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BY 4.0 license Open Access Published by De Gruyter Open Access February 5, 2022

Posthumanist Cultural Studies: Taking the Nonhuman Seriously

  • Florian Cord EMAIL logo
From the journal Open Cultural Studies


In recent years, there has been a pronounced (re-)turn to questions of ontology, matter, and realism in the humanities and social sciences. What all these theoretical formations have in common is their profound challenge to human exceptionalism. Taken together, these approaches have productively been described as constituting a “nonhuman turn.” This article is a theoretical exploration of the relationship between the intellectual and political practice of Cultural Studies on the one hand and the nonhuman turn on the other. For this purpose, it brings both “into encounter” (Donna Haraway), investigating points of affinity, tension, and compatibility. The essay argues that such a theoretical encounter could prove to be tremendously fruitful, both intellectually and politically, and that Cultural Studies should thus take a genuine interest in these new approaches, engage with them, put them to the test, and, when needed, “translate” and “re-articulate” them. The result could be a Cultural Studies for the Anthropocene which would have a lot to contribute to the critical (cultural/political/social/economic) struggles being fought today.

The Nonhuman Turn

In recent years, there has been a pronounced (re-)turn to questions of ontology, matter, and realism in the humanities and social sciences. While theoretical formations such as actor-network theory, object-oriented ontology, speculative realism, or new materialism should by no means be conflated, what they have in common – and what they share with other intellectual developments like affect theory, animal studies, or new media theory – is their profound challenge to human exceptionalism. Taken together, these approaches have productively been described as constituting a “nonhuman turn,” which “is engaged in decentering the human in favor of a turn toward and concern for the nonhuman, understood variously in terms of animals, affectivity, bodies, organic and geophysical systems, materiality, or technologies” (Grusin vii). They can thus be said to be continuing and radicalizing the project of “decentring the subject” pursued most consistently by post/structuralism, and to have ushered in a new, postanthropocentric phase of posthumanism. Now, the liberal-humanist tradition is dealt a finishing blow as the remaining foundational dualisms inherited from modernity such as nature/culture or nonhuman/human are definitely discarded – though this time not primarily through a deconstruction bringing to light their inherent instability and slippage (Derrida, Of Grammatology), but by revealing the fundamental co-existence, interdependence, “intra-action” (Barad), and “entanglement” of human beings and their living and non-living “companions” (Haraway, When Species Meet). As is becoming ever more evident in the present, we have never been modern, individuals, human (Latour, We Have Never Been Modern; Gilbert et al.; Haraway, When Species Meet). “[N]either biology nor philosophy,” Donna Haraway has pointed out, “any longer supports the notion of independent organisms in environments, that is, interacting units plus contexts/rules” – instead, “sympoiesis is the name of the game in spades” (Staying with the Trouble 33). As Haraway has put it, beings are thus always “knotted beings” (When Species Meet 5), and becoming is necessarily a “becoming-with.” Consequently, “flat ontologies” replace the former distinctions between subject and object, human and “other(s).” Toppled from his (sic) self-erected pedestal, the human finds himself caught up in the “mesh” of things (Morton, Ecological Thought), hybrid networks in which he is just one being among beings. There is a strong ethico-political dimension to much of this work, which can generally be seen as a symptom of and/or response to the socio-ecological crisis widely referred to as the Anthropocene.

How do these important theoretical developments affect Cultural Studies as an intellectual and political practice? What contribution can it make in its turn to the most pressing issues of today, an era marked, among other things, by the generalization of biopolitics and planetary challenges such as global warming? What could a Cultural Studies for the Anthropocene look like?

These are big and complex questions and I will not attempt to provide answers. Taking my cue from Alexander Dunst, Elahe Haschemi Yekani, and Anja Schwarz, who have encouraged Cultural Studies to allow itself to be challenged and transformed by new theoretical influxes, I will, however, argue that Cultural Studies should take a genuine interest in these new approaches and that it should engage with, put to the test, and, when needed, “translate” and “re-articulate” them. I believe that such a theoretical “encounter” or “contact zone” (Haraway, When Species Meet) could prove to be tremendously fruitful, both intellectually and politically: For one thing, it has the potential to significantly enrich Cultural Studies by opening up new areas and means of analysis, adding a whole number of perspectives and concepts to the discipline’s theoretical-methodological “toolbox.” For another, such a “Cultural Studies-in-encounter” would have a lot to contribute to the critical (cultural/political/social/economic) struggles being fought today. The allusion to Stuart Hall’s classic essay “Popular-Democratic vs Authoritarian Populism: Two Ways of ‘Taking Democracy Seriously’” in my subtitle is thus no mere play of words. Taking the nonhuman seriously is today an urgent political task and, in fact, one way of, or even requirement for, taking democracy seriously – and this in at least two regards: On the one hand, it seems that a radical reconstitution of the demos is now in order. As proponents of the notion of “political ecology” such as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, and Levi Bryant have argued, the theory and practice of democracy need to be revised so as to make room for nonhumans as members and participants in the polity. This process is explicitly cast in terms of a struggle for empowerment: Thus, Bennett maintains that “surely the scope of democratization can be broadened to acknowledge more nonhumans in more ways, in something like the ways in which we have come to hear the political voices of other humans formerly on the outs” (109). For Latour, to eschew this process is to thwart democracy itself (Politics of Nature 69).

