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Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 10-27

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Theorizing Posthumanism

Neil Badmington

"Someday we will be dead but not now."

—Ted Mooney, Easy Travel to Other Planets

Know Apocalypse?
not Now, Or Theory, We Hardly Knew Ye

Posthumanism, the story often goes, needs no theorizing. How could it? Only the most foolish or self-absorbed cultural critic would spend time speculating about something that was actually staring him or her in the face. "'Man,'" as Steve Beard confidently puts it, "does not have to be theorized away; the intersection of consumerism and techno-culture has already done the job" (1998, 114). All that was solid has melted into air. Posthumanism has finally arrived, and theory, like "Man" "himself," no longer has a place.

I am not quite ready to be seduced by such an approach. It is, I think, too easy, too complacent, too premature, and I want to stress the importance of theory—above all, poststructuralist theory—in the posthumanist landscape. Posthumanism, I want to suggest, needs theory, needs theorizing, needs above all to reconsider the untimely celebration of the absolute end of "Man." What Jacques Derrida calls the "apocalyptic tone" 1 should be toned down a little, for, as Nietzsche once pointed out, it is remarkably difficult to cut off the human(ist) head through which we (continue to) "behold all things" (1996, 15). While I am not for one moment interested in preserving humanism, keeping its head firmly on its shoulders, I do think that it is worth remembering the tale of the Lernaean hydra (the mythical beast that, of course, re-members itself). "The hydra throve on its wounds," Ovid recalls, "and none of its hundred heads could be cut off with impunity, without being replaced by two new ones which [End Page 10] made its neck stronger than ever" (1955, 203). Apocalyptic accounts of the end of "Man," it seems to me, ignore humanism's capacity for regeneration and, quite literally, recapitulation. In the approach to posthumanism on which I want to insist, the glorious moment of Herculean victory cannot yet come, for humanism continues to raise its head(s).

N. Katherine Hayles has, of course, done much to reveal the dangers of what might be called apocalyptic or complacent posthumanism. 2 This, in fact, is precisely where How We Became Posthuman commences:

This book began with a roboticist's dream that struck me as a nightmare. I was reading Hans Moravec's Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, enjoying the ingenious variety of his robots, when I happened upon the passage where he argues it will soon be possible to download human consciousness into a computer. To illustrate, he invents a fantasy scenario in which a robot surgeon purees the human brain in a kind of cranial liposuction, reading the information in each molecular layer as it is stripped away and transferring the information into a computer. At the end of the operation, the cranial cavity is empty, and the patient, now inhabiting the metallic body of the computer, wakens to find his consciousness exactly the same as it was before.

How, I asked myself, was it possible for someone of Moravec's obvious intelligence to believe that mind could be separated from body? Even assuming such a separation was possible, how could anyone think that consciousness in an entirely different medium would remain unchanged, as if it had no connection with embodiment? Shocked into awareness, I began to notice he was far from alone. (1999, 1)

Moravec, Hayles concludes, "is not abandoning the autonomous liberal subject but is expanding its prerogatives into the realm of the posthuman" (287), for the seemingly posthumanist desire to download consciousness into a gleaming digital environment is itself downloaded from the distinctly humanist matrix of Cartesian dualism. Humanism survives the apparent apocalypse and, more worryingly, fools many into thinking that it has perished. Rumors of its death are greatly exaggerated. 3

Moravec's fatally seductive narrative does not, of course, "exhaust the meanings of the posthuman" (Hayles 1999, 283), and How We Became Posthuman offers an admirably nuanced approach that seeks to avoid the "lethal . . . grafting...