The below are Stefan Herbrechter’s written replies to Jerome Garbrah, student on the BA programme in Communication, Culture and Media at Coventry University, in November 2013.
Stefan Herbrechter: I studied English and French languages, literatures and cultures at Heidelberg University, Germany. After my MA I went to do a PhD in English literature at Cardiff University. The Cardiff Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at the time was one of the leading places for “British poststructuralism” – a combination of Althusserian Marxism, cultural materialism, Lacanian psychoanalytic theory, Barthesian semiology, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, French feminism, postcolonialism, etc. I guess you recognise a poststructuralist by the way he or she uses the notion of the subject (derived from Althusser-Lacan-Foucault-Derrida), a generalised notion of textuality (and intertextuality, from Barthes, Kristeva, and Derrida) and a materialist and political notion of representation (e.g. in Edward Said, Chris Weedon, and Stuart Hall). Poststructuralism’s stance is “anti-humanist” – it attacks the “liberal humanist” tradition (as the dominant ideology that has been suggesting to humans that they’re “free individuals” to justify bourgeois capitalism). It is critical of humanism’s pretended universalism, its repression of difference and its essentialist notion of identity. For me, posthumanism (or “critical posthumanism”, which is the phrase I prefer) is a continuation of this poststructuralist critique under new conditions. Global historical events (like the end of the Cold War, 9/11, etc.) and technological and media developments (digitalisation, virtual reality etc.) require a transformation of poststructuralist theory in order to be able to explain new forms of identity, global digital media and their new forms of materialism. This is where the kind of “posthumanism” I’m arguing for comes in. It goes back to Donna Haraway’s idea of the cyborg as a “deconstructive figure” that highlights the impossibility of a radical distinction between human/animal and human/machine, especially under contemporary “technocultural” and “technoscientific” conditions. It is a critical engagement with science fictional utopian visions, but at the same time it is also an ongoing critique of our humanist tradition and self-understanding (against the idea that humans are somehow “exceptional” – i.e. against “anthropocentrism”). It is thus looking forward and backward at the same time in order to, on the one hand, resist the dehumanising tendencies of late global technoscientific capitalism (the times we’re living in), and, on the other hand, to relativise the anthropocentrism of the humanist tradition by emphasising differences within the category of the “human” (e.g. gender, age, race, species) and what to do with them. In other words, “critical posthumanism” as I understand it is the “ongoing deconstruction of humanism”, and not the idea that we have somehow left that humanist tradition behind or have managed to get rid of it.
2. What exactly is ‘posthumanity’?
SH: “Posthumanity”, as a word refers to “the state of being posthuman”. From my point of view one has to clearly differentiate between “posthuman” and “posthumanism”. Posthumanism is a discourse (in the Foucauldian sense). There are currently lots of people and media texts that speak about “how we are becoming or apparently already have, or indeed have alsways been, posthuman”. All are engaged in gathering knowledge about this mythical figure called the “posthuman”. On the one hand, they say, we have never been human in the way that traditional humanism wanted to make us believe – there is no human essence that makes “us” fundamentally different from nonhuman animals –, on the other hand, after millennia of tool use and extensions to the human body, contemporary biotechnology in combination with digitalisation threatens to blur the boundary between the organic (human and nonhuman bodies) and inorganic material (machines, digital media). So I assume, posthumanity would be that utopian (or dystopian) vision that tries to anticipate a future (or describe a “present”) after “humanity” as we know it, e.g. “augmented” humans, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, networked intelligence, post-biological assemblages or chimerae, new species, tissue cultures etc.
3. You mentioned concepts like cyborgisation amd prosthesisation and also transhumanisation. Could you say a bit on how they relate and briefly discuss their link to posthumanisation?
SH: Terminology is important in my view. Let’s start with posthumanism versus transhumanism: a posthumanist somehow thinks that either we’re living the end of “humanism” or the beginning of a time “after” humanism (the question would be which humanism are we talking about here: classical Greek and Roman humanism, Renaissance humanism, religious humanism, modern secular humanism…?). In accordance with what I said above, from my point of view, it’s not that easy to leave such a diverse and powerful tradition behind just by putting the prefix “post” in front of it. Critical posthumanism is that stance which on the one hand embraces the discussion (the desire that must lie behind the current idea of the posthuman – why does this discourse emerge now?), but on the other hand, also reminds people that humanism is a rather mixed bag with many ideas you really don’t want to give up (equality, justice, democracy, literature etc.), because the result would not be some fancy “posthumanity” but maybe merely “dehumanisation”. However, all the best intentions and humanist values have not protected us from the Holocaust, genocides, colonialism, imperialism, patriarchy etc.
Transhumanists, on the other hand, are people who believe that new technologies (digitalisation and biotechnology) can actually help us to somehow become “more” human, or to fulfil our “potential”, e.g. by overcoming our mortality by getting rid of the body. This attitude I find rather naïve and worrying, because it actually quite unreflectedly continues a Christian or Cartesian notion according to which the mind (or soul) can or should be separated from the body. This usually leads to a debasement of our “animal” body (and a debasement of nonhuman animals) in the name of some “purity” of the mind (or soul). This in turn allows for all sorts of devaluations of “lesser” minds, the “irrational” and the “material” side of life.
