Posthumanism, platform ontologies and the ‘wounds of modern subjectivity’

EPAT Editorial May 2019

In the short history of human physical and cultural evolution Homo sapiens as a distinct species of hominids or the great apes, a mere 1.3–1.8 million years ago, the modern human line has been distinguished by three adaptations: its bipedalism (ability to stand and walk on two feet); its lan- guage ability; and its ability to make and use tools. In terms of evolution, the process of separation from nature took much longer: primates diverged from mammals about 85 million year ago; apes diverged from Gibbons about 14 million years ago; and the Hominini tribes (including humans and chimps) diverged from the Gorillini tribe (gorillas) about 8 million years ago.

Homo (the genus) sapiens (the species) belongs to the Animalia Kingdom (moves and ingests food), Chordata (spinal chord) Phylum, Mammialia Class (warm blooded, female milk, hair), Primata Order (larger brain, stereoscoptic vision, flexible digits and complex sociality). ‘Hominids’ applies to all African apes and humans and ‘Homininis’ applies to human and all extinct ances- tors, including Australopithecus, Homo habilis, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. Our brains are distinguished from chimps by being larger with well-developed frontal lobes and language areas. The capacity for language proved critical for evolution of human culture. Only recently have neuroscientists discovered a gene mutation called Foxp2 that allegedly arose half a million years ago that is one of the keys to producing and understanding speech (Nudel & Newbury 2013).

The story of fossil and DNA records of the evolution of Homo sapiens provides a useful coun- ter to fanciful narratives that cast science aside. Richard Twine (2010) reads our genomic natures read through posthumanisms:

I argue that genomics frames ‘nature’ ambivalently in ways that are both faithful to and undermining of Enlightenment understandings of nature. New biotechnological innovations and their associated imaginaries have become the scene for much speculation on the ontological status of the ‘human’. Genomics is paradoxical for the human (and humanism) since on the one hand the human genome project pro- fessed to reveal the ‘human’, but, simultaneously, prior assumptions about a notion of human nature appear increasingly fragile in the face of genomic visions of human ‘enhancement’ (p. 175).

The fact is that there were some five to six species of humans existing simultaneously. Paul Rincon (2019) science editor for the BBC reported on a new addition to the family tree with the discovery of Homo luzonensis in the Philippines with a mixture of physical features found in ancient human ancestors and more recent people.1 Homo floresiensis was discovered in 2004 as a diminutive species that survived on the island of Flores some 50,000 years ago. Now on the island of Luzon, some 3000 miles away another find of astonishing proportions. The Nature video makes the following set of observations:

Scientists have found a few bones and seven teeth belonging to a previously unknown species of human. They’ve named the new species Homo luzonensis, after the island of Luzon in the Philippines where it was found. The bones are tiny, suggesting that Homo luzonensis was under 4 feet tall. That would make it the second species of diminutive human to be found in south-east Asia; in 2007 scientists announced the discovery of Homo floresiensis, found on the island of Flores in Indonesia and nicknamed the hobbit. Both species lived around 50,000 years ago, at a time when Asia was also home to our species, the Neanderthals and a group called the Denisovans. The new species raises many questions, including who were its ancestors and how did it move?2

Rincon (2019) borrows a chart from the Smithsonian to demonstrate the place where Homo luzonensis sits in human evolution. The chart shows also there are substantial overlaps among some five to six species some of whom intermarried and are part of our gene pool.

Richard Twine (2010) captures what is at stake when he claims ‘humanism as a reduction of value and agency to the “human”, a curiously centred and bounded category that has elevated

itself by contrast to the “animal” and drawn upon ideas of animality to essentialize human differ- ence.’ He makes the case that humanism reduced the ‘human’ to value, a theological and philo- sophical reduction that created a separate and bounded category that depended for its discreteness on the contrast with ‘animal’ and ‘ideas of animality to essentialize human differ- ence.’ As a form of critical posthumanism, Twine asserts the human is ‘neither an essence nor an end, but a continuous and precarious process of becoming human.’

In this content, Twine (2010) writes of the ‘assimilation of “archaic” humans into the modern human genome’ so that we cannot insist that there is a homogenous ‘modern human genome.’ And he adds significantly, ‘Genomic research around the “pre-human” has the capacity to unfold significant posthumanist decentrings.’

