The prefix “post” denotes after-ness: posthumous, postgraduate, postmodernism.
So what business does anthropology have in investigating the posthuman?
First, a clarification: there are two distinct definitions of posthumanism currently in use, both of which I find intensely interesting.
Nick Bostrom in Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up (2008) defines a posthuman as someone who has transcended the mental and physical limits of the human form, through genetic enhancements and technologies presently available to us, also known as “biohacking” (“DIY biology”). By limiting methods of bio-modification to those in current use, Bostrom distinguishes posthumanism from the abstract and distant imaginings of a sci-fi universe. This notion of posthumanism is related to transhumanism, which can be seen as a movement “in transit” toward the ultimate goal of reaching a posthuman future by attempting to supersede the human condition as we know it (Birnbacher 2008, p. 95).
On the other hand, N. Katherine Hayles’ (1999) definition of posthumanism is situated in critical social theory and is in reaction to liberal humanism, a philosophical movement introduced by Enlightenment thinkers in the late 17th-century that conceived the human subject as a rational, unitary, autonomous, and stable being. These might sound like good characteristics, but the Enlightenment’s conception of liberal humanism was based on a racist and colonialist exclusionary project that precluded “the savage, the animal, the inferior, and the superstitious from the fully human” (Whitehead 2012, p. 225). It’s clear, then, why anthropologists seek a more pluralistic conception of the human subject.
Firstly, Hayles’ posthumanism privileges information over corporeality; it views having a body “as an accident of history, rather than an inevitability of life” (1999, p. 2). Second, contrary to the rational human model purported by Enlightenment thinkers, consciousness isn’t the most important part of being human. Third, all bodies are an original prosthesis, and technology is just a prosthetic extension of ourselves. Fourth, the human body is able to be merged seamlessly with intelligent machines, and “there is no essential difference between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism” (1999, p. 3).
So, you’re thinking: is there really no difference between humans and robots? Is this the end of us?
Not quite. As Hayles asserts, “the posthuman does not really mean the end of humanity. It signals instead the end of a certain conception of the human, a conception that may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power, and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice.” (1999, p. 286, emphasis added)
The post in posthuman therefore refers to the pluralistic conceptions of the human subject that critical social theorists seek to replace the singular, stable humanist model presented by the Enlightenment. Such alternatives include the cyborg, proposed by Donna Haraway (1991), which breaks down the boundaries between animal and human, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical.
So how can posthumanism, in both senses of the word, be studied anthropologically? Can anthropologists employ fieldwork methods like ethnography and participant observation on cyborgs? Where is “the field“, what is “the culture”, and is there a protocol for ethics?
For both Bostrom and Hayles, the subject respectively becomes the no-longer-human and the no-longer-humanist. Posthumanism has not merely expanded the scope of what constitutes humanhood, it has questioned the entire notion of humanhood as a bounded concept, and following this, anthropology should accommodate new notions of “the field”, culture, and ethics.
Birnbacher, D 2008, ‘Posthumanity, Transhumanism and Human Nature’, in B Gordijn & R Chadwick (eds.), Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, Springer, pp. 95-106.
Bostrom, N 2008, ‘Why I Want to be a Posthuman when I Grow Up’, in B Gordijn & R Chadwick (eds.), Medical Enhancement and Posthumanity, Springer, pp. 107-136.
Haraway, D 1991, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late 20th Century’, in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, Routledge, pp. 149-182.
Hayles, NK 2008, How we became posthuman: Virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature, and informatics. University of Chicago Press.
Whitehead, NL and Wesch, M (eds.) 2012, Human No More: digital subjectivities, unhuman subjects, and the end of anthropology. University Press of Colorado.