Posthumanism, posthuman

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Posthumanism, posthuman

Posthumanism, posthuman: An emerging discipline, or perhaps an emergent ontology, posthumanism reconsiders the widely held Western assumption that human nature is a universal, superior state of being that is autonomous, rational, unsurpassed (and unsurpassable). Posthumanists seek to debunk the anthropocentric notion, fundamental to humanist philosophy, that humankind is the measure of creation insofar as it is superior to and distinct from the realm of other animals and the material world, including machines. Many posthumanists also welcome the arrival of a future in which emerging technologies will enable the development of beings that are in measurable ways better than any natural-born, technologically unenhanced human can possibly be. These beings, dubbed posthuman, would have capabilities that so far exceed our own that they could no longer be called humans under existing measures and standards.

To the skeptical response that they are, in effect, science-fiction writers, posthumanist theorists point out that the evolution of the human into the posthuman has already begun, with many persons being less-than-fully “natural” insofar as they benefit from or even continue to exist due to medical interventions that are fundamentally scientific and/or technological, such as pacemakers and ventilators. They also argue that most people in the developed world have benefited from technologically enabled bodily enhancements ranging from contact lenses, artificial joints, and hearing aids to devices that enable erectile function.

Whereas critics of posthumanism see these interventions merely as helping to correct or surmount the problems associated with a disability, posthumanists disagree, viewing them as constituting the first, small steps toward the day when the results of psychopharmacology are better than palliative, life-extension therapies are indisputably effective, natural human body parts are replaced by wearable computers, neural interfaces between minds and computers effectively deconstruct that binary opposition (as well as the one between “reality” and “virtual reality”), consciousness becomes uploadable, and a form of immortality is thereby achieved. Whereas traditional Western humanists have glorified the human body (think of the Da Vinci codex, in which the naked [male] form is centered and all-embracing), posthumanists note that, as computer technology has shown, information is disembodied, decentered, and best stored not in human brains but on “hard drives” and in non-natural “clouds.”

Posthumanism is relevant to literary study for several reasons. First, posthumanist assumptions and fictional characters living in posthuman futures have appeared in works since the late nineteenth century, beginning with science fiction by authors such as H. G. Wells and later including fantasy fiction and cyberpunk as well; Neal Asher, Isaac Asimov, Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, Frederik Pohl, Bruce Sterling, and Charles Stross have all incorporated posthumanist concepts. Second, the posthumanist perspective provides new ways of understanding and discussing both these works and classic-to-recent books and movies featuring witches, werewolves, vampires, and zombies — posthuman beings with powers beyond those of humans in a natural state — and contemporary television productions such as Westworld (2016— ; based on a 1973 film by the same title). Third, posthumanism may be seen as an emergent branch of cultural criticism, a contemporary, theoretically grounded interpretive approach in which the kind of scrutiny once afforded printed literary texts is focused on popular culture in all of its forms and manifestations — as well as on the assumptions, priorities, and biases of the broader culture from which they arose. Finally, posthumanist criticism is traceable to the “antihumanism” of twentieth-century literary theorists such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, associated with Marxist criticism, the new historicism, and psychoanalytic criticism, respectively.

In identifying the beginnings of the posthumanist movement, many scholars point to Donna J. Haraway’s essay “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (1985). (The term cyborg — a contraction of “cybernetic organism” — was introduced in 1960 by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline to describe interventions in human nature that would be necessitated by the exploration of deep outer space.) Though Haraway did not use the term posthuman or posthumanism, she advanced the paradigm-shifting idea that “boundary breakdowns” were occurring that made the old concept of human transcendence obsolete; that made technologically enhanced human beings thinkable, even inevitable; and that led to the inescapable conclusion that “we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.”

Subsequently, N. Katherine Hayles’s book How We Became Posthuman (1999), which investigates how information came to be seen as a “disembodied entity,” brought significant attention to posthumanism. In the twenty-first century, posthumanism has been further explored and expanded by theorists such as Thomas Foster, Elaine L. Graham, Chris Hables Gray, and Cary Wolfe, whose book Animal Rites (2003) provided a corrective to cyborg-focused critics by arguing that the roots of posthumanism lie not only in technological advances but also in the breakdown of the “speciesist” binary that is undermined by a growing appreciation of companion species and awareness of the way in which viruses and microbes use humans to self-replicate.