Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Human Idea

Let us be human. –

            Four words.  Laß uns menschlich sein, in the original text (Culture and Value).  What does Wittgenstein mean?  Are we not human, but should be?  Is something prohibiting us from being human?  Are we already human, but we insist on confirming our nature?  Is “human” functioning here as a noun, or as an adjective?  Are we to behave humanely to one another?  To animals?  To everything?  Furthermore, what is “human”?  The simplicity of Wittgenstein’s comment is deceptive in only a way that Wittgenstein could ever intend.
            We who practice in the Humanities face a difficult challenge today.  No longer can we put dogmatic faith in the universal standard of the human.  If modernism (or modernity) has taught us anything, it is that history has left humanity behind.  Yet we maintain our profession as being “the Humanities”; we insist that we study the art and culture of humanity.  In addition, we profess humane action and behavior, the ethical treatment of others.  Even amidst the rapid development of technology and the onset of the digital age, we seem to resist abandoning this category, and have introduced the controversial field of the digital humanities.  We are relentless humans in a relentlessly nonhuman world.  We cling to this identity, refusing to cast it aside.  But what is this identity?  Is it something that we are; or is it something that we make?
            Let us be human.
            How can we “let” ourselves be human?
I.                   The Inhuman
            Ambivalence toward the human is a popular attitude these days.  Several critics and philosophers have put forth convincing and, sometimes, antagonist theories of the human and humanism.  Among them, N. Katherine Hayles and Cary Wolfe have produced some of my favorite work: How We Became Posthuman (1999) and What is Posthumanism? (2010), respectively.  While much of the debate circles around a kind of ontology of the posthuman, my primary interest lies in what I perceive to be an epistemology of posthumanism.  That is, I figure posthumanism as a gradual development, an epistemological shift, in which humanism becomes self-conscious in a structural sense.  This gradual awakening invites a singular, startling question: what does it mean to be human?  Furthermore, as we become aware of ourselves as human, we also begin to realize that something else lingers in the liminal spaces, along the borders of our being.  Something unknown and unthinkable.
            This idea came to a head in Foucault’s The Order of Things (1966):
Man and the unthought are, at the archaeological level, contemporaries.  Man has not been able to describe himself as a configuration in the episteme without thought at the same time discovering, both in itself and outside itself, at its borders yet also in its very warp and woof, an element of darkness, an apparently inert density in which it is embedded, an unthought which it contains entirely, yet in which it is also caught.  The unthought (whatever name we give it) is not lodged in man like a shriveled-up nature or a stratified history; it is, in relation to man, the Other: the Other that is not only a brother but a twin, born, not of man, nor in man, but beside him and at the same time, in an identical newness, in an unavoidable duality […] In any case, the unthought has accompanied man, mutely and uninterruptedly, since the nineteenth century. (326-7)
Foucault claims that in order for us to know what “man” is, we must also have some concept of what it is not.  Thus, the very birth or invention of “man” entails the simultaneous invention of something else: non-man, the unthought, the inhuman.  In The Order of Things we encounter the epistemological emergence of the posthuman itself through Foucault’s identification of that (poststructuralist) shape and figure which is opposed to the human.  Of course, in typical poststructuralist tradition, we cannot maintain these categories, and they are not identified in order to be maintained; rather than oppose the human to the inhuman in order to reinforce the former, poststructuralism exposes the arbitrariness of the division between the two.
            Posthumanism asks us to go one step further.  It asks us to see how the human is always-already inhuman.  The inhuman is the dissonance that eviscerates the human from the inside.
            In many senses, posthumanism adopts a polemical position.  It maintains that the human, as an institution of Western Cartesian rationalism, can only ever be an instrument of exclusion.  Jean Baudrillard (1976)  asserts that the human, and humanism, has inspired an entire history of racial prejudice: “Racism is modern.  Previous races or cultures were ignored or eliminated, but never under the sign of a universal Reason.  There is no criterion of man, no split from the Inhuman, there are only differences with which to oppose death.  But it is our undifferentiated concept of man that gives rise to discrimination” (Baudrillard, Symbolic 125).  This racism is only possible with recourse to the human – anything that falls outside the purview of Man (i.e. white, Western, liberalist-capitalist, male) is thus excluded to another sphere, the realm of the inhuman.  The inhuman thus offers a revolutionary position, but at the same time remains exiled.
            Jean-François Lyotard (1989) projects the inhuman even further, insisting that the human itself betrays its own inhumanism through its technological being: “Any material system is technological if it filters information useful to its survival, if it memorizes and processes that information and makes inferences based on the regulating effect of behaviour, that is, if it intervenes on and impacts its environment so as to assure its perpetuation at least.  A human being isn’t different in nature from an object of this type” (12).  Lyotard’s comment blurs the line between the natural and the artificial, suggesting that the human body does not need robotic prostheses or enhancing drugs to become an artificial/technological apparatus.  If we wish to describe the technological as artificial, then the human body is already artificial; or, should we choose to come from the other direction: technology is nothing more than a natural, evolutionary development.  John Gray (2002) puts it simply: “If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors” (16).  Posthumanism breaks down these hierarchies, dissolves these divisions.
