Writing from the Contact Zone: Posthumanism in literature and theory

An essay review of:

When Species Meet. By Donna Haraway. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008. 423 pp. $24.95.

The Lazarus Project. By Aleksandar Hemon. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008. 294 pp. $24.95.

By Marianne Apostolides

If God is dead and postmodernism has partied itself into Virtual exhaustion, where does that leave us in the twenty-first century? What is our moment in history — the dynamics that drive our interaction with self and society, technology and nature? Now, as we power into the twenty-first century, what is our metaphysical terrain — the space through which we move and ‘surf’ and slide, dipping into knowledge, held by lust or law, guided by data into unimaginable death?

This is the ‘contact zone,’ treacherous landscape where we’re obligated to carve our own meaning without any guarantee of redemption or success.

Welcome, refugees of postmodernism! You have been preceded by various writers and theorists; their discoveries are surprisingly joyful.

Posthumanism Arises: The Lazarus Project

The Lazarus Project is the latest book by Aleksandar Hemon, the Bosnian-born, Chicago-based writer and recipient of several prestigious literary fellowships. This novel alternates between two main stories: the violent death of Lazarus Averbach, a young Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant who was killed by Chicago’s Police Chief in 1908; and Vladimir Brik, the Bosnian-born, Chicago-based writer and recipient of a prestigious literary fellowship (…sound familiar…?) who travels to eastern Europe, attempting to write the story of… Lazarus Averbach.

Right from the start, the reader can feel himself sucked inside related stories, where reality and fiction tangle into tense, inextricable snarls.

The book opens with the spectacular scene of Averbach’s death. Chief Shippy, ‘protecting’ his lavish home from Averbach, an unkempt alien wielding a pistol, kills the boy in a colossal overuse of violence. Shippy’s bullet-fire unleashes clouds of smoke that forever obscure Averbach’s intention in arriving at Shippy’s house.

Hemon revives this minor historical incident. Through his prose, he conveys the multiple injustices that intersected in the body of Averbach: the pervasive racism against Jews in Chicago; the anarchists’ blatant cooptation of Lazarus’ death for their own political ends; the classism that pitted wealthy Jews against those who, like Lazarus, were impoverished; and, more remotely, the assaults against the Averbachs during anti-Semitic pogroms in Ukraine — pogroms that put Lazarus on-the-run, fleeing his homeland for America, a country that promised opportunity, safety, democracy.

The scenes of historical fiction alternate with those of Vladimir Brik as he embarks on his journey eastward, attempting to complete his own Lazarus project. He has argued — to himself and the grant-giving foundations — that he can’t construct Lazarus’s story unless he returns to that man’s homeland. He must enter the origin of this story, he says. And so, upon receiving the grant, Brik heads east with his childhood friend Rora, another immigrant from Sarajevo; Brik’s American wife remains at home.

Unlike Brik, Rora had remained in Bosnia during the war; he’d witnessed the sniperfire and starvation, documenting it calmly with his camera.

Rora’s presence gives The Lazarus Project its third narrative element. At the beginning of each chapter is a single black-and-white photograph. Historical photos of the real Lazarus Averbach are interspersed with anonymous images from turn-of-the-century Chicago (e.g., the faces of two jaunty young men, or the masculine visage of a bespectacled woman in a long dress) which are themselves interspersed with contemporary photos of landscapes or prostitutes — photos (it is suggested) that were taken by Rora. None of these images are contextualized, nor do they directly relate to the chapter that follows. Their unexplained appearance forces the reader to pause, contemplating this alien mode of information.

Hemon sets all three narrative elements into motion. He commands the material while, simultaneously, releasing it into its own movement; this is both exhilarating and uncommon. It is also essential to his literary project.

Beyond Nabokov: Hemon as Posthuman

As a philosophical and funny writer from eastern Europe, Hemon has often been compared to Vladimir Nabokov. Although I find these comparisons limiting, I can understand them. Both men are emigrant authors composing (or translating) in English; both write about immigrant men living inside the foreign American world; and both command an unusual vocabulary palette. This last element is striking: because Hemon and Nabokov came to English as adults, they don’t assign significance to words through common usage and the untaught acquisition. Instead, significance is determined by the words’ denotative precision, as well as their aural and rhythmic properties.

Whereupon a gigantic Toyota Cherokee, or Toyota Apache, or Toyota Some Other Exterminated People, drove up on the pavement, the tinted windows throbbing with concussive fuck-music. The red doors flew open and there emerged a pair of legs stretched long between the high heels and the flashing groin, over which a pair of bejeweled hands pulled an insufficient skirt. Somewhere up above the legs there appeared a pair of bulbous silicone protuberances, and then a head with a lot of dark, shampoo-commercial hair. [p 209]

‘Concussive’ paired with ‘fuck-music’: that is not the descriptive vocabulary we’d likely hear from a native English-speaker.

