When in doubt, de-center humans


The challenge of de-centering humans — especially in the traditional home of human-centricity like sociology or anthropology but also in the humanities — has been gaining attention for years; however, a few ongoing developments are worth considering.

First, in human and cultural geography, our fellow bloggers at THE ANTHROPO.SCENE have recently posted (thanks, dmfant) a video “Decentering the human in human geography“, which is a lecture about ontological, epistemological, and even moral issues related to “human exceptional-ism” in our social sciences. The talk is by Kay Anderson, University of Western Sydney. At 45 or so minutes long, the talk defies simple summary; however, one might hazard this synopsis: humans have been deemed irreducible to nature, but their very ‘humanness’ is precisely predicated on their transcendence of mere beasts; the specialness of humans (and this is no news to long-time readers of ANT), thus, distracts us from material forces of significance; our presenter then historicizes, thus rendering vulnerable, human exceptionalism, treating the concept like an artifact of time rather than one of truth; hence, the lesson is that de-centering humans through historicizing the processes of centering humans, in the first place, and by appreciating humanism’s materiality and smashing the boundary between humans and nature, can we finally get a de-centered view of humans in geography. Of course, there are many more voices in this discussion that have been overlooked (by me, of course).

What makes Anderson’s talk so interesting is that by historicizing the concept of human exceptionalism we can take the concept to be an empirical matter rather than a presupposition for starting analysis (we tried to do this move with reflexivity). But this requires a careful tour of early biological sciences (e.g., Linneaus) and especially naturalists and anatomic crainiology, but in so doing, we realize that the claims toward human exceptionalism, under the bright light of empiricism, were often unstable and frequently revised in substantial ways. While I fully realize that post-humanism has been around for decades (although Haraway’s cyborg seems so odd now, so 90s), Anderson’s shift of perspective is a welcome development, and one, I contend, could be replicated in other areas. Here is the only room for criticism, though: in biological sciences (and perhaps I am raising the boundaries I would just as well smash, but …) there is not such a clear or direct link to the social sciences wrought with human exceptionalism; I agree that Anderson is uncovering the roots of this plague (i.e., human exceptionalism), but once it leaves the proper confines of biological sciences and then it taken-up as a presupposition or justification for “doing anthropology”, for example, the concept has been transported and, to some extent, changed as a condition of transport. Thus, surely, human exceptionalism has historically meant something different in anthropology as compared to sociology, each of which could be uncovered in a future analysis, or, consider, a comparison to international relations, which brings me to my second point … ir.


Second, in international relations, a book is underway that considers ‘the human’ from a post-anthropological perspective. Some of us contributing to the book are using this opportunity to de-center humans too, only this time, it is an experiment to see how far one can de-center humans and still have viable theories for international relations, in our case, theories of the state. The opening lines of the to-be book are above in the image and give one a sense of the tone for the book.

An upcoming event is going to be held at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main4th Global International Studies Conference 2014” (Aug 6-9), which I would love to attend, will no doubt also deal with issues related to de-centering humans. This would be a great opportunity to blend some of the thinking in geography, anthropology, and international relations precisely because the book, which is related to this conference. is considering a “post-anthropological international relations” …

The conference details are:

Our goal is to provide an interaction space in which International Relations research expertise can be shared on an international level and thus contribute to the expansion of a truly global professional network. For this purpose, IR scholars from around the world will meet in Frankfurt and present their research to a broad audience made up of scholars and experts in all fields of international studies. The overarching theme of the conference is „Justice, Peace and Stability: Risks and Opportunities for Governance and Development“. In addition to classical issues in diplomacy, security and development studies, panels and roundtables will pay special attention to novel issues in global politics, including emerging actors in international relations and new forms of south-south cooperation.

Our paper that will be part of the book, opens like this;

Acting in international relations? Political agency in post-humanist state theory


Jan-H. Passoth, Department of Sociology, Technische Universität Berlin

Nicholas J. Rowland, Department of Sociology, Pennsylvania State University


This edited volume sensitizes readers to a budding divide in International Relations (IR); a shift away from crafting overly-anthropological accounts to describe the practice of international relations (ir) and toward what our editors are calling post-anthropological scholarship.[1] The chief difference hinges on the position of the human element in IR; front and center, in the former, peripheral and de-centered, in the latter. The upshot for patient readers is insight into what the consequences of this shift will mean for IR and ir.


Our chapter constitutes an experiment to test the outer limits of this shift. We ask: how far can we, as scholars, decenter the human element before our models of international relations implode? To this end, we selected ‘the state’ as our test case. By only analyzing models of the state, we were finally able to dis-inhabit the state of the human element entirely, but, in the process, we were challenged to re-conceptualize many our otherwise taken-for-granted, anthropological assumptions about political agency. No doubt, some readers will be dissatisfied or un-persuaded by our experiment in post-anthropology; admittedly, we had no choice but to scour many, occasionally incompatible literatures to trace-out a fully uninhabited state in the course of our analysis. That being said, we generally believe that our analysis identifies and explores some of the outer limits of what it might mean to legitimately de-center the human element in IR. This test in post-anthropology also has an important implication for the relationship that binds IR to ir. One of the enduring quests in IR and beyond is to determine a universal, ontologically sound definition of the state once and for all. However, we now take this as a fruitless, if not reckless, endeavor. One viable alternative direction for future IR research would be to formulate and, ultimately, implement a model of the state that is more consistent with models of the state that are used in ir (i.e., out there in practice). Put another way, in IR, we need models of the state that capture the complexity of how models of the state are actually used in ir. This shift requires not a theory, but an approach to theories – a model of models – and we develop this line of inquiry forthwith.

