This was originally published in Carrigan, M., & Porpora, D. V. (2021). Introduction: Conceptualizing post-human futures. In Post-Human Futures (pp. 1-22). Routledge. Please use this reference if you’re citing this article.
Introduction: Conceptualizing Posthuman Futures
Mark Carrigan & Douglas Porpora
It is widely held that emerging technologies call into question common assumptions about human beings and their place within the world. However there is lack of clarity about exactly what we mean by the human in a rapidly growing and often polarised literature, as well as the theoretical challenges involved in discerning the horizons of incipient futures while we remain embedded within the present world. In this introduction, we engage with exemplars of posthumanist and transhumanist thought in order to recover questions of conceptual methodology which too often get lost in discussions of socio-technical change and human nature. This includes discussions of the dilemmas of epochal theorizing, the risk of reproducing contemporary orthodoxy, the perennial challenge of conceptualizing the subject and its relationship to empirical research
This is the third volume in a series we began in 2017, after completing a prior project on what we termed ‘social morphogenesis’. This speculative notion invited us to consider the viability and character of a social order in which change came to achieve a final victory over stasis, as the possible horizon for what comes after late modernity, second modernity and liquid modernity to name the three most influential epochal diagnoses which cast a long shadow over social thought in the 1990s and 2000s (Beck 1992, Giddens 1991, Bauman 2000). While we reached no consensus amongst our interdisciplinary group of philosophers, sociologists, economists and international relations scholars, it was a productive exercise, which led to five volumes that between them analysed a remarkably diverse array of social, cultural and agential changes; alongside the meta-theoretical question of what is change and how do we come to know it (Archer 2013). Two themes stood out amongst the many that cut through this inquiry: the significance of emerging technology and how, if at all, human being comes to be challenged by their diffusion. There was a certain inevitably therefore that our next project would turn to the place, and challenges, of the human in an emerging social order in which some technologies, once emerging (for example the smart phone, wearable computing, social networking, machine learning and the internet of things), are rapidly becoming ubiquitous parts of daily life, while yet other technologies, still emerging, hold out the possibility of yet more radical social change.
In the first volume, Realist Responses to Post-Human Society, we sought to examine the ways in which recent advances in technology threaten to blur and displace the boundaries constitutive of our shared humanity. In the second volume, Post-Human Institutions and Organizations, we adopted a more sociological focus through analysis of the role of smart machines in driving change within the basic organisations and institutions responsible for social integration. In this volume, we deepen the dialogue between these two clusters of issues, turning our attention to post-human futures, with a particular emphasis on the social and cultural significance of artificial intelligence.
Philosophy concerns itself, as Sellers once put it, with understanding how things in the broadest sense of the term hang together. Our project across these volumes could be summarised as understanding where social life, in the broadest sense, is going. The human is our focal point for this concern because these technologies have emerged from our own productive capacities, actuated within organisational contexts and embedded within broader systems of production and exchange. But what becomes of homo faber in an age of intelligent machines? As you will see, we take issue with many of the existent treatments of emerging technologies and human nature while nonetheless taking seriously the possibility that a profound change is, or soon will be, underway. Explaining what we mean by this claim, not to mention the conceptual grammar inherent in making it, entails a brief detour through accounts of the human and their relationship to socio-technical change.
Humanism, Post-Humanism, Trans-Humanism
The theorist of the posthuman Cary Wolfe (2010) begins his book, What is Posthumanism?, by identifying a discrepancy. At that time, despite the much heralded demise of humanism, the phrase ‘humanism’ returned 3,840,000 hits on Google while ‘posthumanism’ returned only 60,200. Doing similar searches a decade later, we found the returns had reached 11,000,000 and 497,000 respectively. It was inevitable that both would have increased for the simple fact that the internet has grown in the preceding decade while the search engine’s indexing of it has become more comprehensive. It is, however, clear that posthumanism has grown more in this time. There’s a limited amount we can meaningfully infer from this change but it’s a striking example of how the time horizons of scholarly publishing can fail to grasp the pace at which the world publications describe is changing. While searching in this way lacks robustness as a digital method, it does illustrate how the discursive universe of posthumanism has exploded in a period of time that barely registers in scholarly publishing. Ten years is not a long time for academic writing, but it is an eternity when it comes to understanding an emerging philosophical movement with a foundation in rapid social, cultural and technological change. It is for this reason that we will advocate treating humanism, posthumanism and transhumanism in historical terms, shaped by history while contributing to shaping it. This task first necessitates that we achieve a degree of clarity about what these terms mean, how they relate to each other and the work they do within the world.
Although humanism is widely criticized by posthumanists as defending a white, imperialist, masculinist version of the human, humanism’s proponents often understand it as a defense of the qualitative aspects of humanity not capturable by the positivist reduction of human being to quantitative variable analysis. Our intention at this stage is not to intervene in this debate, but rather to point to the contested nature of these terms and the ambiguity they give rise to in debate. As Davies (2006: 2) points out, “Humanism is a word with a very complex history and an unusually wide range of possible meanings and contexts” to an extent which troubles attempts to fix its meaning within what Porpora (2003: 22) calls the critical space of argument and counter-argument. It too easily slips into being an elicitation device to encourage the reiteration of pre-established positions, as opposed to a deeper exchange about how we talk in these terms and what we are trying to achieve by doing so. Furthermore, it becomes difficult to retain any purchase on the question of how intellectual doctrines propounded by social scientists and philosophers relate to what’s going on ‘out there’. Even if most would agree that theoretical debates don’t drive cultural change in wider society (at least in any sort of straight-forward or consistent manner) we’re left with the question of what the causal relation is, as well as how it ought to inform our debating. The same point can be made about posthumanism and transhumanism. However there’s an important sense in which these are anchored by humanism, producing a great chain of ambiguity which lies at the heart of a voluminous literature in the social science and the humanities. For this reason, we don’t attempt in this introduction to provide definitive accounts of these terms but rather to elucidate the thrust of these positions, as well as to reconstruct some of the meta-theoretical questions which tend to get lost within a polarized (and polarizing) debate.
