Who/What is Posthuman?

The first book on my reading list is Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. She sums up the concerns of her book by describing how her research resolved itself into three categories:

  1. how information lost its body
  2. how the cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon
  3. how the historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman.

Intersecting these three categories is the overarching project of rescuing embodiment in cybernetics and the posthuman paradigm.

What is the posthuman? According to Hayles it is a point of view that a) privileges informational pattern over material instantiation (biological body); b) considers consciousness as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow; c) thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born; d) configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines. She adds that the posthuman signals a shift in assumptions about subjectivity, what it means to be an individual.

Hayles quotes C.B. MacPherson on possessive individualism and the defining of the liberal humanist subject:

“Its possessive quality is found in its conception of the individual as essentially the proprietor of his own person or capacities, owing nothing to society for them… The human essence is freedom from the wills of others, and freedom is a function of possession.” (The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke, 1962.)

As Hayles explains, the notion of “owing nothing to society for one’s own person or capacities” is derived from the arguments Hobbes and Locke developed of humans in “a state of nature”, predating market relations. However, this constructed “state of nature” is itself a product of market society, deeply embedded in the figure of the liberal humanist subject, as MacPherson later points out. One could also consider the idea of “owing nothing to society” in light of our present historical moment. Identity is deeply influenced by the legion media of our society.

Hayles suggests that the paradox MacPherson describes is confirmed and resolved in the figure of the posthuman subject:

The posthuman subject is an amalgam, a collection of heterogenous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction. Consider the six-million dollar man, a paradigmatic citizen of the posthuman regime. As his name implies, the parts of the self are indeed owned, but they are owned precisely because they were purchased, not because ownership is a natural condition preexisting market relations. (3)

Hayles’ example confirms that the “state of nature” as described by Hobbes and Locke cannot be a universal property used to prove an inherent human self-possession. She adds:

Similarly, the presumption that there is an agency, desire, or will belonging to the self and clearly distinguished from the “wills of others” is undercut in the posthuman, for the posthuman’s collective heterogenous quality implies a distributed cognition located in disparate parts that may be in only tenuous communication with one another. We have only to recall Robocop’s memory flashes that interfere with his programmed directives to understand how the distributed cognition of the posthuman complicates individual agency. If “human essence is freedom from the wills of others,” the posthuman is “post” not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an other-will. (3-4)

What this all boils down to, Hayles suggests, is that the posthuman subject, in replacing the liberal humanist subject, “does away” with the “natural” self. When I read this it brought to mind an exercise I did last year in contrasting Emerson’s “nature” with Neil Postman’s “technology”. In the essay I suggested that each one represented a different configuration of subjectivity: the nature-self and the technology-self. I began by implying how, decontextualized, the two could be interpreted as ideologies at either end of the spectrum, and then determining that the two were not in fact diametrically opposed.

Click here to read exercise

My question at this point is, by ending the “natural self”, according to Hayles would the posthuman subject represent a “technology-self”? And if so, having already argued that the latter does not necessarily follow from the former, I ask does that mean Hayles is referencing something different in the “natural self” than Emerson is in what I’ve described as the “nature-self”? Both seem to derive from similar sources, that is, the liberal humanist project.

While I agree with everything she says regarding subjectivity in the posthuman, I can’t help but think she’s overstepping. Is the liberal humanist subject really replaced by the posthuman subject, or merely reconfigured by it, merged with a new set of characteristics? Is the “natural self” truly “done away” with, or is it instead challenged and complicated by a multiplicity of “technology-selves”?


Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature and Selected Essays. New York: Penguin Books, 2003

Postman, Neil. Technopoly. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.

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