PRINT May/June 2020


WE, AN ARTIST AND A PHILOSOPHER/ANTHROPOLOGIST, met in 2018, when Tobias inaugurated the Transformations of the Human program at the Berggruen Institute in Los Angeles. The premises of the program—and of his conversations with Anicka—are twofold.

1. The Human Fails Us

What is the human? What is the place of humans in the world? What, if anything, sets us apart from nonhuman things?

The modern age began with the suggestion that humans are more than mere nature (more than animals and plants)—and other than mere machines.

Today, these two differentiations have become untenable: The form human fails us.

It fails us in terms of disaster: Think of anthropogenic climate change, mass species extinction, or environmental pollution.

And it fails us in terms of knowledge: Fields like microbiome research, artificial intelligence, or synthetic biology teach us that we are neither more than nature nor other than machines.

As the boundaries that defined the human for centuries—the neat separation of human things, natural things, and artificial things—fall into crisis, we thus find ourselves in a state of suspense.

We find this suspense incredibly exciting.

2. The Human Is at Stake In the Nonhuman

A far-reaching consequence of these failures is that the question of the human occurs today in fields that were classically not concerned with the human at all.

Suddenly and unexpectedly, engineering and the natural sciences have become philosophical laboratories: Experimental spaces for investigating new possibilities for being human after the human, for building technologies that transcend the nature-technology (or organism-machine) divide.

Who, though, attends to, who guides these experiments?

What Is One to Do?

Our response—and the response of the Transformations of the Human program—has been to build projects that bring together philosophers, artists, scientists, and engineers to explore the philosophical, poetic, and political stakes of AI and biotech.

What new, porous conception of the human could emerge from fields like microbiome research, biogeochemistry, or machine learning?

What would it mean to think the human in terms of the nonhuman?

What leaky definitions of self and not-self are waiting to be articulated?

What conceptions of the world unfold beyond the neat distinction of human, nature, and technology (the artificial)?

Can we build machines in biological—or botanical—terms? Can we liberate machines from the classical modern understanding of the machine?

Enter Covid-19

When Covid-19 began to spread from bats to palm civets to pangolins to humans, we realized that we were witnessing a philosophical and poetic event:

A dramatic undoing, one in which humans are becoming undifferentiated from the microbial world we live in.

Our project felt more urgent than ever before.

To us, Covid-19 has been an opening––an invitation to rethink the human and technology in terms of the nonhuman. What new, alternative concept of the human, of nature, of technology would—could—emerge from Covid-19?

Most governments chose the opposite path: They seek to protect the human from nature; they shed not-self from self by closing their borders and by claiming that the virus comes from the bodies of foreigners—from the bodies of those who are “too” close to nature, who live too close to animals, who are themselves more animal than human.

This prompted us to assemble a group of friends—philosophers, artists, engineers—with whom we had the good fortune work over the past few years. This month in Artforum, we present the text “Virions: Thinking through the Scale of Aggregation,” by Caroline A. Jones. Additional replies will appear in the July/August issue.