Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Beauty and the post-human

There's no greater come down after a week at a university summer school studying politics, philosophy and art, than a night with two fractious children watching Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

I'm back from a frankly mind-blowing week in Utrecht on a post-humanism summer school and desperately trying to make sense of what I've learnt, before the day to day realities of school uniform shopping, mindless work admin and Disney Channel kick back in.  I felt like an imposter for most of the time I was there if I'm completely honest - it's a while since I did my own Masters and I was amongst much younger and sharper brains than mine - but a number of key concepts and ideas hit me, and I want to make sense of them now, and act of them before they disappear in a haze of work stress and children's homework.  My challenge to myself (and I have accepted it) is to capture my key questions and thoughts before the end of the film comes, and I have to go and make tea.

So firstly, what is post-humanism?

Rosi Braidotti's book, 'The Post-Human' (the basis for this course) starts with the following statement:

'Not all of us can say with any degree of certainty that we have always been human, or that we are only that'.

How often do we consider what we mean by 'humanity', a term so often used but rarely analysed or questioned? We assume a consensus about what a human is - an entity based on common shared identities, with certain relationships to the environment and the globe - explained for us via philosophies that position 'man' at the top of the chain.  But the notion of what is human has also been exclusive and binding - denying the 'other' that does not fit the ideal, holding on a pedestal the 'Vitruian man' of Da Vinci's drawing - perfect in its geometry, white and male.  The paradigm is changing, as we start to look at other possibilities; removing the binds of gender, for example, to accept a spectrum of sexual being whether gay, gender queer, gender fluid, heterosexual, androgynous and so many other things in between ('sexuality is what I do, not who I am').  Women throughout history (and often still) have been outside of the human ideal, 'othered' through association with witches, the religious and spiritual, other-worldly sirens and temptresses, challenging the rationality of 'man'.  Post-human feminism offers an empowering alternative to the dualism of male/female and gender as a 'power machine' (it is worth remembering that gender as a concept doesn't even exist in other languages - in French, 'genre', the closest equivalent, is a purely grammatical term).

Post-humanism asks us to change this paradigm, to 'de-centre' the white, male human and to look at other possibilities for 'humanity'.  What is exciting is that we are already seeing this, through overt changes to acceptance of gay relationships, acceptance of gender neutral pronouns in every-day usage, challenges to our white-centred educational curricula, main-streaming of disabled sports, 'non-typical' models, the list goes on.  There is a very long way to go, of course, but the changes made in my own lifetime are staggering enough when I actually stop to consider them.

(If you want to watch something truly hopeful, take a look at Sue Austin's Freewheeling - an empowering piece of work that challenges our perceptions of disability -

There's no doubt that we are in a predicament, chained by advanced capitalism, threatened by environmental disaster, united globally more than ever before, but more fearful and less accepting of difference than ever (as I write, Budapest station is being closed, leaving thousands of stranded refugees to suffer on the streets outside).  In the midst of this it is imperative to try to make sense of the world, through, as Braidotti suggests, a politics of affirmation that looks for possibility and potential ('potentsia').  A politics that does not deny pain, but urges us to 'get over ourselves', by starting where we are, resisting the injustices of our times while engaging with them, in the spirit of hope.  The next step for me is to continue to 'get over' my own sense of impostership and ignorance and to work at locating myself, mapping my own, as Braidotti puts it 'cartography' so that I can start from where I am, read what I need to, and free myself from the ties that bind me to the past. (As the daughter of a map-maker, it must be said that this idea really appeals to me).

When I look my own teacher education work it is clear that much of it is actually already grounded in post-human thinking.  During the course I thought a lot of about how we work, and jotted down a number of questions, which I hope to address here and discuss with colleagues in the future:

1.  What would a post-human teacher education curriculum look like?
2. How do we examine our own position regarding 'pain' in education, and how do we make it affirmative?
3.  What are the 'ties which bind us' to a particular standpoint on education?
4.  What are the 'missing slices of the past' which our curriculum is lacking?
5. What kind of liberating 'assemblages' can we create to take our work forward, and how?

I have to stop now, the film is drawing to a close and the Beast is about to be turned into a Prince, saved by true love. I was always disappointed by this part; I always loved the Beast, with his kind heart, generosity, wisdom and general furriness (who wouldn't want to cuddle up to him?!)  As a child, I often wondered why he had to change.  But of course, the Beast is an 'other', a misfit in our view of what should be human.  Of course the story ends when he changes, because there is no possibility left.  Perhaps it's time to change the story, as we shift our own paradigm about what it actually means to be human.

  • Braidotti, R. (2013). The Posthuman. Polity Press.

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