Do We Need to Redefine the Human Subject?
Throughout this piece I will look as to whether it is time for us to creatively re- evaluate what it is to be human, the concept of the posthuman and the notion of posthumanism. I shall enquire into the ways that modern science and technological advancements are beginning to dissolve the common barriers that separate and define what it is to be an autonomous human subject along with our processes, interactions and systems within the wider world.
Technologies that empower our knowledge of the world such as biotechnology and quantum physics open up new regions for us to explore, new creative approaches to take and political and ethical questions to ask. The notion of the human shall be called into question, how we define what it means to be an autonomous subject and the future of what it means to be human and to be ‘posthuman’ and the inevitable rethinking and restructuring of the idea of humanism, known as posthumanism that comes with this, though the term posthumanism can have different connotations dependent upon the authors, such as those of Cary Wolfe or Katherine Hayles.
Firstly I shall aim to enquire as to the idea of humanism, the idea stemming from the Enlightenment movement and where this places the human. I aim to then understand the technologies that we are capable of now wielding, from biotechnology to the notion of the processing power Singularity and how these affect our social and political systems and the implications they have on the individual as a subject. These technologies lead humanism, and the human, down the path of transhumanism and through technological and scientific understanding of the human how we can progress to the idea and concept of the posthuman. From here I would like to grasp some historical context for the posthuman which leads to the idea of posthumanism, and the idea and concept of posthumanism. This in no means is a definition of posthumanism for it may always ask questions that remain unanswered.
As Neil Badmington says in his introduction of Posthumanism (2000, p.11);
My guiding principle was always to preserve difference, to leave the subject of posthumanism open both to question and to what is to come. The face and future of posthumanism are, as N. Katherine Hayles recognises, uncertain. The prefix does not pre-fix. What matters, rather, is that thought keeps moving in the name of a beyond, in the shadow of the unknown, in the fault-lines of the ‘post-‘.
“First you’ve got to get mad. You’ve got to stand up and say ‘I’m a human god damn it, my life has value!’”
Howard Beale, Network, 1976
We can find the roots of humanism from the Enlightenment cultural movement from the philosophical theories of the 17th and 18th Centuries. Essays such as Immanuel Kant’s – What Is Enlightenment? from 1784 say, “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage” (Kant, 1784). This form of thinking gives a view that before this Enlightenment movement, man was subjected to the ‘Real’ authority – the metaphysical authority of religion – in which the “self-imposed nonage” comes from the inability to use our own intellect without guidance – that guidance coming from the divine before Enlightenment and now in the present with modern political sciences and modern scientific theory leading our anthropocentric society.
Humanism can be said to see value in the “preciousness and dignity of the individual person” (Kurtz & Wilson, 1973) as well as responsibility for “what we are or will be” (Kurtz & Wilson, 1973). Furthering from this, Ihab Hassan, a literary theorist stated “Humanism may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into something one must helplessly call posthumanism.” (1977, p.843) In The Posthuman Condition by Bill McKibben he states “The past five hundred years have elevated us to the status of individuals, and reduced us to the status of individuals. At the end of the process, that’s what we are – empowered, enabled, isolated, disconnected individuals.” (2007, p.16) He sees the posthuman movement as both empowering for the individual but as a cautionary path that leads to disconnection from each other, mostly stemming from the disconnection from the spiritual and metaphysical as well as man’s dominance over nature that inevitably leads to a world in which we have lost the context. While McKibben deals with the posthuman, posthumanism can be seen as not a specific time in history, for as R. L. Rutsky states as a critical point of Katherine Hayle’s posthuman theory, “The posthuman cannot simple be identified as a culture or age that comes ‘after’ the human, for the very idea of such as passage, however measured or qualified it may be, continues to rely upon a humanist narrative for historical change.” (2007, p.107) McKibben gives a literal, critical view of what the posthuman may experience and feel from society.
There must be differentiation between posthumanism and the posthuman. The posthuman is seen as an agent and closely links from our current human, as said by Hayles “The posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation.” (1999, p.3) This view encompasses a strand of posthuman thought, which is viewed as the idea of transhumanism.
The word transhumanism was coined by Julian Huxley in New Bottles for New Wine saying;
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way – but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature. (1957, pp.13-17)
The transhumanist movement sees the current human form as an early phase, or even ‘beta’ version, as Natasha Vita-More names this state “Human 1.0” (Vita-More, 2012), and by using technology will “greatly enhance human intellectual, physical and psychological capacities” (Bostrom, 2003) thus extending what it is to be human to the transhuman state. This view of the posthuman is one that will be reached through the changes to the human from biotechnological advancements, genetic modifications and psychopharmacology. This transhuman view of the posthuman holds with it a literal sense of human beings being ‘superseded’ by this superior being, as Hayles writes “Humans can either go gently into that good night, joining the dinosaurs as a species that once rules the earth but is now obsolete, or hang on for a while longer become machines themselves.” (1999, p.283)
BIOTECHNOLOGY AND THE HUMAN
“Blood has no nationality.” – Vincent, Gattaca, 1997.
