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The posthumanist and biopolitical turn in post-postmodernism.

1. Introduction

In the last few years, a proliferation of so-called paradigm shifts has been announced, driven by ongoing fundamental technological changes. Amidst the plethora of theoretical approaches to literature and culture in the post-postmodern era, shaped by increasingly sophisticated digital and bioscientific technological resources, a few stand out as arguably the dominant cultural developments, moving the discourse of the Humanities beyond a postmodernist ethos: posthumanism, biopolitics and digimodernism (1) are amongst the most salient.

As Jeffrey Nealon (2012: xii) observes, we need a "new theoretical and methodological toolbox for responding to post-postmodernist culture". One of the most important aspects of the post-postmodernist turn in the Humanities is that new research questions are being asked, entering previously little explored areas which, as the result of judicious interdisciplinary collaboration, will help to expand established fields and even create new ones, such as the recent area of digital humanities (2) and the relatively recent but already firmly established area of literature and science. (3) If we live in post-postmodernist times, we also live in a posthuman era, profoundly imbricated in technological advances and in particular in biotechnologies. (4)

The concept of the posthuman conveys many distinct ideas to different people. (5) As an umbrella term, it encompasses the wide network of interrelated technological and bioscientific advances that are inexorably leading to a reconfiguration of the traditional idea of the human, increasingly technologised and decentred in a post-anthropocentric, symbiotic world, in a progressively more marked continuum with non-human animals and machines.

According to many thinkers, however, not only do we live in posthuman times, but indeed have done so for a long time. The rationale behind this notion proposes that, since there is always potentiality for improvement and change on the physical and mental levels, retrospectively the possibility that the human as we know it will evolve and progress into uncharted territories has always already been here. Indeed, the idea of the posthuman has been around at least since Antiquity and been given visual illustration in many mythological traditions which envisage humans like gods, possessing special physical and psychological powers. Greek mythology is profusely populated by hybrids of animal and humans, metamorphic beings, albeit ones whose transformations have been effected as forms of punishment, with Tiresias turned into a woman, Circe changing her enemies into animals or Acteon transformed by Diana into a stag for having seen her bathing and then killed by his hounds. Other metamorphic variants include Daphne turning herself into a tree to avoid being raped by Apollo, or a hubristic defiance of the gods when Icarus flies too close to the sun, despite Daedalus's warnings, and falls to his death, his wings melted by the heat, a cautionary tale about pushing science and bodily augmentation too far, without proper safeguards.

These tales evoke not only the contiguity between humans and non-human animals, but also proleptically suggest contemporary and future medical practices, where hybrids of human and animals are used to cure and prevent disease. While it is now commonplace to have certain organs from pigs transplanted into humans, including pigs' cells into human brains, pigs and mice whose brains contain human cells have already been created, a scientific experiment that can be regarded as transcending existing ethical barriers.

Contemporary updated versions of this potential contain a whole gamut of possibilities, with these and many other instances of a posthuman turn found in literature, film and the arts, (6) which thus engage with and critique scientific practices and hubris. Hybridity, indeed, is an increasingly important concept with which to think about identity and biology in a biopolitical, post-postmodernist context. (7) Hybridity between humans and animals has been extensively dramatized, both in a biological sense and as a literary trope, in the shape of metamorphoses which portray transitional, liminal states. In this context, the metamorphosed body can also be described as effectively posthuman. As influential geneticist, science popularizer and novelist J. B. S. Haldane (1932: 96) remarked: "Pictures of the future are myths, but myths have a very real influence in the present [...] The time will probably come when men in general accept the future evolution of their species as a probable fact [...] we cannot say how this idea will affect them. We can be sure that if it is accepted, it will have vast effects. It is the businesses of mythologists today to present that idea. They cannot do so without combining creative imagination and biological knowledge". (8) These imaginative visions have been extensively dramatized in fiction and film, often providing the blueprint and inspiration for emerging technologies.

