Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2017) xxxiv + 231 pp. $22.00 PDF, £17.99 Pb, £49.99 Hb. ISBN: 9781107086203
As The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman demonstrates, posthuman ideas have been around for centuries, even if the exact word and concept have not. For almost as long as thinkers have been considering what it is that makes the human human, others have looked for the failure points in these ideas which often privileged both the human mind and body over those of the animals and machines around them. However, a few scholars does not a movement make. It is only with recent developments within society, technology and culture that the idea of a posthuman future has been more rigorously considered and the history of the idea along with it. In The Cambridge Companion, Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini have brought together a wide range of critical viewpoints in order to examine the current state of posthumanism and the posthuman, as well as assessing its past and future. To do so, the volume is broken down into three parts of five chapters; the first one on ‘Literary Periods’, the second part considering ‘Posthuman Literary Modes’, with the third part consisting of an examination of ‘Posthuman Themes’. Each one of these parts charts, in some way, the development of critical posthumanism as well as giving examples of key texts, authors or other forms of media. As such, the volume aims to be an introduction to a topic that is becoming increasingly prevalent in critical and fictional works alike, but often in a confused way due to its inherent complexities.
The topic's complexity is owing to its highly transdisciplinary nature. It encompasses fields as diverse as literary criticism, political and philosophical thought, the worlds of medicine, technology, ethics, theology, gender studies and many more. To help break this down, Part One of Clarke and Rossini’s collection offers a remarkably thorough genealogy of posthuman writing and thought starting with Karl Steel’s exploration of the medieval period. Here, rather than any explicit posthuman ideas, Steel discusses how, whilst the human was considered as a unique being, it was not walled off from the world around it, particularly from animals, in texts such as Barlam and Isophat, a Christian adaptation of Buddha’s life. In the second chapter, Kevin Lagrandeur presents a particularly convincing argument that the early modern texts of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus take the idea of a shared world and expand upon it by demonstrating ‘intelligent networks’ that far pre-date systems theory (18). Ron Broglio then discusses the Romantic period with the inevitable consideration of Frankenstein, amongst other works, concluding that, ‘a posthumanist Romanticism indicts the poetic Romantic construction of interiority’, the human, he argues, is just one element in the world around it (39). In Chapter Four, Jeff Wallace shows that literary modernism offered two kinds of posthumanist critique; firstly with the likes of Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Daedalus, and the transgressions of human norms, and secondly with the exploration of boundaries where the self and the other are not diametrically opposed, as in the writings of Virginia Woolf. Finally, in Chapter Five Stefan Herbrechter, a prominent voice in the field of posthumanism, discusses how postmodernist criticism, such as Patricia Waugh’s Metafiction, breaks apart humanist ideas of the self, even within the form of the text itself and, in so doing, opens the door for a posthumanist literature.
Part Two moves away from genealogy and towards examining the ways the posthuman is represented across different forms of media. Chapter Six may well be the one many readers jump straight to in this volume as Lisa Yaszek and Jason W Ellis examine the genre most associated with posthumanism: science fiction. They discuss the posthuman in a number of contexts including new wave and feminist SF and, whilst each individual analysis is comparatively short compared to those included in other chapters in the volume, they do an admirable job of giving at least an insight into the changing conventions of the genre in regards to the posthuman. In Chapter Eight, Kari Weil also discusses conventions, this time in autobiography, and argues that the best examples of the genre have always asked questions about what it means to be human. Rather than simply being humanist however, Weil considers how works such as that of Bill Viola explore how the in- or non-human play a role in the formation of the self. This kind of coming together of human and non-human is a common theme across posthuman media forms and is again apparent in Lisa Diedrich’s take on comics and graphic novels which, she argues, use their hybrid nature (words and pictures) to tell stories of new kinds of hybrid humans. In Chapter Nine, Anneke Smelik pays close attention to another form of hybridity: cyborgs. These part organic, part inorganic beings have come to dominate the SF films Smelik examines, and she argues that these fictional representations have helped encourage the real-world practice of enhancing the body. In Chapter Ten, Ivan Callus and Mario Aquilina look at what Herbrechter was hinting at towards the end of Chapter Five, a specifically posthumanist literature in the form of 'E-Literature'. They particularly focus on imagining what the post-literary would look like and how this might complement posthumanism whilst remaining careful not to overstate the similarities.
Part Three opens with Bruce Clarke’s chapter on the nonhuman, in which he draws distinctions between the non- and post-human, particularly in regards to the former’s atemporal nature which lets it be seen alongside, rather than just after, the human. Manuela Rossini follows this in Chapter Twelve by examining posthuman bodies, arguing that texts such as Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl show them to be ecosystems that extend beyond the simple confines of a single being. In Chapter Thirteen, Ridvan Askin takes a step back from literary characters to study the text itself, arguing that humanist approaches to literature have often failed to take into account the text as an object in its own right. The penultimate chapter, by R L Rutsky, focuses on technology and how the image of posthuman futures often depends on contemporary technology and, therefore, how the posthuman is evolving over time. Finally, Claire Colebrook examines what these possible futures may look like by surveying the arguments of several leading philosophers, concluding that rather than being concerned with what comes next for the human, posthuman literature is often only such in that it enables us to view the end of our own existence.
Overall, Clarke and Rossini’s volume serves as a useful starting point for both the history and the key ideas of critical posthumanism within literature. The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman is far from a comprehensive study of the subject, but it is not intended to be. Many readers may well find the notes to each chapter more useful than the content itself once they decide to look beyond the basics. However, many chapters also offer nuanced and well articulated arguments for how posthumanism can provide a useful lens through which to study subjects and texts outside of its traditional home in modern science fiction.
Adam Teall, University of Hertfordshire