Introducing the papers

Rowland Atkinson and Dan Goodley


This collection gathers a series of short-form interventions; a gathering, no less, of perspectives and assessments drawn from economists, philosophers, educationalists, sociologists, criminologists and critical psychologists. These contributions improvise on an apparently simple brief – to offer a plain language perspective on the question of what it means to be human today that identifies the pressures and factors redefining and reshaping that experience. Each seeks to address the question of what the essence or nature of humanity might be, in as far as this might be located. The contributions to be found here consider how our identities, capacities and social conditions are being re-shaped, deformed or re-made by numerous forces that that are perhaps changing that condition.

Inhumanity is never hard to find in the world around us. As we write bombs are raining down on civilians in Syria as America exits the region. Thousands of desperate migrants fleeing climate-change and disorder are repelled verbally or physically by nation states in the global north. Reports from the tech world highlight the expanding harms generated by a networked society – operatives paid minimum wages by Facebook to examine images of abuse and extreme political material – damaged by their exposure many have been building private collections of extreme pornography. In the damaged everyday worlds of many nations timebombs set by austerity politics are now periodically shattering the already insecure conditions of many of the most marginalised communities. Yet, while many struggle, the hubris and gross materialism of the most affluent is increasingly visible, signifying an apparent indifference in the face of intense human need around the globe. Such examples can be added to a million more, highlighting the capacity for individuals or complex social and political systems to mechanically produce forms of inhumanity.

The question of what it means to be human is also being overtaken with a perhaps even greater concern; the very continuity of that condition as humanity itself reaches the limits of its supporting ecosystem. The climate question and its entwinement with economic systems that have defined the trajectory of many lives brought into ever sharper relief the limits and our potential endpoint. Despite these concerns material inequalities, between north and south, super-wealthy and super-poor, are rising. Yet the growing distance between the rich and the rest is only one of several worrisome clashes between cultures and identities. Ethnicity, disability, class and gender highlight areas of cleavage shaping conflict and contests. Across and within these divisions violence, abuse and its distancing through media are evident features of life today. In their face how can we hold on to, calibrate and understand what it means to be human today?

The idea of the human, and humanity more broadly, is perhaps under strain from at least two key sources. First, the stretching of these concepts. Here the question of being human at a time of massive change and inequality generates challenges for interdisciplinary social science as it engages with engineering, medicine, philosophy, the arts and other perspectives. More and more we realise the need for an unbounded engagement with the idea of the human, the sense that disciplines must in fact flow one into another as we seek more appropriate and effective tools with which we might evaluate the harms, burdens and potential gains that variably come from today’s political, economic, social and technological worlds.

For the academy the idea of the human, and with it notions of the humane, remain deeply pertinent to the role of universities and to social thinkers keen to chart the means and structures by which we are made more than or less than this designation might mean to us. The ways in which capitalism and the money economy appear to subvert and reduce our essence to one of a money calculus that takes all in its path has become a major leitmotiv of such analyses, the sense that mutual support, kindness and an ethos for living is being scraped-away ever more deeply. Yet There is also reason for guarded optimism, as can be seen in searches for the kind of compassionate, engaged and mutually supportive constituents of life in a world ever more anxious about grand narratives attached to religious or national doctrines. There is nothing more human than reaching out to others for connection, mutuality and interdependence even as populism and doctrinal fundamentalisms appear to undermine such possibilities.

Who ‘we’ are in a world apparently without biological and technical limits, rules, ethics and codes remains contentious. The reality is, of course, that many limits remain in place, particularly so for large sections of a global humanity submerged under forms of labour exploitation, near or total slavery, the sway of ideology, the loss of dignity and the absence of fundamental human needs focused on shelter, education, nourishment and self-worth. Much of what passes for a concern with what is human, of being more than human or superhuman, is in fact almost unrelated to the concerns of a humanism focused on how we might be better connected, empathic and more fully with each other. The massive economic wins of the few drive projects to reach the stars, to escape the coil of mortality and to evade the coming ecological changes now in evidence around us all. Such projects are inevitably the designs of a more self-centred upperworld that inevitably seeks to avoid the kinds of damage and absence generated by the same economic systems that has yielded them as winners.

