What is it that makes us “human”? How is this identity constructed and constrained? The “human” existing in contrast with its surroundings, as special and specific in some way, is a narrative that Western Civilization is rooted in. It is a narrative that allows us to limit and manipulate what or who gets to be considered wholly “human.” It is used to inflict and justify environmental, colonial, gender-sexuality, and ability-based violence. Transhuman/Posthuman/Antihuman—a moving image playlist available in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the month of July—presents film and video works that disrupt this notion of “human” condition. The physical form, individual identity and overarching ethos of the “human” subject is fragmented and rearranged. Bodies extend beyond themselves, split and remerge with their environments. Identity categorization is turned on its head. As the playlist progresses, the “human” is killed off, transformed and transcended, leaving in its place something much older and wilder. Here, playlist curator Kai Joy shares her perspective on her selections, which span from Maya Deren’s 1944 work At Land to Sky Hopinka’s 2016 short I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become.
Who you callin’ human?
Adam’s primary role in the Garden of Eden was that of the taxonomist. In the Old Testament, God gave Adam complete dominion over every plant, animal, and object within the Garden. The first human’s task was to separate out, to name and organize his kingdom. By observing, classifying, and controlling his surroundings, the human is able to find and build his own identity. So, who is this “human being” then? As of late, this question is most typically answered biologically, pseudo-objectively. To be human is to be “homo sapiens,” to be a bipedal animal, to be an organism with a standardized anatomy. Culturally, however, human identity is a bit more complex.
Unlike many biologists, “Western”1 cultures separate humanity from its environment and from every other organism. The human is different and exceptional. It should come as no surprise then that the traits which give a person or thing access to “human” classification are almost always socially engineered and context dependent. In fact, the idea of humanity as a unified and overarching category hasn’t always existed. The Ancient Greek concept of “Anthropos” is widely considered the prototype for the contemporary Western “human.” To be considered Anthropos, an individual could not be: a god/goddess/deity, an animal, or a barbarian2. So, from the very beginning, human identity was tied to regional cultural identity. Anthropos began to look more like what we can more generally recognize as the “human” during the Protestant Reformation/European Enlightenment. Significant scientific and theological discourse returned to the text of the Bible and the Garden of Eden. To be human was no longer to be Greek but to be close to Adam, the image of God, the great namer. To be human was to be “rational” like Adam, to organize, manipulate, and dominate one’s surroundings. The human is the hero, the protagonist, the explorer embarked on a quest. This human ethos is instantly recognizable when looking at history: “exploration,” colonialism, manifest destiny, the space race ad nauseum.
The more the human can separate, organize, and control his3 environment, the closer he is to God. Peoples who stand in the way of the human’s quest are deemed animal-like, subhuman, savage. Because these people are then outside or below the scope of “humanity,” violence and domination are justified. This was (and is) the ideology of chattel slavery, racial classification, and gender/sexuality-based violence.
Art, literature, and media have always reflected this very humanism. The empowered individual (almost always white male) protagonist, the quest for knowledge or power, the hardships along the way: this is the classic story, the epic. This narrative is universal: Homer, Dante, Gilgamesh, Bruce Willis, etc. A man, a quest, an array of helpers/side-characters, and evil enemies. Even the narratives of marginalized people almost always buy into this framework. Writers, directors, and actors all work to “humanize” characters without examining the Eurocentric and heteropatriarchal4 basis of the “human” standard they are trying to live up to. Similarly, as artists, activists and oppressed people we try to “humanize” ourselves, to qualify for “human rights.” This way our status and our rights are determined by a human ideal that we never even participated in designing. We are forced to assimilate, to be and act “respectably,” to accept expectations forced upon us and to lose our cultures and languages. Even after that entire process, our humanity can still be revoked at a moment’s notice. A rug being ripped from beneath our feet.
One response to modern humanist ideology has come by way of academics. Postmodern social theorists such as Michel Foucault and, later, Donna Haraway pioneered Posthumanist and Antihumanist thought5. With these ideologies, human exceptionalism, and anthropocentrism are challenged. The definition and nature of the “human,” the individual subject can be manipulated and scrutinized. Activism, art, and film can also be used to challenge oppressive human categorization. By reorienting art and activism towards deconstructing instead of aspiring towards human status and value, artists can begin to destabilize the ideologies that underlie significant structural and cultural violence.