These stylistic similarities have been highlighted before, recently by James Wood, the influential literary critic and professor of criticism at Harvard. In his somewhat perplexing review in The New Yorker, Wood praises Hemon’s earlier books, The Question of Bruno and Nowhere Man; he admires Hemon’s ambition and “Nabokovian bloom.” But when he speaks directly of The Lazarus Project, Wood’s praise quickly wilts.

In his review, Wood identifies two main problems: first, the book is too “argumentative” because Brik is “so angry.” (Brik “could use some… bumbling, Pnin-like charm,” he advises.) The second problem concerns the book’s scope. The Lazarus Project, writes Wood, is overstuffed with too many narrative “projects.”

These criticisms seem to come from one central notion: Wood seems stuck on seeing Hemon as the new Nabokov, another Eastern European genius who has chosen to live amongst us. By taking this perspective, Wood has failed to see Hemon as his own author. He has failed, in turn, to understand Hemon’s overarching literary project — one that fits within a posthumanist framework.

Wood is right: Brik is angry.

But Hemon’s handling of anger points toward the novel’s deeper questions about reality, history, and fiction.

The novel’s contemporary narrative is shot through with rage directed mainly at Mary, Brik’s profoundly American wife. Mary is a brain surgeon who deals cleanly, antiseptically in the grey matter of the soul. Her complexities are only hinted at; her inner life is hidden, largely because Brik doesn’t allow himself to imagine it: “You never knew me,” Brik thinks, “nothing about me, what died inside me, what lived invisibly” [234-5]. Only later does he reverse this phrase, making himself the subject.

For Brik, personal and political anger are fed by one vital pool. Mary’s ethical framework, Brik reports, is constructed around her belief in “good intentions.” Mary can maintain this belief because she’s never fully felt — or even imagined — the temptation of violence, the pressure of history pinning her down, limiting her very possibility. She’s never investigated her blasé moral pronouncements, forcing herself to ask fundamental ethical questions about terrorism, state-sanctioned violence, citizens’ obligations during wartime. Brik, steeped in stories about snipers in his homeland and Jewish pogroms in turn-of-the-century Europe — pogroms survived by Lazarus Averbach, who was then shot dead by Chicago’s chief of police — can’t forgive his American wife’s innocence.

The coincidence of personal and political rage is best portrayed when Brik and Mary argue about the photos from Abu Ghraib:

what she saw was essentially decent American kids acting upon a misguided belief they were protecting freedom, their good intentions gone astray. What I saw was young Americans expressing their unlimited joy of the unlimited power over someone else’s life and death. They loved being alive and righteous by virtue of having good American intentions. [188]

In the midst of this political discussion, Mary suggests that Brik would understand America better if he “went to work every day and met normal people” rather than attempt to write a book; Brik responds by “smash[ing] the family china.”

Yes, Brik is angry. But this evident anger serves Hemon’s literary purpose by contrasting with the historical narrative.

In the Averbach story, the constant injustice never burns into angry conflagration. It is made, rather, to smolder. Olga Averbach, Lazarus’ sister, is stoic. She encounters authority from all directions: the police who want to nab Lazarus’ anarchist accomplices, the journalist who wants the scoop, the wealthy Jews who don’t want to be tarnished by association. Olga negotiates all these figures. She proceeds with steadfast restraint, singularly focused on giving her brother a proper burial. Olga desires, above all, to preserve a space of sanctity within this voracious tragedy; as such, she becomes a space of sanctity within the narrative.

It is late morning when Olga limps into the Central Police Station, past a couple of policemen sniggering and exchanging lewd jokes about this disheveled tart, one shoe heel missing. Olga announces to Deputy Sergeant Mulligan that she wishes to speak to Assistant Chief Schuettler. The sergeant laughs and says: “And who might you be, lassie?” But Willim P. Miller, lingering at the station in hope of a scoop, immediately recognize sshe is dramatically distraught; her Semitic features emanate fathomless suffering, her olive skin has a tragic quality — one day, her people will sing songs about her. He whispers something into Mulligan’s ear, and Mulligan shakes his large, cubical head dominated by a broken nose. Olga insists she must see Assistant Chief Schuettler, and Miller is already opening his notebook, pulling a open, like a comb, out of his inside pocket. Olga Averbuch — strong-headed Jewess, suffering tragedienne — contains multitudes and stories. He puts on a charming grin and offers to walk her to Scheuttler’s office, but she does not even look at him. “You must consider having a bath, ma/am,” Mulligan says to her back. “You smell like shit.”

