Daniël Ploeger, Nicholas Sagan (eds.), Post-Human // Future-Tense (Chicago IL: PH//FT Press / Proform Technologies, 2010) (This publication accompanied the exhibition 'Post-Human // Future-Tense' at the Arcade Gallery in Chicago, October-December 2010)
Daniël Ploeger, Nicholas Sagan (eds.), Post-Human // Future-Tense (Chicago IL: PH//FT Press / Proform Technologies, 2010)
(This publication accompanied the exhibition 'Post-Human // Future-Tense' at the Arcade Gallery in Chicago, October-December 2010)
Being-Human as Evolving Memory: art and posthumanism in the present tense
Daniël Ploeger, University of Sussex
The term posthuman (or post-human) has been around since cultural theorist Ihab Hassan’s 1977 essay ‘Prometheus as Performer: Toward a Posthuman Culture?’ from the late 1970s(Hassan, 1977). Taking his cue from what he describes as the increasing presence of science, not only in the medical world and industrial production processes, but also in everyday consumer products, Hassan explored new perspectives on the notion of humanness. In his allegorical essay, he wonders if the humanist, biological concept of the human as essentially different from animals and machines should be abandoned for a concept which approaches the subject as a more dynamic entity, partly defined by informational patterns. Notably, it took until the mid-1980s before Hassan’s provocation was taken up again to be further explored by theorists such as Donna Haraway, Judith Halberstam and N. Katherine Hayles. In her book How we became posthuman, Hayles argues that one becomes posthuman as soon as one enters a “cybernetic circuit that splices [one’s] will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces” (Hayles, 1999, p. 193). Thus, a person should be considered posthuman as soon as she starts to communicate with another person by means of, for example, a computer chat program. However, Hayles does not consider the posthuman as a merely cultural construct, entirely defined by informational structures. Rather, she suggests that, in present-day technologized culture, the perception of the body as a culturally defined concept is in continuous interplay with individual experiences of embodiment that are felt and articulated. Therefore, new ideologies of the immaterial body should always be regarded in context of the material conditions that produce these ideologies. As a consequence, the posthuman subject should not be conceptualized as a purely informational structure, but as “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction” (p. 3). This notion of a ‘material-informational entity’ connects to Donna Haraway’s argument in her ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ that, under influence of contemporary medicine, (semi-) technologized production methods and fantasy in science-fiction writing, humans have become cyborgs; “theorised and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism”. Notably, Haraway proposes the cyborg as a “creature in a post-gender world” that is detached from the Western tradition of “racist, male-dominant capitalism”. In her argument, she draws from feminist theorist Hilary Klein’s suggestion that the humanist “myth of original unity” provokes an urge to produce difference, which ultimately escalates in an endeavour to dominate women and nature. Haraway argues that the concept of the cyborg will facilitate a break with this tradition of domination, because the cyborg is not rooted in the idea of original unity. Rather, it is conceived as a crafted connection between organic and technological parts (Haraway, 2000, p. 70-71).
When looking at artistic explorations of non-essentialist concepts of the human body from the 1980s onwards, the genre seems closely linked to developments in consumer electronics, especially those of the home computer. With the spread of the home computer and the rapid increase of computing power and decrease in cost, an increasing number of artists started to work with electronic representations of the human body and to experiment with ‘cyborgian’ performance setups that connect to debates questioning essentialist notions of the body. The omnipresence of the home computer from around the mid 1980s might also be one of the reasons why it took until this time for Hassan’s concept of the posthuman to gain a wider interest in theoretical debates. As Steve Dixon (2007) suggests in his book Digital Performance, the heydays of digital art were in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when artists such as Stelarc, Eduardo Kac and Orlan gained wide publicity for their large scale work with digital media. An almost literal realization of Hayles’s ‘cybernetic system which splices will, desire and perception’ is manifest in Stelarc’s Ping Body (1996), where part of the artist’s body movements are controlled by an audience at a remote location. Stelarc’s limbs are connected to electrodes which trigger involuntary movements by means of sending computer controlled electric currents through the muscles. Through the Internet, the computer is connected to a terminal in another city, which can be used by exhibition visitors to control Stelarc’s body. Another perspective, which relates closely to debates on a concept of the body as a dynamic entity, not necessarily defined by biological parameters, is explored in Eduardo Kac’s Time Capsule (1997), in which Kac turns himself into a cyborg by implanting a chip in his leg. Kac subsequently uses this as a basis for conceptual explorations of possible implications of human-machine hybrids. After the implantation, he registered himself as both pet and owner on a website with a database for pets implanted with similar chips. Meanwhile, Orlan’s Self-hybridation images (1998-2000) clearly connect to Haraway’s contextualization of the cyborg within a gender-conscious paradigm: A computer software program was used to alter parts of Orlan’s visage according to the aesthetic female body ideals of other civilizations and eras.
