I’m thrilled to be the lead organizer for the 2015-16 Humanities on the Edge Speaker Series. The theme, “Posthuman Futures,” focuses on one of the most widely talked about themes in the theoretical humanities today. Below is my introduction to the speaker series; you can watch the lectures on the Humanities on the Edge YouTube channel, follow us on Twitter @UNLHotE, like us on Facebook, and read previews and reviews of the lectures on The Watershed Blog.
Together with Marco Abel, Professor of English and Film Studies & chair of the Department of English, Roland Végsö, Associate Professor of English, Jeannette Jones, Associate Professor of History and Ethnic Studies, and Jonathan Walz, curator of American Art here at the Sheldon, I co-organize this cross-disciplinary speaker series that promotes Humanities inquiry from a rigorously theoretical perspective.
This year’s theme, “Posthuman Futures,” represents the beginning of a three year arc for Humanities on the Edge. Next year, Jeannette Jones will be the lead organizer for the theme “Postracial Futures,” and then Marco and Roland will reprise their role as lead organizers for “After ’68: Post Revolutionary Futures” to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the events of 1968.
This year’s theme picks up an intellectual current that has become increasingly prevalent across the theoretical humanities: posthumanism. The “human” is, perhaps, the most naturalized of all categories. To play with the title of our speaker series, you might say that the human has long been conceived as all edge: the human is distinctive, styled as separate from other animals because of their command of speech, distinguished by gifts of nature rather than acquiring status through culture and communication, singularly equipped as tool maker and user.
The edges of the human can no longer be conceived so distinctly. As Cary Wolfe explains, our current “moment is irredeemably post-humanist because of the boundary breakdowns between animal and human, organism and machine, and the physical and the non-physical.” To be clear, this is not JUST the product of “new” developments in digital technologies, or “new” cultural formations, or “new” research on non-human animals. Indeed, to gloss Katherine Hayles: we have always been posthuman, but we are just now beginning to conceptualize what that means.
Although there are many possible genealogies of posthumanism, most of them are indebted to three intellectual strands that show the blurring boundaries of the human: science and technology studies (which includes scholarship on the new materialisms), cultural theory, and critical animal studies. Research coming out of science and technology studies suggests that the human is not just a tool maker, but is in some foundational sense co-constructed with their tools. As tools dramatically change, as they are with the advent of digital, nano-, and bio-technologies, our sense of what it means to be a human being changes. Cultural theory, too, contributes to the posthuman moment by underlining how “the human” is a cultural production rather than a merely sociobiological fact. As a cultural production, the privilege of “being human” has historically only been awarded to some groups of people in ways that predictably reflect power relations. The recent but rapid rise of the field of critical animal studies has done us the service of reminding us that humans are animals, too. The lines drawn between human and non-human animal are being recognized as rhetorical achievements that are no longer as tenable with the development of less anthropocentric worldviews.
The posthuman isn’t to be confused with the transhuman hope to escape the human body; nor is it to be confused with an anti-humanism that simply dismisses the human as nothing special. The hope for posthumanist theory, following Rosi Braidotti, is that it will “mark the end of the opposition between Humanism and anti-humanism and trace a different discursive framework.” Our speakers for this year’s Humanities on the Edge series are all tracing different discursive frameworks in a posthumanist spirit; it is no coincidence that our speakers pick up on the intellectual strands that I’ve just suggested are constitutive of posthumanism…