“Decalcomania” (1966) by René Magritte

It is important, first of all, to distinguish between modernism as a field of academic study and modernism as a particular moment in cultural history. To speak of a posthuman turn in modernism is in one sense to invite reflection on a historical event, to posit the emergence of a new paradigm, a new articulation of being-in-history and being-in-nature, and assume the co-implication of this event with the values of the early twentieth century. But in another sense, it is also to interrogate the power of certain artistic practices to engender and inhabit perspectives at the limit of human experience. Until recently, secondary literature had focused mainly on the ways in which posthumanism might be able to revitalise critical staples in the reading of individual modernist writers. Examples include D.H. Lawrence and science (Wallace 2005), James Joyce and time (Borg 2007), Samuel Beckett and finitude (Boulter 2008), Virginia Woolf and becoming (Ryan 2013), and Beckett (again) and post-Cartesian grammars of thought (Rabaté 2016).[1] As attention shifts to more general, multi-author approaches, these rubrics continue to provide important signposts towards understanding modernism as a key context for posthuman emergence.

The broad consensus around modernism is that it is an umbrella concept, a multiplicity of artistic projects associated with the avant-garde attitudes and radical politics of the early twentieth century. Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane speak to this effect of “the coming of a new era of high aesthetic self-consciousness and non-representationalism, in which art turns from realism and humanistic representation towards style, technique and spatial form in pursuit of a deeper penetration of life”.[2]

Commonly observed tropes include 1.) the cult of the new; 2.) a fraught relation with tradition; and 3.) a sense of the present as a moment of intense, often paralysing, self-consciousness. Connecting these dots is a crisis of faith in the values of the enlightenment and in the artistic protocols produced by those values.[3] Two values in particular: the notion that reality is rational (which is another way of saying that human experience is somehow more authentic, more real or richer than its non-human counterpart); and the idea that this rationality reveals itself over time (which is also to say that human existence is historically determined, and unfolds on a historical stage).

The posthuman condition as imagined by modernist writers coincides with an attempt to think through this crisis—it is a speculative answer to questions raised of a historical present that is experienced at once as a dead end and as the promise of a new beginning: “who will step up to inherit this moment?” “What new forms of citizenship, of ethical freedom and finitude, of embodied consciousness, might be envisaged in light of the apparent bankruptcy of the values of rational history?”

Joyce first used the word posthuman in describing his characterisation of Molly Bloom as Penelope in the concluding chapter of Ulysses: “I have rejected the usual interpretation of her as a human apparition—that aspect being better represented by Calypso, Nausikaa and Circe, to say nothing of the pseudo Homeric figures. In conception and technique I tried to depict the earth which is prehuman and presumably posthuman”.[4] Not a human apparition, then, but something that is more primordial, irreducible to human history, and given to a wholly different order of figuration.

The importance of modernism for posthuman thought has a lot to do with the intuition that it is the task of literature precisely to reach beyond the limits of figuration, to exceed human modes of perception and human ways of being in the world. Joyce would pursue this idea through a poetics of excess and oversaturation. Simply put, there is too much writing in his fiction; too much data (too much cultural memory) in his version of human consciousness; too much stylistic variation in his paragraphs; too many condensed images in his representations; far too much ego in his characterisations (but also too much fluidity in his concept of ego); too many clauses in his sentences; too many entries in his catalogues. All of this excess gestures to a kind of radical perspectivism, an attempt to liberate phenomenology from the human eye.

Woolf’s fiction is similarly concerned with developing a radical perspective, in her case, a new novelistic method that is far less interested in dramatising scenes of ordinary life, or in holding a mirror up to human nature, than in encountering life as a series of emergent forces. (In this connection, stream of consciousness is best dismissed as a lazy, overused concept that has served modernist studies very poorly.) Her writing always seeks to occupy the infinitesimal interval between characters and the world of which they are conscious, the space of transformation, or vanishing point, at which one body transitions into another. More consistently than any other writer, Woolf attacks the idea that being human entails a position of privilege, or a vantage point from which to observe reality. She reminds us that the human eye is always already emplaced in the scene it perceives, just as consciousness is already embedded in the world it inhabits, one emergent process among others.

