Posthumanism and Subtraction

In Being and Event Badiou proposes to unbind Being from Leibniz’s dictum that ‘What is not a being is not a being’ (2006, 53). Where traditional thought sees beings as wholes, Badiou argues that the whole is derived from an operation, a ‘count’ applied to an inconsistent (non-unitary) multiplicity that cannot be described by ontology without inducing ‘paradoxes of totality’ familiar from set theory.

Being as such, then, is not merely uncountable but lacks even a definite uncountable numbering of the Alephs; Cantor’s ascending orders of infinity.

This inconsistent multiplicity cannot be described. It is thought through its effects or symptoms, the empty places it furrows in language. These include the empty set which signifies the void of being by including or presenting nothing. It also includes the generic set that – while adjoinable to an ordinary situation – is anonymous and unspecifiable within it; instantiating the generic property of belonging to it alone. The existence of a generic multiplicity – whose members lack any common features discernable within the situation – furnishes the elbow room for a ‘Subject’ to emerge and link its members in ways that the situation, ex hypothesi, cannot prescribe. In short, it supports a space of radical freedom that can transform a situation utterly (Badiou 2006, 338-9; Fraser 2009).[i]

Subtraction cuts away that which it thinks by capitulating to the weakness it discerns within thought.[ii] Both Badiou and his former student Quentin Meillassoux (See n1) employ subtraction in order to make a qualified break with representation. If the real is independent of thought, we must presume no preestablished harmony between them. ‘Thought’, Ray Brassier remarks ‘is not guaranteed access to being; being is not inherently thinkable’ (Brassier 2011b, 47). To think being is not to represent anything but to exhibit representation’s constitutive inefficacy.

Given that posthumanism is committed to showing us this inefficacy, it is a subtractive operation. This can be readily seen in the work of a philosopher more usually associated with the academic posthumanities than Badiou: Jacques Derrida. In Derrida’s work, the deconstruction of a defined structure gives way to the ‘structurality of structure’: an absolute decentering that cannot be secured within any historical situation (Derrida 1978; Malik 2016). Rather than losing the world among texts or signifiers, Derrida addresses rudimentary inscriptional and temporal relations that he proposes as conditions for life, meaning and intentionality.[iii] As with Badiou, this opening or cut derives from an incipient weakness. The deconstructive event is unprecedented, alien, perhaps generic, because it unbinds whatever might allocate it sense or function.

Unbinding and consequent subtraction recurs in more fleshy or libidinal posthumanisms. For example, critical posthumanists often appeal to a passionate non-unitary ‘cyborg’ that composes its world by affiliating with other systems. Not a transcendental subject but a ‘transversal force that actively crosses species, categories and domains.’ (Braidotti 2013, 60)[iv]

By contrast, the ‘alien vectors’ of Rational Inhumanism (Prometheanism) are linguistically mediated norms that engender active, self-modifying technological intelligence. Inhumanists reject the posthumanist primacy of life and sensate matter. Such vitalisms and materialism, they argue, violate Wilfred Sellars’s stricture against the epistemic given: that is, against any claims to self-authenticating insight into reality which bypass the space of discursive reason (Jelača 2014, 111).

In this case, observe, one posthumanism unbinds a filter (a constraint on posthuman possibility) retained by the other: the sapience filter identifying agency with linguistic and conceptual aptitudes; the sentience filter identifying agency with felt duration or incipient life.

As in subtractive music synthesis, the more filters you remove, the closer the output to the raw, noisy input. The inhumanist cannot survey which subjects timelessly instantiate the functional diagrams of rational subjectivity. The vitalist, cannot survey life in general without pre-empting its possibilities – its ‘Great Outdoors’.[v]

The synthesis metaphor acquires traction if we consider posthumanism primarily as an orientation to time. The Speculative Posthumanism (SP) elaborated in my book Posthuman Life is specifically concerned with conceptualizing our relation to hypothetical agents in technological deep time. For (SP), becoming posthuman is conceived as the disconnection of hypothetical posthuman agents from the human socio-technical system or ‘Wide Human’ (WH).

The Disconnection Thesis (DT) is also an anonymous and unfiltered condition. It says nothing about how posthumans are embodied or disembodied; only that they possess the power or functional autonomy to be independent of WH.[vi]

Other posthumanisms, xenofeminism (XF) and accelerationism (ACC) or Prometheanism are explicitly futural; concerned with the production of novel and perhaps less oppressive forms of sexuality and social affiliation. Yet even a critical posthumanism that, like Braidotti’s, eschews futurist ambitions, is concerned with power relations in the contemporary world and thus with whatever futures their processes, flows, vortices might induce (Braidotti 2018, 4).

Each posthumanism, then, pre-empts an abstract disconnection space, unbounded by whatever filters it removes. Moreover, all filters are epistemically frail in the face of this noise.

The Sapience Filter, to give one example, assumes that ‘serious’ agents participate in shared linguistic and inferential functions.

I have argued elsewhere that this functionalism is incomplete – it assumes that sapients must be capable of ascribing and undertaking normative statuses within the social game of giving and asking for reasons.  However, this interpretationist reading of normative functionalism doubles subjectivity only to unbind it. It gives us a pragmatist subject1 defined by the capacity to follow shared practices; but leaves us a dangling interpreter subject2.

