Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 134-137
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The Human in the Posthuman
N. Katherine Hayles
How to tell the story of the posthuman? One way is to trace a linear trajectory from the regime of the human to the posthuman, as Hans Moravec does in anticipating a postbiological future of humanity or Ray Kurzweil in seeing intelligent machines as our evolutionary descendents. The essays in this special issue take another route, complicating linearity by enfolding binary distinctions into more complex topographies. In the process, they show with clarity and insight that the posthuman should not be depicted as an apocalyptic break with the past. Rather, it exists in a relation of overlapping innovation and replication, a pattern that in How We Became Posthuman I called seriation, borrowing the term from archaeological anthropology.
Jill Didur enfolds together the binary distinction of nature and technology, using the context of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to explore the conflicting rhetorics of those who oppose GMOs and those who produce and market them. From my perspective, the essential point is that humans have used technology since they stood upright and began fashioning tools, an event contemporaneous with the evolution of Homo sapiens. Technology as a strategy of survival and evolutionary fitness cannot be alien to the human. As one of Didur's sources observes, every food that humans currently eat has already been the product of such technological interventions as selective breeding. This is not to say that there are not serious issues with GMOs, only that the natural/technological distinction cannot adequately be understood as a simple trajectory from the "nature" of crop farming to the "unnatural technologies" of gene splicing and other genetic modifications. [End Page 134]
Neil Badmington shares with Laura Bartlett and Thomas B. Byers the insight that posthumanist productions are folded together with humanist assumptions. Finding his warrant in Derrida, Badmington shows that posthuman assumptions already inhere in such classical humanist sites as the distinctions Descartes draws between humans and machines. Arguing that posthumanism already occurs as a critical practice within humanism, Badmington calls for a "working through" of humanist assumptions rather than a belief that we can simply leave them behind. As if anticipating Badmington's argument, Bartlett and Byers's deft analysis of The Matrix demonstrates how the film reinscribes humanist beliefs even as it purports to depict a posthuman future. A somewhat different tack is taken by Annette Burfoot in her analysis of the possibilities and limitations in feminist analyses of the body. Taking on the dichotomy of discourse versus materiality, she argues for a position in which the discursive construction of the body is folded back into its materiality, insisting that "lived experience through the body" must be seen as in intrarelation with discourse.
Equally complex is Teresa Heffernan's stunning analysis of the paradoxes that emerge in attempts to "improve" the human through artificial reproduction. Beginning with research that fused a cow embryo with a human cell, Heffernan's analysis returns to Frankenstein to show that the doctor's attempt to locate the "essence" of the human by artificially creating life has just the opposite effect: the created human turns out to be a monster. But the ironies do not end there, for just as the monster is shown to be humanlike, the human doctor mirrors the monster that he abhors. As Heffernan observes, the more the essence of the human is sought, the more the lines between human and nonhuman blur. The alternative, she suggests, is to abandon the attempt to police the boundaries between the human and nonhuman and see both as enwebbed within a skein of mutual interrelations. Although her argument focuses on the biological sciences, many of the same issues are at stake in the relation between human cognition and artificial intelligence. Without eliding the differences between human and artificial intelligence, I think it is becoming increasingly clear that cognition takes place both in carbon and in silicon creatures. The resulting crisis in what counts as human plays out along lines similar to those Heffernan traces: the more one [End Page 135] insists on absolute...