I. Whose Posthumanism?

Race critical perspectives have repeatedly and persistently flagged the uncanny crossovers between posthumanism and colonial discourse in a variety of (inter-)disciplinary settings. The controversial notion of the Anthropocene is a pertinent example: commonly understood as that period of planetary development during which the impact of human practice begins to affect environments on a planetary scale (particularly through technological advancement, destruction of biospheres, and climate change), the “Anthropos” was long understood and often continues to be understood as signifying a universally destructive, generically “human” agency. Countering this perception, Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg have made the much-cited intervention that what is positioned as the anthropos or mankind in much of posthuman discourse was in fact a group of “capitalists in a small corner of the Western world”, “a clique of White British men”[1] who were in the socio-economic position to trigger the processes of en masse exploitation and pollution now so readily situated at the species-level. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson demands to know, “What and crucially whose conception of humanism are we moving beyond?”.[2] She has also insisted that counter-discourse such as “African diasporic literature and cultural production”, particularly in the twentieth century, is ill-understood as “a plea for human recognition”; instead it finds multiple, at times disparate, ways of re-configuring the human-animal conundrum.[3] Jackson thus pushes back against paternalist representations of former colonial subjects as eagerly seeking to gain “admission” to the white privileges consolidated through humanist categories and ideals.[4] In this vein, and countering both the omission of anthropos’s exploitation of racialised bodies and the suffering as well as agency of racialised subjects, Janae Davis et al. have re-situated the promising term “Plantationocene”[5] which seems to have emerged spontaneously (and as a kind of joke) in a conversation between Donna Haraway, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing and Nils Bubandt (2016). Haraway quips: “we need to call it the Plantationocene, forget the Capitalocene! [Laughter]”.[6] The focus of Haraway and her co-discussants is on multispecies framing (“plants, animals, microbes, people”),[7] and Davies et al. direct their readers’ attention particularly to the following part of the conversation:

Noboru [Ishikawa]: To me, plantations are just the slavery of plants.

Anna [Tsing]: I agree.

Donna [Haraway]: And microbes.[8]

As my previous quotes from the conversation show, Haraway does refer to “people”, but the sense that colonialism’s regime of racial hierarchisation is at play in plausibilising the plantation’s politics of “extraction”[9] remains subtle at best. “People” is an afterthought. This is not least because Haraway and Tsing, while taking issue with the “Anthropocene’s” intimacy with “Enlightenment Man” and “capitalism”, recognise entanglements with colonial exploitation only indirectly through references to “plantation”—which are framed as stated above. As Davis et al. therefore convincingly observe, the centuries-long, black experience of enslavement is here subsumed under a “broader constellation of exploited lifeforms”[10]—a degree of reduction and inattention to the distribution of responsibility in producing (human) suffering that is “inadequate for the creation of more just ecologies in the plantation present”.[11] One might add that white agency and humanity are, of course, fully recognised through the term “plantation”—a system of extraction that is instigated and maintained, after all, by whites—which makes the subsumption of black and brown bodies under exploited “lifeforms” particularly problematic.

There can be no doubt that race-critical scholarship is leaving its marks on posthumanism, including on more mainstream positions and particularly within critical posthumanism. The human has always been “a normative category that indexes access to privileges and entitlements”, writes Rosi Braidotti in “A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities”.[12] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin indicate 1610 as an appropriate start date for the Anthropocene, which is inspired by the observable global “dip in atmospheric CO2” at the time of European invasion in the Americas.[13] As the authors show, this invasion is followed by a “large decline in human numbers”, from an estimated 54–61 million to about 6 million, “via exposure to diseases carried by Europeans, plus war, enslavement and famine”.[14] Audra Mitchell reads this as the Anthropocene’s “constitutive [colonial] violence”,[15] while Kylie Crane argues that this intimacy with white settler colonialism “unsettles” the Anthropocene.[16] Finally, in her powerful A Billion Black Anthropocenes Or None, Kathryn Yusoff situates “Black Anthropocenes” as capturing the “proximity of black and brown bodies to harm”—“an inhuman proximity organised by historical geographies of extraction, grammars of geology, imperial global geographies, and contemporary environmental racism”.[17] Yusoff further rejects the notion of the Anthropocene as “a dystopic future that laments the end of the world” (ibid.; my emphasis) because “imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence”.[18] This, she says, reveals the extent of “racial blindness” and “wilful blindness” at posthumanism’s heart.[19]

