Reviews 2016

Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg

Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg. Zoe Jaques. New York and London: Routledge, 2015. 271 pages. $145.00 (hardback).

Children’s Literature and the Posthuman: Animal, Environment, Cyborg by Zoe Jaques is a convincing attempt to undermine the anthropocentric nature of humanism that has penetrated Western literature and culture and to bring forth a posthuman perspective that underscores variability and boundlessness. Jaques's aim is to explore how literary works of the present and the past can be seen as paragons of posthuman ideals. Jaques reflects that "[t]o become posthuman … is a process of abandoning that which we are—to dispose of humanity—in favor of a new ontology which goes beyond borders of our kind" (2). For Jaques, children's literature is a natural ally of the posthumanist agenda as it has traditionally been located "betwix and between" main literary trends, constantly probing the boundaries and occasionally being stigmatized for doing so. Yet, as Jaques maintains, children's literature has been able to harvest the power of imaginative worlds to present childhood as an unstable ontology and in this way to spur the discussion on the very nature of human beings. In the same manner, the instability of the posthuman form spells out a plea that posthumanism should finally have a more prominent role as an ideology that is at the forefront of the changing face of humanity.

Jaques divides her book into three parts that, in her opinion, encompass the complexity of posthumanism in children's literature. This division proves also to be a useful categorization for those who would like to address particular features of the posthuman philosophy, such as the issue of the environment or prospects of cybernetic bodies.

In part one, "Animal," Jaques concentrates on the issue of human uniqueness and the subjugation of animals. This chapter is further divided into "Creature" and "Pet." In "Creature," Jaques explores Swift's Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), which she sees as "proto-posthumanist" works. One cannot disagree with Jaques when she states that the notions of human, animal and creature function in Gulliver’s Travels as a "philosophically sophisticated critiques of human uniqueness" (41). Neither can one object to Jaques’s poignant observation that Alice's Adventures in Wonderland fails to deliver a posthumanist rationale. Indeed, Alice steps into a world where traditional human-animal confines are obsolete, but at the end she finds comfort in a world where these boundaries are kept intact. In the second part of the chapter, "Pet," Jaques observes that pets are robbed of their animal otherness and thus normalized in order to fit well into the human world.

Part two, "Environment," deals with the issue of the natural world and human intrusiveness into ecological systems. In this part, Jaques offers insights into the age-old notion of the subjugation of Earth to human stewardship, which is often just a pretense for an irresponsible exploitation and ubiquitous carelessness when it comes to Nature. Jaques is in strong opposition to such an attitude, proposing instead a more encompassing and appeasing environmentalist method to appreciate and protect Nature. Moreover, Jaques proposes a that "[t]he tropes of the literature of childhood...strongly resonate with reflections on the instability of the human relationship with nature" (17). The first part of this chapter is "Tree," where Jaques points to the importance of trees for pagan religious worship. In her view, their symbolic meaning renders trees with "nascent posthuman potential" (115). Jaques illustrates this point by drawing on poems by Longfellow and Silverstein, in which, as she notes, a paradigm of posthuman thinking is clearly visible. On the other hand, Jaques criticizes Harry Potter series (1998-2007) for the "ethics of mastery" (139). In Rowling's novels, "sentient wood represents a nature that is at once innately powerful—threatening to slip from human control—but simultaneously dominated and effaced" (139). On the other hand, Jaques favors the portrayal of water in Riordan’s Percy Jackson series (2005-2009) as she finds the essence of water to be the perfect example of the spirit of posthumansim—both escape fixed forms.

In the last chapter, "Cyborg," Jaques discusses technology and posthumanism. In "Robot," the first subchapter, Jaques's view is that the existence of the artificial bodies proves that posthumanism at its core should be seen as an inevitable, progress driven (de)evolution in which human is no more (19). She illustrates this point with her analysis of such works as Liddell's Little Machinery (1926) or Hughes's Iron Man (1968). Lastly, in "Toy," Jaques provokingly addresses the ludic features of toys but then immediately grants them a much more profound dimension, arguing that Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio (1883) or Disney's Toy Story (1995) are serious undertakings that subvert the traditionalist view of the human beings as primarily corporal entities.

To sum up, Jaques draws from an impressive body of theory and primary sources to argue that posthumanist interpretation of literature, and especially children's literature, uncovers unknown tracks and leads to a more fulfilling literary experience. Although Jaques's approaches might be criticized as too "baggy" in that they encompass too many various genres that at the time of their making were not seen at posthumanist gateways, her work it is still an impressive piece of literary analysis.

Robert Gadowski
University of Wroclaw and Philological School of Higher Education in Wrocław, Poland