Sharing after Corona

Posthumanism in crisis

[from: “Pop. Culture and Criticism,” Issue 17, Fall 2020, pp. 84-89]

When Stéphanie Germilhac, a Parisian hairdresser, was asked by ZDF in the spring how she felt and what she had learned through Corona, she said, “I see the situation positively because it made us question things. Corona has taught us to pay attention to what’s actually important, despite the dramatic impact.” But what, more than a few in quarantine in recent months wondered, is the “actually important” thing?

For decades, sharing was the important thing: Anthropocene adherents shared the entire planet, postcolonialists shared a belief in false colonial hubris, posthumanists shared a belief in the demise of humans as the measure of all things, and Facebook shared its users’ data. Social media worked diligently to live up to the new slogan “Sharing Is Caring.” In fact, the idea that people would take care of each other if they shared information and private matters in the social networks prevailed. That the “trend sport of sharing,” as a German daily newspaper headlined a few years ago, could be aiding social engineering, that it could be helping to commodify communism itself, as Byung-Chul Han warned, or that all the sharing could be supporting a new industry – this critical perspective was (and still is) not very popular in the digital community. When finally, with the disruptive success of platforms like Airbnb or Uber, a new term was publicly considered, that of the “sharing industry,” there was almost something like relief that it was just a sophisticated business model.

A business model built on the so-called “California ideology” – an ideology that adopted the unshakable belief in feasibility of the California hippies. The latter thought they were gods, wrote Fred Turner in his book “From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism.” In it, Turner explains the American aversion to bureaucracy and the unshakable belief that one must and can expand every frontier as the origin of the information society. Cybernetics as a new universal theory, LSD, pop music, independent groupings and collectives, new technologies, and powerful propaganda created a narrative in which man conceived of himself perhaps not as the measure of all things, but certainly as the creator of new transversal, deregulated worlds.

“The triumph of the network mode” is what Turner calls the triumph of digital network thinking since the 1970s. What began as a kind of ‘prank’ – the American counterculture tried to ‘hack’ the industrial-military complex – developed into a global lifestyle and at the same time into an economic form.  The two overlapped, one’s networked self became a commodity, well described by Luc Boltanski and Ève Chiapello in “The New Spirit of Capitalism.” Some switch flipped, suddenly one wanted and was supposed to give up one’s own shaggy personality in favor of a flexible network identity open to the other. The “project-based polis” needed a “value carrier” who had said goodbye to rigid convictions – and got it.

Alihan Kabalak and Birger P. Priddat noted in an essay on network capitalism that now that “markets as relationships” had become a reality, it was time to recognize a new, hybrid form of sociality based entirely on “governance,” i.e., a “partially self-sufficient cooperative process that does not need leadership/control in the strict sense at all, but must keep it disposed in order to moderate and compensate for defects of self-control.” In the process, “co-opetition” – a made-up word used by the two authors – occurs “in parallel or sequentially or cyclically.” “Co-Opetition” is made up of the two English terms ‘competition’ and ‘cooperation’, and in fact it is precisely this overlapping of two opposing attitudes that could be behind quite a few burn-outs in recent decades: Capitalism underwent an evolution and came out of it brilliantly, but the human psyche less so. Man’s ability to relate was subjected to a severe test of endurance as it was stretched as far as it could go, until the individual became a dividend, self-regulated and governed from the outside. “The Soul at Work” is what the Italian post-Marxist Franco “Bifo” Berardi called this state of self-alienation due to the disconnectedness of production.

But in the new “isolation economy” that could follow Corona, according to the American business magazine “Forbes,” the pressure from external control is easing. Because even if it is still possible to connect virtually in an excellent way and the video platform “Zoom” enables something like the new room sharing in times of Corona, it is about a psychological moment, about a trend that is emerging. In other words, the hype is over! Alone is the new together, the ‘COVIDUUM’ is looming on the horizon and we can all finally listen to records alone in company again! Hooray! There is, after all, an alternative to the third stage of cybernetics and the accompanying “appropriation apparatus of environmentality”, which, according to Erich Hörl, describes something like the preliminary climax in the “process of the cybernetization of all modes of existence”.

