Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, July 10, 2006

Posthuman Terrains

I think... that we have not yet become human. Or, I might say, in a different way, that the category of the human is in the process of becoming. What constitutes the human is a site of contestation. [T]here are clashing cultural interpretations about what the human ought to be, and... every time you assert human rights, you are also adding to the meaning of what the human is. -- Judith Butler

What Our Bodies Say "After" Humanism

I have long wondered what difference it might make to think that when Aristotle defined "man" [sic] as the "political animal," this formulation constituted a fledgling kind of cyborg manifesto written many centuries before Donna Haraway's own. What if Aristotle's definition amounts to the claim that human (and possibly other) animals have become different in their “essential natures” because they have come to live together in cities?

On such a view, this Aristotelian formulation is not a replacement but a complement to his more commonplace definition of humanity as the "rational animal." For Aristotle as for most of the Greeks reason is dialogic and there is a real sense in which one cannot claim to “know” a thing until one is capable of communicating that knowledge successfully to one’s peers. For Aristotle’s political animal, then, to be rational is always to be able to communicate intelligibly to others, to testify to one’s experience in public, to convey one’s desires and intentions successfully, to be responsive in the face of failure with one's peers, to facilitate acting in concert. Taken together these definitive political/rational characterizations make humanity prostheticized or cultural through and through, they understand human animals as beings constituted in conversation and in collaboration, sustained by ritual and infrastructural artifice as surely as we are by food and air.

Our biological bodies are sites of transformation, not only of metabolism but of significance. That is to say, for one thing, we are maintained and transformed in the ongoing metabolism of the human organism with its environment. But we are maintained and transformed no less in our constantly adapting signifying practices as well as in the significance borne by our bodies themselves. Just think how, over the course of our lives, as our bodies first mature and then as they age, how differently promising they are in their bearing, how richly and differently scarred and skilled they become, how they come to be differently raced, differently sexed, differently sexualized, and so on.

Human bodies are crucially maintained in both their biological continence and their social legibility in the company of others. Our bodies are exposed not only to the elements but to scrutiny, vulnerable to criticism, open to change, needy for connection, practically interdependent, eager for the pleasure and danger and the unpredictable novelty of public contact no less than for the security and support and quotidian routine of intimacy.

And so, for Aristotle as for us all our embodied selves do not decisively end in our skins, but spread out into and are definitively impinged upon by the world, by artifice and by the ritual and material artifice of normative cultures. This urban prostheticization of Aristotle’s political/rational animal does not and did not make human animals into some kind of "posthuman species," of all things, but defined instead the inaugural moment when humanity stepped onto the scene of history. This inaugural moment is a fable, of course. At best a fable, in fact: at once a promise and the broken promise. More to the point, this prostheticization names the abiding material reality of humanity -- such as it is: raced, gendered, aged, enraged, desiring, desirable, promising, calculating, skilled, scarred -- in a shared world of technodevelopmental social struggle among a plurality of stakeholders who are our peers.

What History Feels Like After Humanism

I think it is unquestionably true to say that neoliberal corporate-militarist flows of capital, force, and significance, the unsustainable practices of extractive global industrialization, the planetary distribution of information, communication and transportation networks, and so on, have transformed altogether the concrete forms, practical significance, and proper ambitions of "humanism" as a democratizing and emancipatory language of ethical universality.

For one thing, in the long bloody twentieth century, World Wars, genocides, avoidable famines and neglected diseases, vast forced migrations, the countless catastophes of petrochemical industry, the cynical anti-democratic deployments of mass media -- all of these struggles variously facilitated and exacerbated by unprecedented technoscientific developments, and all of them no less exposed and resisted through opportunistic recourse to technoscientific developments -- have undermined, probably fatally, any universal appeal that might once have been made in the name of humanism, exposing instead a vision expressing parochial pretensions, false promises, and endless alibis for current exploitation.

Clothed in the language of universality, the entitlements of the humanity proclaimed by humanists have never extended to more than a fraction of actual human beings. Assured of its location on a “natural” progressive trajectory attaining inevitably toward universal emancipation, humanism too readily accommodated contemporary injustices as temporary and, hence, somehow tolerable -- especially to those humanists who didn’t happen to suffer them. And, further, as the ethics of a questionably construed "human race" and of the universal "civilization" problematically connected to this race, it grows ever more difficult to shake the troubling analogies between humanism and its debased technoscientific companion discourse: the "race science" that legitimized every brutal imperial, colonial, globalizing, ghettoizing, apartheid regime in modern memory.