On the other hand, for Cultural Studies to take the nonhuman seriously also means gaining a fuller understanding of democracy regarding hitherto largely neglected aspects such as its affective and material dimensions. While, for instance, there has always been a materialist current in Cultural Studies, more often than not this only meant a focus on “history” and “practices” (and frequently discursive history and practices), but not an actual concern with “stuff,” “physicality,” “things,” and with the ways in which they contribute to structuring social relations (Bryant, Onto-Cartography 1–4). In contrast, recent materialist theorizing has convincingly unsettled the idea that political systems are primarily shaped by discourses, ideologies, and ideas and instead treated them as “socio-technical worlds” (Mitchell 8), shaped by material agencies. Thus, democracy or capitalism, for example, need to be rethought as “carbon democracy” (Mitchell) and “fossil capitalism” (Angus; Malm, Fossil Capital), a process that not only significantly extends our analytic work but can also in various ways affect political struggle.

Finally, the reference to Hall’s article reminds us that, as in the late 1970s and early 1980s, once again a powerful “new right” is presently on the rise, trying to exploit the overdetermined crises of the present in order to continue its already partly successful project of manufacturing consent for the erection of a new statist authoritarianism. Taking the nonhuman and democracy seriously today is not least also linked to the fight against this populism of the right.

Cultural Studies-in-Encounter

At first sight, a productive encounter between Cultural Studies and the approaches associated with the nonhuman turn may seem highly unlikely. After all, the former, heavily influenced by post/structuralism in the wake of the “linguistic turn” and itself a major influence in the late-twentieth-century “cultural turn,” has for a long time now championed social constructivism, which, however, has of late become a target of critique. For most speculative realist and new materialist critics, constructivism is really a form of an undead, “ethereal idealism” (Bryant et al. 3), a variant of what Quentin Meillassoux termed “correlationism,” i.e., “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (5). Many contemporary thinkers thus distance themselves from the (more radical) constructivist discourses of the cultural turn and their “allergy to ‘the real’” (Coole and Frost 6). In their eyes, this anti-realist stance has lost its radicalism and is now largely exhausted. In particular, they argue that the constructivist paradigm is generally inadequate for tackling the crucial matters of the present, be it the (ontological, epistemological, ethical) challenges thrown up by recent techno-scientific developments, the contemporary context of biopolitics, the complexities of global capitalism, or the looming ecological catastrophe. To be able to face up to such issues, these critics maintain, what is needed is a theoretical rapprochement with realism and materialism. As they see it, such new approaches would also be able to avoid further shortcomings of the focus on language, text, discourse, ideology, and subjectivity entailed by the cultural turn. Chief among these is the paradox that, in spite of constructivism’s often anti-humanist orientation, it nevertheless frequently ends up reaffirming the central position of the human. For, as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost point out, “to claim that something is constructed often has the unintended effect of recentering the human subject as the locus of agency despite the intention to undermine such claims” (26). The nonhuman here only ever appears as a site of inscription or projection for human meaning, never as a locus of value, meaning, or agency in its own right.

In view of this critique, can or should Cultural Studies and the nonhuman turn really be brought into the contact zone? I believe so. While Cultural Studies scholars may tend to respond in an antagonistic manner to the new approaches, we would do well to remember that constructivism is by no means essential or inherent to Cultural Studies. In fact, even when its institutionalization gained pace in the 1980s and 1990s, Cultural Studies has always tried to preserve its status as an “anti-discipline,” in the sense of resisting the “disciplinary” power of academic disciplinarity (Foucault, Discipline and Punish; “Discourse on Language,” esp. 222–224). “[I]t refuses,” said Hall, “to be a master discourse or a meta-discourse of any kind” (“Theoretical Legacies” 263). Importantly, this intellectual independence has involved a willingness to be unfixed, an embracing of fluidity, a dedication to becoming. Cultural Studies, in other words, has always remained delightfully undogmatic, open to new theoretical and methodological influxes, and ready to self-critically revise its own approaches. The result has at all times been a markedly dynamic and hybrid intellectual formation. Cultural Studies, Hall insisted, “is not one thing; it has never been one thing” (“Emergence of Cultural Studies” 11).

