- New Humanisms
Something strange is happening to the human. The dangers of climate change and the havoc of global capitalism have intensified calls for a universal political horizon. Many have sought to isolate the human as a species to be saved or as the prime suspect in looming planetary catastrophe.1 At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore the human’s shifting imbrications with nonhuman animals, vegetables, and minerals. These countervailing tendencies have simultaneously stretched the human into new relations and shorn its borders.
Rachel Lee’s The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America and Alexander Weheliye’s Habeas Viscus emerge as critical voices in this theoretical and political moment. The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America is an Asian Americanist examination of race across ecologies of biological matter, while Habeas Viscus is a black feminist account of how racialization distinguishes between humans through recourse to the biological. Read together, they illustrate the fragmentation of [End Page 263] the human as it is trafficked by biopolitics through ecologies and assemblages.2 While criticizing how biopolitics solicits indifference to the violences inflicted upon the racialized, Lee and Weheliye neither restore the human to wholeness nor abandon it entirely. Their efforts go astray from politics based on agency and resistance as they seek to discern what the human could become, through minor desires and dreams that seem to be headed nowhere. Among these resonances lie productive differences, especially over orientations to the biological; while Lee explores the creative potency of biological matter, Weheliye treats the biological as a pernicious alibi for racialization. Across these divergent paths, both Lee and Weheliye stall the hasty forward march from the human to the posthuman and explore the worlds that shimmer on the periphery.
The Exquisite Corpse and Habeas Viscus are crucial starting points for what may be called “new humanisms.” Both emphasize that the human cannot be thought apart from sociopolitical dynamics such as race, gender, and sexuality. This argument may be old hat, but recent theories of the human, reassembled through the dynamism of all life-forms and the vibrancy of matter, have tended to elide sociopolitical questions as well as insights from what Weheliye terms “minority discourses” such as black studies and Asian American studies. These omissions continue the trend of distinguishing critical theory from what is dismissed as lowly sociological inquiry: minority discourses are held to be incapable of theory’s glorious flights above the heavy matters of race and sex (hv, 6–7). Lee and Weheliye work against these tendencies, blurring the divides between critical theory and minority discourses by addressing the materiality of race. They ask: What worlds may be glimpsed when the human is lashed, dismembered, or networked with nonhuman forces? Can the human be imagined apart from an aspiration toward repair? What might the human become if it is not treated as an organism or a species but as composites of fleshy, biological matter? How might the scholarship, literature, and arts of the historically dehumanized be received as theories of the human such that, without them, something vital is missing?
This essay is animated by the style of the books, which expand critique into the lateral and the suggestive (ec, 25–36; hv, 15–16). Lee and Weheliye pursue other worlds by relaxing the tendency to pinpoint [End Page 264] a clear target of critique. To follow these sideways endeavors means forgoing a comprehensive overview here in favor of excavating departure points for future inquiry. The selective reading below follows this sideways style by rehearsing a few key arguments, identifying similar takes on biopolitics and race, and tracking divergent views on the human. The first section reviews the books; the second critically engages their different accounts of the relationship between the biological and the racial to develop lines for new humanisms.
The Exquisite Corpse runs aslant from what Elizabeth...