Unthinking Vitruvian

Please note: this blog first appeared at http://www.steeltrapmind.wordpress.com and was authored by myself, Lou Mycroft. I’m sorry that, in transferring, the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments have been lost.

Question 1:  So, what does a posthuman curriculum look like?

I’ve got to answer this question, however rough and ready that answer may be.  I’m learning that my commitment to praxis is more than tokenistic, that the interplay between theory and practice is essential in keeping me hooked into my academic thinking. Once I’ve figured out the answer to Question 2 (1), practice gets rolled up into my research, of course, but I’m not there yet. In the past seven months (really?) since I got home from the Human/Inhuman/Posthuman Summer School in Utrecht I’ve been figuring out how to teach some key aspects of posthuman thinking (learning them simply and deeply in the process), so this is my attempt to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together.

Human and Posthuman

For human, read Vitruvian Man, that famous Leonardo sketch that inspired a million Leonardo's Vitruvian Mandifferent takes (Vitruvian Cat anyone?) Vitruvian Man is buff, the David Beckham of his day (he might share Beckham’s philanthropy, but probably not his working-class origins). He’s white, he’s young, he’s European, he’s physically fit, he is fair-skinned, he’s probably pretty well off (with those abs, he’s not under-fed). Middle-class, if that’s not an anachronistic concept for the time. Difficult to guess at his sexuality, given his provenance; certainly by the time of The Enlightenment (2) there was probably an assumption that he’s straight. He might have a hidden disability, but I doubt it. He’s almost certainly Christian, despite the struggles some Enlightenment thinkers had with organised religion.

But he is ‘human’. And so it follows that any individuals that don’t fit the pattern are somehow less than human. Thus begins the intellectualising of difference as ‘other’; not the root of slavery and oppression, but in some quarters the justification of it. And he is culturally internalised, particularly in places of power and amongst people who are not cognisant of the privilege they carry. When we say ‘human’, somewhere in our thinking, we see him.

Vitruvian Man is at the heart of understanding the #whitecurriculum (4). Of course he is. Because it’s his power, his privilege and his structures that have constructed the world we live in. They have certainly constructed our education systems (5). Therefore it also follows that any posthuman curriculum is focused on dismantling and rebuilding these structures. The post in posthuman refers to the ending of the Vitruvian time.

 

Human/Nature 

Enlightenment thinking formally established the dominion of ‘human’ (see above) over other species and thus established ‘speciesism’, described by Peter Singer as, “…an attitude of prejudice towards beings who are not part of the same species as us.” The notion of dominion is very much part of the Christian tradition, a dominant choice to read Genesis in a certain way.

This human/nature divide (sometimes referred to, interestingly, as a culture/nature divide) explains much that has come later in terms of raping the earth’s natural resources and decimating its wildlife (not just hunting, but intensive, super-destructive factory farming methods, check out @cowspiracy to find out more). Some thinkers refer to the Stylised image of the Earthtimes we are living in as anthropocene – a new epoch where humans have themselves become a major (negative) geological force, as impactful as the Ice Age on the Earth itself. The claim is that the Earth cannot now repair itself from the damage humans have done. Politically, the term ‘anthropocene’ is being used to call for a recognition that dominion has gone too far. So posthuman thinking is fundamentally concerned with environmental and animal rights, as well as human welfare.

We see humanity as a positive concept, a value or belief even, in the fact of all the real hard evidence of what ‘humanity’ does:  Auschwitz, Vietnam, Hiroshima, Bhopal, Calais, the Killing Fields of Cambodia, Guantanamo, Chernobyl, the Atlantic Slave Trade, ISIS, Srebrenica, Syria, the Congo, the Gulags.  Enough already.

Technology

What posthumanism is not doing is to call for the end of the human race. Because some early posthuman thinkers (eg Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles) have a focus on the more science-fiction (6) end of technology, it’s easy to overlook the fact that ‘technology’ can actually mean basic engineering, everyday affordances such as clocks and cars, printing presses, stuff we now take for Anime of androgynous superherogranted, as we are coming to take for granted computers and mobile phones. What about hearing aids, prosthetic legs, contact lenses? We are already technologically mediated (or, as posthuman thinkers like to say, embodied in a technological world). We areposthuman. We are already there.

If posthuman thinking seems very new, it’s because our #whitecurricula are so often based on the work of dead white men writing sixty years ago. In fact Robert Pepperell already had a solid grip on what posthumanism meant back in 2003, not about the “End of Man, but the end of a man-centred existence…”, where technology was an extension of the human. (Interestingly, Robert is a Professor of Fine Art. One aspect of posthuman thinking is that it crosses the boundaries of traditional academic disciplines. And who decided what those boundaries were, anyway?)

So a posthuman curriculum is already necessary, it can’t be pushed to one side because your workplace bans mobile phones, or you don’t have laptops in the classroom. It’s not about that, or not only about that. It’s about facing up to the here and now.

