Here‘s the audio for a fizzy discussion on posthumanism in the arts I participated in at the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London. We talked monsters, posthuman urbanism, science fiction, the speculative/critical divide in posthumanism, whether immersive media and technological arts might help us overcome entrenched dualisms in western thought and political implications (if any) of deconstructing such binaries.
With Debra Benita Shaw (University of East London, Centre for Cultural Studies Research), Stefan Sorgner (University of Erfurt), David Roden (Open University), Dale Hergistad (X-Media Lab) and Luciano Zubillaga (UWL Ealing School of Art, Design and Media).
This is an abstract for a presentation that I will be giving in a roundtable discussion on posthumanism and aesthetics with Debra Benita Shaw and Stefan Sorgner at the University of East London on May 18 2015. Further details will be made available.
Posthumanism can be critical or speculative. These positions converge in opposing human-centred (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas. Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.
CP is interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition. Speculative Posthumanists propose the metaphysical possibility of technologically created nonhuman agents. SP states: there could be posthumans – where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration.
In Posthuman Life I elaborate a detailed version of SP. Specially, I describe what it is to become posthuman in terms of “the disconnection thesis” [DT] (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5). DT understands “becoming posthuman” in abstract terms. Roughly, it states that an agent becomes posthuman iff. it becomes independent of the human socio-technical system as a consequence of technical change. It does not specify how this might occur or the nature of the relevant agents (e.g. whether they are immortal uploads, cyborgs, feral robots or Jupiter sized Brains).
Posthuman Life argues that the abstractness of DT is epistemologically apt because there are no posthumans and thus we are in no position to deduce constraints on their possible natures or values (I refer to this position as “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” [AUP)). AUP has implications for the ethics of becoming posthuman that are generally neglected in the literature on transhumanism and human enhancement.
The most important of these is that there can be no a priori ethics of posthumanity. Becoming posthuman can only be substantively (as opposed to abstractly) understood by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I argue that, given the principled impossibility of a prescriptive ethics here, we must formulate strategies for speculating on and exploring nearby “posthuman possibility space”.
In this paper, I propose that aesthetic theory and practice may be a useful political model for such technological self-fashioning because it involves styles of thought or creation that discover their constraints and values by producing them. This “production model” is, I will argue, the only one liable to serve us if, with CP/SP, we reject an anthropocentric privileging of the human. I finish by considering some examples of aesthetic practice that might provide models for the politics of making posthumans or becoming posthuman.
Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Stopped over in Athens Airport trying to digest three days at the Posthuman Politics conference at Mytilini, Lesbos, 25-28 September. It was an intense experience on so many levels and utterly worthwhile. My work has veered into some relentlessly abstract places recently, because someone has to … But having the privilege of attending Jaime del Val’s metahuman performance and Stefan Lorenz Sorgner’s star turn on metahumanist pedagogy was formative.
I’m not done with posthumanist metaphysics, or Scott’s semantic Götterdämmerung, but Stefan and Jaime are forging a value-pluralist posthuman politics with a real chance of productively mapping human-posthuman modes of embodiment and experience within an interdisciplinary framework. For what it’s worth, I think their open-textured practice may constitute our most tenable (if still precarious) path through the posthuman predicament. It has direct implications for public policy (e.g. Stefan’s argument for genetic engineering in education) – perhaps even for getting out of the neoliberal quagmire. None of this, of course, begins to convey the energy and intellectual openness of the event or the delightful hospitality of Evi Sampanikou and the humans and nonhumans of the University of the Aegean.
Kevin has provided a typically engaging gloss on the difference between posthumanism and transhumanism over at the IEET site. I don’t fundamentally disagree with his account of transhumanism (though I think he needs to emphasize its fundamentally normative character) but the account of posthumanism he gives here has some shortcomings:
Two significant differences between transhumanism and the posthuman is the posthuman’s focus on information and systems theories (cybernetics), and the posthuman’s consequent, primary relationship to digital technology; and also the posthuman’s emphasis on systems (such as humans) as distributed entities—that is, as systems comprised of, and entangled with, other systems. Transhumanism does not emphasize either of these things.
Posthumanism derives from the posthuman because the latter represents the death of the humanist subject: the qualities that make up that subject depend on a privileged position as a special, stand-alone entity that possesses unique characteristics that make it exceptional in the universe—characteristics such as unique and superior intellect to all other creatures, or a natural right to freedoms that do not accrue similarly to other animals. If the focus is on information as the essence of all intelligent systems, and materials and bodies are merely substrates that carry the all-important information of life, then there is no meaningful difference between humans and intelligent machines—or any other kind of intelligent system, such as animals.
