Upon leaving Martin Patrick’s masterclass on posthumanism, I couldn’t help but shed a smile as I realised the most salient theme that had been procured from the morning was that chairs have feelings too. While there is some basic truth in this sentiment, it seems to be an erroneous oversimplification of what it means to apply and reside within posthuman thought. I’m always sceptical when someone rants enthusiastically about how inanimate objects (chairs) and humans are of equivalent value, one and the same; to me this conversation reeks of ‘neo-transcendentalism’. I appreciate the intent on subverting human-centric hierarchies and reimagining what it means to exist as ontologically human in the world, though in my experience this tends to promote blatantly disregarding differences (even refusing their existence) instead of examining their latent and interrelational significance. It is all too easy to avoid a potentially engaging and beneficial discourse by simply stating that ‘we are all one’ when we live in a glaringly anthropocentric epoch. By acknowledging this seemingly contradictive predicament, one may approach posthumanism while retaining an essence of the human.
A recurring observation shared between those present was that of the posthuman as purely ‘sci-fi’ or embodying a post-apocalyptic aesthetic – cyborgs, bionic enhancements and holographic avatars selling fake dreams in the streets of an overtly futuristic metropolis spring to mind. Personally I see this aligning more with the ideals of transhumanism; concerned with augmentation of the human body in order to eliminate defects such as aging and disease as well as improving intellectual, physical and psychological capacities. This lust for control over our evolution and the speed at which it develops could be seen as perhaps a more radical form of posthumanism. Posthumanism seems to be (from my obviously extensive knowledge of the subject entailing this masterclass and various readings) a movement within numerous fields which seeks to examine and expand concepts of identity by refusing a narrative of singularity and recontextualizing the definition of being human through reinterpreting traditional ideas pertaining to the human condition. It seems that to ‘be’ posthuman is to detach oneself from a restrictively human perspective, adopting a more malleable nature of individual thought manifest through disparate yet entangled identities. This exploration of multiple viewpoints beyond a personal and ideological identity as a member of the human race offers more questions than answers, providing fertile soils and an exciting avenue for artists to traverse.
A particular article on the extensive reading list, entitled Toward a Posthumanist Education, resonated with me as it eloquently interrogated a number of issues that I have been discovering through my experience as a teacher over the past 5 years. We often forget the deeply rooted influence of the technological and ‘nonhuman’ within schools, a space where humans supposedly gather to learn and discover what it means to be or become human. This interconnectedness with interior school space and exterior world spaces can be observed in the networks of wire and pipe linking the buildings’ architecture to the subterranean infrastructures of cities and beyond that to the swirls of the oceans and global deposits of prehistoric dead organisms waiting to be mined and refined. There has been a tendency towards anthropocentricism within education, placing us at the centre of the universe and conversation, which neglects aspects of posthumanistic thought and prevents true growth in mind, body and spirit from occurring. The school as a metaphorical machine is a heated discussion that tends to be brought up at Christmas when Uncle Gavin has consumed too much brandy. Though just as can be seen in the apparatus that is capitalism, there might be some semblance of truth within the ramblings of such a self-proclaimed conspiracy theorist.
“Posthumanists argue that we have never been separate from machines and that notions of ‘humanness’ could not be produced without machines (Pettman, 2011). We have always been technological. If you are a wounded war veteran from America’s latest wars then you have become part of a war machine2 that disassembled the subject, reshaped you, and sent you out to do battle in an efficient, disciplined, unrelenting, uncaring manner (Protevi, 2009). This is the kind of machine Foucault and others have called the dispositif or apparatus. When in battle you lose an arm or leg or both, you become a different machine. You become part of the hero industry, where military personnel lose their individuality, soul, and body parts, but receive cheap platitudes. After the parades, flag waving, and car magnets disappear from sight, the hero is put back together as a cyborg. You might receive a prosthetic arm that allows you to feel again or a prosthetic limb that allows you to run again (Haraway, 1985/1991; Wills, 1995). Because you are now (part) machine, you can live a life you dreamt up before you went to war. Assuming of course, that you will overcome or learn to cope with your psychological wounds. There is a neuro-pharmacological machine to help you with PTSD, too.”
While it is possible to interpret this posthuman condition as resembling that of a dystopic nightmare, it is important to remember and celebrate the blurred boundary shared between the natural and the artificial in allowing us to redefine preconceived notions of humanness. Is this ‘humanness’ a quality or attribute that one attains, or something that one becomes? Through schooling systems, our future is taught how to behave, what to expect and what to desire. They are bred and raised for the sole purpose of becoming something that we are yet unable to define, only existing as an ideal. I can’t help but think that in this process of refinement that leads one towards ‘becoming human’, we might in fact be slowly discarding that which makes us human in the first place. Is being human really as simply as a set of prerequisite traits that one must have in order to function in human society? This ‘checklist’ approach is dangerous as it can allow for those in positions of power to justify grafting desirable characteristics onto others, allowing them to dictate identities and see certain people as ‘less-than-human’. After all, this very thought process was responsible for the massacre of (and rationale behind) numerous indigenous cultures. Surely a reassessment of the predominant education system’s humanist nature would allow for change to occur, expanding and maturing ideas of a flat ontology. By reframing education to emphasise our existing relationships with animals and machines not as others or objects from a purely human point of view, but as things thinging, new posthumanist directions in research and pedagogical practice may be explored.