Collectivity and the Digital in French Thought and Culture

by Susie Cronin (Volume editor) Sofia Ropek Hewson (Volume editor) Cillian Ó Fathaigh (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 174 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introducing #NousSommes
  • ‘Who is this we that is not me?’: Ecosophical Ethics
  • #WeAreTheEarth: Rethinking Ecology and Community: The Case of Humanist Anarchism
  • Je suis Charlie: entre émotion et identité sociopolitique
  • ‘The metamorphosis of the world into man’: The Anthropocene and the Historical Administration of Human Identity
  • Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project as the #NousSommes of Social Media
  • Liberté, égalité … Totalité? Décrypter les dangers de #JeSuis avec Jean-Luc Nancy
  • Un nous contemporain: réseaux sociaux, discours nouveau et addiction
  • La communauté comme passage: l’éthique du poème d’Henri Meschonnic
  • #NousSommes: refondation onto-axiologique de la confiance
  • #NousSommes and Automatic Politics: An Interview with Martin Crowley
  • Notes on Contributors/Notes sur les auteurs


This publication emerged from the twentieth annual French Graduate Conference, held at Pembroke College, Cambridge, in May 2017. The conference received generous financial support from the Society for French Studies, Pembroke College, and both the Department of French and the School of Arts and Humanities at the University of Cambridge, for which we are very grateful. This conference would not have been possible without the endless help and assistance of Bill Burgwinkle. We would like to thank Laurel Plapp and Simon Phillimore at Peter Lang for all their kind support and patience. We are grateful to Edinburgh University Press for permission to reproduce Patricia MacCormack’s article. Finally, we would like to thank Ian James, Peter Collier and Martin Crowley, whose support was invaluable in developing the publication.


Introducing #NousSommes

#JeSuisCharlie. #WeAreOrlando. #NousSommesStrasbourg. These are simply a few examples of a new idiom and phenomenon that has emerged, whereby the ‘personal’ modalities of social media become embroiled in collective expressions of unity, solidarity and resistance. How do we read these digital signifiers? These hashtags bear attachments of grief, pity, trauma, pain, but also represent messages of collectivity, community, courage, strength and hope. The meaning of these apparently simple formulations is fundamentally ambiguous. While these hashtags may at one and the same time appear clear and univocal, and have reached the point of almost constituting one of multiple forms of expected responses to traumatic events, they also open up new and fundamental questions about violence, trauma, collectivity and identity in the age of the digital. What makes these articulations particular, and what makes the digital dimension worthy of special attention in its scope for accommodating articulations of solidarity, struggle, despair on the one hand, and hope, collectivity, community on the other? Does the digital hold this power on account of its limitlessness, its intangibility, its ability to inspire utopian rewritings as a kind of space beyond the present, the immediate, physical world? This volume seeks to address these issues from a rich diversity of angles, precisely converging around the theme of #NousSommes/#WeAre.

It was only four years ago, on 7 January 2015, that the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack took place. Twelve people were killed, and eleven were injured. The tragedy was met by political, social and communal responses, and from this density of commentary and response emerged the hashtag #JeSuisCharlie. This first-person singular attached itself to the symbol of Charlie. In this we saw the cohesion of a multiplicity around one single symbol. The dissemination of this hashtag had important, explicit political ←1 | 2→effects whose various manifestations included that of forty-four world leaders joining arms in a rally following the attack. And, yet, like these world leaders, the unification around this symbol was a confused one, vulnerable to differing interpretations. Diffracting and multiplying into various articulations, the tag began to appear in the unification of other groupings, which saw the emergence of tags such as #JeSuisJuif or #JeSuisUnPolicier. More than this prolific multiplication of reiterations, this apparently unified wave of solidarity, however, the sharing and adoption of these terms concealed broad alignment with a rather noble, albeit nebulous, set of values. The sharing and usage of #JeSuis and similar tags gestured at once to a defence of free speech, support for a presumed parcel of ‘Western’ values, a protest against terrorism and violence, and a desire for safety. While this movement of #JeSuisCharlie brought people together, outstretching limbs to and from various corners of cyberspace, it also masked the divisions behind this apparent (re)iteration of agreement and solidarity.

Indeed, this proliferation of alliances was not limited to the singular, but broadened into the first-person plural: #WeAreOrlando following a fatal shooting in the United States, as well as #NousSommesStrasbourg. Here, the issue of collectivity was articulated more explicitly. Rather than simply being a unification around the symbol of Charlie, this appealed to a plural identity, an identity both pre-established before the event, but also partially determined by its resistance to such an event. Unlike the symbolic movement in Charlie, this ‘we’ had fewer connections to abstract values (such as free speech) and instead referenced the city as its identity. It would be a mistake to draw a hard distinction between the singular and the plural here. However, it remains the case that this movement away from the singular brought these questions of collectivity into sharp relief. If we privilege the ‘nous’ within our title, it is precisely in order to emphasise the digital aspects of this communal question.

Despite their many advantages in formulating new communities and modes of expression, social media offer neither an independent public space nor one that is immune to the questions of power and hierarchy. Indeed, entranced by the false sense of security and freedom experienced by many individuals in their use of social media as a personal tool of expression, user engagement typically neglects to consider the ways in which online ←2 | 3→spaces and modalities of ‘sharing’ are far from unbiased. Social media are then best not naively assumed to function simply as sites for identities to form freely and spontaneously, but are on the other hand sites in which identities may relatively easily be manipulated, reassigned and corrupted. Cyberdemocracy has proven itself not to be free from the problems of democracy in the more tangible world; if anything, new and more elaborate issues have arisen in the transposition of freedoms and contributions into this new and unfamiliar space. The outstanding requirements and issues of managing equality of expression in online space have been brought into focus by recent political campaigns, whereby rather than enriching knowledge, the internet has also been seen to have opened up a space for misinformation, fake news and anonymous, malicious influences. As is the case with regards to any expression in any medium, the question of whom is speaking, from where and why was never far behind.

One of the common critiques employed against ‘online activism’ is that the manifestation of affect seen in a hashtag does not materialise into corresponding, real political manifestations in ‘public’. Noise is made, in other words, around buzzwords and issues, but little or nothing is changed in the ‘real world’ by this digital outcry. Certainly, the act of sharing a hashtag does not necessarily amount to a substantial political commitment. That said, in the case of certain phenomena, such as the #MeToo movement, there are still very real political effects and developments that follow from these online, ‘shared’ forms of social media activism. Online spaces provide areas through which considerable ‘traffic’ passes, making a pronouncement on a prominent platform akin to a public occupation in a main city square, with the lifting of any geographical restrictions. As such, the power of social media as platforms for spreading certain political and social messages is indubitable. While the hashtag #NousSommes may not be an identical form of public manifestation as a protest, then, we aim to explore the possibilities and pitfalls of digital gatherings. Our aim in this volume is to consider the public and political importance of such forms of protest, as well as to elaborate new ways of understanding the offering of online tools and platforms to processes of identity formation and assertion.

While articulations like #NousSommes carry within them an important, and often unrecognised, degree of political agency and potential, ←3 | 4→it is also difficult to escape the traumatic passivity on which they are based. These words are issued and spurted as responses to trauma, repeated oftentimes more in persistent incredulity than in empowered resistance and conviction. What marks the singularity of #NousSommes and kindred movements is the role of the digital in mediating this trauma. Both our experience of traumatic events, such as terrorist attacks, and our response to them become embedded in a new virtual element. Our experience of these events is not simply broadcast through television and other media, media of which we are the recipients, but our response to them has also become partially determined by the digital, media that endow us with dual entitlements and responsibilities as consumers and contributors. While seeking to take into account the important and recent change that has occurred in the incorporation of the digital as a voice through which trauma, identity and solidarity may be articulated, it is also vital to avoid collapsing into an opposition, which considers these digital processes as somehow derivative or artificial. We are convinced that these hashtags need to be understood as part of a collective process of negotiating traumatic events, but one which challenges both our understanding of the collective and our understanding of the trauma.

It is important for us to stress the novelty and urgency of the discourses with which this volume seeks to engage. While such modes of expression may have first prominently manifested themselves in #JeSuisCharlie, this has not prevented them from developing thereafter. In many ways, digital articulations of community, grief and belonging are still very much an emerging phenomenon and one that has changed substantially even since the #NousSommes/#WeAre conference took place in Cambridge in May 2017. It is precisely because of this that we need to think through these. With increasing frequency and importance, these digital manifestations are becoming part of our public space. This volume seeks to capture this urgency and both engage with the already determined versions of this #NousSommes, as well as the potentials and possibilities contained within it. Importantly, these potentials are not limited to the specific phenomenon of these hashtags, but also greater questions around the digital, the collective, trauma, the human, and the machine.