Considering all of this, an encounter between Cultural Studies and the nonhuman turn may turn out not to be so counter-intuitive after all. Indeed, there are a number of further factors that facilitate such an encounter: One of these is the fact that, from quite early on, different, even conflicting, theoretical trends coexisted and vied with each other within Cultural Studies. In an important essay from 1980, Hall identified what he considered to be the two most important ones: the “culturalist” paradigm, largely derived from the work of Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson, on the one hand, and the “structuralist” paradigm on the other. Hall went on to contrast the respective strengths and limitations of the two approaches, concluding that, by itself, neither one of them was sufficient for the study of culture and that what was needed was “to think forwards” (“Two Paradigms” 48) from the best elements of both of them. In the work of many succeeding scholars, this is certainly what has happened. What is important in our context is that the culturalist influence, in its productive antagonism with post/structuralism, has fuelled a more or less persistent scepticism towards social constructivism, especially in its more radical varieties. That is to say, even as Cultural Studies came to adopt many of the tenets of the constructivist paradigm, it still generally kept its distance from the latter’s “idealist, neo-Kantian, distinctly postmodernist brand” (Malm, Progress of this Storm 27). Not least, this is evident in the work of Hall himself, who, on numerous occasions, criticized what he saw as the exaggerated textualism or discursivism of many deconstructivist thinkers or the later Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. While aware that such categories could no longer be employed in a naïve, straightforward manner, many Cultural Studies scholars nevertheless refused to give up notions such as “experience,” “agency,” or “material reality.” Instead, along the lines of the fruitful tension between the two paradigms envisaged by Hall, these concepts were reworked, put “under erasure” (Derrida, Of Grammatology), or used “strategically” (Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine).

A good illustration of this tendency is Angela McRobbie’s instructive 1997 essay “The Es and the Anti-Es: New Questions for Feminism and Cultural Studies.” The text skilfully negotiates the friction between the anti-essentialism (the “anti-Es”) of feminist critics such as Judith Butler or Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak on one side and the “three Es” of the empirical, the ethnographic, and the experiential on the other. McRobbie explicitly makes the case for “a reconciliation of sorts” (75) by, on the one hand, “grounding” poststructuralist theorizing and urging it “to loo[k] outside theory and as[k] some practical questions about the world we live in” (86, 75), and, on the other, by recasting the “three Es” in the light of constructivist arguments. The essay argues that Cultural Studies itself should “be deconstructed to show how post-structuralist work has occupied a position of authority” (88), and makes a powerful – albeit qualified – call for going “back to reality” (83) by once again embracing the “three Es,” though now in a non-totalistic and non-essentialist way. McRobbie’s defence of a focus on “more materialist matters” and of a “more applied or practical feminist cultural studies” (76, 84f) is representative of a lot of work done within Cultural Studies, which typically stresses the interventionist character of the discipline and considers the semiotic and discursive in their complex interrelations with the material.[1]

Another factor encouraging an encounter between Cultural Studies and the nonhuman turn is the former’s preference for a type of analysis dedicated to the concrete rather than the abstract and to the complex, differentiated, and contextual rather than the general. Hall, for one, once said in an interview: “I am not interested in the production of theory as an object in its own right. […] I think my object is to think the concreteness of the object in its many different relations” (in D. Scott 152). This “radical contextualism,” which is at the heart of Cultural Studies (Grossberg 20–43), distinctly chimes with certain strands of the more recent theoretical developments. Thus, for instance, Bryant declares that “the first and most important principle of [his] onto-cartography lies in the dictum: ‘avoid abstractions!’,” and that it is hence “motivated by a plea for the concrete” (Onto-Cartography 257, 282). The attention to the concrete in such work manifests itself in a number of ways, but one of the most instructive cases is perhaps the mode in which capitalism is studied. Instead of treating it as a unified, homogeneous, and total system, these authors prefer “to tackle capitalism with a theory that stresses ephemeral assemblages and multidirectional histories” (Tsing 61). What is thus brought to light is, for one thing, the actual complexity and heterogeneity of “capitalism,” a “translation machine” that connects diverse economies, “producing capital from all kinds of livelihoods, human and not human” (Tsing 133). For another thing, by imbuing our understanding of the economy with what Tsing calls “arts of noticing,” we sharpen our awareness for the “patches of livelihood,” i.e., the enormously varied concrete rhythms, dynamics, and ways of life that are part of the global economy but are usually hidden from sight by the dominant capitalist imaginary and the abstractions of political economy (131–135).