Which brings us to…

Capitalism

…sometimes called neo-liberalism (7). Put simplistically, with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 any real challenge to capitalism disappeared and it became one of those taken-for-granted things, the only system that works. In fact, it was simply the winner out of two greatCover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood's Two Tribes 12" meta-narratives:  Capitalism vs. Communism, Reagan vs. Chernenko, VHS vs. Betamax, Right vs. Left, Winner vs. Loser. Marxists would point to the hegemony of how we each collude in accepting capitalism as the only norm:  watch yourself doing it, it can get quite addictive.

Capitalism encourages us to think in binaries and it is even more addictive watching for these: Employer vs. Worker, People vs. Profit, Traditional vs. Progressive, Academy vs. State School. We take it for granted (that word hegemony again) that the structures of capitalism – hierarchies that always have someone at the top and someone at the bottom – are the way of the world, that they are unavoidable. Posthuman thinking shares with Marxism the imperative to deconstruct these structures, to imagine a world constructed differently (it doesn’t share with Marxism the conviction that this brave new world should be communist).

Which leads us to…

Art

…because new futures need first of all to be imagined.

So that’s some of what posthumanism is. Thinking about imagining new futures brings us onto how.

Rhizomes

Rosi Braidotti, with whom @kaysoclearn and I studied in Utrecht, draws on the (dead, white) French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (with whom she studied) to explore how we might take affirmative posthuman political action. Discarding the binaries of capitalism, which they describe (unfortunately, but of their time) as Famous photo of Carlos the Jackal‘schizophrenic’, they use the metaphor of the rhizome to challenge traditional notions of leadership and campaign. A rhizome (ginger, iris, couch grass) spreads unseen and underground, forming nodes which emerge unexpectedly, possibly in the ‘wrong’ garden. It is persistent and subversive, hard to dig up, a guerrilla plant (if you can de-couple that word from negative images of the Baader-Meinhof gang and Carlos the Jackal).

Nomad War Machine

In rhizomatic political action (as in rhizomatic learning), people – and things, if we reject ‘dominion’ – form and reform in ‘affirmative assemblages’ to become a nomad war machine, popping up all over the place to weaken the foundations of the capitalist machine/sausage-factory education system. Within this model, leadership takes on different forms at different times, people assemble around an energy, disband when the work is done, re-assemble elsewhere to do ‘the work’, rather than constructing themselves tiredly into the same old hierarchical frameworks. Social media affords a transport system to move the nomad war machine around much more effectively than Gilles and Felix ever imagined and I believe this is at the heart of some of the affirmative politics we are beginning to see.

Affirmative Politics

All this sounds very testosterone-laden and it is. Rosi exhorts us to understand all the histories of our thinking (battling that #whitecurriculum again) and these metaphors from Gilles and Felix arise from their work with Michel Foucault and before him Jean-Paul Satre, who thought and smoked Gauloises while Simone de Beauvoir did the photocopying with a young and starstruck Rosi. But posthumanism also draws on Baruch Spinoza, one of the most Image of Simone de Beauvoircapricious of all the Enlightenment thinkers, and he finds the affirmative in the every day. Our work is above all to identify and carry out positive practices and if their cartography (another posthuman concept and the metaphor Rosi uses for knowing all the histories of your subject) is Vitruvian, then it’s our job to bring in the ‘other’ through what we read, the people we seek out and with whom we assemble, to challenge ourselves over #whitecurriculum thinking and to ensure that our nomad war machines are always meaningfully diverse.

Examples of this kind of approach abound, but only when you start looking for them. Do you follow Upworthy, or even Russell Howard’s Good News, gentle political satire with a smile not a sneer? Have you seen the knitted scarves around the trees in Sheffield threatened with felling because there isn’t the money (where?) to maintain them? What about Free HugsSpoken Word? Some of the Occupy activity was affirmative (though the leadership structures not always), as were the singing women at Greenham Common back in the day. How about the challenging, amazing examples of refugee Image of yarn-bombed treesartwork such as Za’atari in Jordan, shared every day on Twitter (if you are looking in the right place). Or Lady Gaga’s ‘Born this Way‘ (listen to the words), or Beyonce (8), Banksy? Witty internet memes engage ‘non-political’ people in political debate, which is sometimes more nuanced and less binary than in days gone by. Pitch these against so-called grown-ups shouting at one another across the House of Commons…and go figure.

Becoming

‘Becoming’ is the final piece of the jigsaw (I hope. There might be some more which have fallen under the table). Remember those rhizomatic assemblages, which form the ebb and flow of the nomad war machine? They combine in the energy of their action to make something new; put simply they learn from one another, they learn to ‘become’ each other to some extent and that’s how we break down the impact of othering that we’ve all grown up with. You might term this ’empathy’ but it’s more than that, it’s about blending bits of yourselves and you go away with that mingling still in you. Apologies for going all Game of Thrones, but it’s a bit like the old idea of becoming blood brothers (or sisters) by each cutting your palm. Possibly less painful, but in the act of recognising your own privilege and sense of entitlement, maybe not.

