Post-human, eh?

I just returned from presenting at my first academic conference at Arizona State University. Being my first, I was extremely nervous but I got to present in the panel directly after the keynote speaker, so I got it over and done with quickly. One down, two more to go for this academic year!
The conference was entitled “The Post-Human Network Conference”, and it brought together graduate students from as far as London and from disciplines ranging from physics to art. We spent the entire weekend discussing various elements of this term “the post-human,” a term that has taken on quite a range of different meanings. Add in the fact that each of us have been trained within different fields and are familiar with different theorists, and it makes for a conference that required each of us to roll up our sleeves and do the hard work of constantly listening, questioning, and translating.

The term post-human is one I first encountered a few years ago at the beginning of my master’s program. At that time, I was reading a lot of science fiction and studying both fiction and non-fiction about cyborgs and androids. (Quick primer: cyborgs are humans that have been “upgraded” with technology while androids are essentially robots modeled after humans.) Within this context, the post-human generally refers to some form of evolved human species, and it usually implies that we have used technology to take us to that place. To provide a contemporary example, the film Ghost in the Shell, based on a manga series of the same name, dives heavily into an imagined post-human realm.
The term post-human is often juxtaposed with the term trans-human. These too are words that have been inflected with many different meanings depending on their usage. Trans-human can refer to a human who is slowly experimenting with technology augmentation, on their way to becoming a full post-human. If you use it in philosophical contexts, however, trans-humanism refers to a profoundly modernist/Enlightenment approach to thinking about technology. What I mean by this is that trans-humanism views technology as providing steps towards humanity’s ever-exponential progress. Augmenting a human with technology is symbolic of humanity’s increasing domination and mastery of nature.

This is where the term post-humanism, as opposed to post-human, offers a new set of meanings. Post-humanism resists this kind of attitude towards both humanity and nature; it is fundamentally opposed to an Enlightenment perspective that privileges human reason and that justifies our exploitation of nature. Post-humanism argues for a decentering of humanity; i.e. to stop thinking about ourselves as the center of the universe, and start thinking about the non-human with greater intentionality–remembering we are not the only life in our world, even as we might be distinctly different.

Time for another term: “the anthropocene”. You may have seen this word thrown around in the news occasionally. This is a term that has been used to label the most recent epoch of human history. I’m going to pull from the Smithsonian Magazine here for some more details:

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.
But that label is outdated, some experts say. They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.Smithsonian Magazine

While this is considered an environmentally-driven term, it is also a term used frequently within posthumanist circles, where there is a deep concern for the ways in which humanity has carelessly utilized Earth for our various civilization-building endeavors.

For myself personally, I am interested in two particular areas. At this conference, I gave a talk about singularity theories, which are a collection of scientifically-sourced theories suggesting that our earth will transition irrevocably in the coming century. These theories are taken with great seriousness in areas of the tech industry and with many scientists and mathematicians, but have been often ignored within the humanities. In my research, I temporarily suspend any disbelief, and try to fully engage with the philosophical and ethical implications of these theories. For my presentation at this conference, however, I challenged my fellow scholars to consider how we in society define “being human” because until we can address this question, we have no ground to stand on for any potential development or even evolution of humanity and indeed no ground to stand on as we try to treat our planet and our fellow tenants well.
More on this in a future post.

Second, I’ve been taking what could be described as a post-humanist approach to thinking about space exploration. Placing a settlement on Mars is becoming more and more of a serious consideration, but if and when we do so, what attitudes and ethics will we implement in such an endeavor? I’m working on a number of projects in this area currently, and I’ll be posting a blog piece on this topic soon too.

This is an interesting little area of academia with which I am becoming slowly more familiar. So please pardon my limited knowledge and do also recognize that I have barely scratched the surface in this post. But as always, I do want to make a point of sharing a bit of my own journey into research, and I will be building on the ideas of this post in many other posts to come. In the meantime, please let me know if you have any questions, or if you’d like to add to something I said above. What do you think about this idea of the post-human or post-humanism?

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