Friday, July 17, 2009

Judith Butler's anti-anthropocentrism

For those of who have read Judith Butler's more recent work (by which I mean Precarious Life, Giving An Account Of Oneself, Undoing Gender, and one assumes her new book Frames of War even though I have yet to find a copy of that book is over half a dozen bookstores), you are aware that she has become interested in produces our concept of the human. How is it that humanness is produced and deproduced? Now, despite that being in many ways the central question of her last three books, it has yet to be heavily theorized in these works. You can feel the contours in which her project is going, but also feels as if the work where it has all been worked out has yet to be written (unless, of course, Frames of War is that book). This theoretical shift has been really interesting to me (though, obviously, it isn't so much a shift. The author of Bodies That Matter clearly has long tried to think through the questions of, well, what bodies get to matter) for all the obvious reasons. The question for me has been two-fold: (1) Is this really just a way to pave a new humanism, like how such questions are usually proposed in many decolonial circles? and (2) Even if there remained a fairly dogmatic poststructuralist rejection of humanism, would this rejection like so many poststructuralists still not mean the ethical, political, and ontological inclusion of other animals?

In Giving An Account of Oneself, with the emphasis on becoming human, I clearly thought the answers to the earlier questions were yes and yes. However, there were two things in her other books that gave me pause. The first was her avowed anti-anthropocentrism near the beginning of Undoing Gender. This contained with it a strong rejection of humanism, but also employed Fanon's and Wynter's critiques of humanism without mentioning both of those authors' strong desire for a new humanism. And also, it is not clear what role she sees in extending the ethical pass the human boundary (though there is a wonderful couple of lines about the implications of a human declaring 'I am an animal'). The other interesting comment came in her Precarious Life. In it she is explaining that the body of suspected terrorists have become animalized. And then she writes something like: This has nothing to with actual animals, merely the figure of the animal. I thought that was a subtle distinction that most authors miss (that Agamben has again and again missed, for example). My greatest hope so far involves an interview published in Theory and Event entitled "Antigone's Claim." In it, she argues that:
So, one has to be critical about how and when the notion of humanity is invoked, but I am not convinced that it is always a lie or, indeed, a way of cheating. It is important to ask what it occludes, and how whatever it illuminates presupposes a consequential occlusion – one that turns the idea of “humanity” against the universality by which it is supported and seems, invariably, to reinstitute a certain anthropocentrism. As a result, I think it might be more helpful to consider instead a term such as ‘precarious life’ which, though it has strong resonances with the idea of humanity, functions very differently. There are at least two differences: the first is that precarious life is a life that is shared in a specific sense: “shared life” is not simply a “life” that functions as a common element in which individuals participate on the order of a mathesis. Rather, it is common in the sense that we are reciprocally exposed and invariably dependent, not only on others, but on a sustained and sustainable environment.
Humanity seems to be a kind of defining ontological attribute, who I am, or who we are, that properly belongs to us as persons, and in that sense, it keeps the human within the humanistic frame. But what if our ontology has to be thought otherwise? If humans actually share a condition of precariousness, not only just with one another, but also with animals, and with the environment, then this constitutive feature of who we “are” undoes the very conceit of anthropocentrism. In this sense, I want to propose ‘precarious life’ as a non-anthropocentric framework for considering what makes life valuable.

And later in the interview, in response to the question, "Would it be possible to define your concept of “precarious life” as a new form of “humanism”?" Butler responds:
Currently, I do not want a new humanism. If we ask what the human could be beyond humanism, then it seems we resituate the human within the non-human, not as a contingent fact of existence, but as a necessary ontology, an ontology that articulates certain constitutive bonds and binds. So I am struggling toward a non-anthropocentric conception of the human, if that is possible – even a non-anthropocentric philosophical anthropology. The other way of saying this is that wherever the human is, it is always outside of itself in the non-human, or it is always distributed among beings, among human and non-human beings, chiasmically related through the idea of precarious life. So we can neither lodge the human in the self, nor ground the self in the human, but find instead the relations of exposure and responsibility that constitute the “being” of the human in a sociality outside itself, even outside its human-ness.

All I got to say is: More of this, please!