C.P Snow’s Two Rude Questions and Posthumanism (a Critique of Vitalism)

Fiona Druitt, The University of Melbourne

What are the conditions of possibility that underlie these questions of the posthuman and ethics (how ‘to explore the ethical place for hope?’; how to interrogate “human”, “life”, “nature”, “culture”, “death”, “writing”, “agency” and “animal”, the subject and the Other…?). How are the very disciplines that we have for thinking and embodying these questions of hope, ethics, nature, culture and the subject and the Other in modernity, still symptoms of this paradox themselves? And how can that be, not just a complication, but a clue?

As a provocation, this paper will read C.P Snow’s ‘two rude questions’ across the two cultures (not ‘re-read’, but read, not solely from within the humanities) as being posed in and through one another (this, of course, is Snow’s point). This reposes these questions as a double-sided or ‘chaismic’ to borrow Merleau Ponty’s term. Instead of just asking how to put nature and culture, the analytic and the synthetic, and the two cultures and their modern disciplines back together, it also asks how they never came apart (and yet, this also points out that the two cultures think and embody thought and things differently, across the modern divides). Instead of simply applying a corrective to the supposed ‘prediscursive body’, this argues that this double-edged problem of modernity is also that of the prefabricated thought. What happens when both terms in modernity’s dualistic pairings become questionable at the same time?

Clare Colebrook writes, ‘even when the word vitalism is not used explicitly, we might observe today, a vitalist ethics in general that dominates our time…Is this new vitalism or anim(al)ism really a felicitious shift in modes of thinking that will allow us to deal with the current critical state of our milieu [and indeed the current crises of the human, of feminist ethics and of the environment] or is it a reaction formation? How do vitalist notions of posthumanism, in fact, repeat the paradox of modernity and the two cultures (across both disciplinary space and historical time)? And how does this suggest that we must doubly open these questions of life, posthumanism, ethics and hope?

Once More with Feeling: Whitehead’s concept of feeling and a trans-human ethics

Dr. Andrew Goodman, University of New South Wales

Alfred North Whitehead’s concept of feeling is inclusive of not only all life forms, but also inanimate matter and conceptual processes. In his ‘organic’ philosophy, Whitehead places emphasis on the ability of all events to selectively draw from their environment or field, and sees this capacity to choose as the basis of the essential creativity of existence. Like Darwin’s studies on worms and Deleuze’s writing on geology, such radical concepts fly in the face of both a human centered and deterministic conceptions of evolution and relation. Here relation is not simply between the human and world, but a complex, forward-driving entanglement of all components of an environment. In such a system, an ethics – that is, a right to fully express this capacity to ‘feel’ – must be inclusive of all, not only the ‘natural’ but also human-made objects and processes.

In this paper these concepts will be explored through an examination of recent ‘relational’ art. How might such art works that consider the transpersonal or more-than-human open our sympathy to the world, and can we conceive through this of an ethics that addresses the field as a vital system from which we and other matter arises?

Apocalypse, Evolution, Extinction, Futurity

Alexis Harley, La Trobe

“Apocalypse” (apokalypsis) means uncovering or disclosure in Greek. Unlike “mere” catastrophe, apocalypse is revelatory: in apocalyptic literature the future is made known before it has happened. The apocalyptic trope of the unfurling scroll (invoked in the Book of Revelation) is picked up in the word “evolution” – from ex-volutus, a rolling out, as of an already-written scroll. Both the literature of apocalypse and early thinking about evolution imply a teleological universe, one in which the present is already oriented to the future.

In this paper I return to a cultural moment in which the meaning of human/nature and the future of human/nature are both put under perhaps unprecedented pressure – the period of the industrial revolution, one of the “Anthropocene”’s many contested inaugural moments. Reading apocalyptic and evolutionary writing from this period, I examine how the moral considerability of the present and the future, of the present against the future and vice versa, is constructed in a culture that has begun to recognize change as the condition of existence. From my vantage in the nineteenth-century’s future, in the apocalyptic moment of the present, I look back at how the industrial revolution’s construction of futurity has indeed made its future, my present, and imagine how this might affect a new ethics of futurity.

