Assemblage Theory object-oriented rhetoric

the humanities and human exceptionalism

The ecocritical theory reading group, of which I've been a very wayward member, is discussing Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter this week. Bennett's work and mine share similar foundations in Delanda, Latour, Deleuze and the minor philosophical tradition that Deleuze mapped, which is not to say that we are in total agreement but rather that I am a sympathetic audience for her work. At the close she writes, "I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp." I find this a reasonable claim. I don't know that I would pursue a method of anthrophomorphization, although I would certainly agree with the recognition of our limits to comprehend. However I'm not certain that this view leads toward the environmental politics that Bennett seeks.

Instead, when I look at Latour, Delanda, Deleuze, Guattari, etc., I see some compelling ontological investigations into how objects emerge and relate. We can see how ethics operate, that fundamentally ethics are a recognition of interdependency. As I would put it, there is no thought or agency without relation. I would certainly argue that there are minimal ethical relations among objects, just as there are minimal rhetorical ones, and that the two are perhaps co-extensive.

When we start to speak of environmental politics, however, I think there is an entirely reasonable focus on humans. Namely, environmentalists are interested in maintaining a world that is habitable for humans. Not just humans, mind you. But certainly humans. The earth has gone through some inhospitable moments in its geologic history, and the universe is filled with lifeless worlds, so I don't think there's any ethical requirement on the part of the earth or the universe to perserve "life as we know it." As such, there is no foundational, no absolute injunction to maintain life.

We have to invent that for ourselves.

I suppose one could think of that as a kind of human exceptionalism. We decide we are worth saving. And obviously we think we are pretty special. Humans are unique (apologies to ET) in their symbolic behaviors, in our particular cognitive capacities and uses of technology, etc., etc. However not unique in a way that our development cannot be understood as part of the development of the rest of the world. No doubt, for a long time we had a belief (and most humans still believe) that human exceptionalism was not part of the life world but granted by an external divine force. That belief changes one's relations with the rest of the world and has certainly led societies to believe they had little ethical obligation to nonhuman objects (or even nonbeliever humans). There's no doubt that certain strains of human expectionalism have been fairly deadly. Our current Western committment to a secular modernity brings its own human exceptionalism, with its separation of nature and culture, that has resulted in some severe enivornmental damage. That modernist belief was also a belief that we were outside the system.

In other words, human exceptionalism often seems to me that we are excepted from ethical obligations rather than establishing that we are the "only" ethical beings. Or maybe that's the same thing. If we are the only ethical beings then perhaps that implies that we cannot have ethical obligations to others. 

Perhaps it is a matter of rephrasing the problem, which is how I would read Bennett's project. If we see "humans" as part of a larger assemblage then we see how ethical obligations extend beyond the conventionally human. Clearly this is how environmentalism commonly operates, or at least one could read it that way. On this general level and in the long term, I don't think Bennett's intervention alters the fundamental politicial goal of environmentalism of keeping the earth habitable for humans. In this respect I think it has be a kind of human exceptionalism: we want to survive. However I do think it changes how we understand and respond to the challenge of doing so because it asks us to rethink what human is and what objects are. In this regard, I think it likely challenges many of the existing tenets of human exceptionalism. 

Stepping adjacent to environmental issues in particular, I think this move has real implications for the humanities and the arts. That is, just think for a moment about your own experience in the humanities (and humanistic interpretation/appreciation of the arts). To what extent is it a celebration of a deadly human exceptionalism? Sure we can say, as Bennett sometimes does, that we can't escape our anthropomorphism. I suppose teenagers can't escape their solipsism either. And I'm not a naive realist to believe we can know the universe as it "truly" is (that's perhaps the greatest form of human exceptionalism, btw). What would a non-humanocentric humanities look like? What would it mean to read literature or examine rhetoric or study philsophy or history or whatever without this exceptionalist view of humans? These are the kinds of changes that Bennett suggests for environmentalism, so perhaps they are not as modest as I suggested at the outset.



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