[ExI] Posthumanism vs. Transhumanism

Damien Broderick thespike at satx.rr.com
Wed Jun 17 18:47:47 UTC 2009

At 07:33 PM 6/17/2009 +0200, Stefano wrote:

>"Critical" or "criticism" may be swearwords for a few of us, but one 
>should for instance realise how much the deconstruction of the idea 
>that "human-ness" is a fixed, universal, eternal category to be 
>protected at all cost has contributed - of course through 
>innumerable intermediations and vulgarisations from academia down to 
>media, fiction and pop culture - to the thinkability itself of a 
>posthuman change, including in a strictly  transhumanist sense.

Indeed, in the sense that anti-essentialism is strongly 
characteristic of all the "post-" doctrines. The difficulty is 
perhaps that many clever ignorati of humanities departments get 
terribly excited by this and rush about proclaiming that (say) gender 
has *nothing* to do with sex, or that since science is a culturally 
and politically situated activity it is therefore *entirely* socially 
constructed. So people of this tendency are liable to see 
science-oriented transhumanists as dupes of ideological reductionism 
(which is a fair cop in some cases). Meanwhile, evolutionary 
psychology and other newish disciplines have reinvigorated a *sort* 
of essentialism, although one constantly in flux and open to modification.

Probably nobody will have the patience to read the extract I'll paste 
in below, but this is how I saw the state of play a couple of decades 
ago; I don't think it's improved since then:

          Within this reigning academic doctrine, the human person 
has been unmasked as an ideological imposture. Do I overstate the 
case? By no means. Regard Dianne Macdonell's quite representative 
proclamation in an introductory book, widely recommended to beginning 
students, on current discourse theory:

           "There is no attempt [in poststructural discourse theory] 
to reinstate the human mind, or the individual author, or things 
themselves as the source of the meanings of discourses. Discourse is 
considered as a kind of whole whose organization, at any given stage 
in history, `is irreducible either to the history of the careers, 
thought and intentions of individual agents (the authors of 
utterances) or to a supra-individual teleology of discovery and 
intellectual evolution (the truth of utterances)'." (Macdonell, 1986, 
p. 11, citing Colin Gordon, `Other Inquisitions', Ideology & 
Consciousness, 6, 23-46)

           One can agree that discourse systems operate importantly 
at a different level of abstraction from the single human mind. It is 
true that in many ways, even most ways, we do not think--we are 
thought through. If that is too strong, perhaps this will do: to a 
very great extent, the words and sentences we speak or write are 
circumscribed by the culture which has taught us to be the people we 
are, and within which we learn new things--but only certain 
allowable, thinkable new things.
           We are human within an episteme, a systematic if not quite 
totalitarian frame that enables cognition and action. Every educated 
person now knows that this is so, just as we know that the earth is 
not the centre of the universe (although the earth still looks flat 
when we stare at the horizon)... For all that, any theory that 
declines to accept the human mind, or the individual author, or 
things themselves as at least *a* source of meaning seems to me 
shockingly dangerous, no matter with what benevolent intentions it is 
advanced. [...]

           Let me try to convey exactly how bothersome this 
discursive shift can be to a participant with different 
preconceptions. Not long ago I sat dumbfounded in a seminar as a 
handful of academic staff and twenty or thirty sharp-witted 
postgraduates in matt black and Doc Martens listened with benign 
approval to the claim that AIDS is an effect of discourse. (I was the 
one in jeans and red tee-shirt and Dunlop sneakers and leather 
jacket.) When my disbelief could no longer be held in check and I 
blurted out that I was sure I'd heard somewhere that HIV was a virus, 
a quasi-lifeform infesting the human immunological system, forty or 
sixty shocked eyes regarded me with no less disbelief. Hadn't I read 
Sontag? AIDS was a syndrome, a kind of social contract, a 
construction, a textuality. The positivistic medical approach 
implicit in my question was plainly arrant reductionism, too absurd, 
even vile, for further discussion. I realised slowly that what I 
faced was a heart-breaking flight from reality, dressed up in 
pathological terminology. The pitiful truth is that almost everyone 
infected with the HIV virus dies within a few years, however they 
deconstruct their plight. And however much you talk about it, you 
can't get AIDS without direct physical viral invasion of your blood, 
your tender membranes.
           As advised, I read Sontag's opinions in AIDS and Its 
Metaphors. Her piercing intelligence, of course, had disposed in 
advance of just such preposterous cant. From the outset Sontag 
insisted that, like the cancer she had overcome through chemotherapy, 
this affliction must be treated by specific toxic medical 
interventions and not holistic claptrap.
           There again, I suppose, if the text is radically 
indeterminate, perhaps contrary constructions--reading against 
Sontag's grain--are not simply possible but imperative, and the more 
the merrier.
           I don't think so.
           I sat in another seminar and heard a wryly clever scholar 
enumerate theories of Dracula and vampirism, by the mid-1990s a 
fashionable topic from popular culture. Again, understandably, the 
rhetoric of AIDS was not far away: all that perverse erotic charge, 
piercings, sharing of blood, wasting and ruin. Neither was 
patriarchy, domination and submission, even the crisis of colonial 
empire. I was hardly taken aback to learn that a notable scene where 
a young woman sucks at Dracula's torn breast is at once a reverse 
figuration of the phallic or vaginally-dentated mother, a 
sexual-abuse victim forced into fellatio, a phallocratic seizure of 
the power of lactation and the menses, a blasphemous troping on the 
Christian eucharist, and all of these simultaneously, because 
deconstruction's textual enthusiasm dotes on paradox and over-coding. 
I did not allow myself to give way to even a moment's scepticism 
until we heard that this exchange of vampiric fluids might be 
construed most rewardingly as a semiotic information flow, like a DNA 
transaction. Stifling my laughter, I looked about furtively. Thirty 
or forty young people in black skirts, trousers, jumpers, long coats, 
heavy bone-crushing boots and pale faces listened contentedly to this 
delicious silliness, some taking languid notes, one or two nodding in 
sober agreement.