Braidotti (2013) usefully distinguish between three forms of posthumanism circulating within the academy: (i) a ‘reactive’ posthumanism she identifies with thinkers like Martha Nussbaum; (ii) the recognition of non-human actors and agents found in Actor Network Theory; and (iii) a concern for the shifting reality of the human condition amongst speculative posthumanists such as herself. If we assume her first category designates advocates of humanism, with the ‘post’ simply indicating the contemporary character of their advocacy, this helpfully illustrates how philosophical, methodological and disciplinary factors mix together in establishing the matrix of humanism, posthumanism, transhumanism. Fuller and Lipińska (2014: 3) stress the cultural orientations which drive these differences: the posthumanist inclination “towards ‘humbling’ human ambitions in the face of nature’s manifestly diverse and precarious character” and the transhumanist inclination towards “diagnosing humanism’s failure in terms of insufficient follow-through on its own quite reasonable ambitions”. By focusing on the thrust of these disagreements, it becomes to easier to get beyond the ambiguity which plagues these debates.
This contrasting reaction to humanism is why Wolfe (2010) emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between transhumanism and posthumanism: “two diametrically opposed responses to the shortfalls of the modern humanist world-view” (Fuller and Lipińska 2014: 3). He sees the former as antithetical to the latter, representing an intensification of humanism rather than a retreat from it. As Whitaker (2017) puts it, transhumanism “takes the central tropes of modernity and injects them with steroids – infinity, progress, the transcendence of bodily confines, control over evolution, belief in the human capacity to remake itself, the limitless capabilities of human intellect”. In this sense we can see it as a radicalisation of modernity rather than a rejection of it, a belief in the capacity of science and technology to let us act back upon ourselves and leave behind the fleshy inheritance which has constrained our capacity to realise our human potential. In its most dramatic manifestations, transhumanism manifests itself in a focus on the deferral of death, uploading ourselves to the machine, or the consequences of the much invoked singularity. But these spectacular claims, with their tendency to blur the boundary between philosophical speculation and science fiction, risk obscuring the underlying continuities with humanist thought. Thus, philosopher Nick Bostrom, founding director of the Future of Humanity Institute, frames transhumanism as a continuation of individualistic humanism but in a way which dispenses with the assumption that “the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable”. He considers technological advances such as super intelligent machines, recalibration of the brain’s pleasure centers, space colonization, vastly extended life spans and reanimation of cryonics patients as real possibilities which ought to inform “how we perceive the world” and “how we spend our time” (Bostrom 2001). As he puts it, “Transhumanism has roots in secular humanist thinking, yet is more radical in that it promotes not only traditional means of improving human nature, such as education and cultural refinement, but also direct application of medicine and technology to overcome some of our basic biological limits” (Bostrom 2005).
In a discussion of “the integration of cutting-edge research in nano-, bio-, info- and cognosciences for purposes of extending the power and control of human beings over their own bodies and their environments”, Fuller (2011: 102-105) draws attention to the different ways in which this agenda has been conceived and the distinct human future implied by each of them. Each of these comes with distinct moral, political and economic challenges: a ‘reflexive evolution’ brought about by genetics and an extension of the life span in some sense belong in the same category but nonetheless have to be dealt with in their specificity. This is why Fuller and Lipinska (2014) stress the collective and normative implications of these developments, in contrast to what they identify as a libertarian tendency preoccupied by morphological freedom. While they share an understanding of transhumanism as “the indefinite promotion of the qualities that have historically distinguished humans from other creatures, which amount to our seemingly endless capacity for self-transcendence”, they recognise the profound challenge that follows from this capacity: “What does it meant to act responsibly in a world where we are aiming to increase our power among many dimensions at once?” (Fuller and Lipinska 2014: 1).
Epochal Theorising about Post(human) Futures
Our concern is less with the specifics of these doctrines, as much as what they imply about potential futures and the work they do towards their realisation. We can only gesture here to the complexity of the debates that have emerged within the voluminous literature on the question of humanism, as well as the shift through which post-humanism came to replace anti-humanism as humanism’s fundamental antagonist. In the interests of making a virtue out of this vice, we should stress that treating these positions as positions, which is to say as doctrines developed in the context of scholarly exchange, risks obscuring the socio-cultural and socio-technical currents (particularly the groups, organisations and movements with their material and ideational interests) to which these formulations sit in ambiguous relationship. Herbrechter (2013) notes that terms such as ‘post-human’, ‘post-humanist’ and ‘post-humanism’ have a longer history than one might suspect, even if they only began to receive academic attention as the new millennium began to unfold. He observes that the texts that initiated this explosion of academic interest, described by the political commentator Mason (2019) as the ‘post-human industry’, clustered around the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century. The question thus is how much concern with the posthuman reflects a fin de siècle experience of social transition and the pathologies that accompany it (Alexander 1995). With the benefit of hindsight, the social panic surrounding the ‘millennium bug’, the expectation of widespread software failure because of a ubiquitous technical shortcoming, looks something akin to a millenarian panic manifesting from increasing social understanding of our reliance on digital infrastructure. The fact this bug would (theoretically) leave systems unable to distinguish between 1900 and 2000, as a consequence of encoding dates with two rather than four digits, underscores the point: the technology we expected would take us forward into the new millennium might instead leave us lodged in the century we expected to leave behind.
