Finitude and community: Posthumanism in contemporary fiction
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Albeit its topical diversity, the recent development of posthumanism as an intellectual discourse can be articulated as a critical reflection of modern humanism to overcome anthropocentrism and the dialectic logic of inclusion and exclusion (here, by “the dialectic logic,” I mean to describe a mechanism which produces an antithesis by establishing a thesis; for instance, establishing the definition of the human inevitably produces nonhuman beings). From Donna Haraway to Rosi Braidotti, those who are considered to be posthumanist scholars rigorously strive to conceive alternative ways to understand humans and their relationship with nonhuman animals without falling into anthropocentrism. One of the emerging alternatives in their theoretical endeavor is to conceptualize life as the common ground of all living beings. This communal relationship is what I will call a community of life itself. However, I argue that despite those scholars’ intention to eradicate anthropocentrism by replacing a modern human subject with life, their effort only empowers the human, because this gesture only shifts where to draw the line of inclusion and exclusion, so that it implicitly maintains the traditional concept of community as a unifying entity of the same. Furthermore, since it is humans who define life, this posthumanist approach endorses the authority over nonhuman beings to the human and thereby unintentionally retains anthropocentrism. In short, despite their posthumanist turn, a community of life itself fails to overcome modern humanism. My project aims to articulate an alternative notion of community which is more consistent with posthumanism than a community of life itself. To conceptualize the alternative, I will synthesize Jean-Luc Nancy’s deconstructionist philosophy of community with Niklas Luhmann’s social systems theory. Nancy defines community as a phenomenon that exposes the epistemological finitude of its participants, not a unifying entity with a specific immanence. Although Luhmann’s theoretical concern is not community, his adaptation of systems theory into sociology—particularly a concept of autopoiesis originally coined by Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela—provides a conceptual tool to develop a concept of community that is applicable to not only nonhuman living beings but also nonliving social beings, such as a corporation. Luhamnn defines an autopoietic system as a self-referential system that is operationally independent and environmentally open. It means that a system has its own epistemological logic while being susceptible to environmental stimuli. As one may see, a relationship between an autopoietic system and its environment articulated in Luhmann’s social systems theory resonates with Nancy’s community. This conceptual synthesis has two significant merits. First, by applying Luhmann’s theoretical abstraction of different beings into systems, Nancy’s notion of community becomes applicable to not only nonhuman living beings but also virtual social systems. This communal relationship is radically different from that in a community of life itself since this community is defined not by any positive common ground (such as life), but by the impossibility to have such a common ground because of epistemological finitude. This is why, by using Nancy’s phrase, I call this alternative notion of community as a community of finitude, a community that rejects unification of different beings. The second merit is that the ontologically hierarchical characteristic of Luhmann’s system’s theory (that is, for example, a human psyche as a metabiotic autopoietic system prerequires the body as a biotic system to exist) enables a notion of community to be conceived as a three-dimensional one instead of a horizontal (and therefore dialectical) one. To be sure, Luhmann’s ontological hierarchy between systems do not imply power relationships among systems. Rather, it is purely ontological. The community of finitude will be further articulated with systems-theory oriented posthumanist scholars such as Bruce Clarke and Cary Wolfe, and I will examine a community of finitude by looking at different contemporary narratives which illustrate communal relationships between beings in unexpected ways. My analyses of different communities of finitude end with describing the ethical implication of this alternative community. Unlike a community of life itself which unavoidably reinstates a modern human subject to advocate ethical imperatives, my community of finitude calls for humility to the unknowability of nonhuman others and conviction to live with the epistemological finitude inherent in our beings.