Yesterday a friend of mine related a criticism of posthumanism often heard from colleagues: “What is the point of posthumanism if the analysis is still conducted by humans?” I think this is a good question. The term postmodernism is itself a highly contested term, meaning a variety of different things, so the question is difficult to answer in a way that will satisfy everyone. For example, there are the posthumanisms of the transhumanists that imagine fundamentally transforming the human through technological prostheses and genetics. More recently, David Roden has imagined a “pre-critical posthumanism” that entertains the possibility of the emergence of a new type of intelligent species altogether that would arise from humans, but would no longer be human. Such a posthumanism would be genuinely posthuman.
While I am intrigued by both of these conceptions of posthumanism, this is not the way in which I intend the term. As I understand it, a position is posthumanist when it no longer privileges human ways of encountering and evaluating the world, instead attempting to explore how other entities encounter the world. Thus, the first point to note is that posthumanism is not the rejection or eradication of human perspectives on the world, but is a pluralization of perspectives. While posthumanism does not get rid of the human as one way of encountering the world, it does, following a great deal of research in post-colonial theory, feminist thought, race theory, gender theory, disability studies, and embodied cognition theory, complicate our ability to speak univocally and universally about something called the human. It recognizes, in other words, that there are a variety of different phenomenologies of human experience, depending on the embodied experience of sexed beings, our disabilities, our cultural experiences, the technologies to which our bodies are coupled, class, etc. This point is familiar from the humanist cultural and critical theory of the last few decades. Posthumanism goes one step further in arguing that animals, microorganisms, institutions, corporations, rocks, stars, computer programs, cameras, etc., also have their phenomenologies or ways of apprehending the world.
I think this is a point that is often missed about OOO. OOO is as much a theory of perspectives, a radicalization of phenomenology, as it is a theory of entities. While the various strains of OOO differ amongst themselves, they all share this thesis in common. There is a phenomenology for, not of, every type of entity that exists. One of Graham Harman’s central claims is that the difference between a Kantian subject and any other object is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. When Harman claims this, his point is that just as Kantian subjects structure the world in a particular way such that they never encounter things-as-they-are-in-themselves, the same is true for all other entities as they relate to the world. Atoms structure the world in a particular way, just as red pandas structure the world in a particular way. No entity directly encounters the other entities of the world as they are. In The Democracy of Objects I argue that every object is an observer or particular point of view on the world, and propose, following Niklas Luhmann, that we need to engage in “second-order observation” or the observation of how other observers observe or encounter the world about them. In Alien Phenomenology, Ian Bogost proposes a new type of phenomenology, not unlike Jakob von Uexkull’s animal ethology, that investigates how nonhuman entities such as cameras and computer programs encounter the world. In The Ecological Thought, Timothy Morton formulates a similar idea with his account of strange strangers.
This is one of the things that makes the realism of OOO “weird”. Far from defending one true perspective on the world, OOO instead pluralizes perspectives infinitely, arguing that each entity has its own way of encounter the world about it. It is a radicalization of perspectivism. It is an ontology that is fascinated by how bats, cats, shark, tanuki, NASA, quarks, computer games, and black holes “experience” or encounter the world around them. The realism of OOO is thus not a realism that says “this is the one true way of encountering things”, but rather is a realism that refuses to reduce any entity to what it is for another entity. The tanuki or Japanese raccoon dog (right) can’t be reduced to how we encounter it. It is an irreducible and autonomous entity in its own right that also encounters the world about it in a particular way.
Hence the all important distinction between “phenomenology-of” and “phenomenology-for“. A phenomenology-of investigates how we, us humans, encounter other entities. It investigates what entities are for-us, from our human perspective. It is humanist in the sense that it restricts itself to our perspective on the beings of the world. Though phenomenology has made significant strides in overcoming these problems, it is nonetheless problematic in that it assumes a universality to human experience. For example, this phenomenology tends to gloss over the worlds of autistics like Temple Grandin, blind people, gendered bodies and how the world is experienced differently by different sexed bodies, people from different cultures, etc. Even though it talks endlessly about perspectives (horizons), it nonetheless tends to universalize the perspective of its own lived experience. Luhmann explains well just why this is so, insofar as all observation is based on a prior distinction that contains a blind spot that is unable to mark what it excludes.
By contrast, phenomenology-for is a phenomenological practice that attempts to observe the manner in which another entity experiences the world. Where phenomenology-of adopts the first person perspective of how I experience the world, where phenomenology-of begins from the unity of that first person perspective on the world and what things are in the world for me, phenomenology-for begins from the disunity of a world fractured into a plurality of perspectives and attempts to enter into the perspectives of these other entities. In Luhmannian terms, it attempts to “observe the other observer” or “observe how another observer observes the world”. It begins not from the standpoint of the sameness of experience, but from the standpoint of the difference of experience.
