A 'Black Mirror World'? - Thoughts on The Politics of Humanism and Posthumanism


  Much of modern political theory deals with those ‘humanist’ questions that concern humanity and the value of human agency. From early modernity to the present day, political questions that place ‘humanity’ at the centre of consideration have constituted much of the bread and butter of theoretical contemplation. Take the seventeenth century questions about order, liberty, the social contract, and the ‘person’ of the state, for example. Here, introspective political discourse was folded back into the nature of humanity and humans as agents living amongst one another.[1] Equally, if we fast forward to the present world, the humanist discourse remains extant when we speak of ‘ethical humanitarian intervention’, ‘global health crises’, or even ‘UNESCO’, placing humanity and human agency at the centre of our political reflections.

It is because of its longevity as a conceptual and paradigmatic influence on philosophical, theological and political discourse that it would be nothing but a misunderstanding to assume that humanism holds a coherency of doctrine across time, space and language. This would be to commit what the noted political theorist and historian of ideas Quentin Skinner once labelled as a ‘Mythology of Doctrine’. Skinner contended that engaging with such a ‘mythology’ occurs when an interpreter converts some scattered or incidental remarks by a theorist or theorists into a unified doctrine of any single theme, committing the ‘historical absurdity’ of synopsis upon either one thinker or a parade of thinkers in order to focus attention on the progression of any given ‘idea’, and thereby forging the appearance of a smooth development.[2] Such an interpretive blunder would be like finding a thousand different shards of pottery, all varying in shape, colour and size, gluing them together to create a vase outline, and finally claiming the vase to have been made by pieces that slipped together perfectly like a puzzle, as if they were made for this moment. Such an attitude feeds only further misunderstanding. The concept of humanism is no different. Humanism has a long and complicated history that evolves with incoherencies and fractures like all historical ideas, and therefore cannot be pinned down to a single definition; indeed, it is rarely so simple.[3] Therefore, in order to avoid any key interpretive blunders, ‘humanism’ will be associated with the description above, in connection to the centrality of the human and human agency in contemplating matters, be they political or otherwise.

If humanism can be broadly located in the centrality of humanity and human agency, the manner in which our lives are constellated in relation to technology engages with ‘post-humanism’. As part of her outstanding work, in ‘The Politics of The Human’ Anne Phillips pins down a distinctive manner in which ‘posthumanism’ can be grasped, referencing not any single definition, but rather characterising the concept discursively by the commonality of critical thematic between contemporary ‘posthuman’ works. Here, she states:

“There are three key ways in which posthumanism has come to figure in recent literature: as a continuing critique of humanism that drops the starker anti-humanist overtones; as an anticipation of a future populated by enhanced or hybrid humans; and as an unsettling of the boundaries between human, animal and machine”[4].

Phillips’ conceptualisation is insightful for its twofold function. Firstly, it mirrors the conceptual discursive breadth taken into account when grasping ‘humanism’, avoiding any ‘mythology of doctrine’, whilst attempting to provide as inclusive a conceptualisation as possible. And, secondly, this is insightful because the last of Phillips’ thematic characterisations of the posthumanist discourse directly concerns technological leaps we experience today, namely, the ‘unsettling of the boundaries between human, animal and machine’[5].

Indeed, there has been a posthuman turn in political theory, challenging the anthropocentric assumptions that individuated human agency is the exclusive plain of political action, subjectivity, and community.[6] Our era is characterised, for example, by technological leaps which have led to a new epoch of what Michel Foucault referred to as dispositifs of biopower and the biopolitical, wherein sovereignty has begun to crystallise its overt character as an apparatus for rule over biological life to decide how life is to be lived, or even which life is to be left to die, unworthy of a valued life (necropolitics).[7] In our world of bionics, genetic modification and nanotechnology, ‘the subject’ has fallen once again into question, merging, as Phillips contends, with technology in order to fully interpret itself as human. Or is this claim too early to stipulate? Nonetheless, have we already seen this in the sphere of formal politics, where some argue that even access to electricity should be folded into the discourse of potential human rights, along with other political and social posits ‘we’ consider to be essential to human life.[8]

 The question in this ‘Black Mirror world’ of technological posthumanism is not whether or not a certain sense of humanity will be undermined through its ‘singularisation’ with technology, but, as Slavoj Zizek reminds us:

“With the digitization of our lives and the prospect of a direct link between our brain and digital machinery, we are entering a new posthuman era in which our basic self-understanding as free and responsible agents will be affected. In this way, posthumanism is no longer an eccentric theoretical proposal but a manner concerning our daily lives”.[9]

In this world, would we be even able to understand ourselves as independent to our technological achievements ontologically? Would we even be able to see when and if our technological advances are fundamentally adapting the ‘humanist subject’ to a post-human one where the organic creativity of non-technological, or at least non-digital, life is incomprehensible? Perhaps this is what a posthuman politics should make its concern - the manner in which we are to now navigate a world in which our creations, norms and epistemological spheres do not undermine how we interpret ourselves, i.e., how not to lose what makes us human without jettisoning the benefits of our hyper-technological condition.

[1] For an excellent historical discussion of humanism in the early modern era, see: Quentin Skinner (2018) From Humanism to Hobbes: Studies in Rhetoric and Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Quentin Skinner (1969) ‘Meaning and Understanding in The History of Ideas’, History and Theory, 8 (1), pp. 3-53, p. 7.

[3] Tony Davies (1997) Humanism, London: Routledge.

[4] Anne Phillips (2015) The Politics of The Human, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 111.

[5] If one desires a further exploration in breaking down the conceptual umberella of ‘posthumanism’ into diverging and constituent categories, e.g., transhumanism, metahumanism and so on, see: Francesca Ferrando (2013) ‘Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations’, Existenz, 8(2), pp. 26-32. Although this is good for a phenomenological grasp of posthumanism, as far as this piece is concerned, Phillips’ reduction clarifies what unifies the horizon of the posthuman discourse, as opposed to its obfuscation by taxonomical categorisation.

[6] Magdalena Zolkos (2017) ‘Life as a Political Problem: The Post-Human Turn in Political Theory’, Political Studies Review, 16(3), pp. 192-204.

[7] Michel Foucault (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977, New York: Pantheon Books, p. 194; (2008) The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at The Coll├Ęge de France, 1978-1979, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan; Roberto Esposito (2008) Bios: Biopolitics and Philosophy, Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press; Achille Mbembe (2019) Necropolitics, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

[8] Tanja Winther (2008) The Impact of Electricity: Development, Desires and Dilemmas, New York: Berghan Books.

[9] Slavoj Zizek (2018) Like a Thief in Broad Daylight: Power in the Era of Post-Humanity, London: Allen Lane, p.46.