‘There are countless forms of narrative in the world’, begins an influential essay by structuralist narrative theorist Roland Barthes.[1] But, for all their multiplicity, these forms—like the languages they are transmitted in—bear the unmistakable signature of human experience, including our bodily make-up, our mortality, our web of attachments and ambitions of social standing. Throughout the eons of evolutionary history, narratives have been instrumental in the survival of human societies: they have helped communities hand down valuable information on the dangers and opportunities of the physical landscape; perhaps more importantly, they have guided the lives of intensely social animals like us, encoding (but also potentially challenging) the values and norms that regulate behavior.[2]

This is a very high-level picture of narrative, however, and some will no doubt balk at the essentialism of these statements. Linking narrative closely to human experience, as many narrative theorists have done over the last three decades, is bound to attract disagreements and counterarguments.[3] Among other issues, this connection involves a tangible risk of equating the ‘human’ with a dominant way of thinking about humanness—the way typical of Western modernity.[4] Stories are of course capable of decentering human experience; they have done so for millennia. In mythology, for example, one can find a number of predictable human concerns: deities are turned into beings with largely recognizable human feelings, drives, and goals; even supernatural landscapes or powers are clearly an extension of the world of everyday perception. However, reading closely a narrative poem like Ovid’s Metamorphoses—a retelling of Greco-Roman mythology—reveals moments in which human experience falters; instead, an interest arises in a fluid ontology based on the constant ‘transformation of human beings into non-human, or at least non-anthropomorphic creatures’.[5] Nor is Ovid an exception: narrative, while bound up with human habits and biases, certainly has the resources to question these tendencies. Numerous scholars have written about narrative’s engagement with posthumanist concepts and concerns: for example, Bruce Clarke directly addresses the theme of metamorphosis and argues that, read through the lens of systems theory, metamorphic bodies in science fiction serve as a means of decentering the human.[6] But whether that decentering takes place or not depends on a complex interaction between the ‘aboutness’ of a story (its overt themes and plot), the way in which it is told (the ‘forms’ of narrative, to quote again Barthes), and its audiences.

Any inquiry into narrative and critical posthumanism should take that duplicity of storytelling into account: the forms of story are steeped in human experience and implicated in anthropocentric practices, but they are also capable of moving beyond them. Part of the problem is that categories such as narrative, stories, or storytelling (terms I’m using interchangeably here) cover so much ground. When we talk about ‘narrative’ today, it is hard not to think about the novel as a literary genre that has shaped profoundly—and still shapes, albeit indirectly, in our digital times—our collective imagination of storytelling. For example, features such as seriality, which can be found across a wide range of narrative media, originated in the Victorian novel. Significantly, the novel as a narrative genre developed in parallel with the humanist ideas that critical posthumanism is doing so much to question: ideas of human autonomy, for instance, or of humanity’s mastery over nonhuman landscape, or an ethics based entirely on anthropocentric concerns.[7] In many ways, the novel absorbed these humanist notions and played a role in spreading them, although there certainly are moments of hesitation and even overt critique of anthropocentric assumptions throughout the novel’s long history.

When talking about narrative and posthumanism, then, it is useful to distinguish between a general way in which stories are geared towards the experience of human animals and a more historically specific way in which narrative genres (particularly the Western novel) have become bound up with humanist ideas. On both levels stories can extricate themselves from the human, if storytellers and audiences are willing to put in the work. But this process unfolds in different ways, depending on whether we focus on the more abstract connection between story and human experience or on the historical link between the novel and humanism.

When audiences approach a story, they will tend to project assumptions derived from their real-world experience: by default, they will expect the world of the story—the storyworld, in narratological terminology—to behave in much the same way as the world they know through perception.[8] But storytellers have numerous means of disrupting this expectation. Conceptual categories can be destabilized, for example in a story in which a boy (Ovid’s Cyparissus) metamorphoses into a cypress tree.[9] For Pascal Boyer, these counterintuitive ontological crossovers (here from the human to the vegetal domain) are at the root of religion, but they are pervasive in other stories as well.[10] Narrative can imagine events that violate established categories either through the progression of plot (as in Ovid’s poem) or through the dynamics of language, particularly metaphorical language. In Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the protagonist—a survivor in a postapocalyptic world—realizes: ‘[Like] a horse, his life now depends on [his ability to use his feet to walk]. If he can’t walk, he’s rat food’.[11] The simile ‘like a horse’ and the metaphor ‘he’s rat food’ fulfill an important role: they bridge the ontological divide between the human protagonist and the animal world, suggesting that the postapocalyptic situation experienced by the character renders obsolete any sense of human exceptionality.[12] Through counterintuitive event sequences (such as metamorphosis) and ontologically disruptive metaphors, narrative can thus approximate and perform posthumanist ideas.

Of course, narrative can also work in the other direction: instead of envisioning a transformation (textual or metaphorical) from the human to the nonhuman, it can anthropomorphize the nonhuman, which is also an ontologically counterintuitive move. Anthropomorphism carries a real risk of misrepresenting the nonhuman by reducing it to human qualities or traits. But not all forms of anthropomorphism are problematic. On the contrary, as Jane Bennett argues, cultivating ‘a bit of anthropomorphism’ might be useful to ‘counter the narcissism of humans in charge of the world’.[13] In the survival film Cast Away, for example, the protagonist draws a human face on a volleyball, baptizing his only companion on this uninhabited island ‘Wilson’. This anthropomorphizing gesture actually works against the grain of anthropocentrism in the film’s narrative economy: it underscores how material things both created the protagonist’s predicament and, potentially, hold the key to escaping the island. In some situations, then, anthropocentrism is another formal resource that can be used counterintuitively (and often ironically, as in Cast Away) to uncouple narrative from assumptions grounded in everyday experience.