We see the possibility of a rather contingent, contested, multiple and arbitrary ‘human’; one that emerged out of other species and sub-species and one whose genetic diversity has been impacted upon at various points of socio-natural population pressure. Whilst genomics inspired human evolutionary research shares with the Darwinian rupture a placing of the ‘human’ alongside other species it also acts to further decentre an understanding of a ‘human nature’; now better under- stood as something both pointedly historically situated and unstable (p. 178).

He interprets ‘antihumanism as ontological projects against human essence and the notion of the autonomous human subject’ and indicates a strand of argument that first disputes ‘pure’ human origins in face of hybridity demonstrated by the results of human evolution and then advances critical posthumanism on grounds that negate pure ontology:

both transhumanist and critical posthumanist strands of thought point to nature/culture hybridity, yet with the former conceiving of this as a relatively recent technologically mediated development, and the latter wanting to engage in an ontological politics which says “we have always been hybrid’.

Work on human evolution, microbial genomes and genomic interaction intersects with accounts of human/ nature inter-relationship, questioning the purity of the ‘human’ and the separability of ‘nature’.

it may be that a critical posthumanism, which labours to dispute both ontological purity and anthropocentrism, signposts the vital conceptual shifts for rethinking the social and political complexities of interspecies relationality.

In one sense, the complicated history of humanism is a history of the enthronement of the subject from the geo-centrism of the pre-Copernican era to its apotheosis in Renaissance peda- gogy and later Enlightenment humanism based on the freedom and autonomy that graced the knowing and political subject, characteristic of Cartesian-Kantian philosophy, that prevailed well into the twentieth century and that stills forms the backbone of liberal institutions of law and education. We might acknowledge the prehistory of the human subject until the Florentine Renaissance with its pedagogical transformation of character, followed by various forms of Enlightenment humanism characterized as the beginning of modern philosophy with Descartes and Kant. Nietzsche, the early Marx and Heidegger (who acknowledges both Nietzsche and Marx) were devoted to the search for true essence of ‘Man’ and thereafter began in earnest the deconstruction of the subject and the ideological nature of humanism. Structuralism decentred the subject in a semiotic system emphasizing language as part of the movement of European formalism; various forms of poststructuralism, feminism and pragmatism emphasized the embod- ied, gendered at the intersection of historical and cultural forces that ‘manufactured’ subjectivity. Derrida (2006) in Spectres of Marx hypothesizes the three major intellectual revolutions that have de-centered the ego and deconstructed the isolated individualist subject-centred reason.

He returns to Freud’s concept of the ‘three traumas’ inflicted on human narcissism that continue to haunt modern subjectivity:

  1. the cosmological trauma – the Copernican subject no longer stands at the centre of the universe;
  2. the biological trauma – the Darwinian subject is no longer at the apex of evolution;
  3. the psychological trauma – the Freudian subject possesses an unconscious and is no longer master even of himself.

As Jorge Alberto Perez (2015) puts it in his curation of a group show presenting works by Anne Berry, Teresa LoJacono, and R. Hardwick Weston:

For Derrida, Marxism not only completes the dismantling of anthropocentrism, but combines all three traumas to deal a final blow to human narcissism.3

To these ‘wounds’ of modern subjectivity we might also hypothesize both backward and for- ward, identifying traumas that not only bring us closer to nature and the animal kingdom but also perhaps less distanced and more integrated with first and second (technological) nature. The emergence of the wisdom traditions is based on a concept of human nature develops at the intersection of ethics and metaphysics during the so-called ‘axial age’ (Jaspers) approximately 800 BCE to 200 BCE. We might christen this the ‘cultural trauma’ associated with the birth of subjectivity through insight and reason concerning with suffering and its alleviation. The fifth trauma we can posit as eco-technological that embraces both the age and realization of the Anthropocene and the apocalyptic vision of planet Earth, as well as ‘the age of machines,’ our increasing cyborg nature and our open ontological status as ‘digital beings’—as members col- lectively of large semiotic ‘big data’ systems driven by algorithms.

