This work serves as an exploration of transhumanism and posthumanism as radical transformative technologies which rob human beings of their humanity by reducing their agency and personhood. Drawing upon themes from Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, the author builds a case against establishing such technologies by exploring young adult books including the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, Feed by M.T. Anderson, and The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson. In exploring these stories, an argument is established which defends young adults against older generations who use technology to manipulate them. In fighting against dystopia, teenage heroes prove that free will is worth defending, no matter the cost.  

Introduction

“‘But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.’

“In fact,’ said Mustapha Mond, ‘you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.’

‘All right then,’ said the Savage defiantly, ‘I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.’

‘Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right to have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.’ There was a long silence.

‘I claim them all,’ said the Savage at last.”  Brave New World 240)

 

“I Want Sin”:

Finding Personhood Amidst Technology in Young Adult Dystopian Literature

 

Homo sapiens are organisms that are ever-changing and growing, morphing from one form to the next, driven by an intrinsic need to find new ways to solve problems and invent tools and ideas that will push mankind into a more desirable future. This desire is necessary for survival, because of the ever-increasing complexity of human existence. Each year, decade, and century brings new advances and new challenges into the world, and the only thing that remains consistent is the adaptability of humanity. Looking back, historians are able to identify small, seemingly-isolated incidents which gradually built into large movements. In this way, mankind is able to study cause and effect, to separate history into eras, and to determine the effect of progress that has led to the current world. Hindsight is a fascinating and powerful lens through which one may study the world, but it becomes scary when horrible events occur, and hindsight reveals that all of the signs were there, but no one recognized them. It is one thing to study how the invention of the wheel led to simple industry, it is another to study something catastrophic, such as the road to war. Although studying good or innocuous events is fascinating and helpful in understanding human progress, studying the butterfly effect of catastrophes understandably tends to be a catalyst for change.

The current societal climate, which is littered with headlines of school shootings and senseless murders, lends itself to an atmosphere where it has become necessary to backtrack and study the progression of events which led to catastrophes such as the shootings at Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary School, Pulse Nightclub, Las Vegas, and Parkland High School. In the wake of each tragedy, individuals and governments question what can be done to halt such savagery, and society struggles to understand how human beings can be capable of such evil. Although most people look hopefully to policy change and legislation to make a meaningful impact, some have reached the conclusion that humanity is to blame. Within this subgroup, the logical equation is simple: faulty human beings plus faulty human brains equal a dangerous cocktail of sick people making evil choices. This conclusion leads to the question, what if humanity is the problem? And if so, what is the next step when humanity fails? Is policy change enough to reprogram and reset humanity, or might a more technological approach be in order?

Themes in popular literature have shifted to reflect such thoughts, and some writers  have turned to technological possibilities in the hope that they might hold the answers that external policies have failed to provide. Classical examples include George Orwell’s Big Brother, the government manifestation that oversees all aspect of life in 1984, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, in which everything, down to genetics, is predetermined by scientists in laboratories. In and beyond such examples, when government, society, and religion fail, dreamers reach to technology to solve the problems that humanity has created. With the advent of such thoughts, core humanity now stands trial and is being attacked from all sides as writers and scholars explore different approaches, in the hope that the futuristic world might be free of humanity’s terrible flaws. Once upon a time, such technological fixes would be the stuff of science fiction, but technology is quickly catching up. Transhumanism and posthumanism are becoming real topics of conversation in scientific communities and, soon enough, the fiction may well become reality. Proponents of transhumanism and posthumanism will argue that these movements are the natural progression of humanity which supply much-needed answers. From this perspective, humanity is proven to be a problem, and no other external solutions have worked, so now humanity itself must be targeted. Mankind can no longer govern itself, and writers have begun to imagine that something beyond man must intercede. As a society, mankind is approaching the end of humanism, but what are the implications of such a movement?

