«We're not what humanism thought human beings were»
 Begonya Enguix and Josep Martí

Begonya Enguix and Josep Martí

Agustín López
Begonya Enguix, a member of the UOC's Faculty of Arts and Humanities, and Josep Martí, researcher with the CSIC


Posthumanism is a radical critique of humanism and provides a new way of looking at humans that opens up new perspectives for research in the field of human and social sciences. Pensar la antropología en clave posthumanista (Looking at anthropology with a posthumanist approach) is the name of a new book that uses this theoretical approach to study various aspects of reality, such as sexual harassment in the field of science, new masculinities, relationships with other species and the impact of the data society.  

The book is one of the outcomes of a research project involving almost all of the 12 authors who have contributed to it. We spoke to its editors – Josep Martí, researcher at the Spanish National Research Council's (CSIC) Milà i Fontanals Institution (Barcelona), and Begonya Enguix, a member of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and coordinator of the research group MEDUSA (Genders in Transition: Masculinities, Affects, Bodies and Technoscience) – about the various matters dealt with in each of the book's chapters and the impact of posthumanism on current research.  

What is meant by posthumanism in this book?

Posthumanism is a school of thought that dates back to the late 20th century and must be seen basically as an attempt to abandon the views of traditional humanism, which are no longer considered suitable for the current time, such as the conceptualization of human beings themselves. The main aspects that characterize it are post-anthropocentrism and the conceptualization of human beings not as autonomous agents but as part of a nested system of relationships. It is the logical continuation of successive schools of thought that, using arguments wielded in 20th-century anti-humanist critique, have been marked by poststructuralism, postmodernism and postcolonialism.

According to feminist theorist Karen Barad, posthumanism is an onto-epistemology. It is an ontology because it represents a particular understanding of reality. And it is an epistemology because closely related to this understanding of reality is also a particular conceptualization of how knowledge is obtained. And posthumanism also implies a certain ethical position.

How is it different from transhumanism?

Although posthumanism and transhumanism overlap in what's been referred to as the "posthuman condition", posthumanism is based on a deconstructive critique of humanist values and ontology, while transhumanism is a philosophy that supports the use of new technologies to overcome humans' biological limitations but that, from a conceptual point of view, assumes humanist values and conceptualizations in relation to humankind without criticism.

In the prologue, you mention the relevance crisis afflicting the humanities. What does this new approach bring to this issue?

The humanities have been gradually losing relevance for various reasons. One of these is undoubtedly the fact that current neoliberal values don't really match what the humanities can offer. However, another (no less important) reason is that they haven't fully adapted to the changes taking place in the world at dizzying speed. This is where posthumanism comes in, at least in relation to two essential contributions. Firstly, due to its deep criticism and proposal of alternatives to conceptual issues forming the basic pillar of humanism. This has to do with the actual conceptualization of human beings, which under posthumanism is post-anthropocentric and relational. In other words, posthumanism overcomes that old concept of human beings as autonomous and fully conscious and intentional agents at the centre of creation, as a subject for which the rest of creation becomes an object. The loss of humans' central role and the view that we are nothing more than another dot in a complex network of relationships is another argument against neoliberal ideas since, as claimed by Frédéric Lordon, you can't radically argue against these ideas without attacking their metaphysical core, their very idea of human beings. 

However, new approaches and fields of study clearly inspired by posthumanist principles are also emerging within the humanities. Examples include environmental humanities, digital humanities and interspecies studies, not to mention the mutual influence between posthumanism and current gender studies and postcolonial studies.

Posthumanism is said to be a combination of ontology, epistemology and ethics. However, it's also a particular feeling, the feeling that comes from being aware of the new posthuman condition or Zeitgeist of our time. The humanities are thus alive with this new reality, causing them to gradually metamorphose in accordance with the interests and approaches demanded by the posthuman condition.

What is the value of the posthumanist framework for anthropology? How does it help us understand human beings?

