Facing the Posthuman

The Phenomenology and Imagination Research Group held a seminar on 24 March 2015 led by Yvonne Jones, with the title ‘Facing the Posthuman’. Developing thoughts from the previous sessions this session asked ‘How do ‘dwelling’ and ‘authenticity’ relate to the twenty first century and notions of the posthuman?’ This article provides notes drawn from the seminar and commentaries from the participants, Yonat Nitzan-Green, Bevis Fenner, Jane Bennett, Noriko Suzuki-Bosco and Cheng-Chu Weng.

Texts for the Seminar:

Yvonne Jones
: Having circulated the texts and looking to focus on Conversation as Methodology the session opened with a short introduction explaining my journey and how I have reached my current position in terms of the posthuman. The distinction between a literal posthuman envisaged by Moravec and the subject posthuman proposed by Katherine Hayles was made. Picking up on Patti’s session and Bevis’s session I wanted to open the questions of how dwelling and authenticity have meaning in our time when we are faced with the possibility of the coming into existence of literal posthumans. Many challenging questions and thoughts were voiced.

Theorists refernced were Foucault, Tim Ingold, Lacan, Heidegger and Bachelard amongst others. Their ideas were compared and contrasted with group members bringing their specialist knowledge. Bevis pointed out how we are often too busy to notice our senses and also how they have been hijacked by consumerism and society at large and used for ends other than direct sensation of our body and environment. Yonat raised the question, exactly what is the connection today between the senses and humanity? And that technology is changing us into something else even now. She put dialogue as an important element of being human, the breaking down of barriers and isolation. Noriko spoke of knowledge through experience (of making, and doing). Dwelling was tracked backwards to consider the womb as the ‘first shelter’ and the body as the ‘first shelter’.

The authentic self was considered in terms of existential authenticity considering Heidegger’s idea of the present already being the past. This led to discussion of consciousness and my interest in the recent development of the notion that consciousness may yet prove to be another externally existing energy that is of itself, as magnetism is (David Chalmers). Without debate, without deconstructing of both the theoretical and material realities and possibilities of our human pathway, it is possible we could slip into a literal posthuman future where human qualities are not of value, where ( to use the four characteristics used by Hayle) information takes precedence over instantiation, where the upstart consciousness is dismantled, where the body (the first prothesis0 is side lined for a machine and where humans are seamlessly joined to intelligent machines. Whether that is the headless body to an intelligent machine or a bodiless head to an intelligent machine is anyone’s guess.

The session opened up a sense of hope, optimism and movement that was a new insight (for me), based on sense that there is a ground swell being presented in society from the younger generation, one of promoting human attributes; the knowledge through making, through doing, spoken of by Noriko, the authenticity searched for though airb&b spoken of by Bevis. This move may be a natural backlash to the pervading indirect relating between people and to gaining information (through technology).

The discussion in the session repeatedly came back to the body and its value, the positive value of humanness. The group is functioning in a way that crosses boundaries, and opens new insights, bringing differing knowledge bases together. It is rewarding and enriching.

Noriko Suzuki-Bosco: 
I don’t know much about the debates around the idea of post-human and the thought of something beyond being human alarms me. I think I am not ready to let go of being human – both in mind and in body.

In the first chapter of his book, Making (2012), Tim Ingold describes how frustrated he felt in his early fieldwork days when his more experienced companions only told him to ‘know for yourself!’. He recalls how he initially thought they were simply being unhelpful or unwilling to share what they knew perfectly well. He realizes though that quite to the contrary, they wanted him to understand that the only way one can really know things – that is, from the very inside of ones being – is through a process of self-discovery. ‘To know things you have to grow into them, and let them grow in you, so that they become a part of who you are.’ (Ingold 2012, p.1)

Ingold terms the process of acquiring knowledge through practical and observational engagements ‘an art of inquiry’. In the art of inquiry, the conduct of thought goes along with, and continually answers to, the various materials with which you work. The process is very different from the experiments in natural science where you work from a hypothesis or conflicting ideas. In the art of inquiry, you try things and see what happens. Ingold points out that ‘the art of inquiry moves forward in real time, along with the lives of those who are touched by it, and with the world to which both it and they belong.’(Ingold 2012, p.7). We learn more and more about the world as we proceed and learn how to better correspond with it.

To be able to correspond and to have empathetic insights (for others) are abilities that I understand to be humane. They are not something that can be acquired over night nor can they be ‘taught’ using a textbook. In order to empathise with others, one has to be able to use their imagination and approximation, alter the self, if need be, and use it as the basis for communication and understanding across various differences. I think these qualities are vital for people to co-exist in this world.

If the world is heading toward a post-human world regardless, I just hope that the fundamental ability to be humane, the imagination and the approximation, the empathetic insights that allow us to connect with others, still exist.