2. The Hybrid Humanities

The proliferation of dystopian fiction since the 1990s and into the present is symptomatic of the anxieties attendant upon ethical, biopolitical concerns about the biosciences. One of the most exciting and productive recent research fields, which has also impacted some disciplines in the Humanities, is biopolitics. Indeed, it is arguably the paradigm that has become the most influential in coming to grips with the contemporary time and the near future, giving rise to such areas of reflection and intervention as biopower, biomedia, bioculture and bioart, to name only a few, areas which expand the field of enquiry of the Humanities in fruitful and dynamic ways. In their introduction to Biopolitics: A Reader, Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze (2013: 5) sum this up as the "compulsion to reinterpret everything today in terms of biopolitics". Not only is interdisciplinarity giving rise to hybrid disciplines such as bioethics, biopolitics, biohistory and others, which are facilitating encounters between literature, the arts and the sciences, but one of the very products of scientific progress is the production of hybrid creatures, foreshadowing a future in which the distinction between the human and the non-human will be blurred, first in the phenotype and maybe soon in the genotype.

In the context of this posthuman, biopolitical turn in the humanities, a representative literary text that addresses many of the current concerns in these posthuman times is Margaret Atwood'sMaddAddam trilogy: Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013). (9) Atwood's post-apocalyptic society in the MaddAddam books dramatizes the impact of bioscientific advances, while addressing the divide between the sciences and the humanities, with the latter occupying an inferior place in the context of the overpowering technological corporations that rule the postecocide world, divided into the gated communities of the wealthy and the "pleeblands" (Oryx and Crake, 27). (10) Unbridled biocapitalism characterizes this society, dominated by genetic technologies that are steering evolution in unpredictable ways, radically changing flora and fauna, as well as the future of humanity. Atwood describes the trilogy as speculative fiction for, as she explains, such fiction addresses innovations that "really could happen but just hadn't completely happened when the authors wrote the books" (2011). Indeed, the relevance of speculative fiction is that it not only comments on contemporary trends, but also anticipates future ones, by drawing on and extrapolating from technological advances that are in the process of being developed or might be considered feasible in a not too distant future.

2.1. "Monsters manufactured!" (The Island of Dr Moreau, 71)

Along with the mythological examples given above, which provided inspiration for future visions of a transformed humanity, Atwood draws on H. G. Wells's scientific romances The Time Machine (1895) and The Island of Dr Moreau (1896) (11) as fundamental intertexts for the MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood's "mad scientist", Crake, a geneticist, creates new beings, the Crakers, who, deprived of some human features, are placed on a new evolutionary path, having "devolved", retrogressed in terms of evolution, but also, potentially, "improved" as far as the benefits for humanity and the planet are concerned, according to a eugenicist logic. Both the MaddAddam trilogy and The Island of Dr Moreau, an early example of posthumanist concerns avant la lettre, have given us some of the most imaginatively productive future visions of posthumanity. While the Eloi in Wells's The Time Machine can be usefully compared with the Crakers, (12) the Beast People in The Island of Dr Moreau can also profitably be placed alongside the Children of Crake, the humanoids that in Atwood's speculative fiction constitute one of the versions of posthumanity.

Entangled in a complex net of intertextual and inter-cultural references, The Island of Dr Moreau and the MaddAddam trilogy construct two interrelated visions of posthumanity. While in Wells's irreverent and impious tale Moreau works on the animals to humanize them, (13) Crake changes humans into his vision of a new species that might rescue the planet, on the way to being destroyed by human greed leading to ecocide. Like Crake, though in a more primitive fashion, Moreau focuses in particular on the brain. He is described as having "worked hard at her head and brain" (The Island of Dr Moreau, 79), to "make a rational creature of my own" (78) referring to a puma he was turning into a woman, who, ironically, kills him. Crake, indeed, was able to achieve one of Dr Moreau's aims, to touch the "seat of emotions" (78), thus moulding and directing "cravings, instincts, desires that harm humanity, a strange hidden reservoir to burst suddenly and inundate the whole being of the creature with anger, hate, or fear" (78). Crake manages to modify the Crakers' brain through genetic engineering techniques, removing the "neural complexes" (Oryx and Crake, 305) that generate hierarchical impulses, as well as criminal and violent tendencies, taming them in line with Moreau's ambition.

