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Rosi Braidotti on the Posthuman (Part 1!)


In this episode, Eleanor chats to Rosi Braidotti, one of the leading philosophers of our time. Her pioneering theory of posthumanism is a way of thinking that she believes is key to understanding the posthuman condition within which we all exist. We are releasing this conversation in two parts. In this first part, she explains how to embrace the crises and possibilities of advanced capitalism, what it means for NASA to choose Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man as one of its logos, and why colonising outer space risks repeating the worst features of terrestrial capitalism. Look out for the bonus episode for the second half of this interview, which will be released very soon.


Professor Rosi Braidotti is a contemporary continental philosopher and feminist theorist. She is currently Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University, where she has taught since 1988. She was been awarded honorary degrees from Helsinki (2007) and Linkoping (2013); she is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (FAHA) since 2009, and a Member of the Academia Europaea (MAE) since 2014. Her main publications include Nomadic Subjects (2011) and Nomadic Theory (2011), both with Columbia University Press, and The Posthuman (2013) and Posthuman Knowledge (2019) with Polity Press. In 2016, she co-edited Conflicting Humanities with Paul Gilroy, and The Posthuman Glossary in 2018 with Maria Hlavajova, both with Bloomsbury Academic.


Transcript


KERRY MACKERETH:

Hi! We're Eleanor and Kerry. We're the hosts of The Good Robot podcast, and join us as we ask the experts: what is good technology? Is it even possible? And what does feminism have to bring to this conversation? If you wanna learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a specially curated reading list with work by, or picked by, our experts. But until then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the episode.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Today, I’m speaking with Rosi Braidotti, one of the leading Philosophers of our time and a Distinguished Professor at Utrecht University. Her pioneering theory of posthumanism is a way of thinking that she believes is key to understanding the posthuman condition within which we all exist. Thinking with posthumanism is a way of working through the contradictions of the Fourth Industrial Age, surrounded and embroiled as we are with incredible, life-changing technologies, but plagued by the huge costs and damages of this era, which has resulted in the Sixth great Extinction, with entire species and ecologies disappearing before our eyes. Her radical critique of centering the human in everything we do and build is grounded in feminist and continental philosophy. In her latest book, Posthuman Knowledge, She argues that the human was never a neutral category but one always linked to power and privilege; hence we must attend to the sexualized and racialized others that were excluded from humanity. We are releasing this conversation in two parts. In this first part, she explains how to embrace the crises and possibilities of advanced capitalism, what it means for NASA to choose Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian man as one of its logos, and why colonising outer space risks repeating the worst features of terrestrial capitalism. Look out for the bonus episode for the second half of this interview, which will be released very soon. I hope you enjoy the show.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Hello, it's a pleasure to be speaking with you today. Can you tell us about yourself, what you do and what brings you to the topic of gender and technology?


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

Hello, I'm Rosi Braidotti from Utrecht University where I've taught for many years, setting up the Women's Studies and then Gender Studies programmes, and then concentrating more on issues of feminist theory in relationship to technobodies, and the coming of very invasive, pervasive technologies. As a continental philosopher, I'm interested in how they constitute subjectivity, and how they allow us - or not - to develop a relational ethics. So I'm interested in human, non-human, posthuman, ethical and political implications of these technologies.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Fantastic. So our podcast is called the good robot. And we'd like to ask you our billion dollar question, what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how do we work towards it?


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

Of course it's possible and I am very much a technophilic person. I love technologies and I think there has been long traditions in both feminism and in sort of traditional cultures of women and other marginal people, whereby technology has proved useful and liberatory. I mean, there was never a moment where we humanoids didn't use sticks and stones and other devices to get by - animals do it too, by the way. So I think the distinction [between] technology, culture and human nature needs to be revised and there's been movements in the last 40-50 years saying we have to redefine the human and human relationships with technology as the link. The political culture of the left of which feminism in Europe is a very major component has a difficult relationship to technologies and to robots, and the Luddite rebellions way back are symptomatic of this. Automation and robotics are seen as potentially hostile to human labour, and there are connections between the sexualized and racialized naturalised others - women, LBGT people, indigenous Black colonised people, and the non-human world - and a connection between them and technology, as an instrument that potentially can make their fate worse, even worse. So the big issue is that good robots need to confront the fact that humans are not all humans in the same way, to the same extent, and that there are really enormous differences of power and entitlement in terms of being humans, which makes a lot of humans de-humanized or not fully human. And consequently, they have a very ambivalent relationship to the robot. On the one hand, the robot is also not human, so it can be a great friend. And you'll get that in older, traditional feminist and science fiction, in afrofuturism, whether the robot is another non human, buddy and ally. And on the other hand, completely the opposite, you get this idea that this is a piece of instrumental reason, of scientific rationality, an instrument of advanced capitalism, and consequently an enemy. And I think that tension between the two, and sort of the alliance of the non-humans and the fear of the dehumanised humans, towards technology that is structural, in certainly feminist cultures, anti-racist cultures, and anti-fascist cultures. So it's a creative tension with the left historically taking a position against technology. And I see contemporary feminism as correcting that and trying to move a step further. So yes, good robots are possible, but some negotiations are necessary.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