            The inhuman appears as a figure that drains the human from the human; it subtracts what the human purports as its essential substance.  Let us put forth the following claim:
1.      Posthumanism implements figures of the inhuman in order to put the human in a context of which it is not an epistemological center; that is, posthumanism proceeds, in all its efforts, with the modern knowledge that the hierarchies we use to navigate the world are dangerously one-sided.  Therefore, if posthumanism constitutes an epistemological shift, then it cannot simply be a theory of the way in which we talk about things.  It must be implemented at the level of practice as a way in which we do things: business, medicine, scientific experimentation, etc.
II.                The Human
            The posthuman, then, is not a zombie, a cyborg, or an alien per se; these are images of the inhuman.  The posthuman is the epistemology that makes room for these categories on a level that is equal with the human; and along with such fantastical categories, we must also make room for flora and fauna, bacteria, viruses, the microbes and creatures of the sea floor, et al.  Posthumanism entails an ethics of the treatment of others, including animal others.[i]  In order to accomplish this, we have to embrace an epistemological view that displaces the human from its throne as the saviors and protectors of all life.  In other words, we have to rewrite the narrative of human existence; or, even more difficult, acknowledge the absence of any narrative in the first place.
            One of the most difficult points for many to accept regarding posthumanism is its displacement not only of the human, but of the universalism of what many believe to be the central aspect of the human: namely, its conscious ability to craft a self, an I.  Through the use of this central, first-person narrator (the human being), we devise stories about our place in the world; narratives about ourselves, the narrators.  Posthumanism asks us to acknowledge that not only is this narrative an illusion; but it also asks us to acknowledge that our consciousness is an illusion.[ii]  While much has been done in the realm of cognitive science, an earlier and far more speculative tradition interrogates the stability of human consciousness: the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein and his private language argument.[iii]
            Wittgenstein does not attempt to prove that interior experiences are not real, or even that mental processes are not real.  He would almost certainly say that they are; however, Wittgenstein is interested in demonstrating that inner mental processes are not necessary for communication to take place:
[…] the difference between a broken and an unbroken tooth I can exhibit to anyone. – For the private exhibition, however, you don’t have to give yourself actual pain; it is enough to imagine it – for instance, you screw up your face a bit.  And do you know that what you are exhibiting to yourself in this way is pain and not, for example, a facial expression?  And how do you know what you are to exhibit to yourself before you do it?  This private exhibition is an illusion. (311)[iv]
Wittgenstein’s argument puts forth two important points:  first, if communication occurs between two individuals, it need not be substantiated by any mental process; and second, while mental states exist, it is impossible to indulge in a private language through which one communicates her own mental processes to herself.  Stated simply, the immediacy a person has to her own mental processes precludes the possibility of communicating them to her own mind.  The entire event is too sensational, or experiential, for meaning to take any kind of priority.
            Wittgenstein’s private language argument holds consequences for humanism because it removes an important component from the process of linguistic communication: the liberal humanist subject, or self.  Self-based theories of communication posit atomic subjects, comprised of centered selves, communicating interior thoughts and mental states.  Wittgenstein challenges this assumption by demonstrating that interior mental states are not the origin, or the directing principle, of linguistic communication.  Communication takes place externally, and is comprised less of originally intended meanings than of socially constituted meaning.
            Foreshadowing later cognitive science, poststructuralism, and posthuman theory, Wittgenstein levies a serious criticism at traditional humanism.  Proceeding from the private language argument, we discover an increasingly skeptical philosophical tradition that takes humanism as one of its central targets.
            The human is, above all else, an idea; a sublimation that is also an effect of highly evolved conscious organisms.  The human does not precede consciousness, but is the product of a consciousness organizing its interests and values.  Furthermore, consciousness does not precede language, but emerges as a side effect of language-using bodies.  The human is thus twice removed from the organism which adopts this as its name; the only ontological status it holds is as a creation of thoughtful minds that have already entered into consciousness and language.  It is an image that has been retrospected into the past as an originary point, but it is actually the effect of conscious organisms.
            Put as simply as possible: the human is a fiction, a story we tell ourselves about what we are.
            This does not mean in the least that the thing we take to be human – this body and blood, this nexus of nerves and limbo of limbs – is not real.  We, as organisms, are very real, materially real.  The idea that we craft of ourselves, however, the narrative that organizes itself around the human, which then takes the position as a beginning (origin) and an end (telos), is not real despite its existence as fantasy.  It is the greatest fiction ever conceived in the history of humanity.  And now, we arrive at a second claim:
