Where do we find ourselves? A review of Herbrechter's "Critical Posthumanism"

Where do we find ourselves? A review of Herbrechter's "Critical Posthumanism"

by
John Bruni
2015-01-04

In his review of Stefan Herbrechter’s Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis, John Bruni addresses the technoscientific and philosophical varieties of posthumanism, and considers the necessity of moving beyond the “dehumanizing” effects of technocentric theories of cultural evolution. This critical project seeks to preserve freedom and agency, rejecting a concept of posthumanism as a side-effect of innovation in favor of one that sees change itself arising from social processes.

If posthumanism signals the end of a certain way of describing—or, more precisely, orienting—selfhood, then we might ask, as Ralph Waldo Emerson did at the start of his famous essay, “Experience” (that addressed, among other crucial issues, slavery), “Where do we find ourselves?” (266).Donald E. Pease makes a persuasive case for this essay’s engagement with the issue of slavery. See “ ‘Experience,’ Anti-Slavery, and the Crisis of Emersonianism” in The Other Emerson, ed. Branka Arsic and Cary Wolfe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 131-66.

To be sure, technology has already expanded ideas about seeing the human as created through evolution. Marvin Minsky argues that robots will be the next evolutionary phase; they will be our “children.”See Marvin Minsky, “Will Robots Inherit the Earth?,” Jan. 2, 1997. Last accessed November 18, 2014, https://web.media.mit.edu/~minsky/papers/sciam.inherit.html.Ray Kurzweil anticipates the ethical issues of posthumanism will be worked out by machines gaining consciousness and then guiding themselves (and, presumably, us) through deeper realms of spiritual experience and insight.See Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence (New York: Viking, 1999), 153. 

But, it must be asked, where does all this talk about spiritual transcendentalism leave the crucial subject of our bodies? N. Katherine Hayles cautions that privileging the disembodiment of information is a return to Cartesian dualism that supports the liberal humanist subject: what posthumanism seeks to challenge.See N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999).Cary Wolfe, moreover, reminds us that we have to take into account how posthumanism is shaped by our relationships with other embodied forms of life constituted by non-human animals.See Cary Wolfe, Before the Law: Human and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2014).

Stefan Herbrechter examines both sides of posthumanist discourse—that is, from those, such as Minsky and Kurzweil, who see thinking machines as the primary posthuman signifier and from those, such as Hayles and Wolfe, who view posthumanism as a means of addressing what humanism has repressed, a subject that is not, perforce, shaped by human consciousness. 

Herbrechter’s book has two primary goals: first, to guide the reader through posthumanism, as a multiplicity of both congruent and opposing ideas about the relationships among humans, non-human animals, and machines, and, second, to self-reflexively observe these ideas. This approach, overall, “understands the human species as a historical ‘effect,’ with humanism as its ideological ‘affect,’ while distancing itself from both—a ‘critical posthumanism,’ which does not, from the start, position itself ‘after’ a humanism” (7).This approach is shared by Neil Badmington, who writes that “posthumanism is never that which simply follows—chronologically, apocalyptically—humanism.” See “Cultural Studies and the Posthumanities,” New Cultural Studies, ed. Gary Hall and Clare Birchall (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006), 266. 

One might propose—rather sensibly, in fact—that posthumanism arises from the critiques of the human and humanism by postmodernism and poststructuralism. To a considerable degree, the book supports this proposal. Early on, much time is given to treat postmodernism as a way to situate posthumanism, especially through the thinking of Jean-Francois Lyotard (who, arguably, is the proto-postmodernist). Lyotard’s idea of the inhuman guides Herbrechter’s critical posthumanism, disclosing how, in Lyotard’s words, “what is proper to humankind is its absence of defining property, its nothingness, or its transcendence, to display the sign ‘no vacancy’ ” (in Herbrechter 8).  

As Herbrechter has earlier suggested, it is open to question whether there is a humanism that posthumanism can come after. As he puts it, “human self-representation” then becomes disrupted, along with the entire realist project founded “on the fundamental principles of similarity, the transparency of the medium and on meaningful identity” (10). The disruption of this project, marking where poststructuralism intersects with postmodernism, is catalyzed by Jacques Derrida’s concept of différance (a wordplay on defer/differ) that proposes that the signified (the meaning) of any form of “symbolic representation,” such as language, never arrives; in its deferral, it “always differs from itself” and thus suspends the possibilities for holding together identity (11).  

But to look at posthumanism in this way, as a primarily philosophical/theoretical construct, is to avoid seeing the big picture, as Herbrechter repeatedly points out. That is, posthumanism has (for better or, often, worse) been appropriated—as regarded as an ongoing process of posthumanizing—by cultural trend spotters and technological innovators; sometimes, as the book observes, with due skepticism, they are one and the same. Although, granted, pronouncements about “the end of the human,” brought on by neuromedicine, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence, have been uttered for quite some time, it is in the cultural/technological sphere where we find most visible and intense the projection of posthumanism as utopian and/or apocalyptic fantasy.  

While this widescreen version of posthumanism shows up in science fiction films such as The Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which the book treats as an example of “cultural automatic writing,” many of the anxieties these films reflect can be traced back, as Herbrechter illustrates, to unresolved issues about humanism itself.See Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 282.It is not just the question of where humanism now stands, in the wake of theoretical maneuvers against realism (re: Lyotard and Derrida), but humanism’s larger “deficit” that “lies in its ideological belief in an essential humanity that might stand outside historical change” (47). 