Yonat Nitzan-Green: The following notes have been taken from a preparation text where I focused on the concept of existential authenticity as it is discussed in Carol J. Steiner and Yvette Reisinger ‘Understanding Existential Authenticity’; Yvonne’s presentation text; and the session.

Steiner and Reisinger looked at the concept of authenticity in the context of tourism; and in relation to Heidegger’s ‘existential authenticity’. They believe that the tourist industry provides opportunities to study and produce understandings for authenticity as a true ‘self’ (in distinction from authenticity as a real event or object). Heidegger developed the idea that there is no permanent ‘self’. The Dasein ‘is neither a lived body nor a subject … but a discrete and unique existential (human) being … exists as the essential manifestation of each individual involved with its world.’ Dwelling, according to Heidegger is ‘the intimate relationship between each Dasein and its world which mutually determines, limits and obligates each and both.’ (Both quotations are from Carol J. Steiner and Yvette Reisinger ‘Understanding Existential Authenticity’).

Yvonne asks ‘what … is an authentic dwelling place (house, home, original shell)?’ and ‘what is a self, authentic body in the twenty-first century?’ She considers the body as the first dwelling place, building on Bachelard’s thought. However, while Bachelard considers the house as the ‘non-I that protects the I’ (Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 1994, p.5). Yvonne suggests ‘the corporeal body as the first house, the dwelling place, “the original shell”’. The artist and psychoanalyst Bracha Ettinger (The Matrixial Borderspace, 2006) theorized the womb as a primal space. This may be helpful to Yvonne’s research.

Yvonne describes Moravec’s vision for ‘a huge central computer from where we will … obtain all our information and experiences.’ Moravec’s concept of the ‘literal posthuman’, as I understand it, is not metaphorical but actual possibility where machine – robot will replace the human being. One idea that Moravec explores is that there is no future for the senses. Yvonne could not imagine life without senses. This led to look at and discuss the question how the senses connect to humanity. Yvonne talked about her works and research, explaining how her personal medical experience has led to her interest in the posthuman.

She found herself being positioned as a medical object, however, by initiating dialogue with the medical staff through speech and documentation she shifted her position and became a medical subject, thus empowering her authenticity in this authentic moment (‘experience’). The process of authenticity continued in the making of the art work where the artist keeps develop her understanding (what’s been done to her body/self). This unique understanding designates her as an authentic subject.

Cheng-Chu Weng: From Yvonne’s practices could see the sense of be-in-the-world. She putted the experiences of surgery in a ‘poetic’ way. The doctor is not a doctor anymore; the patient is not a patient anymore. What is the boundary between the seesaw?

I am impressed that Yvonne expose herself in front of the viewer. It not only presents the situations of her body/fresh, but also questioning what the relationship between the knowledge of medical and humankind. The curiosity of the inside of the human fresh presented in the painting could be seen started from the late 15th Century art, for instance, Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564)’s De humani corporis Fabrica (c.1543). Although in nowadays, the structure of the human body has been researched, the relationship between the body and spirit still is a paradox. The news (Surgeon Plans First Human Head Transplant, reported by SKY NEWS) does bring out the idea of individual fresh. This evokes the relationship between a human body and technology. I believe modern are embody with technology, especially the net work. Dr Hubert Dreyfus is an exporter of critic cyberspace in Merleau-Ponty’s theory (see Youtube video below). From my understanding of his evoke is the body/ brain as a network, fresh is embody with a computer. On the other hand, the news present the physical body rejected the artificial organ.

I am agreeing with Yvonne’s view that making practice is the process of finding yourself. Yvonne presents the method of ‘seeing’ inside and outside of her body. This may stronger than the target of feminist artists archived around 1970s, they overthrow the male gaze. For Yvonne, what are existing and humankind is important than the gender issue, as Pendergrast, M. quoted Balthazar Gracian in Mirror-A History of the Human Love Affair with Reflection (Pendergrast, 2003: 131):

He who cannot see himself might as well not exist.

Although Gracian’s idea is providing the idea of death equal not able to seeing owns reflection, it may worth to twist the verb of the see. See, could be the phenomenon of sugary experience in Yvonne’s research. The phenomenon of this seminar also could get the sense of existing, this created by the relationship of sharing and trusting.


Jane Bennett: The fear that our human bodies will be replaced by machines goes back as far as the automata of the 1st century AD with the Greek myth of Talos and the automata built by Hero(n) of Alexandria. (Somewhat ironic in the light of this discussion – Heron took mathematics towards the practical experiment rather than the deductive and abstract.)

