for better or worse, readers of this collection will need to find their own way into the material collected here.
The book opens with a hushed yet passionate conversation among Brian Massumi, Steven Shaviro and Erin Manning. Massumi’s “The Supernormal Animal” gives us a version of the ‘more-than-human’ in the most literal sense. Here, the term is not just a self-effacing moniker for what is not a human; it rather underlines the creative-relationally non-humanness that is the engine of all kinds of practices, from the induced improvisation (7) of animals, to art-making. This more-than-humanness is the “becoming animal” within us all. One might ask why animality, rather than vegetality, stoniness, or aqueousness, is the key to our more-than-human-ness, but Massumi’s chapter opens to, rather than forecloses, such questions. Shaviro’s “Consequences of Panpsychism” similarly takes what could be a limit-test of nonhuman continuity and rather than defending against it, fully embraces its potential. Relating Galen Strawson’s argument for panpsychism to the work of Alfred North Whitehead, Thomas Nagel and others, Shaviro argues against an object-oriented ontology understanding of objects as ultimately withdrawn (where “absolute non-relationality is possible” ), without having to argue for their full availability to us, either. Thinking about the sentience (rather than life or vitality) of things is what opens this possibility for Shaviro. In her chapter on “Artfulness,” Manning also counters the idea that the nonhuman is something separate from the human, citing David Lapoujade to aver that “at the heart of the human there is nothing human”; instead “the world is made of relation activated by intuition, felt sympathetically on the edges of experience, touching its nonhuman tendencies” (50). Through an analysis of time and sympathy in relation to an artwork she installed at the Sydney Biennale in 2012, Manning, like Massumi, argues for a nonhuman force at the heart of art-making.
The next party-within-a-party directly centres Object Oriented Ontology—including Ian Bogost’s “The Aesthetics of Philosophical Carpentry” and Timothy Morton’s “They Are Here”—and tellingly occupies the physical middle of the book. (While not directly adjacent to one another, these two chapters’ spatial separation only enforces their insistence on talking to one another, even if it means shouting over the heads of those seated beside them.) Eavesdropping my way through this conversation, there were a couple of things I realized: (1) it was not me drinking beer with Tim Morton at Von Trier’s on Farwell and North in May 2012; and (2) I probably wouldn’t have been invited anyway. Unlike Bogost, I am not excited by a plate of artisanal meats (quite the opposite) and I can’t even say I like frozen custard. Whether or not you get these inside jokes, the point is that there are inside jokes to be got. This conversation reads like a chat at an exclusive club, to which I showed up wearing the wrong outfit. In general, that’s okay (not all clubs are for me, and that’s neither their failing, nor mine), but here the chummy style slides into a critical arrogance. In Bogost’s case, his argument is that “form matters”—that is, that “the objects out of which philosophy is made” (81) are as important as the objects of its inquiry. He cites his own philosophical objects (his “Cow Clicker” game, as well as a mobile text/emoji conversation he has with his child which Bogost claims “goes further than most philosophy” ) and publishing experiments such as Chris Schaberg and Mark Yakich’s Checking In/Checking Out, as positive examples of doing philosophy through material form. He also cites Morton’s talk/performance at the conference from which this book derives. At the same time, Bogost laments that philosophers (in general) don’t actually work “in the field” but just drive-by and write up “ethics white papers” (88). They don’t much care about their craft, their form, their carpentry. Bogost makes some good points, but one has to wonder how such claims about the craftlessness of theory can be made— the French school of ecriture feminine, or the writing of black feminist Audre Lorde, or the poethics of Gloria Anzaldua, all demonstrate forms of philosophy entirely dependent upon material craft. These are all works that took the standard philosophical form to task long ago. In fact, one need look no further than Manning’s chapter on “Artfulness” directly preceding Bogost’s, to counter his claims. This is where the OOO chumminess becomes a problem. Straddling an anti-theory populism (see Braidotti 2013, pp 4 for a good argument on contemporary “post-theoretical malaise” and its feminist and anti-racist implications) and a reverence for theories only by those with whom he drinks beer, Bogost’s chapter is a little difficult to stomach.
Tim Morton’s chapter has a profoundly interesting premise. He wants to “offer a way to think black environmental consciousness as symptomatic of and central to the emerging ecological age” and asks the key question: “Is it possible to think antiracism without anthropocentrism?” (167). Posing such questions are thought-provoking and an important contribution in their own right. Morton’s analysis, though—using OOO to lead us through an exploration of Toni Basil’s video for the Talking Heads’ song “Crosseyed and Painless” (1980) and focusing on its chroma-keyed car—leaves one a bit perplexed. There is clearly something interesting going on here—Morton has a skill for pulling profundity from banality—but greater clarity would be appreciated; it is difficult to parse out the environmental and anti-racist take-home. And if one can’t, one feels somehow (again) that they just aren’t inside-the-club enough, cool enough, to “get” this. This mood is driven home by sentences that contrast OOO with “a boring world of billiard balls that clunk in predictable, dull ways” (188). Perhaps, we wonder, we are too boring to understand where the theory’s really at? Reading a chapter ostensibly about anti-racism, anti-anthropocentrism and the anxiety of a climate-changing world, one might be dismayed that getting deeper into these questions depends on understanding the inner workings of a Vidicon camera tube.
