So, What Are We Now? : Posthumanism and Transhumanism in Music Videos

by Merrill Miller

Aliens. Strange planets. Bizarre technology. New species. Government Owned Alien Territories. All of these things seem to point to some far-off time in the distant future. But what if these depictions refer to a science fiction future that really is already here?

Though two music videos is hardly a trend, I’m intrigued by the similarities of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video and Katy Perry’s “E.T.” video, especially since they were released within a few months of each other. Both videos heavily rely on imagery of alien creatures, foreign planets, enhanced technology, and a humanity that is eerily similar to our own, though changed just enough that it also seems exotic and futuristic. Both videos also employ elements of posthumanism critical theory and transhumanist ideals.

So, what are posthumanism and transhumanism? Posthumanism is a diverse and ever-evolving mode of thinking that is critical of the Humanist philosophy. Humanism, you might recall from your Philosophy 100 class, is a movement that assumes the existence of a universal human nature and because all people have this universal human nature, all people deserve basic rights and respect. The idea that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? That comes from Humanism. Ever heard someone argue that we shouldn’t discriminate based on race/sexuality/gender/[fill in the blank with name of underprivileged group] because we’re all human beings underneath? That argument is founded on the Humanist idea of a universal human nature.

There are a lot of great things that came out of Humanist philosophy, and posthumanists would still get behind the idea of fair treatment and equal rights for all, but they would argue with the Humanists that there is no universal human nature. Why? Well, for one thing, because what we’re learning about evolution and genetics suggests that there really isn’t much difference between human beings and other animals. The technological advances that we’re making with artificial organs and our growing dependence on technology is also breaking down differences we always assumed existed between humans and machines. And, scientific advances aside, Humanism has been used (perhaps incorrectly) to justify a lot of unfairness. Think women should be subservient to men? Well, that’s just the way things are. Don’t want to learn about another culture’s customs and worldviews? We’re all essentially the same, anyway. Instead of ignoring difference and diversity, posthumanists would argue that we should embrace it and play with it. They would argue that true equality comes not from assuming everyone is the same but from recognizing and accepting diversity. Like postmodernists, posthumanists tend to see identity as something fluid and ever-changing, a game that we play instead of universal constant.

Transhumanism, while sort of related to posthumanism, is not the same. Transhumanism builds off of posthumanism’s breakdown of Humanistic binaries (human/machine, human/animal, male/female, etc.) and asserts that we should use technology to enhance ourselves to the point that we become something more than mere humans. Transhumanists tend to support research that would extend human life indefinitely, eradicate disease, make people smarter and stronger, and end poverty and suffering. While some transhumanist thinkers might seem a little crazy and perhaps overly optimistic about what science can accomplish, their intentions tend to be good. Their goals are to promote environmentalism, prevent disease and poverty, and improve everyone’s quality of life.

Now that the academic jargon has been explained, on to the videos! Both contain elements of posthumanist and transhumanist thinking and bring to mind exactly how posthumanist and transhumanist breakdowns of binaries are already happening in our own time.

Take Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video, for instance. In the videos, as in all of her public appearances, Lady Gaga plays with identity in a very posthumanist manner. She is an alien goddess, a zombie, a dancer, an evil goddess, and a humanoid life form. The video cuts between shots of her in all of her different roles so that she seems to be playing all of them at once. Her identity is not stagnant or universal. Quite the opposite, it is constantly changing. Common binaries are also broken down in the video. Good and evil are not polar opposites, but seem to intermix when Gaga asks, “How can I protect something so perfect without evil?” Gender and race are not strictly male vs. female and white vs. nonwhite, as the backup dancers are almost constantly in shadow, making gender and racial distinctions difficult to determine. Human vs. non-human is also in question, as Gaga asserts that the new creatures in the video are “a race within the human race.” Are they human? Non-human? Something more? We don’t know. The “race within the human race” is also much like the transhumanist idea of humans enhanced to the point that they are something not quite human anymore. The fact that this new race “bears no prejudice, no judgment” also lives up to the transhumanist ideal of using human enhancement to do away with inequality and improve the quality of people’s lives.

The lyrics of the song itself, however, seem to contradict the posthuman message of the video and even Gaga’s posthumanist celebrity persona. With her many costumes and outrageous make up, Gaga constantly plays with identity, but the lyrics asserting “I was born this way” suggest that there is some sort of universal and constant nature inherent in each person. While her listing of different races and sexual orientations revels in the differences that all people have, her statement that we all have the “same DNA, but born this way” harkens back to the Humanist assumption that we’re basically all the same. However, posthumanists also use the argument that all humans share 99.9 percent of their DNA to breakdown binaries about race, sexuality, and gender, so perhaps Gaga’s lyrics are not as contradictory to posthumanist ideas as they seem.

While Lady Gaga uses posthumanist and transhumanist ideas to promote a message of social justice, Katy Perry’s “E.T.” music video uses these same ideas to propound an environmentalist message. Just as Lady Gaga’s video breaks down binaries, so too does Katy Perry’s video, though it tends to focus on breaking the human vs. machine and human vs. animal dichotomies. The video is reminiscent of Pixar’s Wall-E in that it begins with old music playing while showing images of the planet Earth polluted to the point that it is nothing more than an enormous landfill, inhabited by a lone robot. The robot is later shown to be a container, perhaps even a body, for the last remaining human. This image not only breaks down opposition between human and machine but also between racial distinctions, as the human displays physical characteristics from a variety of races. The idea of using a robot shell to prolong one’s life is also consistent with the transhuman ideal of extending the length of human life indefinitely. Perhaps, if environmentalism fails, humanity could still save itself through the use of technology.

However, the video promotes active environmentalism to prevent such a fate by blurring the lines between humans and animals. Shots of Katy Perry’s face are often interspersed with rapid cuts of images of cheetahs, monkeys, cockatiels, trees, flowers, and fungi. Presenting these shots in quick succession and so close to shots of Perry’s face make all of the images seem equal to each other, suggesting that Perry is no different than the other animals or plants. Later, the lines between human and animal are blurred even further when Perry is revealed to be something that is half human, half deer. From a transhuman point of view, she might be a human that has been enhanced with deer genetic modification. Or perhaps she is a deer that has been enhanced with human genes. Either way, she is something that is not completely human and not completely animal and meant to muddy the distinction between humans and other creatures. And if there really is no difference between humans and other living creatures, then humanity should, the video seems to argue, actively work to protect and preserve all living things on Earth.

Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” video and Katy Perry’s “E.T.” video both use posthumanist and transhumanist ideas to promote awareness of social problems such as homophobia, racism, and pollution. However, the videos also draw attention to the ways in which posthuman and transhuman ideals are already being actualized in our own time. The music industry, through rampant use of autotuning and other means of electronically manipulating the human voice, is creating a sound that is not completely human but also not completely robotic. This intersection of humanity and technology is just one way in which the distinction between human and machine is being distorted. People are now living longer because of mechanical hearts and pacemakers. Technology has also allowed for a blurring of the lines between human and animal. Diabetics can now use insulin created by inserting human genes into bacteria. We may soon be able to transplant pig organs into humans. We eat vegetables and grains that have been genetically modified to withstand harsh weather conditions and disease. These advancements in technology are greying our previously black and white categories about how things are classified and understood. In the past, science fiction asked, In the future, what will we become? Gaga and Perry’s music videos both seem to be asking not what will we become but instead ask, What are we now?

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