In curating this playlist my goal is not only to present films that challenge violent humanistic ideology but also to create a meta-narrative: a superfilm that progresses and changes and dissolves the human subject over the course of its queue.
The playlist begins with Maya Deren’s 15-minute silent film: At Land (1944). By analyzing this film as posthuman/antihuman text I hope to give readers a greater understanding of this project, a preview of the playlist, and maybe some political and creative inspiration. The subject of the film, a woman, is stranded on some unknown shore. Disoriented, she sets out to explore her surroundings. Yet another weary traveler in a foreign land. On its face this film seems to be following the quest formula nicely. As the subject explores her surroundings however, it becomes apparent that this isn’t just any quest story. Throughout the film, character and environment blend into each other and the characters are unable to keep stable identities.
There is a scene in which our protagonist is walking down a road and speaking with a man. As the two stroll, the camera pans from one to the other and back again several times. With each pan “the man” is completely different, he is played by a different actor and wears completely different clothing. The identity of the man is made meaningless because it is now fluid and unstable. Within hero narratives and traditional humanist ideology, there is no room for fluidity or instability. As viewers, we are unable to determine whether this man is good or attractive or intelligent or likeable, and so he is no longer a valuable human character. He is reduced to “male-coded figure walking with protagonist” in the same way that marginalized people are reduced in traditional hero stories. At the same time, this “man” extends beyond himself; he possesses several conflicting traits and identifiers at the same time. He becomes a composite.
The dissolution of individual identities continues into the climax of the film, where it is revealed that what we think is a relatively linear and singular (albeit surreal) exploration narrative is actually several different sequences occurring in tandem. What was once an individual protagonist is multiple alter egos operating independently of one another. The different versions of this woman, these women, are all played by the same actress who is wearing the same clothing. They are all the same “character,” and yet they pass each other, react to one another, and exist as multiple. While one of these clones runs down the beach, another looks on in bewilderment, a third is giving out scalp massages before the camera cuts to even more variants of the same character. She no longer has a stable identity. She is fluid. She takes several conflicting actions at once. She resists the idea of a containable, unified individual human subject. Instead of embarking on a linear quest she goes in many different directions at the same time, she cannot be pinned down or reduced to a specific purpose or motive or emotional state.
By contrasting the two dissolved identities in this film (the strolling man and the posse of protagonists), Maya Deren calls into question just what makes an identity in the first place. Is a human, a person, a character defined by their actions or appearance or perspective or thoughts? Because none of those things are stagnant or stable.
A person, a subject, is an ecosystem of cells. A subject is just one cell within larger networks, communities, and ecosystems. A subject can be an animal, a plant, an object, a person. A subject can be fragmented. It can have conflicting identities. It can exist in conflicting contexts. A subject can extend outside of physicality. It can have virtual identities. It can be fluid. A subject can be unstable. It can be more than one. It can dissolve and reform. Film and video have endless potential to merge, observe, and display subjecthood—a collection of traits and identities in constant motion: intersecting, conflicting, separating, remerging. Body parts and memories, fragments. A reclamation of wildness, of unmanageability. Let these films be proof of possibility. By the end, maybe you will believe in the posthuman.
Full list of films in playlist:
At Land (Maya Deren, 1944)
Wrist Trick (fluxfilm #28) (Paul Sharits, 1965)
Present Sore (Shahryar Nashat, 2016)
Cake and Steak (Abigail Child, 2004)
Valentin de las Sierras (Bruce Baillie, 1968)
I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become (Sky Hopinka, 2016)
Tung (Bruce Baillie, 1966)
Gloria! (Hollis Frampton, 1979)
Radio at Night (James Richards, 2015)
2A person who is not of Greek descent.
3I use he/him pronouns when referring to the generic “human” because historically this oppressive figure has been coded as binary masculine.
4Heteropatriarchy is a term used to describe a sociopolitical framework that privileges heterosexuality and masculinity. This term emphasizes the overlap in oppression experienced by women and LGBT people.
5Although it is worth noting that the first theorist to challenge the idea of the “human” was structuralist anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in his book The Savage Mind. Additionally, many post-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon also wrote what could be classified as posthuman theory, but just used different terminologies.