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What Our Bodies Say After Humanism
Dale Carrico   Jul 10, 2006   Amor Mundi  

I have long thought that when Aristotle defined “man” [sic] as the “political animal,” this formulation constituted a fledgling kind of cyborg manifesto written many centuries before Donna Haraway’s own.  Aristotle’s definition amounts to the claim that human animals become different in their “essential natures” when they live together in cities.

This Aristotelian formulation was not a replacement but a complement to his more commonplace alternate definition of humanity as the “rational animal.”  For Aristotle as for most of the Greeks reason is dialogic and there is a real sense in which one cannot claim to “know” a thing until one is capable of communicating that knowledge successfully to one’s peers.  For Aristotle’s political animal, to be rational is always to be able to communicate intelligibly to others, to testify to one’s experience in public, to convey one’s desires and intentions successfully, to facilitate acting in concert.  Taken together these definitive political/rational characterizations make humanity cultural through and through, they understand human animals as beings constituted in conversation and in collaboration, sustained by ritual and infrastructural artifice as surely as we are by food and air. 

Our biological bodies are sites of transformation, not only of metabolism but of significance.  That is to say, for one thing, we are maintained and transformed in the ongoing metabolism of the human organism with its environment.  But we are maintained and transformed no less in our constantly adapting signifying practices as well as in the significance borne by our bodies themselves.  Just think how, over the course of our lives, as our bodies first mature and then as they age, how differently promising they are in their bearing, how richly and differently scarred and skilled they become, how they come to be differently raced, differently sexed, differently sexualized, and so on. 

Human bodies are crucially maintained in their both their biological continence and their social legibility in the company of others.  Our bodies are exposed not only to the elements but to scrutiny, vulnerable to criticism, open to change, needy for connection, practically interdependent, eager for the pleasure and danger and the unpredictable novelty of public contact no less than for the security and support and quotidian routine of intimacy. 

And so, for Aristotle as for us all our embodied selves do not decisively end in our skins, but spread out into and are definitively impinged upon by the world, by artifice and by the ritual artifice of normative culture.  This urban prostheticization of Aristotle’s political/rational animal does not and did not make human animals into some kind of “posthuman species,” of all things, but defined instead the inaugural moment (a fable, of course) when humanity stepped onto the scene of history.  More to the point, this prostheticization names the abiding material reality of humanity in a world of technodevelopmental social struggle among a plurality of stakeholders who are our peers. 

What History Feels Like After Humanism

I think it is unquestionably true to say that postcolonial corporate-militarist flows of capital and culture, the fraught practices of extractive post-fordist global industrialization, the planetary distribution of mass communications and transportation networks, and so on have transformed altogether the concrete forms, practical significance, and proper ambitions of “humanism” as a democratizing and emancipatory language of ethical universality. 

For one thing, in the long bloody twentieth century, World Wars, genocides, avoidable famines and neglected diseases, vast forced migrations, the countless catastophes of petrochemical industry, the cynical anti-democratic deployments of mass media—all of these struggles variously facilitated and exacerbated by unprecedented technoscientific developments, and all of them no less exposed and resisted through opportunistic recourse to technoscientific developments—have undermined, probably fatally, any universalist appeal that might once have been made in the name of humanism, exposing instead a vision expressing parochial pretensions, false promises, and endless alibis for current exploitation. 

Clothed in the language of universality, the entitlements of the humanity proclaimed by humanists have never extended to more than a fraction of actual human beings.  Assured of its location on a “natural” progressive trajectory attaining inevitably toward universal emancipation, humanism too readily accommodated contemporary injustices as temporary and, hence, somehow tolerable—especially to those humanists who didn’t happen to suffer them.  And, further, as the ethics of a questionably contrued “human race” and of the universal “civilization” problematically connected to this race, it grows ever more difficult to shake the troubling analogies between humanism and its debased technoscientific companion discourse: the “race science” that legitimized every brutal imperial, colonial, globalizing, ghettoizing, apartheid regime in modern memory. 

Needless to say, these painful recognitions demand painful reckonings.  It is this crisis of humanist conscience—which is not really one crisis, so much as many different crises, arising out of a variety of concrete situations and taking a proliferating variety of consequential forms—that more properly goes by the name “post-humanism.” 