[1] Regarding merely the label ‘post-anthropology’; we are fully aware that this term could quite easily be misinterpreted if taken too far from its orienting context in this edited volume, or if it is taken to be a literal description of our scholarship here. It is important to note that the post-anthropological turn in IR scholarship has nothing at all to do with the long tradition of Anthropology as a discipline, and, coming from the small world of Science and Technology Studies, it is significant for us to be clear that post-anthropology in IR is not a direct challenge to the anthropology of science, which our area of study has done so much to cultivate. From this point forward in the chapter, when we use the terms ‘anthropology’ and ‘post-anthropology’ it will be in the same spirit that our editors layout in their orienting introductory chapter, to wit, our title contains the term ‘post-humanist’, which we see as consistent with this distinction.

19 thoughts on “When in doubt, de-center humans

  1. Pingback: When in doubt, de-center humans | Installing (Social) Order

  2. That is awesome! I prefer reading to watching clips, but that is truly a great resource. That is some cool radio … who pays for that?


  3. no Nich, just noting that folks from the humanities might need to spend some time learning to negotiate their ways about in labs and all before they opine let alone preach, back to the rough-ground and all, so not toothless in general but one must get into the mix if one wants to do more than play with shadow puppets.
    Yes Rabinow is doing some interesting research and writing really good books on the anthro of the contemporary, much better (more enabling) in my mind than recent Latour.


  4. HAHAHHAHA! … are we saying ANT is a toothless critique outside of the confines of those folks already too sympathetic to the approach?


  5. I keep imagining some poor undergrad convert all fired-up with the “new” materialism bringing the good news that materials have active-powers to the attention of some prof. in the hard sciences or engineering…


  6. “As for the need for boundary policing, yes I think so. I’d go so far as to say that ANT *requires* that kind of opposition. After all, what produces translation? A trial. And if no one opposes ANT’s adventurism with any force then there are no real trials and no translation of any significance. In that sense ANT is an intrinsically agonistic, dialectical, dialogical form of discourse. It needs to be told no.”

    Really good point about turning the ANT trial on itself!

    I’ll miss Frankfurt too, sadly, but indeed we should coordinate a similar meeting in the future … maybe its time for a grant to fund one?


  7. Can’t believe it’s been a year already. Scary.

    I think that kind of dialectical, agonistic discursive approach is a very valid one. Take your line of argument as far as you can until someone stops you or until it breaks down! It recognises that thought is a dialogical process and one where (polite) conflict can be productive.

    I think that a kind of neo- or alter-humanism is possible from within ANT. It simply has to take the form of: the more mediations, the more attachments the better (that’s the ANT way). What are the associations and assemblages that make us human? Can we intensify them to make us even more human (note, not post-human but more human)? The problem with classic humanism is the location of agency in the human body as if human beings were substances with essential properties. It’s an occult theory that always requires a ‘context’ to be appended to the individual body as if these things were somehow of different orders of reality. Instant dualism, just add water. The worst part of this bodily ontology is that we are locked in to our bodies, as if they are all we are, as if being born naked means we have to live naked. If, on the contrary, humanity is the product of a broader network then that network can be *extended*.

    I’m thinking of an essay of Latour’s on ‘qualculation’ (what a horrible word!) where he says that e.g. in a supermarket the way that prices are laid out per unit and per weight, etc. turn the shopper into a calculating subject; the shopper ‘downloads’ that capacity through the network. Likewise in extended cognition terms we can think of the expansion of calculative capacities that comes even from a simple abacus, for example.

    What are the attachments that constitute human political subjectivity and how can they be extended, intensified? I think part of answering that question *might* mean taking another look the word ‘agency’ itself. If it really is as essential as the humanists say (and aren’t we supposed to be ethnomethodologists and diplomats who ‘respect our informants’?) then perhaps that’s something that needs to be sacrificed, given up to the human inasmuch as it is taken to refer to those attachments that achieve a particular *kind* of agency, a particular kind of subjectivity instead of standing for all kinds of causal efficacy in general. It is just a bit of terminology, after all, it is a replaceable part. It’s the spark plug of ANT – essential and yet replaceable.

    As for the need for boundary policing, yes I think so. I’d go so far as to say that ANT *requires* that kind of opposition. After all, what produces translation? A trial. And if no one opposes ANT’s adventurism with any force then there are no real trials and no translation of any significance. In that sense ANT is an intrinsically agonistic, dialectical, dialogical form of discourse. It needs to be told no.

