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  • Beastly Culture
  • Cary Wolfe (bio)
Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity, Dana Seitler. University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative, Lisa Zunshine. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

We have heard a lot of talk recently about "posthumanism" and "the posthuman." Canonically speaking, the conversation goes back to Katherine Hayles's How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (1999) and, beyond that, to Donna Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs" of 1985. Beyond that—and in a less obviously thematized way—it reaches back to the quite robust cross-talk between science and contemporary French theory in the 1960s and after (Foucault with Canghuilhem, Derrida with Jacob, Lacan with cybernetics) that is just now receiving its due.1 I have argued recently that a central point of emphasis in the posthumanism conversation is (or should be) that the "posthuman" as a specifically contemporary historical phenomenon centering on the human/technology interface (as in work on "transhumanism" by figures such as Ray Kurzweil) needs to be separated from the question of thinking outside of or beyond the tenets of humanism as a philosophical and ideological orientation toward a whole host of questions including, but not limited to, technology.2 In that light, posthumanism is not "what comes after" the human (once we have stitched Homo sapiens together with nanotechnology, à la Kurzweil); instead, it is an intellectual genealogy in no way limited to the last 20 years or even, for that matter, to the twenty-first (or twentieth) century. Another important dimension of the current conversation around posthumanism—one especially pertinent (in different ways) for the books under discussion here—has been the emergence of a full-blown field of what is now called "animal studies" (or "animality studies" or "human-animal studies"—all labels that, like all labels, [End Page 449] have their pluses and minuses). From the vantage of most work in animal studies, visions of the posthuman such as those associated with transhumanism would appear to be rather regressively humanist, in that they attempt to make good on the age-old attempt to transcend the finitude of embodiment itself—a finitude that we share, of course, with other living creatures, and in ways that we are now just beginning to understand fully and appreciate.3

Central to this knot of issues, of course, is the role of science: the science (for transhumanists) that will eventually enable us to enter a new phase of our evolution in which we finally escape the limitations that have plagued thousands of generations of human kind, and the science (for animal studies types) that has helped put our moral obligations to nonhumans on the table as we have learned more and more from fields such as cognitive ethology about the mental, social, and emotional complexities of many of our fellow creatures. Science—and more specifically the status of science's knowledge claims—is central to both Dana Seitler's Atavistic Tendencies: The Culture of Science in American Modernity (2008), and Lisa Zunshine's Strange Concepts and the Stories They Make Possible: Cognition, Culture, Narrative (2008)—two books that gravitate toward different poles of the posthumanism question, and put science to very different uses in doing so.

For Zunshine (as is suggested by the subtitle of Part 1, "Chasing Personal Essences Across National Literatures"), science—and specifically cognitive evolutionary psychology and anthropology—provides the objective measuring stick that allows us to do better cultural criticism by understanding how writers and artists put to use the "essentialism" that derives from our evolutionary cognitive architecture. Hers is an unabashed work of "cognitive cultural studies" (to use yet another label), and it argues that because works from evolutionary psychology center on "cognitive construction of essences, they can provide a powerful interdisciplinary boost for cultural critics examining the workings of our social institutions and ideological formations. For what these studies do is offer a series of crucial insights into the ways we build on our cognitive biases and shortcuts to construct our everyday world, which we then rationalize as 'natural'" (13). As we will see, Zunshine's claims are, in fact, often offered in...


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