MATERIAL CULTURE: 

Essay on

Poshumanity


 

 

 

ABSTRACT

In the first part of this essay, I will be explaining how the traditional dualistic view of nature and culture belonging to humanism is being challenged by the emergence of post-human trains of thought. On the second part, I provide two examples of how this analysis can be shown through two post-human objects of material culture. On one hand, I will make an argument on how technology has affected the politics of the human and on the other what the implications of post-humanism mean for gender and race.

PART 1

In an attempt to make the distinction between nature vs culture clearer I will make a reduction of both concepts. The separation refers to nature as everything which does not belong to the essence of man and to culture as everything which is man. Such a division can be traced back to Greek philosophers that laid the foundations for humanism, Protagoras was an ancient philosopher who proclaimed famously “that man is the measure of all things’1. It came as an emergent thinking that questioned ancient beliefs that held gods and divine deities as unreachable forces to whom were given complete agency of relations in the world. Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle really cemented the thought and implied to place man as the reference point for the future of intellectual pursuit. This became understood and interpreted more strongly during the Renaissance period as a form of a dualism, a dualism between subjectivity vs objectivity, rationalism vs empiricism, man vs nature, liberty vs dogmas.

Key notions such as the Cartesian ‘cogito ergo sum’ and Davinci’s ‘Vitruvian man’ exemplify this binary separation. In addition, Malthusian and Darwinian interpretations created a legacy of survival and competition between the species during the modernist age, which became politically and economically driven by Communism and Capitalism. Needless to say according to The Posthuman (Rosi Braidotti, 2013: 13), “Humanism historically developed into a civilizational model which shaped a certain idea of Europe as coinciding with the Universalizing of the self-reflexive reason”.

A Eurocentrism which proclaimed a certain type of humanism, a very masculine perfect and white man equal only to itself. As such its paradigm is also that of a binary difference where the difference has negative downgrading values ‘the white man vs the other’, the white man vs man, the woman, the animal, and its mother Earth. Ultimately events that characterised the colonial period, the machine age, Fascist Germany and the imperial United States, produced a backlash that gave rise to several movements that critically questioned the humanist ideal (Rosi Braidotti, 2013).

Rosi Braidotti even contemplates the idea that actually we might have never always been human or that we are only that. Eurocentric traditional politics and science have been at war clearly by its own contradictory history of appropriation for production linked to the notion of unlimited progress (slavery, colonialism, and the commodification of women, animals and everything else).

From a technological angle, technology has always asked questions about what it means to be human or even inhuman. On December 24, 1968, a photograph was taken (now called Earthrise).

In the Inhuman condition, quoted by Keith Tester, Martin Heidegger states (after seeing the pictures) his fear, “Everything is functioning and … the functioning drives us more and more to even further functioning, and … technology tears men loose from the Earth and uproots them. “we don’t need any atom bomb. The uprooting of man has already taken place, the only thing we have is purely technological relationships (Tester 1995; 1). Tester argues about Heidegger’s enframing tendencies of technology, so it seems that if the earth seems banal (in a photograph) then so is humanity. But if humanity is able to enframe the earth then humanity itself cannot be as banal as the earth, but it is therefore and thereby quite homeless in the universe. (Tester 1995; 3-4).

Marx was one of the first to state that technology dehumanises what we might call the human, Marx’s so-called ‘Alienated labour’ is characterized by the fact that a subject engages in the production of an object that is itself independent in relation to the producer and her labour2. This idea can be interpreted as the engagement of man and its technological environment for which man has to accustom to the needs of technology.

In addition to this Friedrich Nietzsche argued and presented “being” or otherwise human as a process rather than ‘Substance’. Through his distinction of ‘active and reactive force’, Nietzsche argues, there is no essential truth of being; nor is there an independent reality before and beyond the flux of appearances; every aspect of the real is already constituted by quantities and combination of forces. (Adrian Parr 2005;7)

Similarly, Actor-Network Theory argues that agency is not a quality only belonging to humans as traditionally thought instead it ‘exposes how agency circulates between heterogeneous actors, including technologies of all kinds, in complex, hybrid circuits’3.Technology has decentered the notion that the human is the unitary point of reference from which universal truths are created. The binary difference is questioned by post-humanism both ontologically and epistemologically pointing to a future time where technology itself will have enough agency to challenge man’s own status and for this matter also challenge the nature versus culture division.

