Posthumanism: the river that cannot be dammed

Posthumanism is a river of inevitability that we have been flowing down since the first cavemen wielded stone tools and cultivated fire. Our “humanity” is the animal that we have continued to evolve out of through the use of tools, or, to use a more contemporary term, the use of technology. Using supporting evidence from philosopher Bernard Stiegler, professor of literature Dr. Neil Badmington, and Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, among others, I will argue that by accepting humanity’s symbiotic relationship with technology, we acknowledge that the technologization of our species is, and always has been, the key to our continued survival and should not be feared or discredited. To be human in a world that moves at a scale and speed beyond our comprehension means that we must surrender to the tide of co-evolution with technology which is as innate and instinctive as Charles Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. What we as humans must come to understand is that the technology we develop and create is as much a part of our species as our evolution from Australopithecus to Homo Sapiens.

   In the 2004 documentary The Ister, late French philosopher Bernard Stiegler discusses his philosophy about the relationship between “man and technics”. He argues in favor of the Nietzsche-ian idea that change, or “the process of becoming, is fundamentally what must be thought” when discussing the role of humanity in an increasingly technological world (Stiegler, 2004, 1:58). What is constant about the world is that there is no consistency – change is the only real constant we have. So, to be human in a world that seems to be rapidly outpacing our own consciousness is, in fact, one of the most organic states of being. Technology is just as naturally-occuring as the plants and animals that evolve around us. Mankind branches the divide between what we perceive as biological and what is artificial. We are both, because we form a symbiotic system. One cannot function without the other, much like a computer cannot function without a motherboard. Stiegler continues on to say that “the phenomenon of hominization is the phenomenon of the technicization [sic] of the living,” (Stiegler, 2004, 4:49-4:51).

   Technology and man are one and the same, but what is the source of our fear-based belief that we are being outpaced by the very technology we create? Stiegler theorizes that it is because all living things seek to conserve themselves as they are, which is presumably a survival instinct. But this instinct is vestigial at best, because humanity’s greatest strength lies in our adaptability, or more specifically, our ability to create technological “protheses” that ensure our continued survival. Our greatest adaptations are entirely external; we create vaccines to survive plagues, we build bridges to connect communities, and we create machines to do jobs that would otherwise cause us bodily harm. “Man will become carried away by the process of technical growth,” (Stiegler, 2004, 2:20) but is that such a terrible thing if technical growth is as instinctual as survival? Stiegler coined the term “epiphylogenesis’ to describe “the human organism and its environment. Technics and the human are constitutive of each other. This is the paradox of the human, ‘a living being characterized in its forms of life by the nonliving,’” (Vaccari and Barnet, 2009, 11). Much of Stiegler’s philosophy incorporates the ideas of Anthropologist Andres Leroi-Gourhan. Leroi-Gourhan explains “the whole of our evolution has been oriented toward placing outside ourselves what in the rest of the animal world is achieved inside by species adaptation. The most striking material fact is…our unique ability to transfer our memory to a social organism outside ourselves,” (Vaccari and Barnet, 2016, 11). This externalization “gives us a non-genetic advantage over other [animal] species,” which, in turn, allows us to evolve into a posthuman state of being (Vaccari and Barnet, 2016, 11).  We are becoming more than animal, and we have been undergoing this process for hundreds of thousands of years. The fact that so much of our power and might is externalized could be considered an extension of instinct itself.

    In a YouTube conversation (the fact that I am citing YouTube as a credible source speaks volumes about how integrated we already are with technology) with fellow professor Ron Broglio, philosophy professor Adam Nocek expands upon the idea that humanity should be unafraid of technological development because “we” are one and the same. He states, “we should get over the idea that we have a “self” that is fundamentally [separate] from technology…we have moved into an age where there is a co-evolution of self and technology,” that we should embrace (Broglio and Nocek, 2016, 0:53-1:03). This co-evolution is on display, albeit in a science fiction setting, in Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner. In the dystopian setting of Los Angeles in 2019, humanity has developed the ability to create human “replicants” that are practically indistinguishable from their “organic” creators. These replicants are physically and intellectually superior, apart from a built-in four-year life span that was implemented in their genetic code as the result of non-replicant fear and resentment of their “perfect” creations (Scott, 1982). What Blade Runner demonstrates is the imperceptibility of the advances of technology and how quickly it can outpace our own consciousness. But I return to my previous question – is this technological advancement such a terrible thing if it’s a natural part of the evolution of man and technology? Is it any less organic than a rose developing thorns to protect it from predatorial omnivores? Being human in the world of Blade Runner does not mean the difference between being born and being replicated. The replicants are just another form of the “protheses” that humanity has been creating to ensure our survival since the beginning of time. Yes, they are more advanced than rudimentary tools like shovels and pickaxes, but that just proves the benefit of surrendering to the flow of technological evolution. If, when confronted by plague, humanity sat back and collectively decided not to enhance our existing immune systems through the creation of a vaccine, would enough of humanity have survived to continue civilization into the modern era? As the fictional Tyrell Corporation so eloquently defines evolutionary modification, we will soon “become more human than human,” if we release ourselves from this entirely self-imposed and naïve fear (Scott,1982).

