Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic

The Posthuman and the Gothic

In her book on The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti gives a startling portrait of the Posthuman approach to death:

What we humans truly yearn for is to disappear by merging into [the] generative flow of becoming, the precondition for which is the loss, disappearance and disruption of the atomized, individual self. […] This can be described also as the moment of ascetic dissolution of the subject; the moment of its merging with the web of non-human forces that frame him/her, the cosmos as a whole. We may call it death, but in a monistic ontology of vitalist materialism, it has rather to do with radical immanence. That is to say the grounded totality of the moment when we coincide completely with our body in becoming at last what we will have been all along: a virtual corpse (Braidotti 2013, 136).

Here Braidotti sums up the core elements of her conception of the Posthuman: the disappearance and disruption of the human subject; a repositioning of that subject within a wider cosmos of living matter; and the multidirectional mixing of the inside of the human with the outside of the universe. The Posthuman in this sense encompasses both the negative and the reformative aspects of life freed from the strictures of the human as a transcendent, universal category, out of which a myriad inhuman and unhuman forms of life may emerge. However, this passage provides a dark twist to the vitalist commitments its expresses. Although the moment of death is subsumed into a wider process of life, it also remains as an immanent and ever-present element of that process. In affirming the wider productivity and vitality of the material world beyond the human, we discover ourselves as something other than human. “‘We’ ‘ourselves’ are caught up in the rhythms, pulsions and patternings of non-human forces. There is no inside except as a folding of the outside; the mirror cracks, I am an other, and I always was” (Fisher 2016, 11-2).

It is this experience of dissolution and decay which draws the themes of the Posthuman closer to what Fred Botting calls the “negative aesthetics” of the Gothic (2014, 1). The Gothic in this sense abandons the traditional veneration of the good and the beautiful in art for the cultivation of negative affects: fear, disgust, pain, confusion, anxiety. However, under the guise of the Gothic, these feelings are not experienced in simply negative terms, but as ambivalent mixtures of revulsion and fascination at the prospect of something other than the ordinary overwhelming our senses. Botting writes that:

“Negative aesthetics, in these terms, is double: deficiency, the absence, exclusion or negation of knowledge, facts or things; and excess, an overflow of words, feelings, ideas, imaginings” (2014, 7)

Following the work of Anya Heise-von der Lippe (2017), the Posthuman Gothic is here defined as the expression of Posthuman themes of human decentring and disturbance through the “negative aesthetics” of the Gothic. Thus far, the theorisation of the Posthuman Gothic has emerged primarily from the realm of Gothic studies, by which it has been treated as a futuristic twist on old genre conventions. Taking the conjunction of the Posthuman Gothic a step further, I use the Gothic affix not simply to describe a particular element or genre of the Posthuman, but as a challenge to conventional ideas of the Posthuman itself. If, following Braidotti, the Posthuman is typified by an ontology of “vitalist materialism,” then the Gothic problematises this framework, by querying the importance of life, and moving beyond mere affirmation of our world.

To discover what a Gothic form of posthumanism would look like, I engage with two previous Gothic turns of cultural theory. Firstly,  I look to the “Gothic Materialism” of Mark Fisher, who espouses  a radical indistinction between animate and inanimate forms of matter. Secondly, is the “Gothic Marxism” of Margaret Cohen, which charts the indeterminate zone of spectres and dreams which return to waking life as speakers for the dead. In this vein, the Posthuman Gothic charts a path away from the vitalism of contemporary posthumanisms, for which the vibrancy, agency, and ubiquity of life are so often taken for granted. Reversing this trend, the Posthuman Gothic seeks out the zones between life and death, where old structures decay and the new ferments.


Gothic Materialism, or the Things we are

In her book on the fin-de-siècle Gothic novel, The Gothic Body, Kelly Hurley discusses the nineteenth-century emergence of discourses around microbiology and the shock discovery that what we take to be indivisible and individual bodies are in fact swarming conglomerates of cells. She writes that:

The microscopic analysis of cell structure reveals what we may call the gothicity of matter. Matter is not mute and stolid, but rather clamorous and active (Hurley 1996, 33).

Beneath the visage of the human, it is revealed, is but another type of slime, and something altogether alien to the human. It is this Gothic quality of matter that I wish to bring into confrontation with the reigning adherence to the “vibrancy” and “vitality” of matter within Posthuman scholarship.

In Vibrant Matter, Jane Bennett discusses the vitalism of Thoreau, and highlights the role of metabolism in his theorisation of matter. In his diet, as in all else, “Thoreau strives to confederation with a set of bodies” which pass into his own body, and shape it by their particular natures (Bennett 2010, 46). In Bennett’s reading, the vitality of matter is affirmed by this process, because of the proof it gives to the commonality of all matter, and the easy assumption of the supposedly inert matter of food into the living matter of bodily tissue. In the metabolic process, one lump of matter is broken down into another, assumed into it, while transferring its vital force into a new body. Or, to quote Bennett at length:

The activity of metabolization, whereby the outside and inside mingle and recombine, renders more plausible the idea of a vital materiality. It reveals the swarm of activity subsisting below and within formed bodies and recalcitrant things, a vitality obscured by our conceptual habits of dividing the world into inorganic matter and organic life (Bennett 2010, 50).