Indeed, scholars like Jonathan Sawday, whom the book references, have looked at the testing of the boundaries of human identity in the early modern period, finding key evidence in the plays of that supposedly stalwart humanist, Shakespeare. Taking a glimpse beyond the scope of Herbrechter’s study, we might further speculate on an emerging posthumanism that arrives on the scene before Shakespeare sets pen to paper: for, what are medieval saints’ relics that defy the life/death binary if not proto-cyborgs?Rachel S. Anderson recently made this argument in a paper delivered at the Conference for the Society of Literature, Science, and the Arts—EU, Turin, Italy, June 2014.    

It is, then, not just pressure within the university but also outside of it that catalyzes the development of the posthumanities. Already this has called for the reevaluation of thinking about technology—and, in so doing, a reconsideration of the thinking of Martin Heidegger, a controversial figure, to be sure.Refer, for example, to Greg Garrard, “Heidegger Nazism Ecocriticism,” ISLE 17.2 (Spring 2010): 251-71, and John Claborn, “Toward an Eco-ontology: A Response to Greg Garrard’s ‘Heidegger Nazism Ecocriticism,’” ISLE 19.2 (Spring 2012): 375-79.As Herbrechter explains, Heidegger envisions technology, broadly defined, as a means by which “[t]he human species…does not need to adapt to its environment but instead transforms its environment according to its needs” (152). In turn, as Herbrechter recommends, “[A] critical posthumanism would have to take up the Heideggerian challenge to think of the essence of technology as something non-technical” (158). Such a challenge, as the book proposes, supports the posthumanities as “interdisciplinary practice” and Derrida’s “university without conditions” (174-76)—that is, without having limits on academic freedom. While Herbrechter, then, would agree with Neil Badmington, quoting his remark that such freedom is enabled by recognizing that “culture does not begin and end with ‘us’ ” (in Herbrechter 174), Herbrechter does not, as Badmington does, regard the concept of maintaining disciplinary boundaries (which any interdisciplinary project would validate) as a limiting condition for structuring the posthumanities (Badmington 266). 

As Herbrechter concludes his book, he ramps up his argument for a posthumanism without the dehumanizing (a word Heidegger would especially insist on) effects of technology. That is to say that humans can use technology, such as genetic engineering, to control the lives of others, but such use risks reinforcing the dangerous idea that some lives count more or less than others. Herbrechter, accordingly, finds in systems theory a mobilization of Derrida’s concept of différance that surpasses the autonomous humanist subject; systems are, after all, “not based on a previous distinction between humans and nonhumans” (201).

Moving beyond this distinction allows Herbrechter to take up the pressing question, voiced through biopolitics, about how life can be disarticulated from a “technological determinism” that threatens it (213).Michel Foucault memorably defines biopolitics, in its latest version, as “making live and letting die.” See “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976, ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 247.He echoes Derrida, who says that it is not a matter of choosing between life or death; it is, in other words, an impossible question because “there is no side for nonlife” (in Herbrechter 213). And this impossibility he sees as founding a “radical scepticism” that resonates with how “a critical approach to the broad issue of posthumanist subjectivity needs to resist the current tendency to foreground the importance of technology in discussions of human/social evolution” (213).

In light of Herbrecter’s skepticism, it does seem rather curious that the book does not consider the question of the singular definition of biopolitical life. For, especially when it comes to the protection of life against a destructive biopolitics (a thanatopolitics) that has been critiqued by Giorgio Agamben and Roberto Esposito, among others, simply turning to an affirmative biopolitics will not do.See Giorgio Agamben, Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998); Roberto Esposito, Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, trans. Timothy Campbell (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).Wolfe memorably states that we cannot refuse “to take seriously the differences between different forms of life….We must choose, and by definition we cannot choose everyone and everything at once” (103). 

That said, Herbrechter’s sense of agency that is not human, but posthuman, I think, promotes a fundamental change in our view of freedom—which, as David Harvey so importantly points out, is necessary for any progressive political program: “Any struggle for freedom and liberty must be prepared to confront at the very outset that which it is prepared to dominate. It also has to recognise that the price of maintaining its freedoms is eternal vigilance against the return of either old or new forms of domination.”See David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford and New York: The University of Oxford Press, 2014), 204.  

Thus Herbrechter gives us a way to move beyond posthumanism as the latest cultural narrative of techno-apocalypse and/or -utopia, presenting us with an open future, one that holds open possibilities, embodying the very freedom that Harvey demands in this pressing hour.

Works Cited

Badmington, Neil. “Cultural Studies and the Posthumanities.” New Cultural Studies. Ed. Gary Hall and Clare Birchall. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2006. 260-72.

Biskind, Peter. Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Experience.” The Portable Emerson. Ed. Carl Bode and Malcolm Cowley. New York: Penguin, 1981. 266-90.

Harvey, David. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. Oxford and New York: The University of Oxford Press, 2014.

Herbrechter, Stefan. Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Minsky, Marvin. “Will Robots Inherit the Earth?” 2 Jan. 1997. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.  

Wolfe, Cary. Before the Law: Humans and Other Animals in a Biopolitical Frame. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Works Consulted

Agamben, Giorgio. Homer Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Claborn, John. “Toward an Eco-ontology: A Response to Greg Garrard’s ‘Heidegger Nazism Ecocriticism.’” ISLE 19.2 (Spring 2012): 375-79.

Esposito, Roberto. Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy. Trans. Timothy Campbell. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Foucault, Michel. “Society Must Be Defended”: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976. Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.

Garrard, Greg. “Heidegger Nazism Ecocriticism.” ISLE 17.2 (Spring 2010): 251-71.

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

Kurzweil, Ray. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking, 1999.

Pease, Donald E. “ ‘Experience,’ Anti-Slavery, and the Crisis of Emersonianism.” The Other Emerson. Ed. Branka Arsic and Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 131-66.