BMCR 2020.07.44

Classical literature and posthumanism

Giulia Maria Chesi, Francesca Spiegel, Classical literature and posthumanism. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020. xv, 460 p.. ISBN 9781350069503 $240.00.

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

If it is indeed incumbent upon us all “to make the anthropocene as short/thin as possible,”[1] as Donna Haraway avers, where, exactly, does that leave the humanist? And if (as Haraway herself notes, along with other theorists like Jason Moore and Kathryn Yusoff) seeing beyond the anthropocene requires the recognition that even the epochal descriptor itself flattens the distinction between ἀνθρώποι who are the authors of our current global catastrophe and those who are set to suffer most gravely by it, where does that leave the Classicist, when Greco-Roman antiquity has often been characterized by the suppression of the voices of the underclasses, and has in fact been used as justification for modern modes of domination and extraction?

Enter Classical Literature and Posthumanism, edited by Guilia Maria Chesi and Francesca Spiegel, an appropriately sprawling and unruly achievement which, while it may not over the course of its 36 contributions (listed below) offer definitive answers to the unanswerable questions posed above, constitutes both a treasury of provocations and ultimately something more than the sum of its parts. Chesi and Spiegel’s extended introduction offers not so much a primer in the theoretical questions as it does an evaluation of posthumanism’s ethical opportunities and pitfalls, along with a clear-eyed proclamation of their commitment to a particular interpretation of it. They insist that a post/human approach does not necessitate a rupture with humanistic tradition, but rather can be understood as an intensification of humanism’s most emancipatory principles. They assert that the framework’s success in its liberatory endeavors depends on its conception of the heterogenous subject, one that is open and non-self-identical, mutually constituted by its entanglements with, in particular, animals and machines; but—and this is where they endeavor to differentiate their project from adjacent gestures in Classics—this subject “keeps intact the epistemological value of difference and identity,” and does not dissolve into a flat ontology, which, in their view, “amounts to the reduction of the Other to the norms of the self” (pp. 8, 10). They argue for an understanding of the human that is open and porous while insisting on privileging alterity, that is, the particularity of the human vis-à-vis other entities, as well as the difference between self and other. In their view, emancipation will come not from “saming the difference” but from a recognition of the interimplication of various subjects that eventuates an ethics of care, a “moral priority of the Other over the self in an asymmetrical ethical relation which language cannot contain” (10).

After some preliminary notes on organization, I will loosely structure this review around two questions that have lingered most insistently (and that have some overlap with questions raised by Simon Goldhill in his incisive and expansive afterword):

1. Does it undermine the radical framing of the project that, as indeed multiple contributors note, many of the dynamics described in the introduction have also been fundamental to various theoretical movements of the 20th century (e.g. structuralism, poststructuralism, gender studies) and are at times in fact clearly articulated within the ancient texts themselves?

2. How possible is it, really, for classical philology to contribute to such a radical new politics, and do the essays in the volume rise to the political provocations of the introduction?

On both counts I come away with, I think, a somewhat more optimistic view than Goldhill.

After the “Theoretical Introduction,” the volume moves on to a set of four essays under the rubric “Introductions to Post/human Theories.” I am not completely convinced of the usefulness of the section. Some readers may wish to know that two of these essays do not touch directly on antiquity; “Foucault, the Monstrous and Monstrosity,” though a compelling bit of analysis in its own right, feels particularly orthogonal to the volume, as the monstrosity explored elsewhere in the collection is never explicitly Foucault’s. However, the lucid “How to Become a Cyborg” is, despite its lack of engagement with the Classics, a crucial bit of exposition especially for readers unfamiliar with Haraway’s famous manifesto and its legacies, as this hybrid figure is a constant motif throughout the contributions. Timofeeva’s contribution on animals, which queries ancient and modern distinctions between humans and animals via the complementary drives of eros/thanatos, climaxing with an analysis of ps.-Aristotle’s anecdote of a Scythian mare that commits suicide when she learns she has been tricked into mating with her own colt, certainly enriches the collection but would also have been appropriately situated in the volume’s main body.

Despite these quibbles, the collection’s general refusal to obey any neat organizational principles in fact serves as proof of concept. In a manner appropriate for the destabilizing project of the volume, many of the contributions inevitably overflow the bounds of whatever theme into which they have been slotted, rendering four-part categorizations at times arbitrary. I do not note this as a fault, but rather as something to be aware of as one is browsing—the reader interested in animal studies, for example, should not only focus on “Part I: De/Humanization and Animals,” but also “Part II: The Monstrous” and “Part III: Bodies and Entanglements;” in the latter section they’ll find, for example, Provenza’s “The Myth of Io and Female Cyborgic Identity,” which concerns itself, in part, with Io’s bovinity (incidentally, this essay could have found just as happy a home in “Part IV: Objects, Machines and Robotic Devices,” with fellow cyborgs Turnus [“Aeneid 12: A Cyborg Border War,” Giusti] and Pandora [“Pandora and Robotic Technology Today,” Chesi and Sclavi], and the sex robot Pygmalion, who could also have found good company in Part III, and so on). Chesi & Spiegel note that they organized the volume thematically rather than chronologically or by genre in order to encourage serendipidous juxtapositions; the volume as it stands goes even further, enacting the dense entanglements so many of its essays describe.

