Posthuman

Ferrando (2013) states that the term ‘posthuman’ has become a key term in contemporary academic debate. It addresses an urgent need for an integral redefinition of the notion of the human, following the onto-epistemological as well as scientific and bio-technological developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Like posthumanism and postanthropocentrism, posthuman is a valuable term with which to engage when considering the design and interpretation of how the narrative, the environmental and the human aspects of a narrative environment interact. [1]

Ferrando warns that the terms posthuman, posthumanism and transhumanism are confusedly intertwined. She argues that the following distinction should be kept in mind:

“for some transhumanists, human beings may eventually transform themselves so radically as to become posthuman, a condition expected to follow the current transhuman era. Such a take on the posthuman should not be confused with the post-anthropocentric and post-dualistic approach of (philosophical, cultural, and critical) posthumanism.” (Ferrando, 2013)

According to N. Katherine Hayles (2006: 160-161), whereas, since the Enlightenment, the ‘human’ has been associated with rationality, free will, autonomy and a celebration of consciousness as the seat of identity, the posthuman in its more mischievous forms is construed as “an informational pattern that happens to be instantiated in a biological substrate”.

There are, however, more benign forms of the posthuman that can serve as effective counterbalances to the liberal humanist subject, in which, rather than as untrammeled free will, agency is recognised to be always relational and distributed. This also enables a correction of an over-emphasis on consciousness, so that a more valuable view of cognition can be developed, in which cognition is recognised as being embodied, distributed throughout the human body, and extended into the social and technological environment (Hayles, 2006: 160-161). These insights are especially valuable for the ways in which agency can be understood in the design of narrative environments, with its intertwining of narrative, environmental and human actantiality or modes of performativity.

It is usually Donna Haraway with her (1991) ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ who is credited with critically embracing the ambiguous potential that ‘becoming posthuman’ might bring, both liberating and regressive, Stefan Herbrechter (2013: 3) suggests. However, this debate really takes off with N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999), in which she attacks the transhumanist fantasies underpinned by cybernetics that want to digitalise the body by merely repressing the old Christian and Cartesian mind-body dualism problem.

In doing so, Hayles contends, they continue a humanist, idealist and universalist tradition that occludes material differences. Rosi Braidotti, and other materialist posthuman feminists (cf. Feminism (Material feminism) such as Karen Barad (2003, 2007), or Vicki Kirby, for example, instead focus on the material effects of changes to human embodiment. An early version of this emphasis can be found in Halberstam and Livingston’s Posthuman Bodies of 1995.

An account of medical and cultural approaches to the posthuman can be found in Andy Miah’s (2007) chapter “Posthumanism: A critical history”.

Notes

[1] Adalaide Morris (2006: 4) suggests that: “Although the term “posthuman” has been defined in various ways, the common element in its use is a synergy between human beings and intelligent machines.”

Morris (2006: 35) further notes that the term “intelligent machine” first gained currency in Alan Turing’s landmark essay “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in which he proposed the imitation game as a test for machine intelligence. Katherine Hayles uses ‘intelligent machine’ to denote machines performing tasks that require cognition. The example she gives are neural nets performing sophisticated decisions, expert systems making judgments, information-filtering ecologies selecting data, genetic programs designing electrical circuits. Morris argues that any entity that can perform these tasks should prima facie be considered as thinking or intelligent and uses the term to mean any digital device capable of processing data and acting on the basis of that data.

What is of more interest for narrative environment design is not machine intelligence per se, but how human, machine, intelligent machine and variously constituted environments, from built environments to soundscapes and atmospheres to ambiences, are enfolded and interact to form what might be called living systems with emergent (not simply embodied or programmed intelligence).

Sources

Barad, K., (2003). Posthumanist performativity: toward an understanding of how matter comes to matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28 (3), pp.801–831. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/345321

Barad, K. (2007). Meeting the universe halfway: quantum physics and the entanglement of matter and meaning, Durham: Duke University Press.

Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Ferrando, F. (2013). Posthumanism, transhumanism, antihumanism, metahumanism, and new materialisms: differences and relations. Existenz, 8 (2), 26–32.

Haraway, D.J. (1991). A Cyborg manifesto: science, technology, and socialist-feminism in the late twentieth century. Chapter 8 in Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York, NY: Routledge, 149-181.

Halberstam, J. and Livingston, I. (1995). Introduction: Posthuman bodies. In: Posthuman Bodies, edited by J. Halberstam and I. Livingston. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Hayles, N.K. (2006). Unfinished work: from cyborg to cognisphere. Theory, Culture & Society, 23 (7-8), pp.159–166. Available at:http://tcs.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/0263276406069229

Hayles, K. (1999). How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. Chicago Ill.: University of Chicago Press.

Herbrechter, S. (2013). Rosi Braidotti (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press. ISBN : 978-0-7456-4158-4 [Book review]. Culture Machine, (April). Available at: http://www.culturemachine.net/index.php/cm/article/viewFile/495/516

Miah, A. (2007). Posthumanism: A critical history. In: Medical Enhancements and Posthumanity. New York, NY: Routledge, 1–29.

Morris, A. (2006). New media poetics: as we may think/how to write. In: New media poetics: contexts, technotexts, and theories. edited by A. Morris, and T. Swiss. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1-46.

edited 10 May, 2017 by Allan Parsons