- Being Not Us
Every book should have a soundtrack. For Cary Wolfe's What Is Posthumanism?, I would recommend David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts (1981). In Wolfe's chapter-length analysis/conclusion, he cites Byrne as saying the record offended people who wanted "to believe in the artist as someone with something to say." That is because it used a precursor of digital sampling to layer found vocal tracks (taped, for example, from radio broadcasts) over dense, complex, and dazzling rhythmic grooves.
What the record does to dismantle the authenticity of the human voice, how it signifies presence, is rather similar, I think, to what Wolfe does to the larger notion of humanism. Referencing Jacques Derrida's "The Autobiographical Animal," Wolfe powerfully expresses his book's thesis:
"[W]e" are not "we"…. Rather, "we" are always radically other, already in- or ahuman in our very being—not just in the evolutionary, biological, and zoological fact of our physical vulnerability and mortality, our mammalian existence but also in our subjection to and constitution in the materiality and technicity of a language that is always on the scene before we are, as a precondition of our subjectivity.
Not only does Wolfe's statement memorably describe, in his view, the current attitude about posthumanism, it makes a point highly relevant to this special issue: what we believe defines us as "human," and thus different from nonhuman animals, is perhaps the most supreme cognitive fiction of them all.1
In making such a point, the book convincingly argues for the centrality of literature to discussions about cognition. That the discipline of cognitive science tends to insist on having the last word on the matter, Wolfe contends, is far from valid. For one, if language is fundamentally ahuman ("before" us), that suspicion has long been taken seriously by literary scholars, yet not, as we will soon see, adequately considered by cognitive science. Literature, especially poetry, belongs to the "disciplines of 'slow thought'" that reaffirm the temporal as a crucial component of the process of interpretation (an issue covered in several later chapters).2 And, more visibly, authors, such as J. M. Coetzee, reflect upon the constraints on our thinking about our relationships with nonhuman animals, which turn on our own sense of who we think we are. Coetzee's literary narratives, Wolfe says, disclose the moral "gravity" of our responsibilities toward nonhuman animals; this disclosure, as it "unsettles the very foundations of what we call 'the human,'" becomes an "unnerving weight" difficult to speak of that "resists" our thinking.
Language, therefore, is inextricably connected to how we think. For Wolfe, the language "question" underscores the difference between cognitive science, epitomized by Daniel Dennett's work, and Derridean deconstruction, that question being "what language is and how it is related to our ideas about subjectivity, consciousness, and the like." Wolfe singles out Dennett for a specific reason: Dennett is regarded for moving cognitive science away from the limitations of a Cartesian model and a humanist viewpoint. Dennett, however, retreats time and again to this mode of thinking, a problem, as Wolfe advises, because it is through such backpedaling that Dennett makes his case for the cognitive differences between human and nonhuman animals. And how these differences are made, Dennett insists, does no less than set the ethical parameters for the treatment of nonhuman animals. More specifically, Dennett claims that nonhuman animals do not know they are thinking—a premise derived from their being seen to not respond but react, their inability to grasp second-order meanings (the meanings of meanings) through language—and on the basis of this claim, he declares nonhuman animals are not subjects and hence do not "experience" pain as suffering. Wolfe considers Dennett's flawed argument as symptomatic of a larger (Cartesian) idea of the "human" as an abstracted fictional representation of subjectivity, an idea that, in successive chapters, he will carefully deconstruct.
If thinking, in the Cartesian formulation, pronounces, "I am," then a posthuman model of language reflects...