The Personal is Planetary: Post-Human Politics and a People to Come

The ‘post’ in post-human is deceptive and slippery in its meaning, always threatening to lead us to believe that we have somehow departed (or could someday depart) from the millennia of historically material evolutionary processes that have encoded and shaped our embodied human condition. It risks framing the human itself as a teleological hurdle to be overcome, like the sound barrier or landing on the moon or any other perceived limit encountered and subsequently overcome before it. This way of approaching the human is undoubtedly deeply entangled with enlightenment thought that is in the contemporary moment articulated in neoliberal ideology. It is of no surprise that when an economy incessantly demands that everything (and everyone) goes faster, produces more, lasts longer, and is increasingly efficient, we begin to loathe the fragilities and interdependencies that define our bodies and limit our participation in economies of labor. Futurological fantasies of escaping our fragile flesh once and for all and existing simply as pure-thought, freely circulating through networks of frictionless exchange, are born from neoliberal demands on the laboring body.

Here I mean to position the ‘post’ in post-human as precisely the opposite of this escape; it instead comes to mark a deeply entangled and imbricated rootedness in the conditions that have historically and ecologically produced the possibility of human life in the first place. Rather than position the body as a kind of autonomous material prison with firm borders that must be transcended, we instead find networks of through-routes and porous boundaries that deeply trouble any attempt to neatly point to a clear inside or outside of the body; even human lungs, which operate as a barrier between inside and out, function only to overcome this limit by carrying the flows of the atmosphere into the circulation of our blood, themselves dependent on the lungs of global forests which provide fresh supplies of oxygen. We are much more deeply entangled with our surrounding material ecologies than we often acknowledge. This ecological turn in ethics and politics is generated by the recognition of the extreme precarity and contingency of human life, and subsequently in the queering of the borders of the human itself. These precarities, interdependencies and contingencies are expressed through various modalities, only two of which I’ll explore in his text: materiality and perceptibility (temporality, affect, ecology, and others will be explored elsewhere).


In search of planetary lungs.

The material conditions that are prerequisites for the (re)production of human life already deeply trouble the supposed autonomy of the human subject. A slight imbalance in the chemical composition of the atmosphere, a moderate shift in temperature, the introduction of a miniscule amount of viral material, can be enough to extinguish a human life (or if on a large enough scale, all human life). Unlike the various enclosures that have defined the last centuries of property relations, the atmosphere and climate cannot be privatized, sectioned off, captured, or differentially distributed. Rather, these planetary processes compose the flows that make possible the (re)production of human life, from supporting agricultural processes required for feeding us to providing breathable air.

Our capacity to politically and ethically respond to the material conditions that we depend upon relies upon our ability to perceive and make sense of these processes and materialities. Techno-scientific developments in the 19th century gave us access to microscopic visualities that generated a revolution in our thought, awakening us to entire worlds of vibrant bacterial life and activity that we had been completely ignorant of before. Biopolitical forms of power, as theorized by Michel Foucault, could be thought of as a structural reaction to the appearance of this new sensorium, as new techniques of management and control were required to police the microscopic world of genes, germs, and virii. Our phenomenological experiences and senses themselves are not biologically determined or limited, but rather are connected and interspersed in assemblages of diverse materialities. In this way, our capacity to ‘make sense’ of the world is literally dependent upon our ability to ‘sense’ it.

brain_universeLeft: Microscopic image of brain cell. Right: Telescopic simulated image of the universe.

A post-human politics and ethics thus works across the geographies of the material and the perceptible in asserting that our capacity to reproduce the material ecologies we depend upon relies upon our ability to both perceive (and subsequently make sense of) those same ecologies. The relationships between the material and the perceptible span across fractal scales of relation from the atomic, to the planetary, and beyond. These scales are all post-human in the sense that their temporalities and spatialities exceed our bodily phenomenologies, and instead are only perceived through an active assemblage of humans, mathematical models, computers, weather satellites, microscopes, etc., etc..

Historically, capitalism has proliferated so successfully because of its ability to operate across and through these multiplicities of temporal and spatial scales, transcending and generating limits through its expansion and accumulation. At the time of this post, corporations are fighting to patent fragments of the human genome while others are preparing to mine nearby asteroids. Similarly, processes of automation from factories to stock market continues to increase the speeds in which material is istirbuted and organized, always accelerating the modalities of encounter and exchange. In short, Capital has always-already been planetary in its scope, and has found life in speeds and spaces which resist recognition and perception.

The problem, politically speaking, is that a global ‘people’ have yet to emerge on the planetary scale; Capital is global, and there is not yet a global people to oppose it. Gilles Deleuze wrote about a ‘missing people’ and ‘a people to come’, not marking some future certainty but rather pointing to the potentiality and necessity of inventing new peoples. This is somewhat analogous to Jacques Derrida’s ‘justice yet to come’ or Hannah Arendt’s notion of political freedom as being rooted in ‘natality’, or the capacity to bring new things into the world. Here, ‘the future’ is not a path to followed, but rather a process which emphasizes the necessary (re)production of a people, of justice, of the conditions of resistance across an imbricated past, present and future.

Resistance and justice are only possible in a world in which we can produce new times, new spaces, and new peoples, each of which differentially transform the existing ecologies of relation, resistance, and oppression. Otherwise, as Arendt and others make clear, we are simply left with a liberal politics in which we choose from a list of already existing options. Capitalism, as a historical process, has consistently produced new peoples, new spaces, and new times that dramatically reorder and redistribute the material and social world. Capital forecloses resistance by producing a people subject to the temporality of work and the spatiality of private property, both of which fragment a people into an array of autonomous laborers enclosed in various nation-states. While Capital operates on a planetary scale, it fragments people into localized territories in which they are unable to respond to the planetary crisis produced by capitalism (climate change, mass extinctions, pandemics, etc.).

Meaningful resistance in this frame would be to generate counter-temporalities, counter-spatialities, and counter-peoples that meaningful confront the planetary crises we face today and recognize the extreme entanglement and collective historical conditions that (re)produce to conditions that make human life possible. In recognizing that the personal is planetary, or rather, that the personal must come to be planetary, a post-human politics could find life and a potent resistance to global capital could be brought into the world. Our contemporary crises make clear the necessity of a new people, a planetary ‘people to come’.

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