We Were Never Human

She met his eyes wide open, broad and inhuman, like the universal eyes of night, judging and damning her act, with remote absolute merciless comprehension. She was like a touched sleepwalker, unnerved and annihilated…

—Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poetry

In Jacques Derrida’s view, we live in a state of originary technicity. It is impossible to define the human as either a biological entity (a body or species) or a philosophical state (a soul, mind or consciousness), he argues, because our “nature” is constituted by a relation to technological prostheses. According to a logic that will be very familiar to readers of his work, technology is a supplement that exposes an originary lack within what should be the integrity or plenitude of the human being itself.1

Against the Lacanian-Derridean metaphysics of “lack” and supplement one would rather follow Deleuze and Guattari who see a fullness and productivity rather than lack that needs supplements at the core of the machinic multiplicity we term the human. (Should we finally rid ourselves of the name “human”? Have we ever been human?) Instead of the humanist and post-structural supplementarianism, let us decenter the human into the non-human, flatten the scales among various technics and technologies. Forget agency, self-reflexive voids, dialectical oscillations are any other derivative of the humanist idealisms of the past two-hundred years. Begin with the machinic as a multiplicity, a productive factory of technics and technologies that engender various technical objects (Simondon) of which we are one part of the machinic phylum.

Let us begin there… against the anthropocentric residuum within contemporary philosophy of technology let us decenter the human, disconnect from our humanist metaphysics, and establish a world without humans. Now don’t take that literally, by world I mean ‘Umwelt’ – our life-world; by human I mean the name which has been linked and associated to a history of humanistic metaphysics, concerns, and sincerity. So that a ‘world without humans’ is this world outside the present metaphysical, ideological, and constructed realms of pre-modern, modern, and post-modern thought-forms. This entails nothing less than an absolute disconnection from humanistic discourse and deanthropomorphization of conceptuality.  Impossible? This remains to be seen, a project in the making.

One of the problems of such an endeavor is that what appears to be a critique of metaphysical concepts of the human often remains heavily complicit with what it criticizes. (OT) Up till now the privileged site for technological critique has been centered on the liberal humanist subject (i.e., Consciousness, Mind or Agency, etc.). Which of course means that any discussion up to now has always entailed a human-centric for-us discourse concerning technicity.

On the other hand most discussion about technics or technology are as well reduced to the human-centric relation of technology for-us rather than the impersonal and indifferent notion of technology without-us. What an investigation into technics as an independent material force or process is rarely if ever asked. As Bradley tells us what is intended to produce a “de-anthropologising of the human — originary technicity— becomes a new means of defining the anthropos.” (OT)

How to produce a discourse outside the human-centric conceptual universe is one of the problems faced in this endeavor. Not an easy task. Speaking of Jacques Derrida and Bernard Stiegler and their unsuccessful attempts of de-centering the human for the non-human Bradley reminds us: what starts out as an attempt to displace the human onto a non-human outside is folded back into the human as its own “proper” mode of being. Either way, we end up with what Kate Soper calls the classic humanist appeal to the notion of a “core humanity” in terms of which human being can be defined, or understood. (OT, KL 1525)

Why must everything revolve back to a human relation – for-us? This human exceptionalism resides throughout the gamut of philosophical reflection from Plato to Derrida. One will ask as Bradley does: Why, in other words, can something that believes itself to be a critique of anthropologism still be seen as essentially anthropocentric? Can we step outside this temple of man and create a non-anthropocentric discourse that doesn’t find itself reduced to this human relation by some backdoor slippage of conceptuality? Are we condemned to remain human? What or who is this creature that for so long has created a utopian world against its inhuman core? If we were to be released from this prison of the human who or what would emerge? How alien and alienated am I to what I am? How monstrous am I?

Transhumanists will assume an anthropomorphic stance such as this one by Mark O’Connell in To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, where he tells us that a broad definition of transhumanism “is a liberation movement advocating nothing less than a total emancipation from biology itself. There is another way of seeing this, an equal and opposite interpretation, which is that this apparent liberation would in reality be nothing less than a final and total enslavement to technology.”2 These two aspects, the one concerned with transcension of the flesh, and the other a fear of becoming enslaved by the very thing that brought about the liberation.