Alexander (1995: 8) argues that formulations like ‘modernity’, ‘socialism’ and ‘capitalism’ describe “deep shifts in historical sensibility” as well as “competing theoretical positions”. The same point holds about the upsurge of writing that identifies itself as posthumanist, and a sense of historical consciousness pervades this literature. For example Wolfe (2000: xv-xvi) talks in terms of an “historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore” leading to the necessity of “new theoretical paradigms” and a “new mode of thought that comes after the cultural repressions and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasions, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon”. This formulation leaves it rather unclear whether the significant factor is the extent of this immersion (ontological), the unavoidably with which it presents itself as an object of awareness (epistemological) or the combination of both at this particular historical juncture. There is an avant-garde tendency within this literature, valorizing creation as a response to novelty (we need new ideas, terms and frames to respond adequately to these new times) but doing so in a way which too often leaves the former unmoored from the latter (Ghosh 2016: 220-223). In this introduction, we want to recover this link between our changing circumstances and the intellectual resources through which we seek to make sense of them. We are not denying the reality of changes taking place or their potential significance. However we are insisting the ontological, epistemological and methodological complexity involved in diagnosing epochal shifts be recognized from the outset, at least if we aspire to do more than simply register the aggregate of empirical changes which can be identified (Archer 2013).
Much posthumanist discourse is an example of what Savage (2009) calls epochal theorising: a preoccupation with detecting new kinds of transformation that underscore the uniqueness of the times in which we are living. This point was made in response to concepts of late modernity, liquid modernity and second modernity, which proliferated within British sociology, constituting “a kind of sociology which does not seek to define its expertise in terms of its empirical research skills, but in terms of its ability to provide an overview of a kind that is not intended to be tested by empirical research” (Savage and Burrows 2007). Once, however, we recognise the influence of these epochal accounts, as well as the de-differentiated character of contemporary social theory identified by Mouzelis (2003), which enables conceptual innovations to circulate across disciplinary boundaries more easily than was previously the case, the apparent differences melt way to disclose an obvious similarity. Epochal theorizing is prone to what is sometimes called ‘the shock of new’ in ways which can obscure ironic continuities between our present circumstances and their postulated future.
It is worth noting how much the rhetoric of authors like Fuller and Lipińska (2014) echoes that of Giddens (1993, 2006) in his pronouncement that we have moved beyond left and right. While the nature of the change understood to be taking place varies significantly between these figures, there is a common structure to the claim they make: sociological and technological developments have brought us to a point where the familiar matrix of left and right can no longer capture the real issues that are at stake. In part this relies on an implausible reading of the left/right distinction as involving little more than the extension or limitation of state power, taking the neoliberal and neoconservative right at their libertarian word in spite of the expanded carceral and security apparatus which has accompanied their hegemony. This is ascribed to the left being “on the defensive” as a result of the “persistence (if not resurgence) of poverty, inequality and ethnic discrimination, despite a succession of well-intentioned, often well-financed and indeed sometimes partly successful welfare programmes” (Fuller and Lipińska 2014: 39).
As a reading of political economy and social policy this is truly shallow stuff. However it’s interesting in its repetition of the orthodox bromides more likely to be found in opinion columns than scholarly literature: the welfare state has failed, the left has been discredited, government is the problem rather than the solution. It’s difficult to see how their “proactionary welfare state” which would “provide a relatively secure bio-social environment for the taking of calculated life risks in return for reward, repair or compensation at the personal level” (Fuller and Lipińska 2014: 35-37) is in any way outside the horizons of the mainstream right and (post-social democratic) left of recent decades. This can all be found in Giddens’ (2013) foundational text on the third way in its discussion of the welfare state: the top-down distribution of benefits which can have perverse consequences, the right’s critiques being proven at least partially true by events, the insufficient room granted for personal liberty and the necessity of ensuring psychological outcomes rather than being narrowly preoccupied with material ones. While Fuller and Lipińska’s (2014) terminology and concerns appear somewhat idiosyncratic, their account clearly overlaps with the Giddens (2006: 381) who worries that “the welfare state isn’t geared up to cover new-style risks such as those concerning technological change, social exclusion or the accelerating proportion of one-parent households”. Perhaps more importantly, it is entirely in keeping with the dominant thrust of social policy in North America and Europe in recent decades. If we substitute their philosophical terminology for the technocratic language of contemporary politics, what they boldly present as the ethos of the proactionary welfare state begins to look like an unremarkable statement of political orthodoxy:
“We have seen that proactionaries would re-invent the welfare state as a vehicle for fostering securitized risk-taking while precautionaries would aim to protect the planet at levels of security well beyond what the classic welfare state could realistically provide for human beings, let alone the natural environment.” (Fuller and Lipińska 2014: 42)
What would this look like in practice? While Fuller and Lipińska (2014) make some genuinely thought provoking, if contentious, suggestions about science policy later in the book, the more mundane face of the proactionary state would resemble trends in social policy such as workfare, requiring economic activity from welfare benefits to avoid unsustainable dependence, which have been with us for decades. Seen in this light, there’s something almost nostalgic about the forceful pronouncement of a radical approach to the welfare state at precisely the moment when the politico-economic settlement described by Stiglitz (2004) as the roaring nineties began to break down as history returned with a vengeance, first with 9/11 and its disruption of the geopolitical order, then with the financial crisis and its disruption of the global economic order (Zizek 2009). The populist insurgencies of left and right, global rise of authoritarian politics and the Covid-19 crisis have only taken us further down this road. In fact it’s difficult to see a role for the proactionary state in the present pandemic, with the widely rejected strategy of herd immunity being its obvious expression in public health. Regardless of what assessment we might make of their arguments in their own terms, the thrust of what Fuller and Lipińska (2014) is saying seems curiously out of synch with the times, in spite of the concern with the cutting edge of change which runs through the book.
