Speculative posthumanism (SP) is concerned with the prospect of a posthuman reality emerging from the technological alteration of the human one. This technological focus comports with a general concern with human-made futures that don’t include us. Outside fiction, our moral concern for a nonhuman future is prompted by the theorised potential of technology to drastically alter us or our environments.
Thus qualified, SP claims “there could be powerful nonhuman agents that arise through some human-instigated technological process.” More precisely, posthumans are wide human descendants of humans who have become inhuman through some technical process.
The concept of wide descent avoids bio-chauvinism. We don’t know where posthumans could come from or how. “Wide” descendants can come from any part of the “Wide Human” of humans and their technological objects, a system on which we depend much as it depends on us. Your toothbrush is wide human, as are you and your pet pig.
Its emphasis on technogensis means that SP is often conflated with Transhumanism That’s an egregious mistake. Transhumanists, like classical and modern humanists, hope to cultivate human capacities such as reason and creativity with advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence or germline genetic engineering. Transhumanism is an ethical claim to the effect that technological enhancement of capacities like intelligence or empathy is a good idea.
SP, by contrast, is metaphysical. It says only that there could be posthumans; not that they would be better than us, or even comparable from a moral perspective. (Roden 2012a; Chapter 5).
This does not mean that SP is morally inconsequential but the metaphysics and epistemology of the posthuman drive the ethics, not vice versa.
So how can we put bones on the thought of a nonhuman wide human descendant? A posthuman?
A plausible condition for any posthuman-making event is that the resulting nonhuman entities could acquire purposes not set by humans – and that this autonomy is due to some technological alteration in their powers.
I call this claim the “Disconnection Thesis” (DT). The core theoretical construct of SP.
DT says posthumans are feral technological entities. Less roughly, an X is posthuman if and only if X or its wide human ancestors originated in “Wide Human” but now acts outside of it (Roden 2012; Roden 2014: 109-113).
DT understands human-posthuman differences without being committed to a “human essence” that posthumans will lack. This is a feature rather than a bug because if there is an essential human nature nobody knows what it is. So best get by without it. 
Becoming posthuman, then, is a matter of acquiring a technologically enabled capacity for independent agency.
DT is multiply satisfiable by beings with different technological origins and very different natures or powers (e.g. artificial intelligences, mind-uploads, cyborgs, synthetic life forms, etc.). This is as it should be since there are no posthumans and no substantive information on them, yet.
Nonetheless, DT has philosophical commitments which can be approached with varying stringency. The key variable is agency.
Disconnection is stipulated to only involve agents.
This is to avoid the trivial consequence that any formerly useful part of WH becomes posthuman when it ceases to have a human function. Hulks, ruins and discarded mobile phones are not posthumans because none exhibit agency following their loss of human-centered function.
However, the concept of an agent can be relatively constrained or liberal. I refer to a version of SP with a constrained agency concept as “bounded”; with a relatively liberal one as “unbounded”. In the later part of the talk we will take unbinding to the limit and see what we find.
Posthumanism with constrained agency usually conforms to some moral conception of human life and is often indistinguishable from transhumanism.
For example, in Posthuman Personhood Daryl Wennemann adopts a Kantian, rationalist conception of agency. He holds that true agency is personhood. Being a person requires one be answerable to reasons or in the space of reasons. A person must be capable of reflecting on “himself and his world from the perspective of a being sharing in a certain community.” A person is reflective subject capable of belonging to a moral community, bound by norms of action etc. (Wennemann 2013, 47)
This stringent concept implies that, whatever the future throws up, posthuman agents will be social and, arguably linguistic beings like us, even if they are robots or computers, have strange bodies, or even stranger habits.
A (First) Unbounded Posthumanism (UP1)
However, we can also can frame much more liberal agency requirements which need not involve the capacity for self-evaluation though social norms or rational autonomy.
The agency concept I introduce in Posthuman Life only requires some degree of what I refer to there as “functional autonomy” Roden (2014, 125-141).