Zoe v Bios: Posthuman Ethics and Curatorial Practice

Laura McLean

Zoe v Bios is a curatorial research project developed at Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier to explore changing politics of representation and ethics of classification in artistic and curatorial practice, and to consider how posthuman knowledge might be constituted as boundaries between he human, the technological, and the planetary increasingly blur.

Comprised of a two-part exhibition program and publication, the title is drawn from Rosi Braidotti’s conception of these two competing notions of ‘life’, which ‘turn the issue of embodiment into a contested space and a political arena’. For her, ‘zoe stands for the mindless vitality of Life carrying on independently, regardless of rational control. This vital energy is the dubious privilege attributed to nonhumans and to all the ‘Others’ of Man, whereas bios refers to the specific human capacity to construct a social nexus.’[1]

The latter forms the subject of the first exhibition, which presents the work of artists Clare Milledge and Emily Jones on object mountings loaned from the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology), which is currently undergoing a complete overhaul to become the Weltmuseum (World Museum). Through the construction of an assemblage of natural and cultural artefacts, Behavioural Modernity seeks to explore strategies for the transgression of classificatory schemas and museological tropes of demarcation, to gesture towards a broadened ethics of care in contemporary practices.

Addressing the potential of zoe, Jenna Sutela’s solo exhibition Orgs opens up a post-apocalyptic view to a silicon-based, techno-corporate environment, inspired by abstraction of nature in Japanese dry landscape gardens. Inhabited by the amoeboid intelligence of slime mould, a single-celled, decentralised autonomous organism which processes data using spatial intelligence, this landscape is accompanied by a short narrative in the form of a conversational log between two characters arriving on the exhibition site ten thousand years from now.

In discussing and expanding upon the concepts behind these two exhibitions, and relating them to the issues I have sought to examine in developing Zoe v Bios, this paper attempts to identify strategies and ethics necessary for representing the posthuman in exhibitions and other organisational practices.

[1] Braidotti, Rosi, ‘The Cosmic Buzz of Insects’, Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti, Columbia University Press, New York, 2011, p. 99.


Maria Miranda and Norie Neumark, Victorian College of the Arts

During a month-long artist residency at The Library Artspace in Melbourne in 2013 we came face-to-face with coal in a slow and meditative process of looking, listening and waiting to see what unfolds. Coal is a material that we are most familiar with in its transformed state – pollution. Yet coal is a fascinating, porous and diversiform material, itself transformed from ancient rain forests that covered vast areas of the world, particularly the east coast of Australia.  In December 2012, while on a residency in Beijing we had experienced very thick and frightening air pollution, a pea-souper. Overlooking our usual attention to daily weather reports, we fixated on the Air Quality Index or AQI. This little app on our smart phones told us what sort of air to expect each day, and this would determine what we would do, in fact if we would venture outside or not. The AQI swung wildly during the 21 days of our residency from 178 to over 400. At the same time the Melbourne AQI was 14. We discovered that the particulate PM2.5 that we experienced in Beijing was more than likely Australian coal, exported to China.

In this presentation, we will discuss this project in relation to the themes of ground and environment.

Finding hope in the creation of community

Associate Professor Martin Mulligan, RMIT University

The eminent sociologists Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have said that is increasingly imperative to make a ‘life of one’s own in a runaway world’ and yet the processes of ‘deinstitutionalisation’ and ‘individualisation’ which they have described are making this more difficult. Nikolas Rose has suggested that people are increasingly turning to the ideal of community because society no longer delivers what it promised and yet narrow and divisive projections of community identities can increase division and conflict and leave some people with a deeper sense of exclusion. This presentation will suggest that community building practices can help more people find hope as long as simplistic, one-dimensional and static ideas about community are abandoned. At the same time, it will argue that profound global ecological challenges make it essential that we build responsible—rather than naïve or escapist–hope and the presentation will draw on the work of Hannah Arendt to explore links between collective responsibility and the creation of community.

Practices of recognition and co-domestication with living soil.

