Confronting Modernity Means Overcoming Humanism

Robin Noguier/Khao Sok National Park, Khlong Sok, Thailand

Courage consists… in agreeing to flee rather than live tranquilly and hypocritically in false refuges. Values, morals, homelands, religions, and these private certitudes that our vanity and our complacency bestow generously on us, have many deceptive sojourns as the world arranges for those who think they are standing straight and at ease, among stable things.”

Gilles Deleuze, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

Philosophy is dead. All the big questions about society and the cosmos are settled or will be soon enough. We know what progress is. We know what has to be done to reform ourselves. If only the last of the retrograde villains would die or join the new program, we would march ahead to a better world. Perhaps all that’s missing is zeal, commitment to the cause, remembrance of our founding principles, or simply the will to set the world on better foundations.

Or at least, that’s the frame that dominates the West’s self image and which informs the mind of the contemporary liberal. Underneath it are the founding myths of liberal modernity shared by virtually every Western public intellectual: the more conservative David Brooks, the moderate Steven Pinker, and the social justice-oriented Judith Butler are united on these commitments. 

But everyone else has unanswered questions. What is our society even for? Where are we going? Is what we’re living through truly progress? The experts don’t seem to have a handle on what will happen next and are otherwise owned by special interests or forces outside of their control. The narratives in the media feel out of lock step with the world we live in. It’s unclear who the heroes and the villains really are. The ship is picking up speed, and it seems like no one is at the helm. 

E.O Wilson, the famed biologist, once referred to philosophy as “the contemplation of the unknown” and then in his next breath as “a shrinking dominion,” rapidly giving way to settled scientific fact. Perhaps the great intellectual tension of our age is that, while this appears undeniable in the world of atoms and cells, we seem less and less able to understand, let alone shape, the societies we inhabit. Our culture is transforming at a rate perceptible on the scale of weeks and months, not years or decades, a fact which much of our elite seems to cheerlead regardless of its content. We are failing in our new role as stewards of a human-dominated anthropocene. Our politics is increasingly chaotic and is interacting unexpectedly with the internet in ways we have barely begun to reckon with.

But what if, instead of seeing the uncertainty of our times as a bug, we made it a feature of our thought? What if our current theories of how society functions amount to far less than we have presumed?

In a world of immense uncertainty, a number of disparate thinkers are embracing uncertainty as the basis for a new way of seeing the world. Thinkers like John Gray, Nassim Taleb, and Alasdaire MacIntyre offer a fundamentally new take on how we might navigate a world of growing complexity that is increasingly beyond our comprehension. They are reacting to crises caused by complexity and hubristic universalism—financial chaos in Taleb’s case and moral chaos in MacIntyre’s. Others, such as Gilles Deleuze, laid the basis for a vast body of work and has inspired several contemporary intellectual successors, from Manuel De Landa to Nick Land. The Deleuzian approach is more philosophical, challenging Enlightenment presumptions about rational models, stable empirical facts, and the confident prediction of how systems develop. Deleuzian concepts such as ‘assemblages’ have been applied to everything from military organization to capitalism, and generally subvert the clear boundaries of social science, history, and philosophy. Most radically, they de-center the human perspective from the phenomena they confront.

Though multifaceted and distinctive in their various projects, there are important convergences in these works. This overarching new paradigm, varying in its explicitness, can best be described as posthumanist. The initiative is ‘post-’ because it is an attempt to escape the ideological acceleration engaged in by nearly every part of the dominant structure. It is a reaction to humanism in so far as this is the broadest and most fundamental way to describe our society’s current governing ideology. The challenge which this reaction represents cannot be ignored, either by progress’ advocates or its critics. By questioning the founding myths of Western modernity, it may point the way towards reinvention.

What is Humanism?

Humanism is an intellectual paradigm with origins in the West’s increasingly distant Christian past, that came to predominate during the Enlightenment. Importantly, it is not synonymous with modernity itself. Rather, it is the way the West views and interprets the phenomena of modernity. Kant summarizes it nicely in his view of enlightenment: “Enlightenment is man’s release from his self incurred tutelage.” Modern life in the West and exceptionally in the West was birthed out of an exhilarating conviction in the agency of man, enshrined in the rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Throw off the shackles of tradition, history, and old economic systems, and man will take charge of his own destiny. This is the fundamental meta creed that informs modern Western political movements from the French Revolution and American liberalism, to radical iterations like Communism. Humanism is the belief that the birth of modernity was the start of human conquest of the earth that set us in charge of history.

Humanism defines the intellectual currents of the West’s governing and intellectual elite. It does not describe the beliefs of many regular people, who by and large are not deeply committed to secular ideologies, except as they trickle down as memes in popular culture. You are not born a devoted humanist ideologue. Obviously, there is significant disagreement within the humanist paradigm. This is exactly what makes it paradigmatic. It seems to encapsulate all and it provides a frame within which we disagree. It envelopes our political spectrum, from socialists to conservatives and activist liberals to free market libertarians.

