«As a theoretician of history interested in Beyond the comparative theory of the human sciences, I am trying to reflect on certain Anthropocentrism in ...»
As a theoretician of history interested in
Beyond the comparative theory of the human sciences, I am trying to reflect on certain
Anthropocentrism in changes, turns and approaches that are
observable in contemporary human and
Historical Studies social sciences. I see the growing interest in nonhuman beings (flourishing animal studies, plant studies and thing studies) within the context of an emerging paradigm of non-anthropocentric human sciences, and I would like to consider certain problems and questions that I see as fundamental for the kind of future-oriented knowledge about the past that these new tendencies portend.
What I mean by anthropocentrism here is the attitude that presents the human species as the centre of the world, enjoying hegemony over other beings and functioning as masters of a nature which exists to serve its needs. This attitude leads to speciesism (assigning different values or rights to beings on the basis of their species membership) and is related to the kind Ewa Domanska of discrimination that is practiced by man against other species. Optimally, a non-anAdam Mickiewicz University, thropocentric paradigm seeks to de-centre Poznan, Poland human beings and focus on nonhumans as Stanford University, USA subjects of research (often quite apart from their relationships with humans).
I would define “non-anthropocentric humanities”1 or posthumanities as an institutionalised set of research topics, techniques and interests that derives its ethos from the intellectual movement and ethical stance called posthumanism. This ethical stance may be understood as a variety of approaches that carry on the legacy of the hum
after humanism in pursuing non- or anti-anthropocentric lines of inquiry. The problem of posthumanism is very complex because there are no singular, homogenic trends, styles of thinking or philosophical directions that can be related to this term.2 The spectrum of this perspective goes from discussions of the ethical treatment of animals, through the boundaries of species identity, transgenics and cross-species hybrids to biometrics. There is no doubt, however, that a common basis of all these trends and tendencies is the problematisation, critique and/or rejection of anthropocentrism.3 Key research problems addressed by the posthumanities include the boundaries of species identity, the relations between the human and the nonhuman (human beings’ affiliations with technology, the environment, animals, things), and questions of biopower, biopolitics and biotechnology. As stressed by Cary Wolfe, the editor of a series of books entitled “Posthumanities”,4 there is no intention to somehow reject humanism as such and the values related to it. The intention is rather to consider how those values (justice, tolerance, equality, dignity, human rights, etc.) became a part of the definition of uniqueness and exceptionality of the human kind. The aim is to unbury the genealogy of what today is called posthumanities. These analyses are supposed to anticipate the shape of the “humanities” in the future, i.e. when the humanities become the posthumanities.5
The inadequacy of current theories for contemporary global problems
Knowledge is relative and every theory is created in a particular time and place as a result of particular needs, and thus should be constantly verified. In the context of the emerging posthumanities, it is crucial that we study approaches related to postmodernism from a historical perspective, treating their heroes (Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Geertz, Said and White in the theory of history) not as avant-garde authorities for future research but as classics of the genre.
Those thinkers and their methodologies must be historicised and contextualised.6 This is not to say that they are not important for today’s research; this is not to say that they are not relevant.
But I think that at present the theory of the human and social sciences is a step behind what is going on in the contemporary world in terms of environmental cataclysms, the crisis of climate change and, in terms of technology, genetic engineering and nanotechnology (plus the spread of global capitalism), and thus must bring under consideration the new situations and phenomena that technology has created. Theory has to “catch up” with the main problems addressed by current research since existing theories and interpretive tools are inadequate to account for the rapidly changing world.7 This inadequacy of current theories for problems that surround us has been observed in historical studies for several years now;8 however, recently it was highlighted by a well-known scholar in the field of postcolonial studies and a representative of the so-called Subaltern school of historiography – Dipesh Chakrabarty. His recent article “The Climate of History: Four Theses” (2009) marked also a spectacular and revealing shift of his scholarly interests. Chakrabarty deBeyond Anthropocentrism in Historical Studies fines himself as “a practicing historian with a strong interest in the nature of history as a form of knowledge”.9 In this article, he reflects on the collapse of the old humanist distinction between natural history and human history. Chakrabarty claims that we might trace its beginning to the Industrial Revolution, but only recently, in the second half of the twentieth century, did we become “geological agents”, meaning humans became a force of nature, having a tremendous impact on the planet on a geological scale. He proposes that historians should speak more about species (and their mass extinction), about the problem of our collective self-recognition and “should think of humans as a form of life and look on human history as part of the history of life... on this planet”.10 Certainly Chakrabarty is well aware of the dangers of the kinds of universals that postcolonial studies were fighting against, but nevertheless he is not afraid to call for a “negative universal history” that arises from a shared sense of a catastrophe (climate change).11 For my argument presented here, of special importance is the fact that he is explicit about the inadequacies of present approaches and theories in dealing with various ecological crises. Thus, Chakrabarty confesses: “As the crisis [the current planetary crisis of climate change – ED] gathered momentum in the last few years, I realised that all my readings in theories of globalisation, Marxist analysis of capital, subaltern studies, and postcolonial criticism over the last twenty-five years, while enormously useful in studying globalisation, had not really prepared me for making sense of this planetary conjuncture within which humanity finds itself today.”12 This honest statement is just a sign that theoretically oriented scholars are becoming more and more aware that, after the postmodernist turn to fragmented reality, micronarrative (microhistory) and local histories, there is a need to reconsider “big picture questions”.