The communally acting individual was indeed 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 neuroscience united: critical posthumanism. In an effort to question classical humanism with its dichotomies of man/woman, nature/culture, and subject/object, critical posthumanism has engaged in transcending the body. It theorizes and envisions the digital brave new world in which anthropocentric thinking has no place and one connects – in network mode – perceptually, cognitively, and sensorially with ecological factors and forces embedded in our environment.

Only four years ago, Rosi Braidotti, a pioneer of European Women’s and Gender Studies, postulated on the website of the German Federal Agency for Civic Education “a posthuman critical theory based on the concept of a nomadic relational subject, endowed with an ethics, that recognizes both human and nonhuman forces,” but almost 40 years ago Bruno Latour wrote his “Actor-Network Theory,” which has helped to form a theoretical complex based on the idea that the world and society are networked, a composite of humans and nonhumans.

Latour is still at the forefront with his terrestrial theory in 2020, and this is not least due to the fact that he always manages to “ground” the animistic tendencies in this theoretical complex and to make very concrete criticisms, for example of the politics of a Donald Trump. At the same time, he masters the balancing act between the academic world and the art world. Currently, an exhibition is running at the ZKM in Karlsruhe that builds on his “Terrestrial Manifesto.” “POLITICS is no longer about people making decisions alone and exclusively for themselves; rather, POLITICS has become a much more complex endeavor. New forms of citizenship and new ways of paying attention to and caring for ways of life are needed to create common ground.” This is not from a speech by Angela Merkel on post-Corona politics, but from the accompanying text of the aforementioned exhibition, which assumes that the earth bypasses a “critical zone,” a kind of atmosphere on which human activity exerts a direct influence.

In 2004, in an essay that caused a sensation, Latour said goodbye to the “matters of fact” and turned to the “matters of concern” – another intellectual move that shows what critical posthumanists are all about: politics and strategy. Some might even recognize a post-Marxist class struggle in this – although class has become obsolete and it is more about something like a post-Marxist preservation of the earth for the totality of all living beings.

A large part of this thinking was already laid out in the already mentioned alternative counter- respectively cyberculture of the Californian hippies of the late 1960s. Their worship of cybernetics as a universal theory and of “electronics” (as Marshall McLuhan would say) as a means to an end can be held partly responsible for the emergence of global networking and thus of an extreme form of neoliberalism, network capitalism, characterized by the naturalization of capitalism and self-economization. However, they have also begun – and this could be called, with the political theory of feminist Linda Zerilli, an “inaugural freedom practice” – to think beyond the human being, giving more importance to the environment than in other progressive ideologies. An ecologically conscious, post-anthropocentric way of thinking, attentive to the environment, in which reality is produced performatively, was not only in vogue in times of climate change, but determined the zeitgeist in academies and museums.

The body as a container concept had become obsolete in this posthumanism built on poststructuralism. Instead, it was seen as a dynamic process in constant and direct exchange with the systems surrounding it. A functional context could be said to performatively share its environment with other functional contexts in practice. Moreover, the dissolution of species in feminist theory has led to brilliant new assemblages. Quite a few of them incorporated microorganisms and viruses into their new monstrously proliferating habitats, in which, among others, humans resided. In the early 1990s, biologist Lynn Margulis came up with the concept of the “holobiont,” which allows living things to be recognized as directly interconnected and living in one 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 of how prokaryotic species such as microorganisms and viruses coexist with a eukaryotic host organism such as the human gut. In 2020, in the midst of the “corona crisis”, real hardliners like Sabine Hark, Professor of Gender Studies at the Technical University of Berlin, called for “viral communities” – is that close to reality? But who would have cared about such an objection before Corona?