The plate to the left drawn from Jakob von Uexkull’s Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans gives a sense of this alien phenomenology. The top picture depicts how humans experience a field of flowers, while the bottom picture depicts how bees experience a field of flowers. Von Uexkull doesn’t ask “what are bees like or for us?”, but instead asks the question “what is the world like for bees?” In other words, von Uexkull adopts the perspective of the bee and attempts to infer how bees experience the world. He is able to learn something of the experience of bees through a knowledge of their physiology and optics that allows him to infer what their vision is like, through observation of their behavior, through observation of their responsiveness in situations where we can discern no stimuli that they would be responding to (thereby allowing him to infer that they’re open to stimuli that we can’t sense), etc. Alien phenomenology thus practices a different “transcendental epoche“. Rather than bracketing belief in the natural world to attend to the givens of our intentional experience alone, he instead brackets our intentionality, so as to investigate the experience of other entities. This is a practice that can be done with armies, stock markets, computer programs, rocks, etc.
It is natural, of course, to ask how this is even possible. Aren’t we still the ones examining the experience of other beings and thus aren’t we ultimately talking about the experience of ourselves and not the experience of other beings? To be sure, we are always limited by our own experience and, as Thomas Nagel pointed out, we can’t know what it is like to be a bat. However, all this entails is that we can’t have the experience of a bat, not that we can’t understand a great deal about bat experience, what they’re open to, what they’re not open to, and why they behave as they do.
The problem is not markedly different from that of understanding the experience of another person. Take the example of a wealthy person who denounces poor people as being lazy moochers who simply haven’t tried to improve their condition. Such a person is practicing “phenomenology-of”, evaluating the poor person from the standpoint of their own experience and trying to explain the behavior of the poor person based on the sorts of things that would motivate them. They reflect little understanding of poverty. They are blissfully unaware of the opportunities that they had because of where they are in the social field, of the infrastructure they enjoy that gives them opportunity, the education they were fortunate enough to receive, etc., etc., etc. All of this is invisible to them because, as Heidegger taught us, it is so close it is not seen at all. As a consequence, the wealthy person assumes that the poor person has all these things. However, we can imagine the wealthy person practicing something like alien phenomenology or second-order observation, thereby developing an appreciation of how the world of poverty inhibits opportunity. Prior to developing this understanding, the wealthy person behaves like the person with vision who berates a blind person for not seeing a sign.
Clearly there is a difference between the person who is completely blind to the experience of others, assuming their experience is identical, and the person who has some understanding of others. Take the example of the man who screams at his infant child for crying and beats her. If we look at this person with disgust and contempt, then it is not simply because this person beats the infant, but also because his abuse is premised on the idea that infants can understand screaming and yelling and modify their action accordingly. This person is unable to adopt the perspective of the infant and is unaware of how infants experience the world. As a result, he relates to the infant in brutal and cruel ways.
Just as we readily recognize that there’s a difference between the person who assumes the experience of all other humans is like their own and the person who develops an awareness of how other people experience the world differently, there is a difference between a person who relates to an animal as a mere object to be used as he sees fit, and the person that recognizes that animals have a perspective or way of encountering the world. Through ethology, second-order observation, or alien phenomenology, we can begin to learn something of what the world of the animal is like as Temple Grandin did in the case of cows. While I will never myself have the experience of being a cow, I can develop some understanding of what it is like to be a cow and this understanding will lead me to relate to cows differently.
Returning to the question with which I began this post, what’s the point? Why bother? I think there are a number of answers to this question. Recently, on NPR, I heard an English professor discussing the importance of the novel Black Beauty (sadly I didn’t catch her name). She remarked that Black Beauty contributed to better treatment of horses because it depicted, among other things, to the perspective of the horse. As she put it, “to recognize that other beings have a point of view, is already to grant them some ethical status or deserving of ethical regard.” We see this point in the case of civil rights struggles. A big part of these struggles consisted in the recognition of the point of view of minorities and women. In recognizing that these people also have perspectives, that they aren’t simply “objects” in the pejorative sense, we also recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity. The same is true with animals. To recognize that animals have points of view, that they have perspectives, is to recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity. Our attitude towards them changes when we adopt their perspective. Similarly in the case of the disabled and those suffering from mental illness. When we adopt their perspective we’re less likely to treat them in brutal and horrific ways as is so often the case in many homes.
From an ecological perspective, alien phenomenology is crucial to understanding of the dynamics and impact of climate change and properly responding to it. When bees began disappearing a couple years ago, we had to know something about how bees encounter the world to respond to this crisis. It wasn’t enough to just approach bees in terms of what they are for us– pollinators of plants –we had to understand something about what it’s like to be a bee, how bees are related to their world, to respond to this crisis. Alien phenomenology is a vital component to responding to the extinction of species upon which we depend.
In our political struggles, we need something like alien phenomenology to strategically respond to the entities against which we struggle. If it is true that institutions like governments, corporations, militaries, etc., are intelligent actors in their own right, over and above the humans that serve as their neurons, then it is necessary to figure out how these entities encounter the world about them, to properly combat them. We need to learn “what it is like to be a corporation?” to find ways to fight the exploitation of corporations. If we assume that they experience the world in the same way as humans, chances are we won’t be able to respond in the appropriate ways at all. There are all sorts of reasons for adopting a posthuman perspective at the ethical, political, and ecological level. There aren’t many good reasons for not adopting such a perspective.