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Universes without Us: Posthuman Cosmologies in American Literature

MATTHEW A. TAYLOR
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 264
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5749/j.ctt5vkbw6
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    Universes without Us
    Book Description:

    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 Usexplores 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 Usdemonstrates 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4051-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Philosophy

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: IMMORTAL POSTMORTEMS
    (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, incapable of pulling itself out of indistinction. If it is a body, it is one that cannot be distinguished from its effacement—an identity, yes, but not its own. It is a suffocating expiration of the space between figure and marble, person and environment, part and whole.

    It is Michelangelo’sBlockhead Slave(Figure 1), and...

  5. 1 EDGAR ALLAN POE’S META/PHYSICS
    (pp. 27-56)

    In 1852, Herbert Mayo, renowned professor of physiology and anatomy at King’s College, London, published in Philadelphia hisPopular 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 to the more common matters of batteries, magnets, and dreams—comprehensible through reference to a single, recently discovered energy allied to but distinct from electricity, magnetism, and heat.¹ This “Od” or “Odic force,” as it was named by its discoverer, the noted geologist and chemist Baron von Reichenbach, supposedly animated the entire material...

  6. 2 HENRY ADAMS’S HALF-LIFE: The Science of Autobiography
    (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,The Educationadvances a decidedly attenuated model of author and subject.¹ Indeed, one of the most characteristic gestures ofThe Educationis its imagination of not only the quiescence-unto-obsolescence of “Adams” but, relatedly, of his extinction altogether. Having cultivated “a singular sympathy for death” over the course of his life (Education,501), Adams’s education culminates in the recognition that he is, in...

  7. 3 “BY AN ACT OF SELF-CREATION”: On Becoming Human in America
    (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 elevating. Yet Poe’s and Adams’s contestations of human ascendancy were, from the perspective of actual, lived experience, largely academic; as white men, they were not in danger of being denied their humanity. Their auto-alienations were not socially mandated, their antagonism toward humanism not the result of being excluded from it. Indeed, the totalizing nature of their theories could be seen as formally analogous to, even predicated on, the...

  8. 4 HOODOO YOU THINK YOU ARE? Self-Conjuration in Chesnutt’s The Conjure Woman
    (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 superstition.”¹ This is Charles Chesnutt’s assessment of conjure in his 1901 article “Superstitions and Folklore of the South,” and given the fact that he had publishedThe Conjure Womanonly two years earlier, it’s hard not to see the irony: Chesnutt did not believe in the beliefs that he helped to popularize, indeed, that gave him an opportunity...

  9. 5 “IT MIGHT BE THE DEATH OF YOU”: Hurston’s Voodoo Ethnography
    (pp. 139-166)

    Published thirty-six years after the appearance ofThe Conjure Woman,Zora Neale Hurston’sMules 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 professionalization of anthropological study.¹ The book certainly advertises itself as a work of this new kind, complete with a prefatory endorsement by Franz Boas (Hurston’s undergraduate professor at Barnard and subsequent advisor), a host of tales collected in the field, and appendices devoted to “Negro Songs” and “Formulae of Hoodoo Doctors.”² AndMules and Menseems to deliver what it promises:...

  10. Coda: “THE COSMOPOLITICAL PARTY”
    (pp. 167-178)

    Alternate universes, none our own. Poe’s inrushing, panpsychic things collapsing, with us, into a fatal identity. Adams’s ever-accelerating diffusion, the entropic thinning of self, world, and biography. Chesnutt’s conjure metamorphoses, where becoming one with the environment necessitates becoming undone as oneself. Hurston’s voodoo (dis)possession, given momentary form by an autodestructive ethnography whose echo sounds the possibility of a posthumanist collective. Though their geneses and genres are different, the realities they double not the same (transcendentalism and mesmerism; popular Darwinism and optimistic historiographies; post-Reconstruction racism and early conservationism; U.S. imperialism and primitivist Africanism, respectively), all present cosmoses in which “we”—separate,...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 179-254)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 255-270)
  13. Back Matter
    (pp. 271-272)