Posthumanist Criticism

Posthumanism marks a careful, ongoing, overdue rethinking of the dominant humanist (or anthropocentric) account of who “we” are as human beings. In the light of posthumanist theory and culture, “we” are not who “we” once believed ourselves to be. And neither are “our” others.

According to humanism – a clear and influential example of which can be found in René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method (1637) – the human being occupies a natural and eternal place at the very center of things, where it is distinguished absolutely from machines, animals, and other inhuman entities; where it shares with all other human beings a unique essence; where it is the origin of meaning and the sovereign subject of history; and where it behaves and believes according to something called “human nature.” In the humanist account, human beings are exceptional, autonomous, and set above the world that lies at their feet. “Man,” to use the profoundly problematic signifier conventionally found in descriptions of “the human condition,” is the hegemonic measure of all things.1 Posthumanism, by way of contrast, emerges from a recognition that “Man” is not the privileged and protected center, because humans are no longer – and perhaps never were – utterly distinct from animals, machines, and other forms of the “inhuman”; are the products of historical and cultural differences that invalidate any appeal to a universal, transhistorical human essence; are constituted as subjects by a linguistic system that pre-exists and transcends them; and are unable to direct the course of world history towards a uniquely human goal. In short, posthumanism arises from the theoretical and practical inadequacy – or even impossibility – of humanism, from the relativization of the human that follows from its “coupling … to some other order of being” (Clarke 2008: 3).

towards-a-posthuman-lifePosthumanist criticism has certain things in common with the “antihumanism” commonly associated with the work of theorists such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, but tends to depart from antihumanist discourse when it comes to the matter of approaching the figure of “Man.”2 Antihumanists regularly set out actively to shatter the hegemony of humanism by making a radical, sometimes avowedly scientific, break from the legacy of the human. Althusser, for instance, wrote in For Marx of how “the myth of Man is reduced to ashes” by the mature science of historical materialism (Althusser 1965: 229), while Foucault set out in his History of Madness to tell the tale of insanity itself in order to correct the rational, anthropocentric accounts habitually offered by psychiatry, “which is a monologue by reason about madness” (Foucault 1961: xxviii). And, although he confessed to appreciating humanism when “it at least has a certain candor about it,” Lacan also admitted that he was “flattered” to find the term “a-human” used to describe his work in psychoanalysis (Lacan 1966: 701). Posthumanism, however, often takes as its starting point not the illegitimacy but the inherent instability of humanism. “Man” does not necessarily need to be toppled or left behind with a giant leap, because “he” is already a fallen or falling figure, and the task of the critic or artist committed to posthumanism therefore becomes one of mapping and encouraging this fading.

Much scholarship has explicitly and extensively addressed different aspects of posthumanism in recent times; indeed, as Bruce Clarke has acutely observed, in “the last two decades the theoretical trope of the posthuman has upped the ante on the notion of the postmodern” (Clarke 2008: 2). In fact, in 2002 the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) announced in one of its newsletters that it was, given the growing interest, considering adding the subject term “the posthuman” to its influential MLA International Bibliography (Grazevich 2002: 6). The recent statistical information from the online MLA Bibliography provided by Richard Nash in his chapter on Animal Studies in this volume would appear to confirm that the MLA was unable to resist the rise of “the posthuman.” And the sheer range of academic disciplines in which posthumanist concerns have been addressed – literary studies, cultural studies, philosophy, film studies, theology, geography, animal studies, architecture, politics, law, sociology, anthropology, science and technology studies, education, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, for example – testifies to the ways in which posthumanism cuts across conventional disciplinary boundaries. Posthumanism belongs nowhere in particular in the modern university, in that it has no fixed abode, but its presence is everywhere felt.

But posthumanism is not merely an abstract academic affair, for popular culture has been crucial in the examination and expansion of posthumanist existence. Works of fiction such as William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Bruce Sterling’s Crystal Express (1989), Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 (1995), and China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000) have – along with television series such as Star Trek: The Next Generation and films such as Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (dir. Shinya Tsukamoto, 1989), Ghost in the Shell (dir. Mamoru Oshii, 1995), and eXistenZ (dir. David Cronenberg, 1999) – depicted humans and machines interfacing with and transforming each other in new, complex, provocative, pleasurable, and sometimes highly eroticized ways. To encounter such narratives is to see the certainties of humanism fade and to find bodies, minds, desires, limits, knowledge, and being itself reimagined in ways for which traditional anthropocentrism cannot possibly account. For instance, Galatea 2.2 refers at one point to “the crumbling bastions of the spent, pre-posthumanist tradition” (Powers 1995: 193). Upon these ruins dances posthumanism. That is to say, posthumanism is as much a matter of theory as it is a question of fiction. In fact, one of the recognitions of posthumanist culture has been that “the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (Haraway 1985: 66), for with the deconstruction of the opposition between the human and the inhuman also comes a waning of the conventional distinction between fact and fiction.