While heterodox challenges of posthumanism are thus mounting, they are not always pervasive. In Posthuman Glossary, Stefan Herbrechter positions “critical posthumanism” itself as exploring “how did we come to think of ourselves as human? Or, what exactly does it mean to be human (especially at a time when some humans have apparently decided that they are becoming or have already become posthuman)?” (original emphasis).[20] Whilst the first question draws a poignant awareness to the past as a source for situating and understanding the (post-)human present (“come to”), and thus indicates an entry point into critical posthumanism via times that would have included those of Euro-imperialism, there is a sense that “human” is utilised as a generic and all-encompassing term in a way that risks gliding over the more troubling historical connections and continuities of post/human/ised being (whose post/human/ised being?), including the underpinning ideologies of enslavement and the plantation.[21] Further, a broader survey of posthuman scholarship reveals that “race” or “racism”, where they are mentioned, are so often in longer “alterity lists”, e.g. “gender, race, class, able-bodiedness, age, etc.”, or “racism, classism, sexism”. These kinds of lists may signal a scholar’s general awareness of diversity as a factor in (post-)human being or positioning, yet only rarely flower into more sustained analyses of one or more markers (or their intersections).[22] Moreover, they imply a level of analogy between different markers that can be deeply misleading as to their differently geared ways and structures of operating.[23] Indeed, manifest interest in how, specifically, antiblack racism—and enslavement and colonialism as its historical inflections—exposes the full extent to which “the very ontology of ‘the human’ is an endemically violent conceptual apparatus”,[24] remains an exception.


II. Posthumanisation in the Colonial Anthropocene

Projects of decolonising current posthumanist thought or of finding common ground between posthumanism, on the one hand, and race-critical or postcolonial inquiry, on the other, are on the rise,[25] and so is scholarship that engages with posthuman precursors in the past.[26] However, inquiry that is sensitive to the intersections between past forms of posthuman being and race or colonialism—and the implications that such an interconnected perspective might have for twenty-first-century posthumanist critique—is a much rarer and fairly recent phenomenon. Literary analysis of nineteenth-century texts—the imperial century—and focussing on the time’s intricate processes and dynamics of posthumanisation can do much to deepen the debate, as can engagement with existing race-critical historical scholarship.

Inspired by the accelerating as well as mutually reinforcing dynamics of colonial expansion, empiricism, new biological and scientific findings (Darwin; palaeontology; psychology), the rise of industrialisation, and increasingly normalised notions of white supremacy, nineteenth-century literature frequently pictures life beyond and across the edges of humanity—literally moving the “posts” of humanity—something that I elsewhere have called “posthumanisation”.[27] As per an increasingly popular, nineteenth-century convention, prominent writers ranging from Mary Shelley and the Brontë sisters to Bram Stoker and Joseph Conrad blur Cartesian human-animal boundaries (often as part of a popular Victorian ‘freakery’), but they often do so precisely with the effect of reinforcing colonialism’s narcissistic politics of non-relation.[28] More rarely do writers and thinkers engage in critiquing the perfidious overlaps between posthumanisation and colonial discourse (e.g. Anonymous with The Woman of Colour; Mary Shelley with Frankenstein). In other words, what is perceivable in a wide range of nineteenth-century literature is the extent to which a thriving colonial discourse and biological racism do not (necessarily) result in a “fixing” of racial others on the side of “animal” (and, as such, in their “dehumanisation”), but rather in a strategic “flexibilisation” of “hum-animality”[29] in the interest of plausibilising white supremacy and the enslavement system.

Speaking to some of the contexts in which these literatures emerge, in Antebellum Posthuman, Cristin Ellis deepens her readers’ understanding of how notions of humanism and biological racism begin to intertwine at the turn of the nineteenth century, introducing changes to perceptions of the human: “Western cultures had, for centuries, defined human being by contrast to its material body, identifying the mark of humanity in mankind’s supposedly transcendent freedom from material causality”.[30] The emphasis shifts with the increasing popularity of scientific empiricism, flanked by colonial voyages and cross-cultural encounters. They inspire a systematisation of alleged speciological differences between different “races” that are incorporated into a modified, extended concept of the human. In his contribution to Posthumanism in the Age of Humanism, Patrick Fortmann discusses this in relation to the German-speaking debate, suggesting that the works by “Viennese physician and anatomist” Franz Joseph Gall (the inventor of phrenology) show how “the human/animal divide has given way to a contact zone”, with “biological differences [being] quantitative, resulting from varying degrees of expression of features shared (in some form) across species”.[31] In her discussion of Stanley Cavell’s The Claim of Reason, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri writes: “Cavell forces us to reckon with what in fact is really meant and held as a belief by the slaveowner. ‘What [the slaveowner] really believes,’ Cavell suggests, ‘is not that slaves are not human beings, but that some human beings are slaves … [T]his man sees certain human beings as slaves, takes them for slaves’”.[32] As such, while it is currently often assumed “that slavery and racism are practices that operate by dehumanization”,[33] there are indicators that the “human” is flexibilised rather than fixed at the turn of the nineteenth century. In a climate of competing “liberal and biological epistemes”, the notion of a common, shared humanity across species is frequently admitted, yet “makes no definite claim about the moral equality of all members”.[34] The discourse moves “beyond” (or “post”) old boundaries and binaries (hence, posthumanisation) to systematise and, of course, hierarchise different versions of human being—a process that allows different kinds of “humans” to inhabit the same category whilst also facilitating selective animalisation and/or de-/non-humanisation (such as calling enslaved people “livestock”)[35] in tune with the shifting and developing interests of white imperial power. Such flexibility surrounding the notion of (post-)human being is a keen reminder that inclusion in generic “humanness” or, indeed, “posthumanness” does not forestall antiblack violence, either in the past or in the present, and it also is clearly imbued with the (white) power of signification. Indeed, the privileged capability of engaging in a context-dependent or interest-dependent assignment of ‘de-/non-/humanness’ to others—and this, again, is essentially what I understand as posthumanising others—was and remains an epistemological cornerstone of the colonial Anthropocene. In this light, as part of the critical posthumanist project, it is tantamount to ask: What exactly are the differences between colonial discourse and posthumanist discourse? How does the relationship between the two change—or not—over the course of different historical periods, or across different cultural contexts? What might be gained from “reverse-monsterising” posthumanism (to riff on Shelley’s take in Frankenstein), i.e. from exploring more thoroughly the injuriousness of posthumanism’s own habitual self-explications and posthumanisations, i.e. the caveats of its own privileged and flexibilised signification of others as human, non-human, or post-human? In engaging with these and similar questions, posthumanist inquiry can tackle its own politics and practices of non-relation.