How then can we grapple and reconcile the systemic production of violence, harm and inequality with the acts of individuals? How can we help those around most effectively? As the central character of Kobayashi’s epic, The Human Condition, highlights – a concern with ‘the Other’ can the gift of those also the emissaries of emphatic violence. Kaji, finds himself an administrator of a Japanese labour camp in occupied China. His unthinkable approach is to help maximise the work of its labourers by offering a more tolerant and less aggressive regime. These sincere efforts are undermined by the unwaveringly harsh military chains of command above him, but also by the indignant prisoner-workers who see only a subtle manipulation by the agent of an oppressive force. The broader story works on many levels to illustrate the profound difficulty of remaining truly human, that we are inevitably bound-up with much larger processes and systems that will tend to keep on yielding violence, exploitation and harm to many. In order to understand this kind of complexity and the situated nature of violence and inhumanity it is important that critical academic endeavour seek to chart, explain and help resolve such incredibly knotty problems.

The second key source of strain lies in the possibility that the human is under pressure from deepening, destabilising pressures and forces. What does it mean to be human at a time of increasingly rapid social, economic, technological and political change? Our contemporary lives are destabilised and re-made by new senses of human identity and experience. Life-extending technologies, body modifying techniques, smart drugs and body prostheses are quickly challenging any sense of a unified human core while playing-out in a materially unequal world in which such enhancements and improvements are available to a small fraction of the global population. The incredible abundance that has flowed to the masters of the global economy enable historically unprecedented and sweeping power that takes in the political, economic, urban and technical systems in ways enable the hoarding of new opportunities. Here again academic work must ally itself with those oppressed and damaged by these changes.

The sense of humanity as some unified or shared experience appears to be rent asunder. The social contract strains under rising inequality, the colonialism of global finance enables dispossession and social cohesion is breaking-down in many nations in which the ghosts of Nazism are not only remembered again, but actively resurrected by new political movements manipulating sentiment in this same troublesome, rapidly changing and anxiety-inducing world.

Such challenges bely that for many people hardship is a simple aspect of everyday life. In the face of such hardships many make strenuous efforts to locate a common ethos anchored in eschewing materialism, a sense of place, re-finding forms of social mutuality or spiritualities anchored in everyday experience and well-being. But what does it say of ‘us’ when any such progress is undermined so effectively by forms of hyper-consumption, self-promoting narcissism and by economic systems which bring violent dispossession, climate disaster and political instability to so many? Such connections and questions exercise many of the contributions in this volume.

Finally, we might reflect that any historical analysis of the human, the humane and the humanist reveals questions about whether we would want to, or indeed can, sustain the category of the human. Why keep returning to our shared humanness, our common humanity or some form of transcendental humanism when diversity and hybridity are so deeply characteristic of its changing nature? How do we maintain a sense of unity when poor, queer, female, disabled, people of colour continue to be excluded from what many understand as some kind of valued humanness? Coupled with a growing sense of our virtual, digital, algorithmic, robotic, future, online and extended humanness we may wonder whether or not there is something rather old-fashioned (at best) or exclusionary (at worst) in our cherishing of the human category. In any case it must be remembered that the category of the human remains contested and open to more malleable reworkings in the face of many changes and tensions.

Our writings and musings are, of course, emerging in an interdisciplinary international community where the human is being pushed into new thematics associated with the posthuman, post-social, post-welfare and post-anthropocene. These thematics reflect on the current state of the human category and do so in times characterised as being ever-changing, episodic and fluctuating. Populism, Post-truth, deep fakes and nationalism conjure up dangerous sentimental notions of human autonomy that may have the impact of splitting communities. The critical posthumanities is but one term that seeks to house or at least allow us to better locate a host of critical responses. Not only do these new machinations reimagine the human condition in terms of extension, assemblage and interconnection, they also demand us to think about whether or not we want to keep hold of a discrete conceptualisation of the human historically held to be so important to our politics. Might we, then, become re-enchanted with the human through an engagement with more contemporary theorisations associated with the posthuman? Can we hold onto ideas of self-worth, respect, affection and attachment to the beauty of the human(e) as well as celebrating our more flighty, hyperactive and transient qualities found in, say, our digital or new, more robotic encounters? Might we find emancipation, equality and opportunity at the intersections of our human-animal-social-digital-biogenic-robotic-human entanglements?

This volume

We made the decision to offer the proceedings of the meeting as an open-access electronic book. The collective was unanimous in choosing this way of reaching-out to other researchers and readers interested in these issues. We know that the corporatisation of intellectual knowledge is not just a British problem. While processes of intellectual audit and knowledge commodification potentially threaten intellectual thought and critical engagement with many issues, we are in danger too often on missing out on the discursive and provocative qualities of writing, thinking and debating together – often lost in the pressure to commit thoughts to formal peer review when a more playful and discursive presentation may well be in order but which may not be valorised by the structures of academic life as they are coming to be defined.

