Overcoming Denial of Nature: Posthuman Perspective

 Erika Cudworth & Stephen Hobden, University of East London

Confronted by two of the most significant threats to ‘security’ on the planet, climate change and the mass extinction of our fellow species, International Relations, as a global discipline, not only should, but needs to provide the source of ideas that counter current forms of social organising, which appear to be driving us towards catastrophe at a global level. That International Relations has thus far singularly failed to provide a counter-narrative implies that a radical re-thinking is necessitated. This paper argues that the discipline is hobbled by two particular weaknesses. An on-going fetishisation of the state – an institution that when thinking at a species level has far proved not only inadequate, but has also blocked progressive solutions. Furthermore International Relations remains wedded to a perception of the world as sharply divided between humanity and non-human nature. Recent work within a posthuman framework has sought to challenge both of these elements of the discipline.

This paper seeks, in particular, to draw attention to the need to re-think human relations with the rest of nature, and to suggest how such a re-thinking will contribute to a positive re-focussing of the discipline. In doing so it assesses a range of literature that has previously sought to overcome a human/ more-than-human dichotomy – in particular Adorno’s work on human – nature reconciliation and recent literature re-evaluating the work of Spinoza.


This paper is part of an on-going endeavour that we describe as the ‘emancipatory project of posthumanism’. It partially emerges out of our previous work in developing what we’ve called Posthuman International Relations, and partly in response to discussions that occurred at the Millennium conference in 2012 ‘Materialism and World Politics’, which prompted us to consider in greater depth the possible political projects that emerge from a posthuman politics. In our book we briefly considered some of the literature that has emerged considering the development of policy under conditions of complexity.[1] While we consider that an understanding of the problems confronting policy making within complexity is important – in terms of developing an understanding of the constraints that complexity imposes on action – we consider much of this literature to be ‘problem solving’ rather than transformative or ‘critical’. In other words it seeks to offer solutions to living with complexity within the current form of social relations rather than considering how social relations might be transformed. By contrast, our starting point would be, following a long line of writers (Adorno, Marcuse, Bookchin, Gorz, Foster and Clark, Klein), that sustainable relations with the rest of nature and capitalism are incompatible. We have argued elsewhere that existing posthumanisms fail to provide a coherent basis for an emancipatory project, and that a critical posthumanism needs to develop the foundation for such a project.[2]

Such a project is essential because both International Relations as an intellectual project and international relations as a global practice have both failed to engage with issues related to environmental politics, and to a large extent have denied the embedded character of human systems within the rest of nature. Nature and environmental issues have been considered as ‘add ons’ rather than constituent of human activity. This failure and denial has not just been a feature of International Relations but is a keystone of a Western world view, whether drawing on religious traditions or enlightenment thought.

Our failure, at a civilizational, societal and disciplinary level, some suggest, is leading us towards some form of apocalyptic future, and there is a considerable literature depicting the environmental crisis in lurid terms. Virtual scientific consensus on climate change and the evidence of a sixth great extinction indicates that far-reaching changes are occurring at a global level.[3] This is perhaps effectively summarised by the comment ‘I think we’re fucked’.[4] While much of this is potentially hyperbole, when a scientist as respected as James Hansen warns of civilizational collapse then it could be time to start pushing the issue up the list of global crises.[5]

The purpose of a critical posthumanism is to investigate an alternate way of conceptualising global social relations, rather than thinking in terms of inter-state relations or other forms of reified human creations, but starting from a consideration of human relations with the rest of nature. This involves the consideration of a ‘more than human’ world and an acknowledgement that humanity is a less than exceptional or necessary species. Thus the starting point for an emancipatory project of posthumanism involves re-thinking how human relations with the rest of nature can be re-invented.

This paper commences with a discussion of our own understanding of the term posthumanism. Rather than repeat our previous discussions on this point we will use popular media to illustrate the various ways in which this term has been used.

Re-considering our relationship with the rest of nature has been an undertaking in various parts of critical thinking, and an interrogation of this literature could contribute to the posthuman project we have in mind. In the second section we assess some of these contributions. In recent years there has been a significant re-appraisal of Adorno’s work, in particular Deborah Cook’s Adorno on Nature.[6] Relationships with the rest of nature are a central theme of Adorno’s work, whether working on his own or in collaboration with Max Horkheimer. Likewise there has been an increased interest in Spinoza’s work and we discuss the recent book by Hasana Sharp which calls for a re-naturalisation of politics.[7] Finally in this section we look at notion of entangled empathy advocated by Lori Gruen.[8]

In the final section we examine the notion of the ‘posthuman community’. This idea draws in particular on Erika Cudworth’s work with dog walking communities, but, we argue that it can be applied to a range of other inter-species interactions. Posthuman communities indicate that the relationships between species can exist other than on the basis of domination, and hence we argue can be the basis for a more constructive interactions with the rest of both animate an inanimate nature – a point on which we conclude the paper.

Posthumanism in the movies

We have previously suggested that posthumanism has been used in three principle ways: in the sense of a world after humanity, as forms of body modification and transhumanism, and, our own usage, a world comprised of the more than human.[9] Questions of what constitutes the posthuman have been a regular feature of fiction and the movies. In some ways there has been a deeper engagement with these questions in fictional treatments rather than academia. Questions about the character of what it is to be human and the conditions of various societies where ‘civilisation’ has collapsed have frequently been investigated in literature and film.

