Colonial Ends/Ends of Life (pt2)


Branching off from last time here the idea is to discuss the human animal relation and how it relates to the question of race. As Zakiyyah Iman Jackson discusses in the introduction to her book Becoming Human many materialist and post-humanities defenses of the human relies upon raising animals up to the level of generic humanness without questioning whether this generic or universal human is simply a repetition of the western european male of neo-liberalist discourse. But it isn’t about repeating this critique but wondering about what grounds could serve as even the beginnings of a replacement.

As Jackson points out the placing of humans and animals on an ontological continuity does nothing to stop the hierarchy of the purported capacities of the races on the earth. Furthermore the common mode of anti-anthrocentrism in contemporary theory has limited stakes other than as a form of self-sacrifice in the name of future species…to ‘let nature heal itself, and let something else evolve.’

Thomas Moynihan in X-Risk opposes this anti-humanist attitude to the recognition of humanity have a vocation, a collective project of constructing a future for future life. The possibility of this project seems to suggest that some universal or shared notion of a species-preserving task can be taken up by humans but the degree to which there can be a we or an us and what the terms are to define that (as historical, biological, normative, functional, ontological, etc) remains itself a gigantic task.

This problem seems to be something like a unifying (or maybe really disunifying) feature of contemporary theory and philosophy – is humanity a project and can it be only negatively defined (a la Chakrabarty) or can there be some positive content to the human as a constructor of futurity (without merely reproducing a settler notion of futurity as Tuck and Yang warn in “Decolonial is Not a Metaphor”).

Jackson is very critical of any Hegelian or pseudo-Hegelian view of the human as a project of struggle bay way of self-recognition, of one of self and other. For Jackson the violence of slavery and subjecation is not about dehumanization but about engineering the plasticity of the human. Animality is an immanent designation within the human and black bodies have too often resided at the edge of that animality. For Jackson blackness represents the plasticity of the human on its animal side in a way that allows for constant reengineering of the human in exclusionary means in the name of inclusion.

The backdooring of teleology as an engineering of the human lines up well with Jessica Riskin’s long argument in The Restless Clock that teleology as inherent to living things is replaced with a notion of mechanics by which the goals and capacities of life are defined to leave open the possibility of manipulation and redirection. Genetic determinism is never deterministic (in a physical sense) since it of course leaves open the technological possibility of changing it. This lends itself to a kind of human technological exceptionalism or back to the notion that the human is the construction of a historical being that is either on top of or despite our biological foundations.

But this of course brings us back to the problem that Jackson poses since a continuity between human and animal is still decided in human terms that not only construct the animal in a particular way but also place some humans and certain capacities as more animal like than others. This was already occurring in Darwin’s The Descent of Man and supported by the first eugenicists like Galton. As I’ve discussed before these differences, or the attempt to ground them, can be traced to various competing theological traditions (sin in the pre-adamites, other forms of polygeneism) or to the notion of preexisting germs or dispositions (as rigorously defended by Kant). It is a consistent attribute of the most virulent forms of racism that some discourse of capacity or character is taken over and above any biological ground. Physical and pseudo-biological features are treated as ‘evidence’ of inborn characteristics but when they cannot be formalized they are abandoned and one falls back upon the oldest arguments (moral character, mental capacity, technological development).

This haunts any attempt to describe the human as a historical project even if one recognizes the constructions of racial bias as merely constructions. And this is perhaps why Jackson is somewhat skeptical of Wynter’s call for a new genre of the human. But of course there is a difference between saying this is impossible and risky but the stance from where to begin or where to go or who can go seems like an assumption that is unanswerable. And this opposes a generic critical stance of critical theory to a generic stance in philosophy which both make claims to sufficient historical conditions relative to what is deemed to be methodological and ethical-political.

One lingering question is even if we decide to abandon the Hegelian notion of the historical human subject it still seems that a human subject defined by its historical and collective social being can be articulated in a properly global way. I still think that a detailed history of biology is central to making this possible – that a properly contingent history of the human and the genus homo is necessary for any collective subjectivity. But still this begs the question of whether any account of biological contingency can be connected to a story about ourselves that is generically human.

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