Anthony Miccoli

    Posthuman topology refers to posthumanism in a phenomenological mode. It is the study of how the experience of technological artefacts and technic environments – the environments of their development and use – shapes the manner in which the individual thinks and occupies his or her lifeworld, beyond a simple psychological affect. Posthuman topology maintains that the technology one uses and the physical spaces one occupies become materially instantiated components of a “distributed cognition”.[1] Fusing theories of distributed cognition with critical posthumanism produces a posthuman topology which maintains that traditional (liberal humanist, post-Enlightenment) characteristics of the human – intentionality (the capacity to focus attention on an object or objective), volition (the capacity to make choices), and logic (the capacity to interpret relationships among ideas, objects, and choices themselves) – are functions which occur distributed across internal biological and topological substrates traditionally characterised as being ‘exterior’ to the body. That is to say, ‘consciousness’ and the cognitive processes which support it are contingent upon both the biological ‘wetware’ of the brain and the composition and arrangement of the physical objects and characteristics or environment.[2] The environment a human occupies does not simply affect the human, it constitutes the very mechanisms by which that humanity is apprehended and expressed.

    The key to realising this dynamic is to collapse Cartesian-based models of self/other dichotomies – as well as notions of interior/exterior (thoughts are internal and are expressed externally) – and place the phenomenal world traditionally characterised as “outside” of us on equal ontological footing with what we normally considered to be ‘internal’ to us. Jane Bennett[3] and Peter-Paul Verbeek[4] call for a more focused awareness on the presence of these physical artefacts and systems, with Bennett calling for us to recognise “thing power” or a “vibrant materialism” which, in essence, integrates those artefacts and systems into the cognitive process at a formative level, rather than characterising them as simply external factors which affect an internalised process of thinking itself. What is traditionally conceived as ‘human’ then becomes a function of this aggregate or distributed cognition, whose logic is particular to the temporal and spatial placement of that entity within a specific topology. A posthuman topology therefore maintains that being human is as contingent upon the physical space the human occupies as it is on the biological processes of the body which physically support thought. If critical posthumanism is essentially a way to examine, explore, and ultimately critique traditional notions of Cartesian subjectivity and the ‘humanity’ it presents, posthuman topology is one method of reconceptualising that subjectivity.

    From the standpoint of posthuman topology, a human being always operates within a network of things, and functions as an assemblage.[5] While the process of human cognition physically takes place within the biological matter of the brain, it occurs as a function of the aggregate of the biological and other material phenomena which the body encounters. Traditionally, this relationship is often thought of as relational or representational: the mind as an autopoietic system represents the phenomenal world, translating phenomenal perturbations on the system into a representation of a lifeworld in which the human interacts. Indeed, Bennett herself sees the human experience as being populated with “various materialities constantly engaged in a network of relations”.[6] But a posthuman topology takes the “network of relations” more literally, seeing what is traditionally viewed as the ‘external’ world as being a constituent part of the mechanism by which those relations (and representations) are made. There is, in essence, a “structural coupling”[7] of the human and the environment, but, as Hansen believes, this involves a technics “that in effect contaminates the logic of the living with the distinct and always concrete operations of technics”.[8] Thus, cognition is not a closed system operating with an a priori logic or an imposed relationship governed by a posteriori knowledge; it is a system “contaminated” by – or, worded less ominously, coupled or compresent with – its environment; its logic comprised by the physical space it occupies. Thus the phenomena we perceive are not separate entities represented within our minds; they are a constituent part of the mechanism by which those very phenomena are represented. Logic itself is not just “contaminated” by the environment, it is instantiated by it.