Posthumanism has been used in the sense of ‘after humanity’. Dystopias of various kinds have become a mainstream element in popular literature (particularly so-called young adult literature) and in the movies, with the Hunger Games trilogy being a popular and influential example. The current popularity of this genre perhaps reflects societal fears of a civilizational breakdown – possibly as a result of climate change, or nuclear conflict. Such concerns have a long history though, dating back to at least Orwell’s 1984 and the future society described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. A compelling and much lauded contemporary example is Margaret Attwood’s Oryx and Crake, set at a point some way into the future, where a character called Snowman is contemplating the devastated landscape around him and his own situation as probably the last man on earth after a genetically engineered disease has wiped out the human. The novel is a gripping tale of Snowman’s struggles to survive among a world populated with genetic mutations of species and in the face of his gradual starvation. We have of course, a human narrator, Snowman, and his previous incarnation as a naive young man called Jimmy. Jimmy watches as the world hurtles towards catastrophe masterminded by his over-ambitious genius scientist friend, Crake. The book’s frame is the potential of science to create genetic chaos if the only constraint on developments was financial, something that critics pointed out is closer to realization than we may care to think[10]. Pigoons (a combination of pig and human genes) provide fast grown organs for human transplant, wolvogs (wolf/dog hybids) make hyper effective guards and ChickieNobs replace chicken-meat from hens. Jimmy is the conduit for Attwood’s concern as seen here in his first encounter with the prototype in Crake’s laboratory:

“This is horrible,” said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber. “Picture a sea-anemone body plan,” said Crake. “That helps.” “But what’s it thinking?” said Jimmy. The woman gave her jocular woodpecker yodel, and explained that they’d removed all the brain functions that had nothing to do with digestion, assimilation, and growth… “No need for added growth hormones,” said the woman, “the high growth rate’s built in. You get chicken breasts in two weeks– that’s a three-week improvement on the most efficient low-light, high-density chicken farming operation so far devised. And the animal-welfare freaks won’t be able to say a word, because this thing feels no pain.”[11]

Herbivorous humanoid creatures, with little interest in violence or sex and conveniently ultra-violent light resistant skin – Crakers – are developed as a desirable alternative to murdering, raping, war-making, planet-wrecking humans, who are then destroyed. These examples are not truly posthuman however – though point to concerns that current trends may result in societal breakdown resulting in eventual human extinction. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road perhaps comes closest to the depicting a societal breakdown indicating a possible end of humanity.

Movies depicting a posthuman world are, unsurprisingly, an extreme rarity – given the apparent need for a human focus in the process of narration. Something closer to a posthuman world has been depicted in movies where the protagonists discover a depopulated planet which is actually earth. The original Planet of the Apes movies played with this idea – although again not truly a posthuman world as the human population has become a form of sub-species, used by the ruling apes as pets and for use in medical experiments. The idea of discovery of a de-populated planet also appears in the more recent, critically panned film After Earth where a previously abandoned earth is re-visited by humans. Again, however the film is depicted from a human perspective.

Perhaps the most successful attempt to depict a posthuman world (though not a post-human universe, as again the survivors have abandoned the planet) is through the animated film WALL-E. The initial phases of the film are entirely from the perspective of a robot left with the role of tidying up a planet made uninhabitable by the quantity of human detritus. This robot is particularly interested in collecting human artefacts, and for some unexplained reason is particularly drawn to the movie ‘Hello Dolly’. While the movie WALL-E perhaps goes furthest in exploring a post human world, it also explores another long established question investigated in the movies; what does it mean to be human? While humans exist in WALL-E, they are a rather pathetic bunch who have evolved into creatures who can barely move by their own volition. WALL-E is by far the most human character in the movie and displays a number of human attributes, though particularly love for another robot – Eve.

The film WALL-E then crosses over into a second form in which the term posthumanism has been utilised. This is the issue of transhumanism – the implications of various forms of body modification have in questioning the boundaries between the human and non-human. This question has been one that the movies have returned to frequently. Perhaps most famously in Bladerunner, but more extensively in the various representations of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, though also taking the robot version of Maria in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. While not a movie, the treatment of the human non-human border is a question that has been addressed in the TV series Humans. As with WALL-E, in Humans it is the ‘synths’ who appear to be more human than the human characters. It is perhaps also worth noting that there is very much a gender issue in much of these depictions with robots such as Maria in Metropolis, Mia in Humans, and perhaps more overtly Lisa in Weird Science, appearing to be in the form of a male fantasy of a perfect woman.[12]