In “A Cyborg Manifesto”, written in the 1980s, Donna Haraway examined the way in which distinctions between the natural organism and the machine were becoming ambiguous. Using the concept of the cyborg, she weighs the arguments for and against the move towards cybernetic organisms and the politics behind their creation.

“By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it give us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. In the traditions of ‘western’ science and politics – the tradition of racist, male-dominant capitalism; the tradition of progress; the tradition of the appropriation of nature as resource for the productions of culture; the organism and machine has been a border war. The stakes in the border war have been the territories of production, reproduction, and imagination. This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.” (Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women – The Reinvention of Nature, Free Association Books, 1991, p150.)

She elaborates on the boundaries between human and animal, between human/animal (organism) and machine, and between physical and non-physical, proposing how the cyborg world could be either one of extreme control or one that celebrates partial identities. Whilst this was abstract imagining based on current science, we seem to be closer now to the possibilities she imagined and I wonder if this tempers our feelings about these possibilities. The focus of our discussions has been on the bodily experience of this scientific intervention and how it actually feels (physically and emotionally) to the subject, which gives a totally different perspective to Haraway’s story.

Yesterday, I was reminded how contingent our human bodies are when my family was plunged into a set of circumstances that highlighted its frailty in a different number of ways: the elderly body that is no longer able to support itself, a diseased body that is destroying itself from within and a broken body that brings to a halt all normal activity. When our bodies are subject to an overwhelming barrage of ‘senses’ – pain, mechanical failure – would we view the idea of a cybernetic body somewhat differently? The day previously, I saw the stunning paintings of Marlene Dumas and Richard Diebenkorn. These two painters are embedded in totally oppositional subject matters – the human and the abstract – but what their work had in common in their application of paint was the compelling evidence of human touch.

Bevis Fenner: Yvonne led a really interesting seminar, which expanded upon the explorations of dwelling and existential authenticity in the previous two sessions. The seminar centred around both the notion of the post-human (Moravec, 1997) and a news story about a surgeon planning to carry out the first human head transplant. In the case of the latter, the possiblity of such a thing encourages us to consider the relationship between the body and its senses and the cognition of subjective experience by the mind. Yet, where does the spirit fit into to these Cartesian relations? Yvonne asked us to consider several interesting questions relating to the news story:

Is it head transplant or body transplant?

Is the result an authentic person, self, body?

Does the new body dwell in the head, or the new head dwell in the body?

All of these questions prompt us to how notions of an authentic self relate to lived sensory experience or how we live through our bodies. Yet our sensory experience is once removed by the time we know it in a subjective sense. However, whatever the time delay in, for example, processing light and colour into subjective experience, as Noriko suggests, knowing is a ‘lived in’ process of doing, sensing, making; we cannot understand our bodies until we have used them. In Hedeggerian terms, an embodied authenticity of being or Dasein, comes from knowing the body not as present-at-hand – a theoretical object of the subject in which any body is an interchangeable tool for the head – but as ready to hand or that which is already known. Noriko points us in the direction of Tim Ingold who suggests that ‘[t]o know things you have to grow into them, and let them grow in you, so that they become a part of who you are’ (Ingold, 2012: 1). And it is this idea of the authentic self coming from ‘lived-in’ relations to the corporeal world that brings us back to the concept of dwelling (Heidegger, 1962; Pons, 2003). Indeed, one of the most powerful aspects of Yvonne’s work was her conscious mediation of the subject / object relationship as disseminated by the medical profession. As Foucault the body and its ailments become clinical objects of medical subjects. The relationship between medical subjects and objects become habitual and so the human is betrayed to the disease:

Doctor and patient are caught up in an ever-greater proximity, bound together, the doctor by an ever-more attentive, more insistent, more penetrating gaze, the patient by all the silent, irreplaceable qualities that, in him, betray—that is, reveal and conceal—the clearly ordered forms of the disease (Foucault, 1963)

Yet, for Yvonne, the process of engaging the physician in a dialogue enabled a mediation of the clinical process in which medical subject and object cease to be as a reflexive awareness breaks the habitual bond of this symbiosis. The surgeon becomes aware of the human inside the body and the experience of being-in-the-world is shared by both parties. In reclaiming their senses from the habitual zone of the operating theatre, both doctor and patient allow their bodies to shelter Being. In a literal sense this process re-humanises the post-human body or the body in which all sensory experience is redundant. I would like to suggest that this mediation, this reflexive process of negating ontological authenticity, whilst appearing individualistic – in not letting the ‘my self’ – is in fact a crucial part of being human through sharing what it means to be human; empathising and allowing others to empathise. Noriko has the last word:

In order to empathise with others, one has to be able to use their imagination and approximation, alter the self, if need be, and use it as the basis for communication and understanding across various differences. I think these qualities are vital for people to co-exist in this world (Suzuki-Bosco, 2015).