Defining Posthuman Gothic Monstrous Machinery

Michael Sean Bolton
Michael Sean Bolton

Over the past two decades, recognition of the many influences of Gothic and postmodern literature have led critics to formulate several subgenres of the Gothic in order to address contemporary works. Fred Botting’s notion of the postmodern Gothic shares postmodernism’s concern with “[t]he loss of human identity and the alienation of the self from both itself and the social bearings in which a sense of reality is secured.” This loss of identity manifests “in the threatening shapes of increasingly dehumanised environments, mechanic doubles and violent, psychotic fragmentation.” Allan Lloyd Smith sees postmodernity’s dehumanization of the social environment as resulting from a “[c]ontemporary scientific materialism [which] opens the possibility of what exceeds our understanding; the system running itself, for itself; and hence generates antihumanism, plots beyond comprehension.”

Maria Beville, in developing a definition for “Gothic-postmodernism,” notes frequent depictions of “[s]pectral characters, doppelgängers, hellish wastelands, and the demonised or possessed,” as well as a common concern with “the deeper issue of the lingering emotion of terror as it relates to loss of reality and self.” Catherine Spooner’s notion of the contemporary Gothic similarly notes a focus on issues of the fracturing of subjectivity, including, “the radically provisional or divided nature of the self; the construction of peoples or individuals as monstrous or ‘other’; the preoccupation with bodies that are modified, grotesque or diseased.” For each of these theorists, the postmodern and the Gothic intersect most significantly at the point at which a sense of the monstrous and the uncanny overwhelm and disrupt the integrity of human subjectivity. Essentially, each of these subgenres of Gothic literature connects with the postmodern fear of the disintegration of the human subject.

The concern with the fate of the human subject in these couplings of the Gothic and the postmodern certainly provides one explanation for the increasing popularity of Gothic-themed literature, films, and television programs — not to mention the rising interest in Gothic scholarship — in the late twentieth- and early twentieth-first-centuries. The above critics each note the ways in which recent Gothic works confront mainstream fears of external threats from the alien other, faceless terrorism, and technological annihilation. However, some recent works indicate a shift in concern from external to internal threats to subjectivity and human agency. In order to address this shift, there is a need to further examine another form of Gothic literature: the posthuman Gothic. Whereas subgenres coupling the Gothic and the postmodern often derive horror and/or terror from fear of the eradication of humanity at the hands of monstrous technologies, the posthuman Gothic finds instances of terror and horror arising from the interfaces and integrations of humans and technologies; specifically, in the inevitability and exigency of these unions as a matter of the continued existence of the human subject reconstituted as posthuman.

A few writers have begun to explore themes of posthumanism in Gothic literature. Pramod K. Nayar considers posthuman Gothic — or “species Gothic” —as a subgenre that “offers a critique of what we see as horror by suggesting a different way of tackling difference,” particularly difference between human and non-human species. Dongshin Yi’s “Cyborgothic” examines conjunctions of science fiction and the Gothic that are “committed to the imaginative development of an aesthetical ethics of posthumanism,” Dongshin Yi’s “aesthetical ethics” is drawn from the anti-anthropocentric posthumanism of Cary Wolfe and others. Both of these authors explore issues of human prejudice against non-human species and recent Gothic literature’s challenges to these prejudices. Utilizing the monstrous figure of the cyborg, they each focus their investigations on questions of species ethics and on trans-species themes. However, the subgenre suggests a broader range of thematics, especially as regards human engagement with technology.

To broaden the scope of the posthuman Gothic in this way, it is necessary to identify the features that distinguish the posthuman Gothic; as well to demonstrate how a literary work defines itself, not only as Gothic but specifically as posthuman rather than postmodern Gothic. To this end, two works will be examined: alternate versions of the film ‘Blade Runner’ — the original 1982 theatrical release and the 1992 director’s cut — will demonstrate key distinctions between the postmodern and the posthuman; and Mark Z. Danielewski’s experimental novel ‘House of Leaves’ (2000) will provide a paradigm literary work of the posthuman Gothic. Each work, in its own way, addresses anxiety over the loss of humanity as human memory is externalized and interfaced with technology.

