Cary Wolfe, What is Posthumanism?

L. Michael Sacasas
University of Central Florida

Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? Posthumanities series, ed. Cary Wolfe. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. 357 pp. $24.95 (978-0-8166-6615-7)

A More Persistent Posthumanism

[1] According to Cary Wolfe, Professor of English at Rice University and a leading figure in the emerging fusion of critical theory, Animal Studies, and the posthumanities, the problem with much of what passes for posthumanism (or sometimes transhumanism) is that it is not sufficiently posthuman. To illustrate, Wolfe cites the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, who, in his essay "A History of Transhumanist Thought," explicitly grounds the post/transhumanist project in notions of human perfectibility, rationality, and agency rooted in Renaissance humanism. Bostrom's genealogy of post/transhumanist thought proceeds from Pico della Mirandolla's association of human dignity with the human being's responsibility for shaping their own nature and Francis Bacon's promotion of the new science as a tool of human mastery over the natural world. Post/transhumanism in Bostrom's account "has its roots in rational humanism." In another frequently cited example of posthumanism as merely hyper-humanism, Hans Moravec, in Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, imagines a scenario in which a human consciousness is downloaded into a computer and carries on essentially unchanged. Wolfe approvingly cites N. Katherine Hayles's critique of Moravec: "When Moravec imagines 'you' choosing to download yourself into a computer, thereby obtaining through technological mastery the ultimate privilege of immortality, he is not abandoning the autonomous liberal subject but is expanding its prerogatives into the realm of the posthuman" (xv). Moreover, Moravec's scenario and the varieties of posthumanism that it represents conceive of posthumanism as a transcendence of embodiment. Here again Wolfe aligns himself with Hayles: "[P]osthumanism in my sense isn't posthuman at all – in the sense of being "after" our embodiment has been transcended – but it is only posthumanist, in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism itself, that Hayles rightly criticizes" (xv). Yet Hayles is also among those who, in Wolfe's view, have not gone far enough, because hers is a posthumanism that is articulated in a theoretical framework that reinscribes humanist notions of historiography. In other words, Hayles still represents a humanist way of being rightly posthuman.

[2] The persistent posthumanism Wolfe articulates is an effort to recover the human rather than transcend it, but the human in this account is not the autonomous, rational subject that humanism gave to itself; rather, it is a notion of the human that is aware of its

embodiment, embeddedness, and materiality, and how these in turn shape and are shaped by consciousness, mind, and so on... It allows us to pay proper attention to... the material, embodied, and evolutionary nature of intelligence and cognition, in which language, for example is no longer seen (as it is in philosophical humanism) as a well-nigh-magical property that ontologically separates Homo sapiens from every other living creature.  (120)

Just over ten years separate N. Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman (1999) and Cary Wolfe's What is Posthumanism? (2010). In the intervening years Wolfe has been articulating a more persistent posthumanism by combining the insights of second order systems theorists Humberto Maturana, Fransisco Varela and especially Niklas Luhmann with those of Jacques Derrida. He has also been a leading force in the evolution of Animal Studies into a rich and vibrant field of research. What is Posthumanism? is the eighth installment in the Posthumanities series published by the University of Minnesota Press, a series edited by Wolfe himself. The series, which was inaugurated in 2007 with a reprinting of Michel Serres's The Parasite and has included a contribution by Donna J. Haraway, When Species Meet (2007), embodies the alignment between Animal Studies and a more persistent posthumanism that Wolfe has been enacting in his previous work, most notably Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory (2003).

[3] Wolfe divides What is Posthumanism? into two main sections. The first section, titled "Theories, Disciplines, Ethics," develops a theoretical framework, while the second section – "Media, Culture, Practices" – applies this framework to an analysis of visual art, film, architecture, literature, and music. All but one of the eleven chapters gathered here appeared previously as journal articles or book chapters and this gives the whole a somewhat disjointed feel. However, crucial themes recur throughout the work, lending it coherence if not quite flow. Also, as the chapters have been reworked for the present volume, frequent pointers backwards and forwards pepper the text as if to bind the chapters together with feedback and feed-forward loops. These very frequent efforts to indicate links to previous and later chapters also have the (intended?) effect of suggesting the notion of recursivity within autopoietic systems that plays a critical role in the second order cybernetic tradition upon which Wolfe draws so heavily.