Not only can their proactionary/precautionary distinction be coded in terms of familiar distinctions of left and right, in European welfare states it is the form taken by the left and right distinction in its centre left and centre right manifestations until recent years: from New Labour’s empowerment of individuals through to Emmanuel Macron’s pursuit of a “start up nation” the self-professed centre ground of politics has sought to move beyond left and right by reforming the welfare state in a manner that better ‘empowers’ individuals. The reasons for this reframing are complex and far beyond the scope of our introduction, with vast literatures addressing the policy questions in substantive domains of intervention such as employment policy (Gilbert and Van Voorhis 2001). What is often called ‘triangulation’ has certainly played an important role in this, with an increasingly professionalised political class seeking to split the difference across the electorate by combining aspects of left and right (Crouch 2004). But these developments are also driven by serious engagements with social, economic and demographic transformation that can too easily be overlooked if we remain fixated on their presentational elements.
The point we are making is not to assess these policies but rather to underscore how what Fuller and Lipsinka (2014) present as moving ‘beyond left and right’ in fact reproduces the ‘radical centrism’ which has been political orthodoxy for at least a couple of decades. What makes their obliviousness particularly curious is that they offer this reformulation at precisely the point where this centrism is unravelling alongside the global economic order it emerged in relation to (Callinicos 2010; Varoufakis 2011, 2016; Zizek 2009). Far from helping us grasp the complexity of the ensuing political terrain, their up-winger and down-winger politics (effectively a matter of doubling down on technology-driven modernisation or seeking to curtail it through the protective state) collapses the political possibilities confronting us into something akin to techno-liberalism and luddite-nationalism. In practice it reinscribes political coordinates which have been breaking down for years, as opposed to offering a novel outlook on the challenges which confront us in an increasingly uncertain world.
There’s a parallel here to Zizek’s (1989) observation that claims of the new epoch we are entering often seek to preserve the core elements of classic sociological models, making minor adjustments to the conceptual architecture and fiddling with the presentation in order to adapt them to new realities while avoiding any more significant reappraisal of their underlying axioms. In this sense, we should be cautious about posthumanist and transhumanist political thought, not because they represent a novel intrusion into contemporary politics but rather because they reproduce orthodox elements of it with only a veneer of novelty. This does not mean we should dismiss it, only that we recognise its self-conception and self-presentation might prove immensely misleading. The point we are making is that social theoretical accounts of social, cultural and technological change exist within a tradition of theorising that responds to and shapes what it purports to describe in a way rarely if ever acknowledged by the theorists concerned. To use Sloterdjick’s (2020: 13) phrase, there is no ‘outside thinking’. The context of discovery too often drops out in social thought, making it difficult to track how proliferating conceptions of where we are going reflect where we are (as well as who ‘we’ are taken to be) and what their influence might be over unfolding events. Insisting on this context does not imply that nothing has changed and that we should stop talking about transformation; a dogmatic quietism in the fact of accumulating novelty is the inverse of a manic modernism that continually sees the new epoch being born within whatever developments are most exciting this year. We are instead seeking to move beyond these opposing errors in order to facilitate a more cautiously reflective dialogue between social theory and emerging technologies.
What does it mean to theorise about the future?
In the introduction of her most recent book, Braidotti (2019: 12) talks about the posthuman condition in terms of “swinging moods, which alternate between excitement and anxiety”. There is “euphoria at the astonishing technological advances that ‘we’ have accomplished” but also “anxiety in view of the exceedingly high prize that we–both humans and non-humans–are paying for these transformations”. It is precisely this oscillation as well as the implicit cultural politics of technology as salvation or curse that we have sought to avoid in this volume and the broader project of which it is part. If we see what Braidotti (2019) terms the posthuman predicament as a response to the exogenous shocks of socio-technical change, exhilarating or anxiety-provoking depending on which element we focus on in a particular moment, it becomes difficult to theorise in anything other than a reactive mode.
