Sometimes, it feels like our world is becoming more dystopian by the day. Many of us stepped outside into cities engulfed by wildfire smoke or smothered in heat domes this summer, and the sci-fi-like rise of artificial intelligence raises concerns over how it will reshape the job market.
So, are the science fiction and dystopian novels that touch on these topics cautionary tales? Or are they blueprints for change, charting a way forward to a better world? If you look at the media through a posthuman lens, the answer is both.
What is the posthuman?
The posthuman, or posthumanism, is a philosophical concept used to explore questions about what the world is and what it could look like if humans weren't the central characters. Applying those questions to science fiction or any type of literature or media can help us understand how to achieve better futures and avoid worse ones.
"Posthumanism extends our moral concern to people and things different from ourselves," says Lisa Yaszek, a Regents’ Professor of Science Fiction Studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication (LMC). "It allows us to see ourselves as enmeshed in, rather than distinct from, the greater web of being. Posthumanism invites us to think outside traditional human categories of race, gender, or nationality; beyond the interests of our species; and across conventional divisions between animal, human, and machine."
Zita Hüsing, a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in LMC, says that questioning our often human-centered hierarchy can lead to a more holistic and environmentally-friendly understanding of our surroundings.
"The posthuman is a response to the idea of anthropocentrism, that everything in the world revolves around humans no matter if animals suffer or forests are burned down,” Hüsing says. “It pushes against that idea that the human is key and says, 'No, actually, everything matters.'"
This fresh perspective on the interconnectedness of the world encourages us to change the questions we ask of it, Yaszek adds.
"Rather than asking how much we can produce and sell, we ask, 'What do we need so we all have enough?' These questions are central to the modern social, environmental, and reproductive justice movements, and, increasingly, to scientists and engineers as well."
“The world, meaning human society and culture, works on us in complex and not always obvious ways. Therefore, the human individual is not at the center of things. Instead, we are within a complex web of forces and influences that we are a part of both as recipient and participant.”
— Jason Ellis, LMC alumnus
Why contemplate the posthuman?
Exploring the posthuman helps us redefine what it means to be human in the face of new and emerging developments, Hüsing says, whether those are advances in artificial intelligence (AI), a mass extinction event, or anything in between.
Hüsing teaches a class on AI and science fiction and has written on topics such as the posthuman in HBO's Westworld and dystopian technology in Netflix's Black Mirror. While any media can be viewed through a posthuman lens, Hüsing uses science fiction in the communications classroom because it addresses posthuman and dystopian concerns while also engaging STEM majors.
"Engaging with science fiction and dystopian texts can make us feel more scared, but they can also help us to take action, which is what I'm hoping for," Hüsing says. "So that is how I teach the texts: as a call to action."
For example, examining AI in science fiction can help inform ethical decisions when creating real-world technologies by prompting engineers and scientists to question how the technologies can be more inclusive or better consider factors of class, race, gender, or disability.
Science fiction can also serve as a cautionary tale, an idea we can observe in Octavia Butler's 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, which warns us about the consequences of human pollution and climate change. However, the book also motivates us to invest in the research of sustainable technologies, Hüsing says.
"By exploring an author like Butler, we can be reminded of our responsibilities to create a better world overall," she explains.
“Once we see that organic and technological matter aren’t natural opposites, but historical constructs that can be changed by human intervention, this new perspective allows us to start thinking about how other seemingly natural oppositions: human and nonhuman, male and female, Black and white, human and nature — are also constructs we can renegotiate and change.”
— Lisa Yaszek, Regents' Professor of Science Fiction Studies
Posthumanism in the Classroom
Logic isn't the only tool needed for problem-solving. The School of Literature, Media, and Communication champions "humanistic perspectives in a technological world," meaning that considering the person who will use the product is just as important as the product itself.
