Writing in 1994, in his overview of 20th-century history titled The Age of Extremes, Eric Hobsbawm notes a proliferation of words beginning with “post”:
When people face what nothing in their past has prepared them for they grope for words to name the unknown, even when they can neither define nor understand it. Some time in the third quarter of the century we can see this process at work among the intellectuals of the West. The keyword was the small preposition “after,” generally used in its latinate form “post” as a prefix to any of the numerous terms which had, for some generations, been used to mark out the mental territory of twentieth-century life.
He lists examples: post-industrial, post-imperial, post-modern, and post-structuralist, among others. Adding the prefix “post” to familiar words, Hobsbawm concludes, signifies an event of consciousness: “In this way the greatest and most dramatic, rapid, and universal social transformation in human history entered the consciousness of reflective minds who lived through it.”
The terms “posthuman” and “posthumanism” (with or without hyphenation) were just coming into fashion then. They have since become much more common and should be added to Hobsbawm’s list. Yet their meaning is cloudy, because the post-combination essentially implies a void: “I can’t find words for what is going on.” So what is the “greatest and most dramatic, rapid, and universal social transformation in human history”? This question, and not the specific term “posthuman,” will be the focus of attention here.
The wholeness of the image is familiar to us, but the particular quality of fragility it reveals is harder to see. As massive as our planet is (some 6 sextillion tons), the habitable environment of the globe, as revealed by our own fragility, is but a tissue-thin atmosphere. The inextricably interrelated quality of this atmospheric space, as well as the increasing urbanization that shapes it, are the inescapable issues of our own age. — Nicholas de Monchaux, 2011.
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