johannes klabbers : posthumanist therapy : what to say

 Friday, 11 November 2016

Someone asked if, at an upcoming speaking engagement, I would be talking about pastoral work, since that is, apparently, what my book is about. In my own mind, it’s not what my book is about, not really. Neither is it about people in a cancer hospital or about a guy who gives up a tenured position as an academic to go and volunteer in a hospital and who gets frustrated pushing the shop trolley around the wards because he is not allowed to talk to people about what it means to be in the hospital. And it's not a book about cancer. My friend Scott Howie put it like this, This is no cancer journey story but a handbook for how we might be better humans and how we might live a good life and die a better death. If I have achieved that, I am more than happy.

But I wondered if I have anything left to say about pastoral work as such.

There is so much important work being done and to be done in hospitals, and hospices, on the streets, in refugee camps and in all the other places where there is suffering. But why stop with humans? What about all the non-human beings that are suffering and are being made to suffer by humans? I seriously considered approaching a slaughterhouse and doing pastoral work with animals as they are lead to the slaughterhouse. Just to speak with them for half a minute, a quiet word, a gentle pat, a scratch behind the ear, an apology even. It seems absurd perhaps or sentimental or futile. What would be the point? The point would be the same as the point of an art work, a good one mind you. And they are rare.

What is the nexus between pastoral work and what I purport to be doing now, which I call (for the want of better words) ‘therapy’ and ‘posthumanist’ - not necessarily in that order?

When I was in Poland recently at the Unsound Festival (who were kind enough to invite me to be the official resident therapist at the Festival) I thought/felt that what I was doing there was perilously close to art! And I have to think through carefully why I thought that. There was a symbolic function to what I was doing. I was reminded, on the train to Warsaw when I woke up and opened the curtain to find myself in the middle of Berlin Hauptbahnhof, of the ‘performance’ I did at Ostbahnhof back in 2002 when I was still making art. There is video footage of that somewhere.

We should all be therapists and pastoral workers, because all of us are broken, in some way - and the political system is broken and humanity as a whole is broken.

Furthermore we find ourselves in, what is to all intents and purposes, a secular vacuum. God is dead, we’ve known that for a long time, even if some of us are taking longer to realise it than others. (I know that everyone is analysing everything in terms of the result of the US election right now but what is interesting there is that the president-elect is not a bible basher, his is a secular vision, of sorts. Unfortunately free market capitalism is the altar at which we are now once again being invited to pray - and it is firmly located in the church of individualism.)

I refer to the work I do with people now as ‘posthumanist’ but it could just as easily be called ‘post-individualist’. I am interested in what happens if we begin to think beyond humans and humanity, and beyond the individual, beyond the ‘i’.

I tend to conflate humanism and the enlightenment when I speak about what concerns me and this is, of course, an error but in her book The Posthuman (Polity, 2013) Rosi Braidotti writes:

For me it is impossible, both intellectually and ethically, to disengage the positive elements of humanism from their problematic counterparts: individualism breeds egotism and self-centredness; self-determination can turn to arrogance and domination; and science is not free from its own dogmatic tendencies.

The problems that humans face, both collectively and individually, are of their own making, that much is clear. My question is, what would it mean to think/feel like posthumans? - note: not ‘non-humans’ with all its negative connotations, like ‘inhuman’ or ‘transhumans’, with its implications of transcending.

What would it mean to think post-individually? That is, not to give up thinking of ourselves as individuals which would be impossible - and absurd. This is not a binary, it is not either/or thinking, this is not about this rather than that, this is about thinking what is beyond, what would become possible if you were able to adopt, what is called in quantum theory, a super position which is what forms the basis of quantum computers. There a bit is not either zero or one, on or off, but both. What if it is was possible not to think of others instead of ourselves, or vice versa, but about both at the same time. There are innumerable examples of boundaries because it suits the way our culture encourages human minds and sensibilities and technologies and sciences and the way that the resources in the world are organised and allocated, to think in terms of binaries.

So it is a conversation about freedom and ethics. Individual and collective freedom, but not just for humans. I say ‘posthuman’ because I would like to know what happens when we think beyond the ‘man’ vs ‘nature’ binary, the ‘humans’ vs ‘everything else which is not human’ binary. To think of the world and everything in it which is not us, which is not ‘me’, as being out to get us, to kill us, to humiliate us, is part of the same continuum. We judge those humans who find themselves unable to function in this scenario as disabled or mentally ill, as not having a sufficient sense of ego, a robust enough sense of self - again this binary.

We cannot know what a rock is. We cannot know what a rock ‘thinks’ but can we imagine it? Are we able to feel it? A rock has an inside which is only known to it. Can we imagine this knowledge? The fact vs fantasy binary. What is real vs what is not. The constant battle of what matters vs what does not matter. I matter, you don’t. We matter, that doesn’t. This is more important than that.

Is it possible to move beyond this? This is how posthumanism, post-individualism, post-realism could be. Perhaps post-binary is a better way of thinking about it. It matters what something is called because words matter but we could spend the next several centuries arguing about what it should be called. That’s another thing humans love to do. I called it therapy - although strictly speaking the conversations that we have may or may not have, may or may not have a therapeutic effect. You can also just think of it as work. It is an on-going practice. It is praxis. It is beginning to put into practice the ideas that arise, the theory that develops - and it includes and connects many things, feminism, new materialism, object oriented ontology, agential realism (or insert your favourite ism here).

Nietzsche says a thing about leaves, in On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense (1873) each leaf is unique, yet there is only one word ‘leaf’. The clever beasts that invented knowing ought to have a different word for each leaf that exists. But they don’t, because clearly that would make language impossible. Thus language is always inaccurate, is always an approximation.