Novelty and urgency also characterise another narrative which shapes this volume: the ‘Anthropocene’. The Anthropocene is a proposed new ←4 | 5→epoch that encompasses the impact of human activity on the Earth. The Anthropocene Working Group presented their recommendation to the International Geological Congress in 2016 on the basis that nuclear testing, pollution, deforestation and development, among many other factors, have altered Earth beyond the stability denoted by the Holocene – our current geological age. This volume approaches the Anthropocene cautiously and critically, analysing the problems associated with placing human activity at the centre of our geological and cultural narratives. These problems might include our persistent othering of animals, expressed by a number of contributors in this volume, or an identity crisis produced by our inability to comprehend or take control of this new epoch – despite its emphasis on our intervention and impact. Ultimately, the Anthropocene forces us to rethink community and agency: understanding the #NousSommes produced by the Anthropocene is a crucial part of understanding this new epoch.

One further compelling facet is the unique cultural interaction that this #NousSommes has provoked. Our contributors come from multiple different countries and are informed by a rich diversity of contexts, and the volume itself seeks to articulate a mixture of Francophone and Anglophone approaches. That said, there is a strong focus on the resources of French culture in addressing this question. This is not simply because of the French origin of the #JeSuisCharlie; rather, it is also a product of a particular focus on the thinking of the social and political within (particularly twentieth-century) French philosophy, literature and film.

Above all else, what we have sought to bring together in this volume is a multi-disciplinary perspective, which both demonstrates the rich depths and ever-expanding frontiers of the field of French Studies, while also demonstrating all that the field has to gain from dialogue with ‘external’ disciplines and non-traditional themes. Our work as editors has been based on a strong belief that this emerging concept of digital collectivity requires the perspectives to be gained from drawing upon multiple disciplines. While this may be so, it is not possible to address the essence of #NousSommes without rethinking the origins of the boundaries within which these disciplines have been established, and indeed on whose preservation they have traditionally depended for their survival. What is the relationship of the community to the outside, and how is its relevance changing in this age of the digital, itself hardly any longer a ‘new’ age? It is our hope that ←5 | 6→we have made some contribution to these questions, prompting further discussions and opening these aforementioned boundaries to new formations and interpretations.


To begin, Patricia MacCormack explores nonhuman and queer theories of subjectivity. MacCormack analyses animals, art and the Anthropocene in the context of these theories in order to progress new ways of understanding our relationship with our environment, and new ways of living which promote relationality rather than colonisation or occupation. Discussions of anthropocentrism and the fetishisation of the non-human are central to her development of a new ethics.

Solange Manche analyses anarchist humanism in the context of Murray Bookchin’s theories of social ecology. Manche posits that the exploitation characteristic of the Anthropocene can be explained through ‘the torture scheme’: a competitive neoliberal work ethic in which inflicting and suffering pain are elided. Manche approaches the Anthropocene through the frame of human exploitation, as a facet of geological exploitation.

Though #JeSuisCharlie may have begun in the West, it is important to stress that this phenomenon and its effects are not limited to the West. Boubé Yacouba Salifou’s work carefully outlines the effects of #JeSuisCharlie and the relation between us and them that this can instigate within a postcolonial context. This chapter takes as its object the reception of #JeSuisCharlie in the Republic of the Niger and considers both the intermingling of identities and affective attachments that this generated. Yacouba Salifou’s chapter helps us better understand the important question of the reception of these hashtags, but also the complex relationship between the Republic of the Niger and France.

Alexandre Leskanich examines the Anthropocene in the context of administration, comprehension and identity. Leskanich describes this new epoch as ‘incarcerating’ in its subsuming of all planetary activity under human control and management. Leskanich explores how this ←6 | 7→human-centred narrative makes it harder for us to understand ourselves and our environment, and leaves us unable to address the ecological challenges inherent to the Anthropocene.

An essential way to address a new phenomenon is to seek models in the past. Jack Coopey’s chapter seeks to sketch out the links between Walter Benjamin and #NousSommes. Coopey offers an account of Benjamin’s Arcades Project and links this to our present relationship to social media. The chapter foregrounds the way in which collective agency and consciousness can be developed through idioms like #NousSommes. Building on the Marxist conception of alienation, Coopey suggests that this new technology needs to be understood dialectically in order to bring outs its emancipatory potential.

Marie Chabbert’s article draws upon the work of Jean-Luc Nancy in an approach that unpicks some of the potential issues surrounding the formation of communities through digital unifiers. Chabbert indicates the issues generated by ostensible articulations of inclusivity, reminding us all too necessarily that inclusion almost always presupposes its opposite. Examining the particular case of the French context, and the movement surrounding the Charlie Hebdo attacks and subsequent proliferation of #NousSommes, Chabbert signals the dangerous homogeneity of said movement.

Many of these articles touch on or allude to the affective dimension of attachment and collectivity; however, this also raises questions about a psychoanalytic approach. Benoît le Bouteiller addresses just this question. Drawing on his clinical work, le Bouteiller considers the relationship between social media, addiction and the formation of collective identities. Building on the work of Jacques Lacan, le Bouteiller draws out the psychoanalytical implications for these new media and our dependence on them. Moreover, this chapter considers the implications of this dependence for concrete political events, namely the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018. In so doing, le Bouteiller’s work brings out the clear political and psychological problematics in the formation of new collectives.

Marianne Godard approaches the notion of community through a literary, and specifically poetic, perspective. The ‘Nous’ of Henri Meschonnic’s ‘Nous le passage’ echoes and preempts movements such as #NousSommes, insofar as the work attempts to verbally and poetically weave a space of ←7 | 8→communality, an anonymous singular subject is offered by Meschonnic as a way of thinking the ‘nous.’

This thinking of collectivity also raises fundamental philosophical questions. Andrea Perunovic brings these forward around the question of confidence. Engaging with key thinkers in French thought, particularly Nancy and Derrida, this chapter teases out the potential for a rethinking of our ‘being-with-others’ through #NousSommes. For Perunovic, social media offers the potential to rethink the foundations of our sociality and the confidence that we have in one another.

Finally, this collection concludes with an interview with Martin Crowley. Crowley’s interview expands on his work on the concept of automatic politics. Here, not only do we see the important political stakes of #NousSommes, but also our potential for activism and resistance through the internet and social media. Crowley builds lucidly on a number of different French philosophers (most notably Bernard Stiegler) to consider what happens to our politics in an age of automation and what this entails for equality, emancipation and community.

These chapters all approach #NousSommes from a diverse set of viewpoints and theoretical positions. It is our hope that this collection will help foster debate around the role that the humanities, and particularly French Studies, have in relation to digital media. Only through careful, rigorous and collective thinking can we hope to fully understand the implications and possibilities of #NousSommes.


‘Who is this we that is not me?’: Ecosophical Ethics1

It is not sufficient to liberate sexuality; it is also necessary to liberate ourselves from the notion of sexuality itself.

— Foucault (2000: 245)

This man of negation – yes, even he counts among the very great forces which conserve and affirm life … What is the reason for this sickliness? For man is more sick, more uncertain, more mutable, less defined than any other animal … even when this master of destruction, of self-destruction wounds himself – it is the wound itself which afterwards compels him to live

— Nietzsche (1996: 100)

Already constructed theoretical language does not speak of the mucous. The mucous remains a remainder, producer of delirium, of dereliction, of wounds, sometimes of exhaustion.

— Irigaray (2002a: 244)

That is the only way Nature operates – against itself.

— Deleuze and Guattari (1987: 242)

The above quotations share a disparagement of three systems: the system of epistemic language, the system of a non-relational hermeneutic man separate from the world, and the system which paradoxically claims that one’s capacity to define and be a subject leads to one’s freedom through that subjectivity. The nonhuman haunts all of these criticisms. It is present not as a precursor to the human in a chrono-centric pre-evolutionary way, nor as a descriptor of any organism which fails to fulfil the criteria of the human (itself a myth which has been anxiously affirmed and debunked ←9 | 10→since its inception). It is present as the world, even the cosmos, itself. Its verb-like (or active) affect precedes its function as a noun. It may describe any organism in a state which expresses and is affected in ways resistant to the three systems mentioned above, but it more describes escape routes, or modes of being which are apprehended in their more ‘natural’ state, though nature is not pitted against culture but is, rather, everything in its chaotic state, the pure potentiality of all mechanisms and combinations for action, production, destruction and metamorphosis. As Deleuze and Guattari tell us, nature operates against itself because it is not an ‘it’ in the same way that man or human is phantasised desperately as such. Nature is infinite particles and waves that include all matter without demarcating anything as independent of its connections to all other matter. The wounded man of Nietzsche is not destroyed but opened out towards novel possibilities of penetration and reformation, via the becoming-mucosal of Irigaray’s delirium and dereliction, mucus being a thoroughly nonhuman and thoroughly natural substance, a posthuman or ahuman humour, perhaps.

