[ExI] Posthumanism vs. Transhumanism

natasha at natasha.cc natasha at natasha.cc
Wed Jun 17 19:11:09 UTC 2009

Damien, good piece.  However you are tired of academic nonsense, we  
(not necessarily meaning "you" per se, but your writings will suffice  
for you in this regard) do have deal with it because the very  
structure human enhancement futures is being built upon in learning  
institutions is a hack job.

Quoting Damien Broderick <thespike at satx.rr.com>:

> 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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