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date: 08 August 2020


Summary and Keywords

The “posthuman” is an umbrella term frequently employed in a number of theoretical and critical discourses. It is difficult to find a definition of the term that is shared by all the different approaches that use it, since “posthuman” seems to denote a very diverse group of phenomena, some ongoing and others only predicted or imagined. The “posthuman” is used to describe modes of being resulting from potential enhancements to human nature generated through applied science and technological developments. However, it is equally adopted to identify the decentering of human exceptionalism and the overcoming of the principles of humanism. Depending on the descriptive strategy adopted, the term can be used to identify very different philosophical and theoretical positions, from technoprogressive stances to outlooks that are very critical of technological determinism. These positions, rather than seeing in posthumanism opportunities for an extension of rational mastery and an overcoming of humanity’s biological limits, see in the posthuman condition a chance to redress the balance between human and nonhuman and promote horizontal ontologies and expanded ethics. What these different conceptual positions share is the blurring of boundaries between human, technology, and nature in favor of more hybrid and fluid configurations. Finally, while the term “posthuman” finds a home in science-fiction, it has come to be applied to literary and filmic works that are less rooted in traditional science-fiction themes and subject matters but rather respond to specific events or phenomena, in particular environmental and ecological ones.

Keywords: posthuman, humanism, enhancement, Anthropocene, weird, ecology, technology, transhumanism, uncanny, cyborg

The debate around the posthuman—its definition and validity—occupies an important place in contemporary critical theory. In important ways the concept and the disputes around it embody and measure the status of the humanities in the early 21st century, while for some the concept even takes the measure of humanity’s contemporary situation. The term is both intuitive—apparently self-explanatory—and one whose contours are difficult to trace, since it spirals and shoots in multiple directions. Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus propose to define the posthuman as “the discourse which articulates our hopes, fears, thoughts, and reflections at a post-millenarian time haunted by the prospects of technology’s apparently essential and causal link with the finiteness of the human as a biological, cognitive, informational, and autonomous integrality.”1 Annete Smelik proposes a looser approach and defines the posthuman as a “hybrid figure that transforms and deconstructs human subjectivity in a postanthropocentric culture.”2 Since there is as yet no consensus as to what the posthuman denotes, it might be more apt perhaps to talk about a range of posthuman imaginations and theoretical positions. What complicates things further is the fact that the term seems to both reach back to an ancestral past and leap forward to an as-yet unconceivable future. A genealogical study might provide some necessary background to the term’s original use and descriptive reach, however, it would still fail to account for the intrinsic splintering that animates it. For, perhaps the most intriguing feature of the posthuman (already the use of the definite article somehow reifies something that remains highly fluid) is that it describes equally accurately at least two set of ideas, approaches, visions, and ethical attitudes. It is this split that bestows upon the term its importance and makes of it an appealing descriptor. This original fracture can be defined as running between the posthuman as a condition and the posthuman as a category that attempts to capture some future configuration. Once understood in the first sense, the term denotes the life we live now (where now has flexible temporal connotations). Those thinkers, writers, artists, and cultural commentators who use the term in this sense use it to say that we are caught in the posthuman, the world is a posthuman one. This attitude and approach are often called critical posthumanism, and for the sake of this article it could be called a hard posthumanism. At the same time the softer version has a more instrumental tone: it is a term used to describe potential, more or less likely scenarios for humans and the world more generally. The scenarios are often given sensuous form in literary and filmic works, often associated with science-fiction and the potential of various intelligent technologies or technology-driven events. The answer as to whether the posthuman describes the present condition or rather just a category for the future seems to be the essential point in any discussion of the term. In the first connotation the prefix “post” stands for an overcoming of human exceptionalism in the sense that the human is decentered from its position as the ontological and epistemological purveyor. This project starts with an acknowledgment of the limits of what has—in the Western tradition—been formalized as “humanism” and theorizes starting from what humanism has so far excluded.3 In the second sense the prefix “post” indicates an overcoming of a very different sort. Here the “human” is enhanced by its new and fundamental prosthetic possibilities, and these enhancements might alter the perceived “core” of human nature. The idea of enhancement, with its implied undertones of improvement and perfectibility, in many ways continues the anthropocentric trajectory, even if “man” is in this conceptualization unconceivable outside of its coexistence with “technology” and machine (whether visible or invisible). In a sense this softer posthumanism maintains that we are not yet posthuman and therefore asks whether it is good to become so and to what extent we will be doing that in the near future. In so doing the term introduces an element of teleology, whether this is progress fetishism or catastrophizing (what Rosi Braidotti calls “techno-teratology”).4 It is worth to note here that while some of the applications of this understanding of posthumanity have emerged in the last decade of the 20th century, many of the ideas behind them have not. Human-machine hybrids have haunted and provoked romantic and modernist imaginations from Hoffmann’s automaton to the Futurists and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.5 Well before the introduction of the term “posthuman” these examples started to survey and play out fascinations, fantasies, and anxieties as to what might become of humans once the possibility either to replicate the human form or to move beyond our biological limits becomes a real possibility.

