First Principle of a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar

First principle: “Grammar is capable of a human interface.” To my way of thinking, this point cuts in several directions at once. First, a posthumanist approach to grammar asks us to think beyond what it means for human beings to communicate using grammar. It conceptualizes grammar as a system with complex and immeasurable origins. One is reminded of the Burroughs-circle conversation about language being a virus from outer space, and using a similar gesture a posthumanist approach to grammar does not attempt to treat grammar as an abstract system outside the human but studies instead its causes and effects once that contact with the human is made.

Nevertheless, by conceptualizing a grammatical system that goes beyond a human interface, we can imagine that grammar is capable of an unlimited number of interfaces with other forms of life. Just this week, IBM Watson illustrated a fascinating performative encounter with some basic grammatical rules, and scholars who are interested in the posthumanist possibilities of silicon-based life will no doubt be turning even more attention to the ways that machines learn and use language.

A posthumanist approach to grammar also gives us the ability to imagine that grammar is capable of nonhuman animal interfaces as well, as illustrated by recent studies showing various animals with vocabularies far more complex than previously imagined. Other practical studies—Temple Grandin’s work being a primary example—that delve into the visual nature of nonhuman animal language also speak to a posthumanist approach.

Finally, and this takes us into even more speculative territory, a posthumanist approach to grammar gives us a space to study the language of those Other nonhuman beings that I, for one, have only read about: gods, angels, demons, zombies, aliens, etc. Until I actually encounter one of these beings, I suspect any work that I do in this area will have to rely on second-hand accounts.

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