Humanism is often used in passing to refer to an orientation towards rationality, compassion, or kindness. But this term is more accurately captured in its fuller form, as a specific conception of history, humankind, and our place in the universe that provides a bedrock of assumptions with which we reason about modern life. Kindness and rationality predate humanism and will outlast it.

Yuval Noah Harari considers humanism a form of religion that worships human beings in place of god. Harari’s definition of humanism’s liberal branch will be its most familiar instantiation:

Humanism split into three main branches [liberalism, socialism, and social darwinism]. The orthodox branch holds that each human being is a unique individual possessing a distinctive inner voice and a never-to-be-repeated string of experiences. Every human being is a singular ray of light, which illuminates the world from a different perspective, and which adds color, depth and meaning to the universe. Hence we ought to give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth. Whether in politics, economics or art, individual free will should have far more weight than state interests or religious doctrines. The more liberty individuals enjoy, the more beautiful, rich and meaningful is the world. Due to this emphasis on liberty, the orthodox branch of humanism is known as ‘liberal humanism’ or simply as ‘liberalism’.

From Kant and Harari, we can summarize the two main pillars of humanism:

  1. Faith in the possibility and primacy of human agency over our environment
  2. A drive for human liberation as the ultimate good

With this intellectual inheritance, we entered the schizophrenic 21st century, a time when our centrality and control over the universe is becoming harder to justify. We stumble onwards, blindsided by unexpected event after event, becoming ever more dogmatic, descending into rival factions, searching for the perpetrators who inflicted these circumstances upon us, and poring over the tombs of the past searching for some fundamental misstep.

Our society’s operating system is governed by a sort of univariate optimization function for human emancipation, one that seems to demand more intense public commitment as it loses contact with reality, like the mounting commitment to Communism which Alexei Yurchak reports in his accounts of life in the late Soviet Union. Without an alternate vision of the future, we triple down on our ideological commitments or risk entering a void of uncertainty. Our collective efforts are monopolized by humanism’s drive for emancipatory freedom, and our imaginations are limited by the level of control this aim presumes.

Enter Posthumanism

To whatever extent our current crises are exacerbated by our ideological commitment to humanism, how might we reframe? Where do we begin to describe a posthumanist path? French philosopher Paul Valery suggests a formulation of the problem of modernity, one that lies at the root of our current bewilderment:

What has happened? Simply that our means of investigation and action have far outstripped our means of representation and understanding. This is the enormous new fact that results from all other new facts…The whole question comes down to this: Can the human mind control what the human mind has made?

Valery strikes at the roots of humanism’s two core tenets. For humans to exercise agency over history and pursue their quest for liberation, their environment must be intelligible to them. Valery argues that while we have developed immense power to investigate and harness the natural world, we have used that power to build an increasingly incomprehensible, complex human world, which we now struggle to reckon with. Where humanism might have looked tenable during the early conquests of science over the natural world and tradition, it now seems lost in the very world its adherents have built.

We can define posthumanism as a broad category of philosophy and social inquiry, defined by a common goal on the one hand, and a common critique on the other. The common goal is that of charting a course through a modernity we cannot fully understand or control. The common critique is of humanist certainties about reason and progress. Where the humanist ascribes human agency and intelligibility to the modern condition, the posthumanist sees the modernizing process as chaotic. It proceeds largely outside of meaningful human control, evolving according to forces beyond our full comprehension. 

The posthumanist narrative about our world runs something like this: modernity burst forth out of a complex set of socio-technological positive feedback loops, which cohered in Western Europe over hundreds of years. This process was largely not under our collective control. Yet, modernity’s early evangelizers, who viewed themselves as breaking from a staid, deterministic feudal past had the opposite view.

The intellectual leaders of the Enlightenment believed themselves to be a part of an exhilarating historical moment, during which humankind would seize the reins of history, fundamentally breaking from the past towards a rationally founded utopia. The project of re-adapting this founding conception of Western modernity is centuries long. This narrative has been stretched again and again to fit ever less convincingly over a changing world. It is one we still engage in today.

John Gray is a relentless opponent of this project and is humanism’s bleakest, most efficient critic. His thought is the gateway into the posthumanist frame. I would provide an illustrative description of his life, but Gray, rarely one given to whimsy, refuses to publicly comment on his personal life. He cites the risk of commodifying himself and becoming an actor in the theatrics of contemporary capitalism. According to Gray, the illusion that haunts us from the Enlightenment to today, is thinking we are in the driver’s seat of history to begin with.

Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?

Gray presses his claim further, positing that notions of moral progress, currently very trendy among Western elite, are downwind from humanism’s founding myth that we are more than animals:

Humanism can mean many things, but for us it means belief in progress. To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow, and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive. Darwin showed that humans are like other animals, humanists claim they are not. Humanists insist that by using our knowledge we can control our environment and flourish as never before. In affirming this, they renew one of Christianity’s most dubious promises–that salvation is open to all.

