Posthumanism and disability

By Dr Suzanne Cowan

Posthumanism is a theoretical term that has informed my research and has some really interesting implications for disability.

Posthumanism insists that ‘human identity’ is always in flux, and changes with time and place. And this is where it gets interesting for disability, because historically, ideas of what it means to be human have often not included people with disabilities. The human, as it is classically understood in western culture, is drawn from 18th and 19th century ideals. Posthumanist theorist, Rosi Braidotti, describes the standard for what qualifies as ‘human’ as: male, white, urbanized, non-disabled, speaking a standard language, heterosexual and living in a reproductive family unit, and “… a full citizen of recognised polity”. So, then we can understand that human status is ranked according to how closely we fit that norm. When we move away from that norm of being ‘human’ we occupy a lower ranking and are more likely to experience discrimination and have to fight for our human rights. We are also more likely to be known for what we are not i.e ‘disabled’ than for what we actually are.

Not all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that. Some of us are not even considered fully human now, let alone at previous moments of Western social, political and scientific history. (Braidotti, 2013, p. 1)

Posthumanism offers a different framework. It insists that human identity is always in flux; the scope is much wider and more equitable. It offers the fairly radical premise that human beings are not actually the centre of the universe or even of our own planet. In fact, we occupy a place in a rich ecology of intelligent beings including artificial intelligence, robotics, and reproductive technologies. This approach is radically inclusive and maintains we are living in an era caught up in a complexity of contemporary science and debates about the sustainability of our planet.

I would argue that we need a framework that values all life which has huge ramifications for how we move forward as a species, AMONG, other multi-species. The self, subject, person, citizen, is fully interconnected into capital, technology and communications that shift us to real and virtual spaces and places. We also have a response-ABILITY to develop an ethics that reflects this interconnectivity and systems that respect it. What this means is potentially a radical economic and ecological review. However, before we change the world (or perhaps we are already ARE changing the world) as people with disabilities with access requirements, we can look more deeply into our own conceptions of humanity or posthumanism.

Posthumanists challenge identity politics by holding that identity is fluid, every changing and ever evolving. And this is where it is contentious with identity politics and disability rights politics. As a minority group, people with disabilities should be entitled to equal rights and equal access to society but this is often argued for within a humanistic paradigm. As Braidotti says, humanist offerings come at a price: they are enshrined through a marking of those that count as human and those that do not. Hence, the ideology underpinning humanism perpetuates a hierarchy where people with access needs tend to be at the bottom. On the other hand, Posthumanism recognises that we need productive alternatives that reflect our interconnectivity as a species, valuing all life forms. This means not only shifting our understanding of the human, but re-thinking our relationships with our environments, our world and human and non human inhabitants on our planet. In doing so, we are forced to re-think our understanding of disability and what it means to be part of a much larger ecological continuum. Rather than the exception, and being defined in terms of what we are not we are always, already IN relationship.

As a paradigm for thinking about and understanding our place in the world posthumanism offers a radical departure from seeking out fixed categories to place ourselves in, in the hope of getting some recognition.