Friday, 31 March 2017

Rosi Braidotti's The Posthuman: Part 1

I need another post to fill my quota for this month, and I thought that rather than produce another "still busy" week in review post, it would be good to gather my thoughts on my current reading: Rosi Braidotti's The Posthuman. You may have noticed that some of the Augmenting the Body crew (most notably Stuart Murray and Michael Szollosy) have been discussing this with me and others on Twitter (on the hashtag #AtBPosthuman). We've completed Chapter 2 and are busy with Chapter 3 as I write this, but it's dense stuff and waaay outside my field, so this seems a good point to sit down and reflect on what I've learned from it.

Apart from anything else it did give rise to my favourite critique from @hilarysutcliffe:
"I'm sorry to say it's just the sort of soc sci twaddle that makes me livid."
There's a bit more to what she says than that, but it raises a good question: not just "What is the Posthuman?" but, "Does it matter?" and "Does it have anything to teach engineers?".

Caveat Lector
We start with the customary warning: I have no expertise in Posthumanism, so can only give you a lay response to reading it. Indeed, there are a lot of terms that I don't really understand. For example, there was a comment that "vitalist materialism" is "inadequately theorised". I don't claim to know what vitalist materialism (a philosophy to which Braidotti seems to subscribe) is, nor how one would tell when something is adequately theorised. I don't say that to be facetious: I genuinely don't have the critical skills or domain knowledge to critique this from anything but a lay perspective. I may be completely wrong: if so, please feel free to chip in and correct me. Anyway, the point is, if you want a detailed critique of Braidotti and Posthumanism, you've come to the wrong place: if you'd like to know what I (an engineer) thought of it, right or wrong, then read on.

Post-"Humanism", not "Posthuman"-ism
Perhaps the key learning point for me is that the "human" of Posthumanism (as used here) is different from the "human" of transhumanism. The latter refers to the species, with transhumanism representing the next step in human evolution. I had initially taken this to be the case for Posthumanism as well, and the two do get conflated (transhumanism as a step towards Posthumanism, for example). Hence my naive Tweet that Posthumanism is bound to be a bit grim because it implies that our shared species has gone.

In fact, so far as Braidotti is concerned, Posthumanism arises from the end of Humanism, and its ideal of what a human should be (as modelled by Vitrivuian Man, apparently - I've not studied humanism, so I don't know if that's true): able bodied, independent, healthy, white and male. Under this assumption, it seems that the goal is to enable everyone to be as much like this ideal as possible. 

Instead, Braidotti asserts, scientific, technical and philosophical developments have outpaced this concept - hence philosophy has taken a "Posthuman" turn (I think the term Post-Humanist would be clearer, myself, but nevermind).

Clearly, if you are a dedicated Humanist, then this is terribly bad news. Whither Human rights, for example, if we were mistaken about the human? Braidotti comes from a school of Anti-humanism, so for her the Posthuman turn actually represents an opportunity to rethink our relationship to the world and each other. She criticises what she sees as an Anthropocentric view of the world, which places us as fundamentally separate from (and, I presume, superior to) nature, and independent of each other.

Becoming Deleuzian
Braidotti makes a lot of use of Deleuze and Guattari's concept of Becoming and Nomad thought: rethinking and experimenting with concepts. It makes me glad I read A Thousand Plateaus first. Her approach captures much of the experimentation and deterritorialisation discussed there. In this case, it is the Humanist notion of the Human that is being deterritorialised and the rhizome surrounding it explored.

Anyway, her first two chapters are concerned with Life Beyond Self and Life Beyond Species, dealing (as I interpret it) with the individualism and anthropocentrism implicit in Humanism and Vitruvian Man. The first of these focuses on autopoiesis: the capacity of systems to self-organise. Braidotti challenges the binary separation of human culture from nature, arguing instead in favour of a nature-culture continuum: that the natural and artificial are not easily separated, but interact. The second posits three "Becomings": Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Earth, and Becoming-Machine.
It is important to emphasise, again, that this relates not to a literal transformation of our biology, but to changes in the way what it means to be human is understood.

Braidotti argues that there is an increasing recognition of our interdependence not just with each other, but with other animals (upon whom we depend, and to whom we are increasingly considered to have obligations), the environment, and technology. We may not be literally becoming these things, but growing awareness of these dependencies undermines Vitruvian Man and his ideal of independence. Resource scarcities and climate change, for example, create a very direct way in which even minor choices made by one person can have massive cumulative impacts on distant people. We've already looked at issues of technology and the body with Margrit Shildrick last year. 

Anyway - the key thing that struck me here are the engineering concepts of tolerance and coupling, particularly in terms of Nam Suh's  Axiomatic Design [1]. One of the Theorems of Axiomatic Design (specifically, Theorem 2.A.8: Independence and Design Range) notes that two design parameters can be considered uncoupled provided they have sufficient allowable tolerance (range of acceptable values): in other words, if the effect of their interaction is very small compared to the range of values that are acceptable. That way, even though they're technically coupled, we can proceed as if they aren't, and that makes life a lot easier. 

For example, I rarely worry about gravitational pull between components in a design: it exists, it must do, but next to all the other forces around, gravity is very weak. I've noted before that in most day-to-day engineering we don't need to consider the gravity of planets or the moon: just the earth, since that's the only thing that applies a gravitational force on anything like the scale that would affect our results significantly enough to be a problem. But if you're sending a probe to Jupiter, these things matter. All physical objects are coupled by gravity, by heat transfer, by magnetism or their influence thereon - it's just that most of the time we can get away with pretending that they aren't.

The same sort of thing applies here, I think. If you're Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, you can afford to live in splendid isolation: if sea levels rise, you can just move somewhere else. Or build a floating house. If you don't like the government people have voted in, you can (mostly) up sticks and go to another country. If you lose your job, or become ill, it's a nuisance, but you have resources to offset that. 

If you're living hand-to-mouth, you don't get these choices. You can't decouple yourself from your neighbours' choices so easily. If the rest of the country decides to, say, join/leave the EU, it's not easy to just nip off to somewhere that is/isn't in the EU (delete as appropriate). If you don't like the liberal or conservative stripe of your government, tough: you can't just up sticks and move to somewhere that has the laws you like (I mean, this is the very basis of Seasteading - just pull up a boat with the people you want to be with and ignore the people you don't!). If you live in a mansion and own the land around you, you don't need to worry about party walls or parking spaces, or communal gardens. If you live in an apartment, you are much more dependent on your neighbours and how they behave and even how they look after their residence (as anyone who has enjoyed a leak from the flat above will attest!).

To Recap (For Now)
I suppose then, that I have two main takeaways from the first two chapters of the book: that "Posthumanism" relates to Humanism and its assumptions, not to the human species; and that one of the major assumptions being challenged is that if the independence of human beings from each other and the environment.

I suppose it recalls that idea of selective engineering. If engineers are taking that Humanist model, wherein independence is something to be aspired to and encouraged, then it certainly raises questions about the whole idea of selective enabling that I have raised before...

Anyway, we'll be tweeting more on Chapters 3 and 4, on #AtBPosthuman. Keep your twitter feed tuned in!

[1] Suh (1990), The Principles of Design, Oxford University Press, 1990

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