Humane/Anti-Humane

Though he doesn’t state it directly, Timothy Burke recognizes that humanistic inquiry circa 2013 is at risk of being subsumed—enfolded into—techno-scientific discourse and scrutiny. In many venues, as he notes, it has already been subsumed:

I would not call such views inhumane: more anti-humane: they do not believe that a humane approach to the problems of a technologically advanced global society is effective or fair, that we need rules and instruments and systems of knowing that overrule intersubjective, experiential perspectives and slippery rhetorical and cultural ways of communicating what we know about the world.

The anti-humane is in play:

–When someone works to make an algorithm to grade essays

–When an IRB adopts inflexible rules derived from the governance of biomedical research and applies them to cultural anthropology

–When law enforcement and public culture work together to create a highly typified, abstracted profile of a psychological type prone to commit certain crimes and then attempt to surveil or control everyone falling within that parameter

–When quantitative social science pursues elaborate methodologies to isolate a single causal variable as having slightly more statistically significant weight than thousands of other variables rather than just craft a rhetorically persuasive interpretation of the importance of that factor

–When public officials build testing and evaluation systems intended to automate and massify the work of assessing the performance of employees or students

At these and many other moments across a wide scale of contemporary societies we set out to bracket off or excise the human element , to eliminate our reliance on intersubjective judgment. We are in these moments, as James Scott has put it of “high modernism”, working to make human beings legible and fixed for the sake of systems that require them to be so.

That humans can be quantified and their behaviors inserted into mechanistic or, more recently, statistical models is an idea as old as Comte and Spencer. Humanists of all stripes, religious and secular, have long denounced this idea, but with each passing decade, their denunciations have been met with more and more techno-scientific intrusions into the venues of humanistic inquiry. Researchers in China are currently attempting to map the genetic architecture of human intelligence itself; natural language processors are attempting to teach computers to learn human languages; and researchers across a wide array of disciplines continue to produce research which suggests that all life—human life included—is essentially “a mixture of genes, environment, and the accidents of history.

E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology may have been problematic in tone and too over-confident, but its underlying idea—that everything human and humane will eventually be describable in techno-scientific terms—is as valid as ever. Kurzweil is far too optimistic about the speed of transhuman advancement, but if history has shown us one thing, it’s not to bet against scientific advancement. And if we do build a sentient machine or use machines to amplify the abilities of humans (aren’t we doing this already?), then what else can we conclude but that humanity can be meaningfully reduced to techno-scientific terms?

Timothy Burke writes that “a humane knowledge accepts that human beings and their works are contingent to interpretation,” but some interpretations are more productive than others. Western science may be a reductive way-of-knowing, and techno-scientific reductionism may be a tough interpretation for humanists to find value in, but in the post-Enlightenment marketplace of ideas, anti-humane knowledge has always been and will continue to be the driver of discourse. Why? It produces. Its material applications are powerful.

Most of Burke’s essay is nuanced and generative, but he concludes with a bit of a rhetorical flourish that undermines the continuing material productivity of science:

We might, in fact, begin to argue that most academic disciplines need to move towards what I’ve described as humane because all of the problems and phenomena best described or managed in other approaches have already been understood and managed. The 20th Century picked all the low-hanging fruit. All the problems that could be solved by anti-humane thinking, all the solutions that could be achieved through technocratic management, are complete.

If by “anti-humane thinking” Burke means a purely mechanistic view of humanity, then he’s probably right. However, no one holds such a view anymore, if they ever did. For example, machine learning is modeled on statistical probabilities, and genetic research is looking at complex polygenic and epigenetic effects that are not reducible to single gene tinkering. The techno-scientific lens is no longer mechanistic or averse to complexity, but I still get the feeling that it remains “anti-humane” in the eyes of many humanists.

The worst thing the humanities can do is to continue theorizing about how its subject matter simply cannot be subsumed by techno-scientific practice while its subject matter continues to be subsumed by techno-scientific practice. We need to stop talking about, say, “the social construction of gender and sexuality” as though representation and discourse were more important for understanding gender and sexuality than hormone therapy or the biology of same-sex reproduction. Too often, humanists confuse ethical critique with epistemology. In my opinion, instead of assuming that our areas of inquiry are by definition off-limits to the techno-scientific lens, we need to recognize that the humanities are indeed “incomplete” without recourse to the knowledge of science. We should cross the border into the Land of Techno-Science more often . . . . for this sets up an encounter in which the sciences will recognize that they, too, are “incomplete” without recourse to the knowledge of humane inquiry. Every discipline has its deflections.

True incommensurability is rare. I’m confident that reading, e.g., E.O. Wilson and Donna Haraway together could be productive—so long as neither work remains unchanged in the encounter. The encounter would not be about whose knowledge gets to be the base of the other’s, or whose knowledge anchors the other’s. Rather, the point of such a humane/anti-humane encounter would be to give birth to an epistemological offspring comprised of elements from both but resembling neither.

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