Human insecurities

Posthumanism as a new line of critique in international security 

This is the text of a talk given at the ISRF- ReCSS Workshop on Critiques and Critique, 12-13 May 2014. It  very briefly introduces several key strands of post humanism and makes the case for a post humanist critique of international security.  

Handprints by Trent MacBride. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial

Handprints by Trent MacBride. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial

The capacity for critique is considered to be one of the unique and defining characteristics of humans, and a keystone of the humanities. So, one of the most radical ways to advance critical thought is to critique humanity itself. This is the basis of what is being called  ‘posthuman turn’ in philosophy, ethics, social theory and, more recently, international relations.

‘Posthumanism’ is an umbrella term that really describes a syndrome of critical interventions, each arising from, and ending up in, a slightly different place. For me, the common thread is that a normative, naturalized idea of the human must be challenged if humans are to acknowledge the ontological conditions of the universe they inhabit with other beings, and the ethical demands that flow from these conditions.

As I have argued elsewhere, ‘posthumanism’ may not (and need not) entirely escape anthropocentrism. It is very much about asking how humans can and should exist in relation to the rest of the universe. Indeed, it has earned the prefix ‘post-‘ not because it has left humanism behind, but rather because it is troubled by, and works upon, the fixtures of humanist thought.

‘Posthumanism’ is a problematic term, and many of the thinkers who are regularly cited as examples might protest their inclusion in this category. Part of the problem is that the term ‘post-humanist’ is negative: it doesn’t do justice to the many positive, genuinely innovative alternative modes of thought that are included within it, and it suggests a greater unity than actually exists amongst them. So, I’d like to briefly (and very incompletely) talk about a few of these approaches and highlight the distinctions between them.

One such approach focuses on making space within existing ethical frameworks for beings other than humans. Such debates have been going on for decades within analytic philosophy and applied ethics, especially in the work of scholars like Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, both of whom call for the extension of ethical status to many (but not all) animals. Retaining an emphasis on human-centric ethical reasoning, these approaches remain within the remit of humanism.However, recent contributions drawing on continental philosophy have tried to extend the ‘circle’ in different ways, for instance, by advocating the extension of ethical consideration to plants or artefacts and human habitations. They argue (variously) that this status depends not on meeting abstract, human-determined criteria (e.g. the ability to suffer), but rather on the basis of possessing a distinctive form of being, or co-constituting other beings.  Ultimately, though, they stick to the strategy of attempting to expand or transform existing ethical structures and the ontologies on which they’re based.

Other approaches focus more on disrupting accepted ontologies and ethical categories. New materialisms, exemplified by the work of theorists such as Jane Bennett and William Connolly challenge the idea that human agency and mind are the only forces that shape the universe. Instead, they argue that nonhuman beings of many kinds – from weather to metal – can shape the course of events. Contributions drawing on complexity theory offer another image of how various forces and objects combine to create unexpected, emergent effects within IR. Both of these approaches offer radically different explanations of causality and force within the universe, which has important implications for how we think about human action and its ability to shape events.

Another approach might be called cosmological pluralism, and includes the work of anthropologists and historians such as Bruno Latour, Phillippe Descola, and Tim Ingold. Drawing attention to alternative cosmologies, these approaches challenge the Western secular divide between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ objects, ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ beings, and persons/nonpersons. This disrupts the boundaries of the ethical ‘circle’ and the sometimes very arbitrary exclusions it enforces.

Still another pathway focuses on the potential for transcending the human that may emerge from technological developments such as robotics, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. Some approaches, like those of Donna Haraway are open to the diversity of lifeforms and hybrids that these developments might produce, offering a vision of plurality and radical relationally. Others, such as  Francis Fukuyama worry that the hybridisation of humans will, in fact, spell the end for the human species as we know it – an outcome which is treated unproblematically as a ‘bad’.

Another strand of posthumanism is quite literal: it assesses the potential for the destruction of humanity by any number of ‘existential risks’, from long-term astrophysical processes to sudden, acute and imminent effects of climate change. Largely based on empirical modelling, contributions in this field tend to be oriented towards pragmatic actions to prevent human extinction – that is, to avoid a literally post-human cosmos.

The proliferation of  images and narratives of extinction, loss and transformation associated with the ‘posthuman’ have also inspired a new line of critique, the ‘post humanities’, led by scholars such as Claire Colebrook, Rosi Braidotti and Tim Morton. Their work investigates how the category of humanity is formed and sustained – largely through literary, artistic and social practices. They actively question the validity of this category and the extent to which it should be protected or retrenched.

As this very brief survey suggests, ‘posthumanism’ is less a unified line of critique than a sensibility that finds multiple expressions which, in posthumanist imagery, ‘swarm’ the structures of humanism. My work contributes to this ‘swarm critique’, drawing from amongst these approaches to question conceptions of ‘security’. Recently, international relations (IR) has seen a number of interesting interventions from ‘posthumanist’ perspectives. These tend to focus on the ability of nonhumans – from ‘drones’ to infrastructure – to contribute to stability or insecurity at the international scale. However, to date, there has been little research on the implications of these approaches for security ethics. To address this, my project applies a broad posthumanist sensibility to the questions: ‘what is harm?’ and ‘what should be protected?’ Empirically, it engages with the problem of extinction (including the possibility of human extinction), which pushes the boundaries of existing notions of security, both physical and ontological.

This intervention comes at a time when humanism is arguably stronger force than ever within IR, as exemplified by the rise of humanitarian discourses and the rise of principles such as ‘human security’, which place a specific norm of human life at the centre of ethics. If, as I argue, international security has become an expression of humanity writ large, then a fundamental critique of this field must be rooted in a critique of humanity itself.

In its relatively brief history, IR and security studies have been transformed by several waves of critique, including those of feminism and post-colonialism. I want to think about whether post-humanism – in its rich variety, outlined very briefly above-  can offer a similar line of critique, or perhaps even a much more radical one, given that it breaks with the humanist tradition within which even these critical approaches have remained. This is not simply an attempt to formulate a ‘posthumanist-flavoured’ version of security. Rather, by examining the fragile bases of ‘humanity’ as a category, it raises the question of whether security  – for humans and other beings – is really possible.

In IR,  the term ‘insecurity’ refers to an uncomfortable state, one that human institutions are designed to reduce. Instead, I argue that we should embrace the fundamental insecurity of the category of humanity as a powerful form of critique and an opportunity to open ourselves towards uncertain, but not necessarily tragic, futures.


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