Dongshin Yi, A Genealogy of Cyborgothic

Dongshin Yi, A Genealogy of Cyborgothic: Aesthetics and Ethics in the Age of Posthumanism(Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 164pp. Hb £55.00. ISBN 978-1-4094-0039-4.

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Fearing the advent of cyborgs and genetically crafted organisms, opponents of technoscience typically shift their objections from rational bases to aesthetic ones: computers may one day rationalise like humans, but they could never produce a concerto; a genetically modified organism should not have the same rights as humans, because it appears abhorrent. With the immanence of such “posthumans,” it is worth remembering that literature prefigures them in a number of creatures who demand that we respond sympathetically to their aesthetic dimensions, before we consider their technological ones. For example, rather than measuring Frankenstein’s monster as inhuman when he is clearly capable of rational thought, instead the monster can be read as a failure of aesthetics – and also as a failure of those who interpret the beautiful and the ugly too impulsively, leading them to believe that that which is superficially hideous must also be less than human beneath the skin, and in the mind.

Based on such examples, Dongshin Yi contends that we need to revise Kant’s influential but antagonistic aesthetic of the sublime and the gothic if we are to accommodate posthumans into humanism. Yi argues that Kant developed a persistently influential analogy between taste (or the beautiful) and the moral. Just as, without reflection, we know the beautiful when we see it, so too do we intuit the good; conversely, we can never overcome an initial reaction of disgust to see the ugly as aesthetic, or by extension as worthy of humane treatment. The Kantian sublime, Yi complains, cannot recognise a valuable other, preventing us from establishing “an aesthetical ethics that promotes pleasant reciprocity between humans and non-humans” (2).

Albeit in a modest, literary critical way, Yi thus aims to change the background against which we will conceptualise the arrival of posthumans by tracing Kant’s influence in gothic novels from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries, and by reading them against the Kantian grain in favour of philosophers who might be more amenable to posthuman ethics: Burke, J. S. Mill, William James and postmodern feminists. Reread in such a way, these novels become preparatory examples of the new genre of “cyborgothic.”

Each chapter begins with a brief discussion of the issues facing the “cyborg citizen”: Mashahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” (in advance of a discussion of Udolpho); the Turing test (prefacing Frankenstein); issues of eugenics (prior to Dracula); bioethics (ahead of Arrowsmith). Yi shows how characters in these novels, informed respectively by Burke’s version of the sublime, Mill’s utilitarianism, James’s pragmatism and feminism, typically show more adaptive responses to the sublime and gothic creatures of science. The suggestion appears to be that these fictitious ancestors provide a model for posthuman ethicists to inherit from. However, genealogical trees can easily become confusing, unless the links between past and present are drawn clearly and explicitly. Here, the book’s structure does not clarify quite how these historical, literary figures and creatures should inform progressive responses to the posthumans that they allegedly anticipate.

Deep in the literary detail, Yi does not resurface at the end of each chapter’s analysis to reflect on how it casts light on the current issues in posthumanism which he refers to at the opening of each chapter. Whilst his book’s subtitle suggests that this will discuss the relevance of these texts to the aesthetics and ethics of posthumanism, his discussions of the particular novels – interesting though they are in their own right – instead treat the texts largely in their own times and terms. Even his final, summary chapter, which is focused directly on posthumanism, does not refer at all to his earlier novels to explain their relevance to his ultimate manifesto. Although the journey Yi takes us on has many insightful landmarks, this lack of signposting makes it a disorientating one. In particular, someone beginning this book by expecting to see the contemporary trope traced back to its ancestors – as apparently promised by the title – might be disappointed by what often appears to be a self-enclosed, Romanticist-led study.

However, there is a deeper problem with his reading of the texts than the structural. This is that Yi thinks about issues of humanism (and, by inference, posthumanism) through the eyes of their characters, and never through the eyes of their authors. Yi fails to explain the extent to which the writers of these novels anticipate being read through the same philosophical lenses as those which he himself brings to bear. For example, Yi interestingly contextualises Dracula against the mid-century debate between Whewell and Mill, about whether science best develops through the rigorous induction of existing data or through speculative reasoning which induction can then prove or disprove. He argues that the community chasing Dracula can be seen as a scientific community "ready to implement Mill's design for a utilitarian society" (91), although they also highlight utilitarianism’s limits as they are forced to blend religion with their empiricism to provide a moral justification for their behaviour towards the vampiric others. But it is surely legitimate to ask on what basis this mapping of characters and philosophy is grounded. Is it that Stoker had actively read the debate between Whewell and Mill and wrote his characters heroically to embody the epistemic notions of the latter? Might the characters’ motivations and behaviours not simultaneously be a consequence of Dracula’s dynamic plot of discovery, or their maker’s masculine anxieties? Might it not simply be a happy fluke? Similar questions could be asked of Yi’s reading of Frankenstein, which talks of Frankenstein’s Kantian view of the monster’s ugliness, without wondering how Shelley’s inscribing of Kantian ideas into the mind of her character might be inflected by her personal drama, rather than being mimetically representative of a philosopher. Fictitious characters do not inhabit the same realm as their human authors, or as the philosophical figures with whom Yi places the characters in an apparently direct dialogue. By Yi’s approach, characters’ words and minds seem to float like Platonic notions, not rooted in the actual experiences and reading of an author living in the same real world as the other thinkers who contextualise his interpretations.

This does not make his readings totally invalid or worthless, but it does mean that the way in which he chooses to look at the texts sometimes seems arbitrary, selected to make the philosophical points and connections that Yi wants, which are not self-evidently those that their authors intended to make. This might be understandable, were a polemical case for an alternative ethics of posthumanism at the very centre of the book’s subject matter, so that the community of fictitious characters are seen as exemplars of real-life posthuman moralities; but as I have already suggested, the ethical conclusions seem to be quite sketchily drawn, peculiarly forming the frontispieces rather than the conclusions to his methodical literary tests in each chapter. For a book that recognises the values and limits of rationalism and humanism, these are two ironic flaws. For an advanced reader, Yi’s individual chapter studies undoubtedly have much to offer in their revisiting of potentially timeworn examples of gothic literature. It is just that making the connections between the studies of historical novels and their ethical indications for posthumanity requires a deal of imaginative work on the part of the reader, which Yi might have more clearly done himself.

Alistair Brown, Durham University