Considerations on New Materialist and Posthuman Agendas in Biographical Studies

From Bios to Zoe

Essentially, biographies and autobiographies speak of personal lives, individuals, and human experience. They constitute one of the most anthropocentric scenes in historical scholarship and the humanities at large. Even though biographical studies have gone through major changes and paradigmatic transitions during the last few decades, many biographies remain schematic; they tell us time and again what it means to lead a human life on a linear pattern – be it Bildung as a cumulative educational process, life as a series of stages, a profession or an occupation as a dynamic career. Today, the centrality of these undertakings is, however, at stake. According to Alexis Harley, psychoanalysis has already questioned the idea of the autonomous will that is so important to Western autobiographical practice, but theories that argue for the dispersal of intelligence, mentality, intentionality, desire, and meaning through matter offer an even more radical deconstruction of the autobiographical subject.[1] Posthumanism, for instance, has destabilized human centrality in favor of considering matter, the nonhuman, and the surround in which beings interact.[2] Following these thoughts, one is tempted to ask if we could, in order to promote the new materialist and posthuman agendas in biographical studies, remove the emphasis from an individual life and move it to life beyond the figure of the human organism, or, to use the ancient Greek terms, extend our issue from bios to zoe, from the social and discursive sphere to that of impersonal and inorganic forces.[3]

At first sight, the question seems to be a contradictio in adiecto: if we abandon the idea of studying and narrating human life in favor of scrutinizing the vitality of all living matter, what will then be left of biographical studies? Could one still inquire into human subjectivity and all those capacities and qualities that make us what we are? The effort of going beyond the figure of the human organism points towards the sphere of nonhuman animals and other living beings, cells and molecules, plants and ecological systems. Amongst these, there hardly seems to be any room for biographical analysis.

There is, however, no need to go that far. It is still possible to follow the new materialist and posthuman developments and throw light on individual living and the human lifeworld without being caught in a problematic situation. Drawing on the ideas of Karen Barad, Rosi Braidotti, and Donna Haraway, among others, Cynthia Huff has problematized the foregrounding of the autonomous human self by referring to human-animal interaction and human-machine interaction. She has pleaded for a politics of subjectivity that emphasizes relationality, process, interrelationships, and interconnections among disparate types of beings. This implies that on a narrative level new materialist and posthuman approaches would reject the story of individual growth and progress in favor of those disrupting any linear narrative, telling, instead, a story of becoming together.[4]

Paying attention to the agency of matter destabilizes human autonomy and supremacy. As Claire Colebrook has noted, we need to do away with the idea that nature merely is while humans decide their being.[5] Embracing this new perspective, we will do away with the Cartesian mind-matter binary, which is based on the notion of an active thinking substance (res cogitans) and passive extensive objects (res extensa). As a result, humans, nonhumans, and the surround in which beings live and interact constitute a common sphere. The move from bios to zoe is possible without losing either side of the covering concept of life borrowed from the ancient Greeks.

Leonardo da Vinci, L’Uomo Vitruviano (circa 1487). Source: Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Luc Viatour / https://Lucnix.be

The Concept of Individuation

Pertaining to the aspect of interconnectivity, new materialist and posthuman approaches have already contributed a remarkable share to that discussion, be it Actor-Network Theory (Latour), the concepts of intra-action and agential realism (Barad), or the notion of human-animal entanglements (Haraway).[6] All these approaches offer interesting challenges to biographical studies. Nonetheless, there is an important concept, that of individuation, which would be a fruitful enhancement to the ongoing debates on this field’s future prospects and the opportunities it provides. This concept emphasizes the processuality of all beings and their lives and treats the open-endedness of living beings in conjunction with the surrounds, technologies, and various bodies which they meet.

Thinking of how eager the academic community has been in embracing the notions of relationality, interaction, entanglement, and intersectionality, which also build up an intellectual toolkit for studying the dependency and heterogeneity of biographical subjects, the concept of individuation would fit well with that series. It provides an opportunity for scholars to hone their lenses to see the nonlinear and nonteleological nature of individual human lives, which is no minor thing if we bear in mind how much the authors of biographical and autobiographical literature have put weight on constructing the integrated plots and narratives of their protagonists and the vicissitudes they have lived through. In its modern configuration, developed since the 1950s, the concept of individuation has a close relationship to those of difference and differentiation which have come to denote the constant processuality and transformation of nature and matter. An important motive for launching the entire concept was to deconstruct the idea of a solid and independent (male) actor-subject, which was thought of as entering the community and various milieux as a ready-made being.[7]

The concept of individuation appears in many philosophers’ works throughout the centuries and also in the theories of psychologists of more recent times. In this article, however, I want to remind the readers of the ideas of the French philosophers Gilbert Simondon (1924–1989) and Gilles Deleuze (1925–1995). Simondon’s doctoral thesis L’individuation à la lumière des notions de forme et d’information (Individuation in the Light of the Notions of Form and Information), defended in 1958 and published only later in two parts (1964, 1989), was, together with the ideas of Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308) and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), a source of inspiration to Deleuze. His views on individuation, especially those which he presented in his Difference and Repetition (originally 1968), are today more to the fore than those of his predecessors.

