3:1–Posthuman–Post 2 of 3

As a student I once visited a lecture on “artificial intelligence for social scientists” that confronted me with several provocative scenarios: What if we are approaching an age of intelligent machines? What if humans are about to transform themselves into cyborgs? What if we will be governed by technological systems beyond our control? I was fascinated by these thought experiments – and also suddenly shaken by an ontological insecurity. What if there once will be a society without humans?

The lecture strongly irritated my perspective on the social world. It took a good dose of social science to transform this irritation into productive curiosity: 10 years later I finished my PhD thesis about posthuman utopias. I turned the question concerning posthumanity into a question concerning the social construction of posthumanity. In other words: I regained ontological security in the comforting arms of constructivism. In a way.

Anthropocentric theories that claim that humans construct society (as well as technology and nature) never quite convinced me. My favorite brand of constructivism became Niklas Luhmann’s operative constructivism, a theory concerned with operations which generate social order. In Luhmann’s theory, society does not consist of humans but of social operations. Luhmann’s theory is severly posthuman, because it regards humans – as well as non-humans – as constructs of social operations. Forget ontology! This was Luhmann’s credo. There is no need for ontological insecurity anymore if ontology is “just” a product of operations constructing ontologies. Even if we don’t follow Luhmann’s total disregard for ontological questions, his operative constructivism is still a good antidote against an “ontologization” of the posthuman.

I share Stefanie’s fascination with “[c]yborgs, robots, enhancements, medical technology”, and with posthuman thinking in general. I love to speculate about different interpretations of quantum mechanics. But I am not so sure how it matters for social science “if we are slices, or smears on a universal map of sorts”. Can we escape the trappings of biological interpretations of the human by embracing cosmology? I don’t think that the real value of posthuman theorizing lies in ontological questions. Have we even been human? Are animals actors? Are interactions with machines “real” interactions or just imagined ones? These are fascinating questions, but as a sociologist I don’t believe I that it is my job to answer them.

I rather want to know: How are humans made posthuman? What is the role of technologies (including social technologies and technologies of the self) in this transformation? What kind of actors are included and excluded? How do these processes of inclusion and exclusion reconfigure social relations? Discourses on animals as citizens of “Zoopolis” and experiments with autonomous cars as new actors on the streets are good examples for contemporary renegotiations of the social. They are pressing political concerns as well as expressions of a new ontological insecurity. Posthumanism might help us analyzing these insecurities without falling back to ontological arguments.

However, the posthuman has two problems: the “post” and the “human”…

14 thoughts on “3:1–Posthuman–Post 2 of 3

  1. Pingback: Quick links (#23) | Urban Future (2.1)

  2. Thank you for this insightful reply! It helps me to refine (and partly reconsider) my argument.

    First point: It seems to be impossible to leave ontology behind totally. Luhmann is a good example here. He opens his fundamental work on social systems with a careful circumscription: “The following considerations assume that there are systems”. He explicitly constructs a kind of ontological fundament for all other theoretical arguments. Only by construction an ontological fundament an indicating it as a construction he is able to elaborate on a post-ontological and posthuman theory (not: a theory without ontology and without humans).

    Second point: ontological consideration can indeed be very insightful and inspiring. Ontological debates of a certain kind (x exists / doesn’t exist) are not – at least not for social science. Especially when we think about the posthuman this seems to be the case. I’m talking about debates about human nature vs. technological instrumentality of if machines can think or not for example.

    I will also be in the holidays the next two weeks so I won’t be able to answer all the interesting questions about the existence of systems and where to find them. Short (and cheap) answer: they can’t be found, they can only be reconstructed (they even can’t find themselves…). For a longer and better answer I can once again recommend Farias’ paper: http://www.academia.edu/3249556/2014_-_Virtual_attractors_actual_assemblages_How_Luhmann_s_theory_of_communication_complements_actor-network_theory


  3. Pardon the length of this reply; I couldn’t resist.

    So this is an interesting, and I think productive, discussion. What is the post-ontological position if it is not also an ontological position? I think it is worth discussing, as we are doing so here, and the reason is as much about ontology as it is epistemology.

    So, one reason I am curious about this is that Jan-H. and I just finished a book chapter about the ontologies of “the state” and “state power” — which, I guess, (to unfairly quote you, saschadickel) “doesn’t contribute much to interesting theoretical discussinss” and instead just contributes to “never ending ontological debates” — but, upon some reflection, we did actually learn a couple of things, which perhaps are at least a little bit interesting.

    We emphasized ontological concerns in our paper as a means to distance ourselves from a few epistemological concerns — which, coincidentally, often take a similar form as the “uninteresting” ontological debates, especially if your empirical material is theoretical scholarship — however, no matter how far away we attempted to get from such epistemological concerns (in our case, about what states can legitimately do and not do — think: Weber’s def.s of the state and politics — because, in our line of work, most epistemological questions are ALSO ontological questions and vice versa), we found that every road away from epistemology and toward ontology ultimately leads back to epistemology; we wind-up contributing “truth” to the very pools of knowledge we claim only to study empirically for the purposes of parsing-out some ontological issues. This, on some level, supports your idea, saschadickel, that the results are uninteresting.