So feminism ban has this conflicted relationship with technology, but we hear a lot about how technology is being built to reconstruct old ideas about gender. And I think that in your work, and in the conversations that we've had you've pushed out a bit further to say that it's reconstructing really old ideas about gender, kind of pre-suffragette times. Can you expand on that?


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

It's a complex set of data set of premises because if you're looking at the social history of technologies, there are really clear historical moments where the social imaginary narrates the technologies in very different terms, and in my early books on this I'm thinking Metamorphosis way back in times of cyber feminism and the 90s, you see clearly in the classic films like Metropolis, which has been analysed over and over again, the good robot Maria leading the revolution and also threatening the future at the same time - this destruction ambivalence - but in modernity, it is clear that technology is sexualized is, genderized and the robot is female, the robot is the car, look at the train, it's all symbols of high modernity, there would be no Russian revolution without that train, there will be no Second World War and deportation of millions of people without trains, there is a whole genderisation of the social imaginary of technology in high modernity, that is very different from what we have today. In high modernity, the technological other is another, it is sexualized as other, it is dichotomized as other, it is threatening and attractive as other, and the gender system is in full deployment. And there the feminine is both some sort of future for humanity and some excessive element that escapes scientific reason. Now, we are not in that phase at all. I think what is typical of advanced postmodernity or contemporary capitalism, if you prefer, is that technology has really come a lot closer and to us, they are invasive, immersive, all-pervasive technologies. Look at us today, we have them in our ears, in our eyes. They’re connecting us: you cannot really mark a point or dialectical demarcation between the human and the technological other, it’s far more rhizomatic. Advanced capitalism is post-binary it is schizophrenic as Deleuze and Guattari wrote way back in 1972, and that all pervasive kind of non-dialectical relation to technologies makes them a little bit more complicated to deal with. Because then, you know, where are the points of demarcations and what happens to gender in a system like this? And I think the idea that - already we were talking about this a couple a couple of decades ago - that advanced capitalism undoes gender, that it multiplies it over a thousand plateaus of little genders, legal sexes, and again, I'm quoting the Deleuze and Guattari but I'm also quoting, Deleuzian feminism, New Materialist feminism, all of my buddies in Posthuman Feminism and we are well beyond the two genders. This is a multiplication of genders across the board. All because, the functional technology, advanced technology, the digital, the electronic is to re- define, re-territorialise the human, we get multiplied over a thousand plateaus of possible sexuation and certainly genderisation so this is the enormous, disruptive, revolutionary potential of technologies and people that do biohacking or transfeminism or Gaga Feminism as Halberstam calls it, explore and exploit the liberatory potential of this type of immersive technology that explodes the gender system. And that's an incredible potential, incredible, exciting prospect. The problem is that this more transgressive, I would call them almost revolutionary multiplication of genders, does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in a world where the gender system is a binary, is a massive instrument of governance. And advanced capitalism is a totally double discourse on this because they know that dividing humanity into two genders makes it really governable, I mean you can divide and conquer forever. So there is a complete contradiction built in and where you see this very clearly, for me is the in the transhumanist project of Elon Musk, that is, you know, beyond the human with his exploration of Mars, with SpaceX and the private enterprises, investing billions for NASA to go into outer space. But when they go to outer space, which we plan to be doing by 2026 with the first human colony on the moon, who are we going to send out there? A man and a woman. And so there is a reinscription of the classical gender system at the back of a massive explosion and multiplication of genders and sexes. And I think that tension is for me, a defining feature of this posthuman convergence, which is made of incredible paradoxes, which we - critical thinker, feminist anti-racist people - need analyse very lucidly, and absolutely make interventions upon them because we cannot have new colonisation about a space repeating the worst features of terrestrial capitalism that would be a terrestrial patriarchy replicating itself on outer space. That's a bad science fiction novel. We can write better ones, we have written better ones in feminism actually


ELEANOR DRAGE:

We have indeed, my PhD was in science fiction written by women, and people are still …


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

Good for you! And Afrofuturism, the vision of the future that we get, the incredible imaginative strength of the so-called oppressed. I mean, the creative potentials of those who have never been considered fully human is extraordinary. It's quite true that the centre self-replicates and all the energy is on the margin. Totally true.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

So we've gone beyond then, the human, and yet we are still invested in the perfect human, this idealised Vitruvian Man which you have on the front cover of your book, The Posthuman. So, what has Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man then got to do with why technology can be harmful to particular groups, you know, why technology is still invested in these ideas and how that affects particular groups and individuals?


