Nonhuman Turn: Preliminary Schedule

The preliminary schedule for the Nonhuman Turn conference, where I’ll be presenting a paper on Lady Gaga, is now online, as I just learned from Adrian Ivakhiv (who has also just posted the abstract for his talk, “Process-Relational Theory and the Eco-Ontological Turn: Clearing the Ground between Whitehead, Deleuze, and Harman.”) For the sake of convenience, I have taken the liberty of embedding the schedule here.

Object-Oriented Gaga and the Nonhuman Turn

A while back, I posted the CFP for a conference on “The Nonhuman Turn in 21st Century Studies” to be held at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, May 3-5, 2012 (the original announcement is here). The lineup of invited speakers, in case you haven’t seen it, is very impressive:

Jane Bennett (Political Science, Johns Hopkins)

Ian Bogost (Literature, Communication, Culture, Georgia Tech)

Wendy Chun (Media and Modern Culture, Brown)

Mark Hansen (Literature, Duke)

Erin Manning (Philosophy/Dance, Concordia University, Montreal)

Brian Massumi (Philosophy, University of Montreal)

Tim Morton (English, UC-Davis)

Steven Shaviro (English, Wayne State)

In addition to these speakers, there will also be several breakout sessions at the conference. And, as luck would have it, I will be presenting in one of them, as the paper I proposed on Lady Gaga and the role of nonhuman agency in twenty-first century celebrity has been accepted by the conference organizers! I am honored and excited to have the chance to speak in such distinguished company, and I very much look forward to the conference. In the meantime, here is the abstract for my talk:

Object-Oriented Gaga: Theorizing the Nonhuman Mediation of Twenty-First Century Celebrity

Shane Denson, Leibniz Universität Hannover

In this paper, I wish to explore (from a primarily media-theoretical perspective) how concepts of nonhuman agency and the distribution of human agency across networks of nonhuman objects contribute to, and help illuminate, an ongoing redefinition of celebrity personae in twenty-first century popular culture. As my central case study, I propose looking at Lady Gaga as a “serial figure”—as a persona that, not unlike figures such as Batman, Frankenstein, Dracula, or Tarzan, is serially instantiated across a variety of media, repeatedly restaged and remixed through an interplay of repetition and variation, thus embodying seriality as a plurimedial interface between trajectories of continuity and discontinuity. As with classic serial figures, whose liminal, double, or secret identities broker traffic between disparate—diegetic and extradiegetic, i.e. medial—times and spaces, so too does Lady Gaga articulate together various media (music, video, fashion, social media) and various sociocultural spheres, values, and identifications (mainstream, alternative, kitsch, pop/art, straight, queer). In this sense, Gaga may be seen to follow in the line of Elvis, David Bowie, and Madonna, among others. Setting these stars in relation to iconic fictional characters shaped by their many transitions between literature, film, radio, television, and digital media promises to shed light on the changing medial contours of contemporary popularity—especially when we consider the formal properties that enable serial figures’ longevity and flexibility: above all, their firm iconic grounding in networks of nonhuman objects (capes, masks, fangs, neckbolts, etc.) and their ontological vacillations between the human and the nonhuman (the animal, the technical, or the monstrous). Serial figures define a nexus of seriality and mediality, and by straddling the divide between medial “inside” and “outside” (e.g. between diegesis and framing medium, fiction and the “real world”), they are able to track media transformations over time and offer up images of the interconnected processes of medial and cultural change. This ability is grounded, then, in the inherent “queerness” of serial figures—the queer duplicity of their diegetic identities, of their extra- and intermedial proliferations, and of the networks of objects that define them. Lady Gaga transforms this queerness from a medial condition into an explicit ideology, one which sits uneasily between the mainstream and the exceptional, and she does so on the basis of a network of queer nonhuman objects—disco sticks, disco gloves, iPod LCD glasses, etc.—that alternate between (anthropocentrically defined) functionality and a sheer ornamentality of the object, in the process destabilizing the agency of the individual star and dispersing it amongst a network of nonhuman agencies. As an object-oriented serial figure, I propose, Lady Gaga may be an image of our contemporary convergence culture itself.

