Hanan Muzaffar and Barbara Braid (eds), Bodies in Flux: Embodiments at the End of Anthropocentrism (Leiden and Boston: Brill | Rodopi, 2019) approx. 180 pp. $71 paperback, ISBN: 978-90-04-40590-5
What marks out the human body in modernity? How are we to recognise what is human in an age that increasingly blurs the boundaries between human and posthuman, particularly a world where anthropocentrism is (perhaps) on the decline? How can we create an encompassing dialogue to address the entirety of humanity, even as we recognise and celebrate distinctions among genders, abilities, virtualities, classes, and pre- and post-humans? Bodies in Flux: Embodiments at the End of Anthropocentrism carves fascinating and important paths through contemporary discussions of identity, focusing on the body and its presentation, self-fashioning, and reception in the public sphere. ‘We are, therefore, prothetisising our bodies via the extensions we create—emotional, spiritual, sexual, virtual, biotechnological, etc.—and the borders of our bodies are constantly breached,’ note the editors (2).
One crucial through-line threading the essays, whether explicitly or implicitly, is the question of the cyborg and its relation to the human body. Naturally, the editors and several contributors raise the spectre of Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” (indeed, the editors note that the volume is ‘haunted by the cyborgs we are’), with an eye toward forwarding and critiquing this influential piece of criticism (2). Bodies in Flux accomplishes this and more, encouraging engagement with the idea of the posthuman cyborg body as well as postulating critiques of the theoretical framework that constructs the notion of the cyborg to begin with.
The editors note that the volume exposes ‘the fact that the imagery of the posthuman, fluid body is not always used in contemporary culture to disrupt institutional and rigid dichotomies’ (6). While such a body can be employed to subversive ends, the discussions in Bodies in Flux demonstrate that the posthuman body can also ‘consolidate gender binaries and perpetuate old certainties’ (6). Thus, the volume embraces the contradictions inherent in the body-in-flux, allowing the body to ‘becom[e] a locus of play as it tries to create its identity as a posthuman one’ (5). The element of play is particularly relevant to the entire collection, given that each author is concerned to varying degrees with how the human body engages in play and is played upon by the culture or cultures that shape it, whether those cultures precede postmodernity, engage in postmodernity, or revel in post-postmodernity.
The volume is divided into three sections: “Streaming the Body: Media and Embodiment,” “Extending the Body: Biotechnology, Fluidity, Monstrosity,” and “Body at the End of Times: Fantasising Gender.” Although the essays contained in each section cohere well in their respective units, there are broader through-lines connecting individual essays beyond their sections (more on this in a moment). The essays in each section connect well with one another, but the problem here is in the editorial work required to make these connections imperative.
In its attention to the explicitly female body and the ways in which it is problematised by the very structures intended to aid it, Dawn Woolley’s essay, “The Iconography of Disruptive Bodies: Social Media and Medical Identities,” engages directly with representations of the “lacking” female body. Despite the tag in the title signalling ‘social media,’ Woolley teases forth a subtle (and unsettling) connection between modern “selfie” culture and the hysteric documentation of anorexic bodies in the nineteenth century. This essay, which opens the collection, is powerful in its explicit work of connecting acts of consumption to acts of representation; as Woolley notes, ‘The way we eat is not simply fulfilling a basic need; it is shaped by cultural rules and regulations’ (31). This notion of consumption and regulation is dealt with in great detail in Anna Pilińska’s essay, “‘Bodies We Obsess Upon’: Corporality and Gender Performance in The Heart Machine (2014).” Pilińska considers in careful detail the problematics of a relationship carried out (almost) exclusively over various social media constructs. As in the heart-wrenching film Her (2013), The Heart Machine details the erosion of embodiment that necessarily attends the digital age. In a painstaking reconstruction of the rise and fall of a relationship carried out mostly online, Pilińska explores disillusionment, dehumanisation, and ultimately exhaustion on behalf of the film’s protagonists. As Pilińska notes, ‘Art is thus the crucial factor which brings balance to the relation between the dehumanising force…and the human nature’ (51). Human contact can only take us so far, particularly in the age of decentralised non-contact.
Barbara Braid’s essay on Lady Gaga, “Body Going ‘Gaga’: Lady Gaga, Disability and the Gothic Body” is rightly the (physical) centrepiece of the collection. Braid convincingly dissects Gaga’s oeuvre to reveal the various tensions of gender, of able versus disabled bodies, of monstrosities. This is perhaps the chapter that best illuminates the volume as a whole—Braid acknowledges Lady Gaga’s shortcomings and the criticisms surrounding her taking-up and casting-off of disabled identities. In this, Braid humanises Lady Gaga’s performative body, noting that her intentional amalgam ‘is an on-going project in freakish performativity: when wearing metal prosthetics on her face and arms, fake horns on her body, a meat dress, plastic and latex, incredibly non-human looking shoes by Alexander McQueen or colourful make-up smudged on her face, Lady Gaga exemplifies the fact that her body is being performed’ (72).
