Carlson Post 9: Existential Crisis?

Going into this week’s reading, I had no idea what to expect. Before cracking open Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman, the concept of posthumanism for me brought about images of robots, Google Glass, Siri, and of course that horrifying idea of downloading your brain and abandoning your body. Braidotti has very little time for these futuristic trifles in her book, and instead focuses on something much larger and more pressing – the current state of humanism and how it is essentially “behind on the times.” Little did I know, Braidotti would shake the bedrock of my life with her arguments for anti-humanism.

I’ve considered myself a humanist for as long as I remember knowing what humanism was. As an English major, I’ve consistently embraced and defended the humanities, maintaining a sense of pride for my position as a humanist. Maybe I’m naïve or just not well-read, but Braidotti is the first person to show me the dark side of humanism. She argues that humanism is in opposition to many of the theoretical frameworks that I am passionate about, such as feminist theory, queer theory, and post-colonial theory. By setting ‘Man’ as the ideological ideal, humanism actually creates and perpetuates the notion of the “other.” Braidotti writes:

“Humanism is neither an idea nor an objective statistical average or middle ground. It rather spells out a systematized standard of recognizability – of Sameness – by which all others can be assessed . . . This standard is posited as categorically and qualitatively distinct from the sexualized, racialized, naturalized others and also in opposition to the technological artifact.” (26)

While I’m wary of completely hopping on the Braidotti train after simply reading her book, this argument makes total sense to me. But I have to admit that I’m still a little stuck on humanism; I’m not ready to abandon it completely. Can I still be a humanist and just pick-and-choose the things I like about humanism and leave the negatives behind? Braidotti also makes several compelling points about post-secularism, but I still consider myself to be a secular thinker.

But enough about me. What impact does this have on the digital humanities? We’ve focused so much on the shift from the traditional humanities to digital humanities. Should we instead be discussing the digital posthumanities? I was surprised to see only one or two mentions of DH in The Posthuman, and both mentions were done in passing towards the end of the book. This suggests to me that the schools of thought surrounding the posthuman and the digital humanities are very separate, which is a bit surprising (kind of like when we found out that media archaeologists and DH-ers want nothing to do with each other).

To bring an aspect of “doing DH” into my post today, I took a look at the Mediated Matter section of projects on the MIT Media Lab website, since this seemed to mesh well with Braidotti’s idea of human relation with self-organizing matter. One of these projects, called Living Mushtari, seems to have the same mission:

“How can we design relationships between the most primitive and sophisticated life forms? Can we design wearables embedded with synthetic microorganisms that can enhance and augment biological functionality, and generate consumable energy when exposed to the sun? We explored these questions through the creation of Mushtari, and 3D-printed wearable with 58 meters of internal fluid channels. Designed to function as a microbial factory, Mushtari uses synthetic microorganisms to convert sunlight into useful products for the wearer, engineering a symbiotic relationship between two bacteria.”

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While the connection between DH and the posthuman may not be explicit, it’s clear that both schools of thought are exploring similar concepts. I think Braidotti would absolutely be supportive of this joining up of the human and a more primitive life form such as bacteria. Recognizing that there can be a symbiotic relationship between human and bacteria goes against the basic tenets of humanism. Sorry humans, but you are not unique snowflakes.


Works Cited:

Braidotti, Rosi. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity, 2013. Print.

M.I.T. Media Lab. “Research Groups and Projects.” https://www.media.mit.edu/research/groups-projects. Accessed 6 November 2015.

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