From a feminist stance Haraway, sees this as a point in time where the role of the female will change, as we move from ‘an organic, industrial society to a polymorphous, information system” (Haraway 1991;161) which she calls the Informatics of Domination. ‘The actual situation for women is their integration/ exploitation into a world system of production/reproduction. The home, workplace, market, public arena, the body itself- all can be dispersed and interfaced in nearly infinite, polymorphous ways,’ (Haraway 1991;163).

Furthermore, Haraway proposed ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ where ‘the cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world” “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. We are all chimaeras. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality. (Haraway 1991;150).

Gender and race and their politics are at a point of convergence and transformation, pushed by the effects of globalisation, because at no other point in time in our history have we ever had direct experience of the multi-cultural, the diversity in the metropolis and cities of now and global communication systems that have allowed us to become observants of the world.

It’s in this case that, ‘imagination’ and ‘fiction’ are becoming central notions of our post-human and post-anthropocentric society as opposed to universal truth-seeking of the traditionalists.

PART 2

Rosi Braidotti argues, “I do think that one of the most pointed paradoxes of our era is precisely the tension between the urgency of finding new and alternative modes of the political and ethical agency for our technologically mediated world and the inertia of established mental habits on the other” (Braidotti, 2013). And he follows by stating, ‘As if to mirror this, science and technology studies nowadays are a thriving area in academic institutions, whereas the humanities are in serious trouble’.

One way to look at the inertia of the established mental habits regarding gender and race is proposed in the journal by Maria Kromidas (2014), she argues that ‘the child becomes very important in the role of defining ethical considerations about race’(this could also be applied to gender). She provides an example about how the child/s approaches the race, she states “This playful interaction was also serious and represents the ephemeral and improvised manner of racial meaning-making”, “Furthermore, their humour and use of irony establishes that they are virtuosos in raciology” 4.

The object here is childness and how it relates to our human understanding of race/gender in our society. Is race constructed by our current material culture if so is it constructing a certain type of race knowledge that is imposed on a natural perception of race/gender (child). The key notion to get from Kromidas insight is that of ‘play, irony, and humour’ and to see how they can interconnect with Haraway’s notion of the cyborg as fiction and imagination. Perhaps a new form of ethics can be derived, that changes how we define race and gender within a post-human context.

On a contrary note recent developments in technology suggest otherwise, the feminisation of technology seems a more plausible future at least in the short-term than a post-gender society of cyborgs where our understanding of gender completely changes. “This merging of woman, machine, and work is taken in a new direction in the twenty-first century, with the advent of the digital assistant …. Apple’s Siri, Google’s now and Microsoft’s Cortana are just a few examples of this. The connections between these digital assistants and the conventions of low-status clerical work are obvious”5.

‘In the future, gender will most likely evolve into something different, and thus create a “post”, which does not imply obliterations, assimilations or neutralization.

Such an evolution might as well provide a multiplication of genders, not necessarily related to the feminine and masculine archetypes’ 6. It is with this statement that Francesca Ferrando argues in her case study that a Post-human future might well be a post-woman rather than a post-man, in the sense that the binary separation of man and woman could still exist but yet become a separation between man, woman, robots, and cyborgs.

For the second example I will try to explain the development of the internet of things (as networks of information) and specifically the advent of self-driving cars as the object of a post-human future, where the agency in decisions cannot longer seem to be only between nature vs culture, and man as the center of things.

In a video from the Telegraph newspaper, it describes how self-driving cars work, “There are several systems that work in conjunction to control the car: Radar sensors, video cameras, Lidar sensors, ultrasonic sensor on wheels, and a central computer system analysing all of the data to control the car 7.

This will change in the present time the regulations and requirements for humans that want to drive cars to a point of the possibility that it would be illegal and ethically immoral for humans to drive cars, driverless-car are shown to be more effective than humans and it follows that in the future it will become fully autonomous. As such, our cars, cell phones, and other technologies talk to us and become subject-like, as we become ever-more object-like, in a process that Marx called “commodity fetishism.” ‘What we see happening is that companies in their bid to invent Smart Cities etc. are beginning to adapt the environment to our smart technologies to make sure the latter can interact with it successfully. We are, in other words, wiring or rather enveloping the world with intelligence. Our environment itself is becoming post-human and in turn, is rewiring humanity’ 8. What seems to be at stake here is the origins of what the human condition is and what it will become of it.