While one use of the term then seems concerned with describing the present and the other with predicting the future, the one feature that both uses of the term share is a total hybridization of human nature and experience. This proliferation of hybrids confuses in radically intimate fashions “man” with “nature” or “man” with “technology.” Since its very inception then the posthuman is a fragmentary and proliferating concept, which is both difficult to capture in a definition and fluctuating in its explicatory reach.

Potential Genealogies

As Richard Grusin notes, the term is caught in a movement, with various authors oscillating “between seeing the posthuman as a new stage in human development and seeing it as calling attention to the inseparability of human and nonhuman.”6 Grusin also suggests that while critical posthumanities are more careful in their teleological claims, they nonetheless commit to the idea of a historical process. Grusin writes: “the very idea of the posthuman entails a historical development from human to something after the human, even as it invokes the imbrication of human and nonhuman in making up the posthuman turn.”7 However, contrary to what Grusin writes, the historical understanding promoted by some versions of the posthuman is not always so linear and in some cases insists precisely on disrupting this linearity. One of the main features of the posthuman is that it can be looked at from the point of view of an originary shape-shifting nature. Not therefore as one, but as proliferation. The oscillation between two poles mentioned by Grusin can, however, be used analytically to navigate various manifestations of the term and to trace two trajectories and possible genealogies.

Cary Wolfe writes of a split in possible genealogies of the term and its infiltration of the language of contemporary critical and creative discourse: “the term ‘posthumanism’ itself seems to have worked its way into contemporary critical discourse in the humanities and social sciences during the mid-l990s, though its roots go back, in one genealogy, at least to the 1960s and pronouncements of the sort made famous by Foucault in the closing paragraph of The Order of Things.”8 In the pronouncements Wolfe is alluding to, Michel Foucault compares the “figure of man”—whose appearance he traces to a “recent date”—to a “face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea” and destined therefore to be erased.9 There are two starting points already here, to which Wolfe adds a third: one that goes back to early works on cybernetics and system theory and ultimately results in engagement with similar themes emerging in science fiction work (see for instance Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto).10

Posthuman Enhancements: Perfectible Futures

In very general terms this last origin underpins the strand of posthumanism that relies heavily on the idea of human perfectibility. This perfectibility, however, is not merely the moral kind that philosophical work from Plato to Ralph Waldo Emerson and beyond has strived for, although it can certainly be placed in that tradition. This type of perfectionism embraces technological enhancement as a way to overcome the biological limits of the human. The limit here is not constituted by the collective moral compass or way of life but by biological structure. Nick Bostrom for instance defines posthumanism as follows:

I shall define a posthuman as a being that has at least one posthuman capacity. By a posthuman capacity, I mean a general central capacity greatly exceeding the maximum attainable by any current human being without recourse to new technological means.11

What is already apparent in the passage is that this type of posthumanism is intrinsically turned toward futurist speculation. As part of this futurist speculation a different being will emerge, and this being might have enhanced capacities, which would make it possible for one to call it a posthuman being. For some the question is therefore that of “succession,” the bringing about of “technologically wrought” humans.12 In Bostrom’s work the question of posthumanism is defined then—at a minimum—according to general capacities: healthspan (understood as the capacity to remain fully healthy), cognition (general as well as special intellectual faculties), and emotion (broadly taken as the capacity to enjoy life). A posthuman being is one that can extend her healthspan, increase cognitive power, and feel in ways that are much greater than what can be attained by early 21st-century humans. Posthumanists of this ilk mostly understand this increase in general capacities as made possible via different forms of technological enhancement. By Bostrom’s own definition this version of the “posthuman” is an “outgrowth of secular humanism and the Enlightenment.”13 It is important to note that in this quest for human enhancement, Bostrom is not questioning or looking to disrupt humanism. Quite to the contrary, his posthuman thought is infused with the idea that an expanded version of “humanism,” enhanced by technological advancements, provides a way to extend the reach of the very ideals around human nature that have animated humanism since its earliest formulation. This is made clear in Bostrom’s insistence on the idea of a “posthuman dignity.” In order to understand Bostrom’s defense of an enhanced version of the humanist ideal of individual (and therefore universal) dignity, it is necessary to take a step back to dwell a little longer on how Bostrom qualifies his understanding of posthumanism. Bostrom is less interested in reaching a definition of posthuman and more in advocating for a posthuman transformation. The argument here is of an ethical as opposed to ontological or metaphysical nature: it is good for humans to become posthumans. Bostrom writes: “for most current human beings, there are possible posthuman modes of being such that it could be good for these humans to become posthuman in one of those ways.”14 Bostrom proceeds then to prove why it would be good and bases his argument on a conservative extension of what is valued and defined as good in the early 21st century. In other words the ethical and moral justification for becoming posthuman does not reside in speculative or documentary evidence as to the future but is grounded in our moral and ethical make up. The idea is that if one denies the claim that being posthuman is good, one will also at the same time deny the validity of much of early 21st-century beliefs as to why it is worth to be human. As far as an enhanced healthspan is concerned, Bostrom contends, people already have the desire to live longer lives while remaining productive and active, and they also seem keen to “be able more quickly to grasp difficult abstract ideas” and to be able to “‘see connections’ better.”15 As far as the emotional element is concerned Bostrom’s answer is less self-assured and mitigated by the difficulty in defining what constitutes a posthuman level of emotional capacity. Notwithstanding these expressive issues and in the absence of a firm ground on which to describe enhanced emotional capacity, Bostrom is confident that even as far as emotions are concerned, “if posthuman levels were possible, they too would be viewed as highly attractive.”16 The conclusion of the argument is that far from being an obstacle to becoming posthuman, human nature is the very reason why it is good and desirable for humans to become posthuman. It is human nature (and humanism as an expression of it) that provides the foundation and ethical justification for the posthuman project. Bostrom’s intention is therefore that of building the posthuman from within humanism rather than as its overcoming. This brings this article back then to the question of dignity, a central tenet of humanism. Often those who make arguments against the view of posthumanism promoted by Bostrom tend to see human enhancement as essentially debasing of human dignity. Bioconservatives such as Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama express a spectrum of more or less secular objections to human enhancement based on the idea that by making humans less human, posthumanity will inevitably interfere with humans’ given nature and erode those qualities and features that make up humanity itself.17 Drawing on Kierkegaard, Jürgen Habermas adds to this that genetic interventions, in particular of the prenatal kind, restrict the freedom of choice humans are entitled to at birth.18 Bostrom’s answer is twofold: on the one hand technological enhancement is already a very human thing and only one of many means available to enhance human lives, many of which have long been accepted as beneficial and morally adequate. On the other hand, the idea of dignity should not be used as a defense against possible posthuman successors. On the contrary, the advent of posthumans will help in extending the concept of human dignity, which humanism has always meant as extendable. Bostrom writes:

