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

Saturday, March 10, 2007

What "Becomes" Post-Humanity?

Over at my stomping grounds at the IEET there is another interesting survey up, this one asking which of a number of past, ongoing, or possibly upcoming technodevelopments is the one that nudges "we humans" into the status of "posthumans."

As often happens with surveys, I can't really take this one because none of the responses comes close enough to the one I would offer. But, also as often happens, the survey has got me thinking about its topic, and now I'm hooked. (At least I'm hooked for as long as it takes to drink my morning coffee.) The fact is, even when a survey engaging with some fraught and complex question manages to offer up an option I can live with it always does real violence to the richness of the debate and stakes of all of its actually-existing stakeholders. Normally, this inherent oversimplification produces both what is useful and provocative in the exercise as well as what risks distraction and obfuscation in it.

The reason I can't take the survey (except to the extent that talking about it here is another form of "taking it," or at any rate taking it up) is because the nine options we have to select from really amount to only two kinds of options. There is a list of eight technodevelopments ("written language," "inheritable genetic enhancement," "brain prosthetics," "radical longevity," "emotion/memory modification," "borganismic collectivities," "uploading," etc.) and then a "none of the above" parachute clause that protests the term "posthuman" is meaningless.

If I were to take the survey, I'd have to opt for that last option. But that doesn't feel right to me, since I think the "posthuman" is a perfectly meaningful and indeed indispensable designation, only not in the way implied by the survey's premise (as expressed in the options it offers).

That is to say, "posthuman" does not designate for me an ontological status conferred by the intervention of technique (language, pharma, mediation, longevity, and so on) into a human organism. For me, "posthumanist" simply designates an attitude of informed skepticism about the claims conventionally made by, and in the name of, humanism.

For my part, it is hard to shake the sense that the universalizing accomplishments claimed for humanism (rights, dignity, civilization, and so on) have always only been enjoyed in fact by a fraction of the actual human animals on earth in eras that liked to congratulate themselves for their humanism. Typically, the "universal humanity" celebrated by humanism has really testified (not entirely but altogether too much) to the parochial prejudices and relative complacencies of a socioeconomic sliver of the "membership" of the human race, and often a sliver within that sliver further carved up according to "race," "gender," "avowed belief," and so on and on.

My own "posthumanist" sensibility arises primarily out of my anti-naturalist convictions, and one way to characterize my worries about the mistaken identification of "species-membership" with "ethical personhood" is to suggest that it is a matter of expecting an altogether unreliable attribution of "human nature" to do the difficult and crucial work of deepening democracy and promoting general welfare.

The reason all this connects up to the discourse of technodevelopmental social struggle is because "anti-naturalism" names (for me, at least) the crisis of technoscientific churn. As I have written elsewhere:
What I am calling "denaturalization" in particular consists essentially of two trends: First, denaturalization names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, often in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of "nature" and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, denaturalization consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technoscientific developments, and the distribution of their costs, risks, and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

Ultimately, then, I think "posthumanist" names an attitude of wariness rather than an attribution of ontological status. Further, I think there are probably many posthumanisms, some "post" in the sense of after, some "post" in the sense of anti-, some "post" in the sense of out of, some "post" in the sense of over, and so on.

And, further still, I think the various logically possible alternative "posthumanist" viewpoints are not united in any kind of positive doctrine with much in way of claims of fact or value that solicit general assent (the same is true of the "anti-naturalism" to which I connected "posthumanism" above). No, I think "posthumanisms" simply share a broad repudiation of the common but questionable misidentification of a biological specification of membership within the human species for a moral, ethical, or political membership.

For me personally, my "posthumanist" skepticism about this move would likely be charged with the paradox that it is inspired by motives that look pretty intelligible within conventional humanist ethics: That is to say, I worry that "humanism" is a term that functions too often as an alibi for the moral, ethical, and political complacency, exclusiveness, prejudice, and indifference to actual violence and injustice of privileged minorities of human beings with respect to suffering majorities of human beings. I will cheerfully admit that my problem with "humanism" is that it does not seem to me to be reliable enough as a guarantor or even an indicator of the humaneness I would demand of a properly ethical and democratic culture. And I think this probably makes me a rather humanistic "post-humanist," which is probably about right -- however uncomfortable it is -- for an academic intellectual who earns his bread and board in humanities departments.

I must admit that I have grown ever more suspicious of the discourse of "posthumanity" when it seems to name not just my sort of humane skepticism about the progressive ethical and democratizing force of a so-called "species identification" which rarely really seems to function as advertized, but instead seems to name an actual identification by some lucky people who happen to live in technoscientifically rich sectors of societies with some one particular fantasized cyborgic not-human "species," a strong subcultural identification with some one particular construal of "the future" (rather than an open futurity) that functions here-and-now primarily as an affirmation of "not-this," "not-now," "not-you-all."