[4] Two crucial arguments unite these disparate essays. The first is that posthumanism entails the effacement of any presumed ontological divide between the human and the animal. The second and related argument running through the whole is that great care must be taken to ensure that this effacement is not undertaken in ways that reinscribe the very assumptions that produced the animal/human divide in the first place. Second order systems theory is a critical component of Wolfe's theoretical framework precisely because it attends to both of these concerns. Historically, the ontological divide between the animal and the human has been secured by grounding human personhood in the use of language to create meaning. Within second order systems theory meaning is disarticulated from language and stems rather from the preference of human and nonhuman (even non-biological) systems for reducing complexity or "noise" which autopoietic systems must do if they are to survive. Meaning then is produced by each system that constitutes itself within its environment through autopoietic closure. Human beings are just one of many autopoietic systems sharing their environment with a wide range of non-human animals, each "bringing forth a world" in a meaningful, even if not human, way. On this point, and many others throughout, Wolfe finds Luhmann and systems theory to be in basic agreement with Derrida, even when they approach problems from different angles of entry – Derrida seeks to release difference from reality, while systems theory explains how systems cope with that difference. Those who have read Hayles's account of second generation systems theory and her warnings of its tendency to disembody information and so abet the drift toward disembodiment in certain strands of posthumanism may wish that Wolfe had engaged Hayles directly at this juncture.

[5] The same concerns are evident in the third chapter, "Flesh and Finitude," which Wolfe identifies as the most ambitious in the book. Here, Wolfe examines and critiques recent efforts to attend to the animal in bioethics, particularly in the work of philosophers such as Peter Singer and Martha Nussbaum, who, rightly and honorably, attempt to take seriously the ethical standing of non-human animals. Yet, neither Singer's Utilitarianism nor Nussbaum's modified Aristotelianism are able to finally succeed in securing what they seek because they both tend to extend rights to animals from within the same exclusionary framework that had previously denied them. In Wolfe's view, and here he draws heavily on the work of Cora Diamond, what is needed is a form of philosophy that does not confuse the "difficulty of philosophy" with the "difficulty of reality." The difficulty of our efforts to give analytic expression to the horrors we find literally unspeakable, but no less real, cannot preclude us from suffering. "Philosophy can hence no longer be seen as mastery, as a kind of clutching or grasping via analytical categories and concepts that seemed for Heidegger, 'a kind of sublimized violence'.... Rather, the duty of thinking is not to deflect but to suffer... our 'exposure' to the world" (71). So Diamond begins to ground our response to non-human animals in a shared sense of frailty, vulnerability, and ability to suffer. But with Derrida, Wolfe wants to go further still. Not only are we physically and biologically vulnerable, we are also subject to the materiality and technicity of language which exists independently of us and which, (in a posthuman recognition) as an ahuman prosthetic, renders the nonhuman already a part of our being.

[6] Nussbaum and Singer here again represent humanist forms of posthumanism. In their concern for non-human life and their desire to secure rights for animals they are certainly expressing a certain posthumanism, but their way of thinking through the problem marks them still in some sense humanist. Derrida again emerges as the more persistent posthumanist who not only advocates for the non-human animal, but does so in a way that challenges the dominance of humanist modes of thought. The contrast appears again in the sixth chapter, "From Dead Meat to Glow-in-the-Dark Bunnies," which explores the visual art of Sue Coe and Eduardo Kac. Coe's concern is to draw sympathetic attention to the plight of animals that are subjected to the "untold horrors of the slaughterhouse." To this end, her artwork frequently represents the face of animals begging to be recognized and heard. "Coe's melodramatic renderings themselves," according to Wolfe "harbor a more fundamental ... representationalism, a signifying regime whose best name might well be 'faciality'" and which privileges the humanist subject mode of experiencing reality (155). Her work is "humanist in a crucial sense ... it relies on a subject from whom nothing, in principle, is hidden" (167). By contrast Kac "subverts the centrality of human and of anthropocentric modes of knowing and experiencing the world by displacing the centrality of its metonymic stand-in, human (and humanist) visuality" (162). In doing so he does not draw our vision to a subject that we as humans will deign to recognize; rather, he questions our very ability to see with the all-encompassing humanist vision. For Wolfe, Kac's is is the more persistent posthumanism.

[7] Other chapters, which include a moving exploration of Lars von Trier's film Dancer in the Dark and an insightful reading of Emerson's philosophy guided by the work of Stanley Cavell, continue to sound these two principle themes. The ontological divide we have imagined between ourselves and the non-human world is not nearly as impassable as we have been led to believe, partly because of what we have come to know about certain animals, but also because of what we are remembering about ourselves in these posthuman times. This recognition, however, must be framed not in terms of a granting to the other what we think ourselves to be, but by a radical reconfiguration of how we even think of ourselves in the first place.

[8] According to Wolfe, comprehending a "new reality" in which human beings occupy a universe "populated by... nonhuman subjects" requires a posthumanism which entails "an increase in the vigilance, responsibility, and humility that accompany living in a world so newly, and differently, inhabited" (47). What is Posthumanism? does not present the reader with a definitive answer to the question posed by its title – this would hardly be possible at this juncture. It does, however, offer an embodiment of Wolfe's vision played out in a wide array of cultural, institutional, and artistic sites of inquiry, with each chapter functioning as a stimulating theoretical probe contributing to the emergence of a new paradigm of research and knowledge.