- The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film and Television by Michael Hauskeller, Thomas Philbeck, and Curtis Carbonell
Science fiction has served the film industry like a dreamy stepchild. It gets only scant accolades from its master but must do heavy lifting: that is, make money. While science-fiction films often emphasize spectacle and action, they also inspire philosophical contemplation. Why? Science fiction, dating back to Shelley and Verne, came into existence speculating about humanity's social and physical worlds. Many books and articles over the past several years discuss the philosophical issues that films raise. One fairly new school of thought, "posthumanism," explicitly deriving from postmodernism, with touches of critical theory, has seized on science-fiction movies as support for its theorizing.
This volume and its 42 authors from film theory, science and technology studies, literary criticism, media studies, and philosophy, offer an array of posthumanist scholarship. The patient reader may glean many interpretations of Hollywood's dreamy stepchild and a view into posthumanist goals for human existence. The works covered stretch back to cinema's earliest films, such as Edison's, through every decade until the present. Readers interested in current sociopolitical theory may find startling analyses.
First, a note on posthumanism. It has two interrelated versions. One can be considered as "post-humanism," that is, coming after the presumably moribund school of "humanism." Here, humanism is an amalgam of Western schools of thought dating from Descartes, through the Enlightenment to 19th- and 20th-Century schools promoting reason as the route to human improvement. Humanism's purported outcome is an anthropocentric sociopolitical world of supposedly autonomous individuals, but responsible for racism, sexism, and speciesism. It has failed making society just. It reduces to ideology both science and rationality, whose simplistic logic divides the world into facile dualities, such as body/mind, human/animal, male/female. Yet it upholds human technologies as inseparable from the human, beyond any individual's control. Posthumanism aspires to put humans in their proper place, as not morally superior to other species or even to their own artifacts. With all groups living in humble peace, the posthumanist world will experience no sexism, speciesism, or discrimination against artifacts.
The other posthumanism, "posthuman-ism," focuses on ushering in "posthumans," entities arriving after humans, possibly incorporating some human or animal traits. Emerging technologies such as supercomputers and neurotropic drugs are to aid this change. Posthumanism bleeds into transhumanism, the faith that technologies will allow the species to direct its evolution.
This book's authors, many professed as posthumanist, look to science-fiction cinema to help illuminate this philosophy. Many science-fiction works seem to reflect some posthuman tenets and make them palatable for the public—ideally, as some authors here urge, as a way to welcome the posthuman era. These movies do not merely depict posthuman ideals such as cyborgism and artificial superintelligence, they supposedly reflect how movie audiences are digesting posthumanist ideals. Those audiences, so the claim goes, have over the decades learned to accept increasingly posthuman-like movie characters—and by implication are themselves becoming posthuman.
Thomas Philbeck's chapter and one by James Hughes take this deterministic approach. Hughes examines science-fiction history through the doctrinal lens of posthumanism-as-fulfilled-democracy. [End Page 94] In the early and mid-20th Century, nonhuman science-fiction characters were monsters, reflecting 1950s thermonuclear radiation paranoia. But by the 1980s, movies included sympathetic posthumans such as Blade Runner's replicants. By the 2010s, numerous movies and TV-series increasingly included sympathetic posthumans such as cyborgs (Spiderman), and AI entities (Her, AI)."[T]he evidence from popular culture suggests a trend towards more sympathetic treatment of posthumanism" Hughes writes (244). Philbeck calls a similar trajectory in posthumandepictions a "posthumanist paradigm shift" that has occurred, in six stages, generally moving from a cinematic first-stage of "desire and fear" (392) of technologies, through a 1970s-1980s awe of "technology's power… on display," (393), to the 2000s fifth-stage "belief in humans as enhancement-ready organisms" (396). In the current sixth...