Against the theoretical avant-garde, some thoughts against Rosi Braidotti’s PostHumanities

I’m reading Rosi Braidotti’s PostHuman Knowledge at the moment and I’m struggling with it. Leaving aside my other objections to her approach, due to be published by the end of the year, it perfectly embodies a tendency towards the theoretical avant-garde which I’ve found more problematic with each passing year. She is far from alone in this but she explicates it more clearly than other thinkers do, for whom it often remains at the level of impulse and sensibility rather than being cashed out as an explicit principle. In Braidotti’s case, conceptual innovation is necessitated by social change, as she writes on pg 33:

I submit that we need posthuman theory, less fatigue and more, far more conceptual creativity. It is not by relinquishing the practice of subjectivity altogether that we are likely to even produce an adequate cartography of these shifting conditions, let alone begin to sketch a possible solution for them. On the contrary, we need to re-cast ethical and political subjectivity for posthuman times.

However there’s a valorisation of conceptual innovation here which exceeds the empirical challenge of social change. It’s understood to be good in itself, as a means of pushing out of our comfort zones, helping us dispense with old dogmas in order to grasp changing realities. This is coupled with a defensiveness in the face of criticisms of this strategy of ‘disrupting’ orthodoxies. As she writes on pg 86 of her earlier book The Posthuman:

What I find praiseworthy on the part of my critical theory teachers* is the extent to which they are willing to take the risk of ridicule by experimenting with language that shocks established habits and deliberately provokes imaginative and emotional reactions. The point of critical theory is to upset common opinion (doxa), not to confirm it. Although this approach has met with hostile reception in academia (as we shall see in chapter 4), I see it as a gesture of generous and deliberate risk-taking and hence as a statement in favour of academic freedom.

Unfortunately, the pursuit of conceptual creativity as an end in itself can hinder our attempts to grasp a changing reality. As described in this prescient 1997 chapter by Roger Burrows pg 235:

It is not just technology which appears to be accelerating towards meltdown, so are our cultural and sociological understandings of the world. The speed at which new theoretical discourses emerge, are disseminated and then become passé is now absurd. It is almost as if the second that one begins to engage with some new conceptual development it becomes unfashionable. The recent literature on things ‘cyber’ is a case in point. Reading it makes the latest pile of books on the postmodern, globalisation, reflexive modernisation (last year’s model?) and the like appear mellow and quaint. Never mind who now reads Marx? or even Foucault? Who now reads Baudrillard?

This process of sociological passéification is, of course, not unconnected with ‘fin-demillennium’ pessimism and our general loss of visions of utopian transcendence and hope in a better future. Our inability to adequately account for our changing world in sociological terms has led, not just to an ontological insecurity but to ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target. In the recent conceptual scramble some analysts have begun to turn to sources of inspiration beyond traditional social scientific and political discourses in order to try and make some sort of sense of our contemporary condition. In particular the fictional world of cyberpunk has been seized on by some as a resource of analytic insights into the new dimensions of human, or even post-human existence, which are supposedly now upon us.

This cultural politics of concept formation in which it is assumed that ‘old’ concepts cannot help us grasp ‘new’ realities is perversely congruent with the modernising ethos you find embodied in centre-left politics (e.g. Blair and Giddens) of the form which is now thankfully dying. To reject it doesn’t mean affirming ‘old’ concepts as inherently superior, any more than concerns about social acceleration imply we can find a solution in slowing down. It’s instead a plea to think more carefully about how we valorise certain approaches to conceptualisation in a manner which is not driven by the pragmatics of concept work, as well as how deeply implausible assumptions about the character of social change can find themselves smuggled into our theoretical practice.

I’ve found that as Braidotti addresses these concerns later in the book, including the sense I’d been developing throughout the book that her whole project has an oddly neoliberal tinge to it. She’s explicit that the “terminological diversification emerging in the field of Critical PostHumanities” is an expression of “discursive vitality” (pg 100) and that “the creation of new ways of thinking, new concepts and social imaginaries that reflect the complexity of the times” needs “an affirmative, not a defensive or nostalgic approach” (pg 91) which presumably requires this proliferation of neologisms. What critics suggest is fragmentation, Braidotti reads as “growth, vitality and new inspiration” (pg 120). The closest she comes to actually addressing the criticism is to distinguish between major science and minor science in the post humanities. She classes Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk as examples of the former, even though neither has little discernible connection to the posthumanities (viz at the level of method) and would presumably reject this classification. It’s not clear why she sees them as undesirable beyond their apparent congruity with the interests of capital; this is the accusation she sets out to defend of her own project but instead groundlessly makes it of others. She then explains how posthumanist scholars need to ‘get organised’ in order to ensure that minor science doesn’t become major science. But there’s no explanation of what this organisation would entail, how it could be effected and why it’s even desirable in the first place. The reason for this oversight might be because on some level she recognises that the posthumanities do have an obvious role within contemporary capitalism. As she writes on pg 148:

We need life-long education programmes to train the former working class of an economy that no longer exists. But we also need cutting-edge experimental curricula for the digitally related, non-profit minded youth of today. Refugees and asylum-seekers can be enlisted as educational practitioners at all ends of the educational scale, as they are a great cultural and intellectual resource that should be put to better use. The Humanities deserve better status within the contemporary university. We can look at it pragmatically; even cognitive capitalism is going to need generalists, dreamers, people who can read and interpret the world freely.

