The Death of Posthuman Life: a brief philosophical introduction to Snuff Memories

Image by Teresa Gillespie

My first book, Posthuman Life: philosophy at the edge of the human, bequeathed several unresolved philosophical problems, above all the ethical impasse concisely expressed in Amy Ireland’s review of my new book, Snuff Memories: “The posthuman cannot be known before it is produced—so to know it, we must produce it.”

Slightly less concisely, the decision to become posthuman or to not become posthuman is constitutively arational since the ideal situation for making an (informed) decision supposes that the decision has already been made (and that we have made some posthumans or become posthuman).

The justification for the arationality claim arises from the methodology of Unbound Posthumanism explored in Posthuman Life and in later essays. As we can recognise, a speculative posthumanist epistemology questions the epistemic privilege Western philosophies have often attached to human subjectivity and thought. For the posthumanist, as for the methodological naturalist, there can be no secure privilege attached to first person claims about the structure of Consciousness, Time, Embodiment, and Intentionality or to Idealist assumptions concerning the correlation between Thought and Being.

It follows that there can be no secure a priori insight into the scope of posthuman agency or life. The posthuman is not an experience but a generalized opacity or phenomenological darkness – not merely regarding our token desires, experiences, or thoughts but a propos the fields of desire, thought and agency. As I put it to Bogna Konior in a recent interview for the journal Oraxiom: ‘It’s not merely that we act without having unmediated access to action, but that the very space of that mediation (interpretation) isn’t given either, and quite possibly alien.’ The subject of Posthumanism thus eludes its text just as the desire to write that text eludes reflection. This applies whether we view the Posthuman as description of our cultural or ontological condition or ‘moment’, or consider it ‘speculatively’ as a metaphysical hypothesis about powerful technically produced non-human agents, as was the case in Posthuman Life.

It follows that this ‘dark’ posthumanist trajectory pre-empts the Decision in a notional way by subtracting the constraints that would ‘bind’ subjectivity to some transcendental form or ontology – whether the embodied subjectivity of phenomenology, a vitalist idea of life or a rationalist conception of the subject as an agent navigating the social space of reasons.

Unbound posthumanism thus has no model of experience familiar from traditional aesthetics. The aesthetic is not discernible within unbound discourse because traditional accounts of subjectivity or embodiment are suspended. Posthumanism explores subjectivity through performance—mutating and experimenting with biomorphs, rather than by inference or dialectics. Posthumanism thus enacts a pre-emptive and arational, xenophilic, alienating commitment to our deracination.

Nonetheless, in spite of unbinding this non-affirmative desire traverses a ghostly, biomorphic body, a doll-body complicit – like those of Ballard’s crash fetishists – in its own dismemberment. The body persists but as a memory or diagram rather than a vital fullness.

A sublime viciousness bites back like a snake as she celebrates her lover burning alive in a field. Beyond life, unlife yello burgeons in the Ocean seeded by the black ships. Think of the body unzipped by bourgeois insurgents, sliced from pubis to sternum; given a minimal ethical purchase and other devolved responsibilities. A skeletal figure or operative wire dolly is all that remains. We’ll do anything not to stop, especially when we discover we were always impersonal and labyrinthine, self-catalyzing and vast (33).

Snuff Memories, which might be termed a novel of speculative eroticism, effectuates this subtractive desire, a desire nonetheless distended by the pervasive magnetism of things-to-come and their iterated catastrophes: not only personal death, but ecological death, the death of the Sun and (extending this Platonic motif) of all Solar Transcendence.

This book is a montage of texts, genres and perspectives – alternating between the subtractive eroticism of death-driven biomorphic bodies and the disindividuating mesh of all the alienating ‘moral powers’ haunting its ancient, demon-haunted Cosmos (technological, alien, theological). Konior summarises this better than I can in her cover blurb:

Unveiling like a tableau of ancient gods and deathly orgies, where “the universe is composed out of windowless monads each locked away and screaming,” this evocative novel is better called a theoretical installation. Each fragment documenting an erotic way to lose one’s humanity, this is a collection of nightmarish yet utopian miniature visions of sex, death, transformation, and pain, where human bodies are stretched beyond their capacity into mythical realms.

It is just a given that death and pain are what its characters ultimately crave, just as xenophilia is the libidinal presupposition of any posthumanism. Neither they nor I give explanation or apology for this. Its narrator, a hermaphroditic Wellsian Time Pilot, addresses its prime political operator, the Cabalist saying “Like you, I would die but cannot. Not in a way that might satisfy you.”
Later he reminisces about her dystopian project: “You told us the sun will strangle itself with or without our help – But, no matter, let’s help.”

Snuff Memories clearly does not resolve the ethical impasse of Speculative Posthumanism with which I began. To expand on Ireland’s earlier formulation:

The posthuman cannot be known before it is produced—so to know it, we must produce it. And until we really are swept up in these disorienting forces—merciless, murderous, erotic perhaps—we have literature.

Literature does not comfort or resolve the real; it exacerbates and translates it. To be sure, one might view SM as a hyperstitional romance, operating as a kind of ward or apotropaic against the forces it invokes, but here one cannot avoid complicity, or, I hope, a certain febrile pleasure.

Roden, D. 2021. Snuff Memories, Schism[2] Press.

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