In parallel to the arugment we have made above about Fuller and Lipinska (2014), there are deep similarities between how a thinker like Braidotti (2019) conceptualises the post-human condition and what Savage (2009) calls the epochal theorising embodied by theorists like Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens, which were so influential within social thought in the 1990s and 2000s (Outhwaite 2009). There are profound changes underway driven by the accumulation of social, cultural, technological and environmental novelty, which generate opportunities and challenges for human beings. We are confronted with, as Braidotti (2019: 7) puts it, “a chain of theoretical, social and political effects that is more than the sum of its parts”. In her case, the posthuman is a theoretical device to sort through these changes, including overcoming the particular dualisms and other conceptual legacies that prevent us from grappling with the complexity of what we confront, as well as identifying convergences across a range of intellectual currents that are in different ways responses to them. There is an implicit admission of the limitations of empiricism at work here; a sense that we must postulate something beyond the chain of empirically identifiable changes in order to grasp the enormity of the broader transformation that is underway. In his final book, Ulrich Beck gestured towards this recognition of a meta-transformation that eludes and exceeds our characterisation of particular aspects to it:
There is no shame in admitting that we social scientists are also at a loss for words in the face of the reality which is overrunning us. The language of sociological theories (as well as that of empirical research) allows us to address the recurring patterns of social change or the exceptional occurrence of crisis, but it does not allow us even to describe, let alone to understand, the social-historical metamorphosis that the world is undergoing at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The word, concept or metaphor that I introduce in this book for this speechlessness as a distinguishing feature of the intellectual situation of the age is that of the metamorphosis of the world. (Beck, 2016: 67-68)
If we approach this text as sympathetic readers, we might hold that the gnomic quality of Beck’s language serves a purpose by delineating a trans-empirical horizon of change that is inherently difficult to discern without collapsing it into empirical manifestations of that change. In other words, it is sometimes advantageous to be a bit vague in order to convey a sense of the bigger picture. However this tone shifts as we find ourselves confronted with ‘the metamorphosis of traffic’ which is understood in terms of straight forward mechanisms such as the creation of new norms which shape consumer habits and the diffusion of technical knowledge which helps shape policy’ (Beck 2016: 172-174). The ineffable quality of metamorphosis evaporates rather rapidly when the discussion turns to traffic, inviting us to consider what work the language of metamorphosis is really doing.
In fact, it is hard not to suspect that it is actively mystifying what would otherwise be an interesting and pertinent claim. The same point can be made about ‘the metamorphosis of urban political decision making’ that incorporates “cooperation and competition; economy and environment; equality and inequality; solidarity and self-interest; localism and cosmopolitanism” in a blurring of boundaries as prophetic as it is unexplained (Beck 2016: 179). Beck’s apparent point in using this language is that “we need new ways of seeing the world, being in the world, and imagining and doing politics”, in a way that encompasses the world itself and the practices through which we come to know it (Beck 2016: 180). He frames this is in a proto-Heidegerrian manner as coping with “the permanency of a metamorphosis when nobody can say where it is heading, a metamorphosis that affects the centre and the periphery, the rich and the poor, Muslims, Christians and seculars alike, a metamorphosis that does not arise from failure, crisis or poverty but that grows and accelerates with the successes of modernization, a metamorphosis that is not halted by non-action but speeded up by” (Beck 2016: 186). However the scope of this ambition seems continually repudiated by the clunky conceptual grammar and clumsy concept work that pervades the book, as new concepts are continually introduced with little explanation as to how they were developed or the purpose they serve.
Burrows (1997) made the useful observations two decades before this final intervention from Beck that ” It is not just technology which appears to be accelerating towards meltdown, so are our cultural and sociological understandings of the world”. What he termed sociological passéification, the rendering passé of past neologisms with each successive wave of conceptual (pseudo) innovation, leaves us further way from the empirical changes we had sought to describe. Instead we see “ever more frantic attempts to provide some sort of sociological frame for a constantly moving target” (Burrows 1997: 235). It would be deeply naive if we fail to recognise the political economy of knowledge production at work here: rewards are accumulated by those who are perceived to innovate and establish frames of reference seen as current and influential (Bacevic 2019). Epochal accounts can be rewarding because they provide an overview that frames, without being tested by empirical research (Savage and Burrows 2007, Carrigan 2014). Defining a changing world by what we have left behind (post) or what we are moving towards (neo) substitutes for a fundamental lack of specificity concerning the change which is postulated to be taking place (Crouch 2011: 2).
Ontological reasoning can play a crucial role in facilitating debate by drawing out these often unspoken assumptions and specifying what is at stake when they clash. Consider, for example, Braidotti’s (2019: 129-130) presupposition that extending legal subjectivity from human to non-human actors is inherently progressive. While it’s easy to see the virtues of the examples she cites where this is extended to nature, it’s even easier to imagine examples in which this might be deeply problematic. For instance, the attribution of subjectivity to manufacturing robots could be used to insulate firms from legal challenge to the much anticipated mass redundancy driven by the roll out of automation technology (Kaplan 2015, Ford 2015). She suggests this move can help us liberate data from market actors, but it could just as readily be used as a legal device to deepen the hold of firms over the data produced through interaction with their proprietary infrastructures (Carrigan 2018). Could claims of consumer sovereignty over personal data really be sustained if the ‘data doubles’, generated through our digitalised interaction, would be granted a degree of legal autonomy? We should not forget that, as the Republican Mitt Romney put it in the 2012 presidential elections in the United States, “corporations are people too, my friend”; extending personhood to non-human entities has been established in this sense for at least a couple of hundred years, with socio-political consequences that sit uneasily with the politics espoused by Braidotti.
We could likewise imagine how the injunction towards “a kind of ontological pacifism, that is to say, that one cannot blame external circumstances alone, like the bush fire, for one’s own misfortune”, as Braidotti (2019: 135) describes it, could be leveraged towards undesirable ends. The point Braidotti makes is fundamentally an ontological one, namely that the co-production of events complicates the unilateral attribution of causation to putatively objective factors. It could easily be incorporated into a reactionary politics which stresses individual responsibility when a subject invokes the significance of external circumstances e.g. is a notion akin to ontological pacifism not at work when claims of poverty are dismissed as ‘excuses’ for criminal behavior? We shouldn’t reject Braidotti’s argument because of the uses to which it could be put but recognizing these uses gives us reason for caution in the face of the narrow reasoning which pervades her ethics. It’s not obvious that many of these claims are inherently positive in the way she seems to suggest and she doesn’t engage, or even recognize, the ambiguity latent within them. The translation of ontological observations into social life is an uncertain process, to which Braidotti’s work, as well as the broader posthumanist oeuvre, seems somewhat tone deaf. It might be that “apportioning blame” is “not only ineffectual but also unjust” but this possibility needs to be established rather than simply asserted as Braidotti (2019: 145) does.