The outside seeps into the inside, the organic becomes indistinguishable from the inorganic, and a vast swarm of processes are revealed beneath our supposedly stable forms. As in Braidotti’s Posthuman vision of death, the terms of discussion always return to a particularly “vital” materiality. Yet this element of the text grows more tendentious as it unfolds. Why should the process of metabolisation, this collapse of the organic and inorganic into a single matter, be read through the ideas of life and vitality at all? From a perspective of pure immanence, of base matter, why should the inorganic and the inert be collapsed into the organic and vital, and not the other way around? By focusing on the positive interactions of bodies, Bennett elides another reading of Thoreau’s text. After all, she notes,

Thoreau ultimately concludes that “devouring” wild flesh does not in fact result in his own vitalization, but in the mortification—the rotting—of his imagination. (Bennett 2010, 47).

If the eating of plant matter casts metabolism as the building of a confederacy of bodies, then the eating of flesh is here posited as something altogether destructive of those bonds.

In contrast to the “New Materialism” of Bennett and others, with its central concept of vitality, we may posit a shadow cast in the form of a “Gothic Materialism” — a term which in typically Gothic fashion predates its sibling and has waited in the shadows. A full decade before Bennett’s work, Mark Fisher defined the Gothic intervention in materialism as such:

Gothic Materialism as it is presented here [is] fundamentally concerned with a plane that cuts across the distinction between living and nonliving, animate and inanimate. It is this anorganic continuum, it will be maintained, that is the province of the Gothic (Fisher 2018, 2).

As in Bennett’s theorisation of New Materialism, the core of Fisher’s Gothic Materialism is the breakdown of distinctions between different forms of matter. Both espouse a philosophy of radical immanence, working from the materialisms of Spinoza and Deleuze, yet it is from here than the two diverge. While in Bennett’s reading, the vibrancy and vitality of life are taken for granted, Fisher sees another question emerging. Taking the lessons of cybernetics to their conclusion, Fisher asks:

What if we are as “dead” as the machines? To pose [this] question seems immediately inadequate: what sense would it be to say that “everything” – human beings and machines, organic and nonorganic matter – is “dead”? (Fisher 2018, 2).

It is this question which occupies much of Fisher’s work, but in today’s context of Posthumanity, it brings to the fore the arbitrariness of our conviction in the powers of life. We can just as easily ask: What sense would it make to say that everything is alive? The answer to either question shapes the image of the Posthuman at which we arrive. Shall we read the collapse of the organic and inorganic, the mixture of inside and outside, or the indistinction of life and death in positive or negative terms?

To read this Posthuman melange in positive terms, I suggest, is to fail to escape the categories which defined the human and to project them outward onto the rest of the material world. Where once only humans were recognised as agents or as the vessels of spirit, now the whole material world is given the dubious honour of inheriting this humanist baggage. In contrast, the task of the Posthuman Gothic is to let those outside forces in, and to acknowledge the full lesson of this radical immanence: not that everything is an agent full of vibrant life, but that the categories of agency and life give up their meaning in the face of a committed materialism. By recognising the gothicity of matter, Hurley suggests, we discover a world in which “nothing is left but Things: forms rent from within by their own heterogeneity, and always in the process of becoming-Other” (Hurley 1996, 9).

Although this is a negative reading of both materialism and Posthumanity, in the Gothic fashion this negativity is profoundly ambivalent. The Gothic privileging of death over life brings with it a sense of horror and privation, but it also signals the passing away of all is, and all that binds us to our present forms. It is the Gothic mortality which has sat at the heart of all materialisms, beginning with Lucretius’ adage that only death is immortal, that: “All reality [is] time and process—there [are] no set positions in the world, nothing [is] static” (Foster 2010, 234).


Gothic Marxism, or a haunted posthumanity

Where does this Gothic ontology of death and dissolution leave us? Nowhere at all, except in the liminal space between a human form on the point of collapse, and an inhuman future as yet undetermined. As Deleuze writes:

“We must take quite literally the idea that man is a face drawn in the sand between two tides: he is a composition appearing only between two others, a classical past that never knew him, and a future that will no longer know him” (Deleuze 1988, 89).

It is this state of suspension between two forms which the Posthuman Gothic describes, where the old spectre of the human haunts, and the looming Posthuman emerges. It is in this indeterminate zone that the haunted nature of posthumanity becomes apparent.