I would argue that such new approaches are eminently compatible with Cultural Studies, which likewise has typically rejected abstract generalizations about capitalism and instead concentrated on the analysis of specific “conjunctures,” which are similarly conceived in terms of an always just temporary “articulation of multiple, overlapping, competing, reinforcing, etc., lines of force and transformation, destabilization and (re-)stabilization, with differing temporalities and spatialities” (Grossberg 41). Thus, underlying the thought of someone like Hall, we can detect an analogous conviction that capitalism can be considered “one thing” only “at the simplest level” (in Hall and Massey 67). In contrast, always aiming at historical specificity, Hall argues with regards to neoliberalism that it “has many variants. It is not a single system. And by no means all capitalisms are neo-liberal. […] It combines with other models, modifying them. It borrows, evolves and diversifies. It is constantly ‘in process’” (“Neo-Liberal Revolution” 708). Similarly, particularly the culturalist strand within Cultural Studies has always encouraged attention to the diversity and lived concreteness of what Tsing calls livelihood patches, to the associated practices, affects, the “stories about life and livelihood” (132), and their relation to the kinds of stories connected with what Michel de Certeau would refer to as the abstract “space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions” (93).

Finally, I would argue that the “special relationship” Cultural Studies has generally had with Marxism constitutes another factor enabling a rapprochement with certain variants of speculative realism and new materialism.[2] On the one hand, Marxism has always been a very important theoretico-political force within Cultural Studies, whose influence can hardly be exaggerated. On the other hand, there was never a straightforward, “perfect theoretical fit” (Hall, “Theoretical Legacies” 265) between the two. In fact, it could be said that it was precisely through a critique of particular elements of Marxist theory – its economic determinism, the model of base and superstructure, its understanding of ideology, etc. – that Cultural Studies first began to constitute itself as a distinct project. As Hall has put it, Cultural Studies has always been “working within shouting distance of marxism, working on marxism, working against marxism, working with it, working to try to develop marxism” (“Theoretical Legacies” 265). The result was what he famously termed a “Marxism without guarantees” (“Problem of Ideology”), one decidedly embracing contingency (Cord, “Dirty, Messy Business”).

This, I think, makes it a suitable candidate for the kind of “revised,” “open Marxism” (Coole and Frost 30, 29) some contemporary materialist critics call for. As several commentators have pointed out, the Anthropocene should perhaps more appropriately be termed “Capitalocene.” For it was precisely not some abstract, universal “man” that brought about the drastic changes in geology, climate, etc. we are now observing, but “Westerncapitalism. As this world system continues to lay waste to the planet and systematically produce ever starker inequalities, close and critical analyses of global capitalism are today more urgently needed than ever. For this task, Marxism remains indispensable. Yet, this has to be a Marxism that does not rigidly repeat received verities and simply “apply” established concepts. Instead, it needs to be adaptable, ready to modify itself in view of new theoretical as well as historical developments. It seems to me that one could hardly find a better fit for this than the programmatically “‘open’ marxism” (Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance” 6) of a Cultural Studies scholar like Hall: shifting and flexible, rejecting the false “guarantees” of any simple determinism and teleology, and constantly operating at “different levels of abstraction” (Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance” 7), aiming at analyses that would always be neither too big nor too small, but “big enough” (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble 50). It is therefore not surprising that Haraway has recently explicitly named Hall, along with Marx and Gramsci, as the “most likely Western Marxist allies […] for nurturing the Chthulucene [her counter-concept] in the belly of the Capitalocene” (Staying with the Trouble 185fn56).

