Editor’s note: This week, we’re bringing you the first look at something slightly different. In addition to our regularly scheduled programming, Platypus has decided to experiment with guest-edited thematic series, which will bring together a range of anthropologists working on similar issues for a more theoretically-oriented conversation held over several weeks. Here, Jon Bialecki and Ian Lowrie introduce our first series, on Transhumanism and Anthropology. If you are interested in participating, please let them know; if you are interested in organizing a future thematic series, please do get in touch with the Editor.
Anthropologists, long relatively comfortable bearing the mantle of studying humanity, today find themselves working in increasingly posthuman theoretical spaces. Anthropos, as a unitary figure, had already began to crumble under the weight of postcolonial, feminist, and deconstructive critique during the eighties; lately, however, our empirical work is pushing us still further beyond the human. This is particularly, but not uniquely, true for those of us working on the anthropology of science and technology: we often find ourselves, whatever our theoretical commitments to the posthuman, grasping for an appropriate language as we try to figure the multispecies assemblages, vibrant matter, and sociotechnical infrastructures we encounter alongside the humans we interact with in our fieldwork.
This decentering of the human in our work, however, is only one, relatively parochial consequence of a broader epochal shift in the role of anthropos as a figure of thought, politics, and other forms of collective action. For one thing, we’re characteristically late to the academic party. The humanities generally have been tired of the human for a couple of decades now. The exact sciences, perhaps, haven’t been particularly humanist since the long nineteenth century. Outside of academia, various forms of queer politics, environmentalism, and new religious movements have been trying to figure out, with varying degrees of success, how to ground their projects in figures other than the human.
Transhumanism, in its efforts cajole or coerce humanity to move beyond its current physical form and intellectual commitments, is often glossed as a flavor of posthumanism. What is peculiar about transhumanism, however, is that it takes anthropos quite seriously. It is profoundly preoccupied with precisely humanity as an object, and as an agent of its own transformation or evolution. While humanity may be destined for the ash heap of history, it’s not going to go quietly, nor will it go on its own. For some transhumanists, it may even be destined to retain some fundamental core of humanity. In this respect at least, transhumanism is profoundly and thoroughly preoccupied with anthropos. In this, while it seems quite clear to us that it is undeniably a product of the same moment, we think it is important to underscore that transhumanism approaches the human from a somewhat orthogonal direction with respect to other posthumanisms.
Histories of Transhumanity
Of course, to the degree that both magic and various modes of religiosity are concerned with either accessing or facilitating becoming entities that are patently more than human, one could say that transhumanism has an ancestry that may go as far back as that of homo sapiens sapiens itself. Given this heritage, it is little surprise that Russian Cosmism, an important precursor movements to contemporary transhumanism, had origins that were soaked in Eastern Orthodox mysticism (Bernstein 2014; Young 2010), or that the etymological trail of the word “transhumanism” runs from Julian Huxley back to Dante and even then to Saint Paul (Harrison and Wolyniak 2015). But even after science and religion broke symmetry and parted ways as separate domains in the early modern period (Harrison 2015), transhuman yearnings can be found in multiple projects on the side of the cladistic split that became ‘science.’ The desire for both mastery over nature and for transformation of the self found in seminal Enlightenment texts such as Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum can be viewed as a part of a transhumanist project; more literally, the late Enlightenment figure Benjamin Franklin speculated about preserving the dead in casks of Madeira wine until few centuries could develop the technology to reanimate them (Bostrom 2005).
Even if there is a long history of concepts and hopes that could retroactively understood as transhumanist, though, the disruptive capacity and acceleration of Transhumanism as a contemporary phenomenon has very specific and relatively historically recent conditions of possibility. The mid-century establishment of cybernetics as a metalanguage for both organic and non-organic complex systems paved the way intellectually; this theoretical possibility was later actualized through military industrial funding through bodies such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (or DARPA), which has spent considerable energy experimenting with ways to push soldiers far beyond the usual species capacities (Wolf-Meyer 2009). These experiments have also been informed by a strange broth of speculative fiction, Silicon Valley capitalism, and libertarian strands of 1960’s counter culture, which has sutured the theoretical language of cybernetics and an influx of military investment with speculative, cosmic imaginings. It is clear that these imaginings have flourished in part due to the evacuation of a space in public culture that was previously dominated by authoritative eschatological pronouncements rooted in religious discourses (Farman 2013). Finally, contemporary and relatively decentered forms of internet-mediated communication have also allowed for the establishment of a virtual public that understands itself as engaged with transhumanism as a mode of life and a political practice (be that engagement positive or negative). Transhumanism is not the only movement to benefit from the intensifications that digital media has brought, but the resonances between the future-facing discourses that often frame these communicative technologies and the fantasies that inform transhumanism means that the effect of the internet greatly exceeds its mere technical affordances as a platform for communciation and organization.