The timing of this flourishing has meant that the term “posthuman” often feels like a fairly recent invention, as if it were perhaps coined with the rise of online existence or the creation of the microchip. But “post-Human” (with the hyphen, subsequent capital letter, and italics) can actually be traced back as far as 1888, when it was briefly used in H.P. Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine, a strange and dense theosophical treatise (Blavatsky 1888: 2: 684).3 Blavatsky did not develop a detailed theory of the posthuman, however, and neither did the handful of writers – Jack Kerouac among them (Kerouac 1995: 81) – who used the term in passing at various points in the first half of the twentieth century. The signifier seems to have been born too soon and to have waited patiently for its moment to come.

That moment was almost certainly the publication of Donna J. Haraway’s “A manifesto for cyborgs” (1985). Although she did not actually use the terms “posthumanism,” “posthumanist,” or “posthuman” anywhere in her essay, Haraway proposed that a series of three interrelated “boundary breakdowns” (Haraway 1985: 68) have transformed the long-established and long-dominant figure of the human into a hybrid cyborg.4 Humanism, Haraway noted, has always relied upon firm and fierce distinctions between human and animal, organism and machine, and physical and non-physical, but a host of dramatic modern developments (in science, science fiction, technology, capitalism, race and ethnicity studies, militarism, animal studies, and feminism, for example) had made such rigid, absolutist thinking unsustainable and politically dubious. “By the late twentieth century,” she wrote, “our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics” (66). The human has become obsolete; the figure of “Man” has been replaced, and we “cannot go back ideologically or materially” (81).

Although Haraway notes that the cyborg has troubled and troubling roots in “militarism and patriarchal capitalism” (68), and although from “one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of women’s bodies in a masculinist orgy of war” (72), her essay argues powerfully for seeing hope and promise in a different reading of the cyborg. “From another perspective,” she continues, “a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints” (72). A certain incarnation of the cyborg is to be embraced and celebrated, in other words, for its ability to expose the problems of thinking in essences and universals, and for the way in which it can “suggest a way out of the maze of dualisms in which we have explained our bodies and our tools to ourselves” (100–101). The passage from humanism to a posthumanist cyborg condition need not alarm those whom Haraway calls “progressive people” (71), for it is in the pollution of the “last beachheads of [human] uniqueness” (68) that enchanting new possibilities for being and becoming, for ethics and politics, sparkle.

download (1)In the wake of Haraway’s intoxicating and widely reproduced manifesto, many accounts of posthumanism have addressed how modern technoscientific culture has radically undermined the hegemony of anthropocentrism. In N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman (1999), Chris Hables Gray’s Cyborg Citizen (2001), Elaine L. Graham’s Representations of the Post/human (2002), and Thomas Foster’s The Souls of Cyberfolk (2005), for instance, the posthumanist implications of cybernetics and cyberspace, informatics, artificial intelligence, genetics, and medicine have been examined in detail (often with reference to Donna Haraway’s groundbreaking manifesto). When computers can beat humans at chess, when life is understood as a readable code, when death can be deferred or redefined by radical medical intervention, when the Genome Project has revealed that humans share 98 percent of their genetic composition with chimpanzees, when artificial limbs outperform and blend seamlessly with their organic counterparts, and when some experts in the field of artificial intelligence believe that it will soon be possible for humans to achieve immortality by transferring themselves into a computer, the old humanist model seems desperately incapable of speaking to the present order of things. The rigid and absolutist position developed in Descartes’s Discourse on Method loses its persuasiveness, and only a thoroughly revised account – a posthumanist account – can make sense of such shifted scenes.