Posthumanism is extremely critical of the idea of analysing humankind in anthropocentric and essentialist terms and based on rational thought such as that of Cartesianism. As mentioned above, we're not what humanism thought human beings were. We're talking, by the way, about human beings designed in accordance with Eurocentric and androcentric patterns, i.e. the normative subjects of humanism. Posthumanism rejects an ontological framework inherent in Western civilization that's led to dynamics characterized by exploitation reflected, among others, in the form of sexism, slavery, class prejudice and speciesism. 

Looking at human beings from posthumanist perspectives reminds us that we need to take into account everything that is non-human, be it organic or inorganic, as a constituent part of social life. Venturing into new theoretical directions, as well as re-evaluating well-established study topics in the field of anthropology, leads to new fields of research - such as interspecies studies - and new methods.

How does posthumanism fit in with feminist and gender studies?

Posthumanism is considered a feminist epistemology for a variety of reasons. By questioning binary oppositions between what is given and what has been constructed, between matter and discourse and between that which is biological and that which is cultural, it questions the very essence of the hegemonic Western way of thinking about sex, body and gender differences. It positions the body as a core aspect of social life, following in the footsteps of the corporeal feminism expounded by the philosopher Elizabeth Grosz. And this isn't all: posthumanism questions how (and from what position) we have built that which is human and humanism, taking an able-bodied heterosexual white male as the norm and benchmark for all human beings. In other words, it questions masculinist and androcentric (in addition to anthropocentric) universalism and the fact that a specific idea of "man" has come to represent humankind as a whole. 

Revealing how we've constructed that which is human emphasizes the instances of subordination, violence and exclusion resulting from this limited concept of human beings, excluding women, racialized people, people with diverse sexualities and gender identities and anyone who doesn't fit the standard idea of "human". Furthermore, this idea reduces many human beings and all non-humans to invisibility based on an idea of humanity that is marked by anthropocentrism, androcentrism, ableism and ethnocentrism.

The so-called new masculinities are addressed in several chapters of the book. One of them focuses on the young inmates of three prisons in Catalonia. What is the most significant conclusion you have reached

Paco Abril Morales and Alejandro Sánchez Sicilia, authors of the chapter on "Locked-up masculinities. A posthumanist approach", show how masculinities are (de)constructed in context, in specific situations and in men's relationships. In prison, a gendered space with a preponderance of hegemonic and dominant masculinity, young male inmates are constantly (re)asserting their masculinity. Sometimes they have to reinforce tough and violent stereotypes to survive and create hierarchies. On other occasions, they act under identities that bring more caring values into play. Despite the extremely complex and difficult setting when it comes to acting according to alternative and dissident models of masculinity, more inclusive masculinities emerge too, just like they do in society as a whole.

In another chapter, the book analyses "silences and things that never happened" in research. Can you please give us an example of this and explain why it is important to study?

Teresa Samper Gras, author of the chapter on "Subversive questions. Are the things that don't happen important for the new feminist materialisms?", sees sexual harassment in the field of science as an archetypal example of silenced and invisibilized realities. Harassment is a material behaviour that affects women's bodies (and those of other marginalized people) and often results in the victim facing not just the abuse itself but the denial of her lived experience. The chapter raises the question of who wants these harassment realities to remain unknown and analyses how power intervenes in the distinction between important and unimportant things. Subversive questions, i.e. questions about things that those in power don't consider important, have to be asked, because they are the truly relevant questions in social research. These questions and the research that develops around them must be used to go beyond the reality that those in power want to impose on everyone else such as, in this case, the view that sexual harassment isn't important and doesn't affect how science is carried out.

Once harassment has been given visibility - by sharing it on social media and departicularizing it on knowing that it's an experience shared by many women - it's no longer "something that never happened". The next step is to think about the lives of harassment victims and ask what things never happened precisely because of the abuse to which they'd been subjected, such as being unable to pursue a career in science. This is why the proposal states that research must make it possible to expose the material realities of powerless and marginalized people.

The book also analyses the neoliberal influence at university. What are the implications of "female scientists / entrepreneurs / businesswomen" on the current university science environment?

