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Universes without Us

Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature

Matthew A. Taylor

Publication Year: 2013

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a wide variety of American writers proposed the existence of energies connecting human beings to cosmic processes. From varying points of view—scientific, philosophical, religious, and literary—they suggested that such energies would eventually result in the perfection of individual and collective bodies, assuming that assimilation into larger networks of being meant the expansion of humanity’s powers and potentialities—a belief that continues to inform much posthumanist theory today.

Universes without Us explores a lesser-known countertradition in American literature. As Matthew A. Taylor’s incisive readings reveal, the heterodox cosmologies of Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Adams, Charles Chesnutt, and Zora Neale Hurston reject the anthropocentric fantasy that sees the universe as a kind of reservoir of self-realization. For these authors, the world can be made neither “other” nor “mirror.” Instead, humans are enmeshed with “alien” processes that are both constitutive and destructive of “us.” By envisioning universes no longer our own, these cosmologies picture a form of interconnectedness that denies any human ability to master it.

Universes without Us demonstrates how the questions, possibilities, and dangers raised by the posthuman appeared nearly two centuries ago. Taylor finds in these works an untimely engagement with posthumanism, particularly in their imagining of universes in which humans are only one category of heterogeneous thing in a vast array of species, objects, and forces. He shows how posthumanist theory can illuminate American literary texts and how those texts might, in turn, prompt a reassessment of posthumanist theory. By understanding the posthuman as a materialist cosmology rather than a technological innovation, Taylor extends the range of thinkers who can be included in contemporary conversations about the posthuman.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

My universe is populated with many wonderful people, without whom this project never would have been possible. At the project’s inception, Sharon Cameron and Amanda Anderson offered unfailingly wise guidance, inspiration, and support, and for their willingness...

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pp. 1-26

Of stone, an almost human form. Legs and genitals mired in frozen earth. A single arm gripped in abbreviated expression, touching rock where hands and head and face should be. Almost a body, equally a mass, it is a thing imperfectly articulated from its medium...

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1. Edgar Allan Poe's Meta/Physics

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pp. 27-56

In 1852, Herbert Mayo, renowned professor of physiology and anatomy at King’s College, London, published in Philadelphia his Popular Superstitions, and the Truths Contained therein, with an Account of Mesmerism, which claimed to make all phenomena—from the “singular facts” of divining rods, clairvoyant trances, and vampires...

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2. Henry Adams's Half-Life

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pp. 57-84

The education of Henry Adams is a remarkably uninhabited autobiography. Written exclusively in the third person by a narrator who repeatedly refers to “Henry Adams” as “passive,” “submissive,” and “a helpless victim” before the “forces” of the universe...

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3. "By An Act of Self-Creation"

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pp. 85-112

The previous two chapters introduced cosmologies that countered the anthropocentric optimism of mesmerism and popular evolutionism by making the human subject’s fusion with cosmic processes—Poe’s gravity, Adams’s entropy—fatal rather than...

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4. Hoodoo You Think You Are?

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pp. 113-138

“Most of the delusions connected with this belief in conjuration grow out of mere lack of enlightenment. . . . Relics of ancestral barbarism are found among all peoples, but advanced civilization has at least shaken off the more obvious absurdities of...

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5. "It Might Be the Death of You"

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pp. 139-166

Published thirty-six years after the appearance of The Conjure Woman, Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men (1935) contributed to the single most important evolution in genre writing on “other” cultures since the advent of local color fiction: the rapid...

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Coda: "The Cosmopolitical Party"

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pp. 167-178

Alternate universes, none our own. Poe’s inrushing, panpsychic things collapsing, with us, into a fatal identity. Adams’s everaccelerating diffusion, the entropic thinning of self, world, and biography. Chesnutt’s conjure metamorphoses, where becoming one with...


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pp. 179-254


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pp. 255-270

About the Author

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E-ISBN-13: 9781452940519
E-ISBN-10: 1452940517
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816680610

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 871781386
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Universes without Us

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • American literature -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Cosmology in literature.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Humanity in literature.
  • Chesnutt, Charles W. (Charles Waddell), 1858-1932. -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Self in literature.
  • Adams, Henry, 1838-1918 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Human beings in literature.
  • Poe, Edgar Allan, 1809-1849 -- Criticism and interpretation.
  • Order (Philosophy) in literature.
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