Posthuman feminist theory had a vision: that of the subject as “embedded, as relational and affective, and in the process of becoming” (Rosi Braidotti). Whoever wants to implement this politically must live and die with viruses. It is true that esoteric feminist posthumanism calls for resistance – but not against Corona, but against other humans, that is, against the “hasty and reactive recomposition of panhuman bonds” (Rosi Braidotti). As is well known, however, the worldwide pandemic has caused exactly that: a hasty recomposition of panhuman bonds. And not a few have welcomed this supra-individual, this global “solidarity” with ‘fellow humans’.

For example, the philosopher Markus Gabriel, who became known through an anthology on the “New Realism”, who expressed himself in the “Corona Diary” on 3Sat: “In the future we will not need a communism, but a co-immunism […]. We need to inoculate ourselves against xenophobia and racism, because before the virus, we have now hopefully learned, we are all equal, all human beings. Hosts who are now under attack.” Gabriel looks to the future, but draws on a much older model of global coexistence than critical posthumanism, citing Peter Sloterdijk’s book “You Must Change Your Life,” which is now also more than ten years old. In it, Sloterdijk coined the term “co-immunism” to reinterpret humanity as a “political concept,” replacing the “romanticism of brotherhood.” This is where Gabriel gets in. All people become hosts – which sounds funny, yet deliberately takes a back seat to the ‘performative turn’ and identity politics. Postulating universal equality, Gabriel is diametrically opposed to thinkers* like Braidotti who insist that one should not “obscure power inequalities that exist within the collective subject (‘we’) and the crisis.” Gabriel is certainly not “beyond man,” as critical left posthumanism likes to paraphrase, and it is questionable whether he is to be located beyond brotherhood with the statement quoted above. While the new materialism starts with the premise that materiality and reality are produced, Gabriel brings the body back into play as a container concept. When attacked, one must resist, and this only works when ontology regains the upper hand and the human body once again becomes a closed system that is and does not become. For an object that is more or less amalgamated into its environment can poorly ‘fight back’.

At the height of the fear of contagion, virologists explained where the limits of the human body were and where the limits of each national health system were. The number of ventilators and intensive care beds played a role, that of imagination as an inaugural practice of freedom rather less so. In times of crisis, one could not shake the feeling, there is only reality and nothing beyond it. But perhaps the real (‘living’), not described or performed, human body is indeed something of a blind spot in critical posthumanist theory.

Not only did the borders close again in Corona times, so did the ranks: The state became a caretaker, Europe a fortress, the world united in the fight “against the virus.” For a time, the tenor prevailed: Before the virus, we are all equal. Many thought it, some said it. Markus Gabriel said it, the mayor of New York said it, but Madonna said it too – naked in the bathtub.

Of course, there were countless voices fighting against this “egalitarianism.” Internationally, people wrote against the unacceptable plumpification. In established media as well as in culture blogs and American culture magazines, one could read that this giant humbug ignored social conditions. Vulnerability” was different, as was access to health care. Discrimination would not stop at the virus and it would not be democratic – yet the mood was anything but visionary. Articles like the one by the aforementioned Sabine Hark in the “Frankfurter Rundschau,” in which she warned of a strengthening of conservatism, were rather in the minority. The rollback hung in the air, and critical posthumanists did well to write against it: “We will not survive this crisis with these antiquated, and, yes, also virile ideas of sovereignty and agency, which are currently experiencing a revival not only in the form of Trump’s hubris. In fact, they have long been outdated anyway.”

But also outdated – at least temporarily – is the question that underpins posthumanism and New Materialism: what is real? It seems as if biology has shown the digital the red card: Look here, this is real, you are dead. The digital utopia, respectively the belief that technology can solve all human problems, should be reconsidered and also the fiction of the total dissolution of species should be subjected to a livable revision that does not end in something like the Darwinian “survival of the fittest”. If sharing and being shared are the apriori of the new spirit of capitalism, then now is the time to develop a new (self-)awareness of the conditions of possibility of post-capitalist states – not least by reflecting on the situatedness of our own subjection. We are not servants of the network.