What does it take to think beyond the human? Can we imagine our human selves in other lives? And should we? While contemporary answers to these questions have highlighted the desirability and necessity of imagining ourselves as animals, plants, and even objects, others argue that such acts of the imagination are fundamentally flawed. The human, Lynn Festa argues in Fiction without Humanity, is really all we get access to.
The 21st century has seen the rise of what are often lumped together as a variety of “posthumanist” critical approaches: thing theory and “new materialism” (see Bill Brown’s Other Things and Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter), animal studies (see Jacques Derrida’s The Animal That Therefore I Am and Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet), and even a burgeoning plant studies (see Jeffrey T. Nealon’s Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life). Each of these approaches has asked us to broaden the range of what Miguel Tamen calls “interpretable objects” well beyond the human; to consider what forms of signification, consciousness, or meaning might belong to animals, plants, and objects.1
Much of this scholarship employs, roughly, a “sympathy-expanding” critical model. That is, the authors consider the effects of granting some provisional sympathy, consciousness, or at least signifying potential to nonhuman things or beings; specifically, to those who had formerly been denied such qualities or thought not to possess them. As earlier political movements have asserted that those who had been presumed to lack full rights, consciousness, or agency should be granted those previously denied qualities (then: female and nonwhite or non-European human beings), so too with posthuman studies (now: animals and the otherwise nonhuman).
Festa’s approach is bracingly different: Fiction without Humanity does not tell a story about expanding rights or sympathy. Instead, Festa explores the ways that Enlightenment authors, artists, and scientists experimented with the capacity of what Festa calls “estranging, nonverisimilitudinous representations” to offer what was, in effect, a way of proving or performing humanness.
In these makers’ riddles, fables, and paintings—of everything from distorted natural landscapes to curiously magnified perspectives of the microscopic world—“the nature of things is revealed not through mimesis,” explains Festa, “but through the deliberate estrangement of a normal human (anthropocentric) perspective.” The goal of such estrangement was less the broadening of sympathy than the proof of distinctly human powers.
Robert Hooke’s experimental 17th-century microscopy, for example—close-up images of lice, spiders’ legs, and human hairs—revealed a bizarre realm within our own, one that bore little resemblance to the world as apprehended through our naked senses. To try to see the world as a louse would see it was not, for Hooke, a matter of expanding the range of sympathy. Instead, it was an experiment in going beyond human perspective, a bravura display of humanity’s imaginative ability. To Hooke and the other Enlightenment thinkers Festa analyzes, it seemed distinctly and even uniquely human to attempt to go beyond the human.
This leads to other questions: Most importantly, what does it mean to see as a human, let alone be one? In fact, Festa’s otherwise disparate case studies reveal the category of the “human”—as well as a “human” perspective—as a surprisingly anxious and unstable honorific. These examples show that virtually any attempt to distinguish the human from the many nonhuman animals and things surrounding it seemed to founder on its own contradictions. Hooke’s microscopic investigations, for example, demonstrated that “the human body teems with life that is not solely its own,” while birds-eye-view or still-life paintings depicted a world lacking any stable human perspective.
Consequently, Festa shows, Enlightenment literature and works of art began to “produce the category of humanity … performatively (by eliciting reactions and practices that marked the beholder or reader as human).” This definition is recursive and tautological by intent: Festa’s point is that there are no “intrinsic” qualities that can reliably designate the human. As much as writers and thinkers “feverishly scrabble” to pin down such human qualities, Festa argues, “a void” is revealed at the heart of this supposed identity.
And so, for Festa, the only remaining quality that can define the human is precisely the effort to do so. Festa’s book suggests that Descartes’s proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” could be replaced with, “I (vainly) attempt to define the human, therefore I am human.”
Only through proving their capacity to transcend their human perspective, Festa argues, could modern thinkers earn their full humanity.
Festa takes inspiration from Bruno Latour’s famous argument in We Have Never Been Modern that modernity defines itself through processes of “purification.” Modernity, for Latour, cordons off and sharply distinguishes different zones and categories of objects, which, in reality, are always entangled and overlapping. Such allegedly distinct objects include the spurious opposition of “nature” to “culture,” or “natural” objects to “artificial” ones made by humans.
Modern European thought during the Enlightenment, Festa shows, engaged in an ongoing yet impossible attempt to distinguish the human from the nonhuman. And it often did so, ironically, through elaborate experiments in nonhuman perspective and point of view: “The baleful glare of things in trompe l’oeil, the impersonal exactitude of geometric perspective, the monstrous insects peering up at the lens of a microscope, the estranging self-descriptions of mysterious riddle-creatures, the zoomorphic world of the fable—all escape what might be termed a human point of view.”
These various Enlightenment texts and artworks require us “to demonstrate a uniquely human capacity to apprehend the world from a point of view not our own.” Only through proving their capacity to transcend their human perspective, Festa argues, could modern thinkers in effect earn their full humanity.
It is as if Enlightenment thinkers, recognizing the futility of continuing to search for any intrinsic qualities that always define humanity, shifted tactics. Now, they suggested, what was most human was precisely a facility for experiments in extra-human perception: in short, for perspective-taking fictions (both verbal and visual).
The book culminates in a surprising and counterintuitive reading of Robinson Crusoe, a novel that is, as Festa points out, often seen “as a locus classicus of modern individualism.” Influenced by famous readings of the novel, by Ian Watt and others, that see it as exemplifying a rising individualism, we may tend to remember Crusoe in a manner resembling that in which he is depicted in the novel’s famous original frontispiece: as a “diva subject planted at center stage,” a “commanding, clearly delineated, free-standing man” clad in a goatskin jacket. This visual image, reproduced in nearly all editions of the novel in the 18th century, appears to be an approximation of Crusoe as he would prefer to see himself, as master of all he surveys—including the island’s animals.
But Festa points out that the frontispiece’s “freestanding exemplar of human individuality” is in fact not truly realized within the text itself. Consider that goatskin jacket, for example: Surely a proof of Crusoe’s achieved mastery over the nonhuman beasts of the island? But perhaps not: “filched from beasts,” Crusoe’s “clothing betokens dependency as well as dominion, an autonomy secured through borrowings from other creatures.” Wearing pants “made of the Skin of an old He-goat,” and carrying “over my Head a great clumsy ugly Goat-Skin Umbrella,” Crusoe is, in his own self-description, an ungainly species hybrid. When he finds a print in the sand and tries to fit his own foot to it, he reveals a fundamental insecurity in his self-conception; he is continually trying, too eagerly, to prove that he is in fact human.
Festa helps us understand Defoe’s novel as—a bit like the microscope or the bird’s-eye view—another “device for adjudicating perspective.” Crusoe makes himself into a human subject, Festa argues, partly through his predilection for self-alienation and for picturing himself as if viewed from another’s perspective. Crusoe imagines how he would appear, in his outlandish getup, to an observer in England, and notes, “I frequently stood still to look at my self.” It is not any distinctly human essence or power that makes Crusoe human, but rather this very compulsion to picture himself from another’s point of view.
Festa’s book, then, doesn’t find the logic of being human in places we might expect: say, the subsequent realist novels by Jane Austen or George Eliot, in which fully rounded individuals have thoughts, emotions, and conversations. Instead, Festa’s human, Crusoe in his goatskin jacket, looks more like the wildly distorted images of Hooke’s 1665 treatise Micrographia; or a trompe l’oeil painting, depicting nothing but a row of dead birds hanging on a wall.
This article was commissioned by Leah Price.
- See Miguel Tamen, Friends of Interpretable Objects (Harvard University Press, 2001). ↩