Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Reading :: Posthumanism

Posthumanism: Anthropological Insights
By Alan Smart and Josephine Smart

This slim book (98pp. plus end matter) provides a useful, accessible introduction to posthumanism, a term that I have been hearing but have been until now unmotivated to explore. Spoiler alert: it involves Haraway, Hayles, Latour, Maturana & Vela, Pickering, Wrangham, and others I've reviewed and written about. So, although the term has been a bit of a question mark for me, it encompasses a great deal of familiar material.

The authors note that for some, "posthumanism is mostly about how new technologies are changing what it means to be human," but for them, "we have always been posthuman" in the sense that "becoming human involved our intimate interaction with more-than-human elements" such as fire and bacteria (p.2). "Becoming human involved the adoption of new extrasomatic technologies (i.e., things that go beyond our bodies and their basic abilities) and fundamental changes in our microbial ecologies. ... Inhabiting the globe required collaboration with plants and animals" (p.3).

Posthumanism, as the authors put it, denotes both posthuman-ism (after humans) and post-humanism (after the Western humanist tradition, with its emphases on Western-defined secularity, rationality, and human progress) (p.4).

Not surprisingly, actor-network theory constitutes a big chunk of the discussion, with the authors essentially claiming that Latour's "modernity" is roughly equal to their "humanism" (p.23). The authors are interested in the poststructuralist critique of the coherence of the individual leveled by Latour as well as Derrida, Foucault, Haraway, Althusser, and Deleuze & Guattari (p.52). But the authors also point to other lines of thought, such as distributed cognition and Haraway's cyborg anthropology (p.77).

All in all, I appreciated the straightforward simplicity of this book. The authors manage to lay out a clear, well illustrated account of posthumanism, which is quite a trick given some of the abtruse philosophical sources from which they draw (I'm thinking of Deleuze and Guattari here). They draw relationships among the lines of thought that contribute to posthumanism, and they abstract some basic principles for us. If, like me, you have been wondering about the term, this book is a strong introduction; pick it up.

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