Levi Bryant has a great post over at Larval Subjects championing the neologism ‘hominid ecology’ over traditional terms like ‘society’ or ‘culture’. This is motivated by the claim that modernity has erected an unwarranted chasm between the realm of nature governed by causal necessity and a realm of society/culture governed by norms, beliefs, meanings and social practices.
The problem with this viewpoint, Levi argues, is that it privileges the mediating role of meanings and institutions while ignoring the mediating roles of things: “[You] seldom hear an analysis in the social sciences but especially in the humanities of how the layout of roads alone in a particular city bring certain people together and keeps certain people elsewhere.” Bruno Latour’s analysis of the efficacy with which the cumbersome weights attached to European hotel keys translate the prescription Leave your hotel keys ! into a more or less unconscious habit provides a vivid, if modest, example of the co-dependence of social agency and material capacity.
Moreover, the ontological distinction between blind material processes and the kingdom of autonomous agents governed by inter-subjectively recognizable principles ignores the sources of normativity and autonomy in self-organizing material systems – human and nonhuman alike – and thus, as Levi suggests, is based on an outmoded form of materialism. A system can be regarded as autonomous – in this wider sense – if it actively replicates the conditions for its own persistence (e.g. by maintaining the non-equilibrium conditions for a chemical metabolism or by using an immune system to target pathogens – See, for example, Christensen 2012; Collier 2002). Autonomy is not merely an ontological fact but provides a basis for considering the capacities and entitlements of complex living systems, as Martha Nussbaum argues (Nussbaum 2004).
I’m sympathetic to both these claims. In my own work on the posthuman I’ve argued that an adequate consideration of human distinctiveness needs to look at the imbrication of biological humans into a complex socio-technical network which I refer to as “The Wide Human”. In my forthcoming piece in the Singularity Hypothesis I write:
the emergence of biological humans has been one aspect of the technogenesis of a planet-wide assemblage composed of biological humans locked into networks of increasingly “lively” and “autonomous” technical artefacts… It is this wider, interlocking system, and not bare-brained biological humans, that would furnish the conditions for the emergence of posthumans. Were the emergence of posthumans to occur, it would thus be a historical rupture in the development of this extended socio-technical network (Roden 2012).
The full expression of human nature – if we insist on using this term – requires a social and technological infrastructure. A humanly distinctive capacity for language acquisition lies inert without exposure to a linguistic environment, for example.
However, the dependence runs the other way – both with respect to technological artefacts and, increasingly, among the planet’s non-hominid ecologies. Biological humans are obligatory components of socio-technical systems like air-carrier groups and cities. If every human being on the Earth were to disappear these constructions would effectively cease to exist while their nonhuman carapaces would rapidly degrade. Hypothetical posthumans would be distinguished from other nonhumans by: a) their technical genesis; b) their capacity to operate with appreciable independence of the Wide Human.
Until the advent of posthumans, however, the nonhumans composing the Wide Human will asymmetrically depend on narrow humans. Without narrow humans most would just cease to exist (though domestic cats might well buck this trend according to Channel 4 documentary embedded above!). By the same token, until posthumans arrive, the functions of the technological components of the Wide Human will depend on the inter-subjective agency of humans. While autonomy and agency are widely distributed outside the narrow human, the collective agency of biologically human organisms fixes the purposes of other Wide Humans – this is what determines membership or non-membership of the Wide Human. Thus recognition of the dependence of social relations on nonhumans should be tempered with recognition of the asymmetries which structure the Wide Human and which may increasingly characterize other ecosystems on the planet as the anthropocene progresses.
Christensen, Wayne (2012). Natural sources of normativity. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C 43 (1):104-112.
John Collier (2002). What is autonomy?
Nussbaum, Martha (2004) ‘Beyond “Compassion and Humanity”: Justice for Nonhuman Animals’. Animal Rights: Current Debates and New Directions. Oxford University Press.
Roden, David 2012 ‘The Disconnection Thesis’. The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Technological Assessment. Edited by Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.