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Posthumanities

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Dorsality

Thinking Back through Technology and Politics

David Wills

In this highly original book David Wills rethinks not only our nature before all technology but also what we understand to be technology. Rather than considering the human being as something natural that then develops technology, Wills argues, we should instead imagine an originary imbrication of nature and machine that begins with a dorsal turn-a turn that takes place behind our back, outside our field of vision.

 

With subtle and insightful readings, Wills pursues this sense of what lies behind our idea of the human by rescuing Heidegger’s thinking from a reductionist dismissal of technology, examining different angles on Lévinas’s face-to-face relation, and tracing a politics of friendship and sexuality in Derrida and Sade. He also analyzes versions of exile in Joyce’s rewriting of Homer and Broch’s rewriting of Virgil and discusses how Freud and Rimbaud exemplify the rhetoric of soil and blood that underlies every attempt to draw lines between nations and discriminate between peoples. In closing, Wills demonstrates the political force of rhetoric in a sophisticated analysis of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted declaration that “God is dead.”

 

Forward motion, Wills ultimately reveals, is an ideology through which we have favored the front-what can be seen-over the aspects of the human and technology that lie behind the back and in the spine-what can be sensed otherwise-and shows that this preference has had profound environmental, political, sexual, and ethical consequences.

 

David Wills is professor of French and English at the University of Albany (SUNY). He is the author of Prosthesis and Matchbook: Essays in Deconstruction as well as the translator of works by Jacques Derrida, including The Gift of Death.

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Fuel

A Speculative Dictionary

Karen Pinkus

Fuel is an idiosyncratic, speculative dictionary of fuels, real and imagined, historical and futuristic, hopeless and utopian. Drawing on literature, film, and scientific treatises—most produced long before “climate change” was in circulation—Fuel argues for a distinction between energy (a system of power) and fuel (a substance, which can be thought of as “potentiality”) as it works to undo the dream that we can simply switch to renewables and all will be golden.

Ranging from “Air” to “Zyklon B,” entries in this unusual “dictionary” include Algae, Clathrates, Dilithium, Fleece, Goats, Theology, Whale Oil, and many, many more. The tone of the entries ranges nearly as widely as the topics themselves: from historical anecdotes (the Ford Fiesta “boozemobile”) to eccentric readings of the classics of “energy lit” (Germinal and Oil!); from literary observations (a high octane Odyssey?) to excursions into literary theory. And the dictionary draws from an eccentric canon including works by Jules Verne, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, and the Tom Cruise vehicle, Oblivion, among others.

A message from this ambitious work is that energy can be understood as a heterogeneous set of self-mystifying systems or machines that block access to thought as they fascinate us. Fuels emerge as more primal elements that the audience can grasp at various points along the way to consumption/combustion. This dictionary can help scramble our thinking about fuel—not in order to demonize energy and not in order to create a new hierarchy in which certain renewables take over from fossil fuels but instead to open up potential ways of interacting with real and imaginary substances, by wrenching them out of narrative, and placing them into the form of an idiosyncratic dictionary to be replaced by users into new narratives.

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Human Error

Species-Being and Media Machines

Dominic Pettman

What exactly is the human element separating humans from animals and machines? The common answers that immediately come to mind—like art, empathy, or technology—fall apart under close inspection. Dominic Pettman argues that it is a mistake to define such rigid distinctions in the first place, and the most decisive “human error” may be the ingrained impulse to understand ourselves primarily in contrast to our other worldly companions.

In Human Error, Pettman describes the three sides of the cybernetic triangle—human, animal, and machine—as a rubric for understanding key figures, texts, and sites where our species-being is either reinforced or challenged by our relationship to our own narcissistic technologies. Consequently, species-being has become a matter of specious-being, in which the idea of humanity is not only a case of mistaken identity but indeed the mistake of identity.

Human Error boldly insists on the necessity of relinquishing our anthropomorphism but also on the extreme difficulty of doing so, given how deeply this attitude is bound with all our other most cherished beliefs about forms of life.

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Humanesis

Sound and Technological Posthumanism

David Cecchetto


Humanesis critically examines central strains of posthumanism, searching out biases in the ways that human–technology coupling is explained. Specifically, it interrogates three approaches taken by posthumanist discourse: scientific, humanist, and organismic. David Cecchetto’s investigations reveal how each perspective continues to hold on to elements of the humanist tradition that it is ostensibly mobilized against. His study frontally desublimates the previously unseen presumptions that underlie each of the three thought lines and offers incisive appraisals of the work of three prominent thinkers: Ollivier Dyens, Katherine Hayles, and Mark Hansen.



