Sep 1, 2009

What's in a name? or Post- vs. Trans-

Within the larger field of the (post-)humanities, the terms 'posthumanism' and 'posthuman' have been difficult to determine. A quick Google search on any of these words will list many websites which don't seem to tackle the topics which are in discussion here, such as animality and the limits and limitations of what has been called 'humanity'. Many people seem to consider the prefixes 'post' and 'trans' as interchangeable, and therefore use 'posthumanism' and 'transhumanism' as synonyms, when, in fact, they must be conceptualized as two very distinct lines of thought.

Not being an avid reader of transhumanist issues, I will quote a very reader-friendly definition found on one of these sites misnamed as 'posthumanist':
Posthumanism (or transhumanism to use the standard term) is the view that we ought to try to develop - in ways that are safe and ethical - technological means that will enable the exploration of the posthuman realm of possible modes of being. Transhumanists believe that all people should have access to such technologies. The choice of whether to use them, however, should normally rest with the individual.
In other words, transhumanism seems to defend the idea that we should use humanism's ultimate tool - technology - in order to make us "better" humans. As another blogger has deemed it, transhumanism seems much more as humanism on speed than any form of critique that the prefix 'post' should entail. And indeed, the idea of a critique (or a crisis) is what I think is central to the prefix 'post'. Posthumanist thinking should not be seen as "after humanism" (which, after all, does not seem to be readily possible) or "anti-humanism", but as a form of problematization of the thinking behind humanism, as well as its institutions, tools, apparatuses and interconnections to other areas of cultural and philosophical expression and action. Quoting the same website from above:
The word "posthumanism" has also been used in other senses, for example to refer to a critique of humanism, emphasizing a change in our understanding of the self and its relations to the natural world, society, and human artifacts. Transhumanism, by contrast, advocates not so much a change in how we think of ourselves, but rather a vision of how we might concretely use technology and other means to change what we are - not to replace ourselves with something else, but to realize our potential to become something more than we currently are.
So, as Scu, the blogger of Critical Animal, has so rightly put it, transhumanism does not seem to want to change anything - if anything, it seems to want to take us into überhumanism, brushing aside all the networks of relations between humans and other beings (whether they are living, institutional or ideological entities) that only recently have been brought to the surface.

Not many writers, I believe, use the term 'posthumanism' in the sense I employ here, at least assuming that a Google search is any kind of reliable corpus. There seems to be much more websites devoted to an understanding of the posthuman as an 'enhanced' human. Also, I have noticed that usually my strand of posthumanist thinking comes together with phrases such as 'the question of the animal', 'human-animal divide' and 'animal studies' - sometimes even 'animal rights'. My interests certainly align most correctly with such animal-populated expressions, but I fear that they might in some level narrow the scope of the discussion, and that's why I tend to use 'posthumanism' hoping that my readers will understand that I'm talking about the relations between humanity and animality, but that I also hope to include and to learn about other areas that have been called posthumanist.

Scu and his blog on Critical Animal Studies seem to tend towards a line of posthumanist thinking focused on animal issues (which is, after all, the most interesting one, in my opinion), but he also states that theorist Cary Wolfe calls his own strand of thought simply 'Posthumanism'. And although most of his writings (at least the ones I have read) have focused on questions related to animals and animality, his upcoming book, What is Posthumanism? seems to try to argue that this growing field of study should not forget the animality which is always central to any understanding of the human, but that it should also permeate other paths in rethinking the human:
Exploring how both critical thought along with cultural practice have reacted to this radical repositioning, Cary Wolfe—one of the founding figures in the field of animal studies and posthumanist theory—ranges across bioethics, cognitive science, animal ethics, gender, and disability to develop a theoretical and philosophical approach responsive to our changing understanding of ourselves and our world. Then, in performing posthumanist readings of such diverse works as Temple Grandin’s writings, Wallace Stevens’s poetry, Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, the architecture of Diller+Scofidio, and David Byrne and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, he shows how this philosophical sensibility can transform art and culture.
But Cary Wolfe, and his new book, is a topic for another post.

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