Representations of the Post/Human - Monsters, aliens and others in popular culture
by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
This book is what one might term "audience targeted". Its strength is its deep analysis of the ideological nature of the non-human in popular culture: its weakness is the density of the language involved, together with fuzzy ideology. This is a study for the student of popular culture rather than the occasional dabbler who would like to "get" the philosophy behind 'Blade Runner' a bit more. I'll clarify.
In the Old West of the 19th Century "two-dollar words" meant words out to impress. I like this phrase and reckon it ought to be brought back, so I'll say that this book is chock full of 'em. Although Graham's vocabulary is never inappropriate, it is very exclusive - I found myself checking the dictionary for "ontological hygiene", a phrase which is vital for the "body expansion/invasion" theory of cyborgs. Her coining of the word "post/human", designed to blur the boundary between two states, is another example: although an intelligent trick of language, it felt self-consciously "clever" and a little showy. I certainly felt that the text was clouded by such terminology, although when the sun shone through the criticism was highly intelligent and subtle. Graham explores different representations of altered and artificial "humans", unthreading the implicit attitudes to science, religion and sociology each is built upon. So we have, amongst others, "Much ado about Data" (discussing the 'Star Trek' android) and "The gates of difference" (a handy guide to teratology, the historical study of monsters and their implied moral lessons). Graham's chapters are kept to around twenty pages each, and each punches above its weight in terms of philosophical content. Each study is well informed and the author is clearly a skilled and practised critic. However, I felt the book does not do all it could.
My first gripe is that too much attention is given to particular background texts. Shelley's 'Frankenstein' has book after book on it already and the (originally) Jewish Golem legends aren't worth a whole chapter. Secondly, Graham sometimes fails to explain herself, as when the body of the typical Borg drone is described as "in its mutability and hideous visibility, [it] is effectively a feminized (sic.) body, and thus anathema". I find myself wondering why "feminisation" must follow mutability and visibility. Thirdly, some fairly obvious cultural assumptions are overlooked- I was expecting a deserved attack on the study of Shakespeare being used as "the litmus test of Data's aspirations [to become human]", but one did not appear. 'Star Trek: The Next Generation' mentions a particularly Anglocentric, white, academic, dead definition of "human", and Graham - after quoting it - lets it slide. Compared with the rest of her book it feels like a glaring oversight, especially after the intelligent and cutting multicultural and multiethnic view she brings to 'Trek' in general. Lastly, some of the "texts" she explores are massively obscure - one performance artist in California does not "popular culture" make. I feel this book should simply have cast its net wider (the 'Alien' films, with their mother/predator themes, would have been a fine addition to Graham's study).
All said, I couldn't complain about the level of expertise and craft in this book. However, I did feel that it was unbalanced overall, and it uses excessively complicated language to express points that would be just as insightful expressed simply. This is a high-level, intelligent, good book, but it is not the answer to popular representations of "post/humans"; you'll finish it with interesting new questions instead.