Becoming impacts on your identity,  permanently. That’s why it’s useful to do this work alongside keeping a reflexive account of what’s happening with you, as I’m doing here. Writing this has been a bit like giving birth (I have given birth, so I feel it’s OK to say that). This is not my PhD, but it feels like blogging first is the only way my PhD is going to get written, at least in my own voice.

Why is all this theory important? 

If you drifted off at the talk of Spinoza and co, you may have drifted back in when that cheery bloke on the telly Russell Howard was mentioned. Why is that? You’re as bright as anyone else reading this but it could be that the culture around you is anti-intellectual; as Frank Furedi asks, “Where have all the intellectuals gone?” If you’re feeling impostorish about reading philosophy/theory, that’s possibly because you, too, are not quite Vitruvian. Believe me, if you’d gone to Eton, you would only not be reading it because it didn’t interest you, not because you thought you wouldn’t get it. You’d have a complete sense of entitlement about that.

The language of theory is also tricky, because it is often unfamiliar and that feels excluding. Sometimes it is meant to be, but why should that matter? You don’t have to be friends with a philosopher, just learn from their thinking, stand on their shoulders, as it were, so that you can see further than they could. New concepts demand new words – or Poster of Noam Chomsky redefining anarchynew definitions of existing words – given that the language we have is part of the structures we want to undermine (a bit of Chomsky there). So read with a dictionary metaphorically in your hand and get over it.

Theory is important because it’s what drives us on through those times when going against the norm seems too much like hard work, when everyone’s moaning and you’re trying to be positive, when the bitterness rises and when you feel infected by the politics of envy or identity. There are powerful forces working hard to keep the status quo in place (9) – the media, political structures, the arms trade, the education system – hierarchies all over the place which, if we tackled them head-on, would be impossible to beat. Sometimes it’s easier to give in and go work for The Man. But theory connects us to something bigger, it connects us to thinking differently and reminds us that we are not alone.

Not that posthuman theory is easy to read, and this is where we come in. The concepts are so dense, so multi-layered, nuanced and counter-cultural, that it’s difficult to absorb what they mean (and how to use them). It took me seven months to figure out the nomad war machine (thanks @geogphil) and I’m still not quite there, though I’ve learned to be more comfortable with explaining Vitruvian Man. More of us need to dig into this stuff and Image of ancient mapwrite our own posthuman stories; stories with global cartographies – one of the criticisms of posthuman thinking, which most posthumanists accept, is that it currently operates from within the narrow confines of white European philosophy. We are where we are, but we need to keep pushing to hear othered voices. Thinking posthuman involves us taking the hegemonic (remember?) fetters off our minds.

And keeping affirmative.  I’ll leave you with Rosi Braidotti from her lecture last year, Spinoza Against Negativity:

“ONCE A YEAR HAVE YOUR DOSE OF SPINOZA’S CHAMPAGNE.  HE JUST MAKES ME ROCK.”

 

(1) Question 2:  So, what does a posthuman research methodology look like?

(2) A period of (largely male (3), white, European) thinking in the 17th and 18th centuries, the foundations of which proved so influential over the next 200 years that we are only just realising that they were basically just one way of looking at the world.  (The novel Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder is a great – if humanistic – introduction to continental philosophy of this time).

(3) Women were involved.  Men got published though.

(4) Not just about race, though NUS Black Students did kick-start the campaign, but about Vitruvian ‘human’.

(5) Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau and Kant insisted that one could achieve ‘human’ through education.  They did not explain how education could make you become white – or male.

(6) But not any more, not really.

(7) Political scientists will argue nuances of difference, but this will do for now.

(8) When the bloke under the table is introduced to the concept of intersectionality. That.

(9) Have you been watching The Night Manager?  Episode 5:  The Permanent Secretary, “…her job is to preserve the status quo, whatever it takes.”

 

Want to read/see/hear more? Follow the links within the narrative and have a look at the ideas below.  Some are tougher to get into than others, some I’ve not nailed yet, but you might easily.  We are all different, don’t let The Impostor in!

Rosi Braidotti Punk Women and Riot Girrls https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i5J1z-E8u60

Rosi Braidotti Nomadic Theory (book)

Rosi Braidotti The Posthuman (book)

Noam Chomsky’s Website https://chomsky.info/

Dave Cormier Open Education and Rhizomatic Learning  http://www.open.edu/openlearn/education/open-education/content-section-7.5

John Weaver Educating the Posthuman and Posthumanism and Educational Research (both these books are quite expensive, so try libraries or Google Scholar)

Frank Furedi Where have all the Intellectuals Gone? (book)

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time – Baruch Spinoza(podcast) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079ps2

Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Two Tribes https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K2QAMqTgPKI

 

 

 

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