Biotechnological studies such as the Human Genome Project have allowed for science to reveal to us the intricate complexities of the human genome while also simplifying it and can be seen to cause “the promotion of a dangerously reductive analogy between discrete binary data and the more complex, environment-related field of genetics” (Kac, 2007, p.1) This sense of simplicity can be seen by searching for the term ‘download the human genome’. Immediately you are given the ability to search for specific genes, their related illnesses as well as the option to download the entire genome, coming in at just three point one gigabytes of data. (Ensembl, 2012). As Eduardo Kac writes in Signs of Life, “In turn, this can lead to an objectification of life and a disregard for the subjects and their rights”. (2007, p.1) As David Shenk notes in an essay titled Biocapitalism; What Price the Genetic Revolution? “Mapping genes is this era’s race to the moon, but we don’t know what we’ll do when we get there.” (1997, p. 38)
The power of genetic engineering can be seen within the arts from the fluorescent rabbit named Alba by Eduardo Kac which quickly became an international news story, to the SymbioticA exhibit ‘If Pigs Could Fly’ in which Oron Catts and Ionat Zurr from Perth created wings from pig tissue, a piece that both showed the possibilities that come from such a technology but also the restrictions as people came to the exhibit expecting to see pigs fly, but instead saw pig tissue grown into miniscule sculptures. (Kac, 2007).
Genetic technology can come with negative connotations; eugenics post-WW2 has been largely abandoned due to the Nazis use of such a concept, as Kac states in Signs of Life, it was “the peak of modern human negative eugenics and the industrialization of death.” (2007, p. 9) Yet it is rather simple to see the relationship between reproductive technologies and practices such as genetic testing and eugenics. Kac goes on to state;
It is precisely the instrumentalization of life and its processes enabled by the atomism of classic science that has spawned the brave new world of human- produced hybrids, clones, mutants, synthetics and transgenics. (2007, p. 9)
Eugenics, reproductive technologies and the array of biotechnologies between are all crucially aware of bioethics, given the power of the technology that we are now able to create and with that what we are able to control, ethical considerations must be heard. Biopower is a term used by Michel Foucault in an essay named Right of Death and Power over Life saying “the emergence of the health and physical well- being of the population in general’ becomes ‘one of the essential objectives of political power” (1978, p. 143). This sense of biopower gives an indication that biotechnological advancements and the bioethics that they are seen to be adhering to become policies that as Cary Wolfe states “serve as the self-designated conscience for those contemporary biotechnical apparatus and institutions that exert power over life and death” (2007, p. 96) Wolfe goes on to say “the obvious problem here is that the function of ‘conscience’ and those of establishing policies palatable to both state and economic power do no often go hand in hand.” (2007, p.96) In the essay by Shenk, He states “To simply declare certain procedures immoral and call for an immediate and permanent ban is the ignore the history of technology, one lesson which might fairly be summarized as “If it can be done, it will be done.” (1997, p. 44) He uses the example of the Manhattan Project and the radical implications it had on conflict. Glenn McGee, a bioethicist working within reproductive technology and genetics, when speaking on an on human cloning states, “cloning represents a remarkable test of human restraint, wisdom and institutional development, one that will in many ways identify the moral features of 21st century biotechnology.” (2005, p.13)
In 1981 J.W Gordon and F.H Ruddle coined the term “transgenic” – in which there has “been a deliberate modification of the genome – the material responsible for inherited characteristics – in contrast to spontaneous mutation” (Buy, 1997) The implications of the technology can be seen by artistic pieces such as Alba, the fluorescent bunny, as previously mentioned, to more radical ideas such as “modifying people with the gene to photosynthesize so that we could get our energy from the sun” (Andrews, 2007, p. 126) Lori Andrews, in Art as a Public Policy Medium references a question he posed to his law students – “If an individual had half-animal and half-human genes, would he or she be protected by the U.S Constitution?” (2007, p. 126) to which a student replies, “If it walks like a man, quacks like a man, and photosynthesizes like a man, it’s a man.” Companies such as Advanced Cell Technology have successfully manipulated a cow’s egg which has had human DNA injected into it, it was then allowed to grow to a blastocyst before it was destroyed. (Fukuyama, 2002)
Bioethics opens up an entirely new issue when dealing with biotechnologies such as xenotransplantation, that is transplanting animal organs in humans, Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist working at the New York University Medical Centre argues in Am I My Brother’s Keeper? that the use of primates within this type of biotechnology is acceptable to demonstrate the feasibility of xenografting in human beings. (Caplan, 1997) When discussing this within Bioethics and the Posthumanist Imperative Cary Wolfe speaks of Peter Singer who, to summarise, argues that is not about being ‘the same morally’ but instead a matter of ‘similar interests’ such as avoiding pain – whether being human or not, it should be counted equally across species. (2007, p. 98) Jeremy Bentham, phrased it as ‘The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?.” (1789)
Modern bioethics focuses too much on the determination of labelling someone as a ‘person’ for as Carl Elliot puts it in A Philosophical Disease: Bioethics, Culture and Identity, “If we decide that this marginal being is a person [..] then a conclusion about how we should morally treat that marginal being will logically follow.” (1999, p. 159) Paola Cavalieri, a philosopher, writes on the subject of defining the human and nonhuman and the “argument from marginal cases”.
