Cary Wolfe: What Is Posthumanism?

Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University. He is author of What Is Posthumanism? (2009), the 8th installment in UMP’s Posthumanities Series. His previous books include Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the “Outside” and Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, and editor of Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal. Here is an excerpt of an essay Cary Wolfe wrote for this blog to introduce his posthumanist (as opposed to posthuman) theory. You can read the full text here.


One of the main points I stress in my new book is that posthumanism as I understand it is not posthuman but rather posthumanist. Of course, “humanism” is a term that covers so much ground, comprises so many different thinkers, movements, and values, that any deployment of the term is bound to be a little reductive. I begin the book with this more or less representative definition that pops up in a Google search:

Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people, based on the ability to determine right and wrong by appeal to universal human qualities—particularly rationality. It is a component of a variety of more specific philosophical systems and is incorporated into several religious schools of thought. Humanism entails a commitment to the search for truth and morality through human means in support of human interests. In focusing on the capacity for self-determination, humanism rejects the validity of transcendental justifications, such as a dependence on belief without reason, the supernatural, or texts of allegedly divine origin. Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition, suggesting that solutions to human social and cultural problems cannot be parochial.

It will probably come as no surprise that I share many of the values and aspirations announced in such a definition. In fact, I go out of my way to insist that posthumanism as I use the term isn’t about a wholesale rejection or surpassing of humanism and its values. Rather, my point is that humanism’s often admirable aspirations are undercut by the conceptual and philosophical tools it uses to conceptualize them. For example, most of us would probably agree that people with disabilities should be treated with respect and equality, or that non-human animals should be protected from cruelty and abuse. But the problem, as I show in this book, is that the humanism of certain strains of disability studies or of animal rights philosophy, in their attempts to make good on these aspirations, reinscribes a very familiar form of liberal humanist subjectivity whose normative force was taken to be the problem in the first place. Shouldn’t we instead endeavor for a mode of thought that values the heterogeneity of ways of being in the world for their difference, their uniqueness, their non-generic nature, rather than their ability to reproduce or approximate, however imperfectly, a normative picture of “us”?

To put this another way, I agree with humanism that “transcendental justifications” must be rejected and that solutions can’t be “parochial” (commitments of humanism that would seem all the more relevant in the current geopolitical moment, after all), but the problem is that humanism does not adequately apply this principle to itself.  It ends up indulging its own dogmas, its own “parochial” solutions. Chief among these, I argue, is the dogma that insists on an ontological difference—and the ethical consequences that follow from that difference—between homo sapiens and every other life form on the planet. This flies in the face of current scientific knowledge about non-human life, and it flies in the face of what should be humanism’s commitment to a conceptual frame that is more nuanced and responsible than the ham-fisted (pun intended) distinction between “the human” and “the animal.” So as Foucault once famously put it, in this sense, one might well argue that Enlightenment and Humanism are not two sides of the same coin, but are in tension with each other.

Part of the unfortunate fallout of the conceptual apparatus of humanism is that it gives us an overly simple picture—a fantasy, really—of what the human is. Consider, for example, the rise of what is often called “transhumanism,” often taken to be a defining discourse of posthumanism (as in Ray Kurzweil’s work on “the singularity”—the historical moment at which engineering developments such as nanotechnology enable us to transcend our physical and biological limitations as embodied beings, ushering in a new phase of evolution). As many of its proponents freely admit, the philosophical ideals of transhumanism are quite identifiably humanist—not only in their dream of transcending the life of the body and our “animal” origins but also in their investment in the ideals of human perfectibility, rationality, autonomy, and agency. In contrast to this dream of transcendence and perfectibility, posthumanism in my sense points toward the necessity of moving beyond the philosophical simplifications of humanism (many of them self-flattering, of course!) to arrive at a much thicker, more complex and layered description of this thing we call “human” and how it is bound up with all sorts of forces and factors that aren’t “human” at all (our “animal” biological inheritance and how it shapes our emotions, our behavior, our needs and wants; our ecological embeddedness as creatures of evolution in a web of life not of our making; the ahuman exteriority and technicity of the archives and prostheses of memory and culture, and so on).

Posthumanism in this sense thus forces us to attend to the paradox that we can “become who we are” only by virtue of being constituted by something—actually, many “somethings”—that we are not. Chief among these, perhaps, is language. You can think of language as humanism does—as something that institutes not just a phenomenological difference but an ontological difference between “normal” human beings and the rest of the universe (a view that draws into its wake a vast collection of very different thinkers from Heidegger to Daniel Dennett); or you can think of language as I do (following a similarly diverse genealogy that includes Gregory Bateson, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, and Jacques Derrida): as an essentially ahuman prosthesis, a technique and a machine that itself is a subset and second-order phenomenon of a larger domain of meaning that includes all sorts of non-linguistic forms of communication not limited to the human domain alone. This gives you a much more robust and nuanced picture of how language is (and is not) constitutive of human behavior; it allows you to describe how meaning gets made in recursive exchanges across previously discreet ontological domains (say, between humans and animals); and it also enables you to understand how human communication is a multi-dimensional and often asynchronous process that continues to be inhabited by the evolutionary and biological background out of which “linguistic domains” (to use Maturana and Varela’s phrase) emerged. Or as Gregory Bateson once put it (humorously and perceptively), “If you say to a girl, ‘I love you,’ she is likely to pay more attention to the accompanying kinesics and paralinguistics than to the words themselves” (Steps to an Ecology of Mind 86). (This is one of the reasons, incidentally, that e-mail is such a brittle and incendiary form of communication; there is no such dampening mechanism, and it is difficult to make up for the loss of tone of voice, body posture, eye contact, and so on in such a thin and impoverished medium–hence the invention of that paltry substitute called the emoticon.)

What all of this suggests is that “our” thoughts, “our” concepts, are in an important sense not “ours” at all, but rather they derive from our constitution by something radically not us. And this in turn points to a second dimension of the argument of What Is Posthumanism?: that it is not enough to think of it simply as a kind of content, as merely a thematics of the historical moment in which the human becomes decentered by and disseminated in technological, informational, pharmacological, and communicational apparatuses that render it no longer “master in its own house” (as Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche long ago realized in their different, albeit problematic, ways). After all, as I have already suggested with the examples of transhumanism and animal rights philosophy, it is perfectly possible to “do” posthumanism in a thoroughly humanist way. The question of “posthumanism,” then, obtains not just on one level but on two—not just what posthumanism thinks about but also, and more importantly, how it thinks about it.


Cary Wolfe is Bruce and Elizabeth Dunlevie Professor of English at Rice University. He is author of What Is Posthumanism?, the 8th installment in the University of Minnesota Press’s Posthumanities Series. His previous books include Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the “Outside” (Minnesota, 1998) and Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, and he is editor of Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (Minnesota, 2003).

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