Posthumanism in the Medical Humanities

MedHums 101: Anna McFarlane explains the impact a posthumanistic approach can have within critical medical humanities research

What might a world without humans look like? In culture, this is often explored through figures like the vampire, the zombie, and the artificial intelligence. Consider the people who inhabit the surreal, post-apocalyptic environment of David Cronenberg’s recent film Crimes of the Future (2022). In this film, humans have evolved or been genetically engineered beyond the point of traditional embodiment and its values. Some can eat plastic, adapting to bleak environmental conditions that have seen the earth’s resources converted into synthetic waste that creates a new, anthropogenic ecosystem. Some humans have evolved so that they cannot feel pain, or can even take pleasure in the incisions of surgery. Surgery, transplantation, and organ removal have become styles of performance art. These representations lead us to think about the future – where are we going, and what might we become? How do definitions of the ‘medical’ shift if augmentation becomes commonplace? And how much does our definition of the human rely on types of embodiment, or relationships to the environment, that might be in flux? This is one approach from the field of posthumanism, which is interdisciplinary and encompasses a number of different meanings and valences. Posthumanism considers the ways of being that might follow the human.

A film still showing a bald man with stitched up mouth and eyes and extra ears grafted on his head
How can the medical be defined in the face of augmentation? A still from David Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes of the Future’ via https://decider.com/2022/07/14/david-cronenberg-crimes-of-the-future-body-horror/

We can also consider the ‘post’ in ‘posthumanism’ to be analogous to the ‘post’ in ‘postmodernism’. Yes, it can signify something after the human – but it can also signify an interrogation of the principles of humanism. Posthumanism can challenge ideological precepts associated with humanism, such as the human as an individual subject with agency. As Stefan Herbrechter puts it, ‘on the one hand, [the post- prefix] signifies a desire or indeed a need to somehow go beyond humanism (or the human), while on the other hand, since the post- also necessarily repeats what it prefixes, it displays an awareness that neither humanism nor the human can in fact be overcome in any straightforward dialectical or historical fashion’ (Herbrechter 2017). Posthumanism asks us to critique the ideology of humanism and to consider the ways in which humans have never conformed to the ideals of humanism; the human has always been interdependent with the environment, with more-than-human species, and with technology and tools.

What can posthumanism do for the medical humanities?

This latter definition of posthumanism allows us to begin to think about how posthumanism can contribute to future critical directions in the medical humanities. There are various ways in which humanist ideologies have been central to the development of the field. Angela Woods and Anne Whitehead identify the encounter between the cancer patient and the doctor as the relationship dyad at the heart of the medical humanities during its development from a tool of empathy for clinicians-in-training, to its critical turn. Such a focus ‘placed a humanist emphasis on individual protagonists and the role of narrative, metaphor and gaps in communication within the dynamics of the clinical interaction’ (Whitehead 2016). Considering the medical humanities from a posthuman perspective encourages us to think about the systems and webs of relationships beyond the human – the economic systems that define medical care; relationships between humans and more-than-human others, such as the crucial bacteria that share, or even constitute, human bodies; the interdependence between human and animal health that came to the fore in considerations of Covid-19 as a zoonotic virus.

As well as thinking about wider systems, a posthuman perspective asks us to consider how the dynamics of intimate care relationships might shift. The human element of care is considered fundamental, but there are new possibilities and avenues opened by the consideration of posthuman care; care provided by robots perhaps, potentially allowing patients a greater degree of dignity and privacy than they experience when receiving intimate care from fellow human beings. As Amelia DeFalco has argued as part of her extensive and ongoing work on posthuman care, ‘there are powerful affinities between care philosophy and posthumanism that can lead to an inclusive vision of care that incorporates not only human vulnerability and interdependence, but a larger rhizomatic tangle of human-animal-machine interconnections’ (DeFalco 2023). Indeed, thinking about care through the lens of posthumanism arguably brings it to the forefront of medical considerations as the relationality of care lends itself to a posthuman perspective.

MiRo models on display at the Thackray Museum of Medicine’s “Can robots care?” exhibition (Photo by Beata Gubacsi)

Bringing a posthuman perspective to the medical humanities can therefore change the emphasis of what we consider medicine to be (as I’ve argued elsewhere, see McFarlane 2022). Issues of care can be reprioritised, no longer overlooked in favour of technical and technological interventions. A posthuman perspective recognises that medicine is embedded within socio-political relations and cannot be hived off from the economic, or indeed from the possibilities of transformation and augmentation opened up by medical progress. Medicine is a space where human bodies are most intimately entangled with technology, and posthumanism allows us to consider the future possibilities and contemporary implications of that intimacy.

About the author

Anna McFarlane is a Lecturer in Medical Humanities at the University of Leeds and author of the monograph Cyberpunk Culture and Psychology: Seeing Through the Mirrorshades (2021). Her research on traumatic pregnancy and its expression in fantastika was awarded a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship, and she is a Visiting Collaborator on the Wellcome-Trust funded Future of Human Reproduction project at the University of Lancaster. She is the co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, Fifty Key Figures in Cyberpunk Culture, and the forthcoming Edinburgh Companion to Science Fiction and the Medical Humanities.

References

DeFalco, Amelia. 2023. Curious Kin in Fictions of Posthuman Care. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Herbrechter, Stefan. 2017. ‘Critical Posthumanism: A Definition’. The Critical Posthumanism Network: https://criticalposthumanism.net/critical-posthumanism/

McFarlane, Anna. 2022. ‘Medical Humanities’. In The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Posthumanism, edited by Stefan Herbrechter, Ivan Callus, Manuella Rossini, Marija Grech, Megan de Bruin-Molé, and Chris John Müller. London: Springer.

Whitehead, Anne & Angela Woods (Eds.). 2016. The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities. Edinburgh University Press.

‘MedHums 101’

The Polyphony’s ‘MedHums 101’ series explores key concepts, debates and historical points within the critical medical humanities for those new to the field. View the full ‘MedHums 101’ series.

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