Before entirely writing off humanism, it is important to first explain and establish appreciation for the movement that defined the Renaissance. Early humanism drew from the Scholastics, medieval theologians who read Greek and Roman texts and studied logic and grammar in order to better understand their Christian faith. The Scholastics were based out of monasteries, and the humanists brought their studies from the walls of the monasteries into the secular world. As time went on, humanism became split between Christian humanism, comprised of humanists who followed the field’s Scholastic roots, and “secular humanism,” which Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia defines as “a philosophy whose value systems depend on human rather than spiritual standards” (“Humanism”). Such standards glorify human achievement and the pursuit of beauty and knowledge for the greater good of man. One of the most noted Christian humanists in the field was Sir Thomas More, who is best known for his work Utopia (1516), which detailed life in a perfect society, and served as a political statement against his native England (“Sir Thomas More”). More coined the word “utopia” from Greek roots, and it directly translates to mean “no place,” a satirical nod to the impossibility of a perfect world, although the satire appears to have been lost on many copycats (“Utopia”). Dystopia, which is the focus of this paper and will be discussed at length later, is not only the opposite of utopia, but it is utopia’s inevitable end. More’s satirical warning in 1516 against the pursuing of the perfect “no place” was not enough to stop people from attempting to create the perfect world, and modern writers have since created dystopia in response. Since warning was not enough, now we are faced with the fallout of a once perfect world, and we see that when the impossible shine of perfection wears off, the rot rises to the surface. While the roots of dystopian ideas clearly hearken back to humanism, their underlying philosophy also has strong ties to an idea that emerged much later: posthumanism.

Posthumanism is a roughly five hundred year jump from the humanism previously discussed, so a brief introduction is required to bring the reader into the late twentieth century and the rise of the concept. The movement grew in popularity throughout the twentieth century and is focused on decentering the human from the world. Posthumanists, such as Cary Wolfe, often credit philosophers from the mid-nineteenth through late-twentieth centuries, such as Michel Foucalt, who famously pronounced the death of the human, Jacques Derrida, who declared the end of the mortal man, and Roland Barthes, who wrote on the death of the author, with the rise of posthumanism. Some posthumanist scholars also draw Friedrich Nietzsche into the conversation, due to his advocacy of anti-humanism, and his belief that “the philosopher needs to position himself ‘between good and evil,’ because there are no moral facts and nothing that is truly better or worse than anything else” (Hauskellter 1). All of these philosophers share the common opinion that mankind is doomed, and drastic measures are necessary to supercede the grievous errors of mortal man.

Where humanism was focused on understanding and glorifying humanity and God, posthumanism, literally translated as after/beyond the human, scraps the idea of the human in favor of whatever will come next to clean up the mess humanity created. Cary Wolfe, one of the premier posthumanist scholars, describes his views of the movement as:

[Coming] before and after humanism: before in the sense that it names the embodiment and embeddedness of the human being in not just its biological but also its technological world…But it comes after in the sense that posthumanism names a historical moment in which the decentering of the human by its imbrication in technical, medical, informatic, and economic networks is increasingly impossible to ignore, a historical development that points toward the necessity of new theoretical paradigms (but also thrusts them on us), a new mode of thought that comes after the cultural repressions and fantasies, the philosophical protocols and evasions, of humanism as a historically specific phenomenon. (What is Posthumanism xv-xvi)

 

According to this definition, posthumanists believe in finding potential in scientific, medical, and technological fields that most people do not think to explore. In conjunction with the biotechnological revolution of the 1970s which provided scientific breakthroughs in genetics, immunology, and biochemistry, as well as futuristic dreams of cyborgs, clones, and robots, posthumanist thinkers have every reason to believe that technology may one day advance to the point of breaking free of human constraints (“Biotechnology Revolution”).  

I argue that posthumanism falls on a rather blurred spectrum which extends from transhumanism, all the way to anti-humanism, with posthumanism at the center. The spectrum is blurred because different scholars have different definitions of what each field compromises. While Cary Wolfe argues that transhumanism is “an intensification of humanism” (vx), scholar Christina Bieber Lake defines transhumanists as “a loosely organized group of people who believe that science and technology can and should be used to overcome all human limitations” (2). Clearly, one coin can have two entirely different sides. Perhaps Anders Sandberg summarized this wide range of definitions best by saying, “…People differ on whether [transhumanism] is merely about overcoming everyday limitations, becoming something akin to a Greek god, or totally escaping the human condition” (5).