Burrus, in her gripping discussion of the in- and non-human mutilations of the sacred body of Simeon the Stylite, is one of the several contributors who ruminates on the larger implications of the intersections of posthumanism and the Classics and what it means that all of these nonhuman elements are so present in ancient work. She succinctly proposes an idea hinted at throughout the volume, namely that “we have always been posthuman, but are only just learning to think that thought” (pg. 238-9). A neat and in some ways satisfying supposition, but one that I see ultimately challenged within the volume itself from two different angles. First, two careful and highly productive analyses of ancient philosophical texts reveal that, not only is the heterogenous subject immanent in the poetics of antiquity, as has been well-demonstrated by studies both within the current volume and outside of it, but that ancient theorists themselves were, in fact, quite assiduously attempting to “think that thought.” Schluderer makes a compelling case that Philolaus’ concept of harmoniadescribes the human as defined both by her ontological continuity with plant, animal, and cosmic being as well as by her distinction from these categories. And Dressler shows that Seneca was quite capable of conjuring a way of understanding humanity and its constituent parts that interrogates the complex relations between person and property, anticipating (while also dismissing) a sort of Deleuzian flat ontology. But even more provocatively, Fleming challenges the notion that we are, even now, capable of “think[ing] that thought,” that is, of unthinking anthropocentrism, while simultaneously making a valiant effort to bring us as close to this thinking as is possible. Her piece, “The Sphinx and Another Thinking of Life,” argues that the hybrid Sphinx, as a symbol of the Enlightenment, has always been considered in her capacity as a woman / monster, who in turn midwifes the male / rationalist subject (i.e. Oedipus). But if, instead, we rethink the Sphinx as animal / machine, the result may be an open, heterogenous subject or one defined not by a single Other or limit but by endlessly proliferating limits. Fleming enlists Derrida and Barad to fashion here “a way of recouping the posthuman which admits its ethical lessons – its de-centering of the human – while acknowledging both the fact that for the moment at least it is the human who observes and defines the varying materializations which constitute its world” (pg. 155). And so, again, posthumanism is not an anti-humanism, because the human is impossible for humanity to unthink; the critique, then, is analogous to that of the anthropocene in environmental studies, in which the problem is not the human per se, but the human of domination and extraction. In light of these other contributions, I propose a revised (and notably less elegant) version of Burrus’s summation: “while we have always tried and inevitably failed to think the posthuman, we have only just recently recognized that there is a political and existential imperative to make the attempt.”

More than one of the pieces seems to illustrate the ethical dangers of “saming the difference” that the editors warn against in the introduction. Wasdin’s piece on Martial notes that while, in the epigrams, objects are granted a voice, enslaved people rendered gift-objects remain mute, as though recognizing subjectivity in the inanimate carries with it a corollary danger of suppressing it in marginalized humans. And Geue on Vergil rightly cautions that a blurring of categories is not a political good in its own right, but has often been wielded as a tool of subjugation; and while the poet’s “sympathy” for his subjects entails a collapse of categories, ultimately this collapse only serves to reinforce hierarchies. But other authors find ethical value in the collapse; Thumiger, for example, demonstrates that by systematically breaking down the boundaries between Philoctetes and other entities, Sophocles renders the one-person world cataclysm of chronic, debilitating illness legible to the audience.

Many of the contributions shine a light on the mutually constitutive relationship between humans and technology in antiquity, effectively challenging the accelerationist myth that our current entanglement with tech is unprecedented. Devecka elucidates the conceptual systems through which the bodies of ancient Greeks were crafted, a dynamic interplay between medical regimen and a simultaneously material and imaginary artificial ideal, a system pushed to the limits and thereby laid bare by Herodotus’ anecdote about the seer Hegesistratus and his prosthetic foot. Kirichenko even identifies an ancient analogy for the current techno-capitalist notion of transhumanism in the ways that Plato and Horace use the technology of writing to encode an embodied and dialogic consciousness, rendering their subjects immortal.

While, as I have noted, there is an intrinsic value in the sheer number of approaches represented in the volume, the corollary to this is that many of pieces felt like they ended just as they were getting started, more like gestural sketches than fully fleshed-out visions. Thus, I sense that this volume is less likely to be the definitive account of a set of ideas than it is to be a sort of greenhouse incubator: and I do hope that many of the seedlings tended here grow into larger projects.

In his Schlusswort, Goldhill raises a series of questions and concerns about the future of these projects and the many that they are likely to inspire. One such concern is about the tendency of Classics to revert to “business as usual,” and about the fact that “so few of the chapters in [the] collection followed through on the editors’ stimulus towards imagining the politics of posthumanism (pg. 339). But a new thinking of life will come not only from the manifesto, but from the quotidian, iterative practice of reshaping thought, of destabilizing our focus on the elite male subject, looking at familiar and foundational texts slantwise, finding instead endlessly proliferating new centers of gravity. While the volume presents itself with an impossible task, it also amply demonstrates that impossibility is not the same thing as futility; I look forward to a more open and heterogenous Classics.