This explosive element is not merely a blow to human narcissism it is also a kind of redemp- tion in that it returns us to Nature through the lens of large technological systems that may or may not rescue us from cosmological and ecological life cycles. Much of Derrida’s (2008) later work especially The Animal That Therefore I Am can be interpreted as an attempt to heal the rup- ture that took place with Descartes’ distinction between ‘man’ as a thinking animal and every other living species. The new ecology therefore also incorporates a greater sensitivity to our ani- mality, what we share with other animals and the ways in which notions of animality underlie theological and ideological constructions of concepts of civilization and nature, human and ani- mal, and, culture and learning.

Humanism, strictly speaking applies to Renaissance pedagogy that developed in northern Italy during the 13th century. Yet as Heidegger (1946/1998) points out in his ‘Letter on Humanism’, the first humanism was Roman based on the emulation of Greek ideals. If we accept that humanism is a philosophical doctrine that places the highest ethical value on human beings and their agential status then we can stretch the concept back in time well before the Romans to emphasize a prehistory that observes the development of a naturalistic metaphysics, a growing faith in reason and science, a denial of our animal nature, and a growing confidence in the indi- vidual as the fount of all knowledge, morality and action. Heidegger critiques philosophical humanism that characterizes Western metaphysics as a systematic misinterpretation of Being to contrast this tradition with his interpretation of the truth of Being as Da-sein. Heidegger is con- cerned to provide an account of Being that lies in its essence: ‘For this is humanism: meditating and caring, that man be human and not inhumane, “inhuman”, that is, outside his essence. But in what does the humanity of man consist? It lies in his essence,’ (p. 86).4

While Heidegger provides a trenchant critique of Western metaphysics based on philosophical humanism his search for an essence in Da-sein has the effect of deepening humanism. Various lines out of Heidegger especially in the context of French philosophy—phenomenology, existen- tialism, and some strands of poststructuralism–jettison Heidegger’s essentialism to assert that humans are in a constant state of ‘becoming.’

Poststructuralism shares with structuralism the suspicion of the privileging of human con- sciousness by both phenomenology and existentialism entertaining hard-headed scepticism of human consciousness as autonomous, directly accessible, and as the only basis of historical understanding and action. Phenomenology and existentialism inherited the legacy of Enlightenment humanist thought which assumed there is a stable, coherent, knowable self that

knows both itself and the world through reason. This tradition, at least in the modern era, dates from Bacon and Descartes, and emphasizes a ‘scientific’ mode of knowledge produced by the objective rational self that can provide universal truths about the world. Such scientific know- ledge can be applied to all human institutions and practices and is considered the ultimate basis of what is true, and therefore of what is right, and what is good.

Structuralism and poststructuralism insofar as they continue the ‘decentering’ of the subject constitute an attack upon the ‘universalist’ assumptions of rationality, individuality, autonomy, and self-presence that underlie the humanist subject. Structuralism represents a reaction to the subjectivism of Sartrean existentialism and the personal freedom and historical agency he granted the conscious ego. Poststructuralism, like structuralism, entertained a suspicion of Hegelian self-knowledge, suggesting that socio-cultural structures played an important role in forming self-consciousness.

Heidegger’s investigation of ‘subjectivity’ is crucial for the development of an anti-humanist strain. He argues that being-in-the-world precedes the subject’s self-knowledge and autonomy. In his famous ‘Letter on Humanism’, Heidegger (1946) explicitly denies that his hermeneutical phenomenology is a humanism. Poststructuralism questions philosophies of the subject that do not take account of the external conditions of its own possibilities. The emphasis on absolute self-consciousness and its alleged universalism is regarded as socially exclusive and, ultimately, oppressive, of the other – of social and cultural groups – that operate with different cultural cri- teria. By contrast, poststructuralism emphasizes the discursive constitution of self (and self-regu- lation), its corporeality, its temporality and finitude, its unconscious and libidinal energies, and the historical and cultural location of the subject.

In terms of this description, my interest has centered on the posthuman in bio-informational capitalism that transcends informational essentialism (Peters, 2012). As Thacker (2003: 86) writes:

… the relationships between the biological body and information technology is such that the body may be approached through the lens of information … , is therefore subject to the same set of technical actions and regulations as is all information. In short, when the body is considered as essentially information, this opens onto the possibility that the body may also be programmed and reprogrammed.

