Becoming Posthuman [Academic Essay]
By Mark G. Koh, 2005
In this essay, I will critically discuss primarily the view of Posthumanity presented in the articles “Exit Meat” and “Deleting the Body” (See Bibliography below), but also delve into a more objective orientated view of the topic: The ‘goal’ and reasons, if any, of attaining the post-human state.
In William Gibson’s quintessential Cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1984), four conceptual states of human bodies are explored: The Natural Body, the modified body, the enhanced body and finally, the cyberbody. It is through these states that Peters illustrates a clear definition of the post human existence.
The natural body is described as a:
“…body without technological modifications or enhancements. This does not mean the natural body is less marked by technology than the cyberbody, modified body or enhanced body.” She goes on to specify that, “Culture and technology also mark the body without direct technological interventions.”
This, in my opinion, seems an accurate remark, for most of ‘natural’ humans, as we do exist as I write this essay, have rather virginal bodies (such as Gibson’s main characters) and externalise technology in daily use, but have introduced elements of it into the functionality of our biological systems. The best example of this would be modern medicine – or more specifically, intravenous devices: such as the IUD for contraceptive purposes, or the pacemaker that regulates the heartbeat for patients with cardiac problems. Even common ingested medicines would represent such an intervention – none of these technologies take a hand in tampering with the human genetic makeup, or, more generally, altering the physical form of the natural body.
Peters demonstrates that the natural body is often presented as a disabled one with technology being the only recourse for full functionality. True enough, with Peters citing the quadriplegic ‘locked-in’ brain stem case from Hockenberry, we might view the natural body as a state of human weakness. The main reason for this rather unexciting portrayal is that the current technological state for human-machine interface is too primitive for what Thomas describes as ‘healthy, novelty-seekers’. I totally disagree on this point. Take a famous bad habit for an example – narcotic (illegal) drugs have significant amounts of scientifically researched negative repercussions on the human body, yet vast amounts of individuals seek out and continue to use such substances despite little to no education on their functionality and even refinement of their development. This is to say that Peters may not have a good grasp on the contemporary demographic; the attitude towards introducing cybernetic enhancements may be vastly different than she perceived. Personally, I would jump at the opportunity to receive an enhancement of my own, even if the risks were high. Perhaps this pessimism on the part of Peters (or the wider scientific community) is a preventive measure for what could be a youth driven technological dystopia. But then again, this is just me postulating. Looking from a conservative standpoint: punks with ‘over-clocked’ nervous systems would pose a serious problem- we would require an equally enhanced law enforcement agency to offset this issue and the resulting scenario would leave non-enhanced humans second class citizens.
I’ll like to take this moment to illustrate one of the motivations for the posthuman state. In examining the case of the natural body being ‘most apparent as a disabled body’, one gets the impression that the natural state of humanity is reliant on technology to survive. Truly speaking, when one observes the technological backwardness of some 3rd world countries such as Sudan and compare it with that of a 1st world country such as Australia, we can interpret a distinct correlation between technological development / accessibility and that of the standard of living. The frailities that make us human, in my opinion are: mortality, cultural disparity (akin to the dichotomies mentioned by Peters: gender, race/class, mind/body), the need to reproduce. The reasoning behind this is that we are bound very much by the ecological processes that spawned us – mortality is a built in mechanism to suppress the issue of overpopulation and dichotomisation of cultural traits allow for genetic diversity in retaining the most favourable traits for survival. Lastly, the primal drive to constantly reproduce is really a product of our own mortality, but emphasises the crucial need to generate multiple copies of our cells so that some may escape in the event of disaster.
Perhaps a way of looking at approaching post humanism is the gradual shedding of these traits. We are already counteracting some of them – in the case of China’s one child policy, contraceptives, improvements in transportation, urbanisation, intermarriage between different ethnicities; seems like we are starting to combat our own biological failings by use of technological innovations. However, Peters insists, as she cites Hayles, Halberstram and Livingston, that “the posthuman state does not mean a total break away from human.” I tend to agree, as the posthuman state is usually seen as a further development from the base ‘natural body’ and might inevitably retain some traits intrinsic to it, such as individuality.
But even that is questionable: Stepping back, society, or the totality of the human race, can be perceived as a super-being of some description. If we regard society as an organism, society can be viewed as functionally immortal and a singular self. Furthermore, it is organically immortal… at least as long as life on Earth is hospitable to humans and humans retain the will to reproduce. But this line of thought disregards the role of technology completely, furthermore, if this was true, the super-being would have some degree of self-awareness. Being so, have global technologies such as satellite communication given this ‘natural body’ enhancement beyond its current state? OR rather, is this super-being in a ‘natural body’ state?