When a brief aside reveals that she likely “perished” in Auschwitz, readers absorb this incidental information as a body-blow — the physical impact of horror.

Hemon’s use of anger highlights a fundamental difference between the two literary narratives. In the Averbach story, the world is fully illuminated. Readers don’t grapple with this narrative. Instead, we relax into observation. We are shown the objects and actors, the causes and consequences; we trust this narrative, assured that the truth will be revealed by the all-knowing, unaffected author.

Brik’s first-person narrative couldn’t be more different. Here the reader must actively engage, questioning the ‘truth’ as written. Brik withholds details and knowledge from himself — and therefore from us; we must read into the information given, seeking the secrets, constructing histories from hints. Brik isn’t manipulating the reader; instead, he’s communicating as a fallible author. Any contradictions and revisions — additions and reinterpretations — are the result of man’s inherent limitations, and the limitations of language.

This contrast between narratives is intensified as Hemon brings them into contact with each other and with the photographic narrative.

Rora’s photography — as discussed in language and presented in image — isn’t an attempt to document historical truth, but rather to experience personal truth. This is something Brik can’t understand, despite Rora’s attempt at explanation:

What you see is what you see, but that is never everything. Sarajevo is Sarajevo whatever you see or don’t see. America is America. The past and the future exist without you. And what you don’t know about me is still my life…. Nothing at all depends on you seeing it or not seeing it. I mean, who are you? You don’t have to see or know everything.

But what do I get to see, then? How do I get to know?…

Hemon’s book seems to suggest an answer — not through its explicit content, but through its form. By entangling the narrative threads, Hemon forces the figures of author and narrator — reality and fiction — to become looped inside each other. Hemon slips inside Brik, who slips inside Hemon. The author isn’t being PoMo-ironic, winking alongside the reader. No, Hemon’s eyes are wide open. He sees the ethical imperatives demanded within this literary space — a space where we are obligated to respond to the stories and histories that connect with our own. This is where Hemon’s book enters the framework of posthumanism.

Defining Posthumanism

The term, ‘posthumanism’ conjures sci-fi fantasias of apocalyptic landscapes and gorgeous, creepy hybrid people ‘perfected’ by technology. This is unfortunate, because the theory itself poses a uniquely human challenge: the challenge to make ethical decisions by engaging in the creation of story and history.

Posthumanism urges us, now, to calm the constant talk — the babble of the internet, the search for information about experience, the performance of ourselves on laptop screens — and enter deeply into a smaller space guided by passion. We are brought back to the physical — to touch — with all its necessary danger.

The theory of posthumanism is introduced in a generous, expansive book When Species Meet by Donna Haraway. This book helped inaugurate the Posthumanities Series of the trend-setting University of Minnesota Press, a series founded on the premise that humanism is “no longer adequate” for understanding humans’ relationship to animals, the environment and technology.

Posthumanism begins by dismissing the “fantasy” of human exceptionalism. Mankind is not alone, standing upright and elect between God and beast, working toward perfectibility through our unique capacity for conscious, rational thought. Instead, we are who we are because of our interrelation with creatures and technologies. “If we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism,” Haraway writes, “then we know that becoming is always becoming with — in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake” [244].

With every action, we are folded into natural and technological cultures. Scroll through these words on your computer. In the low electric hum beneath your fingers, sense the oil extracted from the earth, transported through pipelines that cut through caribou migratory routes, sent to refineries that pollute the air in distant cities, causing childhood asthma which can, thankfully, be treated through modern medicine but only due to laboratory testing on primates.…

In a postmodern age, we would’ve shut down when confronted by this onslaught of information; we would’ve become benumbed by the destructive forces in which we’re directly — but remotely — implicated. You can’t see the shrinking herds of caribou; you can’t hear the asthmatic child as he gasps. But you are connected to them.

When we can’t physically sense the consequences of our ‘innocent’ actions, information becomes bundles of data that stream alongside other bundles of data, all of which form a Virtual Reality that’s disconnected from any physical knowledge. As Jean Baudrillard has persuasively argued, the ‘Real’ has been replaced by the ‘Virtual,’ primarily because the space for imagination — the non-stimulated, silent darkness for quiet contemplation and seduction — has been excised from our internet-era lives. We can’t form a conception of Reality without our own, physical act of imagining into word and scene and image — the personal act of constructing a reality by bringing together disparate thematic strands with our own minds.

In this Virtual Reality, we live atop a surface of signs and symbols. This has resulted in slick, frictionless literature. Words surf in two dimensions — objects and phrases ping across discourses — ideas and characters hypertext through our minds — narratives spread across the vast web of associations. These books are fast-paced and clever. They also feel sophomoric and irrelevant now that we’ve entered the posthuman age, when the towers have come down and the temperature’s going up.