Discussing the works of Walter Benjamin and Andre Breton, Margaret Cohen sketches out several defining characteristics of what she calls their “Gothic Marxism,” of which two are relevant here:

(1) the valorization of the realm of a culture’s ghosts and phantasms as a significant and rich field of social production rather than a mirage to be dispelled; (2) the valorization of a culture’s detritus and trivia as well as its strange and marginal practices (Cohen 1993, 11).

For Cohen, the critical attention of this Gothic Marxism is turned toward spectres on the one hand and detritus on the other. These are also the characteristics I wish to bring to the Posthuman Gothic, which looks not to a bright future freed from the dominance of the human, but to the fragments of an ambivalent past which persist in minor and spectral forms.

The spectrality of the Posthuman already exists in its name, which doesn’t refer to what comes after the human, but rather the partial state in which the human, even in a decayed form, remains the locus of attention. Like a Gothic villain, the human looms over the Posthuman condition, casting a shadow of its influence even when long dead and buried.

Here we may see the ways in which the Gothic addition to the Posthuman further disrupts notions of life and death. Beyond individual death lies the greater death of humanity, as a concept or as a species. And yet, the figure of the human remains caught up within this network, even in fragmentary and scattered forms. If the Gothic turns the Posthuman away from vitalism toward a new understanding of death, it does not do so to simply discard the dead or dying husk of what once was. The human past continues to weigh upon us. We may begin to take seriously Donna Haraway’s claim that “we are compost, not posthuman” (2016, 97). Even in a Posthuman future, the spectre of the human remains in the disasters left in its wake: broken ecosystems, spiralling political and economic collapse, better futures unachieved, and deluded attempts to return to a time now passed.

Speaking against the “joyous and blind declaration of the posthuman,” Claire Colebrook argues that the “history of the human [was always and already] an oscillation between self-formation and self-destruction” (2014, 229). Without discarding current notions of the Posthuman entirely, this mixed history of creation and destruction informs my characterisation of the Posthuman Gothic, which foregoes the vital joy of the Posthuman for the more sombre task of locating the remnants of the dead which remain among the living.


Why the Posthuman Gothic?

In closing, I wish to make some final remarks on the purpose of theorising a Posthuman Gothic. Far from being the joyous celebration of vitality, agency, and connection most touted by its proponents, under the Gothic sign the Posthuman takes on a far more ambivalent character. The Gothic looks to a world beyond us—even without us, or at least not for us—and so without knowing it, the Posthuman and the Gothic are already intertwined. Both look outside the human to the weird amalgamations of body and machine, spirit and dirt, and the eerie influences of systems far greater than we may know. The Posthuman project is twisted up not only in Gothic categories and aesthetics, but Gothic commitments: it displays a mixed fascination with the spectres of the past while looking to a future wrenched free from the decayed laws of the dead.

The Posthuman Gothic stands at a crossroads. On the one hand it sees the deep past emerging into the near future, as circuits of matter, whether technological or earthly, put to rest the myth of the autonomous human subject. On the other, it balances the experience of utter privation and dehumanisation with the escape from human finitude. Two angles arch away from the human, into that liminal space occupied by the Gothic, which keeps one foot grounded in the human, while the other hangs over the precipice. In short, the Posthuman Gothic makes known its haunting by a human past to better cast itself into futures more or less joyous, and more or less terrifying. Here the mixed feelings of the Gothic seep through the framework of the Posthuman. The Posthuman Gothic recognises that “there is an enjoyment in seeing the familiar and the conventional become outmoded,” and that it is only in the death of the present that other futures may be imagined (Fisher 2016, 13).


Bibliography

Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.

Botting, Fred. Gothic, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

Cohen, Margaret. Profane Illumination. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993.

Colebrook, Claire. Death of the Posthuman. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2014.

Deleuze, Gilles.  Foucault. Translated by Sean Hand. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1988.

Fisher, Mark. Flatline Constructs. New York: Exmilitary, 2018.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird And The Eerie. London: Repeater, 2016.

Foster, John Bellamy, Brett Clark, and Richard York. The Ecological Rift. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010.

Heise-von der Lippe, Anya, ed. Posthuman Gothic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017.

 

This paper was presented for the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy annual conference, November 2018.

2 thoughts on “Dissolution & Decay: Traits of the Posthuman Gothic”

  1. not sure what kind of library access you have but if you can check out
    Bird Relics :Grief and Vitalism in Thoreau by Branka Arsić

    Like

  2. […] However, as Gregory Marks has explored in a fantastic essay, any posthumanity — specifically the post- of an anthroparochialism that has long needed to be overcome for the establishment of a collective subject; perhaps even an AGI — is inherently related to the gothic: “Where once only humans were recognised as agents or as the vessels of spirit, now the whole material world is given the dubious honour of inheriting this humanist baggage.” […]

    Like

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