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Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood

Christina Bieber Lake
Published by University of Notre Dame Press in 2014

Reviewed by Jessica Hooten Wilson, English, John Brown University

The human species is being threatened by a visible but unacknowledged enemy, which is not – as has been depicted so well by recent apocalyptic films – a contagious virus, a natural disaster, a mischievous Norse god, nor a potential nuclear war. The enemy is far more obvious: it is ourselves. Although stories about the destruction of the human race have abounded for over a thousand years, at least since the fall of Rome, only in the past century have these tales gained a positive spin. A growing number of intellectuals are gleefully expecting a new evolution, one produced by humans, in which we transcend our own species. These transhumanists or posthumanists propose that the new human being will overcome sickness, deformity, and perhaps even death. However, in Prophets of the Posthuman, Christina Bieber Lake cautions these proponents that a new species may be unhappy with such an existence and will lose the best of what it means to be human, the capacity to love.

In less than 200 pages, Lake invites a host of authors, including Flannery O’Connor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Saunders, James Tiptree, Jr., Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Walker Percy, Raymond Carver, and Marilynne Robinson to contribute to this discussion. With eight chapters divided into four sections, she explores the posthuman way of seeing the world, how posthumans treat the physical body, and the degradation of language that accompanies their worldview. In the last section, she examines how to move from a posthuman paradigm to the love of human others. While her work centers on literature, it takes into account arguments from science, ethics, theology, and social criticism.

The question of what it means to be human is preliminary to another philosophical big-league inquiry, how should we live? Unfortunately, the transhumanists dismiss millennia of exchange on this topic, assuming they know from what human happiness derives and thus focusing on the means to accomplish their vision – science and technology – rather than the end. Those who oppose their methods are classified as closed-minded neo-Luddites. While Lake does not posit easy answers to the questions, she affirms the impossibility for science to be the provider of a clear vision of the good life. She joins Walker Percy, who turned from his career as a physician to become a novelist because he discovered that while science told him much about things, it lacked any direction about what it meant to be a particular person living in this time and place.

Instead of scientists, Lake turns to the novelists, those who embody in narrative what it means to be a human being. What she finds essentially valuable in narrative is the concrete exploration of ethical questions in the lives, “of persons as persons engaged with one another” (xvii). She opposes the autonomous directive promoted by scientists and other supporters of the transhumanist program and insists on an understanding of ethics that is interactive and communal. Moreover, she regards love “as the standard for how persons should treat other persons” (9), highlighting its value for answering the question about what constitutes the good life. According to Lake, “fiction is the art of love for persons” (189). In an attempt to reveal the nature of the good life, what it means to be human, and the necessity of love as a standard of ethics, Lake investigates the works of great fiction writers and rallies those in the humanities to join the current discussion.

In the first section of the book Lake points to the planks in our eyes, to the assumptions that may muddle our vision of human nature. Lake challenges the supposition that biological facts require no interpretation. She juxtaposes Princeton biologist Lee Silver’s memory of his encounter with a two-headed baby preserved in formaldehyde against O’Connor’s young narrator from “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” who listens to her cousins’ account of a hermaphrodite flashing viewers at the circus. While the former views the human other as a specimen in a lab, the latter responds to another paradigm, “that of the body of Christ in the Eucharist and in the world of persons” (40). Silver is blinded by his inability to accept human’s otherness, but O’Connor’s child narrator embraces the existence of the unexplainable as a mystery understandable only by the Creator. Lake contrasts this canonical story with current scientific issues.

She does so again with Hawthorne’s 1843 “The Birth-mark,” contextualizing the story alongside the debate over breast implants for teenage girls. She reads the story not only according to its usual interpretation – as the misguided quest for human perfection – but also as one that shows how others, with their poor vision, may remove another’s freedom. By casting his wife Georgiana’s birthmark as “a mark of flawed human nature” (49), the scientist-protagonist Alymer alters his wife’s freedom to choose. Similarly, a young woman who receives breast implants is succumbing to society’s vision of beauty. These accounts in Lake’s first two chapters reflect flaws in our ways of seeing the human being.

Whereas science objectifies the human being into various pieces and parts, fiction “saves faces by reframing them, by forcing readers to regard them in a different way from how they want to” (77). Lake castigates reality TV shows such as ABC’s Extreme Makeover for its cultural manipulation of the ideal for the human body, placing this recent phenomenon in dialogue with Saunder’s “I Can Speak!” and Tiptree’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In.” Lake does not limit her examination to stories that include techno-scientific elements, though she does include a fair share, but she broadens her scope to those works that share the ethical question about who we are and what we are meant for, including Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

In section three, Lake turns outward from the individuals that she has been considering to the communities that shape them or are being shaped. She explores two apocalyptic dystopias in the novels Oryx and Crake and The Thanatos Syndrome. In both novels, the authors satirize the present choices of our culture, and in both novels, the degradation of language parallels a devaluation of human life. Although those in power, in these worlds, desire to advance civilization through science and technology, their undefined ends betray their means. What is lost in both worlds is love between human persons, as captured in the image from Oryx and Crake in which vultures literally eat dead carcasses that have been intentionally allocated to spell “love.”

Thankfully, Lake does not conclude her work with these many tales of despair, but she opens up the possibility for cultural redemption in her last two assessments. The first of these, Carver’s “A Small Good Thing,” harkens back to a technological achievement of the 1980s, the answering machine, to show how even this advancement affected our relationships with one another. No longer did people need to communicate as incarnate beings, but they could interact without physically identifying themselves. In Carver’s story, a woman loses her son on his birthday and neglects to pick up his pre-arranged birthday cake from the baker, who unknowingly calls daily and leaves an eerily obtuse message, “Have you forgotten about Scotty?” When the woman confronts the man, he quickly apologizes, comes out from behind his baker’s shelf, and shares bread with her. Lake shows how, in this story, there is a recovery of human persons from their partial, disembodied roles.

Like Carver’s story, Robinson’s novel reunites two souls who have been at odds with one another. While Robinson does not render the dangers of the posthuman worldview, she suggests, in the tale’s embodiment of love, “a way back to the human from its prodigal, posthuman wanderings” (187). Rather than debunk scientific arguments for transhumanism with a refutation, Lake relies on the stories of her authors to envision a better reality than the one they are making, a world in which human beings love one another as human beings. These final two chapters are the most convicting portions of the book, reminding scholars how to write academic essays that speak to the human soul. Moreover, these last words from Lake inspire readers not only to read more fiction, but also to love friends, strangers, and even their enemies.

Lake has done well to write a book that matters, one that draws on her evident knowledge of her own discipline as well as a range of others. She never reduces big questions to simple either-or proposals, but renders the issues in their full complexity – all while maintaining an accessible writing style. Although several of the works that she discusses, such as Hawthorne’s short story, have been dissected and mulled over by critics for more than a century, Lake manages to make the words come alive again, and, as she reminds us to read people as unfinalizeable – a notion for which she credits Mikhail Bakhtin – so she reads these works as continually becoming, and thus, ever relevant. Prophets of the Posthuman reads less like a work of literary criticism and more like a life-altering conversation, one in which we should all participate.

Cite this article
Jessica Hooten Wilson, “Prophets of the Posthuman: American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 289-291

Jessica Hooten Wilson

John Brown University
Jessica Hooten Wilson is Associate Professor of English at John Brown University.