Man Saved by Wolfe

Man Saved by Wolfe

What is Posthumanism?
Cary Wolfe
Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.

In this review of Cary Wolfe’s new essay collection, What is Posthumanism?, Neil Badmington reflects on the ebb and flow of “the posthuman” and ponders what Wolfe’s work suggests for the future of the field.

Ryan Brooks:

John Bruni has also reviewed Wolfe’s collection for ebr.

Ryan Brooks:

In Critical Environments, Wolfe also explores the theoretical and pragmatic similarities and differences between Luhmannian systems theory and contemporary Marxist philosophy. On pages 147-149, his theoretical sympathies with Luhmann and his political sympathies with Fredric Jameson seem to pull him in opposite, perhaps contradictory directions.


Man saved by Wolfe. Not “Man,” the drowning hero of humanism - this man, the one rescued and writing these words.

Until recently, I hoped that I was post-posthumanism. After spending more than a decade writing and speaking about the subject, I promised myself earlier this year that I would never again work in the field. The plan was to put posthumanism behind me, to pass the “post-,” to pass on the debate and leave the work to others. I have not, I should perhaps add, undergone a miraculous conversion and become a humanist. I stand by everything that I have written and said about the promises of posthumanism and the ordure of anthropocentrism; there has been no volte-face, no change of mechanical heart. I simply have nothing to add, nothing left to offer. I feel, too, that I have done my time, served enough tours of duty in the long battle against those who would defend the glory of “Man.”

I have, moreover, become increasingly attracted to the position adopted by Donna Haraway in recent years. When asked in 2006 about her use of the signifier “posthuman,” Haraway responded to her interviewer in the following manner:

I’ve stopped using it. I did use it for a while, including in the”Manifesto.” I think it’s a bit impossible not to use it sometimes, but I’m trying not to use it. Kate Hayles writes this smart, wonderful book How We Became Posthuman. She locates herself in that book at the right interface - the place where people meet IT apparatuses, where worlds get reconstructed as information. I am in strong alliance with her insistence in that book, namely getting at the materialities of information. Not letting anyone think for a minute that this is immateriality rather than getting at its specific materialities. That I’m with, that sense of “how we became posthumanist.” Still, human/posthuman is much too easily appropriated by the blissed-out, “Let’s all be posthumanists and find our next teleological evolutionary stage in some kind of transhumanist technoenhancement.” Posthumanism is too easily appropriated to those kinds of projects for my taste. Lots of people doing posthumanist thinking, though, don’t do it that way. The reason I go to companion species is to get away from posthumanism. (Haraway 2006: 40)As I have noted in a recent overview (Badmington 2010: 382 n.9), Haraway is mistaken to claim here that she uses the term “posthuman” in her “Manifesto for Cyborgs” (Haraway 1985); perhaps she is thinking instead of a related text published seven years later (Haraway 1992).

This desire to “get away from posthumanism” apparently gained strength over the next couple of years, for When Species Meet put things even more forcefully:

I never wanted to be posthuman, or posthumanist, any more than I wanted to be postfeminist. For one thing, urgent work still remains to be done in reference to those who must inhabit the troubled categories of woman and human, properly pluralized, reformulated, and brought into constitutive intersection with other asymmetrical differences…I am not a posthumanist; I am who I become with companion species, who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind. (Haraway 2008: 17-19)

Haraway was generous enough to send me a typescript of the first chapter of When Species Meet some time before the book appeared in print, and I remember writing her a short letter not long afterwards, even though we do not know each other. I cannot recall precisely what I wrote, but I know that I tried, in the light of the passage that I have just quoted, to make the case for a certain incarnation of posthumanism, for the power and promise of the monstrous term. But not long after sealing and sending the envelope, I lost faith, even blasphemous faith, in posthumanism. Perhaps it was an excess of exposure to trite transhumanism, to what I have elsewhere called complacent posthumanism (Badmington 2004: 111). Perhaps it was weariness in the face of what Sarah Whatmore has named “the reactionary current” within the field (Whatmore 2010). Perhaps it was an over-familiarity with the propositions and the players. Perhaps it was simply boredom. Whatever the cause, I fulfilled a few outstanding commitments to write or speak about the subject, and then drew a line in the sand at the edge of the sea.