Gray argues that from this presumption of control and faith in our secular ideologies, we time and time again embark on utopian black masses—increasingly violent, top-down attempts to transform society, from the French Revolution to Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and the Iraq War. These projects all have in common an ideological pretense of redemption and a faith in humanity’s capacity to take the reins of history and realize utopia. Today, we are left with a world we are seemingly forced to defend as our creation or to pathologize and transform yet again. To Gray, this is the false choice.

Another thinker taking a posthumanist frame is Nassim Taleb, a Wall Street trader turned philosopher of uncertainty. Taleb is an admirer of Gray’s, and a thinker who attacks humanism’s pretensions of control from the perspective of complexity. To Taleb, visions of a society fully directed by human agency are not just philosophically fanciful, they are at odds with the nature of complexity:

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events. So the modern world may be increasing in technological knowledge, but, paradoxically, it is making things a lot more unpredictable.

Taleb describes an uncertain world governed by elites who irrationally believe it can be known and controlled:

The fragilista falls for the Soviet-Harvard delusion, the (unscientific) overestimation of the reach of scientific knowledge. Because of such delusion, he is what is called a naive rationalist, a rationalizer, or sometimes just a rationalist, in the sense that he believes that the reasons behind things are automatically accessible to him.

For all but the most partisan, the fact that this world is one that no one intended and one that is increasingly out of our control is on the tip of our tongues, at the root of our deepest collective anxieties, and yet it is largely unspoken. The mythos of a rationally ordered society remains but the evidence of its possibility is disappearing. J.G. Ballard, English writer and cartographer of a post-rationalist modernity, offers a complimentary diagnosis:

The advanced societies of the future will not be governed by reason. They will be driven by irrationality, by competing systems of psychopathology.

The posthumanist critique opens the door for us to consider a fundamental shift in our perspective on modern life. We are invited to view modernity as something akin to a nature of our own making. To see in modernity’s structures not design and intention but contingency, mutation, and unpredictability. 

Mapping an Alien World

Posthumanism seeks to navigate the reality of the modern condition, rather than obscure it. Just as the endeavors of humanist intellectuals played a role in defining the aspirations of modern aesthetics, culture, political theory, and social science, posthumanism has the potential to provide the intellectual scaffolding for a new orientation towards modernity. 

Ultimately, like the findings of the natural sciences, social philosophy should be judged by its ability to help individuals and societies navigate the world. The question then becomes: what does humanism look like in application and, if it is truly deficient, what is the posthumanist alternative?

Social science and the aptly named humanities represent humanism as praxis. But it is the social sciences that have taken up the mantle of our governing methodology for making personal and societal decisions. The promise of social science is ultimately that of humanism. It seeks to make the world intelligible to us and allow us to manipulate it in order to realize our agency.

Social science suffers from humanism’s root pretension. It assumes that the mechanics of modern society are easily intelligible. Whereas scientists continuously refine their understanding of the entities and mechanisms they study, social scientists stubbornly think in persistent top-down and idealized categories: markets, labor, society, and so on. What do these entities refer to? Are they rigorously defined? Why have they not been substantially changed over the past two hundred years? These are concepts frozen in time, shifting only to meet the biases of the moment. They are like the premodern notions of essence and spirit, once used to describe the nature of matter. But, unlike in science, replacements have not been adopted.

Microeconomics and game theory are noteworthy partial exceptions. They state their assumptions plainly and seek to revise them over time. Homo economicus, the self-interested rational actor of economics, is gradually being deepened and refined. Historians too, at their best, are constantly redefining the entities they study and reframing their theories. This humble, bounded variant of social science is a partial exception, not the rule. Macroeconomics and sociology do not benefit from the same rigor. There, social scientists employ powerful statistical tools to analyze ill-defined entities, like an astronomer staring through a miscalibrated telescope.

None of this is to say that some social scientists have not generated novel and useful ideas. It is to say that believing social science can consistently grapple with the rapidly changing nature of modern society and effectively steer us into the future, is something we do based on faith and not reason.

We rarely ask how successful the social science dominated decision-making process of universities and think tanks has been since its rise to power in the post-war period? Would we be better off if we were only to give more power to economists and sociologists? Is our deeply unpopular technocracy unfairly maligned or not? If social science is truly a science, why do its practitioners routinely align with different political factions?

Building the groundwork for an alternative, posthumanist mode of social inquiry has been a project since at least the early 1950s, when Gilles Deleuze split from the continental philosophical tradition, to forge a unique path within post-structuralism. Among Deleuzians, this method has come to be called neomaterialism. Deleuze’s neomaterialism is a radically posthumanist ontology. It is a sort of ‘acategorical empiricism’ that rejects both that the objects of our analysis are easily determined, and that human perception easily identifies salient theoretical entities, especially social ones.

