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Posthuman Feminism with Rosi Braidotti

February 25, 2016

by Victoria Wiet, English and Comparative Literature, PhD ’17 and 2015 – 16 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

                On February 18, Rosi Braidotti delivered her talk “Posthuman Feminism” to a packed crowd, many of whom sat on the floor and stood in the hallway in order to hear her speak. Currently Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, Braidotti is perhaps Europe’s foremost feminist philosopher.

            Braidotti began by outlining the method that informs her approach to the concept of the “posthuman.” She aligned her analysis with what Michel Foucault terms “genealogy,” a way of analyzing the present by reconstructing “how we got here” through identifying the multiple and often contradictory traditions of thought which come together in our current understanding of a concept. For Braidotti, current scholarly interest in the posthuman extends the critique of humanism associated with the biggest names in 20th century philosophy: Theodor Adorno, Jean-Paul Sartre, Gilles Deleuze and Foucault, among others.

                  Yet, Braidotti’s genealogy doesn’t only consist of continental philosophy and critical theory. For Braidotti, post-colonial and critical race theory, and especially feminist critique, illuminate how certain kinds of bodies have historically been excluded from the category of the “Human” and, moreover, challenge the notion of a universal “Humanity” by emphasizing the different ways embodiment is experienced. She expanded her genealogy still further through reference to non-academic cultural and social movements like punk, second-wave feminism, and David Bowie, all of which respond to the exclusiveness of the category of the Human by “opting out” from the species altogether. Though I’m an avid reader of French critical theory, and though I am consistently captivated by what Braidotti calls the “vitriolic, satirical” energy of second-wave feminism and am a longstanding Bowie fan, it never quite occurred to me how these three separate cultural formations occurred during the same historical moment.

            In her lecture, Braidotti paired the term “posthumanism” with the term “post-anthropocentrism.” Just as women, people of color, and bodies marked by other forms of difference have been excluded from humanity, so too have non-anthropod organisms, such as animals and even the global environment. Yet, for Braidotti, the posthuman and post-anthropocentric are distinct terms with quite different genealogies. While the “posthuman” has an expansive and diverse genealogy, “post-anthropocentrism” does not. The legacies of fascist violence have generated extensive critiques of humanism, but the Nazis’ use of biology to justify their genocidal program has discouraged us from thinking biologically, from thinking specifically about ourselves as a species. As Braidotti put it, “Darwin is the missing part of critical theory.” In response to our impoverished vocabulary for thinking critically about species, Braidotti encourages collaboration with scientific modes of intellectual inquiry that wouldn’t simply reproduce a universalizing concept of the human which critical theory has sought to displace.  

            For Braidotti, feminist thought is central to this project. She concluded her talk by considering the ways capitalism in its current form has responded to destabilizations of the category of the Human. This category’s coherence has been undermined by identity politics and post-colonial activism, but also by the speed of technological innovation. Whether in the form of consumer products like smartphones or data-mining surveillance mobilized by counterterrorism, technology has become inextricable from contemporary experiences of embodiment. Capitalism can embrace this epidemic “posthumanism,” or it can reassert humanism through the ideology of “we are all human” or “we’re all in in this together” as exemplified in the United Colors of Benetton advertisements or the “We Are All Africans” campaign. However, by emphasizing the embodied nature of experience, Braidotti argues that feminism highlights and allows us to interrogate how power and difference shape yet are also made invisible by the ways “human” and even “posthuman” currently operate in politics and the marketplace.