For a new anthropological space of the human
It is time to reflect on the question of having social analyzes capable of indicating and even soliciting effective changes in human societies. Indeed, the commitment to carry out research in the field already goes intrinsically in this direction: for example, it is reasonable to think that every sociologist sees his own investigative work as the possibility of influencing reality through the elaboration of interpretative hypotheses which help to disseminate argued opinions about some kind of social phenomenon or process.
Consequently, we can say that these forms of cultural production always offer themselves as a potential transformative action. For sociology – aimed to study the dynamics that build and move the behaviors and feelings of individuals and groups in human societies – the transformative purpose is almost an inherent goal, having been born with the hidden hope of explaining the social phenomena that allow community to exist, influencing their evolution at least as a self-reflexive stimulus.
The feeling of urgency
However, faced with now systemic problems on which new emergencies are cyclically grafted – growth of economic and social inequalities, energy, environmental and climatic crises, pandemics, development of local and global wars – this hope of soliciting reflections that are then incorporated into actions can be understood as a weak, too wait-and-see way with respect to the urgency of the issues.
Obviously scholars approach their task in different ways: there are those who prefer to limit themselves to documentary taking – leaving the methods/processing of any actions/answers in the hands of the public – and those who go so far as to elaborate theories which, in their opinion, can activate communities to strengthen them, counteract their dissolution or simply help them to evolve.
In any case, although one can be critical of the varied contents produced or some kind of approach, it would perhaps be more correct to attribute these resentments to other causes, for example the low probability that this kind of analysis will be considered and taken up by the decision-makers or even from politicians, all a little uncomfortable nowadays – focused on instantaneous debates on Twitter – towards in-depth and articulated arguments.
It is even more true that, in this question of a new meaning, we all seem to pay for the difficulty of having to reason as if we were in a world that has not in the meantime become a hyperworld (Codeluppi, 2012), often unable even to decipher those phenomena that have always mark our modernity, for example the industrial and economic processes guided by capitalism, phenomena which – thanks to their abstractive and penetrating qualities – have undergone limitless accelerations and intensifications, deeply shaping and seducing social and individual culture, urban architectures, mobility, communications and (lastly with the internet) the forms and means of aggregation of thought and collective intelligence.
A new focus for new research paths
We are therefore living in a historical period in which there is a strong feeling of being faced with an end of evolutionary cycle on many aspects that are decisive for life in common, and this justifies the need to have analytical tools that shift one’s focus onto new paths of investigation. We can and we must continue to deepen the evolutions that take place in the confinements in which we struggle – unfortunately often sterilely – but we must also start thinking about how to get out of the conceptual cages and interpretative categories generating this state of impasse.
Help on this front can come from the strongly radical current of thought which refers to the so-called posthumanism, or rather to the reflections of those intellectuals who – considering the preponderant growth of the role of technique and technologies in our existence, but also the factors that have marked our history in the world negatively due to anthropic activities or discriminating and plundering attitudes – have the vivacity and courage to critically reconsider the frameworks and foundations in which human and social life moves and the way we think – encouraging new hopes, alliances and exit strategies.
Knowing how to respond to ideal disorientation
Posthumanism is thus sprinkled with critical reflections from different sides but generally marked by distortions and injustices – gender discrimination, economic and environmental forms of exploitation, domination and destruction of species, etc. – and this characterizes it with an ideal innovative charge which, coming from within bitterly lived realities, knows how to speak to the fears present in the current historical context – the great French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour, who has also become a reference in this cultural vein, titled his latest work (2022) with the anguished question Où suis-je? (Where am I?) the expression with which in general, having acquired the first state of consciousness, we highlight our disorientation.
The paradigm shift
A premise is obligatory here: research and literature on the post-human theme is very rich since it brings together a variegated galaxy of thinkers. In the wake of a paradigm shift regarding both the constitution and the positioning of human beings on planet earth, we also find very daring and purely functionalist theses (transhumanism) such as the liberation of human being from his own biological limits thanks to the partnership with scientific power, and therefore the constitution of a new cyborg body – a highly performing and resistant mix that hybridises flesh with the most advanced technological supports (bio, info, nano and neuro).
However, taking measures from this excess of optimism and from the strictly functionalist approach, there are many people that find the real charm of posthumanism – and of those who intervene in this discursive field – “in its style of thinking and in the way of looking to oneself and to the world» having the strength to speak to us about the «time we are living in» prefiguring itself as a form of science fiction which – rather than imagining the future – knows how to investigate the anxieties and dissatisfactions of the present (Grion, 2021, p 28).
In posthumanism we thus find both more or less balanced functionalist arguments, and analyzes driven by a great sense of responsibility towards a whole series of aspects that have always been considered secondary and negligible with respect to the role that human beings wanted to play in inhabiting the world.