I had turned down a fair number of invitations when the Electronic Book Review emailed to ask if I would be willing to offer a piece about What is Posthumanism?, Cary Wolfe’s new contribution to the wonderful Posthumanities book series that he edits for the University of Minnesota Press. I started to compose a note of polite rejection, but found myself unable to complete the message. What stopped me in my tracks, I think, was the memory of being stopped in my tracks some years ago by Wolfe’s Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (Wolfe 2003), a text which, perhaps more than any other, demonstrated a way both to have faith in posthumanism and to remain at a distance from crude, complacent, technophilic accounts of “the posthuman condition.” Against all odds, then, I replied to the Electronic Book Review with an expression of interest. And the result is the present essay: an expression of renewed interest.


Posthumanism, of course, has been widely discussed in many different modes and disciplinary contexts in recent years.I have discussed this elsewhere on numerous (probably far too many) occasions. See, for instance, Badmington 2010. It has no clear home, no room of its own, but haunts and hails instead across generic borders. To give an example of this wild elasticity, on the desk in front of me as I write are an essay that examines Shakespeare’s posthumanism (Lehmann 2009) and an article on the posthumanist qualities of sex dolls (Whitney 2010). With this in mind, Wolfe’s book opens with an acknowledgement that the signifier “posthumanism” presently “generates different and even irreconcilable definitions” (xi), and then quickly adds that this should not be seen as a paralysing problem: “I choose to see in this confusion” Wolfe writes, “not a cautionary tale but an opportunity” (xi). Wolfe’s book, as I will discuss in more detail at a later point in this essay, takes issue with N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman (1999), but this seeing of an opportunity in the slipperiness of the term in question recalls a moment from the final chapter of Hayles’ work: “The best possible time to contest for what the posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly that it would take dynamite to change them. Although some current versions of the posthuman point toward the antihuman and the apocalyptic, we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves” (Hayles 1999: 291). More specifically, he continues, What is Posthumanism?:

weaves together the two different senses of posthumanism that remained separate in my previous two books, Critical Environments and Animal Rites: posthumanism as a mode of thought in the first book (explored there on the parallel terrains of pragmatics, systems theory, and poststructuralism) and, in the second, posthumanism as engaging directly the problem of anthropocentrism and speciesism and how practices of thinking and reading must change in light of their critique. (xviii-xix)

In this complex weaving, the work of Jacques Derrida and Niklas Luhmann comes to occupy a special place. What Luhmann and Derrida can offer posthumanism, Wolfe proposes, is “a thinking that does not turn away from the complexities and paradoxes of self-referential autopoiesis” (xxi). And neither Derrida nor Luhmann alone will suffice, for, as the first chapter of What is Posthumanism? explains at length, deconstruction needs systems theory as much as systems theory needs deconstruction:

Luhmann’s handling of systems theory accomplishes just the sort of “conservation” of the logic of the grammè that Derrida calls for, a conservation that is crucial to any posthumanism whatsoever - not only because the movement of the program-as-grammè “goes far beyond the possibilities of the ‘intentional consciousness’ ” as the source and guarantor of meaning, but also because once the notion of the program is invoked, one no longer “has recourse to the concepts that habitually serve to distinguish man from other living beings (instinct and intelligence, absence or presence of speech, of society, of economy, etc. etc.)” (8)The quotations within this passage are from Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology. The emphasis in What is Posthumanism? upon systems theory places the book in productive dialogue with Bruce Clarke’s Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems, which proposes at one point that “[t]he posthumanist turn in Luhmann is encapsulated in the fundamental theoretical move of positing nonliving autopoietic systems” (Clarke 2008: 17). Like Wolfe, Clarke is based in Texas, which leads me to wonder if an essay on the rise of Texan systems-theory-informed posthumanism needs to be written. (Is there something in the water?)

