Posthumanism as Holism without Boundaries

Authors Alan Smart and Josephine Smart provide the following comments on what it means to be human in the twenty-first century (as well as the twenty-second century) and on the importance of rethinking anthropology in a way that does not place the human species at the centre of the universe.

PosthumanismPosthumanist ideas are becoming mainstream, as the April 2017 National Geographic cover story on “The Next Human” aptly indicates. Regardless of what we call it, attention to the implications of more-than-human realities is growing rapidly. It can be seen in what has become known as the “Anthropocene”: the newly identified geological period in which human activity has become the dominant influence on climate and geological processes. One of the ironies addressed in our new book, Posthumanism: Anthropological Insights, is that just at the time when humans have developed the capabilities to become one of the dominant forces shaping the world itself, we need to become less anthropocentric. If we do not become more aware of the non-humans with which we share the world both inside and outside our skins, saving the world, ours and theirs, for the 22nd century will be much more difficult. In fact, one of our key goals in writing Posthumanism was to explore the implications of our shifting relationship to the world. Our book asks what new emerging human relations with our non-human companions and contexts means for anthropology, and what our discipline can contribute to study of these situations. However, we believe that such entanglements are not new, but have been central to the whole duration of the human condition.

The effort to develop a non-anthropocentric anthropology, one that does not see the human species as being at the centre of the world, sounds paradoxical, yet it seems to us to be both feasible and urgent. The urgency of rethinking anthropology to incorporate our non-human companions and tools is not just for the good of the discipline itself, but for what such an anthropological perspective can offer the world more broadly. Posthumanism, and particularly transhumanism, is dominated by Western ideas and perspectives, yet we consider the core mission of anthropology to be studying the whole range of ways of being human. To do this, we cannot restrict ourselves to just the latest technologies and their implications for human life and society. While recognizing their profound consequences and potential, we need to consider them in a broader context. In Posthumanism: Anthropological Insights we discuss a variety of compelling work that sheds light on how to do this. The groundwork for a post-anthropocentric anthropology can be carried out in ethnographic encounters with Siberian reindeer herders and Amazonian foragers as well as in robotics workshops. If anthropologists don’t incorporate the whole spectrum of diverse ways of being human into posthumanist intellectual, cultural, and political projects, who will?

One of the key lessons of this book, at least for us, is that the classic anthropological principle of holism is ripe for reinvention for a new age. To fully meet the disciplinary mandate, anthropologists should pursue holism not only across borders, as in the anthropology of globality or transnationalism, but across all boundaries, including species boundaries. The complex global entanglements of the contemporary world mean that to understand local societies we not only have to consider interactions with people outside that society, but also address our non-human co-travellers on this planetary journey: microbes, parasites, domesticated species, and technologies. Researching and writing this book revealed the strength and importance of what we call “holism without boundaries.” By tracing our interactions beyond humanity to the non-human agents that have been involved in the formation of our past and present, we can see ourselves in new ways; not separate from non-humans, but entangled with them. Readers will be able to observe and appreciate some the tremendous transmutations during their own lifetimes.

Over the last two years we have been teaching draft chapters of the book in courses ranging from a large first-year introduction to anthropology course to a final-year seminar and a graduate theory course. The enthusiastic responses from students vindicated our initial motivation for writing this short book: to make exciting ideas and perspectives accessible to students at all levels, and to scholars who have been put off by jargon-heavy work in the field. We had ourselves found posthumanist writing intriguing but hard to understand, but gradually became convinced of the power and importance of these ideas.

We noticed that there was a tendency initially for students to think of posthumanism as what we prefer to call transhumanism: sci-fi ideas of transcending human nature through prostheses, implants, and other enhancements, including uploading one’s consciousness to computers or the internet. Students recognize how their own lives have changed through the adoption of social media, cellphones, GPS navigation systems, and so on, meaning they tend to consider this a new phenomenon. They had more difficulty with our argument that people have always been posthuman, and that the very nature of humanity is reliance on more-than-human extensions of our capabilities, through fire, cooking, tools, and language, both spoken and written.

Our approach was to include ample examples of the exciting new technological enhancement of humans, while insisting that there had been equally radical departures throughout the human past. Posthumanism is not only about the future, although it does involve that in fascinating ways. It is about human nature and its repeated transformations throughout our species’ history and prehistory.

Alan Smart is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Calgary.

Josephine Smart is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Calgary.

Note: If you are an instructor and think that this book would be a helpful addition to an upcoming course, simply email us for an examination copy.

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