Theory Beyond the Codes
The following interview with Arthur Kroker, which focused on his new book, Body Drift: Butler, Hayles, Haraway (UMP, 2012), was conducted by Peter Maravelis, events coordinator at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, editor of the critically acclaimed anthology, San Francisco Noir, and founder of the Red Boat Opera, a portable theatrical troupe operating in the Bay Area.
City Lights: Congratulations on your new book, you’ve covered quite a bit of ground since The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism. In the earlier book you dealt with the trinity of Heidegger, Marx, Nietzsche, while in Body Drift you examine the work of Judith Butler, Katherine Hayles, and Donna Haraway. Would you talk a little about the transition from one work to the other. How and where do these works cross over into each other’s orbit?
Arthur Kroker: The two books are closely related. In The Will to Technology, I explored the human impact of technology through the lens of Marx, Heidegger and Nietzsche. Specifically, I argued that while Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism provided prophetic insights into the development of the digital commodity-form and Nietzsche’s understanding of the will to power was an early precursor of the contemporary technological condition with its fetishism of “Big Data,” “distant reading” and “augmented bodies,” Heidegger captured the essence of the posthuman condition with his concept of “fully completed nihilism.” In Body Drift, my focus is on three brilliant, contemporary representatives of critical feminism: Judith Butler, Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway. In my estimation, while Marx, Nietzsche and Heidegger may have provided premonitory signs of the charred landscape of the technological blast, it is the specific contribution of Butler, Hayles and Haraway to provide a deeply compelling account of the fate of the body in contemporary society. Haraway’s concept of the “informatics of domination” represents a brilliantly congealed expression of Marx’s commodity fetishism. Butler is the thinker who has taken Nietzsche the furthest by literally forcing an account of what it means when power turns into itself, whether in the register of sexuality and gender or in the rhetoric of the war on terrorism, preventative detention and drone warfare. And Hayles? Like Heidegger, she has a fully equivocal conception of the technological posthuman, understanding both its dangers and possibilities. Like all truly premonitory thought, the critical feminism of Butler, Hayles and Haraway provides an evocative account of body drift as the emblematic sign of contemporary culture.
City Lights: In the new book you open the discussion with the “haunting” of the media image machine by memories of the body. Genocide victims, missing children, accident victims are evoked. Can you talk about the idea of “Drift”. What does it reveal about what is happening to us? What does it reveal about where we are headed both culturally and as a species?
Arthur Kroker: Body Drift is written at the trajectory of two opposing possibilities in contemporary culture. On the one hand, we are living in the shadows of a gathering political and social crisis in which technologies of abjection, disappearance, inertia, and substitution increasingly triumph. The evidence for this is pervasive: disappeared bodies, excluded ethnicities, prohibited sexualities, undocumented subjects, disavowed forms of imagination, hopes, and democratic aspirations. At the same time, the multiplicity of bodies that we are and the multiplicity of hopes that we engender begin to dream again of counter-trajectories of resistance, hope and solidarity. This moment of body drift is definitely global, pronounced, and truly enigmatic in its eventual outcomes. Indeed, the language of body drift in all its complexity, contingency, and hybridity has now come to define the key trajectories of posthuman culture.
City Lights: In the second chapter of the book you mention Judith Butler describing the “shameless impurity” of Antigone, an ethical remembrance of Antigone in Butler’s Giving An Account Of Oneself where Antigone breaks her silence to “say what needs to be said.” The effect of such a commitment can be powerful. I am reminded of the repetition chorus of OCCUPY during the Wall Street insurrection. Having a speaker’s words reflected back to them gave their message a depth and meaning that went beyond what it normally would have been. I would like to talk about the importance of “standing as witness”.
Arthur Kroker: In many ways, all of Butler’s thought is “standing as witness.” Certainly, Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter eloquently witness the disavowals, prohibitions, and exclusions necessary to maintain the social violence involved in the regime of intelligibility that is the heterosexual masculinity. Indeed, I approach Butler’s thought under the sign of “Nietzsche in Drag in the Theater of Judith Butler” as a way of privileging how her act of witnessing is not passive, but a form of thought that turns directly into the storm centre of heterosexual melancholy. My sense is that the sheer force of the contemporary political crisis emerging from the conjunction of right wing politics and primitive forms of neo-capitalism has transformed the direction of Butler’s witnessing into a courageous and resolute remembrance of “precarious life” in the seemingly perpetual “frames of war” that is 21st century public life.
City Lights: I would like to bring up Katherine Hayles’ “Ethics of Complexity”. Hayles has managed to bridge the gap between science and literature. Would you talk about the importance of the challenge that her work offers us? Where lies the relevance of immersion in the idea of catastrophic, the chaotic, in essence: “crash theory”?
Arthur Kroker: In the same way that Nietzsche once said that all of his thought was posthumous, that is a form of thought that would only be fully understood later by those fully experiencing the sublimity and bitterness of nihilistic culture, Katherine Hayles’s thought has the same sense of being fully ahead of its time, an intimation of an approaching posthuman condition the full complexity of which is not yet fully understood. If it could be said that we are, in fact, living the last days of a larger technological destiny that involves simultaneous impulses towards acceleration, drift, and crash, then Hayles is the thinker who provides a digital alphabet for exploring the complexity of this larger technopoesis. Working through different media — narrative, story-telling, poetry, imagery — and, in fact, at points making a “writing machine” of her own split autobiography, Hayles’ thought makes of the whole sweep of digital posthumanism a “tutor text.” To read Hayles is, in fact, to begin to experience the fractures, bifurcations, and liminality that stretches across the skin of posthuman culture.
City Lights: Last, but not least, I would like to address the third in your female trinity, Donna Haraway. In your chapter HYBRIDITIES I quote you as saying:” Haraway’s writings reveal the apocalypse that is possibly the end condition of hundreds of years of (Western) scientific experimentalism.” What do her writings about species relations tell us when juxtaposed to the works of Hayles and Butler? Where do the three come together in gestalt?
Arthur Kroker: I am very much drawn to Haraway’s profound conceptualization of “companion species.” Refusing to honor the hierarchical privileging of the human species, all of her thought opens onto what Jane Bennett has described as the “vibrant matter” of animals, plants, objects, and humans. Not in a particularly romantic sense, but in the way of all listening for signs of active resistance in the midst of the intimations of deprival that are the present historical circumstance. Here, Haraway’s companion species represent a brilliantly insightful rehearsal of a form of understanding of the interconnections, intersections, and, indeed, inter-species that will come to represent, I believe, the future of the 21st century. To put on the thought of Donna Haraway as a way of understanding the world is to begin to live at the intermediation of a society torn between the powerful forces associated with the “informatics of domination” and the “companion species” that have already begun to collaborate, to reconcile, to breathe in all the forgotten cracks, fissures, and delirious eddies of a society that would be seamless.
City Lights: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Arthur Kroker: Thanks. It is always a true honor to appear at City Lights!