As a small offering, the online open access collection presented here gives insight into some of the key questions that we as a collective of researchers came together to consider during a two day symposium event convened by iHuman and the Inclusive Societies group, both based in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Sheffield. The brief to our invited scholars was clear – write 1,500 words (no more), share this with us two weeks before the event and prepare a 10 minute synopsis of the paper in readiness for some debate and discussion. Some prompts were provided:

● What does it mean to be human in a post-welfare, post-social, austerity society?
● What does it mean to flourish as a human and who gets to flourish and who does not?
● What are the social, political and economic implications and feedback effects of compressed and damaged flourishing among particular social strata and geographies?
● What kinds of non-human connections are necessary in the time of the anthropocene?
● Can we celebrate the human category and also embrace non-humans such as animals and tech?
● Are we living in a time of the posthuman and, if so, what does this mean in practice, politics and theory?
● Are new vocabularies of winning, losing-out, difference or class required to understand the complex forms of social and (non)human problems as we move forward?

The symposium involved presentations and respondents offering critique in order that a revised set of chapters could be gathered, benefitting from a reception within an interdisciplinary context. Contributors were offered the chance to review their papers but to keep their writings around 1,500 words. So, here you have it; a collection of papers that take seriously some of these tricky, thorny but ultimately timely questions. We welcome responses and debate. If you tweet please comment #Humunderduress and we will continue the conversation.

The contributions

Rowland Atkinson attends to the political economy of inhumanity found in common encounters of humans and digital life. His idea of the murder box explores gaming, leisure and pornography where the digital human’s desires are played out in deeply disturbing ways. Atkinson asks us to think again about the assemblages of human-digital worlds and to consider the possibilities for dehumanisation that are constituted in the name of pleasure and play. Too often the posthuman condition – embodied in the very idea of the digital human – is bandied around as a benign, inevitable and productive phenomenon. Atkinson encourages to consider the possibilities for constituting the inhumane through our pleasure-seeking activities.

Taking a cross-cultural frame of reference, Jamie Coates offers an analysis of humanness via a discussion of the ‘person’. Here he engages Chinese and Japanese linguistic formulations of personhood as a means of unpacking how different cultures approach the idea of the (human) individual. As an enlightenment concept the category of the human offered not necessarily meaning to capture all experience but the new capacity to distinguish between those to be included in this category and those or were not or were less than human. What can we do or think differently when we consider the idea of human bodies as persons, rather than folding them into the category of the human? As Coates shows, many non-human actors become part of a much broader pantheon and this may have value and resonance at a time of environmental and social change. Can we or should we embrace the person if we wish to move beyond some concept of the human?

Nadena Doherty and Reza Gholami offer a critical race perspective on questions of the human. Their contribution maps out the continuation of a racist white supremacy landscape across our institutions of society. Any engagement with the human must, they argue, recognise from the outset that racism is endemic and undercuts any discussions of inclusion, extension and community. They push us to question the whiteness of theorisation – especially that written in the critical posthumanities – and to counter this with a sensitisation to the politics of race. Such a politics enters the ontologies and epistemological of human/posthuman life and therefore requires our immediate attention.

Nick Game discusses the way that varying economic logics and perspectives have been developed by a range of thinkers. These have become enormously influential ways of framing economic activity that is itself often antagonistic to human capacity – generating forms of market orientation that generate divisions and inequalities that have yielded intense exclusion and damaged capacities among many. Gane traces these disparate forms of thinking, including a brief history of neoliberal thinking and influencers that brings us to the current focus on algorithms and ‘nudge’ thinking designed to create compliance and monitoring as much as improved social outcomes. The answer, Gane contends, is to move from nudging better consumers and to reject the triumph of markets and to regain a sense of the human in doing so.

Dan Goodley focuses on race and disability as entry points into a discussion of how we might begin to move from the exclusive and excluding conceptions of humanity generated in the male/Western tradition. Like Gane, below, Goodley identifies a strongly economic, rational and male core to conception of humanity that need to be teased apart to achieve a more effective and inclusive impression of humanness. Yet the move to a posthumanism also generates potential problems, the sense that in throwing out or reworking ideas of the human through technophile understandings may ‘flatten’ our understanding of what it means to be human. Locating a series of ways forward one focal point becomes how education systems impose ways of understanding as ‘less than human’ on black and disabled children.

Alexandra Hall offers an insight into the world of body modification via ethnographic work among women adopting new methods of beautification and modification – injectable, pill-form and other techniques that have rapidly risen alongside internet distribution models that circumvent traditional methods of control and regulation. On this circuit Hall locates these consumption practices as part of a regressive capitalism that now invades, and potentially damages, the bodies and minds of those who become subscribed to ideas of their bodies and faces as primary indexes of their sexual and social value. Here there is fun and mutual admiration but also an emerging set of risks that are propelled by the desire to be, in some sense, more than and better than.