It is undeniable that there exist within our species individuals who, on account of structural problems due to genetic or developmental anomalies, or of contingent problems due to diseases or accidents, will never acquire, or have forever lost, the characteristics – autonomy, rationality, self-consciousness, and the like – that we consider as typically human. (2003, p. 76)
Cary Wolfe goes on to use this argument of ‘marginal cases’ to simply say “And yet we refrain from using them to “harvest” organs while we do so with other animals who are demonstrably superior in relevant moral characteristics.” (2007, p. 99)
Francis Fukuyama, a particularly controversial figure on the future of biotechnology, says in regard to biotechnology that the “good and bad are intimately connected” (2002, p. 182) Furthermore he argues that “When presented with an advance like the ability to cure a child of cystic fibrosis or diabetes, people find it difficult to articulate reasons why their unease with the technology should stand in the way of progress.” (2002, p. 182)
Fukuyama warns of the power of biotechnology when writing in Our Posthuman Future by saying;
We do not have to regard ourselves as slaves to inevitable technological progress when that progress does not serve human ends. True freedom means the freedom of political communities to protect the values they hold most dear, and it is that freedom that we need to exercise with regard to the biotechnology revolution today. (2002, p. 218)
Biotechnology has reduced our bodies down to it’s most simple form, the complex systems that make up man have becomes tools we can use to create, destroy and ultimately control the evolution of man.
CYBORGS AND CYBERNETICS
“Unhampered by the complex systems which make up man, they made and used different bodies according to their needs.” – Narrator, War Of The Worlds, 1978.
The ‘cyborg’, a being made up of both organic and cybernetic parts, was a phrase used by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in an essay titled Cyborgs and space which looked at how man could alter themselves to meet the requirements of extra- terrestrial environments. (1960).
Donna Haraway uses the cyborg as a post-gender mechanism and in A Cyborg Manifesto views “the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimaeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.” (1991, p. 70) Haraway ties it closely to feminism, as “the cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world.” (1991, p. 71) Haraway writes that the distinction between human, and nonhuman is called into question in the late twentieth century, for she writes the “last beachheads of uniqueness have been polluted if not turned into amusement parks –language tool use, social behaviour, mental events, nothing really convincingly settles the separation of human and animal.” (1991. p. 72) Haraway notes that “The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust”. (1991, p. 71)
Haraways cyborg requires cybernetic parts for the “cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (1991, p. 69) Norbert Wiener can be said to be the father of cybernetics and who defined it as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine.” (1961) During WWII this feedback loop system was used to enhance the capabilities of gun mounts and radar antennas. This idea of a feedback loop, as Katherine Hayles uses in How We Became Posthuman, “implies that the boundaries of the autonomous subject are up for grabs, since feedback loops can flow not only within the subject but also between the subject and the environment.” (1999, p. 2) Katherine Hayles references Gregory Bateson who simply asks if a blind’s man cane is part of the man. This dissolution of boundaries allows for the ‘man-machine’ that Haraway envisions in her cyborg. (1999, p. 84).
The Macy conferences were an interdisciplinary set of conferences held post-World War II in which researchers from across the board, from philosophy to electrical engineering. The conferences led to developments in systems theory as well as cybernetics. Hayles describes first-wave cybernetics as “the idea that the boundaries of the human subject are constructed rather than given.” (1999, p. 84) And in speaking of Haraway’s cyborg goes on to say “the cyborg violates the human/machine distinction; replacing cognition with neural feedback, it challenges the human-animal difference” (1999, p. 84) Rethinking the body as an informational system, cybernetics would “dissolve traditional disciplinary boundaries”. (Hayles, 1999, p. 85).
