On Bruns’ On Ceasing To Be Human

I recently finished Gerald Bruns’ On Ceasing To Be Human, and I just wanted to jot down a few notes about it. I’m going to put those notes here because why not?!


1. Ceasing is a wonderful summation of a particular strain of posthuman gesturing coming out of the 20th century. It’s a theory Greatest Hits album when it comes to discussing the big theorists of the last hundred years and their relation to thinking about the limits of the human. Bataille, Blanchot, Foucault, Agamben, Deleuze, Guattari, Derrida, Levinas, and more make appearances both minute and extended in this volume, and Bruns has a way of condensing each of their thoughts on the delimited human down to a couple sentences. It could be a real nightmare scenario, but it isn’t, and we’re given a meaty gloss of lots of different viewpoints on what happens.

2. My interest in what has been (was?) called “the nonhuman turn” is ethical. I’m interested in how to construct ethical systems that resist hierarchies between humans, animals, and machines while also recognizing differences that make a difference between the seemingly-infinite variations between those registers (and differences within those broad categories such as Sunaura Taylor’s complications of human/animal and Alexander Weheliye’s reconfiguration of human life).

Bruns does a beautiful reading of Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am that doesn’t deliver much beyond the essay. However, the reading is so concise and excellent at drawing out the salient points of the essay, and that concision really helps to elaborate the ethical paradigm that Derrida is trying to elucidate in explaining his cute little (very real) cat that see him naked. There’s something about the way that Bruns collapses all of the big, difficult theory into an understandable chunk that needs to be celebrated, and the fact that he’s not having to “file the edges off” in order to make it concise is laudable. The concision of the point to get to ethics is helpful, and it makes me think about concision-as-ethics.

Yes, Derrida wrote about his cat seeing him naked. It’s worth reading the book.

3. It makes me feel good to see Bataille and Blanchot showing up in the “nonhuman turn” literature, especially because I feel that Colette Peignot, whose work Bataille was riffing on for much of The Accursed Share and his other “big” work, gets very close to a comprehensive description of what is occurring on a physical level when humans and nonhuman-yet-agential objects become proximal. Peignot has a wonderful prose poem/essay about (or I read it to be about) the agency of a church fire and how it has a particular kind of effect on a group of people. More and more I think about assemblages (or actor-networks) as also needing a complementary theory of competing sovereignty, in which objects are often at odds with each other over which has the most impact over a particular local ecosystem (or, my preferred, body). To get there requires a heavy dose of Peignot with Bataille’s variations, and Bruns does some of that here (but only through the latter with not mention of her, of course, like so many others have done).

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