Expanding the View

The distinctions between human and non-human, between bodies, things, and matter seem to be clear-cut and evident. Yet currently—for example, in the context of the recent development of bio-technology or the debate around the present age as the “anthropocene”—this clear-cut and seemingly “natural” divide between human and non-human, between bodies and things and between subject and object is put into question. As the boundaries become more and more blurred new theoretical frameworks to rethink and redefine the relationships between human and non-human are required. Exploring the challenges posed by these current reconfigurations from an interdisciplinary perspective was the aim of the URPP’s annual conference “Human : Non-Human—Bodies Things and Matter across Asia and Europe” (October 6–8, 2016).

Aline von Atzigen

Taking as a starting point the different theoretical “turns” (somatic, material, post-humanist), the conference centered around the following questions: How are bodies, things and matter defined and positioned in relation to each other on different levels and in different respects in Europa and Asia, and how are they entangled? How are boundaries between human and non-human configured, constituted and naturalized in concepts, systems of knowledge and normative orders?

The three organizers—Bettina Dennerlein (University of Zurich), Angelika Malinar (University of Zurich / Research fellow at University of Erfurt) and Andrea Riemenschnitter (University of Zurich / Research fellow at University of Art and Design Linz)—opened the conference with their introductory remarks on the context of human and non-human relationships. Angelika Malinar continued by opening the first session that focused on “Conceptualizing Bodies, Things and Matter.” She based her talk on the translation and interpretation of the Sanskrit word ”prakṛti”—an entity referring to the interconnectedness of all living beings—either in terms of “matter” or “nature.” According to her, prakṛti or pradhāna as “productive matter” is an interesting notion in modern/post-modern debates to rethink the relationship between human and non-human beings and between bodies and things as it encompasses both aspects according to Sāṃkhya philosophy. Yet based on this analysis, she emphasized that appealing alternative notions of “nature” need to be understood and addressed in the context of their specific philosophy and with regard to their social implications. Thus, they need to be thought through with regard to their repercussions before integrating them into current environmental debates. Also focusing on India, Julia Shaw (University College London) outlined the early Buddhist engagement with “nature” in the field of agriculture from an archaeologist point of view. She pointed out how the current modern ecological movement misunderstood traditional Buddhist human-environment interactions as “premodern ecological utopia” by conceptualising Buddhism as an “eco-friendly” religion due to overemphasizing the notion of “eco-dharma,” while at the same time overlooking the entanglement of Early Buddhism with environmental change and urbanisation.

Mechanization of human beings

Urs Gösken (University of Bern) analysed the distinction between human and non-human in the Iranian authenticity discourse based on the writer Ǧalāl Āl-e Aḥmad. In his essay “Westoxication” Ǧalāl Āl-e Aḥmad expresses his concern with regard to technology and modernity. According to Gösken, Ǧalāl Āl-e Aḥmad describes the technology and modernity of the West (here not regarded as a geographical concept) as resulting in a transformation of humans into things, based on the principle of the machine. The distinction between humans and non-humans is based on a distinction between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. Thus, mechanization reduces human beings to non-humans in the sense of “less-than-human.” Religion on the other hand allows for transcending the mere human towards the non-human in the sense of “more-than-human.” Dorothea Lüddeckens (University of Zurich) closed the first session, elaborating on the different narratives on “bodies,” “things,” and “matter” in practices of healing between Asia and Europe. She pointed out how in biomedicine (Western style) the human body is transformed into “matter,” an object or thing. In this healing system, the patient is reduced to the illness: the physician is the subject of knowledge, truth, and authority, while the patient is reduced to an object of research and treatment. On the other hand, “holistic” and “alternative” healing systems (Western style with a matrix in Asian traditions) provide a “counter narrative” where the human body is viewed as animated and not as “matter.” In these systems both patient and physician have knowledge, but different forms of knowledge—the former has inner knowledge, the latter transcendent knowledge. In holistic healing practices, it is not the body, but the whole person who is ill. Thus, healing the patient includes restoring harmony and balance. In this narrative, the patient’s illness is moralised, and his/her body becomes decisive in the healing process.

In her public keynote speech, Bonnie Mann (University of Oregon) explored the notion of shame in American culture and politics. According to Mann, in U.S. foreign politics and practices of war, shame is assigned to the devalued other in order to explain the other’s difference (for instance, during the wars against Japan or Iraq). With regard to American culture and shame, she states that the U.S. is a shame-based culture as shame (and not guilt) is at the heart of American politics, history and culture. The American shame is closely tied with the dominant modes of the formation of masculine and feminine subject and understandings of pride and power. Thus, shame shapes the American understanding of “human,” as well as the attitudes towards “life.”