Posthumanism is not purely a question of high technology, however, and not merely because, as Hayles points out in How We Became Posthuman, technological rapture can all too easily shore up some of the most fundamental assumptions of humanist discourse.5 While it is true that a great deal of criticism and fiction has imagined the posthuman as a technological figure, other strands of scholarship have examined posthumanism in terms of architecture (Hays 1992), mathematics (Baofu 2008), intersex (Morland 2007), geography (Castree and Nash 2006), education (Spanos 1993), paleoanthropology (Mordsley 2007), sensation and cognition (Merrell 2003), rights (Baxi 2009), fetishism (Fernbach 2002), complexity theory (Smith and Jenks 2006), extraterrestrials (Badmington 2004a), botany (Didur 2008), autopoietic systems theory (Clarke 2008), and postcolonialism (Lin 1997).

One of the most striking and persuasive texts to argue in recent years for a posthumanism not reliant upon technology is Cary Wolfe’s Animal Rites, where the focus falls upon the “unexamined framework of speciesism” (Wolfe 2003a: 1) that underlies anthropocentric discourse.6 Wolfe begins by noting how literary and cultural studies are still dominated by speciesist assumptions, even though everyday American culture – in the form of articles in popular publications such as Time and Newsweek, for instance – has at least started to recognize that “the humanist habit of making even the possibility of subjectivity coterminous with the species barrier is deeply problematic, if not clearly untenable” (1–2; emphasis in original). Western humanism, Wolfe proposes, is founded and fed upon the hierarchical binary opposition between “human” and “animal,” and “the aspiration of human freedom, extended to all, regardless of race or class or gender, has as its material condition of possibility absolute control over the lives of nonhuman others” (7; emphases in original).

Drawing notably upon the work of Jacques Derrida, Animal Rites proceeds to offer productive ways to unsettle the sway of the discourse of species and to recognize that “the ‘human’ … is not now, and never was, itself” (Wolfe 2003a: 9).7 Humanism is a myth – a remarkably powerful myth, certainly, but an untenable and dubious myth nonetheless. As long as “this humanist and speciesist structure of subjectivization remains intact,” Wolfe concludes, in a powerful and convincing challenge to those who believe that politics and ethics cannot continue without humanism,

and as long as it is institutionally taken for granted that it is all right to systematically exploit and kill nonhuman animals simply because of their species, then the humanist discourse of species will always be available for use by some humans against other humans as well, to countenance violence against the social other of whatever species – or gender, or race, or class, or sexual difference. (Wolfe 2003a: 8; emphases in original)

In the same year that Wolfe’s book shifted the terms of posthumanist debates, Donna Haraway published The Companion Species Manifesto, the title of which clearly echoes that of her earlier cyborg manifesto.8 But the book soon signals a certain unease with the cyborg, that figure which had, by 2003, so often been associated with Haraway’s name. “I appointed cyborgs,” she writes, “to do feminist work in Reagan’s Star Wars times of the mid-1980s. By the end of the millennium, cyborgs could no longer do the work of a proper herding dog to gather up the threads for critical inquiry” (Haraway 2003: 4). The reference to a herding dog gives a clue about Haraway’s shift of emphasis, for she continues:

So I go happily to the dogs to explore the birth of the kennel to help craft tools for science studies and feminist theory in the present time, when secondary Bushes threaten to replace the old growth of more livable naturecultures in the carbon budget politics of all water-based life on earth. Having worn the scarlet letters, “Cyborgs for earthly survival!” long enough, I now brand myself with a slogan only Schutzhund women from dog sports could have come up with, when even a first nip can result in a death sentence: “Run fast; bite hard!” ( Haraway 2003: 4–5)

The reason for this move away from the cyborg and toward animals is pencilled lightly between the lines of the slender Companion Species Manifesto, but two texts published since 2003 make matters absolutely clear. First, in an interview published in Theory, Culture and Society in 2006, Haraway responds to a question about the term “posthuman,” about what the signifier means to her, about whether or not she finds it productive and enabling:

I’ve stopped using it. I did use it for a while, including in the “Manifesto.” I think it’s a bit impossible not to use it sometimes, but I’m trying not to use it. Kate Hayles writes this smart, wonderful book How We Became Posthuman. She locates herself in that book at the right interface – the place where people meet IT apparatuses, where worlds get reconstructed as information. I am in strong alliance with her insistence in that book, namely getting at the materialities of information. Not letting anyone think for a minute that this is immateriality rather than getting at its specific materialities. That I’m with, that sense of “how we became posthumanist.” Still, human/posthuman is much too easily appropriated by the blissed-out, “Let’s all be posthumanists and find our next teleological evolutionary stage in some kind of transhumanist technoenhancement.” Posthumanism is too easily appropriated to those kinds of projects for my taste. Lots of people doing posthumanist thinking, though, don’t do it that way. The reason I go to companion species is to get away from posthumanism. Companion species is my effort to be in alliance and in tension with posthumanist projects because I think species is in question. In that way I’m with Derrida more than others, and with Cary Wolfe’s reading of Derrida.9 (Haraway 2006: 140)

Second, two years later, Haraway’s When Species Meet appeared as the third volume in the “Posthumanities” series edited by Cary Wolfe for the University of Minnesota Press. The opening chapter of the book, which builds as a whole upon the concerns of The Companion Species Manifesto, contains a striking statement about posthumanism:

I find [the notion of “companion species”], which is less a category than a pointer to an ongoing “becoming with,” to be a much richer web to inhabit than any of the posthumanisms on display after (or in reference to) the ever-deferred demise of man. I never wanted to be posthuman, or posthumanist, any more than I wanted to be postfeminist. For one thing, urgent work still remains to be done in reference to those who must inhabit the troubled categories of woman and human, properly pluralized, reformulated, and brought into constitutive intersection with other asymmetrical differences. … I am not a posthumanist; I am who I become with companion species, who and which make a mess out of categories in the making of kin and kind. (Haraway 2008: 17–19)

Haraway’s recent work, in other words, has been marked by a notable anxiety concerning the term “posthumanism.” But her turn to companion species nonetheless retains the powerful resistance to humanism that informed her “Manifesto for cyborgs.” “Human exceptionalism,” she proposes at one point in When Species Meet, “is what companion species cannot abide” (Haraway 2008: 165), and in the ordinary, everyday relationships between humans and animals dwell the seeds for radically rethinking the anthropocentric discourse of species.

Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway evidently disagree at the level of the signifier “posthumanism,” but their work nonetheless shares an insistence that the problematic reign of “Man” will continue until the familiar binary opposition between “the human” and “the animal” (the singular in each case is significant) is called into question. And texts such as Animal Rites, The Companion Species Manifesto, and When Species Meet have potent companions in scholarship by critics such Erica Fudge (2002, 2008) and Julie Ann Smith (2003, 2005) that examines how humanist speciesism fades in the face of ordinary encounters between humans and other animals. But there are also anxious voices. While a great deal of scholarship devoted to posthumanism celebrates the waning of humanist discourse – Donna Haraway, for instance, famously ends her “Manifesto for cyborgs” by declaring that she would “rather be a cyborg than a goddess” (Haraway 1985: 101) – it would be a mistake to conclude that everyone who writes about the subject is in favor of posthumanist existence.

For instance, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama published a widely discussed book entitled Our Posthuman Future (2002), in which he proposed that the contemporary drift away from the principles of humanism was a dangerous development in need of urgent correction. Modern biotechnology, for Fukuyama, is a “threat” because it will possibly “alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history. This is important … because human nature exists, is a meaningful concept, and has provided a stable continuity to our experience as a species” (Fukuyama 2002: 7). As humanism threatens to slide into the “potential moral chasm” (17) of posthumanism, Fukuyama calls for a defense of human nature, the transcultural “common humanity that allows every human being to potentially communicate with and enter into a moral relationship with every other human being on the planet” (9), and the “natural differences” between men and women (217). The final section of Our Posthuman Future, meanwhile, is entitled “What to do” and advocates strict regulation of biotechnology and an outright ban on the “unnatural” practice of reproductive cloning (207). Posthumanism, Fukuyama concludes, offers a “false banner of liberty,” and “[t]rue freedom” can only be achieved if humanism is preserved (218). In other words, while writers such as Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe have stressed the promising ethical and political possibilities that open up with the shift from humanism to posthumanism, Fukuyama sees only terrible loss in the fading of “Man”; the posthuman future identified in the title of his book is to be resisted at all costs, and politics, pace Haraway and Wolfe, cannot exist without recourse to “Man.”10