Critical posthumanism may be considered a future ethical condition in education and our objective ought to be to understand the emphasis on posthumanism and the new materialism in a systematic way in order to pose new questions for the notion of justice in education in its social and environmental forms.

The theoretical framework then regards ‘posthumanism’ as a term that registers a fundamental requestioning of what it means to be human in the twenty-first century in relation to four major themes or motifs:

  1. Our technological essence, enframing, prosthetic development and possible reengineering (Heidegger; Haraway; Hayles);
  2. Our newly discovered fragile animal biology that recasts our relationships (a) to ourselves, our bodies and the ontology of humanistic anthropocentrism; (b) to other species with a greater awareness of speciesisms; and (c) to the intricate web of nature and the question of ecological responsibility;
  3. The precarity and promise of human being in a constant and dynamic state of ontological becoming as (merely) part of the material world and subject to the same physical processes.
  4. The ontological becoming of human being is now enmeshed in intelligent systems, 5G mobile communicational networks and AI regimes that increasingly provide onto- platforms that know us better than we know ourselves.

This fourfold philosophical analysis also raises ethical and political questions of the inhuman, of ‘humanity’ (its future as a species), the notion of justice in education in relation to social,

environmental and posthuman issues and its status as both relational (no longer anchored in the agency of the humanist subject) and distributional over time and space (e.g., Wolfe, 2013).

This mode of inquiry demands a critical reading of Continental philosophy and especially the changes in the tradition of the subject and subject-centered-reason, in particular Nietzsche and the ‘anti-humanism’ of the early Foucault and neostructuralists, before the turn, following Heidegger’s ‘The Letter on Humanism,’ that began to question the various ideological forms of humanism inherent in philosophical modernism especially the Cartesian- Kantian subject, toward a poststructuralist philosophy sensitive to biology, to biopolitics and the government of life (Esposito, 2008; Foucault, 2008, 2014), to information and to intelli- gent systems. The scholarly significance of this program of study and investigation set in motion by Donna Haraway (1991), Katherine Hayles (1999), Karen Barad (2003) and Rosa Braidotti (2013) is only just being felt in the humanities and in education in the last few years. This orientation will help to clarify the ethics surrounding a relational and distribu- tional notion of justice in education.

In terms of my own interests in bio-informational capitalism and postdigital ontologies we can note that digital and postdigital prioritse epistemology over ontology yet postdigital meta- physics based on quanta, complexity, 5 G networks and AI intelligent technologies reveal phe- nomena that have no precedent in any philosophical tradition. In the resurgent 5G cybernetic capitalism information-tech and bio-tech are unified at the nano-level and research priority is given to recombinant cogno-tech with an accent on cognitive efficiency. Postdigital ontologies are found in relations and processes of possible new species created through techno-cultural invention. Neurological and psycho-social impacts are unknown although a hypothesis of surrender of subjectivity and autonomy as circuit control integration increases is a good starting point.

Evolutionary postdigital ontologies are bio-semiological in that they are relational and radic- ally different from standard linear models of digital information and self-production. Algorithmically customized identities based on aesthetics of media existence encourage change- able selves of aesthetic existence where there is an atavistic separation of body and digital self- representations. The marketization of ontologies of digital creation and erasure occurs as a daily activity and symbiotic human–machine co-creation takes place with continuous personal data and surveillance risks. Onto-platforms know us better – and can plot, chart daily, hourly fluctua- tions of the self – better than we can know ourselves in a world where the mining of the psyche takes place within bio-informational capitalist networks that require the surrender of autonomy for a full integration into the circuitry.


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Full Citation Information:
Peters, M. A. (2019). Posthumanism, platform ontologies and the "wounds of modern subjectivity." Educational Philosophy and Theory. https://doi. org/10.1080/00131857.2019.1608690

Michael A. Peters

Michael A. Peters (FRSNZ)  is a New Zealander and is currently Distinguished Professor at Beijing Normal University, and Emeritus Professor University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He has established and edited many journals and written prodigiously.

Article Feature Image Acknowledgement: Photo by timJ on Unsplash