While these issues reflect concerns that have been reflected in the posthuman literature, we use the term in a third, and different form – to reflect the ‘more than human’ character of human existence. Again this is a question that has been explored extensively in the movies. Both the original version, though more particularly the re-booted, Planet of the Apes raises questions about relations between human and non-human species.[13] However a recent film Jurassic World explores these issues in ways which reflect our own particular interests. Forget for a moment the implausibility of re-populating the world with dinosaurs, and accept the films starting supposition that this is totally normal. The premise of the film is that human tinkering with nature to create a more fearsome dinosaur the Indominus Rex, upsets a normal balance within the dinosaur park. The new dinosaur is required because of the need to keep innovating in the park to maintain visitor numbers (a subtle criticism of capitalism’s requirement for constant innovation). However, the complex mixture of genes used to create the Indominus Rex produces a creature with unexpected emergent features – a particularly violent though highly intelligent dinosaur. The creature is of particular interest to the military (a not so subtle criticism of militarism). Meanwhile, the films central character, Owen, is involved in training a group of velociraptors. It is clear that Owen has a close relationship with the velociraptors though it is unclear to what extent this relationship extends until the final (and inevitable) conflict with the Indominus Rex. In the final outcome the velociraptors choose to side with the humans against the genetically modified dinosaur – indicating the existence of what we would describe as a posthuman community including Owen and the predators. Stability in the park, however, is only re-established when the Indominus Rex is consumed by a Mosasaurus, a gigantic undersea lizard.

Films such as Jurassic World explore the boundaries of human non-human relations and in some ways illuminate the themes that we are concerned with in developing a posthuman international relations. While the unpredictable outcomes of action in a complex world play a significant role in the plot (the mixture of genes in the engineered dinosaur interact to produce unanticipated and de-stabilising results), our particular interest is the significance of human relations with other species. The development of a relationship with the velociraptors can be viewed as a posthuman community, where inter-species relations are other than simple domination and exploitation.



We have argued for a posthumanism that is concerned with a world made up of the more than human. This is not to deny the social world, but to argue that it is embedded in and dependent on non-human systems. Many of these systems, such as the global food system involve extreme levels of exploitation and oppression. There is considerable evidence that in human interactions with the climate our species is creating a much more chaotic and unpredictable system. An emancipatory posthumanism thus finds its inspiration in both a reduction of oppression within and across species barriers and in developing a more sustainable relationship with the rest of nature.

What sources might we draw upon then, in leaving the imperial human behind? There are many sources of inspiration for posthuman futures and we draw on three accounts here – Adorno’s ideas about reconciliation with nature, Spinozist ‘renaturalisation’ of a rather different kind with Hasana Sharp’s ‘philanthropic posthumanism’, and the ecofeminist ethics of Lori Gruen and her conception of ‘entangled empathy’.

Adorno and Reconciliation with Nature

Humans then have used reason as a way of distancing themselves from the rest of nature, and this separation has been a central element of western thought. In this sense we are confronted by two sets of problems, the way that we think about the rest of nature, and the way that we have repressed the natural elements within us. As a result, ‘preponderant external nature always lies beyond our conceptual grasp, preponderant internal nature eludes our attempts to repress it.’[14] This internal and external distancing has allowed humans to develop the (erroneous) belief that they are in some way separated from the rest of nature. While Adorno depicts the emergence of reason as a uniquely human attribute, an issue that is certainly open to question,[15] his arguments about the impact of instrumental reason on the human and non-nature remain valid regardless of whether we regard rationality as a uniquely human characteristic or not. For Adorno the development of this perception of separation has been disastrous both for humans and for the rest of nature. Yet, in what may at first seem paradoxical, is a completely natural development. The human drive for self-preservation which, in Adorno’s account is the explanation for the emergence of consciousness and reason is very much a part of nature. As Adorno notes, ‘the suppression of nature for human ends is a mere natural relationship, which is why the supremacy of nature-controlling reason and its principle is an illusion.’[16] Given this view, that self-preservation, the force which appears to be driving us towards disaster, is entirely nature, how can it be possible to avert the looming catastrophe?

Drawing upon Adorno for an exit plan is confronted by two difficulties. Firstly there is the commonly held view that Adorno is ultimately deeply pessimistic about the human situation under late capitalism, and that his writings offer no possibilities for the amelioration of our situation. Furthermore, Adorno was quite clear that he was not going to offer a political programme, fearing that to do so would contribute further to the reification of society. Without a doubt Adorno is deeply pessimistic about the human condition. However, rather than taking this as a statement that positive change is impossible, we could take it as an acknowledgement of the inherent difficulties that projects for progressive change confront. Given the history of projects which claimed to be aimed at human emancipation but ended in forms of barbarity, the problems confronting political projects should not be underestimated. And indeed, recent writers have unearthed more ‘practical’ aspects to his work.[17]

The notion of reconciliation is one that is a running theme throughout Adorno’s work. With reference to the rest of nature, this involves both a reconciliation, or rather acceptance of internal nature, and a reconciliation with external nature, or the environment in which we exist. With reference to internal nature, Adorno is again perhaps paradoxical. In order to gain ‘autonomy’ from nature, humans need to accept their place as part of nature. For Adorno, Cook notes:

Reconciliation with nature requires that individuals reflect on themselves as part of nature – both to acquire a better understanding of their dependence on nature, and to achieve a greater autonomy with respect to it. The ego will become more autonomous only when it recognizes that it is not omnipotent, not completely master of its own house, but driven by impulses that it can neither dispense with nor eradicate.[18]

It is only through an acceptance of the animal characteristics within, that we can ultimately capture our humanity. The attempt to repress animal characteristics is also a restriction on our humanity itself. Hence a recognition of nature, in the form of the other within will also ‘allow a recognition of the humanity, too.[19]

