Francesca Ferrando, Philosophical Posthumanism. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2019; 271 pages. ISBN: 978-1350186019.
Reviewed by Russell J. A. Kilbourn, Wilfrid Laurier University.
Philosophical posthumanism originated from a literary-cultural concept first invoked by Ihab Hassan in 1977, then was brought to broader attention by N. Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman in 1999. (2) Of all extant introductions to the field, which encompasses both transhumanist and critical posthumanist approaches, Francesca Ferrando’s straightforwardly titled Philosophical Posthumanism is exemplary in its lucid survey of the major thinkers, theories and concepts. Ferrando measures them against her own clearly articulated and steadfastly maintained vision of what posthumanism is or should or could be, as a philosophical vision and program for moving ahead, into an increasingly uncertain future. Ferrando accomplishes this both dispassionately, doing her best to be inclusive, but also passionately, conveying her own obviously sincere desire to make the world a better place, before it is too late. In the latter, Ferrando is similar to many other posthumanist thinkers, insofar as the field is generally distinguished by an impulse not to merely describe and analyze but to prescribe and predict, to propose alternatives, new ways forward. This is typical of posthumanist thought, whether representative of the critical posthumanist or the radical transhumanist camps. That Ferrando has a firm hold on either end of the spectrum is one measure of her book’s scope and value. Philosophical Posthumanism impresses most when Ferrando, the trained classicist, explores the deep-historical roots of both critical posthumanism and transhumanism. In Chapter 17 (“Where Does the Word ‘Human’ Come From?”), for instance, Ferrando traces the evolution of the word “human,” parsing the influence of Greek homo and the Latin humanus in the emergence of first Latin and later Renaissance humanism. (91)
“Posthumanism is the philosophy of our time,” opens the introduction. Ferrando’s book, on the one hand, attempts “to highlight the similarities and differences between the various terms and schools of thought” that comprise philosophical posthumanism, “tracing their genealogies, analogies, and overlaps.” (1) On the other, it offers “an original contribution to Philosophical Posthumanism, developing its theoretical endeavours on ontological, epistemological, and ethical grounds.” (1) The book is structured around three “thematic nodes,” framed as questions: (1) “What is Philosophical Posthumanism?”; (2) “Of Which ‘Human’ is the Posthuman a ‘Post’?”; and (3) “Have Humans Always Been Posthuman?” Ferrando also includes a “navigational tool,” an 11-page glossary of dozens of sub-questions constituting the book’s twenty-nine chapter headings. Each question is italicized in its subsequent appearance in the text, guiding the reader on her journey. The book is thus structured pedagogically for maximum clarity in terms of the order in which ideas are presented, chronologically (or genealogically) and philosophically. The navigational questions make this book especially useful for those teaching introductory courses on posthumanist theory, or for anyone looking for an accessible and comprehensive introduction to the field.
Where posthumanism per se “has become an umbrella term to include different, even antithetical, perspectives, in an era where the symbolic boundaries of the ‘human’ have been ultimately challenged,” (53) philosophical posthumanism is “genealogically related to the radical deconstruction of the ‘human,’ which began as a political cause in the 1960s, turned into an academic project in the 1970s, and evolved into an epistemological approach in the 1990s, resulting in a multiplication of situated perspectives.” (2) Therefore, in Ferrando’s words, “the posthuman recognition of nonhuman alterities starts with the recognition of human alterities.” (2, my emphasis). The book confronts the irony at the heart of the posthumanist critique of human exceptionalism: which other species is in a position to de-privilege its own supposed privilege?
Posthumanism can be seen as a ‘post-humanism,’ that is, a radical critique of humanism and anthropocentrism; on the other hand, in its significations as a ‘posthuman-ism,’ it recognizes those aspects which are constitutively human…beyond the constitutive limits of the human in the strict sense of the term. (3; my emphasis)
Also, where the posthumanist critique of the Enlightenment Humanist tradition focuses on revealing other humans as “internal others,” the posthumanist critique of anthropocentrism reveals non-human others, external to us. (24)
One of the book’s greatest services to the philosopher and non-philosopher alike is its clear delineation between transhumanism and posthumanism. While they both arose in their current forms in the 1990s, Ferrando shows the completely different historical origins of each tendency, transhumanism developing as an extension of specific ideals of Enlightenment humanism, and posthumanism emerging from postmodernism, taking the latter’s critique of humanism to its logical extreme. (2-3) Ultimately, Ferrando defines philosophical posthumanism as “an onto-epistemological” and ethical approach encompassing a “post-humanism, a post-anthropocentrism, and a post-dualism. Historically, it can be seen as the philosophical approach” appropriate to the current Anthropocenic era. (22) But posthumanism is also a “perspectivism” in the best Nietzschean sense, a point of view on things, as well as a praxis, a way of doing things inseparable from posthumanist theory. (28, 39) One of the book’s key points is that posthumanism is irreducibly a discourse narrating the “process of humanizing,” and that “the methods of research are not separated from its theoretical endeavours.” (76, my emphasis) Ferrando’s self-conscious attention to the language of the texts she discusses, even to etymology (language in its historical dimension), is essential to her study. Such thinking dates back to Aristotle, who famously defined the human as the only animal that possesses logos, “that is, speech, language, but also reason.” (90) This line of thought leads to Ferrando’s inspired definition of post-humanism as “the pluralistic symphony of the human voices who had been silenced in the historical developments of the notion of ‘humanity’,” to which we must now add the post-anthropocentric “concert of nonhuman voices, or better, their silencing amid what is currently defined as the sixth mass extinction.” (103) As a philosophical discourse, and despite New Materialism’s objections to the contrary, even philosophical posthumanism cannot escape the dominance of logos. (110, see also 159) Hence Ferrando’s broaching of a critique of Karen Barad’s “agential realism” and the new materialist anti-representational stance in general. For all her debt to Barad with respect to the notion of the posthuman as a relational ontology, Ferrando rightly recognizes that even Barad’s discourse, like every such discourse, is, in the materiality of its signifier, indistinguishable from the discourse upon which Judith Butler (in Bodies That Matter) predicated her theory of the performativity of gender and identity. And, where performativity is another category championed by Barad in her own revaluation of the metaphysical legacy of so-called representationalism, so performativity is impossible without the “materiality” of its discourse (see Chapter 28 “From New Materialisms to Object-Oriented Ontology”).