What trajectories of expression could constitute a nonhuman? I posit three: The nonhuman is constituted as an ethical entity without co-option or fetishisation; the nonhuman is a work of art as a silent, unknowable falsehood; the nonhuman is a work of nature in that it is the thought of nature. The first can only be a result of the experimentations of the second and third and thus will be addressed last.

Nonhuman as Art

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche sees art as having two principles: the first is it cannot operate to fulfil criteria and thus resolve or heal a problem. Related to this, the second principle is that art as falsehood shows the world as error. These both come from Man’s tragic adherence to the concept of the ideal where he asks ‘Is an ideal being set up or broken down here?’ (1996: 75). The first principle shows the folly in attempts to glue ←10 | 11→together the broken ideal, the second that ideals are erroneous understandings of the world to begin with. Beyond their associations with diachronous qualities of good and bad, ideals order the world through a will to power that privileges power over affect. This will to power also subsumes freedom, as an affirmation of a perceived understanding of the one who imposes that force as superior subject. The idealisation of the ‘I’ slaughters freedom before action even begins, and attempts at recuperation slaughter creativity. The vitalism in Nietzsche’s understanding of art, even though Deleuze calls it tragic (2006: 95), shows that Man’s tragedy comes paradoxically from his attempt to understand himself through force as power, and his expression of force without creativity as ultimately destroying other possible creative relations, and showing his ideal as a myth. The falsity of art, the world as an error, is a jubilantly positive way to describe art’s function. We understand the world through humanism as a topography populated with demarcated truths waiting to be illuminated, and which will all gel into a logical jigsaw and thus illuminate our own existences upon this topos when we finally reveal these truths. This self-perpetuating force relies on the pseudo-religious sense in science of logic as being coincident with meaning. Understanding the world as error repudiates the myth of logocentrism and relishes the inexhaustibility of the world in its perpetual recombinings of relations and the affects they produce. Via Irigaray with Nietzsche, error sometimes produces wounds, and these are the openings, or corporeally and psychically (never extricated of course) beneficial escape routes via which our new and unexpected becomings occur. Error is defined via man, and as Deleuze and Guattari state, nature operates against itself: for nature this is harmony, for man this is discord. Disjunctive combinations of things brought together ‘in error’ or ‘unnaturally’ as humanism may describe them, are the artistic combinations available only via nonhuman trajectories – those which are done with ideals, done with human faith in logocentrism, done with any form of art as recuperative or a more perfected form of nature, as Artaud says, to be done with the judgement of (State, Family, Capital, Education as) God: ‘The fact that the world is not yet formed,/Or that man only has a small idea of the world/and wants to hold onto it forever?/This comes from the fact that man,/one fine day,/stopped/the idea of the world’ (1988: 561).

←11 | 12→

Without wishing to draw false polarities, what Nietzsche and Artaud emphasise is that the human comes to the world from a psychical, ideational structuring of the world and by this actualisation of the world never experiences world, or self, or most explicitly self as infinite and infinitesimal part of the world. The nonhuman coming to the world as part of the world and already within the world is simultaneously corporeal and psychical (we are also done with the judgement of Descartes) and, most explicitly, undifferentiated from the world, including all other organisms and the unknowable of self within self – the word ‘self’ becoming an increasingly tenuous term. While this notion of undifferentiated relation resonates with queer theory, it also brings queer theory and art together. Nietzsche tells us what art is not for, and celebrates falsehood, yet from a nonhuman perspective, falsehood is nothing more than forsaking the idea of truth and falsity and their isomorphic hierarchical dissymmetry. Deleuze states that for the dogmatic definition of thought and image in art: ‘We are also told that we are diverted from the truth but by forces which are foreign to it (body, passions, sensuous interests)’ (2006: 96). By this dogma truth has its acolyte adherents – the very humans who created the concept to begin with, as a will to power, not an observation of ‘reality’ (itself often highly unreal). Any forces which are antagonistic to humanist thought must therefore be antagonistic to truth. Art, by its constructed nature, is untrue. While dogma sees this as resolvable through ‘method’ (Deleuze, 2006: 96) which makes logical our relations with nature, any ‘method’ opposed to logic would be untrue, and yet it is these methods which create and are responsible for art that liberates thought as an opening rather than confers information or knowledge as a structuring.

Queering the nonhuman could be considered an artistic practice for two reasons: the first is the impossible bind that we are in human culture and our access to nature is fatally prevented by this state, yet we must try liberate ourselves from this mode of apprehension for the sake of art and other nonhuman organisms, specifically the other lives we destroy. Secondly, acknowledging falsehood makes all things true, creating the queer relation as a chaos magic mantra in the hope that the expressions we emit and the affects we produce will fulfil the function of art – not to represent or confirm but to open new modes of expressivity in those which encounter art. ←12 | 13→For, like nature, art operates against itself. Deleuze explicitly states that dogma critiques the body, passions and sensuous interests. However these intensities manifest the body as ecstatic and vulnerable. Shifting from ‘the’ body, externally evaluated and judged by God, to body as constellation of intensities, independent of inside/outside, object/subject, describes the body as expressive and affective, liberated from the myth of the human, Vitruvian template which coincides with identity itself. Artaud explores this simultaneous destruction as liberation of body and subject as:

The need to abolish the idea,/the idea and its myth,/ and to enthrone in its place/ the thundering manifestation/ of this explosive necessity:/to dilate the body of my internal night,/ the internal nothingness/ of myself/ which is night,/ nothingness, /thoughtlessness,/but which is explosive affirmation/that there is/ something/to make room for: my body. (Artaud 1988: 565)

The body as Body without Organs, more correctly without organisation, for Artaud is the site of life, nature and freedom but his use of words shows, like many writers such as Bataille, Cixous, Irigaray and Kristeva, words can manifest corporeality without becoming ideals, words are fleshy mucosal bodies, Irigaray’s language of delirium. Art shows all substances as corporeal and also connects the cosmos with its own unique substance that is irrefutably libidinal, but without an object of desire: ‘To write is to seek luck. Luck animates the smallest part of the Universe: the twinkling of stars is its power, a wildflower its incantation. The heat of life left me; desire no longer had an object … I was happy to be the plaything of luck’ (Bataille 2004: 53). The sensual and sexual nature of writing is clear, as are all submissive relations to art we see, from our ecstasy at Bernini’s St Teresa’s ecstasy in the infinite unknowability of baroque folds reflecting baroque desire, to the Stendhal Syndrome – dizziness supposedly experienced by people experiencing great beauty. But if we attempt to construct (without structure) our queer selves as expressive art objects, all we ask is that our power opens up the world rather than closing it down in the too human massacre of nature that operations of signification masquerading as truth perpetuate, no matter how well meant when addressing nonhuman animals or minoritarians. Where Kristeva states ‘The act of questioning is present in artistic experience, in ←13 | 14→rejection and renewal of old codes of representation staged in painting, music or poetry’ (2002: 121), we acknowledge that, as unresponsive, questions do not, cannot, demand answers. Like the sexual subject which will not respond, taking our cue from Foucault, becoming nonhuman via understanding self as expressive in ways which resonate with art makes us shut up about any compulsion for defining factors of our desires and most importantly, makes no demand on any witness to the art that is self to define itself in order that we may oppose or reflect it. In its revelling, jubilant celebration of being constructed artifice, art demands we exploit and create unlikely relations with nature to become otherwise, not via the content of what we become, but the openings we make for others to become otherwise. Far from sacrificial however, this allows us to live many lives by forsaking the one life of the human subject in our constant malleability. Art which illuminates nothing but affects returns us to the first thing from which we are estranged, our bodies, without signification or subjectification, so that the more we know ourselves as art – as false, as nonhuman, as unnatural natural phenomenon – the more our entire relation with the world is inherently queer.

Nonhuman as Nature

The most immediate indicator of the human is often found in its juxtaposition against nature, defaulting the word human to culture and the word nature to nonhuman animal. This rhetoric justifies the murder and torture of nonhuman animals because they belong to the unconstructed and therefore somehow non-self-aware mechanised operations of nature, while humans belong to the sentient operations of culture, which, through our self-determined construction gives us the right to manipulate what, within this logic, cannot manipulate itself. Even much animal rights work attempts to drag nonhumans up to culture, imposing or demarcating a culture of nonhumans in order to vindicate their right to live only due to the ways they reflect human cultural operations. Nature is seen as a dumb ←14 | 15→mute accidental performance of phenomenon when it is denigrated as the lesser in the binary of the self-styled science of the human, and when the human discovers ‘truths’ in nature they are raised to a more noble status due to their becoming manipulatable. This is one problem with versions of posthuman theory that place the cyborg biotech human as the zenith of promises of ultimate self-realisation, where a relationship with nature is sought only to vanquish, reorient or exploit it toward posthuman as hyperhumanist goals. For this reason I prefer the concept of the ‘ahuman’ to the posthuman (MacCormack 2014) as it includes the natural phenomenon human organisms are in its address to relations, yet also demands the human forsake the more destructive compulsions which reiterate human subjectivity as a pattern of violation of nonhumans. Humans are social, nonhuman animals are natural, the humanist tells us. Yet, this society is what makes us a giant, mindless consuming phenomenon which overlays nature rather than being within the web of relations with nature. The social contract suffocates the natural contract rather than occurring within it. It causes amnesia of nature and demands nature rise to be integrated within the social in order to be acknowledged, verified and utilised. If it is below the social, it does not register and therefore does not count (as a differend). If it registers, it is made to celebrate its often devastating inclusion in the social by being used as host for the parasite who is Man, because it is included, but will never be that which includes it. As Serres writes: ‘Man is a stockpile, the strongest and most connected of nature. He is a being everywhere. And bound. According to philosophers of old, men formed a great animal by assembling through a social contract. In the passage from individuals to groups we rose in groups but fell from thought, to brute life, brainless or mechanical, so true is it that in saying “we”, publicly, meaning the essence of the public, has never really known what it was saying or thinking: such groups may be superior then, in critical mass, but inferior in the chain of being’ (2001: 18).

