what is posthumanism in the arts & pop culture?
In my last post, I looked at defining the posthuman from several angles: first, in contrast to how we used to think of being human; then in relation to technology, including developments in cybernetics and systems theory; and finally in light of complexity more broadly. The key points about posthumanism:
- It’s less necessary or helpful to think of ourselves as discrete beings with discrete identities, and more useful to understand ourselves as parts of larger dynamic systems that comprise humans, animals, machines and environments.
- Within these systems, even as we take actions as individuals, we also simultaneously play out largely unconscious, collective reactions to various stimuli.
- Our bodily boundaries are arbitrary with respect to collective systems, because systemic feedback loops occur as readily across these boundaries as within them.
- Because we aren’t necessarily cognizant of our roles within systems as we’re acting them out, placing humanity in a systems context challenges the primacy of individual mind. This scares a lot of people.
In this post, I’m delving a bit deeper and looking at how the dynamic complexity of modern humanity is reflected in our cultural products, ie. artworks and media—in other words, how are novels, TV series, films etc. responding to this set of issues?
The Wire (TV series, 2002-2008)
The Wire is one that I have to get out of the way first, because it just keeps coming up. This show has garnered considerable scholarly interest since it came out in 2002, largely because (to quote Carole Levine, who discusses it in her book Forms) it “conceptualizes … life as both structured and rendered radically unpredictable” [ie. complex] “by large numbers of colliding social forms …. it refuses to posit a deep, prior, metaphysical model of causality to explain its world.” In her book Levine goes so far as to argue that The Wire should serve as a model for new cultural studies scholarship.[i]
Matt Tierney also talks about the wire in his 2015 book What Lies Between (also a book about form), saying that the show operates with a “vision of post-political experience” that involves a complex re-posing of experience with emphasis on the incapacity—not necessarily the unwillingness—of individuals to comprehend the big picture.[ii]
If you haven’t seen The Wire, you should know it makes seriously excellent use of the serial form of television by layering relationships upon relationships into the system of networks that comprises the fictional world—which isn’t all that fictional—in a way that pretty much completely avoids any kind of closure. You could easily argue that the structure of beginning-middle-end reflects the assumedly discrete and complete identity/experience of human being as we understood it before, and the cumulative plotting of serial television, using The Wire as an example, reflects human being as we experience it now. It focuses on the ongoing nature of various interacting systems, as opposed to placing undue emphasis on specific moments of climactic transformation. In that sense it’s more realistic when compared to actual life.
Lucy (film, 2014)
This is a film that came out last year, about a woman who gains what Wikipedia calls “psychokinetic abilities” when a bag of smuggled drugs bursts inside her abdomen. As the drug absorbs into her body, Lucy gains superhuman abilities (not really that applicable here) but she also starts to deconstruct into what amounts to informational systems. She actually metamorphoses into a sort of nanorobot soup at one point.
Here’s Lucy’s climactic speech:
Every cell knows and talks to every other cell. They exchange a thousand bits of information between themselves per second. Cells join together forming a joint web of communication, which in turn forms matter. Cells get together, take on one form, deform, reform — makes no difference, they're all the same. Humans consider themselves unique, so they've rooted their whole theory of existence on their uniqueness. "One" is their unit of "measure" — but it’s not. All social systems we've put into place are a mere sketch: "one plus one equals two", that's all we've learned, but one plus one has never equaled two — there are in fact no numbers and no letters, we've codified our existence to bring it down to human size, to make it comprehensible, we've created a scale so we can forget its unfathomable scale.
Okay, so the film didn’t get much critical praise, and I understand why. That’s not really the point here. What is interesting about it to me is that the film takes on the issues of the nature of human being, the meaning of time, the degree of human interconnectedness, in a way that argues what can only be described as a posthuman philosophy. And it’s not that other movies don’t do this, it’s just that this movie does it in a usefully obvious way.
I’m going to skip literature for now I already did a post that would cover some of this ground and I don’t want to repeat myself—check out Narrative Velocity and Big Data from back in March.
I only came upon Gathering Sky this week, although it’s gotten quite a bit of praise in the indie game world. The concept is elegantly simple:
“Guide a flock of birds through a world where earth, sky and stars are woven together. The sky is not a place to conquer, but a place to discover and play.”
A friend after reading my last post said it was a little depressing. I can see why; losing a firm grasp on individuality was never going to be easy. Still, my first inclination is to see a complexifying sense of self, mixed with a complexifying sense of reality, as beautiful. Having dystopian shades of the uber-robotic on the one hand, on the other posthumanism seems to represent a deepening engagement with the idea expressed by Carl Sagan that “We are made of star-stuff,” and of Ihab Hassan that we ‘plough the dust of stars; .. bite galaxies in an apple and drink the universe in a glass of rain.’[iii]
As for Gathering Sky, the weaving-together or earth, stars and sky is a nod to that approach, but not so much as the way in which we’re invited as players to experience that environment: not as an individual but as a collective; not to conquer it but to play in it; not to reach a narrative climax, but to experience cyclic shifts, phases and complex interactions over time. Its main flaw is that it’s possibly a little boring; this is made up for, in my opinion anyway, by the fact that it’s peaceful, meditative, and through repetition taps into a bit of a deeper, if not entirely summarisable, lesson.
The next post in this series gets into posthumanism as a phenomena of informational autonomy, where we become increasingly adept at finding information and putting it to use—leading to growing numbers of people becoming independent experts—going “off-grid”, building bombs, growing their own food, &etc. Stay tuned and feel free to raise challenging questions!
Have a comment or question? Leave it below or tweet to me!
[i] Caroline Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network, p 23.
[ii] Matt Tierney, What Lies Between: Void Aesthetics and Postwar Post-politics, p 170.
[iii] Carl Sagan, “The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective” (1973). Ihab Hassan,’Maps and Stories: A Brief Meditation’ in The Georgia Review (2005): p. 753.