What is human in the twenty-first century?

From increased forest fires to data harvesting; decolonization, internet trolls, mass protests, viral videos, viruses, climate refugees, transnational corporations, twitter, fast fashion, reddit, artificial intelligence. We bow to the all-mighty cat video while marking ourselves safe from acts of terrorism on social media. Scrolling endlessly, scaling rapidly, we dissolve and reform within global movements of information, energy, and ideas.

As the twenty-first century marks the close of its adolescence it is mired in turmoil. Growing tension between ‘the global and the local’ vindicates the cultural prevalence of ‘make great again’ rhetoric, prompting either vehement agreement or genuine confusion about this aspirational past-greatness to which we hold our present captive to. A sort of skeptical nostalgia blankets over our imaginings of a future, and an undercurrent of cynicism gathers at its base.

The twenty-first century is thus both a point of departure and steady muse for this thesis and the explorations contained within. It is the future dreamed of for decades, but not far removed from the pains of the past. And this question – what is human – is a broad and labyrinthine one. It is a question which no single thesis may ever aspire to answer, and a question which no one person may ever wholly comprehend. Yet claims to human, or to be more human than ‘the rest’, mark our histories with scars that will never fully heal. These are the cyclic fictions demarcated by the exteriority of a term such as the ‘other’, with its implications in building up the glorified myth of a universal human subject.

Central to this universalistic posture and its binary logic is the notion of ‘difference’ as pejoration. Subjectivity is equated with consciousness, universal rationality, and self-regulating ethical behaviour, whereas Otherness is defined as its negative and specular counterpart. In so far as difference spells inferiority, it acquires both essentialist and lethal connotations for people who get branded as ‘others’.1

This version of ‘human’ is entrenched in declarations of human exceptionalism and is indebted to the humanist human of the Enlightenment (read: reason and consciousness = unique being, man-as-universal-body). A view of ‘human’ long criticized yet lingering as a pervasive germ in the continual racism, sexism, exoticism, colonialism, nationalism, and xenophobia present today.

To come at this question in contemporaneity, this thesis aligns with the trajectory posthumanism2 offers, “seen as a post-exclusivism: an empirical philosophy.”3 Sparked by the suppressed margins of society, posthumanism finds a base in critical race and feminist theory of the mid to late twentieth century. Yet, its criticality is not bound to history. In asking us to rethink what it means to be ‘human’ and whether or not the aspiration ‘to be human’ is the one we will continue to ascribe to, posthumanism dismantles all claims to universality and essentialism; liberating us from reciting the same hierarchies if we so choose.

The term ‘posthuman’ marks a crucial paradigm shift. It is a shift which has been gathering speed for many decades. With the looming climate crisis forming a fitting backdrop for the revival of boundary-war nationalism, most evident in Trumpian “build the wall” sentiments; growing discontentment with international organizations, seen in the splintering off of Britain from the European Union; and the rise in populist rhetoric on the global political stage. It has become increasingly clear that the human-centred systems which we believed to be self-regulating4 – which we devised and fed as the all-knowing, all-seeing humans that ‘we’ are – had boiled over decades ago and is now producing an acrid sort of stench. The acrid sort of stench one might associate with the petroleum industry or apathy.

The quicker we understand ourselves as implicated in a system larger than our-self(s), the quicker we are to understand that our past and future are marked by ongoing processes of migration, intercultural intensities, and blurred identities, then the better our future looks. The posthuman body is one of subversion. This lack of a baseline – bodily and culturally – contributes to a fundamental and exquisite lack of universality. Embracing this difference, without feeling a loss is our next challenge. While we might agree having a place to sit is ideal, the body which yearns for a place to sit might now be altered, itself.

We all have bodies, but not all bodies are equal: some matter more than others; some are, quite frankly, disposable.5


Note: This piece in an excerpt published in the author’s masters thesis titled the Artifacts of No-Place, found on pages 19-22. The full document can be downloaded here.

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[1] Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman Polity, 2013, 15.
[2] Post- in posthumanism is less so referencing a ‘beyond’-human than an ‘after’-humanist-human. It is distinct from but encompasses and intersects with other discourse such as transhumanism and anti-humanism,
[3] Francesca Ferrando, “Posthumanism, Transhumanism, Antihumanism, Metahumanism, and New Materialisms: Differences and Relations”, Existenz, vol. 8.2, 2013, 29.
[4] This term ‘self-regulating’ is taken from N. Katherine Hayles’ book How We Became Posthuman, where she presents a cybernetic history of how information lost its body. It is used to analyze the consequences of extrapolating between living systems and machine systems conceptually and linguistically, from homeostasis and feedback loops, to autopoiesis, to emergence. She argues for the need to re-embody our informational systems or run the risk of “being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality... human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one of which we depend for our continued survival.” N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 1-13.

[5] Nina Lykke and Rosi Braidotti, eds., Between Monsters, Goddesses, and Cyborgs: Feminist Confrontations with Science, Medicine, and Cyberspace (London ; Atlantic Highlands, N.J., USA: Zed Books, 1996), 136.