We are all tuteishi (or, on not being posthuman)

Published simultaneously at Immanence

A social media conversation prompted me to dig up something I had written in my notebook years ago after reading Serhii Plokhy’s masterful book on “premodern identities” in Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Which in turn prompted me to realize that coronavirus provides an answer to the question I had just finished writing an article about — what it means to be “posthuman” (and why I find that term inadequate).

The question is “who are we?” The answers that have been provided over the centuries fall into three general categories:

  • “We are X” (name your ethnic/national/cultural identity),
  • “We are human” (the modern/modernist answer), or
  • “We are something else (but not X and not exactly just human)” (e.g., animals, Devo, spirits in a material world, cyborgs, posthuman, becoming this or that, blah blah blah).

Here’s my contribution to answering that question.

I’ll start with my post-Plokhy reflection on my own identity:

After reading Serhii Plokhy’s The Origins of the Slavic Nations, I realize all the more how honest historical study renders all our identity questions moot.

What am I, for instance, but a hyphenated Canadian/(North) American and Ukrainian/Galician/Ruthenian/Slav (Dulib-Buzhan-et al) with certainly some admixture of Polish, Jewish, Tatar, Mongol, Varangian (Scandinavian/Viking), Sarmatian, Khazar, Antian, Scythian, Trypillian, Indo-Aryan, and Neanderthal (and if my son is correct Denisovan, too), with plenty of African and whatever else beyond, going back through primate to single-celled amphibious thingie. Add to that the Byzantine Catholic/Orthodox, Slavo-Pagan, and other mixes along with elective ones like buddhist, quasi-hindu, secular pagan-cosmopolitan, amphibious philosopher thingie… (And to think that I grew up believing I was Ukrainian going all the way back to Prince Ingvar and Princess Helga of Kyïvan Rus’…)

May as well throw up our hands and admit that we are all originally-hybrid mutts, mixes of tuteishi (the local “not-quite-named”) and vneishi (the overidentified outsider), which is probably the recurrent dichotomy that still positions everyone in the world onto a spectrum of self-defined “traditions” and “modernities.”

If we’re all on the same page about that, why the hell do we still fight over the scraps that come down to us from the powers that rule us? Ah, there we have it. We are either human (or becoming-human and some other thing) or overlord. Which are you?

I’ll come back to the tuteishyi bit momentarily. (And to the overlords.)

I cover the “posthuman” thing in the article I mentioned, which is titled “Is the post- in posthumanism the post- in postmodernism?” (The title echoes several others that follow the same formula, just with different “posts.”) That piece is now submitted to a journal, so I won’t share it here except to say that it takes issue with posthumanism partly on the “post-” bit — which keeps us plugged into a modernist “postal” system of notices intended to say “Your time is up, our time is now,” and fated to then be “posted” by the next vanguard that comes along (post-posthuman, or whatever).

The more important and constructive argument I make there is related to the morphogenetic dimension of my process-relational ontology — the geomorphism, biomorphism, anthropomorphism, cosmomorphism, et al. — according to which we are always only becoming something (including becoming human, however we define that) and never quite getting there. This means there are only “alternative humanities” (and humanisms), not posthumanities (or posthumanisms).

Here is where an event like the coronavirus pandemic can have an impact on the trajectory of human becomings.

One short-term impact of the pandemic is that many of us became reduced in our territorial extension. Told to go home (if we were college students or international travelers) or to stay home (but not as crisply as Wendell Berry tells us that) and to quarantine after any travels, many of us became home-bound and place-bound. My own students were logging in from whatever place they chose to go home to, and were busily remaking their creative projects into something they could do there, at home or by only going out safely within the parameters allowed by the requirements of social isolation and minimized travel. Business-class travelers discovered they had spouses and kids.

We became tuteishi, an East Slavic word that means “of this place” or “place-bound.” That’s a concept I have written about before in my research on the Ukraine-EU borderlands. Here’s a bit from that:

In today’s East Central European borderlands, where new and contested nations and ethnies – Belarusians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Lemkos, Poleshuks, Romas, Montenegrans, Bosnians, and others – are ever emerging, what remains constant is the ebb and flow of identity formation, a process of gelling and destabilizing without necessary end-point or telos.

The tuteishyi represents the not-quite-named, the proto-ethnic (that is, proto-‘Rusyn,’ ‘-Poleshuk,’ ‘-Kashub’, ‘-Roma,’ et al.), a person of ‘no fixed address’ – if ‘address’ is understood in the Lacanian sense of being called or hailed as such by the outside world – who is uncertain as to whether s/he is a nationality, ethnicity, or part of some other substance (religious denomination, et al.), but who is defined by the place in which s/he remains (and moves) while empires, armies, time-zones, and global economic forces move in and out of range.

Like the old Bukovinian in Yuri Illienko’s (1970) film White Bird with a Black Mark (Bilyi ptakh z chornoyu oznakoyu) who keeps several clocks each showing different times – Romanian, Polish, German, Soviet – so as not to have to change the clock every time the borders change, so these proto-ethnies define themselves by their hybrid and marginal location amid broadly contending force-fields. Like the nomad and the mestizo celebrated in the writings of postmodern and postcolonial writers, the tuteishyi remains placeless in a larger sense, yet rooted enough in his or her own space (Tarasiewicz’s forests, Maszlanko’s fields), mobile in the tracks and paths carved out through earthy meanderings in the interstices of nations and empires.

This is perhaps also the space of the artist [like the ones in the Immersions exhibition that I describe in the article] who is and is not identifiable as the representative of a collective group, and whose role is to not simply deconstruct the categories which ossify around emerging (or long emerged) nations and states, but to somehow turn these inside out, revealing their deep and messy underpinnings, their myth-laden, symbol-saturated, yet fractal, hybrid, and unstable foundations. Identity here arises through a paradoxical intermingling of a feeling of “home place” and of the sense that any such “home” ever shifts in the wake of larger movements and power shifts. What persists are the signs, symbols, rituals, and hybrid meanings in which these artists, among others, reimmerse themselves, with some hesitation, to continually become themselves.

The lesson of coronavirus, in part, is something like that: We are all tuteishi. Or we are not at all. Some of us may have thought we were airborne, but that was an optical illusion.

We will of course travel once again and (some of us) fly once again. But the pandemic has been the greatest opportunity to rein in the airline industry and, for that matter, all the bullshit job industries that keep consumer capitalism careening around so many racetracks without providing too much of anything that’s essential to human and ecological well-being. It, like the George Floyd demonstrations, is helping us rediscover how we want to be with each other.

To figure out what sort of humans we ought and want to be, we will need more global work stoppages like this one. We will of course get them, whether we want them or not. And we will be forced to confront the fundamental undecidability of our humanness, our humanity, and our relations with each other and with all the other others with whom we share worlds.

The thing about the tuteishyi is that he or she or they in their ambiguous plurality do not merely dwell (and, when necessary, hide) at the borders and boundaries. They (like bioregionalists) know where to den and how to dig in, and (like Zomians) when and where to disappear into the mountains or the ground below, and how to unsettle the boundaries from beneath. For all their uneagerness to read and follow the overlords’ instructions, they know how to read the country. They are earthbound.

The overlords don’t really get that there is a beneath, or an earth to be particularly bound to. That will be their undoing.

Image by Anna Plotnicka, whose work is referenced in the Spaces of Identity article

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