(Read Part III here.)
Don’t Call Me Post-Human
As I have attempted to mine the discourse of fear and loss surrounding an eschatological understanding of humanism, I’ve returned again and again to the idea that this fear has been the engine fueling our speculations surrounding a future in which the world may end, and that these speculations have leapt into focus particularly with the development of globalization. But to think the end of the world in this sense, we also have to consider what it means to be human or inhuman, superhuman or subhuman, or, as we now say with such liberality, post-human. As part of this exploration, I’ve been questioning the value of posts, and not one troubles me more than the use of such a prefix in this context. At the core of any useful definition of humanism is the belief that deep down, we’re all the same. The idea, however, of adding a prefix to the term implies that there is a whole range of experience and action that exists outside the scope of this definition. And somehow, applied to, say, you, the addition of the prefix doesn’t so much seem to imply that you’re out of the club, so much as that there was no club to begin with. The almost simultaneous declaration of the death of humanism and the birth of postmodernism in the last fifty years certainly supports the “no club” outlook. However, the concept of what it would mean to be post-human, in an ontological sense, and the assertion that we live in a “post-human present,” as Rosi Braidotti, in discussing Donna Haraway’s cyborgs, asserts (203), seems to me to be, as are so many posts-, unproductive and overly abstract at best, and at worst, potentially dangerous.
Speaking of the post-human present in an ontological sense is a risk because, in a biological sense, the post-human is far more than a vague concept or critical trend. As Nick Bostrom points out, the biologically post-human is one possible form of apocalypse involving human extinction, in which we don’t die out so much as evolve into something altogether different. Bostrom outlines the characteristics of a biological “post-human condition” as such:
- Population greater than 1 trillion persons
- Life expectancy greater than 500 years
- Large fraction of the population has cognitive capacities more than two standard deviations above the current human maximum
- Near-complete control over the sensory input, for the majority of people for most of the time
- Human psychological suffering becoming rare occurrence
- Any change of magnitude or profundity comparable to that of one of the above
It seems to me that if any of those critics touting the ontologically post-human present were thrust into the kind of future that Bostrom describes, they would not be so quick to label the experience or existence of 6 billion struggling, scrambling humanoids on the planet as something(s) post-. With the biologically post-human emerging as a sort of apocalyptic event, it is perhaps neither kind nor pragmatic to reject the idea of humanism in favor of post-humanism because it has been ill-defined or insufficiently helpful in the past. Post-humanism, as a useful term, can only be defined in an apocalyptic sense, as an end, and a loss of something instinctual, refined into a social agreement, which can, in a very loose sense, be called the human project. Our fear of the end of the world, and the constant playing out of this apocalypse or that in literature is, I believe, a product of the very basic fear of the project failing, in other words, of having to face the specter of becoming non- or post-human. Non-human in the sense of deceased, yes, but most significantly in the sense of transforming into something else, something less than we are now, and also, something less than what we could have been, or ought to have been. We human beings are tremendously afraid of failure, and always there is this fear that the future will catch us before we’ve really had a chance to succeed. In this sense, the fear is that we become post-human before we’ve had a chance to fully, as a global society, be human. To apply the term “post-human” or “post-humanist” in any other sense is, I believe, to do the project a disservice, and to risk its integrity in favor of what Jameson calls that “increasingly closed and terrifying machine” of totalizing critical analysis.
In the narratives I’ve explored throughout the course of this essay, the post-human moment came at the moment of, or after, the end, in which survival was defined by a choice to reject one’s humanity, or to lose it to unavoidable cataclysmic forces. Medea’s murder of her children, the burning of the Okie camps, the cannibal’s society of The Road—these are the post-human moments that we fear and that have driven our speculations surrounding the end ever since human beings grasped on to the idea of being in possession of something that could have an end. Human history can be defined as a litany of atrocities, but we could never have gotten this big or this hungry without a governing global narrative which doesn’t so much state as hope that we will succeed and not fail, live and not die, that we will be something, a thing perhaps ephemeral, perhaps unattainable, but ultimately worth striving towards, regardless. To step outside of this narrative is to become, by varying degrees, post-human. But although the post-human moment, the moment, as I frame it, of apocalypse, happens all the time, we do not live in a post-human world, nor is it useful to characterize it as such while we still have something to lose, and still peer into the future to contemplate the horror of that loss.
Rejecting the idea of posts in favor of a consideration of the future in which we prepare ourselves to be human in the face of catastrophe is the next step. In an age where the very nature of globalization itself seems to carry the threat of global catastrophe, where the outcome of events taking place halfway around the world seems to impact our personal stake in the human project, how do we prepare ourselves to adopt an eschatological humanism, to, as McCarthy puts it, “carry the fire?” Do our cultural narratives prepare us? Does the homogenizing effect of capitalism? If this isn’t a growing concern endemic to our time and place—one far more important than the question of whether or not we are today living in a post-modern post-human post-apocalypse—then perhaps it should be.
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