Volume XIII, Number 2, Fall 2017

"Review of Modernist Ethics and Posthumanism" by Dávid Szőke

Dávid Szőke is a PhD student at the University of Szeged. His research interests include the modernist and post-war English and European literature, more specifically the ethical concerns of trauma and memory in Murdoch’s philosophy and fiction. His most recent essay “The Search of Identity and the Process of Emasculation in Iris Murdoch’s A Severed Head” appeared in Hungarian in Tiszatáj. He is currently working on tracking the influence of Central European Jewish literature and culture on Iris Murdoch’s early novels. E-mail:

Modernist Ethics and Posthumanism. Twentieth-Century Literature Volume 61 Number 3
Eds. Derek Ryan and Mark West
Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2015.
pp. 287-304
ISSN: 0041-462X
e-ISSN: 2325-8101


Twentieth-Century Literature (TCL) is a prestigious academic journal published by Duke University Press four times a year with the aim to share new insights on the literary-cultural production emerging from or responding to the twentieth century. It features scholarly essays that explore how the literary cultures of the times were informed by the crucial intellectual, social, political, aesthetic, economic, and environmental developments that have proved to be formative of their times as well as our early-postmillenial era.

TCL’s sixty-first special issue devoted to the topic of “Modernist Ethics and Posthumanism” offers readers an exciting collection of six in-depth analyses of the formal and thematic experiments that canonized and marginalized modernist authors used to explore the moral philosophical stakes of human relations to nonhuman alterities. Already the promotional blurb promises to explore a wide variety of non-anthropocentric ties “from snakes to sheep, from hyenas to moths, from rural landscapes to childhood objects.” Expanding the notion of subjectivity beyond the human species’ cognitive confines, the articles reinterpret modernist ethics along the lines of recent theories of posthumanism, informed by seminal thinkers ranging from Jacques Derrida and Bruno Latour to Jane Bennett, focusing on textual significance of nonhuman agents including animals, plants, objects, built and natural environments.

The introductory essay provides a critical examination of the links between modernist aesthetics and posthumanist ethics in a comparative reading of D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake” and Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth.” Derek Ryan approaches the interface of these two texts as an example for the nonanthropocentric ethical intersections between humanity and animality. As Ryan claims, both texts open possibilities of a posthumanist concern within modernist ethics by destabilizing human-centered worldviews through the use of figurative language and an advance toward the nonhuman. Suggesting a “nonanthropocentric anthropomorphism” to be central to Woolf’s and Lawrence’s writings, Ryan stresses the importance of a modernist ethics grounded in the effort to acknowledge the requirements of an “unrecognizable” modernism. Derrida’s concept of “unrecognizability” is recycled with reference to a human responsibility to engage with the radically dissimilar, “monstrously other” throughout transhuman, interspecies relational ties, offering the cornerstone of a non-narcissistic, non-dogmatic, non-authoritarian ethics – apt to undermine the hierarchical relationship between human self and nonhuman ‘others’ by rejecting the simple integration of lesser species into a human(ist) moral code. Only after the transformation of our conceptualization of these categorizations can we truly recognize the inherently unrecognizable.

Stephen Ross’s analysis of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India draws attention to the episode of the car crash preceding the expedition to the Marabar Caves and the character of the hyena in particular, who is blamed for the accident. Ross argues that the novel develops an ethics of alterity that foreshadows the visionary unmaking of the human/animal binary as outlined in the works of Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. Tackling various portrayals of the hyena in Western, South Asian, as well as English cultural history, Ross interprets the hyena as a symbol of ambiguity that problematizes gender, racial, and ethical positionalities. A stylistic analysis, focusing on the language of the novel, associates the hyena with spectrality – a Derridean term for a curious in-between status at once both present and absent, defying the framework of ontology by exposing its limitations – calling attention to a blend of two incompatible narrative threads, a rational English and a supernatural Muslim one.