Table of Contents

Theoretical Introduction: The Subject of the Human – Giulia Maria Chesi and Francesca Spiegel pp. 1–20

Introductions to Post/Human Theories
The Question of the Animal and the Aristotelian Human Horse – Oxana Timofeeva pp. 23–30
Foucault, the Monstrous and Monstrosity – Luciano Nuzzo translated by Giulia Maria Chesi pp. 31–40
How to Become a Cyborg – Kirstin Mertlitsch translated by Francesca Spiegel pp. 41–48
Anders, Simondon and the Becoming of the Posthuman – Yuk Hui pp. 49–58

Part I. De/Humanization and Animals
Chapter 1. Odysseus, the Boar and the Anthropogenic Machine – Marianne Hopman pp. 61–72
Chapter 2. What Is It Like to Be a Donkey (With a Human Mind)? Pseudo-Lucian’s Onos – Tua Korhonen pp. 73–84
Chapter 3. Quam Soli Vidistis Equi: Focalization and Animal Subjectivity in Valerius Flaccus -Anne Tuttle Mackay pp. 85–94
Chapter 4. Animality, Illness and Dehumanization: The Phenomenology of Illness in Sophocles’ Philoctetes – Chiara Thumiger pp. 95–102
Chapter 5. The Imperial Animal: Virgil’s Georgics and The Anthropo-/Theriomorphic Enterprise – Tom Geue pp. 103–110
Chapter 6. Animals, Governance and Warfare in the Iliad and Aeschylus’ Persians – Manuela Giordano pp. 111–122
Chapter 7. The Sovereign and the Beast: Images of Ancient Tyranny – Roland Baumgarten pp. 123–130

Part II. The Monstrous
Chapter 8. Typhoeus or Cosmic Regression (Theogony 821–880) – Jenny Strauss Clay
pp. 133–140
Chapter 9. Demonic Disease in Greek Tragedy: Illness, Animality and Dehumanization – Giovanni Ceschi pp. 141–148
Chapter 10. The Sphinx and Another Thinking of Life – Katherine Fleming pp. 149–156
Chapter 11. When Rome’s Elephants Weep: Humane Monsters from Pompey’s Theatre to Virgil’s Trojan Horse – Aaron Kachuck pp. 157–166
Chapter 12. The Monstrosity of Cato in Lucan’s Civil War 9 – James McNamara pp. 167–174
Chapter 13. Why Can’t I have Wings? Aristophanes’ Birds – Maria Gerolemou pp. 175–182

Part III. Bodies and Entanglements
Chapter 14. The Seer’s Two Bodies: Some Early Greek Histories of Technology – Martin Devecka pp. 185–192
Chapter 15. Fluid Cypress and Hybrid Bodies as a Cognitively Disturbing Metaphor in Euripides’ Cretans – Johan Tralau pp. 193–202
Chapter 16. Body Politics in the Antiquitates Romanae of Dionysius of Halicarnassus – Y. N. Gershonpp. 203–210
Chapter 17. The Myth of Io and Female Cyborgic Identity – Antonietta Provenza pp. 211–216
Chapter 18. Cosmic, Animal and Human Becomings: A Case Study in Ancient Philosophy – Laura Rosella Schluderer pp. 217–226
Chapter 19. Posthumanism in Seneca’s Happy Life: ‘Animalism’, Personification and Private Property in Roman Stoicism (Epistulae Morales 113 and De Vita Beata 5–8) – Alex Dressler pp. 227–236
Chapter 20. Hagiography without Humans: Simeon the Stylite – Virginia Burrus pp. 237–244

Part IV. Objects, Machines and Robotic Devices
Chapter 21. Assemblages and Objects in Greek Tragedy – Nancy Worman pp. 247–258
Chapter 22. Hybris and Hybridity in Aeschylus’ Persians: A Posthumanist Perspective on Xerxes’ Expedition – Anne-Sophie Noel pp. 259–266
Chapter 23. Malfunctions of Embodiment: Man/Weapon Agency and the Greek Ideology of Masculinity – Francesca Spiegel pp. 267–274
Chapter 24. Aeneid 12: A Cyborg Border War – Elena Giusti pp. 275–284
Chapter 25. The Presence of Presents: Speaking Objects in Martial’s Xenia and Apophoreta -Katherine Wasdin pp. 285–292
Chapter 26. Automatopoetae Machinae: Laws of Nature and Human Invention (Vitruvius 9.8.4–7) – Mireille Courrént pp. 293–300
Chapter 27. Pandora and Robotic Technology Today – Giulia Maria Chesi and Giacomo Sclavi pp. 301–308
Chapter 28. Art, Life and the Creation of Automata: On Pindar, Olympian 7.50–53 – Agis Marinis pp. 309–314
Chapter 29. Staying Alive: Plato, Horace and the Written Text – Alexander Kirichenko pp. 315–322
Chapter 30. Beyond the Beautiful Evil? The Ancient/Future History of Sex Robots – Genevieve Liveley pp. 323–330

Conclusions – Simon Goldhill pp. 331–342


[1] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 100.