Demarcating yourself as human adheres you to a community, even when alone, so that the stylised perceived individuality of consumer capitalism is as much a stockpile of social brainless mechanisation as it is the placated mentality of any human society as a collective via failed-communist totalitarianism, the assimilative operations of fascism or other ←15 | 16→collectives. The solitary human always belongs to this mindset if it persists in defining itself as human. Paradoxically, the human sees commonality in purpose as giving freedom of individuality, where the very being of human makes one’s ‘right’ to do as one pleases to nature, while ethically common notions according to Spinoza are found in the very disjunctures of relations that allow two unlike entities to flourish in relation with one another. Deleuze states:

In short a common notion is the representation of a composition between two or more bodies, and a unity of this composition … For when we encounter a body that agrees with ours we experience an affect or feeling of joy-passion, although we do not adequately know what it has in common with us … (1988: 55, 56)

The commonality between humans as humans means any inter-human relations cannot be defined as queer. Whether via act, object choice, lack of sexuality or any other form of speech or silence about desire, if the source from whence it is emitted is identified as human – that is, someone who fulfils (or attempts to and fails in the case of many minoritarians) the template criteria of the social corpus as a subject belonging to the species human with all of its parasitic and violating impulses – then the desire is human and thus the relation can neither be queer nor (as will be elaborated below) ethical. Of course I am not talking here about bestiality or becoming-animal, but the reconception of the powers and affects which traditional conceptions of the human as social and cultural construct privilege.

Back to nature then! That means we must add to the exclusively social contract a natural contract of symbiosis and reciprocity in which our relationship with things would set aside mastery and possession in favour of admiring attention, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect; where knowledge would no longer imply property, nor action, mastery … the parasite takes all and gives nothing; the host gives all and takes nothing. Rights of mastery and property come down to parasitism. Conversely rights of symbiosis are defined by reciprocity; however much nature gives man, man must give that much back to nature, now a legal subject. (Serres 2001: 38)

Nature does not give so that the human can take, nature is never offered the opportunity to consent, and sadly in its grace cannot conceive of what the human has in store for it so often (in the case of many ←16 | 17→human-nonhuman–animal relations) and it does not recoil from the horrific dissymmetrical hierarchy the human imposes upon the relation until the full horror of that relation is executed. Those humans who seek to abolish such relations, such as abolitionist vegans, are defined persistently as ‘humans who believe/propose …’, etc. Abolitionist discourse is forced to enunciate what it is within human discourse via the human social contract, which is paradoxical to its primary goal of allowing others (both minoritarian humans and nonhumans) to exist independent of the human contract. The faux benevolence of ‘inclusion’ means the natural contract remains ignored by those who will not relinquish their parasitism, because the action of inclusion within the human discourse is in reality the reactive force of parasitism masquerading its destructive affects. For the human to become part of the natural contract is a queer operation. It involves forsaking the privilege of human social power, including all degrees of majoritarian to minoritarian, which delimits desire to one between humans as viable objects of desire or facilitators of acts, including one’s self as both subject–object and facilitator. In this way the human becomes the ahuman nonhuman. It also opens relations up to the natural contract, a gracious form of desire found in commonality as producing beneficial affects for all parties based on their unknowable specificity, contemplation as being affected by some ‘thing’ (thing being constituted by its flows of expression, not ontological essence) without intervening or interfering with it, and attention as a patient waiting that makes no demands, nor may even register. These forms of interaction are decidedly queer in that they describe quiet approaches, tentative waitings, nothing of which seeks a result or knows an outcome, and most importantly, exploits in a positive way the unpredictable infinity of potential relations when nothing is defined in advance and all things are appreciated with patient unknowing. If knowledge is mastery and speech is ownership then this relation is the opening out toward the thought of nature, listening to how nature thinks, which is of course also infinite and before and beyond any human syntax. Becoming-ahuman catalyses an openness to a natural contract, which makes other humans ahuman, and thus even in the most traditionally defined relations between two bodies nonhuman queerness flourishes.

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Nonhuman Ethics

In reference to the ethical consideration of queering the nonhuman there seem to be two trajectories into which philosophy risks falling – that of fetishisation and that of repudiation. Many feminists have maligned Deleuze and Guattari’s becoming-woman for co-opting women in their postmodern adventures and a similar argument could be made for their becoming animal, but this trend of fetishisation of the nonhuman is somewhat redeemed in their attention to fabulated animals rather than real life nonhuman entities – werewolves, packs, demons and such, aligning them more with the nonhuman as art than actual animal lives. Not so the narcissistic assimilation of his cat staring at him naked by Derrida, or Haraway’s Oedipal relations with ‘companion’ species, ignoring the slavery that domestication necessitated and the continuation of meat production that nurturing companion animals fosters, rigorously maintaining speciesist hierarchies. Speciesism continues in contemporary animal studies. Wolfe’s work ‘uses’ animals zoontologically, ironically enunciating ‘my assertion [to question species distinction] might seem rather rash or even quaintly lunatic fringe to most scholars and critics’ (2003: 1), whilst naming veganism as a form of radical posturing. Contemporary media trends from social media to digital theory assimilate human perceptions of insect hive interactions. Even animal rights in its traditional Singer (1996) incarnation, equivocates reflecting the human with greater integrity of life and liberty. This default position suggests the term nonhuman can refer the human to new ways of augmenting our own existential crisis by rethinking ourselves through taking conveniently supportive human perceptions of nonhuman animals – homogenised as species, denied their singularity – to further our obsession with ourselves, be it in affirmation of superiority or toward alternate understandings of human subjectivity. While the latter is an absolutely necessary project for thinking ethical ecosophical futures (without the use of subjectivity), it seems particularly cruel that we look to the very organisms we enslave and destroy to get us out of the philosophical identity crisis we continue to create for ourselves, rather than seek to unravel the concept of the human in order to ←18 | 19→open ourselves to the world beyond – beyond language, beyond structure, beyond dialectics and beyond signification. Spinoza states: ‘Emulation is the desire of something engendered in us by our conception that others have the same desire’ (1957: 68). Thus, any thinking the animal is not to liberate them but to further bend and conform their freedom to our use.

Abolitionism, by contrast, advocates the cessation of thinking the animal at all, as thinking the animal knows and manipulates it. (This does not preclude care, but care without reason, not through what an animal is but that it is.) Fabulated nonhumans and natural nonhumans show the human has always been a unique combination of a nature it cannot know and an imagination which has no limit, while humanism obsessively seeks to know nature in order to control it and limit imagination in order to regulate subjectivity through a perception of the concept of ‘truth’ as a limit of the possible. Queering the nonhuman requires a very careful consideration of how we use nonhuman, because all thought is ultimately use in that it produces material affects via action upon the bodies of others. As we humans are the only species which needs unravelling (and the only species into which we have the right to intervene), we are faced with the limitless energy invigorated in thinking what we already are differently without co-opting anything else.

The nonhuman understood in this way is the difference within the human that is nonhuman, but not like any nonhuman animal individual (and never like a species, a term which should be abolished in ethical considerations of nature). Queering the nonhuman queers the human so all humans become nonhuman – unlike themselves as the selves they perceive themselves to be and unlike the too often destructive values which accompany these. The role of queer is emphasised, as the noun nonhuman is secondary, even tactical, compared to the verb queering, because it privileges relation over being. Ethically this difference in itself is reminiscent of a body without organs, as, according to Spinoza ‘the human body is composed of very many parts of different nature, which stand in continual need of varied nourishment, so that the whole body may be equally capable of doing everything that can follow from its own nature’ (1957: 132). Spinoza is very clear in this section of the Ethics that love, not admiration or hope, are what constitute ethics. ‘Thinking’ the animal is without love, ←19 | 20→be it via the robbery of specificity which comes from metaphor or ethology as forms of admiration, or offering reasons why animals ‘deserve’ a better future through diminished human-generated torture and murder, where hope still relies on the animal proving itself. Abolitionism is love, because it makes us accountable for the expression of a passion – love – without demand for reciprocity or intervention – grace – that leads to leaving nonhuman animals alone by not intervening in their use for any reason.