Fully autonomous cars are the beginning of a society where most of the decisions we make will be made not by the human but by better forms of intelligence that rely on big data, making the interactions of the hypermodern environment super controlled.

As it is, our environment is a network which will become ever more complex, with technologies that already lie beyond the common understanding of individuals, the Driver-less car takes this further as a form of encapsulation of technology, this is not to perceive it in a negative form but it shows that there are objects that lie beyond the human that produce a certain level of agency. It then should be noted as ANT states that all objects, all actors have agency within a network. Cristina Meini maintains “(1) all the levels of self-information and self- knowledge correspond to informational structures somehow influenced by interactions; and that (2) even some aspects of the inanimate world (e.g., electronic tools) could intervene in the structuring process of the self”9. What type of ontology this network creates is for debate. As it becomes clear that the traditional notion of man (humanism) is wrong and begins to be displaced by Techno-networks.

CONCLUSION 

In conclusion, early western thought created the notion of man and put it at the center of the universe, released from the chains of mythologies and religious dogmas, man had no origins to hold on to, he attempted to quiet proudly re-invent himself with humanist ideals of liberty, morality and ethics of the citizen, looking out to the world and finding the facts about nature and his own being. This resulted in a dualism and a socioeconomic legacy of the white man vs the other, which due to the nature of its geopolitics, (humanism) defeated itself.

The collapse of humanists after the wars and conflicts of the 20th century deconstructed the goals science and technology so deeply that, the belief that there is something objective, an undiscovered truth in the universe no longer appealed to people. Humanist ideals no longer are able to stand up the challenge, within the context of a globalization and the explosion of the information age of recent decades, the post-human turn displaces man and his universal self-reflexive reason with a self-organizing and a constructive process of the self.

Such is the current situation that new modes of political and ethical agency that deal with the future of networks and globalism will certainly change the traditional notion of man and its politics. Haraway’s claim of the cyborg as an entity of the post-gender world might well become a reality, however, I think this does not mean a world of no gender but a multiplication of genders which for F. Ferraro is a post-woman future.

Pleasure, irony, play, humour are elements of a post-human politics. Ideals of the objective truth will be replaced by fiction as science together with technology will move from discovering truths to the creation of worlds and realities. Imagination will replace the absolute. The posthuman challenge will not just displace man but it will also displace nature, and it will develop into a

techno-libertarian society regulated by a techno-capitalist system, (or so this is one of possible futures). Although the Post-human goes beyond the human what it offers might not be and it couldn’t be that different from the legacy of western ideology.

 

 

REFERENCE

BOOKS:

Simian, cyborgs and Women- The reinvention of Nature, Donna J. Haraway 1991, UK.

The Inhuman condition, Keith Tester 1995

The Posthuman, Rosi Braidotti 2013

The Deleuze Dictionary, Adrian Parr 2005

ONLINE RESOURCES:

1Humanism 

https://www.thoughtco.com/humanism-in-ancient-greece-248106

2 Marx’s Concept of Alienation – Tim Pfefferle

https://www.academia.edu/3246369/Karl_Marxs_Concept_of_Alienation

3 Posthumanism- Franklin Ginn 

https://franklinginn.files.wordpress.com/2012/08/ginn-f-2016-posthumanism.pdf

4 The Savage Child and the Nature of Race- Posthuman interventions in New York city by Maria Kromidas

http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1463499614552739

5 Technically female: Women, machines and and hyper employment – Helen Hester 

http://salvage.zone/in-print/technically-female-women-machines-and-hyperemployment/

6 Is the post-human a post-woman? Cyborgs, robots, artificial intelligence and the future of gender: a case study

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40309-014-0043-8

7 How do driver-less cars work.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/cars/features/how-do-driverless-cars-work/

8 The Post-Human World

https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/02/the-post-human-world/517206/

9 From Cradle to Internet. The Social Nature of Personal Identity

http://www.rifp.it/ojs/index.php/rifp/article/viewFile/rifp.2015.0026/484

Other

Earthrise is a photograph of the Earth and parts of the Moon’s surface taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthrise

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