Posthuman is a term used by multiple groups in multiple ways. As in convergence, some use it with great optimism and enthusiasm, others with horror and worry, and still others to describe a simple matter of fact.
The term generally refers to any attitude toward humanity or human-ness in which former definitions or boundaries of the human are called into question. It is often used to connote an evolutionary stage, as if the human species were moving into a new form, largely through technological augmentation.
Addressing present conditions, imagining future developments
A good way of exploring the Posthuman is to ask yourself
“What does it mean to be human if…”
- computers could acquire consciousness and self-awareness
- conception and birth could happen not only without sex but without a womb
- the human body is augmented or even kept alive through technological means (pacemakers, artificial hearts, new organs ‘grown’ from stem cells, bionic prosthetics.)
- cancer and other major diseases are cured, and lifespans double for the affluent
- cosmetic surgery allows for a fully-constructed and artificial body
- consciousness and personality can be recorded and stored like a photo
- everything “natural” around us had been produced in a lab (genetically modified food, plants, etc.)
- everything we do or say is recorded for playback and access via a google-like interface
- we spend so much time using certain tools or performing certain habits that we feel more at home with them than without them
- cryogenics allows us to revive the dead in the future
- performance-enhancing drugs or genetic modification increases physical capacity to extraordinary levels
- sex, or simply the majority of social interaction, happens in the virtual more than the real
- emotions can be monitored, adjusted and modulated via pharmaceuticals
- advertising and media determine how to affect consumers “directly,” through bio-marketing
- rates of technological change increase suddenly and exponentially, through self-influence (the Singularity)
- animals or plants are scientifically determined to possess communication, memory, self-consciousness
- human communication, memory, or self-consciousness is accounted for and fully explained through genetics or neuroscience
- our choices of how we spend our time or consume are so determined by advertising and corporate media convergence that we cease to make free action
All of these have been asked by people with hope or hesitation about the posthuman. All of these questions are being asked about current social or technical developments.
Posthumanity often comes up in relation to the idea of the cyborg. A cyborg is simply any biological organism that has an interdependent relationship with a mechanical system or machine. The boundary between biology and technology, between the “natural” and the artificial, is of key concern to celebrants or critics of posthumanism.
Fans of posthumanity celebrate mankind’s triumphs over the limits of nature (think here of vaccinations, modern medicine, power plants). Critics of the posthuman worry about what might be lost in these moves, what vital ways of knowing, being and relating to one another might disappear.
The posthuman is a major concern of Science Fiction cinema, literature, and other narratives. Some influential cultural artifacts here include Bladerunner, Terminator, Ghost in the Shell, Battlestar Galactica (the remake) and Star Trek (the Next Generation). For a taste of this, try posts tagged with posthumanism on the popular scifi media blog, io9. Plenty of comics and graphic novels deal with this theme as well – especially the X-Men, with its emphasis on genetic mutation as a source of superpowers.
The posthuman is also the subject of a great deal of literary and media criticism and theory – especially that which deals with the histories and influence of cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and genomics. N.Katherine Hayles is a major figure here, through her book “How Did we Become Posthuman?” Even Marshall McLuhan’s work relates, through his discussion of mass media as an extension of the human nervous system. Gender Studies and Queer Theory has a lot to offer this subject as well, through critiques of “essentialism” in approaches to human-ness.
The posthuman is certainly a concern of many artists as well. Two large figures in this are Stelarc and Orlan. Stelarc is known for decades of work in augmenting and extending the body, mechanically, computationally, biologically. Orlan worked for years on having enough plastic surgery to render her appearance in terms of Western Painting’s ideals of feminine beauty.
Lastly, the posthuman comes up among some utopians and techno-hippies, people who come with substantial critiques about the state of the world AND a belief in technology’s power to effect change. Check out the Extropians, or for that matter maybe even Scientologists. Places like Burning Man are good events to learn more about this approach – it’s no coincidence that at Burning Man, one sees a great deal of social transgression (nudity, gender-neutrality or drag, body modification) conducted by a lot of people with high-paying tech-sector jobs.
Jaron Lanier had been on a rampage lately with his new book, decrying the ways in which current popular internet trends (Facebook, Social Media, Blogging) are taking away our humanity.
Critical Art Ensemble are a pioneering art collective who have been asking questions about genetics, eugenics and reproductive technologies for years. They create art projects, performances, and texts around these concerns. Check out their website or read some of their primary text on posthumanism.
Joe Haldeman’s “None So Blind” – Another sci-fi short story that deals well with post-human themes in terms of consciousness, tech.
Cyborg Manifesto – Donna Haraway wrote this Feminist polemic to both celebrate and critique the cyborg as inevitable, limiting and potentially empowering addition to the human.
Are Humans Obsolete? – a critique of posthumanism from Langdon Winner.
Bruce Sterling is a scifi author whose fiction is mostly preoccupied with the posthuman. Check his short story Spook here.
Lastly, and for some perspective, here’s anthropologist Lucy Suchman taking all this stuff to, IMHO, its most productive end.