the set of individuals accorded full moral status by Western societies has actually increased, to include men without property or noble decent, women, and non-white peoples. It would seem feasible to extend this set further to include future posthumans, or, for that matter, some of the higher primates or human-animal chimaeras, should such be created – and to do so without causing any compensating shrinkage in another direction.19

In other words, posthumanists of Bostrom’s kind both continue and interrupt—by extending it—the humanist project. On the one hand, they assert that human capacities such as autonomy, rationality, and empathy are inherently worthy and should therefore be protected. On the other hand they refuse to accept that these capacities should be limited by the constraints of humans’ given nature and biological make-up and believe that technologies (the so-called “NBIC”) can be used to extend them.20 This version of posthumanism (which also goes by the name of transhumanism) is thus an ethical claim to the effect that technological enhancement of human capacities is a desirable aim. While Bostrom is very clear that we are not posthuman now, if these enhancements end up making us into posthuman beings, we should embrace the transformation and take action against possible unwanted side effects. It is clear that these ideas imply a far from innocuous loyalty to progress, the idea that improvement rather than deterioration and regression are if not inevitable, at least the most likely outcomes of human actions (while forecasts as to the declining state of the planet remain at best marginal). In many ways this version of posthumanism also echoes the capitalist ethos of accumulation and endless growth, made possible largely by constant updates and technological innovation.

Posthumanist Speculations: Unpredictable Futures

Among the speculative futurists—those who accept that we are not posthuman now—there are considerable differences. David Roden for instance attempts to trace a different trajectory, which he calls “speculative posthumanism” (SP). While the transhumanism advocated by Bostrom is essentially an ethical discourse promoting morphological freedom, this second kind of futurism is not a normative claim about how the world ought to be but a metaphysical claim about what it could (might come to) contain.

Speculative posthumanists share with transhumanists the idea that NBIC can lead to the emergence of posthuman modes of being or even to posthuman beings. For speculative posthumanists, posthumans are as-yet-uncreated technologically engendered beings that are no longer human.21 While we have the potential to become posthuman, not only are we not posthuman yet but nothing necessarily guarantees that we will become so and what type of beings posthumanity will introduce. As Roden writes, posthumans are “hypothetical wide ‘descendants’ of current humans that are no longer human in consequence of some history of technological alteration.”22 Precisely because of this we should keep speculating and think of speculation in a different sense. Inspired as it is by Vernon Vinge’s idea that we are approaching a technological singularity—an event whose consequence is the creation of entities whose intelligence exceeds that of humans so far that any further prediction is impossible—speculation here indicates the possibility to go beyond the limits of human cognition.23 Roden defines the posthuman as “the idea of a speculative transformation of the human that can be developed through a range of synthetic activities,” which include but are not limited to enhancement technologies.24 Precisely because of its excessive nature the posthuman can neither be predicted nor completely understood. It can only be glimpsed as an emerging, embryonic process of overcoming of the human. As Roden writes, understanding the posthuman “can only be achieved through participating—to a greater or less degree—in the excision of the posthuman from the human.”25 Importantly, according to this argument humans can’t evaluate whether posthumanity is good or bad from the early 21st-century standpoint. Not only our predictive power does not stretch that far, but we do not possess the appropriate evaluative tools: it is not that the ones we have are just not accurate enough, but they are built and meant to evaluate a radically different condition. This is because what we would be trying to evaluate is far too different to what we are now and our ability to evaluate would come up against something incommensurable. The change introduced by Vinge’s singularity would be so unprecedented and so radically different from our present state that we couldn’t understand its features or significance. While speculative humanists thus admit that a technological singularity is metaphysically possible (and to an extent they might think it is even likely), they also think that it is epistemologically beyond what we can know, evaluate, and imagine. As Roden writes: “if radically posthuman lives were very non-human indeed, we could not assume they would be prospectively evaluable.”26 There can be no before-the-fact, in-principle posthumanology; the forms that will emerge from the singularity cannot be anticipated. To use a Derridean expression, the posthuman is decidedly “to-come,” and as such it is transcendent in the sense that its features and impact cannot be adequately diagnosed, since they transcend the present in a radical way. Both types of posthumanisms analyzed so far look at the possibility that in a more or less distant, more or less diagnosable, more or less practicable future technologies will produce a posthuman entity that might maintain all, only some, or perhaps none of the features routinely attributed to humans in the second decade of the 21st century. While speculative posthumanists are far less ready to embrace this change as inherently positive than their transhumanist counterparts, their language still reflects the idea that humanity will be enhanced, even if the enhancement will be at the expense of what is considered human in the early 21st century, therefore making such humans obsolete. Thus Vinge’s superhumanity possessing a superhuman intellect, which will allow for exponential as opposed to linear progress, would lead to an “intelligence explosion” that humans wouldn’t be able to deal with.

