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Posthumanism in Film and Television

1. Posthumanism in Film and Television

Cary Wolfe begins his widely known book What Is Posthumanism? (2010) by announcing the results of a Google search. He reports that at the time of his writing (summer 2008) the search word ‘humanism’ yielded 3,840,000 hits, while the word ‘posthumanism’ gave him only 60,200. Wolfe concludes from these data that, apparently, ‘humanism is alive and well’ (2010, xi). When we repeated the experiment six years later, in December 2014, ‘humanism’ came up with 9,030,000 results and ‘posthumanism’ with 294,000, which is still considerably less, but almost five times as many as six years ago. You do, however, get many more results if you search for ‘posthuman’ (3,250,000), ‘transhumanism’ (2,310,000) or even (a term that is, outside academia, little known or used) ‘transhuman’ (484,000). So even though humanism may still be alive and well today, the idea of the posthuman and what it signifies, namely the surpassing of the human condition, is rapidly catching up and has now secured a well-established place in our cultural imagination. Clearly, an evolving posthumanist narrative has taken shape in popular culture, providing a new context for what it means to be human and challenging long-held assumptions about the human condition. Yet this narrative did not arrive fully formed. It was first prophesied and then dissected in academic spheres for many years before reaching a level of diffusion large enough to impact popular consciousness.

Paving the Way to Posthumanism: The Precursors


2. From DelGuat to ScarJo

In this chapter, I want to offer an overview of how/why Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have been influential on posthumanist thought before looking at how posthumanism is increasingly operating as a framework through which to consider film (and the media more generally) and before, in turn, looking at how Deleuze and Guattari influence such posthumanist readings of film. Finally, I should like briefly to offer a reading of various films from 2013 to 2014 that feature Scarlett Johansson in order to draw out some of the seeming contradictions surrounding posthumanism, namely that posthumanism remains a very human (if not humanist) way of thinking and, perhaps, of being in, or, better, with, the world.

3. ‘Self-Immolation by Technology’: Jean Baudrillard and the Posthuman in Film and Television

The ‘decentring of the human’ by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic and economic networks ‘is increasingly impossible to ignore’ (Wolfe 2010, 121). In simple terms, and in recent times, ‘it has become increasingly difficult to separate the human from the technological’ (Bukatman 1993, 2). In this context, the posthuman ‘refers to the experience of the subject in the age of digital media’ (Scheer 2012, 25). For Jean Baudrillard this presents a problem. He was apprehensive about the technological excitement around the digital, cloning, virtual reality, virtual bodies and so on. The human, in this posthuman scenario, becomes a prosthesis to technology and information systems. Baudrillard is critical of the ever-improving operational efficiency of technological systems such that the human becomes irrelevant to the process. In digital reduction we witness the supersession, in Baudrillard’s terms, of the symbolic, alterity and singularity of the human by the semiotic, simulation and technological. The posthuman here becomes the inhuman. This resonates with the familiar poststructuralist concentration and concern with the heterogeneous over the homogeneous. For Baudrillard, the universe of simulation aims at ‘a virtual universe from which everything dangerous and negative has been expelled’ (Baudrillard 2005, 202). In this case, alterity, synonymous with otherness, difference and negativity in their radical forms, will be its victim. Especially with the onslaught of virtual reality, the human may be likened, in Lyotard’s words, to a ‘poor binarized ghost’ (Lyotard 1991, 17).

4. Derrida on Screen

Some may be surprised to see a chapter on Derrida in a Handbook on Posthumanism in Film and Television. There are two reasons for this. One lies in the fact that Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) is not usually related to posthumanism, even though he has certainly influenced a number of writers who do own up to that label, most notably Cary Wolfe (2010), Neil Badmington (2000) and myself (2013). The other reason is that Derrida’s relationship with film and television — despite his undeniable influence on film and media studies more generally — is anything but straightforward. This chapter will argue, however, that Derrida is both, a ‘proto-posthumanist’ and a ‘media philosopher’; in fact, it will aim to show that neither posthumanism nor the media today would be thinkable without Derridean deconstruction. In order to spell out the relationship between posthumanism, the media and deconstruction I will proceed by looking at ‘Derrida on screen’ at three levels: at the level of Derrida screened (i.e., Derrida’s appearances on screen, and film in particular); Derrida on being screened (Derrida’s comments on becoming a subject to screening, or on being filmed, mediated, etc.); and Derrida on screens (or his thinking about the ‘televisual’ and mediated representation more generally). At each level, the implication for a very specific understanding of posthumanism in Derridean deconstruction should become apparent.

