THE OVERALL STRUCTURE
Corona has taught us to pay attention to what is “really important”. Fair enough. But, not few of us have asked themselves in weeks and months in quarantine –what the heck is „really important?“ What shapes our modes of governance and economy? What really affects the way we live and the ways we come together? Is there an overall structure?
For decades, sharing was most important. The Anthropocene supporters shared the whole planet, the Postcolonialists the conviction of false colonial arrogance, Posthumanists the end of man as the measure of all things – and Facebook, as importantly, the data of its users. Social media worked hard to live up to the new slogan “Sharing Is Caring”. In fact, the idea prevailed that, in sharing information and private matters on social media, we would take care of one another. As a German daily newspaper headlined a few years ago, the “trend sport of sharing”, could work towards social engineering or, as Byung-Chul Han warned,, might even help make communism itself into a commodity. The whole division could support an entirely new branch of industry. This critical perspective was (and is to this day) not very popular in the digital community. With the disruptive success of platforms like Airbnb or Uber, a new term would finally and publicly emerge – that of the “sharing industry”. For some, there would be something almost like relief in the admission that it might be just another sophisticated business model.
This would be a business model based on the so-called ‘Californian ideology’ – an ideology that has adopted unshakable belief in the plausibility of the Californian hippy culture. In his book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Steward Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism” Fred Turner maintains they consider themselves as gods. Turner attributes the American aversion to bureaucracy and the unshakable belief that one must and can expand every personal limit as the origin of information society. Cybernetics as a new universal theory, LSD, pop music, independent groups and collectives, new technologies and a powerful propaganda have created a narrative in which humans may no longer see themselves as the measure of all things, but certainly as creators of new transversal, deregulated worlds.
“The triumph of the network mode” is what Turner calls the rise of digital network thinking since the 1970s. What began as a kind of ‘prank’ – the American counterculture attempts to ‘hack’ the industrial- military complex – developed into a global lifestyle and, at the same time, an economic form. Both overlapped, the networked self became a commodity, well described by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in “The New Spirit of Capitalism”. Somewhere a switch was flipped; suddenly you wanted and should give up your own scruffy personality in favor of a flexible network identity that is open to others. The ‘project-related polis’ needed a ‘valence bearer’ who had abandoned rigid convictions – and got one.
In their essay on network capitalism Alihan Kabalak and Birger P. Priddat maintain that since “markets as relationships” have become a reality, it is time to recognize a new, hybrid form of sociality based entirely on “governance” : that is, a governance which is a “partially independent cooperation process that does not need any leadership / control in the actual sense, but has to be kept in place in order to moderate and compensate for defects in self-control”. “Co-opetition” – an invention of the two authors – “parallel or sequential or cyclical” comes to the fore. ‘Co-opetition’ is a composite of two English terms ‘competition’and ‘cooperation’, and in fact it is precisely this superimposition of two opposing attitudes that could be behind quite a few burnouts over the last few decades: capitalism went through an evolution and got away with it brilliantly; the human psyche less so. Man’s ability to relate was subjected to a tough test, because it was stretched to the limits until the individual became a self-regulated dividual, governed by outside forces. “The Soul at Work” is what the Italian post-Marxist Franco “Bifo” Berardi called this state of self-alienation, a condition due in turn to the deficiences of the state of production in itself.
According to the American business magazine “Forbes”, in this new “isolation economy” which may follow Corona, the pressure from external controls is easing. in times of Corona, ,the video platform ‘Zoom’ promises something like the new room sharing, yet this is also a psychological moment, a trend that is emerging. In other words: the hype is over! Alone is the new togetherness, the ‘COVIDUUM’ is looming. There is an alternative to the third level of cybernetics and the associated ‘apparatus of appropriation of environmentality’ which, according to Erich Hörl, is something like the preliminary climax in the ‘process of cybernetization of all modes of existence’.
The collective acting individual was actually not hip, not even in one of the most relevant currents of cultural criticism in the 21st century, in which discourses from philosophy, social and cultural sciences and neurosciences coalesced: Critical Posthumanism. In an effort to question classical humanism with the dichotomies of man / woman, nature / culture, subject / object, Critical Posthumanism has embarked on transcending the body. It theorizes and envisions a digital brave new world, in which anthropocentric thinking has no place, and where one connects – in network mode – with ecological factors and forces embedded in our environment – perceptually, cognitively and sensorially.
Only four years ago a pioneer of European research on women and gender, Rosi Braidotti, postulated on the website of the Federal Agency for Civic Education “a posthuman critical theory based on the concept of a nomadic subject, endowed with an ethic that both human and non-human forces recognize ”, while almost 40 years before, Bruno Latour elaborated his“ Actor-Network-Theory ”, which contributed to the development of a theoretical complex based on the assertion that the world and society are networked of human and non-human factors.
Latour is also at the forefront in his terrestrial theory of 2020, and this is not least in that he consistently succeeds in “grounding” the animistic tendencies in this complex of theory in very concrete critiques such as the politics of one Donald Trump. At the same time he masters a balancing act between the academic world and the art world. An exhibition is currently running at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, which is based on his “Terrestrial Manifesto”. “In POLITICS it is no longer just about people making decisions alone and exclusively for themselves; on the contrary, POLITICS has become a much more complex undertaking.” ‘New forms of citizenship and new types of attention and care for forms of life are necessary in order to create a common ground’. This assumes that the earth surrounds a ‘critical zone’, a kind of atmosphere on which human activity exerts a direct influence.