It’s curious that she invokes class for the former group but not the latter. It’s hard not to suspect she recognise the classed nature of what her posthumanities is offering and it sits uneasily with the rest of her commitments. It would be easy to lapse into alt-right bromides about the indulgence of the humanities here but there is something apologetically indulgent about the vision which Braidotti is offering. It’s one which she herself seemed to despair at in her 2013 book The Posthuman. From pg 10:

the neo-liberal social climate of most advanced democracies today, Humanistic studies have been downgraded beyond the ‘soft’ sciences level, to something like a finishing school for the leisurely classes. Considered more of a personal hobby than a professional research field, I believe that the Humanities are in serious danger of disappearing from the twenty-first-century European university curriculum.

Throughout the book there’s endless invocations of what is effectively self-care: changing our outlook so that we can realise our potential, find opportunities in suffering and be more efficacious in the world. It’s obviously not spoken in these terms but if you strip away the Deleuzian vocabulary I honestly can’t see anything which is being said beyond these platitudes. The sudden recognition of how this might be placed within the ‘intellectual marketplace’ is rather grim to read, as is the reference to asylum seekers as a ‘resource’ to be better utilised. This is the point of the book where my commitment to the principle of charity really struggled because I actively find this project quite offensive on a number of levels: aesthetic, intellectual, methodological, political. But my point here is how the self-conception and intellectual style of the posthumanities is embedded within a broader range of issues. She explicitly defends the ‘weird’ character of this diversification of the humanities as ‘generative’ on pg 74, without explaining exactly why this is the case:

a stunning and at times provocative mood features in posthuman scholarship, expressed in daring neologisms and a colourful terminology to designate non-human and non-natural objects of study. This includes specimens of the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms, as well as samples from the material infrastructure of algorithmic culture. The degree of terminological liberty taken by scholars in the field may strike one as either quite innovative, or distinctively weird, depending on where you stand on the academic political spectrum. Weirdness is a generative notion, with a rich literary and scientific genealogy.

It might be the case that “[c]reating new concepts and coining neologisms is positive as the expression of one’s relational capacity to ‘take in’ the world and to ‘take it on”” (pg 83-84) but does it move us forward? If knowledge production is a collective pursuit, as Braidotti affirms throughout her book, does this hyper-individualised recasting of our problems and the vocabulary of our answers help or hinder us? Is it not obvious that at least sometimes novelty leads us to miss a moving target, to use the metaphor from Burrows above, rather than helping us hit it? What would stop us from recognising? An aesthetic valorisation of novelty as inherently valuable – creative, productive, generative etc – coupled with a suspicion of what is established and orthodox. This is why I think it’s accurate to talk about an avant-garde tendency in theorising. This is how I think we ought to categorise Braidotti’s (2013: 84) project of “updating critical theory for the third millennium”. Why is such an update necessary? What purpose does it serve? I don’t think Braidotti has an answer to this, beyond impressionistically invoking exciting change and assuming this means that our concepts must change in order to keep up. But this just isn’t obvious and the assumption is an example of what Bourdieu once called a ‘thought stopping cliche’.

Underlying it there is, I suspect, a fear of being left behind. In an insightful discussion of modern assumptions of progress Ghosh considers how the urge to ‘keep up’ with the cutting edge of change goes hand-in-hand with a myopia about some of the changes which are taking place. As he remarks in relation to the absence of climate from fiction at precisely the time when the climate is becoming an existential problem:

Could it be, then, that the same process that inaugurated the rising death spiral of carbon emissions also ensured, in an uncannily clever gesture of self-protection, that the artists, writers, and poets of that era would go racing off in directions that actually blinded them to exactly what they thought they were seeing: that is to say, what lay en avant, what was to come?

He goes on to consider on pg 123 how the corollary of the urge to keep up is the fear of being left behind. If we are not out in the front, we are backwards, with the vertigo that the proliferation of novelty generates in us giving rise to an instinct to create our own novelty:

There is perhaps no better means of tracking the diffusion of modernity across the globe than by charting the widening grip of this fear, which was nowhere more powerfully felt than in the places that were most visibly marked by the stigmata of “backwardness.” It was what drove artists and writers in Asia, Africa, and the Arab world to go to extraordinary lengths to “keep up” with each iteration of modernity in the arts: surrealism, existentialism, and so on. And far from diminishing over time, the impulse gathered strength through the twentieth century, so that writers of my generation were, if anything, even less resistant to its power than were our predecessors: we could not but be aware of the many “isms”—structuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism—that flashed past our eyes with ever-increasing speed.

*I honestly can’t remember reading another theorist who invokes her teachers at such length.