From a posthumanist perspective it is far from clear where a body begins and ends. Marshall McLuhan (1994) was already talking of extensions several decades ago. He made it clear that it would be impossible to understand what it is to be human without taking into account all that technology now implies. Technical artefacts replicate or enhance the abilities of the human body and therefore constitute extensions of the body that affect physical action, perception and cognition. Technology enables us to move faster (in cars), see more clearly (through glasses), and think better (with computers). We are, in fact, prosthetic creatures, and this is far from being only true for the current developments of the cyborg world that transhumanism is so interested in.
But we also know today that, from a biological point of view, the idea that we “possess” a body is a fallacy. Contemporary biological theories of endosymbiosis and horizontal gene transfer provide us with new models of reality which blur the distinction between organism and environment, giving way to a new model of subjectivity that is at odds with the idea of the unitary self of zoocentric biology. Our body is a massive microbial ecosystem. There is no individual within biology. Interconnectedness and relationships are the fundamental units of life.
We are therefore mistaken if we think of ourselves as individuals. We are “fragments”, parts of a whole. What we are, we are in and with others. Our bodies are part of assemblages in which a multitude of elements interact by means of affective forces (“affects” in the Spinozian sense). Elements are affected by each other, and this implies an unconscious experience of intensities, an experiential force, or source of energy that meets and mixes with all kinds of bodies, both organic and inorganic. These dynamic forces mean that it is no longer possible to speak of a mind/body dichotomy.
Bodies are processes that become bodies by means of relationships. Human bodies, like all other bodies, are not entities with inherent limits and properties, but phenomena that acquire specific limits and properties through the open-ended dynamics of their intra-activity (Barad, 2007: 172).
Contrary to Descartes’ contrast of res cogitans with res extensa, and his view of the body as a mere extension of the mind, the posthumanist view sees mind and body as closely interrelated. According to Descartes, rationality was what determined human existence, while thinking was seen as independent of the body. For posthumanism, corporeality is the origin of experience and knowledge. Instead of thinking of the body only as a substance, as a material thing, a non-dualistic approach leads us to think of bodies as a location of potentialities, processes and practices (Blackman, 2008: 5).
The characteristic dichotomous model of the West has always viewed things and individuals—the worlds of inert matter and living beings—as being in opposition to one another, and has considered human beings to be autonomous. One of the interesting aspects of this distinction, however, is that the body itself is located in both these two poles. At times it is identified with the person and at others it takes on the status of an object, as in the case of corpses or parts of the body. This oscillation between the two poles is precisely what disturbs us when the corpse is viewed as a work of art or is exhibited for reasons that go beyond its characteristic as a person or even ignore it altogether.
The non-dualistic approach typical of posthumanism rejects any understanding of the world based on solid binary oppositions, as they are not merely an exercise in taxonomy, but often involve intrinsic value judgements such as superior/inferior, good/bad or better/worse. As far as the body is concerned, this is reflected in oppositions such as female/male, black/white, fat/thin, disabled/normal, and so on. A non-dualistic approach does not see these categories as being intrinsically different, but the result of relationships. The importance of relationships dissolves essentialisms, and instead of prioritising polarised specificities, posthumanism recognises the profusion of possibilities that exist in between.
It is impossible to understand what it means to be human without taking into account all that technology implies. Technical artefacts augment the capacities of the human body and so constitute extensions of the body that affect physical action, perception and cognition. Our previous view of the body as having clear boundaries is blurred when we see it within a complex interplay of relations.
“Suppose I am a blind man, and I use a stick, I go tap, tap, tap. Where do I start? Is my mental system bounded at the handle of the stick? Is it bounded by my skin? Does it start halfway up the stick?” (Bateson, 1976: 489). Where does a body begin and where does it end?
When we speak of an extension to the body, we refer to an artefact that is attached to the body. When these devices become a systemic part of the human organism, humans are described as cyborgs. What is doubtless now is that the process of cyborgisation is unstoppable and will accelerate in the coming decades. Transhumanism is a movement that advocates the use of technologies to overcome the biological limitations of human beings. Bringing together artists and scientists, the movement promotes the use of technological innovations to improve the physical and mental abilities of human beings and aims to overcome anything that is considered negative, such as mental frailty, suffering, illness, ageing and involuntary death. Transhumanists predict that we will be endowed with abilities that are so enhanced that we will be able to define ourselves as posthuman.
A fundamental difference between the humanist and posthumanist views is that while humanism considers human beings to be in an antagonistic relationship with everything around them, posthumanism conceptualises them as embodied not only in a world of technological extensions, but as a node arising from an infinite number of relationships with everything around them. We know that our skin and stomach cannot function without bacteria; in fact, our bodies have ten times more bacteria than cells. Rather than a single entity, our bodies, are a set of interacting entities. Our self is not only corporeal but corporate (Sagan, 1992: 370).
Alaimo’s (2010) concept of transcorporeality refers to the fact that bodies are permeable and porous entities, in constant relationship with the elements in their environment. They are embedded in a dynamic world of matter that passes through them and transforms them just as it is transformed by them. The air we breathe, the nutrients we ingest, the warmth of the sun’s rays are but a small sample of the matter that plays a part in our bodies. All organisms can be understood more as networks than as sovereign and autonomous entities.
Health is more to do with taking into account a whole ecosystem, a relational network, than seeking to defend a body that is viewed as a discrete unit (Sagan, 1992: 369). A healthy body is immersed in a network of beneficial dynamic relationships involving internal and external balances and imbalances. Bodily health is always the result of the collective production of organic and non-organic, tangible and intangible, and human and non-human elements, all of which interact together.
- Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007
- Bateson, Gregory, Pasos hacia una ecología de la mente, Buenos Aires: Lohlé, 1976
- Blackman, Lisa, The body. The Key Concepts, Oxford: Berg, 2008
- Sagan, Dorion, “Metametazoa: Biology and multiplicity”, in J. Crary and S. Kwinter (eds.), Incorporations, New York: Zone Books, 1992, pp. 362–385