Posthuman Anthropology? Facing up to planetary conviviality in the Anthropocene

By Christopher A. Howard, Chaminade University of Honolulu


Artwork courtesy of Sam Melser

The question of the human being has defined and oriented the anthropological project since its Enlightenment conception. ‘Christening’ a new geological epoch in the name of its principle subject should be a clear sign that the status of the ‘anthropos’ is once again timely. The Anthropocene, I suggest, issues a challenge for anthropology/anthropologists to not only rethink relationships between nature and culture, but also to move beyond these binaries all together. Critically engaging with posthuman and phenomenological perspectives, this paper argues for an expanded, more than human anthropology. While cultivating non-anthropocentric perspectives is important for facing the ecological dangers of our times, I will argue that thinking in terms of anthropocentric versus non-anthropocentric dichotomies is to engage in dualistic, human-centered thinking. Looking to Heidegger’s ‘destruction of metaphysics’ and Helmuth Plessner’s philosophical anthropology as precursors to the recent ‘posthuman turn’, I suggest a critical de- and re-centering of the human is what is needed in the Anthropocene age.

The need for rethinking the human being comes with growing evidence of the material consequences of anthropogenic activities. The impact of growing human populations and increasing levels of consumption threaten not only the sustainability and flourishing of non-human species and fragile ecosystems, but also humankind itself. Accordingly, at the dawn of twenty-first century, atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen (2003) proposed that we have left the Holocene and entered the Anthropocene – the ‘time of Man’. Geologists and climate scientists base the Anthropocene hypothesis on a number of human-driven processes that are likely to leave a lasting mark on the planet; lasting meaning likely to leave traces that will remain for tens of millions of years. These include rising oceans due to the emission of greenhouse gases; ocean acidification, which is changing the chemical makeup of the seas; urbanization, which is vastly increasing rates of sedimentation and erosion; habitat destruction and the introduction of invasive species, which are causing widespread extinctions; and environmental degradation related to nuclear and other forms of waste. Human activity, particularly since the Industrial Revolution, is seen to be altering the planet on a scale comparable with some of the major events of the pre-historic past and are now seen as permanent, even on a geological time-scale (Steffen et al. 2011; Zalasiewicz et al. 2010).

As of 2015 the Anthropocene has not been formally adopted and the concept remains contested within and beyond the scientific community. For some, it has come to be used  in place of terms like ‘climate change’ or ‘global environmental change’. Social scientists are particularly interested in the ethico-political implications of the concept. As Dalby (2015) states: ‘How the Anthropocene is interpreted, and who gets to invoke which framing of the new human age, matters greatly both for the planet and for particular parts of humanity’. Geographer Nigel Clark (2011) argues that it is more human arrogance to suppose that earth surface processes and forms will change significantly because of anthropogenic forces. In Clark’s view, this gives humankind far too much credit and places earthly events in an extremely limited, anthropocentric time frame. In a different vein, Bruno Latour suggests we are mistaken to think that human beings or even specific groups could be singularly responsible for producing the Anthropocene:

The Anthropocene, in spite of its name, is not a fantastic extension of anthropocentrism … [r]ather, it is the human as a unified agency, as one virtual political entity, as a universal concept that has to be broken down into many different people with contradictory interests, opposing cosmoses… (2013: 80-81 emphasis original).

For Latour, the Anthropocene signals the various struggles and frictions between different people who are all implicated – albeit unevenly – in global environmental change. Paradoxically, Latour and other protagonists of the Anthropocene simultaneously make the metaphysical claim that humankind be taken as a singular ‘unified agency’. The ‘Hegelian task’ of the anthropos then is to achieve a complete grasp and mastery of itself. Yet as Latour suggests, human agency is not simply in the hands of individuals, but is distributed across dynamic networks comprised of human and non-human actors, objects and actants. Therefore, the Anthropocene cannot simply be taken as the product of a discrete, anthropocentric being since the anthropos has never been only human (see Pyyhtinen and Tamminen 2011).

Some find the Anthropocene concept dangerous since it equates humans and nature and suggests that nature itself is a thing of the past. Critical ecologist Andreas Weber, for example, views the Anthropocene as the ideological equivalent to globalization: ‘the whole earth now is conflated with humans, and more precisely, with (Western) technological man’ (Weber 2013: 69). On one hand, there is a valid argument that calling the present the ‘age of the human’ may indeed justify or explain human attempts to master the Earth, through reckless measures such as geo-engineering, for example (Hamilton 2013). On the other hand, the critical potential of the Anthropocene concept is that it may serve as a sobering wake up call to the accumulated human footprints on the planet and an ecopolitical summons. At best, Weber sees it as a transitional phase:

The emergence of the Anthropocene idea is a necessary step in leaving behind the old Enlightenment thinking of man versus nature. But it is only a step and must be developed further to a full new view of nature as a generating force inside of us (69).