This “pairing of systems theory and deconstruction” (7) holds Wolfe’s version of posthumanism at a refreshing distance from the easy, complacent incarnations that often earn the label “transhumanism.” And in articulating the shortcomings of transhumanism, Wolfe notably differentiates his account from that found in N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, one of the field’s most widely discussed texts:

[T]he net effect and critical ground tone of her book, as many have noted, are to associate the posthuman with a kind of triumphant disembodiment. Hayles’ use of the term, in other words, tends to oppose embodiment and the posthuman, whereas the sense in which I am using the term here insists on exactly the opposite: posthumanism in my sense isn’t posthuman at all - in the sense of being “after” our embodiment has been transcended - but is only posthumanist, in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism itself, that Hayles rightly criticizes. (xv)

The theoretical and ethical implications of this far more positive form of posthumanism are developed throughout the first part of the book (“Theories, Disciplines, Ethics”), where Wolfe examines from different perspectives how “the nature of thought itself must change if it is to be posthumanist” (xvi).I stress the more positive tone of Wolfe’s book because of the way in which Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman opens its first chapter with a description of “a roboticist’s dream that struck me as a nightmare” (1). Hayles returns to this sense of unease on the final page of her conclusion, where she writes of how the book’s many stories “have at times seemed to present the posthuman as a transformation to be feared and abhorred rather than welcomed or embraced” (291). Wolfe’s account of posthumanism does not share this anxiety; in fact, What is Posthumanism? tends to see humanism as something, to return to Hayles’ words, “to be feared and abhorred.” It would require another essay, I think, to explore why two of the most prominent books about posthumanism - Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman and Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future (Fukuyama 2002) - are, in very different ways, anxious about the waning of humanism. What is the link between anxiety and popularity here? Why has posthumanism been most loudly discussed in worried tones (or, in Fukuyama’s case, hysterical tones)? If the “theoretical trope of the posthuman has upped the ante on the notion of the postmodern” in recent times (Clarke 2008: 2), is posthumanism none the less playing out its own version of the curious events that saw Fredric Jameson’s thoroughly anxious essay about postmodernism (Jameson 1984) become one of the most widely discussed texts on the subject? And that sense of change is crucial because, as What is Posthumanism? shows so well, fervent attempts to unsettle anthropocentrism can often fall short and slip back into familiar, humanist trains of thought, simply because those very trains of thought escape unscathed. It is, for example, possible to engage in animal studies - a discipline often associated with anti-anthropocentrism - in strikingly conventional ways:

Just because we direct our attention to the study of nonhuman animals, and even if we do so with the aim of exposing how they have been misunderstood and exploited, that does not mean that we are not continuing to be humanist - and therefore, by definition, anthropocentric. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of humanism - and even more specifically that kind of humanism called liberalism - is its penchant for that kind of pluralism, in which the sphere of attention and consideration (intellectual or ethical) is broadened and extended to previously marginalized groups, but without in the least destabilizing or throwing into radical question the schema of the human who undertakes such pluralization. (99)

It is important, therefore, Wolfe acutely observes, to recognize that there is “a kind of philosophical and theoretical spectrum that moves from humanist approaches to posthumanism (or anti-anthropocentrism) to posthumanist approaches to posthumanism” (62). The word “spectrum,” of course, shares a root with “specter.” (The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its very first definition of the former term, in fact, “An apparition or phantom; a spectre.”) It seems to me that the spectrum identified and mapped so finely by Wolfe has quietly haunted discussions of posthumanism for many years, but no one until now has, to the best of my knowledge, spoken to the ghost, called it forth, with such clarity and spirited force. And speaking to this spectrum must, I think, become a part of posthumanism as it unfolds in the future, against the future, if the field is to be self-aware, to reckon with its specter. Stay. Speak, speak. I charge thee, speak.

