Myra Seaman (seamanm@cofc.edu)

College of Charleston

Southeastern Medieval Association, September 2005

BABEL Panel: Medieval Humanisms/Modern Humanisms

 

Post-Incarnated and Divine Machine Bodies

 

            The border we occupy between the human and the posthuman is marked by divisions between the real and the virtual, the neurological and the digital, and the biological and the mechanical. It is witnessed by various engineered and mechanical enhancements of the inadequate human body. Such enhancements can be seen in possibilities offered by technoscience: medically, in new reproductive technologies to make our biology suit our lifestyles, genetic engineering to reduce our bodies‘ tendencies toward disease, and prostheses such as pacemakers and breast implants to limit our physical decay; virtually, in artificial intelligence, automated teller machines, and chat rooms; and fictionally, in useful androids, destructive cyborgs, and nearly-organic wetware. Common associations with the posthuman are of the single-minded, extreme makeover of the human physique into an all-powerful machine, or, at the other end of the spectrum, its refinement into an indestructible disembodied consciousness. The preponderance of such “advancements” in scientific and popular culture points to a powerful awareness of our human limitations, our vulnerable dependency (Graham 9). The scientific posthuman offers hope that we might move beyond our flawed bodies while making the fullest use of our reason. The popular culture posthuman evokes nightmare visions of Robocop, of the Terminator (in his many guises), of Darth Vader – revealing a fear that becoming posthuman is dehumanizing. The posthuman embodies fantasies of freedom and escape alongside fears of bondage and annihilation.

In the posthuman world, as defined by Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston (1995), however, “humans are mixtures of machine and organism.” Nature, in this posthuman world, has incorporated the technological, but the technological has also incorporated the natural, to the point where the two are culturally integrated. In this view, the boundary between the human and posthuman is marked not by a chasm but rather by a series of bridges, the passing of which transforms the human but does not displace it.  This situation parallels the apparent border between the pre- and post-modern, a border we have also imaginatively investigated but have similarly not yet fully crossed. This border, between the pre-modern and the post-modern, is perhaps primarily marked by the invention of the human, the discovery of the sovereign subject (Foucault). The idea of the human as a universal, historically-independent essence was fashioned by nineteenth-century thinkers as they attempted to define themselves as modern humans. The resulting liberal humanism views history as the product of human thought and action (Soper 12), with “Man” – which as Davies notes is “always singular, always in the present tense” – living on in the same form, a historically independent agent (Davies 32).

More recently, extreme liberal humanism has been challenged by postmodern forms of skepticism that see future hopes for the body in terms of its synthetic, posthuman regeneration. Brewster et al. note that the modern notion of the ‘human’ has been on the verge of disintegration for some time now (1). But because the human is an incredibly “elastic fiction” (Fuss), posthumanism indicates not the end of humanity but rather the end of a particular way of understanding the human. Such a change is not necessarily harmful, for as Katherine Hayles contends, the liberal humanist subject actually reflects the experiences of only the very small portion of humanity who were in the material position to “conceptualize themselves as autonomous beings exercising their will through individual agency and choice” (Hayles 286).  As a result, the liberal subject, which had been considered the standard form of the human since the since the Enlightenment, is transformed into the posthuman (Hayles xiv). From this perspective, Foucault’s and Levi-Strauss’s announcements of the death of Man heralded the age of the posthuman: with the recognition that human subjectivity had been created by those who claimed it as their defining feature came a new type of humanity. The posthuman, unlike the human, recognizes that human nature was itself created by humans (Graham 37).  Whatever its individual manifestations in our academic theory, pop culture, or collective consciousness, the posthuman fundamentally refuses the fixity of the boundaries between the human and the non-human, revealing in the process the constructed nature of these core concepts. This denaturalization of the human, as Graham says, “call[s] into question the ontological purity according to which Western society has defined what is normatively human” (5).

Despite the appearance that it indicates a rejection of the feeble human physiognomy, contemporary posthumanism need not be understood as aggressively anti-human. In fact, many articulations of the posthuman exhibit a faith in the resilience of what we might call humanity, protecting the capacity for reason central to liberal humanism. Pop culture fantasies of and theoretical inquiries into the posthuman reveal a wish that the human become pure thought or physically invincible, but many frequently extend that with a wish that it achieve spiritual transcendence. This transcendence could be read, in light of the honorary founder of posthumanism, Nietzsche, as a “heroic transcendence” that leads each individual to its greatest potential “self-realisation” (Davies 36).  But although the posthuman may share some qualities of the Nietzschean ideal of an individual exceeding the mental and physical borders of the naturally limited human, that ideal neglects the approximation of the divine that regularly motivates constructions of the posthuman, medieval or contemporary. According to this “technotranscendental” view, Graham says, “new technologies promise to elevate humanity to quasi-divine status,” with the possibility of becoming perfect, immortal, omniscient, and invulnerable (131). Only through effecting this transformation by downloading its consciousness into machines to overcome mortality or building invincible and timeless android bodies, or some cybernetic combination thereof, can the human achieve this spiritual transcendence.