A justification for a nonanthropocentric approach Where can we find a justification for a nonanthropocentric approach? What is the validity of such knowledge? In other words: what do we need for this nonanthropocentric paradigm?
Let me begin with a statement that I often heard from Hayden White while participating in his seminars and lectures: “To be a historian is not a choice of career. It is an existential choice.” Following this important remark, I would say that to speak about going beyond anthropocentrism or about posthumanism is not to pick up a fancy theme; it is not to consider an epistemological approach, but it is mainly a future-oriented ethical choice. Observing the results of ecological crisis and rapid technological progress and especially recent achievements in genetic engineering, biotechnology, neuropharmacology and nanotechnology, I am convinced that as historians and intellectuals we should again think about “big picture questions”, about global questions.
terest of preserving the human species, we do not need
knowledge but a knowledge that contributes to its survival.
Despite an Enlightened trust in knowledge as a “supreme instrument,” I find this argument quite convincing. Indeed, if we consider the host of publications on the Holocaust, we cannot avoid being struck by the way that the knowledge we have produced has failed to prevent the crimes against humanity during the war in former Yugoslavia or the genocide in Rwanda. So, if we ask the question: what kind of humanities do we need today? I might answer that we need the kind of knowledge, cognition and human science that have survival value and might help in the protection and continuation of the species.
It seems that in contemporary intellectual practice scholars are not connected by methods or theories but by the problems on which they focus their intellectual efforts, primarily because those problems are directly or indirectly related to controlling the life and death (biopolitics, necropolitics) of humans, on the one hand, and protecting “life” on earth, on the other. Protecting life is a “paternalistic” project and we have to be very aware of its results. Some scholars would call it “enlightened anthropocentrism” insomuch as it takes under consideration nature and nonhumans and presupposes that our ethical care for nature and nonhumans comes from our care of and responsibility to humans. This idea would be rejected by scholars working in the paradigm of “deep ecology” or the Gaia theory, who claim that nature or the earth will take care of itself.14 Also, we should not forget that life (and the survival of species) is not necessarily the highest value for everybody.15 Obviously, during the process of evolution, some specia become extinct and new ones appear and we should not desperately seek to preserve them. So, the survival paradigm is not by any means an unquestionable absolute.
Historians themselves also express their awareness of this problem while asking: “How often do we consider the unwelcome but ineluctable ecological fact that, while life on earth could survive just fine without humans (indeed it would no doubt flourish in our absence), without ants the entire foundation would crumble?”16
Keeping in mind the limitations of the survival paradigm, let us make the following assumption:
the challenge for today’s research is not so much in asking new questions and proposing new theories or methods of analysis, which would spring from current research trends in humanities, but to place the research itself in the context of the emerging paradigm of nonanthropocentric knowledge, or posthumanities. Andrew Pickering called this strategy a “posthumanist displacement of our interpretative frameworks”.17 Of course, the point is not to eliminate the human being from our studies (of the past) but – as I mentioned above – to displace the human subject from the centre of historical, archaeological and anthropological studies.
I would suggest that in the face of an ecological crisis and radical transformation of what it means to be human caused by genetic engineering and psychopharmacology, we need the kind of knowledge, cognition and human science that has survival value and will help in the protection and continuation of the species. Thus, a big question for “future friendly” historical studies would be: what kind of research questions, research materials, theories and approaches Beyond Anthropocentrism in Historical Studies should we – as historians and intellectuals – promote in order to strengthen the survival value of knowledge produced by reflection on the past? Are these questions about justice, ethics, democracy, freedom, human rights, dignity, God or the sacred? Which of the cognitive categories used by us should be turned into normative categories? What categories should be established as normative?
Towards collectives of humans and nonhumans
I attempt to move beyond debates about historical narration, historical representation, and, generally speaking, relations between text and past reality, debates which predominated in historical theory from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. I propose that it is time to challenge and transcend the specific approach to the past called history understood as “the science of people in time” (Marc Bloch) and its not only eurocentric and phallocentric but, above all, anthropocentric character. Our reflection about the past should extend to those nonhuman beings that have recently been studied across various disciplines. Today, with the development of insurrectional and militant historiography, things, plants and nonhuman animals should also be incorporated into history as something other than passive recipients of human actions.
The future of thinking about the past will depend on whether and how scholars manage to modify their understanding of nonhuman agents: nonhuman animals, plants and things. Questions concerning the status of nonhuman agents in the past, relations between the human and the non-human, the organic and the inorganic, between people and things and between things themselves are of fundamental importance for reconceptualising the study of the past. Therefore, an important challenge is to rethink the nonhuman aspect of the past in a context other than semiotics, discourse theory or representation theory, with a special focus on the materiality, concreteness, relations and interactions and so-called presence of the past.18 What we need is to establish a human–nonhuman relationship based on a nonanthropocentric approach and on a relational epistemology. As anthropologist Nurit Bird-David has shown, thinking based on relational epistemology is marked by an absence of the ontological dualism of nature and culture, and body and mind, that are characteristic of western thought; self and personhood are relational to, and not separated from, the world. The world in this approach is a heterarchical one, rather than hierarchical. “I relate, therefore I am,” writes Bird-David, describing the intimate engagements of the natives with their environment. Moreover, she does not reify the notion of “relationship” into an entity but prefers to talk about “‘relatedness’ meaning two beings/things mutually responsive to one other”.19
ticipation in ecosocial and semiotic networks of interactions (including the interactions in which they are observed, named, etc.).