– University of Münster, November 2021



The following text is based on an extract from my chapter “Posthumanism and Colonial Discourse: Nineteenth Century Literature and Twenty-First Century Critique”. It was published in 2020 as part of the anthology Reading in Ruins: Exploring Posthumanist Narrative Studies, edited by Roman Bartosch and Julia Hoydis (link to the chapter: https://olh.openlibhums.org/article/id/4661/; link to the whole volume: https://olh.openlibhums.org/collections/412/). I am indebted to the editors and to Rose Harris at https://www.openlibhums.org/ for kindly supporting my wish to republish part of this work.

[1] Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, “The Geology of Mankind? A Critique of the Anthropocene Narrative”, The Anthropocene Review 1:1 (2014): 62-69, p. 64. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053019613516291

[2] Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement ‘Beyond the Human’”, GLQ 21:2-3 (2015): 215-18, p. 215.

[3] Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020), Kindle Locations 117/7458. See also: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism”, Feminist Studies, 39:3 (2013): 669-85, p. 672.

[4] For example, Cary Wolfe writes in Animal Rites: “traditionally marginalized peoples would be sceptical about calls by academic intellectuals to surrender the humanist model of subjectivity, with all its privileges, at just the historical moment when they are poised to ‘graduate’ into it” (Cary Wolfe, Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2003), p. 7).

[5] Janae Davis, Alex Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, …Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crises”, Geography Compass 13:5 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1111/gec3.12438

[6] Donna Haraway, Noboru Ishikawa, Scott F. Gilbert, Kenneth Olwig, Anna L. Tsing and Nils Bubandt, “Anthropologists Are Talking – About the Anthropocene”, Ethnos 81:3 (2016): 535-64, p. 557. https://doi.org/10.1080/00141844.2015.1105838

[7] Ibid.

[8] Pp. 556-57.

[9] P. 557.

[10] Davis, et al., “Anthropocene”, p. 5.

[11] Ibid., p. 3.

[12] Rosi Braidotti, “A Theoretical Framework for the Critical Posthumanities”, Theory, Culture & Society 36:6 (2018): 31-61, p. 35. https://doi.org/10.1177/0263276418771486

[13] Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene”, Nature 519 (2015): 171-80, p.

  1. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14258

[14] Ibid.

[15] Audra Mitchell, “Decolonising the Anthropocene” (2015). Available at https://worldlyir. wordpress.com/2015/03/17/decolonising-the-anthropocene/ [Accessed 3 November 2020].

[16] Kylie Crane, “Anthropocene Presences and the Limits of Deferral: Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria and The Swan Book”, Open Library of Humanities 5:1 (2019): 1-24, p. 5. https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.348

[17] Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes Or None (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018), Kindle Locations 105/1943.

[18] Yusoff, Black Anthropocenes, Kindle Locations 105/1943.

[19] Yusoff, Black Anthropocenes, Kindle Locations 120/1943; my emphasis.

[20] Stefan Herbrechter, “Critical Posthumanism”, in Posthuman Glossary, ed. by Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 94-97, p. 94.