Posthuman Play, Or: A Different Look at Nonhuman Agency and Gaming

In his classic work on “the play element of culture,” Homo Ludens (1938), Johan Huizinga writes:

“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.”

In the meantime, posthumanists of various stripes, actor-network theorists (or ANTs), speculative realists, and scholars in the fields of critical animal studies, ecocriticism, and media studies, among others, have challenged the notion that culture “always presupposes human society.” In these paradigms, we are asked to see octopuses as tool-users with distinct cultures of material praxis, objects as agents in their own right, and “man’s best friend,” the dog, as a “companion species” in a strong sense: as an active participant in the evolutionary negotiation of human agency. The reality of play in the nonhuman world, which Huizinga affirms, would accordingly be far less surprising for twenty-first century humans than it might have been for Huizings’s early twentieth-century readers.

Still, the situation is not completely obvious. Consider Tillman the Skateboarding Dog (see the videos above) or his various “imitators” on Youtube. Can we say, with Huizinga, that Tillman “[has] not waited for man to teach [him his] playing”? Certainly some human taught him to ride his skateboard (and waveboard and surfboard etc.). Furthermore, the imbrication with human culture goes further as Tillman’s riding becomes a spectacle for human onlookers, users of Youtube, and viewers of Apple’s iPhone ads (in which he appeared in 2007):

And yet it’s not the genesis or the appropriation but the independent reality of Tillman’s play that’s really at stake, i.e. not whether he learned the material techniques of his play from humans or whether humans profit from that play in various ways, but whether Tillman himself is really playing, whether he is an agent of play, when he appears to us to be playing. Is there any reason to deny this? After watching several more clips of Tillman in action, I am inclined to think not. We might raise any number of ethical, political, or other concerns about the treatment of animals like Tillman (who do, after all, have to undergo some sort of training before they can play like this — and training of this sort is work, hardly just fun and games). But, regardless of these questions, these video clips would seem to serve an epistemological (evidentiary) function, as they attest to the factual occurrence of a state of play (and associated affects?) in the nonhuman world. They militate, that is, against the view that pet owners unidirectionally play with their pets (by throwing sticks for dogs to fetch, for example), instead granting to animals an independent play agency and distributing the play between human and nonhuman agencies.

Anyone who has lived with an animal might find all of this quite unsurprising, and yet Tillman’s feats would seem to have a philosophical, metaphysical relevance, as illustrations of a nonhuman agency in a robust sense — or as phenomena that are poorly accounted for (in the terminology of speculative realism) by “correlationist” philosophies that deny the possibility of any but a human perspective on the world.

In the realm of media, a non-correlationist view of play as distributed amongst human and nonhuman agents, enmeshed in ensembles of organic and machinic embodiments, has emerged in game studies, where Ian Bogost and Nick Montfort’s platform studies, Alexander Galloway’s algorithmic aesthetics, as well as various applications of posthumanist inflections of phenomenology and actor-network theory, to name a few, all unsettle the primacy and coherence of the human in the play of agencies that is the video game.

What has been missing up to this point, though, is a consideration of nonhuman animals in relation to games’ technical agencies. This is understandable, of course, as most game controllers are designed for primates with prehensile thumbs, and many house pets seem not to understand the basic conventions of — an admittedly anthropocentric — screen culture (I’m thinking of Vivian Sobchack’s cat in The Address of the Eye).