2.2. "O Walker in the Sea" (The Island of Dr Moreau, 118)

"O, Snowman, tell us about when Crake was born" (Oryx and Crake, 104)

Despite Crake's efforts to eliminate from the brains of his subjects the capacity to sing, dream and create alternative scenarios for their existence, these characteristics gradually start to take over, under the tutelage of their leader, Jimmy the Snowman. The latter plays a similar role to Prendick in The Island of Dr Moreau, who, having been left alone with the Beast People after Moreau's and Montgomery's death, becomes their ruler and prophet, (14) weaving fantastic tales about Dr Moreau watching them from above to make sure the Rules are adhered to, and thus keeping them in check. In Prendick's creation story, then, Moreau plays the role of Crake, who is also said to be in the sky looking after His creatures. Indeed, like the Crakers, the Beast Folk create their own mythological fables to make sense of their situation, although eventually their paths unfold in different directions: the Crakers towards greater humanity and the Beast Folk devolving to their animal inclinations. Both novels thus imply related conclusions: notwithstanding Crake's efforts to eliminate the need for creation stories, the Crakers inevitably go on to want and need them, while Moreau's attempts to condition the Beast People not to revert to their original bestial drives also fail.

The Biblical turns of phrase and rhetoric used in both dystopias underscore the influence The Island of Dr Moreau exerted on Atwood. Both the Beast People and the Crakers often chant in ritualistic fashion, having been taught by Moreau, Montgomery and Prendick, and Jimmy, respectively. In many ways the litany of rules the Beast People intone and are instructed to follow is akin (albeit necessarily different in content, since the Crakers have no violent propensities) to "Crake's rules" (7) that Jimmy instils in the Crakers. (15) Both texts can thus be considered revisionary accounts of Biblical creation scenes, with alternative Trinities: in Wells's case Moreau, Montgomery and Prendick, while in Atwood's dystopia Crake, Jimmy and Oryx constitute a more blasphemous counterpart, with the presence of a woman in the symbolic equivalent of the Christian Trinity.

2.3. "Was he (Prendick) not made?' said the Ape Man" (The Island of Dr Moreau, 86) Zeb "wasn't made by Oryx, not like the rabbits. He was born" (MaddAddam, 107)

Both texts, albeit via their own and divergent satirical twists, are also Darwinian fables, first for the Victorian age and now for our present world. Humans come to be closely associated with non-human animals in Atwood's biodystopia, while non-human animals become human in Wells's, with the Crakers and the Beast People meeting somewhere in the middle of their trajectories, to then diverge markedly. A meaningful moment that underpins this very interconnectedness of human and animal occurs when Prendick, coming across the Leopard Man, and noticing his animal attitude and "its imperfectly human face distorted with terror" (94), realizes with full force the "fact of its humanity" (94). (16) The bestiary in the MaddAddam trilogy, consisting of hybrids of different animals and sometimes human tissue, is strongly reminiscent of Dr Moreau's menagerie of domesticated beings. Many of the hybrid creatures developed in Crake's laboratory eventually end up out of control, like Dr Moreau's Beast People. The pink hybrid on Moreau's island and the pink pigoons with human brain cells, also partly akin to Moreau's Swine Men, are symbolically related creatures. Saliently, in the economy of Atwood's dystopian fable, the humanized pigoons become examples of "interspecies cooperation" (373).

Crake also introduces sundry animal genes into the making of the vegetarian, innocent and trusting Crakers, genes that become translated into enhanced physical capabilities. Oxford bioethicist Julian Savulescu (2003: 22) suggests, considering that very possibility, that "one might introduce animal genes from several different species into a human embryo. The resulting entity might have unique and desirable immunological properties or properties that render it more resistant to disease". (17) As mentioned above, hybridity is arguably one of the most salient features of the post-postmodernist, posthuman turn. The Crakers already possess many non-human animal traits and the likelihood is that the few humans left, already mating with them, may go on producing babies that will eventually substantially differ from humans. Indeed, at the end of the MaddAddam trilogy, three of the young women give birth to babies who are Craker hybrids and who are described as the "future of the human race" (380).

What is ultimately suggested in MaddAddam is that humans, even those genetically modified in a radical manner, like the Crakers, will nevertheless tend to become more and more human. In this respect, they are the opposite of the Beast People in Wells's Island of Dr Moreau, where the latter, having started as animals, revert to their bestial nature despite Dr Moreau's efforts. After all, in the last book of Atwood's trilogy, Toby teaches one of the Crakers, Blackbeard, to read and write, reinforcing yet again the importance of narrative, storytelling, reading and writing as fundamental tools for socialization and holding communities together. On Dr Moreau's island, similarly, one of the missionaries takes it upon himself to teach the former's "first man" (76), made from a gorilla (the Darwinian echoes could not be clearer), who had been moulded and taught to speak by Dr Moreau as well as to read, together with some "rudimentary ideas of morality" (76).