Central to this process is the development of critical thought, an activity that Adorno considered should be the core of educational practices. In his later work, and in particular lectures given on German radio, Adorno stressed the importance of education in developing a critical self-awareness. Adorno discusses education in two senses, first the work of teachers, and secondly more broadly in the sense of a more radical transformation of thinking processes within society.[20] The latter can work towards the overcoming of the ‘coldness’ that we require to survive in late capitalist society – a coldness that affects both our inter-human relations and our relations with other species.[21] It is this coldness that allows large-scale human rights abuses and our abuse of other species. There is a problem in that it is ‘critical thought’ which has brought us to the impasse that we have reached, in the sense that it is critical thought in the form of instrumental reason that has led to the human belief in domination both of non-human nature and inter-human relations. According to Stone, however it is possible to ‘say both that critical thought has always served domination and has been fundamentally shaped by this function (so that it is not simply a neutral form of thought which they can adopt unquestioningly), and that critical thought can, with vigilance, be employed in ways that gradually change its own hitherto existing status as a tool of self-preservation.’[22]

It is how this might be achieved that is the central concern of Negative Dialectics. Adorno is critical of the way that humans consider that our concepts capture the uniqueness of objects. This feature is particularly relevant in terms of the rest of nature, and it is our belief that concepts capture objects that is at the heart of our belief that we can control nature. The purpose of negative dialectics, or non-identitarian thinking is to heighten our awareness of that remainder which out concepts do not capture. It is also to point out that the object has priority. For Adorno, it is ‘by passing to the object’s preponderance that dialectics is rendered materialistic.’[23] The purpose of such an undertaking is to allow   ‘critical reflection on our concepts [that] can make us palpably aware that our domination of nature is ethically wrong, an awareness which distances us from our pursuit of self-preservation and so alters the motivational background that shapes future exercises of critical thinking.’[24]

In seeking a reconciliation with nature, both within and without, Adorno is not seeking a recovery of some form of pristine nature. Overcoming our exploitative relationship with nature will not turn back the clock to some previous stage because ‘there is no pristine inner nature awaiting release from repression.’[25] External and internal nature have both been affected by the passage of time and the changing sets of social relations associated with late capitalism. Hence ‘neither inner nor outer nature subsists in a latent form untouched by history, which may one day be recuperated in its original prelapsarian state.’[26] While humans have created a disenchantment with nature, identarian thought has produced a different form of enchantment. Hence in Dialectic of Enlightenment Horkheimer and Adorno are ‘as critical of nature’s re-enchantment as of its disenchantment; this is because they believe that experiences of nature as enchanted are a necessary consequence of the modern intensification of disenchantment.’[27] We can only change our relationship with the rest of nature from the position that we are now in, rather than set the clock back to some previous condition.

In Negative Dialectics Adorno encourages maintaining a proximity to the ‘alien’ whilst allowing the other to be distant and different.[28] In other words to have a care and attention to that which is not us, while not attempting to constrain that which is not us by identarian thought. As Wilford observes, ‘Adorno’s normative contribution lies in the insight that persons and things do not fit perfectly together (in fact, their perfect equality would be the result of a violent oppression); between them is a space of nonidentity that once realized, encourages a humble critical distance and an openness to the radical Other.’[29] It is through critical thought and such an openess that we may be able to transform the situation which we confront.

In a critique of Kantian morality, Adorno observes that ‘Kantian ethics – which accords affection, not respect to animals – can muster only disdain: to try to live so that one may believe himself to have been a good animal.’[30] Discussing this somewhat cryptic comment, Christopher Menke notes that ‘the action stemming from a feeling of solidarity is the action of a “good animal”’.[31] That Adorno chooses to use the term animal in this sense (rather than human) suggests that he wants to emphasize the embeddedness of the human within the rest of nature.

By giving priority to the object, Adorno’s work can also be seen as a pre-cursor to the newly emerging field of ‘new materialism’.[32] New materialism can be seen as reaction to the linguistic turn in the social sciences, bringing attention back, in part at least, to the material basis of existence. Likewise Adorno counselled the need to ‘break through the deception of constitutive subjectivity’, and the purpose of his negative dialectics was to do just that, in the same ways that new materialism also intends to bring back a concern with issues of matter.[33]

Adorno, also is very concerned about the impacts of human activity on the rest of nature, seeing, rather presciently given his death in 1969, the possibility of environmental disaster having considerable threat for life on the planet in general. Adorno notes that ‘the complete reification of the world… is indistinguishable from an additional catastrophic event caused by human beings, in which nature has been wiped out and after which nothing more grows anymore.’[34] While the claim that a future in which ‘nature has been wiped out’ might be an overemphasis of human power, the point that Adorno is making reflects a concern, shared with much posthumanist writing about the negative impacts of human activity on the rest of nature.[35]

Furthermore Adorno, both in his own writing, though particularly in his work with Horkheimer provides us with an account of how this disastrous situation has come about. In fact their argument about relations between human and non-human nature is crucial to their arguments regarding the current situation of society. It was the attempts to master nature, driven by a need for self-preservation that has led to the development of a human drive to dominate other human beings, and the process of a separation from nature that has resulted in the disastrous suppression of both internal and external nature. This drive for self-preservation Adorno acknowledges is an entirely natural feature. However humanity has now reached the point where self-preservation is within our reach – humanity has the technological capacity to fulfil the needs of the entirety of the human population (Progress). However the drive to self-preservation is driving us on a path to ever greater acquisitiveness, thus pushing us into ever greater exploitation of the human and non-human systems within which we live.