5. Bruno Latour: From the Non-Modern to the Posthuman

In We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 62), Bruno Latour announces that there ‘is only one positive thing to be said about the postmoderns: after them there is nothing. Far from being the last word, they mark the end of ends.’ Clearly, he does not embrace the nihilistic irony of some forms of postmodernity, but his relation to the posthuman is much more complex and nuanced. Latour’s ongoing critique of modernity, carried out through numerous empirical studies of scientific and technological practices as well as his investigation of the politics of nature (developed in a book of that title), is perhaps best articulated in We Have Never Been Modern and his recent An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. In the first he lays a clear foundation for his ‘non-modern constitution’ and the second creates a place for a positive posthumanist position. Although his work does not touch directly on film or television, Latour has long examined the visual arts and, through the figure of ‘The Theatre of Proof’, creates a powerful way to critique the production of objectivity in the sciences and in public discourse.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche and the Posthuman/Transhuman in Film and Television

If any philosopher is identified with posthumanism in film or television it would seemingly have to be Nietzsche, whose Zarathustra proclaimed the doctrine of the Übermensch, the overhuman, traditionally transmitted to the English dramatic world via George Bernard Shaw in his 1903 play in four acts, Man and Superman (rendered in 1982 for television and starring Peter O’Toole), and thus the association with Superman, the posthuman. Of course, and this too is not surprising, the association is a caricature and a dangerous one, embracing the various instaurations of transhumanism in the celebration of Nazi eugenics in Leni Riefenstahl’s (1935) Triumph des Willens, to the variously padded and coifed versions of Superman in film and in a range of television series, including the teenage transhuman Clark Kent in television’s Smallville (2001–2011).

Varieties of People-to-Come: Posthuman Becomings


7. Terminated: The Life and Death of the Cyborg in Film and Television

As an amalgam of the words ‘cybernetic’ and ‘organism’, the term ‘cyborg’ effectively evokes the figure’s defining characteristic: the fusing of electronic, mechanical or robotic components with a living creature. Ever since the term was coined in 1960 by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in an article in Astronautics magazine (Clynes & Kline 1960), the popularity of the cyborg has grown exponentially, and the figure quickly became synonymous with the science fiction (SF) genre. Cyborgs are created either through the (often brutal) insertion of machine components into a previously wholly organic entity, as in the case of the Star Trek franchise’s horrific Borg,1 or are designed from the outset as a synthesis of the organic and the artificial, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s quintessential cyborg villain/hero in the Terminator movies. Technically, cyborgism is not limited to humans, but most examples found within film and television narratives involve the blending of (wo)man and machine.2

8. Of Iron Men and Green Monsters: Superheroes and Posthumanism

We live in an age of cyborgs. The streets, trains, cars around us are populated by strange creatures whose intense engagement with technology is both reassuringly familiar and vaguely alarming: familiar, because most of us have come to feel like cyborgs ourselves, having come to rely on mobile technology for nearly every aspect of our lives, spending most if not all our waking hours ‘plugged in’ to an infinite network; and alarming, because this reliance brings with it not only new kinds of connections, but also what seems like a new experience of time, space and alienation. But in many ways, our reliance on wireless data transfer, smartphones, tablets and other consumer gadgets are only the tip of the iceberg, as developments in medicine, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), prosthetics, and quantum mechanics continuously destabilize our traditional anthropocentric worldview informed by liberal humanist values.

9. Growing Your Own: Monsters from the Lab and Molecular Ethics in Posthumanist Film

Test-tube monsters escape from the lab to the screen as science locates and isolates then modifies the smallest particles of life. Research projects to genetically engineer such posthuman monsters are either funded by government bodies or private clients. The mad scientist, gothic avatar of alchemical researchers into forbidden knowledge, has been generating cinematic monsters from Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, USA, 1910) to Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, USA, 2014). In Casshern, a Japanese tokusatsu (live-action) film directed by Kazuaki Kiriya (2004), the population of Zone 7 are persecuted for their ‘terrorist’ opposition to the Federation and used for secret experiments to regenerate the aging junta generals. The project leader is Dr Azuma (Akira Terao), a contemporary mad scientist who places research above personal ethics when he accepts the junta’s offer of unlimited funding support for his project. In a tank of severed limbs, the ‘neo-cells’ extracted from this ‘primitive’ ethnic group are mysteriously animated by a lightning strike to grow zombie-like entities. Identifying themselves as ‘Neo-Sapiens’ (Neoroids in the US subtitles) these genetically modified monsters unite to seek revenge.

10. Post-Singularity Entities in Film and TV

Posthumanism comes in different flavours. The most common are critical posthumanism (CP) and speculative posthumanism (SP). Both are critical of human-centred (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their critiques apply to different areas: CP is a broad-based attack on the supposed anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; SP opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.

