Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism
He is young, reliable, quiet, clean and intelligent. He is good with numbers and will teach or entertain the children without a word of complaint. He is, according to Time magazine’s tradition, Man of the Year, 1982.
Well, almost. ‘He’ is actually a computer. Breaking with more than half a century of convention, the cover of the first issue of Time
to appear in 1983 featured a different type of star. ‘Several human candidates might have represented 1982’, wrote the magazine’s publisher in an address to his readers, ‘but none symbolised the past year more richly, or will be viewed by history as more significant, than a machine: the computer.’1
This time, it seemed, humans had failed to leave their mark. In fact, the ‘Man of the Year’ award was no longer applicable, for the cover was emblazoned with a new headline: ‘Machine of the Year’. At the centre of the page stood the victorious machine, its screen alive with information. A ragged and lifeless sculpture of a human figure looked on, its epitaph the four words beneath the main title: ‘The computer moves in.’
What would it mean to view this as an example of posthumanism?
The use of such a term is, of course, far from straightforward. Writing in 1947, Martin Heidegger drew attention to the paradoxical status of any ‘-ism’, observing that, while such terms ‘have for a long time now been suspect … the market of public opinion continually demands new ones’.2
More than half a century later, the fate of ‘-isms’ appears to be even more acute. ‘We’3
cannot live with them (why else would ‘we’ need to keep inventing new ones?), but neither can ‘we’ live without them (why else would ‘we’ need to keep inventing new ones?). My decision to name this book Posthumanism
was continually troubled by Heidegger’s words. Was I in danger of giving currency to yet another ‘-ism’ devoid of clarity, coherence and credibility? Would the volume be viewed as a
cynical attempt by an academic under the age of thirty to enhance his career potential by exploiting millennial fears about the future of humanity? After all, as Umberto Eco has pointed out, in the contemporary cultural climate nothing sells quite like a crisis.4
The anxiety provoked by Heidegger’s words was eventually allayed when chance led me back to several sentences written by Ihab Hassan (who certainly knew Heidegger’s work) more than twenty years ago:
At present, posthumanism may appear variously as a dubious neologism, the latest slogan, or simply another image of man’s recurrent self-hate. Yet posthumanism may also hint at a potential in our culture, hint at a tendency struggling to become more than a trend …
We need to understand that five hundred years of humanism may be coming to an end, as humanism transforms itself into something that we must helplessly call posthumanism.5
Hassan’s use of ‘helplessly’ seems to imply that ‘posthumanism’ is not necessarily used by the critic because it is a word that unproblematically conveys its meaning. And yet, while it may even be ‘a dubious neologism’, I want to suggest that it has the potential to serve as a convenient shorthand for a general crisis in something that ‘we’ must just as helplessly call ‘humanism’.
I approach this latter term with similar caution, for, as both Kate Soper and Tony Davies have pointed out in their fine introductions to the subject, humanism can be a wonderfully vague concept.6
While Davies playfully invokes Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, for whom a word ‘means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’,7
Soper observes that the understanding of the term is likely to depend upon cultural context. To the British or American reader, she writes, humanism is invariably ‘more or less synonymous with atheism’:
In the English-speaking world, in fact, ‘humanism’ has become so closely identified with the promulgation of secularism, that one comes to any work containing the word in its title with the suspicion that it must belong to that rather earnest genre of writing, much of it American, in which ‘humanism’ is itself presented as a kind of religion – the progressive cult for today’s broadminded rationalist.8
However, she continues, there is a quite different approach. From a perspective informed by recent continental philosophy, humanism is viewed not as progressive but as reactionary, on account of the manner in which it ‘appeals (positively) to the notion of a core humanity or common essential feature in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood’.9
This latter definition is what is at stake in the
present volume’s engagement with posthumanism. Postponing my engagement with the ‘post-’ for a little longer, I want to develop Soper’s outline by turning to the philosophy of René Descartes.
If Descartes is, as Bertrand Russell once declared, ‘the founder of modern philosophy’,10
he might also – and by the same token – be seen as one of the principal architects of humanism, for, in the seventeenth century, he arrived at a new and remarkably influential account of what it means to be human. At the very beginning of the Discourse on the Method
, Descartes proposes that reason is ‘the only thing that makes us men [sic] and distinguishes us from the beasts….’11
This innate ‘power of judging well and distinguishing the true from the false … is naturally equal in all men’.12
Rational thought, quite simply, makes humans human. While Descartes certainly retains his Christian faith, God is no longer as central a figure as in previous times. Centre-stage is now occupied by the human, by the figure of Man [sic], the cogitating ‘I’: ‘I think, therefore I am’.13
Reason not only grants the subject the power of judgement; it also helps ‘us’ to tell the difference between the human and the non-human. In a remarkable passage of the Discourse that might be read as science fiction avant la lettre, Descartes asserts that if there were a machine with the organs and appearance of a monkey, ‘we’ would not be able to distinguish between the real monkey and the fake – at the level of essence – precisely because, as far as Descartes is concerned, the fact that neither animal nor machine could ever possess reason means that there would be no essential difference. If, however, machines were to attempt to mimic human beings, ‘we’ would always be able to tell the difference, to preserve the firm distinction between the human and the inhuman. This judgement could be made (and, moreover, made correctly) on the grounds of two distinctly human capabilities, for dialogue and for action based on understanding:
The first is that they could never use words, or put together other signs, as we do in order to declare our thoughts to others. For we can certainly conceive of a machine so constructed that it utters words, and even utters words which correspond to bodily actions causing a change in its organs (e.g. if you touch it in one spot it asks what you want of it, if you touch it in another it cries out that you are hurting it, and so on). But it is not conceivable that such a machine should produce different arrangements of words so as to give an appropriately meaningful answer to whatever is said in its presence, as the dullest of men can do. Secondly, even though such machines might do some things as well as we do them, or perhaps even better, they would inevitably fail in others, which would reveal that they were acting not through understanding but only from the disposition
of their organs. For whereas reason is a universal instrument which can be used in all kinds of situations, these organs need some particular disposition for each particular action; hence it is for all practical purposes impossible for a machine to have enough different organs to make it act in all the contingencies of life in the way in which our reason makes us act.14
There is, in other words, an absolute difference between the human and the inhuman: only the former has the capacity for rational thought. Reason belongs solely to the human and, as such, serves to unite the human race. ‘We’ may have different types of bodies, but because reason is a property of the mind (which, for Descartes, is distinguishable from the body), deep down ‘we’ are all the same.
