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Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature by Matthew A. Taylor (review)
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Reviewed by
Matthew A. Taylor, Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013, 264 pp. $75.00 cloth, $25.00 paper.

Despite the productive conjoining of posthumanist theoretical paradigms and literary studies in the last twenty years, posthumanism has rarely been wielded as a useful and urgent tool for analyzing canonical American literature. Universes without Us begins to fill in what has remained up to now a significant and puzzling gap. The reasons for this likely have to do with what William Spanos, whose The Errant Art of Moby-Dick: The Canon, the Cold War, and the Struggle for American Studies (1995) still stands as an exception to this rule, criticizes as the belief held by some “traditional American literary critics” who have “insisted that ‘theory’ is a European import inappropriate to the historically specific conditions of American cultural production” (p. 2). Although the kind of “traditional” critics that Spanos criticized are surely declining in number and relevance, the legacy of historicist-based analysis perhaps has something to do with explaining why this gap, this synaptic failure, exists.

This has not been the case for the canon of American science fiction, texts long favored (Katherine Hayles’s examination of Phillip K. Dick’s work being a seminal example in How We Became Posthuman [1999]) by posthumanist literary critics for the provocative examples they offer of posthumanism as a form of advancing beyond the kind of embodied subjectivity that posits the human body as a closed system that is cut off from, and seeks to dominate, a world of objects. But what of those texts that do not offer explicit examples of bodies in flux—cybernetic, artificial, prosthetic? And what of those texts that do not fit into the typical genres favored by posthumanists—dystopian, utopian, gothic, and science fictional? How might posthumanism inform more conventional texts, but also, how might these texts expand and invigorate posthumanism? How might posthumanism slide through the historicist safeguards that tend to buffer the canon of US literature from the theoretical examinations typical of posthumanist inquiry? [End Page 125]

Taylor’s book answers these questions by asserting the existence of “posthuman cosmologies,” an alternative “posthumanist tradition” in American literature that “reverses the division of human from cosmos without folding the latter into the former” (p. 11). Central to Taylor’s version of posthumanism is the move that attempts to derail a humanist subjectivity based in a mind/body schema. He investigates an expanded materialism that is not reluctant to collapse physics and metaphysics, body and “spirit.” If traditional humanist subjectivity has long been invested in repositioning the human as either the center of, or as containing within its potential, the universe itself, then in these works, “both our separation from the universe and our identity with it are exposed as fantasies” (ibid.). Given Taylor’s emphasis on posthumanism as a set of ideas that must constantly challenge the tendency to recuperate the human or the self, even when the boundaries of these entities are clearly exposed as conditional and even false, it is fitting that the texts Taylor chooses to focus on are ones that are generically difficult to categorize (prose poem, ethnography, folk tales) and complex in relation to their author-subjects (autobiography).

In these works, Taylor argues, authors like Edgar Allen Poe, Henry Adams, Charles Chestnutt, and Zora Neale Hurston seriously challenge the idea of a purely mechanical or organic unity of self and universe promoted by Enlightenment “reason” and Romantic pantheism. These are also positions, he provocatively contends, that have sprung from posthumanist theory, which often “uncannily echo the means-end logic of anthropocentric metaphysics it supposedly corrects, ending the dialectic with otherness only to achieve a final synthesis of the self” (p. 7). In other words, Taylor attempts to counter some of the more self-indulgent tendencies of some posthumanist theories, “the incredible degree of optimism” that results when posthumanism breaks down subjective boundaries only to arrive at a “self [that] is infinitely extendable into the world” (ibid.). A refreshing and productive interpretive turn that characterizes Taylor’s method is his attempt to “know with—rather than against or beyond” the universes...