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Still Getting Over Ourselves: Nonhuman Studies

For editor Richard Grusin and the nine authors who contributed essays to the 2015 volume The Nonhuman Turn, the nonhuman indicates an “indistinction” (x) between the human and the nonhuman. This can be restated as a rejection of the dualistic separation between humans and all sorts of entities such as animals, objects, machines, cultural and natural forces, systems, as well as various types of materialities and modalities.[1] Aaron Jaffe, using the synonymous term “inhumanism” in the September 2016 special issue of Modernism/modernity, offers the following reflection: “Framed by ex-anthropic extremity . . . critical inhumanism is a matter of excesses and intensities— expanded hermeneutics, weird fictions, inhuman satires, burlesques of situated and fixed identities” (498).

Perhaps it is because I’m an art historian that this heralding of a broad “nonhuman” turn in hermeneutic approaches manifests as a surprising wave of familiarity, from a pedagogical standpoint as well as a scholarly one. Talking to objects out loud in a public context is a significant part of my job. Armed with earnestness and devoid of chagrin, I spend many days a year coaxing undergraduates to conversate with taciturn works of art seen in digital reproduction on my classroom screen. Even once the students become more confident accosting artworks as interview subjects, equipped with the necessary interrogation tactics required to begin unbuttoning elusive canvases by Ingres, for example, they remain frank about the fact that artworks never seem as legible or accessible as a written text.

It’s a timeworn observation: objects are gnomic; images are pantomimic. If I had to guess, I conjecture that most of my gadget-avid undergraduates would probably agree with Donna J. Haraway that “we have never been human.”[2] Even so, in the context of my classes, though, they might deign to add, “but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand the nonhuman.”

Beyond the relief that popular OOO (Object Oriented Ontologies) ushered in over the last decade for my sometime feelings of methodological claustrophobia, the notion of an even more permissive potential for exploring the ontological agency of all kinds of elements in our lived environment via the nonhuman framework seems, when viewed within the frame of Art History at least, to respond to a long narrative of theoretical bias. Between the late nineteenth century and the first thirty years or so of the twentieth century, Art History was, as a matter of fact, replete with sentiments that might be roughly related to the nonhuman, from Alois Riegl’s Kunstwollen to Heinrich Wölfflin’s empathy theory, among others. Along with a host of causes, the prominence of certain types of applied Marxist theory, boasting a holy aversion to the commodity fetish, quashed many nonhuman trends in Art History by mid-twentieth century. Now, with the millennial preponderance of sophisticated interactive digital artworks, my discipline has again sought robust theoretical models that push beyond the familiar ground of the representational and ideological.

Art History is by no means unified in its opinions about the status of the nonhuman. Exempli gratia: I will not soon forget a prolonged argument that I sustained with an editor of one of my essays a few years ago, via the trenchant medium of comment bubbles, about whether or not interactive works of art made with microcontrollers could be said to encompass a more-than-metaphorical awareness—“sentience” was the word with which I flirted. Given my background in Benjaminian and Surrealism studies, I was amenable to the idea that microcontroller-based artworks achieved a new grade of autonomy and even a shade of agency through mediation with humans—thus surpassing traditional theories of mimesis. My editor took a perpendicular view: if humans are the ones making the artworks, triggering their programmed sensor interfaces, and beholding the machinic output, there was no logical room for any ­­­­ontological significance outside of the human. Ultimately, we agreed that my essay should use the phrase “the appearance of sentience” to describe the responsiveness of microcontroller-based works. Nevertheless, I continued to ponder this question and later pursued conversations with an engineer about the “lives” of machines.

The “non-human” turn is not a correction or a discipline fix for mine or any other, nor is it merely a reflection of our lived and quirky habits, be they talking to paintings out loud, blaming the weather, believing in luck, or anthropomorphizing our pets. At its heart, the nonhuman orientation is a deepening of a longstanding shift away from metaphysical underpinnings in epistemology. In its import, it is an ethical choice of an anti-solipsistic world view; at base, it illuminates the understandable selfishness encompassed by survival instinct.

