What is a nonhuman?

by craigepplin

Rethinking a post from a couple days ago, I decided that it might be useful to define what a nonhuman entity is. After all, when I criticize Bourriaud for his anthropocentrism, I might be incurring in a simple tautology: of course his theory is anthropocentric because it is a theory of a human construct, art, and thus it would necessarily center on a human experience. In this way, to be against anthropocentrism would be tantamount to throwing out all aesthetic theory. This, however, is not what I mean to do.

My problem with a theory like Bourriaud’s, rather, is that there is so little attention paid to the constitutive nonhuman element of aesthetics–and of all experience. This problem boils down to materiality. Relational artists do not just place human interaction at the center of the work of art; rather, they create a material framework in which interaction becomes possible. The interest that their works hold out for us depends on the mediations that they effect between humans and their environments–or more radically, on the mediations that they effect among the multiple members of an extended ecology. What interests me about relational artists, and also about other artists whose work tackles the question of social interaction, is the possibility of decentering human subjectivity that they seem to hold out.

Not all thought, aesthetic or otherwise, incurs in anthropocentrism. Bourriaud cites, as I mention in the original post, the work of Félix Guattari, who advances a theory whereby the nonhuman lies at the heart of the experience of subjectivity. His longtime collaborator, Gilles Deleuze, is just as adamant on this point–not only in the works he coauthored with Guattari, but also in his book on Spinoza. There, Deleuze lumps human beings together with all other material distributions, presenting a general theory of movement or desire: “each thing strives to persevere in its being, each body in extension, each mind or each idea in thought” (21). There is no fundamental difference between different sorts of beings in this scheme, as each is defined by its “appetite” to persevere.

Following on Deleuze and Guattari, contemporary Mexican philosopher Manuel DeLanda is even more explicit about the need to move away from a human-centered understanding of the world. One of my favorite passages from A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History centers on the conjunction of an organic material (bone) and an inorganic one (city walls). Both are skeletal in nature, and thus Delanda situates them both within a long process of mineralization. Bone emerged among fleshy matter some five hundred million years ago, touching off a long process of mineralization in which cities, characterized by their hard materials, represent a recent development. DeLanda puts it this way:

About eight thousand years ago, human populations began mineralizing again when they developed an urban exoskeleton: bricks of sun-dried clay became the building materials for their homes, which in turn surrounded and were surrounded by stone monuments and defensive walls. This exoskeleton served a purpose similar to its internal counterpart: to control the movement of human flesh in and out of a town’s walls. The urban exoskeleton also regulated the motion of many other things: luxury objects, news, and food, for example. (27-28)

To common judgment, bone and cities represent divergent poles on the life-nonlife continuum. Bone is an integral element of many animals, whereas cities are environments in which certain of those animals circulate. And yet, as Delanda emphasizes, both of them play a similar role vis-à-vis flesh. The relevant distinction in these assemblages is not between organic and inorganic beings, but rather among the sorts of circulation that they permit. Life and nonlife are simply components of larger assemblages.

There are other such thinkers (Bruno Latour comes immediately to mind, as do Bernard Stiegler and Cary Wolfe), but what I want to point out a commonality they share: an emphasis on the multiplicity of existence and a point of view wherein humanity is a material distribution like any other. Humans become nonhuman, as they share in the common process of mediated multiplicity that characterizes all existence. A nonhuman entity is just such a being, and this is why we all, humans included, are nonhuman.