Indeed, the critical referent of posthumanism
does not want to be human being thus understood (or humanity in general) but the paradigm that has characterized its historical reality up to today and which is being challenged by new existential models (Bonito, 2022, p. 25).
As has been rightly stated (Revelli, 2021), we have grown strong with an idea of humanism that has always justified itself with the exceptional nature of human being, his irreducibility to both the animal and the thing, while it is time that we have evidence of the incursions that undermine the separation between human beings and machines (human and artificial) and between human and animal (human being and beasts) – a demarcation, the latter, that has not been reviewed even in the face of our behavior in the World Wars or in Auschwitz, and which supersedes our fruitful hybridization with the different alterities or biological continuity itself, a construction so artificial that ultimately went into a state of crisis when a non-human biological entity (a virus), entering the cellular space of human being, has reset both its values and normative superstructure.
One of the challenges to be attempted is therefore to deconstruct anthropocentrism, which has become for us “a cognitive atmosphere” from which to emerge with the critique of its three architectural axes: speciesism or the discrimination of Homo sapiens from other animal species, around which a social world has been built which makes invisible what really supports the visible world; metaphysics, or our knowledge of the world with respect to a human being who is not at its center, but placed among other things (biodiversity); the top-down creationist vision of human being instead of his emergence (bottom-up) from the chaos of the earth’s bowels, as any other living organism (Caffo, 2017).
For posthumanism, the human being is the result of a field in which multiple forces intersect, guided by organic, inorganic, animal, machinic and social instances – therefore a set of indispensable partners and alterity for the formation of a human identity which is inseparable into some element. We need to
recognize the conjugative meaning of making technology and the importance of alterity, i.e. of heterreference, in order to concretely realize the declination of the human being (Marchesini, 2002, p. 550).
Its mutant root is a consequence of evolutionary hybridization, which has been the key to escape the threats posed by its ecological niche, and this has been achieved thanks to the partnerships activated with nature and the varied physical and cultural instruments capable of generating feedback at an environmental level (slippages in selective pressure) to obtain more advantageous performances – for some posthumanists feedforwards are also generated at a genetic level so that these mutations are handed down to subsequent generations, a somewhat too hasty conclusion which does not adequately take into account the real mechanisms of communication between the inside and outside of organisms (Tintino, 2015).
In short, every telos that refers to a presumed human essentiality is artificial in its claim to separate human being from the processes that are her/his own by identifying essences that are instead always the work of cultures – and therefore a specific “state of the art” – essences that will tend to change and transform themselves
there is no other distinctive trait, no other possible way of describing “human nature” other than its extreme and variable ductility, its openness to the possible, its relational and hybridizing vocation, which starting from an undeniable biological unity is culturally declined in the most varied and diverse ways (Caronia, 2008, p. 146).
The image of the cyborg
From the recall of the assumptions around which posthumanist thought revolves, it should be clear how the complexity and the spectrum of open questions invite and attract scholars of many disciplines such as life scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists into the discussion.
In fact, the initial reflections on technique, technology and the animal world for the formation of the concrete human identity turn out to be triggering sparks both for regenerating arguments in support of problems that have remained unresolved, and for shedding new light on the many emergencies; think, for example, how easily people have found themselves wrapped up in internet technologies, and therefore on our new assumption of virtual corporality and the rethinking of the body as a crossroads of multiple and changing information codes – genetic and digital.
Precisely on this last aspect the media sociologist Alberto Abruzzese, referring to the collective imagination and the role of technocultures generated by the various media incarnations – capable of undermining the solidity of the usual theoretical paradigms and strong sociological matrices (Abruzzese, Borrelli, 2001, p. 251) – describes the mechanisms with which human body – understood not only physically but also in its territorial, desirous, social, symbolic extension – “produces the innovations necessary to satisfy the dynamics of its structural changes” (Abruzzese, 1988, p. 94).
On the other hand, the American philosopher and biologist Donna Haraway was one of the first to elaborate a theory of the cyborg which becomes – in her study about the implications of technology and science on the life of human beings – a branch of feminist thought aimed at overcoming the dual conceptions as man/woman, natural/artificial, body/mind which, in Western culture, always end up establishing the dominance of one element over the other.
Within this theory she defines the posthuman not as the arrival of humanoid technological creatures, but as a new anthropological space of the human, the hermeneutic regeneration of its ontological, epistemological and ethical categories (Haraway, 1990).
From this point of view – as Rosi Braidotti, another philosopher and exponent of the feminist movement, affirms – posthumanism has been able to speak
to my feminist self, partly because my sex, historically speaking, never quite made it into full humanity, so my allegiance to that category is at best negotiable and never to be taken for granted (2013, p. 81).