First wave cybernetics failed to deal with reflexivity, where as second-wave cybernetics uses reflexivity and “by understanding everything through the cybernetic metaphor the human brain becomes a cybernetic system, and thus the system ceases to be a closed system and thus we’re in the system we’re studying.” (Case, 2011) And so “Cybernetics then becomes cybernetics of cybernetics, or second- order cybernetics.” (Foerster, 2003, p. 289) Humberto Maturana, a neurophysiologist from Chile, was working on a research team in which they demonstrated that the frogs visual system “does not so much represent reality but constructs it.” (Hayles, 1999, p. 131) Maturana and his colleague Varela took interest and began trying to understand “cognition as a biological phenomenon” (Hayles, 1999, p. 134). Maturana, and his research colleagues believed, as Hayles puts it “What’s true of frogs must also hold for humans, for there’s no reason to believe that the human neural system is uniquely constructed to show the world as it “really” is.” (1999, p. 131) Maturana “developed a new way of talking about life and about the observer’s role in describing living systems.” (Hayles, 1999, p. 131). Maturana speaks of autopoiesis or ‘self-making’, which is as Maturana writes “is the circularity of its organisation that makes a living system a unit of interactions.” (1980, p. 9) In Autopoiesis and Cognition, Maturana goes on to say;
No description of an absolute reality is possible [..] as it would require an interaction with the absolute to be described, but the presentation that would arise from such an interaction would necessarily be determined by the autopoietic organisation of the observer… hence, the cognitive reality that it would generate would unavoidably be relative to the observer. (1980, p. 121)
Hayles summarises the fundamental idea of Maturana’s concept as “living systems operate within the boundaries of an organization that closes in on itself and leaves the world on the outside.” (1999, p. 136) Hayles looks at Maturana and Varela and how they see the nervous system as a system that is “determined by the nervous system itself and not the external world, the external world has only a triggering role in the role in the release of the internally-determined activity of the nervous system.” (1999, p. 136) To extend upon this concept Hayle’s looks at how Maturana uses structural coupling to link a system to it’s environment, “All living organisms must be structurally coupled to their environments to continue living” and in addition “systems may be structurally coupled to each other”. (1999. p. 138) Here Hayles uses the example of a cell within the body which is structurally coupled to the body as a whole. However it is important to remember that the triggers and their effect are constructed by the observer, Maturana then forwards this concept to say, “The present is the time interval necessary for an interaction to take place. Past, future and time exist only for the observer.” (1980, p. 18) The self-making, autopoietic organisation is key to defining living systems according to Maturana, “The living organization is a circular organisation which secures the production of maintenance of the components that specify it in such a manner that the product of their functioning is the very same organisation that produces them.” (1980, p. 48) Maturana then coins the term allopoietic to explain systems in which “their goal is something other than producing their organization.” (Hayles, 1999, p. 141). Hayles uses the example of driving her car to the supermarket;
When I drive my car, it’s functioning is subordinated to the goals I set for it. Instead of the pistons using their energy to repair themselves, for example, they use their energy to turn the drive shaft so that I can get to the store. I function autopoietically but the car functions allopoietically. (1999, p. 141)
In regards to liberal humanism, autopoiesis theory secures the very principal of autonomy and individuality, for the concept behind it enforces the autonomy of the system. (Hayles, 1999) Norbert Weiner held humanistic values and foresaw that the “cybernetic machine was to be designed so that it did not threaten the autonomous, self-regulating subject of liberal humanism.” (Hayles, 1999, p. 87) Weiner gave a warning in 1954 in which he argued “that electronic computer were thinking machines capable of taking over many human decision-making processes, and cautioned that humans must not let machines become their masters.” (Hayles, 1999, p. 85). Information not only has the capacity to flow between the animal and the machine but also the environment surrounding the machine, and “when information loses its body, equating humans to computers is especially easy.” (Hayles, 1999, p. 2). This is where the problem arises of degrading the autonomy of the liberal humanist subject with which Weiner struggled where-as the autopoietic theory conceptualised by Maturana strengthens the autonomy of the subject.
The cyborg was not meant to threaten the liberal subject, for as Hayles puts it, “On the contrary, it was to extend that self into the realm of the machine.” (1999, p. 86) C.B Macpherson speaks of the humanist subject as “The human essence is freedom from the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.” (1962, p. 3) Which then leads onto the question of “Should a cybernetic machine, sufficiently powerful in it’s self-regulating processes to become fully conscious and rational, be allowed to own itself?” (1999, p. 86). Cybernetics both empowers the individual humanist self as autonomous autopoietic systems as well as poses dangers of losing the autonomy because of the degrading barriers of informational flow. Would a self-possesing cyborg be the posthuman?
PROCESSING THE TRANS/POSTHUMAN
“We’re going to build a whole new world for ourselves..” – Artilleryman, War of the Worlds, 1978.
Cybernetic machines rely upon their cybernetic, inorganic parts for their processing of information. Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corporation, authored ‘Moore’s Law’ in which he claimed we “could squeeze twice as many transistors onto an integrated circuit every twenty-four months.” (Kurzweil, 2005, p. 57) This decreasing size and reduction in semi-conductors then leads to an increase of processing power.