Karin Lesnik-Oberstein considers the varying conceptions of the child, a body or figure that can be variously cast as occupying a range of complex positions – such as being in some sense pre-human/adult, or being in some sense more disabled. She highlights how thinking about children has tended to identify them as a kind of commonsense category of being when, in reality, they occupy intensely complex and ambivalent positions. Here the sciences of mind keep looking ever-deeper for clearer and more incisive impressions of the workings of the brain, while also recognising the non-unity and complexity of personal psychological development and experience.

Paul Martin brings a Science and Technology perspective to a discussion of the condition of the posthuman. He argues that we need to engage more readily – conceptually and empirically – with the more pernicious elements of biocapitalism. These might include the routinisation of genetic engineering of life, a revitalisation of evolutionary knowledge that downplays the uniqueness of humans and the increased surveillance of populations through their biometrics. He argues that posthuman thinking creates a strange irony; that in critiquing humanism and opening new decentred understandings of the human this risks laying the ground for an uncritical acceptance of the promise of biocapitalism. Martin is clear that any move to the posthuman must be mindful of the complex practices and ramifications of contemporary modes of capitalist reproduction.

Rod Michalko asks to consider the match or mismatch of theoretical communities to the experience of humanity that those communities purport to understand. His contribution focuses on disability studies literature and research but his discussion has much wider reach. Michalko offers a number of provocations about the utility of theory and its relative lack of engagement with a host of phenomenological experiences associated with the human condition. He wonders to what extent theorisation has actually become dehumanising due to its dislocation from the everyday experiences of living in the world. His contribution offers us an opportunity to attend to the uncertainties and failings of scholarship.

Rebecca Maskos pitches posthuman thinking and strategic humanism against one another as a useful oppositional strategy. As a disabled activist and scholar she worries about the potential erasure of disabled people that can occur through some posthuman scholarship that, understandably, seeks to make some inter-species alliances. While sensitive to animal rights and human-animal assemblages (leitmotifs of contemporary posthuman scholarship) she is also keen to engage with a strategic form of humanism that upholds the humanity of disabled people. Maskos reminds us that the fight for recognition in the humanist mirror remains a major political and ontological ambition of groups of human beings who have historically been dehumanised.

Javier Monforte merges materialist and narrative social sciences in his brief dalliance with the dystopia of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. His argument is a methodological but also as theoretical one; that in order for us to make sense of the stories of humans under duress we need to attend equally to the material conditions that accompany and sit alongside our stories. Too often the ‘materialist turn’ has shifted scholars interests to some kind of bare materialism that lacks an engagement with the stories we tell about our lives. Monforte makes a strong case for a dual pronged analysis: let us acknowledge our narratives as humans just as we acknowledge the significance of non-human others to our very existence.

AbdouMaliq Simone turns to the question of cities and urban life, making a broad and nuanced case for the consideration of the extending, planetary nature of our urban condition. Within that spatial framing Simone discusses the degree to much hybrid, multiple, damaged and ordinary lives are played-out in ways that are both circumscribed by, but which also rise above, the urban contexts in which they are often located or delimited. Among other questions he considers, what aspects of human social life in urban contexts is somehow ‘disobedient’ to the logic of its circumstances, how does it challenge, reframe and rework the material of that urban life.

Tanya Tichkosky take us to the gym. She recalls a moment in her local gym where a group of fellow humans are reacted to in terms of well-rehearsed and well-known ideas that already exist about particular kinds of humans. As a disability studies scholar she is interested in asking how the presence of disability actually creates a movement of opportunity and reflection; a politics of wonder as she terms it. Titchkosky reminds us that certain human categories are immediately known and they are known as humans in need of fixing. We must be wary of this tendency of some human beings to seek failure and cure in their engagements with other human beings.

Katherine-Runswick-Cole, Yvonne Wechuli and Antonios Ktenidis offer us a welcome reflection on the feel of the contributions to the Humanity under Duress symposium. We thank them for giving us critical feedback on the papers we have presented. They raise questions about the kinds of human beings that we might implicitly have in mind when we are enacting scholarship; about the tension of theorisation devoid of a concern with potential applications of that theory-work; about the tensions between particular ‘studies of ..’ (in this case disability and animal studies). Their writing pushes us to revisit our assumptions when we think together and to consider the alliances and communities we have in mind.

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