An Introduction to Posthumanism

“The nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist”

Tomorrow I will be giving a lecture on posthumanism to one of the English 300W classes that I TA for. I wanted to give this particular lecture because it’s something I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about over the last few years, but especially this semester, and it corresponds to assignments I’ve written for my Computers and Writing course.

The students will have read (or at least, I hope, glanced at) the first few pages of the introduction to Cary Wolfe’s 2009 book What is Posthumanism? It’s the eighth book in the Univeristy of Minnesota Press’s Posthumanities series, also edited by Wolfe, which includes books by Timothy Morton (who came to EMU two years ago for the JNT dialogue), Donna Haraway, and Jacques Derrida (reprinted posthumanly, er, posthumously).

(Yes, I just included the list of authors so I could make that joke.)

Wolfe begins by differentiating between the two primary categories of posthumanism. The first, the more philosophical, we might say, is best stated by Foucault: “man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end” (qtd. xii). I’ll get to that in a second. The second, the more technological, draws on Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” which “engages science-fictional thematics of hybridity, perversity, and irony (her terms) that are, you might say, radically ambivalent in their rejection of both utopian and dystopian visions of a cyborg future” (xiii). This is the “‘cyborg’ strand of posthumanism,” which is most evident in “what is now being called ‘transhumanism'” (xiii), “a belief in the engineered evolution of ‘post-humans'” (Garreau, qtd. xiii).

Robocop (1987)

So basically, this.

The problem with transhumanism, and even of some critiques of transhumanism, is that it “derives directly from ideals of human perfectibility, rationality, and agency inherited from Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment” (xiii). Foucault troubles the equatability of humanism and Enlightenment ideals, which I won’t go into, but basically, according to Wolfe, “transhumanism should be seen as an intensification of humanism” because it intensifies the “humanity/animality” dichotomy” (xv). In transhumanist thinking, we seek to separate ourselves even further from nature, animal, and even embodiment, through technological evolution.

Here’s where we build on Foucault. Wolfe goes on to explain his particular brand of posthumanism, which is “analogous to” Lyotard’s postmodern: it comes before and after. I’ll quote at length here, because it’s… well, it’s perfect. Posthumanism comes

before [humanism] in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world, the prosthetic coevolution of the human animal with the technicity of tools and external archival mechanisms (such as language and culture). . . . But it comes after [humanism] in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore, a historical development that points toward the necessity of new theoretical paradigms (but also thrusts them on us), a new mode of thought that comes after the cultural repressions and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasions, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon. (xv-xvi)

The “before” suggests the message of N. Katherine Hayles’ book How We Became Posthuman, which is that (ironically, given the title), “we have always been posthuman.” To put it another way, each human individual, since the first one, has existed within ecologies of other biological beings, as well as ecologies of technology and culture that extend well beyond that individual’s body. From a humanist perspective, the selfhood of each individual would be defined in opposition to its surroundings through the construction of binaries: human/nature, individual/society, etc. From a posthumanist perspective, though, drawing on postmodern thinking, those binaries are highly unstable.

The “after,” then, explains why we’re talking about this now. As Bruno Latour writes in Reassembling the Social, “information technologies . . . make visible what was before only present virtually” (207). Even since Wolfe wrote this book, the increasing use and awareness of smartphones, data mining, government surveillance, etc. has, I would say, moved this line of thinking even more into the mainstream. 

All this is to say that our modes of thinking and speaking, of experiencing and organizing our experiences, are built upon the unstable binaries that underpin humanist thinking. Wolfe argues that “the nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist” (xvi). He goes on to say that

the point [of posthumanism] is not to reject humanism tout court—indeed there are many values and aspirations to admire in humanism—but rather to show how those aspirations are undercut by the philosophical and ethical frameworks used to conceptualize them. (xvi)

So anyway…

How does one introduce the concept of posthumanism to sixteen sophomores and juniors who’ve never heard of it before reading Wolfe’s introduction, which is, I think, quite dense in its use of philosophical language and references to other texts that the students won’t be familiar with. Luckily, we’re reading Frankenstein, so I’ll draw heavily on the book to help illustrate the difficult concepts in Wolfe’s piece.

I’ll start, I think, by tying the idea of posthumanism to the students’ everyday lives. How might we think of ourselves as more or less human than our great grandaparents? The transhumanist idea of “human plus” is a simple way of describing technological enhancement, and I think it’s easy to conceptualize the ways in which we’re distributing formerly human activities to various prostheses, like smart phones and drones.

At this point, it’s important to consider the ways that “we’ve always been posthuman.” I’d mention that, genetically, humans are only a 1% “human.” And we’ve always been embedded in human and non-human ecologies, and we’ve always used tools, though these tools have grown exponentially powerful over the last few centuries. Which brings up the important point: if we’ve always been posthuman, then what’s the point in talking about posthumanism?

The answer, for me, is that posthumanism provides a corrective for the problems of humanist thinking: binaries that establish power structures, the universalization of the Western, liberal subject, the conception of the individual as existing apart from non-human actors.

I like Wolfe’s way of categorizing posthumanism. There’s plenty of overlap between the two main categories, but it’s a helpful dialectic for introducing the wide variety of posthumanist concepts. Related to this distinction, I’d like to pose some questions to my students about Frankenstein:


How do we conceptualize Frankenstein’s scientific pursuits? Is he a humanist? A transhumanist? A posthumanist? What are some examples of ways that he might be each?

How do we conceptualize the monster? Is he transhuman? Posthuman? Does his existence reify or problematize humanist ideals? What about his desire for a mate?

We can also situate Frankenstein historically, thinking about the history of rationality, empiricism, and political revolution. And we can think about how Frankenstein genders the human/nature binary, using sexual imagery to conceptualize scientific discovery.

I’m very excited about this class tomorrow. I wrote a paper on this very topic entitled “The Possibilities of the Posthuman: Ecological Feminism, Gendered Humanism, and Frankenstein’s Cyborg,” which I presented at the Science Fiction Research Association conference in 2012. I’m not sure how excited the students will be to talk about these issues, but if they don’t want to join the discussion, I could lecture for hours. Not that that’s what I want to do. In fact, my theory is that the confidence of knowing that I have plenty to say on a given topic endows me with a higher tolerance for awkward silence when the students won’t talk, which eventually (the theory goes) forces them to start talking. I’ll post an update after class.