Critical Posthumanism: A Critique of the Present

There is, however, a radically different way to think the posthuman, a position that thinks of the posthuman not as a future event that one can either bring about or whose arrival should be awaited. This third option thinks of the posthuman not as future at all. The posthuman would not be the enhanced impending world of the transhumanist, nor the post-singularity unfathomable world of the speculative posthumanist. In fact it is not a matter of futures at all, however one wants to characterize them, but of the present. In this version of the posthuman, which goes by the name of “critical posthumanism,” the posthuman is humans’ present condition. Humans are not set to become posthumans through technological enhancement. While critical posthumanists maintain that technology is a determining factor and posthuman subjects are technologically mediated in unprecedented fashions, this way of thinking resists technological determinism. We are all already living posthuman lives and need therefore a thought that is commensurate with this condition. In a markedly different sense from the two options presented previously, critical posthumanism is not informed either by the need to assess whether future iterations of the human should be accepted or not and neither does it contemplate an event that will come to disrupt lives. The posthuman condition is the set of multilayered and internally contradicting phenomena that allow for the coexistence of ultra-modernity and neo-archaism and define our ways of being. What emerges from this new condition is the need for a radical rethinking of the human and of humanism. For critical posthumanists this shift involves a decentering of the position that “man” has assumed in the humanist tradition. As Braidotti writes, “Humanism’s restricted notion of what counts as the human is one of the keys to understand how we got to a post-human turn at all. The itinerary is far from simple or predictable.”27 Critical posthumanism, in particular in the version illustrated by Braidotti, intends to undo the limits imposed by humanism on what counts as the human (and therefore as what counts tout court) and opens up the binary oppositions that humanism has either put in place directly or indirectly legitimized. For this reason, the first move of critical posthumanism is that of renouncing the dualistic paradigm in order to promote a monistic philosophy that allows one to grasp the categories of nature and culture in a continuum, not therefore “nature” and “culture” but nature-culture. The monistic philosophy that underpins this understanding of the posthuman condition and attempts to be commensurate with it takes living matter and its self-organizing force as the starting point for its investigations. It is important to note that critical posthumanism’s relation with time is perhaps the most complicated among the various forms of posthumanism described so far. As the reference to monistic philosophy suggests, critical posthumanism looks back at the philosophical tradition associated with, among others, the work of Spinoza, whose ontology and ethics (or ontology-as-ethics) is based on the unity of all matter. In this monistic view, best expressed by Spinoza’s own formula Deus sive natura, different entities in the world are but modes, expressions of the one matter. In the critical posthumanists’ work this universe is given new life through the readings of those theorists who sought to debunk humanist myths or use them for more inclusive purposes. As a consequence, critical posthumanities find their roots also in the postcolonial writings of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, in Foucault’s work on subjectivity as an eminently relational process, and importantly in feminism and environmental thought. The radical epistemologies of feminist thinkers play a vital role in the development of critical posthumanities inasmuch as they insist on the importance of embodiment for any analysis of power and agency, while demonstrating the exclusive nature of humanism and its inability to account for many—up to then marginal—subjectivities. Moreover, a particular strand of feminist theory contributes to critical posthumanities through sophisticated vitalist and realist accounts of materiality that promote attention to nonhuman entities and diffused agency.28 Finally environmental thought has given posthumanities radical tools to decenter the human, precisely at the moment when human impact on the planet has achieved a geological and planetary dimension and the planet has entered the Anthropocene. Environmental theories invite to think the uncompromising link between rationalism’s tendency toward mastery over all that is sought by rationalism and the imminence of planetary catastrophe. To the emphasis on humanity’s control over the universe, environmentalism substitutes the idea of coexistence, multiple belongings, and non-vertical ontologies.29 Furthermore, environmental and ecological thinking, by bringing into the debate the question of extinction, lend to critical posthumanity a sense of urgency as to the—very literal, very real, very material—future of humanity. As a consequence, environmental thought promotes also a much-enlarged view of ethics, one that takes into account interspecies responsibility but also nonhuman actors that unsettle the moral privilege normally assigned to humans.