Anne O’Brien

Being human now in an era of ecological collapse exposes us to numerous calls from the nonhuman world to respond. How we are sensitized to and interpret those calls is a product of our socialization and the fields of understanding and capability in which we conduct our daily lives. My research focused on farming and other land stewardship practitioners who are learning to ‘read’ soil to encourage its liveliness. These approaches accommodate biodiversity through a paradigm largely inspired by generative interdependence, supplanting or complementing competitive monoculture. I will consider various examples in which practices of accommodation and/or co-domestication (as Haraway has theorised) are making spaces for soil and plant biodiversity in human-controlled assemblages limited by the structures (or strictures) of agriculture, urban development and the conventions of urban parks and golf courses. I am interested in the durability of these practices and biodiverse assemblages, the ways that provocations or integrations with surrounding [human] communities were (or were not) set in motion, and how practitioners granted significance to soil biodiversity and its care in their work.

What Termites bring to critical hope

Perdita Phillips

By breaking down boundaries around authorship, audience and participation many examples of socially engaged art practice have been critical instruments of hope. But a general caution with such practices in an era of high artist mobility, is the unwelcome scenario of artists flying in like seagulls to a local community, bringing in a preconceived idea of what is good for that community and making decisions about how it would like to be engaged and represented. This neo-colonial scenario highlights the tensions between ethics, aesthetics and politics inherent in this art genre. Criticisms remain about the depth and generosity of artworks, and on the emphasis of process over outcome, concept over materiality and indeed institutionally co-opted feel-good, over aesthetics. In an effort to think through these contradictions I wish to extend these questions to the realm of nonhuman worlds: without doubt the difficulties of communicating ‘engaged’ and ‘socially’ are amplified, but so too are the rewards of Haraway’s “staying with the trouble”. I am currently working with the remains of 850 romance novels eaten by termites as a material ‘anticipatory archive’: absences are created (Termite-Ma); deconstruction of texts is followed by reconstruction of new meaning. Interaction with the archive builds future scenarios. The investigation searches for nuggets of wonderfulness in the papery remains. Thus the paper will look at a reconstructive hope that is congenial but remains critical through the termite’s activities from below, rather than the seagull’s shufti from above.

The listening body: Encounters with trees, water, rocks

Bagryana Popov, La Trobe

In this paper I will talk about Listening Ground, a performative event that took place at Kauppi Lakeside forest, Tampere, Finland. The event was part of the Break-a Brain Festival and was the result of an intensive week of site-specific research with Dr Raisa Foster and dancer Antti Marjakangas. It was part of the Art-Eco project, a collaborative research project with Dr Foster, choreographer and researcher, Finland. This practice-led research investigates the relationship between the human body and the natural environment, invoking concepts of empathy, affect and ethics in our consideration of the natural.

It investigates the questions: how do we experience landscape and what possibilities exist for ethical interaction? How can we broaden and enliven our perception of the natural environment? What changes occur when we turn our attention to a tree with a deep quality of listening?

The research methodology of this project combines artistic practices from theatre and dance with philosophical ideas, particularly Martin Buber’s I-Thou, Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of responsibility for the other and Gernot Böhme’s theorising of atmosphere.

Through poetry, touch, movement, philosophy and discussions borrowing from physics, a new sensation begins to emerge in relation to the ground, trees, rocks, water. The space between the self and the other, between me and the tree, is filled in a different way through sensing. And from this awareness come responsibility and a new potential for relating. There is a distance between my corporeality and the natural environment, but there is also a continuum. We share physical elements. Perhaps in this process a space can emerge for new understanding, an ethical encounter between me (my body) and nature (Finnish forest and lake). This research has implications for ways of experiencing and understanding science, integrating embodied knowledge and perception.

Race & Species: Kim’s ‘ethics of avowal’ and dingo politics.

Fiona Probyn-Rapsey, University of Sydney

Working at the fraught intersections of race and species in Australia is tricky, complex and provides more than enough terrain for bouts of morbid thinking!  I am often amazed by the apparent ease by which racialising language finds its way into the language of species, and the frequent slippage between different registers of ‘them’ and ‘us’ that haunt statements about ‘nature’ and human life. In my work on dingos (or ‘dingology’ to co-opt Donna Haraway’s line – ‘primatology is politics by other means’), the entanglement of race, species and gender runs deep; entangled concepts that do violent category work.  In this presentation I want to talk about  the pull of these categories in writing about the dingo, and think about how to work with Claire Kim’s ‘ethics of avowal’ and her ‘multi-optic’ method, where the effects of species:race are acknowledged, registered.  This is one of the hopeful promises of animal studies; that it focuses our attention on thinking with others in mind, and with other optics in view.

