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Diacritics 31.4 (2001) 85-102

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Culture in the Disk Drive Computationalism, Memetics, and the Rise of Posthumanism

Stephen Dougherty

Ever since Descartes argued that there are striking similarities between a man and a clock, humanism has been in a state of crisis. To put it more pointedly, humanism has always been in a state of crisis, ever since it emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a constellation of beliefs that made man rather than God the measure of all things. Thus, since we are arguably witnesses now to the eclipse of the humanist tradition, we might take some comfort (if any is desired) in considering that if we have failed the ideal of humanism, it has also failed us. From the beginning its borders were too porous, its boundaries too ill defined. For even as man turned himself into a god, he increasingly began to resemble a machine.

In terms of bodily representation, our machinic evolution through the last four centuries culminates in the figure of the cyborg; and if we have already become posthuman, as N. Katherine Hayles suggests, then the cyborg stands as the iconic pop culture figure of our epochal transformation. But you don't need electronic prosthetic devices attached to your body or silicon chips implanted in your head to be posthuman. As Hayles argues, "[w]hether or not interventions have been made on the body, new models of subjectivity emerging from such fields as cognitive science and artificial life imply that even a biologically unaltered Homo sapiens counts as posthuman" [4]. What counts especially, according to Hayles, is not the body/machine interface but how we conceptualize the workings of the mind/brain.

In the humanist tradition signalled by Descartes, the subject is an I, an ego that is master of itself, a unified consciousness thinking itself. Before it is anything else, the Cartesian subject is a function of thought—ineffable and immaterial, and partaking in its nature of the divine and ineffable spirit that guarantees its communication with the material world. Thus, even though God has always been in the process of disappearing through the centuries since the Renaissance, spirit hasn't. Humanism never abandoned the concept of a spiritualized man, registering at the least a dissatisfaction with science's conventional claim to the possession of special and superior knowledge, and until quite recently dualism of one variety or another has been the normative philosophical attitude.

But in posthumanism matters are different. To begin with, as Hayles puts it, "computation rather than possessive individualism is taken as the ground of being" [34]. Human consciousness is no longer that which thinks itself into its own unity, a mysterious phenomenon of infinite reflexivity that would become the central subject of, and the central problem for, modern philosophy. In fact, in the posthumanist regime human consciousness is no longer primarily a matter for philosophy, since questions regarding ontology and epistemology are displaced by the question of functionality. Cognitive processes are turned into syntactical operations similar to those that computers perform, 1 [End Page 85] and consciousness is reduced to mere epiphenomena of those machinic operations. 2

Further, the cognitive functions of posthuman subjectivity are dispersed among a complex network of interrelated systems and subsystems (modules) responsible for receiving and interpreting data. 3 Consciousness thus loses the holistic unity it had possessed with a considerable degree of consensus from Descartes up to the behavioralists. Just as significantly, it loses its ineffability. The computationalists do not interrogate the mind as something beyond the grasp of scientific rationality because they do not approach thought as immaterial. Insofar as the brain has become a machine, mind is reduced to matter. In the new posthuman dispensation, then, philosophical dualism gives way to monism.

Such an outcome would seem to suggest that the onset of posthumanism represents the ultimate victory for positivism and scientific rationalism in explaining human behavior. As Francis Crick explains in The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul, "the aim of science is to explain all aspects of the behavior of our brains, including...