Posthumanism Matters for the Humanities

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Lehigh Culture & Community

October is National Arts and Humanities Month: a time to experience, celebrate, and promote the important roles that the arts and humanities play in our lives. The perfect time, in fact, to talk about . . . posthumanism? Of course!

Posthumanist inquiry, and its closely-related scholarly cousin animal studies, posit that humanism has long sustained at best an ignorance of and at worst a deliberate violence against non-human others, and they seek to reorient this skewed perspective by taking seriously the biological, cultural, and ethical statuses of, among others, animals, plants, and even certain technologies (think artificial intelligence). Both posthumanists and animal studies scholars practice highly interdisciplinary approaches to their research. For many of these scholars in traditional humanities disciplines such as English, history, and religion, for example, science is understood as integral, rather than antithetical, to cultural representations of and theories about animals of all species.

Now, I’m fully aware that the suggestion to discuss posthumanism in an attempt to celebrate the humanities seems counterintuitive. How, one might ask, can we possibly do justice to that celebration if we turn our attention to a perspective that asks us to rethink the very foundations of humanist inquiry and achievement? Another way to register this seeming discrepancy: isn’t it tantamount to treason for humanities scholars to contemplate posthumanism when our professional and academic lives often feel dedicated to an ongoing, losing battle to justify—to our students, to our university administrators, to the world at large—that the humanities is crucially relevant to education, culture, and life? The “assault” on the humanities is particularly poignant to us English grad students, especially as we contemplate the bleak job market and the erosion of tenure-track jobs for low-paying, unbenefited adjunct labor.

But hear me out: there is a place—in fact, there are many places—for posthumanism, and this month, the month of our nation’s official celebration of all things artsy and humanities-y, Lehigh is engaging in several cross-departmental academic efforts to understand what this might look like, intellectually and practically. Foremost among these efforts is the Humanities Center’s yearlong lecture series “postHUMANities,” which posits that the traditional disciplines of the humanities can offer necessary “insight into the subjectivities that shape scientific and technological imaginaries” and can even “retrain our desires and our politics toward more ethical relationships with plant, animal, technological, and human life.” (Click here for the entirety of the HC’s official exposition of the timeliness of the theme). To kick off the series, Cary Wolfe, Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University, presented some of his current work on animal encounters in modernist poetry. Wolfe’s body of work more generally—which includes influential scholarship such as Animal Rites (2003), What is Posthumanism? (2010), and Before the Law (2012)—has been crucial in defining the field of posthumanism, and in particular its place and importance in literary criticism. His presentation at Lehigh, titled “Wallace Stevens’s Birds,” also attempted to articulate that relevance.

Appropriately, Wolfe prefaced his talk by responding to some of the “crisis in the humanities” fears that often fuel backlash to the posthumanist perspective. He encouraged audience members to look up a September article published on The Chronicle of Higher Education which touted the unexpected and somewhat reassuring results of a recent study tracking the role of humanities departments within higher ed. The gist: many departments, English included, demonstrated relatively stable numbers in terms of faculty members, full-time employment positions, and even student enrollment. After relating this encouraging news, Wolfe proceeded to the body of his presentation, which at times provided compelling evidence of the role of posthumanist inquiry in humanities—and particularly critical literary—studies through compelling readings of some of Wallace’s most enigmatic poems. His claims, though wrestling with a larger biopolitical framework, leant heavily on the foundation of literary posthumanism that he established in, among other places, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003). There, Wolfe argues that “the other-than-human resides at the very core of the human itself” and that recognizing this fact allows us to “begin to approach the ethical question of nonhuman animals not as the other-than-human but as the infrahuman, not as the primitive and pure other we rush to embrace as a way to cure our own existential malaise, but as part of us, of us—and nowhere more forcefully than when reason, ‘theory,’ reveals ‘us’ to be very different creatures from who we thought ‘we’ were” (17). This revelation, then, is one of the primary goals of posthumanist inquiry: to unsettle the assumptions and identities that humans have long used to justify our superiority . . . but to do so with the express goal not to dismiss “the human,” but rather to more fully understand ourselves as one meaningful—though not exceptional—part of a much larger, more nuanced system of life.

Throughout the month—and beyond—Lehigh will offer many different opportunities to engage in critical conversations about the many ways in which posthumanism plays—or could play—a crucial role in our cultural and intellectual celebration of the humanities. The “postHUMANities” lecture series continues on October 23rd with David Bates, who will turn the discussion to issues of technology with his talk, “An Artificial History of Natural Intelligence,” at 4:10 PM in Sinclair Auditorium.

And for what promises to be more lively discussion on the “crisis” (?) in the humanities, you might also want to check out the Department of Religion Studies-sponsored plenary address by Dr. Russell T. McCutcheon—titled “And That’s Why No One Takes the Humanities Seriously”—on October 27th at 6 PM in Linderman 200.

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