One concrete example of how Cultural Studies and the “critical” varieties of new materialism (Coole and Frost 24–36) could productively be brought into dialogue concerns methodology. Coole and Frost have suggested that what is required to adequately address the complex realities of twenty-first-century global capitalism is a “multimodal methodology” (32). In particular, they argue, such a methodology needs to make possible an analysis of the intricate ways in which the micro-level of the everyday and the macro-level of the structure are today interlinked in the continuous reproduction of the social order. I believe that Cultural Studies can safely be said to be one of the richest theoretical sources when it comes to developing multi-modal methods of analysis. Among other things, the reasons for this lie in the already-mentioned coexistence of a culturalist and a structuralist paradigm within the discipline as well as in the import and combination of diverse theoretical agendas, such as a post-Foucauldian attention to “micro-politics” and a Marxist focus on political economy and the state. Even though Cultural Studies has – in part rightly – been criticized for “cultural populism” (McGuigan), i.e., for exaggerating the micro-political potential for resistance, and for overemphasizing the micro- at the expense of the macro-level, even in those areas of research in which this has been most pronounced, especially the study of subcultures and the media, other examples are easily found which more or less consistently draw both levels together.[3] In fact, within Cultural Studies, there is a rich tradition of such combined analysis of “the capitalist economy, the juridico-political domain, and the material quotidian” (Coole and Frost 34), so much so that it can even convincingly be argued that the joint exploration of the various levels of the social formation and of their shifting interrelations constitutes the signature mode of Cultural Studies analysis (Kramer). This can to some extent be traced back to the very “beginnings” of Cultural Studies, but an early high point is certainly the 1967/68 May Day Manifesto. In the brief methodological second chapter, the authors explicitly reject “monomodal” forms of study and instead opt for an inquiry that starts with “the social realities, in day-to-day living” and then “move[s] out from that, in a widening analysis and description, until we can see the outlines of […] a world-system” (Williams 6). The aforesaid circuit of culture could be mentioned here as another model for multimodal methodology, yet, the locus classicus for this type of analysis is surely the brilliant, collectively authored Policing the Crisis from 1978, which programmatically refuses “to abstract individual effects from the contradictory structures which produce them” (Hall et al. x), and whose extremely complex investigation moves from a minor social incident, a “mugging,” to the social formation as a whole, the crisis of hegemony and the gradual emergence of a “law-and-order society” in Britain in the 1970s. As Grossberg has pointed out, in works such as these, “small moments” are always treated as “point[s] of crystallization” that need to be connected “to the contradictions at work in the various domains of the social formation […] and the relations among them” (26).

There are, thus, a number of points of contact which could be used as starting points for bringing Cultural Studies and the nonhuman turn into encounter. While scepticism and critique are doubtlessly always important, I believe that Cultural Studies should be open to these novel developments – not because they are fashionable, but because both theoretically and politically, they possess the potential to enrich the discipline. As Hall asserted, “historical conjunctures insist on theories: they are real moments in the evolution of theory” (“Theoretical Legacies” 270). Consequently, in the Anthropocene, as the “Titanic of modernity hits the iceberg of hyperobjects” (Morton, Hyperobjects 19) such as global warming, our models for theory and politics (should) change. There are new issues that today need to be addressed – partly because they really are new, partly because they previously could not properly be thought within older theoretical horizons – new frameworks for understanding phenomena, new points of application, strategies, and, indeed, forms for political struggle.

Cultural Studies has always been a discipline dedicated to critical self-examination. In the brief genealogy of the field developed in his celebrated essay “Cultural Studies and Its Theoretical Legacies,” Hall explains that “[a]gain and again, the so-called unfolding of cultural studies was interrupted by a break, by real ruptures, by exterior forces; the interruption, as it were, of new ideas, which decentred what looked like the accumulating practice of the work” (“Theoretical Legacies” 268). Like the theoretical “moments” discussed by Hall – feminism, the “question of race,” the linguistic turn – and like others that followed later, the nonhuman turn has the capacity to become another such interruption, and to reorganize the field in some significant ways. Not least, this will involve an engagement with the “question of anthropocentrism,” i.e., of how far, in spite of its critique of the self-enclosed Cartesian subject, the discipline has nevertheless tended to reaffirm humanity’s central place in the world. Cultural Studies, in other words, will further be “posthumanised,” becoming a driving force of the emerging “posthumanities” (Badmington).[4] It has to be stressed that the posthumanism I have in mind here is not of the kind which dreams of the “enhancement” or “transcendence” of the human and in this way effectively perpetuates the notion of the autonomous liberal subject and the anthropocentrism of the humanist tradition (Hayles). The “post” of the posthumanism I am thinking of could not possibly mean a simple break or straightforward succession, a self-positioning “after” humanism or the human. Rather, like the “post” in postmodernism discussed by Jean-François Lyotard, the meaning of the prefix would above all signify a critical “working through.” This, in other words, would be a “critical posthumanism,”[5] which “inhabits humanism deconstructively” (Herbrechter 7) and subscribes not to an anti-human ontology, but to one “where humans are no longer monarchs of being but are instead among beings, entangled in beings, and implicated in other beings” (Bryant, Democracy of Objects 40). Whereas the “human” “functions to domesticate and hierarchize difference within the human (whether according to race, class, gender) and to absolutize difference between the human and the nonhuman,” the “posthuman” thus understood “participates in re-distributions of difference and identity” (Halberstam and Livingston 10). While such redistribution has long been on the agenda of Cultural Studies with regards to the human, an engagement with the relations with the nonhuman has largely been missing.

