On Posthuman Ecology and Affective Omnicide: Eros as Excess and Misguided Solution-Building

September 28th, 2019  |  Published in September 2019

On September 4th, I eagerly trekked to the Brooklyn gallery Art in General in order to attend the opening reception of Caitlin Berrigan’s highly anticipated exhibition, “Imaginary Explosion” (running from September 4 through November 11, 2019). Berrigan, a young artist who has recently graduated from MIT’s video art program, and is currently pursuing a PhD-in-Practice from the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna, has recently exhibited her work at an impressive array of institutions including The Whitney, Harvard Carpenter Project, Hammer Museum, UnionDocs and the deCordova Museum. A writer as well, Berrigan is the author of a book by the same name,[1] her literature often concerning the collective closure between cartography and visual art. Thus, I had rather high expectations and, as a writer/theorist with interests in existential risk, myself, I was particularly interested in scoping Berrigan’s philosophically-minded work. Consequently, I expected quite a bit of theoretically-galvanized topological delineation from these video art pieces, with works exploring a fractured set of “geophilosophies” including ecological issues, planetary risk and transfuturist eco-feminist fissures.

Berrigan’s work is, most certainly, prompted by our epochal concern of omnicide: the term for the thorough and complete annihilation of the earth. In the gallery, a set of projected videos, oriented as a multimedia constellation in sculptural fashion, weave a trellis through constructed intertextual geometries that exchange organic artifacts—snail shells, sedimentary geology, ocean topographies—for constructed virtual landscapes. Intricately configured, these mapped objects flow and flux through each other, setting a delicate balance between artifact and artifice. Nonetheless, these works are more so ornamental, framing Berrigan’s more immediately “transfeminist” articles.

 

One of Berrigan’s more narrative works is that of a set of episodic science fiction videos that narrate the tale of two female scientists operating as researchers of the mineral desires of the earth using the simultaneously pixel-sputtering volcanoe-eruptions as indices to guide their analysis. Surveying myriad of barren geological sites with (fabricated) technoscientific instruments donned under the umbrella of military and corporate power, these two scientists attempt to prod into alternative future cosmologies tinged by a romantic climate reparation quite disparate from today’s haunting corporate-led implosions. The scientists lapse into succulent kisses, medium shots of their entwined lips, foregrounded by hoary smog, translating desire into a geo-sexual vantage.

 

At its most promising, Berrigan’s narrative work can be instrumentalized as a means with which to forward the “Gaia hypothesis,” which configures the earth’s coordinates as biologically bound, the biosphere understood as a homeostatic and allometric regulating device (the Earth’s equilibrium-impulse made technical through the human gaze). This “Gaia hypothesis,” based on the Greek story of Gaia, theorizes the Earth as a living organism that is capable of self-regulation, with poetic renditions (such as Berrigan’s) translating the magnetic iron core and central nexus of gravity as an emotional pillar upon which to situate “gravitational attraction” and “magnetism” as a complete emotional metaphor. At its worst, Berrigan’s narrative work relies upon vaguely plucked and wholly fabricated technics, such as the devices wielded by these scientists (e.g. an ambiguous solar-panel device used to “inspect the matrix on the ground,” as narrated by one of the protagonist scientists), so as to resolve a collective effort while culling eros as a deux ex machina, so as to absolve the variegated problems prompted by omnicide via pure affect (sensation).

 

Mine is not a critique of transfeminism but, moreso, a critique of a kind of “post-capitalist” argument that attempts to prompt technical individuation without capitalist coordinates, entirely ignorant to how co-opting social technologies to elevate new affective relationships can readily lapse into the all-to-easy translation of (fantasy and fantastical) life into industry, or corporate exploitation. There is, in Berrigan’s work, a lack of historical cleavaging between labour, energy and cybernetic information processes, as, instead, environment, technology and mind are nested into the ecosystem as a reticulated media object. I fail to see how these self-determining “media artifacts” posed by this pair of “future scientists” prompt anything beyond the ‘Biosphere 2 project’–-a project (bolstered by Steven Bannon) in Arizona that seeks to grow commercial crops in CO2-rich atmospheres—or sentiments such as those of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently told diplomats at a meeting of the Arctic Council in Finland that the rapidly warming Arctic region will present abundant economic opportunities for offshore resources like gas, oil, uranium, gold, and rare earth minerals. Bannon’s initiative, Pompeo’s baleful fortune-mining and the unfolding of Berrigan’s scientists’ lesbianism are all premised on the ecosystem’s failure, or on ‘disaster capitalism’.[2]

Berrigan’s work is determined by a philosophical flaw that colors much of posthumanist-cum-transhumanist discourse. Neutral definitions of posthumanism, such as Thomas Philbeck’s,[3] assert that the posthumanist premise simply maintains that technology “must become part of the first principles that constitute the ‘human,’” meaning that the immaterial subject and material world can no longer be fundamentally distinct.[4] However, given that prostheticity is necessarily pharmacological[5] and that “every pharmakon is prosthetic,”[6] the posthuman modality is not derived from the technization of Being, or “adaptive finitization,” but, instead, from the threat of a new pharmacological dimension. Consequently, Berrigan’s “unbounded posthumanism” marks a discontinuity with the legislative demands prompted by rising water levels, climate change and the biological conception of the human as an agent enfolded within natural processes[7] (or “homo sapiens as an evolutionary natural species”). Through the invocation of transfeminist aesthetics (including the close-up shared kiss, the keenly-rendered science fiction “post-biological” topology of the virtual biome, or these “all-resolving” technics), Berrigan quickly undermines sapience as rational agency. It is undoubtable that the posthuman diachronization is relative to technization, rather than any specific technology or continuous technological archaeology: world-solving tools do not transpire as in the tantalizing figuration of Berrigan’s apparatuses but, instead, as collective and strategic world-building. As a supplementary theologizing of the irreducible, or the “spectralization of exchange-value,”[8] Berrigan’s posthumanist premise is that of fetishization and surplus.