Now, I realize we can spin definitions to different ends; but even allowing for our different research aims, this won’t do. Posthumanists may, but need not, claim that humans are becoming more intertwined with technology. They may, but need not, claim that functions, relations or systems are more ontologically basic than intrinsic properties. Many arch-humanists are functionalists, holists or relationists (I Kant, R Brandom, D Davidson, G Hegel . . .) and one can agree that human subjectivity is constitutively technological (A Clark) without denying its distinctive moral or epistemological status. Reducing stuff to relations can be a way of emphasizing the transcendentally constitutive status of the human subject, taking anthropocentrism to the max (see below). Emphasizing the externality or contingency of relations can be a way of arguing that things are fundamentally independent of that constitutive activity (as in Harman’s OOO or DeLanda’s assemblage ontology).
So I raise Kevin’s thumbnails with a few of my own.
- A philosopher is a humanist if she believes that humans are importantly distinct from non-humans and supports this distinctiveness claim with a philosophical anthropology: an account of the central features of human existence and their relations to similarly general aspects of nonhuman existence.
- A humanist philosophy is anthropocentric if it accords humans a superlative status that all or most nonhumans lack
- Transhumanists claims that technological enhancement of human capacities is a desirable aim (all other things being equal). So the normative content of transhumanism is largely humanist. Transhumanists just hope to add some new ways of cultivating human values to the old unreliables of education and politics.
- Posthumanists reject anthropocentrism. So philosophical realists, deconstructionists, new materialists, Cthulhu cultists and naturalists are posthumanists even if they are unlikely to crop up on one another’s Christmas lists.
Accelerationism combines a transhumanist techno-optimism with a Marxist analysis of the dynamic between the relations and forces of production. Its proponents argue that under capitalism, modern technology is constrained by myopic and socially destructive goals. They argue that rather than abandoning technological modernity for illusory homeostatic Eden we should exploit and ramp up its incendiary potential in order to escape from the gravity well of market dominated resource-allocation. Like posthumanism, however, Accelerationism comes in several flavours. Benjamin Noys (who coined the term) first identified Accelerationism as a kind of overkill politics invested in freeing the machinic unconscious described in the libidinal postructuralisms of Lyotard and Deleuze from the domestication of liberal subjectivity and market mechanisms. This itinerary reaches its apogee in the work of Nick Land who lent the project a cyberpunk veneer borrowed from the writings of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
Land’s Accelerationism aims at the extirpation of humanity in favour of an “abstract planetary intelligence rapidly constructing itself from the bricolaged fragments of former civilisations” (Srnicek and Williams 2013).
However, this mirror-shaded beta version has been remodelled and given a new emancipatory focus by writers such as Ray Brassier, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (Williams 2013). This “promethean” phase Accelerationism argues that technology should be reinstrumentalized towards a project of “maximal collective self-mastery”.
Promethean Accelerationism certainly espouses the same tactic of exacerbating the disruptive effects of technology, but with the aim of cultivating a more autonomous collective subject. As Steven Shaviro points out in his excellent talk “An Introduction to Accelerationism”, this version replicates orthodox Marxism at the level of both strategy and intellectual justification. Its vision of a rationally-ordered collectivity mediated by advanced technology seems far closer to Marx’s ideas, say, than Adorno’s dismal negative dialectics or the reactionary identity politics that still animates multiculturalist thinking. If technological modernity is irreversible – short of a catastrophe that would render the whole programme moot – it may be the only prospectus that has a chance of working. As Shaviro points out, an incipient accelerationist logic is already at work among communities using free and open-source software like Pd, where R&D on code modules is distributed among skilled enthusiasts rather than professional software houses (Note, that a similar community flourishes around Pd’s fancier commercial cousin, MAX MSP – where supplementary external objects are written by users in C++, Java and Python).
This is a small but significant move away from manufacture dominated by market feedback. We are beginning see similar tendencies in the manufacture of durables and biotech. The era of downloadable things is upon us. In April 2013, a libertarian group calling themselves Defence Distributed announced that they would release the code for “the Liberator”, a gun that can be assembled from layers of plastic in a 3 D printer (currently priced at around $ 8000). The group’s spokesman, Cody Wilson, anticipates an era in which search engines will provide components “for everything from prosthetic limbs to drugs and birth-control devices”.
