Dispatches From the Robot Wars; Or, What is Posthuman Security?

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This article was originally published by The Disorder of Things on 24 July 2014.

“So when are the intergalactic robot wars coming?” This is a question I’ve been asked (more than once) by colleagues who’ve heard that I’m working on posthumanist thought and international security. The implication is that what I’m doing is a kind of science fiction. Well, there’s definitely science (including robots – see below) and a rich fictional literature to draw on, but it’s not taking place in a galaxy far, far away. It’s very much rooted in, and attuned to, this planet.

‘Posthuman security’ is an umbrella term I’m using to talk about a recent surge in thinking and writing at the nexus of posthumanist philosophy, security and ethics. It starts from the proposition that international security is not solely a matter of securing human lives and bodies. Diverse beings other than humans are implicated in the conditions of (in)security. Whether other animals, machines, networks, minerals, water, ecosystems or complex assemblages thereof, a wide range of beings other than humans shape the contexts of (in)security and the ways that we define them. This, in turn, challenges the engrained notion that the human is the ultimate referent object of security, ethics and philosophy.

Indeed, another question I get asked frequently is “are you critiquing human security?” The answer is both yes and no. The norm of human security epitomizes a humanist turn in the last two decades of international thought, also reflected in the fields of humanitarianism and norms such as Responsibility to Protect. These frameworks have carved out a space for themselves within international ethics by framing a specific image of the human individual as the focal point of security, ethics and, by extension the universe. So, of course, adopting a post-human (or more-than-human) approach to security means challenging and deconstructing these influential paradigms. But this new discourse is not simply a critique of existing frameworks. Posthuman security thinking offers a number of distinct, positive contributions to international security, ontology and ethics.

The term itself is highly contestable – and should be contested. I use the term because it is the most succinct way to include people working across various areas concerned with the more-than-human. That said, most of the thinkers whose work I’ll discuss wouldn’t like to think of themselves as ‘posthumanists’. This is often because the term tends to be conflated with one or more of the lines of thought I’ll describe shortly (for instance, in the US, it is often associated with transhumanism or human enhancement). The prefix ‘post’ also tends to suggest that humans have either succeeded in transcending their humanist and anthropocentrist positionality, or to imply animosity towards humans. I frame the ‘post’ not as a completed task, but rather as a speculative possible future on which to reflect and an emerging present with which humans should engage and respond. Rather than cultivating self-hating-humans, it seeks to make humans more attuned with the other beings with which they are entangled.

Specifically, I use the term ‘posthumanist’ to describe a syndrome of distinctive, sometimes divergent, critical interventions which derive from multiple ontological and ethical starting points, and often end up in very different places. They are linked by one common thread: the idea that a normative, naturalized idea of the human must be challenged if humans are to face the conditions of the universe they co-inhabit, and the ethical callings that issue from these conditions.

There are a number of diverse starting points for thinking about the intersections between posthumanist thought and international security. Recent contributions drawing on continental philosophy have significantly stretched ‘expanding circle’ ethics (central to discourses of animal rights), suggesting that beings as diverse as plants and urban spaces should be considered, not on the basis of their similarity to humans but rather because they co-constitute humans. New materialisms, exemplified by the work of theorists such asJane Bennett and William Connolly challenge the dominance of human agency and mind, emphasizing the capacity of diverse assemblages of beings to influence causality.

Cosmological pluralism
, drawing largely from anthropology, challenges the Western secular divide between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ objects, ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ beings, and persons/nonpersons. Transhumanists focus on technological developments such as robotics, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology to challenge our understanding of what the human being is (for a survey, seeVeronique Pin-Fat’s recent piece).Object-oriented philosophy probes how objects (human and nonhuman, living and non-living) interact to form the cosmos. Literal forms of posthumanism assess the potential for the destruction of humanity by various processes, from the sudden, acute affects of climate change to long-term astrophysical processes.

The emergingpost humanities’ take stock of these various discourses to explore how concepts of the human, inhuman, nonhuman and posthuman are framed in artistic, literary and social practices. Scholars have begun to draw on elements of these diverse fields to grapple with questions of security. Recently, I held a workshop at the University of York with a number of scholars working in these areas. A quick survey of their contributions further emphasizes the diversity of the discourse. Tony Burke’s work calls for a widening of the concept of cosmopolitanism in a way that cuts across the borders of species, time and space, transforming the parameters of ‘security’. Martin Coward’s writings on urbicide, and critical infrastructures has changed how conceptions of political violence and insecurity are interpreted.Erika Cudworth and Steve Hobden’s pioneering research on animal studies, complexity theory and international theory has challenged the species boundaries on which IR’s foundations rest. Stefanie Fishel’s contributions re-frame international theory by drawing attention to the relationality of bodies and multiple subjectivities.

Nick Gane critiques sociological understandings of questions of the ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’, the materialities of media and the economy. Jairus Grove’s interventions invite us to be attentive to the complex ecologies of war, and the plural
objects and modes of agency that collide in the international sphere. Carolin Kaltofen’s work explores the ontological bases of security, interrogating distinctions such as ‘virtual’ and ‘real’, and human/posthuman. Brad Lineker is looking at the ethical and political implications of the planning of infrastructure and urban space in Israel/Palestine.