    I’m also thinking this issue through Latour’s modes book that I’m about 2/3 of the way through. That puts a whole other spin on things as it makes NET one mode among many (albeit a pivotal one). The modes are pretty transformational for Latour’s ANT but he still maintains the ontological policy of ‘agency for all’ so there’s still a debate to be had on that, very much so. Particularly as the politics mode is quite weak, I think (based on my reading so far at least). Certainly weaker than some of the others.

    I won’t be in Frankfurt but hopefully we’ll get to debate this again at some point! Until then we have our blogs!


  8. Phillip, good to hear from you again! I too took that insight home, and it has taken me a year to fully digest it too. Although, as you can tell by the post, we have taken it a slightly different direction. I have no problem with the idea that ANT ideas were born of cauldron of the super-elite players in scientific and technological history. The justification for ANT might very well be nestled — somewhat unsettlingly, now, in retrospect — precisely because of human exceptionalism … or that is what got us all interested in questions that would ultimately aim to overthrow such human-centric forms of exceptionalism. Your point is a good one, I think: if we are to claim that many scholars have gone, if you will permit me this colloquialism, “overboard” with de-humanizing agency, then we have gained almost nothing in the process. The original intent of ANTers was not to go too far the other direction, though; after all, that would be the technological determinism. Like the hard-won efforts to generate political agency, ours was a hard-won battle to generate technological agency but with a balance. Jan and I have always written that ANT has been used in so many and so many contradictory ways that it almost defies simple summary and has a much more malleable character these days, as it is collided with new theories born in disciplines with different traditions and orienting assumptions.

    So, a materialist answer that still provides something of political agency: I wonder what a discussion would look like if it were started like this: “what should we do with bodies when we de-center humans?”

    I think that in Jan and I’s chapter for that new book, we are walking as far away as we can from humanist theories of international relations precisely waiting for the moment for other to say “STOP, you’re too close to the edge!” Not because we have “materialist-blinders” on, but because I think the ultimate answer to your question will not have almost anything to do with theories or findings, and instead it will be a professional or (dare I say, but surely I do mean it) aesthetic decisions about what theories and models we will invite to populate our home disciplines. This will be something of a traditional “gate keeping” practice that nearly any discipline must encounter. Given the “migratory” (or predatory, depending on perspective) uses of ANT … perhaps its time for a few boundary policemen in IR to ask the hard question: now that they are in the gates, do we let them say and settle here?


  9. Interesting stuff. Glad to see that these issues are still burning away and that the IR/ANT collective is still hanging together!

    With regard to the project in general, one question that must ultimately be asked, I think, is: when we have traced all the networks that form the human how do we avoid humans being dissolved into those networks? How do we avoid shifting from anthropocentrism to an un-self-critical network-centrism? How do we avoid the political complacency that can potentially come from thoroughgoing relationality? Are there no unintended consequences of ANT’s creeping colonisation of more and more intellectual territory? I think that there are.

    This is something that came up at the Millennium conference last year, as I’m sure you remember! There was a clear divide at that event between ANT-types and others, most particularly from the critical realist camp, for whom human reflexivity as the basis of political agency is indispensable. It was argued that the appropriation of ‘agency’ as a substitute for ‘causality’ undoes all the hard won victories of emancipatory politics (and its accompanying critical theory) in the 20th century.

    As something of an ANT-phile I was quite challenged by this idea. David Chandler in particular helped me to see the point. I came to realise that it isn’t just a blustery, reactionary reiteration of substantialism or modernist humanism (although it sometimes goes that way too!). When ANT was working just on science and technology it was easy to downplay and de-exceptionalise the agency of the human – scientists and technicians had been granted *far too much* agency, far too much centredness and self-control and therefore depriving them of that was methodologically and politically unproblematic. No one was ever going to lapse into thinking that these people really lacked agency or were cultural dopes; the goal was to shift these human agents back into their networks and ANT did that brilliantly.

    When we shift forward 25 years and look at the situation where, now, rightly or wrongly, ANT is a sociological metalanguage that is informing all kinds of theorisation we have to tread much more carefully. The political agency of human beings *in general* is in no way as assured as that of scientists and technicians. We simply can’t take human agency for granted in all walks of life. Remember that ANT ethnographers were always (and they were always aware of this) studying *up*. That is, they were studying persons with more power, money and prestige than they themselves enjoyed. Studying *down*, studying persons who are downtrodden, disenfranchised, held by dominant discourses to be feckless and incapable of rational self-determination – these people need to be treated with greater care.

    To systematically remove all the classic humanist means by which their agency can be defended without careful consideration of consequences is, frankly, irresponsible.

    That isn’t to say that ANT-type work has no place within broader social or political theory. Far from it. I am still an ANT-phile! All I mean to say is that irreducing the human must not, ultimately, dissolve the human. The ontological status of human *political* agency is too fragile to be thrown around so cavalierly. That doesn’t mean that we must stop walking in the direction that we have been but, as Latour would put it, we may need to slow down. It isn’t that ANT cannot be translated into all these different areas but we need to recognise and deal with the ever larger degree of transformation that is required to properly extend these networks the further they stray from their origins. Part of that, I think, means that we have to find a way of saying: the more mediations, the more human. More humanity, not less.

    That’s the major realisation that I got from the LSE event last year (having had a year to reflect on it!).


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