The Human is Not a Prosthetic Being, III: Race is Technical

Mehreen Murtaza, Triptych, 2009/2013

I have followed with interest, and write about in a forthcoming essay on race and technology in transgender studies, the Deleuzian project of the critical re-ontologization of race in the humanities, notably in Amit Rai’s wonderful formulation, “race racing.” But I am also interested in calling upon a Derridean genealogy of originary technicity that can take up race in a non-humanist, non-reactive and non-metaphysical manner through the problematization of the relation of technics to life. Derrida offers here certain forces of thought that Deleuze does not (and vice versa), so I find myself alternating between the two on the question of technics in order to push thought further, with Simondon triangulating the affair, as readers of this blog are no doubt aware. (Or, as Patricia Clough might put it, technology is here pulling unconscious thought toward the future.)

As a contribution to this endeavour, I propose that race is technical.

I will first move through Derrida to establish a working definition of this conceptual orientation: that technics are life touching itself.  Then I will turn to two pieces that think race and technology together, one by Beth Coleman, the other by Wendy Chun, to make a case for why we can happily abandon some of the humanist pretensions of theorizing race in order to treat race non-reactively, as technical (and not only technologically mediated). In so doing I argue we will be better suited to both critique systems of racialization and invent more effective and creative anti-racist political projects.

In this now accidental serial piece, “The Human is Not a Prosthetic Being,” I have looked at the unnecessary (because metaphysical) limitations of what I term “the subtractive ontology” of the human in the humanities: the assumption that the human is a being born minus something, usually culture, and by implication the domesticated version of technics as tools that enable subsequent acculturation. The serious problem with this ontology is that it treats the human as an incomplete being, making governance and subordination ontologically justified enterprises, rather than historically contingent and contestable arrangements. This, ironically, too, since it is an ontology that underwrites social constructivist theories. (At their core, then, they are fully Eurocentric and Enlightenment-indebted theories, for they argue that subjectivization can be perfected by subtracting race[ism] from the future liberal human subject.)

The reactive (in the Nietzschean sense) theorization of race, which, to be unfairly brief, treats race as a form of phenotypical false consciousness and dismisses race as a pure social construction, unfortunately shares in this ontology (or, as Arun Saldhana puts it in a very helpful essay, this kind of critical race theory has de-ontoligized race to its own reciprocal impoverishment). The motivation of the social constructivist theories of race is not to be dismissed so easily: they rail powerfully against the long and ongoing history of the biologization of race that has had an indisputably violent material impact upon racialized bodies. Nevertheless, if race is a “mere” bodily fiction, it follows that it must be subtracted from the human, removed to restore the body to a non-raced integrity that would be the overcoming of racism and racialization. This is, I think, a politically, ethically, aesthetically, and technologically immiserating ontology masquerading as political epistemology, especially for racialized bodies, who are interpellated into a racial melancholia that risks reinforcing the hegemony of whiteness through its very opposition to it, as well as the unmarked universalism of a non-raced body that, in actuality, is often already successfully substituted for by the white body today. (Nevertheless, my genealogical indebtedness to humanist critical race theory in my own training and work makes me recalcitrant from citing any text as symptomatic of this tendency, for I don’t want to diminish the importance of critical race theory in today’s academy, where it is being systemically marginalized.)

The key here is the notion of “the integral body,” a human body that exists in and of itself, for itself, before any of the blemishes created by the Enlightenment separation of nature and society: acculturation, bad education, gender, race, technology, capital, science, nonhuman life (and the list could go on forever). Why should critical race theory have to give up half the equation by positioning itself against “the body” (for its biological connotations) in the service of an Enlightenment concept of an idealized un-raced “body” that does not even exist? That would amount, in Bruno Latour’s helpful formulation, to a project of purification aimed at eliminating racial hybrids. This is where Derrida is undoubtedly useful, though he himself never took his work on technicity in this direction. Deconstruction excels, and differently so than Deleuze’s philosophy of difference, at instructing us carefully in the damage done by such positioning on either side of a binarism.

I will focus here only on Derrida’s beautiful text on Jean-Luc Nancy, On TouchingIt is from here that I have extracted the specific phrase that technics are life touching itself. In Derrida’s reading, Nancy’s book Corpus provides an account of “ecotechnics,” the techne of the body. The body touching itself is Nancy’s privileged example; at one point in Corpus, Nancy writes evocatively that “the body is the plastic matter of a spacing out without form or Idea” (63), which Derrida glosses in On Touching as a “plasticity and technicity ‘at the heart’ of ‘the body proper’…an irreducible spacing, that is, what spaces out touching itself, namely con-tact…this spacing makes for the trial of noncontact as the very condition or experience itself of contact” (221, emphasis in original). Touching, in other words, is conditioned by the radical impossibility of touching itself, of the pure, unmediated presence we might expect in contact between flesh.

Later, Derrida continues that it is through Nancy’s account of the irreducibility of the spacing or différance in touching that “this technical supplementarity of the body [is] acknowledged [as] essential and necessary, as it seems to me that one should always do” (223, emphasis in original):

It goes without saying [which I take to mean that it doesn’t] that ‘essential originarity’ is conveniently translating this ‘law’ into a classical language that precisely meets its limit here. For this supplementarity of technical prosthetics originarily spaces out, defers, or expropriates all originary properness: there is no ‘the’ sense of touch, there is no ‘originary’ or essentially originary touching before it, before its necessary possibility–for any living being in general, and well before ‘the hand of man’ and all its imaginable substitutes” (223).