Where humanist social scientists accept abstract, idealized objects like ‘the economy’ as distinct from ‘government’ or ‘labor,’ neomaterialists think in assemblages. Assemblages are material and not ideal formations, composed not of singular objects or ill-defined shorthands—like ‘commodity’ or ‘market,’ with static mechanical relationships between them—but instead, of systems greater than the sum of their parts. In this system, objects shift and adapt even as they are classified. Deleuze sees a world of highly interrelated parts that form assemblages—also called “bodies without organs”—that cut through the neatly separated categories of industrial infrastructure, human biology, and subjective experience. They form the tectonic forces that spur modernity onwards. Neomaterialism is a ‘flat ontology’ that holds everything from abstract human associations, like nation states, to biology, to human thought, even to philosophy itself, as fundamentally being objects on the same plane.

Nick Land, a philosopher known for fathering accelerationism as a school of thought, is a thinker deeply indebted to Deleuze. He describes the aspiration of neomaterialism, one deeply congruent with science, as follows:

Materialism is not a doctrine but an expedition, an Alpine break-out from socially policed conviction. It ‘is before anything else the obstinate negation of idealism [faith in the ideal objects like markets or society], which is to say of the very basis of all philosophy.’

Land brings to the fore the influence of cybernetics on the neomaterialist frame. Rather than looking at a system with any presumption of its socially prescribed function or the primacy of any human actors within it, cybernetics is radically agnostic. It asks, how does this system self-regulate? Where are the positive and negative feedback loops? What effects does this subsystem produce on the ones that surround it? From the cybernetic perspective, modern society is a system of regulated information flow, in which humans play a part. It is this openness to the radically alien quality of the world, ‘the outside’ or ‘the real,’ that Land characterizes as a voyage in harmony with the often alien and surprising revelations of science. To Land, we should be surprised by where our analysis leads. We should be suspicious if our ideals are conveniently reflected in the output of social science.

Manuel De Landa, Deleuze’s most hard-nosed, practical heir, has picked up this chaotic ontology and applied it to the domains of social science:

We live in a world populated by structures—a complex mixture of geological, biological, social, and linguistic constructions that are nothing but accumulations of materials shaped and hardened by history. Immersed as we are in this mixture, we cannot help but interact in a variety of ways with the other historical constructions that surround us, and in these interactions we generate novel combinations, some of which possess emergent properties. In turn, these synergistic combinations, whether of human origin or not, become the raw material for further mixtures. This is how the population of structures inhabiting our planet has acquired its rich variety, as the entry of novel materials into the mix triggers wild proliferations of new forms.

This is the posthumanist conception of history. De Landa’s work on the history of war provides an illustrative example. His object of analysis is not simply generals, weapons technology, or the ideologies that motivate their use; instead, he focuses on the dynamic assemblage formed by their interaction, the machinic phylum:

I defined the machinic phylum as the set of all the singularities at the onset of processes of self-organization — the critical points in the flow of matter and energy, points at which these flows spontaneously acquire a new form or pattern. All these processes, involving elements as different as molecules, cells or termites, may be represented by a few mathematical models. Thus, because one and the same singularity may be said to trigger two very different self-organizing effects, the singularity is said to be ‘mechanism independent.’

De Landa examines the machinic phylum across time and space. His description of Napoleon’s role in the transformation of warfare describes the ways in which nationalism enabled him to leverage modern military technology in dramatically new ways. The uninspired levies and mercenaries of the 18th century could only form delicate ‘clockwork armies’ that had to be held in tight formation and carefully steered so as to avoid any form of disruption and the mass desertion that would follow. Napoleon burst through these constraints, realizing the full potential of fast, lightly armored, gunpowder-equipped troops. Thanks to the French Revolution, its egalitarian ideals, and its cutting-edge propaganda machine, Napoleon could draw on an ideologically motivated population of soldiers. Napoleon employed highly dynamic new formations, maneuvered his troops with blistering speed and fidelity, and utilized artillery in tandem with his infantry in ways never before seen.

De Landa subjects the Wehrmacht to the same analysis, drawing on the assemblage view of the posthumanist ontology. By leveraging an even more intense form of fanaticism, methamphetamine, radio communications, and armored vehicles, the Third Reich burst through the trench warfare stasis of the first World War. The trench was as much a system designed to protect against attack as it was an organizing structure for an unwieldy modern army. To use Deleuzian lingo, the Nazis were a first mover in the further ‘deterritorialization’ of the armed forces. 

Where humanist social science takes its objects and underlying mechanics as static. De Landa sees modernity as a rapid series of phase transitions. The proletariat is born, only to evaporate. Cities slide from manufacturing hubs to knowledge economy centers. Large Napoleonic infantry columns became semi autonomous platoons acting in tandem at blistering speed. 

De Landa’s work is about both tearing down our methodological pretensions and building a new mode of social analysis in their place. Once immersed in Manuel De Landa’s young but rigorous new social method, it’s hard not to see the more humanist-leaning wings of the social sciences as naive in their presumptions of the immediate intelligibility of complex social processes.

