Introduction: Posthuman Bodies – Judith Halberstam and Ira Livingston
By He Xingyu
Introduction to the author and background of the text:
The text is an introduction from the posthuman body, an anthology co-edited by Judith/Jake Halberstam and Ira Livingston. While Judith/Jake Halberstam has already been elaborated introduced in another blog entry about Transgender Butch: Butch-FTM Border Wars and the Masculine Continuum – Judith Halberstam, the other author of this text, Ira Livingston, is currently Professor and Chair of Humanities and Media Studies, the Director of Poetics Lab at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY. He obtained his Ph.D. from Stanford in 1990 and has authored and edited several broadly considered books in cultural theory and poetics, including Poetics as a Theory of Everything (Poetics Lab Books, 2015), Where God Comes From: Reflections on Science, Systems and the Sublime (Zer0 Books, 2012) and etc. 1
“Posthuman” emerged as a social and philosophical wave in late 1980s and early 1990s. Although this theory can be further subdivided into critical, cultural and philosophical posthumanism and new materialism, generally speaking, it can be illustrated as a post-humanism, post-anthropocentrism and a post-dualism, criticizing the conventional understanding of “human” as a fixed notion, which allude that “some human are more/less human than the others” 2, and the western hierarchical structure derive from the ontological tradition of the Great Chain of beings, which grants human a privileged position prior to the other species and natural actors. The anthology was published in 1994, exactly in this context. And it is generally consistent with the posthuman position. The introduction written by Halberstam and Livingston for the anthology serves as a kaleidoscope of insight into the abundant and complex realities in the posthuman era, setting the tone for the rest essays in the book.
Summary of the Text
In the text, Halberstam and Livingston reveal the logic and mechanism of the traditional, hierarchical system, which are based on differentiation and categorizing. In essence, human society is still “a tribal circle gathered around the fire amid the looming darkness,” 3 a stage on which inclusion and exclusion are being performed constantly. The entrenched power means the right to recategorize and to differentiate, and is always ready to scarify (or repress) those who are classified as the “the others”. However, through re-distribution of difference and identity, Posthuman theory enables an alternative to prevent people from becoming victims of this category logic. The linchpin and ethos of the posthuman can be epitomized as some sort of ambiguity and instability, or queering, which resist to be clearly and fixedly categorized. This ambiguous nature of posthuman is illustrated precisely in the part of “someness” by referring to Haraway’s “one is too few, but two are too many” as well as Deleuze and Guattari ’s “n minus one” notion: anti-monologue on the one hand of course, but it also cannot be identified with a simple multiplicity, revealing the apparent variety is nothing other than another trick of differentiation and exclusion. Actually, posthuman is not even an absolute opposition to the traditional system, “no necessary to claim the obsolescence of the human,” 4 but just aims to resist label and fixed category (even a multiple one) and defend the freedom to choose.
To assert the incoming of Posthuman era, Halberstam and Livingston zoom in to different fields and numerate plenty of examples, presenting a shifting and dazzling posthuman world in front of us.
In “Sign Post: Some Posthuman Narratives”, Halberstam and Livingston firstly depict the academic background of posthuman bodily narrative. In contract to a series of “post-ism” that the academia has experienced, which imply some sort of linear consequence and development of thoughts, posthumanism shows a completely different overlapped and contradicted nature. The two authors then use rock show “Zoo TV” made by band U2 as a concrete example to illustrate the same complex, superimposed and ambiguous characteristics of posthuman body and its relationship with media and technology. Media is a good epitome of the human existence. A parallel analogy can be established between the constantly changing image on the screen and the constantly changing desire. Moreover, by using new media and technology, U2 also blur and question the traditional boundary between in and out, fans and star. Although conventionally academia and the pop represent two different poles of culture, but they reach a consensus on the issue of posthuman body: objecting to the historical, monologic and linear interpretation and seeking for a more efficient and appropriate narratives that can keeps pace with the present.
In “Out Post：Some Subcultures without culture: Paris is Burning”, The shifting and complex nature of Posthuman is presented in several levels around the theme of subculture, exemplified by the drag-ball community. On the highest level, the sequence of Vogue (fashion magazine)-voguing (a dance style based on parody and imitation)-Vogue (Song by Madonna) show an interesting transition and interaction between the haute-culture and subculture. On the second level, the different versions of history about the origin of voguing, the one provided by Madonna versus the one presented in Jennie Livingston ‘s documentary, Paris is burning, serves as another endorsement for the non-linear an anti-monologue nature of posthuman narratives. On the third level, the distinction between “performing realness” and “being the real”, the “ideological” discrepancy between “real” gender and anatomy gender within the drag-ball community……what we see is an overwhelming variety of positions and intricated and overlapped identities refused to be clearly categorized: which ruins the last hope to search for a clear unity that conventionally assumed exists in such a marginalized group with significant characteristics.