Symbiosis and nomadic subjectivity
Since as humans we are forced to symbiosis, the cyborg then becomes an opportunity to give life – rethinking the self-understanding and the human imagination in the light of its concrete evolutionary historicity – to a new form of subjectivity that can be defined as nomadic.
When human identity, re-reading biology and evolutionism, takes shape as a compound of external human, non-human, organic and technological forces, it is no longer a teleological journey but a nomadological journey that takes place in a process of awareness – in the wake of mutational hybridization – towards the virtuality of Homo sapiens (2011).
At the same time, since the technique is recognized not only as a constitutive factor but also as an opportunity for new possibilities for hybridizing grafts, we no longer have the problem of rejecting or accepting it “but in assuming it as an essential element of one’s identity” (Tintino, 2015, p 91).
The awareness of the inevitability of the encounter with technique and technology (Kelly, 2011) has another positive aspect, that of obliging us ethically – if we do not want to leave them in the hands of the market, as happens now, and therefore of biopolitics and biopower – to put in place protocols that know how to manage the results of their meeting in advance and during the construction phase.
The complex ecology of terrestrial existence
At the end of this brief excursus we can agree that an undoubted merit of posthumanist thought – responding with perspicacity to the many challenges of the present – is the attempt to reawaken a necessary systemic awareness of the world since human beings have had an interest in abstracting rather than seeing themselves for what it is: part of a network of connections and relationships with a plurality of ecologies in an immense and critical grid of activities and contexts of development, human and beyond-human (Borgnino, 2022).
An awareness of which there is an urgent need given that the so-called Homo sapiens has been able, during the last five centuries, to exterminate over a third of all other forms of life known to science, eliminating forever many species with all their unique genetic makeup, thus severing also the chances of human life – for example, human beings share 98.4 percent of DNA with chimpanzees, 86 percent with earthworms and even 45 percent with bananas (Pievani, 2020) while reducing biodiversity also favors zoonoses, the passage of pathogenic viruses (spillover) from the animal world to humans (Quammen, 2013).
But that’s not all, the human species has also managed to cause an epochal geological rupture engraved in the layers of the earth itself – living in the Anthropocene for geologists means being aware that human activity has structurally modified the biosphere, which is evident now but which will also be so for future generations by instrumentally analyzing the condition of the earth’s stratification, air or water (Missiroli, 2022).
Question of style: new epistemologies, new languages
An ulterior note concerns the question of style which, here too, is sometimes content. In the past years systemic awareness and post-human emphasis has been theorized also by sociology, having in Niklas Luhmann an acute forerunner (1990; Petulla, 2010).
At the time his theses received a lot of criticism both for their complexity and for a certain convoluted expressive style. Generally, the success of theories and our fascination with them depend on the concomitant contingencies and historical emergencies, but the ability of language has also a value when positively capturing the imagination of interested readers.
From this point of view, the current scientific literature relating to posthumanism – which evidently moves on the humus of the Anthropocene and the experiences of cyberspace – denotes an expressive richness that uses a suggestive and captivating prose, offering itself as a tool and formula that knows how to be attractive.
As explained to us, we need new forms of literacy to decode today’s world, new figurations to persuasively speak of the techno-scientific world, and to do this the new epistemologies must use original languages compared to those of traditional thought as the “invention of the new requires a certain imaginative strength as well as conceptual rigour” (Braidotti, 1995, p 26).
The impetus for change in thought and action
Posthuman critical theory has lately gained more relevance with the contextual urgency of the Anthropocene condition and the combination of growing economic and social inequalities together with rapid technological advances – the latter driven mostly by an informational privatistic capitalism that is redrawing modes and boundaries in terms of production and human communication in almost every sphere of social and personal activity.
Around this passage – dominated by conflicts and characterized by power relations as asymmetrical as well innovative in their ability to seduce and involve us in assemblages in which human and non-human actors operate – posthumanist theories have provided interpretations that are a fundamental stimulus for a critical reflection of various disciplines, involving hundreds of scholars in these analyses (Braidotti, Hlavajova, 2018).
Indeed, the posthumanist posture helps us to face several challenges including a) the recognition that subjectivity is not an exclusive prerogative of the human being; b) the development of vitalistic material realities which – including non-human agents ranging from plants and animals to technological artefacts – are both dynamic and socially sustainable, useful for the increase of the common good; b) the broadening of the framework and scope of ethical responsibility along the transversal lines of post-anthropocentric relationships.
Posthumanism is therefore marking the field of cultural and social research given the need to find new ways of meeting, discussing and thinking about entities and environments in which humans and non-humans intertwine in ever more intricate patterns. Animals and androids, technological platforms and various kinds of biological creatures populate critical analyzes in ever more complex ways, complicating our conception of the cosmos, dethroning the single subject and dismantling the comfortable categories through which we have interpreted our existence.
