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.


Jay Clayton on Literature & Science

It just so happens that next week the Journal of Narrative Theory (JNT) at Eastern Michigan will be hosting a dialogue on… exactly what I’m interested in learning more about right now. The JNT has invited Jay Clayton of Vanderbilt and Laura Otis of Emory to come speak “about cognitive science, genetics, and the literary imagination.” I’m really looking forward to all of the events: the colloquium on Tuesday, in which students and faculty will discuss some articles by the invited speakers, the dialogue itself on Thursday, and the opportunity to have coffee with the speakers the afternoon of the dialogue. In preparation for the events, particularly the colloquium, I’m reading through the articles provided by the JNT, and I’ll be writing about these articles (and some others, if I have time) on this blog, beginning with…


Jay Clayton’s “The Ridicule of Time: Science Fiction, Bioethics, and the Posthuman” from last summer’s American Literary History. In the article, he makes the case for including literary voices in discussions of the ethics of biotechnology.

Clayton begins by saying that science fiction has had “a pervasive but unexamined influence on” bioethics (318). Most people assume “that SF warns against the consequences of biotechnology,” when in fact it is “overwhelmingly positive about the possibility of transforming the human” (319). He admits that the most famous SF novels, and films as well, are dystopian, like “Brave New World and Oryx and Crake” (319), and that the SF work that is optimistic about the posthuman falls largely within the “90 or 95 percent of SF production” that “is strictly perishable” (Suvin, qtd. 319). However, from a public policy standpoint, this mass of “popular, ‘low,’ or plebian” (Suvin, qtd. 319) fiction is important, because it represents “a significant strand in our culture” (319), which ought not to be overlooked.

Science fiction responds to the concerns of the age in which it is written, whether it be eugenics, the Cold War, racism, etc., as Clayton amply demonstrates. Thus, we have developed “a kind of awareness we might call science-fictionality, a mode of response that frames and tests experiences as if they were aspects of a work of science fiction” (Cscicsery-Ronay qtd. 319-20). As SF possibilities linger in our collective cultural imagination, SF concepts become easy rhetorical devices for both sides of the futurism debate (if we can boil it down to just two sides).

spacevikingOn the one hand, “[s]cientific jeremiads,” that is, works of opposition to biotechnological interventions, “attempt to motivate people to act in history—to resist a feared future—by conjuring a ‘novum,’ to use Darko Suvin’s term for a new reality science fiction creates” (335). Such writing also utilizes “metaphors of organicism” (335), what I would call appeals to naturalness, which are, in fact, appeals to the illusion of naturalness. This is especially important in relation to Fukuyama’s claims about what constitutes “human nature” (337). I will no doubt take up the idea of “naturalness” in a later blog post.

The jeremiads also use “performative speech,” or the use of broad proclamations about what “we” are feeling about scientific developments: “something . . . leaves a lingering moral qualm” (Sandel qtd. 335). (I am reminded of the phrase “questions are being raised about,” which allows the writer/commentator/whoever to displace the burden of explaining why the given topic is relevant onto a nonexistent passive subject. Fox News might be the worst abuser of the phrase, but it’s fairly commonplace.) The other rhetorical device is “symbolic oppositions,” the familiar us/them dichotomy that “plainly substitutes symbolic for social analysis” (Bercovitch qtd. 336).

On the other hand, the scientific “encomia,” or works in praise of biotechnological interventions, also use the “same rhetorical elements” (337). Though he refers to a number of works, Clayton does not give any specific examples of how the “rhetorical elements” are used. He does, however, demonstrate “slippage,” in which science-fictional elements are appropriated, unacknowledged, into purportedly non-fiction writing, which “illustrates the kinship these works bear to our culture’s science fiction” (338).

“Both jeremiad and the encomia have their uses,” Clayton nearly concludes, “but the latter especially courts the ridicule of time” (338). That is, it’s easy to make predictions and wild extrapolations about what the future may hold and hope that you’re right. More than likely you won’t be, but in the meantime you might get paid to give public lectures. “They traffic in mundane predictions, and their attempts to inspire awe at biotechnology’s wonders sometimes result merely in the feeling of ‘gee whiz'” (338). (Could this be an example of performative speech?)

Clayton ends abruptly with a call to “take up the challenge” of bringing “the analysis of posthumanism to bear on problems with tangible impact on patients, health-care providers, and scientific policy” (339). At the very least, literary scholars should resist the trend of “generalizing glibly about cultural attitudes from a sample size consisting of a few decontextualized novels and films” (338), though it’s not clear what else there is for us to do.

Some questions that I have for Dr. Clayton that I might bring up when I see him next week:

Does the optimism in SF about the possibilities of biotechnological intervention say more about the self-selecting group of individuals most interested in SF? How much can we look to that mindset as evidence of more popular optimism about science, particularly when the most popular novels and films seem much more pessimistic?

It seems as though this conversation gets to the heart of the contemporary conversation about the role of the humanities in society. The humanities, the argument goes, need to be doing something for society, rendering some tangible service. Is there a danger to the humanities in making promises about what we have to offer to scientific discussions? Walt Whitman wrote of the sciences that their “facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling,/I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling” (“Song of Myself,” part 23). Are we qualified to make our dwelling in the sciences?

How is the relationship between the literary imagination and the sciences, as you perceive it, similar to or distinct from that relationship as it might be perceived from a position that is primarily reliant on cultural criticism? For example, one might argue from a Marxist perspective that technological advancements have historically benefited and will continue to benefit the capitalist class. Do you see your project as approaching the sciences differently?

How does the relationship between SF and biotechnology translate into discussions about information technology, robotics, global warming, etc.? Do the discourses of other scientific issues have a similarly problematic relationship with science fiction?


For more information about Jay Clayton, you can check out his profile on Vanderbilt’s website, where you will find this delightful picture of him next to what looks like a mural of a tricycle.