Distance as a Positive Principle: posthuman

Seminar Three October 14th & 15th 2010 The Open University
Distance as a positive principle: posthuman literacies
Sian Bayne, School of Education, University of Edinburgh
The close entanglement of student writing with the workings of digital technologies suggests
that it might be fruitful to explore the insights of critical posthumanism as a way of thinking
through the new literacy modes. Posthumanism works with anti-essentialist critiques of the
nature of the ‘human’, re-thinking ‘human being’ in terms of its amalgamation with the ‘nonhuman’ – what Hayles (1999) has called ‘a material-informational entity whose boundaries
undergo continuous construction and reconstruction’.
Such a reading of the nature of the human moves beyond sci-fi notions of the cyborg, to
consider what Edwards (2010) has referred to as ‘the constant material entanglement of the
human and non-human in the enactment of the world’. While ‘bioconservative’ critiques of
posthumanism (for example Fukuyama 2002) focus on the incursions of biotechnology and a
re-statement of humanist principles in relation to our understanding of ‘human nature’, others
see the posthuman as being a simple re-statement of Cartesian principles (Badminton 2003,
Hacking 2007). Still others see it as offering us a chance to make a critical move in terms of
the way we think about essentialism and our relation to our technological worlds:
A critical posthumanism extends the now well-established critique of the
reductive but effective categories of human/animal, nature/culture. But it
also…attends to the way in which ideas of the human, nature and culture
continue to work even in accounts which suggest their implosion.
(Castree and Nash, 2006)
How might these ideas extend into an understanding of what it means to teach, or to be
digitally literate? Edwards (2010) suggests that it re-positions teaching in terms of
‘responsible experimentation’, and asks us to re-think educational purpose as ‘a gathering of
the human and non-human to establish matters of concern’. It would seem that the digital
mode is an ideal place in which to experiment with applying such ideas, and to that effect this
paper will draw from theories of the posthuman to explore how we might re-think literacy in
terms of disaggregation, reaggregation and ‘gathering’. How might course design reflexively
and explicitly engage with fragmentation to destabilise and challenge not only notions of a
unitary learning self, but also the assessment and literacy practices built on such notions?
Theories of the posthuman will be explored and linked with questions of student identity,
agency and literacy, using research and practice on the online MSc in E-learning at the
University of Edinburgh as a way into formulating how we might engage with a critical
posthumanism as teachers and practitioners in higher education.
Badmington, N. (2003) Theorising posthumanism, Cultural Critique, 53, 10–27.
Castree, N., and Nash, C. (2006) Posthuman geographies, Social and Cultural Geography, 7:
4, 501-504.
Edwards, R. (2010). The end of lifelong learning: A post-human condition? Studies in the
Education of Adults, 42/1, 5-17.
Fukuyama, F. (2002) Our posthuman future : consequences of the biotechnology revolution .
London: Profile.
Hacking, I. (2007) Our neo-Cartesian bodies in parts, Critical Enquiry, 34, 78-105.
Hayles, N. K. (1999) How we became posthuman : virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature,
and informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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