When Did We Become Post/human?”

special issue of postmedieval: a journal of medieval cultural studies

vol. 1, no. 1 (April 2010)

Co-Editors, Eileen A. Joy and Craig Dionne

Figure 1. still image from Andrew Thomas Huang, Doll Face

. . . as scholars and teachers we believe we are right to call what we do “humanistic” and what we teach “the humanities.” Are these still serviceable phrases, and if so in what way? How then may we view humanism as an activity in light of its past and probable future?
—Edward Said, Humanism and Democratic Criticism

Is there in fact an entity that can be called the human,’ a being who exists in contradistinction to a world of inhuman or nonhuman agents and and elements, or is the human a constraining and historically limited concept that queer theory demands we move at last beyond?
—Jeffrey J. Cohen, “A Unfinished Conversation About Glowing Green Bunnies,” in Queering the Non/Human

The best possible time to contest for what the posthuman means is now, before the trains of thought it embodies have been laid down so firmly that it would take dynamite to change them.
—N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

For a long while now, there has been a significant turn both to and beyond “the human” (the liberal humanist subject but also the supposedly autonomous, embodied biological human) in aesthetic, historical, philosophical, sociological, and science studies—a turn, moreover, which is also often accompanied by a nod to post-histoire, or the end of history. Many of the contemporary discourses on posthumanism have mainly focused on the ways in which new findings in fields such as biotechnology, neuroscience, computing, informatics, and the like have complicated how we believe we enact and extend our human selves, occasionally ushering in the language of crisis over the supposed destabilization of the category “human” in its biological, social, and political aspects (the futurist-dystopic view). Or these discourses have concentrated on a theoretical reform of a humanistic tradition of thought (from the Renaissance through modernity) believed to have produced, in Iain Chambers’ words, in his book Culture After Humanism, an oppressive “history of possessive subjectivism” (the self-critical philosophical view). And in some circles (primarily scientific, but also cultural, studies) the same posthuman turn has led to various discourses of hope and elation over all of the ways in which we—whatever “we” might be—might finally be able to escape or somehow make less vulnerable (and more pleasurable and multi-extensive) the death-haunted trap of our all-too-human bodies (the futurist-utopic, or transhumanist, view). There is also the more measured view of Katherine Hayles, a contemporary literature scholar and author of How We Became Posthuman, who both recognizes that autonomous human subjectivity has never really been in full control of the emergent processes through which consciousness, the organism, and the environment are produced” (i.e., we have always been posthuman), yet also dreams of a posthuman future that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebreates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a world of great complexity”—a world, moreover, populated by humans and other life forms, biological and artificial.

According to Hayles, “the humanities have always been concerned with shifting definitions of the human,” so “the human has always been a kind of contested term,” but “what the idea of the posthuman evokes that is not unique to the 20th century but became much more highly energized in the 20th century, is the idea that technology has progressed to the point where it has the capability of fundamentally transforming the conditions of human life.” As Hayles elaborates, even though “one of the deep ideas of the humanities is that the past is an enduring reservoir of value, and that it pays us rich dividends to know the past,” there are some things “that have never happened before in human history. . . . we’ve never had the possibility for manipulating our own genome in a generation as opposed to 150 generations. We never had the possibility for individually manipulating atoms as in nanotechnology, and so forth. The posthuman condition, then, in some respects, is thoroughly modern (even, postmodern) because of its connection to technological and medical innovations such as cybernetics and genetic engineering that could not have even been imagined in the past. It has to be admitted that in most posthmanist discourses circulating within the academy, whether in the humanities or the sciences, the scholarship of those who work in premodern or early modern periods (such as classical antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance) is not considered relevant to the discussion—even when that scholarship is concerned, as some of it definitively has been, with issues of the human and the animal, self and subjectivity, cognition and affectivity, singularity and networks, science and technology, corporality and embodiment, bare life and sovereignty, and so on.