11. Chimeras and Hybrids: The Digital Swarms of the Posthuman Image

In a dream sequence in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), homeless orphan Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) discovers a mysterious key lodged in the tracks at the train station in which he makes his home. Hugo jumps onto the tracks in order to retrieve the key, only to be run over by an approaching train. While this scene is notable for its fast-paced action, kinetic editing and cinematography, shock value and suspense, the environment in which the scene takes place is, at least superficially, rather unremarkable. The train station and its inhabitants, while quite stylish and evocative of the time period, appear as photorealistic, seamless components of the mise-en-scène. In reality, however, much of this environment is a digital simulation, from the setting to the props to the characters, and in this regard, this scene from Hugo is indicative of much of contemporary mainstream filmmaking. The film achieves its photorealistic verisimilitude through the compositing of actual pro-filmic material with virtual computer-generated elements, resulting in a hybrid image of digital and analogue forces. While the completed image effectively adheres to the traditional stylistic conventions of narrative film, many of the individual components of the image are digital simulations.

Rise of the Machines: Posthuman Intellects


12. Androids and the Posthuman in Television and Film

Androids — robots that look like humans — serve as central characters in movies and television all the way back to the origins of those forms. In movies, they primarily have two values: they are mostly symbols of technological threat — the dangers of industrialism, in earlier movies, and the dangers of human ingenuity and automated slave labour in later ones — or they are, less often, symbols of how we contemplate the meaning of ‘human’, the issues connected with ‘personhood’. Androids depicted in television shows have a more varied symbolic value, mainly because the writers have the time and need to develop various plotlines. So, in a television series, the signification of the android can vary depending upon the episode we view.

13. ‘Change for the Machines’? Posthumanism as Digital Sentience

Representations of digital sentience in film and television are ambivalent about the prospects of sharing the world with such entities. Like popular discourses of transhumanism, they participate in fantasies of extended life and superhuman abilities, but simultaneously express fears of human obsolescence. Such texts illuminate questions raised by the Turing test regarding how one distinguishes ‘real’ from ‘simulated’ intelligence, explore the criteria for being considered ‘alive’ rather than a machinic thing, and examine the blurred boundary between human and machine that seems the inevitable consequence of digital sentience. Filmic representations of digital sentience can be organized into two categories — supercomputers and distributed network artificial intelligences (AIs)1 — with inevitable overlaps between these loose boundaries. This chapter focuses on representations of digital entities that are designed to have or evolve sentience, and traces the shifting cultural anxieties they articulate in tandem with a changing technocultural context.

14. Alive in the Net

‘I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.’ Perhaps the most famous words ever uttered by a computer in film take their power from a doubly self-effacing gesture. Like Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to’, HAL’s calm words immobilize the human protagonist of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) simply by refusing to act. HAL maroons Dave in space, stranding him outside the spacecraft without disrupting his ability to communicate with earth. But commands from ground control are just as unavailing. Cut off physically while remaining linked via voice communication creates a special form of terror, one emphasized by Kubrick’s prolonged shot of Dave’s motionless capsule floating beside the main ship. Awareness of one’s situation coupled with an inability to act — it is what the computer sentience addressed as HAL has known for as long as it has been self-aware. The computer has effectively turned the tables, projecting its own terrible limitations onto the human.

15. Autonomous Fighting Machines: Narratives and Ethics

Posthumanism is a collection of philosophies that seeks to go beyond humanism to a better way of life. This is achieved differently by different posthumanists. Those who see science, technology and engineering as key to human enhancement and the attainment of a posthuman future are commonly called transhumanists. It is this strand of posthumanism that is most directly relevant for discussions of artificial intelligence (AI) and autonomous fighting machines. AI is a key aspect of the transhumanist vision. The 2002 version of the Transhumanist Declaration began with the following: ‘We foresee the feasibility of redesigning the human condition, including such parameters as the inevitability of aging, limitations on human and artificial intellects, unchosen psychology, suffering, and our confinement to the planet earth’ (quoted in O’Mathúna 2009, 163). The current version advocates for the well-being of ‘any future artificial intellects’ (Humanity 2009).

