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Assemblage Theory digital rhetoric Posthumanism

the ends of posthuman computer vision

There’s a 2004 video interview of Katherine Hayles conducted by Arthur Kroker for C-Theory, where she discusses How We Became Posthuman, Writing Machines, and My Mother was a Computer. Her 1999 book traces the posthuman back to the beginnings of computers and cybernetics. Considered differently though, posthuman theory as we encounter it gets some start with Foucault but really comes to the fore in the 90s, in other words during the decade Hayles is writing this book.

There’s a moment in the interview (right around the 18-minute mark) where she halts an exchange they’re having about Baudrillard to make a claim: that the age of postmodernism ended in 1995, specifically in April of 1995, when the first viable version of Netscape was released. In effect, the web makes mundane the kinds of techno cultural effects that were shocking and counter-intuitive in the postmodern age. She suggests that we then entered a new age, which we might call posthuman or “the regime of computation” (or something else).

I’m not entirely sure what to make of this claim about the relationship between theory/philosophy and history, but I want to take it up in a provocative way. At the very least, it suggests that the posthuman age that follows the postmodern would end at some point when its concerns ceased to be concerning. I wonder if we are already there or if we can at least imagine how it might end.

If, in 2004, the regime of computation was somewhat realized, it was a future that was not evenly distributed. In 2021, perhaps we can say that we have passed the shock of abiding in a world with a digital-computational stratum (to use a term from A Thousand Plateaus). Certainly we continue to have political, ethical, and moral concerns with computation. That’s not the point. The point is that we no longer find it shocking to be connected all of our waking hours to an always-on, global, computational, digital media network comprised of billions of machines.

My point isn’t that we should stop using the term posthuman. That’s not an argument worth having. I mean we’re still using the term postmodern to refer to the current moment, right? What is maybe curious to consider is what it would mean to see ourselves as being in a post-posthuman age. While posthuman has never been a centrally operative term in my work (preferring assemblage theory and actor-network theory), we’ve been dealing with the concept for at least 20 years. In rhetoric, JAC: the Journal of Advanced Composition had a special issue on posthuman rhetorics in 2000. As Muckelbauer and Hawhee wrote then,

There is an enormous difference, for example, between the postmodern claim that we have moved from the regime of the real into that of the simulacrum and the posthuman claim that the real is structured by simulacra. The first claim is the story of a fundamental epochal or conceptual change, and even the most sophisticated responses tend toward a bittersweet nostalgia over what has been lost (à la Fredric Jameson) or simply the insistent demonstration of this change (à la Jean Baudrillard). The second claim, however, offers no such progressive story: the real does not disappear or become more readily malleable (or hyperreal) simply because it is structured by simulacra.

“Posthuman Rhetorics: ‘It’s the future, Pikul'” p. 769

Put more succinctly, it is not the precession of the simulacrum, as Baudrillard (or The Matrix) would have it, but the arrival/expansion of a digital-computational layer/stratum with the attendant assemblages that weave across the strata. And we just are no longer shocked by the mundanity of another selfie or another social media troll or the several hundred times we are caught on camera each week or whatever.

So when I think about this term “posthuman computer vision” I am wondering if the name signifies its passage. That is, the basic premise that our visual capacity is a posthuman condition arising from our intersection with digital-computational nonhumans is not shocking. And perhaps, as Hayles suggested 17 years ago with postmodernism, we need a new term for a new age. I don’t have one to offer. This idea just struck me today.

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