Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Kenneth Gouwens, "What Posthumanism Isn’t: On Humanism and Human Exceptionalism in the Renaissance", in Renaissance Posthumanism

My head's spinning, and I'm not sure it's the booze. It's always fun to have your predictions confirmed.


The time may be at hand for postmoderns to imitate the intellectual model of Renaissance Humanists. The “openness from close” that Cary Wolfe identifies as vital to the project of posthumanism was in many respects integral to Renaissance thought, not antithetical to it. Like the Renaissance Humanists, we too confront an uncertain intellectual landscape in which one has to forge a path amidst competing discourses and incommensurable approaches to the truth.95 Such terrain, whatever its pitfalls, may prove an invaluable site for creativity and innovation. Following the example of the Renaissance Humanists, we too may benefit from grounding our understandings of the present by creatively juxtaposing those conceptions, be they ever so posthumanist, in a responsible reconstruction of what has come before—a past whose relevance for us may, after all, be such that it figures as more than just a genealogical antecedent.


Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism? And we're back to Latour?

But this is fascinating

The autistic’s body boundary problem is at the core of another remarkable moment in Thinking in Pictures, which dramatizes in an especially powerful way many of the themes I have been discussing thus far. Grandin was hired to redesign an extremely cruel system used for the kosher slaughter of cattle, replacing it with a chute that would gently hold the animal in a standing position while the rabbi performed the final deed. “It worked best when I operated the hydraulic levers unconsciously, like using my legs for walking,” she writes.

I had to force myself to relax and just allow the restrainer to become part of my body....Through the machine, I reached out and held the animal. When I held his head in the yoke, I imagined placing my hands on his forehead and under his chin and gently easing him into position. Body boundaries seemed to disappear....The parts of the apparatus that held the animal felt as if they were an extension of my own body, similar to the phantom limb effect....During this intense period of concentration I no longer heard noise from the plant machinery....Everything seemed quiet and serene. It was almost a religious experience....I was able to look at each animal, to hold him gently and make him as comfortable as possible during the last moments of his life....A new door had been opened. It felt like walking on water. (41–42)

[The ecstasy of killing. I almost came in my shorts] 

Now, many things could be said about this passage,18 [see below] but for the moment I would simply like to draw our attention to how here, disability becomes the positive, indeed enabling, condition for a powerful experience by Grandin that crosses the lines not only of species difference but also of the organic and inorganic, the biological and mechanical. In a kind of dramatization of the category meltdowns identified canonically in Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” disability here positively makes a mess of the conceptual and ontological coordinates that Grandin’s rendering of the passage surely reinstates rhetorically on another level.

This realization—that what we traditionally think of as disability can be a powerful and unique form of abledness—is a fundamental assumption for recent work in disability studies.19 [below] Here, however, I want to interpret the significance of this moment in Grandin’s work, and her case in general, in a way that diverges from some of the dominant paradigms of recent disability studies. At first blush, the most obvious way for animal studies and disability studies to make common cause might seem to be within a shared liberal “democratic framework,” which, as philosopher Luc Ferry puts it, “counts on the progress of ‘the equality of conditions’” to gradually increase the sphere of legal rights and ethical recognition. In this view—and this is essentially the procedure of Martha Nussbaum’s Frontiers of Justice, discussed in chapter 3—nonhuman animals and the disabled would be seen as simply the latest traditionally marginalized groups to have ethical and legal enfranchisement wholly or partially extended to them in an expand- ing democratic context that entails what Nancy Fraser has called the “politics of recognition.”20

But a fundamental problem with the liberal humanist model is not so much what it wants as the price it pays for what it wants: that in its attempt to recognize the uniqueness of the other, it reinstates the normative model of subjectivity that it insists is the problem in the first place. I am not suggesting that working to liberalize the interpretation by the courts of the Americans with Disabilities Act is a waste of time, or that lobbying to upgrade animal cruelty prosecutions from misdemeanor to felony status is a bad thing. What I am suggesting is that these pragmatic pursuits are forced to work within the purview of a liberal humanism in philosophy, politics, and law that is bound by a historically and ideologically specific set of coordinates that, because of that very boundedness, allow one to achieve certain pragmatic gains in the short run, but at the price of a radical foreshortening of a more ambitious and more profound ethical project: a new and more inclusive form of ethical pluralism that it is our charge, now, to frame. That project would think the ethical force of disability and nonhuman subjectivity as something other than merely an expansion of the liberal humanist ethnos to ever newer populations, as merely the next room added onto the (increasingly opulent and globalizing) house of what Richard Rorty has called “the rich North Atlantic bourgeois democracies.”

