"Re-humanizing the Posthuman (a.k.a. Pinocchio's Dilemma)"

From Robo Culture Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search

Armando Alfaro

February 25, 2008

In the 1987 film Robocop, one of the mistakes made by the creators of the crime fighting cyborg is to assume that Robocop is, in the literal sense of the word, posthuman. Murphy, the deceased police officer that becomes the prototype for Robocop, is eventually acknowledged by the cyborg as part of his own identity by the end of the film, even though Robocop’s creators never expected the human ‘remains,’ to borrow a term from Neil Badmington, to creep back into their posthuman creation. This acknowledgement, by the cyborg, of his human element, comes after a long process of self-discovery by Robocop, in which, to once again turn to Badmington, the thing has ‘worked through’ itself.

The last thing Robocop’s makers want is for their cyborg to engage with its human components, just as some theorists would prefer their posthumanism not to engage with questions of humanism. But, just as Robocop’s engagement with the human, Murphy, leads him to eventually ‘save the day,’ so too can posthumanism’s engagement with humanism lead to new ways of thinking about, and being in, the future, as Badmington explains.

The Dance of the Opposites, by Sridhar V. Ramasami
The Dance of the Opposites, by Sridhar V. Ramasami

Badmington goes on to say that some cultural critics have been too quick to see posthumanism as a shift away from what ‘makes us’ human, into an entirely different way of being in the world, through science and technology. However, not only does this point of view deny the humanism that ‘remains’ in posthumanism, it also leaves assumptions intact about what makes us human under humanist thought, or, in the preferred language of some posthumanists, what made us human. Moving beyond boundaries and binary oppositions is what is essentially at the centre of Badmington’s arguments in his article “Theorizing Posthumanism.” Discussing these issues will be the focus of my presentation today. I would also like to draw from a couple of popular culture texts as examples, most notably Robocop, due to its familiarity to the class, and also expand on the concept of embodiment, which is briefly brought up by Badmington, but which is nevertheless important to an understanding of the mind and body dualism that is present in both humanism and posthumanism.

Consider for a moment this socially constructed binary: Men and women are opposites. Even if one were to look specifically at biological difference, arguably the only place where actual difference exists between males and females, there is still no strong reasoning behind the construction of men and women as opposites, and yet, it has taken decades for gender studies to move beyond thinking about men and women as opposites (though it is still a widely held popular belief), and instead focus on the structures that create the illusion of a dichotomy between the two. Likewise, humans continue to be placed on the side of nature, when debates about technology versus biology are brought up.

In consideration of posthumanism, questions arise about the implementation of binary opposites, and their usefulness, when attempting to move forward with a clearer understanding of what it means to be posthuman. Too often in posthumanism, there seems to exists a choice between man or machine, nature or technology, which seeks to polarize those who allegedly support posthumanism, and look to move beyond the body, from those who feel that humanism must not be lost in the age of the computer. What is not often considered, and what Badmington attempts to make clear about his position regarding posthumanism, is the fact that man and machine are not binary opposites. The opposition created between the two exists as a false dichotomy, much like the male/female gender binary, which attempts to police the boundary between the self and other, so that the self (and the human) may have ultimate ‘mastery.’

Returning to Robocop we can see this false dichotomy deconstructed. Robocop does not bring opposites together by uniting man and machine. Rather, the union of human and robot in the form of the cyborg serves to point out the similarities between the two agents, and ultimately allow for a space where the posthuman subject can emerge. For example, the twirling of the gun before being placed in its holster is a trait that Murphy had, that Robocop also has, but which cannot be attributed to one or the other, since it is the signature ‘move’ of the television cop T.J. Lazer, and both Murphy and Robocop have the motor skills and learning abilities to adopt such a feat of showmanship. Not only does the audience question the humanism that seems to be part of Robocop in this instance, but the humanism that was part of Murphy before he was shot and killed – what was it that made Murphy truly ‘human’ in the first place? In a sense, the similarities between Murphy and Robocop point to the fact that the human has always been machine, and the machine has always been human.

Badmington points out that the prefix ‘post’ in posthumanism receives too much emphasis from those who wish to discuss posthumanism as a form of being beyond the human, or ‘after’ the human. Using the example of modernism and its relation to postmodernism, Badmington quotes other cultural theorists that look at postmodernism as, in many ways, an expansion of modernist thinking, not a replacement of modernism. The same can be said of humanism and posthumanism: one does not begin where the other one left off - they have, in a sense, always been part of each other, and they continue to be. It might be too simplistic to believe that humans could see ‘sings of life’ in a different form of technology, without that form having traces of humanism.