Stepping beyond its blurred nature, the aforementioned spectrum begins at transhumanism, because transhumanists seek transition away from their traditional human existence to different degrees and for different purposes. Although transhumanism can be a slippery slope, its purest intent is to improve the human existence through technological means, following in the logocentric tradition that places the mind at the center of humanity. Continuing along the spectrum, posthumanism serves as a more defined break with humanism, moving into territory which rejects traditional human values. In literature, traditional posthuman subjects might be androids, clones, or the replicants of Blade Runner– beings whose entire existence is based in technology. Whereas transhumanism advocates for radically enhanced human beings, posthumanism’s narrative replaces the human altogether (Ranisch 8). In order to best acknowledge the spectrum of transhumanism and posthumanism in the context of this paper, I will collectively refer to the insertion of technology into human existence as radical transformative technology.

Moving into the realm of fiction, transhumanist and posthumanist-inspired science fiction authors create worlds which encourage readers to envision a technologically dictated society, a society in which humans have been transformed through technological means. They present such worlds as solutions, created in the hope that transformation will eradicate humanity’s historic history. To elaborate upon the examples mentioned above, Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World both introduce societies which have been technologically transformed in a “never again” response to past problems. In 1984, this is powerfully conveyed by the concept of newspeak. Newspeak is a new vocabulary that is created by the government for the purpose of controlling citizens’ thoughts. As expressed by Winston Smith’s friend Syme, “In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it” (ch. 10). When words are rendered meaningless, thoughts become trapped with no way to escape, handicapping attempts at rebellion. Without words, communication is stunted, and people find themselves unable to even think a thought that would be contrary to the public good, as dictated by the all powerful government. Similarly, in Brave New World, the concept of class warfare has been eliminated because the government has implemented the Hatchery and Conditioning Center, the purpose of which is to genetically modify citizens to play certain roles in society: “We decant our babies as socialized human beings, as Alphas or Epsilons, as future sewage workers or…future Directors of Hatcheries” (13). As seen throughout the story, when people are genetically conditioned to exist and serve without question, there is no reason for trouble. However, the introduction of the Savage shows how much of humanity that the conditioned citizens miss out on in their controlled existence.

Governmentally manipulated societies are never successful, and I argue that this is due to one particularly fatal flaw, and that flaw is the wholesale dismissal of humanity and personhood, which causes their worlds to crash and burn. In the powerful exchange between Mustapha Mond and the Savage that headlines this paper, the Savage makes his case for the validity of suffering, pain, and sin, because the inconvenient parts of life do not negate the excellence of poetry, freedom, and goodness. He refuses to accept eternal comfort, because he sees it as synonymous with dangerous apathy. Despite the problems humanity has caused, it is foolish and reductive to dismiss the entirety of good human history. In a similar way, the idea of posthumanism, which scraps all of mankind’s good along with the bad, is as dangerous as it is unrealistic. It is one thing to consider transhumanism as a way of improving humanity but, as is evidenced by the aforementioned spectrum, technological improvements upon humanity create a slippery slope. Intrinsic personhood is far too valuable to be placed into the hands of those who do not recognize its value.

Earlier, the discussion of humanism and the glorification of mankind, though thorough, did not include the definition of human nor the concept of personhood. The explanation of these terms can be drawn from the Christian creation story in Genesis in which God defines man as being created “in our image, after our likeness” as a union of body and spirit: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul” (King James Bible, Genesis 1.26: 2.7). Within the context of this paper all mentions of the human being are to be understood as following this definition. As for personhood, Dennis M. Sullivan’s definition is valid, and states that a person is “more than mere biological life…having rights and duties of a moral nature…a human being is a person from the moment of conception and at every subsequent moment” (11). From such definitions, it must be understood that the human existence cannot be reduced merely to the human mind. Transhuman and posthuman scholars walk a dangerous line in their efforts to alter or transcend the traditional understanding of human embodiment. This paper will make a case for the proper understanding of human personhood which is essential for the preservation of a functional, just, and free society.

I must make clear that I do not approach this topic as a Neo-Luddite who believes that technology is intrinsically bad. Technological progress is exciting and important to the future of society. However, technology is not capable of ensuring justice, as will be seen in the works explored in this paper. The following chapters will prove that the attempt to rewrite traditional humanity unequivocally fails, and the return to true personhood is the only thing that can save each respective society from permanent dystopian hell.