Leave it to Tillman the Skateboarding Dog, then, to point the way to a new field of inquiry — a thoroughly posthumanist field of game design for gaming animals, or a critical animal game studies (which might be critical of the role of animals in games culture as well as recognizing animals themselves as critical gamers):

All jokes aside, though, Tillman’s virtual skateboarding raises some interesting questions for game studies by reframing familiar topics of immersion and identification. Surely, we will not want to impute to Tillman an Oedipal conflict, lack, or any of the other structures of the psychoanalytic apparatus that (as a carryover from film studies) is sometimes invoked to explain human involvement in onscreen events, and yet some form of embodied identification is clearly taking place here. What lessons should we draw with regard to our own gameplay practices?

CFP: The Nonhuman Turn

Honeycomb image

This promises to be a great event at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with an excellent lineup of speakers:

May 4-5, 2012
The Nonhuman Turn in 21st Century Studies

This conference takes up the “nonhuman turn” that has been emerging in the arts, humanities, and social sciences over the past few decades. Intensifying in the 21st century, this nonhuman turn can be traced to a variety of different intellectual and theoretical developments from the last decades of the 20th century:

actor-network theory, particularly Bruno Latour’s career-long project to articulate technical mediation, nonhuman agency, and the politics of things

affect theory, both in its philosophical and psychological manifestations and as it has been mobilized by queer theory

animal studies, as developed in the work of Donna Haraway, projects for animal rights, and a more general critique of speciesism

the assemblage theory of Gilles Deleuze, Manuel DeLanda, Latour, and others

new brain sciences like neuroscience, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence

new media theory, especially as it has paid close attention to technical networks, material interfaces, and computational analysis

the new materialism in feminism, philosophy, and marxism

varieties of speculative realism like object-oriented philosophy, vitalism, and panpsychism

and systems theory in its social, technical, and ecological manifestations

Such varied analytical and theoretical formations obviously diverge and disagree in many of their aims, objects, and methodologies. But they are all of a piece in taking up aspects of the nonhuman as critical to the future of 21st century studies in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

Running roughly parallel to this nonhuman turn in the past few decades has been the“posthuman turn” articulated by such important theoretical works as Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman and Cary Wolfe’s What Is Posthumanism? Thinking beyond the human, as posthumanism is sometimes characterized, clearly provides one compelling model for 21st century studies. But the relation between posthumanism and humanism, like that of postmodernism to modernism, can sometimes seem as much like a repetition of the same as the emergence of something different.

Thus, one of the questions that this conference is meant to take up is the relation between posthumanism and the nonhuman turn, especially the ways in which taking the nonhuman as a matter of critical, artistic, and scholarly concern might differ from, as well as overlap with, the aims of posthumanism. In pursuing answers to such questions, the conference is meant to address the future of 21st century studies by exploring how the nonhuman turn might provide a way forward for the arts, humanities, and social sciences in light of the difficult challenges of the 21st century.

Invited speakers (to date) include:

Jane Bennett (Political Science, Johns Hopkins)

Ian Bogost (Literature, Communication, Culture, Georgia Tech)

Bill Brown (English, Chicago)

Wendy Chun (Media and Modern Culture, Brown)

Mark Hansen (Literature, Duke)

Erin Manning (Philosophy/Dance, Concordia University, Montreal)

Brian Massumi (Philosophy, University of Montreal)

Tim Morton (English, UC-Davis)

In addition to the invited speakers, the conference will hold several breakout sessions for additional participants to present their work. Please refer to this Call for Papers for details and deadlines.

Ian Bogost: Seeing Things

Seeing Things – OOOIII from Ian Bogost on Vimeo.

