Art Books In Conversation
CLAIRE COLEBROOK with Jessica Caroline
Claire Colebrook writes about visual culture, poetry, literary theory, queer theory and contemporary culture. The author of several books on the theory of Gilles Deleuze, including Deleuze: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum, 1997), she most recently completed two books for Open Humanities Press: The Death of the Posthuman and Sex After Life, and has co-authored (with Tom Cohen and J. Hillis Miller) Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols (Open Humanities Press, 2016). She is now completing a book on fragility as it relates to our species, the archive, and the earth. Jessica Caroline spoke with her by email about anthropocentric narratives and current speculations on the future of humanity.
Jessica Caroline (Rail): I wanted to draw your attention to Donna Haraway’s latest book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which articulates the reluctant discussion around population acceleration given its implications regarding race, imperialism, and class. Here is a passage from the footnotes for chapter four, “Making Kin:”
We must find ways to celebrate low birth rates and personal, intimate decisions to make flourishing lives (including innovating enduring kin—kinnovating) without making more babies—urgently and especially, but not only, in wealthy high-consumption and misery-exporting regions, nations, communities, families, and social classes.
Haraway argues that, because earthbound life is becoming increasingly hostile and volatile with climate change, and an increasing number of the population will become refugees without refuge, we ought to think responsibly and imagine new possibilities that are not hopeful nor nihilistic, but that take into account a sense of ongoingness through queering family structures and polyparenting. It’s a striking point that raises questions around gender and our culture of rampant pronatalism. This brings me to the following passage from your book Sex After Life: Essays on Extinction, Vol. Two, on the concept of becoming-woman:
For all the rigidity of gender and notions of woman, surely the 21st century seems to demand that we think beyond woman, rather than beginning with woman as our first step to human freedom. Why, now, would we want to keep talking about a category as tired and flabby as “woman?” And why would we want to take a philosophical corpus, such as Deleuze and Guattari’s with all its energy directed at moving beyond human normality and tie it back—again—to the question of becoming woman. […] What do we do with what remains of the archive: do we stop reading all the works of fiction and cinema that are structured around gender binaries, do we (we theorists or literary critics) place ourselves in a world other than that of a still present and insistent gender binary? Do we avoid the evidence that it is easier to imagine the end of the world and the end of capitalism than it is to imagine the end of gender? Perhaps the problem with Deleuze and Guattari’s affirmation of becoming-woman as the “key to all becomings” was not its dated ’70s radical-feminist hint of sexual politics, but its suggestion that one might and should move from becoming-woman to becoming-imperceptible. It seems that in our post-human, eco-aware, post-liberal, post-capitalist and even post-racial world we still remain firmly gendered.
Where do you see such gendered and apocalyptic narratives on family making and reproduction going from here? Do you think there can be narratives that are not so much emotionally charged as they are pragmatic as Haraway advocates? How might the old chestnut of woman “becoming imperceptible” potentially be a game-changer in terms of gender?
Claire Colebrook: I’ve actually become very influenced by Haraway’s work of late. I’m pretty sure I misread her Cyborg Manifesto when I first read it. She was remarkably prescient in seeing the ways some forms of ecological argument were really fetishizations of human desires for survival. As a quite practical consequence I’ve started rescuing animals—cats and dogs only. But it’s one of the few profound things we can do: new forms of kinship and alliance not based on self-replication and descendance. This, of course, relates to post-apocalyptic culture and the preliminary panic and mourning regarding the loss of a certain type of human existence—the high-consumption, high-production, self-replicating human of late capitalism.
Like Haraway, Margaret Atwood never thought losing that form of humanity was something that required mourning or panic. I think most of her work, like Haraway’s, is based on alliances that have nothing to do with filiation. That said, I’ve really come up against a quandary regarding the archive and its racial and gendered rigidity and stupidity. Do we just stop reading that work, all of it? Not just Heidegger and Schmitt, but everything that is redolent of white privilege? What would be left? Writers like Fanon are indebted to the very tradition we might want to expunge, and there’s probably no point, or no clear point, at which one might form a new canon free of barbarism. Somehow between remaining dutiful to the great thinkers of the Western canon and rejecting that poisonous history, there must be modes of reading and narrative that are critical without being ironic, and critical without keeping the past alive in a manner of ongoing rejection.
I think that’s what “becoming-imperceptible” amounts to, and it’s a real challenge. Rather than lining up the grand thinkers of the past and then making one’s position statement, there are forms of composition that are essentially messy. I’ve been reading the Australian writer Alexis Wright, whose Swan Book is neither dutifully indigenous nor ironically distanced from white settler culture, but an impossible mix of the two. I think it’s interesting that such great work is relatively underrated in a world that still grants revivers of the 19th century novel (like Jonathan Franzen) a greater degree of recognition.
