From its emergence and early evolution in and through the writings of Immanuel Kant, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, critique established its parameters very early on as both porous and dynamic. Critique has always been, in this sense, mutable, directed, and both multidisciplinary and transdisciplinary, and this very fluidity and flexibility of its processes are possibly among the central reasons for its continuous relevance even when it has been dismantled, rebuffed, and attacked for embodying traits, from gender bias to Eurocentrism to neuro-normativity, that seem to indicate the very opposite of that flexibility. Indeed, once it is examined closely as an apparatus, the mechanism of critique will invariably reveal itself as having always contained the tools for its own opposition and even the tools for its own destruction. Critique has in this way always implied both its generality as a form and autocritique as an essential part of its process. For the past two centuries this general, self-reflective, and self-dismantling quality has led to its constant reinvention and re-adaptation by a wide range of thinkers and writers and across a broad range of disciplines. In the case of literature and literary theory, its role can often best be grasped as that of a meta-discourse in which the nature and purpose of literary criticism is shadowed, reflected upon, and performed. From this perspective, from the 18th-century origins of critique in its gestation in the fields of theology and literary criticism to its formalization by Kant, the literary expression of critique has always been bound up with debates over the function of literary texts, their history, their production, their consumption, and their critical evaluation. In the early 21st century, having evolved from its beginnings through and alongside various forms of anticritique in the 20th century, critique now finds itself in an age that favors some variant or other of postcritique. It remains to be seen whether this tendency, which suggests its obsolescence and superseding, marks the end of critique as some would wish or merely its latest metamorphosis and diversification in response to the multivalent pressures of digital acceleration and ecological crisis. Whatever path or paths contemporary judgment on this question may follow, critique as the name of a series of techniques and operations guided by a desire for certain ends is likely to remain one of the most consistent ways of surveying any particular field of intellectual endeavor and the relations between adjacent or even divergent fields in terms of their commonalities and differences. As Kant and Voltaire understood so well of their own age, modernity is characterized in the first instance by its will to criticism and then by the systematic criticism of the conditions for that criticism. By the same token now in late or post- or neo-modernity, if contemporary conversations about literature and its pleasures, challenges, study, and criticism require an overview, then some version of critique or its legacy will undoubtedly still come into play.
The “posthuman” is an umbrella term frequently employed in a number of theoretical and critical discourses. It is difficult to find a definition of the term that is shared by all the different approaches that use it, since “posthuman” seems to denote a very diverse group of phenomena, some ongoing and others only predicted or imagined. The “posthuman” is used to describe modes of being resulting from potential enhancements to human nature generated through applied science and technological developments. However, it is equally adopted to identify the decentering of human exceptionalism and the overcoming of the principles of humanism. Depending on the descriptive strategy adopted, the term can be used to identify very different philosophical and theoretical positions, from technoprogressive stances to outlooks that are very critical of technological determinism. These positions, rather than seeing in posthumanism opportunities for an extension of rational mastery and an overcoming of humanity’s biological limits, see in the posthuman condition a chance to redress the balance between human and nonhuman and promote horizontal ontologies and expanded ethics. What these different conceptual positions share is the blurring of boundaries between human, technology, and nature in favor of more hybrid and fluid configurations. Finally, while the term “posthuman” finds a home in science-fiction, it has come to be applied to literary and filmic works that are less rooted in traditional science-fiction themes and subject matters but rather respond to specific events or phenomena, in particular environmental and ecological ones.
The diversity of scholarly contributions to the interdisciplinary fields of animal studies and posthumanism defies summation. As loosely assembled areas of inquiry, however, these fields contest the exceptionalist elevation of humans above animals on the basis of the latter’s alleged lack of language and reason, their exclusion from the political, their inability to experience pain or to understand death, and their absence of a moral sense of right and wrong. Posthumanism also stresses that species difference warrants an ethico-political attentiveness that eschews automatically reducing animals to figurative representations of gender, sexual, or racial difference. While theses hierarchies are no doubt sustained in part by exploiting the metaphorics of species difference, the urgency of dismantling the human/animal hierarchy has inclined animal studies and a number of cognate fields toward the literal, resulting in non-allegorical readings of texts by authors such as George Orwell, Henry David Thoreau, and Toni Morrison. This preference for literality is also shared by continental philosophers working in speculative realism and object-oriented ontology (OOO), as well as by literary critics who advance the enterprise of “surface reading,” which eschews the notion that texts contain “hidden meanings.” The nonhuman turn has emerged in conjunction with a preference for literality because posthumanism tends to stress immanence rather than transcendence. This ethos engenders a flattening effect that places humans, animals, plants, and things on same ontological level (OOO); resists interpreting literary animals in human terms (literary animal studies); and rejects the role of the critic as a hermeneutic decipherer of texts (surface reading). The “literal turn” thus poses a number of questions for literary theory. Literal meaning is definitionally uniform, but can univocal sense be maintained? In the 1960s, Jacques Derrida radicalized the Saussurian notion of the arbitrary nature of signs, arguing that the isolation of a literal or proper meaning presumes the arrival of signified that would escape the chain of signification. If proper meaning never fully is itself, however, then one can never determine what is properly literal or figurative. Metaphors are typically defined as figures of resemblance that transport the name of one thing to something else. But this definition remains fatally inadequate because “resemblance” itself is metaphoric. In addition to overlooking the equivocality of the terms “literal,” “metaphorical,” and “allegorical,” the literal turn also risks reducing interpretation to a volitional act: a practice of choosing among different available approaches over which the human governs. To what extent do readers who believe they are performing literal readings disavow textual agency: that is, the conditions that texts establish for their own reading? To apply to texts what are often too loosely called “methodologies” is always to find interpretative approaches foiled by textuality’s uncontrollable effects. Does the literal turn thus reinscribe the humanist subject insofar as it presumes the reader’s power to wrest control over the feral force of language? Does it ironically restore human mastery under the guise of surrendering it?
Michelle N. Huang
Is the posthuman postracial? Posthumanism, an interpretive paradigm that unseats the human individual as the de facto unit of literary analysis, can be a powerful tool for Asian American literary studies when deployed with attention to critical race theory and literary form. Throughout American literature, Asian Americans have frequently been figured as inhuman—alien, inscrutable, and inassimilable. Representations of Asian Americans as either sub- or superhuman populate many genres, including adventure literature, domestic realism, comics, and science fiction. This trope, which combines yellow peril and model minority stereotypes, forms a through line that runs from depictions of Asian Americans as nerveless 19th-century coolies to 21st-century robotic office workers. Manifesting both threat and promise for America, posthuman representations of Asian Americans refract national and racial anxieties about the fading of the United States’ global influence as Asian nations, especially China, become political and economic superpowers. Rather than directly refuting these characterizations, Asian American writers have creatively engaged these same thematics to contemplate how developments in science and technology produce different ways of understanding the human and, concomitantly, engender changes in racial formation. Novelists, dramatists, poets, and artists have all deployed posthumanism in order to conduct imaginative experiments that challenge expectations regarding the typical purview of Asian American literature. Several nodes of inquiry that demonstrate the importance of posthumanist critique for Asian American literary studies include race as an index of humanity, the mutability of race through biotechnology, the amplification of racial inequality through infrastructure, and the reproduction of race through algorithmic culture. In the wake of early 21st-century ecological disaster and biotechnological fragmentation, examining the evolving relationship between Asian American racialization and posthumanism continues to provide important insights into how race is structured by the changing boundaries of the human and, in turn, demonstrates that the posthuman subject is never “beyond” race. In addition to offering an overview, this article provides a case study regarding the stereotyping of Asian Americans as robotic.