I've been slowly making my way through the inaugural issue of postmedieval (free in its entirety during May here), savoring the essays. "When did we become post/human?" is quite an issue.
So far the only essay I've had a substantial disagreement with is Crystal Bartolovich's "Is the post in posthuman the post in postmedieval?" (18-31). Though twice as long as any other piece in the volume, its thesis is quite straightforward: Bruno Latour's methodology in We Have Never Been Modern "denies the possibility of progress and therefore implicitly disparages the struggles for inclusion by those peoples currently excluded from access to the range of choices concerning day-to-day existence that privileged peoples take for granted" (20). Latour is anti-progress in that he has no faith that the world gets better as time passes; though he stresses deep continuity across long periods (in a way that tends to be skeptical of time itself, at least as causal agent), he isn't anti-change or anti-history. In Bartolovich's account, though, those who follow Latourian actor-network theory assist "globally privileged populations" in their schemes to deprive others of access to health care, clean water, education. Bartolovich goes so far as to label much of the practice of posthumanism unethical, since its modes of interpretation seem to prefer viruses and household pets over "human infants in the Sahel" or "a child in the banlieues."
But let's keep the baby in the bathwater for a moment and not throw anything out so hastily. We Have Never Been Modern is, admittedly, not my favorite book; I believe his method is clearer in Pandora's Hope, and better practiced in his more experimental pieces like Aramis or the weird closing section of The Pasteurization of France. Still, there is much to be learned from We Have Never Been Modern -- and David Glimp makes that point cogently in his contribution to postmedieval, "Moral Philosophy for Cyborgs" (72-79). Glimp describes Latour's project as an inherently ethical one: an attempt to "develop the tools with which to imagine and to bring into being non-apocalyptic futures, to create less threatening realities." Latour is a utopianist ("his work [is] an instance of utopian counterfactual imagining designed to jolt us into a revitalized awareness of our world and how we inhabit it" 77), his book a "thought-experiment" as well as an argument for reconceptualizing the place of the human in the world. Despite the title of We Have Never Been Modern, Latour is (Glimp argues) quite a modernist, alarmed that "life is growing ever more complex" (77), that we teeter at an edge over which is self-extinction. Latour offers his political ecology as a way of drawing back from that abyss, of rethinking what it means to inhabit a safe world. I love these closing lines of Glimp's essay:
As a literary scholar, I thus see the concerns of this particular version of posthumanism as inviting us to view anew literary texts as engaged in the process of articulating, contesting, adjudicating, travestying or otherwise playing with understandings of risk and with possible ways of rendering the world less harmful. This is to see works less as bearers of themes -- which they certainly are -- and more as artifacts that create occasions for collective life and for modifying the experience of being together in the world (78)In this beautiful passage Glimp is expressing ideas closely related to the thesis of Judith Bennett's Vibrant Matter, another work that finds in Bruno Latour not the buttress for a privileged world, but the critical means for rethinking how the human and inhuman intertwine, in the hopes of rendering that world more just.