Posthumanism, Transhumanism and Butler’s Humanism

Here above is a helpful short post which defines the two fields of thought: Posthumanism and Transhumanism.

Posthumanism is a term I have been using a lot in casual conversation. Now that I’ve looked it up to flesh out this blog post, I’m finding my definition was awfully limited. Apparently there’s up to seven definitions of the term (according to Wikipedia), but the one I’m focusing on is illuminated here, meaning:

“Most simply, the posthuman can be defined as that condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined.  More specifically, the posthuman is a projected state of humanity in which unlocking of the information patterns that those who believe in the posthuman say make us what we are—will shift the focus of humanness from our outward appearance to those information patterns.” (LaGrandeur, 2014).

This seems like a significant tie-in with regards to disrupting the primacy of the regime of the visual. If humanness can be attributed to something ethereal and cerebral rather than visual, external or physical, then our definition of what “human” can mean expands. If instead we accept the primacy of visual, the form of our appearence, if we equate it with something essential to being “human,” what we get instead might look like Transhumanism, defined in the same post as:

“The transhuman is the project of modifying the human species via any kind of emerging science, including genetic engineering, digital technology, and bioengineering.  Transhumanists already use implants to modify their body and seek to also modify human longevity, brain power, and senses.  The focus is on using prosthetics and other modifications to enhance, rather than compensate for, normal human functions.” (La Grandeur, 2014).

This is not dissimilar to the ways humans often transcend typical human abilities in Butler’s fiction, although Butler and her characters would hesitate to call these gains.  The Oankali give Lilith strength, healing and the ability to open doors when she is training the awoken humans. The virus in Clay’s Arc grants the infected with superhuman strength and heightened senses. The humans on the reservation in Bloodchild live longer and healthier when they consume the unfertilized eggs. In each case of Butler’s fiction, the humans poised to make these gains don’t fail to recognize the cost, the loss of their original state of humanity, that is part of the trade. And as we’ve learned throughout these texts, a trade is not necessarily an equally consensual or mutual exchange.

I am interested in introducing these concepts because they seems like the most solid bridge between the traditionally science-fictional elements of Butler’s fiction and our own lives. Of course, the texts are rich enough that Butler’s characters have much to teach us about humanity and human behaviors although they are themselves “alien.” (And truly, how alien is a being produced in a human’s imagination, anyway?) We already exist in an increasingly Posthumanist and Transhumanist world. The basic example is the supercomputer that nearly everyone carries around in their pockets. Referencing Noboru Kawazoe, the Japanese Metabolist and Futurist writing around 1960, his vision of this future world could be seen more as a post-individual world:

After several decades, with the rapid progress of communication technology, everyone will have a “brain wave receiver” in his ear, which conveys directly and exactly what other people think about him and vice versa. What I think will be known by all the people. There is no more individual consciousness, only the will of mankind as a whole.” (Lin, Zhongjie (2010). Kenzo Tange and the Metabolist Movement: Urban Utopias of Modern Japan. Routledge. pp. 35–36)

Interestingly, Transhumanist thought holds that technology will be used to augment and improve upon the basic limitations of humanity. It could be said that with the internet age and the immediate access to information that we all now live with, we have already done that. What Kawazoe suggests in this above quote is that such inter-connected information would result in the cooking-down of humanity into one super-consciousness stew. Keeping with course themes, the gains of information our phones grant us comes at a cost, regardless if we recognize it yet, or if it reflects this albeit dated prediction.

How have our steps into a post-human or trans-human future impacted our humanity? How might this work with Butler’s fiction, and the way her characters often have to grapple with what percent of their humanity remains? Is Butler in a way writing Transhumanist or Posthumanist fiction? Her fiction is populated by once-human characters endowed with increased lifespan, physical strength, mental control, etc. The most Human actions are consistently the cause for humanity’s extinction in Butler’s text. For example, although the virus was distinctly un-human in Clay’s Arc, the virus is ultimately spread by Blake, who made himself available to do so in pursuit of finding human treatment for an alien virus. That human stubbornness cost humanity the world. Likewise, we don’t have to do much imagining to accept that humanity nearly extinguished itself before Lilith’s Brood – we live with the threat of nuclear annihilation every day.

This article’s definitions, presented in an attempt to clarify the difference between two futures with humans in their pasts, makes one significant distinction: that Posthumanism is a future state in which the “information patterns” which make us human will replace outward appearance or physicality in defining what is human. There’s an obvious corollary to Lilith’s Brood, where Akin, as a human-Oankali hybrid child, must learn as much about his human half as he can to strengthen it against his stronger Oankali genes and instincts. Although his physical appearance remains notably different from standard humans, the task he and those who will come after him face is maintaining what intellectual, social, cultural materials are in fact human, and using these materials positively. Here we see an intriguing crossroads of both Posthumanism and Transhumanism: the thought patterns which denote humanity are still valued significant to preserve, in spite of the character’s physical abilities which transcend the typical human limitations.


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