Artwork courtesy of Sam Melser

The corrective step Weber suggests is one away from the modern humanist thinking of the Enlightenment to an upgraded version he calls ‘Enlivenment’. Instead of the Anthropocene, he argues the present era be called the ‘Zoocene’, underscoring the Greek word Zoë, meaning life in its felt sense and including the whole animate Earth. Environmental discourse, including that of the Anthropocene, is always a discourse on humankind in general. As a critical project committed to understanding the manifold ways of being human, anthropology should have much to say to the Anthropocene predicament. To productively do so, however, the discipline must be willing to push its methodological boundaries, both de- and re-centering its principle subject in a complex, more than human world. Posthuman perspectives offer anthropology a way of addressing its traditional anthropocentric bias (see Kopnina 2012b; Kopnina 2012a) while advancing an ecopolitical anthropology suitable for the Anthropocene.

Relational ecology for a posthuman world

Posthumanist theory can be described as a deconstructive project striving to overcome the anthropocentrism of modern humanism as developed during the European Enlightenment. Rooted in the Platonic and Judeo-Christian metaphysical traditions, the history of western thought has been concerned with ascertaining essences – basic, underlying principles, properties and categories that are unchangeable and essential to all beings. In Western civilization the substance-oriented worldview has been interpreted in different historical epochs in terms of eidos (Plato), energia (Aristotle), ens creatum by God (Christendom), res cogitans/res extensa (Descartes), and in the modern period as a material resources that can be known and hence mastered and controlled by calculative reason. Inspired by Nietzsche’s genealogy of knowledge, Heidegger sought to deconstruct the binary logic and anthropocentrism running through these different phases. In many ways, his ‘destruction of metaphysics’ laid the groundwork for the posthuman agenda to think beyond the human (Rae 2014).

The danger, for Heidegger, is that dualistic metaphysics are ‘forgetful of Being’ and come to dominate all other modes of interpreting the world (Heidegger 1996). In capitalist modernity, Heidegger sees human relations with the world becoming increasingly distanced and instrumental as humanity becomes enframed (Gestell) by rational, technological thinking that seeks to control and exploit nature. Enframed in this way, the world appears as a giant storehouse of inert material resources – a ‘standing reserve’ (Bestand) – that is simply there to be manipulated by and for human beings (Heidegger 1977).

Even in much contemporary discourse on environmental sustainability we can observe dualistic frames which not only place ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ in separate categories, but assume that humankind has a sovereign right and duty to both appropriate and conserve the world. With perhaps the exception of the more radical branches of ecology (e.g. deep ecology, ecofeminism, green anarchy), there remains widespread human-centered belief that the Earth is there for human beings to either exploit or to save (Abram 2010).

The more or less obvious problem with humanism, as Latour puts it, is that ‘[h]umanists are concerned only about humans; the rest, for them, is mere materiality or cold objectivity’ (2011: 159). If this is the case, then the post-structuralists are also guilty, as observed by Karen Barad in 2003: ‘Language matters. Discourse matters. Culture matters. The only thing that does not seem to matter anymore is matter’ (2003: 801). However,  a survey of anthropological and wider social science literature over the past decade or so suggests that our material entanglements certainly do matter in the twenty-first century (e.g. Descola 2013; Ingold 2008; Latour 2007; Tsing 2014). Arguably, the return of materiality and the dissolution of ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ is not just a manifestation of conceptual exhaustion, but directly related to the environmental catastrophes, exploitation of resources and eco-technological evolution signaled by the Anthropocene.

By bringing together the natural and social sciences, the Anthropocene debate challenges us and anthropology to rethink the human’s place and status in a more than human world. A posthuman world does not imply abandoning anthropology’s principle subject, but rather resituating the human in a ‘logic of relations’ (Serres 2003). Eco-logically, this requires recognizing a shared world in which humans and non-humans, machines, objects and information are mutually constituting and dynamically inter-acting within systems of great complexity (Urry 2005). Posthuman and systems thinking thus advances towards a non-dualistic understanding of multiplicity and radical interdependency. This is not to say that all things are equal, but rather that entities should be differentiated within a unity.

This ontological relationism implies that it is not enough to rethink the positional relationships between traditional categories like nature and culture, subject and object, human and animal or human and technology. The reason for this is that reductive dualisms are already set up by singular concepts. For instance, to say that human beings use technologies is to miss the point; humankind is unthinkable without them. Phenomenological thinkers such as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty sought to demonstrate that oppositional thinking is faulty because it misses the between that makes a relation possible. Emphasizing the reversibility of energies between bodies and worlds, humans and non-humans, humans and technologies, phenomenologists proceed from the relational understanding that human existence is always enacted co-existence.

