Posthumanism in Contemporary Literature – Ben Lerner’s 10:04

If you clicked this link expecting cyborgs, then I’m afraid I’m not going to indulge you (not yet anyway, although that is all very much a part of posthumanism, just not the part I’m talking about here*). I’m reading Stefan Herbrechter’s Posthumanism: A critical analysis (2013) and I’m a big fan, not least because it’s helping to articulate some of the stuff that I see as really central to the relationship between print literature and digital culture.

Posthumanism is a way of thinking that challenges the assumption, or myth, of the human as it has been constructed up until now. It stems from the idea that notions of what constitutes human nature, even in its broadest or most general sense, are problematic, not least because those notions are not natural or truthful, but rather based on Enlightenment conceptions about what it is that we are. (“Man is an invention of recent date”, so says Foucault.) For Herbrechter posthumanism is firstly deconstructive, and one of the main points of reference is Jean-François Lyotard. Lyotard, Herbrechter shows us, recognised that conceptions of the human based on a false opposition between ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ are essentially flawed. This is because such an opposition ignores the fact that any conception of whatever might be essentially human creates the category of inhuman, and, put very crudely, this is socially and politically problematic. The idea of the human being which stems from Renaissance and Enlightenment thinking, and which (very basically) says we are sovereign selves with a natural capacity for reason, is shown to be a form of prejudice. Lyotard articulates this when he asks “what if what were “proper” to humankind were to be inhabited by the inhuman?”, leading us to see a void at the heart of what we might instinctively label as human nature. The ‘essence’ of the human is in fact its ‘absence’. As Herbrechter succintly puts it, if the human species is a historical effect, human nature is simply a historical affect.

In the face of what he labels the contemporary “inhumanity of the system”, Herbrechter suggests that the starting point for critical posthumanism is firstly to reevaluate the place of the human in existence as no longer “the sole hero in a history of emancipation”. Secondly, and I think more importantly,  posthumanism is to “acknowledge all those ghosts, all those human others that have been repressed during the process of humanization”. To me, this posits a more dialogic understanding of lived experience, one which does not lead to exclusion and inclusion based on prejudiced notions of what is “human” or otherwise, in the face of the “incredible grand narrative” of liberal humanism. Posthumanism is an opening up of otherwise closed ideas about what constitutes the human condition.

So what does posthumanism thinking look like? For one, it must take seriously “technocultural conditions” although their “inevitability” must be contested. It must also recognise the essentially political energy of technology and technological interaction:

…for every introduction of technological innovation, changes to the system also incur changes within cultural relationships. In the cases of the internet these are new interpersonal relations […] and above all new forms of consumption; but there is also potential for political change through for example electronic voting systems and new forms of interactivity, new possibilities for surveillance as well as instant (or realtime) global communication, new forms of e-learning and many other possible present and future uses. (Herbrechter, p.19)

It is one of the jobs of posthumanism to  “critically evaluate this technological change” in the face of a potential “replacement of a humanist value system with a post-humanist one”. This value system, continues Herbrechter, is one which must admit to the accelerated and intense nature of technological changes, making “analysing the process of technologization” central, whilst remaining aware of the danger that technology will render another grand narrative or cultural hegemony. Posthumanism must be plural, maintaining “radical interdependence or mutual interpenetration between the human, the posthuman and the inhuman”.

Where might literature fit into posthumanism? There is the obvious role science fiction continues to play in showing scenario-based conceptions of an augmented human reality, and Herbrechter’s book devotes a chapter to this, emphasizing science fiction’s vast importance to understanding contemporary culture through a multitude of popular forms. However, I see posthumanity as a prevalent theme in many different kinds of contemporary texts, including mainstream literary fiction. This is not to devalue the unique and nuanced perspective science fiction gives us, quite the opposite; it is to suggest that the perspective of science fiction is becoming in part central to the way novelists who would not call themselves “sci-fi writers” see the world.

In my view, what we might call literary fiction, or more simply “writers that critics unashamedly like”, also engages with the central concerns of posthumanism, that “radical interdependence”, a recognition and critical engagement with the inhuman. I would argue that in Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04 (2014), for instance, there is a preoccupation with how interactions between self and other are conditioned, and the ways in which the inhuman, found in the form of the technological interaction, constantly reconditions an understanding of the self. The narrator of Lerner’s novel  after reading an e-mail from friends, one of whom has been admitted to hospital, is moved to describe the influence of technological interaction on the sense of his personal and ethical environment:

As I read I experienced what was becoming a familiar sensation: the world was rearranging itself around me while I processed words from a  liquid-crystal display. So much of the most important personal news I’d received in the last several years had come to me by smartphone while I was abroad in the city that I could plot on a map, could represent spatially, the major events, such as they were, of my early thirties. Place a thumbtack on the wall or drop a flag on Google Maps at Lincoln Center, where, beside the fountain, I took a call from Jon informing me that, for whatever complex of reasons, a friend had shot himself […]  (Lerner, p.33)

As he lists more examples of “important personal news”, the technological condition of these experiences appears, for the narrator, to locate them outside of himself, in a way which transforms the experience into something ghostly or inhuman:

And so on: each of these experiences of reception remained, as it were, in situ, so that whenever I returned to a zone where significant news had been received, I discovered that the news and an echo of its attendant affect still awaited me like a curtain of beads. (pp.32-3)

The “echo of its attendant affect” points towards what might be called an expanded ethical understanding, that is, a reseeing of the most important moral or life-altering events, not least because the haptic metaphor of a curtain of beads suggests the experience has a revelatory quality. This understanding stems from the technological conditioning of interpersonal communication, allowing as it does the narrator (as the subject) to acknowledge the inhuman through the medium of the message. The other person, the person communicating through the tech device, isn’t there when that life event happens, but because of that initial distance they are constantly there later, as a ghost, when reflecting on the event afterwards. And this conditioning alters, broadens and augments the ethical perspective.

This is only a brief example, but it is one way in which contemporary literature can be seen to engage with concerns over the nature of the human being in the twenty-first century, where “being a subject means ‘natural-cultural-technological'[…] being a social animal means being a ‘techno-social animal’ (Aronowitz and Menser, in Herbrechter, p.21):

New technologies not only pose the question of the human anew and with increased urgency, but they challenge the entire humanist system of categorization and exclusion. (Herbrechter, pp.28-9)

If, as Herbrechter suggests, we accept that technology is valuable as a “privileged form of the inhuman”, then analysis of it will help us to dismantle problematic and dangerous concepts of categorization and exclusion of those groups, those people, who prove problematic to closed conceptions of the human, i.e. those constructed as inhuman, or as Other. We should be open to the post-human voices in any texts which resonate with representations of the technological that reflect our everyday interactions. Concerns about the nature of the human being can and should be directed at the fiction which shares those concerns, for fiction itself is the essential inhuman construct, that which helps us see difference, and view again a version of those events which are important to the way we understand our own being in the world.


1 Stefan Herbrechter, Posthumanism : A Critical Analysis (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

2 Ben Lerner, 10:04 (London: Granta Books, 2014).


*Oh go on then.

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