This spectral figure is presupposed but not accounted for by normativity because it is a condition of it. This leaves what counts as a text or practice, thus agency and subjectivity, undefined (Roden 2014, 128; Roden 2017; 111-112).[vii] Given the futural orientation of positions which buy heavily into functionalism – including XF and Brassier’s Prometheanism, this effectively voids their deep time horizon, subtracting the agent from discourse; for if interpretation is unbounded, so is agency.

Even the irreducibility of the normative to the material portends its long-run dispensability: one we can figure in the Shoggothic grotesquery of the hyperagent: a being whose power or functional autonomy and self-agumentation induces a post-semantic singularity. The hyperagent would be protean, lacking structural invariances other than hyperplasticity. Given the irreducibility of the normative to the material, hyperagents could not be assigned rational intentions or functional passions (For details see Roden 2014, 100-102; Roden 2015; Roden 2016; Roden 201). They imply a hole in the space of reasons. The dream of technologically enforced compliance returning the nightmare of advanced non-compliance: a Cthulhu-Headed Prometheus (Roden 2016).

If posthumanism has an axiom, then, this is that the Outside is disconnected from the hinterland we name ‘the human’. This biomorphic relation of disconnection leaves both in abeyance; for ‘the human’ is transcendentally broken. It can think its outside only by inducing it, becoming or adjoing it. Thus the disconnection relation itself is reflexive: can only be thought as it is performed, amid the biomorphic wreckage.

[i] Meillassoux argues, along similar lines, that the absolute represented by science is not a thing but the absolute contingency that follows from the lack of any sufficient reason for the laws or structures of appearance. Again, citing set-theoretic considerations similar to those adduced by Badiou, he claims that this contingency does not belong in any space of possibilities – like a set of all possible worlds (See Cogburn and Heller 2017). There is no all, only a groundless, hyperchaotic time in which all laws and regularities can be overthrown.
[ii] Subtractive ontologies can be contrasted to those which ascribe positive characteristics to thing. Being as formed matter, as object of lived experience, as the duration felt or lived by biological creatures, as the material thing as described by mathematical natural science.
[iii] These ‘infrastructures’ purportedly abstract from anything recognizably human or subjectlike: yielding an asubjective, topic-neutral difference that articulates such discrepant regions as Freudian unconscious, the theory of neural networks or semiotics (Roden 2006, 82).
[iv] (Braidotti 2013: 60; 193). Rosi Braidotti refers to this power of lively affiliation using the ancient Greek for non-human/non-political life (zoe) – as opposed to bios, the cultivated, discursive life the human citizen.
[v] This exteriority can be thought of as a vital potentiality for life beyond the human or via the structural infinities and openings to ‘evental disruption’ of the kind explored by Badiou. As Carol Cleland reminds us, it is conceivable that there are no defining features (functional or otherwise) common to all living things. Even if there are, it is possible that we are as ignorant of the constitutive conditions for life as pre-molecular alchemists were of the features common to all forms of water (Cleland 2012: 129).
[vi] Some empirical content is retained, however, because this version of SP works with a minimal concept of self-maintaining agency that is psychology-free – giving no account of its modes of thought or feeling.
[vii] Another filter that might be applied appeals to phenomenological facts about experience – e.g. structures of embodiment or temporal duration as suitable invariants. However, this ‘sentience’ filter is vulnerable to what I call the ‘dark phenomenology’ objection. A facet of experience is ‘dark’ (or intuition-transcendent) if having it confers either no or a very minimal understanding of its nature (See Roden 2013). If there is a dark side to phenomenology, then appeals to lived experience provide no yardstick concerning its nature or proper description. Thus, even the most sophisticated philosophical accounts of experience (transcendental phenomenology, say) may leave us with little grip on the space of possible minds or cognitive systems.

Badiou, A. 2006. Being and Event, translated by Oliver Feltham, London: Continuum.
Braidotti, R. 2006. “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible”. In Deleuze and Philosophy, C. Boundas (ed.), 133–59. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman, Cambridge: Polity.
Brassier, Ray, 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
Brassier, R, “Concepts and Objects”, in The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, re. press, 2011b, pp.47-65.
Cogburn, J. and Heller J., 2017. ‘Meillassoux’s Dilemma: Paradoxes of Totality After the Speculative Turn’. New Perspectives on Realism, edited by Luca Taddio, Mimesis International.
Colebrook, C. 2012a. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39
Derrida, Jacques. 1987, ‘Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences’, in Writing and Difference, translated by Alan Bass, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 278-293.
Fraser, Olivia Lucca. 2009. “Nothingness & Event” (Unpublished manuscript) (Accessed July 2 2019).
Jelača, M., 2014. “Sellars Contra Deleuze on Intuitive Knowledge”. Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism, pp.92-125.
Malik, Suhail. 2016. ‘Materialist Reason and its Languages. Part One: Absolute Reason, Absolute Deconstruction’, in in Genealogies of Speculation: Materialism and Subjectivity Since Structuralism, edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avanessian. BloomsburyPublishing.
Roden, David. Posthuman life: Philosophy at the edge of the human. Routledge, 2014.
Roden. 2016. ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’, in The Time-Complex Post-Contemporary, edited by Avanessian, A. and Malik, Miami: Name Publications, 2016, pp. 157-171.


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