Body and Soul: Posthuman Subjectivities


16. A Contest of Tropes: Screened Posthuman Subjectivities

Popular culture film and TV are full of artificial humans, cyborgs, disembodied selves, hyperembodied individuals, hybrids and chimeras, post-biological beings and even technologized creatures like zombies and vampires. In the uncritical posthumanism of ‘transhumanism’ and its detractors, the variants of science fiction (SF), horror and fantasy often represent altered humans or successor species in a terrifying or ambivalent fashion. In the political sphere, posthumanism relates to medical bioethics and social policy debates. However, academia follows different trajectories. One major path by philosophers of technology responds to Heidegger in understanding how technoscience shapes the ‘human’ and ‘posthuman’ as a commixture of discursive/material properties. In the smallest niche of professional academics, posthumanism challenges the Enlightenment’s rational, liberal subject, as well as reconstructs the posthuman beyond entrenched dualisms tied to the exceptionalism of the anthropocene. Most radical is the argument that we have never been human and the posthuman is a book yet to be written. Or, less radically, we are currently ‘posthuman’ because our extended selves are already enmeshed in distributed informational networks. Most widely, the posthuman exists in an imagined future, often feared, sometimes welcomed.

17. Desire and Uncertainty: Representations of Cybersex in Film and Television

The concept of cyberspace and its complementary activity, cybersex, have long occupied the minds of individuals as part of the prominent development and integration of technology within society. The opportunity to explore the impact of our interaction with networked technologies and cyberspace was taken up by the creative industries, leading to cybersex becoming a well-established trope in fantasy and popular culture. Alas, in many ways, the prefix ‘cyber’ was a buzzword in the 1980s and 1990s before slowly declining as the initial fascination with the utopian ideals of the Internet faded; unsurprisingly, cyberspace and cybersex suffered this same fate. Nevertheless, although the enthusiasm has faded, the idea of cybersex has endured and continues to prompt a variety of responses, from titillation to intimidation. We persist in imagining how our most physical pleasures may interact with technology and its ‘other space’. Cybersex has revealed, as Dery stated, that ‘wherever humankind goes, sex inevitably follows, and the universe of technological innovation is no exception’ (1996, 217).

18. At Home In and Beyond Our Skin: Posthuman Embodiment in Film and Television

Film and television portrayals of posthuman cyborgs melding biology and technology, simultaneously ‘animal and machine’ (Haraway 1991, 149), abound. Most of us immediately think of iconic characters like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s relentless cyborg assassin in the Terminator series or Peter Weller’s crime-fighting cyborg police officer in RoboCop (1987). Or perhaps we recall the many cyborgs populating the Doctor Who, Star Trek and Star Wars television series and films — including Darth Vader, surely the most famous cinematic cyborg of all time. But lesser-known explorations of cybernetic embodiment have appeared in film and television for many decades. And not all portrayals involve the sort of extreme transformations exemplified by these iconic characters. This chapter considers some of the different ways that film and television have explored the transformative relation between embodiment and technology.

19. Constructed Worlds: Posthumanism in Film, Television and Other Cosmopoietic Media

Possible worlds theory recognizes that what starts to form once a world is postulated with conditions different to the actual is the apprehensibility of a different (meta)physics. Situations implausible in the actual world could there take on outline and cohere, in keeping, as Ruth Ronen explains, with possible worlds providing ‘a philosophical explanatory framework that pertains to the problem of fiction’. They overturn ‘the long philosophical tradition, from Plato to Russell’ that skirts fiction, because this ‘has been viewed (…) as a sequence of propositions devoid of a truth value’. Possible worlds thereby rehabilitate fiction as ‘part of a larger context of discourses that do not refer to the way things actually are in the world’ (Ronen 1994, 6–7). This bears out the adjustment possible worlds theory brings to ‘theories of fictionality’ based on ‘the assumption that there is only one legitimate universe of discourse (domain or reference), the actual world’ (Doležel 1998, 2). The possibilities in fictional worlds instead occasion a ‘pragmatics of pretense’ (11), intuiting that ‘the one-world model is not a propitious ground for fictional semantics’ (5) and endorsing ‘uncountable possible, nonactualized worlds’ (13). This multiplicity can only grow, for ‘[t]he universe of possible worlds is constantly expanding and diversifying thanks to the incessant world-constructing activity of human minds and hands’ (ix).

20. Games, Gamers and Posthumanism

Anthony Vidler wrote that William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer ‘voiced a peculiarly contemporary sense of haunting: that provoked by the loss of traditional bodily and locational references by the pervasive substitution of the simulated for the real in the computer’s virtual reality’ (Vidler 1992, 10). Published in 1984, Neuromancer provided a narrative that intensified, and gave a subcultural twist, to the buzz of possibility surrounding computing technology. Gibson’s novel rode on the entry of computer-based games into the domestic marketplace, working a populist seam to create an accessible, plot-driven tech-noir fiction through which games become synonymous with virtual reality. Central to this is the fantasy of escaping the bodily and spatio-temporal confines that construct the human condition. If the TV show Star Trek helped to make funding for NASA palatable by creating a desire for space exploration (Penley 1997), then Neuromancer contributed to the creation of a sensationalizing mythos that transformed computational technology into, at once, a new frontier and a seductive means of escaping entropy and acquiring superpowers. Fuelled by the power of this mythos, science fiction (SF), art, philosophy and critical theory have found a point of convergence, occupying a shared domain that Steve Nicholls (1988) claimed as posthuman.

