By Megan Schillereff, Ball State University
In current conversation, the idea of apocalypse and the interconnected idea of the posthuman are usually presented as science fiction or fantasy. Despite its popularity within the fictional universes of both the page and the screen, apocalyptic events have occurred within the course of human history, traceable all the way back to the Age of Exploration and beyond. And, while most people wouldn’t immediately think of events that occurred that early in the course of human history as having any connection to the post-apocalypse or the posthuman, there are actually some fascinating examples in the historical record. One of the best examples of the posthuman working within a historical apocalypse can be seen through the armored Conquistadors’ genocidal conquest of the Americas. By reading the Conquistadors as possessing an early type of posthuman body because of the superiority that their armor granted them, their power as agents of the apocalypse becomes more visible within the context of the Spanish conquest of the Incan empire.
This blog post presents an example of posthumans operating within apocalyptic historical events. Viewing these historical instances of cataclysm as examples of apocalypse is something that James Berger, in his book After the End (1999), discusses. He explains that “historical events are often portrayed apocalyptically—as absolute breaks with the past, as catastrophes bearing some enormous or ultimate meaning” (xii). Berger also lists a few historical cases of apocalyptic moments: “the Holocaust, for example, or Hirsohima, or American slavery, the American Civil War, the French Revolution, the war in Vietnam’” (xii). In a similar way, the conquest of the Americas certainly contained a definitive break from the past, as life for the Native Americans was completely and permanently altered after the arrival of the Europeans. For this reason, I think that Berger’s list of historical apocalypses can be expanded to include instances such as the Spanish obliteration of the Incans.
The posthuman status of the Conquistadors was a huge factor in their successful conquering of much of the Americas. In his essay, “Posthuman Scale,” Mads Rosendahl Thomsen defines the posthuman as, “a species developed from humanity” (32). Thomsen notes that we should identify posthumans as those who move beyond their era’s sense of the “normal” by enhancing their bodies with technology. As he explains, “Humans have a strong sense of normality…it is clear that … what is normal and what is not … [will] determine whether a new era has arrived that can no longer be called human but should be called posthuman instead” (32). Essentially, since the armor and weapons of the Conquistadors advanced them above the ‘normal’ unarmored native with inferior weapons, they are classifiable as posthumans. With that idea of a lack of ‘normalcy’ being the measuring stick of the posthuman, the importance of the Conquistadors’ armor becomes clearer.
The physical superiority granted by their armor was a large contributor to the Conquistadors’ successful conquest of the Incan empire, as well as other parts of early America. Their armor was one of the main factors that separated them from the ‘normal,’ armor-less, natives. Raymund Papica explains the power of armor in his article, “The Armor Network: Medieval Prostheses and Degenerative Posthuman Bodies.” Papica presents a link between armor and posthumans, stating that “the concept of the posthuman…finds its beginnings in the premodern period, and specifically, in the nexus of knight and armor” (2). Papica’s original argument that knights are posthumans works for Conquistadors as well, as they also use metal armor to enhance their ability to dominate others. In fact, men in armor are one of the first examples of humans using technology to upgrade their bodies. As he explains, “the trope of armor [can] trace and unravel the intersecting relationships between the… posthuman body…[By] reading armor… [as a] posthuman body” (9). Armor provided a substantial advantage to those who wore it, an advantage that allowed many early soldiers, like Conquistadors, to function in a posthuman capacity.
Taking these two ideas together, we can start to understand how armored men, like the Spanish Conquistadors, can be seen as posthuman agents creating apocalyptic disasters. However, their steel armor was just one of the things that helped the Spanish execute the apocalyptic genocide of early natives. There were also the weapons that the Conquistadors carried, both biological and physical. The Spanish, and Europeans in general, arrived in the Americas with the small pox virus, a disease no one in the Americas had encountered before. The 2005 PBS mini-series Guns, Germs, and Steel— based on the 1997 book Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond— outlines the desolation of the disease saying, “that up to 95% of the native population of the entire Americas were wiped out after the conquest…native Americans fell victim to European germs – infections which they had never encountered before” (Episode Two: Conquest). It is well known that colonizing forces often advanced through the west through the practice of biological warfare. Conquistadors also had their guns and swords, superior steel weapons to the natives’ bows, arrows, and war clubs. Overall, the Spanish were far advanced above the military capabilities of the natives, a posthuman advantage they utilized with devastating totality as they moved across the Americas as agents of apocalyptic destruction.
Looking at such historical moments of change as examples of apocalypse— and also seeing the examples of historical humans operating as posthuman agents of these apocalyptic events— allows for us as a contemporary society to understand all the complexities of Berger’s ‘after the end’ and his argument that we have already experienced countless apocalypses, which continue to grow and expand in our already post-apocalyptic world.
Berger, James. After the End: Representations of Post-Apocalypse. University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
“Episode 2: Conquest.” Guns, Germs, and Steel, PBS, 2005, www.pbs.org/gunsgermssteel/show/episode2.html.
Papica, Raymund. “The Armor Network: Medieval Prostheses and Degenerative Posthuman Bodies.” Dissertation Abstracts International, vol. 78, no. 1, July 2017, pp. 1-10.
Thomsen, Mads Rosendahl. “Posthuman Scale.” CounterText, vol. 2, no. 1, 2016, pp. 31–43.