Young Adult Lit and Posthumanity

So following on from the last two posts (YA and Dystopias, YA and Technology), this post is about the human essence and how it’s “under threat” from technology (leading to possible dystopia), but also how that whole idea of ‘human nature’ is problematic anyway in posthuman studies.

“Nature itself, and in particular human nature, has a special role in defining for us what is right and wrong, just and unjust, important and unimportant.”

~ Fukuyama

So the human essence argument goes back to ancient Greece (probably further), but the current mode of thinking in the West is of the Liberal Humanist Self. It is, as I understand it, individualism, a common human nature and human rationality as a superior characteristic. This has it’s problems, it assumes universality, its mostly ahistorical, and positions humans at the top of the living things pyramid. Some use human nature to justify innate morals, values, behaviour – sometimes because of a god, sometimes separate from one.

Technology threatens the human essence, for some like Habermas and Fukuyama, by changing the very nature (genetics) of humanity. Fukuyama criticises drugs that regulate how we feel and our personalities, stem cell research that can lead to massive life expectancy (even as many countries birth rates are in free fall), and the future of selective genetics (for the wealthy, at least). These technologies, he argues, will also affect liberal democracy and politics itself. In one section where he questions whether there is a gene to determine sexuality, he asks if there was a pill to make a baby heterosexual, who would take it? He supposes that many people would, even those who today support GLBTIQ rights, just as they would for removing a trait for baldness or shortness.

What it means to be human finally is not so much about intelligent machines as it is about how to create just societies in a transnational global world that may include in its purview both carbon and silicon citizens.

~ Hayles

What is human, what is defined as human, and what it means to be human are all concepts at the mercy of space and time. As with everything else in our world, what something means is not consistent over different cultures and different eras. It separates us even from the very cultures, by assuming that humans are unique and unchangeable. As much as I’m barely beginning to tread into the waters of Foucault, his arguments make more sense to me that people are not free from social forces and institutions*. Foucault’s subject is not natural, but is a product of time and space.

Feminist theorists also criticise this understanding of the ‘self’ for constructing a universal subject that is white, European and male, and thus suppresses and oppresses anyone who is ‘Other’. We know the injustices of the past (and those continuing in the present) when blacks were considered lesser beings, and women not considered smart enough for the vote. The Indigenous people of Australia were even classified under the Flora and Fauna Act (GRR!)!  What is human, what is moral, what is valued, is socially constructed. We are not totally controlled by society, obviously, but we do not have an innate or unchangeable nature.

There is the fear, in life and in fiction, that technological progression will lead to to loss of human nature/essence/self. For some, the posthuman is already here. The posthuman is creative evolution at work. The boundaries of what is human itself, separate from animals and machines, is (and some might argue, has for a long time) crumbling. These borders are breached by hybrid creatures – cyborgs. Haraway is credited with shifting the debate from the inhuman and ‘bad’ technologies, to a more positive view. We are shaped and changed by our relationship with technology, and it’s not entirely for the negative. The cyborg disrupts the “natural order”, which has only worked before to make exclusions of who is capable, intelligent, or human.

So this mini-series of blog posts is what I’m working on at the moment. Analysing narrative strategies and subjectivity of Young Adult novels, as they are perpetuating a Liberal Humanist Self, at threat from technology, and then critique the problems that come with that. It’s not really procrastinating from actually writing it, if I’m blogging my research, right?


* as a side anecdote: one of my friends in the US and I can’t see eye-to-eye on gun rights or mandatory voting. In my part of the world, guns are rare and mandatory voting is the responsibility and duty of every citizen. His country has a very different history on both topics.


Recommended Reading

  • Habermas, Jurgen. The Future of Human Nature. Cambridge: Polity Press. 2003. Print.
  • Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. London: Profile books. 2003.
  • Haraway, Donna. Simians , Cyborgs , and Women. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • Hayles, N Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 1999.
  • Onishi, Bradley B. “Information, Bodies, and Heidegger: Tracing Visions of the Posthuman.” Sophia 50.1 (2010): 101–112.
  • Gane, N. “Posthuman.” Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 431–434. Web. 24 Sept. 2013.

Young Adult Lit and Technology

Following on from my previous post, technology in YA is a bit weird to me.

The fear of technology is definitely not new in science fiction or Western culture. Look at the Matrix, look at Terminator, look at all the billions of books that I couldn’t possibly name them all. Technology is scary! It will rise up against us, or cause our destruction in some way (some zombies are caused because of bio-chemical weapons, testing of new plagues or even for cures). Technology seems to be a pretty persistent social anxiety in modern times, that it will irrevocably change our society and our very nature in some way, Technology is a threat to humanness.

Technology has a great lot to offer us, but in science fiction there’s a decidedly sinister undercurrent. In Technophobia, Dinello demonstrates how science fiction shows technology as subverting human values, changing human behaviour, and doesn’t provide us with the utopia as it promises, “we end up oppressed by our own inventions”. I really enjoyed The End Specialist by Drew Magary, a world where there is a cure for old-age, disease, and most types of deaths. Great huh? Immortality! But then as it gets used and legalised, the real societal and personal problems emerge. No matter how benign the technology may seem at first, it has long reaching consequences that will make us all suffer eventually.

So where I don’t get it is that the recent generations are growing up in a world of ever-increasing technological advancement, a world of wonders with a tablet and smartphone in the hands of every toddler (yes, I’m super-generalising here), and yet there is this imposing of the view that technology is a negative thing into fiction for them. I’m not the first to find it odd, Noga Applebaum has already written a book on this (which I purchased a few days ago and am eagerly awaiting). She states that “young readers, internalising this technophobic message, are in danger of learning to fear the future”. Ball calls YA scifi a socially conservative genre, as it clings to these older traditions that are not the lived experience of the intended readership. These negative attitudes are not so dominant in adult science fiction, so why here? Why now? Why does society produce an overall negative perception of technology for young adult readers?

We think of technology as changing and taking away from human ‘essence’. We cling to these historical perceptions of what is human, without considering that the human essence, and even what it means to be human, is itself a product of cultural context. This firmly sets humans at the top of the hierarchy, but it also assumes universality and denies the ‘Other’, making a certain type of person as the ‘default’ model of human, and thus privileged.

This is what I’ll explore into next, the argument about the future of humanity and posthumanity from both sides.

Recommended Reading

  • Ball, Jonathan. “Young Adult Science Fiction as a Socially Conservative Genre.” Jeunesse: Young people, texts, cultures 3.2 (2011): 162–174. Print.
  • Applebaum, Noga Representations of Technology in Science Fiction for Young People. New York: Routledge, 2010.
  • Mendlesohn, Farah. The Intergalactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction. Jefferson: McFarland, 2009.
  • Vint, Sherryl. Bodies of Tomorrow: Technology, Subjectivity, Science. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 2007. Print.
  • Fletcher, David-jack. “Recalibrating the ‘ Human ’.” Neo 5 (2012)
  • Dinello, Daniel. Technophobia: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin: University of Texas Press. 2005. Print.