Elaborating on the theme of modernism “as a vehicle of crisis within the ‘progress’ of modernization”, Astradur Eysteinsson suggests that the twentieth century “is felt to signal a radical ‘inward turn’ in literature, and often a more thorough exploration of the human psyche than is deemed to have been probable or even possible in pre-Freudian times”.[5] Yet, at the same time, the experimental novel of the age features a definite rejection of psychological depth, a disregard of character study in favour of mythic forms and symbolist or expressionist aesthetics. The art of Robert Musil and Franz Kafka, replaces that of Henry James. The fully realised personal histories created by Flaubert and Tolstoy give way to the paranoid parables of Witold Gombrowicz or Flann O’Brien, on the one hand, but also, on the other, the vast cultural repositories of Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.

This varied legacy comes to inform key issues in posthuman thought. The challenges to perspective, to models of sense perception, to theories of consciousness – not to mention, the systematic relocation of phenomenal experience in the interval between eye and image, or in the excesses of representation – posed by the diverse, sometimes contradictory projects that come under the umbrella concept of modernism, directly prefigure the contemporary interest in virtual bodies, non-human subjectivities, and cybernetic environments. Eminently modernist (and recognisably posthumanist) is the call for a new understanding of materiality; or the investment in vitalist metaphors as a way of short-circuiting the opposition between technology and organic life.

Still, it is only a partial picture. As the field of modernism remains far too vast for any comprehensive coverage, I have limited my references to a few representative authors who may be relied upon to showcase important lines of dialogue between twentieth-century literature and posthuman thought. A fuller and more leisurely treatment might include discussions of futurist aesthetics alongside the erotics of the machine; the Century’s awareness of itself as an age of mechanical reproduction and the ethics born of that awareness; so-called “hard modernism” and cyborgian approaches to sexuality; and Nietzschean and post-Nietzschean articulations of the problem of historicity.

Under these rubrics the posthuman will be seen to shape an urgent perspective on one of the defining themes of twentieth century literature—that of the work’s preoccupation with its own contemporaneity. (We come back, by this route, to the distinction between modernism as an academic field and as a specific moment in cultural history.) At stake is the honing of a conceptual grammar and a mythology by which literary modernism is able think through its relation to modernity, by which it is able to grapple with and thematise its sense of an inherent belatedness vis-à-vis its own historical present.

– The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, September 2017



[1] Jeff Wallace, D.H. Lawrence, Science and the Posthuman (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Ruben Borg, The Measureless Time of Joyce, Deleuze and Derrida (London: Continuum, 2007); Jonathan Boulter, Beckett: A Guide for the Perplexed (London: Continuum, 2008); Derek Ryan, Virginia Woolf and the Materiality of Theory: Sex, Animal, Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013); and Jean-Michel Rabaté, Think, Pig!: Beckett at the Limit of the Human (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016).

To this list I would add two collaborative volumes: one devoted to the posthuman resonances in the work of Jorge Luis Borges (Ivan Callus and Stefan Herbrechter, eds. Cy-Borges: Memories of Posthumanism in the Work of Jorge Luis Borges [Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2008]); and one, still in preparation, on Joyce and the non-human turn (“Joyce, Animals and the Nonhuman,” Humanities 2017. Guest Editor: Katherine Ebury).

[2] Malcolm Bradbury and James McFarlane, “The Name and Nature of Modernism,” in Modernism 1890-1930, ed. Bradbury and McFarlane (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976), pp. 24-25.

[3] For an excellent commentary on the shared Nietzschean ancestry of modernism and the posthuman see Jeff Wallace, ‘Modern’, The Cambridge Companion to Literature and the Posthuman, eds Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), pp.41-53.

[4] James Joyce, Letters, ed. Stuart Gilbert (London: Faber and Faber 1957), I: 180.

[5] Astradur Eysteinsson, The Concept of Modernism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992), p. 26.