Confronted by the totally reified, totally administered society might give one cause to give up hope of the emergence of a more rational society, however it is apparent that however pessimistic Adorno is about the human potential for avoiding disaster we should not ultimately despair (MM Jephcott, 167?). A reconciliation both with internal and external nature is possible. As with much of the posthumanist literature, Adorno stresses an acknowledgement of the human position within nature both internally as well as externally as the key stone to overcoming the current situation. Cook summarises this position as, ‘the dominators of nature are themselves dominated by nature because domination is impelled by nature itself in the form of the instinct for self-preservation. To advance beyond our current predicament… we must first acknowledge that what now counts as progress has become self-vitiating… the preservation of humanity requires the transformation of society.’[36]

Philanthropic Posthumanism

Drawing inspiration from the work of Benedictus de Spinoza, Hasana Sharp advocates a ‘philanthropic posthumanism’.[37] Spinoza’s ‘system’ provides a productive basis for a posthuman analysis, because for Spinoza all that exists is essentially of one substance and indivisible. Humans as a species do not stand in a ‘supernatural’ position to the rest of nature, yet nor should we view ourselves as ‘subnatural’ – we are simply part of nature. As Sharp explains, Spinoza’s philosophy aims to undermine those perspectives that see the human as either ‘defective gods or… corrupt animals who need to be restored to our natural condition’.[38]

What then for Sharp is the character of ‘philanthropic posthumanism’, and towards what or who is the philanthropy directed? Sharp argues for a renaturalization of human relations with the rest of nature. By this she means ‘a new appreciation of ourselves as parts of nature, operating to the same rules as anything else, invariably dependent upon infinitely many other beings, human and nonhuman.’[39] Drawing in particular on the work of Elizabeth Grosz, Sharp views a renaturalization as part of a political project that not only concerns inter-human relations but also relations across the species barrier. However, she is also keen to maintain Spinoza’s view that the rest of nature does not provide a model for humans to aspire to as Zerzan attests. Rather her aim is to navigate ‘between supernaturalism and subnaturalism.’[40]

From the perspective of contemporary concerns about rights for non-human animals some of Spinoza’s comments are, in the least, regrettable. For example, Spinoza argues that ‘a law against killing animals is based more on empty superstition and womanish compassion than sound reason’, furthermore ‘our advantage teaches us to establish a bond with men, but not with beasts’.[41] We also need to acknowledge Spinoza’s misogyny. Yet Sharp argues that comments such as these need to be considered within context. Spinoza makes no claims about human exceptionalism, nor does he see characteristics as being unique to humans. Spinoza’s concern, in terms of our considerations of other animals, is that these not become the measure of human morality or a guide for judging human activity. As Sharp states ‘Spinoza’s concern with beasts is almost entirely unrelated to the codification, legal or moral, of human behaviour toward nonhuman animals’.[42] Rather his concern is with the possibility of ‘the eruption of an anticivilization ethos that treats beasts as exemplars for human to imitate and to admire’. This relates to the view of humans as subnatural, which for Spinoza is both unethical and makes no sense within the understanding of his system. An example would be those within the ecological movement who see humans in a particularly negative light with regard to their relations with the rest of nature – for Spinoza this would be another form of humanism. Rather we should accept our position within nature, a renaturalization.

In avoiding both supernaturalism (the liberal humanist position) and subnaturalist (those who would take nonhuman nature as the model for human activity), Sharp argues for philanthropic posthumanism. Such an understanding of Spinoza emphasizes the potential for positive interactions between actors. Sharp, following Deleuze, argues for a broadening from Spinoza’s emphasis on inter-human relations to a consideration of the possibilities of positive interactions across the species divide. This is described as ‘ethological ethics’.

For Sharp, there are no grounds within Spinoza’s system for drawing a boundary in terms of interactions between species. Indeed, Spinoza’s system emphasizes, as seen above, that human activity cannot be seen as distinct, or independent of the rest of nature. Yet while the move to consider the possibilities of ‘enabling encounters’ across species boundaries, we need to remain aware of Spinoza’s cautionary remarks. Sharp notes that ‘a turn to the animal, to be liberating, must not be an expression of melancholy or felt powerlessness. Antipathy and misanthropy will, according to Spinoza, infect any political program with sad passions that will ultimately hamstring any efforts at liberation.’[43]

As Sharp acknowledges, the context in which we might consider interactions between identities has changed. Spinoza’s concern was to overcome divisions within the human fraternity brought about through religious schisms – something he encountered at first hand. This perhaps explains his focus on the human. For Sharp, in changed circumstance, and with changed knowledge, ‘we may need a new universal’. Posthumanists have pointed to our constitution not only by fellow humans but also by a range of animate and inanimate entities from robots to bacteria to companion species. Sharp observes that in denying these co-constituting entities ‘we mutilate ourselves and the sources of power in our midst.’[44]

