Plastic is one of the most urgent ecological challenges nowadays. Hardly a week goes by without an announcement that plastic, especially microplastics, threatens the environment of the sea, land, and air and damages the inhabiting critters, including humans. Our viscous porosity (Nancy Tuana), our undeniable attachment to the environment, is proved once again. Tuana laconically states: “Plastic becomes flesh” (2008, 201). Whereas the implications for environment and health are largely unknown, certain is only the longevity of the petroleum-based material, which cannot completely vanish, but only gets smaller. The compressed bodies of paleontological organisms now culminate in an unsettled future. Plastic is, as Heather Davis suggests, the ultimate material of tempophagy, or time-eating (2015, 234).
Almost paradoxically, plastic was also one of the greatest technological achievements of the 20th century. From the perspective of the modern scientist, the virtual alchemist (Bensaude-Vincent 2013, 23), this marvelous matter embodies the indefinite metamorphosis culminating in the dream of the substanceless matter. As Roland Barthes pointed out: “[M]ore than a substance, plastic is the very idea of its infinite transformation” (1972, 97).
Returning to microplastics, our strange and toxic bedfellows (Tuana 2008, 198), which have entered unnoticed into all living organisms and environments, it comes gradually into our consciousness that endless plasticizing as a key issue of Western modernity comes to an end by means of plastic’s own sticky materiality, whose debris we literally cannot get rid of.
In the arts and humanities, the posthuman mostly comes as a critic of human-centered thinking and world-making. Implicated in robotics, sensing media, prosthetic technologies, and neuroscience, and enhanced by the urgency of the Anthropocene, Critical Posthumanism questions the Western humanist ideal of the rational, self-governing and self-transparent subject or, as the feminist scholar Rosi Braidotti puts it, “the Man as the allegedly universal measure of all things, whereas the latter rests on the rejection of species hierarchy and human exceptionalism” (Braidotti 2018, 339).
The prefix post connotes a humanism after the human and thus has sparked a controversial debate. Donna J. Haraway has responded to the thinking of the decentralized or even erased human by proposing instead the figure and the phenomenon of compost to name the coexisting multispecies muddle (2016, 32). What sounds like irony can be taken quite seriously, if we consider that humus and human have the same etymological origin. Underlining the thought of the impossibility of the self-making (hu)man, but warning against a new separation from the earth, Haraway situates humans in the material assemblage of compost, consisting of many invisible agents involved in procedures of composting and de-composting: “We are compost, not posthuman; we inhabit the humusities, not the humanities. Philosophically and materially, I am a compostist, not a posthumanist” (2016, 97).
Providing sensoric interfaces like touchscreens, new technological devices seem to promise a deeper proximity and intimacy. Using the conductivity of the fingers, the human body is circuited as part of a mediatized environment. Sensing media has also arrived at the environmental level of smart houses or even smart cities by embedding RFID tags. RFIDs are tiny microchips activated by a receiver, which transmit information such as delivery route, location, air quality, or temperature. Referring to Nigel Thrift’s term “the technological unconscious,” N. Katherine Hayles describes the subtle ways these small interactors and their animated environments change the “perceptions of human subjectivity in relation to a world of objects that are no longer passive and inert” (2009, 48).
In fact, we discover that not only has the earth become programmable, but that currently more “things” are connected to the Internet than people are (Gabrys 2016, 7). With regard to the posthuman critic of human-centered thinking, our technological nets remind us, as Michel Serres has put it, that “the material and eco-physical globe is constituted, developed, and balanced by messages and messengers […]. Dolphins, whales, bees, termites, and ants communicate without doubt, but we also hear the same from currents of air and ocean, from winds and liquids, from the continental plates and the fire. […] To which functions—culture, technology, or nature—have we assign these attributes? Choose, if you dare?” (Serres 2005, 121).
Feminist Speculating, imaging, and fabulating as thinking in the future tense and drawing on alternative futures is a constituent part of the humanities, especially of feminist and postcolonial theories and practices. Famous examples are the post-gender and post-race science-fiction stories of Ursula K. Le Guin, Marge Piercy or Octavia E. Butlers, Donna J. Haraway’s multispecies fabulation, and Saidiya Hartman’s speculative fabulation of untold slavery stories. In recent years, modes of speculating have gained more attention in posthuman discourse and theories of new materialism. Whereas the conventional form of critique “is running out of steam” (Latour 2004), there are several positions trying to respond to the non-, post-, and parahuman challenges like plastic or sensing media in less apocalyptic, paranoid or demonizing ways. Besides speculative practices in the arts, scholars like Isabelle Stengers and Anna L. Tsing provide theoretical frames in terms of the art of noticing (Tsing 2015) or a renewed capacity for wondering about matter (Stengers 2011).
It is important to understand feminist speculating not as speculating about something — as a representation of an inert object — but as an attempt to speculate with something. To quote Haraway on her acronym sf, which is a sign for science fiction, speculative feminism, speculative fabulation, science fact, and string figures, “in the feminist sf mode, matter is never mere medium to the informing seed” (2016, 125).
In 1930, Sigmund Freud proclaimed: “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God” (1961, 43). Historically linked to the traumatic experience of injured bodies during the First World War, the prosthesis later became a key metaphor in Western Cultural Theory. Marshall McLuhan is especially known for discussing the status of transport-, memory-, and transmitting-media as extensions of man (2001). Instead of thinking tools and weapons as different forms of organ projections (Ernst Kapp), McLuhan goes even further in suggesting an understanding of media nets as an externalization of the central nervous system.
Often considered an expression of the duality natural body vs. artificial instrument, prostheses are criticized for representing the human hubris, which is expressed in the opening quotation by Freud. Instead of understanding the prosthetic human as superhuman, Karin Harrasser proposes Zoë Sofoulis’ concept of parahumans. With regard to the prostheses of Paralympics athlete Oscar Pistorius, Harrasser writes: “We can see parahuman agencies at work, all the agents that make – that literally fabricate – the assemblage we all too quickly call ‘athlete’” (2017, 180).
Pursuing the similar aim of denaturalizing the allegedly natural/normal body, Paul B. Preciado has identified a total-prosthesis order of the heterosexual and capitalist regime. Preciado uses the concept of dildo in order to describe the biopolitical production of the body as a social prosthesis (cf. 2018, 48).
Electrical network, hairnet, cybernetics, fishing net, Internet, neural net, rail network, social network, net artists, network of thoughts, network architecture, Internet of trees …
This list shows, firstly, that nets are always networks, products of doing, whether the agents are bacteria or spiders, seamstresses or hydraulic engineers. Seen as a cultural and natural practice, networking seems to be an essential technique for material and symbolic production, distribution and communication.
Secondly, this list shows that networks seem to exist only in multilayered and interwoven relations. This applies to material relations (e.g. Internet depends on electrical networks) as well as semiotic relations: For example, James Lovelook’s name Gaia for the Earth as a complex and interdependent super-organism was inspired by the technological feedback loops of cybernetics.
This list shows, thirdly, that nets always pose questions of control, regulation, totality, and hierarchy (Galloway 2010, 283). So, not only from a topological point of view, Bruno Latour has asked, “what is in between the meshes of such a circuitry? […] Is not a net made up, first and foremost, of empty spaces?” (2005, 242). Despite the ubiquitous literal and metaphorical networks, there is hope for the missing masses, the Plasma, as Latour called it, which is not simply unconnected, but overlooked by urbanists, seamstresses, and scientists, not yet calibrated, stabilized, mapped, or standardized.