University of Tasmania
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Reading the posthuman : contemporary fiction and critical theory

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posted on 2023-05-27, 10:49 authored by Hortle, LJ
Representations of the posthuman in contemporary novels are of great cultural and political significance because of their capacity to expose and challenge attitudes to structures of human privilege and ideas of the future organised around the normative human subject. As a privileged site for the cultural construction of human identity, the novel is an ideal domain not only for examining those depictions of the human but also for breaking them apart. Through analysing the representation of the posthuman in contemporary novels, this thesis seeks to provide a clearer and more critical understanding of the human in novels at the start of the twenty-first century, and the role of fiction in both perpetuating and conspiring against dominant ideas of the human. The thesis mobilises recent theoretical debates about the posthuman and posthumanism as a conceptual framework to investigate the status of the posthuman in fiction. It then offers close readings of how five early twenty-first-century novels imagine the human differently, including Michel Faber's Under the Skin (2000), Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake (2003), David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004), Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go (2005) and Jeanette Winterson's The Stone Gods (2007). The posthuman has traditionally been shoehorned into a question for theory and, specifically, the critical framework of posthumanism. Posthumanist scholarship has often overlooked the posthuman's proliferation in fiction and, in particular, how significant literary novels of the early twenty-first century have unsettled normative ideas of the human. Indeed, the central argument of this thesis is that the cultural and political work‚ÄövÑvp of the posthuman and posthumanism is carried out by both literature and theory. The thesis defends the position that reading novels is imperative to establishing a critical politics of the human, and argues that novels about the posthuman intervene in posthumanism's theoretical project. In telling stories of radically decentred human subjectivity, these novels dramatise their own critique of the human and its ensconced position of privilege within the Western cultural imagination. Detailed textual analysis of the posthuman in contemporary literature illustrates the complexities and contradictions underlying culture's attempts to rework the traditional human subject. In particular, this thesis analyses the persistent depiction of the posthuman as a queer figure in the selected novels and more broadly. In these queer manifestations, the posthuman is militant in its disruption of any normative sense of the human and its future. A reading of Never Let Me Go discusses language's regulation of the posthuman and normative sexuality's purchase on the human. An examination of Under the Skin considers the posthuman as a nexus of anxieties about anomalous bodies, sexuality and consumption practices. Analyses of Oryx and Crake and The Stone Gods demonstrate the posthuman's significance to fictional thought experiments of human extinction, the Anthropocene and human reproductive futures. Finally, a chapter on Cloud Atlas addresses the failure of the posthuman to usher in any final dismantling of the human as the underlying term of Western culture and politics. These analyses emphasise that the posthuman imagination exists in a state of tension with a revivified and normative human exceptionalism, which surreptitiously re-enters posthuman fictions to restabilise narratives upon reassuring human scales.


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