Entering Posthumanism

 In “Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthumanist Culture?” Ihab Hassan uses the metaphor of the mythological Prometheus to frame his discussion on posthumanism and positions him as a trickster with a double nature that he wishes to reconcile. Hassan’s overarching argument about posthumanism is that it must be viewed as the representation of the convergence of two opposing aspects of our reality. These opposing aspects are not singularly defined, but have to do with the mind’s struggle to grasp the overlap of imagination and science, or myth and technology. Both Hassan and Neil Badmington (“Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism”) talk about how posthumanism is viewed as a “dubious neologism” that implies a sense of Man’s self-hate. Yet, both also insist that humanism is coming to its inevitable end, and that we must accept the transformation for what it is – the beginning of Man’s end, and transformation into the posthuman subject.

As one of the first theorists to discuss the emergence of posthumanism, Hassan begins by letting his readers know that he will not be focusing on postmodernism, but rather on the necessity of accepting that the human form is changing and in need of re-examination. He insists that there is nothing mystical or supernatural in the process leading us to a posthumanist culture, but that it is a “sudden mutation of the times” (Hassan, 834) where the conjunction of imagination and science, as well as myth and technology, has already begun. This process is able to move forward only once the human mind can begin to understand and accept the dematerliazation of life and existence.

Here, he is not speaking of the literal end of Mankind, even though he evokes the writings of Levi-Strauss in A World on the Wane, who stated: “The world began without the human race and it will end without it.” Furthermore, he also cites Foucault, who in The Order of Things wrote: “Man is neither the oldest not the most constant problem that has been posed for human knowledge […] man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (Hassan, 843). Again, Hassan is convinced that this does not mean the literal end of man but the end of an image of man shaped by Descartes, Thomas More and Erasmus. He is talking about contemporary structuralist thought and how it emphasizes the dissolution of the “subject” and the destruction of the Cartesian ego, which has turned the world into an “object” that Man has mastered. On the contrary, the self, for structuralists and post-structuralists, is an empty place.

This is a predecessor of sorts for Badmington’s argument that over the course of the centuries, Man’s self-love has suffered, according to Freud, “two major blows at the hands of science. The worst was when they learnt that our earth was not the centre of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness” (Badmington, 6). Here, Badgminton insists that “to read Freud is to witness the waning of humanism,” because “Man loses his place at the center of things” (Badmington, 5). Lacan, who for Badmington is the central anti-humanist, found himself, along with Althusser and Foucault, issuing “a warrant for the death of Man” (Badmington, 6).

Returning to Hassan, he argues that the death of Man is both the death of Humanism as well as the rise of the machine.  To comment on the former, he insists that thanks to contemporary Western thought, Humanists have always insisted on dividing the mind into reason and feelings. Using examples such as experimental science and the incorporation of technology into the arts, Hassan argues for an undeniable convergence that has already begun, and the “unified consciousness” that Man must strive towards if it wants to evolve into the transformative homo sapien. Hassan cites Elizabeth Mann Borghese who argues: “Human nature is still evolving. The postmodern man may not be the same homo sapien. Posthuman philosophy must now address artificial intelligence, which is no mere figment of science fiction – it is alive in our midst” (Hassan, 846).  The “chilling obsolescence of the human brain” does not know when or how it will become obsolete, but it must revise its self-conception.

Citing Arthur Koestler, Hassan discusses the possibility of the human brain as a mistake in evolution, asking: “Will AI supercede the brain, rectify or, or extend it?” While he does not provide an answer, he does say that AI will help to transform the image of man as well as his conception, as an “agent of the new posthumanism.” Hassan reminds us that visions of AI are not science fiction that are meant to shock us, as they are immediate and relevant thoughts. Technology is apparently no longer empowered by human reality (Heiddeger, 1966), and no longer responds to the human measure. Hassan wonders whether Man is too daring in his pursuit of technological extension, and whether “transhumanization” will lead to the literal end of Man.

Badmington also talks about the crisis that Man has put himself in through his involvement with technology, citing several Hollywood science fiction films that popularize the rise of machines as well as the transformation into the cyborg. Badmington insists that this idea addresses the crisis of Humanism by presenting us with the end of Man as we know him. He repeatedly cites the work of Derrida in the hopes of reiterating the necessity of rethinking the anti-humanist position. This article concludes with the insistence that Humanism never manages to constitute itself; it forever rewrites itself as posthumanism. This movement is always happening, and humanism cannot escape its inevitable transition.

Works Cited:

Badmington, Neil.”Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism.” Cultural Critique 53 (2003): 10-27. Web.

Hassan, Ihab. “Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthuman Culture?” Performance in Postmodern Culture. The Georgia Review (1977): 830-850. Web.

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Judy is a PhD candidate working in the digital humanities at the University of Waterloo. Her research includes explorations of agency and identity in online communities and role-playing games, the digital body in cyberspace, post-humanism, as well as utopian/dystopian themes in literature. Her current work examines how personal computing devices are changing our bodies and our definition of what makes us human. You may find more of her projects and ideas on her website, Simulation Space.

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