David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism & the Future of Humanity (Part 5)

Again I take up from my previous post David Roden’s Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Roden will argue in Chapter 5 that we need a new theory of difference to understand the disconnection between the human and posthuman. He will suggest that the difference should be conceived as an emergent disconnection between individuals, not in terms of the presence or lack of essential properties. He will also suggest that these individuals should not be conceived in narrow biological terms but in “wide” terms permitting biological, cultural and technological relations of descent between human and posthuman. (Roden, KL 2423)

Before beginning to unravel Roden’s thoughts we discover that the philosophy of Manuel DeLanda and his Assemblage Theory will play a major role in underpinning this project. DeLanda above all considers himself a realist, not in the naïve common sense view of the 19th Century, but in the sense that at the very least that reality has a certain autonomy from the human mind. Thus he makes an initial split between reality as it is, and reality as it appears to the human mind. Human access to reality is a sort of translation, distortion, transformation, simplification, or truncation of it.2

Manuel DeLanda

DeLanda also develops a theory of the assemblage grafting many of the ideas from Deleuze/Guattari. An assemblage entails that no object is a seamless whole that fully absorbs its components, and also entails an anti-reductionist model of reality. There is also no ultimate layer of tiny micro-particles to which macro-entities might be reduced. At whatever point we fix our gaze, entities are assembled from other entities: they can be viewed as unified things when seen from the outside, yet they are always pieced together from a vast armada of autonomous components. This also means that Delanda believes in genuine emergence. It is not possible to eliminate larger entities by accounting for the behavior of their tiniest physical parts. (Harman, 172) DeLanda himself will tell us:

Today, the main theoretical alternative to organic totalities is what the philosopher Gilles Deleuze calls assemblages, wholes characterized by relations of exteriority. These relations imply, first of all, that a component part of an assemblage may be detached from it and plugged into a different assemblage in which its interactions are different. In other words, the exteriority of relations implies a certain autonomy for the terms they relate, or as Deleuze puts it, it implies that ‘a relation may change without the terms changing’. Relations of exteriority also imply that the properties of the component parts can never explain the relations which constitute a whole, that is, ‘relations do not have as their causes the properties of the [component parts] between which they are established …’ although they may be caused by the exercise of a component’s capacities. In fact, the reason why the properties of a whole cannot be reduced to those of its parts is that they are the result not of an aggregation of the components’ own properties but of the actual exercise of their capacities. These capacities do depend on a component’s properties but cannot be reduced to them since they involve reference to the properties of other interacting entities. Relations of exteriority guarantee that assemblages may be taken apart while at the same time allowing that the interactions between parts may result in a true synthesis.3

A central point in the paragraph above is that assemblage theory is based on an anti-reductionist in form or what one might term either anti-essentialist or anti-physicalist form of materialist discourse. He opts for what many now term a ‘flat ontology’, but by flat they do not mean that it could be reduced to some flat continuum, rather a flat ontology that allows countless layers of larger and smaller structures to have equal ontological priority. In this sense a flat ontology rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself. DeLanda promotes a hard core anti-essentialism as part of his assemblage theory:

The ontological status of any assemblage, inorganic, organic or social, is that of a unique, singular, historically contingent, individual. Although the term individual’ has come to refer to individual persons, in its ontological sense it cannot be limited to that scale of reality. Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manœuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities. On the other hand, for the manœuvre to work, the part-to-whole relation that replaces essences must be carefully elucidated. The autonomy of wholes relative to their parts is guaranteed by the fact that they can causally affect those parts in both a limiting and an enabling way, and by the fact that they can interact with each other in a way not reducible to their parts, that is, in such a way that an explanation of the interaction that includes the details of the component parts would be redundant. Finally, the ontological status of assemblages is two-sided: as actual entities all the differently scaled social assemblages are individual singularities, but the possibilities open to them at any given time are constrained by a distribution of universal singularities, the diagram of the assemblage, which is not actual but virtual.(DeLanda, 40)

This notion of virtual/actual would take me too far away so I’ll let off from here. The main drift we take away from this is the sense that all entities are on equal footing, that they have an objective existence independent of our minds (i.e., against all Idealisms whatsoever), and the notion of emergence that entails the part-to-whole relation that cannot be reduced to an essential nature etc. are all keys within this notion of assemblage. An assemblage can be made up of independent assemblages, yet there is never a whole or totality, rather one might think of it as a cooperative or synthesis of assemblages that can disconnect or unplug and replug into further assemblages.

Back to Roden and the posthuman difference or disconnection thesis

Roden will begin with an ethical dilemma: We can either account for our technological activity and participation in this process that might lead to the posthuman, or we can discount it. To that he will say that “accounting for our contribution to making posthumans seems obligatory, but may be impossible in the cases that really matter; while discounting our contribution to posthuman succession appears irresponsible and foolhardy” (Roden, KL 2450). Either path will lead to an impasse he suggests. So what to do? First he says we need to schematically understand the basic premises of (SP) or speculative posthumanism. SP argues that the descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration (Roden, KL 2469). Because of this we discover SP recognizes the notion that posthumanity comes about as the result of a process of technical alteration; and, that it represents the relationship between humans and posthumans as a historical successor relation, wide descent (Roden, KL 2475).

