To begin, I would like to offer here an alternate definition of “posthumanism” and how we have arrived at it. The conventional take on posthumanism goes as follows: Through science and/or theory, humanism has come to an end.
What exactly this means is not clear. To look to Nietzsche’s ubermensch (sometimes translated as “superman”), the posthuman may refer to those individuals that are able to exceed the limitations of humanity, and advance the world’s potential through a break with history and a pursuit of radically new ethics based on becoming rather than tradition. Nietzsche writes, “I teach you the Superman. Man is something that is to be surpassed.” (6) To extrapolate this view into an ethical system for a larger moral community, this conception of the posthuman is a future-oriented system of value that is uninhibited by moral attachments rooted in nostalgia for the past, but is geared towards the apprehension of the greater good through any means that are readily available. To be reductive, it is a doctrine of progress with no apologies—a moral imperative to transcend humanity through human effort.
Taking its cue from Nietzsche’s rejection of essential moral truths which can be taken for granted is another posthumanism, one which describes the simple facts of being. For Heidegger, this conception of subjectivity is outside of the Enlightenment notions of the self, which present the subject as a coherent and rational entity whose being is bound to the clearly delineated human body. The phenomenological approach to subjectivity rejects essentialist notions of the self, instead offering up an image of subjectivity based on knowledge as experience of the self. Heidegger discusses this notion in the relationship between the worker and the tool:
Hammering does not just have a knowledge of the useful character of the hammer; rather, it has appropriated this useful thing in the most adequate way possible. […] The less we stare at the thing called hammer, the more actively we use it, the more original our relation to it becomes and the more undisguisedly it is encountered as what it is, as a useful thing The act of hammering itself discovers the “handiness” of the hammer. (Being and Time 69)
Instead of presenting a clearly delineated model of the person as contained within the tidy confines of the body, this alternate discourse of subjectivity suggests that what one thinks of when one considers oneself might include a variety of everyday items and experiences, from hammers to chairs to ideas about the world. This model of the person considers subjectivity as an ongoing process with no clear boundaries, and takes into consideration the very real fact that at times a person’s subjectivity is capable of migrating out of the body and into clothing, other people, tools, or any other potential site for meaning and identification. This messy configuration is simply a part of being in the world.
Interestingly enough, these developments in philosophy are paralleled by changes in science and the understanding of the brain, along with the accelerated development of media in the twentieth century. As Peter Conrad observes, “The body has been curiously rewired in the twentieth century, routing all erotic sensations through the head” (605). Complementing this view is a conception of consciousness put forward in the sciences, which presumes a certain level of rationalism as the basis for experimentation.
Without rehashing the entire history of poststructuralist critiques of Modernity, I’d like to point out the relationship uniquely postmodern vantage point of contemporary theories of the posthumanism. As Mark Poster explains,
The problem with Enlightenment, modernist, and Marxist deployments of “reason” concerns the association of reason with a configuration of the subject as autonomous and implicitly male, as a neutral, contextless “transcendental ego” capable of determining truth in a way that associates truth with ontological specifications (5).
This conception of the posthuman, arriving by way of scholars like Althusser and Foucault, allows scholars total agency in the critique of dominant paradigms by offering up a model of subjectivity which exists contrary to the humanist conception and its claims to truth and authority. The conception of the posthuman is a strategy to critique any sort of foundationalism or fundamentalism by simply rejecting the subjectivity of its adherents outright.
The discourse of the posthuman makes its particular appeal to scholars and activists in radical positions who did not want to see old systems of power simply replaced with new ones. As a result, traditional notions of subjectivity had to be rejected altogether in order to maintain a consistently liberating theoretical position. For scholars of race, class, and gender, the posthuman subject would offer a new hope for a conception of the person which was never to be determined by coercion, but instead by radical subjectivity. In this conception, posthuman claims to “citizenship” or rights are governed not by the rigid (and potentially dangerous) Truth of the humanistic order, but by individuals acting in community to implement anti-essentialist practices—the notion of the “person” itself democratized.
For scholars like N. Katherine Hayles and Donna Haraway, the posthuman promise is that people will be liberated to conceive of more inclusive notions of the person unavailable under the rigidly demarcated notions of the human. In “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway writes of the benefits of “leaky distinctions”:
Many branches of feminist culture affirm the pleasure of connection of human and other living creatures. Movements for animal rights are not rational denials of human uniqueness; they are a clear-sighted recognition of connection across the discredited breach of nature and culture. Biology and evolutionary theory over the last two centuries have simultaneously produced modern organisms as objects of knowledge and reduced the line between humans and animals to a faint trace re-etched in ideological struggle or professional disputes between life and social science. (152)
A truly posthuman era would embrace animals, intelligent computers, robots, cyborgs, clones, and assemblages in the family of persons. And, as Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman argues,
If the three stories told here—how information lost its body, how the cyborg was constructed in the postwar years as technological artifact and cultural icon, and how the human became posthuman—have at times seemed to be feared and abhorred rather than welcomed and embraced, that reaction has everything to do with how the posthuman is constructed and understood (291).
In other words, we have already become posthuman through the discourse of cybernetics; it is now a matter of seizing the moment by taking advantage of posthumanism’s benefits and setting the parameters and limitations for its liabilities. This conception of the posthuman as an opportunity explains that we have already marched partially down the path and have already experienced our personhood as compromised; if we fully embrace this notion rather than resisting it, we will open ourselves up to a generally inclusive and theoretically sound worldview. Of the various discussions of posthumanism, Hayle’s is the most appealing because, although it is romantic in its own way, escapes romanticism by correctly noting its material origins. And though Hayles does not go back far enough, it is along these lines which I would like to proceed.
To be continued in a couple more days…
References: Part 2
Conrad, Peter. Modern Time, Modern Places. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Trans. Thomas Common. New York: The Modern Library, 1950.
Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics , Literature and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1996.
Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-81.
Poster, Mark. Critical Theory and Poststructuralism: In Search of a Context. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1989.