Spinoza Redux and Other Transpositions of the Posthuman Subject (Rosi Braidotti)


More on Rosi Braidotti — I posted earlier about Metamorphoses and its organization of a philosophical and political project around figures –in particular the joining of “women” with “animals,” “monsters,” and “machines.” In this one, Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics, Braidotti’s project is organized around the idea of trans-positioning. This means a re-positioning of the subject vis-à-vis ethics, gender and racial difference, nature, and death. For readers of Jewish philosophy, the ethics is a version of inter-relational or inter-subjective ethics that you can find in Martin Buber, while the very concept of eternity in time could be as if taken straight out of Franz Rosenzweig. Only Braidotti’s world picture is based on steroids, steeped as it is on the cultures and rhetorics of high technology and bio-power. Without ever quite disappearing, the human subject gets stretched in ways that older thinkers from the first part of the twentieth century would be unable today to recognize.

–As in Metamorphoses, Braidotti’s project is aesthetic in that a central preoccupation is the creation of what she calls “figurations” that might match up with our globalized and network societies and cultures. Of particular concern is the tension between the value of human decency and dignity versus the brutal power relations of late capitalism, particularly at a moment of advanced technology (pp.2-4). Technology stands out as both a creative and destructive force in the author’s point of view, which, for the most part, tends towards technophilia. Rather than address ethics as an abstract discourse, the ethical predicament is identified by Braidotti as how we live today and the meaning of life in that kind of environment. The term “transposition” is both technical and semi-technical, defined as a leap from one code to another, or as the weaving of different strands based on shifts of scale in patterns that are discontinuous, not harmonious (p.5).

–The ethical project is identified as “nomadic ethics” and “an ethics of sustainability,” with clear reference to the idea of nomadism in Deleuze and to the idea of conatus in Spinoza. The critical project is posed against tradition, which is mostly presented in terms of encrusted habit, toxicity, and authority. (pp.8-9). Chapter 1 is meant to establish a posthuman ethics, whose main conceptual concerns are not rights, i.e. subjective rights or the rights of a human subject, but rather power-relations, capacity, and alterity. The transposition intended here is a shift in scale from the anthropocentric models to ones based upon more complex environments and material embodiments. The ethical is established as that limit beyond which human subjects are unable to sustain themselves in life (p.158). Therein lies the critique of late capitalism as an unsustainable economic and political system. What concerns the author as “ethical” is the self-formation of the inter-dependent body embedded in nature and with others.

–If there’s a telos to this book, it is in “becoming imperceptible,” by  which Braidotti means no more and no less than the a future orientation and redemption from the past, becoming one with the common life of nature (zoe), merging into the  environment (pp. 112f, 127-8, 260). Understood here is a floating awareness, a radical and qualitative shift in perspective that comes when one abandons the self as a fixed social identity (p.135, 133). At its heart “becoming imperceptible” is for Braidotti a coming to terms with death on good terms, in which the good, the ultimate ethical good is a self-styled death that overcomes the tension between eros and death. Allowing the organism to die on its own terms, to allow silence to wash over the subject at its end, the longing for death, for non-life at the heart of human subjectivity. Braidotti calls this the experience of eternity in time. Readers of Jewish philosophy will recognize this temporal and existential figure in Jewish philosophy (pp.247-52), whereas Braidotti insists that this not a Christian or otherworldly figuration. Not unmoored entirely from “religion,” she calls it a “post-secular spirituality,” “redefined as a topology of affects” (pp.254f)

–While very much on her mind, the problem of suffering is the weak point of this project. Braidotti understands the care that this phenomenon demands, and she she claims that her point is not to romanticize nomadic subjectivity. The idea and practice of an ethics of sustainability is supposed to allow one to endure pain and suffering by creating more meaningful connections, and by marking a more deep awareness of existential and ontological limits (162-3). Ultimately, however, Braidotti conflates suffering with death as that price we pay not just for mortal existence, but for the goal of becoming imperceptible. While she claims to tread carefully, this kind of claim might be read as an opening gambit for a position that stands out as a kind of “theodicy,” a rather blithe form of amor fati. Uninvested in tragedy and trauma, the last word is with Spinoza, “the eternity of the mind” embodied in a single substance. Braidotti’s embrace of immortality rests upon a faith in the nomadic subject’s endurance, the hoped sense that death is “powerless to intrude on what a subject has been” (237-40). The conceit that affective understanding and awareness of human limits and enhanced capacities is supposed to help us transform, mentally, suffering into to joy (pp.102-3). Suggesting that the problem has not been handled with sufficient care or thought, the historical traumas suffered by African Americans and Jews are tapped only to be transposed (pp.67, 70-1, 73). What Braidotti seems not to see is that the problem of death viewed from the vantage point of catastrophic suffering is not just the relative simple problem of my death, but rather the death of others. Underestimating how the impact of trauma, the idea of transposing suffering into joy could only occur at a misplaced or even dis-placed register.

At stake is what figure gets the final word, and what figure makes the final impression. Consider it this way. Had the chapter on transcendence and transposing death (chapter 5) come before the chapter on transits and transposing the subject, we’d have seen something different. Without having to change a single word in either chapter, the reader would have been led to consider transcendence figured at the border of or gate between human life and death before then turning back to the work of the subject in this world. (That, by the way, is how in, The Shape of Revelation, I read the logic in The Star of Redemption –from life to death, back into life, but always with an eye on death.) In that way, the concern for the subject as a vulnerable being, the one which Braidoti is committed to sustaining, would have framed the figure of transcendence, rather than vice-versa. Rather than oceanic feeling or Spinozan substance (transposed as zoe) constituting the final figure, the book would have ended with the transpositional and inter-relational or non-unitary subject emblematized so persuasively by Braidotti in her reading of the letters between Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, upon whom Woolf modeled Orlando.  One understands this strong desire here to slip the subject, but as the final chapter, this metaphysical transposition threatens to scuttle nomadism as an ethical project.

Then is any of this believable, namely the disavowal of traditional religion, of classical humanism, and of capitalism? Perhaps the answer is no and yes.

On the one hand, as a reader of religion and Jewish philosophy, I am always interested to see how religion shadows these kinds of materialist projects. It remains unclear why a post-secular spirituality should be any less ludicrous, any less based upon unfalsifiable claims and gestures of transcendence than traditional ones. It remains also unclear if the self-transforming and self-fashioning subject is not much different than the classical human one. Precisely in its disavowal, it is just as likely that this posthuman subject (pushed to the limit of endurance) is the very quintessence of the classical subject, just more capacious and more enlarged and grandiose; its power would stand out as only enhanced at that very moment when the posthuman subject seeks to conjure away its visual presence in the act of “becoming imperceptible.” Lastly, there is no reason to believe that any of this has anything to do with anti-capitalism. Braidotti’s project lends itself to another version of the argument that the logic reflected here by the radical critic is constituted out of the same logic that she seeks to resist. There is simply no reason to think that capitalism is not anything but a rhizome, that nomadic subjectivity is not capitalistic.

On the other hand, flip the conceptual frame and reposition the chapters, set spiritual transcendence before ethical immanence and what one gets in the end of this wild exploration of the human being at its limit, pressed and stretched out of old shapes and transposed into new shapes, is the model of a truly capacious subject, life lived as intense and meaningfully connected, a model of a rational subject engulfed in waves of affect, technologically enhanced, spiritual life as presented somewhere inside the image-work of the neo-liberal machine.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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