    Still, if that is the case — that epistemological questions are often ontological questions and vice versa (usually just a matter of emphasis) AND no matter how hard we aim to distance ourselves (reflexively) from epistemology and toward ontology it leads us right back epistemology (practically) — what does that mean for the post-ontology argumentation we see here today?

    Grant me a small example, and, admittedly, one that is inherited from a long-line of scholars, for better or worse: scholars want to know what the state is and the question “what is the state?” is usually followed-up in the epistemological game by some sort of definition or set of definitions, which is then usually followed-up with the caveat that little consensus exists regarding precisely the definition of the state (at which point scholars are usually adding to rather that reducing the “ambiguity” they pretend only to describe — I’m writing about political performativity here). “What is the state?” is also an irremissibly (i.e., unpardonable) ontological question too, on the very face of it. If I adopt a post-ontological approach of literally any kind, then do I forfeit some important epistemological questions in the process? (I ask because while I agree that it is not your “job” [which I think you noted, but I cannot no recall] to unlock ontological consequences of empirical research, you also position the post-ontological position as [I’m putting words in your mouth so please correct me] a kind of “liability free” position, primarily naming the positive benefits of its up-take without mentioning some of the major liabilities it might present to it user).

    At any rate, if the holiday seasons sucks me in before I see your response(s) or I have time to respond; THANKS FOR JOINING US — VERY INTERESTING WORK!


  4. but your offering us an ontology, so to claim some “post” position is
    non-sensical, as for a more pragmatist take I would only ask again where do I find these supposed machine-like operations/units to experiment with?


  5. I beg to differ: From a post-ontological perspective I would hesitate to claim that “they are no such things as…”. This doesn’t contribute much to interesting theoretical discussinss. It leads to never ending ontological debates instead (“X exist!”, “X doesn’t exist”,…). Even if I like some of the interesting (re-)descriptions ANT has to offer, I think the danger of ANT is that it is sometimes used as an instrument of ideological criticism based on ontological claims. If used in this way ANT-descriptions might lead to a kind af naive realism: Hybrids and networks are then perceived as a formerly hidden reality, obsured by discourses on “political systems” or “society” (for example). From a constructivist (or: pragmatist) point of view both descriptions have their value because they lead to (different) interesting research questions. We can observe this in the case of science studies: The ANT perspective allows us to reconstruct the materalities, actualities, networks and hybrids of science and look behind the scientificis discourse (what scientist write in research papers). Operative constructivism is interested in how science is able to observe its self as a “pure” communication system, consisting of connected research papers and their (constructed) connections and forget about the messy realities of the laboratory. ANT offers us an alternative to the purified self-observations of science. Operative constructivm shows us (in the language of ANT) how purification works.


  6. but there are literally (poetics aside) no such things as social systems, this is an error of reification/misplaced-concreteness, the power of ANT/STS/post-phenomenology/etc is that at their best they avoid this very kind of bewitchment by grammar.


  7. What makes Luhmann so interesting for posthumanism is that observation is defined in a rather abstract as the diffeence of indication and distinction. Observation as an operation can not only be performed by humans, but also by social systems (like financial markets or organizations) – and maybe even machines. However, according to Erich Hörl, Luhmann never really reflected his own theory as part of a “neocybernetic regime of truth” taking shape in the late 20th century: http://tcs.sagepub.com/content/29/3/94.short


  8. In addition to the replication issue (are we talking about autopoiesis here?), there is also the observation issue. According to Rasmussen:

    “Luhmann’s theory of operative constructivism radicalises hermeneutics by spelling out that observation always involves an observer, and as such it is always biased. An observation (operation) is already an interpretation; therefore it makes no sense to distinguish between observation and interpretation, since all interpretation involves observation” (Rasmussen, 2004).

    *Rasmussen, Jens (2004). FORUM: Textual interpretation and complexity. Radical hermeneutics. Nordisk Pedagogik (3), 177-193. http://www.udel.edu/aeracc/papers/02/RamussenHermeneutics02.pdf


  9. Absolutly! The nature/culture divide as well as human exceptionalism are problematic – especially in our contemporary technological condition. We need theories that are able to address this.


  10. The funny thing about Luhmannian System ist that they are nowhere to be found in any given present. They are only “real” if you take time into account. They constitute themselves through constructions of identity (identical operations). A recent paper of Ignacio Farias expresses some interesting ideas about Luhmannian Systems and how his theory complements ANT.

    Quite like today’s complex technical systems, Luhmannian social system are always buggy and fragile, and must always be “repaired”.

    Technological infrastructure are very important for the enactment of Luhmannian Systems. They create new possibilities for social operations, disturbe social orders and attract new forms of social differentiation.


  11. I find the nature/culture divide hard to sustain, too. Look at the bower birds, the fish that make mandalas, and the nightingale sings in melody. That is art! I love Morton’s work on Dark Ecology–this (post) human that doesn’t make a universe of meaning from human exceptionalism is a productive one, I think.


  12. where/how are we to find Luhmannian systems, by what mechanism are they enacted?
    for me the advances in engineering we are living thru/with are interesting in part because they show that much of the speculative-philo of days gone past was projecting onto
    humans-making- their-ways-in/of-the-world the sorts of massive infrastructures that in fact are just now being manufactured and didn’t/couldn’t exist before and to date are quite buggy with rather poor interfaces.


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