However, the alarm that the Liberator created in global law-enforcement agencies exemplifies the first of two potential pitfalls for the Promethean accelerationist itinerary. The democratization of technology – enabled by its easy iteration from context to context – does not seem liable to increase our capacity to control its flows and applications; quite the contrary, and this becomes significant when the iterated tech is not just an Max MSP external for randomizing arrays but an offensive weapon, an engineered virus or a powerful AI program.
I’ve argued elsewhere that technology has no essence and no itinerary. In its modern form at least, it is counter-final. It is not in control, but it is not in anyone’s control either, and the developments that appear to make a techno-insurgency conceivable are liable to ramp up its counter-finality. This, note, is a structural feature deriving from the increasing mobility of technique in modernity, not from market conditions. There is no reason to think that these issues would not be confronted by a more just world in which resources were better directed to identifiable social goods.
A second issue is also identified in Shaviro’s follow up discussion over at The Pinocchio Theory: the posthuman. Using a science fiction allegory from a story by Paul De Filippo, Shaviro suggests that the posthuman could be a figure for a decentred, vital mobilization against capitalism: a line of flight which uses the technologies of capitalist domination to develop new forms of association, embodiment and life.
I think this prospectus is inspiring, but it also has moral dangers that Darian Meacham identifies in a paper forthcoming in The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy entitled ‘Empathy and Alteration: The Ethical Relevance of the Phenomenological Species Concept’. Very briefly, Meacham argues that the development of technologically altered descendants of current humans might precipitate what I term a “disconnection” – the point at which some part of the human socio-technical system spins off to develop separately (Roden 2012). I’ve argued that disconnection is multiply realizable – or so far as we can tell. But Meacham suggests that a kind of disconnection could result if human descendants were to become sufficiently alien from us that “we” would no longer have a pre-reflective basis for empathy with them. We would no longer experience them as having our relation to the world or our intentions. Such a “phenomenological speciation” might fragment the notional universality of the human, leading to a multiverse of fissiparous and alienated clades like that envisaged in Bruce Sterling’s novel Schismatrix. A still more radical disconnection might result if super-intelligent AI’s went “feral”. At this point, the subject of history itself becomes fissionable. It is no longer just about “us”. Perhaps Land remains the most acute and intellectually consistent accelerationist after all.
Roden, David 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Edited by Ammon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart. Springer Frontiers Collection.
Srnicek, N.and Williams A (2013), #ACCELERATE MANIFESTO for an Accelerationist Politics, http://criticallegalthinking.com/2013/05/14/accelerate-manifesto-for-an-accelerationist-politics/
Sterling, Bruce. 1996. Schismatrix Plus. Ace Books.
Williams, Alex, 2013. “Escape Velocities.” E-flux (46). Accessed July 11. http://worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_8969785.pdf.
In this highly illuminating talk from EXPO1 at MOMA, Ray proposes that there is nothing inherently wrong with the transhuman reengineering of nature on the “promethean” grounds that nature has no ethical dispensation. Thus there is no natural, ontological or theological order violated by the extension of human cognitive powers or by the creation of synthetic life. Such processes are potentially violent and destructive, but that is acceptable as long as we distinguish between “good” emancipatory violence and that which oppresses and restricts the life chances of rational subjects.
I’m wholly in agreement with Ray in his rejection of theological objections to the technological refashioning of human and non-human nature. I’m less convinced that the idea of emancipation is an adequate horizon within which to adjudicate between the new world-engines that might lie before us. But I agree that we need some ethically substantive framework in which to do this. My own leaning is increasingly towards a pluralist moral realism – the claim that there are objectively good or bad locations in Posthuman Possibility Space but no moral hierarchy in which these are enfolded in turn. So to adjudicate these we need to “sample” them by experimenting with bodies, things and minds.
Ray also peppers his talk with some references to J G Ballard’s short story “The Voices of Time”, one of his many narratives of ontological catastrophe. Ballard’s own position on emancipation is profoundly ambivalent, as Baudrillard observes. Something to return to in later post or article, I think.
Deep into the morning procrastination ritual – reading two or more blogs and FB instead of the chapter I’m meant to be finishing – I realized that I had forgotten what I had been reading a minute ago. So I let my mouse hover over the IE icon on my task bar and hey presto! I saw a “mouse over” preview of the Discover Post on identical twins I had been perusing. Moral: the extended mind works, but it needs metacognition to patch its resources together.
Distracted from distraction by distraction T S Eliot, Burnt Norton