Rail: In your essay “Sexual Indifference” from Telemorphosis: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 1, you write about the extinction of sexual difference and the ways in which theory and gender studies address the question of climate change:
Sexual indifference has always been warded off precisely because it opens the human organism to mutation, production, lines of descent and annihilation beyond that of its own intentionality. And this is so even if the evolutionary logic of sexual difference entails a necessary loss of distinction and opening to annihilation. A gene line survives not if it remains sufficient unto itself, remaining as it is and fully actualized. Not only is every individual life a negotiation between maintaining a border of identity and exposing the body to the contingency of an outside, gene line survival occurs through an encounter with other gene lines, the creation of maximum mutation without any sense of certainty of living on. And yet it is just this logic of necessary and positive extinction—this necessary production of differences that will not survive—that is repressed in the shrill affirmation of the vitality of sexual binary difference. Indeed, one might ask whether the human species is now facing its end precisely because it has only been able to respond to what it recognizes as its own political—that is, human to human—milieu?
If indifference speaks to a kind of absence of individuation, how then, might concepts such as Paul de Man’s “material sublime” pertain to systems of inscription and indifference?
Colebrook: I’ve been talking a lot about indifference with my colleague Jami Weinstein, who is working on the term in a quite different way. Although difference is used a lot—ranging from sexual and cultural difference to more abstract notions of differential forces that precede identity— indifference hardly rates a mention. Yet I think it’s important for two reasons. First, structuralism was all about difference: systems of inscription differentiate the world, language carves up reality. But the radical response to this is almost the opposite: languages reduce difference by creating patterns through time, and what needs to be thought is a world that does not in itself harbor distinct differences and categories (objects) and yet is not undifferentiated, as some single substance. Now that sense of indifference—which has nothing to do with feeling or affect—brings me to the second reason. Too much has been said about affect, about how—from Hume onwards—it is only affect that will prompt me to act. Indifference is sublime: what if one could imagine the world or anything as if “we” did not exist? That is de Man’s “material sublime.”
Rail: We see a retreat to the figure of the sexual couple in The Lobster (2016), a dystopian film where metaphor and magic are abolished in favor of regulation and retribalization. The film follows a recently divorced man as he moves into a luxury hotel where he has forty days to find another partner or else be turned into an animal of his choosing—in his case, a lobster. Whether he conforms to normative society or chooses a feral existence in the woods, both scenarios are defined by arbitrary rules, within which there is no end paradise or escape.
Colebrook: It does sound similar to other thought experiments and dystopian scenarios, ranging from Brave New World (1931) to The Adjustment Bureau (2011), to the philosopher Robert Nozick’s Experience Machineto The Invasion (2007). In that last film, a virus eliminates all human emotion and creates a world of peace; in The Adjustment Bureau our supposed natural reality is supernaturally adjusted to destroy disasters—such as the dark ages and the Holocaust. What interests me is not the moral philosophy question (dominant in Brave New World) of the horrific loss of freedom under some power that holds the decision of what counts as a world of order and regulation. Rather, in all these accounts a certain type of freedom is taken as a prima facie good. No one wants a managed heaven, and happiness or pleasure seem worthless if they are not freely chosen (and therefore somehow earned).
I think the fetishized value attached to this supposedly intrinsically human trait needs to be questioned and probably jettisoned. I think the first time this type of attachment to a certain type of humanity is articulated is in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve are in a perfectly good paradise, where there is conversation, labor, sex, consumption (fructarian, of course), and even disputes. Milton’s Satan, however, places freedom above this pleasurable world and argues that it is better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Milton thought his depiction would all have us favoring Adam and Eve, but unfortunately his rebellious, freedom-obsessed, and radically individual Satan proved to be more popular than Milton’s Adam (and Milton’s God). I think this indicates something about history, capitalism, and empire. The capacity for thought, imagination, images of the future, and experience in general to exceed any given norm (in short, the sublime) became a supreme value. Why is this so valuable? Why would some form of existence where one did not seek radical futural possibility and difference be so horrific?
Why—to think in terms of The Adjustment Bureau—if we could choose a world without the Holocaust would we ultimately refuse that world in order to hold on to freedom? Now, one might say that Nazi totalitarianism was a result of the closing down of freedom, and that’s true, but that’s because that’s what a certain type of radical freedom is. It oversteps all limits. So, would it be so bad, to return to your question, if “the human literally becomes animal”? And isn’t it the case that for the most part the human is animal, until that animal invented a certain type of individualism that values imaginative freedom in its sublime mode above all else.
Rail: It doesn’t come as a shock to anybody that we have wrecked the planet. The idea of the Anthropocene is, as you say, an “intimation of a greater humanity that emerges precisely in the moment of its vanquishing” and a “fetishization of difference.” And it follows from “anthropos,” given its pretense of human exceptionalism, that there is an unwarranted sense of entitlement for our survival as a species. The “twilight” of your book title suggests we are indeed already post-Anthropocene, experiencing a kind of “too little, too late” afterglow. One of your co-authors, Tom Cohen, writes that “the term ‘Anthropocene’ can only arrive in (or after) the twilight of what it names, so it can only anticipate or legitimize itself from a future recognition of it, after a disappearance it implies is accomplished. It projects a proleptic anterior ‘inscription.’”