And yet, when Cary Wolfe, the author of Animal Rites: American Culture, The Discourse of the Species, and Posthumanist Theory, claims that the human “is not now, and never was, itself,” he raises the question of the relation between the posthuman (or, never-human) and premodernity, a question that has been explored by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his book Medieval Identity Machines, where he writes that, even in the Middle Ages, human identity was, “despite the best efforts to those who possess[ed] it to assert otherwise—unstable, contingent, hybrid, discontinuous.” At the same time, in his prospectus for the new book series he edits, posthumanities, at University of Minnesota Press, Wolfe argues that “posthumanism cannot be glossed with reference to terms like ‘post-industrialist’ or ‘post-structuralist’ or ‘post-modern,’” for “the question of ‘posthumanism’ is more complicated than any of these [other ‘post-isms’], because it references not just chronological progression (what comes after the industrial, the modern, and so on) but also takes on fundamental ontological and epistemological questions that are not reducible to purely historical explanation,” by which he means traditionally historicist teleologies (but what he also means here is that history is not altogether sufficient to the matter of the posthuman, or, in a sense, posthumanism undoes or evacuates in advance the foundations of traditional human history). With regard to the work that Wolfe hopes to publish in his book series, posthumanism is “not ‘against’ history, of course, but against historicism in its more unreflective and problematic forms”). Here, we believe, there is room for pre- and early modernist interventions into contemporary posthumanist discourses, in order to draw critical attention to the historicity of certain issues that pace and fret around the turn to the posthuman in contemporary life and thought, as well as to better describe, from the longest possible historical perspectives, what Cohen has argued in his Afterword to Queering the Non/Human: that being human really means endlessly becoming human, it means holding an uncertain identity, an identity that is always slipping away from us.

It is not our intention, with this inaugural issue of postmedieval, to delineate, via the Middle Ages and early modernity, the teleological pre-histories or points of origin of (or deep background to) the contemporary question of the posthuman, nor to stress either the difference or sameness of the past with respect to the question of the posthuman in the present. Rather, we propose that the posthuman present and future are predicated upon a plurality of different, discontinuous, and heterogeneous temporalities: there are many different Nows currently existing alongside each other and within each of them, multiple pasts, and the figure of the human is inextricably bound up with these multiple pasts—pasts in which the human never was entirely itself (but in what ways? and in which times and places?). Further, it is our hope to show that contemporary discourses on the posthuman raise a host of troubling questions relative to issues of embodiment, subjectivity, identity, cognition, sociality, free will, agency, sexuality, spirituality, self-determination, collectivization, expression, representation, well-being, ethics, moral responsibility, human and other rights, governance, technology, the humanities, and the like for which pre- and early modern history and culture provide important resources for critical reflection upon these questions.

We are not seeking full-length and heavily-footnoted articles, nor even full-length essays, but rather, we want short riffs and ruminations, in the neighborhood of 2,000 to 3,000 words, aimed at addressing any or all of the following:

a) the possible productive intersections (of any type) between studies in earlier historical periods and ongoing discourses on the posthuman and posthumanism in the contemporary humanities and sciences;

b) how certain discourses of the pre- and early modern historical periods might problematize the assumptions of a posthumanism that considers itself to be either thoroughly modern or somehow outside of history;

c) the ways in which the history and culture of pre- and early modernity help us to address and perhaps adjudicate some of the troubling questions raised by contemporary discourses on the posthuman.

Contributors to this issue include: Valerie Allen, Crystal Bartolovich, Christopher Baswell, Bettina Bildhauer, Liza Blake, Jen Boyle, Jeffrey J. Cohen, Ruth Evans, David Glimp, Jonathan Gil Harris, Anna Klosowska, Scott Lightsey, Michael Moore, John Moreland, James Paxson, Karmen Mackendrick, Scott Maisano, Nicola Masciandaro, Susan S. Morrison, Masha Raskolnikov, Bryan Reynolds, David Gary Shaw, Julie Singer, Daniel Smail, Karl Steel, Henry Turner, Elly Truitt, John Twyning, Michael Witmore, W.B. Worthen, and Julian Yates.

Respondents: Noreen Giffney, Katherine Hayles, Andy Mousley, Kate Soper.

This issue will also include a review essay by Suzanne Conklin Akbari on: Caroline Walker Bynum, Wonderful Blood: Theology and Practice in Late Medieval Northern Germany and Beyond; Jeffrey J. Cohen, Hybridity, Identity, and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles; Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, eds., Queering the Non/Human; Daniel Heller-Roazen, The Inner Touch: Archaeology of Sensation; and Eileen A. Joy and Christine Neufeld, eds., Premodern to Modern Humanisms: The BABEL Project, special issue of Journal of Narrative Theory.

Deadline for submissions: 31 August 2009 [to be submitted to Eileen Joy at OR]

. . . the past is seldom usefully examined by assuming that its specific questions or their settings are the same as those of the present. What may, however, be the same is the way in which a question, understood in its context, struggles with a perduring issue . . .
—Caroline Walker Bynum, “Why All The Fuss About the Body?”

Figure 2. marginalia, Pierpoint Morgan Library, MS G.24 (ca. 1350; France or Belgium)