Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The humanities and the advent of the ‘posthuman’

One of the most promising and exciting developments in recent thought has been the emergence of the “posthuman” as a distinct field within, and simultaneously transcending, the humanities. It comes from within this disciplinary field insofar as thinkers working in humanities disciplines such as philosophy and literary departments have contributed to what can perhaps be called the field of the posthuman. At the same time it comes from beyond the humanities too; in Rosi Braidotti’s words, from “science and technology studies, new media and digital culture, environmentalism and earth-sciences, bio-genetics, neuroscience and robotics, evolutionary theory, critical legal theory, primatology, animal rights and science fiction” (Braidotti, The Posthuman, Polity Press, 2013, p. 57-58).

This means that the posthuman is also post-anthropocentric because the work being done in these disciplines demonstrates that, to be understood better than before, human beings have to be inscribed in contexts that include other creatures such as animals and plants. Part of the reason for humanities (and social sciences) being increasingly perceived as being out of touch with the contemporary world is precisely that few humanities scholars are willing or able (or both) to step outside the familiar terrain of their inward-looking discipline to rethink it in terms of insights gained in and through the sciences mentioned above. In this respect Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were exceptions (as demonstrated in A Thousand Plateaus), as was Jacques Lacan before them and are Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Rosi Braidotti, Manuel Castells and John Bellamy Foster, among others, today. The problem faced by such adventurous, bold humanities thinkers is that of communication: they have to find an understandable language for communicating their insights to the rest of humanity. This partly explains the difficulty many people have with their writings.

What does posthumanism entail and why has it arisen? From what was said above it is already apparent that poststructuralist thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and particularly Deleuze and Guattari have contributed substantially to a posthumanist mindset by “removing” human beings from the centre of things and inserting them in broader cultural, ontological and ecological contexts in distinct ways. Further, in historical-philosophical terms one might say that its appearance as an identifiable field of thought marks the end of humanism as well as of anthropocentrism, which is something to be welcomed. As Braidotti points out (2013, p. 13), humanism’s roots go back to the ancient Greek sophist, Protagoras’s observation, that “man is the measure of all things” (which is accurately formulated, because the judgment of women did not count for more than two millennia, except in isolated places like ancient Sparta and ancient Egypt). It was only really after the theocentric (God-centred) Middle Ages, however, more specifically since the Italian Renaissance, that humanism really developed on a large scale.

Referring to Leonardo Da Vinci’s familiar graphic image of “Vitruvian man”, Braidotti elaborates on its significance (p. 13): “That iconic image is the emblem of Humanism as a doctrine that combines the biological, discursive and moral expansion of human capabilities into an idea of teleologically ordained, rational progress. Faith in the unique, self-regulating and intrinsically moral powers of human reason forms an integral part of this high-humanistic creed, which was essentially predicated on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century renditions of classical Antiquity and Italian Renaissance ideals.”

It was Hegel’s 19th-century philosophy of the development of universal Mind/Spirit, Braidotti further argues, that represents the cultural culmination of this humanist conception of human beings. What it implies is that not just those in Europe, but all human beings, can share in the universalistically conceived attributes of the (human) mind in developmental terms. Hegel’s dialectical (thesis>antithesis>synthesis>thesis>antithesis>synthesis) model of historical development also implies the dialectics of self and other, including the stage of master and slave, or as one knows it in 20th-century terms, of self and other, where “other” (as woman, other race, gay person, etc.), more often than not, is a pejorative term, marking cultural, racial and gender inferiority — so persuasively demonstrated in Edward Said’s Orientalism regarding the cultural/racial other.

