- The Nonhuman Turn ed. by Richard Grusin
What would happen if one decentered the human in favor of a turn toward and concern for the nonhuman? Does affect move through both human and nonhuman bodies? Could nonhumans be more than human? Are categorical distinctions between humans and nonhumans even useful? Can rocks think or feel? Does our constant care for machines and networks suggest something distinctly fragile and human about them? These and innumerable other queries are the matter of Richard Grusin’s edited volume The Nonhuman Turn. Born from a conference and defended within the interdisciplinary field of twenty-first-century studies, the contributors to this text seek to explore and espouse the analytical potential of nonhuman studies. Such a contemporary, interdisciplinary project could be useful to anthropology and perhaps no less to science and technology studies.
Is the nonhuman turn new? Richard Grusin’s introduction is careful to situate the conference and the series of texts as fresh layers to a historical sediment of thought about the nonhuman that goes back to Henry Thoreau and early-nineteenth-century writers. He not only positions the non-human turn as built upon this historical bedrock but also as fortified by more recent theoretical developments including affect theory, actor-network theory, systems theory, and some varieties of speculative realism. His tracing of a discursive history of nonhumans may assuage skeptics and enlighten readers whose grasp of twenty-first-century studies is limited.
I am concerned that decentering the human in favor of the nonhuman sets up a fallacious mutual exclusion. For STS and anthropology both, the best turn may be neither to treat people as exceptions nor to decenter them. Instead, an awareness of multiple competing ontologies may be most fruitful. Grusin, to his credit, puts forward his thoughts on decentering as propositions, not dicta, which helps keep the “nonhuman turn” open to varied approaches.
The book itself is rich analytically and varied disciplinarily. Brian Massumi’s colorful account of the interconnections of art, instinct, and evolution breaks down the assumption that a nonhuman turn must decenter the human. He recognizes the selective constraints of the environment on adaptation, which suggest that there is some plasticity in the relations between animals (including humans) and environments. Animal instinct, he suggests, “plays upon the environment—in much the sense a musician plays improvisational variations of a theme” (p. 8).
Playfulness is a theme seen throughout the text, and it operates on at least two separate vectors. In the case of Massumi, play is about play as performance and action, and in the case of Ian Bogost, playfulness is a means [End Page 292] of dancing around and through some loopy-ness. Reflections such as, “we do the things we do because they are the things we do, so we do them” (p. 83) urged me to shut the book and never open it again. But I carried on, to find in the same piece the refreshingly candid, insightful observation that “much of object-oriented ontology is, to me, a reclamation of a sense of wonder often lost in childhood” (p. 85).
Although The Nonhuman Turn launches an armada of theoretical propositions, many of which may cause concern among some disciplines, the disciplinary variety is noteworthy and could lead to productive exchange. STS and anthropology, in particular, may develop new perspectives on human/machine relationships and may look at the sentience or agency of objects in new ways: might objects still be the subject of ethnographic inquiry, and if so, how? If you decide to pick up this text—and I suggest that you do—your highlighter and notepad will be enlivened.
Hunter Snyder is a graduate fellow at Dartmouth School of Graduate and Advanced Studies.