If it’s no longer interesting to write — or live — inside a Virtual Reality of signs and symbols, how can writers respond? And how can their work lead us to rethink ethics in our noisy, busy, interconnected world?

Haraway’s book starts to an answer those questions. She, and posthumanism, provide a framework for rethinking ourselves in our world. This framework ought to be applied to some of our best contemporary writers, including Hemon, who are already writing in a posthumanist context. 1 This theory allows a more precise analysis of how their work moves beyond postmodernism.

Posthuman Love

Haraway understands that we can’t respond to everything in this interconnected information age. She urges us, instead, to find the single issue that compels us as individuals. Through that topic — indeed, through the love we feel toward that topic — we fall deep inside other histories, cultures, landscapes, and creatures. “To be in love means to be worldly, to be in connection with significant otherness and signifying others, on many scales, in layers of locals and globals, in ramifying webs…. Once one has been in touch, obligations and possibilities for response change” [97].

These obligations are weighty, requiring fundamental changes in our behavior. As we connect through these “ramifying webs,” we recognize the extent to which our lives affect others: animals, environments, people. Our lives — like all life — necessitate destruction: we must consume in order to live. Haraway challenges us to possess that fact — to be humble and grateful in the face of such awful power; to be responsible without guilt:

Human beings must learn to kill responsibly. And to be killed responsibly, yearning for the capacity to respond and to recognize response, always with reasons but knowing there will never be sufficient reason…. I do not think we can nurture living until we get better at facing killing. But also get better at dying instead of killing. [81]

In our posthuman age, the apocalypse has all but happened, not just through the capacity for nuclear holocaust, but through the rapid depletion of natural resources. Released from humanism’s false progression toward transcendence, mankind — in its glorious non-exceptionalism — can proceed with the business of acting ethically now, without the assurance of success or the guilt for failure.

Now we must “deepen responsibility to get on together, without the dream of past, present, or future peace” [106].

Now. This is our time.

Posthumanism in Literature: The Contact Zone

The imperatives of posthumanism, as outlined by Haraway, essentially describe Brik’s search for Lazarus’ story — a search that’s driven by his need to understand the current Bosnian conflict that directly affected his own life (and, of course, directly affected Hemon’s life, too). But this fact wouldn’t constitute adequate reason to identify Hemon’s book as an example of a new trend in literature. The real shift concerns the narrative space that Hemon creates — a space that forces the reader to engage with the story in a distinctly posthumanist way.

Hemon’s main narratives — the three “projects” that Wood finds problematic — augment each other through their thematic correspondences and stylistic contrast. As the reader progresses through the book, the narratives seep into each other, uncontained by discrete categories. History, reality, author, narrator, fiction, image, language: all are put in play. The reader is compelled to shape a relationship to the book’s content and themes, working from the uncomfortable — and necessary — space of uncertainty.

That narrative space is one I call the “contact zone.” I’ve taken this term from posthumanist theory, using it to describe a place where truth is not illuminated but is, instead, created through the messy, physical exchange of language and image. This type of writing isn’t aggressive in its destruction of walls and boundaries — a mode that was adopted, effectively, by early postmodernists. Instead, the writing is suspended inside uncertainty, a potent place where regard, response, and responsibility are imperative and unregulated. In this contact zone, the author removes all signposts that might guide the reader, indicating how to approach the work. Is it fiction or non-fiction? Speculative or realistic? Poetry or prose? Creative or critical? Readers, here, must grapple with the narrative as we read; we must adjust, respond, interpret the narrative’s meaning inside the unknown.

Hemon is among a group of writers, including W.G. Sebald, David Albahari, and George Saunders, who have written from this zone. Their commonality isn’t stylistic: posthumanist writing isn’t, by nature, ironic or sincere or speculative. It can be any (or all) of these. Nor is posthumanist literature classified by its content. It would be wrong to assume that this writing must directly address environmental destruction, technology-driven changes in consciousness, or man’s relationship to animals and machines. In other words, posthumanist analysis must examine how the structuring of narrative through language and image is reshaping our engagement with story, and is therefore reshaping our conception of ethics, erotics, and subjectivity in the twenty-first century.

There is much work to be done in this area. And that’s part of the fun: after decades of postmodernism, our writers, readers, and critics seem ready to accept the challenge of joyful, meaningful reengagement.

Marianne Apostolides is a writer and critic whose novel, Swim, explores the eroticism of language, food and family. It was published by BookThug earlier this year. Her first book was published by W.W. Norton and translated into Spanish and Swedish. Her current writing explores the ‘contact zone’ between genres — poetry vs. prose, fiction vs. non-fiction, creative vs. critical. She lives in Toronto with her two children. For a brief review of Swim, check out The Underground Book Club.

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