Speculative Posthumanism

“Speculative posthumanists claim that descendants of current humans could
cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration.”
– David Roden

Commander William Adama: [President Roslin is bedridden, dying of cancer, and coughing profusely] What can I get you?
President Laura Roslin: [sarcastically] A new body. Perhaps, one of those young Cylon models from the Resurrection Ship.
Commander William Adama: I can’t see you as a blonde.
President Laura Roslin: You’d be surprised.
– from Battlestar Galactica

David Roden of enemyindustry fame in his essay Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism (warning pdf)  makes a strong argument for a speculative posthumanism as against the critical posthumanism portrayed by most cyborgian scholars. He also raises the ethical dilemmas faced by transhumanists ideologists who affirm a transcension of the human through technological enhancement. What we are presented with in the transhumanist scenario is a speculative path, one that entails thinking the impossible: What would the descendants of humans be if they follow an accelarationist path of global and technological change to its ultimate limit: the singularity? Would they be not only different but in some respects both inhuman and unhuman? And, what would that difference be?

He presents the basic history of speculative thought in its rejection of the self-world axis of the post-Kantian variety and tells us that such sci-fi thinkers as Vernor Vinge with his vision of a non-subjective machine based intelligence “might lack awareness of itself as a persistent “subject” of experience”. He qualifies the distinction that Kant made between a transcendental subjectivity and a “non-sensory “intellectual intuition” that produces objects rather than, as in humans, imposing a synthetic unity on their sensory affects (Kant 1787, B 307)”. If Vinge is right then such a machine intelligence would preclude the human, and our hierarchy of public ethical frameworks would be rocked in their very foundations. As he states it: “Moral conceptions such as autonomy or responsibility would be inapplicable to a subjectless posthuman. The central value that modern liberal theory places on liberty and democratic legitimacy would be likewise unintelligible.”

He asks us how transhumanists, for whom such a world of posthuman entities is not only feasible but inevitable, should respond to this “incommensurate posthuman alterity.”  Yet, he tells us that such an evalution of the “unevaluable” brings us inevitably to the impossible truth of a “posthuman impasse”. Against such an impasse critical posthumanism was founded. In this regard it starts with two claims for a strong incommensurability between human and posthuman divide, one that presupposes both a fixed set of cognitive forms proper to a fixed human nature; and that there is no such fixed form and no human nature. He tells us that such posthumanist thinkers as Katherine Hayles, Donna Haraway, and Cary Wolfe offer a vision of technogenesis: the co-evolution of technology and the human. This entails a parity between processes in our minds and those in the external world: the “parity principle states that my mental activity includes this inscriptional process in addition to the skillful operation by which I track each stage of the computation and determine when the result is returned.”

As he relates it the view taken up by N. Katherine Hayles, whose popular history of the cybernetic movement and its implications How We Became Posthuman, suggests that “we are witnessing the philosophical dereliction of the humanism that warranted these fantasies of transcendence. The posthuman, according to Hayles, does not signify the “end of the humanity” but the end of a conception of the human as a selfpresent, autonomous agent that “may have applied, at best, to that fraction of humanity who had the wealth, power and leisure to conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through  individual agency and choice” (1999, 286).” He affirms that Andy Clark, too, invokes a critical posthumanist vision that entails an appreciations of our posthuman future, and that we should “resist the temptation to define ourselves in brutal opposition to the very worlds in which so many of us now live, love and work. (2003, 142.)”

Roden then asks: “So does critical posthumanism blunt the promise/threat of a posthuman alterity, obviating the posthumanist impasse?”

He tells us that critical posthumanism leaves open the door for a “posthuman alterity”, and at the same time allows for a displacement of the “terms in which the impasse is formulated in a more ethically productive way.” He begins with the philosophical debt the critical posthumanist owes to both post-war French deconstructive theory and the anti-humanist tradition. Many of these debts have been acknowledged, yet Roden hopes “to show, Derrida and other poststructuralists, such as Gilles Deleuze, have been more scrupulous in elaborating the philosophical consequences of treating subjectivity as an effect of mutable systems or assemblages, and they furnish us with a more nuanced account of human and posthuman conditions.”

He describes for us how many of these thinkers moved toward ontological discourses that displaced the human subject from the center of discourse on meaning, and presented instead a set of generative systems “whose character is complex, changeable and inaccessible to conscious reflection.” The most important of these types can be found in the current application of both Derrida’s “general textuality” and the Deleuzean “ontology of the virtual”. After summarizing both of these generative systems of thought he tells us that “these poststructuralist philosophies introduce a logic of excision into their accounts of generative systems such as texts and virtual multiplicities.” What this implies is the idea of the subject becoming susceptible to pure alterity – to “becoming other”.