In engaging and “wrestling” (Hall, “Theoretical Legacies” 270) with the nonhuman turn, we should be fair to these new approaches and take them as what they are: forays into largely un- or underexplored theoretical territory, first investigations, not finished solutions. In fact, the challenge speculative realist or new materialist critics are facing today is in some ways not unlike the one thinkers like Derrida were confronted with at an earlier moment in the history of ideas, namely the necessity of having to think against and beyond many of the received categories and “truths” not just of common sense, but also of theory, and, since lots of these “truths” are inscribed into our very linguistic codes, of having to struggle with language itself.[6] These “difficulties of employing inherited epistemological and ontological terms and vocabularies in order to describe realities whose complex, multiply stranded constitution, [sic] is simply not rendered sensible or understandable by them” (Joyce and Bennett 11) are evident everywhere today. Hence, as in the case of Derrida, the frequent coining of neologisms in contemporary theory, the resignification of existing terms, the rather heavy use of metaphor.

The “political” could well function as a “relay” for the theoretical encounter between Cultural Studies and the nonhuman turn. While some critics associated with the latter have accused continental philosophy, and Marxism in particular, of having become largely depoliticized in the wake of the cultural turn (Bryant et al. 4), and while Cultural Studies too may perhaps to some extent be charged with having fallen into a kind of “dogmatic slumber” (Grossberg 4), in which it has somewhat lost its commitment to social change, Cultural Studies has nevertheless never really ceased seeing itself as a “political project,” which “aims to make a difference in the world” (Hall, “Theoretical Legacies” 271, 264). On the other side, scholars have similarly been worried about whether the intellectual developments of the nonhuman turn do not “evacuate the ground for all intentional action, thereby proposing a sort of political quietism” (Bryant et al. 16). As Richard Grusin has pointed out, particularly practitioners of politically emancipatory disciplines, often motivated in part by social constructivism, tend to believe that any appeal to reality or nature, especially if the latter is seen as possessing agential force, “could only operate in service of a defense of the status quo.” “But,” he continues,

this does not have to be the case. A concern with the nonhuman can and must be brought to bear on any projects for creating a more just society. If following Latour and others we take society as a complex assemblage of human and nonhuman actors[,] […] then the question of political change becomes a question of changing our relations not only to other humans but to nonhumans as well. To extend our academic and critical concern to include nonhuman animals and the nonhuman environment […] should be a politically liberatory project in very much the same way that earlier, similar turns toward a concern for gender, race, ethnicity, or class were politically liberatory for groups of humans. (xviiif)

Cultural Studies scholars, who may well intuitively tend to consider the nonhuman turn as regressive or reactionary, would do well to heed these words and look closely: For much of the intellectual work connected with the nonhuman turn, sometimes implicitly, often explicitly, is in fact political in nature and committed to emancipatory change. Even a field such as object-oriented ontology (OOO), which may not at first seem amenable to liberatory projects, or even to politics generally, has been developed in just such a way. Thus, OOO theorists such as Morton or Bryant have explicitly understood their thinking in political terms. As Morton has pointed out: “Ontology […] is a vital and contested political terrain” (Hyperobjects 20). More than that, whereas an OOO philosopher like Graham Harman does indeed subscribe to a politics that is very docile and unsympathetic to radical change (e.g. Bruno Latour; Object-Oriented Ontology 134–146), Morton (Humankind) and Bryant (Onto-Cartography) have more recently produced works in which they explicitly attempt to make OOO fruitful for emancipatory and decidedly left politics.[7]

For Multiple Vision: Theory as Muddle

Even though an important thinker like Bruno Latour has gone beyond so many of the dichotomies that have long characterized the philosophical tradition in the “West,” he himself and his followers as well as his (Marxist, constructivist, etc.) critics still doggedly cling to the dualism of “us” vs “them” – whereas I am arguing that it would in fact be very fruitful to look for the points where compatibility exists and to make these productive for theoretical work. In other words, here too, speaking in the idiom of actor-network theory (ANT) itself, we should spend our energies on the work of “translation” rather than “purification” and on the creation of new, potentially stronger “networks.” For instance, as others have already pointed out, regarding the oeuvre of Latour himself, there actually seem to be a whole number of such points at which the task of constructing a plane of encounter may be begun.[8] This is a task of “articulation.” As has often been the case with such endeavours in the past, this will certainly involve reinterpretation, “translation,” and appropriation. It will also mean, not only tolerating, but working with and through, tension – epistemological, ontological, conceptual, methodological tension. Yet, as Hall has pointed out, living and working with tension has always characterized Cultural Studies (“Theoretical Legacies” 268, passim). Tensions can be (made) productive. Among other things, they encourage a self-reflexive scepticism regarding one’s own certainties by obliging us to see from two (or more) perspectives at once. As Haraway has emphasized: “Single vision produces worse illusions than double vision” (“Manifesto for Cyborgs” 2196).