Wolfe’s critical vigilance when faced with this daunting spectrum, however, does not for one moment lapse into a parade of superiority - or what might be called “one-up(osthu)manship.” As he stresses in Chapter 3:

[M]y point here will be not to pursue a kind of “more-posthumanist-than-thou” sweepstakes but to bring out in a detailed way how the admirable impulses behind any variety of philosophy that challenges anthropocentrism and speciesism - impulses that I respect wherever they may be found - demand a certain reconfiguration of what philosophy (or “theory”) is and how it can (and cannot) respond to the challenge…of sharing the planet with nonhuman subjects and treating them justly. (62)

The reference at the end of this passage to “nonhuman subjects” underscores the historical context within which Wolfe is thinking, writing, intervening. The present moment, the book stresses, is one in which

[t]he human occupies a new place in the universe, a universe now populated by what I am prepared to call nonhuman subjects. And this is why, to me, posthumanism means not the triumphal surpassing or unmasking of something but an increase in the vigilance, responsibility, and humility that accompany living in a world so newly, and differently, inhabited. (47)This description of how the human occupies “a new place in the universe” alongside nonhuman subjects recalls the beginning of Animal Rites, where the tendency of cultural studies to ignore nonhuman subjectivity is juxtaposed with American popular culture’s recognition that “the humanist habit of making even the possibility of subjectivity coterminous with the species barrier is deeply problematic, if not clearly untenable” (Wolfe 2003: 1-2).

Vigilance, responsibility, humility. These are perhaps the three keywords that best describe the project - and the invitation - of What is Posthumanism? To the question posed by the book’s title, in fact, it would be possible simply to reply: vigilance, responsibility, humility. Vigilance, responsibility, and humility, more precisely, in the light of a shift in the way of the world. Vigilance, responsibility, and humility before the “now” and the “new.” Vigilance, responsibility, and humility when faced with the temptation to become “more-posthumanist-than-thou.” And vigilance, responsibility, and humility in order to address the “challenge…of sharing the planet with nonhuman subjects and treating them justly” by considering, among other things: cognitive science, bioethics, disciplinarity, disability studies, representationalism, architecture, photography, and film. The book’s critical intervention, that is to say, unfolds on many fronts, and the specific force of Wolfe’s posthumanism lies in its pointed vigilance, its ongoing responsibility, and its wary humility.

As part of the refusal to see posthumanism as “the triumphal surpassing or unmasking of something”, What is Posthumanism? develops a thoroughly persuasive case for attending with care and patience

to the specificity of the human - its ways of being in the world, its ways of knowing, observing, and describing - by…acknowledging that it is fundamentally a prosthetic creature that has coevolved with various forms of technicity and materiality, forms that are radically “not-human” and yet have nevertheless made the human what it is. (xxv)For a related point, see the final paragraph of Bruce Clarke’s Posthuman Metamorphosis: “Thus the posthuman does not transcend the human as the discourse of the human has imagined transcendence. Rather, the neocybernetic posthuman transcends the vision of disconnection that has isolated the human for so long in its own conceit of uniqueness” (196).

In other words, Wolfe’s nuanced posthumanism never collapses humanism’s habitual differences into simple sameness; removing “meaning from the ontologically closed domain of consciousness, reason, reflection, and so on” (xxv) is not the same as removing difference altogether from the equation. Vigilance, responsibility, humility.

After outlining the theoretical and ethical implications of this posthumanism in the first five chapters, Wolfe turns in the six chapters that form the second part of the book to a wide range of “cultural and artistic practices that exemplify a posthumanist sensibility or problematic” (xxx). Chapter 6, for instance, compares the art of Sue Coe to that of Eduardo Kac. Although each figure addresses “the ethical standing of (at least some) nonhuman animals” (145), there is an important difference - one that illustrates very clearly the spectrum of posthumanisms identified earlier by Wolfe. Coe’s work is posthumanist in an “obvious and thematic sense” (166), but is “humanist in a crucial sense…[because] it relies on a subject from whom nothing, in principle, is hidden” (167). In her representationalism, looking looks healthy; “Man” lives to see the light of day. In Kac’s art, by way of contrast, “visuality itself - as the human sensory apparatus par excellence - is…thoroughly decentered and subjected to a rather different kind of logic” (162). Unlike Coe, Kac “subverts the centrality of the human and of anthropocentric modes of knowing and experiencing the world by displacing the centrality of its metonymic stand-in, human (and humanist) visuality” (162).