Law and morality

Melike Şahinol (Orient-Institute Istanbul) opened the second session on “Ruling Bodies, Legal Matters” comparing Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART), its legal framework, as well as its social and cultural context and impacts in Turkey and Germany, addressing the issue of freedom of reproduction. Due to Islamic conceptions of family and reproduction, in Turkey ART is only allowed if no third party is involved. Thus, in Turkey biological parenthood is not questioned in practices of ART as it is in Germany. Yet, the “optimisation” and modification of “human nature” affects the individual and social life in Turkey as well as in Germany. Andrea Büchler (University of Zurich) focused on legal aspects of human body parts and questions concerning the relationship between a human and his/her body parts and the (non-)commercialisation of the latter. In the legal context of Switzerland, human body parts are to be distinguished from body substances insofar as body parts constitute the person and thus fall within the domain of personal law, while body substances are objectified as separate from the person and thus treated under property law. Although body substances maintain a link with the person, the disruption of the congruence between the person and the body along such distinctions poses legal challenges about the potential access and commercialisation of the body. Marcia Inhorn (Yale University) also engaged with law and morality in the context of ART (also referred to as in vitro fertilization IVF) and outlined the paradoxical “reprotravels” of western European people to Dubai in order to evade restrictive reproduction laws in their countries just to find other restrictions resulting in complex ethical and moral dilemmas. Thus, these “reproductive outlaws” move their bodies around the world from one prohibitive place to another. Bettina Dennerlein closed the second session with her talk on naturalistic themes in modern Islamic legal thought and Islamic normativity with regard to gender and sexuality. She started by pointing out that, even though it is hard to tell what is old and what is new in modern Islam, the reception of European ideas is always filtered through specific local conceptions and debates. Analysing the Koranic notions of “nature,” fiṭra (including only human characteristics and having a moral and epistemological dimension) and ṭabī’a (being the central principle in physical bodies, both human and animal), she argued that nature is a foundational category of Islamic law and showed how naturalistic terms are used in defence of Islam. In this context gender differences are based on moral (not natural) differences and dispositions.

Matter and aesthetics

The third session “Aesthetics and the Politics of Matter” was opened by Andrea Riemenschnitter with her analysis of “the clandestine agency of matter” based on the example of humans and food (fish and coffee-tea), and the insect oxymoron of China. She proposed a new approach towards bodies and non-human matter in a cosmopolitan context. Jay Johnston’s (University of Sidney) paper on “Esoteric Ecologies” was read in her absence. On the one hand, she presented a subtle body scheme resonating with “new materialism.” On the other, she engaged with human-animal relations exemplifying how spiritual practices (cf. “Being a beast” by Charles Foster) in the field of what she calls “Esoteric Ecology” are based on recognising and respecting other-than-human agency. Meng Yue (University of Toronto) closed the third session with the presentation of a new understanding of the concept of agricultural land she deems the “hopeful matter of the anthropocene.” This change from a socioeconomic to a poetic concept of agricultural land is based on her analysis of the global journeys of two early 20th century classics on ecofarming.

Cows, tigers and speaking beasts

Pheng Cheah (University of California, Berkeley) opened the last session on “Querying the ‘Non/Human,’” proposing an alternative to the normative theory of “world literature,” in which “world” was defined in terms of human intercourse, based on the phenomenological concept of “worlding.” His concept of “worlding literature” as “literature that intimates,” includes time (capitalist modernization), all people (culture, cosmopolitan consumption), as well as human and non-human forms of existence, thus allowing us to rethink “world literature” beyond man’s intercourse with the world. Annu Jalais (National University of Singapore) explored Asian (Indian) social and cultural “cosmological responses” to social injustice and climate change by comparing different social movements and collective actions, which have a bearing on the conceptualisation of the human/non-human relationships. These were further exemplified by instances of human-animal (cow/tiger) interactions, such as the specific configuration of the man-tiger relationship in the Sundarbans (Bengal).

Raising the question what makes a human being a human, Wolfgang Behr (University of Zurich) focused on “human language” in early and medieval China, at the close of the fourth and final session of the conference. He compared texts on “animal language” and the construction of human/animal and human/non-human linguistic boundaries stating that while generally language is seen as a human capacity differentiating humans from non-humans, in medieval Chinese literature there exists an “animal language,” though the animals cannot escape from being just animals.

The broad spectrum of perspectives and aspects of human and non-human relationships, which formed part of the conference, shaping its truly interdisciplinary character, fostered lively discussions. The human/non-human divide puts into question distinctions between man and life, or between bodies and things, which have legal repercussions. Rethinking these boundaries means also participating in the problematization of the anthropocene from a non-modernist perspective, including the urgent need to rethink both intra-human conflicts as well as intra species relations. Some consensus existed that the “overwhelming nature of problems” calls for actions beyond intellectual and university life. These actions are needed in order to protect life and to change a system of distinctions. However, creating distinctions always implies hierarchies and power relations, so that, when thinking of how to change a system of distinctions, it is important to consider doing it without getting lost in further distinctions. Furthermore, these actions aim to challenge the fantasy of independence. From this perspective, ideas such as the “communal property of bodies” emerged during discussion, allowing attention to the interdependence and interconnectedness of beings, to rethinking the purpose of the body/human-condition, to addressing the continuity between the anthropocene and the rest of life, and to striving for socially, publically accepted, rooted and promoted ideas and notions of what constitutes a “good life.”

(Asia & Europe Bulletin, 6/2017, pp. 26–28)