Acts of Cession

On our first night of class, Jamie asked us to consider what we cede when we think, incorrectly, that there is anything immaterial about media.  We’d like to raise the question of cession again, this time regarding the decentering of the human in this week’s readings: what interests do our disciplines and scholarship have in maintaining an atomistic rather than a relational understanding of human ontology and epistemology?  What must we cede when we acknowledge that human agency, the human emotive individual, and the human observer are not privileged units in the universe? And, more importantly, what do we gain?

Brennan and Barad both shift the human from center stage, Brennan by calling for an acknowledgement of the transmission of affect that de-privileges the idea that human bodies are independent, emotive individuals, and Barad by forwarding a performative, relational theory of materialization that erases distinctions between human and non-human bodies. Both of these authors situate themselves against older or unsatisfactory schools of thought.  Brennan notes that while social theorists have long accepted that “our thoughts are not entirely independent” there is nevertheless a resistance to the idea “that our emotions are not altogether our own,” a holdover from a Eurocentrist, Western tradition that has led to “many inconsistencies in theories and therapies of the subject” (2).  In making her case, Brennan is careful to note that the porousness of the emotional body does not mean that “there is no distinction between the individual and the environment” (7), but Barad, whose theory extends the porous nature of the human body even further, would disagree.  For Barad, the material distinctions between human and non-human bodies are not given but performed. Bodies (human and non-human) are not things, but relations, phenomena, products of discursive practices that are themselves always material and therefore not unconnected to the matter that they carve out and measure.

Bennett continues the move away from an anthropocentric philosophy through her idea of the vitality of matter: “the capacity of things—edibles, commodities, storms, metals—not only to impede or block the will and designs of humans but also to act as quasi agents or forces with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own” (viii).  She uses Spinoza’s notion of conatus—“an ‘active impulsion’ or trending tendency to persist”—in order to develop this notion, this move toward what she calls “thing-power” (2).  Bennett in some way seems reminiscent of Harman from last week in his calls for an object-oriented philosophy, although it is intriguing that Bennett pointedly rejects the word “object” for its human-centered appropriation, preferring the term “thing” because of the sense of agency it suggests.  As much as the idea of “thingness” calls for a reality where human interests are sidelined, it must be noted that, at the same time she calls for restoring the vitality of things, her motivation for doing so is human interest.  “Why advocate the vitality of matter?  Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption…These material powers, which can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us, in any case call for our attentiveness” (ix, emphasis ours).  From her political ecological perspective, the impetus toward a human de-centered philosophy seems, somewhat paradoxically (or perhaps not: after all, what would the point of a completely un-human philosophy be?) to be completely human-centered: in essence, acknowledge that things can destroy us, or one day, they probably will.

One effect of the move away from an anthropocentric philosophy seems to be a destabilizing of the nature, and very definition, of affect.  Almost every writer this week has a different definition, each granting agency to humans in greater or less degrees.  To Bennett, for instance, affect and materiality are synonymous.  She seems to come to this definition directly through Spinozean philosophy, although the alterations she has made to his idea of affect are important.  For Massumi, “intensity will be equated with affect,” a move that leads us somewhat away from human intentionality, for such a definition would mean that “will and consciousness are subtractive…derived functions that reduce a complexity too rich to be functionally expressed” (29).  To put the two philosophers together, if we do not have direct access to Bennett’s “things”, but only to “thing-power,” the things may nonetheless be influencing humans in manners beyond the normal scope of contemplation.  But can we put them together?  And how do we reconcile the with Brennan’s definition of affect as “the physiological shift accompanying a judgment,” which, in its emphasis on the individual’s “evaluative (positive or negative) orientation toward an object,” seems to integrate conscious, human cognition into each instance of affect?  How do we account for all of these different definitions, and what consequences does each have on humans’ approach to the world?

There is much to consider here.  As we read, we were both struck by the questions and possibilities that arise when one cedes all privilege for the human body.  We both appreciated the ecological thinking that these theories invite, as well as the more general invitation to explore the possibilities of a philosophy of things.  To return to our beginning questions, though, what repercussions does this line of thinking have for media, particularly digital media?  Are media “things,” and therefore answerable to all of the conclusions drawn by these philosophers? And how do the various cessions of the human in these pieces carry implications for our thinking outside of digital media, in our home disciplines or other areas of study?

~ by justinsevenker on September 26, 2010.