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What can we expect beyond the human?

The 7th Beyond Humanism Conference, which has just come to an end in Seoul, Korea, where delegates met at the Ewha Women’s University, was … well, more than interesting. It was fascinating in many ways, sometimes in a rather abject, almost horrifying manner. How would you respond to someone world famous, if not notorious, called Stelarc, advancing the argument that the human body is “obsolete”, and suggesting that, following his example, we should be looking for ever-more ingenious ways to merge with technological gadgetry to demonstrate that the future is cyborgian?

Stelarc, who is also a performance artist, is Heidegger’s worst nightmare incarnate. While Heidegger was endlessly suspicious about the deleterious impact of technology on the integrity of the earth and of human beings, Stelarc embraces technology unconditionally (From Humanism to Post- and Transhumanism; Conference abstracts 2015, “Uncanny desires/liminal spaces: Zombies, Cyborgs, Hybrids and Humanoids”, p. 1):

“This is the age of Circulating Flesh, Fractal Flesh and Phantom Flesh. A time of extreme absence and alien experience. Of bodies performing in remote spaces with split physiologies and multiple agencies, where bodies are simultaneously possessed and performing. Bodies are inadequate, empty, involuntary, absent and obsolete. We are living in an age of excess and indifference. Of prosthetic augmentation and extended operational systems. An age of Organs Without Bodies, of organs awaiting bodies. Cadavers can be preserved forever with plastination while comatose bodies can be sustained indefinitely on life-support systems. And cryogenically suspended bodies await reanimation at some imagined future. The dead, the near-dead, the un-dead and the yet to be born now exist simultaneously. This is the age of the Cadaver, the Comatose and the Chimera. Of Zombies, Cyborgs and Humanoids. Being neither one nor the other, being neither here nor there, but partly present and mostly absent.”

While Stelarc successfully mimics the paradoxical logic of poststructuralism (neither nor, both and), he fails in its application in any illuminating manner; rather, his writing resembles, and probably is, a manifesto, ostensibly of the kind issued by the Dadaists in the early 20th century — except that the latter intended their manifestoes as paradoxical, shock-inducing denunciations of the social hypocrisies of their time, while Stelarc is entirely serious. The result is that it comes across as being melodramatic.

The “actual-virtual performance” given by Stelarc in the course of the conference amounted to him turning himself into an avatar by means of “internet muscle actuating systems” — being wired on and in his arms in such a manner that an assistant (in Australia) could activate his arms to move in narrow or wider arcs, in this way imparting quasi-melodic sound to a backdrop of percussion. In effect the performance turned Stelarc into a mediating agent — an avatar, no less — for a combination of human agency and technology functioning from thousands of kilometres away, in conjunction with various systems, including electronic sound, to become a part of an individual-surpassing event.

There is no doubt that Stelarc’s performance and pronouncements — he gave one of the keynote addresses — are important insofar as they are symptomatic of a widespread, and growing, infatuation with the idea of the “singularity”, promoted by Ray Kurzweil (and invoked by Stelarc), to wit, that it is a matter of only decades before humans will routinely merge with machines, taking the next step in posthuman, or perhaps rather transhuman evolution, as it were. And transhuman it would be, because the more such “brave new world” beings resemble machines, the less they would belong to the human species.

It should be clear from the above that the meaning of “posthuman” in the context of Stelarc’s work is a far cry from the sense in which I used it in a recent post, where I discussed it in a largely philosophical-ecological context related to the work of Deleuze and Guattari, as well as of Rosi Braidotti, and where “posthumanism” essentially designates a position beyond humanism and anthropocentrism. The latter two concepts represent the era and line of thinking where (European) humans were placed at the centre of things, from where they exercised a supposedly legitimate mastery over other humans who belonged to different cultures, as well as over the other creatures of the earth. In this context moving beyond anthropocentrism means to accept that, in the light of recent revelations (in the bio- and neuro-sciences, eg) humans can claim no exceptionalism, and that they should be seen as being just another species, alongside those of other animals and plants in the evolutionary continuum.

To my utter surprise, except for my own paper, there was scant indication of this ecological interpretation of posthumanism at the conference, despite its legitimacy in the light of the work of someone like Braidotti, let alone Deleuze and Guattari. Here the overwhelming, albeit not exclusive, interest was in post- and transhumanism insofar as it bears on humans’ relationship with (artificially intelligent) machines — something that Braidotti also addresses, but not to the exclusion of the important ecological questions implicated by particularly posthumanism.

The other keynote address, by well-known philosopher of media, Mark BN Hansen of Duke University in the US, was a number of cuts above the tecnophiliac sermonising of Stelarc — not surprisingly, he summarily rejected Stelarc’s renunciation of the human body as being “obsolete”, pointing out, in contrast, that it is precisely the adaptability and flexibility of the human body that deserves one’s interpretive attention. Hansen was critically reflective in light of the undeniable changes wrought to the human lifeworld by 21st century technical media. Here is how Hansen elaborates on the differences between 19th/20th-century and 21st-century media and the opportunity these provide in relation to a rethinking of human experience (Conference abstracts 2015, “We have always been posthuman, or towards a cosmological humanism”, p. 3):

“ … the shift from the great recording media of the 19th and 20th centuries to contemporary media involves a fundamental modification of the vocation of media: if 19th and 20th century technical media — notably, phonography and cinematography — functioned to inscribe, store and transmit humanly accessible experience for human consumption, 21st century media most frequently involve machine-to-machine communication without any necessary interface onto human modes of experience. As I understand it, this modification in the vocation of media furnishes an opportunity to rethink the status and operationality of the human in a fundamental way.”

Hansen thinks of the “co-evolution” of humans and “technics” (French philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s term for technology) as “technogenesis”, and he elaborates on this by drawing, in a strikingly perceptive manner, on the work of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, particularly his 1929 text, “Process and Reality”, where Whitehead attempted to re-embed human consciousness in what he thought of as the “totality of things”, which he regarded as being obscured by the necessarily “selective character” of humans’ perceptual relationship with the world (something first articulated by Immanuel Kant). What interests Hansen in particular here is the way that Whitehead’s augmentation of sense perception with what he called “perception in the mode of causal efficacy” lends itself to adaptation for and elaboration on the changed mode of human embeddedness in a lifeworld permeated by 21st-century media. He does so by expanding Whitehead’s notion of “symbolic reference”, or the bringing-into-alignment of the two modes of perception, in the direction of what he calls “machinic reference”. This entails “ … the technical operations of data gathering and analysis [which] substitute for human sense perception as a means of access and a correlate to the bodily and environmental mode of perception” (p. 4).

While therefore recognising the fact that contemporary technical processes have “dethroned” human consciousness from its central position of “mastery”, given the fact of its dependence on technically produced data and the data-analysis it requires, Hansen nevertheless concludes that the “posthuman” cannot ever amount to a merger of humans with machines. “Rather”, he claims (p. 4), “it demarcates a process that has been in effect since the origin of the human (hence my title) and that is predicated on the mutual quasi-autonomy of both the human and the technical … humans and machines possess fundamentally different modes of embodiment that prevent their material merger”. So much for the singularity.