Such “double vision” will, for instance, be required when it comes to the vexed question of the status and value of critique. Many authors associated with ANT, new materialism, or speculative realism have been rather critical of what has variously been termed “critique,” “demystification,” “paranoid reading,” or the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”[9] If not quite another “turn,” there is nevertheless a distinct “postcritical,” “reparative,” or “reconstructive” (as opposed to deconstructive) trend today.[10] Needless to say, these attacks on critique have in their turn elicited critical responses. Yet, as several scholars have argued, it does not have to be a question of either/or. Instead, rather than to choose the task should be to combine both approaches. In fact, it’s not a question of being, but of doing. Cultural Studies does not have to be critical or postcritical; depending on the situation, it can perform both critical and postcritical labour.[11] Pragmatism suits Cultural Studies better than dogmatism. Thus, the guiding questions should always be: How can the issue at hand best be tackled? Which approach, or combination of approaches, is most promising to illuminate the subject under consideration? In this sense, to return to the metaphor I invoked earlier, the novel concepts and methodologies should perhaps best be treated like so many new hammers, screwdrivers, and pincers, which can be added to the Cultural Studies “tool box.” Following Spivak (In Other Worlds) and McRobbie, we should, in other words, not be afraid to use concepts “strategically,” in response to the requirements of the respective context. While this may involve theoretical friction, it will, more importantly, also yield new insight.

Another source of tension will undoubtedly be the question whether we need a notion of the social “totality.” Latour’s rejection of this and his famous injunction to “follow the actors themselves” instead ( Reassembling the Social 179) has earned him the hostility of many, especially Marxist, critics, who have felt that a conception of the totality is indispensable for their varied critical and emancipatory projects. Yet, the categorical pronouncements of Latour and others notwithstanding, it should not be taken for granted that some sense of the totality is necessarily incompatible with elements of ANT. Perhaps, both rather need to be somewhat reworked. As a matter of fact, received understandings of totality had already come under attack earlier, by poststructuralism and particularly Derridean deconstruction (esp. Derrida, “Structure, Sign and Play”), which had already led to a number of revisions – not least within Cultural Studies itself, with its notion of the “conjuncture.” These, I think, could today be drawn upon and developed further in light of the new criticisms articulated by ANT and elsewhere. It seems appropriate to adopt words Hall once wrote concerning the concept of “identity” and to say that totality is today “an idea which cannot be thought in the old way, but without which certain key questions cannot be thought at all” (“Introduction” 2). I believe that for an intellectual and political enterprise such as Cultural Studies, what Fredric Jameson (esp. 51–54) termed “cognitive mapping” is still crucial, as it is almost “a precondition for identifying any ‘levers,’ nerve-centres or weak links in the political anatomy of contemporary domination” (Toscano and Kinkle 8). We are in the Anthropocene, in the age of global warming, of global inequality – it would surely be paradoxical to relinquish the thinking of the totality now, of all times. Instead, what we need is a thoroughly materialized totality, one that includes the nonhuman in its various manifestations, and that is no longer in any way “organic” or “centred” (Edwards 286f), a “de-totalized totality” (Coole and Frost 29), so to speak.

Thus, against Latour (Pasteurization of France 173), unlike God, capitalism does exist. Yet, as was already indicated earlier, it can no longer be understood along traditional lines. Instead, I would suggest that we conceive of it as an (“overcoding” or “meta-”) assemblage [12] – an approach that will allow us to combine political economy with ANT and its focus on performativity,[13] that is, to link the micro-sociological study of markets, artefacts, and practices – what Latour calls “doing the footwork” (Reassembling the Social 178) – with that of the macro-dynamics of contemporary capitalism more generally. Benjamin Braun, for one, has recently advocated just such an approach, pointing out that “a more horizontal analytical framework – or flatter ontology –” involves a significantly extended conception of the political since “the ‘micro-institutions of capitalism’ feature not only as epiphenomena, but as sites of politics” (258). Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle seem to have something similar in mind when, in their engagement with Latour as part of their recent defence of social theory’s attempts to “see it whole,” they explain that “the theoretical desire for totality is not incompatible with a painstaking attention to traces, objects and devices” and that hence, “great dialectical writing would constitute precisely the kind of panorama that would […] present both the totality and its constituent devices, as well as the attendant gaps and dislocations” (48, 55). Conceiving of capitalism as an assemblage, without teleology, determinism, reductionism, and the assumption of uniformity or homogeneity, means focusing on “partial connections” (Strathern) and proceeding from the Harawayian maxim “Nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something” (Staying with the Trouble 31). It means thinking the totality in terms of complex, dynamic relations and various interlinked levels, layers, practices, and elements, including all sorts of “actants” (human as well as nonhuman), and explicitly as a problem of representation or figuration. I believe that such an approach is eminently compatible with the work of Latour, especially if we opt for a “weak” reading of it (see Castree) which ignores his more flippant remarks (such as the one just alluded to) and regards his thought not in terms of a discarding, but rather of a fundamental reworking of the concept of capitalism (in fact, Latour never really ceases working with it).[14] An extended elaboration of the notion of the capitalist totality as an assemblage will have to be conducted elsewhere, but let me just indicate that it will find important theoretical resources and support in ANT’s understanding of capitalism in terms of an organizing of markets and of long-distance control achieved through interlocking extended networks (Latour and Callon; Latour, Pasteurization of France 173); in the work of Marxist geographer David Harvey, who explicitly views capitalism as an assemblage (of what he terms “activity spheres”) (119–139), as well as that of Noel Castree, Erik Swyngedouw (“Circulations and Metabolisms;” “Metabolic Urbanisation”), and others who, often in dialogue with Harvey’s thought, have developed a radical political ecology programmatically synthesizing Marxism with ANT; in Jason Moore’s redefinition of capitalism as a “world-ecology;” or in the writings of new materialist critics such as William Connolly or Anna Tsing, who, each in their own way, likewise approach late capitalism as an assemblage or ecology.[15]