Print cultures: the microbial colony as feral writing technology

Kay Rozynski

This paper will reflect on a work of conceptual writing – a work of ‘my own’, but a work that sought precisely to trouble the idea of sole or solely ‘human’ authorship by considering the influence of the microbially contaminated writing environment on creativity. The project began as a 16-page-long altered found text: Hélène Cixous’s ‘The laugh of the Medusa’, all of whose references to ‘woman’ were systematically replaced by references to ‘nature’.

Its pages were covered in agar and left to collect​from the spaces of writing the microbial organisms that ordinarily, though clandestinely, impregnate the spaces of composition. They​ were thus invited to more explicitly assert their influence on what is typically considered the purely human act of writing.

​ The project sought to locate the feral in a very physical sense within human being, and suggest the cultural as an articulation of the natural. Preparing the pages to hang, however, it became clear that their impregnation with microbes had failed to produce even a blip of discernible results. With an exhibition date approaching, I covertly intervened. But t​he organic composition and self-government of the colonies was thus radically interfered with and the text became a farce of the intended result. The work in fact represented my own underestimation of the truculence of matter, my not guessing at matter’s wanting not to speak.

This paper reflects on the implications of this failure, specifically for the deployment of animal life as a figurative device and for the colonialism of academic publishing cultures. Having correlated ‘woman’ and ‘nature’ through Cixous’s discussion of the silencing of ‘woman’ became a provocative metaphor for the very question of a posthuman writing itself. What does it mean that the way some theorists associated with new materialisms – for instance, Vicki Kirby – speak about ‘nature’ can be made interchangeable with the way this landmark feminist text speaks about ‘woman’? Do new materialisms, in identifying nature and culture as natureculture, as one and the same substance, risk reiterating the colonizing gesture that certain feminisms (Cixous’ among them) were widely accused of being complicit with in speaking for ‘woman’ – which is to say, is having nature speak not also speaking for? How does academia – the circulation of whose discourses is dependent on its publication fetish – continue to benefit from a long history of the print medium as colonising vehicle?

Hearing Hyperobjects: Soundscapes of the Post-Anthropocene in Snowpiercer

Haerin Shin, Vanderbilt University

Pong Chun-ho’s film Snowpiercer (2013) takes us on a vertiginous ride through a future where risky climate control maneuvers annihilate all lifeforms, save for a handful of spatially hierarchized survivors on board a perpetual-motion engine. The camera occasionally pans out from the densely packed drama unfolding within the train to the vast, bleak, and primitively silent ice fields, accentuating the disinterested persistence of an ecosphere that aligns with what Timothy Morton calls the hyperobject: “things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans” (1). Cognizable and computable although invisible due to their sheer scale, hyperobjects straddle the phenomenal and the ontic, sobering us to an ecological awareness of non-anthropocentric materiality. Ironically, the notion that hyperobjectivity bypasses or even transcends the human only serves to reinforce subject-oriented ontology in its perspectival scalability, which I claim is most effectively embodied in Snowpiercer’s soundscape. Despite their crucial role in framing the film’s ecocritical symbolism, the sonic components of Snowpiercer have received scarce attention compared to the visual spectacles encasing the train. Expropriated and abused into deformity, non-human entities—ranging from tank-grown fish to hallucinogenic drugs made of toxic industrial waste—punctuate critical moments in the narrative with the sounds they emit, exposing the absurdity of the human voices that brought the world to its screeching halt. Reading the acoustic physicality of Snowpiercer’s non-human yet inevitably human-bound objects as a hyperobjective elegy to the Anthropocene, this essay attempts to sound out the prefix “hyper” in Morton’s conceptualization through, rather than against, the speculative reality of apocalyptic imagination.