Derrida is especially forceful on this point in a recent interview on what he has called “the question of the (so-called) animal,” which we explored in chapter 3. “For the moment,” he suggests, “we ought to limit ourselves to working out the rules of law [droit] such as they exist. But it will eventually be necessary to reconsider the history of this law and to understand that although animals cannot be placed under concepts like citizen, consciousness linked with speech . . . etc., they are not for all that without a ‘right.’ It’s the very concept of right that will have to be ‘rethought.’” Derrida’s point here is not just the obvious one that we “cannot expect ‘animals’ to be able to enter into an expressly juridical contract in which they would have duties, in an exchange of recognized rights,” but rather—and more pointedly—that “it is within this philosophico-juridical space that the modern violence against animals is practiced, a violence that is at once contemporary with and indissociable from the discourse of human rights.” And from this vantage, it makes perfect sense to conclude, as Derrida does, that “however much sympathy I may have for a declaration of animals rights that would protect them from human violence,” it is nevertheless “preferable not to introduce this problematic concerning the relations between humans and animals into the existing juridical framework.”22

Footnotes 18 and 19 This is the best Wolfe can do.

18. For example, its echo, if only between the lines, of the ancient religious rites of animal sacrifice (which one might well gloss in light not only of Derrida’s “Eating Well” but also of Bataille’s The Theory of Religion); the rhetorical decision to designate the slaughtered animal with the generic pronoun “he”; the obvious ethical issues that present themselves around the unnecessary killing of animals, however comfortably or compassionately carried out, for human consumption, the mechanization of that process as part of the larger regime of factory farming and agribusiness, and so on—something we would surely want to explore in another context.

19. For example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, a leading disability scholar, notes that in the artistic careers of Claude Monet and Chuck Close, disability was not an impediment but rather “enabled what we think of as artistic evolution” toward their most important work; “they were great artists not in spite of disability but because of disability.” “Disability and Representation,” PMLA 120, no. 2 (March 2005): 524.

The passage from Grandin reads as sociopathy, autistic Sadean anti-humanism. Grandin is who she is and she's not the issue. Wolfe's defense and celebration is. His argument that posthumanism is the opposite of transhumanism is based on the assumption that futurism is an extension of humanism, which can only make sense if it's an extension of the 18th century fantasy of the perfectibility of man, which older humanists knew to be absurd. But his posthumanism is retains the optimism, which is why he responds to Grandin as he does. 

Stephen Campbell, following Gouwens, in the same volume, writes about Panofsky's response to Titian's Flaying of Marsyas, using a passage I've quoted a dozen times, and ignoring the most important part.

For, though the word Humanität had come, in the eighteenth century, to mean little more than politeness and civility, it had, for Kant, a much deeper significance, which the circumstances of the moment served to emphasize: man’s proud and tragic consciousness of self-approved and self-imposed principles, contrasting with his utter subjection to illness, decay and all that implied in the word ‘mortality.’

Kant on his deathbed was already a creature from the past. 

All their arguments are confused. Nussbaum's programmatic liberalism vs Derrida's common sense! Hilarious. But the pretense that they and what write about can be divided between bourgeois and not is silly. It all depicts/makes manifest the changing of bourgeois self-description.

Wolfe again, and Michael Fried. 

Yet precisely here an interesting problem manifests itself. While Coe is certainly within her rights to see the ethical function of (her) art, at least in one sense, as drawing our attention, as powerfully as possible, to the untold horrors of the slaughterhouse, on another level—and it is this level that will be handled with considerable sophistication, I think, in Eduardo Kac’s work—that ethical function and the representationalism it depends on rely on a certain disavowal of the violence (what Fried calls the “disfiguration”) of representation itself, which immediately leads to an obvious question we might ask of Coe: If the ethical function of art is what Coe thinks it is, why not just show people photographs of stockyards, slaughterhouses, and the killing floor to achieve this end? To put it another way, what does art add? And what does it mean that her art has to be more than real to be real? Isn’t the “melodrama of visibility” (to use Fried’s phrase) that we find in Dead Meat, which is calculated to “give the animal a face,” also, in another sense, an effacement of the very reality it aims to represent, one that quite conspicuously manifests itself in the hyperbole, disfiguration, and melodrama of Coe’s work? The paradoxical result for Coe’s work, then, is that it appeals to us to read it as directly (indeed, melodramatically) legible of the content it represents, but the only way it achieves that end is through its figural excess, which is precisely not of the slaughterhouse but of the interposing materiality of representation itself.

We can unpack the implications of this point by remembering Fried’s discussion of “what might be called a drama, some would even say a melodrama, of visibility” in Eakins’s The Gross Clinic, which may be brought into sharp contrast with the very different “melodrama” we find in Coe’s Dead Meat project.11 My point here in calling Coe’s work “melodramatic” is not that it exaggerates what really goes on in a slaughterhouse but that in Coe’s work, nothing is hidden from us. On the contrary, the paintings seem to form a kind of theater calculated to produce a “surefire effect” (to use Fried’s characterization of “theatricality”) by “playing to the audience,” as the figures in the paintings— human and animal—repeatedly look out at us, imploringly, fearfully, or sadistically, as if the entire affair inside the space of the painting is staged only for us.12 Unlike the experience of the viewer in what Fried calls the “absorptive” tradition in painting that culminates in modern- ist abstraction, the viewer in Coe’s work isn’t “denied,” as Fried puts it, but rather addressed and held responsible, even culpable, for what is being shown inside the frame.