Crucially, Ferrando adds that “posthumanism exceeds the particular tradition of Western academic thought, and it can be traced and enacted in different cultures as well as in different modes.” (22) For her part, Ferrando admits to a focus primarily upon the “contemporary Western philosophical genealogy of the posthuman.” (22) Posthumanism, in this inclusive sense, “shares with humanism the fact that it is still enacted by human beings, but accesses such an epistemological standpoint through the feminist policies of situating the self, and also by acknowledging the self as plural and relational,” (23) the hyphen between post and human graphically signifying this very relationality. (66) Ferrando goes on in Chapter 10 (“Philosophical Posthumanism”) to clarify the difference between posthumanism and feminism: posthumanism doesn’t seek to replace one centre with another, but rather to deconstruct all structures of dominance altogether (56); as Ferrando memorably puts it, posthumanism does not demand a “symbolic killing followed by a redemption.” (59) In this sense, posthumanism looks back to Derridean deconstruction—a major inspiration for 1970s radical French feminist theory—for what I would call its grounding anti-foundationalism. And, like Derrida (via Neil Badmington), posthumanism acknowledges that Foucault’s famous “end of man” is nevertheless “bound to be written in the language of Man.” (52) As Heidegger’s language as “the house of being” implies, the hardest thing to give up is language or discourse as the vehicle of reason (logos), and the condition of possibility for the Humanist tradition, and for what we used to call Western culture tout court. (57) It is no small thing to say therefore that posthumanism is hyper-aware of its own discursively constituted nature. And, speaking of transcending or redeeming redemption as a theological and narratological structure endemic to a postsecular Western culture, Ferrando reads the death of God that (in Nietzsche) prefigured the death of “man” as “a symbolic sacrifice of redemption.” (52) In other words, posthumanism has no need or place for redemption, because redemption is always a function of an economy of violence. (see also 82)
In a comparison of Levinasian ethics and philosophical posthumanism, Ferrando rightly points out that the latter is distinct from any manifestation of an approach as in Levinas to radical or “absolute Otherness outside of mediation,” in that it only recognizes relative forms of specific alterity. (86) The question of the place of God in philosophical posthumanism (à la Braidotti’s ongoing interest in the postsecular nature of critical posthumanism) perhaps unsurprisingly goes under-addressed in Ferrando’s book, in favour of an attention to contemporary spiritualisms (e.g., Chapter 27, “Posthumanist Perspectivism”). The general tendency of Philosophical Posthumanism is away from the immanentist eschatology of more fatalistically-inclined thinkers. In his 1997 book, The Posthuman Condition, for instance, Robert Pepperell notes the tendency for all highly cognitively evolved species to generate the conditions for their own “erasure”: auto-negation as the ultimate goal of adaptation/evolution. In this perspective, Ferrando rightly highlights the all-too-human tendency to speak or write or otherwise discursively represent humankind’s end, avant la lettre. Whatever else they are, humans are the only animals defined by their capacity to contemplate their own non-existence—whether individual or collective—before it happens.
Like Braidotti, Ferrando’s thinking of posthumanist subjectivity as a multi-directional relationality allows for the articulation of multi-directional or -dimensional memory (à la Michael Rothberg) with current understandings of memory as embodied agential performance (Barad; Plate and Smelik). While memory in a posthumanist sense is not Ferrando’s principle focus, I highlight this aspect of her representation of philosophical posthumanism, because it crystallizes an implicit tendency across the book—and across much critical posthumanist theorizing, not to speak of contemporary cultural production per se—to combine a kind of utopian with a more elegiac register. At the book’s close Ferrando asks, “Is it time to say goodbye to the human?” Her answer: “Not yet. On some level, it is a matter of negotiating the sentimental field with regard to a known term, a familiar concept: an effect and an affect—in short, a recognition.” (188) In other words, memory, or, more precisely, a kind of nostalgia. Nostalgia for nostalgia, perhaps. It is still too soon to completely abandon the “human,” because too many people are still too nostalgically attached to everything they think it still means to be human. Most people, it is safe to say, have never heard of a “post-human” condition, and therefore have no aspiration to attain it—at least not in the positive (even utopian) sense Ferrando elaborates, which is distinct from the more prosaically utopian transhumanist aspirations of much contemporary science fiction narrative, in film, television, video games, and other media.
In Ferrando’s inclusive understanding, philosophical posthumanism includes both “the deconstruction of the human” and the “re-elaboration of the non-human realm” in the critique of Enlightenment Humanism, as well as the transhumanist “reflection on future evolutions of the human species.” (138) Ferrando’s “archaeological inquiry into the human leads to the classification of Homo sapien as “the animal that must recognize itself as human to be human.” (96) On this basis, however, “some humans would be considered more human than others.” (97) From reading this book, it becomes clear that, for Ferrando, the path ahead into a posthuman future depends upon expanding the bounds of what it means to be “human” (in the best possible sense), while respecting the right of all non-human others to exist outside of that group.