Jana Melkumova-Reynolds’s essay, “‘This Guy Is Such a Machine!’: Gendering the Amputee Body in Fashion and Lifestyle Media,” and Julio Ernesto Guerrero Mondaca and Ana Gabriela Magallanes Rodríguez’s essay, “Mexican Men Meet Cyborg Masculinity: Gendered Subjectivities in the Technology of Erection Era,” work together to demonstrate the necessary performativity of masculinity in areas often societally perceived as lacking. However, the sort of performativity both chapters demonstrate is far more complex. Mondaca and Rodríguez unpack the notion of machismo and demonstrate convincingly how it connects to an idea of “cyborg” and performative masculinity; the study they conduct regarding sexual enhancement drugs documents ‘the variety of ways that bodies and relationships are changing from the entry of Viagra and other erection technology to the sexual scene’ (109). The notion is the creation of a novel masculine body that fully inhabits its place in a performative culture.
In a different vein, Reynolds also remarks that male amputee bodies are connected with fashion (and perhaps disavow utility in so doing) in order to create identities that rewrite traditional narratives in which male amputees are seen as objects of pity—prostheses, instead of being "tools" or "disembodied limbs," are markers of identity. The functionality of the artificial limb is always assumed, but what would happen, these essays demand, if the artificial limb was treated as an accessory, functional and necessary but also customisable? This question and the ethics behind it are compelling and urgent.
The essays in the third section resonate well together, although connection to the volume as a whole could have been made more explicit. Pieces by Katharina Vesater (“POISE, Miss Lane! Super-Femininity in U.S. Comic Books in the 1940s and 1950s”), Wojciech Śmieja (“From Tannenberg Battle to Warsaw Uprising: Polish Masculinity from Human to Posthuman in Modern Polish Literature”), and Hanan Muzaffar (“Margaret Atwood’s Crakers and the Posthuman Future of Humanity”) all explicitly call into question the problem posed by pop-culture, wherein it is a highly gendered experience to possess a body at all. Women (that is, superwomen) may begin to see themselves as fully embodied superheroes—yet, as Vester observes, they will have to confirm to specific forms of gender normativity, even as they attempt to transgress the very gender norms that were constitutive of their creation. Śmieja reads the superhero figure in Polish literature as straddling a divide between ‘humanity and commodity, between the ethics of humanism where each human being has its own inestimable value and the ethics of postmodern capitalism where human being [sic] is valued according to market standards’ (140). In order to defend humanity, these heroic figures must first defend the ‘national identity and character which the postmodern and capitalist personality of our times tries to eradicate’ (147). In a similar vein, albeit from a radically different perspective, Muzaffar finds in Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy persistent questions regarding the nature of humanity; the trilogy thus offers ‘a new way of deconstructing Western ideology presenting a model where, in trying to undo the destruction that is inevitable in a world that believes in the supremacy of one concept over another, of man over woman, science over art, human over non-human, we are reminded of the referential value of language and meaning’ (164). Crakers, Atwood’s posthuman cyborg creatures, upend traditionally held assumptions about the nature of being, offering instead ‘a view of science from within,’ which in turn allows the reader to question the relationship between scientific advancement and humanity (151). Indeed, while the editors (rightly) suggest that a ‘sense of gloom’ may pervade posthuman studies, such that the posthuman is rendered ‘rather sadly familiar in its similarity to the human,’ Muzaffar’s reading of Atwood anticipates a more knowledge-oriented consolidation of human and posthuman, likely to the benefit of both entities (6).
It might have been beneficial to encourage more crosstalk between and amongst essays, whether in the form of interludes or an afterword, or perhaps by prompting the authors themselves to engage with one another’s work (even briefly). For the strands of connection are many and fascinating—to take but one example, essays in the second section, which focuses on technology and monstrosity, intersect with essays in the third section, which considers gender. (Indeed, the problem of gender is ever-present in this collection, particularly with respect to constructs of masculinity that are questioned or upended in the face of the posthumanism at the centre of the collection’s critique.) Even an introduction that indulged more in the theoretical aspects driving the volume’s organisation would have amplified the connections amongst individual essays.
Were it possible—and if permissions were no real object—this volume would benefit immensely from being an enriched electronic edition or perhaps even a website, given that most of the essays engage with and problematise modern media practices. A good way to read the physical book is with a smartphone or computer to hand, making it easy to call forth film clips, music videos, Instagram profiles, trending hashtags, and the like. The breadth of multimedia engagement offered by the essays is impressive, more so given that despite the differences in subject matter and approach, the volume as a whole really does offer ‘a celebration of [the] posthuman status,’ however complex and troubled that status might be (5).
It is worth noting, of course, that although this volume was published prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the themes and prompts forwarded by the essays provide a poignant and highly relevant path of criticism that will benefit scholars seeking to make sense of a time in which the present hangs by a precarious thread and the future, in its projected form, is not at all assured.
Lianne Habinek, University of Strasbourg