Ray Kurzweil, currently the Director of Engineering at Google, is one of the leading voices when it comes to the ‘Singularity’, that is a time at which Kurzweil goes on to say;
It will result from the merger of the vast knowledge embedded in our own brains with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our technology. […] The Singularity will allow us to overcome age-old human problems and vastly amplify human creativity. We will preserve and enhance the intelligence that evolution has bestowed on us while overcoming the profound limitations of biological evolution. (2005, p. 32)
Processing power will push our intelligence to new levels Kurzweil goes onto to state, “By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.” (2005, p. 38) These predictions come from ‘the law of accelerating returns’, a law that Kurzweil says shows that the “acceleration of the pace of and the exponential growth of the products of an evolutionary process. These products include, in particular, information-bearing technologies such as computation,” (2005, p. 42) Kurzweil is a outspoken futurologist and has received widespread criticism for his work, a biologist named PZ Myers has stated “Kurzweil knows nothing about how the brain works.” (Myers, 2010) in response to Kurzweil stating “The design of the brain is in the genome” (2005, p. 368) but PZ Myers uses the intricate workings of protein and their complex functions and interactions with other proteins as a key problem to Kurzweil’s bold claims. Kurzweil cites what John von Neumann, a mathematician, during the 1950’s spoke of, that is “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes to the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” (2005, p. 24)
The Singularity would “lead to an “intelligence explosion” because the “ultraintelligent machine could design ever better machines […] Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention man need ever make.” (Good, 1965, p. 33) Kurzweil see’s the Singularity as “an event capable of rupturing the fabric of human history” (2005, p. 34) and by epoch six, which Kurzweil uses as a timeframe running from epoch one to six, our universe will “wake up” saying that “In the aftermath of the Singularity, intelligence, derived from its biological origins in human brains and its technology origins, will begin saturating the matter and energy in its midst.” (2005, p. 33)
Kurzweil foresees a time in which we will be able to begin “reorganizing matter and energy to provide an optimal level of computation” which we shall spread throughout the universe, and “the “dumb” matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence which will constitute the sixth epoch in the evolution of patterns of information.” Going onto say “This is the ultimate destiny of the Singularity and of the universe.” (2005, p. 33)
Kurzweil has radical ideas, and doesn’t go without criticism with PZ Myers naming him as a “typical technocrat with limited breadth of knowledge” going onto say that he is “guilty of a very weird form of reductionism that considers a human life can be reduced to patterns in a computer.” Myers distaste for Kurzweil and the culture surrounding his predictions inevitably lead him to saying “Magazines will continue to praise Kurzweil’s techno-religion in sporadic bursts, and followers will continue to gullibly accept what he says because it is what they wish would happen.” (2011)
In his book, The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil discusses the idea that “Some observers refer to the post-Singularity period as “posthuman” and refer to the anticipation of this period as posthumanism.” (2005, p. 273) However, when Kurzweil speaks of “transcending biology” he comes at it from a distinctly transhuman route, the very fact that his entire “Law of Accelerating Returns” is based upon technological uptake and speeds defines his predictions of the singularity as a transhuman ideology, and thought it is clear to see that there is no human left within Kurzweil’s, somewhat Nostradamus-esque, predictions.
“Some of the worst things imaginable have been done with the best intentions.” Dr Grant, Jurassic Park III.
Clearly the line between the transhuman as a, as FM-2030 said, ‘transitional human’ (FM-2030, 1989) and a posthuman must be made. Nick Bostrom, currently the director of The Future Of Humanity Institute, in writing the Transhumanism FAQ writes on the question of ‘What is a posthuman?’;
Posthumans may have experiences and concerns that we cannot fathom, thoughts that cannot fit into the three-pound lumps of neural tissue that we use for thinking.” […] Posthumans might shape themselves and their environment in so many new and profound ways that speculations about the detailed features of posthuman and the posthuman world are likely to fail. (2003)
This state of being posthuman pushes the human body and intellect to realms that we as humans may not even be able to consider, a time with which the posthuman mind may appear, to us at the present, God-like, an almost Promethean figure. Throughout researching this topic, from Kurzweil especially, there appears to be a relationship between the posthuman as an immortal, superior entity, made of information or vastly enhanced biological components, and an inkling towards religious and spiritual belief. Michael Shermer, an American scientist wrote Shermer’s Last Law, in which he said “Any sufficiently advanced ETI is indistinguishable from God.” (2002)
Hayles writes of the posthuman invoking terror, using the negative connotations of the ‘post’ and the “dual connotation of superseding the human and coming after it, hints that the days of “the human” are numbered.” (1999, p. 283). Hayles quotes Warren McCulloch who noted “Man to my mind is about the nastiest, most destructive of all animals. I don’t see any reason, if he can evolve machines that have more fun that he himself can, why they shouldn’t take over, enslave us, quite happily. They might have a lot more fun. Invent better games than we ever did.” (1999, p. 283)
Throughout How We Became Posthuman Hayles strongly holds onto the idea of embodiment, with the human being “first of all embodied being, and the complexities of this embodiment mean that human awareness unfolds in ways very different from those of intelligence embodied in cybernetic machines.” (1999, p. 284) Hayles version of the posthuman is one which pushes our conscious embodiment and enhances it through “the distributed cognitive system as a whole, in which “thinking” is done by both human and nonhuman actors.” (1999, p. 288) Thus Hayles uses Edwin Hutchins’s, a cognitive scientist, writings of a model to show that the posthuman allows for human functionality to expand and writes “In this model, it is not a question of leaving the body behind, but rather extending embodied awareness in highly specific, local, and material ways that would be impossible without electronic prosthesis.” (1999, p. 291) Where Hayles senses the fear is in the loss of the autonomous self through the subject thinking independently of the environment that it is within, and not the distributed system that humans are within, thus if a boundary that keeps the subject autonomous is breached “there will be nothing left to stop the self’s complete dissolution.” (1999, p. 290) This is the contrast of the idea that the autonomous self will be empowered by the distributed system that the subject is within, Hayle’s notes “when the human is seen as part of a distributed system, the full expression of human capability can be seen to depend on the splice rather than being imperiled by it.” (1999, p. 290).