To speak of “originary technicity,” in other words, does not merge the technical and the somatic into one substance, but maintains the productive différantial relation through which the spacing of life through its technical modes both effaces the purity of origin of the body while at the same time making available its energetic deferrals and media for what Nancy terms “incarnation”: the “organic articulation” of bodies via technics. Originary technicity, that is, is an account of how life differs from itself–a processual definition of being alive. Given that this technicity and plasticity in the body acts “well before ‘the hand of man,'” it includes nonhuman life and nonconscious scales of human life. To take from both Derrida, Nancy, and Derrida’s Nancy, then, I arrive at “technics as life touching itself.”

I want to turn now briefly to two remarkable essays that I couldn’t recommend more to anyone who hasn’t already read them because they deserve a longer treatment than I have space for here. First, Beth Coleman’s “Race as Technology” works toward  “extending the function of techne to race” in order to rethink the range of agentic potentiality that resides in its denaturing and re-purposing–or, perhaps more aptly for her discussion of race as a “levered mechanism,” its re-tooling (178). Instructively, Coleman asks us “to rest with the formula: race as a technology–as a prosthesis of sorts–adds functionality to the subject, helps form location, and provides information” (194, emphasis added). In a reading of technics couched in Bernard Stiegler, the tool and the human for Coleman have co-evolved from the very beginning, making race as a technology a recognition of the capacity wielded by all subjects to remake and retool the future of race in a less exploitative, less violent and less racist way than humanism offers in its zero sum game of subtratction.

Wendy Chun’s incredible essay “Race and/as Technology” opens with two valuable questions: “can race be considered a technology and a mode of mediatization, that is, not only a mechanism, but also a practical or industrial art? Could ‘race’ be not simply an object of representation and portrayal, of knowledge or truth, but also a technique that one uses, even as one is used by it?” (38). By posing race as technical, my answer to both of those questions, as it is for Chun herself, is emphatically yes. Race itself should be made to do more in the service of the overcoming of exploitative racialization and systemic forms of violence.

Both Coleman and Chun are careful to point out in their essays that a turn to race as technology is to think of race on aesthetic and ethical terms rather than ontological terms, since for both of them ontology amounts to the biologizing question “what is race?” My return to Derrida, as well as my affinity for the Deleuzian project of race racing, leads to a slightly different conclusion, one that I would like to clarify. If race has any ontological consistency, to describe it as technical clarifies that this consistency is historical, arbitrary, and contingent; that it is defined by change and a lack of origin (as Derrida explained through touching). Race has not always existed; it is not required for human life. And we can say confidently, too, that race is quite literally no-thing. It is instead a historically inherited capacity for embodied techniques that, by being technical, carries with it the immanent capacity to swerve towards anti-racist processes and projects, towards futures that are not prescribed by the narrowness of the Enlightenment and colonialism. Race is aesthetic and ethical, but both of those are made ontological by technicity if by ontology we mean to ask “what is the becoming of race?” instead of what race statically “is.”

To say that race is technical, then, is not a truth claim on my part–in fact, it is to deconstruct what race “is” altogether. It is a speculative theory. I think, though, that what it offers is a powerful set of tools with which to re-approach the problem of racialization and racism in the digital age. It also offers wonderful potential futures where people of color do not have to give up what is creative and minoritarian in race in order to become human. The sheer affective vitality of Afrofuturism, for instance, which dares to imagine a future for blackness that takes surprising, affirmative and frequently techno-scientific forms, is one reason why I cling to the creative, innovative and inventive potential of race as technical. Why would we want to give up the affirmation of a technical blackness in the name of humanism when we could instead live in an Afrofuturist future?

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5 comments

  1. Question about “the subtractive ontology” and food:

    I was wondering what you thought about bringing food and eating into conversation with “the subtractive ontology of the humanities” insofar as alimentation might be able to attune us to the resources through which any body is able to through itself together (and I’m thinking of Elizabeth Povinelli’s work and particularly her recent stuff on geontologies) and thus suggests not life’s incompleteness, but ongoing intimate relationality and obligations? I’m still diagramming the project, but wanted to ask the question anyway because I’ve been thinking and writing lately about how the relationship between food of/as life is because food in the Americas has been theorized largely in relation to models of societal integration (or the purported lack thereof), and therefore to nation-building.

    Just an undergrad looking to figure out my thesis and for some recipes for fugitivity. This blog has definitely provided plenty of food for thought already so thanks!

    • Hi Jose,

      Thank you for your really provocative comment, I think that alimentation is a wonderful lens through which to think about how to work through and without the subtractive ontology of the human. Beth Povinelli’s work came to my mind too, so I think you’re on the right track there. Food is so frequently treated in terms of lack and need (and of course, also, desire, a much more complicated event of consumption), which is to say that food is figured literally as (reduced to?) _the_ supplement of life. And yet, rather than a clean-cut presence or absence of food added to the fantasized integral body-as-such, subordinated to its need for energy (as if digestion or the cultural norms of eating were anywhere as simple as the concepts “ingestion” or “metabolism”), I think your pairing of alimentation with intimacy and relationality in a more ecological sense points to a fascinating and generative alternative. It seems to me that we can also reverse the scale and priority of focus if we want to: the human body is also food for innumerable microorganisms. In addition to the route of intimacy, I think the concept of metabolism, once unhinged from a conceptual apparatus of supplements and prosthetics, could offer interesting ways of thinking of categories like embodiment, race, gender, and “life itself.” It might be interesting to read Kyla Tompkins’ _Racial Indigestion_ in that light.

      Good luck with your thesis, I’d love to hear more about it, and thanks for reading!

      Julian

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