The theme introduced in C.P. Snow’s prescient The Two Cultures (Canto Classics) was a powerful one that continues to the day. The expectation that The Posthuman would reflect this ongoing process was confirmed.
As Braidotti says early in The Posthuman:
“The crisis of the human and its posthuman fallout has dire consequences for the academic field most closely associated with it — the Humanities. In the neo-liberal social climate of most advanced democracies today, Humanistic studies have been downgraded beyond the `soft’ sciences level, to something like a finishing school for the leisurely classes. Considered more of a personal hobby than a professional research field, I believe that the Humanities are in serious danger of disappearing from the twenty-first century European university curriculum (p. 10).”
This complaint, which is largely apt in this reviewer’s judgment, is repeated often. It appears again in a largely appropriate rant against the current state of university humanities curricula:
“As the professoriate and students’ representative bodies lost their powers of governance to neo-liberal economic logic, the Humanities dispersed their foundational value to become a sort of luxury intellectual consumer good (p. 178).”
The complaint is not overstated, despite the rhetorical tone Braidotti adopts here and elsewhere. The Humanities, especially as reflected in academia, have retreated inward. That retreat sometimes plays out as Luddism, sometimes as indifference to events in the broader technology- and globalization-driven culture, and sometimes as helpless bewilderment – typically manifested as a covert replay of some historical anachronism.
Braidotti is right about this, but, despite presenting scenario after scenario of how the humanities have been marginalized, especially in academia, she comes to an optimistic conclusion that some refocusing of the university community (as Clark Kerr’s “multi-versity”) will save the day (p.184-185). How did she arrive at that conclusion in the era of professional schools, credentials-driven lifelong learning and MOOCs?
As some reviewers have mentioned, the book takes a very different direction from Ray Kurzweil’s rosy view of a science- and technology-enriched future. That by itself is not troubling, though it would been interesting to know her take on Kurzweil’s optimisim — which tries to co-opt or transform humanism into something of his own making.
More problematic is that she doesn’t mention Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point or Vermadsly’s noosphere, even though she introduces the concept of “techno-transcendence” (p. 113) and tries to investigate more contemporary interpretations of subjectivity. Indeed, much of The Posthuman deals with varying threads in the subjectivity ball of yarn — but most of these are themselves “humanistic.” Perhaps Braidotti would have been inspired to kick it up a notch by listening to a few episodes of WNYC’s Radiolab Radiolab: not because there’s great depth there, but because some Radiolab expose fault lines in contemporary views of the biology of consciousness, updated views of memory, the implications of genomic knowledge — and so on.
Braidotti responded to what she has experienced with analysis well worth reading, but one wishes that her experiences had been deeper and more varied — before she began the analysis.
Her reportage on what she calls the “posthuman digital universe” contains occasional references that are difficult to integrate with her version. When she mentions artist Laurie Anderson’s work in the 80′s as identifying itself as “content-providing” rather than art or intellectualism, it’s unclear that Anderson’s work achieved any kind of synthesis (p. 181-182). In other words, Anderson may have been trying to align herself with a different, new persona, but since her work — arguably — did not achieve that synthesis, Braidotti’s point is obscured.
Happily there are 15 pages of references, but, as one often finds in this sort of traditional large form essay writing, many if not most references are to books — which makes it impossible in today’s online world to rapidly check at least more recent primary sources. Readers interested in pursuing this topic in depth could have been aided by hyperlinks and more periodical references. (In searching for additional web resources, it was learned that Wiley is distributing this Polity Press book, but their web site doesn’t offer much more than the usual summary of the book.)
Despite these — Oversights? Blind spots? Irreconcilable perspectives? — the essay did not disappoint, and it belongs in every collection which has a Two Cultures shelf. (That shelf should also contain Huxley’s Literature and Science and F.S.C. Northrop’s Meeting of East and West: An Inquiry Concerning World Understanding.)
Review written for Amazon Vine. Thanks to Amazon and the publisher for an advance copy.
I am naturally attracted to historical fiction, though only an occasional reader of it. In my late 20′s an enormous appetite for science fiction declined. It was replaced, in part, by a greater appetite for nonfiction, but historical fiction received attention, too. Despite that earlier contempt for “what is” and “what has been,” the frameworks provided by properly selected slices of history can be excellent platforms for fiction. A.S. Byatt’s Possession was exemplary in this subgenre.
