After several years of using the terms ‘transhumanism’ and ‘posthumanism’, I have decided that their points of difference and contention are too much to bear. This past May at the Humanity+ conference in New York, I decided I was no longer going to sit on the sidelines and hope that the terms would work themselves out. I wanted to understand what was going on.
Personally, I use them both with no problem. Why can’t these two camps exist together without animosity? What is the fundamental difference? Is it ideological, or is it something more? Can these two ideas be held in congruence with each other?
To understand these questions better, I have spent the last several months in conversation with friends, colleagues, and anyone willing to listen, all while immersed in the literature of posthumanism. This article is a condensed result of those engagements. So, let us see if we can sort it out.
As with all good disagreements we have to look where they come from as part of the solution to the understanding their fundamental differences. In short, posthumanism and transhumanism use two different perspectives to look at the world. Transhumanism is based on the Enlightenment and on reason. The focus of Transhumanism is to look at the way technology interacts with humans, through enhancement, modification, etc.
This is the key. It is all about the human, and taking a rational, logical, and scientific approach to human-technological interactions. Given the scope of the voices in these discussions, however, you could surmise that ‘human’, while we would like to think applies to any Homo sapiens, is being defined primarily by the white, Western, middle-class male perspective. We are examining human-technological interactions through this predominant lens. They are defining the normative value of what the ‘human’ in transhumanist is.
Here is where it gets tricky then. As someone invested in the Rights of the Person, I am also invested in who the person or human is that is being considered. For example, while it is easy to assume that robots, A.I., animals, etc., all fall under the heading of Transhumanism, I disagree. From what I understand, these broader considerations should actually fall under the Posthumanist perspective based on where these two theoretical perspectives differ.
Transhumanists use the term posthuman to describe the next stage of human development. It is that point where we will we have used technology to transition ourselves to something beyond human. The transhumanist perspective breaks humanity into a binary of ‘this is who we are’ and ‘this is who/what we will be’. This assumes that we are not already posthuman, given the versions of human before us.
The way I am using ‘posthumanism’ in this article follows the idea as stated by N. Katherine Hayles “that we have always been posthuman.” In this disconnect, we can see part of the communication problem. Both sides are using one term that holds very different meanings to the other. Knowing this, we can see that the transhumanist use of posthuman is problematic to the cultural use of posthumanism. The way I am using posthuman finds the binary problematic because there is much to understand between the poles.
Posthumanism is a solution to poststructuralism and humanism, born out of the (some would perceive) “evils” of postmodernism. Therefore, this perspective is a shift away from humanism. Posthumanism rejects anthropocentrism and instead understands human as a social and cultural construct. The normative value of what is human and what is not differs. Another way of understanding posthumanism is that once we have dramatically altered the body, we are changing what the human is, but it is still a human. The posthuman perspective then gives us two different ways of looking at what the human is as we are trying to understand it in relation to technology.
Now, to understand the human, it is helpful to have a variety of voices and perspectives to shed light of these various understandings of what ‘human’ is. Incidentally, this would include branching out to listen to more than the voice of the white Western male and not to take this perspective as the norm that is applicable to all other voices. This is where the postmodernist underbelly of posthumanism is helpful, because it brings in these various voices through queer, gender, feminist, race, class, etc.
While the two perspectives of Transhumanism and Posthumanism are in opposition on the grounds of Enlightenment/humanist and Postmodern/anti-humanist perspectives, they are doing themselves a disservice by not appreciating the liminal overlapping space between them. I would like to argue strongly that they can co-exist. In fact, it is useful to take the two perspectives and use them together.
Technology has been a part of humanity for a long, long time. Technological effects need to be addressed, scrutinized, and examined. Posthumanism allows us to step back and take a bigger picture look at how we define the human and who/what should be considered in our understanding. This is a closer analysis of what is going on with human/technological interactions. The postmodernist perspective is harshly dismissed for its inaccessibility, its lack of empiricism and grounding. To overcome these perceived limitations and differences, there needs to be a communicative effort on both sides to make the knowledge useful, intelligible, and accessible. We cannot all know everything, but what we do know could be incredibly useful to others if we make it accessible and get over our divide.
In summary, Transhumanism reminds us that the body and society can be systematically altered with technology. Posthumanism reminds us of the countless variables and voices that need to be heard, but also to consider the effects of technology. These voices range from the everyday (different ethnicities, genders, and classes) to the extreme (robots, A.I., animals, etc.). Used in conjunction, transhumanism and posthumanism can paint a broader picture of humans, culture, and society that allows us to see that we are all trying to answer similar questions.
Let us choose our lines in the sand wisely. Come on, we look at the future! We are open-minded people! Or are we?