Monday, December 28, 2009

It's (for) You: The Post/human is Calling


There is, to reprise Avital Ronell, no off switch for the ‘post-human’. The call is always (for) you. It leaves you ringing.
—Julian Yates, "It’s (for) You; Or, the Tele-T/r/opical Post-human" (forthcoming in the inaugural issue of postmedieval)

As I have been wending my various ways between Saint Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC over the past week, Craig Dionne and I have also been in the final copy-editing stages for the inaugural issue of postmedieval, slated for publication in April 2010, "When Did We Become Post/human?" We decided to try something a little different here and asked contributors to write, not full-length, heavily footnoted scholarly articles, or even full-blown essays, but rather, to engage in short [3,000 or so words] riffs and ruminations on:

a) the possible productive intersections (of any type) between studies in earlier historical periods and ongoing discourses on the posthuman and posthumanism in the contemporary humanities and sciences;

b) how certain discourses of the pre- and early modern historical periods might problematize the assumptions of a posthumanism that considers itself to be either thoroughly modern or somehow outside of history;

c) the ways in which the history and culture of pre- and early modernity help us to address and perhaps adjudicate some of the troubling questions raised by contemporary discourses on the posthuman relative to issues of embodiment, subjectivity, cognition, sociality, free will, sexuality, spirituality, self-determination, expression, representation, well-being, ethics, moral responsibility, human and other rights, governance, technology, and the like.

For a while now, most discourses on the post/human and post/humanism have been undertaken by scholars in the humanities working in the most contemporary literary and other periods [Katherine Hayles, Cary Wolfe, Bruno Latour, Judith Halberstam, Donna Haraway, etc.] or by scientists working at the leading edge of biological, chemical, computing, and other research fields who often view the humanities in general as not adequate to the task of determining the future of the human. It is not that history is viewed as irrelevant to the question of the post/human, so much as it is seen as being somehow unprepared for the question, because the world is viewed, by some, as having changed, thanks to various technological and other innovations, to such a fundamental extent, that wholly new modes of thought and even ethical practice, are required. It is our hope, with this issue, to demonstrate that scholars working in what might be termed premodern periods [medievalists, but also early modernists] have much expertise to bring to bear upon the question of the post/human, in both its material and theoretical manifestations, and also in its implications for a future that could never be entirely free of a past that, in some ways, was more capacious and theoretically provocative in its post/humanisms and post/humanist thought than we generally allow. It is my [even greater] hope that this issue will also highlight the important value of premodern studies in the (new) spaces of deliberation over the future roles the humanities might play in what is likely still to be the all-too-human yet also post/human future. In addition to the 31 contributions from scholars working in medieval and early modern studies, there will also be 4 responses from Katherine Hayles, Kate Soper, Andy Mousley, and Noreen Giffney.

I will leave you here with some snippets from the essays in our inaugural issue, in order to hopefully encourage you to read the whole shebang when it finally arrives in its entirety. I should add here, first, that the inaugural issue will be entirely available and free online, and that four full essays [by Jeffrey, Karmen Mackendrick, Julie Singer, and Scott Maisano] will soon be available for free as a preview of the issue. And if you follow postmedieval on Twitter, you will receive issue updates and links to all of these.

