Matthew Escobar, The Persistence of the Human: Consciousness, Meta-body and Survival in Contemporary Film and Literature

Matthew Escobar, The Persistence of the Human: Consciousness, Meta-body and Survival in Contemporary Film and Literature (Leiden and Boston: Brill 2016), 218pp.  €95 ebook, Hb. ISBN: 9789004323629

According to Lakoff and Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh (1999), the capacity to reason ‘is shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world. [It] is a capacity shared universally by all human beings. What allows it to be shared are the commonalities that exist in the way our minds are embodied’.1

For them, this represents a most radical shake-up of human thought – that the mind is thoroughly embodied. Also salient, however, is their insistence on the unremarked ‘our’ in their discourse, silently yet constantly re-emphasizing the ‘commonalities’ of embodiment: ‘our human bodies’, ‘our brains’, ‘our everyday functioning’, ‘our minds’. In The Persistence of the Human, Matthew Escobar takes this a step further, and then another step further again.

In the first place, he posits the idea of the ‘meta-embodiment’ that contributes to the book’s title. This is ‘a hybrid shared by the lived body and an imagined corporeality. The meta-body is a secondary embodiment that we inhabit for however long our narrative immersion lasts’ (3). Note again that as with Lakoff and Johnson, Escobar’s ‘second embodiment’ is something ‘we inhabit’ together, in plural.

Literature, film, narrative – these are for Escobar shared things, which form part of individual consciousness, in turn feeding back into collective culture and life. According to him, this oscillation occurs ‘by building complex relations with other beings and real spaces. This means that we also create extended versions of the meta-body in the lived narrative which plays out in our relations with others and in the real spaces we inhabit’ (4). In effect, the meta-body is a narrativized, projected version of the body, permitting an overlap with every other person’s meta-body, leading to participation in collective imagination, and fundamentally, participation in humanity.

The first three chapters of The Persistence of the Human respectively cover temporality, trauma and memory, and what Escobar terms ‘phantom limbs’ – aspects of meta-bodies shorn of some significant element (or indeed, of some significant other). He conducts these analyses through often fascinating (though occasionally repetitious) readings of well-chosen materials such as Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow (1991), Christopher Nolan’s film Memento (2000), Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist (2001), and Marie Darrieussecq’s Naissance des Fantômes (1998). The major premise throughout is that consciousness – and therefore human selfhood – is reliant upon the mind being temporally situated, which itself relies upon (but is also tested by) bodily incarnation, pain and general trauma.

On to that 'step further' I mentioned previously. In the fourth and final chapter proper, Escobar goes onto the possibilities of trans- or post-human disembodiment. The accent here falls on disability narratives and science fiction, running from films like Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Alejandro Aménabar’s Abre los Ojos (1997) and The Sea Inside (2004), through to Ricardo Piglia’s novel La Ciudad Ausente (1992). Escobar’s purpose is to show that posthumanism surreptitiously imports the humanism it claims to eschew back into its cultural products, and the inevitability of this is what he calls human ‘survival’, or ‘persistence’ as per his title.

As before, the choice of materials is judicious and engaging, and it is to Escobar’s credit that the overall elegance of the book’s structure is mirrored in smaller details. An example of this is the contrast of the recuperative nature of writing (117) with writing as self-erasure (119) in Naissance des Fantômes, which finds parallel (yet also expansion) in Escobar’s juxtaposing the creative humanism of The Diving Bell against the destructive yet equally humanistic premise of The Sea Inside – this latter section is illuminatingly subtitled ‘Destroying the Self to Save It’ (157).

However, also as before, Escobar’s tendency unnecessarily to repeat reaches its zenith on pages 168–169, wherein the major plot points of Abre los Ojos are detailed, then re-detailed, in a set of different but worryingly similar phrases. Repetition for the sake of clarity, or with specific rhetorical intent, is not at issue here – the confusing double attribution of Sergio Waisman’s translation of Piglia’s La Ciudad Ausente in notes 36 and 38 on p. 181 is sufficient to demonstrate this – but merely speaks to a larger problem with the book’s presentation of its undoubtedly intriguing insights.

Escobar’s guiding metaphors in The Persistence of the Human are water and birds, or flow and flight, both prevalent in his selected texts/films. But they also seem emblematic of Escobar’s writing style itself, flitting between fluid, lyrical close readings, and long-winded, flighty, fugue-like sections. These latter have the feel of unedited first drafts, scarcely punctuated, breathless flights of fancy compared to the rippling, authoritative short sentences they occasionally become (especially in the compelling Introduction and Conclusion). Additionally, non-sequiturs like free-floating, underexplained and differently rendered mentions of the ‘Derridean pharmacon’ on pages 114 and 186 bear testimony to an overall editorial laxness.

And so to my reason for emphasizing collectivity above. Importantly, Escobar highlights not just the immateriality of narrative, but also the physical writerly aspects of embodiment. In doing so, one cannot help but be reminded that writing is a joint venture, making demands not just of an isolated author but also of his or her meta-body, which in this instance could well be read as his or her editors and publishers. Naturally, the beauty of text is that a new edition can easily remedy any cosmetic features, and in fairness to Escobar, The Persistence of the Human has many deeper boons. But more stringent cooperation between him and his meta-bodily collaborators can only be beneficial.

Nevertheless, Escobar’s most urgent claim, that ‘it is the narrative needs of the embodied mind that most distinguish it from the artificial intelligence capabilities of computers and robots (28), seems worthy enough of the full-blown italicization he and his editors grant it. And if one thing can be said for certain of Escobar’s writing, it is that like some of the best criticism out there, it makes one want to plunge immediately into the novels and films that he writes about.

Finally, if as per Escobar’s secondary claim posthuman narratives secretly retain humanism at their core, it may simply be because it is still humans telling the stories. But however much humanism lingers on, the desire is clearly there for it to be transcended in some – perhaps any – way. Even then, this in itself could be a humanist gesture, insofar as the attempt to rectify the errors of history by de-privileging the human ends up ironically privileging the posthuman in a way that the truly posthuman might not. The only way, I guess, to ever really know is to wait and see what the first properly, utterly, post-meta-body, non-human narrative ends up looking like – and whether this will even be intelligible in human terms, such as they have existed thus far.

Romén Reyes-Peschl, University of Kent


1 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought (New York: Basic Books 1999), p 4.