The real issue is, as Schopenhauer recognizes, the continued existence with individuality (i.e. of individual consciousness). This issue seems to be rooted in our evolutionary trajectory. “... the eye sees everything except itself. Our faculty of knowledge is directed entirely outwards in accordance with fact that it is the product of a brain-function that has arisen for the purpose of mere self-maintenance, and hence for the search for nourishment and the seizing of prey. Therefore, everyone knows of himself only as this individual".
Perhaps moving towards Posthumanism seeks to realise the fundamental unity of humankind in this macro-organism; to grow a singular consciousness like in the apocalyptic Anime Series Neon Genesis Evangelion whereby the main character, Shinji Ikari assumes the consciousness of the entire world during the moment of 3rd impact: All human minds are merged into a singular entity – and he became ‘God’ for a matter of microseconds. I will explore the concept of this mental convergence later on in the essay.
The second body in Peter’s Matrix is the modified body. She defines it as a “body that uses technology either as a necessity or as a commodity.” This would be consistent in the mentality that technology is used as a tool to augment the natural base human form, rather not as a crutch for existence. She expounds that, “Although technology is willingly used, its use is not internalized or seen as an internal part of the self.” – technology is still not a functional part of the body, rather a faculty that is used more often in its normal existence.
Like in Neuromancer, the modified body would utilise technological enhancements in order to perform some occupational role better, in this case, that of Molly’s security job or ‘meat puppet’ prostitution before that. However, I see it as the assimilation of technology by the natural form – similar to McLuhan’s argument that technology is merely an “extension of the body”, the modified body is actually replacing its natural apparatus with that of a tool. Peters states that some manner of trade-off is necessary in this body type, being financial or physical – assuming that the technology is still not perfected to the point where it augments the natural form without any sacrifice. Something bothers me here: Did Peters contradict herself? How is substituting bodily apparatus and/or wearing the technology not integral to the self? As Hockenberry states how he has become part man and part chair considering his disability, he has become improved with a motor capacity possibly exceeding his original ability. I would like to add to this statement in that technological modifications can be temporary and are also integral to the self when in place. Such as my subjective anatomy changes to that of my vehicle while driving, or my skateboard when I am skating. I wholeheartedly agree with Grosz’s notion:
“The limits or borders of the body image are not fixed by nature or confined to the anatomical container”
This ties in with the notion I brought forward earlier about humanity being collectively a single organism: We could indeed be single, disconnected cells in a vast living network (a large, planet spanning body) after all. The totality of human society being this creature’s subjective anatomy.
The third body to be examined is the enhanced body. Peters describes it as “the body whose boundaries are stretched to their utmost and often even transgressed.” The natural body’s capacities are far exceeded by the addition of technological enhancements such as optical implants to further the range of sight, artificial muscles to increase strength and transplantation of organs to increase longevity. There is no trade-off as in the previous body concept, but a complete augmentation. As with her example of the technology developed to allow paralysed patients to communicate in the University of Tottori, the subject and the apparatus begin to blur into a single entity; technology and human are becoming integrated as a whole. Springer notes that “The idea of human interchangability has been pushed even further by those who imagine that humans and machines are merging to form a new hybrid entity: A cyborg.” Cyborgs, according to her, have become part of the fictional landscape and are emerging rapidly into fiction and popular media. Two cyborg figures in particular: Robocop and The Terminator have become cultural icons, which brings to mind a futurists’s view that the world will eventually host artificial intelligence that will equal if not surpass human intelligence. I find this rather fantastic because a human mind cannot possibly perceive the actions and motivations of a mind more intelligent than it.
The scenario of course assumes that machine-human interchangibility will eventually reach such a point of compatibility that the two can be completely interfaced without difficulty. This brings to mind a point – how does the mind fit into the posthuman equation? So far, all the technologies mentioned liken enhancements made to the natural body are physical in nature. Springer mentions “Neural network style computers are designed to imitate the functions of the neurons in the human brain.” – would this be the answer to enhancing the mind? We observe an assumption that the human brain contains the human mind, the ‘soul’ if you will. This assumption includes that the mind is a property of the human body, the mind is localized to the brain; and that self awareness is a product of the mind.