Thus critical posthumanism can be said to unfold according to three temporal dimensions, all co-present: while it is rooted in and draws inspiration from theoretical formulations that reach far back into the history of philosophy, its field of investigation is the present condition, understood as being decidedly posthuman. Moreover this analysis of the present and its corresponding social and political actions are always grounded in responsibility for future generations, in view of preparing and building futures that are livable and worth living in.

While there is undoubtedly an antihumanist current in this thought, critical posthumanists see the overcoming of humanism not in an oppositional direction (anti) but in view of new, as-yet-uncharted critical avenues, dominated by various modes of becoming. The importance of limiting the excesses of rational consciousness in its assumption of mastery with regard to the universe is paired with the need to find ways to account for the posthuman condition and the posthuman subject that might be incommensurable with existing ways of thinking. The posthuman deals with issues such as global warming, which are what Timothy Morton calls “superwicked problems.”30 Thinking might have to become weird to account for this complexity. As Morton writes, “ecological awareness is weird.”31 There is in this strange form a new possibility for thought: “in the term weird there flickers a dark pathway between causality and the aesthetic dimension, between doing and appearing, a pathway that dominant Western philosophy has blocked and suppressed.”32 The limiting of rational mastery begins with our approach to things. Western thought has taken things to be “what we make of them.” Heidegger already captured this trajectory in his work on Descartes, modernity, and technology. In the text The Age of the World Picture, Heidegger writes that humans think of something as existing only if this something can be represented according to a fundamental human design that turns everything into objects and instruments. To be known is to become an object, something that stands in front of a knowing human who measures and uses. Heidegger writes: “what is, in its entirety, is now taken in such a way that it first is in being and only is in being to the extent that it is set up by man, who represents and sets forth.”33 This projection decides in a fundamental way how “what is” will be known: “only within the perspective of this ground plan does an event in nature become visible as such an event.”34 Nature and history are then subjected to this representing plan and therefore transformed into objects. Nature is created as an object of representation and calculation. Heidegger uses nature and history precisely to explain that representations make of everything something present at hand. In this scheme, where things exist so that humans can measure and use them, nature is a human creation submitted to the human way of knowing. Everything that does not fit within this system will be dismissed. However, as Morton writes, “Earth isn’t just a blank sheet for the projection of human desire: the desire loop is predicated on entities (Earth, coral, clouds) that also exist in loop form in relation to one another and in relation to humans … we are going to have to think things as weird.”35 Within this different and weird ontological constellation, the idea of the subject also needs to be rethought. Braidotti captures this complexity in her attempts to define the posthuman subject:

For posthuman theory, the subject is a transversal entity, fully immersed in and immanent to a network of non-human (animal, vegetable, viral) relations. The zoe-centred embodied subject is shot through with relational linkages of the contaminating/viral kind which inter-connect it to a variety of others, starting from the environmental or eco-others and include the technological apparatus.36

The weirdness of this subject might have to inhabit the thought that tries to think it, if the latter is to be commensurate with it. Ontologically this subject is not the site of control and mastery of the universe anymore. The urgency of global warming and the prospect of extinction force its transcendental exceptionalism to be replaced by a logic of ontological equality. Critical posthumanists, however, are fully aware that this move to a horizontal ontology is not going to come about by itself. This move requires the activation of aesthetic, political, and social mechanisms that are—at present—far from being realized. While it is desirable and potentially necessary to rework the idea of the subject away from verticality, this is not yet the dominant position. If this is what the posthuman condition requires of thought, the structures of human thinking have not yet caught up with it. This is what Braidotti refers to when she discusses critical posthumanism as the attempt to mobilize thought in various forms of activism that would steer it toward the articulation of livable futures. Braidotti writes that in order to perform a shift away from “Man,” one needs a “strategy of defamiliarization or critical distance from the dominant vision of the subject. Dis-identification involves the loss of familiar habits of thought and representation in order to pave the way for creative alternatives.”37 In many ways this thought is not new, and therefore one strategy is to look at the past, to those thinkers who have already thought what we now call the posthuman condition. In the writings of English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead for instance one finds ideas of nature and mind that debunk not only the nature/culture binary but the very idea of human exceptionalism, based on humans as the sole possessor of consciousness and feeling. It is not surprising that Whitehead’s work has resurfaced in the early 21st century in new theoretical formulations, for instance in the work of Isabelle Stengers.38 For Whitehead, for instance, we must avoid the “bifurcation of nature” and discard the distinction between the reality of nature as described by physicists and experiences of it, human and nonhuman ones.39 Whitehead goes even further and attributes feeling “throughout the actual world,” a world moreover where every “living organism is characterized by a flash of novelty,” in other words by its ability to take itself as a process.40 Each entity has its own singular way of “prehending” its environment, “a jellyfish advances and withdraws, and in so doing exhibits some perception of causal relationship with the world beyond itself; a plant grows downwards to the damp earth, and upwards towards the light.”41

