David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 3)

Continuing where I left off yesterday in my commentary on David Roden’s Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human  we discover in Chapter Two a critique of Critical Posthumanism. He will argue that critical humanism like SP understands that technological, political, social and other factors will evolve to the point that the posthuman will become inevitable, but that in critical posthumanism they conflate both transhuman and SP ideologies and see both as outgrowths of the humanist tradition that tend toward either apocalypse or transcendence. Roden will argue otherwise and provides four basic critiques against the anti-humanist argument, the technogenesis argument, the materiality argument, and the anti-essentialist argument. By doing this he hopes to bring into view the commitment of SP to a minimal, non-transcendental and nonanthropocentric humanism and will help up put bones on its realist commitments (Roden, KL 829).1

Critical posthumanism argues that we are already posthuman, that it is our conceptions of human and posthuman that are becoming changing and that any futuristic scenario will be an extension of the human into its future components. SP will argue on the other hand that the posthuman might be radically different from the human altogether, such that the posthuman would constitute a radical break with our conceptual notions altogether. After a lengthy critique of critical posthumanism tracing its lineage in the deconstructive techniques of Derrida and Hayles he will tell us that in fact SP and Critical posthumanism are complementary, and that a “naturalistic position structurally similar to Derrida’s deconstructive account of subjectivity can be applied to transcendental constraints on posthuman weirdness” (Roden, KL 1037). The point being that a “naturalized deconstruction” of subjectivity widens the portals of posthuman possibility whereas it complicates but does not repudiate human actuality (Roden, 1039). As he sums it up:

I conclude that the anti-humanist argument does not succeed in showing that humans lack the powers of rational agency required by ethical humanist doctrines such as cosmopolitanism. Rather, critical posthumanist accounts of subjectivity and embodiment imply a cyborg-humanism that attributes our cognitive and moral natures as much to our cultural environments (languages, technologies, social institutions) as to our biology. But cyborg humanism is compatible with the speculative posthumanist claim that our wide descendants might exhibit distinctively nonhuman moral powers. (Roden, 1045-1049)

When he adds that little leap to “nonhuman moral powers” it seems to beg the question. That seems to align toward the transhumanist ideology, only that it fantasizes normativity for nonhumans rather than enhanced humans. Why should these inhuman/nonhuman progeny of metal-fleshed cyborgs have any moral dimension whatsoever? Some argue that the moral dimension is tied to affective relations much more than cognitive, so what if these new nonhuman beings are emotionless? What if like many sociopathic and psychopathic humans have no emotional or affective relations at all? What would this entail? Is this just a new metaphysical leap without foundation? Another placating gesture of Idealism, much like the Brandomonian notions of ‘give and take’ normativity that such Promethean philosophers as Reza Negarestani have made recently (here, here, here):

Elaborating humanity according to the self-actualizing space of reasons establishes a discontinuity between man’s anticipation of himself (what he expects himself to become) and the image of man modified according to its functionally autonomous content. It is exactly this discontinuity that characterizes the view of human from the space of reasons as a general catastrophe set in motion by activating the content of humanity whose functional kernel is not just autonomous but also compulsive and transformative.
Reza Negarestani , The Labor of the Inhuman One and Two

The above leads into the next argument: technogenesis. Hayles and Andy Clark will argue that there has been a symbiotic relation between technology and humans from the beginning, and that so far there has been no divergence. SP will argue that that’s not an argument. That just because the fact that the game of self-augmentation is ancient does not imply that the rules cannot change (Roden, KL 1076). Technogenesis dismissal of SP invalidly infers that because technological changes have not monstered us into posthumans thus far, they will not do so in the future (Roden, KL 1087).