For De Landa, those disciplines that engage in macro level, top down analysis, assuming idealized social entities are unable to grapple effectively with complex systems:

Emergent properties result from interactions between individual parts, so it follows that a top down analytical approach that begins with the whole and dissects it into its constituent parts is bound to miss precisely those emergent properties.

Just as the entities that have been slowly defined by the natural sciences are fundamentally alien to our common understanding, we should expect to be surprised by the way the complex systems of modern society function and are effectively described. Posthumanism looks at the modern world and sees alien, chaotic, complex systems, not obvious social processes, ready to be manipulated.

Modernity as Nature

What does it mean for human beings to be embedded in a modernizing process largely uncontrolled by human values or agency? How might we describe modernity when it is stripped of humanist narratives that ascribe a colossal role to human agency and control where they do not exist? Today, we lazily and irresponsibly assert an arc of moral progress to modern history. In the posthumanist frame, we abandon this as a priori knowledge and embark on a view of modernity as a sort of chaotic form of nature.

Posthumanist social theorists of the modern condition push neither a conservative idealization of the past, nor a progressive revisionism of the future as a triumph of justice. Both of these errors, the postmodernists maintain, would ascribe moral weight and a presumption of control to a process that ultimately has limited moral character. Instead, they describe modernity as an extension of nature. To the posthumanist, the French Revolution is a sociopolitical volcano. One may like or dislike its effect on the social terrain, but to speak of it like it was brought about by humankind through a morally informed choice would be absurd.

Humankind is today surrounded by an environment that is fundamentally as indifferent to its thriving as the vast unmastered natural terrain we evolved into thousands of years ago. But now it is even more bewildering and mysterious, governed by rapidly emergent phenomena with shifting underlying mechanics. Like nature, the modern world is unfolding on its own path, and humans are forced to reckon with its tailwinds.

Zygmunt Bauman, philosopher and sociologist of the political left, and Nick Land both hold the posthumanist, naturalist conception of modernity. Both Bauman and Land take the best of the Marxist tradition; that is, an awareness of capitalism as a sort of ruthless profit-optimizing hyper-object—in other words, an assemblage—let loose on the world. Capitalism is a sort of emergent phenomena that shapes us as subjects, gives structure to our social realities, and yet exists independent of us as well. It is the essential example of an assemblage, an intangible system irreducible to its parts, yet still real.

Bauman’s foundational concept is that of ‘liquid modernity.’ Bauman believes the modern condition is to be surrounded by an increasingly fluid social environment. We are at sea, increasingly unmoored from social ties, static cultural associations, or a predictable economic landscape. He views capitalism, in its relentless pursuit of efficiency, as a blender that takes in both natural resources and social groupings and grinds them down into a more malleable liquid state, resulting in a sort of oceanic cosmos. For capitalism, the illiquid is a hindrance, whether that is a mountain obstructing a vital path for the flow of goods, a culture that refuses to adapt its practices to the logic of the market, or a tightly bound community that refuses to give way to the anonymous nature of commerce. It indifferently grinds mountains into minerals as it splinters communities into atomized consumers.

Bauman and Land are first and foremost social theorists, but their prose often shifts into the poetic. When Bauman describes a globalized modernity, it is with the tone of a philosopher who does not presume to know modernity’s exact mechanics, but is instead in awe of its vast, indifferent currents:

We are all in travel, whether we like it or not. We have not been asked about our feelings anyway. Thrown into a vast open sea with no navigation charts and all the marker buoys sunk and barely visible, we have only two choices left: we may rejoice in the breath-taking vistas of new discoveries – or we may tremble out of fear of drowning…And so, the larger the expanse of free sailing, the more the sailor’s fate tends to be polarized and the deeper the chasm between the poles. A pleasurable adventure for the well-equipped yacht may prove a dangerous trap for a tattered dinghy. In the last account, the difference between the two is that between life and death. 

Bauman believes this liquifying process is well underway and that we now find ourselves at sea. What makes this so challenging in relation to the humanist pretensions of our time is that it means the scope of human agency over our world is rapidly diminishing. As human associations are broken down into flotsam, we are rendered atomized and left to ride the currents of Bauman’s vast modern ocean. For the posthumanist, human agency over the modern world is not a presumed universal. It is a variable perfectly capable of diminishing or expanding.

A naturalist view of modernity, however, does not have to be fatalistic. We can react, and—if not attempt to reverse course—at least make radical adaptations to these new circumstances. However, our current approach is to deny or ignore this condition altogether. Humanism continues to proclaim that we have agency and control over history, even as the preconditions for collective human agency erode underneath it.