A ‘philanthropic posthumanism’ seeks thus to pursue the benefits to all from positive interactions, ‘not governed by the image of man, or even the human.’ [45] However, for Sharp, to avoid these interactions becoming affected by negative thoughts the human species needs to accept its place in nature. While this may be an embedded position, it cannot account for the very concrete difficulties which all kinds of radical political ecologism – anarchist, socialist, feminist, primitivist and coalitions thereof, have pointed out. Here, the human is a flattened category – there are men, and sadly, for Spinoza, there are women, but the other differences which fracture the human are absent for both Spinoza and for Sharp. May an entangled ethics be better placed to take account of the co-constitution of our world and the tensions and differences this involves? While we consider this first below, a further issue with which this paper closes, is that of the context in which humans (for Spinoza) or all beings (for Sharp) might flourish. As Christine Cuomo argued some time ago, ecofeminist ethics might be based around conceptions of enabling entangled life to flourish, but this should be framed in the political and social context of community.[46]

Entangled Empathy

For Lori Gruen, our relationships with non-human nature should be based on an entangled empathy. Traditionally in extending our thoughts about ethical behaviour towards non-human animals has been based on questions of ‘likeness’. So that in the same way that rights have been gradually extended within the human community –rights can be extended to non-human species on the basis of their similarities to us. This has resulted, for example, in arguments that rights should be extended to other great apes, based on our very close evolutionary development (for example, the case of Sarah an orang-utan who was granted legal personhood in an Argentinian court). Likewise, arguments have been made regarding personhood for dolphins given their intelligence and rich social lives.

This approach, derived in particular from the work of Peter Singer is described as ‘widening the circle’ – in other words attempting to extend the moral boundary to those most close to the human.[47] The problem, from a posthuman perspective, is that this is a thoroughly humanist position, in that it maintains the human as the yardstick by which other species are judged – those that are closest to the human ideal will be the first to be included within the ethical community.

Lori Gruen instead argues that we should begin a notion of empathy. While acknowledging that the practice of widening the circle has helped in considering and highlighting the plight of those nonhuman species closets to us, it has not had significant practical results. In widening the circle there will always be an excluded other. An alternate position would be to accept that our lives are ‘entangled’ with the rest of nature, and to consider the ethical consequences that emerge from this situation. As Gruen indicates, ‘when we acknowledge this we can begin to reflect on the nature of those relationships in an effort to be responsible to those with whom we are engaged’.[48] In reflecting on those relationships it is not simply an issue of projecting our own impressions onto the other’s perspective, but ‘working to try to grasp the perspective of the other.’[49] For Gruen, such understanding across the species boundary requires us to learn about the behaviours of other species and maintaining an awareness of the co-constituted character of our relationships with other species.[50]

While there are clearly difficulties involved in empathising and particularly across species boundaries, Gruen’s point is that it not only is possible to empathise with non-human animals, we have an ethical duty to those with whom we are entangled. For Haraway important in realising the potentials of human-animal relationship is direct embodied experience where we ‘meet’ and share across the species barrier, co-constituting one another.[51] While this position has similarities to the cross-species relations of entangled empathy, there is an important additional point to note in Haraway’s account – social context. We encounter other species and are entangled with them in specific spaces and places, in social institutions and practices. As Haraway puts it, we are ‘beings-in-encounter in the house, lab, field, zoo, park, office, prison, ocean, stadium, barn or factory.’[52] Both Sharp and Gruen have a tendency to detach the relations between humans and the ‘others’ of nature from their social context and the relations associated with these. A renaturalised ethics of flourishing and an entangled empathy needs, in our view, to be a situated ethics – one of posthuman community.


Posthuman communities

The imperative of posthumanism, in our view, is to develop tools for promoting an understanding of human embeddedness in non-human animate and inanimate systems. In addition, a critical posthumanism is required. For example, in our recent work on the more-than-human nature of warfare we argue that exclusively-human warfare would look very different but for the drawing of an enormous variety of non-human creatures (from bees to elephants to orcas) into the practices of warfare means that the constitution of war is qualitatively altered.[53] Posthumanism urges us to attend to the realities of our situation in a world where we are all made up of multiple species and things. In order to capture more accurately the subject matter of IR, such as systems of war, there is a need to appreciate the ways in which our world is teeming with multiple human and non-human lives, relations and formations of being.

A posthuman account not only includes animals, it draws our attention to the co-constitutive character of human/non-human systems. Erika Cudworth’s work on companion animals in human households and public places argues that the spaces of dog walking are those of beings-in-encounter which can be seen as posthuman micro-communities (of dogs and human companions) which emerge over time through routine practices and have particular characteristics.[54] Posthuman communities are also distinctly located. The practice of walking through a particular space leads dog walkers to a knowledge of the places through which they walk and to the development of practices of care for those spaces and the creatures they encounter there – including other humans and other dogs. Non-human animals are also productive in the generation of relationships. There are “cross-pack” relations in terms of intra-species and trans-species companionship and conviviality. Communities of dogs and human walkers are thus posthuman in two ways: in being made up of relationships between dogs and human guardians, and in terms of the ways such relations change the ways in which both humans and dogs engage with other beings. This has implications for how sociologists (and others) understand the notion of community and suggests the possibility of a diversity of beings in various spatially located communities.

