The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash
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The Posthuman Body:
Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash

Twenty years ago Ihab Hassan, prescient as usual, predicted the arrival of the posthuman: “We need first to understand that the human form—including human desire and all its external representations—may be changing radically, and thus may be coming to an end as humanism transforms itself into something that we must helplessly call posthuman.” 1 Just when we were recovering from a flood of “post-,” a new one blows into town with an attitude and a problem. How to get a hold on this mutating concept? The two sites most often associated with the posthuman are biological interventions into the human body—cloning, gene therapy, artificial wombs, fertilization in vitro, etc.—and cybernetic interventions that either modify the human body or fashion artificial life in its evolutionary image. Both sites have been deeply influenced by thinking of the human [End Page 241] mind/body as information: biology, through seeing DNA as an informational code; cybernetics, through envisioning systems as constituted by the flow of information through them. Already joined by an informational worldview, the biological and the cybernetic are increasingly entering into the same sphere of action. Nevertheless, my emphasis will be on the cybernetic rather than the biological.

In the American tradition of cybernetics, the posthuman emerges as a point of view characterized by the following assumptions (this list is not exclusive or definitive; it is meant to be suggestive rather than prescriptive): (1) The posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life. (2) It considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, an evolutionary upstart that tries to claim it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow. (3) It thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born. 2 (4) Most importantly, by these and other means the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. In this view there are no essential differences between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals.

To elucidate the shift in subjectivity that the posthuman represents, we can recall one of the definitive texts characterizing the liberal humanist subject, C. B. Macpherson’s analysis of possessive individualism: “Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them. . . . The human essence is freedom from the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.” 3 [End Page 242] The italicized phrases mark convenient points of departure for measuring the distance between the human and the posthuman. “Owing nothing to society” comes from arguments that Hobbes and Locke constructed about humans in a “state of nature” before market relations arose. Because ownership of oneself is thought to predate market relations, it forms a foundation upon which those relations can be built, as when one sells one’s labor for wages. As Macpherson points out, however, this imagined “state of nature” is the retrospective creation of a market society: the liberal self is produced by market relations, and does not in fact predate them. This paradox (as Macpherson calls it) is resolved in the posthuman by doing away with the tension between the posited natural self and the self derived from market relations. From the get-go, the posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction.

The six-million-dollar man, a paradigmatic citizen of the posthuman regime, can be used to illustrate how the assumptions of liberal humanism have been superseded: as his name implies, the parts of the self can indeed be owned—but they are owned precisely because they...