We can see something like what Bhaskar (2010), in a deeply thoughtful critique of Richard Rorty, called a ‘free wheeling’ conception of freedom’ at work here. It fails to hook onto concrete states of affairs in the world in a manner liable to exercise an influence over them. The point is not that the cultural politics advocated by Braidotti are inherently regressive. It is rather that this style of analysis sits uneasily with the imperative to be specific about the condition under which one outcome is more likely than the other, with the a priori valorisation of conceptual decisions providing no basis to discern where those concepts might lead us later. It is a curiously self-involved approach to conceptualization, preoccupied by its own generative capacity while perversely devoid of methodological reflexivity about how and why this is being undertaken as an intellectual exercise.
This is why the recovery of ontology is so important. While Braidotti (2019) would certainly claim to be working in an ontological mode, it is striking how rarely she identifies the changing reality that drives her posthuman project as opposed to reflecting on the conceptual architecture of that project itself. There’s a curious circularity running through her work such that “the collective project of seeking a more adequate understanding of the complexity of factors that structure the posthuman subject: the new proximity to animals, the planetary dimension and the high level of technological mediation” (Braidotti 2013: 94) comes to be nearly exhausted by concept work that makes only passing reference to these changing realities.
To take an example, Braidotti (2019: 95) writes that emerging forms of materialism “are supported by and intersect with changing understandings of the conceptual structure of matter itself”. In what sense does matter have a conceptual structure? Our understanding (something epistemic) may have a conceptual structure orientated towards matter (something ontologically independent of our understanding), but matter itself does not have a conceptual structure in any easily discernable sense. Braidotti’s point is that “contemporary bio-genetics and information technologies” are leading us to understand matter in new ways (a plausible but unsupported claim) and that the resurgence of materialism as a philosophical position is consistent with it. Braidotti fails, however, to untangle the relationship between epistemology and ontology, so that a conceptual shift becomes indistinguishable from a shift in the objects being conceptualised, leaving her with a position functionally indistinguishable from the constructionism she disavows, even though it is expressed in a radically different conceptual vocabulary. It could be objected that we have seized upon an isolated example here in which the author was merely loose with language, but this conceptual laxity pervades her text. The point we’re making is less to criticize Braidotti as much as to use this work as an example, illustrating the conceptual and methodological complexity involved in addressing post-human futures.
How do we theorise post-human subjects?
What nonetheless, leaves Braidotti (2013, 2019) someone with whom to productively engage is her focus on agency and change throughout her analysis. Still, it is far from clear what the intended locus is of the putative changes she cites. At times, it seems as if it is a matter of personal adaptation to our present moment, our finding tools “to resist nihilism, escape consumerist individualism and get immunized against xenophobia” (Braidotti 2019: 19). The posthuman in this sense is a project of overturning “a set of familiar formulae, a compilation of motifs and mental habits ‘we’ had embroidered around the notion of the human” which have become exhausted and inhabit our capacity to turn the risks we confront into opportunities for change, growth and resistance (Braidotti 2019: 17). At other times, it reads as if this is a matter of adapting our conceptual tools to the changing nature of the reality we apply to them, as when Braidotti criticises contemporary leftist thought for remaining wedded to “the modernist and constructivist vision of the social space as defined essentially by anthropomorphic conflicts and resistance, vigilance and solidarity” (Braidotti 2019: 31).
We recognise Braidotti’s (2019) repeated affirmations that her work is ‘empirically grounded’ but the issue is the nature of this grounding rather than the presence of the empirical as such. There are recurrent sketches of interesting issues but these are invariably brief, as if Braidotti assumes the substance of the matter can be taken for granted and the reader would immediately prefer her to return to more abstract terrain. For example, Braidotti considers the potential value of technological innovation, describing herself as “rather technophilic” such that “I will always side firmly with the liberatory and even transgressive potential of these technologies, against those who attempt to index them to either a predictable conservative profile, or to a profit-oriented system that fosters and inflates individualism”. She describes the tendency of liberal thinkers to “panic” in the face of these changes and “blame” our technology for them (Braidotti 2013: 65) This recognition of the range of potentials inherent in technological developments leads her to stress the significance of “finding new and alternative modes of political and ethical agency for our technologically mediated world and the inertia of established mental habits on the other” (Braidotti 2013: 57). If one were to read Braidotti (2013, 2019) uncharitably, it could be suggested that the former becomes the latter, particularly in the later book. Even though she recognises there’s more to ‘political and ethical agency’ than the framing of our choices and responses to them, the conceptual structure of this framing is what she remains focused on in practice.
There’s a sense in which Braidotti (2019) is atypical of posthumanists in her affirmation that the human subject as such should not be discarded. In fact her arguments for this are the most compelling feature of her account. It could be suggested this means she is a far from indicative of posthuman thought, in so far as she offers an account of the subject, but our claim is that this is why it is so important to engage with her i.e. she theorises rather than refuses to theorise the subject. Who are Braidotti’s nomads? Consider what she describes as “the capacity of transversal subjects to detach themselves from the historically sedimented determinations of power, aims at releasing transversal lines of resistance and not integral lines of power” (Braidotti 2019: 171). That description could easily be recast in critical realist terms as a statement about the reflexive modalities of agency in Archer’s (2003, 2007, 2012) sense. It is an affirmation of the latent reflexivity, the capacity to do and be otherwise, possessed by all subjects, even if this potential remains unrealised under constraining conditions in which people live dominated lives. A critic such as King (2007) might suggest this equation misses the relationality of Braidotti’s position, but his was always a profound misreading of Archer’s work, which is relational to the core (see Donati and Archer 2015).
