- All Too HumanA Conversation with Elizabeth Grosz
In a lecture in 2007, you expressed the wish for a five-year moratorium on speaking about the self, about the subject, its experience, its affects, rejecting the emphasis on the personal.1 The five years have passed, but I still apologize in advance for beginning my questions with a very subjective, even affective response to your writing. When I first read Chaos, Territory, Art, and, shortly after, Becoming Undone, I found the thinking you suggest quite challenging, at times unsettling, but also, in a strange way, comforting.2 Challenging, in its methodological turn to Darwin’s conception of life and the interventions it makes to decenter the human, rethinking the human in a gesture of moving beyond this category, toward other forms of life. Some of the affect it produced reminded me of reading the beginning of Rachel Carson’s The Sea around Us. In one passage, she writes about the human species as carrying a part of the sea they emerged from within them:
[O]ur lime-hardened skeletons are a heritage from the calcium-rich ocean of Cambrian time. Even the protoplasm that streams within each cell of our bodies has the chemical structure impressed upon all living matter when the first simple creatures were brought forth in the ancient sea. And as life itself began in the sea, so each of us [End Page 17] begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a water world to creatures able to live on land.3
While I find this passage intensely beautiful, it also evokes a change in perspective on the human that is uncanny—a combination that I encounter in your writing as well. There is something terrifying about losing one’s boundaries, and something potentially unsettling about confronting one’s own smallness with respect to the powers and forces of the universe, as you repeatedly challenge your readers to do. At the same time, your writing gave me the sense that it is okay to “become undone.” Or rather, that this becoming undone is nothing new. It is already happening and always has been: the true challenge is to think it. Then, however, I came to wonder whether what makes your writing so affectively charged is related to the fact that you are “undoing” the human in a moment where there is a growing uncertainty—ethical, but also epistemological—about what will happen to the human species. What does it mean for you to think beyond the human today? What is its potential, and what are its limits? And what do you make of the different affects that “thinking beyond the human” produces?
Thanks for this question, and thank you for understanding the process of writing that I tried to develop in the book. I felt in writing the book that I had to turn myself inside out in order to evacuate all my thoughts from interiority, from self, in order to open up to the forces that in any case occupy us but which we normally fend off. And I had hoped to evoke something of the vertigo that is involved in a real decentering of the self. Reading Darwin, Deleuze, Bergson, and others was both remarkably difficult and joyously affirming—difficult because one can’t read or understand any of their work without some intellectual effort, but also joyous and affirming because each (and other writers to whom I feel attracted) has also had to turn himself inside out in order to produce the beautiful and rich concepts of life that they did. There is a kind of unraveling of self-importance the more one becomes aware of everything else that occurs around and within oneself, the more one understands, as [End Page 18] you say, one’s personal smallness, but also one’s fundamental connection to almost everything, a connection we don’t often recognize but which is more satisfying, in the long run, than self-affirmation...