Better Humans: Posthuman Capacities


21. ‘Life’s a bitch, and then you don’t die’: Postmortality in Film and Television

Ephemeroi, the ancient Greeks called us: those who live only for a day. Mortality defines our existence. Only the gods are immortal and can hope to live forever. Although (other) animals, too, are mortal, at least they don’t know that they are. They don’t have to worry about it. We, on the other hand, worry about death constantly. Even small children learn very quickly that everyone has to die, even their mums and dads, and even they themselves, and it frightens them. Death, however irrational it may be to fear it, is for most of us a terrifying prospect almost right from the start. Virtually our whole lives are overshadowed by our own (never very far off and always potentially imminent) death, the spectre of non-existence, as well as the death of everything and everyone we love and hold dear. If there is anything that defines us as humans, it is the knowledge of our own mortality. Hence, if we hope to transcend our human existence, to become more and other than human, then we will have to find ways to overcome our mortality. In order to become properly posthuman, if that is what we want, we need to realize postmortality.

22. A New Lease on Life: A Lacanian Analysis of Cognitive Enhancement Cinema

Let me begin with two instances of ‘brain art’, an early modern ‘original’ and its cinematic parody. In 1656, Rembrandt van Rijn painted one of his famous ‘anatomical lessons’: a cinematic scene (an early modern ‘movie still’), featuring Dr Deyman, who has lifted the skull of a convicted criminal, exposing his brains. The convict, executed by hanging, seems lost in meditation, until we realize that his abdomen has been emptied. Rembrandt’s corpse is modelled on Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c. 1490), so that Jesus and the thief changed places. The painting is actually a fragment: a substantial part was destroyed by fire. We see Deyman’s dexterous hands, about to perform the autopsy, as if the camera is zooming in. A mysterious, forbidden, ‘partial’ object, the human brain, is suddenly revealed, holding us captive: the inner core of what we are, detachable from the body. This is what the painting brings to light. The convict’s intestines have already been removed and the brain is the next body part to go. This artwork reveals (brings to the fore) the basic (Frankensteinian) truth of modern anatomy, namely that the human body is an aggregate of detachable ‘partial’ organs, of removable body parts (Zwart 2014b).

23. Limitless? There’s a Pill for That: Filmic Representation as Equipment for Living

Everyday life is a rather curious thing, and sometimes this realization seems to escape us. But what is it that causes audience members to laugh at a comic’s well-timed joke or witty turn of phrase? Is it that the comic introduces audience members to an entirely new world or causes us to experience the world in the strange light of its naturalness? It is my contention that comics are particularly skilled at pointing out the obvious, the mundane things that we all know exist, and calling them into question or performing their routine in such a way as to resituate the everyday object in a context that allows for other interpretations to emerge. Is this not also the same thing that critics and most of the great poets and dramatists have been doing? Perhaps, in differing ways, the comic and critic provide conceptual horizons for interpretation.

24. Posthumans and Democracy in Popular Culture

Harry Potter is an anti-racist freedom fighter both in fiction and in the real world. Throughout the Potter novels we are drawn to sympathize with oppressed racial minorities — elves, centaurs, werewolves, half-giants, Mudbloods — and to fear and despise fascist Death Eaters intent on exterminating all non-pure-bloods (Barratt 2012). The Potter narrative has had demonstrable social impact, reinforcing tolerance and democratic values in its readers. In Harry Potter and the Millennials (Gierzynski 2013) Anthony Gierzynski pulls together multiple lines of evidence to argue that the generation of American youth that grew up identifying with Harry Potter’s struggles against racism and fascism have become more anti-racist and democratic as a consequence. In an analysis of three studies of the effect of reading Harry Potter on political attitudes in the UK and Italy (Vezzali et al. 2014), researchers concluded that the degree to which the readers identified with Potter was a predictor of the influence of the Potter narratives on readers’ empathy with immigrants, refugees and homosexuals.