This minimal agent is a self-maintaining system. Its functional autonomy measures its capacity to exploit the world to survive while becoming useful in its turn for other things. A drastic diminution of functional autonomy is a reduction in power that, for us, is experienced as harm. Arthritis of the back or limbs painfully reduces freedom of movement. Gaining new skills or becoming fitter increases functional autonomy or one’s capacity to affect and be affected (DeLanda 2006: 50).
However, we could envisage posthuman entities with equivalent or greater functional autonomy to us who do not satisfy the conditions for personhood or rational autonomy because they cannot answer to communal principles or norms.
To bring the implications of this home I’ll focus on the special, monstrous instance of the hyperplastic.
I call an agent “hyperplastic” if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to its body or structure without compromising its capacity for hyperplasticity.
Now, it is possible to argue that if certain assumptions about the relationship between physical and mental properties hold, a hyperplastic agent would be uninterpretable for us.
The assumption in question is modest. An antireductionism for which our mental life depends on our body’s physical state without being reducible to it or inferable from it.
If mental life cannot be inferred from physical facts about a creature or vice versa, a hyperplastic would have no use for concepts of belief, intention or desire; for it would never be able to infer what it would believe or want following a self-intervention. Nor would it be able to preclude that some intentional state would be deleted by another self-modification. Thus, the common-sense psychology underlying our communal attachments would be useless to hyperplastics.
The limit of functional autonomy, or of plasticity, then, is not an immortal superhuman but something almost infinitely capable yet devoid of mind and meaning. An entity inciting comparisons with the disgustingly shapeless Shoggoths that Lovecraft depicts in his novella, At the Mountains of Madness – or maybe Cthulhu himself.
As stated, hyperplasticity is an ideal limit, what is interesting is whether we can approach it. Significant hyperplasticity may not be possible in worlds like ours.
However, its introduction here is intended as salutary not demonstrative. To show that our conceptions of agency and subjectivity may be too parochial to travel far beyond our ecological niche. As a route to posthumanity hyperplasticity would constitute an instance of what the deranged and deranging protagonists of R. Scott Bakker‘s ultra dark thriller Neuropath call the “semantic apocalypse” – the point at which the scientific predilection to eliminate meaning washes back on us (Bakker 2010).
If this, or an equivalent derangement of subjectivity and agency is possible through disconnection, then bounded posthumanism is false and some regions of posthuman possibility space may be quite as weird as the “abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy” hinted at in Lovecraft.
Before considering the implications of unbinding for our understanding of human-posthuman disconnection, I want to consider some complementary justifications for unbinding posthumanism with a lax as opposed to a stringent agency concept.
The first plank is the thesis concerning “dark phenomena” (See Roden 2013, 2014, Ch4).
Dark phenomena are contents or structures of experience such that having them does not confer much or any understanding of them. For example, we seem to experience time as an open flow into the future. Many philosophers have thought that this flow is a condition (technically a “transcendental condition”) of experiencing objects and worlds. Phenomenologists like Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty have argued that we can have grasp this structure in experience and thus understand of the structure of objectivity in any world.
But if temporality is dark, experiencing it is philosophically useless. For example, although this flow seems continuous we cannot know it is continuous without analysing it at ever finer grains. This seems to be as much beyond our powers of attention and memory as remembering very fine differences in colour.
So, if lived time has the features it needs to give access to a world, its structure must elude us in much as the fine structure of matter does. If its structure eludes us, then how can we know it gives us worlds. How can we even know what a world is? Doing phenomenology can’t tell us what phenomenology is or can do. Our consciousness is at best a shadow or “cartoon” generated by systems having no truck with subjectivity or meaning (Bakker 2010; Metzinger 2004).
The second plank is aimed at pragmatist arguments which, like Wennemann’s, seek to show that serious agency requires participation in linguistic or cultural practices.