There have been many past attempts at looking at what will come after the ‘human’, one of them being Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of ‘Übermensch’, translated into ‘beyond-man’ or ‘superman’. Nietzsche saw the man as something that “is to be surpassed” (1885, p. 22) for as Nietzsche wrote “Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the Superman – a rope over an abyss.” (1885, p. 24) In Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche uses the term “God is dead!” (1885, p. 87) and ties it into the concept of the ‘Übermensch’ following that “The Superman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Superman shall be the meaning of the earth!” (1883, p. 22) – such a phrase that man themselves gives man reason to value life. Nietzsche writes “Once did people say God, when they looked out upon distant seas; now, however, have I taught you to say, Superman.” (1883, p. 82) Here we can see clear similarities to humanism following on from Enlightenment and the disconnection from the “Real” authority.
This sense of a superior version of man can lead to terrible consequences. Hitler used Nietzsche’s ideology and its concept can be seen within Nazi ideological ideas such as Aryan supremacy, with Nietzsche’s term “lords of the earth” as coined in The Will To Power, being found in Hitler’s own Mein Kampf. Nathan Leopold wrote to his friend Richard Loeb, saying, “A superman […] is on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do.” Leopold and Loeb went onto murder Robert Franks in Chicago in 1924, believers of Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘superman’. (Hannon, 2004)
Nick Bostrom dismisses the claims of the similarities between Nietzsche’s ‘Übermensch’ and the transhuman by saying in A History of Transhumanist Thought;
What Nietzsche had in mind, however, was not technological transformation but rather a kind of soaring personal growth and cultural refinement in exceptional individuals (who he thought would have to overcome the life-sapping “slave-morality ” of Christianity). Despite some surface-level similarities with the Nietzschean vision, transhumanism – with its Enlightenment roots, its emphasis on individual liberties, and its humanistic concern for the welfare of all humans (and other sentient beings) – probably has as much or more in common with Nietzsche’s contemporary J.S. Mill, the English liberal thinker and utilitarian. (2005)
The New Soviet man was the Communist idea of a greater version of man, an idea Leon Trotsky theorized and when writing Literature and Revolution, goes on to state;
Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman. (1924)
Past these ideas from Trotsky and Nietzsche, both with the negative connotations linked through from Marxism and Nazism, “futurists who had become suspicious of collectively orchestrated social change found a new home for their hopes in scientific and technological progress.” (Bostrom, 2005). This hope for a better society through science and technology gave root to modern transhumanism, a transhumanism that remains liberal, ethical and aims to improve the human subject and not to imperil the subject.
Transhumanism takes humanism and aims to create a better version, a better society and a better human. Humanism emanating from the Enlightenment period comes with a “reductionist view of human life characteristic of that movement’s materialistic empiricism” (Hook, 2003) and therefore the current transhuman figure can be seen as an idea that reduces the human to it’s component pieces, the “genetic reductionism” (Somerville, 2011) that reduces and leads to the devaluation of human life.
Classical materialism that has been applied through the transhumanist route to the posthuman must be redefined because as Diana Coole & Samantha Frost state in New Materialisms. Ontology, Agency, and Politics, “new physics and biology make it impossible to understand matter any longer in ways that were inspired by classical science.” (2010, p. 5) They suggest that matter itself has become elusive, going onto to say “the ways we understand and interact with nature are in need of a commensurate updating” (2010, p. 5). This, new renewed, vitalized view of materialism may lead to a new way of understanding posthumanism and the posthuman, for to view the very matter that makes us human in renewed ways allows us to view the human in a different aspect, which opens up an entirely new ontological concept of posthumanism.
Quantum physics has radically altered how physicists view the world, from the discovery of subatomic particles to the recent discovery of the Higgs Boson, we are now understanding the world at an incredible scale. As Diana Coole and Samantha Frost go on to say;
Given the influence of classical science on the foundations of modern political thought, is it germane for new materialists to ask how these new conceptions of matter might reconfigure our models of society and the political. (2010, p. 13)
This sense of understanding the complex, chaotic nature of how particles interact on a subatomic level, while I’m sure there’s still an incredible way to go to understanding it all, dismisses the idea that this matter is a solid foundation.