An Individual as Open-Ended Processuality

In Simondon’s and Deleuze’s concept of individuation, there are, to my mind, two basic aspects that are important for the study of biographical and historical issues. Firstly, rather than a cause, an individual is an effect of the process of individuation, and secondly, the notion of an impersonal individuation enables one to observe the uniqueness and multiplicity of a single individual without resorting to the traditional Aristotelian genus/species scheme.[8] In other words, the concept does not subordinate difference to a horizon of identity. For these reasons, the process of individuation discloses the unexpectedness of becoming, which denotes, in this case, the unexpectedness of an individual body or an agent.[9] Instead of searching for clear identities and subjectivities, the concept of individuation places the emphasis on the idea of an individual as a constant flow or process.

It may seem that the concept of individuation highlights phases that are too vague and indefinite for studying someone’s biography on the basis of extant documents and attainments. Those materials people leave behind always consist of “still frames” of the life past; they do not carry the processuality within themselves. This point is, however, precisely where the problem appears. Looking into the deeds and vicissitudes of various people easily causes one to begin from the wrong end, that is, the outcomes, merits, or the coherent trajectory of a life. Seen from this perspective, the course of events becomes teleological, and one tends to think that individual lives constitutively follow certain routes or schemes, overt or covert ones, the full workings of which can be seen in the human accomplishments. On a purely intentional level of one’s life, this point of view is usually quite right, but if we accept it, that sadly brings us back to the idea of a solid and independent actor-subject. This is why the concept of individuation is so promising. It turns the teleological way of thinking upside down and directs attention to the perpetual becomings of an individual agent or a body, that is, those transformations and small changes that grow out of the interactions, engagements, assemblages and various kinds of relations of a living human body with other bodies, including nonliving and nonhuman ones.

The aspect above makes it clear that the process of individuation in the human world takes place on two levels, individual and social. Humans seem to be the only living beings that have multiplied, enriched and complicated the forms of their social organization to the same extent that they have multiplied, enriched and complicated their engagement with materiality.[10] The differentiation of individual capacities and skills which proceeds on the basis of the material surround (human bodies included) runs parallel with the differentiation of social relations and forms of interaction.

Sensing the Nonhuman

Since the field of biographical studies is composed of context-sensitive and source-based inquiry, it is obvious that the theoretical premises and views introduced above always need further elaboration and evidence in each empirical case. Before concluding this article, I will give an example which, I hope, will motivate to further analyses on individuation and its social and material aspects.

In a conspicuous way, the German author, composer, critic, and lawyer Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776–1822) anticipated posthuman and nonanthropocentric attitudes by frequently satirizing Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s (1762–1814) thought, and his works turned it into an agent of grotesque imagining decoupled from the real world.[11] Hoffmann deliberately took a critical stance towards post-Kantian philosophy and the prerogative of human subjectivity.[12]

German author, composer, lawyer, conductor and critic E. T. A. Hoffmann (1776–1822). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Furthermore, he was very interested in human-animal entanglements in his fiction; he imagined life from a nonhuman perspective by choosing animals and insects as protagonists in his tales and novellas. A fantasy writer as he was, Hoffmann also frequently felt that he lived in the midst of secret, unidentifiable forces, so one could say that he acknowledged his engagements and interactions with his milieu that he saw as more-than-human.

Since Hoffmann was obsessed with doubling and splintering selves, it seems that he had a notion of the multiplicity of human subjectivity, which he also refined into a literary motif with horrific overtones.[13] However, concerning the issue of individuation and biographical studies, what is perhaps the most interesting thing about this Prussian author and lawyer is that the dynamics of becoming, be it material or immaterial, find expression in his literary fiction. My suggestion is that the imaginary sphere found in Hoffmann’s literary works can be seen as a field, or medium, of experimentation. In its often ironic and dream-like atmospheres it displays the embarrassment and bewilderment one feels when confronted with and affected by nonhuman actors and powers in one’s milieu.