In this sense, Braidotti’s (2019) affirmative ethics is preoccupied with how to stress the realisablility of these capacities: affirming how interdependence helps us achieve things, recognising how negative affect can lead us to self-limit and how suffering can be an opportunity for change etc. The problem is that it primarily rhetorical, providing us with an encouraging and optimistic way to speak about these possibilities while providing little to help us understand what they are or how we might be able to bring them about. Braidotti’s affirmative ethics is a form of self-work concerned with how subjects can realise their potential under posthuman conditions. It’s surely correct to argue that subjects will need to change if it’s going to be possible to have widespread “pragmatic engagement with the present (as both actual and virtual), in order to collectively construct conditions that transform and empower our capacity to act ethically and produce social horizons of hope, or sustainable futures” (Braidotti 2019: 172). It’s surely correct to argue that a “transmutation of values” could help us embrace “generative encounters with others” which we might miss in our present condition (Braidotti 2019: 175). However Braidotti remains at a purely formal invocation that ‘if people can change, things can change’ without providing any clarity about the conditions which shape the former, the latter or the relationship between them.
Exactly what ‘transmutation of values’ is necessary to embrace which ‘generative encounters’? Braidotti is only able or willing to answer this question at such a high level of abstraction that it remains a celebration of agency’s capacity to make things otherwise, interrupting the habitual reproduction of social life and introducing new possibilities it. What Braidotti offers is at root an ethos for responding in a creative way to a world that many experience as difficult. Leaving aside the question of how this differs from the more esoteric end of productivity culture, it’s difficult to see what exactly it helps us understand about how we can realise this potential. In fact the potential itself is mythologised, as a great creative force latent within the world
For a fair appraisal of post-humanist thought, it’s crucial to recognise the use that has been made of it within empirical research. For example Lupton (2019) writes about the ‘more-than-human assemblages’ through which data comes to play a role in our lives. As she puts it, such assemblages “generate agential capacities that shape people’s embodied responses and actions, their sense of selfhood and their relationships with other people and with other things” (Lupton 2019: 98-99). This could be read as a post-humanist statement par excellence, in that it affirms a trans-human category (in the sense of an analytic category that doesn’t take the human as a starting point, as opposed to affirming transhumanism as a doctrine) and frames human characteristics as outcomes of trans-human processes e.g. their personal identity or their embodied habits. However when it comes to empirical claims, much of what Lupton (2016, 2019) is interested in is a matter of how people relate to the data that is generated by personal devices, as well as the meaning that it holds for them. Her affirmation of a ‘more-than-human’ approach is a conceptual device used to highlight the affective and meaningful orientation that users have to their use: the data matters to people (Sayer 2011). Lupton (2019: 82) stresses the empirical finding that “biographical disruptions or ruptures” play a significant role in people turning to self-tracking to help them during transitions such as milestone birthdays, having children or being diagnosed with a serious health problem. This behavior is important because a growing body of work shows that while people understand that surveillance is taking place through digital technology, they tend to be much less sure about who is doing it, how it is being conducted and how their data is being shared (Lupton 2019).
To grasp the causality of this can be a difficult undertaking, not least of all when it comes to the novelty and intimacy of smart objects (speakers, wrist bands, phones, tablets etc) which intervene in everyday life while nonetheless fading into the background. In this sense the philosophical interest in the “things themselves and how they are dependent on and connected with other things rather than solely what purpose they serve for humans” serves an obvious methodological purpose (Lupton 2019: 39). The implied focus on ‘entanglement’ can be a useful way of sensitizing ourselves to the interconnections within a emerging field site filled with unfamiliar objects of research. This is particularly useful when established concepts are unhelpfully rigid with regards to which aspects of a phenomenon they recognize. Lupton (2019: 75) observes how the dominance of the analogy of literacy serves to exclude “the interplay between the human senses and the digital sensors that work to document the body”. Her more-than-human approach helps cut through this conceptual clutter in order to sustain a focus on how people are “making sense of the information, deciding how valid or valuable it is, and what to do with these details”. The obvious retort from a critical realist perspective is that these are mundane issues of human reflexivity (Archer 2000, 2003). However simply making this observation provides no methodological support for those who are examining this capacity as embodied in novel engagements with novel objects.
Post-Human Futures: An Overview
In contrast to the self-conscious oscillation between excitement and anxiety which characterises a thinker like Braidotti (2019), the contributors to this volume adopt a much more sober approach while agreeing we cannot avoid a confrontation with the socio-technical novelty which pervades our increasingly post-human world. The reason for our extensive detour through issues of social change and epochalism in this introduction, as well as a detailed examination of Braidotti’s recent works rather than a more shallow analysis of a wider corpus of thinkers, is because the conceptual grammar with which the post-human has tended to be treated militates against the sobriety we’ve short to embody here, instead leading to breathless invocations that utopia or dystopia are on the horizon. This deprives us of many things but foremost among them is the capacity to be clear about what changes and what doesn’t. There’s a parallel here to what Taylor (2007: 22) calls a ‘subtraction story’ in which social changes are explained in terms of human beings “having lost, or sloughed off, or liberated themselves from certain earlier, confining horizons, or illusions, or limitations of knowledge”. The valence of the story varies amongst commentators on these issues, from transhumanists celebrating liberation from constraints on morphological freedom through to gloomy humanists mourning the loss of what makes us who we are, but there is a certain convergence to their poetics which can be seen beneath the surface.
