What Does It Mean to Dehumanize? Research Time, 29/04/2014

One of the common features of continental philosophy that follows Heidegger’s model and ideas is the notion that we have slowly become dehumanized. But I’ve always been uncertain, at least myself, as to what this means, and the field offers many perspectives, but little consensus. Of course, this is just how I like my philosophical fields, with many different interpretations and perspectives in dynamic tension with each other. So, in dialogue with Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman, I offer a few hundred words on what dehumanization is.

Richard Lindner's "Boy With Machine"
appeared in Anti-Oedipus, which conceived
of humanity as actually being machines.
For someone who entitles a sub-section of a chapter “Becoming-Machine,” the image of humanity Braidotti sketches is far from what anyone would call dehumanized. I’d say that it’s more vibrantly alive than most humans ever actually manage. Her concept follows the line that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari set out: if our subjectivity is constituted from the affects that our body generates in its interaction with its environment, then humanity is becoming increasingly mechanized as more of our lives incorporate technology. 

Martin Heidegger would have been appalled, but that harried old social conservative was dreaming of an Eden that never really existed. My old PhD supervisor documented research ten years ago in his book Knowledge and Civilization that the human brain was plastic enough that its architecture kept developing long after birth. This is one of humanity’s fundamental unique features in the world of nature. Our tool use was far more intimate than any other animal: not only did we make creative use of them, but the ability to manipulate tools and build artifacts is deeply integrated with our neurology. It’s as if our own technology (even when it was simple as a flint knife) is a second, worldly womb.

So we have always been technological in our essence, which makes the concept of becoming-machine a little less freaky. Braidotti considers this conception of humanity an ecosophical, or a transversal matter. What these words mean have a touch of epistemology about them. We normally divide our knowledge into discrete categories, and the disciplines have been splintering as our knowledge of the world has grown. But the phenomena that constitute the world influence each other paying no heed to the disciplinary divisions of humanity’s sciences. Real affects in the world transverse our categories of knowledge. The only category of human science that can really handle this transversality is ecology, the science of multifaceted connections among wildly different things. In a more general form, ecology is the science of how the interactions of a multiplicity of multiplicities constitute a single, incredibly complex field of interaction.

Ecosophy: the philosophy where the one is the many. Plato would have a lot to learn. 

So if dehumanization isn’t a matter of changing what humanity physically is, what could it be? Some of Braidotti’s remarks on the horrors of the 20th century’s politics and war accord with my own thinking. The perpetrators of political violence, both at the policy-making level and the police officers on the streets, must slowly become inured to the psychological effects of violence if they want to continue doing their jobs. Consider what I find most disgusting about realpolitik thinking: treating everyone you encounter as an element of a strategy to achieve geopolitical objectives. Their singular personalities are forgotten so that they can be manipulated and used for some global-scale interest.

Because you have to deaden yourself to empathy to carry out such thinking efficiently, you effectively numb your empathetic senses away. And without empathy, I can’t really say that you’re a human.

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