Posthumanism, as articulated by N. Katherine Hayles, configures human beings as seamlessly articulated technofetishistic intelligent machines, whereby there exists no difference between robot teleology and human goals—the cybernetic mechanism and the biological organism lapse into one. This is the great absorption of hybridized being over the delineated sign-processes of organization and content. Under posthumanism, intelligence becomes drive-based as it is designed for penetrating bodily orifices with perfected calculability (or “algorithmic governmentality”), flattening that which is structural with what is functional. Consider (outside of the realm of disability studies), for instance, the emphasis on media prostheses of extension and extended vitality. Comparably to Hayles, feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti remarks that this merger, of the human with the technological, results in a newfound symbiotic eco-sophical unity, introducing a generalized ecology that transversally crosses between multiple layers of the compound subject. However, this process of post-anthropocentric biomediated posthumanism displaces radical estrangement with polyvocal virtual possibilities. As Anthropologist Davor Loeffler notes, however, the projected scenarios of a 2°, 3°, or 6° (C) increase of global warming will produce entirely different future worlds. Thus, these scenarios, or process continua, are not virtual, but objective, for “they are the recursive abstraction of the linear continuum condensed in single modules as processes of becoming, which can be coupled and exchanged like objects, as the emissions trading proves.”[9]

This tendency, that colors much of science fiction literature, becomes significantly more concerning when it encroaches within the realm of visual art. When the “maximal productivity” of virtual topography-building, posthumanist media artifacts and geo-sexuality so boldly claims that it “eliminates risk,” it truly discovers a transhumanist core. Thus, we arrive at our contemporary ecological crises, spurred by post-Fordist technization (and of which the 2019 Brazilian Amazon rainforest fires are only the most recent). This technoscientific ideology, driven by accelerated predictive processing foments a mathesis univeralis: a process of inscription that prioritizes the statistical and probabilistic calculation of averages. As demonstrated by fields such as “predictive biology” and “emerging biotechnology,” transhumanism lays claim to materializing and biologizing synthesis. In turn, the treatment of information becomes prosthetic, reintegrative, and “post-biological.” Various modes of postbiological evolution have been envisioned in fictional and discursive contexts, usually emphasizing cyborgization or technological singularity. The postbiological convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive science (NBIC) is often intended to improve human performance, with markers emphasizing radical life extension, mind uploading, cognitive/moral bioenhancement, and the modification of hostile environments. The postbiological description of “widely distributed,” “energy-efficient” biocomputing and a “technosphere” woven into the biosphere—including grass, marine flora, coral reefs, as in Berrigan’s virtual world(s)—asserts a kind of all-too-facile “bio-justice” that is not simply “civilizational” but prosthetic and superficial.

Posthumanism that attempts to reconcile the two of the radical dyad of technology and the animal (by way of proposing some sort of a resolution of the opposition) can be reduced to an understanding of the “hybrid,” or a unified duality. As such, the intellect holds a superior and exploitative positio  n vis-à- vis its prelingual counterpart, the body. This conception, as prompted by Rosi Braidotti and Katherine Hayles is ignorant to the residual humanism of the posthuman, which attempts to moralize technology, and subjectivity’s offspring is so often remiss that, in order to account for this internal lack, it (re)facilitates excess as sexuality. No longer does on-screen lesbianism fit the call for productive legislative demands (as demonstratively evinced by LGBTQ protests in the mid-to-late twentieth century) asserted by the postanthropocenric and philosophical scientific turn grounding contemporaneous environmental catastrophe(s). As such, Greta Thunberg is much more critical and exacting an artist than Caitlin Berrigan, whose capitalism is merely cloaked as affect.

–Ekin Erkan

[1] Caitlin Berrigan, Imaginary Explosion (Berlin: Broken Dimanche Press, 2019).

[2] For a more expansive philosophical discussion on “disaster capitalism”, see: Ekin Erkan, “Control societies and machine ecology”, Cultural Studies (Sep. 2019), https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2019.1665694 ; Ekin Erkan, “Psychopower and Ordinary Madness: Reticulated Dividuals in Cognitive Capitalism,” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol 15, No 1 (2019) .

[3] Thomas Philbeck is the Head of Science and Technology Studies, World Economic Forum Geneva.

[4] Thomas D. Philbeck, “Ontology,” in Post- and Transhumanism. An Introduction, ed. by Robert Ranisch and Stefan Lorenz Sorgner (Frankfurt a.M.: Peter Lang, 2014), 173-84, 178.

[5] A pharmakon is both poison and cure, meaning that it introduces newfound repressions and the possibility of elevating new subject-positions.

[6] Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living, (London: Polity Press, 2013), 108.

[7] David Roden, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014), 116.

[8] Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (2006), 251

[9] Davor Loeffler, ‘Distributed Potentiality’, Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, vol. 15, no. 1-2, 2018, p. 38.

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