In recent years, however, the hype around digital art and ‘cyborg experiments’ seems to have calmed down a bit. A number of artists, among whom also the author of the influential 1995 book The Post-Human Condition, Robert Pepperell, have become sceptical of digital art’s ability to engage with issues related to the human body and diverted their focus from digital media in their work. At the same time, several theorists have started to question the relevance of the concept of the posthuman in a broader cultural context. Francis Fukuyama draws from statistical models in a plea for a return to a humanist understanding of humanness, arguing that “[h]uman nature is the sum of the behaviour and characteristics that are typical of the human species, arising from genetic rather than environmental factors” (Badmington, 2004, p.1346) and Jennifer Parker-Starbuck (2006) points out that Donna Haraway’s vision of the cyborg as a means “to produce radical feminist affinities”, should be questioned, because, decades after its introduction, the liberating promises of the theory still haven’t been noticeable in actual socio-political developments. Similarly, recent research by psychologists Wilson and Haslam (2009) suggests that empirical investigations of ‘folk psychology’ should be taken into account when considering the applicability of posthuman subjectivity as a cultural concept. They define ‘folk psychology’ as “a system of shared meaning that organises laypeople’s understanding of, experience in, and transactions with the social world.” The empirical research they refer to suggests that
[w]hereas the age-old philosophical idea that species are natural kinds, with essential, universal traits has generally lost currency in scientiﬁc understandings of human and nonhuman animals, considerable evidence attests to the perseverance of essentialist thinking in folk psychology (p. 257).
However, the posthumanism debate can also be approached from a somewhat different perspective. In a recent study, philosopher Stefan Herbrechter (2009) argues that the question whether the discourse around posthumanism describes a reality in the empirical sense is surely of importance, but that this is not the only issue that should play a role in a discussion on the cultural relevance of the notion of the posthuman. Taking his cue from a Foucauldian concept of discourse and referring to the work of Iain Parker (1992), he defines a discourse as the collection of all texts that concern a certain ‘object’. Here, ‘text’ is to be understood in the broadest sense of the word: as symbolic statements of any sort. All texts concerning a certain object, either affirmative or negative, have in common that they presuppose the existence of the discursive object; When a discourse has been circling around a (real or fictitious) object of discourse by means of repetition, emphasis and insistence for a period of time, this object of discourse will start to function as a cultural political entity of power and fascination and thus gains existence as such. Following this argument, the continuing discourse around ‘posthumanism’, ‘posthumanity’ and ‘the posthuman’ gives these concepts a reality aspect. Accordingly, Herbrechter suggests that artists that propose themselves as ‘(proto)posthuman subjects’ (and thus make ‘symbolic statements’ about posthumanism which can be regarded as ‘texts’) exemplify the reality of a form of posthumanity, which functions as an entity of power within the discourse around posthumanism.
Keeping these theoretical explorations in mind, I would like to discuss the work exhibited at Post-Human / Future Tense. Already at first sight, this show makes a much more diverse impression compared to the predominantly futuristic approach, centred around speculative proposals about possible futures with technologized bodies, which is apparent in the majority of work from 10 - 15 years ago. Work such as Andy Mattern’s Remotes – digital photographs of everyday remote control devices for home appliances - and Andrew Wilson’s Virtual Assistance project, which thematizes digital-network-based outsourcing of work across continents, clearly propose the posthuman as an everyday phenomenon of the present. On the other hand, Chad Smith’s A Plug - a sculpture of a symbiosis between a human head and a 110V mains power plug - as well as Erin Gee’s Formants – two eerie looking human head imitations without faces that start to sing when one brushes their hair – present cyborgs and robots from a future the artists would probably not expect (and wish) to ever arrive. Another notable aspect of Post-Human / Future Tense is the rich variety of media of the submitted work: Engagement with posthumanism appears to no longer be the exclusive domain of computer and technology oriented artists. The exhibition encompasses work ranging from painting and sculpture all the way to electronic and bio-art. Doug Bosley’s choice of a combination of aquatint and etching to depict his crowded, sterile scenarios, which do not include any literal references to futuristic technologies, evokes the uncanny sensation of historical sci-fi movies and may be read as a subtle critique of the future-telling tendency of many cyber artists. Meanwhile, Graft’s bio-installation CCES features a non-human organism, which grows in an artificial bio system. The artists’ choice to inquire the interdependence of (human) culture and nature focussing on a plant, clearly departs from the exclusively (human-)animal oriented approach of a lot of work in the 1990s and early 2000s.
There are two aspects of Post-Human / Future Tense which I consider of specific interest: Firstly, the aforementioned occurrence of the posthuman in a present tense scenario, which is apparent in a substantial number of the works (maybe the show should have been called Post-Human / Present Tense instead…). This seems to indicate a clear shift from the speculative future tense in past work by Stelarc and other artists. Secondly, I am interested in the obvious inclusion of references to popular culture idioms and the contextualization of hybridized bodies in common everyday scenarios which is also clearly observable in the exhibition, particularly in the work by Wilson mentioned above, in Jason Judd’s Automated Google Poems and, possibly most strikingly, in Micah Bowers’ Mandroid Seduction. The colourful and cartoon-like cyborgs depicted by Bowers obviously refer to popular culture representations of the cyborg body as highly sexualized and tied in to a web of gender stereotypes. I suggest that both the apparent rise of the present-tense-posthuman and the introduction of the posthuman as complicit in everyday commodity culture may be read as a manifestation of the de-mystification of many of the technologies that were celebrated as revolutionary and thematized accordingly in art and theory in previous decades. The mobile phone and the Internet, for example, used to be perceived as quite spectacular innovations in the 1990s, but have now become a part of everyday life, which is largely taken for granted. The remote controlled computer in Stelarc’s Ping Body will not evoke much fascination among people who make Skype video conversations or play online games with contacts on other continents on a daily basis and Orlan’s Self-Hybridation may not appear as impressive to people who use Photoshop to change the weather and correct their own appearance on holiday pictures.