Almost all of the chapters of What is Posthumanism? have already appeared in print as discrete essays; some have even been published on more than one previous occasion. Only the introduction and Chapter 9 are, according to the lengthy “Publication History” placed after the endnotes, seen here for the first time. Those who have followed Wolfe’s considerable output since Animal Rites in 2003 will, therefore, recognize much in What is Posthumanism?

Well, to some extent. Notably new here is the effect of placing those individual analyses alongside each other and adding sideways glances. While the separate chapters worked perfectly well in their earlier, isolated incarnations, they gather further force here by being bound together and given over to internal reflections, inflections, and connections. When, for example, I read Chapter 7 in its original form here in the Electronic Book Review in 2001, and when I republished it in a collection of my own some six years later (Badmington 2007), I was persuaded by Wolfe’s examination of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark as a posthumanist text that “mobilizes the investment in a traditional fantasy of vision through its thematization in the story of Selma but at the same time divorces visuality from transcendence, identity, and the ego, around whom visual space might be organized, in its cinema verité [sic] camera work” (189-90). But the point is strengthened and developed in What is Posthumanism? because the discussion of the film is surrounded by, in Chapter 6, the aforementioned examination of how Eduardo Kac’s work decenters visuality itself, and, in Chapter 8, a discussion of the ways in which the architecture of Diller + Scofidio throws into question the “we” apparently experiencing the built environment. What is Posthumanism?, in short, might appear at first glance to be largely a collection of previously published work, but such a description fails to do justice to the collected vigor of the volume, in which the chapters throw new light on each other in their happy collision.


I began with a reference to my being saved, to my renewal of interest in the wake of What is Posthumanism? I still have no plans to work again on the subject, but the field that I once called home will be greatly enriched by this timely book, which has reminded me why I ever cared about resisting and rewriting humanism. Wolfe’s work shifts the tired terms of the debate in new and needed directions, offering strength and strategies to all those for whom simplistic, technophilic accounts of “the posthuman condition” are a smooth road to nowhere different. In Wolfe’s hands, “Man” is in the wolf’s mouth.

Works Cited

Badmington, Neil. Alien Chic: Posthumanism and the Other Within. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.

—. “Posthumanism.” The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science. Ed. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini. London and New York: Routledge, 2010. 374-84.

—, ed. Posthuman Conditions. Special double issue of Subject Matters 3.4/4.1 (2007).

Clarke, Bruce. Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. London: Profile, 2002.

Haraway, Donna J. “A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980s.” Socialist Review 80 (1985): 65-107.

—. “Ecce Homo, Ain’t (Ar’n’t) I a Woman, and Inappropriate/d Others: The Human in a Posthumanist Landscape.” Feminists Theorize the Political. Ed. Joan Scott and Judith Butler. New York and London: Routledge, 1992. 87-101.

—. “When We Have Never Been Human, What is to be Done?: Interview with Donna Haraway.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.7-8 (2006): 135-58.

—. When Species Meet. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Jameson, Fredric. “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92.

Lehmann, Courtney. “Apocalyptic Paternalism, Family Values, and the War of the Cinemas; or, How Shakespeare Became Posthuman.” Apocalyptic Shakespeare: Essays on Visions of Chaos and Revelation in Recent Film Adaptations. Ed. Melissa Croteau and Carolyn Jess-Cooke. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009. 47-69.

Whatmore, Sarah. “More-Than-Human Geographies: Reflections on Practice.” Jon Murdoch Memorial Lecture, Cardiff University, 5 October 2010.

Whitney, Jennifer Dawn. “ ‘Beyond Fake’ Real DollsTM and the Posthuman Troubling of Femininity and Desire.” Assuming Gender 1.1 (2010): 71-9.

Wolfe, Cary. Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2003.