    Through such a distributed logic, perception of ‘self’ and ‘autonomy’ is governed by highly localised topologies which begin with the biological body as the centre-point or placeholder upon which awareness is ‘located’. But this awareness cannot arise unless there is a known topological space or phenomena through and upon which it can materialise. That is to say, an awareness of the body is always formed in relation to the topology that the body occupies. Those topologies are themselves culturally influenced, and potentially create a somewhat uniform experience among those who occupy similar spaces. The more localised the shared space becomes, the more distinctive and particular the logics of a given group of people also become. A group or an individual will develop a logic particular to the space in which that group or individual dwells. This “anthropocentric topology” is a logic of self-awareness instantiated across material landscapes.[9] Autonomy, then, is a functional myth which logically situates the human in its perceived lifeworld, and is comprised of a structural coupling of our cognitive functioning with our local topology. Posthuman topology – as a methodology – serves to deconstruct autonomy in relation to the particular environment(s) in which that autonomy developed. Logic, mindedness, and intentionality are conceptually contingent upon an interior/exterior binary, but that binary is a projected relationship. ‘Interior’ and ‘exterior’ are values projected by a consciousness which needs to situate itself in physical parameters to best negotiate and navigate the environment it occupies.

    The implications of posthuman topologies are especially important when thinking of object design – or how artefacts are engineered for human use. Hans Verbeek’s call for an awareness of the “scripts” (how objects dictate human actions) embedded in the design of artefacts point to the fact that objects can evoke and prescribe behaviours, and that “the script approach opens up a new way to morally assess technologies with respect to the role the play win their use contexts”.[10] Such scripts, when taken in the context of posthuman topologies, show that objects structurally coupled with humans create an ‘ontic fusion’, and create a particular logic of a human-object entity. In this fashion, human beings are not simply being affected by the objects used or the environments occupied; instead, they are becoming a hybrid consciousness structurally governed by a logic specific to the artefacts and environments themselves.

    As a practice, critical posthumanism seeks to question and problematise the assumptions which stem from liberal humanist and post-Enlightenment conceits regarding such phenomena as intentionality, volition, and logic. At the core of these conceits is the self/other dichotomy, which allows for distinctions of objectives, choices, and the relationships among them. An examination of the topologies which make those distinctions possible becomes possible when the experience of technological artefacts and environments humans occupy becomes the focus of attention, rather than a simple rearticulation of subjectivity as a purely internal, mental construct. Posthuman topology intervenes on a deeper critical level, by investigating the very mechanisms by which (post)humanity is known, felt, and expressed.

    – Western State Colorado University, September 2017

    Keywords: Postphenomenology; Phenomenology; Jane Bennett; Distributed Cognition; New Materialism; Thing Theory



    [1] See Andrew Clark, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

    [2] For a more detailed discussion of posthuman topologies, see my own ‘Posthuman Topologies: Thinking Through the Hoard’, in Design, Mediation, and the Posthuman, ed. Dennis Weiss, Amy Propen, and Colbey Emmerson Reid (New York: Lexington Books, 2012).

    [3] See Jane Bennett, ‘The Force of Things: Steps Toward an Ecology of Matter’, in Political Theory, 32.3 (2004), pp. 347-372.

    [4] See Peter-Paul Verbeek, ‘Materializing Morality: Design Ethics and Technological Mediation’, in Science, Technology and Human Values, 31.3 (2006), 361-380.

    [5] Bennett, pp. 353-354.

    [6] Bennett, p. 354.

    [7] Mark B.N. Hansen, ‘Media Theory’, in Theory, Culture, and Society, 23.294 (2006), 297-306, p. 299.

    [8] Hansen, p. 299.

    [9] Posthuman topology sheds new light on relationships beyond the specifically technological. The grieving process, for instance, becomes a study in an individual losing the specific and persistent fixtures of spousal or filial topologies. Culturally and historically, the forcible relocation of aboriginal peoples from their native environments becomes a study of how particular environments instantiate culture itself. The hegemony often found in middle-class suburbia is then intrinsically linked to the sameness of housing developments and shopping centres (see esp. Miccoli, p. 19).

    [10] Verbeek, p. 362.