For Land, this process is inexorable. In his view, it is as if a hyper-capitalist singularity has occurred in the future, and we are being pulled towards it through time by its immense gravity. Land is pessimistic and his style is obscurantist, with a proclivity to troll. For Land, human associations and even biology are shredded and deformed as capitalism emerges like a new life form. Its own interests stand apart from the species that bootstrapped it into existence. Land views modernity not just as an outgrowth of nature, but as one that is profoundly hostile to humanity. Ergo, Land proclaims, “Nothing human makes it out of the near future.”

Land’s seminal text, Fanged Noumena, is his frenetic race towards his own conception of the posthumanist frame—its ontology, metaphysics, social critique, praxis, and aesthetic, all embodied in one work. It is part philosophical treatise, part cyberpunk auto fiction, and part poetic eruption, all from the imagined first-person perspective of capitalism itself. It is easy to critique particular details and claims within this breakneck treatise, but the more sympathetic reading is to see it as an indication of the possible. Land attempts a fully-formed posthumanist take on every topic central to Western social theory.

Posthumanist modernity brings the question of survival back into the forefront of the modern condition. Its conception of an indifferent and even hostile condition speaks to the sense many of us have that events are moving ever further outside of our control or comprehension.

As literature, this is neither the heady rush of Emersonian individualism, nor excitement at the infinite possibility of a Fitzgeraldian New York, and certainly not the perceptual ambiguity of postmodernists like Vonnegut or Pynchon. Instead, it is survivalism in the face of a world rushing towards an alien future. Michel Houellebecq, the renowned French writer, offers a new view of 1960s and ‘70s counterculture, stripped of neoliberal utopian visions and progressive triumphalism. As he comments in The Elementary Particles:

The rise of the global economy would create much fiercer competition, which swept away all the dreams of integrating the populace into a vast middle class with ever-rising incomes. Whole social classes fell through the net and joined the ranks of the unemployed. But the savage sexual competition did not abate as a result—quite the reverse.

For Houellebecq, the sexual revolution was not a fruit of progress. Instead, it was a post-war entropic force that freed desire in the name of liberation, but ultimately gave way to rabid competition and was turbocharged by commercial interests. He makes clear that this sort of Darwinian tragedy is not unique to human society, but a caustic fact of nature. Human flourishing is the exception, not the rule:

In the midst of nature’s barbarity, human beings sometimes (rarely) succeed in creating small oases warmed by love. Small, exclusive, enclosed spaces governed only by love and shared subjectivity. 

And yet, the posthumanist frame does not need to be pessimistic. Many of the greatest stories pit man against nature, and many older authors saw the amoral character of modernity while yet remaining hopeful, like Leo Tolstoy. There are many other examples of authors who seem to inhabit the posthumanist frame, and others who might draft a positive vision of man against the modern world, surviving and even thriving against the odds. 

We live amid a mirage of apologies and propaganda that obscure the modern condition. What could be more romantic than to see it as it is, and yet endeavor to surmount it?

Navigating the Chaotic Sea

Modernity is shifting and unfathomably complex. How might we live and even thrive amid the chaotic and the alien? Posthumanist praxis tends to draw from the past for lost knowledge, from a time when people did not presume to be the masters of the world that surrounded them. Human beings of antiquity knew they lived in a mysterious cosmos. The ancient Greeks did not know what caused plagues, famines, social unrest, nor even if the universe operated on similar principles in lands across the sea. Epistemic uncertainty was the default. 

Nassim Taleb, our philosopher of chaos, and Alasdair MacIntyre, the magisterial philosopher and ethicist, offer advice for action without the false pretensions of humanism. For Taleb, the modern world is chaos dressed up as order. Modern complex systems breed unpredictable feedback loops, emergent phenomena, and black swans. Modern history is littered with misguided, elaborate plans, derailed by surprise events. The most damning pretension of our time is our belief that we can model, predict, and control what we cannot. He states:

A complex system, contrary to what people believe, does not require complicated systems and regulations and intricate policies. The simpler, the better. Complications lead to multiplicative chains of unanticipated effects. Because of opacity, an intervention leads to unforeseen consequences, followed by apologies about the “unforeseen.”

This strikes at the core of humanism’s presumptions of intelligibility and control in application: the social sciences themselves. For Taleb, most social scientists are priests of the humanist faith, advocating for policies based on dangerously reductive understandings of unknowably complex systems. His favorite target is our byzantine regulatory structures. Though designed to mitigate systemic risk in the financial sector, they only seem to exacerbate moral hazard problems and regulatory capture by big banks.

In place of conventional social science, Taleb argues for a praxis of humility and resilience, embodied in his enthusiasm for heuristics over grand theories:

Heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is therefore less fooled by their powers.

Taleb has popularized the now oft-quoted Lindy Effect. This heuristic, born of folkloric wisdom and verified by statistical analysis, serves as a proxy for understanding the robustness of everything from technologies to nation-states. It states that how long something has survived for so far is an indication of how long we should expect it to last:

If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!

