restricted access Introduction: Human No More
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1 Introduction Human No More Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Wesch Over the last decade the growing possibilities of living in online worlds have continued to undermine and throw into question traditional anthropological conceptions of place-based ethnography. Such conceptions were already facing criticism for artificially bounding, limiting, and reifying “culture” in a world in which transnational cultural flows are commonplace. Online worlds add yet another dimension to this critique, providing examples of social forms that stretch and often break the definitions and boundaries of “communities ” and “groups” and blurring our taken-for-granted distinctions between the human, bestial, and mechanical, thereby forcing us to rethink our notions of what might constitute the “subjects” that we study. However, in this volume we also use the insight that the challenges of ethnography in online worlds presents to broaden our critique of ethnography . We do this by asking how the occluded worlds of digital culture, and also those of hidden and marginalized persons, can be better integrated into anthropological thinking and how the ethnography of both the “unhuman” DOI: 10.5876/9781607321705.c00 2 Neil L. Whitehead and Michael Wesch and the “digital” leads to exciting possibilities for reconfiguring the notion of what is human. But why would an academic discipline that is founded on the notion of the “human” (anthropos) saw off the very branch of the “tree of knowledge” on which it rests? How can anthropology properly acknowledge the cultural and historical contingency of the category “human” unless this entails the end of anthropology itself? Through the chapters that follow, we demonstrate that such questioning is not the end of anthropology but, to the contrary, a fruitful endeavor leading to the discovery of new ends and purposes for our enduring commitment to engage and interpret other lifeways. A critical examination of the “human” sheds light on how the anthropocentric presumptions of much anthropology ignore not just the “unhuman” but also the “animal” and the “not-quitehuman ” (transgendered, disabled, or psychologically impaired persons), inevitably leading to a challenge, and perhaps an outright rejection, of the whole category of the human, at least as a core concept for anthropological theory. Anthropology is only one academic discipline currently engaged with the posthuman (Wolfe 2010), but arguably anthropology has the most to contribute to such debates through ethnographic engagement with cultural worlds in which Western Enlightenment definitions and exclusions (Latour 1993) are not so prominent. In this regard, the essays here demonstrate that new forms of ethnographic engagement with “unhuman” populations (as in the chapters by Heckenberger, Whitehead, and Wisniewski) can inform and be informed by studies of online phenomena that also challenge and subvert traditional notions of the human. The chapters here illustrate emergent cultural contexts in which embodied , “rational” individuals are but one of the forms of agency present in virtual and socially occluded worlds. As Matt Bernius demonstrates, software programs create chatbots, spambots, searchbots, and even ballot-stuffing bots, some of which are fully equipped to interact with “real humans” socially, sexually , and financially. Such bots appear alongside and engage with simulacra of our offline selves. Anthropologists such as Donna Haraway (1991) were pioneers in drawing out the possibilities and implications of the posthuman, but the challenges and questions that arise from such insights and observations are often ignored in mainstream anthropology, safely put aside while getting on with the “real” work of doing real ethnography “in the field.” Perhaps it is only now, amid a mass engagement and subjective incorporation of the reality of the online into everyday life and imperial ambitions of pharmaceutical and bioengineering corporations to control Life itself, that such early critiques and insights become central to the prospects of anthropology in the twenty-first century. And as the Internet and other new media forms increasingly integrate with even the most mundane aspects of everyday life in even the most remote regions of the world, and the “virtual” blurs with and ultimately becomes the 3 Introduction: Human No More “real,” issues raised by an anthropology of the virtual necessarily become the issues for anthropology at large. Human No More? The theme of these chapters—human no more?—resonates as a question throughout. Although Whitehead answers firmly in the affirmative and eagerly embraces the posthuman as a potential liberation from the late capitalist disciplines of the corporeal and the mental, others more cautiously question whether we are in fact posthuman at all and whether we should radically rethink anthropology. This is partly the reaction of Anne Allison (whose...


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Subject Headings

  • Anthropology -- Philosophy.
  • Cybernetics -- Philosophy.
  • Online social networks.
  • Computers and civilization.
  • Virtual reality.
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