In short, we see transhumanism as both a material and an intellectual project; transhumanists have produced both technological novelty and a plethora of utopian, sometimes religious imaginaries. These strata are deeply and recursively reliant upon one another, while remaining analytically distinct planes of action. Developments in the technical apparatus draw upon the intellectual field for inspiration at the same time as concrete material changes in the relationships between humans and machines stimulate the formation of new ideological constellations. It is our contention that this imbrication requires the investigation of transhumanism as a robustly social phenomenon, rather than primarily a cultural one. The social — the real fabric of actually existing relationships between organisms, machines, energy, and signs — is where the ideological and technical meet.
In Conclusion, for Now…
In the discussions that follow, we and our fellow contributors will be doing a fair bit of ethnographic work on transhumanism, charting its contours and translating its content. The broader goal, however, is to place anthropology and transhumanism into intellectual dialogue with one another. There is a long history in anthropology of taking theoretical cues from our informants, and a shorter and somewhat more colored history of anthropological concepts being taken up within the communities we study. Beyond this common feature of ethnographic research, however, transhumanism offers a uniquely rich opportunity for trade.
We’d like to suggest here, provisionally, that the fundamental problem space of transhumanism and anthropology is the same: anthropos. Specifically, both operate on the questions attendant to the recognition that anthropos is able to intervene in the conditions of its own production as a material and symbolic figure. For both, the human is fundamentally inextricable from its status as maker and deployer of techne, and our shared questions turn on precisely this relationship: are the various forms of techne encountered in the ethnographic record merely the extension of the essential attributes, drives, and capabilities of anthropos? Or is anthropos itself only knowable by and through the endlessly mutable production and deployment of techne? That is to say, is techne one of the many products of a stable anthropos, or is anthropos merely that form of life adjacent to techne? Is it possible to think one without the other? That transhumanism approaches these questions from a manifestly applied perspective does not trouble the fundamental identity of the conceptual terrain, if not the mode of inquiry.
The suggestion of a convergence or commerce between transhumanism and anthropology is not a hypothetical, intellectual provocation. There are already anthropologists out there doing thoughtful and reflexive work on transhumanism, whose conclusions reach far beyond their as-yet disciplinarily marginal empirical focus to strike at the core of anthropological doxa. This is, ultimately, not surprising, if we are correct in suggesting that the problems of transhumanism are, in large part, also our disciplinary problems. Whatever the accuracy of our specific suggestions here, it is clear at least that the broad ethical and analytic inquiry into what anthropos might mean in a rapidly accelerating technological contemporary is far from our disciplinary property; transhumanists themselves have been working at many of our own core intellectual commitments, albeit from surprising, sometimes orthogonal directions.
In this series, over the coming months, we will be inviting contributors from both anthropological and transhumanist perspectives to work this shared terrain. The goal is not some rapprochement between or synthesis of these perspectives. Rather, we hope to provide a series of parallax views on anthropos as it moves through the contemporary and into the future.
Bernstein, Anya. 2014. “Cyborgs, Weak Cosmists, and a Russian Planet.” NYU Jordan Center for the Advanced Study of Russia.
Bostrom, Nick. 2005. “A History of Transhumanism.” Journal of Evolution and Technology.
Farman, Abou. 2013. “Speculative Matter: Secular Bodies, Minds, and Persons.” Cultural Anthropology 28(4):737-759.
Harrison, Peter. 2015. The Territories of Science and Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Harrison, Peter and Joseph Wolyniak. 2015. “The History of ‘Transhumanism.’” Notes and Queries. 62(3): 465-467.
Wolf-Meyer, Matthew. 2009. “Fantasies of Extremes: Sports, War and the Science of Sleep.” BioSocieties 4(2): 257-271.
Young, George M. 2012. The Russian Cosmists: The Esoteric Futurism of Nikolai Fedorov and his Followers. Oxford: Oxford University Press.