In a similar way spaces of war are also spaces of beings-in-encounter through which particular communities emerge. They are very different spaces – often of tension, of threat and danger, though also ones in which humans and dogs, camels, horses and so on may ‘hang out’ together. In ‘hanging out’ human and non-human animals develop trans-species relations in the context of the working practices of warfare and survival, and of developing sociality and community in precarious conditions. Humans and animals may be cast together suddenly as unlikely co-actors in the theatre of war and the rather different communities that emerge are likely to have specific characteristics. These are issues we would wish to further explore through case studies of particular conflicts, and the interrelations with specific species. It is also the case that in the entangled relations and spaces of warfare empathetic relations emerge.

Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell, in their book on Whale and Dolphin culture describe co-operative and non-exploitative relations between humans and dolphins in fishing communities. Such co-operation has been reported in a variety of locations around the world including Australia, India and the Mediterranean, but has been studied most closely in Brazil. In Southern Brazil a group of human fishers and bottle nose dolphins have been fishing for several generations of both species. The fishers signal that they are ready to fish by slapping the water with their hands and nets. If there are dolphins and appropriate fish present the dolphins will herd the fish towards the fishers. As the dolphins are approaching the shore the fishers look for a signal – some of the dolphins will leap out of the air arching their backs – this is a sign that it is the appropriate time to cast the nets to catch the most fish. Exactly what is going on here is of course not entirely clear, though this interaction has a number of interesting features. Firstly it is multi-generational, and the dolphins have passed on knowledge of the practice through the generations. Secondly there is evidence that dolphins move between multiple sites where co-operative fishing occurs. Finally the fishers identify individual dolphins who they name after Brazilian presidents, football players and Hollywood stars. They also know who are the ‘bad’ dolphins – those that don’t become involved in co-operative fishing.[55]

An ethics of entangled empathy and philanthropic posthumanism, emergent in contexts of posthuman community problematizes institutionalised mass killing of humans and non-humans, and the destruction of the living world more widely in practices both overtly political (such as the practice of war) and social (such as the ruination of waterways on which multispecies communities depend, or the operation of the global industrial-food system). We argue that in the creation of these communities humans and non-humans are acting collaboratively to produce new social spaces which challenge dominant perceptions of human – nonhuman relations. The formation of posthuman communities allows for the emergence of ‘fundamentally new categories and possibilities, the grounds and conditions of which contradict the grounds and conditions of the reality of the world we knew before.’[56] A posthuman politics raises questions for the liberal humanist subject and the struggle for rights, for freedoms and for ‘liberation’. We are in this world together, and might never be truly detached, despite all the struggles of Empire in its many guises. Yet we might resist domination, enslavement and exploitation from a position of flourishing for ecological communities.



In advocating a critical politics of posthumanism, we stress the importance of an analysis which stresses the common constitution of all living things. A systems analysis derived from complexity theory allows for the analysis of the interactions between human and non-human systems and between animate and in-animate systems. This forms the basis of an ethic of care and responsibility, of entangled empathy, which does not cease at the species border.

Many critical political traditions remain wedded to human-centred and human-defined concepts of the political. In both feminist animal studies and ecofeminism a politics and ethics of embodied vulnerability and entangled existence leads us away from the political agendas of rights for non-humans. Even elegant and well-developed notions of a future ‘zoopolis’ with the extension of conceptions of citizenship across the species barrier, are ultimately human-centred, with non-human creatures included to various degrees in an (albeit radically different) polity.[57]

For the critically posthumanist perspective we advance, human lifeways have incredible impacts for all other species and living things – we already intervene massively in the non-human through agriculture, industry, fishing, building or mining. The question for those seeking posthuman emancipation, is about the re-appraisal of current interventions on non-human worlds, and the development of more creaturely ways of being where we accept our place with other species and things and as far as we are able, act with compassion. Posthuman community understands our embedding in complex living systems characterised by diversity and difference, while also being attuned to an agenda set by the radical politics of intersectionalised ecologism which resists the instrumentalisation, enslavement and destruction of non-human being. It is this kind of collective resistance which we would emphasise as a means to securing a more creaturely politics.


[1] Especially Robert Axelrod, & Michael Cohen, Harnessing Complexity: Organizational Implications of a Scientific Frontier (London: Free Press, 1999); Sandra D. Mitchell, Unsimple Truths :Science, Complexity, and Policy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press 2009., 2009).

[2] Erika Cudworth, & Stephen Hobden, “Liberation for Straw Dogs? Old Materialism, New Materialism, and the Challenge of an Emancipatory Posthumanism,” Globalizations 12, no. 1, (2015); The Emancipatory Project of Posthumanism (forthcoming).

[3] Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014).

[4] Stephen Emmott, Ten Billion (London: Penguin, 2013), 196.

[5] James Hansen et al, “Ice Melt, Sea Level Rise and Superstorms: Evidence From Paleoclimate Data, Climate Modeling, and Modern Observations That 2 °c Global Warming is Highly Dangerous,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics (2015).

[6] Deborah Cook, Adorno on Nature (Durham, NC: Acumen, 2011).

