So following on from the last two posts (YA and Dystopias, YA and Technology), this post is about the human essence and how it’s “under threat” from technology (leading to possible dystopia), but also how that whole idea of ‘human nature’ is problematic anyway in posthuman studies.
“Nature itself, and in particular human nature, has a special role in defining for us what is right and wrong, just and unjust, important and unimportant.”
So the human essence argument goes back to ancient Greece (probably further), but the current mode of thinking in the West is of the Liberal Humanist Self. It is, as I understand it, individualism, a common human nature and human rationality as a superior characteristic. This has it’s problems, it assumes universality, its mostly ahistorical, and positions humans at the top of the living things pyramid. Some use human nature to justify innate morals, values, behaviour – sometimes because of a god, sometimes separate from one.
Technology threatens the human essence, for some like Habermas and Fukuyama, by changing the very nature (genetics) of humanity. Fukuyama criticises drugs that regulate how we feel and our personalities, stem cell research that can lead to massive life expectancy (even as many countries birth rates are in free fall), and the future of selective genetics (for the wealthy, at least). These technologies, he argues, will also affect liberal democracy and politics itself. In one section where he questions whether there is a gene to determine sexuality, he asks if there was a pill to make a baby heterosexual, who would take it? He supposes that many people would, even those who today support GLBTIQ rights, just as they would for removing a trait for baldness or shortness.
What it means to be human finally is not so much about intelligent machines as it is about how to create just societies in a transnational global world that may include in its purview both carbon and silicon citizens.
What is human, what is defined as human, and what it means to be human are all concepts at the mercy of space and time. As with everything else in our world, what something means is not consistent over different cultures and different eras. It separates us even from the very cultures, by assuming that humans are unique and unchangeable. As much as I’m barely beginning to tread into the waters of Foucault, his arguments make more sense to me that people are not free from social forces and institutions*. Foucault’s subject is not natural, but is a product of time and space.
Feminist theorists also criticise this understanding of the ‘self’ for constructing a universal subject that is white, European and male, and thus suppresses and oppresses anyone who is ‘Other’. We know the injustices of the past (and those continuing in the present) when blacks were considered lesser beings, and women not considered smart enough for the vote. The Indigenous people of Australia were even classified under the Flora and Fauna Act (GRR!)! What is human, what is moral, what is valued, is socially constructed. We are not totally controlled by society, obviously, but we do not have an innate or unchangeable nature.
There is the fear, in life and in fiction, that technological progression will lead to to loss of human nature/essence/self. For some, the posthuman is already here. The posthuman is creative evolution at work. The boundaries of what is human itself, separate from animals and machines, is (and some might argue, has for a long time) crumbling. These borders are breached by hybrid creatures – cyborgs. Haraway is credited with shifting the debate from the inhuman and ‘bad’ technologies, to a more positive view. We are shaped and changed by our relationship with technology, and it’s not entirely for the negative. The cyborg disrupts the “natural order”, which has only worked before to make exclusions of who is capable, intelligent, or human.
So this mini-series of blog posts is what I’m working on at the moment. Analysing narrative strategies and subjectivity of Young Adult novels, as they are perpetuating a Liberal Humanist Self, at threat from technology, and then critique the problems that come with that. It’s not really procrastinating from actually writing it, if I’m blogging my research, right?
* as a side anecdote: one of my friends in the US and I can’t see eye-to-eye on gun rights or mandatory voting. In my part of the world, guns are rare and mandatory voting is the responsibility and duty of every citizen. His country has a very different history on both topics.
- Habermas, Jurgen. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2003. Print.
- Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. London: Profile books. 2003.
- Haraway, Donna. Simians , Cyborgs , and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991.
- Hayles, N Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1999.
- Onishi, Bradley B. “Information, Bodies, and Heidegger: Tracing Visions of the Posthuman.” Sophia 50.1 (2010): 101–112.
- Gane, N. “Posthuman.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 431–434. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.