Educating and domesticating the Crakers and the Beast Folk is clearly a priority in both tales. In this context, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has defended, in his "Rules for the Human Park" (1999), the use of anthropotechniaues to evade the diminishing impact of a humanist education, in order to "tame" citizens. His calls for the institution of a new set of normative rules (in sharp contrast to the postmodern rejection of a regimented society) can be interpreted as defending the bioengineering of a gentler, more amiable and better-natured species. If that were possible, then it would amount to an effective change of human nature. That is precisely what Crake has done, although in a much more radical fashion, eradicating the possibility of violence from the brains of the bioengineered humanoids he creates in his lab, ironically named Paradice Dome. What is at stake in Atwood's dystopian trilogy is, accordingly, the crucial question of what a human is, what constitutes human identity itself.

In Wells's tale, in similar fashion, Moreau explains that a "pig may be educated" (72). According to him, there is the "promise of a possibility of replacing old inherited instincts by new suggestions, grafted upon or replacing the inherited fixed ideas. Very much indeed of what we call moral education is such an artificial modification and perversion of instinct" (73). (18) Significantly, both Moreau and Crake have attempted to morally enhance their manufactured creatures. Crake in particular achieved with the Crakers what Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu (2012), amongst others, have repeatedly hinted might be a beneficial development for humankind: moral bioenhancement. While the contemporary trend towards human bioenhancement seems unstoppable, dependent only on the availability of new technologies and the individual capacity to afford them, another type of "improvement" is being advocated by some scientists and ethicists as vital in their effort to protect humanity and, by extension, the planet: moral enhancement through pharmacological means or biogenetic technologies. Controversially, Persson and Savulescu believe that, while the science of influencing moral disposition is still mostly speculative, it will be possible, indeed "desirable" (2012: 416), with recourse to biotechnologies, to "strategically influence people's moral dispositions and behaviour" (2012: 400).

Both the MaddAddam trilogy and The Island of Dr Moreau can be seen as compelling tales cautioning against the potential excesses of the use of unchecked and unauthorized biotechnological breakthroughs. The question is whether Sloterdijk's and Persson and Savulescu's perspectives are not themselves dystopian, with their consideration of the bio-engineering of posthumans to make them tame and obedient, indeed on a par with Atwood's dystopian vision of the Crakers, or whether they are the inevitable next step when humans take evolution into their own hands.

4. Conclusion

The so-called "post-postmodernist" turn, then, has splintered and branched into many different but often interrelated directions, in an interdisciplinary inflection that will from now on make up the new Humanities, forging new connections and alliances with other research fields that will challenge earlier, more limited and narrower practices in some Humanities disciplines. The Humanities may aptly be renamed as the Posthumanities, since most disciplines now gravitate around an increasingly postanthropocentric turn, questioning and reconfiguring the human in always vexed, complex, symbiotic, but valuable relations with cultural otherness and the nonhuman other, with biopower and bioethics, in the context of a posthumanist turn, occupying centre stage in the contemporary post-postmodernist landscape.

This very brief overview of some of the most representative new trends arising in the Humanities lato sensu suggests that the ec(h)osystems of contemporary literature and art are fluid, porous and interconnective, in a rhizomatic interchange of concepts, methods and valences that decisively point the way to a post-postmodern, posthuman, biopolitical, robustly digital future for the Humanities as a whole. These new paradigms need to be wholeheartedly embraced as offering new vistas and explanatory frameworks, as well as novel ways of asking some old questions and even coming up with tentative solutions.

We all have to follow rules, like the Beast Folk and the Children of Crake, since most of us live in a version of a Sloterdijkian human park, with its own sets of rules. We may, however, choose to modify them or create new ones, responding to different circumstances and ethical demands that new technologies give rise to. The novels briefly mentioned here, chosen as illustrative instances of literature's engagement with the main cultural tendencies and advances in technology and the life sciences now reshaping humans and the world, centrally intervene in the critical dialogue concerning these new trends and patterns. If bioengineering of our moral capacities succeeds, however, or our relationship with intelligent machines and digital technologies becomes ever more entangled, what sort of critical post-postmodernist, posthuman readers will we be able to be?


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Atwood, Margaret 2009. The Year of the Flood, London: Bloomsbury.