In The Way of Love Irigaray states:

To suppose Being as the whole of being as ground does not take account of the ground that the relation between human beings represents. This relation does not realise itself as the result of a gathering of human beings, of people for example. It takes place each time between two subjects … The relation between those who are the same and different weaves a groundless ground. It corresponds neither to the abyss nor to nothingness but results from an act of grounding which does not end in any ground. (2002b: 72)

This natural ground reflects Serres’ natural contract, where the ground is the queer territory through which the nonhuman emerges, rather than a mapped dialectic social space occupied by two in opposition. Queer ground is natural ground in its capacity for welcoming endless affects and expressions and exploiting the mobilisations these afford, ethically via action – the activity of an organism based on the ways it is affected – and passions – the phenomenon of relations which occur between organisms as they originate outside the organism but affect it nonetheless. There is no need for a fetishised other to find the nonhumans we are within this queer terrain. Rethinking the nature of relation at all is enough to constitute a disempowerment of the human subject as an ethical, activist and experimental action if it seeks to avoid repetition which leads to reinstatement of the category human, in its majoritarian or minoritarian manifestation. Irigaray continues:

This real, in myself as in the other, contains in itself the possibility of blossoming. Its unfolding, its flowering, do not depend upon the making of something other. In this sense the human remains tied to nature. And when it takes root in History, without fidelity to nature, it alienates there its particularity and the task of producing it as such, among other things for the construction of a present and future History. The human also loses in this the occasion to elaborate in the present its relation with ←20 | 21→the other. And what it considers as the most human of its work then becomes non-human … which makes the human itself hybrid. (2002b: 121)

An ethical queering of the nonhuman is the act of love that comes from the self no longer understood as human and the other not sought to be understood, belonging to the same species – the ‘organism formerly known as human’ – but other to itself. Irigaray captures the capacity for nonhuman love and limitless desire without our needing to go outside the human and make another organism accountable for the failures in our own queering imagination. Even her human as hybrid is a hybrid made up of unlikely humans rather than the traditional mythologised animal/human hybrid. It is a chimera of unnameable parts of the human not yet apprehended (and without need to be). This chimera is the parabolic configuration of the fabulated at one end and the natural at the other, but curved so their intimacy is closer than the point at which we believe the self emerges. Our natural animal selves are unbound through openness to affect.

Deleuze states ‘[In Spinoza] animals are defined less by the abstract notions of genus and species than by a capacity for being affected, by the affections of which they are “capable”, by the excitations to which they react within the limits of their capability’ (1988: 27). Deleuze is explicit that for Spinoza, morality is a Judgement of God, a sentiment with which Nietzsche and Artaud would agree, while ethics is an ethology which includes man as it is a way of thinking all interaction (thought not in an evolutionary sense which would privilege man). This both allows the ethics to remain accountable for any inevitable interaction with nonhuman animals (denying neither human nor nonhuman animal their own unique affects) and refuses a hierarchy of liberty based on claims that some affects are more noble or higher than others. Further Deleuze and Guattari claim ‘affects are the becoming inhuman of man’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1994: 169 original emphasis), precluding nature from morality and the human from ethics should we remain within the realm of the signified subject. Ethics is defined by relation and specific capacities, not forms or species; queer is the ground of love which emphasises the interactivity of organisms defined through their relation, and thus all queer becomings facilitate our becoming-nonhuman.

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Conclusion: The Giving Ground

Queer has long been about letting go of opposition, giving up binaries. Nature/Culture, Male/Female, Hetero/Homo, Flesh/Word and myriad other scaffolds of majoritarian humanist signification are challenged by queer theory. Binaries almost always operate isomorphically, where one term fails to fulfil the more desirable status of the other, and the dominant term owes a debt to the oppressed for sustaining its mythological but naturalised power, vindicated through masquerades such as science, truth, language, family, capitalism, church. For queer there is no opposite. The nonhuman has tactical referents – animals which are not human and suffer because they aren’t so, but also the ahuman becomings of the human who wishes to repudiate the isomorphic power structures which facilitate all forms of oppression. The nonhuman both does and does not have an opposite. It is no longer animal to man, but it is stood apart from the ideational concept of the human. It is not opposite, however, as to be so would forget or deny the atrocities and not be accountable for the actions perpetuated by systems which value the concept of the human over other life. So becoming nonhuman does not oppose the human – it is indeed the impetus. Unlike the posthuman which, in its most biotech chronocentric fetishistic way hyper-stylises humanist compulsions of immortality, mechanisation, manipulation and exhaustible knowledge, the nonhuman has had enough of humanist directions, and seeks multiple trajectories which acknowledge human life, whatever that means, as part of a constellation of lives to which it must be accountable, while also indulging in the jubilance of the unthought potentialities that letting go of power for grace and love elicits. In a way, the nonhuman is the object queer could never speak, for queer does not define its objects, and the nonhuman does not know its desires. These terms are nonterms which lead to the most important binary that nonhuman queer collapses – the real and the signified. The Cartesian hangover of mind and body has borne out in contemporary society through the loss of the real, however nowhere is this more evidently shown to be a First World capitalist fantasy than in the wholesale murder and torture of nonhuman animals for ←22 | 23→various ‘uses’. No amount of argument, discussion, or ‘rights’ elaboration can vindicate this.

Speaking about why nonhuman animals should/should not be murdered for food, clothes or whatever use does nothing except perpetuate the denial of the singularity and suffering of the flesh of each animal whose only crime is it cannot speak within human signifying systems. Activism says very little but does an enormous amount physically; it simply stops this use, which is why abolitionism is the only ethical relation we can have with nonhuman animals. Ironically the hurl of the insult ‘queer’ has, at least for me, been replaced by equivalences based on abolitionism such as ‘extremist vegan weirdo’, or ‘animal terrorist’. All use words to insult a refusal to relate in a way that perpetuates signification over physical activism and false need over the corporeal suffering which should be the focus. Words and their intimacy with logic, reason and other elaborate denial fantasies have become the enemy of physicality. As Guattari states:

It is the body and all the desires it produces that we wish to liberate from ‘foreign’ domination. It is ‘on that ground’ that we wish to ‘work’ for the liberation of society. There is no boundary between the two elements. I oppress myself inasmuch as that I is the product of a system of oppression that extends to all aspects of living We can no longer allow others to turn our mucous membranes, our skin, all our sensitive area into occupied territory – territory controlled and regimented by others, to which we are forbidden access … Tirelessly it continues its dirty work of castrating, suppressing torturing, and dividing up our bodies in order to inscribe its laws on our flesh, in order to rivet to our subconscious its mechanisms for reproducing this system of enslavement. (1996: 30–1)

Nowhere is this more viscerally evident than in human treatment of nonhuman animals. While I am not in any way suggesting the liberation of nonhuman animals benefits our liberation and therefore is a reason for it, our becoming nonhuman is certainly necessary for any such liberation. Rethinking relations by refusing to allow signification to overwrite flesh has always been part of a queer project, in the pure reduction of sexuality to elements (one, two, many) in a unique relation that is before and beyond language. Queer subjectivity seems anathema, because if a subject is demarcated, its relation seems determined and its sexuality destined. Nonhumanity for humans is to subjectivity what queer is to ←23 | 24→sexuality – emphatically corporeal, anti-structural, without origin or destination, dependent on imagination, exploitative of unknown potentiality, and based on relations thought differently to ensure the expressivity of all entities their own experimental imagination which then circulates in a constant remapping of the world through the affects of unfamiliar actions and passions. Certainly queer does have a residual concurrence with sexuality or at least non object-oriented desire and pleasure, but for Serres, grace is a form of love and abolitionist nonhuman activism is a form of grace, and certainly love is not excluded from queer desire. The love that incarnates in leaving be is the most ethical form of desire and antagonistic to traditional significations of desiring relations. As nonhumans we can speak of desiring relations with other nonhumans (ourselves included) but we also acknowledge we are inextricable from the world through our actions and affects so nature, nonhuman animals and ecology are an inevitable part of this nonhuman queer. The specificity comes in the qualitative nature of the intensities expressed and the ways these remap the cosmogenic ecology of love.


Artaud, Antonin, ‘To be Done with the Judgement of God,’ in Selected Writings, ed. Susan Sontag, trans. Helen Weaver (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).

Bataille, Georges, Divine Filth: Lost Writings, trans. Mark Spitzer (London: Creation, 2004).Deleuze, Gilles, Nietzsche and Philosophy, trans. Hugh Tomlinson (London: Continuum, 2006).

——, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, trans. Robert Hurley (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 1988).

Deleuze, Gilles, and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (London: The Athlone Press, 1987).