Agnès Vayreda Duran, author of the chapter titled "Essay on an approach to subjectivity from the point of view of relational ontology: the case of 'scientist entrepreneurs'", shows the relevance of identifying the processes giving rise to subjectivity so that it can be studied as another possible setting for social transformation. By focusing on subjectivity, in this case what she refers to as "female scientists / entrepreneurs / businesswomen", we can link together issues affecting the current scientific-academic setting that are scattered in a variety of areas such as political and economic beliefs, practices and regulations that stipulate where science is to be carried out and what it should look like. 

The issues relating to the promises of renewal and innovation involving a certain degree of "economy of science" thus involve mainly creating "new" subjective figures for researchers in which human subjects are once again placed at the centre, concentrating on themselves, together with the assumption that scientists are undertaking a manly heroic mission for society. This is how the idea of "female scientists / entrepreneurs / businesswomen" is linked to a liberal humanism that is exclusive of any other possible options.

The book also contains a reflection on robots. What are the issues affecting the role of personal relationships with robots?

The subject of robotics, and particularly social robotics, is one of the fields of interest for posthumanism, particularly to the extent that it involves challenging subjectivity models, to the point that the field of academia has coined the term robophilosophy. In one of the chapters of the book, Francesc Núñez questions what kind of love and sex are possible with a robot and discusses the limits of emotional relationships between human beings and anthropomorphic AI robots. The possible relationship between a person and a robot can go beyond one that's seen as merely prosthetic. The author starts by taking such sexual and emotional relationships as a real possibility. They can be rewarding not just in terms of sexual satisfaction but also from an emotional point of view: after all, these robots can be considered true emotion machines. However, the author also wonders to what extent any possible sexual and emotional relationship between a person and a robot can affect or influence the person's relationships with fellow human beings.

The book also discusses relationships between animals and people in Western societies. What is meant by a "relationship of affinity", and how can it be used to understand this phenomenon?

One of the consequences of post-anthropocentric thought inherent in posthumanism is the rethinking of relationships between humans and other animals. Anthropocentrism is characterized by, among other things, its view that humans are exceptional compared to the rest of creation (exceptionalism) and its belief that humans are the only species of moral importance (speciesism). According to Jason Hribal, all other animals are simply the lowest working class. This should make it easier to understand that an interclass and just society can never be achieved without taking them into account. It's in this context that we must consider the idea of "relationship of affinity" applied to non-humans, which is developed by Mara Martínez in her chapter of the book. This term refers to strong and lasting relationships between humans and non-human animals with which they share not just many moments of everyday life but also tastes and feelings. The term serves to explain a reality that, in spite of not being new, posthumanism is very interested in conceptualizing.

One of the chapters in the book addresses religion from a posthumanist point of view. Why do you think that both Buddhism and transhumanism will be the religions of the future?

In his chapter, Jaume Vallverdú seeks and draws parallels between tantric Buddhism and technoscientific transhumanism as vehicles for human transformation: the former using spiritual technology, and the latter using scientific technology. The author starts from the premise that the future is technological, and it's in relation to this that he talks about Buddhism and transhumanism as the religions of the future: Buddhism because of its use of technologies such as meditation; and transhumanism because of its interest in scientific technology conceived to overcome our biological limitations. Both transhumanism and tantric Buddhism can thus be seen as a form of technohumanism, with a rational basis and expressed with technology, which includes spirituality and the application of scientific methods and principles.

Another author discusses Scientology and its use of its followers' data. What does this research tell us about the use of data in today's society?

The research carried out by Vitor Hugo Adami based on his Church of Scientology fieldwork clearly shows how we're gradually becoming reduced to mere data that are being manipulated, configured and processed through mass data. In the case of Scientology, this is the case to such an extent that the author of the chapter describes it without hesitation as a data-based religion. Data thus become a high-priority focus point, even displacing humans from their central role in the social sphere. It's a reality in which the "quantified self", i.e. self-knowledge through numbers, is gradually gaining ground. This can be clearly seen in everyday actions such as the pursuit of sport, fitness or healthcare, where people use data-generating technologies to track themselves.


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