The posthuman condition already makes of humans subjects that are constituted through and only through inevitable and yet extremely intimate interactions with a multiplicity of beings. Outside of these contaminations and interactions and the constant becoming that they produce, we are not subjects at all. However, habits of thought find it difficult to elaborate effective ways to acknowledge and articulate this condition. Where are therefore the creative alternatives? For Braidotti a crucial role in triggering processes of dis-identification is played by artistic practice in its ability to fuddle and disturb the limits of representation. Art is “posthuman by structure,” since “it carries us to the limits of what our embodied selves can do or endure.”42

Weird Ecologies and Their Characters

This article has brought to the fore three different understanding of the posthuman, one focused on humans’ ability to bring about posthuman modes of being, one discussing the posthuman as a future impossible to describe, and lastly a critical position that sees the posthuman as the present condition but works also to build livable futures. The conclusion this article has come to is that art in its being intrinsically posthuman offers defamiliarizing processes that might help understanding the posthuman condition. However, to think of the realm of art as affording solutions means to find forms that operate under the pressure of the posthuman. In other words, when it comes to the “creative solutions” invoked by Braidotti one must think not merely in terms of subject matter, but one must focus on formal constituents as well. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy seems to allow for a reflection of this kind. VanderMeer’s trilogy (including the three novels Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) offers precisely the kind of weird thinking that might measure up against the posthuman. It can be argued that this is the case because the staging of VanderMeer’s trilogy introduces elements of climate fiction while taking on common themes from science fiction and articulates a particularly convincing picture of what could be called the ecological uncanny. It could be said that this insistence on the ecological uncanny already responds to Braidotti’s call for strategies of defamiliarization. There is, however, something even more interesting in VanderMeer’s trilogy. It could be said to reside in the treatment of the subjects and therefore—at a more formal level—in what happens to the characters and what becomes of “character” itself, as a literary function and tool.

VanderMeer works in a sub-genre known as weird literature. In VanderMeer’s own words the weird “represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane.”43 Weird literature is thus deliberately trying to think something that already belongs to the present but which—as the radical future—cannot be fully named or reached. He then continues, “in the Anthropocene, hauntings and similar manifestations become emissaries or transition points between the human sense of time and the geological sense of time… . In a very real sense, the weird can convey a breadth and depth that otherwise belongs to that land of seismic activity inside of a geologist’s brain.”44 It is not surprising than that VanderMeer has been called the “weird Thoreau.”45 There is in his work a very deliberate attempt to mix environmental thought (with all its baggage of social critique) and the imagination of a future that seems at once extremely plausible—to an extent even very near—and undecipherable. The premise for the Southern Reach trilogy is described as follows in the second volume, Authority:

Thirty-two years ago, along a remote southern stretch known by some as the “forgotten coast,” an Event had occurred that began to transform the landscape and simultaneously caused an invisible border or wall to appear. A kind of ghost or “permeable pre-border manifestation” as the files put it – light as fog, almost invisible except for a flickering quality – had quickly emanated out in all directions from an unknown epicentre and then suddenly stopped at its current impenetrable limits. Since then the Southern Reach had been established and sought to investigate what had happened, with little success and much sacrifice of lives via the expeditions – sent in through the sole point of egress.46

The authorities decided to name the new place Area X. Inside Area X nature is rich, luscious, primeval, abundant, dense, and thick but also too alive, too vigilant, aware, and weird. Descriptions and musings on what are allegedly natural landscapes abound and are one of the defining features of the trilogy. The first pages of the first volume read as follows: “the tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse.”47

A number of expeditions composed of experts with a range of skills—anthropologists, biologists, psychologists, surveyors—are sent into Area X. They find that the nature there is weird, and not only is it weird, but it turns weird everything that comes into contact with it. It absorbs and is changed by whatever it engages with, but at the same time it contaminates and changes very radically anything that comes into contact with it, humans included. The explorers feel sensed and watched by clouds and plants. Area X is perhaps a living organism in perpetual flux, capable of co-opting everything it touches and that touches it into its shifting nature. The biologist, the character that narrates the first book, soon finds out for instance that something has entered her nose during one of her explorations of a tower/tunnel whose interior is covered with writing, whose letters are made of symbiotic fruiting bodies of an unknown species. From then on the biologist begins a process of becoming that she can only partially describe, but of which she maintains nonetheless a degree of awareness.

Over the course of many expeditions, it becomes clear that Area X in more or less subtle modes has adverse and unexpected effects on people: it transforms them in very radical ways to the point that they are not themselves anymore; their personality and very nature is profoundly altered. People die in Area X, and the few who make it back do not carry with them any significant memory of the experience.

The biologist’s contamination little by little transforms her completely, so completely in fact that she becomes an element of the landscape, herself having internalized the weird mechanisms that seem to govern Area X. The descriptions of the environment that the reader initially receives from the biologist’s journal become at a certain point indistinguishable from the descriptions of what the biologist herself has become. This becoming of the biologist begins in the first volume as she is slowly immersing herself in the landscape:

I was no longer a biologist but somehow the crest of a wave building and building but never crashing to shore. I saw with such new eyes the subtleties of the transition to the marsh, the salt flats. As the trail became a raised berm, dull, algae-choked lakes spread out to the right and a canal flanked it to the left. Rough channels of water meandered out in a maze through a forest of reeds on the canal side, and islands, oases of wind-contorted trees, appeared in the distance like sudden revelations. The stooped and blackened appearance of these trees was shocking against the vast and shimmering gold-brown of the reeds. The strange quality of the light upon this habitat, the stillness of it all, the sense of waiting, brought me halfway to a kind of ecstasy.48