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

So you know, that that image of the Vitruvian Man has been designed in the patch of the astronauts for the NASA programmes, and it is sewed upon the astronauts suits, it is the image, the image of humanity in outer space and the Renaissance idea of da Vinci, perfect, the perfect proportion, is the architectural golden mean, it's, it's really almost a kind of a synopsis of humanism, and it is also beautiful, there's no question of that, but it is a very, very specific culture, specific time specific [missing word]-centric, masculinist, ableist image of the human, and it excludes enormous kind of categories of humans, my critique of humanism has been pretty standard in the sense of feminism, and particularly poststructuralist feminism, that the human is a term that indexes exclusions and the humanism is, in fact, a hierarchical system that defines a man, the human in terms of all those that don't make it, in the whether they are the sexualized, racialized or naturalised others as I said before, so it is a very exclusionary image, and it is at the centre of the transhumanist project, because I think that the contemporary version of dominant posthumanism is transhumanism, which is the ethos of advanced capitalism, at the centre of that ambiguity that I've already been talking about, in the sense that the transhumanist, I'm thinking Nick Bostrom in Oxford, but we can think Elon Musk, or we can think Silicon Valley actually as a whole, the ethos is human enhancement, for a very good purpose and know we are enhancing the human so that we can continue to grow and evolve and keep up with very advanced technologies which we have developed. But because of machine self-learning, AI, and smart objects of all kinds, the computational systems are faster than our old neural system. So some repair job is necessary. And we have human intelligence and super intelligence and all of these grandiose projects. And, and again, some evolutionary logic and process is clearly ongoing. Anybody who has attempted to play a computer game with a four year old will know that this is a different species. By the time I've figured out the rules, they've already played the entire championship. So this acceleration that Michel Serres analyses very cleverly in Thumbelina: The Culture and Technology of Millennials (Petite Poucette) whereby the brains of the younger generation have been wired differently, which also gives us you know, different pathologies, an increase in some form of dyslexia, a collapse of grammar and punctuation and spelling, immediately evolution is full of pitfalls and challenges, but an evolution is ongoing. So I don't see why we need transhumanist enhancement projects to accelerate it even further. And there is a part of me as a female of the species as a gay woman, as a radical, as a socialist, that is slightly concerned saying, okay, who decides, who gets to be enhanced through what means and for what purpose but the transhumanists have both a pro-humanist angle, they're normatively human, they want to improve and protect the human but analytically, they're totally post-anthropocentric. They know that the machines are faster. John Lovelock in the beautiful book that he wrote for his 100 birthday, called the Novacene, says it quite clearly: the future of the humans is a cyborg and the robots, may they be kind to us. Because the only chance that we have is that they will take pity upon us. My concern is not - there's a little bit of a narrative that Lovelock has there, a bit of science fiction - but what is missing from his account, apart from the fact that all the people that would be excluded from it, but what is fundamentally missing is all the environmental elements. And if so, what have we got here, we have Elon Musk going on Mars, with a whole transhumanist programme, and back on Earth, we have a planet that is depleted by the climate change and, Elon Musk is very ruthless when he talks about planet Earth. He says there are no resources there, the planet is exhausted, it is my responsibility for the future generations to go and get resources from outer space. And we all know that outer space is about mining, it's about bringing down resources, there is a law that President Trump passed, and John Biden confirmed, allowing mining in intergalactic other planets, it’s a new international law that would take resources from outer space. This is not science fiction, it's advanced capitalism going outside the boundaries of our planet. And so when I look at things like this, my concern is, but what about this planet? Is there a commitment to the sustainability of planet Earth and the Earthlings, or are you transhumanists already saying old model, we go out for the new model, there is here a logic of sacrifice that worries me. So okay, you know, the evolution fine, the good robots, but can we look after what we've got here, and I can imagine a new political party coming out, the Earthlings saying we want to take care of this particular planet and, stop mining it to death, taking care of planetary care. And I can also imagine, with - Susie Orbach already wrote about it - a party of people who say ‘I want to be dis-bodied’. And this, and our debate in cyber feminism, whether it is proud to be flesh, or whether it is wanting to be cyborg. And I think proud to be just a human in some ways may become an issue here. And but this would be a posthumanist type of defence of the human against that dominant ideology of transhumanism that worries me, if that distinction is clear.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Yes, there's something about though, the human as it stands, and as it continues to be reproduced in industry, in … when we're creating new technologies, that pushes forward this idea that we have always been human, that there is something about our human essence that needs to be protected. But yet you have people like Jane Bennett, the feminist posthumanists, who emphasise the agency of non-human matter, and how those processes are implicated in the way that we are human, you know, there's N. Katherine Hayles talking about all the non-human cognizes that allow for human cognition. So then, how can we understand what it means to be an autonomous subject, you know, this thing that the transhumanists are so obsessed with: protecting human autonomy, when for example, now there are humans working so closely in tandem with AI like customer service agents, working with chatbots? Where is human autonomy there? And do we really need to be thinking in terms of autonomy? I feel like we've moved beyond that in feminism. We've gone to this relational ethics. Why should we go back there?


