- The Nonhuman Turn ed. by Richard Grusin
The Richard Grusin edited volume The Nonhuman Turn comes out of a May 2012 conference at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Center for 21st Century Studies (C21), where Grusin serves as director. This explains the range of its contributions, which, though roughly coordinated by a desire to unsettle presumptions of human exceptionalism and reinvigorate attention to the material and nonhuman, understand this task in very different and at times incompatible ways. Like many edited volumes, this makes for an uneven reading experience, though in this case the book achieves an effect more than just the sum of its [End Page 204] parts—becoming a provocative survey of emergent modes of speculative thinking in philosophy and cultural studies.
Grusin takes pains in the introduction to distinguish the “nonhuman turn” from the so-called posthuman, claiming that unlike the latter “the nonhuman turn does not make a claim about teleology or progress in which we begin with the human and see a transformation from the human to the post-human, after or beyond the human” (ix). Rejecting this linear temporality, he insists that “the human has always coevolved, coexisted, or collaborated with the nonhuman” (ix). That said, he also sketches a lineage that includes science and technology studies (Haraway and Latour), affect theory, and new-media theory, all discourses equally important to posthuman thinkers. I suspect the distinction is largely verbal, and Grusin admits as much when he says that the non-human turn is “intended as a macroscopic concept . . . to account for the simultaneous or overlapping emergence of a number of different theoretical or critical ‘turns’” (x).
Notwithstanding significant differences between the approaches grouped under this macroscopic concept, they all evince a commitment to what might be called applied metaphysics or engaged speculation. This willingness to experiment with alternative metaphysical frameworks is itself motivated by an implicit sense that the environmental, social, and geopolitical problems facing us are in part a result of the failure of our inherited concepts to do justice to the nonhuman. It can’t just be more of the same, since these concepts have led us to the dysfunctional state we now find ourselves in.
The volume can be charted around three main philosophical orientations: (1) a process metaphysical approach drawing on Deleuze, Bergson, and Whitehead, among others (Brian Massumi, Steven Shaviro, Erin Manning, and Mark B. N. Hansen all work broadly within this orientation); (2) the new feminist materialisms of Jane Bennett, Stacey Alaimo, and others (Bennett herself contributes, and Rebekah Sheldon’s piece also draws heavily on this literature); and (3) the so-called object-oriented ontology (OOO) of Graham Harman and others (as represented by Ian Bogost and Timothy Morton).
Both Massumi and Manning draw on process philosophy to explore the potential of creative emergence to disrupt sedimented response structures. Massumi’s “The Supernormal Animal” argues that, rather than a mechanical reflex, instinct is better understood as following “an [End Page 205] auto-conducting power of improvisation that answers to external necessity with a supernormal twist” (7). This introduces a gap between closed feedback loops governed exclusively by negative environmental constraint and a space for spontaneous expression that applies to both human and animal. He suggests that this open structure at the heart of the human/animal calls for experimental actualization in the service of becoming “creative-relationally more-than human” (14).
Manning’s “Artfulness” explores art’s disruption of habitual modes of taking time to open a space that activates a more-than-human intuition and sympathy. Manning’s analysis of her participatory composition 2012 Sydney Biennale installation Stitching Time shows how thinking of art as a relational process outstrips the explicit intentions of its creator. For both, actualizing relational potentials to open novel possibilities is a result of an ontology that understands objective and subjective identities to be secondary phenomena. Identities are always in the making, rather than beginning points of stability. The work of art can be a particular locus that intensifies this activity, in...