Here and there in Hoffmann’s literary fiction, there are obscure characters whose true motives and intentions appear enigmatic to the reader (The Sandman, 1816), people whose identities are unclear (Chevalier Gluck, 1809), uncanny and fairy-tale atmospheres (The Deserted House, 1817; The Nut Cracker and the Mouse King, 1819) and human-animal entanglements or hybrids (Fantasy Pieces in Callot’s Manner, 1814–15; Master Flea, 1822). These figures and atmospheres are unusual and bizarre. They are the traces, or imprints, of unexpected becomings of human and nonhuman actors and powers in their interaction, the process of which shines through the literary modes and resources Hoffmann used. As textual playgrounds of imagination, Hoffmann’s tales show the nature of nonlinear becoming from the point of view of a human subject. They can be seen as a collection of entanglements between bios, that is, human meaning making and zoe, which covers nonhuman beings and inorganic nature.

Hoffmann’s imaginary world speaks more generally about the ways in which one’s personal lifeworld and impersonal forces and elements interact. Seen from this point of view, the process of individuation remains within the confines of biography and can be illustrated from the human perspective. Hoffmann was a great humorist, and by depicting animal characters, the dog Berganza, for instance, he made a mockery of humans and their activities.[14] He also parodied the anthropocentric idea of Bildung, the notion of the cumulative self-formation and intellectual development of humans in his novel The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819–21). In recent decades, one of the merits of Sarah Kofman’s study on this novel is that scholars have turned their attention to the fact that this piece of literature and its fragmentary structure break the order of logos: it has neither a beginning, nor an end, and the chronological sequence of the events has been abolished. Comprising passages which talk, alternately, about Tomcat Murr and conductor Johannes Kreisler, the narrative does not disclose any origins or continuities.[15] These are the most obvious features of the novel’s complex structure.

As a close colleague of Jacques Derrida, Kofman’s intention was to scrutinize the way in which l’écriture precedes the ontological categories of the work of art, subjectivity and origin. One can now take this project a step further and contend that The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr questions the special status of humans and their idea of individual growth and linear Bildung. By means of its basic setting, the novel also shows the preconditions and the processual nature of individuation; it reveals the way in which multiple subjectivities are interconnected in Hoffmann’s personal life. A cat writes an autobiography, which means that part of the novel is an effort to imagine life from a nonhuman perspective. For all the (human) readers of the work, it expresses the potentiality of becoming-animal. I am tempted to see this aspect as a sign of the deep interaction of the author and his animal companion.[16] Whatever the reasons Hoffmann had for writing the novel bearing the name of his cat, he nevertheless paid respect to this literary character and its physical counterpart at home by declaring his role to be editor, not author, of the work.

However, as a literary figure the cat is also present in the text in a more material way. The editor of the novel reports that during his visit to his master’s library, Murr the cat had found a book on conductor Kreisler (who was Hoffmann’s alter ego[17]). After tearing the book to pieces, the cat had used its pages partly to write on them his Life and Opinions, partly to recycle them as blotting paper. “These pages were left in the manuscript – and were inadvertently printed too, as if they were part of it!,” the editor apologetically exclaims in the foreword.[18] Therefore, the fragmentary structure of the novel is the product of Murr the cat, which means that his claws have left their mark in the work. This time, human-animal interaction is not only sensed at a distance, Hoffmann also lets it penetrate his writing. He is not the supreme author of the novel; there are multiple actors involved.

Conclusion

According to Cynthia Huff, posthuman life narrative would encompass multiple subjectivities located in the materiality of their particular surround, for example, a field, a cityscape, a building, etc. The emphasis would be on interrelationship and interconnection, and the individual would be displaced from the center.[19] Delving into the process of individuation is one of the ways of dealing with this challenge, and the great asset of the approach presented here is that it focuses on the contemporaneity and complementarity of the differentiation of the individual and that of the surround. There are not only multiple subjectivities in their social and spatial settings, but the subjectivities themselves also appear multiplied, being the sites of differentiation and interaction.

By drawing on the concept of individuation, the field of biographical studies could contribute to the burning issue of the interconnection between the material and the immaterial. The new materialist and posthuman developments, and especially the agential realism of Karen Barad, have raised the question of how the sphere of human meaning making and discursive formations relate to that of matter and its agency. How can we think of this entanglement? In this dilemma, studying individual human lives and their processes of differentiation seems to offer promising views.

In empirical topics, the interconnection between the material and the immaterial has to be scrutinized in separately each case. Those biographies and life narratives that are intellectually ambitious and richly contextualize their subjects constitute a point from which to start. They illustrate the way in which various forms and fields of social, religious, economic, intellectual, communicative and other activities intersect in individual lives and endeavors. Those kinds of studies, however, have usually been based on the constructivist approach. Inquiry into the processes of individuation would refine the results already obtained by observing the interactions and points of contact between human subjectivities and their material surrounds.

The author is an Adjunct Professor (Docent) at the Department of Cultural History, University of Turku, Finland. His research interests focus on the cultural history of the nineteenth century and its intellectual undercurrents in Europe, especially the history of early Romanticism.