Post-humanism in its interesting construals is the furthest thing from some facile identification with any particular prosthetic practice, current or imagined.  Contemplate, for a moment, the present, emerging, and proximate-prospective terrain of disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle—with its battles over climate change, pandemics, intellectual property, media ownership, rigged election machines, unfair trade policies, proliferating weapons, neglected diseases, drug wars (that is, its wars on some drugs through the mandated use of other drugs), clashes of extractive against renewable industry, and so on.  This already hopelessly (and hopefully) fraught technoscientific era is opening onto an even more perilous and promising terrain, named by the prospect (strictly speaking, probably another fable in its clearest formulation) of a convergence of nano- bio- info- and cognitive technologies, and an almost unfathomable transformation within the lifetimes of my now living of the terms of what is possible and important.  It is this terrain of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle that defines the various post-human and post-humanist strategy and sensibility, rather than any particular “post-human” personage, tribe, or social formation thrown up in any one moment of that world-historical technodevelopmental storm-churn.

The “post-human” is not a one kind of prostheticized person, nor is “post-humanism” a singular response to a particular kind of prostheticized personhood, whether involving digital network immersion, peer-to-peer Netroots democracy, post-Pill feminism, transsexual queerness, post-“disability” different-enablement prostheses, open source biopunks and leapfroggers and copyfighters, or what have you—nor certainly the more fantastic identifications with robots or artificial intelligences or aliens that seem to come up so often when “post-humanism” is discussed as a topic. 

Such identifications (and, crucially, their attendant disidentifications) are moralistic in form, not ethical.  And whatever else we may say of it, the ongoing and upcoming crisis of humanism—no less than its emergence with the appearance of the political/rational animal—is profoundly ethical:  “Post-humanism,” properly so-called, names the ethical encounters of humanism with itself, the confrontations of a universalism with its historical and practical limits and contradictions.  And the ethical visions that emerge either out of (“post” in the sense of “after”) or in resistance to (“post” in the sense of “over”) that confrontation are themselves ethical terms.  One might even discern in them the best impulses that have animated humanism in its emancipatory aspect.

If we accept Lyotard’s definition of “post-modernity” as a distrust of meta-narratives then many post-humanisms certainly seem “post-modern” in his sense as well.  But it is key to recognize that distrust need not imply dismissal, denial, or even overcoming.  Post-humanism names a distrust of a particular metanarrative: a normative vocabulary presumably rendered universal through its grounding in a “human condition” shared across the species.  But whatever one’s distrust, it may well be that the universality of ethical language remains, in Gayatri Spivak’s phrase, something we “cannot not want.”  Mistrusting, we miss trust.  And in our distrust we need not break trust. 

The technoscientific dislocations that have exposed the pretensions and limitations of humanism have not rid us of the need for a more general normativity than moralist identification, even if candidate-vocabularies for ethical universality come to be viewed as contingent or strategic, and freighted with qualification.  Certainly, our distrust has scarcely nudged human beings into any ironic global bourgeois order that “ends history” in any meaningful sense, one in which more than a small pampered fraction of human beings could claim to be content with immersion in private moralisms and with the public adjudication of differences falling to “markets” or engineers or what have you.  Far from it. 

Instead, the eclipse of humanist pretension has coincided with the organization of a host of variously and curiously technoscientifically-competent compensatory fundamentalist formations.  These fundamentalisms are in fact moralisms re-engineered as bloody-minded pseudo-ethics, each one aiming to achieve universality by denying history and prevailing over living differences.  In such a moment, especially, it seems to me disastrous to conceive post-humanism as a moralizing identification with some tribe defined by any idiosyncratic fetishization of particular technologies or other.  Rather, we should think of it as an ethical recognition of the limits of humanism provoked by an understanding of the emerging terms of technodevelopmental social struggle and, hence, any ethical perspective arising our of this recognition that demands cosmopolitanism, democracy, and emancipation shape the terms of this struggle, come what may.

Dale Carrico Ph.D. was a fellow of the IEET from 2004 to 2008 and is a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley.

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