Humanist colonialism has always gone hand in hand with the violent imposition of (mostly European) power on the colonial other, of course (Braidotti 2013, p. 15). Its history is not straightforward, however, but complicated by the fact that the very notion of humanism used to justify patronising colonial policies has also been the source of tremendous hope and striving for political liberation and independence on the part of oppressed peoples. Its “longevity” should be understood in the light of this inherent ambiguity (Braidotti 2013, p. 16). This ambivalence notwithstanding, it is no surprise that since the end of the Second World War humanism has been subjected to one anti-humanist critique after the other, emanating from feminism, postcolonial studies, anti-racism, anti-nuclear, pacifist and animal rights movements, among others. The historical contortions of humanism in the complex relations between liberal individualism, 20th-century fascism, Stalinist communism and socialist humanism do not concern me here (see Braidotti 2013, p. 16-18); suffice it to say that Nazi fascism dealt a severe blow to the major traditions of critical theory in Europe by forcing the expatriation from Europe of Frankfurt School critical theory, (neo-)Marxism and psychoanalytic theory, until their value was re-asserted by the likes of Michel Foucault in his radical genealogical (posthumanist) thinking.

Anti-humanist thinking was given a boost in the United States by the opposition to the Vietnam War, which was also linked to a growing awareness that the “timeless” humanities as taught at university were largely irrelevant to such life-changing historical convulsions (Said, quoted in Braidotti 2013, p. 18-19). It is no accident that the American civil rights movement, the American counterpart to the European student rebellion and the women’s movement were fuelled by the anti-imperialist (and therefore anti-humanist) tenor of anti-war sentiments. Add to this the impetus given to anti-humanism, mainly in France, by the reception of the structuralism of Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Lévi-Strauss, and later by the emerging generation of poststructuralist thinkers like Foucault and Derrida, despite the earlier status enjoyed by the humanist existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. Foucault’s extended critique of humanist, anthropocentric thinking in his monumental The Order of Things of 1970 epitomises the poststructuralist contribution to the dismantling of humanism and anthropocentrism.

The final thing to mention in this limited space is the advent of the Anthropocene, or geological period following the Holocene, dated around the European industrial revolution of the 18th century, when humankind developed the capacity to change the very planetary conditions under which all living creatures exist. The word “Anthropocene” already stresses the centrality of humans — or rather, “man” — in this scheme of things, because it was “his” technological inventions, themselves made possible by “his” science, which have been responsible for the anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification, diminution of the nitrogen content of the atmosphere and excessive increase in species extinction, among other things, that we face today.

Hence the emerging posthumanism and post-anthropocentrism that one witnesses in many disciplinary practices globally, can also be understood as a response to the devastations of the Anthropocene, in addition to the reasons referred to earlier. The challenge facing the humanities, taken up by the thinkers and critical theorists mentioned above, is — as I have already pointed out — to devise ways of revitalising their disciplines in the form of a cross-pollination between the latter and disciplines such as the bio-sciences, where the continuum between the human and the non-human (or natural) other is demonstrated, for instance in the self-organising capacity of living matter. In the face of such evidence no one can cling to the belief in human exceptionalism any longer, in the place of which the continuity between all living beings (and even beyond) has to be affirmed, even in the humanities.

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    • Richard

      Do you not think the notion of “trans-humanism” is more apposite than “post-humanism”? The civilisation set up by humanism, namely the Western one, is still very aspirational, and other cultures are drawn to it, yet do not wish to embrace it. They seek its achievements, though, and so are trans-humanist, in the way we speak of transgender.

    • Bert Olivier

      Richard – In the sense that you specify, one could certainly speak of ‘trans-humanism’, but ‘posthumanism’ means something different, namely moving beyond the human-centred e[poch altogether.

    • Bert Olivier

      Richard – Trans-humanism could work in the sense you propose, but ‘posthumanism’ means getting beyond the epoch of the centrality of ‘man’ or ‘anthropos’ altogether.

    • Bert Olivier

      Thanks, Bill – I wish more people would realise how relevant philosophy is, and has always been. There are (so-called) ‘philosophers’ today who waste their time on mind-games, endlessly analysing one another’s arguments, instead of interpreting what is happening in the world around them. They remind me of the scholastics in the late middle ages who supposedly argued about the question, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.