25. Negative Feelings as Emotional Enhancement in Cinema: The Case of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise Trilogy

A debate has emerged in posthumanist discourse about pharmaceutical mood enhancers such as Prozac to modify human nature. One side in the debate views such modification as the permanent enhancement of our human emotional makeup, aiming at the elimination of undesirable feelings by the unrestrained use of biotechnology that would take us further from our animal nature. This side of the debate is based on a technological concept of posthumanism, or ‘transhumanism’. It is a discourse which is dedicated to the enhancement of our human capacities, physical, cognitive and emotional, by means of advanced biotechnology and cybernetics. According to this school of thought, the transhuman is achieved by searching for escape from the physical entrapment of our material body by means of technological modifications of human biological constraints. In his ‘Cyborg 1.0’. Kevin Warwick writes, for instance, that his plan is ‘to become one with his computer’ and to evolve via chip implants into a superintelligent machine (Warwick 2000). In this mindset transhumanism is associated ‘with a kind of triumphant disembodiment’ as Cary Wolfe puts it (Wolfe 2010, xv).

Creating Difference and Identity: Posthuman Communities


26. Biopleasures: Posthumanism and the Technological Imaginary in Utopian and Dystopian Film

The key term in the title of this chapter may be misleading in prematurely raising the claim to surpass the constraints of humanist and anthropocentric thought. However, I do not wish to suggest that the arrival of the posthuman enforces the ‘obsolescence of the human’ (Halberstam & Livingstone 1995, 10), as enthusiasts in the field try to make us believe. There is very probably a (e)utopian subtext in many dystopian and science fiction (SF) films, seducing viewers to put their faith in the blessings of a post- or transhuman alternative or future.1 Yet their emancipatory stance does not perforce imply an evolution or devolution of the human; the posthuman emerges not as the end of man but as a varying pattern of connectivity between the dichotomies of self and non-self, man and machine, embodiment and consciousness, as a dispersed and discontinuous relation between bodies, ideas and objects. Utopian and SF films produced in the wake of the eruption of modern visual media and employing discourses of technology and ‘techno-culture’ (Beard 1998, 114) have contributed to foster the idea of the ‘posthuman condition’ in the West to such a degree that some critics already feel entitled to announce the Age of the Posthuman: ‘All that was solid has melted into air. Posthumanism has finally arrived, and […] “Man” “himself”, no longer has a place’ (Badmington 2003, 10). In this chapter, I do not want to carry the matter to such extremes. In fact, I wish to interrogate some of the embarrassingly quixotic or utopian proposals of posthumanism with regard to their basis in changing conceptions of the Western mind. My aim is to show that their performative matrix of difference implies critical and even ironic gestures questioning the necessity of a ‘new’ human condition or the proclamation of definite boundaries of the human.2

27. Of Posthuman Born: Gender, Utopia and the Posthuman in Films and TV

The year 2014. A search for ‘utopian sci-fi movies’ in Google reveals only one type of result: a list of dystopian movies where utopia is paired with dystopia, in tales of failed utopian projects. Envisaging the future does not create the future per se, but it has an impact in the generative power that such an imagination can perform in the actual constitution of reality. This will be a selective chapter. It will search for the seeds of the futures (Masini 1999), while focusing on the notion of gender as a biocultural platform for onto-epistemological diffraction (Van der Tuin 2014). The goal of this chapter is to present cinematic and television productions which developed seeds of the futures without falling into discriminatory normative codes. Diversity is one of the main marks of evolution: the gender picture should be as extensive as possible, in order to tune in with the unlimited potential of the natural-cultural posthuman scenario. This chapter will first unveil the sexist, racist and homophobic approaches pursued by the movie and TV industry, a mirror of the human-centric guidelines of their productions. Secondly, it will focus on the posthuman as the progeny of the cyborg, exploring the passage from humans as beings of woman born to posthumans, as beings born out of alternative interactions. The cinematic representation of the supernatural realm — from mystical pregnancies, to vampire shows and superheroines — will be of help in understanding the self as a material network in symbiotic interaction with the ‘others’, deconstructing a fixed notion of identity.

28. Sharing Social Context: Is Community with the Posthuman Possible?

Extensive representations of governance in motion pictures are largely non-existent, and it is easy to see why. Even when Question Time with the prime minister is entertaining, day-to-day governance would probably make for unengaging narrative. Often, motion picture depictions of governance are descriptive snippets setting the stage for the central storyline. Filmmakers, instead, emphasize social contexts; but these are social contexts within which governance would occur. Consequently, we explore what can be gleaned from tell-tale signs of governance as depicted in posthuman motion pictures, as well as the likely government forms to accompany the social contexts envisioned.

29. Our Posthuman Skin Condition

When we walk along the street our fellow humans appear to us as entities that we immediately determine or define by their skin: old or young, male or female, healthily tanned or sickly pale, scarred or with tattoos, with no, moderate or exaggerated make-up. The skin is the first and often the only part of a person that we see, and more or less acknowledge as a presence. A first filter of our social interaction starts with this ‘skin deep’, but somehow still relevant, triage. We may not know what is inside the head of someone, but the skin shows us their state of mind, emotions, gender, tiredness, age and lots of other details that allow us to do a quick and superficial categorization. Before anything else we use people’s skin to determine and read who they are. Skin is the first text of the other (Derrida 1981, 71), and this superficial act of ‘knowing’ is very often the only impression we have of a person. Before language and dialogue, before sharing beliefs, principles, worldviews and secrets with our fellow humans, we have an epidermal encounter with them.

