Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s "Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism&qu
Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s 2013 essay begins with a brief but incisive genealogy of posthumanist theory, a genealogy in which scholars like Aimé Césaire and Sylvia Wynter prefigure Michel Foucault. Jackson explains that it is Foucault’s “observation that ‘man’ is a historically contingent formation” which is most often understood as urging the humanities to critically reflect on the category of “man” at the center of humanism and to move toward posthumanism. However, Césaire, Wynter, and other theorists like Frantz Fanon work before and beyond Foucault to place “Western humanism in a broader field of gendered, sexual, racial, and colonial relations” and comprehend how “man” is “a technology of slavery and colonialism” (670).
The scholars included in Jackson’s critical genealogy matter because they highlight an aspect of humanism that posthumanism has retained rather than critiqued: “Western and specifically Eurocentric structures of rationality” (671). In other words, much posthumanism has continued to use the logic of humanism—a system “committed to . . . racial, gendered, and colonial hierarchies of ‘Reason’ and its ‘absence’”—to make its critiques of “man” (672). What a scholar like Sylvia Wynter does (in essays like “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom”) is undercut this logic, compelling Jackson to ask: “Might there be a (post)humanism that does not privilege European Man and its idiom? . . . Is it possible that the very subjects central to posthumanist inquiry—the binarisms of human/animal, nature/culture, animate/inanimate, organic/inorganic—find their relief outside of the epistemological locus of the West?” (673).
“Perhaps,” Jackson muses, “the ‘post’human is not a temporal location but a geographic one . . .” (673). The “perhaps” here is not a marker of uncertainty but rather of Jackson’s persistently inquiring voice, which is part of what makes her scholarly writing so crucial and beautiful to read. In a previous Watershed review, Jaime Brunton traced Jackson’s critique of the temporal and spatial logic of “beyond.” The idea of geographic locations, of bodies and lands, instead is offered as a suggestion.
The “perhaps” here and elsewhere in the essay (e.g., page 681) therefore marks scholarly strength. Strength is Jackson's refusal to rush beyond and instead to stop and scrutinize where she is. For example, early on in the essay: “Even here, as I observe the customary practice of providing a brief genealogical sketch of the field, I find myself amid troubling gendered and racialized citational waters” (672). It’s from this location that Jackson can wonder about Wynter’s work, which leads her back to bodies and lands rather than beyond them.
“Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism” is a review essay in which Jackson discusses three books published in 2012 and 2013 about animality and race: Kalpana Rahita Seshadri’s HumanAnimal: Race, Law, Language, Michael Lundblad’s The Birth of a Jungle: Animality in Progressive-Era U.S. Literature and Culture, and Mel Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. What Jackson looks for and values in all of these books is their potential to unsettle and ultimately transform categories like the “human” rather than simply extend them.
And as far as I can tell, this insight of Jackson’s has been influential. In the conclusion of her 2015 book, Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age, Clare Jean Kim follows Jackson in her argument that “Rethinking the human begins with the recognition that the human has always been a thoroughly exclusionary concept in race and species terms—that it has only ever made sense as a way of marking who does not belong in the inner circle. It means clarifying that the project before us is not an extensionist one (expanding the definition of the human to allow a few radicalized groups or preferred ape species in) but rather a reconstructive one (reimagining humans, animals, and nature outside of systems of domination)” (Kim 287).
Let me end by admitting that, as someone writing a dissertation about plants and indigenous literature, I was quite interested to read an essay about race and posthumanism titled “Animal” but I didn’t expect this short piece to be so relevant to my work. For instance, I won’t forget (and will be sure to cite) this question of Jackson’s: “I wonder if posthumanists are willing to go one step beyond a critique of the discourse of ‘primitivity’ by also engaging the knowledge production of those deemed primitive?” (681). Perhaps you, too, might benefit from checking out “Animal: New Directions in the Theorization of Race and Posthumanism,” in Feminist Studies 39.3 (2013): 669-685.
-Aubrey Streit Krug