Reflections on Humanness, Personhood, and Citizenship

Her Lips Are Copper Wire

whisper of yellow globes
gleaming on lamp-posts that sway
like bootleg licker drinkers in the fog

and let your breath be moist against me
like bright beads on yellow globes

telephone the power-house
that the main wires are insulate

(her words play softly up and down
dewy corridors of billboards)

then with your tongue remove the tape
and press your lips to mine
till they are incandescent

Jean Toomer

This past week we had to ponder what it means to be human within digital cultures, and what that entails for education. One of the resources for week 3 was Steve Fuller’s TED talk, and what I took away from it is that humanity is a fiction. Essentially, one’s worth as a human being hinges on whether one is acknowledged by a political community as such, and as a result dressed with personhood, citizenship, and rights.

In The Political Economy of Personhood Charles Mills writes that “we can’t use person and human interchangeably because, as science fiction reminds us, when the aliens do eventually arrive they will presumably expect to be treated with the respect due to self-legislating beings.” [his italics] Personhood is enshrined in laws, treaties, moral philosophies, cultures, and it is, as Mills contends, “a moral status that is not limited to humans.” The fact that personhood and citizenship are important factors for the acknowledgement of our humanness became apparent in the 1857 Dred Scott decision.

In said case  the U.S. Supreme Court, which would later recognize corporations as persons, judged that “blacks were “beings of an inferior order” with “no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” so that “the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit,” this being “an axiom in morals as well as in politics, which no one thought of disputing.”” In his article Mills concludes that, ““person” is not co-extensive with “human” because to be human is neither necessary nor sufficient for personhood. Non-human entities exist that count as persons while human entities exist that do not count as persons. Not all humans have been granted the moral status to which their presumptive personhood should have entitled them.”

Hannah Arendt’s “the right to have rights” gestures toward the same conundrum. She argued that statelessness, or the loss of nationality status, was tantamount to the loss of all rights, including human rights. So, when human beings become stateless, they are not only deprived of their citizenship rights, they are also deprived of any human rights, if not personhood. The Rights of Man, which were formulated in tandem with citizenship rights, suggests that human rights and citizenship rights are closely intertwined. Nowadays, we can scarcely think of one without the other. Even though being human comes with a host of “inalienable rights,” those rights only have meaning when one is recognized by a nation-state, and imbued with either personhood, or citizenship.

To me, the question of what it means to be human has, therefore, become secondary to the question of what it means to be a person, or citizen, and have rights. In some cases having a certain kind of citizenship, that is belonging to a certain political community, offers a greater protection than human rights do. A point which Desmond Tutu highlighted in a recent letter to The New York Times. In the letter Tutu poses the question whether “the United States and its people really want to tell those of us who live in the rest of the world that our lives are not of the same value as [yours].” Not all human life (that is, right to life) is worth the same protection.

As Mills writes, one’s humanness does not ensure “that one’s humanness, and corresponding presumptively equal moral status, will actually be acknowledged.” Another case in point is a new law which took effect on 1 January this year, and states that failing to produce an ID in the Netherlands is a criminal offense. Meaning, both documented humans without ID on their person, and undocumented humans can be locked up and/or fined, which is an infringement of a basic human right – the right to move about freely. However, in the case of undocumented humans one faces the additional violence of deportation.

In this case, surveillance, i.e. policing, becomes an essential technique within the apparatus of nation-states wherein citizenship grants one more rights than one’s humanness does. Surveillance invariably brings about repression and oppression, both of which have been major themes in the past few weeks.

To complicate matters even more, xenotransplantations, for instance pig-to-human transplants, are blurring the line between human and animal. Human-animal hybrids have been staple figures in mythologies. In Greek mythology, for instance, the satyrs, with their goat-like features, operated on the knife-edge between the human and animal worlds, which made it possible for them to critique, through the use of exaggerated humour, the very institutions and rituals that define the human world. Also, what becomes of the human when animals outperform humans in areas that have come to define humanness, such as cognitive skills?

In addition, modern technologies continue to blur the line separating man from machine. Scientists have recently created a bionic hand, which is attached directly to the nervous system via electrodes, and “allows the recipient to feel ‘lifelike’ sensations,” which may redefine the concept of a “human touch” that was introduced last week, and the very idea of “human nature.” Then again, Katherine Hayles argued in Computing the Human that “it must [also] be ‘human nature’ to use technology, since from the beginning of the species human beings have always used technology. Moreover, technology has co-evolved throughout millennia with human beings and helped in myriad profound and subtle ways to make human nature what it is.” In essence, we are all cyborgs.

A worrying development in this symbiotic relationship between humans and technologies is detailed in Deadly Monopolies. In her book Harriet Washington talks about how our tissues and genes are increasingly being patented by pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations. (You can read another post in which I talk a bit more about the book here) Our bodies are increasingly conceptualized as information systems, and when bodies are viewed and treated as embodied information, it makes it more acceptable for companies to mine the body for data. The conceptualization of bodies as information systems raises a host of other questions. What becomes of bodily integrity? Who has ownership of this data?



4 thoughts on “Reflections on Humanness, Personhood, and Citizenship

  1. I love that your consideration of ‘being human’ brings in the political, legal, institutional and commercial dimensions to balance out the techno-determinism going on in some discussions we’re seeing and reading – very interesting read….

    1. Thank you for your comment. I noticed that the political, legal, institutional and commercial are being not neglected per se but rather obscured in most of the discussions. And these dimensions are very important when we’re talking about access to technology. The digital divide is hardly taken into account. I think technologies can be liberating, but I find some biotechnologies pretty unsettling. Especially, the idea that pharmaceutical companies can own your DNA. This article is an interesting read: What You Need to Know about the Murky Practice of Human Gene Patenting.

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