He’ll go on to say,

For all the extremity of transhumanism’s aims—the convergence of technology and flesh, for instance, or the uploading of minds into machines—the above dichotomy seemed to me to express something fundamental about the particular time in which we find ourselves, in which we are regularly called upon to consider how technology is changing everything for the better, to acknowledge the extent to which a particular app or platform or device is making the world a better place. If we have hope for the future—if we think of ourselves as having such a thing as a future—it is predicated in large part on what we might accomplish through our machines. In this sense, transhumanism is an intensification of a tendency already inherent in much of what we think of as mainstream culture, in what we may as well go ahead and call capitalism.

This whole notion of technological progress and optimism coinciding with this accomplishment being done by and through machines in collusion with the core tendency within capitalism itself is one more anthropocentric gesture toward human exceptionalism. This humanist stance that sets technology against us, that objectifies capitalism, that sees the human as something different, exceptional, and part of this process as master to slave is part of the humanist dilemma we’ve been seeking to escape. What if as Bradley and others surmise technicity was there all along, situated as the very thing that conditioned and invented us according to its own tendencies rather than ours? An originary technicity? What if we are but the transitional mechanism upon which technicity has for these long eons been forging its deep initiatives, and that in out time – in the age of Automatic Society (Stiegler) – technology is slowly optimizing its intelligence to the point that in the near future it will no longer need this organic machine to do its bidding? What if we will be at that time obsolesced as a species?

Am I imputing to technology an anthropomorphic gesture? Am I personifying and allegorizing technicity as if it were autonomous and determining? Is this just a reverse anthropocentric move of imputing to technicity the very ambitions of the human? For so long we assumed humans invented technics and technology to supplement their lack of abilities, as supports and tools – prosthesis and appendages to our weak and naked animalness.

Derrida once argued that what we call the human is constituted not by any positive essence, being or substance but by a differential relation to what ostensibly lies beyond it: we “are,” so to speak, our own outside. For Derrida, it thus becomes possible to speak of an aporia between the human and the technical where each requires supplementation by the other to be what it is in the first place: “Man allows himself to be announced to himself after the fact of supplementarity, which is thus not an attribute— essential or accidental— of man.” (OT)

So in this sense Derrida the humanist offers us a reason for our weakness, our lack – and, in doing so, he allows humanity to project its essence onto the Outside. For Derrida there was no soul, no dichotomy of spirit/flesh etc. – as a good humanist he gave us one more transcendental tale, but this one pushed the ghost into the machine; not literally, but figuratively. As Bradley suggests, for Derrida, then, it is clear that the logic of originary technicity makes possible a massive and irreducible transendentalisation of technology: what begins as a mere prosthesis or supplement to the thinking or acting subject is now revealed to be an irreducible condition of thought, consciousness and subjectivity. (OT)

In this sense Derrida is still a true child of Kant in that technicity as the outside is the limit or horizon of thought beyond which it cannot go of know. Once again we’re stuck in the world of the for-us, caught between the supplement of technicity and thought. Derrida was never able to get beyond the aporia of thought, which for him was the inability to move beyond the human…

Bernard Stiegler will begin where Derrida leaves off, suggesting that the origin of the human lies in an evolutionary “process of exteriorisation” into technical artefacts that begins with the carving of the first flint tool: we are nothing outside our capacity to prostheticise ourselves. (OT) For Stiegler there is a dialectics at play: “The technical inventing the human, the human inventing the technical.”

Stiegler, of course, will incorporate the ancient myth of Prometheus and his idiot brother, Epimetheus. Epimetheus forgets to allocate anything at all to human beings— leaving them entirely defenceless— and so Prometheus is forced to steal the gift of skill in the arts (technai) by way of compensation for their loss. Once again this introduces the notion that at the origin of humanity there is this weakness, a lack at the core of our being that must be -as in Derrida/Lacan, supplemented from the outside by technicity.