The movie trilogy The Matrix offers a powerful example of both elements of the contemporary posthuman: the fear of enslavement by the technology we expect to improve us, and the tecnotranscendental faith in the capacity of the human to achieve divine ascendance by means of, rather than despite, its human uniqueness. The back story of the films is that the humans have created an Artificial Intelligence that, over time, became so adept and self-willed that the humans tried to destroy their own creations. The AI won, as happens in dystopic representations of the posthuman, and the surface of the earth was destroyed, with the remaining humans being grown and harvested in order to provide energy for the AI machines, with a very small portion of them having escaped to the underground rebel city of Zion. The Matrix is the virtual world the AI produced for the humans to occupy, with no awareness that their bodies are experiencing something utterly different. Zion, the home of the free humans, is actually a product of the machines as well, established to quash potential rebellions. Here lies the foundation for the nightmarish posthuman world: the humans are completely controlled – physically, mentally, emotionally – by their own creation. The technotranscendental aspect of the films resides in the main character, Neo, who is a human living in The Matrix who comes eventually, through the aid of other revolutionary humans, to recognize his status as the Chosen One who must determine whether, and how, to overpower the AI and free humanity. Through the course of the three films, Neo, guided by The Oracle, comes to understand his potential and then to choose to use it, which empowers him to manipulate the code of The Matrix at will, even merging with machines to reach his ends. He alters the universe created by the AI. In the process Neo becomes part machine while still doing what the films represent at the most human act of all: making a choice, one which requires him to sacrifice himself to free everyone else, machines and humans alike. His death evokes images of the crucifixion, and his resurrection is anticipated. Through choosing to accept the destiny the machines created for him, Neo is able to express his humanity most fully and become, in the process, a posthuman savior.

The postmodern, in its posthuman development of the human, is (perhaps surprisingly) tied to the premodern, the time before the “discovery” of the human that thus might be called “prehuman.” Using the term posthuman for both forms emphasizes the links between the contemporary and the medieval views of innate human vulnerabilities and capacities that contrast the views of modern liberal humanism. The borders between the human and posthuman can be seen not only in relatively recent faith in the possible advancements offered by technoscience but also much earlier, in the premodern faith in the enrichment of the human offered by Christ’s assumption of human form. Later, the Enlightenment human refused the need for divine intervention, for his reason allowed him to demonstrate, without an intermediary, his autonomous agency (Graham 41). In contrast, both the premodern and the postmodern posthuman show the human to be insufficient in itself, and are connected by this view. For premodern humanity, Christ’s human embodiment of the divine not only grounded the truth of the Word but also revealed the divinity within the human, thereby raising the human condition above its fallen state through the eventual salvation promised through the embodied intervention of the divine in human history. Postmodern technoscience allows the possibility that humans can make themselves divine, by creating another “being” – an improved human, the creation of which allows the human to reach apotheosis through both the act of production and the product itself. Frankenstein is an early example, with Victor Frankenstein attempting to produce a new, posthuman being, while simultaneously transforming into a posthuman himself, as quasi-divine creator. While the technological potential of contemporary posthumanism replaces the divine potential suggested by Christ, the ideal offered in both cases is one that extends beyond the mere redemption of a physical body, expressing an urge toward the metaphysical.

Premodern Catholic Christianity, particularly in its later, affective pietistic forms, allowed the same transcendence to be “achieved,” in this case, through the incarnation of Christ. The hybrid Christ, comprising both human and divine essences, was represented in the Incarnation but especially powerfully in the crucifixion. The effect of this embodiment was to elevate the human rather than to diminish the divine. According to Gregory the Great, Christ’s Ascension exalted the human (Alexander 211). This exaltation of humanity was officially and carefully supported by the Church. Heretical Monophysites, for example, held that Christ had only a single complete nature, the divine; his human nature, according to this view, was incomplete. In 431, the Third Ecumenical Council at Ephesus decreed that Mary is the mother not only of the human nature of Christ but of his divinity, as well – and hence, Mary, Mother of God (Cook & Herzman 59) –thereby confirming the unity of Christ’s human and divine natures. Twenty years later the Fourth Ecumenical Council explicitly declared that Christ has two complete natures, human and divine, indivisibly united in the Incarnation (Cook & Herzman 59).

