The Human is Not a Prosthetic Being, II: Coloniality, Race and Perhsonhood

In an earlier post I wrote about the status of the human in posthumanist endeavours, arguing through the child-figure’s ontogenetic function as the origin of humans that we have too easily acquiesced to an ontology of subtraction in the humanities. In this ontology, the human being is always born minus something, whether that something is designated culture, technology, gender, enlightenment, or any other category of modernity. One of the master texts in this Western tradition, as I pointed out in that earlier post, is Lacan’s account of the mirror stage, where the Imaginary-Symbolic lamination of the ego over the body in bits in pieces acts as a supplement, the prosthetic of culture that makes a human out of an incomplete and psychotic infant. So much for understanding what a child is then, for it becomes only and ever a human minus culture. Even from an anti-humanist conviction such as Lacan’s, then, the notion of the human as a fundamentally prosthetic being is reinforced.

Monique Allewaert’s remarkable book on ecological and what she terms the “parahuman” assemblages of personhood formed in the crucible of colonialism in the Americas, Ariel’s Ecology (Minnesota Press, 2013), adds an enriching and vital dimension to this critique of prosthetic accounts of the human.  Allewaert’s chapters map a fascinating array of dissagregated bodies in colonial and anti-colonial milieu, arguing through careful archival practice and attentive reading that “the tropics produced a different materialist tradition” (3) entirely from the received understanding of the enlightenment, rather than an oppositional claim vis-a-vis Anglo-European humanist projects that excluded the bodies of slaves, maroons, creoles, and indigenous peoples.  In a move whose importance it is difficult to understate, Allewaert adds that her account of ecologically arranged personhood in forms that did not address the contained, Cartesian ideal of European humanity, “is not only a claim about the shapes bodies take but also about psychology, insofar as I am suggesting that this form of personhood is not melancholically cathected to organizations of the body and the person that were impossible in the Americas” (20). For this reason, she adds that Ariel’s Ecology does not offer “a proto-poststructuralist position emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth century tropics. Quite the contrary” (20). The post/colonial and ecological forms of personhood and embodiment that appear in Allewaert’s new materialist account of the tropics undermines the implicit evolutionist teleology in any move to bring the deconstruction of Western metaphysics back to bear on bodies and person excluded from recognized membership in modernity.  Rather, we are called upon to consider that deconstruction and other poststructural treatments of the human are deficient to the extent that they ignore alternate formations that activated nonhuman and parahuman potentialities alongside the colonial rigidity of Western modernity.

In an energizing reading of Fanon’s digressions on Lacan’s mirror stage in the footnotes of Black Skin, White Masks, Allewaert notes the former’s emphasis of the racialized character of the disaggregated body of the imago for all subjects after colonization: the disaggregated and disorganizing black body is the imago of the white subject and the black subject in the Antilles (the latter who identifies himself with whiteness). While Fanon bemoans this psychic situation, advocating that the black subject be eventually made whole and human through a political therapeutics that, in overthrowing colonialism, would eliminate the racialized subordination of the disaggregated black body in favor of a Symbolically integrated black subject, Allewaert’s historicization of a tradition of parahumanity in the tropics suggest that their was no universal desire to integrate the black body into a prosthetic human subjectivity in the first place (104-106).

In other words, the universality of the category of the human as vulnerable being requiring a prosthetic or supplement upon which Lacan relies was not simply racialized as a form of exclusion and negation for some black persons in the tropics, nor was the project of humanism only opposed there on the ultimately recuperative grounds of exclusion, but it was also ignored, undermined and completely mutated by alternate formations.  “Fanon’s recognition that the parahuman body functions as the imago of all persons in the American plantation spaces anticipates a far-ranging account of American personality,” Allewaert explains, “one that recognizes the centrality of colonialism and racism to its production” (109).  As she makes clear, “Parahumanity is not, then, a suspension of the category of the human that involves not-choosing. It is a parasitism and a paradox in which choosing keeps the nonchosen in play as a potentiality” (111).

In making this point, I would argue that Allewaert accomplishes an impressive and important postcolonial reading of the category of the human whose reverberations should be felt across all disciplines. She particularly suggests that posthumanists, even those who do not ostensibly work on colonial spaces or postcoloniality, neglect the virtualities carried within Western ontologies of the human to the extent that they neglect its racialized production and its alternate, parahuman becomings. She also demonstrates quite clearly, albeit implicitly, that whiteness is itself a prosthetic that makes humans out of disaggregated bodies, whether the body of the child, the black body, or the body of a black child. To cling to an eventually inclusive humanism within postcolonial and critical race studies, then, is to reinvigorate the historically and ontologically fabulated technology of whiteness.

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One Response to The Human is Not a Prosthetic Being, II: Coloniality, Race and Perhsonhood

  1. Pingback: The Human is Not a Prosthetic Being, III: Race is Technical | Ecology and Reverie

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