Cary Wolfe’s “What is Posthumanism?” – Introductory Chapter

In the introduction to Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?, his objective is to find ways to push human analysis beyond its inherent anthropocentrism. In this book, Wolfe engages the ongoing discussion of the transformation of the human, and it is through this introductory chapter that he attempts to unravel the problem of humanism, which he believes has been responsible for positioning humans as superior to other life forms and animals.He states: Humanism is a broad category of ethical philosophies that affirm the dignity and worth of all people [...] Humanists endorse universal morality based on the commonality of the human condition.

The above passage is from a Wikipedia article that Wolfe purposely includes because he wishes to point out humanism’s categorical separation between the human and the non-human, and its conception of Man as a privileged being. Wolfe ‘s goal is to point to the specific concept of the human—that grounds discrimination against nonhuman animals and the disabled in the first place. Wolfe thinks that in order to even start to think about posthumanism, we must stop placing the human at the top of a hierarchy of living animals and looking at the human as the pinnacle of perfection for all other beings to be measured against.

Wolfe cites R. L. Rutsky who states: The posthuman cannot simply be identified as a culture or age that comes ‘after’ the human [...] for the very idea of such a passage, however measured or qualified it may be, continues to rely upon a humanist narrative of historical change. This is not to say that Wolfe rejects humanism entirely, but rather that he thinks we need to move away from trying to redefine the human as we have come to understand it. Man should never have been so privileged, and should never have dictated what living beings must try to aspire to me. Unlike Hassan, Badmington, or Robert Pepperel’s take on posthumanism, Wolfe complicates the transformation of the human into posthuman and suggests that it is something more than just a new way of thinking that comes into play with the Enlightenment and Man’s wish to become a liberated subject.

He elaborates on this in the following passage: If, however, the posthuman truly involves a fundamental change or mutation in the concept of the human, this would seem to imply that history and culture cannot continue to be figured in reference to this concept. In other words, there are humanist ways of criticizing the extension of humanism that we find in transhumanism. Wolfe believes that transhumanism has been used to describe beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to no longer be unambiguously human by our current standards. Transhuman [...] is the description of those who are in the process of becoming post-human. 

This passage hits several points, the first being that transhumanism describes something so enhanced as to not be recognizably human. This suggests a higher state of being, which implies that transhumanism as an extension of “post” humanism is merely what comes next – the next generation of an already superior being. From what Wolfe has stated thus far, I can gather that he does not see posthumanism as Man’s evololution into something more. If anything, this definition is the opposite of how he sees posthumanism, for the rhetoric still suggests that Man sits atop a hierarchy.

This becomes clear further along in the introduction, as Wolfe cites Nick Bostrom in order to communicate his point: This sense of posthumanism derives directly from ideals of human perfectibility, rationality, and agency inherited from Renaissance humanism and the Enlightenment. Wolfe then states that the best-known inheritor of the ‘cyborg’ strand of posthumanism is what is now being called ‘transhumanism’—a movement that is dedicated, as the journalist and writer Joel Garreau puts it, to ‘the enhancement of human intellectual, physical, and emotional capabilities, the elimination of disease and unnecessary suffering, and the dramatic extension of life span.

From this, I can discern that for Wolfe, posthumanism is the complete opposite of transhumanism, which he sees as nothing more than an intensification of humanism. Wolfe insists that his sense of posthumanism is thus analogous to Jean-François Lyotard’s paradoxical rendering of the postmodern: it comes both before and after humanism, which implies that it is not automatically “post” – it exists alongside. Furthermore, he writes: Posthumanism in my sense isn’t posthuman at all—in the sense of being “after” our embodiment has been transcended—but is only posthumanist, in the sense that it opposes the fantasies of disembodiment and autonomy, inherited from humanism itself. 

Wolfe does not seem convinced that posthumanism should have anything to do with autonomy and superiority, as these seem to be the egotistical needs acquired from the humanist idea of mastering other species. He writes: To be truly posthumanist, the concept of subjectivity itself needs to be undermined and transformed in a way that does not privilege the human. It is only by giving up notions of personhood that speciesism can be destabilized, he argues, so that we can become posthumanists. Wolfe tries to re-imagine subjectivity as something not exclusively human in order to answer what posthumanism is. Rather than focus on what it has been historically, he imagines what it could be if anthropologically, we were no longer invested in maintaining human superiority.

Works Cited:

Wolfe, Cary. “Introduction: What is Posthumanism?” What is Posthumanism?  xi-xxxiv.


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