Again, in returning to Robocop, one can see these concepts at work. Robocop does not simply allow the audience to question the differences created between humans and machines, as previously mentioned, it also opens up a space where the posthuman subject is not beyond the reach of humanism. In a way, what takes place is more of a re-working of the ideas of humanism, not a dismissal of them. It is more of a re-humanism, than it is a post-humanism.

'Hobocop,' a close relative of Robocop
'Hobocop,' a close relative of Robocop

I would now like to shift focus and expand on an aspect of Badmington’s article that is, in many ways, central to the existence of the human/posthuman subject: embodiment. As pointed out in the article, “I think, therefore I am,” Decartes’s famous assertion of human beings’ mastery over their own existence revolves around a mind and body dualism that also appears to run through much of humanist and posthumanist thinking. That is, with thinking and the mind defining what it means to be human, the body merely serves as a ‘vessel’ through which this information passes. However, as ‘the machines’ become smarter than the humans, it appears that those looking to still police the boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ look to the flesh and blood body to assert some sort of humanism, for the mind appears to no longer ‘belong’ solely to humans in the way the body still does. It is here where I think interesting parallels and oversights exist in regards to the way in which the human and posthuman subjects are conceptualized, particularly in popular texts.

Beginning with Robocop, it is important to note that it is not until the police helmet has been removed, and Murphy’s face has been revealed, that a ‘true’ sense of the human subject in the machine is established. It seems that both Robocop and the audience need physical evidence (as false as it ultimately may be) in order to truly believe in a human presence – perhaps the mind has been fooled too often into thinking it is human, and now only that which exists as a concrete entity, the body, exits in order for us to believe in the ‘remains’ of humanism. After all, Frankenstein’s creature, as posthuman as it was, was still an amalgamation of, quite literally, human remains. As much as the body, like the mind, may fool us into believing in the presence of a human (like the replicants in Blade Runner), the mind and body split still allows for further questioning of the boundaries and dualities of humanism that eventually leads one back to question the boundaries and dualities found of posthumanism at the same time.

It is interesting to see this body-centric humanism being reinforced in other, perhaps more ‘unlikely,’ cultural texts as well, possibly one of the most surprising examples being the children’s tale of Pinocchio, the wooden puppet that sought to become a ‘real boy’ someday. Although Pinocchio is considered to be very much alive in the story, despite being made entirely of wood (a posthuman subject), he still does not feel ‘real’ or authentic enough, unless he can obtain a body of flesh and blood like the other children. Pinocchio’s ultimate reward, in some versions of the story, is the acquisition of a human body, which finally renders him a ‘real’ human being. In Pinocchio, like in Robocop, though humanism may seem to reside in the mind, perhaps it is ultimately in the body where the real human is to be found.


Decartes’s “I think, therefore I am,” may remain intact to some extent, but in a sense this ‘being’ does not guarantee that what you are is human – in an age of technological overload, it looks as though only the human body may in fact guarantee a humanist element, even if the human body in found only in traces, as in the case of Robocop. Despite the emphasis placed on the mind and thinking, it seems that the flesh and blood body signals what it means to be human, much more now, perhaps, than in the time of Descartes, for it appears to be a recurring motif in narratives about human/posthuman subjects. Ultimately, like all other binaries, the distinction made between the mind and the body, and questions as to where the ‘human’ truly exists, may ultimately function the way other false dichotomies do, and overlook the fact that, regardless of difference, the fact that other technological bodies exist, in much the same way human bodies exist, is what is central to the argument.

As Badmington concludes, posthumanism may work to recognize, among other things, the fact that humanism is already in ‘disharmony’ with itself. Posthumanism is not able to shake off the remains of humanism, nor should it attempt to, since both concepts work to keep one another ‘in check’ in the face of an uncertain future. To move beyond boundaries and binaries should perhaps be the goal of posthumanism, as frightening as that may seem to humanists whose sense of self is violated by the machine. Likewise, posthumanism should make an effort to move beyond its own boundaries and binaries, and come to terms with its humanist components, instead of attempt to dismiss humanism as a way of thinking that is stuck in the past.

This ‘all or nothing’ approach does not allow for the creation of new, dynamic ideas in posthumanist studies. It is, after all, this mindset that leads to so much unhappiness in the life of Pinocchio: to be a ‘real boy’ requires the body of a human, and not until he receives it, does Pinocchio feel whole, or complete, as a subject. The policing of boundaries and binaries continues, and just like the wooden Pinocchio limits himself by placing so much significance on the human body, so does posthumanism continue to limit itself, at the other end, by overlooking the humanism that it has inherited.

Personal tools
Bookmark and Share