In The Great Derangement, Indian writer Amitav Ghosh has offered an influential critique of the novel’s ability to represent or address climate change, focusing in particular on the limitations of the realist novel.[14] This argument brings us back to the question of genre and how novelistic storytelling is deeply implicated in humanist assumptions: through its focus on individual protagonists as well as social tensions typical of the nation state, the novel struggles to address the global scale and spatiotemporal distribution of climate change. But it is perhaps not too broad a generalization to say that novelistic narrative tends to be at its most posthumanist when it distances itself from the realist genre. Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, for example, singles out magical realism and science fiction as two contemporary genres that appear particularly well positioned to speak to posthumanist concerns.[15] Of course, genre is no guarantee that narrative will break with anthropocentric assumptions: a great deal of science fiction, for example, is rather conventional in its extension of human mastery or the concept of wilderness to outer space; alternatively, science fiction can remain closer to the aspirations of transhumanism than to critical forms of posthumanism. But it is clear that, by questioning the templates of the realist novel, these genres have a major part to play in opening up narrative to a posthumanist worldview.[16]

This opening up—to reiterate one of the main ideas of this article—is not something that literature can achieve on the level of theme and plot only: on the contrary, it is the work of form that amplifies narrative’s power to engage with posthumanist ideas. As an example from science fiction, one may point to Ted Chiang’s ‘Story of Your Life’, a narrative of first contact with an alien civilization that employs a uniquely circular form to capture the collapse of human teleology.[17] Such formal experimentations are at the center of discussions in the field of econarratology, whose agenda has a great deal in common with critical posthumanism.[18] Beyond the domain of written narrative, digital storytelling (for instance, in video games) is also increasingly committed to a critique of humanist assumptions.[19] The encounter between storytelling and non-narrative text types (such as the archive, the list, descriptive language, or the essay) can also help literature overcome its anthropocentric bias. Novels are, after all, complex textual objects that can accommodate both narrative and non-narrative forms, and shifting the emphasis towards the latter can reveal blind spots or tensions between scientific or philosophical thinking (including the thinking of posthumanism) and the storytelling practices of Western modernity.[20]

[1] Roland Barthes, ‘An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative’, trans. by Lionel Duisit, New Literary History, 6.2 (1975), 237–72 (p. 237).

[2] See Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, ‘Food, Foragers, and Folklore: The Role of Narrative in Human Subsistence’, Evolution and Human Behavior, 22 (2001), 221–40.

[3] For an influential discussion on the experiential basis of storytelling, see Monika Fludernik, Towards a ‘Natural’ Narratology (London: Routledge, 1996).

[4] See, e.g., Eileen Crist, ‘On the Poverty of Our Nomenclature’, Environmental Humanities, 3.1 (2013), 129–47.

[5] Giulia Sissa, ‘Apples and Poplars, Nuts and Bulls: The Poetic Biosphere of Ovid’s Metamorphoses’, in Antiquities Beyond Humanism, ed. by Emanuela Bianchi, Sara Brill, and Brooke Holmes (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2019), pp. 159–86 (p. 159).

[6] Bruce Clarke, Posthuman Metamorphosis: Narrative and Systems (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

[7] See, e.g., Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Ivan Callus, Stefan Herbrechter, and Manuela Rossini, ‘Introduction: Dis/Locating Posthumanism in European Literary and Critical Traditions’, European Journal of English Studies, 18.2 (2014), 103–20.

[8] Mary-Laure Ryan calls this the ‘principle of minimal departure’. See Marie-Laure Ryan, Possible Worlds, Artificial Intelligence, and Narrative Theory (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).

[9] For further discussion of metamorphosis (along with other motifs of human-nonhuman transformation), see Marco Caracciolo and Shannon Lambert, ‘Narrative Bodies and Nonhuman Transformations’, SubStance, 48.3 (2019), 45–63.

[10] Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Human Instincts That Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors (New York: Basic Books, 2002), p. 65.

[11] Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (New York: Random House, 2003), p. 270.

[12] For more on creative metaphor as a linguistic bridge between the human and the nonhuman, see Marco Caracciolo, Narrating the Mesh: Form and Story in the Anthropocene (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2021), chap. 6.

[13] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press Books, 2010), p. xvi; for a related argument, see Serenella Iovino, ‘The Living Diffractions of Matter and Text: Narrative Agency, Strategic Anthropomorphism, and How Interpretation Works’, Anglia, 133 (2015), 69–86.

[14] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[15] Mads Rosendahl Thomsen, ‘The Nonhuman, the Posthuman, and the Universal’, in The Cambridge History of World Literature, ed. by Debjani Ganguly (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021), pp. 909–23.

[16] See the entries on ‘Literature’ and ‘Science Fiction and Posthumanism’.

[17] For discussion of Chiang’s story, see Brian McHale, ‘Speculative Fiction, or, Literal Narratology’, in The Edinburgh Companion to Contemporary Narrative Theories, ed. by Zara Dinnen and Robyn Warhol (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), pp. 317–31.

[18] Environment and Narrative: New Directions in Econarratology, ed. by Erin James and Eric Morel (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2020).

[19] Marco Caracciolo, ‘Animal Mayhem Games and Nonhuman-Oriented Thinking’, Game Studies, 21.1 (2021) <http://gamestudies.org/2101/articles/caracciolo> [accessed 4 March 2022].

[20] See, for example, my discussion of the cross-fertilization of narrative and essayistic forms in Thalia Field’s work in Marco Caracciolo, Slow Narrative and Nonhuman Materialities (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2022), chap. 4.