There is, in conclusion, no convenient consensus when it comes to questions of posthumanism: different critics have approached the term in different ways and have drawn different conclusions. And posthumanism is not the property or progeny of any particular academic discipline; on the contrary, it touches and troubles across the lines that conventionally separate field from field, mode from mode. One thing, however, is certain: posthumanism has become a major site of debate in recent years because anthropocentrism, with its assured insistence upon human exceptionalism, is no longer an adequate or convincing account of the way of the world. As N. Katherine Hayles reflected in 2005:

[T]he interplay between the liberal humanist subject and the posthuman that I used to launch my analysis in How We Became Posthuman [in 1999] has already begun to fade into the history of the twentieth century. In the twenty-first century, the debates are likely to center not so much on the tension between the liberal humanist tradition and the posthuman but on different versions of the posthuman as they continue to evolve in conjunction with intelligent machines. (Hayles 2005: 2)


Source: Clarke, Bruce, and Manuela Rossini. The Routledge Companion To Literature And Science. London: Routledge, 2012.

1 For a concise, nuanced, and accessible overview of humanism, see Davies 2008.

2 An excellent account of the relationship between humanism and antihumanism can be found in Soper 1986. For a discussion of the relationship between humanism, antihumanism, and posthumanism, see Chapters 2 and 4 of Badmington 2004a.

3 I am not interested in establishing an absolute origin of the term “posthuman”; there may be uses that predate that of Blavatsky (although I have yet to find them). In the name of historical accuracy, however, it should be noted that Oliver Krueger (2005: 78) is completely wrong to claim that “posthuman” is present in Thomas Blount’s Glossographia of 1656. Blount refers in his dictionary only to “posthumian,” a now-obsolete word which is taken simply to mean “following,” “to come,” or “that shall be” (Blount 1656: n.p.; spelling modernized).

4 Although cyborgs are often associated with the realm of science fiction (see Caidin 1972, for instance), the term itself was actually coined in 1960 by two scientists, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline, to describe the technologically enhanced human being – the cybernetic organism – that they imagined safely exploring the dangerous depths of outer space. For more on the history of the cyborg, including a reprint of Clynes and Kline’s original article, see Gray et al. 1995.

5 The reading of Hans Moravec’s Mind Children (1988) with which Hayles’s book begins is particularly insightful in this respect. Hayles points out that Moravec’s apparently posthumanist drive to see human consciousness transferred into a computer relies entirely upon the classical humanist division between mind and body, in which the former is the immaterial, disembodied essence of the individual, while the latter is ultimately insignificant matter (Hayles 1999: 1–6).

6 For an excellent collection that acts as some kind of companion volume to Animal Rites, see Zoontologies (Wolfe 2003b). For an imagining of “a posthumanism without technology,” see Callus and Herbrechter 2007.

7 For Derrida’s most sustained engagement with the question of “the animal,” see Derrida 2006; related material is to be found in Derrida 2009. Although Animal Rites was published several years before the appearance of The Animal That Therefore I Am in either French or English, Wolfe regularly quotes from the unpublished typescript of David Wills’s translation.

8 Haraway acknowledges this connection in the first few pages of The Companion Species Manifesto, in fact, when she writes: “This is not my first manifesto; in 1985, I published ‘The Cyborg Manifesto’ to try to make feminist sense of the implosions of contemporary life in technoscience” (Haraway 2003: 4).

9 Haraway is wrong to claim here that she uses the term “posthuman” in the “Manifesto for cyborgs”; perhaps she is thinking of a related text published several years later (Haraway 1992). 10 I have discussed at length what I see as the fundamental flaws in Fukuyama’s book in “Mapping posthumanism” (Badmington 2004b).

10 I have discussed at length what I see as the fundamental flaws in Fukuyama’s book in “Mapping posthumanism” (Badmington 2004b).

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——(2004b) “Mapping posthumanism,” Environment and Planning A, 36(8): 1344–51. Baofu, P. (2008) The Future of Post-human Mathematical Logic, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
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——(2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: dogs, people, and significant otherness, Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
——(2006) “When we have never been human, what is to be done?: Interview with Donna Haraway,” interview by N. Gane, Theory, Culture and Society, 23(7–8): 135–58.
——(2008) When Species Meet, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
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——(2005) My Mother Was a Computer: digital subjects and literary texts, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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——(ed.) (2003b) Zoontologies: the question of the animal, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota ress.

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