I think "posthumanist" discourse in this mode -- which often fancies itself a kind of moral doctrine or even an autonomous philosophical viewpoint (not that its enthusiasts really ever address themselves to the range of questions one normally associates with a fully fledged philosophy) -- is usually an expression of straightforward social alienation, and sometimes even an embrace of outright sociopathy (which helps account for the abiding and non-negligible presence of anti-democratic politics of the market libertarian, neoconservative, and neoliberal varieties one finds among so many people who bandy about the "posthuman" term with any regularity in online fora, for example).

"Posthumanism" in this register is yet another mode of moral identification, mobilized as usual by the questionable attribution of "substance" to members (and its denial to non-members). I am distinguishing here, then, the moralizing, substantializing "Post-Humans" -- the ones who claim to identify here and now with what they take to be an "aborning" new species, a prostheticized homo superior -- as against people who act on a diversity (and not necessarily a particularly coherent one) of democratic "posthumanist" convictions -- the ones who share little more than a commitment to progressive forms of technodevelopmental social struggle in which as many of the actual stakeholders to technoscientific change as possible have as much of a real say as possible in the ongoing distribution of technodevelopmental risks, costs, and benefits.

It is crucial to understand that "Post-Humanism" in its moralizing modes is still a profoundly naturalist attitude on my terms, even when it lodges its own attributions of identificatory "substance" at the site of what appears to be anti-naturalizing prostheses. It pays to remember that the distinction of the natural and the artifactual has never been a "metaphysical" one in the first place -- to use a awkward, gawky, and thankfully almost defunct phrasing appropriate to weird philosophical claims of this kind -- but is always, as we say in the halls of the humanities departments, "socially constructed." That is to say (and this is for those eye-rolling stolid he-men in the house who have no truck even with the sensible claims people make when talk turns to "social construction"), the things that get called "artifacts" and, more importantly, which get called attention to in their essential "artificiality" really do change quite a bit over time. And so, that long process of socialization through which what once seemed conspicuously artifactual comes to seem instead "natural" (Mill's feminism, Marx's cherry tree, Wilde's queerness, my own generation's outsourcing of "memory" onto their keyboards, and so on), looks less like ontology and more like familiarization when all is said and done.

And so, in turn, it is only apparently paradoxical that the artifactual (and, in this case, the imaginary, projected artifactual at that) should function as the register of substantial identificatory "naturalness" for some currents of contemporary moral and subcultural identification, among them some "Post-Humanists." Onto whatever projected technodevelopmental scenario the substantial "Post-Humanists" have lodged their identificatory energies -- be it superlatively therapized bodies with exquisite capacities and "infinite" lifespans, be it shiny robot bodies cavorting through outer space, be it spiritualized informational "inhabitations" of networks (and, don't get me wrong, I am edified by these flights of fancy quite as much as the next sf geek) -- here they discern the new "nature," the new emulation of perfection that will bind their moral community in shared affinity as well as in shared disdain for its constitutive outsiders.

Just as: The substantial "Post Humanist" anti-naturalist embrace of "technology in general" will provide no check on the market fundamentalist politics of some of its adherents, even when these politics rely for their intelligibility and force on the absurd "naturalization" of historically contingent, parochial, and elitist social norms, trading protocols, laws and treaties, infrastructural accomplishments and so on, all of which simply get treated as though they arise "spontaneously" out of the tidal forces of "supply and demand" construed as natural and eternal verities. So too: The same substantial "Post Humanist" anti-naturalist embrace of "technology in general" will provide no check on the eugenicist politics of some of its adherents, even when these politics rely for their intelligibility and force on the absurd "naturalization" of historically contingent and parochial standards of "optimal" health or "normal" function or "basic" decency, usually as these are conveyed by priestly authorities (some of them calling themselves "scientific") in the conscpicuous service of incumbent elites.

To the partisans of "natural markets" I recommend the contrary attitude of democratic experimentalism. And to the partisans of "natural optimalities" I recommend the contrary attitude of informed, nonduressed consent. Just so, to the well-meaning and progressive partisans of "natural humanisms" I recommend as more reliable the contrary attitude of a post-humanist skepticism that nudges one into the same embrace of democratic experimentalism and of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent. As for the partisans of substantial "Post Humanisms": I share with you a preoccupation with technodevelopmental change as a force deranging the existential and normative terrains in which worldly humans and their peers struggle to do justice to/with one another in unprecedentedly threatening and promising ways. But when all is said and done it seems to me too often to be the case that yours is a "post-humanism" that keeps what was worst in the humanism you disdain (a moralizing and inadequate naturalism), while jettisoning what is best in it (an exhortation to humaneness). This, I fear, looks to be a fault, and I recommend to you all a timely re-assessment of your convictions.

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