The challenge of mapping the tangled relations between humans and nonhumans has recently been accepted by diverse disciplines, as scholars across academia must come to terms with the social, economic, cultural, environmental, and technological changes that surround, penetrate, and affect their methods and fields of study with unprecedented rapidity. This struggle to adapt has already resulted into a wealth of new approaches, research questions, and conceptualizations, but neither the saturation point nor the demand has quite been met as of yet (Karkulehto, Koistinen, Varis, 2019, p. 1).
We recently experienced a striking and tragic example that made us reflect on all of this, and we can recognize that the work of reconceptualizing our posthuman condition or experience has made the covid-19 pandemic more bearable, since it is more understandable. With it we have realized that we are not a macrobiological entity but an assembly of microorganisms
upon which life depends absolutely. This allows us to produce new and different worlds… The posthuman experience is one of growing awareness of our situatedness within, and dependence upon, complex ecosystems and networks that include other non-human actors and forces, whether natural or technological (Newman,Topuzovsk, 2021, p. 3,4).
On the other hand, this conceptual setting becomes essential when we need to understand the growing malleability and fluidity of the world in which we find ourselves living as we are immersed in powerful informational processes, wrapped up in infospheres co-constituted by agglomerations of platforms , intelligent algorithms, devices, physical infrastructures and humans.
A life that is constantly changing, now defined, in terms of software revisions, as a version that will remain permanently in a test (beta) phase. According to the many scholars who embrace a posthumanist methodology in these researches, it is «hardly possible to analyse this condition from a mainstream anthropocentric framework» (Kalpokas, 2021).
In fact, posthuman epistemology certainly proves to be more suitable for investigating the processes through which, as cyborg-consumers, we never stop incorporating with our minds technologies, media and information of all kinds (Hristova, Hong, Daryl Slack, 2020).
On the other hand, posthumanist theory works with the aim of identifying the power relations that are at work in the production of social discourses and practices, and their effects on the formation of the subject. From this point of view it can be said that it encourages attention to the more complex dynamics in which the machinic agglomerations are born and operate with which we are in direct and intimate relationship – at an intellectual and social level – for example the software algorithms that are currently nudging every our action.
In this case, it forces the same classical disciplines, for example sociology, to recover and revive those research lines that have so far remained quite peripheral with respect to the canonical fields
the fact that a machine which learns from patterns in human-generated data, and autonomously manipulates human language, knowledge and relations, is more than a machine. It is a social agent: a participant in society, simultaneously participated in by it. As such, it becomes a legitimate object of sociological research (Airoldi, 2022, p. x).
The radicalism and the constant critical drive of posthumanism reveal themselves perhaps as the battering ram capable of creating a breach in a whole series of convictions fueled by knowledge and ideologies uniformed by principles or ends that have not helped us to cultivate an ecological habitus.
For the sociologist Pierre Bordieu, the habitus is in fact a cultivated disposition, and therefore a practical guide, which allows each agent to generate, starting from a small number of implicit principles, behavior in line with a form of practical education, in our case, for the respect of the ecosystems on which we depend,
nothing seems more ineffable, more incommunicable, more irreplaceable, more inimitable, and therefore more precious, than the values incorporated, made flesh, by the transubstantiation operated by the clandestine persuasion of an implicit pedagogy, capable of inculcating a whole cosmology, ethics, metaphysics, and politics, through injunctions as insignificant as “stand up straight” or “don’t hold the knife with your left” (Bourdieu, 1972, p. 245).
In his latest work, economist Jeremy Rifkin explains the limitations we have encountered on this road. Over the past 200 years we (as people) have been shaped by theories – economic, philosophical, physical ones – that have failed to explain how and to what extent human beings are in continuity and circularity with the very substances and forces of which all the other components of the biosphere are made up and to which they also respond.
All this has deeply influenced behaviors and conveniences supported by ideologies tending to uncritically extol the ways of infinite progress, predisposing us to an efficiencyism projected to optimize the expropriation, consumption and waste of natural resources.
Our personal temporal orientation and the temporal beat of our society folds around the efficiency imperative. It’s what has taken us to the commanding heights as the dominant species on Earth and now to the ruin of the natural world. (Rifkin, 2022).
Posthumanism then wants to reopen us to a world interwoven with otherness and other life forms in order to unhinge anthropocentric thinking. It propels philosophies that invite us to deepen our being-in-the-world, explain how our lives act and are retroacted in a dense web of connections and interconnections with the otherness of forces, organisms and substances present inside and outside our bodies-ultimately, it does not want to make us ecological persons, only to make us aware that we are already (unquestionably) “ecological beings” (Morton, 2018).
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