Hayles will argue a materiality argument that SP and transhumanists agendas deny material embodiment: the notion that a natural system can be fully replicated by a computational system that emulates its functional architecture or simulates its dynamics. This argument Roden will tell us actually works in favor of SP, not against it. It implies that weird morphologies can spawn weird mentalities. 7 On the other hand, Hayles may be wrong about embodiment and substrate neutrality. Mental properties of things may, for all we know, depend on their computational properties because every other property depends on them as well. To conclude: the materiality argument suggests ways in which posthumans might be very inhuman. (Roden, 1102)

The last argument is based on the anti-essentialist move in that it would locate a property of ‘humaneness’ as unique to humanity and not transferable to a nonhuman entity: this is the notion of an X factor that could never be uploaded/downloaded etc. SP will argue instead that we can be anti-essentialists (if we insist) while being realists for whom the world is profoundly differentiated in a way that owes nothing to the transcendental causality of abstract universals, subjectivity or language.  But if anti-essentialism is consistent with the mind-independent reality of differences – including differences between forms of life – there is no reason to think that it is not compatible with the existence of a human– posthuman difference which subsists independently of our representations of them. (Roden, 1136)

Summing up Roden will tell us:

The anti-essentialist argument just considered presupposes a model of difference that is ill-adapted to the sciences that critical posthumanists cite in favour of their naturalized deconstruction of the human subject. The deconstruction of the humanist subject implied in the anti-humanist dismissal complicates rather than corrodes philosophical humanism – leaving open the possibility of a radical differentiation of the human and the posthuman. The technogenesis argument is just invalid. The materiality argument is based on metaphysical assumptions which, if true, would preclude only some scenarios for posthuman divergence while ramping up the weirdness factor for most others. (Roden, 1142-1147)

Most of this chapter has been a clearing of the ground for Roden, to show that many of the supposed arguments against SP are due to spurious and ill-reasoned confusion over just what we mean by posthumanism. Critical posthumanism in fact seems to reduce SP and transhumanist discourse and conflate them into some erroneous amalgam of ill-defined concepts. The main drift of critical posthumanist deliberations tend toward the older forms of the questionable deconstructionist discourse of Derrida which of late has come under attack from Speculative realists among others.

In the Chapter three Roden will take up the work of Transhumanism which seeks many of the things that SP does, but would align it to a human agenda that constrains and moralizes the codes of posthuman discourse toward human ends. In this chapter he will take up threads from Kant, analytical philosophy, and contemporary thought and its critique. Instead of a blow by blow account I’ll briefly summarize the next chapter. In the first two chapters he argued that the distinctions between SP and transhumanism is that the former position allows that our “wide human descendants” could have minds that are very different from ours and thus be unamenable to broadly humanist values or politics. (Roden, KL 1198) While in chapter three he will ask whether there might be constraints on posthuman weirdness that would restrict any posthuman– human divergence of mind and value. (Roden, 1201) After a detailed investigation into Kant and his progeny Roden will conclude that two of the successors to Kantian transcendental humanism – pragmatism and phenomenology – seem to provide rich and plausible theories of meaning, subjectivity and objectivity which place clear constraints on 1) agency and 2) the relationship – or rather correlation – between mind and world. (Roden, 1711) As he tells us these theories place severe anthropological bounds on posthuman weirdness for, whatever kinds of bodies or minds posthumans may have, they will have to be discursively situated agents practically engaged within a common life-world. In Chapter 4 he will consider this “anthropologically bounded posthumanism” critically and argue for a genuinely posthumanist or post-anthropocentric unbinding of SP. (Roden, 1713)

I’ll hold off on questions, but already I see his need to stay with notions of meaning, subjectivity and objectivity in the Western scientific tradition that seem ill-advised. I’ll wait to see what he means by unbinding SP from this “anthropologically bounded posthumanism”, and hopefully that will clarify and disperse the need for these older concepts that still seem to be tied with the theo-philosophical baggage of western metaphysics.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

2 thoughts on “David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 3)

  1. i guess what i really think is that a rigorous posthumanism would be commited to non moral dynamical dispositions of systems which even outrun our best conceptions of what intelligent systems are. this reminds me of scotts constant point of the arbitrary nature of being selective about your intentional commitments: “subjectivity and anthropocentrism bad, moral spheres and ethics good”.


    • I understand what you mean… makes me think of old Samuel Butler:

      Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them ; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

      —Samuel Butler


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