As material for my new book on the intersection between the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and experimental African literature, I’ve had occasion to think about the notion of the posthuman. This has only been compounded by a recent talk I was lucky enough to attend by the noted European feminist (dare I add that all-too-loaded but ultimately empty descriptor?) writer, Rosi Braidotti.
As many will know, over a number of years now, Braidotti has been engaged with rethinking humanist assumptions in light of the work of the 1968 radicals of French thought – Foucalut, Derrida, Deleuze, Irigaray, Cixous… The point, of course, has been to question – if not completely do away with – the central role that the human claims for herself in this world (… of ours).
However, one of the most difficult sports in which one can engage, it would seem, is to imagine the human as a part of this world rather than apart from it. The phrase “the human animal” at least encourages one to play the game of worldly integration, but it is all too easily dismissed by those who point (perhaps too quickly) at the achievements of “Man” – cultural, technological, and otherwise – as a marker of our difference to the natural world. Nonetheless, this is exactly the sport in which Braidotti is interested.
Certainly, to think of the human as a part of the world is to willingly de-centralize him as “the measure of all things” – to be done with Protagoras and da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. But, what seems to be the small act of accepting the embedded, intimate relationship between Man and World (indeed, Man and Universe) has far-reaching implications – implications that Braidotti identifies and discusses in her new book, The Posthuman (2013).
Since Braidotti does such a wonderful job talking about such things in her book, I need not concern myself with them here. Rather I want to draw attention to two ways of thinking about the posthuman – (1) as material object, and (2) as discursive formation. Being aware of this distinction between perceptions and approaches to the posthuman is significant because critics often conflate the two and in so doing have the potential to leave the reader somewhat confused.
Perhaps one should begin with the easier of the two approaches to understand – the posthuman as material object. This is the simple idea that as biological and technological sciences make an impact on our body, we become something other (usually more) than human. Such biological and technological impact can range from the modest – such as our use of a walking stick to aid our balance – to the amazing – microparticles that can be injected directly into the bloodstream to oxygenate the body without the need for breath (read the story here).
Now, some would prefer to identify this kind of adaptation of the body as instances of the “transitional human” – or “transhuman.” But, regardless of terminology, such instances of modification are notable for the way in which they allow the biological human body to either increase its level of performance or extend its capacity for action. It is the reflection induced by this kind of transformation of the human body that is properly the domain of the posthuman understood as material object.
However, thinking of the posthuman as a discursive form is an altogether more abstract endeavour. Since I am a simple man, invoking Deleuze’s notion of the “exceeded subject” helps me to translate this world of the abstract to a more manageable language of the everyday. Briefly, for those who have yet to encounter the idea, the exceeded subject talks of subjectivity as that which is produced by the chain of relations that position the subject. Let me give you an example: you are probably reading this sitting down, in a particular room, in a particular house, in a particular society that thrives on capital, and so on.
Similarly, the chair you are sitting on has been purchased (by you/your parents?) from a particular shop, who purchased it from a particular supplier, who took receipt of it from a particular manufacturer, who owns a particular fabrication unit all within the nexus of, again, a particular economic situation. And so on, and so on. Such chains of relation (networks) are implicit in every aspect of life.
What is significant for Deleuze, though, is that these (multiple – certainly incomprehensible as a totality -) chains of association ultimately cohere (or at least come together, sometimes in quite problematic ways) into a point of individuation that we think of as ourselves. This is the exceeded subject – that which is constituted by those things beyond the meaning or control of the subject, rather than through some inherent, essential quality or character.
Now, the important thing to understand about this in relation to our question of the posthuman as a discursive form is that as critics we can choose which chains of relation we would like to follow in order to describe something. And it is this that raises a profound question: is “the posthuman” merely the description of a particular chain of relations that we follow as we look to understand the contemporary human? Is the posthuman nothing more than a privileging of the discourses of biological and technological sciences on the human?
The answers to such questions are something that each of us must consider in our own time. But the questions themselves are important, and for these reasons: if the posthuman is properly a discursive form then surely we should be talking of “posthumanism” rather than the “posthuman”; and, if it is a material object then surely we should be concentrating discussion of the posthuman on the new ontologies made possible – that is to say, the way in which technological and biological sciences continue to extend the capacity of our bodies to act.
Unless the critic rises to the challenge of marking out the territory of the posthuman in this way then we will be left in the curious position of admitting to ourselves that the posthuman has always been and continues to be immanent to our idea of the human – have we always been posthumans?