Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Challenge of Posthumanism

            From Reza Negarastani's blog:
It is through this operative fog that some of the more insidious mechanisms of neoliberal capitalism are directly plugged into the cognitive infrastructure under the guise of a world that appears determined to extend the plasticity of imagination and expand frontiers of action. But this is a world in which the financial closure of capitalism is cloned and grafted onto a cognitively maimed economy for accumulating false alternatives in the name of liberation of imagination and action. A suture of different overambitious vocations and driven by the wealth of waste it generates, the resulting beast is a prophetic vision of a tightly connected and controlled society with a single closed alimentary circuit, the human centipede. Those who scheme to infiltrate this world in order to militantly or cunningly liberate it from the inside are locked into the compactly segmented structure of the metameric organism. At once necessary for the growth yet expendable, every insider is a new addition to the iterated sequence of mouths and rectums through which the art world bootstraps itself - a miracle made possible by a simple but efficacious financial and cognitive algorithm. Dreams of acceleration or deceleration, speculative enthusiasm for the outside or critical self-reflection are revealed to be simply changes of frequency in the rate of the said iteration.
This is actually a very Land-ian (i.e. Nick Land) take on art, in that it critiques the institutionalization of art (although I like to believe that Land and Negarastani have radically differing political visions).  I basically read this as a fancy way of saying that all art has become commodified; but “commodification” is still a drastically human concept.  Instead of seeing this institutionalization as a process that continues to benefit the privileged and exclude the disenfranchised, perhaps we need to redefine (or recreate) our terms.  Or, if we want to remain somewhat loyal to the “scientific” version of Marxism, we need to resist the lure of the hypothetical puppet-master; that is, we have to resist the illusion that there is a master actor, or agent, pulling the strings and making a secret killing off all commodification while the rest of us shiver in our hovels and eat Ramen noodles.  Of course, there are those who make unfathomably large amounts of money while others make unfathomably little; but, if we adopt Negarastani’s posthuman machinic view (which might coincide with a version of scientific Marxism), nobody is manipulating the machine.  The machine manipulates everybody.
            There is nothing particularly new or groundbreaking in such an analysis, but let me push a bit further.  Another post by Negarastani that I find interesting:
The Labour of the Inhuman
Inhumanism is the extended practical elaboration of humanism; it is born out of a diligent commitment to the project of humanism. A universal wave that erases the self-portrait of man drawn in sand, inhumanism is a vector of revision, it relentlessly revises what it means to be human by removing its supposed evident characteristics and preserving certain invariances. At the same time, inhumanism registers itself as a demand for construction, to define what it means to be human by treating human as a manipulable and re-orientable hypothesis. Inhumanism is in concrete opposition to any theoretical paradigm that seeks to degrade humanity either in the face of its finitude or against the backdrop of the great outdoors. The force of inhumanism operates as a retroactive deterrence against anti-humanism by understanding humanity historically - in the broadest physico-biological and socio-economical sense of history - as an indispensable runway toward itself. But what is humanism, or precisely speaking, what specific commitment does 'being human' represent and how does the full practical elaboration of this commitment to humanity amount to inhumanism?
I've been thinking a lot lately about the conflation of posthumanism, inhumanism, and anti-humanism; what these terms mean and how they relate.  I have recently completed a paper that investigates posthumanism’s relationship to modernism, and how posthumanism is less of a push toward actual human-machine hybrids and more of an epistemological shift.  I believe this holds some kinship with Negarastani’s excerpt immediately above.  If we want to preserve the benefits and practical applicability of posthumanism, we need to distance ourselves from the purely speculative and hypothetical.  And by “distance ourselves,” I do not mean retreat from such speculations; I mean embrace and push beyond them.
            Contemporary British novelist Tom McCarthy, co-founder of the International Necronautical Society, describes posthumanism as an “intellectual folly”:
The desire, as expressed, for example, in the novels of Michel Houellebecq, to leave behind the fury and the mire of human veins, thereby achieving some imagined “freedom” or “autonomy.” This is not post-anything: it is merely Humanism 2.0. To rid the self of its contingency, its meshing in desire and networks of relationships, was humanism’s aspiration in the first place. It’s a reactionary aspiration, one that forecloses any type of genuine agency or ethics.
McCarthy argues that these types of fantasies do nothing to think beyond the human, but merely perpetuate the ideology of an essential, pure component of humanity that might be preserved through various material embodiments (computers, transubstantiation, as it pertains to the concept of the accident, Saṃsāra, etc.).  I agree entirely with McCarthy on this point, and it is for this reason that I believe posthumanism is in dire need of revision (and similar suggestions have been made by numerous posthuman critics, such as N. Katherine Hayles and Cary Wolfe).  Posthumanism must enable itself to think beyond human essence without abandoning the human entirely (that material organism that has certain biological needs); posthumanism is not anti-humanism, but the latter is required (to some extent) to think the former.  We have to resist the centrality of the human – its universality and, most importantly, its eternal quality (i.e. that “the human” is a permanent essence that will persist in some form or other).
            Ironically, McCarthy may have identified one of the most effective means of doing so in the manifestos for his International Necronautical Society (INS).  In its platform, which we can find inscribed at the bottom of its manifestos, McCarthy and co-founder Simon Critchley proclaim the purpose of the INS: “the INS constantly reiterates (or reenacts) its First Manifesto commitment to “map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit” spaces that open up around the sign of death.”  Death, for McCarthy and Critchley, is the ultimate field of the nonhuman (perhaps McCarthy would be happier with this terminology…), and he claims that it should be the role of art to thrust humanity toward its own death, toward death’s immanence.  This is also not entirely original, as it draws from certain strands of speculative thought going as far back as Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle.  But it is worth noting for its resistance toward the coincidence of art with the human.  For McCarthy, art must purge itself of humanity as it nears the realm of death; the obliteration of the human.  Even this should not be read as “anti-humanist,” in my opinion; instead, it should be read as something radically posthuman, despite McCarthy’s distaste for this term.  Posthumanism, as an epistemological shift, heralds a new organization of knowledge as it relates to matter; pure organic, and inorganic, matter, void of subjectivity or selfhood.
            Throughout the twentieth century, modernist literature has increasingly come into contact with the posthuman as it brushes up against the consequences of death.  And through this contact, it has gradually developed its own posthuman epistemology, which philosophy as well as science have subsequently pursued.  In the terrifying world of the unliving (is it any wonder we today find pop culture fascinated with images of monsters, zombies, and aliens, all of which continually challenge our conceptions of life?) we must confront that the abject and the alternative, that the Other, might, in fact, exist entirely in that unthought space of our own nonexistence.
            This is not an argument for human extinction, and the practicality might seem far-off; but it is, in fact, quite near, and its applications are presenting themselves more each day; in the fields of animal studies, cybernetics and information technologies, emergence theory, assemblage theory, and physics, not to mention countless others.  While it remains true that our Western ideology (indeed, most modern ideologies as they have been subjected by the ubiquity of a global modernity) is still entrenched in the human, it is also true that our profound engagement and concern over what it means to be human is opening up doorways and possibilities for what it means to be nonhuman.  And this, I believe, is the true import of Negarastani’s quote on the inhuman as the “extended practical elaboration of humanism.”

            We’re still working out the chinks in the armor.  We’re still figuring out how exactly posthumanism fits into our worldview.  We’re still managing the differences between what it means to be human and what it means to be inhuman, since our knowledge of objects remains circumscribed by the materiality of our perceptions.  But the mere possibility of the implacable Other, which did not present itself until very recently (the eighteenth century, I would claim – as early as Robinson Crusoe’s mysterious footprint…), has now gestured to us, from the unfamiliar outside, that our sciences, our philosophies, and our literatures, might provide us with very real means of negotiating a posthuman existence.

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