what posthumanism offers

I'm looking back over Hayles' My Mother Was a Computer as I'm teaching it later this semester in my grad class, and I've been thinking about how to explain to my students what posthumanism might offer. Discussions about posthumanism, at least in my experience, often echo older conversations about "the death of the subject" from an earlier postmodern age. They reflect familiar discourses about technology that establish a binary where either we control technology or technology controls us (or maybe "others" control us through technology). And finally they take up age-old concerns about declension and media that started with the Phaedrus and are still going strong.

So here's the angle I've been taking with this issue recently in my classes.

At some point, probably in the morning, you woke up from sleeping. At that time you became conscious, then a series of events ensued that led you to reading this sentence right now. During that interval, you likely made many decisions. We have all experienced the subjective sensation we commonly call "making a decision." And I would suggest that on some level this is a common human experience that predates recorded history in some ways. In fact, on some level, animals also "make decisions," but often we say such decisions are based on instinct, though I wonder how my dog's decision to sleep on one side of the couch rather than another is "instinctual" or if there are other forces at play there.

But I digress.

For a very long time, we have attempted to describe, name, and explain this phenomenon of decision-making. I think that if you asked the average American, they would view their ability to make choices as a reflection of a divinely-granted free will. I.e., we have the capacity to make free decisions b/c a god made us that way. And the point isn't so much whether this is wrong or right, but rather that it is an attempt to explain why we do what we do. If we are free-willed why do we buy potato chips when we know we shouldn't eat them? The problem of temptation and desire has always been there. What causes us to act irrationally? So of course we have the unconscious, ideology, and media theories in the 20th century to try to develop an explanation of this notion of will/agency and how it works. I always thought the concerns about the "death of the subject" were curious. If the theory is wrong and humanistic notions of free will are in fact true, the fact that someone made this argument will not change anything. All any of these theories can do is attempt to explain how we function with the idea that a new understanding might benefit us.

Posthumanism is part of that. It is a recognition of the plastic nature of our congnitive processes and conscious mind. Composition is deeply intertwined with issues of cognition, agency, information, and media. Any composition pedagogy, either implicitly or explicitly, operates out of conceptions of these issues.  Posthumanism gives us a way of thinking about this that leads us out of the binaries of either/or agency. As Hayles argues, "human cognition, although it may have computational elements, includes analog consciousness that cannot be understood simply or even primarily as digital computation. Speech and writing, in my view, should not be seen as predecessors to code that will wither away but as vital partners on many levels of scale in the evolution of complexity" (55). 

Through posthumanism we can investigate the compositional process as one that is embodied and analog but also networked and computational. Undoubtedly, emerging technologies are changing the ways we write. Marc Prensky has just argued that it opens a new kind of wisdom. Maybe, maybe not. But posthumanism as a theory doesn't really change our consciousness or agency, it just (maybe) gives us a better way of understanding the things we do.