Conclusion: the Neocybernetic Posthuman
Conclusion: the Neocybernetic Posthuman
Abstract and Keywords
Posthumanism recognizes the human as one among numberless other situations of complexity. Human technologies have produced a hypercomplex environment for which humanist distinctions between the natural, the human, and the technological are increasingly nonfunctional. Cybernetics has allowed us to embed mechanisms within our bodies and to insert vast mechanical and computational systems into the world around us. The posthuman does not transcend the human as the discourse of the human has imagined transcendence; it is rather the neocybernetic posthuman transcends the vision of disconnection that isolated the human for so long in its own conceit of uniqueness. The neocybernetic posthuman is the human metamorphosed by reconnection to the worldly and systemic conditions of its evolutionary possibility.
To return a last time to Latour's term, narratives of bodily transformation are nonmodern—at once archaic and posthuman. The narrative metamorphs of every era are allegorical beings that index systemic complexes. Their altered bodies convey the materialities of their own mediated being and the forms of the psychic and social systems in the environments to which their media couple them. Narrative mythopoesis is a nonmodern reflection on the human as a nexus for a complex embedding of systems and environments with operational concurrence but without overriding operational unity. Despite the garish predictions of cyberdigital gurus, there will be no lingua franca or metacode into which all corporeal and systemic phenomena can ultimately be translated.1 Visions of organic abandonment through digital convergence mystify the posthuman.
In contrast, with Luhmann the neocybernetic posthuman starts here: “There is no fundamental common ground among systems.”2 What is the case is a common relation of difference: the system-environment (p.194) distinction. Autopoietic systems of whatever kind must observe their environments across operational boundaries. But the operations that carry observations out are strictly internal to each system. Luhmann continues about the operational closure of system processes in Social Systems: “No system unity can exist between mechanical and conscious operations, between chemical operations and those that communicate meaning. There are machines, chemical systems, living systems, conscious systems, and (social) systems that communicate via meaning; but no system unities encompass all these at once. A human being may appear to himself or to an observer as a unity, but he is not a system.”3 Posthumanism cognizes the human as one among numberless other situations of complexity—a productive disunity tasked with the quest, different for every psychic and social system, of working out a viable coordination of its systemic and environmental multiplicities.
In this study we have contemplated fictive images of systemic merger—the classical image of the human along with its perennial mythopoetic projection, the metamorph—as allegories of the reality of systems distinctions. The emergence of languages, of mythic and literary narratives, are primordial social responses to the forms of limitation and inaccessibility instituted by the necessary separation yet functional combination or structural coupling of distinct yet interpenetrated, coevolving systems. The basic gesture of mythopoetic metamorphoses is the construction of images and narratives of merger among functionally coupled but operationally closed systems:
the merger of physical and psychic systems in the form of gods, spirits, and demons
the merger of living and psychic systems in theology's immortal soul
the merger of distinct psychic systems (souls) in the erotic sublime
the merger of physical and living systems in vitalism's life force
the merger of physical, neural, and mechanical systems in the robot
the merger of living, psychic, and mechanical systems in the cyborg
the merger of distinct genetic systems (species) in the metamorph
The system reference that goes unmarked in each instance is the social system, for which each mythopoetic cluster functions as a viable communicative offer, generally in a narrative medium. The neocybernetic turn on these fabulations is to understand such assemblages not as images of fusion (p.195) that reduce the multiple to unity, but as constructions that achieve narrative viability as complex signs of interpenetrations that integrate while maintaining systemic differences. On the level of biotic systems, Margulis and Sagan have been eloquently arguing for over two decades about the natural metamorphoses of biological evolution: “All organisms of greater morphological complexity than bacteria, that is, nucleated or eukaryotic organisms (whether single-celled or multicellular), are also poly genomic. They have selves of multiple origins … comprised of hetero logous different-sourced genomic systems that each evolved from more than one kind of ancestor.”4 On the level of metabiotic systems, Luhmann writes: “Consciousness compensates for the operative closure of the nervous system, just as the social system compensates for the closure of consciousness.”5 According to the best scientific and social theorizing at my disposal, the discrete merger of separate systems into hybrid consortiums is the way the world works. In that case, stories about imaginary versions of them are effective narrative compensations for the contingencies of systemic closure that remain once the mergers have been accomplished.
Mythopoetic assemblages from the Sphinx to the Brundlefly to the construct offspring of humans and aliens convey images of the necessary hybridity—the multi-sidedness—of any form of identity. The neocybernetic posthuman joins with Archean evolution and premodern premonitions of bodily metamorphosis to observe that the noise and heterogeneity generated by the self-maintenance and self-reproduction of systems, starting with living systems, are the price of their ongoing existence as well as the cause of their eventual cessation or subsumption into posterior forms.
Human technologies have produced a hypercomplex environment for which humanist distinctions between the natural, the human, and the technological are increasingly nonfunctional. Cybernetics has allowed us to embed mechanisms within our bodies and to insert vast mechanical and computational systems into the world around us. But regardless of the extent to which we impose such devices upon ourselves and the planet, high-tech instrumentality in and by itself does not transcend the human. A notion of the posthuman worth the name, capable of affirming our ongoing viability as a species, begins once we coordinate our systems with the geobiological world's instrumentalities as well, as it were, (meta)symbiotically. The organic bodies and ecosystems we impose our technologies on are not beneath us but beyond us, even while all around us, even while sharing us with (p.196) an environment as yet fit for life. Whether it wants to or not, humanity will have to post itself to the Gaian conception of its embeddedness within geobiological phenomena that are planetary and cosmic in scope. It will earn its continuation only by metamorphic integration into new evolutionary syntheses.
No system can subdue or contain the entirety of its environment. Systems are possible only within environments that entirely surpass them. Nature and technology share similar systematic contingencies regarding the boundaries that enclose the operation of systems and embed them within contexts greater than themselves. Thus the posthuman does not transcend the human as the discourse of the human has imagined transcendence. Rather, the neocybernetic posthuman transcends the vision of disconnect-ion that has isolated the human for so long in its own conceit of uniqueness. The reconnections called for will not be fusions that dissolve autonomies but couplings preserving operational differences. The neocybernetic posthuman is the human metamorphosed by reconnection to the worldly and systemic conditions of its evolutionary possibility.