Works cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer. Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Translated by Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford University Press, Stanford 1998.

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press, Durham 2007.

Boundas, Constantin V. Individuation. In Adrian Parr (ed.) The Deleuze Dictionary. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2005, 129–130.

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Polity, Cambridge 2013.

Colebrook, Claire. Understanding Deleuze. Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest 2002.

DeLanda, Manuel. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. Continuum, London 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Translated by Paul Patton. Continuum, London 2001.

Dutchman-Smith, Victoria. E. T. A. Hoffmann and Alcohol. Biography, Reception and Art. Maney Publishing for the Modern Humanities Research Association, London 2009.

Fichte, J. G. The Science of Knowledge, with the First and Second Introductions. Edited and translated by Peter Heath & John Lachs. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2003.

Guchet, Xavier. Technology, Sociology, Humanism: Simondon and the Problem of the Human Sciences. SubStance 41:3 (2012), 76–92.

Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2008.

Harley, Alexis. The Material Turn, Life and Writing. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32:2 (2017), 275–277.

Hengel, Louis van den. Zoegraphy: Per/forming Posthuman Lives. Biography 35:1 (2012), 1–20.

Hoffmann, E. T. A. The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr. Translated and edited by Anthea Bell. Revised edition. Penguin Classics, London 1999.

Huff, Cynthia. After Auto, after Bio: Posthumanism and Life Writing. a/b: Auto/Biography Studies 32:2 (2017), 279–282.

Kofman, Sarah. Schreiben wie eine Katze… Zu E. T. A. Hoffmanns “Lebens-Ansichten des Katers Murr”. Edited by Peter Engelmann, translated by Monika Buchgeister-Niehaus and Hans-Walter Schmidt-Hannisa. Third revised edition. Passagen, Wien 2013.

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2005.

Ponta, Mark & Protevi, John. Deleuze and Geophilosophy. A Guide and Glossary. Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh 2006.

Riou, Jeanne. Imagination in German Romanticism. Re-thinking the Self and its Environment. Peter Lang, Bern 2004.

Simondon, Gilbert. L’individu et sa genèse physico-biologique. Presses Universitaires de France, Paris 1964.

Simondon, Gilbert. L’individuation psychique et collective. Aubier, Paris 1989.

Steinecke, Hartmut. Die Kunst der Fantasie. E. T. A. Hoffmanns Leben und Werk. Insel, Frankfurt am Main 2004.

Studtmann, Paul. Aristotle’s Categories. In Edward N. Zalta (ed.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fall 2017 edition. Available from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2017/entries/aristotle-categories/


[1] Harley 2017, 277.

[2] Huff 2017, 279.

[3] On the concepts of bios and zoe, see, e.g., Agamben 1998, 1; Braidotti 2013, 60.

[4] Huff 2017, 279–280; on the concept of zoegraphy, see also Hengel 2012, 8–9.

[5] Colebrook 2002, xlii.

[6] See Latour 2005; Barad 2007; Haraway 2008.

[7] Guchet 2012, 78–82.

[8] According to Aristotle, the essence of any species consists in its genus and the differentia that together with that genus defines the species. This kind of thinking proceeds in stable categories. For further detail, see Studtmann 2017.

[9] For further detail, see Deleuze 2001, xxi, 38, 152, 246–247, 254; DeLanda 2002, 40, 84; Boundas 2005, 129–130; Ponta and Protevi 2006, 94.

[10] Guchet 2012, 91.

[11] Riou 2004, 10.

[12] Fichte’s philosophy was axiomatic and had its starting point in the fundamental operations of human subjectivity and “absolutely unconditioned first principle” (das absolute Ich, Tathandlung).Fichte 2003, especially 93, 97–98.

[13] Hoffmann’s interest in splintering selves, as sources of both fear and fascination, is expressed both in his personal documents and in his literary texts. For instance, returning home from a ball in 1809, Hoffmann wrote in his diary of a peculiar notion of which he became aware in the midst of the celebrations. He saw himself with the mind’s eye, through a mental kaleidoscope: “all the figures that move around me are my selves and I am annoyed at their doings.” This irritation caused by a confrontation with other, uncontrollable selves is a major topic in works such as The Devil’s Elixirs (1815–16) or The Doubles (1821). For further detail, see Dutchman-Smith 2009, 11.

[14] Steinecke 2004, 125.

[15] Kofman 2013, 48.

[16] In real life, Hoffmann had a cat named Murr from 1818 onwards. This beloved creature passed away in November 1821, as a result of which its master wrote a private obituary. See Steinecke 2004, 486, 532.

[17] See Steinecke 2004, 497.

[18] Hoffmann 1999, 4.

[19] Huff 2017, 280.

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