Explaining subjectivity and agency in terms of shared practices requires a prior account of how certain behaviours get to be evaluable as practices. I’ve argued that the most plausible account is to claim that behaviours are evaluable wherever a competent interpreter would judge them to be so.
Unfortunately, this doubles subjectivity in such a way as to unbind it again. We have a first order subject accounted for by its participation in social practice. We have a second order, interpreter-subject presupposed but not explained by that first account. “[In] principle interpretability is ill defined unless we have some conception of what is doing the interpreting.” or what their competence would involve (Roden 2014, 128; See Roden 2017a).
The common thread here is that bounding constraints invoke untamed, wild principles which cannot be regimented or reigned in. This form of argument is inspired by Jacques Derrida’s method of deconstruction. His close readings of philosophers like Kant, Husserl, J L Austin, were designed to show that their claims about consciousness, form or meaning required an excessive element outside their systems. For example, meaning requires repeatably usable symbols. Derrida argues that such repetition only works if symbols can also be abused or misused. So no symbol can be defined by fixed rules of use. Which is the same as saying there are no meanings, no semantic essences (Derrida 1988).
SP, Deconstruction and the Philosophy of the Limit
Deconstruction is a form of what Drucilla Cornell refers to as “The Philosophy of the Limit” (POL) – as is the process of constraint peeling that I call “unbinding”.
POL’s strip away the artificial constraints that make the world in our image, layer by layer, concept by concept. What remains, as in deconstruction, is something other than a world, and perhaps something other than philosophy, but an encounter with a remainder or non-meaning that philosophy cannot recognise or conceptualise without coming apart (Kolozova 2014, 99; Cornell 1992).
Let’s Break Worlds
Reconsider the minimal agency model of unbound posthumanism. We should call this Unbound Posthumanism I (UP1) since yet more unbinding is necessary if we are to take this to the limit.
In UP1 all agents are assumed self-maintaining. But what is it to maintain oneself in the most general sense? What is it to take care of yourself? Getting paid? Getting laid? Getting married? (Hval 2015). Is it a tendency to preserve a certain organic boundary or core temperature? But why assume that posthumans have fixed tolerances, state blankets or operating parameters?
The extremum case of the hyperplastic suggests otherwise. Hyperplastics would lack structural invariance beyond the bare fact of hyperplasticity itself. They would not be self-maintaining in any sense that connects with the biological forms we know about. Above all, entertaining the possibility of a hyperplastic means thinking about agents we could not see, interpret or recognise as agents.
Can we even think of an agent that we cannot recognise as an agent?
The problem ramifies to a dilemma, a conversation between the monsters Philosophy Scylla and Philosophy Charybdis:
- Scylla – the criteria for attributing agency do not apply to all agents since hyperplastics are unrecognisable as agents. Thus, the concept agency extends beyond our capacity to recognise instances of it.
- Charybdis – Scylla, this seems absurd! How does any concept have an extension it is not applicable to. Being an agent must be coterminous with being recognisable as an agent. Thus, hyperplastics would not count as agents according to first principles.
However, opting for the whirlpool Charybdis does not save us from ruin if, as argued independently, the concept of agency can only be elucidated by some wild principle of subjectivity. We are simply left with tired quietist gloop like “agents are the things we call agents relative to ‘our background practices”.
Given the issues raised by speculative posthumanism this merely throws us back on a debatable human and an even more debatable (and threatened) human community.
Thus, the arguments for unbinding posthumanism also threaten the ontological clarity of the disconnection thesis, not least by implying that the Wide Human system is just another reification, another tautological assertion of human privilege.
Like the adult sea squirt, UP1 eats its own brain and becomes UP2.
UP2 leaves the theory of human/posthuman disconnection disconnected, without empirical or metaphysical purport. To some this might seem a pity. UP1 seemed about to flower into Lovecraft’s vacuum of cosmic pessimism. Yet unbinding reverses this futurist/cosmist bent
But if unbinding is justified (and I’ve indicated that it can be) posthumanist philosophy is at an impasse; not only because the speculative posthuman is undetermined in advance (that we knew) but because DT is disconnected from any rules which could identify disconnections when and where they occur.