The immersion is gradual, but one has the feeling that it is also fairly quick, perhaps too quick and receives at some point a sudden acceleration. The readers witness other characters (the psychologist for example) become elements of the landscape, but because readers have learnt to relate to the biologist with the kind of identification reserved for well-formed fictional characters, her transformation is more startling. By the third volume, Acceptance, the biologist’s body has become an almost indescribable mass, who moves with the environment around her. Vandermeer writes:

the biologist coalesced out of the night, her body flickering and stitching its way into existence, in the midst of a shimmering wave that imposed itself on the reality of forested hillside. The vast bulk seething down the hill through the forest with a crack and splinter as trees fell to that gliding yet ponderous and muffled darkness, reduced to kindling by the muscle behind the emerald luminescence that glinted through the black. The smell that presaged the biologist: thick brine and oil and some sharp, crushed herb. The sound that it made: as if the wind and sea had been smashed together and in the aftershock there reverberated that same sonorous moan. A seeking. A questing. A communication or communion… . An animal, an organism that had never existed before or that might belong to an alien ecology. That could transition not just from land to water but from one remote place to another, with no need for a door in a border.49

What kind of character is the biologist then? How does a character of this kind fit within the commonly used concept of character in narrative and literary theory? The character of most traditional fiction is judged on the basis of its agency, emotional complexity, psychological verisimilitude. Even when such characters act in worlds that are unlike the everyday, say in fantasy or science fiction, one does expect them to behave with a degree of consistency in order to be believable but also to possess an inner life, motivations, aspirations, doubts. In other words characters tend to possess all those qualities of a humanistic subject. How could a posthuman character be different? It is possible to argue that the biologist is an exceptionally good example of a posthuman subject for two reasons: she is constantly becoming (open-ended) and she is flat. Flatness is normally a negative attribute for a fictional character. However, for a posthuman character this might not be the case. As Elana Gomel writes, posthuman characters “have no interiority of their own but inhabit a space that is topologically complex, active, and psychologically charged, verging on autonomous agency.”50 The flatness of the character here rather than being a negative feature is an attribute of its being in collaboration with an environment that is at least as active (agential) as the character itself, if not more. The environment the character is immersed in has a capacity for contamination and an ability to introduce and drive change in the character such that the latter’s agency and psychological depth can only be understood in collaboration with the forces of the environment. How can one understand the biologist without Area X? It is simply impossible to understand them as separate. They coexist, and therefore the functions normally performed by a character are delegated to and performed by the encounter of the two. The most striking feature for instance of the scientists and explorers that come out of Area X is that they do not remember anything about their experience and exist in a comatose, spent, and apathetic state, unable to express anything or communicate beyond immediate needs. The biologist describes at length the state of her husband, who went on an expedition before her, “the sheer directionless anonymity of his distress, his silence.” She says that “whatever had happened to him in Area X had turned him into a shell, an automaton going through the motions, someone I had never known. With every atypical act or word he was driving me further from the memory of the person I had known.”51 It is as if their “personality” has been lost once they have been removed from the environment that had contaminated and that supported it. Area X also seems to be taking over language, in the form of the letters that appear and keep being written on the inside of the tower/tunnel. Gomal suggests for this process the term “eversion,” a very different mechanism from the pathetic fallacy. Everted characters lack agency and are plunged into their environments, but precisely because of this they might be able teach us something about a future coexistence. As Gomal writes, “the ‘everted’ characters, fading into the alien landscape, offer a revolutionary, if unsettling, view of the possibilities of interaction between humans and other living creatures.”52 A character like the biologist offers precisely the kind of weird thinking that one needs in order to be commensurate with the posthuman. It is a thinking that while imagining a future that is hardly describable, interrogates the present and criticizes it, not as an assured rationality that discerns and distinguishes but from a position that is aware of its lack of mastery and yet capable of transforming itself together with its environment. The biologist that becomes Area X is an exemplary parable of a posthuman subject, whose boundaries are less defined by what it is than by what it shares its life and coexists with. The biologist says that her sole gift is “that places could impress themselves upon me, and I could become a part of them with ease.”53Perhaps this talent—in our weird posthuman condition—is more decisive than we think.

Discussion of the Literature

The literature on the posthuman is in constant evolution, and it is increasingly difficult to provide a comprehensive summary. It is also challenging to come to a shared definition of the term and to differentiate between works on the posthuman strictly speaking and others that can be more loosely associated with it. There is, however, a clear distinction between literature that investigates the posthuman in terms of future developments and enhancement and literature that treats the posthuman as humans’ current condition. Authors in the first category can be further divided between the transhumanists who see human enhancement as a desirable option (Nick Bostrom, Julian Savulescu, James Hughes) and the so-called bioconservatives who are skeptical and concerned about these future possibilities (George Annas, Dale Carrico, Francis Fukuyama). At the same time there is a considerable and diverse corpus looking at posthumanism as humans’ present condition and approaching the issues from a critical lens. The primary objective here is to decenter human exceptionalism, therefore this strand is often associated with non-anthropocentric works. Authors as different as Neil Badmington, Rosi Braidotti, Donna Haraway, and Katherine Hayles contribute literature in this field. However, even those works that do not necessarily use the term posthuman but look for ways to overcome “humanism” can be listed as contributing to the debates around posthumanism. Jane Bennet’s work around vibrant matter, Isabelle Stengers’s insistence on ecologies of practices, and Karen Barad’s reworking of agency offer important elements for the debate.

