- On the Varieties of the Nonhuman
The Nonhuman Turn is a collection of papers originally presented for the Nonhuman Turn Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Center for 21st Century Studies (C21) in 2012. Among the contributors to the collection are such reputable figures as Brian Massumi, Jane Bennett, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Timothy Morton, Steven Shaviro and Ian Bogost. The purpose of the collection, as Richard Grusin, the editor and director of C21, tells us, is to trace the recent development of "nonhumanist" thought with the hopes for "an intensified concern for the nonhuman that might catalyze a change in our circumstances…in which everyone who wants to participate, human and nonhuman alike, will get their turn" (xxi). Grusin's fine introduction provides a general overview of the nonhuman—which can be defined broadly as a "a decentering [of] the human in favor of a turn toward and concern for the nonhuman, understood variously in terms of animals, affectivity, bodies, organic and geophysical systems, materiality, or technologies" (vii)—including its historical roots, its prominent champions, and its various manifestations across disciplines. In particular, Grusin lays out how various disciplines have come together in their common interest of "argu[ing]…against human exceptionalism" (x). Each, Grusin points out, disputes the poststructuralist emphasis on epistemology and cultural meaning-formation at the expense of ontology and nonhuman agency. While a variety of fields have posed this challenge, Grusin organizes the book into three major categories: affect theory, new media theory and speculative realism (particularly its feminist variant). The result is an excellent demonstration of the diverse and intriguing directions of the nonhuman turn, not only establishing major new ideas and approaches, but also not shying away from the internal debates that have arisen across these disciplines, thereby illustrating the ways in which these fields are imbricated within each other, defining an assemblage of ideas that mutually reinforces the importance of the nonhuman and displays its complexity across disciplines.
The first grouping of essays by Massumi, Shaviro, and Erin Manning are elaborations of the nonhuman through affect theory. Massumi, for instance, [End Page 457] offers a characteristically erudite look at the idea of evolutionary becoming, or emergence, as expression. Massumi examines the way an intensification effect is produced through relations of contrast. By considering imprinting in the herring gull, Massumi describes the way a proximity of differences yields a flexible "transformational movement naturally pushing animal experience to artificially exceed its normal bounds" (4). He calls this "plasticity of natural limits," supernormal: that is, a kind of improvisational stretching of behavioral response and interaction upon an accident-rich environment. Supernormality shows the affective propulsion that forces emergent evolution and behavior. In other words, there is an inducement of an effect and not an automatic response: "[Instinct] answers external constraint with creative self-variation, pushing beyond the bounds of common measure" (9). Massumi ends by noting that supernormality occurs within the human animal, but, in our arrogance, we call it culture and not nature. But, he concludes, it is through our immanent excess of animality that humans become more themselves.
Where Massumi emphasizes the neutral operation of emergent instinctual behaviors through supernormality, Steven Shaviro considers the merits of panpsychism, the view that all things, whether conscious or not, possess mentality or "a certain degree of sentience, cognition, decision making, and will" (22). Panpsychism insists that substances value themselves and don't merely acquire value by virtue of human bestowal. They exhibit not only persistence through time, but operate through choice and desire in their becoming-other and self-transformation. "Panpsychism," he says, "is the necessary consequence of respecting the self-evidence of phenomenal experience, without trying either to hypostasize it or to extirpate it" (Shaviro's italics) (34). If, he concludes, it is true that humans are inwardly isolated, while outwardly capable of establishing enlivening relations, it is no less true of all entities, demonstrating a non-anthropocentric field of value in things themselves.
These essays give way to those loosely representing the field of new media studies. Bogost, Mark B.N...