Volume 2: Psychology and Posthumanism
While the term ‘posthumanism’ has lent itself to different meanings and emphases, a certain constant in its use has been a concern with the category of the human and a desire to problematize, re-think, or expand it. One strand of posthumanism, ‘transhumanism,’ has become the standard-bearer for the cause to transcend the assumed limits of the human, challenging us to envision a future of cosmetic neurology where even our intellectual aptitudes can be altered. This is a face of posthumanism that reminds us that the human and her technologies have been in symbiotic relationship long before the invention of the smartphone, and that we have all been, already, cyborgs. It is the urge, inherent in this form of posthumanism, to accelerate onwards to unknown realizations of the human that has given others pause. In another application of the term, posthumanism points to a field of study concerned with the potentials for oppression in an era of unchallenged progressivism. This branch of posthumanism sounds a cautionary note, pointing out that there are some limits that cannot be exceeded, that being human is not always about growth and expansion, and that to change, as a human, often entails loss.
If posthumanism is the field that re-thinks the category of the human, we should not conclude that it begins from the position that humans are an unmatched, exceptional species, that the field’s thinking is doomed to contain marks of anthropocentricism. Drawing on thinkers like Foucault and Derrida, posthumanism prefers to theorize the human in terms of the contexts—social, historical, ecological—that define him. This position questions the privileging of our status as so simply human, and it takes up the issue of our relationship to otherness, including animals. One consequence of this line of thought has been to de-center the human and to argue that it is not one. In a sign of the growing relevance of this conceit, this last year saw the inauguration of the journal Animal Sentience, whose first issue took up the question of whether fish can feel pain. The very possibility of this publication seems premised on the ability to question those boundaries—sentience, morality, personhood—that have traditionally separated humans and non-human others. Clearly, it is not only post-humanists that are questioning the legitimacy of Cartesian assumptions about the primacy of humans. As we teeter on the edge of the sixth great, mass extinction event, it has become more exigent than ever to return to the foundations of our understanding of the human and reassess its tenability.
The papers in this volume both reflect the diversity of emphasis in the field of posthumanism and share in common a concern with theorizing human experience—its possibilities and its pathologies—in ways that challenge traditional ontologies of the human self. Through analyses of technology, animal others, and the body, the authors bring us back to the subject of our humanness, and through several modes of analysis—case studies, analysis of visual data, meditations on key philosophical texts—they ultimately disturb our commonsense understanding of the human condition.
This year’s volume opens with a paper by Wilson that defines the territories of knowledge of posthumanism, explicating important distinctions between transhumanism and posthumanism and critically examining issues of ethics as they pertain to transhumanism’s human-enhancement projects. He points out that the very goals of transhumanism may be impossible, because they are predicated on a philosophical understanding of the human being as a neurological, self-enclosed machine. Theological, feminist, and philosophical critiques of this position point out the complexity and contextual situatedness of the human condition, as well as the potential for technological hubris to endanger what is already good about the human: its natural body, dignity, and religion.
There are risks associated with technology, but there also, as the author of the second paper argues, life-enhancing possibilities inherent in technology that can promote and extend naturally-occurring structures of the lived body. In her paper, “The Living Cyborg: Equipment as Part of the Lived Body in Children and the Physically Disabled,” Guilbeau argues that the integration of equipment promotes transhumanism’s goal of progress and facilitates physical abilities that are otherwise unavailable to certain populations. By employing phenomenological understandings of the lived body as extending beyond the cutaneous surface, she argues that technology can, under the best of circumstances, join up with the body and open up avenues for experiencing the world that would otherwise be precluded. She also remarks that technology can be taken up in a way of despair, integrating with the body in such a way as to make thematic remembrances of a previous, more satisfying body. Technology, Guilbeau reminds us, is capable of generating divergent meanings for its users.
The paper by Cashore diverts from the question of technology and turns to the human as such. She takes up Derrida, arguing that his meditations on the animal, or animot, which serve to problematize the conviction and surety of our humanness, have a place in the field of ecopsychology and offer an important corrective to a world in ecological crisis. Through her integration of Derrida’s insights, she reminds us that the violence perpetrated on the natural world is intimately connected to a denial of having been seen by the animal other. A movement of repair will require, she suggests, an appreciation of our difference, not opposition, to the members of the ecological community. She cautions against the ecopsychological tack of substituting ecocentricism for anthropocentricism, and offers instead an “invitation to reckon, maybe for the first time, with what is singular and de-centering in the gaze of unique animal others from whom we are split, yet by whom we are addressed and interrogated.”
In “Levinas and Derrida on Eating (Well),” Freeman joins the conversation about Derrida, taking up an ethical aporia present in his interrogation of the human in relation to the animal and sacrifice. She formulates this aporia with a number of pointed questions: What becomes of ethics and justice when “the human” is no longer assumed to be obvious or unproblematic? What implications does this question have, moreover, for theory and practice in psychology? Her reply to these questions entails a return to Levinas, whose work on the experience of hunger and its relationship to vulnerability, need, affectivity, and embodiment is read as the key to a revised account of the human, as well as a truly other-centered ethics, where ethics is defined as prereflective response to the face of the other. Thereafter, she focuses on Derrida’s accusation that Levinas’s ethics is no less premised on the structure of sacrifice of otherness than the ethics articulated by previous philosophers. What can be said about the ethical violence that Derrida detects in the act of eating, and which Levinas allegedly overlooks? If there is no question that we must eat, what, then, would it mean to eat well? What implications, again, does this notion of “eating well” have for us as psychologists?
Our final paper comes from Dixit, whose paper, “The Story of Being Fat: Understanding Obesity in a Victim of Child Sexual Abuse through Merleau-Ponty,” blends the work of Merleau-Ponty with a case study to explore the lived experience of clinical obesity as a response to childhood sexual abuse. Central to the paper is the notion, borrowed from Merleau-Ponty, that language constitutes a gesture that can be expressed verbally and corporeally. By upending Cartesian distinctions between language and body, Dixit opens up new ways to understand clinical obesity. Her rich experiential account of her patient, “Samantha,” makes intelligible the language of a body that has suffered abuse, and in doing so, she contributes an understanding of the gestural significations of obesity.
Metaxu is the graduate student journal of the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. program at Duquesne University.
Metaxu, from the Greek, refers to the “in-between” or being “between the two.” In Plato’s symposium, the priestess Diotima situates love as metaxu—in between poverty & possession, eros between the human & the divine—and reveals the limitations of logic and speech in capturing truth.
At Duquesne, we likewise situate our clinical work & scholarship as in-between: in-between philosophy and psychology, art and science. From diverse theoretical orientations we explore the subject & the human—between life and death, the conscious and the unconscious, immanence and transcendence—to create new possibilities and openings for clinical research and praxis.