Transumanism and Archaeology

I was pretty excited and anxious about my panel at last week’s European Association of Archaeologists meeting. This was partly because I had to travel, but partly because I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the concept of transhumanism and how it might be applied to archaeology. 

I was gratified to discover that the outlines of a posthuman and transhuman archaeology were as clear as the tortured characters in a Philip K. Dick novel who struggled to understand their own ontology. Ontological issues aside, the papers in the panel presented a practical posthumanism that encompassed the full range of archaeological work from the edge of the trench or survey unit to communicating finds and experiences to the public. 

While I’m still processing this panel, I have been mulling three things as I look toward revising my paper for consideration in the European Journal of Archaeology

1. Beyond Digital. I have tended to understand trans and posthumanism as a product of digital tools and practices or at very least modern technology. In my mind, these terms described ways in which modern technology – from the use of fossil fuels to latest immersive digital technology – transformed human engagement with the world. Several papers in the panel, however, pushed me to think about transhumanism as a far more complex phenomenon that reached back to the very first use of tools by humans. In effect, the panel got me wondering whether humans have always been transhuman. Just as Latour’s (and other’s) critiques of modernity has left us wondering whether the tidy divisions produced by modernity should continue to hold such a significant influence over how we see the world, transhumanism may well represent not a new era in the development of human expression and perception, but simply the latest iteration of our use of tools, organization, institutions, and technologies to comprehend our environment. 

In this context, transhuman and posthuman practices go from defining the edge of what makes us human (and what can be seen and understood as post- or transhuman) to actually offering a much more expansive perspective on our basic humanity. For whatever reason, I didn’t understand this, and simply overlooked the idea that trans- and posthumanism did not mark out actual transformations of human capacities, but, instead, traced a much more expansive discursive range for the traditional practices and questions at the core of the humanities (and humanism). 

Despite my incessant writing about Philip K. Dick, I somehow overlooked that this was exactly what he was  doing when he wondered whether androids dream of electric sheep. Closer to disciplinary practice, actor-network theory, the work of Tim Ingold, and scholars interested in embodied knowledge have all recognized the dense entanglement between humans and objects as central to who we are as humans. Whether modern or even digital tools make this entanglement so dense as to transform what it means to be human or whether they’ve simply made more obvious our long-standing integration with objects and others might well be one of the major projects for transhumanism moving forward. 

2. Sensory. I guess I understood, in a really basic way, that archaeology involved all of our senses, from the smell of the first, dew-covered, survey unit of the day to the sound of the trowel, the feel of ceramic surfaces (soapy to the touch!), and the view of the landscape. In fact, most of what we do as archaeologists, historically at least, is transform the range of sensory impressions that form the basis for our understanding of the landscape, vessel, or trench into another form of impressions – usually through the medium of text. 

Several of the papers in the panel noted that, first, this was a rather impoverished way to communicate archaeological work (despite the potential for excitement generated by reading a particularly compelling site report!), but also that there is tremendous potential in using technology to allow professionals and the public to engage and understand archaeology in more expansive and intensive ways. Of course, there are challenges with creating a more affective archaeology that range from the limits of digitally mediated immersive experiences to the our dependence on language (whether verbal or written) as the primary medium for disciplinary expression. Several papers, however, demonstrated that the use of language as a medium for archaeology reinforces a view of both the past and present separate from the experiences of an individual. In other words, language serves, in some ways, as a barrier between ourselves and the past and defines the limits to our own place within humanistic inquiry. The use of more and more dynamic tools which engage more senses expands our relationship to objects from the past and presents new ways not only to understand the past (as a basic form of humanistic engagement), but also to bridge the deeply modernist (and humanistic) expectation that the past and present are not and cannot be coincident in any way (pace Collingwood).   

3. Ethical. Finally, like so many of the papers that I experienced at the EAAs, I was struck by how much of our discussion revolved around ethical practices and responsibilities. Transhuman practices and interpretative paradigms, it would seem, will also stimulate the development of a new transhuman code of ethics. This involves not only something as seemingly simple as managing our expansive online identities and avatars to the limits of engaging the senses of a public whose expectations in experiencing the past derives largely from more more passive media. 

Archaeologists have long recognized that our humanity does not simply end at our body and that objects, landscapes, and buildings from the past require us to treat them with a certain kind of respect. As transhuman practices, however, embrace the more ephemeral media of digital technologies, sensory experiences, and transmedia engagements, we are pushed to understand, or at least realize, that what makes us transhuman cannot always be neatly separated from the materiality of objects, tools, or places. In fact, what makes us transhuman, it seems, is not necessarily defined by the modern divisions of past and present (or future), producing a densely-packed and expansive ethical quagmire full of competing claims for priority, access, and identity. For example, it remains to be seen how claims of national, local, or even indigenous rights to objects which have been historically so central to our ethical compass as archaeologists, will endure in a world that sees such positions as constituted by elusive and often competing strands of our own (trans)humanity.  

If the transhuman project has the potential to contribute to archaeological practice in any way, it seems like it is in the almost overwhelmingly complicate area of archaeological ethics. If our basic humanity does not end at our own views of being in the world and the present is, indeed, shared with the past and future, then the guidance of long held positions shaped by modern humanism is compromised.      

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