Late medieval lay piety was especially attuned to, perhaps it’s fair to say obsessed with, Christ’s body and the physical suffering he experienced in the moment of, in the very process of performing, his most divine act. For these audiences, the theologically central notion of God’s humanity as expressed in Christ was defined, most clearly, by his human form (Beckwith 5). In the later Middle Ages, this understanding is revealed by the Church’s response in 1428 to a woman accused of Lollardy who had rejected transubstantiation. Her refusal was based in her belief that eating the host “defile[d] and debase[d] him by a passage through the most inward, the most profanely, and profoundly dissolving of the body’s mediums” (24). The Church’s rejection of this claim demonstrates that it understood the transformation completely differently: ingestion and distribution was in fact the way humanity joined the body of Christ. It elevated them, rather than degrading him, just as the Incarnation raised the human rather than tarnishing the divine. Margery Kempe expresses the Church’s view, though in her inimitable way: she begs for more frequent communion, for in the host she recalls specifically the body of Christ and, for her, this sacramental union is the ultimate spiritual experience, one which transforms her by means of her earthly embodiment (Beckwith 25). When Margery says that Christ told her “I am in the and thow in me. And thei that heryn the their heryn the voys of God” we see not Christ’s humanity through her but rather her divinity through him (Beckwith 25).

With the divine and the human united in the figure of Christ comes the possibility of the union of the spiritual and the physical, the heavenly and the earthly, in the human  (Beckwith 47). The way Christ symbolizes the blend of the human with the divine does not produce transcendence through a refusal of the body, but instead it recognizes the material as the means to the spiritual (Beckwith 114). As Carolyn Walker Bynum notes, in the later Middle Ages (1200-1500), a “new” attitude toward the body accompanies Christocentric affective devotion, in which physicality is not an obstacle but a path to union with the divine (246).

But God was displaced, and replaced, through Enlightenment humanism and its heirs – by Man. Ludwig Feuerbach looked to “the exposure of the fiction of God as heralding the dawn of a new age in which humanity, acknowledged as the true authors of their world, could achieve emancipation” (Graham 173). While Nietzsche saw the collapse of the fiction of God as pulling the rug out from under human civilization, contemporary posthumanists seem to see in it endless possibilities for the expansion of the human. Liberal humanism sought a Man who is independent and marked in large part by its “powers to come to know and thereby to control [its] environment and destiny” (Soper 14). Building on rather than rejecting this view, technotranscendent posthumanism reifies the abstract ideals considered the essence of Man: the rational capacity of the human, used “to transcend the conditions of being a human being, to refuse the tragic character of human existence” (Brewster et al. 6). Optimistic posthumanism pursues in this fashion “immortality, invulnerability and omniscience” (Graham 174) and is thus literally metaphysical. Humanity’s capacity for technologically improving itself, pursuing science through its unique reason, allows it to acquire spiritual transcendence that removes the limited, finite, fallen body and thus frees the aspect of the human that has the greatest potential for divinity. Both premodern and postmodern versions of the posthuman aspire to a spiritual transcendence through a posthuman embodiment. In both cases, that embodiment is provided by the creator: in the medieval case, Christ himself, and in the postmodern, Man in his role as technologically-enhanced originator of himself. Only in the premodern, though, is this extension represented as complete and fulfilling. In the wake of God’s death, contemporary technotranscendentalism seems, especially in our popular culture depictions of it, inevitably imperfect.

Works Cited

Alexander, Michael. A History of Old English Literature. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2001.

Beckwith, Sarah. Christ's Body: Identity, Culture, and Society in Late Medieval Writings. NY: Routledge, 1993.

Brewster, Scott, et al., eds. Inhuman Reflections: Rethinking the Limits of the Human. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.

Bynum, Carolyn Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. UC Press, 1990.

Cook, William R. and Ronald B. Herzman, eds. The Medieval World View: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

Davies, Tony. Humanism. New Critical Idiom series. NY: Routledge, 1997.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. NY: Knopf, 1982.

Fuss, Diana. Human, All Too Human. NY: Routledge, 1996.

Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002.

Halberstam, Judith and Ira Livingston.  Posthuman Bodies. Bloomington, IN: IN UP, 1995.

Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1998.

Kempe, Margery. The Book of Margery Kempe. Trans. and ed. Lynn Staley. NY: Norton, 2000.

The Matrix. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. 1999.

The Matrix Reloaded. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. 2003.

The Matrix Revolution. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. 2003.

Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein. Ed. Maurice Hindle. NY: Penguin, 2003.

Soper, Kate. Humanism and Anti-Humanism. NY: Open Court Publishing, 1986.