While this does not of course mean that the objective world we inhabit is mere illusion, it does suggest that even – or especially – the most ardent realist must concede that the empirical real we stumble around in does not capture the truth or essence of matter in any ultimate sense and that matter is thus amenable to some new conceptions that differ from those upon which we habitually rely. (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 11)
In a previous chapter on cybernetics I spoke of Maturana and Varela’s theory of autopoietic systems with Maturana stating that “No description of an absolute reality is possible” (1980, p. 121) This is due to an interaction with the absolute reality which would then infer cognition, being subjective to the observer. The new materialistic view shows reasons how we can, through the complex science and understanding of, not only the subatomic particles but also through the complex systems that we are all part of, including the chaos within the matter itself. We may not yet understand ‘absolute reality’, but only the reality that classical science has created for us. This leads on to Maturana’s thoughts of the ‘cognitive domain’ and how this new understanding of materiality may conceptualize towards a new understanding of not just ‘material reality’ but also the ‘absolute reality’ that Maturana mentions and the ‘cognitive domain’ that human agency prescribes to the observer.
The workings of complexity and chaos theory open up new ways of looking at systems that “seem structured yet unpredictable and which mainstream physics has tended to ignore because they are inexplicable in mechanistic terms.” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 13). And they offer the sense of thinking that the “physical world is a mercurial stabilization of dynamic processes. […] Matter is recognized here as exhibiting immanently self-organizing properties by an intricate filigree of relationships.” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 13)
The new, or revitalised materialists do not see matter as, as physicists see mechanical, inorganic, or a biologists organic evolving system – instead giving agency to “emergent, generative powers” with Jane Bennett using “enchanted materialism” to “ascribe agency to inorganic phenomena such as the electricity grid, food and trash, all of which enjoy a certain efficacy that defies human will.” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 9). This sense of materialism gives light to a “materiality that materializes, evincing immanent modes of self-transportation” and to “consider anew the location and nature of capacities of agency.” (D. Coole & S. Frost, 2010, p. 9).
I find it evident to acknowledge that classical science has led us to this point, so new materialists’ are not denouncing classical science in anyway, and must “give materiality it’s due” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 20). For it is the knowledge and understanding from classical science that is enabling us to learn which in turn gives us the ability to have a revitalised look at materialism. Humanism holds onto the individual’s sense of morality, and their value as a human subject to think and act for themselves – revitalised materialism reduces the barrier between human agency and the agency found in not just non-humans but also the systems and processes that we have produced. Changing such foundational ideas sheds a new way of thinking, as new materialists’ begin to see the human and nonhuman subjects, as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost note “exhibiting agentic capacities in the way they structure or stylize their perceptual milieu, where they discover, organize, and respond to patterns that are corporeally significant.” (2010, p. 20) New materialists’ see “how living matter structures natural and social worlds before (and while) they are encountered by rational actors.” (2010, p. 20). This continues to dissolve the barrier of agency as a trait of just human and nonhuman actors. Hayles warns of the dissolution of such barriers if the subject is independent of the more complex system that it is within, new materialists’ enforce the concept of the complex nature of the systems and environment that the subject inhabits, Hayles points to the understanding of these structures to better ourselves, saying in her conclusion of How We Became Posthuman;
To conceptualize the human in these terms is not to imperil human survival but is precisely to enhance it, for the more we understand the flexible, adaptive structure that coordinate our environment and the metaphors that we ourselves are, the better we can fashion images of ourselves that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world system one. (1999, p. 290).
While Hayles wrote that eleven years prior, there is a distinct inkling of a new materialists’ approach. This is where we can also find new materialism’s posthumanism, removing the anthropocentric concept that comes from the agency given to human subjects, instead showing that “all bodies, including those of animals (and perhaps certain machines, too), evince certain capacities for agency.” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 20) They see the agency as “chance products of a self-generative nature” (2010, p. 20). For it becomes more about the level of agency instead of whether there is agency or not. And as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost go on to say;
As a consequence, the human species, and the qualities of self-reflection, self-awareness, and rationality traditionally used to distinguish it from the rest of nature, may now seem little more than contingent and provision forms or processes within a broader evolutionary or cosmic productivity. (2010, p. 20)
Technology has allowed us to understand the world at the subatomic level, pushing our understanding of science further. New materialists’ conceptualise the notion that a new understanding of the world, and even the very matter that makes it foundation, is required to deal with the crises that society face. Along with this new idea of what is given agency, also comes with it a new sense of what it is to be human, which leads to a new conceptualisation of what posthumanism shall and should be.