Penrose states, “true intelligence requires consciousness”- defending the human mind’s special non-algorithmic aspect in qualifying as intelligence. Truly, an algorithmic mind, as in the case of computers and software are capable of disseminating information far faster than a human mind, but is incapable of original thought, as I believe the non-linear structure of a neural network can. I regard the mind as the final phase of transition into the complete Posthuman state.
This of course brings me to describe the final conceptual body: The cyberbody. Peters describes it as “bodies that no longer make the distinction between beings of flesh and blood versus beings made of or mediated by technology. Whether it is a mind uploaded and stored in a computer memory or a temporary virtual body created in cyberspace, the technology has become invisible, internalized or repressed.” – The description is the first of the four to mention the mind, the presence of the human spirit. Is the cyberbody really a release from the physical domain? It seems to me that the closer the integration between technology and human gets, the less physical components are required. In particular, the example of a human mind uploaded into a machine does satisfy the traits that a Posthuman organism should have in my opinion: Immortality, invulnerability, no need to reproduce and furthermore transcending the myriad divisions of culture. Whole Brain Emulation (or mind uploading) is a technological objective that has been used as a motif in science fiction for a considerable amount time, but was not mentioned in a widely read work of nonfiction until 1988 by Hans Moravec in Mind Children. One way of looking at the process is that it eliminates the body completely, giving the Posthuman a kind of metaphysical existence. Without resorting to a theological view on this life, we can safetly say that this entity is cybernetically immortal. Just to consider: The argument could be put forward that the move to upload one’s mind is a digitisation of the body: the boundary between mind and body is finally crossed. It would also implicate that the Posthuman would attain the properties of digital media: Able to be transmitted at great distances without losing integrity, able to reproduce infinite perfect copies of itself and is compressible. The last point alone would be something to consider indeed! How would a society (if any) of immortals survive without overpopulating the planet? With the Mind contained as software, immense numbers of Posthumans can live in a small space without an overpopulation issue. And this as well can be contrasted with the points made earlier about the frailty of the natural form.
A Posthuman society could exist as a singular super-entity as mentioned before. With cultural boundaries transcended and communication speed instantaneous, it is pretty much a literal living network. More importantly, one must consider that this conceptual state can only be achieved by artificial intervention. Moravec states: “Unleashed from the plodding pace of biological evolution, the children of our minds will be free to grow to confront immense and fundamental challenges in the larger universe.” Truly, biological evolution would take years and might never allow humankind to achieve such a lofty state of development. When one looks at it in another way, the internalisation of technology can be seen to be the reverse of the development trajectory humankind has taken in the last few centuries: humans have sought to tame their environment using technology in order to increase their survivability, but in the end will have to direct it inward, changing the very material from which they were built. Perhaps this development might occur in a different sense. Maybe the ‘children of our minds’ Morevec refers to may be our robotic successors who have attained sentience in their own right will be the inheritors of humankind’s legacy.
In conclusion, we’ve established that technology is an integral part of human survival and melding the technological and human boundaries will allow for transcendence into increasingly augmented states of existence, until the ‘body’ is ultimately deleted, reaching a state which is neither technological or biological. The loss of physical substrate occurs to me as a necessary sacrifice in the development of a Posthuman. In all, I feel that the descriptions presented to me have painted a vivid picture of the future direction of human development. In a rather cryptic sense, perhaps we are all headed to convergence with the Godhead, attaining divinity through shedding the weaknesses of the natural body. I really hope so.
Gibson, W., Neuromancer, (London: Harper-Collins, 1995)
Grosz, E., Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism, Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1994, p.79
Hockenberry, J. “The Next Brainiacs”, Wired, August 2001, pp.94-105
Moravec, Hans. Mind Children. Harvard University Press, 1988
Neon Genesis Evangelion, Directed by: Hideki Anno, Japan: Gainax, 1997
Penrose, R., The Emperor’s New Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press 1989 p.447
Peters, M. “Exit Meat: Digital Bodies in a Virtual World” A. Everett and J.T. Caldwell (eds) New Media: Theories and practises of Digitextuality, New York: Routledge, 2003 pp.47-59
Schopenhauer, A. 1966. The World as Will and Representation. New York: Dover. translated from the 1859 German edition by E. F.J. Payne.
Springer, C., “Deleting the Body”, Electronic Eros: Bodies and Desire in the Postindustrial Age. Austin: University of Texas Press 1996. pp.16-49
Thomas, P., “Thought Control”, New Scientist, March 9, 1996, pp.38-42
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 Moravec, H. 1988 p.1