To materially ground the problematic of posthumanism, Humanesis interweaves its theoretical chapters with discussions of artworks. These highlight the topos of sound, demonstrating how aurality might produce new insights in a field that has been dominated by visualization. Cecchetto, a media artist, scrutinizes his own collaborative artistic practice in which he elucidates the variegated causal chains that compose human–technological coupling.


Humanesis advances the posthumanist conversation in several important ways. It proposes the term “technological posthumanism” to focus on the discourse as it relates to technology without neglecting its other disciplinary histories. It suggests that deconstruction remains relevant to the enterprise, especially with respect to the performative dimension of language. It analyzes artworks not yet considered in the light of posthumanism, with a particular emphasis on the role of aurality. And the form of the text introduces a reflexive component that exemplifies how the dialogue of posthumanism might progress without resorting to the types of unilateral narratives that the book critiques.


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HumAnimal

Race, Law, Language

Kalpana Rahita Seshadri

HumAnimal explores the experience of dehumanization as the privation of speech. Taking up the figure of silence as the space between human and animal, it traces the potential for an alternate political and ethical way of life beyond law. Employing the resources offered by deconstruction as well as an ontological critique of biopower, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri suggests that humAnimal, as the site of impropriety opened by racism and manifested by silence, can be political and hazardous to power.

Through the lens of such works as Coetzee’s Foe, Chesnutt’s “The Dumb Witness,” Dr. Itard’s “wild child,” and aerialist Philippe Petit’s Man on Wire, Seshadri lucidly brings Derrida’s concept of the trace and his theory of sovereignty into conversation with Agamben’s investigation of the analytics of power. The task is twofold: on the one hand, to question the logocentric presumption that determines the separation between human and animal, and on the other to examine the conflation of this separation as an instrument of power in the practice of racism. Thus HumAnimal details the differences and intersections between Derrida and Agamben in their respective approaches to power, claiming that to think simultaneously within the registers of deconstruction (which conceives of power as a symptom of the metaphysics of presence) and biopolitics (which conceives of power as the operation of difference) entails a specification of the political and ethical consequences that attends the two perspectives.

When considered as the potential of language to refuse the law of signification and semantics, silence can neutralize the exercise of power through language, and Seshadri’s inquiry discloses a counterpower that does not so much oppose or destroy the politics of the subject but rather neutralizes it and renders it ineffective.

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Hyperobjects

Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World

Timothy Morton

Having set global warming in irreversible motion, we are facing the possibility of ecological catastrophe. But the environmental emergency is also a crisis for our philosophical habits of thought, confronting us with a problem that seems to defy not only our control but also our understanding. Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. In this book, Morton explains what hyperobjects are and their impact on how we think, how we coexist with one another and with nonhumans, and how we experience our politics, ethics, and art.

Moving fluidly between philosophy, science, literature, visual and conceptual art, and popular culture, the book argues that hyperobjects show that the end of the world has already occurred in the sense that concepts such as world, nature, and even environment are no longer a meaningful horizon against which human events take place. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, such as climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, or relativity. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of reasoning.

Insisting that we have to reinvent how we think to even begin to comprehend the world we now live in, Hyperobjects takes the first steps, outlining a genuinely postmodern ecological approach to thought and action.

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Improper Life

Technology and Biopolitics from Heidegger to Agamben

Timothy C. Campbell

Has biopolitics actually become thanatopolitics, a field of study obsessed with death? Is there something about the nature of biopolitical thought today that makes it impossible to deploy affirmatively? If this is true, what can life-minded thinkers put forward as the merits of biopolitical reflection? These questions drive Improper Life, Timothy C. Campbell’s dexterous inquiry-as-intervention.

Campbell argues that a “crypto-thanatopolitics” can be teased out of Heidegger’s critique of technology and that some of the leading scholars of biopolitics—including Michel Foucault, Giorgio Agamben, and Peter Sloterdijk—have been substantively influenced by Heidegger’s thought, particularly his reading of proper and improper writing. In fact, Campbell shows how all of these philosophers have pointed toward a tragic, thanatopolitical destination as somehow an inevitable result of technology. But in Improper Life he articulates a corrective biopolitics that can begin with rereadings of Foucault (especially his late work regarding the care and technologies of the self), Freud (notably his writings on the drives and negation), and Gilles Deleuze (particularly in the relation of attention to aesthetics).