A heuristic can clearly be wrong in application. But vitally, it makes no claims to have grasped the fundamental mechanics of complex social processes. It is a navigational tool that makes no claim to understand the underlying mechanics of any particular phenomenon. Instead, it is probabilistic, purely empirical, and simply tends to work well enough.

There is something in our approach to modern life and the dynamics of power that tempts us to falsely proclaim to know things. Humanism seems to exacerbate this tendency. The first shaky steps towards knowledge, particularly in the social sciences, harden into doctrine under the pressure we place on them. We demand that they justify our mythic faith in our collective agency and our comprehension of the modern world. Surely, we can produce an economy that mirrors our values. Surely, modern society will further human freedom.

The posthumanist frame is one where we embrace our status as primates, not demi-gods. The early victories of the natural sciences were hard won and cover systems of immensely less complexity than those found in modern society. The human brain is the most complicated entity we know of, and modern society involves billions of these entities engaging in countless complex interactions, all with the backdrop of constant and unpredictable technological change. We are building a society that we should expect to understand less and less, not more. Its complexity is developing at a ferocious pace and scientific knowledge is growing along its slower, more uncertain trajectories. Out of this comes Taleb’s case for a humble, localized pursuit of more resilient communities, rather than grand utopias.

MacIntyre adds that the modern world has witnessed an immense loss of the knowledge we have of ourselves, once stored in culture and narrative, at a time when we need it most. He focuses on the domain of ethics, where our pretensions of knowledge have come in the wake of a cataclysmic decline in our collective understanding. MacIntyre provocatively compares us to a dystopian society that has long allowed the practices of science to decay, but that carries on using words like ‘hypothesis’ and ‘evidence’ without their former meaning.

He also resuscitates the premodern argument that moral judgments rest on teleological thinking. A good hammer is one that hammers well. A good soldier is one who battles well. Despite sounding like mere common sense, it is completely at odds with the harsh deontological thinking of contemporary ethicists like Robert Nozick or the utilitarianism of Peter Singer, as well as with our broad liberal Enlightenment notion of human rights.

Moral conflict in the modern West is completely interminable because we do not even aspire to build a shared moral context—a community in which each of us has socially defined roles within it. Ask yourself: has the concept of citizenship, its virtues and obligations, grown deeper or shallower over the course of modern history? MacIntyre argues that our increasingly bureaucratized and anonymous societies have neglected to maintain the preconditions necessary for meaningful, ethical human cooperation:

In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear.

Where Taleb advocates for careful use of heuristics and localism, MacIntyre adds a case for moral community: 

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.

Typical of posthumanists, MacIntyre grounds his argument in the biological sciences. For him, as well as in the view of contemporary biology, human beings are irredeemably dependent on community and shared narratives to orient their lives. At best, we are coauthors of these stories. For MacIntyre, we are meek, and rarely rise to the status of empowered heroes to shape our destinies and our societies for the better. Without saying so explicitly, MacIntyre is pointing to the difficulties of existing in Bauman’s liquid modernity, and states the case that we should build ourselves vessels capable of supporting deep human associations in a modern world intrinsically hostile to them.

Taleb likewise recognizes the value of community, but also argues more concertedly for a renewed vitalism. In an uncertain world, we ought not to pretend it is otherwise. The prolific weightlifter argues that we grow stronger by exposing ourselves to the world’s chaos and adversity in limited doses. We should avoid insular wealthy enclaves or indulgence in the humanist escapism of contemporary film.

Posthumanist social praxis and the vision of a more humble form of leadership suited to our age is encapsulated poetically by Michel Serres, the eminent, deeply posthumanist French philosopher:

The helmsman governs. Following his intended route and according to the direction and force of the sea-swell, he angles the blade of the governail, or rudder. His will acts on the vessel, which acts on the obstacle, which acts on his will, in a series of circular interactions. First and then last, first a cause and then a consequence, before once again becoming a cause, the project of following a route adapts in real time to conditions that unceasingly modify it, but through which it remains stubbornly invariant. The helmsman’s project decides on a subtle and fine tilt of the rudder, a tilt selected within the directional movement of objective forces, so that in the end the route can be traced through the set of constraints.

Posthumanist thinkers seem irresistibly drawn to nautical metaphors. Amid the oceanic circumstance of a vast modern, industrial society, whose waves move irrespective to our plans and hopes, eroding much of the things that have made us at home in the world, we must build vessels capable of navigating them.

Escaping Humanism’s Postmodern Firewall

Contemporary humanism has one powerful but ultimately self-destructive rebuttal to this posthumanist challenge. Somewhat counterintuitively, one of humanism’s strongest defenses against posthumanism lies in the framework of postmodernism. If meaning and knowledge is inherently subjective, then perhaps it is reasonable or even natural to embrace humanism as an ideology that deifies the human subject.  