——, What is Philosophy?, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

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Foucault, Michel, ‘Bodies and Pleasure’, trans James A. Steintrager, in Lotringer Sylvère (ed.), More and Less (New York: Semiotext(e), 2000).

Guattari, Félix, Soft Subversions, trans. David L. Sweet and Chet Wiener (New York: Semiotext(e), 1996).

Irigaray, Luce, To Speak is Never Neutral, trans. Gail Schwab (London: Athlone, 2002a).

——, The Way of Love, trans. Heidi Bostic and Stephen Pluhacek (London: Continuum, 2002b).

Kristeva, Julia, Revolt She Said, trans. Brian O’Keefe (New York: Semiotext(e), 2002).

MacCormack, Patricia, ed., The Animal Catalyst: Toward Ahuman Theory (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morals, trans. Douglas Smith (London: Penguin, 1996).

Serres, Michel, The Natural Contract, trans. Elizabeth MacArthur and William Paulson (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2001).

Singer, Peter, ed., In Defense of Animals: The Second Wave (London: Blackwell, 2006).Spinoza, Baruch, The Road to Inner Freedom: The Ethics, trans. Dagobert D. Runes (New York: Philosophical Library, 1957).

Wolfe, Cary, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species and Posthuman Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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1 This article first appeared as ‘Art, Nature, Ethics: Nonhuman Queerings’, Somatechnics, Vol. 5: Issue 2, 2015. Thanks to Edinburgh University Press for their permission to reproduce it.


#WeAreTheEarth: Rethinking Ecology and Community: The Case of Humanist Anarchism

The Anthropocene today is both an unavoidable and yet greatly paradoxical reality. It is largely acknowledged as a fact, but at the same time it seems to inject a high dosage of anaesthetic into the body politics. More than ever, the time has come to act. Without wanting to insult already existing initiatives, primarily grassroots, to ameliorate the current crisis, the conclusion that is often reached is that this generalised inertia results from the way in which we perceive ourselves and our environment. Hence, the argument goes that the way we experience ourselves in our current position within the world, as human beings, needs to radically change: an ontological shift needs to occur. The excessive drilling and tilling of the earth that current modes of agriculture and resource extraction represent are said to be underpinned by an ethos that justifies exploitation. As Rosi Braidotti’s work The Posthuman (2013) suggests, the Anthropocene is not only a question of ‘the human against nature’, but is linked to a larger problem of reducing not only our natural habitat, but also people, or groups of people, to a state of slavish submissiveness. Which, in turn, is tightly linked to perceiving someone or something as completely other and disconnected to ourselves: the same process of othering that nature undergoes. The justifying ethos in this case would be based upon dichotomous thinking patterns that declare the superiority of humankind in its opposition to the non-human and the non-thinking or non-rational world. The latter vision, according to Braidotti, is the hallmark of humanism defined by its ‘dialectics of self and other’ whereby ‘“difference” [is seen] as pejorative’ (15). Humanism, in this regard, is the siege of oppression and ‘lethal exclusions’: a view that is commonly defended in schools of thought that ←27 | 28→are concerned with the current state of our planet, such as deep ecology, biosiocology, or even the Gaïa Hypothesis (Bookchin Re-enchanting 9–10). Undoubtedly, ‘the humanistic arrogance of continuing to place Man at the centre of world history’ has greatly contributed to the exploitation of the earth for man’s benefit (Braidotti 23).

Arguably, however, the turning point does not necessarily, and certainly not exclusively, reside in a humanistic worldview. According to Peter Wagner’s interpretation of the prologue to The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt locates this shift at the moment humankind was first confronted with images of the earth as a whole, which made it possible to think of our habitat entirely in terms of natural resources: as a thing to exploit (qtd in Wagner 80).2 Whether we can really state that Arendt views our environmental situation as the effect of ‘an earth-born object made by man launched into the universe’ is highly doubtful (1957, 1). Wagner’s insight, however, historically dislocates the genesis of the justifying ethos from the Enlightenment to the mid-twentieth century and asks us to re-evaluate the blame we put upon humanism’s supposed anthropocentrism. Indeed, Murray Bookchin points out that ‘the Enlighteners […] were almost one in their commitment to support scientific and technological advances for social purposes – not ideological “hubris” for the purpose of dominating nature. The Enlightenment celebrated human ingenuity and promised to ease labor – with its implicit message of a more participatory politics – not to “subdue” natural forces out of a lust for domination’ (Re-enchanting 149). To advance this debate, therefore, it would be necessary to undertake a thorough analysis not only of these humanist texts, but also of their reception and the concrete influence of these ideas upon praxis. This, however, is unfortunately too ample an endeavour for discussion here.

Without picking sides, or dwelling too long on this argument, this paper will explore the potential of perhaps the most overlooked humanist tradition: anarchism. It will be argued that anarchist humanism, mainly as ←28 | 29→advocated by Bookchin and his notion of social ecology, offers a way to think about the living world that mirrors current scientific research; whereby, it overcomes binary oppositions emerging from its ability to think diversity and community as a precondition for a stable ecology and a free society. Besides presenting how anarchist humanism puts forward a rationale of the living world, which is key to a more sustainable future, I want to go beyond Bookchin’s assertion that the problem of the current state of affairs is fundamentally a problem that resides in the hierarchical organisation of social life as such. I will do so by arguing that the increasingly excessive exploitation of the earth and othering of animals and the environment, at large, is due to what I call the torture scheme: the organisation of our society in accordance with values that our neoliberal era upholds. This latter observation will take the argument back to the year 1957, the year Arendt also refers to, and will establish it as the marker of the spread of torture fetishism.

When talking about anarchist humanism, the first question that needs to be answered is what anarchism’s humanism, or at least its socialist variety, consists of, and how it differs from humanism as presented by anti-humanists. Especially since the new academic tendency of post-anarchism tries to emancipate anarchism from its allegedly archaic understanding of man (Graham 413; Political May 55). Very often definitions of anarchism are reduced to etymology. Derived from the ancient Greek, anarchism would signify ‘l’absence d’autorité ou de gouvernement’ (Guérin Anarchisme 13). The problem with the latter approach is that it completely bypasses how it is even possible for anarchists to be able to think society without hierarchy, which does not mean a society without boundaries, as shall be seen later on in relation to the question of the environment. The reason why anarchists can imagine a society without hierarchy is precisely due to their humanist assertion that ‘every […] human being is competent to manage the affair of society’ (Bookchin qtd in May ‘Post-Structuralism’ 416). Indeed, is not the Anthropocene itself the ultimate indicator of the human capacity to shape their environment in accordance with their intentions? Certainly, the destruction of biodiversity has never been at the top of anyone’s agenda, but self-interested accumulation of capital has.

Bookchin’s statement that man’s ‘potentiality for progress, and above all, its capacity for rationality’ (Re-enchanting 4) makes our species unique, ←29 | 30→certainly sounds like an appalling idea when considered from an anti-humanist perspective. However, the characteristics that anarchists consider as distinctive are by no means based upon a logic of exclusion, which thus radically opposes itself to the view of humanism that Braidotti depicts. According to Braidotti ‘the human of Humanism […] spells out a systematized standard of recognisability – of Sameness – by which all others can be assessed, regulated and allotted to a designated social location. […] The human norm stands for normality, normalcy and normativity’ (26). Humanism, thus, would function as a ‘dialectical scheme of thought, where difference or otherness [play] a constitutive role, marking off the sexualized other (woman), the racialized other (the native) and the naturalized other (animals, the environment or earth)’ (27). The human of anarchist Humanism, on the other hand, does not rely upon a static oppositional definition, but upon a definition of potentiality and development. Within this framework, or non-framework, it does not, or at least aspires not to, dominate any others. On the contrary, building upon Bakunin’s assertion that ‘le plein développement de toutes les puissances matérielles, intellectuelles et morales qui se trouvent à l’état de facultés latentes en chacun’ (Bakunin ‘La Commune’ 60) is the definition of liberty as defended by anarchism, it can be clearly stated that all human beings are considered in their potentiality of becoming, rather than by their difference in relation to the non-human. Hence, anarchist humanism diametrically opposes itself to the common misreading of Hegel’s master–slave dialectics, which interprets it as a Saussurian mechanism of oppositional meaning-giving or binaries. Anarchism, on the other hand, surpasses this need to think in oppositional terms – the need for there to be the non-free (the slave) as to assure the freedom of the happy few (the master) – by dismissing this ultimately very paradoxical construct:

Je ne suis vraiment libre que lorsque tous les êtres humains qui m’entourent, hommes et femmes, sont également libres. La liberté d’autrui, loin d’être une limite ou la négation de ma liberté, en est au contraire la condition nécessaire et la confirmation. Je ne deviens vraiment libre que par la liberté des autres, de sorte que, plus nombreux sont les hommes libres qui m’entourent, et plus étendue et plus profonde ma liberté. C’est au contraire l’esclavage des hommes qui pose une barrière à ma liberté. (Bakunin ‘Dieu’ 170–1)

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When considering the latter citation, it must be kept in mind that the earlier statement mentioned intellectual powers, or ‘rationality’ as Bookchin describes it, which should not be understood as some sort of mathematical or scientific intelligence per se. Bookchin’s rationality is ‘a lived rationality that, at its best, fosters cooperation, empathy, a sense of responsibility for the biosphere, and new ideas of community and consociation’ (Re-enchanting 6). It is precisely because ‘human beings differ fundamentally from other lifeforms in their ability to bring meaning and reason to the world [that] they are ethically obliged to develop a fine sense of responsibility to non-human beings and the planet as a whole.’ Hence, Bookchin’s rationality and his desire to foster the conditions for the deployment of human intellect should be understood to be close to the ambitions of the young Marx, or the Hegelian Marx.3 With the exception of Bookchin’s insistence upon the necessity to avoid all forms of domination, even when theorising revolutionary practices or strategies.4 As such, Bookchin’s rationality can be understood as an ethics seeking to avoid the domination, not only of human others, but also that of nature at large, which he only sees as logical, and thus rational, because we are part of the same world.