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

Great question and you named wonderful feminist scholars and great scholars. Bennett, Hayles, fantastic, and we could throw in Haraway, there's a whole tradition of posthuman feminism where, indeed, the notion of autonomy is, shall we say, repurposed. The reason why I can't say reject is that that notion of autonomy based on Kantian principles of transcendental rationality, consciousness, with an inbuilt moral compass, the triad moral goodness, reason, beauty, which is the light man in a nutshell, which is a noble, glorious ideal, which however, needs to look at carefully in terms of both the inclusion and the exclusions as I said before, and in terms of what it has produced historically, it needs to be assessed in the light of what the Enlightenment has made possible and not. All of that, I think, supports an idea of autonomy that feminism has always criticised. But it has also been mixed. There is a cultural divide here, there is an Anglo-American bloc really, that takes autonomy as a distinctive feature of liberal individualism and takes liberal individualism as the key to emancipation and freedom from John Stuart Mill running through to Gloria Steinem, to Hillary Clinton, glorious, all of that, but it is not the tradition that I feel particularly at home with because that liberal individualism model and a Kantian idea of citizenship is incredibly exclusionary. It left women out from the first French Revolution. I think women got citizenship after the Second World War really. It leaves LBGT people in the lurch, and it leaves the black colonised indigenous people out. I think that the most cogent critiques of autonomy and liberal individualism do come from the sexualized, racialized others. At the moment, I'm reading a great deal of indigenous theories because of my Australian life as well. And I think it's in indigenous philosophy - because they're very ancient philosophies of the Earth - that you see the primacy of relation, the relational ethics element you already mentioned, which is so central to the philosophies that I do as a continental philosopher, we have relational theories, you know, we have perspectives, and multi-natural theories, from from Leibniz, Spinoza, theories where it's multi-perspective, and it's not one Cartesian then Kantian individual with a transcendent reason that governs cognition, moral behaviour and aesthetic perception. No, it is a more distributed, relational entity in contact with a myriad of others. I think Leibniz in particular, re-read with a Deleuze book, wonderful book called The Fold [Leibniz and the Baroque] that is very, very compatible with indigenous perspectives where the perspective is everything I'm thinking Viveiros de Castro, [Deborah] Bird Rose, I'm thinking Kim Tallbear etc. etc., a whole generation of thinkers where everything is in the relation, the problem is in our worldview, we have proposed the Western autonomous individual, the coloniser to these other systems, which have been completely sidelined as animistic, primitive, pre-rational, non-scientific, there's been a dismissal of all of this, which is coming back to haunt us now, as the planet hits a terminal climate crisis. And, to take the example of Australia, Aborigines have lived in that country for 70,000 years, and they kept it going, Whites have been there for 200 and bits and it’s depleted, the resources are depleted. And so who is here, then, the wise subject of knowledge, and who is being ignorant and arrogant about the sustainability of the earth.


