Gaby Cepeda on Counter-humanism

What term do you think best reflects the present moment in contemporary art?

I want to take inspiration from Sylvia Wynter’s amazingly complex and visionary critique of humanism and borrow her idea of “specific genres of being human” to delineate the type of art that I’m most interested in seeing and thinking with and about right now: art that imagines a way out of the chaotic, exploitative and anti-human conditions that we find ourselves living in today. For Wynter, the human has been historically limited and linked to very specific modes of existence. She identifies Man1, who was, as Katherine McKittrick explains in the book Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis (2015), “tethered to the theological order of knowledge of pre-Renaissance Latin-Christian Medieval Europe”, and after that Man2, “a figure based on the Western bourgeoisie’s model of being human … articulated as, since the latter half of the nineteenth century, liberal monohumanism’s homo oeconomicus.” These specific genres come with a lot of baggage in the form of powerful systems of knowledge, laws and stories, all of which contribute, enable and shape, as McKittrick writes:

the lived and racialized categories of the rational and irrational, the selected and the dysselected, the haves and the have-nots as asymmetrical naturalized racial-sexual human groupings that are specific to time, place, and personhood yet signal the processes through which the empirical and experiential lives of all humans are increasingly subordinated to a figure [Man2] that thrives on accumulation.

Through Wynter’s belief in a humanness whose narrative capabilities lead to the materialisation of reality (or “storytellers who now storytellingly invent themselves as being purely biological,” McKittrick writes) she posits a way forward in which new self-conceptions and re-articulated stories of origin could allow for the advent of what she has called a “planetary humanism”, one that is tailor-made to everyone’s current needs – and by everyone she means every living thing, human or not, on the entire planet; every species on Earth that humans have come to think of as an exploitable resource. I want to think that the violent wake-up call provided by the Covid-19 pandemic in the past year, that the loss and devastation of so many lives and livelihoods, of so much lost joy, can finally push us into imagining, mapping and creating a specific genre of human that fulfils each and every one of us, that allows for symbiotic interspecies relationships.

I think that artists of every stripe should take a significant role in this narrative-programming, and so I am interested in artists who are working towards this, who are profoundly critical of our current conditions in a way that is imaginative and generative. Such artists suggest new narratives, alternative modes of being human, re-weavings of history and diverse understandings and uses of materials. They often critique humanism as we’ve come to understand it, which is to say, an understanding that refuses to admit what Wynter and many other Black and anti-colonial thinkers see clearly: that terms like “human”, “man”, “object”, “commodity” and “resource” have never been stable or mutually exclusive – a fact made excruciatingly evident during the transatlantic slave trade, colonisation and the enduring processes of coloniality.

At this juncture, in the midst of a massive chasm made only more obvious by a global pandemic, it feels extremely urgent that we come together to dismantle our past and re-imagine our shared future. A future that feels more up in the air than ever. A future that, as it currently stands, is rooted in a history of rotten hierarchies and violent binaries, which are already bearing their bitter fruits today.

Gaby Cepeda (b. Mexico, 1985) is an art critic and occasional curator whose work grapples with counter-humanism, technology, feminism, accelerationism and art labour. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Art in America, ArtReview, Terremoto and Rhizome, among other publications. She has curated and participated in shows in Mexico City, Buenos Aires, Lima, Toronto, Chicago, Berlin and New York. She. She is currently enrolled in the Art History/Contemporary Art post-graduate program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City, where she lives and works.

Artists working on Counter-humanism