Viewed through this idea of ‘lived rationality’, the organisation of our society ‘along hierarchical lines of “supremacy” or “inferiority”’ (Social Ecology 21) makes little sense. It is not only irrational because it is not desirable. It is also irrational because, as Bookchin explains, society and the natural world could function in a different manner. Indeed, here, it is worth mentioning that the question of whether there should be a distinction made between the natural and the non-natural at all is a valid one, as Timothy Morton argues. Rather than arguing for an effacement of boundaries, Bookchin draws a difference between what he calls first nature, which can roughly be translated as all development resulting from biological evolution, and second nature, which can be summarised as that which relates to human culture. Both aspects of life are hence qualified as being nature or natural, without resulting in a horizontal understanding of ←31 | 32→the living.5 As nature and man are interdependent and interrelated, trying to subdue the symbiosis we are a part of makes no sense. It is unfortunate to see that this interrelatedness is not yet being fully acknowledged and acted upon – rather it appears to be increasingly the fact that we have a lot more in common with that which we considered to be non-human than we previously might have thought. Chimpanzees, like us, are known to be in need of ‘emotional bond[ing]’, not just food and warmth (Harari 294). There is growing evidence that they are capable of representational play (McCune and Agayoff) and, arguably, also of cultural transmission to a certain degree (Whiten, Horner, Waal). But perhaps these scientific findings are not really needed to become aware of our interrelatedness with, in these previous examples, the animal world.6 We only need to think about the numerous diseases we ‘share with animal species’ or the bacteria that are vital to our own survival (Braidotti 70). Braidotti, hence, reaches the conclusion that ‘we need to devise […] a system of representation that matches the complexity of contemporary non-human animals and their proximity to humans’ (Braidotti 70).7 However, if thinking in terms of proximity is not enough, neither would it be ecologically viable to think in terms of oneness or some planetary goo of wholeness. To do so would be to disregard the way in which balance in nature depends on diversity. As Bookchin notes: ‘ecologists have […] pointed out that the more simplified an ecosystem – as in arctic and desert biomes or in monocultural forms of food cultivation – the more fragile the ecosystem and more prone it is to instability, pest infestations, and possible catastrophe’ (‘Toward’ 161). It is therefore crucial to think in terms of difference, while simultaneously considering the specific characteristics of every lifeform.

This would contribute to a more balanced interplay between all the entities that are the stuff of life. This is the main reason why Bookchin’s social ecology is based upon ‘an ethics of complementarity’ (Social Ecology ←32 | 33→21). ‘In such an ethics, human beings would complement nonhuman beings with their own capacities to produce a richer, creative, and developmental whole – not as a “dominant” species, but as a supportive one.’ Overcoming dichotomous thinking is not enough, we need to think in ecological terms. As such, human beings should not be simply animalised, or put on the same footing as any other organism, whether it be a tree or an elephant. This is also why Bookchin’s social ecology is not technophobic, but embraces human creativity and productivity, as long as it maintains the diversity of the biosphere and tries to be an active part of it. Hence, he is highly in favour of an ethical development of technology. Bookchin’s ecologically rational community ‘would use the inexhaustible energy capacities of nature – the sun and wind, the tides and waterways, the temperature differentials of the earth and the abundance of hydrogen around us as fuels – to provide the ecocommunity with non-polluting materials or wastes that could be easily recycled’ (‘Toward’ 68).

Even though Bookchin is an anarchist, his ecocommunity does not appear to emerge from the mind of a radical revolutionary. The vast majority of people would probably agree that living in greater harmony with our environment, which Bookchin’s social ecology aims at achieving, is not fundamentally a bad thing. Jonathan Safran Foer’s extended study on industrial farming and meat production, for example, does not only show the horror of the United States’ cattle industry, but also gives the account of a vegan rancher and those who are actively trying to let animals be animals before going to slaughter.8 Clearly, some farmers are aware that our current agricultural practices – based upon the initial destruction of life: the idea being to obtain patches of land functioning as blank canvases for man to completely re-organise vegetation upon – are destructive and need to be rethought.9 Agroecology is yet another demonstration that, ←33 | 34→what Bookchin describes as his ecocommunity, is already being lived up to. By trying to understand an ecological area and acting in accordance with its diversity (its rhythm, it could be said), agroecology would be qualified as a very rational practice in Bookchin’s terms. What we come to see as being even more radical in Bookchin, however, is his reading of why we live in the era of the Anthropocene.

According to Bookchin ‘[t];he notion that man is destined to dominate nature stems from the domination of man by man – and perhaps even earlier, by the domination of woman by man and the domination of the young by the old’ (‘Toward’ 162). This citation indicates that Bookchin recognises the existence of a time during which communities were indeed non-hierarchical, anarchic. Subsequently, he reads them to have developed firstly into patriarchies and gradually crystallising into class society, that is, capitalism. This linear and smooth reading of the history of humanity is easily refutable by pointing out its pastoral idealisation of the past. Nonetheless, Bookchin’s understanding of the exploitation of nature being unavoidable in a capitalistic system, capitalism being defined by growth, appears quite plausible and fertile. Building upon Karl Marx’s definition of capitalist exchange as an endless ever going-on profit seeking venture, of which the motive is the reproduction of itself (Marx 252–3), an ecologically viable society is impossible: ‘a society based on production for the sake of production is inherently anti-ecological and its consequences are a devoured natural world’ (‘Toward’ 180).

Bookchin’s understanding of the irreconcilability of capitalism and ecology is not merely based upon its necessity of expansion and its ongoing search for new profitable domains, but is also the effect of capitalism’s preconditions for exchange, which are diametrically opposed to the general anarchist perception of what freedom means. As Marx shows in the first chapter of Capital, capitalism needs to find a way to exchange inherently different goods by creating a value-system of equivalents. Expressing that a coat is worth fifteen sacks of grain makes these two entities equals. Bookchin sees this as the reduction of the stuff of life to the simplicity of the ‘assembly line’ (‘Toward’ 167), not only because this system presupposes the possibility of the complete equality of things, but because it ‘brings the rule of equivalence to a historical extreme, [by presupposing that] all men ←34 | 35→are equal as buyers and sellers – […] in the free market place’ (‘Toward’ 165–6). This deceiving form of freedom, or the freedom of the worker to sell his own labour-power, as Marx would describe it, is incompatible with what Bookchin calls true freedom (Capital 274). ‘True freedom, in effect, is an equality of unequals that does not deny the right to life of those whose powers are failing or less developed than others. […] Now the weak are “equal” to the strong, the poor to the wealthy’ (‘Toward’ 165). Indeed, the general definition of liberty that is defended by anarchists is that it can only emerge from solidarity, from the collective that considers each and everyone’s idiosyncratic needs and desires. As Bakunin describes, freedom for anarchists is not a negative understanding of freedom:

J’entends cette liberté de chacun qui, loin de s’arrêter comme devant une borne devant la liberté d’autrui, y trouve au contraire sa confirmation et son extension à l’infini: la liberté illimitée de chacun par la liberté de tous, la liberté par la solidarité, la liberté dans l’égalité. (61)

When considering this understanding of freedom, it becomes clear how it resonates with Bookchin’s social ecology. For there to be no domination of the stuff of life, including human beings, and all that constitutes our biosphere, the particularity of all these elements need to be taken into account, as well as their interrelatedness and the whole that they form.