Throughout Improper Life, Campbell insists that biopolitics can become more positive and productively asserts an affirmative technē not thought through thanatos but rather practiced through bíos.

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Inanimation

Theories of Inorganic Life

David Wills

Inanimation is the third book by author David Wills to analyze the technology of the human. In Prosthesis, Wills traced our human attachment to external objects back to a necessity within the body itself. In Dorsality, he explored how technology is understood to function behind or before the human. Inanimation proceeds by taking literally the idea of inanimate or inorganic forms of life. Starting from a seemingly naïve question about what it means to say texts “live on” or have a “life of their own,” Inanimation develops a new theory of the inanimate.

Inanimation offers a fresh account of what life is and the ethical and political consequences that follow from this conception. Inspired by Walter Benjamin’s observation that “the idea of life and afterlife in works of art should be regarded with an entirely unmetaphorical objectivity,” the book challenges the coherence and limitations of “what lives,” arguing that there is no clear opposition between a live animate and dead inanimate. Wills identifies three major forms of inorganic life: autobiography, translation, and resonance. Informed by Jacques Derrida and Gilles Deleuze, he explores these forms through wide-ranging case studies. He brings his panoptic vision to bear on thinkers (Descartes, Freud, Derrida, Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Jean-Luc Nancy, Roland Barthes), writers and poets (Hélène Cixous, Paul Celan, William Carlos Williams, Ernst Jünger, James Joyce, Georges Bataille), and visual artists (Jean-François Millet, Jean-Luc Godard, Paul Klee). With panache and gusto, Wills discovers life-forms well beyond textual remainders and translations, in such disparate “places” as the act of thinking, the death drive, poetic blank space, recorded bird songs, the technology of warfare, and the heart stopped by love.


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Insect Media

An Archaeology of Animals and Technology

Jussi Parikka

Since the early nineteenth century, when entomologists first popularized the unique biological and behavioral characteristics of insects, technological innovators and theorists have proposed insects as templates for a wide range of technologies. In Insect Media, Jussi Parikka analyzes how insect forms of social organization-swarms, hives, webs, and distributed intelligence-have been used to structure modern media technologies and the network society, providing a radical new perspective on the interconnection of biology and technology.

Through close engagement with the pioneering work of insect ethologists, including Jakob von Uexküll and Karl von Frisch, posthumanist philosophers, media theorists, and contemporary filmmakers and artists, Parikka develops an insect theory of media, one that conceptualizes modern media as more than the products of individual human actors, social interests, or technological determinants. They are, rather, profoundly nonhuman phenomena that both draw on and mimic the alien lifeworlds of insects.
 
Deftly moving from the life sciences to digital technology, from popular culture to avant-garde art and architecture, and from philosophy to cybernetics and game theory, Parikka provides innovative conceptual tools for exploring the phenomena of network society and culture. Challenging anthropocentric approaches to contemporary science and culture, Insect Media reveals the possibilities that insects and other nonhuman animals offer for rethinking media, the conflation of biology and technology, and our understanding of, and interaction with, contemporary digital culture.

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The Intellective Space

Thinking beyond Cognition

Laurent Dubreuil

The Intellective Space explores the nature and limits of thought. It celebrates the poetic virtues of language and the creative imperfections of our animal minds while pleading for a renewal of the humanities that is grounded in a study of the sciences.

According to Laurent Dubreuil, we humans both say more than we think and think more than we say. Dubreuil’s particular interest is the intellective space, a space where thought and knowledge are performed and shared. For Dubreuil, the term “cognition” refers to the minimal level of our mental operations. But he suggests that for humans there is an excess of cognition due to our extensive processing necessary for verbal language, brain dynamics, and social contexts. In articulating the intellective, Dubreuil includes “the productive undoing of cognition.”

Dubreuil grants that cognitive operations take place and that protocols of experimental psychology, new techniques of neuroimagery, and mathematical or computerized models provide access to a certain understanding of thought. But he argues that there is something in thinking that bypasses cognitive structures. Seeking to theorize with the sciences, the book’s first section develops the “intellective hypothesis” and points toward the potential journey of ideas going beyond cognition, after and before computation. The second part, “Animal Meditations,” pursues some of the consequences of this hypothesis with regard to the disparaged but enduring project of metaphysics, with its emphasis on categories such as reality, humanness, and the soul.

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