There is nothing novel in arguing that postmodern subjectivism is a deeply impractical worldview. What is more damning is the posthumanist critique that it is also held in bad faith, as a reactive defense against humanism’s own internal crises. Postmodernism functions as humanism’s great firewall. If humanism cannot draw us in by the veracity of its own arguments, it can make escape impossible by claiming that all views of the human condition are arbitrary and emotive. Therefore, posthumanism cannot really be said to be ‘more true’ than humanism.

This scorched earth tactic comes at the cost of impoverishing the contents of humanism itself. Humanists once made passionate arguments for a well-defined path towards human flourishing. Now humanism seems to deify unconstrained human expression regardless of its contents.

Quentin Meillassoux is a leading philosopher of the speculative materialist school and a cartographer of ailing humanism’s defensive fortifications. His philosophical project is motivated by the powerful observation that, while large swathes of contemporary social thought are mired in postmodern subjectivism, science has marched ahead relentlessly, establishing a mathematized, objective basis for human belief over a staggering scope of phenomena.

Meillassoux claims that the postmodern, subjectivist frame rests on the transcendental turn in Western philosophy brought about by Kant, arguably one of humanism’s founding fathers. In short, Kant claimed we can never access the world in and of itself; we can only know how it is given to us by our senses. At best, the reality of the world itself is only correlated to the way our senses present it to us. From this state of affairs, Kant attempts to formulate a set of objective facts about the world that are necessary based on our existence in it in order to transcend the bounds of subjectivism. This second step of his argument, however, has fallen out of fashion, leaving us with only the radical subjectivist position that nothing can be known about the real world itself.

Meillassoux observes that this vanquishing of rational claims about the real world or metaphysics has a counterintuitive effect. Rather than putting an end to fantasical claims about the nature of the universe, by asserting they are beyond the scope of human knowledge, the door is left wide open to endless radical metaphysical claims because those claims, which although not rational, cannot be countered by any countervailing claims because we have disqualified our ability to make any such claims.

Meillassoux provides us with a new view of the secularization of the West that speaks to the rise of secular ideologies and their often religious tenor:

[Western] modernity consists in a vast enterprise of the secularization of thought, we consider the most striking feature of modernity to be the following: the modern man is he who has been re-ligionized precisely to the extent that he has been de-Christianized.

This is the world wrought by humanism’s postmodern retreat. Humanism’s postmodern defensive posture has left it internally anarchic. To be a posthumanist, then, one must be a philosophical realist. By believing that we do have access to knowledge about the real world beyond our senses, we are then able to judge whether humanism’s claims are true or false, and attempt to substitute them for more accurate claims.

A New OS for Modernity

We are collectively running an intellectual operating system, forged in narrative and rooted in profound assumptions about human life and history. We apply it all the time. It is easy to miss it in the small things—minute, mechanical issues, dealing with entirely practical realities. We are not humanists when we change the tire on our car. Yet, the way we conceive of large social challenges, the practical tasks we choose to take on, and the lofty goals we aspire to are infused with ideology. 

Freedom and progress, for example, are highly particular ways to describe a society’s collective aspirations. These ideas have real value, of course; but when our pursuit of them is founded on false presumptions about humankind and our relationship to the modern world, they can become siren songs.

We should expect the future to be composed of unpredictable crisis after crisis. Complex systems, such as the one we live in, behave unexpectedly. With each one, our belief that we are in the driver’s seat, facing easily intelligible choices for our future, will be tested. With humanism as a navigational OS, we assume full responsibility for where things are going and where they have been. We believe our brightest minds can map the road ahead with some measure of precision. The tradeoff is that we neglect those systems, institutions, and mental attitudes which make us resilient to these tremendous shocks, and which are the inherited markers of countless traumas experienced by the human species.

For the posthumanist, we are closer to a fleet of ships at sea—far from land, charting a course over unpredictable waters. It sees modern society as an assemblage of emergent phenomena which no one need ever have intended, in which exist small islands of human design and control.

Amid the tragic nature of modern life, its pragmatic view is necessary for us to endure. Many of our present conflicts start to look fruitless and sectarian in the face of our shared condition of vulnerability. This is the promise of posthumanism: having confronted modernity as an alien force and called human agency over our environment into question, it resists simple despair. Instead, we must focus our efforts where they might be best spent.

From that perspective, our collective efforts should be to ensure the integrity of our ship’s hull, that we are not taking on too much water, and that the crew is united and in good health. This is not a simple rebranding of postmodernism. We should take those disparate thinkers beginning to explore the large open frontier beyond humanism—the metaphysicians, the philosophers, and the new breed of social scientists—as examples to follow.

Most importantly: whoever is at the wheel of our little human vessel must proceed with caution, not mad ideological certainty. Ultimately, the forms of political judgment we embrace at the highest levels of our states and societies must reflect these lessons. Otherwise, we risk running aground, or worse, meeting our final end in the murky depths as a final, devastating wave undoes our species completely.

Charlie Smith is currently building Arkham, a market intelligence platform, and formerly worked as a researcher for The Economist. He can be found on Twitter @whoiscsmith.