In 2004, Latour said goodbye to the “matters of fact” in a sensational essay and turned to the “matters of concern” – also an intellectual move that shows what the critical posthumanists are all about: politics and strategy. Some would perhaps even recognize a post-Marxist class conflict in this – whereby class has become obsolete and the struggle more like post-Marxist conservation of the earth for all living beings.
As touched on earlier, much of this thinking was already in the alternative counter or cyber culture of the Californian hippies of the late 1960s. Their admiration for cybernetics as a universal theory and “electronics” (as Marshall McLuhan would say) as a means to an end can be held responsible for the emergence of global networking and thus an extreme form of neoliberalism and network capitalism wherein the naturalization of capitalism and self-commodification distinguishes itself. However, they have also begun – and this could be allied with the political theory of the feminist Linda Zerilli as an “inaugural practice of freedom” – to think beyond the human realm, in that the environment has been given more importance than in other progressive ideologies. An ecologically conscious, post- anthropocentric way of thinking, mindful of the environment, in which reality is generated performatively, is not only popular in times of climate change, but has also determined the zeitgeist in academies and museums.
The body as container concept has had its day in this post-humanism based on post-structuralism. Instead, it is seen as a dynamic process in constant and direct exchange with the systems surrounding it. One could say it exists in a functional context that in practice shares its environment with other functional contexts in a performative manner. In addition, the delimitation of species in feminist theory has led to brilliant new assemblages. Quite a few have built microorganisms and viruses into their new, monstrously proliferating habitats shared, among others, by humans. In the early 1990s, the biologist Lynn Margulis designed the concept of the ‘holobiont’, which allows living beings to be recognized as directly connected to one another and living in a system. “Different species, one ecological system” is the catchphrase, and what sounds like a marketing slogan for the Anthropocene was initially little more than a model where prokaryotic species such as microorganisms and viruses live in coexistence with a eukaryotic host as for instance in the human gut. In 2020 in the midst of the “Corona crisis”, Sabine Hark, Professor of Gender Studies at the TU Berlin, called for “virus communities” – is that realistic? But who would have been interested in such a proposition before Corona?
The posthuman feminist theory had a vision: that of the subject as “embedded, as relational and affective as well as in the process of becoming” (Rosi Braidotti). Whoever wants to implement this politically has to live and die with viruses. It is true that esoteric feminist posthumanism calls for resistance – not against Corona, but against other people, i.e. the “hasty and reactive recomposition of panhuman ties” (Rosi Braidotti).
As is well known, the global pandemic has done just that: a hasty recomposition of panhuman ties. And quite a few welcomed this super-individual, this global ‘solidarity’ with their ‘fellow humans’. While the new materialism starts with the premise that materiality and reality are generative, these “reactionaries” bring the body as container back into play. An object that is more or less identical with its surroundings is difficult to ‘defend’, and the body must defend itself in the event of an attack, and that only works if the ontology regains the upper hand and the human body becomes a closed system again, which is and will not become.
In the high phase of fear of infection, virologists explained where the limits of the human body lie and where the limits of the respective national health systems. The number of ventilators and intensive care beds played a role, that of the imagination as an inaugural practice of freedom rather less. In times of crisis, one could not get rid of the feeling that there is only reality and nothing beyond. But perhaps the real, neither proscribed nor performed (‘living’) human body is actually something of a blind spot in critical posthumanist theory.
Not only did the borders close again in Corona times, but so did the ranks: the state became a welfare authority, Europe a fortress, the world united in the fight against the virus. For a while the tenor prevailed: in the face of the virus, we are all the same. Many thought it, some said it, the Mayor of New York said it, but Madonna said it too – naked in the bathtub. Of course, there were innumerable voices who fought against this “egalitarianism.” International letters were written against the inadmissible simplification. In established media as well as in culture blogs and American culture magazines one could see that this gigantic nonsense ignored the existing social conditions. The ‘vulnerability’ is variable, as is the access to medical care. Discrimination does not stop at the virus and it is not democratic – but the mood was anything but visionary. Articles such as in the Frankfurter Rundschau by Sabine Hark which warned against a growing conservatism were in the minority. The rollback was in the air, and critical Posthumanists would do well to write against it: “With these antiquated and, yes, virile ideas of sovereignty and agency, which are currently experiencing a revival not only in the form of Trumpian hubris we cannot survive this crisis. In fact, they have long been obsolete anyway. “
But the question that underpins Posthumanism and New Materialism has also – at least temporarily – become obsolete: What is real? It seems as if biology has shown the digital the red card: look, this is real, you are dead. The digital utopia or the belief that technology can solve all human problems should be reconsidered and the fiction of the total delimitation of species should be subjected to a viable revision that does not end in something like Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”. If sharing and being shared are the a priori of the new spirit of capitalism, then now is the time to develop a new (self) awareness of the possible conditions of post-capitalism – not least by reflecting on the situational nature of our own submission. We are not servants of the network.