The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the first appearance of the term “post-human” as Maurice Parmelee’s 1916 Poverty and Social Progress. In a section entitled “Eugenic Measures and the Prevention of Poverty,” Parmelee, a sociologist, wrote:
But even though it is not possible, at present at any rate, to do much to improve the quality of the human stock by eugenic means, it is interesting and profitable to consider what would be the result if socially undesirable types could be eliminated entirely or in large part . . . . [But] it is evident, in the first place, that it is inconceivable that human nature could be changed to the extent that is contemplated by [the] theory of perfectibility. Such changes would bring into being an animal no longer human, or for that matter mammalian, in its character, for it would involve the elimination of such fundamental human and mammalian instincts and emotions as anger, jealousy, fear, etc. But even if such a post-human animal did come into existence, it is difficult to believe that it could carry on the necessary economic activities without using a certain amount of formal organization, compulsion, etc.[i]
Parmelee’s passage identifies several important issues that run throughout the lexicographical history of the term “post-human” into the present day. In answering “What is the post-human?” a corollary set of questions arise: Are we already post-human or is post-humanism permanently stuck in the future? At what point does a human stop being a human? What is the relationship between humans and animals? Does scientific advancement necessarily improve the human condition, or ought we limit it? If our social configurations (states, laws, families) are predicated on human nature, what happens to that order when we alter our nature? These inquiries stretch across disciplines from physics to anthropology, but they coalesce over the figure of the post-human. I would like to outline how three major thinkers—N. Katherine Hayles, Jean-François Lyotard, and Jürgen Habermas—have contributed to our understanding of the post-human. Speaking from different backgrounds and fields of study, Hayles, Lyotard, and Habermas each provide a unique perspective of the post-human, establishing multiple points of consensus and disagreement.
We can infer much from the title of N. Katherine Hayles’ seminal book How We Became Posthuman: taken literally, the past-tense “became” connotes that the transformation from human to post-human has already occurred. But Hayles notes the “multiple ironies” of her title, since her thesis is “more complex than ‘That was then, this is now’”.[ii] Her “argument” is that human subjectivity is always “historically specific”: the “changes [from human to post-human] were never complete transformations or sharp breaks; without exception, they reinscribed traditional ideas and assumptions even as they articulated something new.”[iii] In other words, an element of or precondition for the post-human has always been among us (or more accurately, in us)—hence, her title. “People become posthuman because they think they are posthuman,” not simply because they use dishwashers, the internet, or genetic engineering.[iv]
But Hayles does not deny that a real shift is taking place. Hayles’ impetus for her research was the 20th century’s articulation, by science fiction authors and cyberneticists like Norbert Weiner, that a great new epoch could be reached with the arrival of conscious computers, cyborgs, robots, and other variations of post-human beings which could finally separate mind from matter. She opens her essay “Visualizing the Posthuman” with the claim that, “no longer a cloud on the horizon, the posthuman is rapidly becoming an everyday reality” through physical prostheses, genetic engineering, and digital and artificial environments, all of which are necessary, but not sufficient, elements of post-humanity. [v] It is not that such technologies create the post-human object; rather, they allow for the possibility of a post-human subject. Thus, “[o]ne cannot ask whether information technologies should continue to be developed. Given market forces already at work, it is virtually certain that we will increasingly live, work, and play in environments that construct as embodied virtualities.”[vi]
Hayles elaborates her thesis by examining the practices of reading and writing within the digital media environment. For Hayles, the computer and digital technology have created the conditions for new conceptions of identity and subjectivity that demarcate the post-human era. In contrast to the pre-modern “oral subject” (“fluid, changing, situational, dispersed”) and the modern “written subject” (“fixed, coherent, stable, self-identical”), the postmodern “virtual subject” can be described as post-human because its subjectivity is “formed through dynamical interfaces with computers”:
The physics of virtual writing illustrates how our perceptions change when we work with computers on a daily basis. We do not need to have software sockets inserted into our heads to become cyborgs. We already are cyborgs in the sense that we experience, through the integration of our bodily perceptions and motions with computer architectures and topologies, a changed sense of subjectivity.[vii]
For Hayles the central issue in post-humanism is whether the body is superfluous: “Should the body be seen as evolutionary baggage that we are about to toss out as we vault into the brave new world of the posthuman?” she asks.[viii] In its philosophy and practice, the modern age sought to separate mind from body. It is only on that premise, Hayles argues, that we could conceive of discarding the body while keeping the mind, as many utopian/dystopian fictions describe, in scenarios predicting the “downloading” of brain matter. Instead, Hayles says our minds are bound up with our bodies, irrevocably: there is an “inextricable intertwining of body with mind . . . . We are the medium, and the medium is us.”[ix]
Thus, Hayles’ conception of the post-human is marked by two characteristics: it is not a sharp or radical break, but is a historically specific conception of subjectivity, just as Enlightenment humanism was. Because of this, the full-blown post-humanism of science fiction is necessarily incomplete: we can never completely isolate the mind and discard the body. Hence, the future is not pre-determined, neither as a positivist utopia with minimal labor, or as apocalyptic dystopia of human oppression: “Technologies do not develop on their own. People develop them,” and people can be guided to better or worse decisions through deliberation and politics.[x] Hayles’ goal is “not to recuperate the liberal subject”.[xi] Such a fantasy, she notes, was “a conception that may have applied at best to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth power and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through agency and choice”.[xii] The post-human is, for better or worse, here: but it “does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human”.[xiii]
Perhaps most poignant image of the post-human emerges from a thought experiment conducted by Jean-François Lyotard in his text The Inhumane. There, Lyotard asks, what happens when the sun explodes, as scientists tell us it will, “in 4.5 billion years?” It will surely mean the destruction of the planet. For Lyotard, this scenario is the prerequisite for post-humanity, and consequently, the only one worth philosophizing about as “the sole serious question to face humanity today.”[xiv] Even a world destroyed by nuclear weaponry does not suffice to create the post-human:
“[A] human war…leave[s] behind it a devastated human world, dehumanized, but with nonetheless at least a single survivor, someone to tell the story of what’s left, to write it down . . . . But in what remains after the solar explosion, there won’t be any humanness, there won’t be living creatures, there won’t be intelligent, sensitive, sentient earthlings to bear witness to it, since they and their earthly horizon will have been consumed.”[xv]
Lyotard’s post-human is thus grounded not in the transcendence of certain human capabilities or features, like Parmelee’s emotions or Hayles’ digital subjectivity, but on a fundamental altering of the world as we have ever known it. For Lyotard, such a universe cannot even be thought of—because to grasp it in our minds still taints it with the trace of humanity. The universal apocalypse must remain unthought: “if there’s [total] death, then there’s no thought. Negation without remainder. No self to make sense of it. Pure event. Disaster.”[xvi]
But this does not mean we must take the attitude of Epicurus, referenced by Lyotard to stand for those who preach to only augment one’s own worldly happiness. In a tone of urgency, Lyotard suggests that we must make way for the coming of the post-human. “What is at stake in every field” from genetics to particle physics is “how to make thought without a body possible . . . . That clearly means finding for the ‘body’ a ‘nutrient’ that owes nothing to the bio-chemical components synthesized on the surface of the earth through the use of solar energy. Or: learning to effect these syntheses in other places than on earth.”[xvii] Lyotard expresses nostalgia about this inevitability, concluding that we must “say to ourselves . . . we shall go on.”[xviii] This serves as the impetus for his exegeses on aesthetics and art, whose etchings and engravings capture the last vestiges of humanity, as he affirms: “let us at least bear witness, and again, and for no-one.”[xix] The possibility of a witness implies the possibility of a human. Thus, Lyotard presents a radicalized vision of the post-human as an essentially alien thing, even suggesting that the post-human condition is beyond the scope of our imaginations. The post-human is not a half-man, half-robot: he has no attachment to the earth whatsoever.