Finally, to give just one more important example, “double” or “multiple vision” will also be necessary when it comes to the tension between social constructivism and material realism. Yet, as some commentators have already pointed out, these do in fact not inevitably have to be irreconcilable opposites. Instead, through the work of translation and articulation, Cultural Studies can come to profit from the best of both. What, I think, needs to be realized is that “society is simultaneously materially real and socially constructed: our material lives are always culturally mediated, but they are not only cultural” (Coole and Frost 27). “It is,” as Coole and Frost explain, “entirely possible, then, to accept social constructionist arguments while also insisting that the material realm is irreducible to culture or discourse and that cultural artifacts are not arbitrary vis-à-vis nature” (27). I would therefore want to join Bryant, who declares: “What we need is a post-humanist framework that is able to synthesize the findings of the linguistic turn, Marxist thought, Foucaultian thought, media theorists such as McLuhan, Kittler, and Ong, as well as the post-humanist thought of the ecologists, the new materialists, the actor-network theorists, and the work of thinkers such as Diamond and Braudel” (Onto-Cartography 286). In this context, Bryant’s Onto-Cartography, among others, is particularly helpful, as it not only calls for such a new, hybrid framework, but also already takes some significant first steps in the direction of its development. I am convinced that only within such a framework will we be able to adequately respond to the pressing political demands of our time.

Now, if, in view of my suggestions regarding the joint practice of critique and postcritique, the conceptualization of a “de-totalized totality,” and the combination of constructivist with realist and materialist approaches, some readers object that this sounds an awful lot like having your cake and eating it too, then I can only respond: So be it! Low theory is willing and able to tolerate and work with incongruities.[16] It even tries to make them productive. Its orientation is, as I said, pragmatic. It has no truck with grands récits, with the production of totalizing, consistent systems of knowledge, which are free of contradiction – not only because these are often “impractical,” useless for tackling concrete phenomena, but also because, epistemologically and ontologically, they are too far removed from, to use Haraway’s words, the messy “tentacularity” of “Terrapolis” (Staying with the Trouble). Cultural Studies, by contrast, has always been committed to this messiness (Cord, “Dirty, Messy Business”). What counts, therefore, is not perfect theoretical purity and consistency – inappropriate for studying a world everywhere characterized by hybridity – but practicality. In other words, the criterion by which a concept, method, or theory is judged is, to steal Harman’s term, its “tool-being,” the question, i.e., in how far it can be made useful for “working on” a given issue. This is theory not “as a policing faculty flying high as a drone over all the others,” but as “interstitial, its labor communicative rather than controlling. […] It refracts affects, perceptions, and concepts from one domain of labor to another using whatever apparatus is to hand” (Wark 218). Such is the theory we need today; not the clear and total vision from the clean air high above – theory as “seeing like a state” (J. Scott) – but “theory in the mud, as muddle” (Haraway, Staying with the Trouble 31). Here, in the dirt, the mud, the compost, the humus, beyond speciesism, can we compose a Cultural Studies for the Anthropocene.


My sincere thanks to Gerold Sedlmayr as well as two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful feedback, comments, and suggestions.

  1. Funding information: Open Access Funding by the Publication Fund of the TU Dresden.

  2. Conflict of interest: Author states no conflict of interest.

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Received: 2021-03-27
Revised: 2021-11-11
Accepted: 2021-11-17
Published Online: 2022-02-05

© 2022 Florian Cord, published by De Gruyter

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