           Tactical Stupidities

A characteristic if extravagant deconstructive reading of the current 
episteme in support of this general tack is Vincent Leitch's:

           "Textuality invades critical production. The free play of 
the signifier migrates to and decenters critical readings and 
writings. We recall Foucault's radical program, his strategy, for 
writing history: employ parodic exaggerations, multiply 
discontinuities, and institute tactical stupidities. The text of the 
scholar renounces order, objectivity, and truth; it denies any solid 
or secure, any nontextual, language... The scholar's text, a 
production of a deconstructed subject, sometimes of a libidinous 
`hysteric', disseminates meaning beyond truth or totalization. It is 
the birth of a frolicsome `science', a playful `hermeneutics' of 
indeterminacy..." (Leitch, 1983, p. 224)

           Now there are simple, philistine ways to go wrong in 
complaining about this shift in paradigm. Many onlookers, locked in a 
defunct metaphysics, are aghast that the explicitly antihumanist 
relativism of both literary and scientific meta-theorising has 
completed the Copernican revolution. `Man' (more properly, the human) 
as well as `God' is finally expelled from the centre of the universe. 
Pre-determined meaning has gone with them. While I have my own 
objections to extreme forms of deconstructive free-play and 
antihumanism, that belated dethronement is an attitude with a lot to 
recommend it.
           Alas, however, merry Transylvanian games and rather less 
merry stupidities with lethal diseases are not the worst costs of 
contemporary theory. Obliterating the human subject as a 
comparatively stable source or site of values is, all too often, the 
unacceptable price of entry into the diverse programs of posthumanist 
theory. Kate Soper has expressed this well, in her Humanism and Anti-Humanism:

           "The real problem lies not in the assertion of the 
structured nature of experience, but in the conceptualisation of 
individuals as no more than social `effects'....  Within the confines 
of such a theory, one can no longer speak of individuals as 
`dominated' by social structures or in need of `liberation' from 
them, since they are not thought of as beings with `interests' to be 
affected." (Soper, 1986, pp. 105-6)

I do not wish to be tedious about this. Poststructuralism was 
immensely useful in hauling Anglo-American-Australian critics and 
other cultural theorists out of their dogmatic slumbers. Each 
solitary act of writing and reading, we now see beyond doubt, is 
political at the core. Languages are the coding systems through which 
we are made human, and they are generated and stored by a massively 
distributed, vibrantly interactive cultural network before being 
inscribed--to some partial and idiosyncratic degree--in young 
individual brains, which then grow up to be nodes in that 
culture-net. (Some readers, of course, will be as repelled by such 
metaphors drawn from computer science as I am by talk of `truth 
effects' and `author-functions'.) This, it seems to me, is how we 
enact our humanity together, or against each other.  There's no 
literature or science free of the political, free of its enabling 
theory, any more than there is a personal dimension utterly isolated 
from its enabling culture.
           Yes, but what is the place of writing/reading--to pose an 
explicitly political question--in a social order shaped by the power 
of science and technology? Can contemporary literary theorists offer 
an answer which provides some hope of liberation from the human 
misery in which their reading is steeped?  With the person now no 
better than an `effect of discourse', for whom is theory speaking?



Damien Broderick

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