A staunch defender of the ‘unfinished’ modern project of human freedom, liberal philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ The Future of Human Nature speaks directly to the concerns raised by Parmelee on “improving the stock of man.” Habermas’ starting point is 1973, when the human genome was cracked. This scientific advance has allowed for embryo research and a “liberal eugenics” of preimplantation genetic diagnosis, which can manipulate an embryo’s eventual gender among other capabilities.[xx] Habermas believes developments of biology call into question our natural idea of the human being, and consequently, our laws, societal organization, nuclear families, and even philosophies. Mankind has hitherto taken birth (roughly) as a given fact of the world, meaning we make the “assumption” that “the genetic endowment of the newborn infant, and thus the initial organic conditions for its future life history, lay beyond any programming and deliberate manipulation on the part of other persons.”[xxi] However, modern technology is “obliterating the boundary between persons and things” because the embryo becomes subject to design, like any other object or commodity. [xxii] For the first time, the human species can “take its biological evolution into its own hands.” The post-human corresponds to the reversal of Jean Paul Sartre’s humanism, whose slogan—‘existence precedes essence’—is now definitively called into question: now, “a decision on existence or nonexistence is taken in view of the potential essence.”[xxiii]
Because new technologies are “regulated by supply and demand”[xxiv] they leave the “goals of gene-modifying interventions to the individual preferences of market participants.”[xxv] But Habermas thinks merely intervening in the market through legislation cannot resolve the underlying conflict: “Legislative interventions restricting the freedom of biological research and banning the advances of genetic engineering seem but a vain attempt to set oneself against the dominant tendency.”[xxvi] Genetic technologies have obvious upsides that justify their application, like the eradication of debilitating genetic disorders. But the question is “whether the instrumentalization of human nature changes the ethical self-understanding of the species in such a way that we may no longer see ourselves as ethically free and morally equal beings guided by norms and reasons.”[xxvii] The “strange” science fiction accounts of “humans being improved by chip implants” is for Habermas only an exaggeration of an already present reality.[xxviii] Because genetic modification occurs before the moment of consciousness, subjects have no way of knowing that their characteristics were, to some degree, designed for them. In other words, the salient point for Habermas is the anti-democratic nature of the post-human: there is no choice of a red or blue pill, to use the famous scene from The Matrix.
Thus, in the post-human, Habermas sees the fate of the enlightenment project of freedom. While he does not clearly mark the threshold between human and object, his conception of the post-human is one where humans are not free to create themselves, connecting the human with the philosophy of humanism. In the mold of the Enlightenment philosophers, Habermas views humans as self-governing beings with the capacity for reason; new technologies, especially embryonic ones, undermine that modern view, ushering in the post-human.
[i] Parmelee, p. 350.
[ii] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p.6
[iii] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p. 6.
[iv] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p. 6.
[v] Hayles, “Visualizing the Posthuman”, p. 50.
[vi] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p. 48.
[vii] Hayles, “Condition of Virtuality”, p. 12.
[viii] Hayles, “Visualizing the Posthuman”, p. 50.
[ix] Hayles, “Visualizing the Posthuman”, p. 54.
[x] Hayles, “Condition of Virtuality”, p. 14.
[xi] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p. 5.
[xii] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p. 286.
[xiii] Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, p. 286.
[xiv] Lyotard, The Inhumane, p. 8.
[xv] Lyotard, The Inhumane, p. 10.
[xvi] Lyotard, The Inhumane, p. 11.
[xvii] Lyotard, The Inhumane, p. 14.
[xviii] Lyotard, The Inhumane, p. 105.
[xix] Lyotard, The Inhumane, p. 203.
[xx] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 43.
[xxi] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 13.
[xxii] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 13,
[xxiii] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 50.
[xxiv] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 30.
[xxv] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 19.
[xxvi] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 25.
[xxvii] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 40.
[xxviii] Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, p. 41.
Habermas, Jürgen. The Future of Human Nature. London: Blackwell, 2003.
Hayles, Katherine N. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: University of Chicago
—-“Visualizing the Posthuman”
—-“The Condition of Virtuality”.
Lyotard, The Inhumane: Reflections on Time. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003.
Parmelee, Maurice. Poverty and Social Progess. New York: Macmillan, 1916.