This paper focuses on young adult literature because the teenage demographic lends an interesting perspective to the discussion of technological control in dystopian society. This is because the goal of a new world order is generally formed in reaction to past experience. Usually, responsibility falls to the next generation to be better than, and learn from the mistakes of, past generations, but an overarching theme in the selected works examined in this paper is technological control which strips youth of self choice. In the hope of creating a better future, often one generation restricts the freedom of the next. In such societies, there is no place for youth and coming of age; there is only control.

Many different elements which define humanity, including reason, free will, free thought, love, faith, and discernment. The books selected for discussion address such themes, and will be used to build a case for the importance of unaltered humanity. The discussion of the Uglies series addresses the issue of technological puppetry, implemented with the desire of avoiding past mistakes. Further, Feed addresses the manipulative nature of consumerism and the stoking of greed and ignorance in order to create a dependant society. The Adoration of Jenna Fox, discusses the spiritual implications of a posthuman existence. Finally, Extras, the fourth book in the Uglies series, fosters a discussion on free will and the freedom to make mistakes.

All of the books selected for this thesis have one unifying feature: control. Established by a higher power in attempt to fix past mistakes, this control ultimately denies future generations the right to create their own world. In doing this, those who have sought to eliminate evil have themselves become villains. This theme is reminiscent of reality where those in control establish the world they seek, with no regard to the youth who will one day inherit it. In struggling with and fighting against their dystopian realities, teenage heroes recognize the intrinsic value of humanity as well as the evils of radical transformative technology, and realize that the essence of life exists in freedom to choose one’s own path, no matter the consequences.

 

Methodology

Introduction

This chapter will detail procedures and strategies utilized to gather information on the proposed subject of radical transformative technology challenging the personhood of the teenaged heroes in the selected young adult literature.

Resources

When I began researching this topic as a potential thesis, I first searched the traditional academic resource websites, including JSTOR, EBSCO, and Project Muse for general information on overarching themes in utopian and dystopian literature. The exploration of these databases revealed an assortment of helpful articles and books which discussed the impact of technology and science on broken dystopian worlds. I encountered a large amount of scholarship on traditional dystopian literature such as A Clockwork Orange, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Brave New World, but found a noticeable gap in scholarship reviewing impactful young adult dystopian novels. There is a great deal of scholarship on the societal implications of the current popularity of dystopian young adult fiction, but a profound lack of research on the impact that dystopian societies have on the kids who inhabit them.

In reading the works discussed below, I noted a consistent trend of kids fighting to find the meaning in worlds that had been created for them without their input or consent. This realization led me to consider those who had created the meaning: the older generations. The older generations in my selected works are the people who studied the past and determined that they would build a different future. In many ways, their choices are not unlike those made in the real world, with each preceding generation attempting to better the world for the next, but with one large difference: in these texts, “betterment” is achieved by technologically removing the ability to choose.

After the formation of the thesis statement, I narrowed my search parameters for the purpose of pinpointing transhumanism and posthumanism.  At this point, I sought out the professor who taught the undergraduate Science Fiction Literature course that had piqued my interest in the topic: Dr. David Hogsette of Grove City College. He told me about key works in the field that would be helpful to my work, including How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics by N. Katherine Hayles, Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject by Victoria Flanagan, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnological Revolution by Francis Fukuyama, and Prophets of the Posthuman by Christina Bieber Lake. Once these names surfaced, I began to see them frequently and understood them to be key texts in the field. From these readings, I learned the key differences between transhumanism and posthumanism, and decided that that the focus of my work would be the implications of inserting radical transformative technology into the human subject.

Another person who I spoke with regarding this paper was Dr. Thomas Sigley, a current pastor and former teacher who has studied the moral and ethical implications of biotechnology. This enabled me to set up a helpful framework for my work, considering my preexisting Christian worldview. He provided me with a handful of sources from a Christian standpoint which have colored the scope of my research, including two books by Gilbert Meilaender: Body, Soul, and Bioethics, and Bioethics: A Primer for Christians. This encounter led me back to JSTOR and EBSCO to further research bioethics and the concept of personhood from a Christian perspective.