30. Muddy Worlds: Re-Viewing Environmental Narratives

In ‘Do You Know What It Means?’, the opening episode of Treme (2010–2014), we watch Albert ‘Big Chief’ Lambreaux walk across the mud-filled floor of his house in New Orleans after the flooding caused by the failure of the levee system in the days following hurricane Katrina. Much later in the HBO series, he is diagnosed with cancer, which proves fatal. By listening to the doctor’s diagnosis, we might conclude something in the mud was toxic. With the prevalence of toxic waste sites in the region (Tuana 2008, 198), it is likely that some of the water that flooded the city carried with it dangerous chemicals. As visualized in the fictional and non-fictional texts that shape Treme, Katrina insists on the connectedness of natural and cultural environments. Lambreaux’s death, furthermore, discloses the operation of non-human agencies — rooted in muddy worlds — that can exceed human perception.

Us and Them: Posthuman Relationships


31. Executing Species: Animal Attractions in Thomas Edison and Douglas Gordon

Cinema has never been human. The central place of animals in the emergence and development of the cinematic medium is by now well established.1 Yet, if there has been a recent ‘animal turn’ in film studies, it has focused less on animals themselves than on how animals are symbolically produced in representation. Animals remain cinema’s ‘elephant in the room’: the medium’s unacknowledged presence but also its potential for seeing the world, and animals, differently. As Jonathan Burt has consistently argued, screen animals exceed their symbolic value as representation and are located on the threshold between the figurative and the metaphorical. Despite their excessive use as mirrors of human concerns and as repositories of human attributes, the appearance of animals in moving images is always also concrete, and affects us as such.

32. The Sun Never Set on the Human Empire: Haunts of Humanism in the Planet of the Apes Films

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) and its sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) grapple with a diversity of contentious issues; reviews have noted poignant messages about animal cruelty, racism, capitalism, and colonialism (Hobson 2011). While these messages are certainly present in the Apes films, I do not mean for them to be my primary focus in such a direct and unsubtle fashion. For I believe, and argue throughout this chapter, that the Apes films’ most political message is their performance of a posthuman narrative. Furthermore, I assert that this narrative, while critical and fraught with nuances, is haunted by humanist dispositions. I suggest that even these promising films may be too residually humanistic to offer emancipatory visions for our posthuman imaginary. To these ends, I deploy the posthuman lens to read these films, first along the fractious lines of the ostensibly rigid animal/human dichotomy, then in light of potentially unbridgeable histories of violence and oppression, and finally to understand the political vision implied by the films. Prior to this I provide a brief outline of the position of posthuman thought, and a rough storyboard for both films.

33. Uncanny Intimacies: Humans and Machines in Film

In its Riley v. California ruling requiring the police to get a search warrant to access mobile phone content, the US Supreme Court argued that: ‘modern cell phones, (…) are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy’ (Riley v. California 2014). This somewhat poignant Mars reference suggests that we have developed a close, even intimate, relationship with the machines and technologies we use. Chris Hables Gray and colleagues argue that we cannot think of the human-machine relation as partnership any longer, but rather as a symbiosis that is controlled by cybernetics and that influences our imagination, imagery and thought processes (Hables-Gray et al. 1995, 4).

34. Posthumanous Subjects

Thinking the posthuman is not a matter of thinking the human ‘after’ the human. Rather, it is a matter of thinking outside of the human, presenting alternatives to current human-centric modes of thought. Being alive has unquestioningly been seen as central to our understanding of the human. Yet this does not mean that life is in any way a simple matter, or that the boundary between life and death is easy to determine, or a trivial matter. In the summer of 2004,


published a special issue dedicated to the posthuman. Caused by a revealing typo, the call for papers eventually morphed into an investigation of the posthumanous, tentatively defined as:

Post·hum·an·ous (pst-hymən-nəs) adj. 1. Occurring or continuing after the death of the human:

a posthumanous writing.

2. Published after the death of the author:

a posthumanous book.

3. Born after the death of the patriarchy:

a posthumanous child.

4. Any activity which presumes the fatal limitation of the rational-humanist subject


(Smith, Klock & Gallardo 2004, 2)

Now, ten years later, I wish to resuscitate the term to suggest that one way of thinking the posthuman is by thinking life/death in more complex terms. Too easily the dichotomy of life/death slips into the well-known dichotomy of presence (life) versus absence (death). Yet death is never fully absent, but is instead deeply embedded in questions of the right life and the rights to life.

