The Human is Not a Prosthetic Being

Much of my current work draws me toward various posthumanist endeavors that displace human consciousness, the subject, and the rational individual as the unquestioned unit of analysis of the humanities–the category for this kind of work on this blog is the deliberately awkward (Post)Humanities.  Nonetheless, I still read, think and write about what, if only for descriptive purposes, are human bodies, the child’s being foremost among them.  I want to clarify that there is no contradiction here.  Posthumanism is not an exhortation to no longer study humans, or to abandon the category of the human altogether (although I would embrace a potential future in which the human no longer exists as such; it’s just not going to happen while I’m writing my dissertation).  Posthumanism, broadly speaking, is conceptual permission not to study the anthropomorphic, which has the effect that any analysis of the human will be just as transformed by its project as the study of animals, things, objects, affects, or matter.  Put better, the study of the former will necessarily incorporate the latter.

A recurring obstacle to this project is the notion of the human as prosthetic being, by which I mean the human born incomplete, vulnerable, inherently unfinished and so requiring processes of prosthetic enhancement.  My serial essay “Regarding the Generation of the Child” details a host of overlapping ways in which the very concept of children’s growing up into adults is an example of this prosthetic assumption.  Children are incomplete adults–incomplete humans, in other words– and their prosthetics come in the form of education, pedagogy, a biopolitics that manages their bodies in growth, and technology.  In this way, ontogeny once again recapitulates phylogeny: the evolutionist telos of the human as an animal with tools is recapitulated in the rearing of infants into children and then, finally, adults, their formation (a synonym for training in French) as human.  Humans are imagined born as dangerously vulnerable blank slates, so that it falls, frequently, to culture to provide prosthetic enhancement as compensation.  This is hardly an affirmation of human bodies at all.  On the contrary, it is a pretty miserable postulate for the ontology of the human to suggest that we are incomplete beings.

Lacan’s mirror stage is one of the master texts here, for it establishes the human as a fundamentally incomplete being, one in need of the prosthetic of an Imaginary-Symbolic entry into culture–the prosthetic taking effect in the circulation of the Phallus– in order to compensate for what he terms the human’s “premature birth,” the period of vulnerability of childhood that, in Lacan’s estimation, is far more prolonged in humans than in other species of mammal.  Lacan’s retrospective presumption of “le corps morcelé” (the body in bits and pieces) of the child before the misrecognized coherence of the mirror stage assumes, in its retrospectivity deduced from the fragile coherence of the adult body, the very incoherence that is then compensated for by the ego: children are corporeal evidence of the lack justifying their development, whether sexually or in the establishment of the body as ego, for they are always already and only on a path of becoming whose terminus is the adult, the complete human.  Even the perversions, regressions or other perverse digressions of adults back into the “pre-Oedipal” stages presume a developmental priority of the adult form as the only possible terminus of the human.

My dissatisfaction with this prosthetic account of the human in the case of thinking the child takes issue with its function as the justification for linear teleologies of development that make human culture the transmission of the self-same, without difference, from generation to generation– a prosthetic, after all, is separable from the human, transferable, able to be sutured to each new child born, as the phallus incarnates. The child can only be a passive tabula rasa requiring the imposition of form from without if the adult is a priori presumed to represent the completion of form and the child is presumed to be its lack.  When the adult is conflated with the completed form of the human, we are left with a perilously narrow version of the capacities of our bodies, not to mention the rest of the nonhuman actants that populate our milieus.

My suspicion is that the fragile coherence of the adult human in Lacan’s retrospective imposition of incompleteness actually indicates the overwhelming of the human by all of the nonhuman actants that already infect and pervade its existence.  Psychoanalysis is not completely wrong, then, but just locates agentive processes in the wrong place by presuming human consciousness as self-causing when, as Deleuze and Guattari remind us, the unconscious is not an orphan, but self-generated, fully immanent, and relatively indifferent to subjects in its ebb and flow.

I follow a new materialist, posthumanist orientation that subtracts anthropocentrism from this equation to open up the human as a remarkably unspecial being among (literally) countless others.  In such a flat ontology such as Spinoza’s, in which there is a single substance, there are no prosthetic beings, human or non human; there are also no absolute self-enclosures to use in order to hide in fantasies of sovereignty and control over nature or technology.  Instead of a principle, the human becomes a slippery variable, at best a descriptor, one that will, hopefully, eventually lose its purchase altogether.

Until it does, I propose:

The human is not a species, or a form.  It is, at best, a contingent consistency, a part-object circulating amongst a multiplicity of other part-objects, all nonhuman.  The human is a derivative of nonlinear processes of vicarious causation, a secondary effect of primary nonhuman economies like affect or mattering.  The human is only the narrowest of captures of what constitutes the bodies, machinic assemblages, and other metastable systems and ecologies which pass through it, only the slightest bit impaired.  The human is a focused point, a data-point, perhaps, in the words of Patricia Clough, that, while evincing its own agentive range of capacities to affect and be affected by the other points in a larger matrix, is not born incomplete.  The human is endlessly (re)made by its itinerancies, vulnerable only in the sense of never even approaching a fantasy of mastery and control over its milieu.  There is nothing incomplete here, for there is no truthful standard of being against which to measure the human.  The human is only one element in a larger becoming that is indifferent to its traumatization by the persistence of the human, all too human fantasy of being special, being separate, being alone, being incomplete.  A trauma we could do without.


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