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Posthumanism

PosthumanismTo theorize posthumanism means to refuse declarations of the end and proclamations of death: the death of the ‘human’, which is a state that far from definite or final is instead a condition that raises zombies. As a critical project, it is, or should be, alert to the seductions of apocalyptic endings in a time that remains, as Derrida claimed in 1984, ‘superarmed’ with respect to such statements pronounced with ‘eschatological eloquence’, each ‘more lucid than the other, more vigilant and more prodigal too, coming to add more to it’:

this is not only the end of this here but also and first of that there, the end of history, the end of the class struggle, the end of philosophy, the death of God, the end of religions, the end of Christianity and morals […] the end of the subject, the end of man, the end of the West, the end of Oedipus, the end of the earth, Apocalypse Now, I tell you, in the cataclysm, the fire, the blood, the fundamental earthquake, the napalm descending from the skies by helicopter, like prostitutes and also the end of literature, the end of painting, art as a thing of the past, the end of the past, the end of psychoanalysis, the end of the university, the end of phallocentrism and phallogocentrism and I don’t know what else.

(‘Of An Apocalyptic Tone’: 20–21)

Posthumanism must, instead, ask to what ends such declarations arrive, to what mystifications they lead, what corpses it inherits: because very frequently, apocalyptic desire masks a return, the return of the dead, of ‘Man’ and of ‘humanism’ which the prefix ‘post’ ostensibly lays to (un)rest. Neil Badmington, on the subject of a premature burial—‘Man’ who has yielded his position to a far sexier, potentially progressive creature, that is, the posthuman subject—refers to the Lernaean hydra with its multiple heads as a metaphor for a post/humanism haunted by what it proceeds or wishes to exclude, resist and repress:

What Jacques Derrida calls the ‘apocalyptic tone’ should be toned down a little, for, as Nietzsche once pointed out, it is remarkably difficult to cut off the human(ist) head through which we continue to ‘behold all things’. While I am not for one moment interested in preserving humanism, keeping its head firmly on its shoulders, I do think that it is worth remembering the tale of the Lernaean hydra (the mythical beast that, of course, re-members itself). ‘The hydra throve on its wounds’, Ovid recalls, ‘and none of its hundred heads could be cut off with impunity, without being replaced by two new ones which made its neck stronger than ever.’ Apocalyptic accounts of the end of ‘Man’, it seems to me, ignore humanism’s capacity for regeneration and, quite literally, recapitulation. In the approach to posthumanism on which I want to insist, the glorious moment of Herculean victory cannot yet come, for humanism continues to raise its head(s).

(‘Theorizing Posthumanism’: 10–11)

The prefix, consequently, rather than announcing a radical breakage with the politics of ‘Man’, should be taken to indicate—with reference to Jean-François Lyotard—a ‘condition’ or state of mind rather than something that occurs after perceived endings or from apparent outsides: posthumanism functions as a critical analysis that consists in dismantling ‘humanism’ from the inside. What this means is that it seeks to challenge the ‘human’, ‘humanity’, pretending to be neutral categories, as if the concept of ‘Man’ had no origin, no cultural baggage, no history of atrocity. These concepts are ideologies, grounded and invented in an Enlightenment narrative of a shared and inviolable, totally stable, human essence or an immovable ‘human nature’. The posthumanist project—as a critical, theorized position or spirit—consists in dismantling and situating this idea and ideology of the ‘human’: it is a perspective that seeks to act against the dominance of the ‘human’, to stand against ‘humanist’ fantasies of supremacy and the fantasy of a total ‘human’ subject all the while remaining attentive to inherited corpses.

Posthumanism, then, is a project about remains, not necessarily about substance, that is, in reference to the amalgamation between flesh and steel/machine—the merging between technology and corporality—but, instead and above all, focused on the spectral: the remnants of an at times disastrous philosophy of multi-headed ‘Man’. As such, to mention another of Derrida’s works, Spectres of Marx, it attempts to ‘ontologize remains, to make them present, in the first place by identifying the bodily remains and by localizing the dead’ (9) so as to reveal a logic of haunting in place, particularly, after (falsely) declared endings. After the end of ‘Man’, his spirit keeps coming back: posthumanism is mindful of resurrection and inside habitations, just as it is interested in, to cite Donna Haraway, forming an argument ‘for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries’ (150). It has, consequently, much in common with, for example, Queer Theory, interrogating concepts of bodily margins, heterosexist/racist panic attacks concerning fantasy-fortress formations of corporeal impermeability and border patrolled cultural peripheries. Effectively, it functions as a theoretical project about slippages, acting against the desire for entrenchment or entombment in closed spaces and resolutely committed to a politics—irreverent to wholes—of openness, leakages and affinities. Concurrently, it should never allow itself to be content, to ‘puff out [its chest] with the good conscience’ (Derrida, Spectres of Marx: 17) of having disposed of ‘Man’ or of celebrating only apparently subversive ‘Man’-machines: posthumanism cannot become complacent but has to remain an ongoing theorized process keeping an eye out for corpses that come back, for the eternally returning Arnold Schwarzenegger terminating the possibility of a radical new politics.

Glossary

Posthumanism is a theoretical position that, to begin with—one of the fundamental pieces of posthuman criticism is Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, published in 1985—is concerned with the figure of the cyborg or man-machine amalgamation. The cyborg is a Cold War construct, designed to facilitate and allow ‘Man’ to travel into outer space; the concept of the interface between flesh and engine is, therefore, about the modifications of the ‘human’ into a cybernectic organism thrust and fitted into rocket technology. In recent years, however, especially following the work of, for example, Jacques Derrida, Bruno Latour, Friedrich Kittler, Cary Wolfe, posthumanism is no longer exclusively associated with analyses that focus on that particular figure, life cycle and death cult (bear in mind The Terminator), but is concerned with the myth of the ‘human’, which also means being attentive to other, apparently ‘abyssal’ (to cite Derrida) spaces between ‘species’, human/animal as much as human/machine binary systems. As such, posthumanism, alert to myth and ideological fantasies structured around autonomy, supremacy, insists on the zombie, the remains of ‘Man’ that frequently sit at the heart, or haunt the margins, of an only apparently posthuman subject, totally technologized but still ‘human’-centred, maintaining segregations, identity politics and standing against networks of affinity.

Analysis

Image ‘Robot get’s his pose on – ZenBrush sketch’ by Tojosan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), via Flickr