This redefining of what is considered to be sentient and nonsentient matter brings fresh challenges to biotechnological advancements. Biotechnology can be seen to be beginning to “muddle the concepts and boundaries that are the ground for much ethical and political thinking.” (Coole & Frost, 2010, p. 22). The power to create life from matter for example, as Diana Coole and Samantha Frost question;
What kind of ethical value should we attribute to synthetic life forms and according to what criteria? If synthetic life forms act in unexpected and unacceptable ways, we need to consider who is, should, and can be held responsible. (2010, p. 22)
In light of the advancements that are being made, Foucalt’s ‘biopower’ suddenly becomes ever more important. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost regard the power that the state has on the technology that has the power to control fertility rates, epidemics, food hygiene and a nation’s health as not particularly malign. However the control that a nation’s governmental policy has to affect the lives of subjects at such a macro level, needs to be critically addressed. For example, an ageing population, or a declining population lead to problems that the state must intervene to control, “The sheer materiality and mass of bodies – their numbers, their needs, their fecundity, their productivity, their sustainability and so on – is becoming a key dimension of political analysis and intervention.” (2010, p. 23).
Throughout this piece I have tried to look at posthumanism as an expanding area, and note that posthumanism shouldn’t be an end-point and should be seen as the continuation of our society, barriers shall be raised, ethical questions shall be asked, moral attitudes may be changed as technological improvements continue to push us to understand the world more, which in turn shall lead to more questions.
From my own conclusion, I see posthumanism as a time where we understand our world far from what we understand today. As Hayles notes “From an evolutionary biologist’s point of view, modern humans, for all their technological prowess, represent an eye blink in the history of life.” (1999, p. 284). New materialist’s open up an entirely new concept of the very foundation of matter, using this as a view of the posthuman, not in a transhuman sense, but in a sense of putting the ‘post’ into the posthuman – thus our very concept of ‘human’ and the agency that defines it may change. The embodied mind that transhumanists’ such as Kurzweil so easily dismiss and believe we will surpass, added to the belief that we will be able to ‘upload’ our consciousness onto cybernetic machines leads to transhumanism, or the transhuman subject. Nick Bostrom touches upon the subject in the Transhumanist FAQ;
The changes required to make us posthuman are too profound to be achievable by merely altering some aspect of psychological theory or the way we think about ourselves. Radical technological modifications to our brains and bodies are needed. (2005)
These technological modifications may not be the cybernetic hybrid that transhumanists envision but instead a more fundamentally different understanding of what enables the embodied mind, what allows for conscious thought and reflexivity that makes us, us. Here I see that we find the ‘post’ of the posthuman in being put back into the complex system that we have controlled and mastered through science and technology, to understand these processes in more detail and to understand the repercussions on the environment that we as subjects of agency inhabit along with the ethical and moral questions that are raised with such advancements. Hayles notes;
Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of human and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves. (1999, p. 291).
Throughout this essay, I have tried to look at the broad subject of posthumanism and the strands of thought coming from the area of research. Ranging from biotechnology to cybernetics, from Nietzsche’s “Übermensch“ to new materialism and how this is both empowering and undermining the human subject. Looking at the roots of humanism and the effect that it has had on modern society and the ethical and moral questions it raises about our place within the environment that we have mastered, controlled and created. New Materialists’ see the human subject being put back into our domain and an end to, as Giorgio Agamben says ‘the anthropological machine of humanism’. (Coole & Frost, 2010)
Posthumanism is an expanding subject and its progress has seen an increase as the transhumanist movement has gained momentum and the idea of technology allowing us to surpass ourselves, leading from biotechnological advancements as well as the rapid increase in computational power, sheds lights on the technological future that may be ahead of us. Many different authors use the term differently and each have a different angle on what they see as the posthuman, and what posthumanism means for them.
I have tried to look at the technology that may allow us to surpass ourselves along with the implications that come with that technology. Humanism can be said to have detached us from the domain that we are in, science and technology has pushed our knowledge further, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
The technological process that we are engineering, from Moore’s Law to the power of human cloning opens up a host of ethical and moral questions about where the technological progress may lead us. Sceptics’ may say it devalues our association with each other and devalues what human life means. Optimists’ would say that the power to cure hereditary diseases, to transplant cloned kidneys to save lives and to be able to know of defects before a birth can only further society.
While looking at the posthuman I found the likeness between that of Nietzsche’s work, the New Soviet Man and that of transhumanism to be on the same level, even though transhumanists may disagree, especially when it comes to biotechnology and man’s control of such a domain, with eugenics being a controversial subject to any transhumanist. The transhumanist movement will, I believe, continue as we continue to engineer new ways to interact with information but this shouldn’t be seen as posthumanism.
Hayles, as she concludes in How We Became Posthuman writes “The best possible time to contest for what the posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly it would take dynamite to change them.” (1999, p. 291).
Luke Wotton is a digital marketing executive currently working at Opsview.He has a first degree honours in Digital Art & Technology.
This article was previously published as Luke’s thesis entitled “HAS TECHNOLOGY TAKEN US TO A TIME WHERE WE NEED TO REDEFINE THE HUMAN SUBJECT?”
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