Further Reading

Badmington, Neil, ed. Posthumanism. London: Macmillan, 2000.Find this resource:

Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Bennet, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Braidotti, Rosi, and Maria Hlavajova, eds. Posthuman Glossary. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.Find this resource:

Carrico, Dale. “A Condensed Critique of Transhumanism.” Amor Mundi, January 25, 2009.Find this resource:

Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Haraway, Donna. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Herbrechter, Stefan. Posthumanism: A Critical Analysis. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.Find this resource:

Hughes, James. Citizen Cyborg: Why Democratic Societies Must Respond to the Redesigned Human of the Future. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004.Find this resource:

More, Max, and Natasha Vita-More, eds. The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013.Find this resource:

Persson, Ingmar, and Julian Savulescu. Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Pilsch, Andrew. Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and Human Technologies of Utopia. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.Find this resource:

Stengers, Isabelle. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. Translated by Andrew Goffey. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015.Find this resource:


(1.) Stefan Herbrechter and Ivan Callus, “ What’s Wrong with Posthumanism?,” Rhizomes 7 (Fall 2003).

(2.) Annette Smelik, “Film,” in The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, ed. Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 110.

(3.) For an introduction to “humanism” and its development see Tony Davies, Humanism (London: Routledge, 1997).

(4.) Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2013), 64.

(5.) Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, The Sandman, trans. Peter Worstman (London: Penguin, 2016).

(6.) Richard Grusin, The Nonhuman Turn (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), ix.

(7.) Grusin, Nonhuman Turn, ix.

(8.) Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), xii.

(9.) Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 1989), 422.

(10.) Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991).

(11.) Nick Bostrom, “Why I Want to Be a Posthuman When I Grow Up,” in Ethics and Emerging Technologies. ed. Ronald Sandler. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 219.

(12.) David Roden, Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (London: Routledge, 2015), 4.

(13.) Nick Bostrom, “In Defense of Posthuman Dignity,” Bioethics 19, no. 3, 2005: 202.

(14.) Bostrom, Why I Want, 219.

(15.) Bostrom, Why I Want, 9.

(16.) Bostrom, Why I Want, 227.

(17.) See for instance Leon Kass, “Ageless Bodies, Happy Souls: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Perfection,” The New Atlantis 1 (2003): 9–28; and Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2002).

(18.) Jürgen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, trans. William Rehg, Max Pensky, and Hella Beister (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2003).

(19.) Bostrom, “In Defense,” 214.

(20.) Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science.

(21.) Roden, Posthuman Life, 9.

(22.) Roden, Posthuman Life, 22.

(23.) Vernon Vinge, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era,” in Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace, NASA Conference Publication 10129 (Cleveland, OH: NASA, 1993), 11–22.

(24.) David Roden, “Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism,” Journal of Evolution and Technology 21, no. 1 (2010): 34.

(25.) Roden, “Deconstruction,” 34.

(26.) Roden, “Deconstruction,” 22.

(27.) Braidotti, The Posthuman, 16.

(28.) See the work of Karen Barad, for instance, but also the thinkers operating under the general category of “New Materialism.”

(29.) While not strictly speaking posthumanist texts, these works speak to many of these issues: Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2017); Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2016); Lorraine Code, Ecological Thinking: The Politics of Epistemic Location (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); and Ursula Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

(30.) Morton, Dark Ecology, 36.

(31.) Morton, Dark Ecology, 6.

(32.) Morton, Dark Ecology, 5.

(33.) Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. William Lowitt (New York: Garland, 1977), 130–131.

(34.) Heidegger, The Question, 120.

(35.) Morton, Dark Ecology, 65.

(36.) Braidotti, The Posthuman, 193.

(37.) Braidotti, The Posthuman, 88–89.

(38.) Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).

(39.) Alfred N. Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 21.

(40.) Alfred N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 177, 184.

(41.) Whitehead, Process and Reality, 177.

(42.) Braidotti, The Posthuman, 107.

(43.) Jeff VanderMeer, “Hauntings in the Anthropocene: An Initial Exploration,” Environmental Critique, July 7, 2016.

(44.) VanderMeer, “Hauntings.”

(45.) Joshua Rothman, “The Weird Thoreau,” New Yorker, January 14, 2014.

(46.) Jeff VanderMeer, Authority (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), 35.

(47.) Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), 3.

(48.) VanderMeer, Annihilation, 89–90.

(49.) Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), 196.

(50.) Elana Gomel, “Character Degree Zero: Space and Posthuman Subject,” in Science Fiction beyond Borders, ed. Shawn Edrei and Danielle Gurevitch (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2016), 3.

(51.) VanderMeer, Annihilation, 81.

(52.) Gomel, “Character Degree Zero,” 11.

(53.) VanderMeer, Annihilation, 72.