If we recall Hayles’s definition of the posthuman, this process of de-mystification may also have another implication which is of relevance here. If one becomes posthuman as soon as one enters a “cybernetic circuit that splices [one’s] will, desire, and perception into a distributed cognitive system in which represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces”, it seems consequent to designate intensive users of social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, online video games, and Skype as posthumans: These technologies seem to be what much of the posthumanist theory and art practice in the 1990s alluded to. Here, a significant difference between most of the contributors to Post-Human / Future Tense and artists from the generation of Stelarc, Orlan and Kac becomes apparent: As opposed to the latter, most people in Europe and the US who are in their early- or mid-twenties now, have not experienced adult life without these cybernetic communication circuits playing a defining role in their everyday life. Arguably, they have therefore not experienced becoming posthuman as an adult. This would mean that generations after them, who will engage extensively with these communication technologies at an even earlier age, might actually never consciously experience becoming posthuman in the sense Hayles describes it. Being-human may be an extinguishing memory… As a consequence, the discourse around posthumanism, as discussed by Herbrechter, would gradually become obsolete as well: Once everybody has become posthuman, what would be the urgency of debating the process of becoming posthuman or defining what the characteristics of the posthuman might be?
However, this all looks like a suspiciously deterministic end-of-history scenario, which seems largely based on the historical relevance we ascribe to the communication technologies that we believe to facilitate Hayles’s “cybernetic circuit that splices one’s will, desire, and perception”. I propose to analyze the role of our perception of these technologies from the perspective of Bolter and Grusin’s deconstruction of determinist models and definitions of new media. In their book Remediation, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin (2000) propose that every new medium will take over the role of an existing medium whilst establishing a promise of improvement upon this older medium. Thus, the introduction of a new medium brings into being an awareness of the imperfection of the older medium it remediates. Until this point, the allure of superiority of the older medium is likely to stay largely intact. When we apply Bolter and Grusin’s theory to the development of electronic communication technologies during the past decades, it becomes apparent that the assumption that the current state of cybernetic networking in society would be the endpoint in a process of becoming posthuman, is likely to be no more than an historical illusion. In accordance with Bolter and Grusin’s theory, we are likely to develop an awareness of current technology’s inchoatedness, once a next generation of networking technology will have established itself. When looking back, the introduction of the telephone into the household around the turn of the 20th century, arguably, was a much more radical innovation in everyday communication technologies than the introduction of Internet-based communication and one could surely argue that the telephone is a ‘mutating and flexible machine interface’ as well. Nowadays, however, we aren’t very tempted to classify the introduction of the telephone as a defining moment in the process of ‘becoming posthuman’. Likewise, if bio-technology based information systems (or any other new, ‘better’ medium) become widespread on the consumer market in the near future, we will probably regard cybernetic circuits based on electronic digital communication wanting. The technologies we might consider as defining the process of becoming posthuman now, may be regarded as ordinary human technologies in the future. Thus, I suggest that a completion of the process of becoming posthuman will probably always remain a promise in the near future, whilst our memory of what it was like to be human in the past will be continuously evolving with technologies becoming obsolete. Rather than Hayles’s conclusion that “we have always been posthuman” (Hayles, 1999, p. 291), I would therefore argue that we will always be becoming posthuman.
Maybe this is what Post-Human / Future Tense suggests as well then: The days of the 1990s concept of the posthuman might be numbered. Soon, or maybe already, the digital cybernetic networks that used to be celebrated as a defining step in becoming posthuman, will be regarded as ordinary, human constituents of everyday life, just like the telephone. None of the works in the exhibition feature biotechnology, but the increasing relevance of this field in everyday life experience might well be represented in the de-mystification of the electronics-based posthuman which is apparent in large parts of the show.
Having come to the end of this essay, there is an important last question, which I think should be addressed: If we are never really going to be posthuman, what would be the relevance of the discourse around posthumanism? Why should I care if I am human or almost posthuman, if the computer I am writing this essay on has really become a part of me? On an existential level, I think there is no urgent reason to waste time worrying about this, indeed. However, taking my cue from Herbrechter’s Foucauldian approach, I believe the relevance of the posthumanism debate to lie in its function as a platform to critically inquire essentialist assumptions concerning gender and species which underlie much of our everyday life, regardless of whether we call this life human or posthuman. This is also what I think makes Post-Human / Future Tense into a fascinating show: rather than showing us grotesque fantasies about the future of mankind, it invites us to a variety of provocative perspectives on how assumptions about humanness are interwoven in the organization of our everyday lives.
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