To some extent, this was already true of the standard formulation of speculative posthumanism. As we noted, DT doesn’t provide any information about posthumans. Even with UB1 the only way we can acquire substantive knowledge of posthuman lives is through an event of synthesis or engineering: making posthumans, becoming posthuman.
This, I think, is the ethical impasse of the posthuman, of modernity even. If we unbind the posthuman we cannot deliberate on becoming posthuman without pre-empting our deliberation. A “major” or “state politics” of disconnection is consequently impossible since the voices that will contribute to the decision cannot be fixed independently of challenging the very composition of voices (Roden 2014, 179-182).
Posthuman prospects can be identified or evaluated only by doing. As Steven Shaviro asks:
How can we come to terms with forms of “knowledge” whose very effect is to change who “we” are? How do we judge these disciplines, when they undermine, or render irrelevant, the very norms and criteria that we use to ground our judgments? (Shaviro 2012: 15)
UP1 referred to an abstract event of technogenesis that could not be decided within any pre-existing ethics or politics precisely because only the event could produce the conditions under which it could be retroactively assessed. What changes with the new unbinding (UP2) is that there is no longer a distinction between wide or narrow human or between wide human and posthuman to regiment its content.
However, the problem of pre-emption has not gone away – our fatal entanglement with a planetary technology that is inhuman not because it is made of metal and plastic or lithium or silicon, but because its totality is not compliant to to norms. It is not even an autonomous monster ruled by impersonal principles of efficiency (Roden 2014, pp. 150-165). Its hypertrophy is contrary to any end or transcendent order.
With this historical and semantic background in view, I want to enlist Derrida again by describing disconnection as “a differential function without an ontological basis” (Derrida 1984, p. 16).
This formulation, which originally applied to Derridean textuality, is intended to reaffirm the affinity I broached earlier between unbound posthumanism and “philosophies of the limit”.
Deconstruction like other POL’s suspends philosophy’s assumption of sufficiency or competence, just as unbinding appears to cede philosophy’s relation to futurity.
In what remains of this talk, I hope to use this affinity or analogy to rethink the relationship between UP2 and its real, and thus to begin to understand the pull, ethical or otherwise, of the posthuman in a world of ramifying technics.
We can illustrate this with two of examples of Derridean terms that are drawn from the phenomenology of subjective time: différance and trace.
Différance (which utilises the homonymy between the French verbs for differing and deferring) indicates a slippage between the now and an undetermined future. This present is always “vitiated” by a not yet which undermines its stability (Derrida 1984, 13–17).
The “trace” is the remnant always susceptible to this modification or destruction through the passage to a new state.
Both refer to a bending back (fold, pli) that can never be given and is thus inconceivable and unpresentable. They split and fold subjectivity irrevocably.
Since they are not experiencable, Derrida will re-use them to discuss other folds or splits in biological, linguistic and social structures, not just minds. The account of the trace can thus be reused beyond its origin to motivate a form of speculative materialism, a deconstruction of matter if you will. For example, in his Radical Atheism: Derrida and Time of Life Martin Hägglund (2008) reads the trace as the inherent destructibility of any material mark or entity. Nothing in time can be closeted in the now if it is not to be stuck in a changeless present. Everything is hollowed by “a relentless displacement in everything that happens” (17).
Différance and trace thus slip and slide beyond the field of subjectivity much as disconnection slips beyond the philosophy of the posthuman future.
However, it is arguable that even this extra-philosophical status is insufficiently radical as an analogy for the caesura between UP2 and philosophy. For unbinding gives us almost nothing to think other than the fact of techno-political pre-emption. An abstract event that has no formal status comparable to différance. It is an ungiven given of the posthuman predicament, not an abstract condition for it.