2.      The history of humanity is not the same thing as what I have been calling the narrative of the human, although they are related in an interesting way.  The history of humanity signifies a predominantly (multi)cultural discursive institution that provides literal explanations of the course of humanity throughout the world over millennia; these explanations can mythological or scientific, but they are always believed (at the time of their creation, by at least one person or another) to be literal.  The narrative of the human must be constructed and retrospected prior to any history of humanity.  However, upon its construction (which occurs collectively and yet unconsciously), it is viewed as happening within human history.  The human preexists its own history, and yet it can only be seen to occur, or develop, within its history.  It is thus located, paradoxically, both within the course of human history (as that which human history is supposedly about), and external to human history (as that which must necessarily precede any conception of a history that is about humanity).  The human, as an institution of evolved consciousness, appears to us as a miracle because it functions only as paradox.
III.             The Posthuman
            The human is a grand narrative, told again and again throughout recorded history, manifesting in our institutions, our events and moments, our literature and our lives.  Wittgenstein tells us all we need to know: we must “let” ourselves be human.  We must tell ourselves that we are human.  The human only makes sense as a story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and yet we perceive it as something tangible and universal; something which exists concretely as an original point.  However, if we actually attempt to explore our past, we would find that the human has no origin.  In the parameters of deep time, or geologic time, the boundaries that frame the human are frighteningly arbitrary.  Culturally, we ignore this aporia of our past, this absence of origin, because to confront it is to acknowledge a horrifying truth: that our story makes no sense, and that we are already far from “human.”  So we maintain our limits, our borders and our boundaries.  We maintain the thought of the Outside.
            The human only makes sense against the backdrop of what it is not.
            The Wikipedia page for posthumanism is remarkably short, although it includes numerous links to other sites.  It is also nested under the broader category of Humanism, which raises some concern over their relationship – the “-post” being more confusing than illuminating, in my opinion.  Does it mean “after,” “beyond,” or something entirely different?  While its most obvious meaning would seem to be chronological in nature, I don’t find that this makes much sense.  If the human only makes sense against the backdrop of what it is not, then the inhuman must present itself along with the human; they appear simultaneously.  As Foucault tells us, the unthought (the space of the inhuman, in my reading) has accompanied man since his birth, or invention.  The inhuman is not a recent phenomenon, birthed from the 20th-century tales of Lovecraft.  It is one with the human, equally arbitrary and constructed: it is the other side of the border, that which constitutes the human in its finitude.
            The posthuman does not place greater emphasis or concern on the inhuman, nor does it lessen the importance or value of those organisms we call “human.”  In a very recent online piece, Reza Negarastani argues that inhumanism should be seen as an effort to widen the institution we call humanism: “Inhumanism is the extended practical elaboration of humanism; it is born out of a diligent commitment to the project of enlightened humanism” (“The Labor of the Inhuman”).  Where Negarastani uses inhumanism, I choose posthumanism; but I feel our goals are the same (as are the goals of posthumanists such as Hayles and Wolfe): namely, to expose the arbitrary and exclusive parameters of humanism and to attempt a widening of those parameters, to reinscribe the human into a more egalitarian position within the world.  As Derrida once remarked, we cannot do without metaphysical categories and concepts – they infiltrate and (some might say) infect our being.  But other creatures exist in mutually symbiotic relationships, so why might we not embrace the concepts that claim us?
            In a very strong sense, Deleuze was the premier deconstructionist; not Derrida.  Derrida acknowledged the permanence and permeation of metaphysical concepts, but encouraged a constant awareness of them.  Deleuze’s endorsement of anti-interpretation would have all parameters melt away, every boundary and definitive limit bleed into a Body without Organs.  Deleuze was, beyond all doubts, the true anti-humanist.  Derrida certainly clings to a brand of humanism; but it is what we might call (along with Negarastani) an enlightened humanism.  A strongly self-reflexive humanism.  A humanism that grants its entitlements to all things.
            Thus the final claim (for now…):
3.      If posthumanism is an epistemological shift, then it does not constitute a disintegration of boundaries, concepts, and definitions.  It merely endorses a wider frame, a newly-conceived set within which to place the human, and an eternal commitment to the questioning of the definitions we deploy.[v]  In a sense, this stance takes us back to Wittgenstein and what his successors have deemed “ordinary language” (and Derrida, in some sense, might be considered a part of this group).  Let us continue to speak, but let us be conscious of the words we choose.  Let us be critical.  Let us expand our awareness to others whom, one hundred years ago, our ancestors might have derided and exiled.  Let us look closely at our institutions and perceive how they might liberate some while imprisoning others.  Let us be mindful of the things we condemn as dangerous and threatening, and closely consider the source of that purported danger.  Let us be always skeptical, and let us be always speculative.  Let us be inquisitive.  Let us mean, and let us matter
Let us be (post)human.[vi]