In his comparative analysis of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Archaischer Torso Apollos” Gabriel Hankins relies on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, urging a social scientific reconsideration of human relations to nonhuman actors’ agency. He calls for a compositionist ethical approach that allows us “a new understanding of the fragile, processual, and vital imbrication of politics, objects, institutions, and attachments in literary modernism, a critical position with implications for the ethics of literary critique more generally” (331). Hankins’s approach is thought-provoking: his focus on Rilke’s broken torso of Apollo and Woolf’s broken portrait of a young man sheds new light on how the world and art are perceived in fragmented and mystified forms throughout modernist experimentalist spectatorial/writerly modes. By integrating the stream of consciousness narrative technique within a moral philosophical framework, he refuses charges condemning modernist stylistic bravado for apolitical impartiality.

Latour’s and Michel Serres’ thoughts on pacifism provide key concepts to Jeff Wallace’s essay on Samuel Beckett’s Murphy that also embraces the notion of “compositionism” as an alternative to criticism. Beckett’s 1938 novel is a dystopic vision that tackles the moral dilemma of freedom and peace, mapping the title character’s ‘moral travel’ from sheer solipsism to the understanding of the fragmented yet interrelated nature of the world. Focusing on Murphy’s encounter with Mr. Endon, one of the patients of Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Wallace gives a curious account on how Murphy’s view of insanity as an alternative to conscious existence can be put in parallel with this “compassionate encounter, embodying a spirit of peaceful if recalcitrant coexistence.” Linking Latour’s “compositionist” view to modernist experimentalism, the essay explains how Beckett’s novel demolishes the division of human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate. Madness is interpreted as a posthumanist experience, a form of animism blurring the human-animal-thing divide and illuminating the totality of being, once humans “resemble humanistic images of themselves, but seem much more prone – as prone as the sheep – to a strangeness and a determinacy that lies beyond them.” The conclusion suggests that a plurality of reading that moves beyond “a professional paranoia fuelled by the hermeneutic of suspicion” may open up Murphy’s text to a multiplicity of reading practices.

The following two essays deal with modernist novels written by undervalued women writers who destabilize the social status quo of their time by focusing on feminine experiences of the nonhuman life-forms (the natural environment or the objects inhabiting it) and offer a critical assessment on the posthuman in their own ways. In his essay Sam Wiseman explains how Mary Butts’ fiction is fuelled by the tension between her affective attachment to her home place, the rural English Dorset-region and the allure of the unknown metropolis hailed by cosmopolitan modernity promising new adventures. Butts’ insistence on ties between human and nonhuman beings, and her marginalization of anthropocentric perspective invests her writing with posthumanist ethical implications. The portrayal of the natural environment as a strange ‘other world’ culminates in her depiction of the rural Dorset landscape where nonhuman energies permeate the civilized territories of human life.

Laci Mattison reads Elizabeth Bowen’s The Little Girls in the light of Bill Brown’s and Jane Bennett’s theories of “thingness” with the aim to explore how nonhuman objects intersect with the social reality they simultaneously destabilize. The article examines the posthuman in two ways: as a concern about a literal extinction that leads to the realization of a dystopic vision of “the world after humanity” and as a nonanthropocentric approach that is ready to deal with “the life of things beyond the human world.” As Mattison claims, the objects in Bowen’s fiction articulate “an obvious need to mean something,” yet her novels also recognize objects’ incapability to communicate. In this respect, the paradoxical status of Bowen’s objects reflects the doublebind of postmillennial human existence: the obsession with the threat of extinction reveals a dread about the future of humanity but it also acknowledges the inevitable future disappearance of our species.

By regarding posthumanism as a concept tightly connected to modernist ethics, the authors of this volume add new perspectives to the research on literary modernism. The focus of the six articles on an ethics that is open to both human and nonhuman beings is captivating and uniquely timely. The volume manages to revolutionarily decontextualize modernist literature by removing it from its static historical framework, and approaching it to cutting edge postmillennial philosophies, by convincingly explaining how a corpus of early 20th century fiction can function as a vanguardist predecessor to 21st century theoretical tendencies and cultural anxieties.