At its most basic, posthumanism can be defined as the investigation into what, if anything remains of the human beyond the disintegration of the liberal humanist subject in postmodernity. Jason C. Smith observes, “[W]hat previously seemed to constitute the subject position of a ‘human being’ has been threatened, infiltrated, deconstructed, or denatured.” Ivan Callus and Stefan Herbrechter link this threat to a sense of the uncanny much like that found in the Gothic: “[P]osthumanism is a discourse which in envisaging the beyond of the human opens onto openness itself. It is the unknowable itself, the unthinkable itself.” This practice of thinking past the dissolution of the human subject and confronting the unknowable that lies beyond marks an important distinction from the more apocalyptic postmodern Gothic. The source of dread in the posthuman Gothic lies not in fear of our demise but in the uncertainty of what we will become and what will be left of us after the change.

This distinction highlights an important difference in the role that technology plays in each of the subgenres. Definitions of posthumanism most often involve some aspect of the relationship between humans and their technologies. N. Katherine Hayles explains that “the posthuman view configures the human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.” This aspect of posthumanism is essential to a definition of posthuman Gothic that considers the works’ examinations of the technological other. However, simply noting a focus on technology as a form of the monstrous other is not sufficient for distinguishing the subgenre. After all, the relationship between the Gothic and technology traces back to the beginnings of Gothic literature — for example, in the works of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. What changes is how the Gothic employs technology in its exploration of human subjectivity and values. In the case of postmodern Gothic works, for example, human values are no longer defended against religious superstition or belief in the supernatural, as with earlier Gothic literature, but against an absence of any values at all. Therefore, a focus on the amorality and cold efficiency of technology is often a feature of the postmodern Gothic. In postmodernity, works such as the ‘Alien’ and ‘Matrix’ film franchises continue to use Gothic elements and themes to shore up the humanist values of the Enlightenment in contrast to valueless technologies. The villains in such works are not immoral or evil so much as morally vacant, and machines are often presented as perfect exemplars of absolute amorality. In these works, “it is ideas of human individuality and community that are sacralised in horrified reactions to science.” Creatures of technology are monstrous precisely due to their lack of human feelings and their abnegation of human values. The source of fear in the postmodern Gothic is the threat of the annihilation of humanity and its values as it is overwhelmed by technologies often of its own creation.

Such works continue to draw a clear dividing line between machines and humans, supposing that humanity is irretrievably lost in the process of technological supplementation and replacement. The threat in the posthuman Gothic, however, is not that of consumption by the machine but of subsumption into the machine. The horror in these works arises not from a fear of eradication but from a fear of continued existence beyond integration with the technological other. Human values, though not abolished, are altered to serve a posthuman world. Fred Botting notes a similar source of terror in many postmodern Gothic works in which “humans glimpse themselves in the machine, the same and yet different, duplicatable and dispensable, replicable and replaceable.” However, these works continue to emphasise the threat of the machine duplicating and replacing the human. Even in his discussion of Nick Land’s notion of “cybergothic,” Fred Botting maintains the binary of human and machine, writing that “‘cybergothic’ describes the mechanic economic and biotechnological systems that have escaped the control of human agents and institutions.” In contrast, posthuman Gothic works focus on the horror generated as the human becomes incorporated into the machine, interfacing with and evolving into the technological other.

Subsequently, sources of fear in the posthuman Gothic are not solely external, but also internal. There is a tacit understanding that such interfaces cannot take place without some level of complicity on the part of the human. Barton Levi St. Armand offers a useful distinction between the external nature of terror and the internal nature of horror: “Terror expands the soul outward; it leads us to or engulfs us in the sublime, the immense, the cosmic. […] Horror overtakes the soul from the inside; consciousness shrinks or withers from within.” In posthuman Gothic works, the terror of the threat from outside integrates with the horror of the threat from inside. While a sense of terror arises from the external fear of being transformed into a machine-creature, a sense of horror emerges from the internal dread that the technological other already inhabits the human subject, that the subject is betrayed from within. The monstrosity of these interfaces has as much to do with the human component as with the technological.

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