Posthumanisation I’d say is the ongoing process that started probably as soon as humans started thinking of themselves as a separate species, and as different from everything else on this planet. It’s an ongoing process of first separating ourselves from our “natural” environments through tools, techniques and technology. Today, this process has reached a stage where humans are seriously debating whether current or future technologies will challenge the “integrity” of the human species – some embrace this (= transhumanists) some abhor and want to reverse this (“new humanists”), some are taking a negotiating position in between (all varieties of “posthumanists”).
Cyborgisation, prosthesisation and posthumanism are virtually interchangeable. The cyborg is that figure that since the late 1980s has captured people’s imagination. But it’s a figure that develops out of second order cybernetics (Norbert Wiener) and the space age (and science fiction). Prosthesisation is also closely related. Humans have always tried to control their environment through “extension” (clubs, fire, spears, wheels, chisels, etc.). The history of how we became human and developed into the modern human species we are today (paleontology) is closely related to the history of technology and scientific invention. Technology has always been our “prosthesis”, but therefore it could also be said that it’s what has “made” us human in the first place (cf. Bernard Stiegler’s notion of “originary technicity”). Today we’ve reached a stage of prosthesisation (involvement between human bodies and technological devices or media) where these prostheses are no longer extensions of the human body, but some would argue that the prostheses we have now will increasingly demand an adaptation from our side (cf. for example the work of a posthuman(ist) performance artist like Stelarc) and that’s why we need, according to them, embrace and even accelerate our becoming “cyborgs”.
4. What other concepts do you feel relate closely to posthumanism and why?
SH: I think the answer to this question is given above (in question 3). Posthumanism radically opens up our future – what’s going to become of “us” (as well as, how should we interpret our past)? Were we ever the kind of people we thought we were? What to make of that long period of time when there weren’t any humans on this planet? What to make of the prospect of “ecocide” – a world “after” humans? Is there another way of organising our relationship with nonhuman animals, technology and the environment? All these fundamental political and ethical questions have now become quite urgent mainly because of the problem of sustainability (economic, ecological, political…).
5. What concerns specifically do you have about the shift in use by people from paper books to electronic ones?
SH: One meaning of the word humanism is closely related to the idea of a national and cosmopolitan “republic of letters”. It’s an educational idea that comes to us from the Enlightenment period – if we teach people to lift themselves (mainly through “literacy”, and nowadays of course, increasingly, through numeracy as well) out of a state of “immaturity” (cf. Kant), for example by sending them to places of “learning” and “scholarship” like universities, we’re going to turn them into better people and ultimately improve the general state of the world (e.g. by overcoming social injustice, wars between nations etc.). It’s a very powerful idea that reading (writing, and arithmetic) not only improves your knowledge but ultimately helps you to make the right decision and therefore turns you into a better person. I don’t think we can simply let go of that idea, but we also cannot ignore that there is increasing scepticism of traditional forms and a fundamental discussion about new forms of “literacy”. Are these new forms just an extension of our humanist values and reflexes onto new media, or are they more far-reaching than that? There is namely also the counter argument that new media (with their participatory, networked or “prosumer” character) are in fact being held back by precisely these values. You could argue there’s a war between humanists, who want to “tame” the dangers of new media, and posthumanists, who believe the humanist “taming technologies” (reading, writing etc.) are obsolete. Again the critical posthumanism I’m trying to defend would take into account the newness of the situation while not falling into the trap that we can afford to give up something like “literacy”.
As to electronic books, I have absolutely nothing against them. They’re searchable, can be easily rewritten, circulated, shared etc. That’s a huge advantage, but there are some problems: the idea of completion (or at least temporary “arrest”) that a book conveys, or the idea that it is possible to catch up with something, to interiorise something, or have at least relative assurance about something, isn’t there within the constant flow of information available through the internet. There’s also some quality control in editing through publishers and peers that isn’t available on many open access and social media. Even the search function has its drawbacks, namely that it’s becoming increasingly tempting, almost a necessity, to read very selectively. And then, of course, the material portability of the book is still not matched (not even by kindles). There are also other material rituals, like taking a book from a shelf, opening a book, leafing through the pages, using page markers, underlining, dog’s ears etc. that are all part of a reading experience that form a material relationship with the book and its “aura”, so to speak. These practices aren’t indispensable of course, but many people would miss them…
6. Twenty years from now, will we still be in the ‘posthumanist’ era as you have put it? Or do you think we would have found a replacement for electronic books? And where does that put society with respect to posthumanity?
SH: I don’t think that we’re in a “posthuman era” to start with. And I really don’t know whether I’d want to live in a “posthuman era”, if it is defined by hypertechnology, hypercapitalism and hypermedia as we know them. You’re asking me to make predictions about the future, but I’m not a futurist, a prophet or anything like that. In many ways, critical posthumanism as I understand it is exactly the opposite. We have a lot to work through before we can become really open-minded about the future. The best way to stop any real future in its radical otherness from actually happening – a future which might be better or worse, but that we cannot know, by definition – it is by imagining it in the form of an extrapolation of what we already know or see coming. In a sense critical posthumanism is arguing against the kind of “posthuman/transhuman” scenario that today seems “inevitable” everywhere, if you believe science fiction or popular science magazines or the media in general. We need radically different forms of futurity to solve our current problems… So the challenge from my point of view, is rather how to become human – differently.