Being-in-the-world means that we cannot be taken separately from the dynamic environments  we inhabit and are enveloped by. As Lingis (2000: 29) observes, ‘Our movements are not spontaneous initiatives launched against masses of inertia; we move in an environment of air currents, rustling trees, and animate bodies’. What the Anthropocene suggests is that these localized environments or lifeworlds are not isolated unto themselves, but part of a planetary conviviality across vast scales and webs of difference. For instance, like other animals, humans live in symbiosis with billions of anaerobic bacteria; seven hundred species in our mouths which neutralize pathogens and the toxins plants produce to ward off enemies, four hundred species in our intestines, without which we could digest and absorb food (Lingis 1998). Findings from the Human Microbiome Project, completed in the summer of 2012, estimated that a diverse population of 100 trillion bacteria reside in a healthy human adult. This means that many of the cells that constitute a human body are in fact bacteria, not human cells (Adney Thomas 2014). Some of these bacteria possess genes that encode for beneficial compounds that the body cannot make on its own and thus contribute positively to the body’s microbiome environment. Also striking is that only ten percent of the DNA which encodes the human is specifically human (Haraway 2008). Human beings not only co-evolve with a host of companion species in changing physical environments, but also with technology (see Lysemose 2012; Sloterdijk 2004).

Expanding the anthropological purview to encompass a more than human world is not just a matter of fashionable theory, but has major ecological and political implications. If we take the logic of relations seriously, our understanding shifts from a world of separate entities to one of interdependent processes. Proceeding from the responsive body is one way into such thinking by allowing for integrating ‘Others’ as co-original extensions of self (Waldenfels 2011: 53). While displacing the human from the center of reality seems to be just what is needed in the Anthropocene era, to conclude I will show why anthropocentrism in a strict sense cannot be ‘overcome’. Given this ontological limitation, I suggest that it is more critically realistic and epistemologically sound to re-frame the human in light of the above discussion.

Overcoming or recognizing anthropocentrism in the Anthropocene?

Artwork courtesy of Sam Melser

The simplest explanation for anthropocentrism is biological: like other species, human beings are ‘centric’ by nature. As Serres (1994: 56) observes, organisms, including humans, live not so much in themselves or for themselves as at themselves, following specific and local codes that are proper to an interior. Bats, wasps and humans each have different forms of existence, but what is common to all is a self-centered radius of operations that manifests a ‘will’ to persevere in their particular being, as captured by Spinoza’s concept of conatus. In a basic sense then, humans are anthropo-(self)-oriented by nature. Yet unlike any other organism, the human is also in the uncanny position of also being ‘ex-centric’ to itself according to what Plessner calls the ‘law of natural artificiality’.

Helmuth Plessner (1892-1985), a German zoologist and philosophical anthropologist, suggested in the 1920s that the key difference between humans and other organic life forms is their position in relation to themselves and their environment. Humans are described as occupying a uniquely ‘ex-centric position’ in that they are able to distance or objectify their own physical existence and the world of praxis; something other animals cannot do. The consequence of what Plessner calls our ‘double aspectivity’ – both being a physical body (Körper) and having a body (Leib) – is that humans have a ‘broken relation’ with nature.

Ex-centric positionality, according to Plessner, explains the sense of disequilibrium or ‘constitutive rootlessness’ humans experience and strive to overcome through culture and technology; manifestations of what he calls the ‘utopian standpoint’. Like other organic beings, humans do not experience their environments in a total and objective sense, but through corporeal schema that operate by the ‘law of mediated immediacy’. Pre-envisioning posthumanism, Plessner sees our inbuilt corporeal media as augmented by technologies, which in turn creates further distance between the human beings and nature. Yet this situation too can be reflected on and abstracted thanks to the eccentric position, leading Plessner to conclude that human beings are ‘artificial by nature’ (see Grene 1966; Mul 2014; Plessner).

Anthropocene futures                                                                              

This brief article has advocated the posthuman perspective that a relational ecology can no longer be avoided in the struggle for coexistence in the Anthropocene. Politically, how this new signifier is invoked and given content may play a pivotal role in determining how the future of planetary conviviality – a life together – plays out. Facing up to the ecological crisis and its underlying anthropocentrism, an anthro-de-re-centred orientation calls for resituating the ‘anthropos’ in a relational nexus. In a shared world, the human is co-constituted not only by its own ‘humanimality’, but also by ‘human-and-non-human’ and the socio-material dynamics of ‘physicalities-cum-culturalities’ and vice versa. Greening Kant, would a categorical imperative in the Anthropocene be: ‘Live your life in such a way that it can be made universal in a globalized world in which there is no longer a clear distinction between nature and culture’. Can we live in such a way? What would it mean?

Daring as this may sound, such a decolonization of thought is necessary for responding to the challenges of planetary co-existence in the Anthropocene. Just as critical social science produces what Bourdieu (1990: 15) describes as a de-naturalization and de-fatalization, Ghassan Hage observes that anthropology ‘works critically through a comparative act that constantly exposes us to the possibility of being other than what we are’ (2012: 289-90). Traditionally, this has been through the lens of culture in a humanistic sense. What a posthuman anthropology sensitizes us to is that we already are Other than what we think we are. Yet paradoxically, recognizing our more than humanness from our eccentric position means we are nothing but human. Human nature is thus not an unchanging essence, but a capacity for going beyond (Rapport 2010). It is this capacity, what Plessner called the ‘utopian standpoint’, that will play a large part in deciding our Anthropocene futures.

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The author would like to thank the anonymous Impact reviewers for their helpful suggestions on an earlier draft of this paper, as well as Wendelin Küpers for many fruitful dialogues on the Anthropocene.