[21] The entries “Afrofuturism” (Ramon Amaro), “Decolonial Critique” (Shannon Winnubst), “In/Human” (Keti Chukhrow), “Neocolonial” (Sandra Ponzanesi), and “Real Cool Ethics” (Shannon Winnubst) add important, diversifying perspectives to the wider project of the Glossary which contains 160 entries. In addition, it is significant that these entries were included by the editors, it being their concession that, “regarding entries in the postcolonial and race fields of posthuman study, we are aware of our critical ellipses and see them as a limitation of this collection” (p. 4), and indeed that “decolonial, black and race studies […] are often marginalized in both new media and posthuman scholarship” (p. 5). See Rosi Braidotti and Maria Hlavajova (eds.), Posthuman Glossary (London: Bloomsbury, 2018); Ramon Amaro, “Afrofuturism”, in Posthuman Glossary, 17-20; Keti Chukhrow, “In/Human”, in Posthuman Glossary, pp. 201-04; Sandra Ponzanesi, “Neocolonial”, in Posthuman Glossary, pp. 279-81; Shannon Winnubst, “Real Cool Ethics”, in Posthuman Glossary, pp. 282-85.

[22] See Maneesha Deckha, “Toward a Postcolonial, Posthumanist Feminist Theory: Centralizing Race and Culture in Feminist Work on Nonhuman Animals”, Hypatia 27 (2012): 527-45. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1527-2001.2012.01290

[23] Shannon Winnubst stresses, for example, how “the effort to undo ‘the human’ through the axes of either gender or sexual difference still works within the closed economy of colonial modernity”, which indicates the different levels of being and awareness at which race, gender, and sexuality operate. See Shannon Winnubst, “Decolonial Critique”, in Posthuman Glossary, pp. 97-99, p. 98.

[24] Winnubst, “Decolonial Critique”, p. 97.

[25] In addition to the works already mentioned, see also Mark Jackson’s edited collection Coloniality, Ontology, and the Question of the Posthuman (London: Routledge, 2018) which brings together scholars from political science, sociology, geography and other subjects to build bridges between postcolonial and posthuman thought with a focus on the current political/social landscape. See also Kalpana Rahita Seshadri, HumAnimal: Race, Law, Language (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

[26] Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[27] Caroline Koegler, “Posthumanism and Colonial Discourse: Nineteenth Century Literature and Twenty-First Century Critique”, Open Library of Humanities 6 No 2 (2020), p. 29. https://doi.org/10.16995/olh.613.

[28] On the issue of imperial narcissism and non-relation, see Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006); Diane Simmons, The Narcissism of Empire: Loss, Rage, and Revenge in Thomas De Quincey, Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Isak Dinesen (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2007); and Simone Drichel, “The Disaster of Colonial Narcissism”, American Imago 75:3 (2018): 329-64. For an analysis of such imperial non-relation in a particular Victorian novel, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, see my article: Caroline Koegler, “Follow the Hatred: The Production of Negative Feeling in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847)”, NOVEL. A Forum on Fiction 54:2 (2021); and my chapter: “Oceans of Non-Relation. Affect and Narcissistic Imperialism in Sea Poetry by James Thomson, Charlotte Brontë, and Hannah More” in Comparative Practices. Literature, Language, and Culture in Britain’s Long Eighteenth Century, edited by Nadine Böhm-Schnitker and Marcus Hartner. Bielefeld: Transcript, 2021 [forthcoming].

[29] Cristin Ellis, Antebellum Posthuman: Race and Materiality in the Mid-Nineteenth Century (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018).

[30] Ellis, Antebellum Posthumanism, p. 2.

[31] Patrick Fortmann, “Brain Matters in the German Enlightenment: Animal Cognition and Species Difference in Herder, Soemmerring, and Gall”, in Posthumanism in the Age of Humanism: Mind, Matter, and the Life Sciences after Kant, ed. by Edgar Landgraf, Gabriel Trop, Leif Weatherby (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) pp. 37-52, p. 51.

[32] Seshadri, HumAnimal, Kindle Locations 176/4061. The reference is to Stanley Cavell, Claim of Reason: Wittgenstein, Skepticism, Morality, and Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 375.

[33] Ellis, Antebellum Posthumanism, p. 1.

[34] See Ellis, Antebellum Posthumanism, pp. 3-4. Jackson similarly emphasises this point: “Too often, our conception of antiblackness is defined by the specter of ‘denied humanity,’ ‘dehumanization,’ or ‘exclusion’” (p. 46). Harking back also to Saidiya Hartman’s work, she comes to a position where “the process of making the slave relied on the abjection and criminalization of the enslaved’s humanity rather than merely on the denial of it. Thus, humanization is not an antidote to slavery’s violence; rather, slavery is a technology for producing a kind of human” (p. 46). Differently put, black people have been “selectively incorporated” into the liberal humanist project (p. 46, emphasis in the original)—something that is starkly reminiscent of even today’s “politics of contingent belonging”, employed in Europe and other places.

[35] See Seshadri, HumAnimal, p. 176.