An elemental dwelling: the solar balloon and attuning to the powers of air

Bronislaw Szerszynski, Lancaster University & Sasha Engelmann, University of Oxford

In this paper we use the solar balloon as a philosophical device for exploring air as element. A solar balloon is a balloon that is lifted and animated when it and its contained air are warmed by the sun. Through a phenomenological account of a 24-hour solar-balloon-making workshop with the artist Tomas Sareceno, we explore the materiality, technicity and sociality of balloon-making and balloon repair, balloon-launching and balloon-tracking. We see how the aerostat demonstrates how Being appears not in the lichtung, the empty clearing of Heidegger’s Dasein, but in the maternal embrace of “air, this there, which gives itself boundlessly and without demonstration, ever unfurled-unfurling, and in which everything will come to presence and into relation” (Irigaray 1999), in an atmosphere that is both material and affectual (Ingold forthcoming). The surprising event of aerostatic being will enable us to not just feel the wind, but to join with it, as we travel with the eye and the mind, or with our own bodies, on the ground, or up in the air. By making, filling, launching and tracking a solar balloon we will see the air’s own powers made explicit. The solar balloon in its motion will make visible the gradients, motions and torsions that together make up air as element – the orderly and the chaotic, the gentle and the violent, that are all at once accidental and essential to its being.   In air, “the gods pass us by, weightless, insubstantial, flanking non-existence, evanescent spirits; the least wrinkle in the air will chase them away” (Serres 2008). Yet a solar balloon, if cared for, readily transmits the wrinkles and turbulence of air to human hands and bodies. Through the act of bringing a solar balloon to aerostatic life, human and non-human bodies can become attuned and sensitive to each other (Despret 2004), and to the enfolding element. But the solar balloon, the most fragile of balloons in its coming into being, will also enable us to think not just about our relation to the balloon and to the air, but also the air’s relation to itself, to the objects that are immersed in it, and to the solar excess that drives its endless expenditure.

The Last Snail: Loss, Hope and Care for the Future

Thom van Dooren, University of New South Wales

Hawai‘i is one of the extinction capitals of the world. Amongst a wide range of threatened taxa, the islands’ forest species – including many plants, birds and snails – have been particularly vulnerable to extinction. This paper focuses on snails, and in particular the work of a group of dedicated scientists who have set up a “snail ark” in an effort to hold onto some of these disappearing species. What forms of hope animate projects like this one that aim to ‘bank’ biodiversity? What modes of loss do they imagine and perhaps stem? Taking up Eben Kirksey’s call for “modest forms of biocultural hope” and Maria Puig’s reflections on care as a grounded project that is simultaneously affective, ethical and practical, this paper explores the conservation possibilities of an understanding of hope as “care for the future”.

Selfish Shellfish: Oyster Knowledge, Practice, and Nature in the Anthropocene

Mariko Yoshida, Australian National University

In this paper, I offer an ethnographic analysis of temporalities, materialities, and relationaalities between human and oyster. How do oysters act on, and through, human subjects, and what might this mean for a thinking of posthuman subjectivity? The paper attempts to tackle particularly the Pacific oyster (Crassostrea gigas), as a species endemic from Japan and presently the most widely farmed oyster in the world. While it represents 80% of the total world production of edible oysters, the potential risk of oyster larval mortality due to ocean acidification in the northeast Pacific Ocean region has been significant. With this in mind, in this paper, I focus on multispecies’ entanglement in Kesennuma Bay of northeast Japan as a social landscape, drawing upon the concept of “satoumi” – marine and coastal landscapes that have been formed and maintained by prolonged interaction between humans and ecosystems. How does the Japanese idea of the nature/culture relation epitomized by satoumi – which has been idealized as a symbiotic, harmonious landscape – affect the propagation of the ideology of mass consumption and production of oysters? How does their way of being-in-the-world cause particular behaviours on the oyster farming associated with the local farmers’ rootedness in place, facing the potential risk of ocean acidification? In order to understand the interdependent enmeshment in human-oyster relationship, this study intends to analyse the circulation of oysters as commodities and the circulation of environmental knowledge. Rather than the multifarious human actors at play in everyday practices of oyster farming being central agents, this study frees oysters from hitherto endemic peripheral positioning. With this in mind, in this paper, I focus on a discursive shift in the way that the damaged seascape accounts for the new understanding of the interspecies entanglement, asking how humans and nonhumans are inextricably intertwined by political, economic, and cultural forces. Why not examine the world from a post-anthropocentric landscape in which oysters direct the actions of local farmers, marine biologists, distributors, and gourmet consumers in Japan, and reshape the multispecies living space?


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