For Stiegler humans are conditioned by technicity, but in turn the very notion of being human is part of this externalization of our thought onto technological devices of memory which begin the process of cultural transmission and humanization across the historical continuum. And, yet, this very inscription of memory in turn shapes and educes from us the patterns and goals of technicity itself. In this sense technicity is the origin and producer of the human. Stiegler argues that the birth of man represents an absolute break with biological life because it is the moment in the history of life where zoē begins to map itself epiphylogenetically onto technē: what we call the human is “a living being characterized in its forms of life by the non-living.” (OT)

Yet, I wonder if the reverse is true, that it is technicity itself that is being mapped onto the human rather than the other way round? Because both Derrida and Stiegler contain a residual trace of the anthropomorphism that sought to escape they privilege the human over technē, when in fact it is just the opposite: originary technicity has been there all along conditioning every aspect of this transitional being we term the human, mapping its own tendencies onto flesh, inventing thought and doing the thinking humans for too long assumed was theirs. It is not we who think, but technicity in us.

As Bradley will argue how far is Stiegler’s insistence on the human as the only being that is constituted by technics bought at the expense of a reduction of the technical— what Deleuze, for instance, would call the machinic— constitution of life more generally? (OT) What this suggests is that all non-human being is so constituted by technicity rather than humanity be some exception to all other forms of life. As Bradley remarks,

Stiegler risks re-anthropologising technics even in the very act of insisting upon the originary technicity of the human: what expropriates the anthropos once again becomes “proper” to it as its defining mode of being. If Stiegler would undoubtedly reject this line of critique— the moral of the story of Epimetheus is clearly that nothing is proper to the human— his enduring focus on hominisation as the unique moment when the living begins to articulate itself through the non-living means that his philosophy arguably still remains within what we might call the penumbra of human self-constitution. (OT, KL 1750)

Both Derrida and Stiegler remain in the humanist camp even though both sought to displace it in anti-humanist terms. As Bradley notes: “we” cannot just decide to stop thinking anthropocentrically any more than we can decide to stop thinking altogether and no-one is more aware of this than Derrida and Stiegler. (OT) Bradley suggest that to move past this we might begin to write philosophy and science from the perspective of the Outside: adopt the “perspective” of a dying sun, a rock formation or our own cloned selves?— perhaps we might more generously describe them less as attempts to overcome anthropocentrism than to exceed it from within: they are not so much post-anthropologies as counter-anthropologies. (OT, KL 1825)

Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human was adept at undermining the pretensions and self-importance of human exceptionalism, and I give him the last word:

There would have to be creatures of more spirit than human beings, simply in order to savor the humor that lies in humans seeing themselves as the purpose of the whole existing world and in humanity being seriously satisfied only with the prospect of a world-mission. If a god did create the world, he created humans as god’s apes, as a continual cause for amusement in his all-too-lengthy eternity… Our uniqueness in the world! alas, it is too improbable a thing! The astronomers, who sometimes really are granted a field of vision detached from the earth, intimate that the drop of life in the world is without significance for the total character of the immense ocean of becoming and passing away… The ant in the forest perhaps imagines just as strongly that it is the goal and purpose for the existence of the forest when we in our imagination tie the downfall of humanity almost involuntarily to the downfall of the earth…

The only other Inhumanist of our era was Robinson Jeffers whose poetry was replete with this dark turn… In presenting a fierce, unyielding God of natural process, Jeffers sought to do in his day what Lucretius, Dante, and Milton had done in theirs—to depict a cosmic reality in terms of the best science and epistemology available to him. By rejecting the categories of justice and mercy and embracing the full implications of scientific materialism, Jeffers sought to pare away the anthropomorphism that, no less than the long-shed doctrines of election and reprobation, had obscured the intuition of divine reality and the task of divine encounter in modern culture. The Puritans had stressed the necessity of this encounter by each of the faithful, alone; beyond any other duty, it was the very object of heavenly meditation as such. This meditation had ceased with the collapse of salvific belief, and humanity, deluded in Jeffers’ view by dreams of secular redemption, had turned inward on itself. Only the restoration of the individual encounter with the cosmic alterity—which was to say, the restoration of the individual himself to his inhuman core—could reverse this disastrous process, at least for those capable of achieving it. Jeffers called this prescription Inhumanism…

  1. Bradley, Arthur. Originary Technicity? Technology and Anthropology. (2006 by Litteraria Pragensia) Technicity. OT
  2. O’Connell, Mark. To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (Kindle Locations 138-141). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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