At the same time, one of the nice things about accidental dinner parties is encountering materials beyond one’s regular sphere of reference. Stumbling into the conversation between Mark Hansen and Wendy Hui Kyong Chung’s chapters was one such unexpected delight. Hansen’s “Our Predictive Condition” takes as its starting point “the sweeping intrusion of predictive analytics into the daily life of ordinary citizens” (123) and furnishes an original argument regarding preemptive logics and premediation. Unlike the Bush doctrine of allegorical pre-emption, Hansen (drawing on Whitehead) argues, we are currently dealing with a new operative logic of “prediction in the wild” that is derived from the production by non-human forces of “the future to come” (133). In this, the futural agency of non-human big data—and specifically as untethered from human understanding and specific events—is laid bare. Chung’s “Crisis, Crisis, Crisis” extends discussion about our predictive condition into a brilliant discussion of code, and its temporality of a future not-to-come. After elaborating crisis as “both the motor and end of control systems” (140), Chung explains new media’s critical difference as “critical mass device” (144)—and as that which is meant to respond to crisis, but which also prolongs the crisis “state of exception” (149). Her solution for “exhausting the kind of exhaustion encapsulated in ‘search overload syndrome’” (159) is arresting: rather than complaining about the fallibility of predictive programs, we need to care for them, and “frame their predictions as calls for responsibility” (160). The whole point of their predictive capacity is to persuade us to not let that future come about. Hence, “the gap between their future predictions and the future” is not a reason for “dismissal” but for “hope” (160). In the context of nonhuman turn scholarship, Hung’s articulation of a care ethic with algorithms and data is a particularly innovative conversation-starter.
Rebekah Sheldon and Jane Bennett’s chapters round off this collection (We might complain that the feminists are seated near the back door, but then again, they also get the last word). Both chapters are in response to (although not really in conversation with) the OOO chapters that come before. Sheldon’s “Form/Matter/Chora: Object-Oriented Ontology and Feminist New Materialism” “forces a confrontation” (196) between these two areas of scholarship. She then turns her attention to the chora—“that uneasy third term in Plato” the centrality of which “both sides have neglected” (197). Attending to the chora, offers Sheldon, could account for both the thing itself and the virtuality or gestationality which gives the thing form: this is a “third thing” that “taken in its most robust form” could generate “an ontology of material-affective circulation” (213). Sheldon rounds her chaper off by describing a practice of “choratic reading” that could materialise this thirdness, particularly in relation to reading texts. To close, Bennett’s “Systems and Things” also rejects an OOO position that denies the relationality of things. Instead, she defends her own vital materialist proposition of assemblages, which “can offer an account of the emergence of novelty without also rendering the trajectory, impetus, drive, or energetic push of any existing body epiphenomenal to its relations” (233). Like Shaviro, Sheldon, and some of the others in this book, Bennett rejects the “either/or”-ism of some facets of the nonhuman turn, and instead embraces the potential of the “both/and”.
In short, some of these chapters will be for some readers, others will be for others, but I’m not convinced the book works well as a whole; there won’t be many readers who find an even way into it (unless their explicit interest is parsing the confrontation between OOO and other arenas of thinking the nonhuman). So if you show up at this party, bear in mind that the host might be too busy filling the wine glasses to introduce you. Just go and sit down with the conversation you find most interesting; you’re bound to find something to talk about.
Braidotti, R (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity.
Chun, W K C (2011) Crisis, Crisis, Crisis, or Sovereignty and Networks, Theory, Culture & Society 28(6): 91-112.
Gane, N and Sale, S (2007) Interview with Friedrich Kittler and Mark Hansen, Theory, Culture & Society, December 24 (7-8): 323-329.
Harman, G (2016) Heidegger, McLuhan and Schumacher on Form and Its Aliens, Theory, Culture & Society Epub ahead of print January 20, 2016.
Mackenzie, A and Vurdubaki, T (2011) Codes and Codings in Crisis: Signification, Performativity and Excess, Theory, Culture & Society 28(6): 3-23.
Manning, E (2014) Wondering the World Directly – or, How Movement Outruns the Subject, Body & Society 20(3-4): 162-188.
Massumi, B (2015) Such As It Is: A Short Essay in Extreme Realism, Body & Society 22(1): 115-127.
Working at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, Astrida Neimanis is a Lecturer in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. She is co-editor of Thinking with Water (2013) and her monograph Bodies of Water is forthcoming in 2016. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.