If humans are not a unified subjectivity, but are invented by these generative systems then he tells us these systems “can be grafted or iterated onto other systems when material conditions allow, generating new kinds of subject-effects.” And, further, this would imply – after Manuel DeLanda – a ““flat ontology” in which there are no superior organizing principles such as essences; in this case, no hierarchy between the transcendental realm in which the modality of entities is bestowed by their mode of appearance and an “ontic” sphere describable by empirical science.” He tells us that this dissipation of the transcendental subject and the implication for a de-transcendentalized world “underlying the correlationist” project still leaves us with “a range of mundane, empirical subjects, many of which are perfectly conducive to the humanist project.”

Roden then goes into a disquisition on the pros and cons of a post-liberal embodied approach to cognition that allows for a exteriorization of cognitive processes “outside the skin-bag”. After exploring many of the ramifications of a critical posthumanism he tells us that it “complicates and nuances the metaphysics of autonomy and personhood characterizing traditional humanism.” In fact he tells us that the “fact that the demise of the transcendental subject is so routinely confused with that of the liberal subject, say, can be attributed to a failure to heed Derrida’s precautionary distinction between transcendental and anthropological humanisms….” Yet, he tells us that “deconstruction of transcendental humanism… is consistent with a  cyborg humanism that attributes a shared cognitive nature to humans.”

He goes into the fine distinctions in theories of linguistic representation within a common medium that allows us to “evaluate and interpret the beliefs of both ourselves and others.” Roden tells us that this “shows that cyborgianism is compatible with the claim that there are shared forms of cognition that distinguish humans from non-humans. If so, it is conceivable that conditions which are the technogenetic result of our cyborgian past could be fundamentally altered by a sufficiently radical cognitive augmentation.”

He tells us that this might imply the elimination of propositional thinking and the turn toward a non-linguistic medium that entails the “instrumental elimination of human minds through the technological erosion of their cultural preconditions.” He presents a hypothetical future form of such a new medium of how this might come about that reminds one of Herman Hesse’s Das Glasperlenspiel. Roden tells us this “hypothetical medium might consist of a complex form of virtual reality that provides the kind of capacities for reflection and self-monitoring which extended mind theorists attribute to language in a non-symbolic form.”

He envisions a “new type of cyborgian thinker”, one that would share a cognitive workspace in which the workers “generate a new class of hybrid thoughts” that are embodied in an immersive virtual environment. He goes on to say, that such “a cognitive hybrid could qualify as posthuman not by failing to instantiate a timeless human nature, but by actualizing a line of flight relatively inaccessible to unaugmented humans. Whether this new multiplicity was posthuman or transhuman would be contingent upon whatever possibilities of political and personal engagement it afforded those who did not participate in the workspace.”

He tells us that all this might turn out to be pure fantasy, but whether his prognostications turn out to be correct is mute, what is important is their “capacity to displace the sense of “speculation” itself. As he states it:

“They are not speculative in the way that Kantian claims about the transcendence of the noumenon are. There, “speculation” denotes the positing of an absolute that exceeds the limits of human cognition. If human cognition arises from a fixed cognitive nature, the human subject can know what transcendence means insofar as it can reflect upon transcendental conditions for subjective experience – e.g. through phenomenological investigation. If the extended mind theorists and critical posthumanists are correct, however, there is no invariant cognitive nature in this sense and thus no way to delineate the character of posthuman difference a priori. This shows that even if we accept the core tenets of critical posthumanism, we cannot exclude, a priori, the possibility of a posthuman alterity. We can only preclude an a priori conception of what that possibility entails.”

Because of this dilemma we cannot conceive a priori a “posthumanology”. He tells us that we “can understand the posthuman only in the process of its emergence or line of flight from the human.” He continues stating that the “posthuman is thus the idea of a speculative transformation of the human that can be developed through a range of synthetic activities”, and that this could be done “by developing and testing enhancement technologies, the development of cybernetic art forms or the fielding of imaginative possibilities in philosophy or literature.”

He summarizes telling us that he has argued “that the concept of the posthuman as the excision of the human escapes the posthumanist impasse. Whereas the impasse entailed a vacillation between equally untenable options, the logic of excision forces us to accept that there is no rigorous or pure demarcation between theoretical and practical thinking. Judging the value, or the nature, of the posthuman becomes possible on condition that we are already engaged in becoming just a little posthuman! The speculative posthumanist cannot rest content with pure speculation.”

1. Journal of Evolution and Technology, Nietzsche and European Posthumanisms 21(1), 2010

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