And now, for something completely different: the Non-human Turn

3 minute read


I am fascinated by the non-human turn’s perspective of relinquishing human creative primacy, and removing humanity from the fictitious focus of attention. In my reading, the non-human turn is a stream of thought that accepts reality as a complex, messy, system of interrelated actors and affects, operating in overlapping mixed systems — to analyse the human means accepting humanity’s place in a larger picture. The “non-human” part of this turn is a purposefully exaggerated focus on those systemic components that are not human. This over-focus is important, specifically because there is a need to balance out conceptual representation of non-human actors within a worldview.

The actor-network theory is a great example of how this exaggeration is dictated by the network’s infrastructure. If we apply ANT to information networks (arguably the most obvious medium for it), we accept that humans usually represent mere end-points in a massive network composed of thousands, if not millions of actors and mediators. Even if we focused on one tiny slice of the network’s actors, such as the TCP/IP protocol, our brains already cannot parse the massive numbers of concurrent connections, handshakes, redundant packet stream sends and receipts, SYNs and ACKs required for posting on a social media wall. These non-human actors are all mediators — most of them so minimally mediating that their effects cannot be felt, or can be felt only when they fail to mediate (such as a corrupt information package stream). Nonetheless, they all mediate, and some of them do it on a much grander scale. The obvious example are information-filtering algorithms — written mostly by humans, yes, but increasingly self-organising and self-controlling. These algo-mediators represent an awesome manipulative force when it comes to human expressions within the network, and most of our creative flows linked to networks are mediated by them.

Accepting the hybridisation and multiplicity of actor types in networks is especially important when taking a systems-thinking approach to analysing the creative and informational flows. In systems-thinking I have come across the tendency to over-analyse human components and their interactions, and considering non-human system components as simply functionally there. However, to truly understand system dynamics it is necessary to give non-human elements the same attention that humans command. Each system is uniquely expressed, and minute changes in any component can have radical repercussions on the rest of the system. Non-human system elements influence, and are influenced by, the system’s humans and non-humans alike. In the case of strongly mediating non-human actors, ignoring their presence is downright perilous, because of their influencing and manipulating roles.

How about affect in non-humans? In my opinion, it would be a mistake to limit affect to interactions involving humans (in whichever mix of human and non human relationships). However, in order to assign affect to pure non-human entities and systems not involving humans, we need to step away from defining affect in human terms. Defining affect in non-humans requires accepting that there must exist non-human versions of both biological and ideological underpinnings comprising affective interrelations.

Lastly, there is a glaring hole in the non-human turn rhetoric: it is being conducted by, and between, humans. Its very name ontologically positions the discourse into an othering, a definition through absence, rather than a definition of essence. Object-oriented ontology and speculative realism get bunched in, used like justification vehicles of sorts; but still, both these terms owe their relevance to a counter-positioning (to Kant) so suffer of the same positioning problem. A solution to this problem can be approximated through speculation, and exploration of alternate creative flows (spec sci fi, for example). While still suffering from having been generated from the same poisoned well of humanity, speculation (and absurdism, abstraction) provide for alternative models and answers to complement our limited understanding of otherness. We will never know whether any of the speculative forms gets it right, but at the same time, we wouldn’t be able to know whether they do because of our inherent bias of, well, being only human.

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