"Posthumanism enables new perspectives on self and others, which are an essential part of the Ivan Allen College mandate to develop globally aware, culturally-minded leaders to tackle the wicked problems of the 21st century," Yaszek says.
Discussing media through a posthuman lens reminds students that new technology can have far-reaching consequences — social media and democracy, anyone? — that must be evaluated during the design process. Consuming science fiction and dystopian media sparks students' creativity and helps them develop the communication skills they need to ask the big questions in their careers, Hüsing says.
"For example, when it comes to AI, what we do next is really important," Hüsing says. "I hope my class can nudge students towards becoming responsible creators, responsible makers of AI. Because they're the ones who will create it."
Why do humans imagine dystopian futures?
"We formulate all kinds of stories to make sense of the world around us and what we may face in the future," Foster says.
He explains that humans are drawn to dystopian literature because we live in an imperfect present and tend to idealize the past. Imagining greater suffering in the future can make our present feel not so bad compared to the "good old days."
While utopian literature has existed since the 1500s, dystopian media only took hold in the public imagination in the more recent past, Yaszek adds. Specifically, "when it became apparent that industrialization, modern technologies, and world wars really could result in the end of human civilization as we know it," she says. There's a reason for that.
"Humans are drawn to dystopias because they are cathartic," Yaszek says. "Imagined dystopias are virtual laboratories where we test out worst-case scenarios. We can acknowledge and work through our anxieties about science and society and then return to the real world refreshed with new perspectives to tackle the wicked problems at hand."
How does the posthuman support feminism?
The philosopher Rosi Braidotti wrote that feminism was one of the "precursors of posthuman thought" since both approaches attempt to replace "discriminatory unitary categories" — such as anthropocentrism — with alternative ways of thinking, Hüsing explains.
"In the essay, Haraway notes that our newly intimate connections with machines foster newly intimate connections with other people across race, gender, and economic boundaries. This invites a shift in perspective, as we realize we are connected, rather than opposed, to those people and things that initially seem so different from us," Yaszek says. Haraway encourages affinity politics among feminists — putting aside cultural or historical differences to work together to achieve shared goals.
"It's a very complex but flexible and dynamic political model, driven by the posthuman insight that we are all actors within larger networks of being," Yaszek says.
How does the posthuman support social justice?
Jason Ellis is an LMC alumnus and an associate professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY, where he coordinates the City Tech Science Fiction Collection. He studies the intersection of social justice and science fiction and co-authored a chapter on the posthuman in science fiction with Yaszek.
Ellis points to Charles Darwin’s work on evolution as a key supporting argument for the posthuman.
“By revealing that humans have evolved over billions of years and will continue to evolve in the future, Darwin showed that humans are like all other life on Earth — biological organisms which change over time in response to environmental shifts and sexual selection,” Ellis says. “We’re not special or above other life: we are part of a greater whole.”
When we apply this thought process to the human species, we see there is no ideal or perfect human form, Ellis explains. Rather, our uniqueness is part of our humanness, where people express their gender and sexuality in various ways, and differences between people of diverse races or ethnicities are only skin-deep.
“If we truly embrace all of humanity from this posthuman perspective, then we owe it to ourselves to build systems and networks that support that mission — diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives being one important part of this,” Ellis says.
How does the posthuman support environmentalism?
"During the Enlightenment period, ideas emerged that permitted humanity to use the world's resources with abandon," Ellis says. "People condoned mining, clear-cutting forests, creating pollution, and hunting animals to extinction. They thought: it's our world, we can do what we want with it."
"But if posthumanism reconsiders the human as central to all things, then humanity's misuse of the world's resources and fellow animals is also called into question," Ellis continues. "Essentially, what right do we have to wreck this world? Perhaps we have responsibilities to it and its other inhabitants — we should be a steward rather than a master."
As climate change is forecasted to have the greatest impact on marginalized communities, "posthumanism encourages embracing differences and supporting those who have historically been exploited, used, or simply ignored," Ellis says.