Thursday, 28 March 2013

Defining posthumanism in 25 words or less

I'm a big fan of '25 words or less competitions'. I've never won one, never really cracked the formula, but I like giving them a go.

Defining posthumanism in 25 words or less is not easy. The Wikipedia entry for posthumanism gives it 5 separate definitions. It took Cary Wolfe an entire book. N. Katherine Hayles has had a few goes at it as well, as have countless other writers.

I'm defining posthumanism for my own specific purpose as part of my practice-led PhD. Naturally, this means it's only one of dozens (hundreds?) of possible definitions, and will open up more questions than it answers. But when I had my first bash at it yesterday this is what I came up with:

Posthumanism is a deliberate act to alter the human body surgically or chemically in order to attain additional skills, abilities or (???) beyond those a human maybe born with. The deliberate act must not merely enhance an existing skill or ability; rather it must create an new one that had not existed before.
Three problems immediately arise with this definition. Firstly, it's generally not good form to have ???? in the middle of a definition. Secondly, it's way over 25 words. Thirdly, (though I'm not sure this is a problem so much as a choice) it tends to focus more on physical attributes rather than philosophical ideals that define a human being.

Going back through the reading I've done on posthumanism, there are several definitions that appeal to me for different reasons. In his book What is Posthumanism, Wolfe quotes Joel Garreau who defines posthumans as:

beings ‘whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to no longer be unambiguously human by our current standards.’
In Our Posthuman Future Fukuyama describes posthumanism as a "potential moral chasm" and focuses on the dangers of biotechnology, in particular the use of neuropharmalogical drugs and genetic screening, while in the opening pages of How We Became Posthuman Hayles states:

Whether or not interventions have been made on the body, new models of subjectivity emerging from such fields as cognitive science and artificial life imply that even a biologically unaltered Homo sapiens counts as posthuman. The defining characteristics involve the construction of subjectivity, not the presence of nonbiological components.
 
In a nutshell, then, Garreau thinks posthumans are some kind of superhuman; Fukuyama thinks posthumans are potentially dangerous and socially divisive and Hayles thinks we're all posthumans. Okay, so that's a gross oversimplification but it does help me position my definition of posthuman more towards Garreau and further away from both Hayles and Fukuyama.

This is because I'm framing my definition for a fiction-writing perspective: if I'm to have posthumans in my book, particularly for a young adult novel, I want them to look or act posthuman in some way, and I guess, for me, that means having a skill or ability that no human is born with. Also, I'm writing a speculative fiction manuscript so the notion of the superhuman is not only accepted it is to some degree expected.

So for the purposes of my creative practice research, I'm offering the following definition:

A posthuman is someone who has chosen to alter their human body to attain additional skills or abilities other than those they were born with.
It passes the 25 words or less test, so that's a positive. But of course this definition is still problematic. For example, if you are born without legs and you use prosthetic legs does that make you posthuman because you were born without legs, even though most people are born with legs? What if you lose a limb in an accident and replace the lost limb with a prosthetic one that works better than your original limb - does that make you posthuman?

For now, at least, I think I'll use the above as my working definition. But I'm open to suggestions!