Posthuman Medicine

By Anna McFarlane

The idea of the ‘posthuman’ has been around in literary theory, the field in which I was trained, for some time now. When we think about key texts we might turn to Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, in which she argues that the posthuman figure of the cyborg offers a model for thinking about humanity beyond gender, in a way that might challenge the patriarchy and disrupt existing systems of systematic oppression. There is also How We Became Posthuman by N. Katherine Hayles, which shows a shift in our understanding of what it means to be human as the twentieth century has offered cybernetics and systems theory as different means of defining the limits of life and consciousness; these are traditions which look to the relationships between nerves, muscles, computer chips, and networks, as places where meaning and consciousness can emerge, rather than defining consciousness as a solely human attribute.

Posthumanism has been an attractive means of approaching a number of subjects; if we don’t prioritise the human perspective, what new responses might we find to climate change, or to the ways in which internet technology is shaping our political discourses? And, if we start to think about a ‘posthumanities’, what might that do to the study of the humanities in the academy and the purposes we expect that study to serve?

The Critical Posthumanism network, a collection of scholars working on posthumanism and related fields, asked me to contribute an article to their growing posthuman genealogy, a peer-reviewed resource that seeks to identify topics which are relevant to posthumanism and to situate them in terms of contemporary debates. I was asked to produce an article on medicine and posthumanism, or a ‘medical posthumanities’, as I phrased it in my piece.

Working on this article gave me much to think about. Medical humanities has been a means of bringing the humanities to medicine, offering a more complex viewpoint from which to address the patient, and a holistic way of dealing with disease. But what happens when the humanities become the posthumanities? Rather than focusing on communication between a doctor and a patient as a human-centred dialogue, maybe a medical posthumanities would consider the relationship between these two human actors and the other non-human actors at play; the pull of the cannula in the back of the hand, the pressure and the bleeping of the blood pressure monitor, the unsettling thud of the MRI machine, not to mention those invisible networks of meaning shaped by capital and the environment. All of these experiences are communicating something to the patient, and represent the front lines of the integration between the patient’s body and the accelerating progress of medical technology.

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