35. Identity: Difficulties, Discontinuities and Pluralities of Personhood

Questions concerning what it takes to be the same person over time and across changes are at the heart of posthumanist fiction and central to the long philosophical tradition of asking questions about personal identity. Star Trek’s Commander Riker is split in two by a teleporter accident; autobiographical memories are rewritten in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; body parts, including sections of the brain, are replaced with machines in RoboCop; people are suspended for extended periods of time and then resurrected in A.I.; a person backs up his memory to a computer, is killed, and then lives on in the computer in Extant. In what sense are these people the same, or not the same, as the entities that preceded them and with which they are identified? If we become so enhanced or altered that we can share our experiences, survive the death of our bodies, split ourselves into multiple agents or reprogram our minds, will we cease to be persons in the future? As philosopher Allen Buchanan (2009, 349) notes, we face the possibility that ‘our world of persons is replaced, completely, through the sustained use of (…) enhancement technologies, by a higher sort of being, post-persons’. And if these are post-persons, will it make sense to use our existing concept of personal identity in discussing them?

More Human than Human: Posthuman Ontologies


36. The Final Frontier? Religion and Posthumanism in Film and Television

In his history of science fiction (SF), Brian Aldiss robustly defends his choice of origins of the genre against those who would claim either ‘amazing newness’ — and locate its beginnings in 20th-century tales of space travel — or ‘incredible antiquity’ in Greek or Hindu mythology or biblical literature (Aldiss 1973, 10). For him, SF, firstly as literature and, since the early 20th century, in cinema and latterly in television, begins definitively with the publication in 1818 of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was a product of its cultural context, blending Romantic and Gothic genres in a reflection on the consequences of human technological power at the very moment in Western history when the Industrial Revolution was gaining momentum.

37. The Ghost in the Machine: Humanity and the Problem of Self-Aware Information

Theories of posthumanism place considerable faith in the power of information-processing. Some foresee a potential point of self-awareness in computers as processing ability continues to increase exponentially, while others hope for a future in which their minds can be uploaded to a computer, thereby gaining a form of non-corporeal immortality. Such notions raise questions of whether humans can be reduced to their own information-processing: Are we thinking machines? Are we the sum of our memories? Many science fiction (SF) films have grappled with similar questions; this chapter considers two specific ideas through the lens of these films. First, I will consider the roles that memory and emotion play in our conception of humanity. Second, I will explore the question of what it means to think by examining the trope of sentient networks in film.

38. ‘Trust a Few, Fear the Rest’: The Anxiety and Fantasy of Human Evolution

Contemporary Hollywood films dealing with human evolution exhibit a dialectic: the anxiety about the nature of the superhuman, who is the result of the evolutionary process, whether voluntary or involuntary, and the ‘popular fantasy’ of what I shall be calling a ‘species cosmopolitanism’.

39. Onscreen Ontology: Stages in the Posthumanist Paradigm Shift

In the last 50 years, the sense of separation between technology and humanity has disappeared, and the enlightenment humanist paradigm with it. If only there were a way to see how it happened. Well, luckily, the art of cinema has been recording and projecting society’s technosocial transformation since the moving picture came about, and television has been at it in earnest since the 1950s. By considering posthumanist themes and posthuman representations in film and television, we can follow how society has supplanted a dualist model of subjectivity — that set humans and technology in opposition — with a problematized notion of subjectivity, complete with collective angst about the resultant ways of living and being. While posthumanism comes in many forms (each of them valuable), here I will treat posthumanism predominantly as a discussion of technologically modified/constituted beings, such as cyborgs and robots or, in some cases, genetically modified beings. I do this primarily because technology has been the essential ingredient in fracturing the humanist paradigm and in inspiring ontological discourse that engages the distributed nature of our collective subjectivity. Using the notion of ‘paradigm shift’ from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) as an expository device, this chapter will provide an overview of the transition away from an assumed humanist subjectivity, found in science fiction (SF) cinema and television of the 1960s, and towards an overtly emphasized posthumanist subjectivity, revealed in films and television series of the 2010s.

40. Object-Oriented Ontology

Object-oriented ontology (hereafter ‘OOO’) is relatively new, and hence not as well known among film and television critics as other theoretical standpoints. For this reason, the discussion that follows must take a somewhat circuitous path. First, I will give a brief history and conceptual overview of OOO itself. Second, I will give an assessment of how OOO might fit with some current discussions of trans- and posthumanism. Third and finally, I will give some basic examples of how OOO might be applicable to film and television criticism.


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