In this introduction, we made a modest attempt to recover the conceptual grammar of theorizing about post-human futures in order to illustrate their complexity across a number of dimensions: the dilemmas of epochal theorizing, the risk of reproducing contemporary orthodoxy, the perennial challenge of conceptualizing the subject and its relationship to empirical research. In the chapters which follow there is far from a common orientation to these questions but there is a shared style of theorizing which is alive to their complexity, developed as an intellectual collective which has engaged in a form of what Archer (2007) describes as ‘thought and talk’ for almost a decade. We offer no final answers or definitive statements for the obvious reason that nothing can be final and definitive about these matters. But through careful conceptual engagement with the socio-technical novelty emerging around us, we have provided ontological foundations for a confrontation with the posthuman futures incipient within our present conditions.
In the opening chapter, Pierpaolo Donati explores what he calls the Digital Technological Matrix (DTM), “defined as the globalized symbolic code that governs the creation of digital technologies designed to enhance or replace human action, radically changing social identities and relationships.” Donati speculates that in a world where a DTM-environment becomes dominant, human relationality will tend to become a “a ‘mental relation’ populated by disembodied minds.” The relationality through which we become who we are will fade away as a casual force, being replaced by its spectral representation through technological means. This leaves us with the challenge of either considering humanism dead or redefining the human for our new digital environment.
A similar challenges runs though Andrea Maccarini’s chapter on being human as an option. What worries Maccarini is how in question it now is that humans have a unique ontological status that is our duty to preserve. He accordingly turns his attention to the potential of human enhancement’s transhumanizing effects to elide the normative aspects of what it means to be a human person inhabiting a human body. Should that potential be realized, then, Maccarini concludes, being – or staying – human becomes but an option. Unfortunately, the deep change of human enhancement outstrips the governing capacity of the lib/lab dialectic of freedom and control. This risks leaving us with a situation in which inequality is “engraved in personal ontology” in a way that would make “obstacles to social mobility eventually insurmountable”.
Emmanuel Lazega’s contribution explores the difference between online advice seeking from an AI and advice seeking in a collegial workplace defined by its own structural and cultural constraints on interactional and relational activity. His worry is that the “perplexity logs”, his coinage for the records of all queries an AI receives from any person / citizen, “are likely to be used for epistemic domination and algorithmic regulation in society.” In pursuing the likely consequences of this algorithmic regulation, Lazega presents us with a bleak vision of a militarily bureaucratized world characterized by an epistemic control incompatible with the core axioms of liberal democracy.
In the following chapter, Jamie Morgan analyses the potential roles that artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and such might play in social care in the future and the impacts that this may have on who we are and how we relate to each other. Technologies such as social robotics and machine learning are emerging as the pool of paid and unpaid caregivers is shrinking, creating a confluence with radical implications for the social care sector. He argues we increasingly need to ask, “what will care for us?” rather than “who will care for us?”, a transition with the potential to disrupt seemingly long settled assumptions about the semantics of care in human society.
This reflection on care continues in Ismael Al-Amoudi & Gazi Islam’s chapter on care relations between enhanced and unenhanced humans. It foresees a world in which many, though not everyone, is enhanced with powers beyond those of current humans, leading them to consider the temptations to withdraw care and solidarity under these circumstances. These influences are likely to operate reciprocally, with both groups facing influences inclining them to withdraw care from the other. Their argument, however, is that even under this hyper-modern condition of inequality, social solidarity need not be lost. There are still reasons, they argue, for enhanced and unenhanced humans to care for each other.
Our penultimate chapter from Margaret Archer takes a slightly different approach, exploring the robotic personhood that might emerge from relational interaction with a human collaborator. Building on her contributions to the previous volumes in this series, Archer argues that artificial beings can in principle attain personhood contrary to those critics who restrict this status to human beings. She makes the case that Humans and A.I. Robots can be friends, grounded in a thought experiment exploring the relational consequences of synergy when the two work together. It is offered as an optimistic scenario, rather than a prediction, but one which calls into question the orthodox assumption of what Archer calls ‘robophobia’ and takes issue with the ontological premises underpinning it.
In the final chapter Douglas Porpora speculates about post-human persons at Humanity’s End, casting his gaze much further into the future than the other contributors to the volume. He wonders whether in a million years we will have made self-conscious robots our heirs and whether self-conscious robots are likely to be the form of any extra-terrestrial intelligence we encounter. If they remain in their biological form when a million years or more ahead of us, it would give us reason to suspect that should humanity endure as long then we will as well.
This is not the final volume in this series. While it was initially intended to be the third of three, the debates it raised within our group revolved around a fundamental question: does the human being have an essence which is exclusive to our species? In these chapters we have explored the challenge of posthuman futures across a range of issues, mapping out a terrain of where these developments might be leading in the broadest sense. In the final volume we will address the philosophical question we have all continually encountered in these explorations, even if we each have different answers to it. Aiming towards a conclusion about post-human futures would be a self-defeating exercise given we are, at best, pointing towards a horizon of change and the proximate challenges we see as we orientate ourselves to it. However unless we can be clear about the human, finding a way through the thickets of discursive ambiguity we reflected on earlier in this introduction, discussions of the ‘post’ cannot meaningfully be brought to a close.
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