When we’re not humans anymore

Review: In “The New Human in Literature”, AU professor Mads Rosendahl Thomsen looks at 20th century literature to understand what humanity thinks it’s going to be like when it becomes something else

By Viral Shah and Daria Sukharchuk

In a scene in Her, director Spike Jonze’s latest movie, the protagonist Theodore turns the light out, lays in bed, and finally consummates his relationship with Samantha, a girl he met some weeks prior. This would be the classic movie boy-meets-girl cliché – if it wasn’t for the fact that Samantha is an operating system; and a conscious one at that. Voiced by Scarlet Johansson, she seems almost capable of making her partner forget the lonely reality of the act he has just experienced.

The movie, which was awarded the Oscar for original screenplay, is perhaps the most recent in a long line of futuristic visions of how humans and our social norms will change as time goes on. The saturation of technology in our daily lives, from the likes of Facebook and smart phones to artificial limbs, is leading to conceptions of the ‘New Human’ or even a ‘post-human’ species.

Until a couple of decades ago these terms were rarely used. But over the past years they have become a thriving multi-disciplinary field that deals with the uses and ethical concerns of new technologies and more long-term conjectures about the human species.

To trace earlier ideas of humanity and how it is changing, Aarhus University professor Mads Rosendahl Thomsen decided to look at 20th century literature. The result is his book The New Human in Literature: Visions of Changes in Body, Mind and Society after 1900, released, in English, in late 2013 by the British publishing house Bloomsbury.

Speaking to Jutland Station, Thomsen argues that: “The ‘New Human’ is linked to this political ideal that we could change society, human beings, their minds and their ways of behaviour to create a new society and thus, a de-facto ‘New Human’”, adding that the “’post-human’, in turn, is radically different in a biological sense of being a completely different species.”

To research these notions, the Associate Professor in Comparative Literature roughly divides the idea of change into three periods of time across the late 19th and 20th century.

Through the works of British writer Virginia Woolf and American poet William Carlos Williams, he first explores changes and development in the human mind (1880-1930). The second section deals with ideas of grand projects of societal change, ranging from colonialism, fascism and non-totalitarian cultural revolution (1920-1970).

Bloomsbury Academic 256 pages

Bloomsbury Academic
256 pages

The third period, not called “The Final Frontier” for nothing, looks at the impact of biotechnology on the body after the 70’s, through the work of the French author Michel Houellebecq and American writer Don DeLillo. With these works, Thomsen proves literature’s ability to assess the wider context behind a story. For example, DeLillo’s post-modern novel White Noise deals with the implications of a psycho-pharmaceutical called Dylar, which promises to remove the fear of death.

Death, according to Thomsen, is the key to understanding our imagination about the future of humanity. He argues that prior to the 20th century the question about humanity’s future was answered by religion ‒ and the answers revolved around some kind of apocalypse, with heaven or hell as the final point.

Yet, in the 20th century the rising influence of secularization and a broad acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution changed the perception of the present-day humanity as the endpoint of evolution. Others such as Nietzsche also have had a significant influence on forming conceptions of the ‘New Human’ or the ‘post-human’.

In The New Human, a fine addition to this burgeoning field of research, Thomsen often invites the reader to play with such changing conceptions of humanity and the post-human. These ideas of improving mankind or even searching for immortality have been a large aspect of the current popular imagination. For example, in the spate of superhero movies over the past few decades, the bare narrative thread in the likes of Spiderman and the Hulk has involved some genetic mutation.

In our everyday life we rely ever more heavily on Internet, and less on our own memory. According to some researchers, such changes in behaviour can have a profound effect on the evolution of human brain.

Yet Thomsen is reticent to reduce the idea of the ‘post-human’ to mere bio-technological determinism, though he accepts it is a large aspect of current imagining of mankind’s future. The ever-increasing influence of technology seems to be changing our social patterns gradually by minor degrees rather than through grand high-tech experiments.

“We’re all carrying around these smart phones; we’ve only been doing it for five years and a lot of people cannot imagine going back to a pre-smart phone era”, Thomsen says. “But imagine these phones being built into you… we’re just carrying them around so it doesn’t seem that scary.”

Indeed. Perhaps, it is inevitable that these devices will, one day, be conscious. So let’s just hope that they will also be voiced by someone like Scarlet Johansson or Benedict Cumberbatch then.

Viral Shah is an Erasmus Mundus journalism student and freelancer, who has been published in a range of UK newspapers and magazines.

Daria is an Erasmus Mundus student from Russia, who worked as a free-lance journalist for Moscow-based on-line magazines W-O-S and Edutnaime, and her portfolio can be found here: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/daria-sukharchuk/40/359/a3a