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Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 28-46

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Back to the Future:
The Humanist Matrix

Laura Bartlett and Thomas B. Byers

The purported demise of the unitary, coherent humanist subject of the modern era has been widely celebrated by postmodern theorists who welcome a radically new subjectivity—fragmented, fluid, and flexible. Donna Haraway's cyborg, defined initially in "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" as "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism" (1985, 65), is perhaps the most famous "image" or "myth" (the terms are Haraway's own [65, 92]) of this happily postmodern and posthumanist subject. This subject is also poststructuralist in the sense that it seems to be more a node in a network of texts and codes than any kind of reified "self"; it is based, as Haraway suggests, on "the reconceptions of machine and organism as coded texts through which we engage in the play [in a Derridean sense of that term] of writing and reading the world" (69). In political terms, the cause for celebration is the belief that the postmodern reconfiguration breaks down or deconstructs the oppressive boundaries of (phal)logocentricism—blurring the border between binary terms such as self and other, male and female, organism and machine, ontology and textuality, "science fiction and social reality"—thus posing a powerful threat to patriarchal capitalism (66).

In How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles argues that "a defining characteristic of the present cultural moment" is belief in the notion that virtual reality technology will permit human consciousness to transcend the body and function as data in the circuits of a computer (1999, 1). This notion helps propel us toward a construction of subjectivity that sees "no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation" and in [End Page 28] fact "privileges informational pattern over material instantiation" (3). To assume that consciousness can become disembodied, Hayles argues, is to assume that it is not dependent on the body, and hence that artificial systems can achieve it. By the same token, this assumption also "configure[s] human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (3). Finally, this posthuman view also may imply that human dominance is not an inherent or essential attribute, but a negotiated position within a system, a position that can be overturned. The challenging of the human/machine (nature/culture) boundary, both theoretically and practically with advances in biotechnology, has propelled a contradictory battery of discourses defining the "posthuman" condition.

One strand of thought suggests that the posthuman constitutes a radical, subversive break from the Western tradition of liberal humanism, with its subject who has been historically interpellated by and for the forces of patriarchal capitalism. But another school of thought, a critical posthumanism, has come to question, as Hayles does, our open-armed embrace of the posthuman subject and has suggested that the posthuman may be an extension of liberal humanism rather than a break from it—or that, as discourses of postmodern subjectivity are appropriated by the popular media for the production of a contemporary style, the subject may exhibit a sexy patina of postmodernism while still not differing in any fundamental way from its liberal humanist predecessor. Moreover, while postmodern subjectivity itself may at first seem strikingly radical, it bears uncanny similarities to the structures of global capitalism. Fluidity, flexibility, boundary dissolution, and border crossings describe both. In sum, these developments raise a number of questions that are crucial for our comprehension of both present and future in the new world order of late capitalism. Is the posthuman necessarily posthumanist or postmodern, and if so, to what degree? Is the cyborg, defined as "a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism" (Haraway 1985, 65) or a "human being . . . seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines" (Hayles 1999, 3), necessarily any sort of threat at all to the contemporary refiguration of patriarchal capitalism? Indeed, is Haraway's metaphorical or mythic (as opposed to more literal) cyborg—the fragmented, fluid, flexible, deconstructive, boundary-transgressive postmodern subject—necessarily a threat to [End Page 29] the new world order...


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