The latter analysis of capitalist mechanisms may give the impression that Bookchin takes us back to the primacy of the base/superstructure argument so prevalent in the Marxist tradition. However, Bookchin does not rigidly uphold the claim that the base shapes the superstructure. The fundamental problem, for him, lies within the social organisation of life in hierarchical terms, which is not exclusively a question of economic organisation. Regardless of his argument that capitalism took hierarchical structures to a pinnacle, he considers domination to be as much a question of certain mind-sets or conviction, without going as far as sketching out a theory of ideology. The reason why we are facing the instability of ecosystems, their increasing degradation, ultimately, ‘stems from the domination of man by man’ (‘Toward’ 162). Of course, in an era of advanced capitalism, the domination of man by man is driven by notions of competition and the primacy given to the market: ‘the universal antagonism of each against ←35 | 36→all’ (166). As long as our society is driven by the desire for profit, the fear of scarcity, violent competition, and the protection of individual desires to the exclusion of those others, it is impossible ‘to harmonize our relationship with the natural world, [as it] presupposes the harmonization of the social world’ (167).

Thus, Bookchin’s analysis permits us to see the current problem of the Anthropocene not only as a product of humanist arrogance, but of social hierarchy itself. Yet Bookchin, in thinking that the stage of capitalism he described represented the worst form of domination possible, did not conceptualise its difference from neoliberalism. Of course, the debate on the definition of neoliberalism itself, whether we should distinguish it from liberalism at all, or whether neoliberalism and neo-conservatism are two separate rather than one and the same thing, is alive and well.10 This paper, however, limits itself to David Harvey’s understanding of neoliberalism, as it clarifies our own economic self-understanding that Bookchin omits and, which arguably, remains valid today, regardless from the transformations capitalism underwent. Harvey mentions in his Brief History, that neoliberalism does not only reduce all social relations to market relations, like capitalistic exchange does, but it literally transforms ‘market exchange [into] an “ethics” in itself’ (3). Besides the market, I think that there is another type of moral veneration of hierarchical structures, or rather a process, strongly defining our neoliberal era, which does not exclude Harvey’s remark, but on the contrary complements it. I call this process the torture scheme, a scheme that is well exemplified in the documentary Your Neighbor’s Son: The Making of a Torturer. Through a series of interviews with young men, the torturers of Greece’s former military junta, it shows how they became the torturers through the process of being tortured: blurring the boundaries between victim and criminal. Having lived through unbearable humiliation, pain, and terror, these men arose as the victors of a stringent ←36 | 37→elimination of the weak and the non-obedient. Their privileged position of the torturer had been legitimised by this rite of passage. Whereas the military junta did not apply this logic of military training to society at large, the year 1957, ten years prior to the Regime of the Colonels in Greece, saw the beginning of the spread of an identical torture scheme as the ultimate work ethic. In this year, comically also the year Arendt refers to, Ayn Rand published her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. In this novel, phases of self-torture are seen as necessary rites of passage for the individual to reach financial success. Everyone starts and has the moral obligation, regardless of social background, to start as a dominated subject to become the dominator. The message is clear: we all need to have been exploited and have gone through physical hardships to legitimately reach the top; whereby, everyone, of course, is considered to have equal chances. This is the rite of passage I call the torture scheme, or the valorisation of work on steroids. In many sectors, wanting to succeed in today’s competitive economy means having to accept unpaid internships and daily additional hours. In London, corporate firms have their own sleeping cabins so that their sleep-deprived-highly educated employees can get a nap during their twenty-four-hour shifts. In France, ‘faire des petites nuits’ is the rite of passage of all young future lawyers. Subject to jokes and largely defended in the branch, putting oneself through tortuous rituals, can only legitimise the exploitation of the new aspirants. This fetishisation of torture marks a shift away from running life along the lines of the logic of the market, and introduces a new era of barbarous rituals of initiation, of earning one’s simple right to make a living in quasi-fascistic fashion.

Coming back to Bookchin’s remark that ‘ultimately all of our present ecological problems originate in deep-seated social problems’ (Social Ecology 20), torture fetishism makes the exploitation of the earth by man inescapable. Those in positions of power having earned their worth by self-inflicted pain and systematic belittlement by superiors cannot see the suffering of others, let alone non-human others, as problematic. When putting oneself in a position of submissiveness as some kind of moral achievement and sign of virtue, anyone and anything that does not recognise these values can be righteously oppressed. Because everyone can freely choose to live through a period of hardships, only the individual is responsible for her or his own ←37 | 38→success. Hence, there is no need for collective responsibility. As society no longer exists, social problems no longer exist. Or, as Margaret Thatcher so beautifully put it: ‘there is no such thing as society but only individuals’ (qtd in David Harvey 91). Consequently: collective commitment to improve the stability of the biosphere becomes, by definition, impossible.

Perhaps, humanism did contribute to the arrogance of Anthropocentric man, but the humanism of anarchism, undeniably, cannot be criticised as such. Bookchin, by taking the human as a point of departure for his social ecology, asks us to clearly consider, not only the biological fact that we are indissociably part of, and interconnected, with nature, whether it be animal-life, plant-life, or simply put the earth as a whole, but he also asks us to take the biosphere’s diversity very seriously. Without respecting each and every quality of the ecoregions, we find ourselves in a devastating monoculture. Thus, Bookchin would probably argue that the current environmental and societal problems have more to do with our inability to think excessive amounts of difference, extreme numbers of lines and delimitations, as a precondition for unity. We need to think the individual as well as the collective, in social and ecological terms.

Today, however, we are in an era of ultimate ‘equality’ governed by the laws of the market. The absence of all boundaries and the refusal to acknowledge distinctions does not simply expose human subjects to voluntary exploitation and obligations to participate in torture schemes, but also legitimises the exploitation of life. What disturbs us in dichotomous thinking patterns is not their interdependence, but the constructs of hierarchy that they presuppose and our inability to think beyond them. What we need to achieve is the capacity to consider the social construct that hierarchy is as a possibility of change. We need to build a future that considers the whole as well as the particular. We need to think boundaries in excess, in their abundant and impossibly representational multitude. Consequently, it can be questioned whether the theoretical framework adopted in Braidotti’s The Posthuman, even if it opposes itself to dichotomous thinking patterns, hence necessarily adopting them, should be re-examined as an effect of the historical reconsideration of the arrogance of humanism.

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Arendt, Hannah, ‘Prologue,’ The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), 1–7.

Bakunin, Michel, ‘La Commune de Paris et la Notion de l’État,’ Entretiens Politiques et Littéraires, Vol. 29 (1892): 59–70.

——, ‘Dieu et l’État,’ Ni Dieu ni Maître, Vol. 1. Daniel Guérin (Paris: La Découverte, 1965), 169–73.

Bookchin, Murray, Re-Enchanting Humanity (New York: Cassell, 1995).

——. Social Ecology and Communalism. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006. PDF file. Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Oxford: Polity Press, 2012. Print.

——. ‘Toward an Ecological Society,’ A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas: The New Anarchism (1974–2012), ed. Robert Graham (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 2013), 161–9.

Feher, Michel, ‘Rated Agencies: Political Encounters with our Invested Selves,’ Proceedings of the Economies of Existence conference, 10 June 2017.

Graham, Robert, A Documentary History of Libertarian Ideas: The New Anarchism (1974–2012) (Montréal: Black Rose Books, 2013).

Guérin, Daniel, L’Anarchisme (Paris: Gallimard, 1965).

Harari, Yuval N., Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: HarperCollins, 2015).

Harvey, David, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Lyn, Heide, Greenfield, P., and Savage-Rumbaugh, S., ‘The development of representational play in chimpanzees and bonobos: evolutionary implications, pretense, and the role of interspecies communication,’ Cognitive Development 21.3 (2006): 199–213. Web. Elsevier. 16 April 2017.

Malabou, Catherine, L’Ontologie de l’accident. Essai sur la plasticité destructrice (Paris: Éditions Léo Scheer, coll. ‘variations,’ 2009).

Marx, Karl, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume 1 (London: Penguin Books, 1990).

May, Todd, The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

Biographical notes

Susie Cronin (Volume editor) Sofia Ropek Hewson (Volume editor) Cillian Ó Fathaigh (Volume editor)

Susie Cronin completed her PhD in French at the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her research focused on the evolution of assisted and online literatures in the French context from the 1960s to the present day. She is a former invited researcher of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. She has previously published on Italo Calvino and French digital literatures. Her most recent research engages particularly with the works of Serge Bouchardon, Annie Abrahams, Xavier Malbreil and Jean Pierre Balpe.  Sofia Ropek Hewson completed her PhD in French at the University of Cambridge in 2018. Her research was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and focused on the work of Paul B. Preciado. She has published on Preciado, the work of Catherine Malabou, pornography, drag and queer theory. Her most recent work focuses on the history of contraception. Cillian Ó Fathaigh is a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on contemporary French philosophy, political philosophy and phenomenology. He has been an invited student at the École Normale Supérieure (Ulm) and he is an elected scholar of St John’s College, Cambridge and of Trinity College Dublin. His PhD offers the first comprehensive account of Jacques Derrida’s philosophy of institutions.


Title: #NousSommes