“….as the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end. If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared… as the ground of classical thought did at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.” (Order of Things, p. 387)
Man is an epistemological concept that did not exist during or before the Classical age, because “there was no epistemological consciousness of man as such.” (p. 309)
In the 16th century, the category of human sciences did not contain the concepts of life or labor, nor language as a signifying system or medium – but merely “one of the figurations of the world,” (p. 56) just one of the objects of nature like air or water. However, Michel Foucault isn’t content to point out that there were missing categories in the past, but to infer that there was no conception of Man or humanity at all back then. What we now call “humanity” was not conceptualized its distinctiveness until the 19th century.
“Natural history” in the 17th and 18th centuries was fundamentally descriptive and taxonomic – a taxonomy of a table of types of life-forms. The scientists of those days collected, described and tabulated species and types, but did not form overall theories of life-in-general, not like Darwin did in the 19th century (see Descent of Man). The forms of thought weren’t available. The same goes for labor and language. The analysis of wealth was basically the examination of the forms of exchange and trade, where commodities were taken as “natural things” to be bought and sold. The discourse of language was merely “general grammar,” where language was broken down to noun and verbs.
In the 19th century, after Kant’s three great Critiques and the age of Enlightenment, those discourses grew in sophistication and developed distinctiveness into separate sciences (biology, economics, and linguistics). The crucial thing is the three new disciplines shared a previously unforeseen object: Man, as both the very subject that knows and is the object of knowledge. Thus, man lived, man works, and man spoke. This in turn generated the human sciences where new objects required new analyses: psychology (human life), sociology (human labor) and studies of literature and myth (human signification).
In the 20th century, structuralism abolished the truth of man, leaving behind the rubble of fiction, always absent, and consequently reduced humanity to a false construct. Psychology became psychoanalysis, where the uniform structure of the unconscious inhabit us all in similar ways. Sociology as labor is also deconstructed into ethnology where the structural conditions place human societies as the responses to universal conditions and needs. Philological linguistics, too, was transformed into structural linguistics where universals, beneath the specific and particular bits of language that are written and spoken, were analyzed.
All these contemporary discourses became historical, relativized or pluralized so there is no longer a “pure access” to the truth. What truth becomes is a function of what can be said, written or thought. That was Foucault’s project, the exposure of historical specificity, how things could have been otherwise, of what we think we know with certainty.
After Foucault and other poststructuralists, I find the concept of “man” in Enlightenment and classical liberalist philosophy to be questionable. Their conception of man as individuals – sacred, separate and intact – where the mind is the sole source of meaning and value, and the rights of the individual necessarily independent and inalienable, because the individual’s value lies in a transcendental and universal essence. That paints a flattering metaphysical portrait of human essence – but the cracks and the fissures of such portrait betray the culturally and discursively structured composition, arranged by interacting as situated and symbolic beings. In poststructuralist thought, “man” becomes the “subject” of analysis, and decentered, contra the fulcrum of Enlightenment.
The subject is constituted by cultural meanings and practice, and reside within a variety of culturally-based locale of meaning (as family members, as occupationally and economically and regionally determined constructs, as gendered and sexual oriented beings, as members of other social groups). The subject is a material being, totally embodied and present within the physical world and entrenched in the material practice and structure of its society. The subject is constituted by social forces; the source of the meaning and value and self-image of the subject comes from identity groups, from social activities, from intimate relations, from the various overlapping of common meanings and symbols and practices where the subject interact with subcultural groups and society as a global unit.
Contra the humanist notion that people are independent individuals and make up a transcendent, universal and unchanging humanity, this is antihumanism, not anti-humane, but the new philosophical understanding of the nature of the self, of the individual, of man, of humanity, of homo sapiens sapiens, to be a social construct.
The structuralists and French poststructuralist insist the subject is dead because it is the dispersion or byproduct of language. Since it is a functional placeholder of language, and no longer the source of language, posited by that language, a fragmented product of dispersed discourses, the subject is void of its ontological status.
To recap: posthumanism is borne out of the skepticism of the subject. Philosophical modernity began with Descartes’ emphasis of consciousness as the fulcrum for knowledge of the world – cogito ergo sum – ergo, a unified subject became an obsession for subsequent thinkers (Kant, Husserl).
This is not to be confused with the claim that the postmodernists have erased the subject, but rather they decentered it and resituated, replaced it in light of discourse/desire/power. Maurice Blanchott, for instance, lost the ability to say ‘I.’ Something much older than the Cogito, not an act of cogitation, but a perpetual whisper of language missing a vortex of consciousness. For Derrida, the I is never completely self-present for it always presupposes a relation to its general absence (death). For Foucault, the privilege of the “I think” depends on the privilege of the “I speak,” for speech/writing will disperse the ‘I’ rather than bring it into relief.
Moreover, thanks to technology, the biological form of man was different in the past and will be radically different in the future. The cyborg will be the next step. Therefore technological posthumanism will extend the I rather than disperse it, and reduce temporal flux.