Before understanding this sense of the divide or disconnect between human/ posthuman we must first realize he suggests that any theory will by necessity need to be value neutral: “the posthuman it is, it might be argued, not so loaded as to beg ethical questions against critics of radical enhancement” (Roden, KL 2496). What he is implying is that for transhumanists thinkers such as Nick Bostrom there is a positive ethical stance in place to promote both enhancement and augmentation of humans as part of a key component of the global corporate system in which the health, medical, pharmaceutical, technological etc. initiatives have placed it as part of its elite capitalist score card for future world society based on enhanced humans, creativity, technocapitalism, smart cities, etc. While SP has no agenda and is value free in this sense of not being aligned with corporate pressure or governmental control to promote its objectives and gain monetary allocation or funding for its agendas. (He does not state this explicitly, and these are my own views or reading between the lines).

Which brings up a good point. So far Roden’s discourse has kept a high profile academic style that tends toward laying out stage by stage the philosophical, scientific, and technological layers of his argument without going into any ethical or political commitments one way or the other. This is to me one of the bright points of the book. Too many works of late are all so value laden with political, cultural, social, religious, anti-religious or atheistic agendas that one is never sure of the truth under all the ideology. David’s discourse keeps the gray tones, but to a purpose, and is careful to use rhetoric that is value neutral in the way of clarifying and making explicit the underlying truth of the matter without leading the viewer astray with other issues that are extraneous to the main argument. This is not to say that we should not understand the ethical or social implications, and later in the book he will offer that as well. Just an observation. 

Roden will tell us that there is both the sense of a wide descent and a wide humanity: the one dealing with any relationship that can be technically mediated to any degree; the other dealing with the notion of any product of a technogenetic process (Roden, KL 2527). This will lead us back into that concept of assemblage discussed above in DeLanda’s work. If we place this descent and wide humanity within the context of human descent and narrow humanity we understand the notion of becoming human or hominization has involved a confluence of biological, cultural and technological processes. It has produced socio-technical “assemblages” where humans are coupled with other active components: for example, languages, legal codes, cities and computer-mediated information networks. (Roden, KL 2540)

He will, after DeLanda, suggest that narrow humans (Homo Sapiens) exist within a specific horizon of an extended socio-technical network of assemblages, and that whatever the posthuman entails it will inaugurate and emergence from or historical rupture with the narrow human network or assemblage. (Roden, 2564) More specifically any Wide Human descendent will become posthuman if and only if it has ceased to belong to WH (the Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration; and, second, that it is a wide descendant of such a being (outside WH) (Roden, KL 2588). This is the point when many would raise the ethical dilemmas faced by humanity. The simple truth of it is that we cannot reduce whatever the posthuman might become to some moral or immoral human essence or decision making process. Against any anthropological essentialism. Whatever WH might become they have the same ontological status (flat ontology) as our species (Homo sapiens). As Roden suggests they are both are complex individuals rather than kinds or essences. However, WH is constituted by causal relationships between biological and non-biological parts, such as languages, technologies and institutions. A disconnection event would be liable to involve technological mechanisms without equivalents in the biological world and this should be allowed for in any ontology that supports speculative posthumanism. (Roden, 2649)

For the rest of the chapter he goes over several aspects of his disconnection thesis: 1) modes of disconnection (i.e., greater cognitive powers, bodily configurations, linguistic and perceptual alterations, etc.); 2) is disconnection predictable? (unlikely that we will be able to discern the nature or the effects of feasible disconnection-potent technologies without building serviceable prototypes); 3) once the disconnection takes place how do we interpret these posthuman others? The last question he will choose both caution and opt for an accounting: “even if we enjoin selective caution to prevent worst-case outcomes from disconnection-potent technologies, we must still place ourselves in a situation in which such potential can be identified. Thus seeking to contribute to the emergence of posthumans, or to become posthuman ourselves…”(Roden, 2814). So that our best bet is not to turn a blind eye, nor to attempt a retreat and try to control this unpredictable emergence, but rather to keep an eye toward it, account for the anomalies that arise in our midst, keep looking for posthuman occurrence and if we discover it to provide an ongoing accounting and analysis of its paths and trajectories.

Summing up this notion of the disconnection thesis we discover that all it amounts to is an acknowledgement that at some future time technical alternations may occur that will provide a rupture and emergence of the posthuman, but what form it will take is not something we can extrapolate from current theory. The best we can do as he suggests is by satisfying our moral concern with our posthuman prospects through posthuman accounting is by seeking to produce or become posthumans. While objections to the policy of posthuman accounting on precautionary grounds have been deflected here, the reader could be forgiven for being dissatisfied by this resolution of the posthuman impasse. This resolution is tactical and provisional. However, before we are in a position to provide a more satisfactory resolution, in the form of an ethics of becoming posthuman, we will need to devise a general account of the posthuman autonomy or agency presupposed by the disconnection thesis and consider its general ontological requirements. (Roden, 2817)

We will turn to that in our next post.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Harman, Graham (2010-11-26). Towards Speculative Realism: Essays & (p. 174). NBN_Mobi_Kindle. Kindle Edition.
3. DeLanda, Manuel (2006-09-14). A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (p. 10). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

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