So autonomy is - we need to deal with it because it's a dominant, legal, and to a certain extent, moral system, it's important to the great liberal feminism of great thinkers like Martha Nussbaum would be an example. And I have enormous respect, I think she’s an incredible thinker, but that it's not the tradition that I would defend coming in from continental philosophy, where we have hermeneutic naturalism, that is to say perspectivism, that is to say, relational ethics going way back and I would mention [Denis] Diderot, in the 18th century as as a hermeneutic naturalist and non-essentialist naturalist and and we need natural philosophy philosophies of life to deal with what is happening to our environment. And a notation was I cannot not say if these philosophies of life have had a patched and complex history in continental philosophy, parts of them in the early part of the 20th century happened to [Friedrich] Nietzsche, happened to [Henri] Bergson, got implicated into the organic holism of European fascism, they were either directly complicit, or indirectly so, and so that the philosophies of life became also philosophies of death. And after the Second World War, my generation was raised without them. We were raised with Freud and Marx, that is to say, social constructivist philosophy to oppose the proto-fascist naturalism of the early part of the 20th century. And I read the post-structuralist philosophers notably the Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault, as philosophers that actually de-Nazifi European philosophy. You know, Foucault says that in his famous introduction to the Anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari: here is a relational ethical system that did not de-Nazifis European philosophy. And to complete this, the real Nazi of European philosophy is Heidegger, a Nazi who never repented, and he has been kept on the curriculum, whereas others, Nietzsche as an example, have not. So there is something here about an imbalance about continental philosophy’s relationship to historical fascism that I think we need to settle, and I think we need to look at, because if Heidegger is taught, then we have to teach seriously Nietzsche and some of the others who fell into the wrong hands. And this is precisely the operation of Gilles Deleuze, who writes a series of books, cleaning up these philosophies of life, his book on Nietzsche is extraordinary, the book on Leibniz, and his book on Bersgon, where he says, we can take the naturalism minus the fascism. And that alone is an incredible contribution to not only continental philosophy, but to thinking of subjects, outside autonomy, but still with moral and ethical responsibility. That's, I think, the punchline.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

I think this is a brilliant moment to rehabilitate, carefully, what we want from these wonderful texts, and be able to reread them in a way that is, is attendant to the risks, while also bringing forward their power to shape the problems that we're trying to resolve in the present. And I'm so glad you brought up Kim Tallbear and indigenous ways of knowing because, like Kim, you know, Gregory Cajete have shown that we need to look also at indigenous epistemologies when we answer these questions of what do ethical engagements with non-humans look like. You know feminism has an amazing way of being seriously myopic when we answer these questions, and we think it's brand new and of course it completely isn’t.


ROSI BRAIDOTTI:

Well we are written into social constructivism, I mean, modern feminism really starts with [Simone de Beauvoir] and “one is not born, one becomes a woman”, which we can start an open conversation, but it was fundamental: when when Beauvoir did that she immediately stopped the naturalisation of inequalities. Nature is a term that absolutely justifies inequality. So it's a very suspicious term. And that has been an incredibly important tradition and one that we need to continue to uphold but so ... I'm very critical of social constructivism. I do not think it is gender create sex. I think that is absolutely not true. Scientifically or socially, we can have endless seminars about this. But the crucial thing is to allow alongside this dominant, mostly Anglo-American tradition, a different tradition that is more materialist, more neo-naturalist, but the nature in question is a nature-culture. Even more, its nature-culture media, it's a set of posthuman heterogeneous alliances that allow us to be the subject that we are today: embodied, but the body is of course a social construct, as well as a chunk of meat with its own genetic memory, embedded in social environments, which rely on an ecology and environment which has never taken into account, a relational - and the relation is to human and non-humans - and then non-humans are both organic, animal, plants, and technological, algorithms, codes, networks, thinking all of that, which I called zoe, geo, techno-subjects is a bit of a headache. But you know, we need to raise to the complexity of what we have made possible historically. We cannot think in terms that are so antiquated in relation to what we have become unless we think the way we live we have a problem, a serious problem. So my quarrel with philosophy is: is it possible that every time we think about the subject, we step back for a few minutes to the 18th century, and then we come back to the 21st, and then we carry on. Can we not be synchronised with our complexities? And I would say that's a task for the Humanities to develop the language, the terminology to deal with this complexity within the grammatical structures that we've inherited from the past. Grammar is quite a cage. Lacan used to say for as long as you believe in grammar, you believe in God and in a metaphysical system that functions by dualistic oppositions. We are back to the hierarchies of being, so can we evolve conceptually, instead of making the Humanities a museum of old ideas about a Man that is lovely, but you know, we don't resemble the Vitruvian by any standard, it's a long time ago, and a lot has happened since. So a more kind of creative idea of what we're capable of becoming, I think, very optimistic and very kind of affirmative. But keep in mind some critical lines, I would say.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

Thanks for listening, look out for our bonus episode for the second half of this conversation.


ELEANOR DRAGE:

This episode was made possible thanks to our generous funder, Christina Gaw. It was written and produced by Dr Eleanor Drage and Dr Kerry Mackereth and edited by Laura Samulionyte.


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