Atwood, Margaret 2011. The Road to Ustopia. The Guardian, 14/10/2011. Accessed 10/7/2015.

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Ferreira, Maria Aline 2006. The Ubermensch in the Laboratory: Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. In Reis, Jose Eduardo and Jorge Bastos da Silva (eds.). Nowhere Somewhere: Writing, Space and the Construction of Utopia. Porto: Universidade do Porto Press, 141-155.

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Maria Aline Ferreira

University of Aveiro

(1) An analysis of digimodernism falls outside the scope of this essay. Alan Kirby's "digimodernism" (2011) constitutes a new cultural paradigm which highlights how new digital technologies are thoroughly reshaping our cultural landscape. An example of a thoroughgoing critique of digimodernism is Gary Shteyngart's novel Super Sad True Love Story (2010).

(2) Franco Moretti's "digital humanities" (2007, 2013) analyse large collections of data, with recourse to models and algorithms which bring into relief salient trends and patterns in literary corpora, both geographically and textually, thus generating new perspectives with which to analyse the types of texts with which we work in English Studies. Moretti describes this new critical paradigm as "distant reading" as opposed to traditional "close reading", focusing on the kind of literary analysis that takes into account not only big data, but also a bigger picture of the literary phenomenon, with corpora of books suggesting new paths of enquiry and revitalizing the field with new types of evidence.

(3) For an overview of this field see Willis (2015).

(4) Biopolitics and cognitive science appear to be two of the fastest growing areas and potentially offer the greatest range of interdisciplinary avenues to be explored.

(5) See Braidotti (2013), Ferrando (2013), Fukuyama (2003), Hayles (1999), Rosendhal Thomsen (2013) and Wolfe (2009).

(6) Mads Rosendhal Thomsen (2013: 173) notes how the "posthuman theme is not only thriving in the critical perspective of contemporary science fiction studies, but also in new fiction".

(7) The contested notion of hybridity in post-colonial studies is not my focus here.

(8) H. G. Wells also moves in similar terrain when, in "The Limits of Individual Plasticity" (1895), he envisages living creatures being moulded "into the most amazing forms [...] even reviving the monsters of mythology, realizing the fantasies of the taxidermist, his mermaids and what-not, in flesh and blood" (39).

(9) Salient post-postmodernist books that would also classify as dealing with the posthuman include Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods (2007), David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2010) and Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2 (2010), Generosity: An Enhancement (2009) and Orfeo (2014).

(10) Atwood's trilogy can also be read as dramatizing Jeffrey Nealon's (2012) diagnosis of an intensification and saturation of postmodern capitalism, which now extends to areas of cultural activity that used to have greater autonomy. For Nealon (2012: 150), post-postmodernism "seems to take 'intensification' [...] as its paradigmatic ethos".

(11) See Atwood's Introduction to The Island of Dr Moreau (2005).

(12) See Ferreira (2006).

(13) In words that could be seen as commenting on Dr Moreau's experiments, Julian Savulescu (2003: 24) writes: "Whether transgenesis and the creation of human-animal chimeras threaten humanity depends on what effects these changes have on the essential features of humanity. In some cases creating chimeras or transgenic human beings will reduce these features. But in many other cases these changes will promote our humanity. Bringing animals closer to human beings to share their genes might paradoxically improve our humanity, what is essentially human."

(14) Snowman is also described like Crake's "prophet" (104).

(15) As one of the Crakers narrates, in what can be seen as a parallel structure of rules like that the Beast People learnt: "We do not have battles. We do not eat a fish. We do not eat a smelly bone" (360).

(16) After all, as Savulescu (2003: 22) suggests, human-animal chimeras "might be an expression of our humanity".

(17) Another scenario Savulescu considers is to "transfer the gene responsible for enhanced night vision in animals such as rabbits and owls and other nocturnal creatures into the human genome. This might result in many benefits to the human race (2003: 22).

(18) Deeply indebted to T. H. Huxley in his "Evolution and Ethics" lecture of 1893, Wells supports in "The Limits of Individual Plasticity" (1895) the possibility that humans, regarded as raw material, may be shaped and modified by means of grafting, blood transfusion and hypnotism, techniques used by Dr Moreau to alter the animals. Significantly, the whole quote from The Island of Dr Moreau is taken verbatim from "The Limits of Individual Plasticity" (39).
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Author:Ferreira, Maria Aline
Publication:European English Messenger
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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