Moreover, Halberstam and Livingston challenged the paradigm of traditional family in “Family?” by questioning the availability of its psychoanalytical foundation in posthuman era. Psychoanalysis theory emphasize that conventional human reproduction mode, which based on heterosexual intercourse, is the foundation of the human culture. The domestic division of gender roles between Father and Mother influence the formation and d Halberstam and Livingston development of mentality and identity of a kid and further catalyze the social distinction between man and woman and dualism symbolism (prohibition and circulation) in a boarder context. Taxonomical discipline shares the same characteristics of mandates and authority (to set criterions) with the role of the Father and tend to place and classify all the things in order. However, in the Posthuman context, the interconnection between different disciplines makes bodies discourse (and also others discourse) become more and more complex and discursive, refusing to be clearly defined like in the past. In this circumstance, the union of a sperm and egg, the epitome of traditional human reproduction, is repositioned both conceptually and practically. On the one hand, Halberstam and Livingston refer to the Dorion Sagan’s notion “metametazoan” ”as mosaic of microbes（identities） in various states of symbiosis “5, which can better describe the existence of human in posthuman era as an “ecology” consists of multiple overlapped identities than the traditional dualism unity. On the other hand, the traditional human reproduction mode is also practically changed because of its relation and susceptibility to other factors（economics， politics， personal lifestyle and so on ） as well as the disassociation between varieties of sexual practices and reproduction. Consequently, what can be expected is a dissolution of family values, an inefficacy of psychoanalytical approach and a prosperity of extrafamilial relations
In “Aliens”, Halberstam and Livingston refer to two films by David Cronenberg, providing perspectives to rethink the category and notion of “human” self. The Fly shows a scientist’s transformation into a fly with the help of computer program. The outcome of the transforming process is a triple combination of animal/human/machine, which is a metaphor of the posthuman embodiment: on the one hand, it is a negation of the primacy of “human” category over other identities within the body; On the other hand, the miserable result of the combination also alludes that the posthuman embodiment with multiple identities is certainly not an evolutionary improvement, but just a neutral status of beings in a certain moment. Dead Rings shows the disintegration of a pair twin gynecologists after the meet an infertility woman body that they know scientifically but not sexually, the result is what Halberstam and Livingston refer as an implosion of self-sufficient identities/male narcissism, which can also sever as a metaphor of dissolution of the fixed and traditional notion of “human”. When the original apparent unity of identities is broken/challenged, living an identity vacuum that arouse abjection and horror, then It is the time to rethink the old established and invite the
In “Queer”, Halberstam and Livingston refer to queer artist David Wojnarowicz and his book In Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. Unfortunately infected by AIDS and experiencing a death, Wojnarowicz’s personal “disintegration” urged him to contemplate the issue of AIDS body and propose a virus epistemology based on fear and infection. Under the frame of this epistemology, because the fatality, incurability and randomness of AIDS is so powerful and feared that it has the capacity to wipe out all the established categories and substitute them with a new way to identify by measuring one’s distance to infection, “dividing the world into carriers and infected versus the possibly and potentially infected”. It’s a new interpretation on “Foucauldian tactic of ‘discipline and punish’, inspiring fear without laying a finger on anyone” 6. Under the background of AIDS pandemic, no one can be exclusive, just like the photos show buffalo stampeding over the cliff as the metaphor of escaping and abandoning, no place is safe and paradise. By pointing out this virus epistemology, “disintegration” was no more just personal for Wojnarowicz, but for the establishment and hierarchy of the society.
In “Quake: The After Shock”, Halberstam and Livingston use a metaphor, the relation between body and the womb, to reiterate the dialectal relationship between body discourse and external factor: on the one hand, body never leave the womb because of its dependence on the material and discursive network. External factors can affect population, birth rate: There is no absolutely distinction between bodies and material; On the other hand, body is never in the womb, regarding the fact that bodies often determined and operated by system asexually: to take the HGP（Human Genome Project）as an example, which is less a project for improvement of human health than a potential instrument for political initiatives and repressive strategies. Body discourses are always not just about body and sexuality themselves. Halberstam and Livingston also again criticize the established bodily masternarratives, which are too narrow and only authorize limited range of statuses of the body. Therefore, bodily narratives need to be extended in posthuman context. However, it is not about another stage of evolution of body, but about a difference in kind, ranging from changing the topology of the body, participating in cultural marking of the body, changing gender or sexuality, to being cyborgized.
Halberstam and Livingston conclude the text by referring to the imagination of a postcapitalist utopia by Marx – “A world with practices without identities “7, which also may be a best summary of a posthuman envision, in which everyone has the freedom to choose without being fixed labeled.
Halberstam and Livingston depict a posthuman world as shifting, overlapped, instable, ambiguous and dazzling. The same characteristics are reflected in their way to write the text: bombing of examples, constantly changing perspective, overlapped even self-contradict argument， irreverent sense of humor and plenty of ironic metaphors, making it hard to be followed. It seems that they defined the posthuman by deconstruct everything, leaving a conclusion that the only thing we can be certain is that nothing can be truly certain.
Quitting all the attempt to categorize and abstract, what we are going to be faced with are infinite particularities. Still, I’m agree that anti-categorizing nature of posthumanism argued by Halberstam and Livingston does have its positive meaning, especially for our personal daily lives: It prevents us from judging someone simply by labeling and categorizing and reemphasizes the necessity to know and understand her or him specifically and personally. It is easier to exclude a dissident by alienating him or her as an abstract “others “, that’s exactly the same way how a war, a genocide and an FPS games work (to think about the Nazi soldiers with mask and red eyes and Zombies you can kill in Wolfenstein or Call of Duty), but not so easy when you are facing with your friend or neighbor. A return to an understanding based on specificity and particularity, this may be the humanistic potential of posthuman thinking.
However, the importance of the traditional and hierarchical system should not be neglected. The achievements of human civilization are obviously not realized by anarchic and chaotic individualism. In this case, posthuman myth could only serves as a complementary insight instead of a complete replacement to the traditional one.
Reference and Citation:
2. Rosi Braidotti and Hlavajova (eds.), The Posthuman Glossary, (London: Bloomsbury, 2018), p439
3.Text itself, p10
4. Text itself, p10
5. Text itself, p11
6. Text itself, p15-16
7. Text itself, p18-19