[7] Hasana Sharp, Spinoza and the Politics of Renaturalization (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[8] Lori Gruen, “Entangled Empathy: An Alternative Approach to Animal Ethics’,” in The Politics of Species: Reshaping our Relationships with Other Animals, ed. Raymond and Lanjouw Corbey, Annette (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[9] Erika Cudworth, & Stephen Hobden, Posthuman International Relations: Complexity, Ecologism and Global Politics (London: Zed, 2011); Cudworth, & Hobden, Liberation for Straw Dogs? Old Materialism, New Materialism, and the Challenge of an Emancipatory Posthumanism.; Stephen Hobden, “Posthumanism,” in Critical Environmental Politics, ed. Carl Death (London: Routledge, 2014).

[10] ‘Margaret Attwood, transhumanism and the singularity’, Sobriquet Magazine 20th February 2011 retrieved from http://www.sobriquetmagazine.com/sobriquet/2011/02/sobriquet-701.html, 8th October 2015.

[11] Margaret Attwood, Oryx and Crake (London: Bloomsbury, 2003, p.202). Such developments are perhaps almost upon us, with the development of invitro-meat by corporations such as New Harvest, and the breeding of chickens for increased docility.

[12] A similar criticism has been made by feminists of Margaret Attwood’s characterisation of Oryx in Oryx and Crake, see Natasha Walter, ‘Oryx and Crake’ The Guardian, 10th May 2003 retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/may/10/bookerprize2003.bookerprize, retrieved 9th October 2015.

[13] We discuss this film in more depth in Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden, ‘Of Parts and Wholes: International Relations Beyond the Human’, Millennium 41, no. 3 (2013): 430-450.

[14] Cook, Adorno on Nature., 3.

[15] Susan Hurley, & Matthew Nudds, Rational Animals? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[16] Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics (London: Routledge, 1990), 179.

[17] Fabian Freyenhagen, Adorno’s Practical Philosophy: Living Less Wrongly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).

[18] Cook, Adorno on Nature., 55.

[19] Christine Gerhardt, “The Ethics of Animals in Adorno and Kafka,” New German Critique 97, (2006), 178.

[20] Daniel K Cho, “Adorno on Education or, Can Critical Self-Reflection Prevent the Next Auschwitz?,” Historical Materialism 17, no. 1, (2009), 85.

[21] For a detailed discussion of the notion of coldness in Adorno’s work see Simon Mussell, “‘Pervaded By a Chill’: The Dialectic of Coldness in Adorno’s Social Theory,” Thesis Eleven 117, no. 1, (2013).

[22] Alison Stone, “Adorno and the Disenchantment of Nature,” Philosophy & Social Criticism 32, no. 2, (2006), 240.

[23] Adorno, Negative Dialectics., 192. For a comprehensive discussions of negative dialectics see O’Connor, Brian, Adorno’s Negative Dialectic : Philosophy and the Possibility of Critical Rationality (Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2004).

[24] Stone, Adorno and the Disenchantment of Nature., 240.

[25] J. M. Bernstein, Adorno: Disenchantment and Ethics Cambridge University Press, 2001), 200.

[26] Cook, Adorno on Nature., 22.

[27] Stone, Adorno and the Disenchantment of Nature., 239.

[28] Adorno, Negative Dialectics., 191.

[29] Justin Wilford, “Toward a Morality of Materiality,” Space and Culture 11, no. 4, (2008), 419.

[30] Adorno, Negative Dialectics., 299.

[31] Christoph Menke, “Genealogy and critique: two forms of ethical questioning of morality,” in The Cambridge Companion to Adorno, ed. Tom Huhn (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2004),, 320.

[32] For a good overview and introduction to the field see Diana H. Coole, & Samantha Frost, New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010).

[33] Adorno, Negative Dialectics., xx.

[34] Adorno, quoted in Cook, Adorno on Nature., 102.

[35] Alan Weisman, for example, points out that nature will start ‘house cleaning’ as soon as humanity disappears. See, Alan Weisman, The World Without Us Virgin Books, 2008).

[36] Cook, Adorno on Nature., 107-8.

[37] Sharp, Spinoza.

[38] Ibid., 5

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 6.

[41] Cited in Ibid., 109.

[42] Ibid., 189.

[43] Ibid., 217.

[44] Ibid., 218.

[45] Ibid., 219.

[46] Christine Cuomo, (1998) Feminism and Ecological Communities: an Ethic of Flourishing (London: Routledge, 1998).

[47] Peter Singer, Animal Liberation (New York: Avon Books, 1975).

[48] Gruen, ‘Entangled Empathy’, 224.

[49] Ibid., 225.

[50] ibid., 226.

[51] Donna Haraway, (2008) When Species Meet (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[52] Ibid., 5.

[53] Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden, ‘The Posthuman Way of War’, Security Dialogue, forthcoming.

[54] Erika Cudworth, (2011a) Social Lives with Other Animals: Tales of Sex, Death and Love (London: Palgrave, 2011); ‘Walking the Dog: Explorations and Negotiations of Species Difference’ Philosophy, Activism, Nature, 8: 14-22; ‘Posthuman Community in the Edgelands’ Society and Animals, forthcoming

[55] Hal Whitehead, & Luke Rendell, The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 118-20.

[56] Noah De Lissovoy, Education and Emancipation in the Neoliberal Era: Being, Teaching, and Power (New York: Palgrave, 2015), 153.

[57] Sue Donaldson, & Will Kymlicka, Zoopolis: A Political Theory of Animal Rights (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)


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