Here—to return to The Gross Clinic—two conspicuous features of Eakins’s painting noted by Fried are very much to the point: the rendering of the surgical patient’s body, and the cringing figure of an older woman, usually taken to be the patient’s mother. As for the first, Fried notes that “the portions of the body that can be seen are not readily identifiable, so that our initial and persisting though not quite final impression is of a few scarcely differentiated body parts rather than of a coherent if momentarily indecipherable ensemble.”13 In fact, Fried likens this presentation to something like a dismembering, an act of “deliberate aggression” and even “sadism” that ultimately is an index of “the attitude toward the viewer that that rendering implies”—an especially intense version of the attitude typical of what Fried elsewhere famously calls the “absorptive” tradition in painting (59). Similarly, the cringing figure dramatizes “the pain of seeing,” in both “the emphatic emptiness of her clawlike left hand,” the “violent contortion” of which is “apprehended by the viewer as a threat—at a minimum, an offense— to vision as such,” and “the sightlessness that . . . she so feelingly embodies” . In these “aggressions,” as Fried calls them, these gestures of “disfiguration,” Fried finds in the painting “an implied affront to seeing,” a “stunning or, worse, a wounding of seeing—that leads me to imagine that the definitive realist painting would be one that the viewer literally could not bear to look at” 

Here we get a precise sense of the differences between the force of “disfiguration” at work in Eakins’s representationalism and in Coe’s. In Coe, although there is disfiguration aplenty, it is never a disfiguration that resists vision or interpretation—quite the contrary, it invites a single, univocal reading. The violence of Eakins’s “affront to seeing” that manifests itself in The Gross Clinic as incision, deformation, and even, in a sense, dismemberment (a violence displaced and contained by being thematized, as Fried notes, in terms of the “necessary” surgery being performed) is matched by the reverse dynamic in Coe. The almost nightmarish, infernal scenes of violence before us hide nothing, and for that very reason, the artist, as it were, has no blood on her hands. (That is reserved, of course, for the forces of capitalism and Taylorization referenced in the work’s semantic content.)

In this light, we can sharpen our sense (if you’ll pardon the expression) of the difference between Coe’s representationalism and Eakins’s by reminding ourselves of the signifying force of the surgeon’s scalpel in The Gross Clinic as glossed by Fried. If Eakins represents himself allegorically through the figure of Gross, then the scalpel serves to remind us—rather startlingly, even traumatically—that Eakins is “divided or excruciated between competing systems of representation.” On the one hand, the scalpel, “being hard and sharp, an instrument for cutting, be- longs unmistakably to the system of writing/drawing”; on the other, because the scalpel is marked by an outré, almost three-dimensional drop of blood on its tip, it “refers, by means of an irresistible analogy,” to the system of painting—almost as if the drop of blood were paint and the surgeon/painter carefully and dramatically deliberates its violent application.  

The "posthumanist" Wolfe, defending the high modernist Fried: promoting positivist philosophic art, but not illustration. He doesn't get the joke. The Gross Clinic is a higher form of moralizing melodrama.

Fried, Absorption and Theatricality Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot 

For a long time now it has been traditional, almost obligatory, to remark that we, the modern public, no longer find it in ourselves to be moved by the sentimentality, emotionalism, and moralism of much of Greuze's production. But the truth is chat we take those qualities at face value, as if they and nothing more were at stake in his pictures; and that we therefore fail to grasp what his sentimentalism, emo­tionalism, and moralism, as well as his alleged mania for plotting, are in the service of, pictorially speaking-viz., a more urgent and extreme evoca­tion of absorption than can be found in the work of Chardin, Van Loo, Vien, or any ocher French painter of the time.  


And this systematic violence against the animals is itself doubled by a less brutal, though no less systematic, violence that attends the workers who are forced by the nature of capitalism itself to do such work—a point graphically captured in Coe’s rendering of the meatpacking workers in painting after paint- ing and explicitly thematized in works such as “Capital/Labor.”

The page breaks in the book in the middle of the word "nat...ture" and begins again below a reproduction.

Sue Coe, Goat outside Slaughterhouse P.A., 1990. Copyright 1990 Sue Coe. Courtesy of Galerie St. Etienne, New York.

Art, philosophy, and luxury boutiques. That should be a tag! 

2012, still repeating

I said it all before but it bears repeating now:
The "postmodern" critique of the enlightenment was based on a fallacious definition of humanism, but marks the beginning of a humanist critique of enlightenment and modernist anti-humanism, in the mockery by teenage children, full of insecurity, pose and pretension, directed against the moralizing authoritarianism of their parents.

If posthumanism is the new humanism, I'll take it


When the great Japanese filmmaker Ozu was dying of cancer, his films were being forgotten. His producer came to visit him and neither said what they both knew: his home dramas were being overshadowed by Samurai epics.  As he was leaving, Ozu called him back. 
"What is this?" he said. "Home drama"

Mizoguchi is better, but that's another conversation.

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