    Dr. Neil Badmington is a Professor of Literature at Cardiff University’s School of English, Communication and Philosophy. In his chapter “Introduction: Approaching Posthumanism” within the journal Cultural Critique, he acknowledges another possible source of the fear and reticence that has hindered the acceptance of our evolution with technology, and that is our innate fear of what is “different”. Perhaps it is a lingering but irrelevant remnant of our prehistoric survival instinct, but we humans have a tendency to approach what we perceive as different from us with a marked hesitancy, if not outright fear. That could be because “different” could equate to some kind of a threat, but therein lies the beauty of technology. Technology allows us to turn what is different, or “other” into something that works in our favor. A key tenant of posthumanism is that what is “other” is in fact, the great equalizer. Our strength lies not in our shared similarities, but in our shared differences. This can be proven when examining the concept of biodiversity. History has shown that a degree of heterogeneity is highly desirable within an otherwise homogenous population to ensure its survival. So, is it so entirely wrong to look at technology as a beneficial additive to the proverbial gene pool?

   Especially now in the twenty-first century, the word “technology” tends to carry the connotation of a cold, metal, machine-like object, but “technology” isn’t quite that foreign. We became technological beings the moment that our cave-man ancestors carved their first tools out of stone and wood. To harken back to Stiegler’s interview in The Ister, he recalls the Greek myth of the Titan brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus, who were tasked with endowing life on earth with “qualities” to ensure their survival. While lions received courage and birds received flight, humans received fire. Fire is a technology that we wielded to cook our food which ultimately led to our encephalization and superior intelligence. We continue to wield tools, or technology, to our advantage. We’re capable of genetic manipulation in as-of-yet conceived children. We create protheses for those who have lost their limbs. We take medications that improve our health and extend our lifespan far beyond what it would be if we ignored our instinctual gravitation toward technologization.

     We have always been technological beings, so why are we so reticent to acknowledge the truth of our evolution? Perhaps we suffer from a Frankenstein’s monster-complex, and we fear the potential power of our creations. But if we had succumbed to that fear throughout the history of our evolution, our species would not have survived plague, war, famine and drought. This fear and tendency towards stagnation echoes of Cartesian thought. We have technologized our way throughout history, creating tools to solve problems that our flesh-and-blood bodies cannot overcome on their own. Citing posthuman philosopher N. Katherine Hayes, Badmington writes “the face and future of posthumanism are…uncertain: the pre-fix does not pre-fix. What matters, rather, is that the thought keeps moving in the name of the beyond, in the shadow of the unknown, in the fault-lines of the ‘post’,” (Badmington, 2003, 10). Cartesian thought, the precursor (and in many ways, the antithesis to) posthumanism, advocated for a human-centric existence in which “humanity” is determined by the static ability “to think, organize and act in certain ways,” (Badmington, 2003, 7). While this may be true if the whole of humanity was examined in terms of finite development, Badmington argues that it would be “difficult to believe that human society and behavior could ever be other than they are now,” (Badmington, 2003, 7).

    Technologization is a raging, rushing river that will overtake our consciousness whether we want it to or not. But while it is a river than cannot be dammed, humanity has proven that it can be redirected. The evolution of humanity was redirected when technics (tools) caused us to branch off from our animal ancestors and transform into a being that is simultaneously organic and inorganic. We became posthuman the moment we began modifying our existence beyond what the laws of nature would normally dictate. We have even since expanded on the very idea of ‘what is natural’ itself.  But rather than fearing our own potential, we must embrace it in order for it to become fully realized. The definition of what it means to be “human” will evolve along with it, but just because it changes does not negate the history that predates it. We have ensured this through our externalization of shared memory. “When the robot historians survey the 21st century, they will find computer systems and satellites coexisting with rowboats and bicycles, mobile phones with Kalashnikovs, Petri dishes with rickshaws,” (Vaccari and Barnet, 2016, 2-3). Technologization will not happen overnight. We will not wake up in a dystopian nightmare where we have been overtaken by alien robots. The change will be gradual and therefore just as palatable as the change we have experienced as a species over the last millennia. What is more, the change will not be from some “thing” into some “other”. We will not lose our humanity; we will not loose ourselves. Even if we eventually (and probably) leave behind our animal forms, we will still be human. We are simply becoming more than what we were the day before.

Works Cited

Featured Image: Ex Machina (2014)

Badmington, Neil. “Theorizing Posthumanism.” Cultural Critique, no. 53 (2003): 10–27. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354622.

Broglio, Ron, “Posthuman Self and Technology with Adam Nocek and Ron Broglio,” YouTube Video, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ALvdmeV5WU&t=63s

Scott, Ridley, dir., BLADE RUNNER. 1982; Burbank, CA, Warner Bros.

Stiegler, Bernard, “The Ister,” directed by David Barrison and Daniel Ross, YouTube Video Excerpt, 2004, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ymtnUDAOEWc

 Vaccari, Andres and Barnet, Belinda, “Prolegomena to a Future Robot History: Stiegler, Epiphylogenesis and Technical Evolution,” in Transformations Journal of Media and Culture No. 17, 2009, http://www.transformationsjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Vaccari-Barnet_Trans17.pdf

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