When an author accepts such a framework, there are many challenges. Which details should be thoroughly researched so that creativity isn’t mistaken for inaccuracy? Which details should be included and which omitted? How much reader knowledge of time and place should be assumed? What is the current state of scholarship in the era, and what disputes — petty or otherwise — might interfere with the fiction?
There many other issues not listed here — enough to make the assignment, as another reviewer has written, “daunting.” On the other hand, choosing a cast of characters topped by Edgar Allen Poe, wife Virginia and Frances Osgood and an easily recognized theme — love triangle, of course –would arouse curiosity in ways that an entirely originally plot could not. This was the temptation to which author Lynn Cullen yielded in her novel, Mrs. Poe.
The historical backdrop for Mrs. Poe is deep and recurring, especially in the early chapters. In addition to Edgar and Virginia Poe, readers working out the plot and characters must confront what they already know about John Russell Bartlett, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Samuel Morse, Walter Whitman [sic], Herman Melville, T. Roosevelt, Ralph W. Emerson, Sylvester Graham (of “Graham” Cracker fame), Horace Greeley — and more. The novel’s Afterword cites Gotham by Burrows and Wallace (Oxford University, 2000) and The Poe Log by Thomas and Jackson (G,K, Hall, 1987) as inspirational. A serious literary critic of Mrs. Poe would do well to have read both before beginning the novel — simply to avoid the inevitable distractions. It was all I could do to restrain my Wikipedia temptations through the first 14 chapters.
Cullen’s writing is readable and workmanlike. She relies heavily upon dialog passages such as this.
“Perhaps, Mr. Poe,” said Mr. Bartlett, “you should ask her husband.”
My flesh prickled with offensive. “He need not ask Samuel. Samuel would not care.”
Mr. Poe put down the kitten. “I was under the impression that Mrs. Osgood makes her own decisions.”
Mr. Bartlett’s golden brow knotted in disagreement. “I would hope that she would consult her husband on business as well as personal matters. She is a married woman, you know.”
“And as such,” I said, my voice becoming strained,” do my wishes no longer matter?”
“It is the law, Mrs. Osgood,” said Mr. Bartlett.
When the triangle theme became clear early into the novel, I began working on alternate symbols for the title. Beyond the obvious substitution of Frances for Virginia, which Cullen delivers in what was, for me, all-too-literal fashion in Chapter 29, was Mrs. Poe a symbol of a future feminist literati for awkwardly lodged in mid 19th century America? Or was the “Mrs.” in “Mrs. Poe” an ironic counterpoint to the less-than-rigid take on marriage and paternalism voiced by a few of the characters in the novel? It remains an open question at the end.
It is a story about a forbidden love between two — perhaps three — poets. The poetry should carry some of the weight. Alas, my ear for poetry is perhaps too well-tuned to a contemporary American style, and the verse provided by Osgood and the Poes failed to contribute more than a considerable authenticity. Lines like Osgood’s “Thank God for that moment of sweet recognition / That over my heart like the morning light shone!” or Mr. Poe’s “We both have found a life-long love / Wherein our weary souls may rest” are now heard as too earnest.
Cullen has a capable imagination, but the form on this occasion undermined her effort. To be successful would have required much more elevated descriptive writing, less casual dialog and — despite the Poe stereotype — more darkness. The darkness that “made Poe the sexual catnip to the ladies of his time” (from the author’s Afterword) is, to invoke the overused bromide, told not shown. This was not helped by repeated scenes that included Poe’s rescuing a kitten and stroking another while delivering somewhat droll but uninspired lines.
To present a deadlier, more macabre Poe would have been, some would say, inaccurate, oversimplified or both, but it would have been a better read. Cullen may have felt that such a depiction would have been a betrayal of sorts, and the choice of villain in her plot seems to reflect that worry. Yet it remains that a more mysterious, darkly magnetic Mr. Poe — gifted with greater conversational wit than he probably could have mustered given the struggles a real life, doomed Poe faced — would have made Mrs. Poe less realistic and more compelling.
[This review first posted on Amazon. Book provided via Amazon Vine.]