As Francois Laruelle, has stated in his Principle of Non-Philosophy, deconstruction still abides within the assurance of philosophy’s ability to adequately think about the structures of meaning and temporality (This is best put in Bakker 2016). This becomes more obvious if we consider that différance and trace, like the unbound repeatability of symbols, are transcendental lubricants, ensuring that the system will function, that it will be legible, meaningful, adaptable, plastic etc. But the legibility of the future or our trajectory towards it is at issue in the posthuman. SP is an attempt to address the long-run implications of technological modernity which, unlike transhumanism, rejects the transcendent moral status of the human subject or person as well as any subject-like or language-like transcendental organising principles. Thus, unbound posthumanism is immanentist insofar as it brackets hierarchical conceptions of this “long-run” (Dubilet 2017, 232-3).
This context is incomplete or open because the planetary engine is non-purposive, counter-final, not a project. It voids itself without ever having an itself. This implies a potentially instructive analogy with a second POL: Laruelle’s own Non-Philosophy, of which very inadequate sketch follows:
Non-philosophy goes further than deconstruction by suspending what Laruelle calls the “philosophical decision”, a term for any philosophical analysis of the real into form and content, structure and the empirical stuff external to philosophy that it exploits in making up its constructions (Laruelle 2013). For Laruelle, as for Richard Rorty incidentally, Derrida doesn’t abandon this mixture-making but simply treats the unconceptualizable trace as yet another organising principle for the empirical field of non-philosophical stuffs.
In contrast, Non-philosophy does not attempt to think or conceptualise the real at all.
The real is no longer a topic – as is the case with traditional realism – but the unthinkable medium or “One” in which all philosophical decisions operate.
Thought is not bonded to the real by concepts or relations of reference. Rather all varieties of thought are actuated by the real in a unilateral relation of pure passivity. In this, as John O Maoilearca has argued, all forms of thought are equal since there is no transcendent meta-thought that can organise the real only a series of clones or mutant copies that are produced by the Real without being able to conceive it (O Maoilearca 2015).
Philosophy has no privileged status as a means of accessing the world in Non-philosophy. It is just another raw material for performances which could be artistic, political, erotic, poetic or inhuman or posthuman etc. in a field devoid of anything beyond simulacra of transcendence – much as unbound posthumanism holds. Philosophy is a marionette that dances to strings suspended from an invisible point, like the “clown puppet” apparition that keeps returning for no reason, floating before the hapless narrator of Thomas Ligotti’s horror story of that name (Ligotti 2008)
Using non-philosophy as our model, posthuman disconnection may be conceivable as an instance of the non-transcendental marionette or clone. Disconnection, as we have seen, remains to be specified through its production and thus cannot be intentionally related to its object. The concept posthuman does not think a world, but is rather part of a world or planetary thinking that has always eluded philosophy. Unbinding does not think a world but is another project of intellectual evisceration, manufacturing dolls out of subjects that were never alive in the first instance.
I think this analogy is potentially fruitful because it explains how the posthuman can be understood in the first instance as a performative principle, a differing that operates contingently through humans and nonhuman agents, a differing cloned in unbinding.
As in UP1, becoming posthuman is not transcendence, it is differing, but now it is everywhere. We can desire it, fixate upon it, find erotic or aesthetic pleasure in it (and I fess up to all of these). but all these manifestations follow on from a ramifying hypermodernity that is neither disease nor emancipation (One thinks of Derrida’s pharmakon, equivocal poison-cure).
We understand this pharmakon through the limits of philosophy, the fractured frames and broken faces it leaves on the Earth’s surface – although, in philosophical terms, there is nothing of substance to understand.
If this picture differs from Laruellian non-philosophy it is firstly in motivation. I don’t take the illegibility of the posthuman to be a foundation or axiom of a system or non-system, as Laruelle seems to do, but a consequence of unbinding which can be justified in some detail. Secondly, I don’t think of this planetary disconnection as outside relation or as having any special appurtenance to some primitive experience of radical human identity (See Kolozova 2014). There’s no primitive oneness or mystical gnosis of immanence here, nothing that we want to apply the name “human” unless in moments of sick and disgusted humor. There’s just the heaped trash of broken frames and dead-faced puppets.