Matt McDonald is developing a new concept of ‘ecological security’ that moves beyond instrumental, politically expedient demands for ‘environmental security’. Alan Winfield’s body of work explores the ethical implications of the development of technological capacities such as swarm intelligence and Artificial Intelligence (AI). My own research asks how ‘enormities’
such as mass extinction, with their more-than-human spatio-temporal dimensions, challenge security as an ontological premise and ethical project. As this very brief survey suggests, ‘posthuman security’ is less a unified line of critique than a sensibility that finds multiple expressions which, in Deleuzean imagery, ‘swarm’ the existing anthropocentric structures of international security.

I convened the workshop in order to ask a series of questions. First, is there a ‘posthumanist’ conception of security – and do we want there to be one? Second, what, if anything, do the ontological challenges raised by ‘posthumanist’ lines of thoughts mean for ethics? And third, what kind of transformations would we like to see in international security discourses, practices, events and processes?

These questions yielded some interesting responses. There was strong agreement around the table that adopting a posthumanist orientation towards security means challenging the fundamental basis of security, not just adding new referent objects. It was agreed that the concept of ‘security’ is highly loaded – in particular, it tends to militate against the processes and moments of change, becoming and disorder that characterize the universe. But at the same time, we had all converged to talk about security because it provides a valuable terrain in which to ask question about violence, harm and the more expansive ways in which we can discuss these terms. Participants also suggested that attuning ourselves to the more than human requires expanding the repertoire with which we talk about these phenomena. This requires on notions such as cultivating fragility which does not premise itself on a contradictory state of ‘infragility’; or refraining the existing neo-liberal conception of resilience to focus on the wonder of life rather than its bareness.

Discussions of the ethical implications of posthumanist thought for security raised a number of issues. There was substantial debate over whether it is necessary to develop an ethics for responding to the challenges identified by posthumanist accounts of security. The concern is that ethics may be irretrievably rooted in anthropocentrism, and in the metaphysical structures that sustain it.

I think that there’s a lot to this critique: it’s something I’ve written about. In a nutshell, I argue that simply ‘expanding the circle’ of existing ethical structures doesn’t work. We live in ‘worlds’ of heterogeneous beings that co-constitute each other; this means that any form of harm is distributed across them, and inheres in their relations rather than in discrete individuals. But at the same time, worlds cannot be predetermined in the abstract, and must transform as their co-constituents live and die, emerge and break down, fuse and disperse. This makes it almost impossible to specify referent objects for an ethics that could underpin protocols for protection and security, or to distinguish neatly between ‘harm’ and ‘change’ (for instance, in processes of evolution). Moreover, the liberal-cosmopolitan ethics that underpins humanist ethics is rooted in notions of time and space tied to the rhythms of modern human life.

It cannot cope with phenomena – such as climate change, mass extinction, or even the eventual heat death of the universe – that are vastly out of synch with these dimensions. But at the same time, it seems imperative that humans respond to these phenomena, and to the other beings with which they are co-constituted. Participants at the workshop argued that cultivating attunment to different modes, temporalities, spatialities, vitalities and non-vitalities, and so forth, is a more fruitful route than pursuing an ethics. This seems to be a call for an ethos of responsiveness rather than a formal ethics. That is, there is still a dimension of the ethical, but not one that imposes rigid, abstract or metaphysical restrictions on modes of response.

These are just a few of the ideas and debates that are emerging at the intersection of posthumanist thought and security studies – in conversation with a range of other disciplines: philosophy; biology; physics; anthropology; geography; robotics; sociology; human-animal studies; science and technology studies; geology and more. Indeed, many of these disciplines have been engaging with more-than-human dimensions of ontology and ethics for years. Bringing security into the mix is an important step. Security is not simply a matter of managing risk and threat. It is a node around which concerns about the nature of being and non-being – and the human ability to shape them – converge. It is also an ethical project – a way of imagining what constitutes ‘good’ and ‘bad’ lives and deaths, what is to be protected and what can be killed in order to make certain kinds of life live. It is also one of the driving forces behind policy-making in the international arena. So bringing posthumanist thought and security into confrontation opens genuinely new pathways and possibilities for thought.

This includes thinking about ‘humanity’ as a fundamentally insecure category – and even seeing this as a good thing. The ‘human’ is intersected, conditioned and co-constituted by many other beings, and vulnerable to the shocks and reverberations that affect them. But our imbrication with these other beings also opens up possibilities for experience, attachment, attunement and transformation that far exceed the limitations of the dominant, modern, Western secular notion of the ‘human’. In IR, the term ‘insecurity’ usually refers to a state of anxiety, one that human institutions are designed to reduce. Instead, I argue that we should embrace the fundamental insecurity of the category of humanity as an opportunity to open ourselves towards uncertain, but not necessarily tragic, presents and futures. These are the concerns with which new debates on posthuman security are engaging, and which, I think, can reshape the way we think about security, humans – and beyond.

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Audra Mitchell is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York. She is a Fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation (2014-2015) and has held or will hold visiting fellowships at the Universities of  Queensland, Edinburgh and Melbourne.

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