Within all of the sources that I have acquired, I found a great deal of information attacking and defending the choice to fuse humanity with technology. Some of my sources believe that radical transformative technology is the future and the correct step to take to further the human race. Others believe that it diminishes the worth of the human person and fight against its normalization. I worked to curate a balance between the two viewpoints in order to substantiate my argument with facts from both sides.

My final note regarding the texts that I will be using in my work is that they discuss the very realistic implications of this technology being introduced into society. Although it is my intention to approach the topic from a fictional standpoint, this technology is being developed every day and, while it will probably not manifest in the same ways as in these books, the questions of choice and agency that it raises are as important in real life as they are in fiction.

 

Dissected Texts

Finding texts compatible with my thesis statement proved to be a challenge of compartmentalizing subject matter. Science fiction tends to play with transhumanism and posthumanism in a variety of ways, not all of which are compatible with this specific discussion.  From the beginning, I cast aside books with main characters who were androids or cyborgs, because the ethics of their existence stray away from the question of natural personhood and human ethics that I am exploring. I also discarded works that took place in an unrecognizably distant future or world. An example of both would be Cinder by Marissa Meyer. I finalized my decision to use the Uglies series (Uglies, Pretties, Specials, and Extras) by Scott Westerfeld, Feed by M.T. Anderson, and The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary Pearson, because these books take place in relateable societies that are not too futuristic, and include elements that may be identified with technologies or ethical questions that are relatable to contemporary society.   

The original Uglies trilogy and Feed fall comfortably into the scope of traditional transhumanism, as both books are focused on human beings who have been medically and technological engineered or altered to become superior versions of themselves. In the world of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, children go through a surgery at the age of sixteen, which makes them physically beautiful, but also implants a chip in their brains designed to dumb down society and suppress the inconvenient traits which lead human beings into conflict with each other. In Pretties, the suppressed trait is given an eerie name, considering the dark truth: “pretty-mindedness” (121). An analysis of these books will supply crucial support to the title of this work, “I Want Sin,” which is taken from the Savage’s profound monologue in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Although the character’s in Westerfeld’s trilogy are “pretty,” they come to discover that ugly truth is often most beautiful.

M.T. Anderson’s Feed is the story of a futuristic but familiar society in which individuals all have a “feed,” a brain implant which brings the convenience of social media closer than the fingertips. Mankind has been taken over by advertising and distractions, which intentionally draw attention away from the real issues in the world. People are literally decaying due to disgusting physical legions, but their transhuman alterations consume them. The book deals with the implications that one character faces when her life is deemed unworthy, due to her freethinking nature. In the world of Feed, the cliché “keep up or get left behind” is a morbid warning.  

The Adoration of Jenna Fox is a potentially controversial outlier, as its subject matter falls further into the realm of posthumanism that the other selections. The main character, Jenna Fox, is a girl who has been extremely physically altered by medical technology, her body reconstructed from a mere ten percent of her brain, her organs and limbs built from Bio Gel, and her memories uploaded from computers into her new body. She is certainly more posthuman than my other subjects; however, her story integrates the crucial moral and ethical issues that follow radical transformative technology. Author Mary M. Pierson approaches this topic through a spiritual lens, which provides important grounding to my thesis statement.

My final selection is Extras, the fourth book in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. Extras initiates a conclusive discussion of a rehabilitating futuristic society. The characters still have access to transhuman technology, but their minds are finally their own, and their choices have serious human consequences. I have chosen this work to conclude my discussion because of the crucial developments that the characters are forced to experience as they face the problems that accompany the messy business of humanity.

 

Conclusion

I anticipate that the various topics that extend from this query will complicate my research, and it will become necessary to revisit the introduction in order to keep the backbone of this work intact. However, it is my intention to present a conclusive study of my selected works, backed by research, that will substantiate my claim that radical transformative technology, although tempting, will never triumph over the unadulterated human experience.

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Full thesis available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fpq8Cbcm-VEKe9fL-dxFahsoQgyXrhEUk4v67mGB_nI/edit?usp=sharing