Needless to say, these painful recognitions demand painful reckonings. It is this crisis of humanist conscience -- which is not really one crisis, so much as many different crises, arising out of a variety of concrete situations and taking a proliferating variety of consequential forms -- that more properly goes by the name "post-humanism."

Post-humanism in its interesting construals is the furthest thing from some facile identification with any particular prosthetic practice, current or imagined. Contemplate, for a moment, the present, emerging, and proximate-prospective terrain of disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle -- with its battles over climate change, pandemics, intellectual property, media ownership, rigged election machines, unfair trade policies, proliferating weapons, neglected diseases, drug wars (that is, wars on some drugs through the mandated use of other drugs), clashes of extractive against renewable industry, and so on.

This already hopelessly (and hopefully) fraught technoscientific era is opening onto an even more perilous and promising terrain, named by the prospect (strictly speaking, probably another fable in its clearest formulation) of a "convergence" of nano- bio- info- and cognitive technologies, and an almost unfathomable transformation within the lifetimes of many now living of the fundamental terms of what is possible and important. It is this terrain of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle that defines the various post-human and post-humanist strategies and sensibilities, rather than any particular “post-human” personage, tribe, or social formation thrown up in any one moment of that world-historical technodevelopmental storm-churn.

The “post-human” is not one kind of prostheticized person, nor is “post-humanism” a singular response to a particular kind of prostheticized personhood, whether involving digital network immersion, peer-to-peer Netroots democracy, post-Pill feminism, transsexual queerness, post-“disability” different-enablement prostheses, open source biopunks and leapfroggers and copyfighters, or what have you -- nor certainly the more fantastic identifications with robots, or eugenicized superheros, or artificial intelligences, or aliens that seem to come up so often when “post-humanism” is discussed as a topic online.

Such identifications (and, crucially, their attendant disidentifications) are moralistic in form, not ethical. And whatever else we may say of it, the ongoing and upcoming crises of humanism -- no less than its emergence with the appearance of the political/rational animal -- are profoundly ethical: "Post-humanism," properly so-called, names the ethical encounters of humanism with itself, the confrontations of a universalism with its historical and practical limits and contradictions. And the ethical visions that emerge either out of ("post" in the sense of "after") or in resistance to ("post" in the sense of "over") that confrontation are themselves ethical terms. One might even discern in them the best impulses that have animated humanism in its emancipatory aspect.

If we accept Lyotard's definition of "post-modernity" as a distrust of meta-narratives then many post-humanisms certainly seem "post-modern" in his sense as well. But it is key to recognize that distrust need not imply dismissal, denial, or even overcoming. Post-humanism names a distrust of a particular metanarrative: a normative vocabulary presumably rendered universal through its grounding in a “human condition” shared essentially across the species. But whatever one’s distrust, it may well be that the universality of ethical language remains, in Gayatri Spivak's phrase, something "we cannot not want." Mistrusting, we miss trust. And in our distrust we need not break trust.

The technoscientific dislocations that have exposed the pretensions and limitations of humanism have not rid us of the need for a more general normativity than moralist identification, even if candidate-vocabularies for ethical universality inevitably come to be viewed retroactively as contingent or strategic, and freighted with qualification. Certainly, our distrust has scarcely nudged human beings into any ironic global bourgeois order that “ends history” in any meaningful sense, one in which more than a small pampered fraction of human beings could claim to be content with immersion in private moralisms and with the public adjudication of differences falling to “markets” or engineers or what have you. Far from it.

Instead, the eclipse of humanist pretension has coincided with the organization of a host of variously and curiously technoscientifically-competent compensatory fundamentalist formations -- among them superficially anti-religious scientisms and reductionist design discourses. These fundamentalisms are in fact moralisms re-engineered as bloody-minded pseudo-ethics, each one aiming to achieve universality by denying history and prevailing over living differences. In such an historical moment, especially, it seems to me disastrous to conceive post-humanism as a moralizing identification with some tribe defined by any idiosyncratic fetishization of particular technologies or other. Rather, we should think of it as an ethical recognition of the limits of humanism provoked by an understanding of the emerging terms of technodevelopmental social struggle and, hence, any ethical perspective arising out of this recognition that demands cosmopolitanism, democracy, and emancipation shape the terms of this struggle, come what may.

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