SNIPPET PREVIEW -- postmedieval, "When Did We Become Post/human?" (Vol. 1, Issue 1: April 2010):
Refigured by the call of the ‘post-human’, I argue that we find ourselves reterritorialized in questions of form, rhetoric, genre, and translation, understood now as ways of moving, ferrying, or shifting things (persons, concepts, plants, animals) between and among different spheres of reference. When, for example, Latour issues the call for new ‘speech impedimenta’ (Latour, 2004, 62-64) or ways of speaking, Stengers studies modes of scientific authorship (Stengers, 1997), Hayles surveys modes of embodiment or the poetics of electronic literature (Hayles, 2008), or Haraway asks us to think about the mediatizing of entities by way of critter-cams, duct tape, or agility sports for the dog/person companion species (Haraway, 2001; 2008), we are being invited to try out new rhetorical and technical means by which to transform noise into news of an other. Taking the tele-t/r/opical call of the ‘post-human’ means, for us, I think, being prepared to understand our expertise in these terms, and so configuring the textual traces named ‘past’ as an archive or contact zone which may offer occluded or discarded ways of being. --Julian Yates, "It’s (for) You; Or, the Tele-T/r/opical Post-human"
The notion that we have always been natural-born cyborgs has important consequences for cultural historians. What is now often called posthumanism (together with the related viewpoint known as transhumanism), and which is predominantly -- often sensationally -- associated with the new forms of bioengineering that seamlessly integrate humans and intelligent machines, is not therefore an apocalyptic break with previous ideas of ‘the human’, but part of a continuum that encompasses the entire history of ‘the human’. Think of this temporal recalibration as one way of slashing the post/human: in this schema, the ‘post’ is simultaneously present, future and past, and the past is correspondingly folded into the ‘post’ -- and the ‘human’ is decisively relocated as an entity distinct from the Enlightenment ideal of ‘Man’, though not perhaps in the ways in which Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe imagine that relocation (Haraway, 1990; Wolfe, 1995). For we are talking here less about the forms of hybridization that Haraway invokes (organism/machine, human/animal, physical/non-physical) or about Wolfe’s quite proper concerns about ‘what kinds of couplings across the humanist divide are possible’ (Wolfe, 1995, 66) than about rethinking the architecture of the mind as it engages with an external environment. Because cultural historians shy away from the idea that anything is ‘natural-born’, it’s important to appreciate that Clark’s model is anything but a recuperation of the universal, liberal humanist subject: it fully recognizes historically-contingent forms of ‘mindware’ upgrading. The task for a newly reconfigured cultural studies is to explore these forms -- and to ask, given the bias amongst some scientists and ‘third culture’ thinkers against history, what history might add to our understanding of embedded cognition. --Ruth Evans, "Our Cyborg Past: Medieval Artificial Memory as Mindware Upgrade"
[Katherine Hayles's] How We Became Posthuman matches its rhetoric to its argument by highlighting anxiety in its cybernetic subjects as we face the prospect of disembodied humanity. Medievalists should be sympathetic since embodiment is key to the conception of full medieval personhood. Hayles reacted against a new desire to loosen the link of person to body and much speculative thinking continues to push in this direction. As contemporary science fiction shows, we can conceive a variety of technological advances that might allow intelligence to exist electronically and humans to become increasingly independent of their bodies. While some form of materiality and localized perspective seem necessary, in the future a person will be identified less by materiality or information than by understanding. The ability to recognize a being as a durable, comprehensible interlocutor will be the litmus test of the posthuman being. --David Gary Shaw, "Embodiment and the Human from Dante through Tomorrow"
Katherine Hayles’s more recent work poses the question of pre/present/post- humanness as such: How does the body know time? (Hayles, 2008). This is an inquiry applicable in so many senses to our rapidly evolving moment as we click through, log on, and interface (emphasis here on our tendency still to privilege new modes of media as space/place, not time). But it is also a question that re-frames the question of what time can mean -- in time and as time. And here we may have something timely, something new. Is it possible that critical conversations surrounding the field of new media provide new affordances for an affective reading of time as embodiment? Can these registers of affective mediation speak to what potential we might conjure in doing history? As such, how does the body know time? How does time know the body? --Jen Boyle, "Biomedia in the Time of Animation"
In this article for the inaugural issue of a new journal that strives to develop a present-minded medieval studies, I want to experiment with the pleasure of trying to let what is arguably the newest of academic fields (the first issue of the new journal Transgender Studies Quarterly will come out later than the first issue of postmedieval) speak to one of the oldest. By finding its single moment of transgendered content in William Langland’s late fourteenth-century allegory Piers Plowman, this article cannot claim to find an ancestry for contemporary transsexuals. At best, it can gesture, with the rest of this journal, towards the multiple intersecting temporalities able to co-exist and, contingently, to meet, when medievalists keep both past and present in their heads at the same time. In doing so, I hope to pass some spark of excitement between that which is marginal because long dead and gone, and that which is marginal because subject to incomprehension and oppression. The term ‘transgendered’, like the term ‘queer’, is a term conceived broadly enough to potentially include medieval people: a certain percentage of persons who describe themselves with this term live either in-between genders or in some other complex relationship with the binary of male and female. As consequence, the term ‘transgender’ has an ambivalent relationship to twenty-first-century medical technology and is more open to appropriation by and about those not entirely interpellated by its power, including, potentially, medieval people. The drawback of such an appropriation, as with that of the term ‘queer’ is that it’s an easy label that can be diluted to the point of meaninglessness, a caution that shadows my every utterance. --Masha Raskolnikov, "Transgendering Pride"
However irregularly, intermittently, or incompletely, contemporary dramatic performance increasingly refuses to be cast as print's ‘other’. The signifying forms of writing often seem less to direct the ‘languages of the stage’ than to provide one channel, and often not the dominant channel, of the discourse of theatrical performance. Theatre illustrates N. Katherine Hayles' critique of the epistemology of ‘information’; rather than taking the stage for the site of the mere reproduction of the text's ‘information’ -- as though the text inscribed ‘information’ as ‘a free-floating, decontextualized, quantifiable entitity’ (Hayles, 1999, 59) -- contemporary performance openly treats dramatic writing as an instrument that will be changed in the information it conveys by the means of its performance. Of course, to consider Shakespeare performance in this way raises the question of whether it is -- or ought to be -- conceived as a specific genre, in which performance properly works to decant textual ‘information’ by other means. This is, conventionally, the humanist, ‘stage-centered’ vision of Shakespeare performance, and of dramatic theatre more widely; it is, incidentally, a vision of dramatic performance often shared -- though differently valued -- in performance studies, too. What's striking is how laminated this understanding is to a narrow understanding of the uses of print, and of the terms of literary value and the practices of hegemony associated with print culture. For regardless of whether or not Shakespeare ‘invented the human’, the technologies of being human -- definitively, the technologies of writing, but also the conventions of acting, the framing practices of theatrical production -- are now quite differently disposed, and instrumentalize the constitution and performance of the subject in different ways. --W.B. Worthen, "Posthuman Shakespeare Performance Studies"

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