This understanding of what it means to be human was, of course, developed more than 350 years ago. I want to suggest, however, that the basic model articulated by Descartes – a model which might be called humanist, precisely because, to return to Soper’s words, it ‘appeals (positively) to the notion of a core humanity or common essential feature in terms of which human beings can be defined and understood’ – continues to enjoy the status of ‘common sense’ in contemporary Western culture. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1999, one of Britain’s best-known booksellers produced a pocket-sized edition of the document with an introduction that reaffirmed the relevance of the Declaration at the close of the twentieth century. Meanwhile, the text itself reveals a fundamental Cartesian humanism at work. The first Article, for instance, asserts that all human beings ‘are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’. Despite the differences of religion, class, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality and language alluded to in the subsequent Article, fundamentally ‘we’ are all the same. To accept the principles of the Declaration – a document that continues to govern, as common sense, the thinking of ethical and political responsibilities – is to assert that there is, at the end of the day, a basic human essence.
If this is humanism, what motivates posthumanism? How did ‘we’ arrive in a space where it is possible to discuss such a subject? Although I have no desire to posit an absolute point of origin, I do want to suggest that the concept in question becomes a distinct possibility with the work of Marx and Freud. I recognise that this is a decidedly unfashionable claim to make. Time has not been kind to either figure: Marxism has become
synonymous with the gulag and a dream that crumbled with the Berlin Wall, while Freud is habitually dismissed as a phallocentric misogynist who saw sex everywhere he looked. Marx and Freud, ‘we’ are so often told, are no longer relevant, no longer credible. And yet, it seems to me that they triggered, to take a phrase from Althusser and Balibar, an ‘immense theoretical revolution’,15
opening up a space for what would become posthumanism.
The German Ideology
is the work of two young philosophers determined to overturn traditional ways of thinking about the human subject. The opening sentence of the Preface sets the tone for what follows: ‘Hitherto men [sic] have always formed wrong ideas about themselves, about what they are and what they ought to be’.16
The principal target of The German Ideology
is the humanist belief in a natural human essence which exists outside history, politics, and social relations. Such a model dominated the philosophical climate within (and against) which Marx and Engels were writing. The idealist philosophers, taking their cue principally from Hegel, believed that an authentic consciousness was the point from which everything else proceeded: first there is the idea, then comes the material world. Marx and Engels certainly never abandoned Hegel tout court
– much of their methodology and vocabulary is indebted to his work – but they did set out to rethink completely his approach. Consciousness, they insisted, does not determine a person’s social life; it is, rather, social life that determines consciousness.17
Hegel (and, indeed, Descartes) had been turned upside down: idealism had been replaced by materialism. Subjectivity, in the Marxist account, is not the cause but the effect of an individual’s material conditions of existence. The subject is not a given. Eternal Man is no more; ‘he’ now has a history and a contingency denied by humanism. Marx and Engels make possible a ‘theoretical anti-humanism
in which there is an awareness that radically different material conditions of existence produce incompatible subjectivities. Despite the exhibition which prompted the essay by Roland Barthes in this volume, there can be no Family of Man.
Sixteen years after the Russian revolution, Freud observed that ‘although practical Marxism has mercilessly cleared away all idealistic systems and illusions, it has itself developed illusions which are no less questionable and unprovable than the earlier ones’.19
His reservations centre upon communism’s claim to be able to bring about a society in which antagonisms no longer exist, in which there is a unity, a collective consciousness. Psychoanalysis took the challenge to humanism one stage further. In proposing that human activity is governed in part by unconscious motives, Freud further problematised the Cartesian model, in which the critical determinant of being is rational, fully-conscious thought. According to Jacques Lacan, one of Freud’s most compelling interpreters, and a figure to whom I will return, psychoanalysis requires
that the words of Descartes be reformulated as follows: ‘I think where I am not, therefore I am where I do not think.… I am not wherever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think’.20
The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
, one of Freud’s most accessible works, takes as its subject a wide range of events – slips of the tongue, the forgetting of names, lapses of memory – and proceeds to challenge the ‘common-sense’ explanation that such occurrences are mere aberrations, minor mistakes by an otherwise rational being. There is, Freud insists, ‘a reason for every mistake’,21
including those made by the analyst himself:
One evening, wishing to excuse myself for not having called for my wife at the theatre, I said: ‘I was at the theatre at ten minutes after ten’. I was corrected: ‘You meant to say before ten o’clock’. Naturally I wanted to say before ten. After ten would certainly be no excuse. I had been told that the theatre programme read, ‘Finished before ten o’clock’. When I arrived at the theatre I found the foyer dark and the theatre empty. Evidently the performance was over earlier and my wife did not wait for me. When I looked at the clock it still wanted five minutes to ten. I determined to make my case more favourable at home, and say that it was ten minutes to ten. Unfortunately, the speech-blunder spoiled the intent and laid ba...