Recent technological developments, ecological factors and social structures have influenced the ways in which many humans understand themselves, and have also strengthened the force of predictions about the potential extinction of our species. In my mind, it is only the heretofore unprecedented intelligence of digital technology today, as well as the current threat of global warming, with its paradoxical character of randomness and determinism at once, that has begun to break down the longstanding denial of non-metaphysical extrahuman forces by Classical Humanism and Enlightenment secularism. To be sure, when surmised within journalistic sources, narratives about a nonhuman turn are also often cast as urgent wakeup calls regarding proleptic fears about declining human hegemony.

More sound in its manifestation as an academic tool than is the case with its often sensationalized appearance in the media sphere, the nonhuman can encompass a deft reframing device and an extension of a by now well-established philosophical critique of Humanism. In the “Modernist Inhumanisms” issue of M/m, the introduction by guest editor Aaron Jaffe as well as the final essay, “A Modest Proposal for the Inhuman” by Julian Murphet offer helpful retrospectives of various modernist and post-modernist discourses or strains of anti- and post-humanisms, allowing for a much-needed contextualization of this theoretical trend, which often tends to isolate itself ahistorically as a novelty.

Grusin’s thorough introduction to The Nonhuman Turn also provides an excellent overview of the areas of study/theory that influenced nonhuman perspectives as well as those that benefit from it, some of which include: new media theory, animal studies, affect theory, speculative realism, new materialisms, and so on. The other essays follow like nine persuasive muses showing off different aspects of the (for me, admirable) “bagginess” of the concept that is the “nonhuman turn.”[3]  Bruno Latour’s work is a constant reference throughout the text. Recommended highlights include Brian Massumi’s “The Supernormal Animal” and its discussion of the “affective propulsion” of instinct (9); Steven Schaviro’s “Consequences of Panpsychism,” which forwards a helpful reading of sentience as “a more basic category than life” itself (41); and Jane Bennett’s “Systems and Things: On Vital Materialism and Object-Oriented Philosophy,” wherein she argues for the importance of relationality and affectivity in nonhuman studies (234-45). Other essays in various disciplines, such as Erin Manning’s analysis of the nonhuman in the realm of fine arts and Rebekah Sheldon’s reading of feminist nonhumanisms render the volume a considerably useful compendium of the range of approaches stimulated by this critical lens.

A basic way of describing the essays in both The Nonhuman Turn and the special issue of Modernism/modernity is to say that they share a critique of human exceptionalism and social constructivism. The more significant message to be gleaned is that most of the authors in these two publications gesture toward an unabashed methodology of hope in which a sympathetic agnosticism and egalitarianism (at least conceptually so) toward largely illegible nonhuman entities, causalities and forces might in fact result in a better, or at least more starkly-viewed world. Following such an epistemology of apparent generosity, or maybe what one could call the application of a twenty-first century ecological attitude toward a Bergsonian notion of élan vital, one can imagine forthcoming collections that could explore myriad humanisms and human ontogenesis with nonhuman entities: the pseudohuman, parahuman, interhuman, etc. In this regard, prognostication about the potential obsolescence of the term “humanism” altogether seems more relevant than ever, lest we merely expand our obsession with the human through endless tautologies of phylogenetic versions of that very word.


[1] It is an unfortunate drawback that the very term “nonhuman” reinforces the notion of human exclusivity in its framing of the world beyond humans simply as “non.” Neologisms seem desirable in this regard. Grusin also distinguishes the nonhuman from the posthuman in that nonhumanisms do not impose a teleological paradigm (ix).

[2] When Species Meet (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 2007).

[3] Grusin employs the term “baggy” in his introduction in order to describe the way in which the nonhuman turn results from a large set of “interrelated critical and theoretical methodologies that have coalesced at the beginning of the twenty-first century” (ix).