Videogame researcher and developer Ian Bogost posted this video he made on the photography of Garry Winogrand, looked at through the lens of object-oriented ontology–a philosophical approach he shares with Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Timothy Morton. While my own metaphysical orientation is closer to the process-relational metaphysics put forward by people like Steven Shaviro and Adrian Ivakhiv (and following people like Whitehead and Deleuze), I agree with Adrian Ivakhiv that a significant middle ground can be found between the two positions. This is something that has been debated time and again in the speculative realism blogosphere, and I don’t want to get into that debate here; above all, I don’t want to suggest that there is no difference between these “schools” of thought, only that for some purposes these differences may be less important than the commonalities–above all, the common opposition to what Quentin Meillassoux has identified as “correlationism,” or the view that subjects and objects, humans and things, phenomenal appearances and substratal reality are always and inextricably tied to one another, that there can be no access to a realm outside human thought, and that there is no interaction that would breach this correlation. One can certainly question the claim that all of post-Kantian Western philosophy up until the advent of speculative realism (itself a contentious term that collects positions so various as to be outright opposed to one another) was beholden to the spell of correlationism, but whatever one decides about that, Meillassoux’s identification of this tendency is surely not without heuristic value. And thus speculative realisms, object-oriented ontologies, and process-relational philosophies can be seen to make common cause with posthumanistic positions that aim to decenter human perspectives and anthropocentrisms of all sorts. In my own work, I have tried to triangulate such philosophical efforts with a theory of media as (in Mark Hansen’s words) “the environment for life” or, as I prefer, media as the environment for agency (both living and nonliving). Anyway, this is all just a long way of saying that I recommend watching Ian Bogost’s nicely made video, which offers a thought-provoking contribution to this effort to think media beyond the frame of human intentionality, instrumentality, and sentimentality.

Adrian Ivakhiv’s ecocritical film-philosophy

Adrian Ivakhiv, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Vermont, maintains the excellent blog immanence, where he posts regularly on “the Form, Flesh, and Flow of the World : Ecoculture, Geophilosophy, Mediapolitics” (as he puts it in the blog’s byline).

Recently, he linked to a new article of his in the open-access online journal Film-Philosophy (published by the great Open Humanities Press), in a special issue on “Phenomenology and Psychoanalysis.” Here is the abstract of Ivakhiv’s paper, which is certainly worth reading in full:

The Anthrobiogeomorphic Machine: Stalking the Zone of Cinema

This article proposes an ecophilosophy of the cinema. It builds on Martin Heidegger’s articulation of art as ‘world-disclosing,’ and on a Whiteheadian and Deleuzian understanding of the universe as a lively and eventful place in which subjects and objects are persistently coming into being, jointly constituted in the process of their becoming. Accordingly, it proposes that cinema be considered a machine that produces or discloses worlds. These worlds are, at once, anthropomorphic, geomorphic, and biomorphic, with each of these registers mapping onto the ‘three ecologies,’ in Felix Guattari’s terms, that make up the relational ontology of the world: the social, the material, and the mental or perceptual. Through an analysis of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), I suggest that cinema ‘stalks’ the world, and that our appreciation of its potentials should similarly involve a kind of ‘stalking’ of its effects in the material, social, and perceptual dimensions of the world from which cinema emerges and to which it returns.


Film theory; film-worlds; ecocriticism; ecologies; Tarkovsky

Beyond this paper, Ivakhiv is working on a book called Ecologies of the Moving Image, which I very much anticipate reading. Indeed, in many respects, Ivakhiv seems a kindred spirit of sorts in his process-relational philosophical orientation and his endeavor to formulate a non-anthropocentric philosophy of film. With his notion that the cinema is one of the places “in which subjects and objects are persistently coming into being, jointly constituted in the process of their becoming,” Ivakhiv’s views seem largely apposite with my own film-theoretical project, which, as I summarized (in German) recently, seeks a “rapprochement between the conflicting human and nonhuman agencies inhabiting [Frankenstein] films” and the cinema in general. As I outline it in Postnaturalism: Frankenstein, Film, and the Anthropotechnical Interface, this “rapprochement […] consists […] of a recognition of the mutual articulation of experience by human and nonhuman technical agencies, whereby the affective and embodied experience of anthropotechnical transitionality is not arrested and subjugated to human dominance, but approached experimentally as a joint production of our postnatural future” (24). Ivakhiv’s proposal “that cinema be considered a machine that produces or discloses worlds” seems, in my opinion, to point in the same – experimental and postphenomenological – direction.