“We were never considered fully human, so why should we care about this crisis?” Rosi Braidotti on collective positivity in the face of human extinction 

We do not have time for entrenched antagonisms or building communities that bask in apocalyptic melancholia, says philosopher Rosi Braidotti, ahead of her lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. If we are to survive the convergence of the fourth Industrial Revolution and the human-instigated sixth mass extinction, she argues, then both the people currently living on the margins as well as those in power must work together, locally and globally, to formulate creative solutions.

As an Italian-born, Australian-raised, Sorbonne-educated theorist who is a Distinguished Professor at Utrecht University—where she has taught since 1988—Rosi Braidotti is herself a living manifestation of the “nomadic thought” that is at the foundation of much of her work. In numerous books, such as Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (1994), The Posthuman (2013), and the forthcoming Posthuman Knowledge (2019), Braidotti’s nomadism objects to fixed identities and dialectical oppositions, whether man/woman, human/animal, human/technology, science/humanities, rural/urban, or secular/religious. Instead, she favors modes of thought and practice that take the form of interdisciplinarity, intersectionality, creolization, and various forms of hybridity. She argues that the latter methods—a living with rather than living against—create relationships that effect positive change rather than nurture feelings of resentment, nihilism, and collective vulnerability.

This position does not negate feminist, postcolonial, and antiracist theorists, whose valuable work Braidotti admires for illuminating the “human”—and by extension the “humanities”—as non-neutral concepts which for centuries were, and in too many ways continue to be, solely the domain of white, heterosexual, secular European men. But the urgency of the current crises—principally the twelve-year countdown towards the irreversibility of climate change and the risk that automation could make 1/3 of American workers jobless by 2013—demands unity.

“Individualism is very destructive at a time like this,” she says. “There is also a lot of resentment from women, the LGBTQ+ community, colonized people, and the descendants of slaves who say, ‘We were never considered fully human, so why should we care about this crisis?’ The focus is on [shared] pain and the affirmation of counter-identities, which is a very understandable condition that I respect and politically support. But the bulk of my work has been trying to go in a transformative direction of bridge-building. We are in this convergence together.”

In the same breath, she acknowledges that this “we” is never singular or static, and everyone could benefit from feminist and anti-racist inclusivity. Collective positivity in the face of human extinction and the destruction of the planet—neither of which are reversible through the work of a single individual—is one of Braidotti’s central concerns.

Such a project begins with what Braidotti says may be the most non-American facet of this entire discussion: the need to accept that “the self is a collective entity and not a liberal individual.” “The self is relational,” she explains. “We are never just one thing. One differs within oneself, which prevents any strong identity claims. You’re not American on Monday, black on Tuesday, straight on Wednesday, and a lesbian on Thursday. You’re all of those things. And the self is also related to the environment, society, others both human and nonhuman, and, today, to the technological apparatus and data grid that we are never really off of anymore and with which we need to interact.”

Conceiving of the self as relational as opposed to individualistic (the latter loved by capitalism for its preference for consumerism) serves as a foundation for forming new ethical structures. In this and in many other aspects of her work, Braidotti is indebted to Spinoza. “The ethical life is the pursuit of relations, situations, contexts, and values that enhance our power to act in the world. It’s about our power to take in the world’s pain and process it,” she says. In this way, she further articulates her empathy with marginalized communities but also her refusal to dwell in pain and vulnerability, because she believes these sentiments act as deterrents to transformative action and create an interminable sense of inertia.

Instead, Braidotti advocates for a neo-Spinozist praxis that turns suffering in its many forms into productive relational forces. “This ethics is a detoxing exercise in processing pain,” she says. “It’s also joyful—not in the sense of facile psychological cheerfulness but in the ability to mobilize stamina and endurance. For us, the people of the Anthropocene, that includes the strength to stare at multiple scales of challenges and say, ‘What can we do about this? Are “we” enough of a community to take this on?’ It’s a practical, hands-on approach that combines an adequate understanding of the problems [facing us] with the collectively shared energy to take them on. And why do we do it? Because we owe it to the future in a sense that we owe it to the perseverance of our own existence and that of future generations.”

Integral to this conception of ethics as a mode of living as custodians of the future is an acceptance of death that many may consider radical or even totally unfathomable. She articulates her position on death throughout The Posthuman, such as in the following passage:

“Death is not the teleological destination of life, a sort of ontological magnet that propels us forward…death is behind us. Death is the event that has always already taken place at the level of consciousness. As an individual occurrence it will come in the form of the physical extinction of the body, but as event, in the sense of the awareness of finitude, of the interrupted flow of my being-there, death has already taken place. We are all synchronized with death—death is the same thing as the time of our living, in so far as we all live on borrowed time.”

Life—which Braidotti calls “cosmic energy” and through her relation-based ontology is not confined to the physical bodies we occupy but extends in constellatory fashion to the earth, other humans and species, and technology—persists long after each of us has died. Death is not merely a point at which one’s life ends, but a condition that must be accepted before any serious and productive living can begin. “This death that pertains to a past that is forever present is not individual but impersonal,” Braidotti says. “Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded visitor. We build our house on the crack, so to speak.”

Making friends with the impersonal necessity of death is an ethical way of installing oneself in life as a transient, slightly wounded visitor. We build our house on the crack, so to speak.

Rosi Braidotti on using the inevitability of death as an ethical framework for collective problem-solving

In other words, only by both living as already dead and acknowledging that life will persist after we become corpses can we begin an ethical practice that is directed not at self-fulfillment but towards caring for others (both human and nonhuman), as well as those who will come after us. It is no surprise then that Braidotti also denigrates euphoric fantasies of immortality, such as those connected to Silicon Valley’s preferred notion of posthumanism as a perfect union between man and machine (consider how many science fiction films feature this conceit), as well as a booming wellness industry whose underlying ethos is an aggressive avoidance of death.

As a solution to these various psychic and social predicaments, some might demand the wholesale eradication of capitalism and technology. Braidotti, however, dismisses such clarion calls as “20th-century romanticism.” “We’re all part of the system that we call capitalism because in Spinozist philosophy, unlike in Hegel and Marx, you’re not outside the problem just because you’re against it,” she explains. “You’re against and you’re within. [Because this is the case, we must ask:] What margins can we negotiate given that none of us is going to give up our computers, mobile phones, and other things polluting the earth that are causing enormous issues as well as enormous benefits? Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s argument is that capitalism is not going to break—it’s going to bend. If it does, then let’s bring in a Spinozist ontology of immanence in which we are part of the very issue we’re trying to solve. It’s a balancing act.”

Despite the challenges facing all humans today, this position gives Braidotti hope and a conviction that creative solutions are possible. “We’re in a fantastic moment of reinvention as well as a moment of pain and mourning,” she says. “As a teacher and researcher paid by taxpayers’ money—as we are in Europe—I feel an ethical obligation to work for hope and on the construction of a ‘we’ that can take on this task and activate people to get together and [work] in the direction of joyful, gratuitous experimentations [regarding] what ‘we’ are capable of becoming.” 

Words by Charles Shafaieh & Photography by Sally Tsoutas

Continue reading about Climate Adaptation and the History and Philosophy of Design and Media. Rosi Braidotti’s lecture Posthuman Knowledge will be available in its entirety after March 12, 2019.