I’m interested in this idea of inscription. In your book Blake, Deleuzian Aesthetics, and the Digital, you speak of Blake’s “genesis of inscription” oscillating between “creation and decreation.” In this you say: “What must be warded off in the continual labor of forming, inscribing, writing, and molding is the fall into stagnation—the passage from the active creation of system to the passive submission to system.”
Do you think there is any room or need for new prophetic, epic narratives or mythic languages, as Blake had done in his day, in the present context?
Colebrook: The short answer is no. The longer answer is yes and no. At first I’d say the problem is exactly one of epic narratives, especially if one looks at the way the drive to epic narratives has intensified. Going back to post-apocalyptic films, they all present the end of a group of humans as if it were the end of the world. That seems to me to be a certain type of epic where “we” write as if our world were “the” world, and where the drive to epic narration is one of diagnosis, prognosis and then return and redemption.
One sees that in all sorts of films, from Avatar to Mad Max: Fury Road. Blake is interesting because his so-called epics were prophetic but they weren’t really narrative, and they ended up—probably despite everything he wanted to achieve—being diffuse, inconclusive, and somewhat unreadable. That’s what we were trying to get at when we wrote Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols: inscription might be thought of us including all of the systems that form and sustain us (from writing and culture to all other technologies, including geo-engineering and conservation industries, as well as “capitalism”). If we were to ask for a prophetic dimension, it would not be some vision that freed itself from inscription, but instead confronted inscription while trying to resist narrative.
If one really had to choose between a world with or without the Holocaust I imagine that we (being human) would select a world without the extermination of masses of humans; it’s only by creating sentimental narratives that we lull ourselves into thinking that even this event might somehow make sense and be redeemed. It is only by narrative that we can say, also, that some aspects of humanity (the evil tendencies) have had some success up until now, but the day will come when the good humans will inherit the earth. Considering inscription prophetically would require looking at all the ruses of narrative that allow us to think that the real humanity is just around the corner, waiting to vanquish the improper humans who have deterred us from our true inheritance.
Rail: You have suggested that we are all climate refugees, we are all displaced and there is no refuge. Could you discuss Deleuze and “deterritorialization” in relation to this idea?
Colebrook: I think one needs to begin with territorialization: as in, life begins with movement and relations, and assembles into relatively stable forms. This applies to the formation of organisms and to social systems, but there is at the same time deterritorialization, where some element is no longer part of the grouping and creates a different type of relation, so one could see social systems as deterritorializations - from human (and other non-human animal) groupings, some element or body creates (say) a system of relations of sound (language, signs). So life is migration, and what we know of as sovereign states were the result of migration and (often) violent appropriation after fleeing or seeking refuge from elsewhere. To say “we are all climate refugees” is not to trivialize the suffering of climate refugees in this world; it is to say that the supposed sovereign citizen who welcomes the refugee with open arms is actually the beneficiary of a history of migration, refuge, and appropriation.
Rail: Futurists like Nick Bostrom anticipate the potential for artificial intelligence (AI) to exterminate humanity, urging us to consider instilling human values in superintelligent machines. On the other hand, sociologist Benjamin Bratton argues that AI has advanced so far beyond anthropocentric benchmarks such as the Turing Test, that consequently what is more fearful than a technology seeking to destroy us is a technology that deems us irrelevant. In Death of the Posthuman, you write about the ways in which we will become posthuman via consumption, absorbing information from the sciences, ostensibly delimiting human thought and signification from humanity itself. This reminds me of a recent interview with Kim Stanley Robinson on the Public Books online forum, in which he says that we have a tendency to think of humans as transcendent, and in absence of the spiritual, we imagine a secular afterlife in the universe where human life continues on other planets. “Another place the yearning goes,” he says, “is into the space of the computer, with the idea we might someday download or upload our minds into artificial systems we’ve built, and concoct some kind of immortality.” Robinson characterizes that as “a very bad misrepresentation of what we know about brains already, a kind of fantasy, or maybe I should just say bad science fiction.”
What, for you, constitutes bad science fiction?
Colebrook: The implication in the quotation is that bad science fiction isn’t really science fiction; it’s just a narcissistic way of imagining the present continuing in a barely different form. Transcendence (2014) is a film about uploading intelligence, and it’s definitely bad science fiction; anything that takes the form of a morality tale warning about the dangers of thinking too much or playing god is usually pretty bad. Because in these scenarios no one is playing god; they are playing man, just replicating themselves and a very narrow present. I mention him too much, but I’m shocked that Nick Bostrom and his Future of Humanity Institute are focused on saving “intelligence”—and that this, for him, should be the global priority for the future, and may well entail a managed form of AI, one that doesn’t take the form of “runaway” technology. Again, that’s bad science fiction and bad philosophy. You mention Atwood, whose science fiction future is one of imagining new forms of kinship—that seems to me more “scientific” simply because it doesn’t assume we know what man or the human is, let alone whether he is worth saving.