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Symbolic Exchange and Death. Trans. Iain Hamilton Grant. London: SAGE, 2012. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Vintage, 1994. Print.

Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Girous, 2002. Print.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1991. 8-23. Print.

Negarastani, Reza. "The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: the Human." E-flux. 2014. Web.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Culture and Value. Trans. Peter Winch. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984. Print.

-. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe, P.M.S. Hacker and Joachim Schulte. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.

[i] The question of animal ethics is at the heart of Cary Wolfe’s work on posthumanism.
[ii] This has been the task of several recent efforts by cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind.  Two of the most successful contributions to this line of thought are Thomas Metzinger’s Being No One (2003) and Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1991).
[iii] Debate still occurs over Wittgenstein’s intentions with this argument, as well as which aphorisms from Philosophical Investigations constitute the argument.  For one of the most influential contributions to this discussion, see Saul Kripke’s Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language (1982).  For my own purposes, I will proceed based on a personal (and somewhat substantiated) reading of Wittgenstein’s work.
[iv] All numbers for Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations correspond to aphorism, not to page.
[v] There is some controversy to this declaration, I am aware.  Specifically, it calls to mind the ongoing debate over questions of cultural identity, especially racial identity: are we to maintain racial difference and celebrate it (the problematic tone of multiculturalism); or are we do dissolve race entirely and surpass it as an institution (the equally problematic tone of post-racialism)?  I have no answer except to insist that we remain mindful of this issue.
[vi] Fortunately, if we believed N. Katherine Hayles, we already are.

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