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 A more precise way of putting this is to say that posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans who have become nonhuman in virtue of a process of technical alteration (Roden 2012; 2014).
Posthuman making could involve reasonably well understood interventions into the biology of reproduction such as genetic editing, or exotic technologies for copying and “uploading” human minds onto powerful computer systems. There are no posthumans, or so it seems. Thus, we are currently ignorant of their mechanisms of emergence. Of course, neither gene editing nor mind-uploading might be feasible posthuman makers while some other, wholly novel technology might be. The term “wide descent” is employed as a neutral descriptor of a historical relationship; one that could be mediated by some technical process or processes to an arbitrary degree.
 There are good empirical as well as philosophical reasons for being methodologically anti-essentialist. There is little empirical evidence that there are traits that all humans share (like being rational or having the ability to use language.) while the possibility of a human transition implies that some humans are not essentially human in any case. So SP implies that even if there are essential properties of humanity they impose no constraints on us and thus might just as well not be there.
 Perhaps, then, we should determine the limits of posthuman weirdness. It is, in a sense, our weirdness, a potentially Shoggothic modernism. Yet speculation on the weird won’t tell us how weird we or our wide descendants could be. It only inscribes the limit, like Wells’ fragment from the forgotten future. To account for ourselves – and for our modernity – we need something tighter, more rigorous, assured.
There are no posthumans to date (or appear to be none). So, there is no way to fix the bounds of posthuman weirdness by observing wild posthumans. In any case, isn’t morality about pre-emption. We want to understand the scope for weirdness before it manifests. What we seem to need is future proof knowledge of the degrees of posthuman weirdness and boils us away.
Since it would be wholly non-empirical it would have to analysis of our concepts – the kind of thing that professional philosophers are supposed to be adepts at. The catch, here, is that countenancing this method also means rejecting realism in its most radical forms. If reality may vary independently of our thoughts about it, pure conceptual analysis will tell us little about its scope for variation. If there are bounds on posthuman weirdness discoverable a priori, reality must exhibit partial mind or concept-dependence.
Following Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy in the 18th Century, the most common means for establishing such future proof bounds are transcendental arguments. Transcendental thinking is supposed to tell us something about the subjective conditions of experience, meaning and knowledge. Kant is the first philosopher to suggest that knowledge and experience have such conditions. His idea of a transcendental subject is a set of conditions for unifying experience under forms of judgement. Later philosophers have cited the experience of being a centred body, the continuity of experienced time, or being a language user among such invariant conditions.
 They are derived from transcendental arguments without “transcendental entities” or “transcendental causation” (Wood 2001, 312).
 Différance is an alterity that “protrudes from unity” and thus its disunifying power retains the assumption of philosophy’s sufficiency or probity (Laruelle 2013, 54).
 But this embedding in modernity means that it is a response to structural condition in technical modernity: industrial scale abstraction auto-catalysing outside control; abstracting beyond compliance to merely human norms (Roden 2014, Ch7).
 Which, like Well’s afterworld in Chapter 11 of the Time Machine, may contain anything “we” could easily recognise as thinking, acting or feeling (Dubilet 2017, 232-3).
 If it were a complete thing and functioned according to deterministic laws, we could model it with precision and could control it by simulating our interventions in it.
But the model of technology is an extra piece of technology. It is not outside the process it models. Any complete model of the technological system would thus need to include a model of its itself and its interactions with other parts and; so on with higher order models, without upper limit. Moreover, each model would be iterable across sites within the system according to the principle of industrial abstraction. Thus, any model of at any order would need to model mutations of itself that, due to alterations of structure or context, could accrue different behaviours to the original.
 One might cavil here. It’s far from clear that removing transcendental order suffices for equality. Maybe the democratic rhetoric of Non-Philosophy is inflated.