Why I Stayed with the Human

Kaisa Kortekallio

kuva_Kaisa_Kortekallio_2012_for_blog

Image: Kaisa Kortekallio, Lukija (Reader), 2012. 

Recently, I wrapped up a PhD thesis on “mutant narratives” – science fictional narratives that challenge the supremacy and cohesion of human subjects by persuading their readers into taking awkward positions. On the cover of the printed book, I placed a picture of a human-shaped figure, falling or sinking, glued together from pieces of blue and red paper (see the image above). 

In 2012, when I was working on both my Master’s thesis and such bricolage, I called the work Lukija (“Reader”). Back then, I lived with unarticulated feelings about immersion, enchantment, ecstasy – of being made anew by the strange agencies at work in reading. The various images, shades and textures of paper cuttings, along with their material histories in magazine publications, offered a way to work with those feelings and render them visible. During the PhD work, as I delved deeper into science fiction, cognitive narratology, and posthumanist theory, this initial intuition about reading was both affirmed and complicated. 

The figure, however, was and is coherently bound by its human-shaped outline. In a posthumanist work critical of liberal humanist subjects, is this not a little suspicious? Why stick with this figuration? 

Short answer: because I tried something else too, and failed. 

Long answer: even as I conceptualize myself as a multitude, a holobiont involving a variety of species, a spaceship for bacteria, a bricolage of materialcultural bits and pieces, I move as one. I do not seem to be able to shed this operational and experiential unity. I can take leave of it, in sleep, meditation or reading, and temporarily lose all sense of boundary between this body and other things – but whenever this body moves again, it moves as one, and the boundary reappears. The skin may be permeable, but it is still a very real boundary. 

Crucially, a similar dynamic of collage and cohesion took place in writing a PhD thesis. In reading science fictional narratives – Greg Bear, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeff VanderMeer – I was often temporarily altered by what I read. The emotionally persuasive mutant families of Bear’s Darwin’s Children (2003) had me sobbing at the dream of familial unity; the oppressive heat wave and political tension in Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl (2009) struck resonance with the oppressiveness of the dark and rainy winter of 2017; and after reading VanderMeer’s Southern Reach (2014), I found myself emulating and repeating phrases and behavioral patterns that I hadn’t consciously noticed during first, second, or even third readings. Simply put – and this is also the gist of the thesis – these narratives became a significant part of my lived environment, and as that lived environment, they grew into me. Or, in more technical terms: as cognitive artefacts, science fictional narratives participated in the construction of (my) readerly subjectivity. In analysis, I traced this back to both narrative techniques and the experiential and material contexts of reading. The biggest challenge – which I think I failed, in the end – was how to best address such a readerly experience in writing. 

Initially, I wrote chapters of the thesis in variating and intermeshing voices and registers, thoroughly haunted by the voices and registers of the stories and theories! – that I was thinking with. The feedback I received in seminars was immediate and severe: this is not how we do things in academia. You have to develop your own voice. You have to establish authority over the work, and guide the reader through your thinking with a stable, coherent presence. 

And so I did. In the final assessment, my primary reviewer states that the “clear and self-confident voice [of the thesis] makes it a pleasure to read.” Every time I read these words, I cringe. Offering such pleasure makes me restless, hesitant, and at times even desperate: is this really what I am expected to produce, again and again? This repetition of the self-confident voice of the expert? The human-centered voice that in no way challenges the readers habitual sense of communication, the sense of being in touch with a person? 

Any student acquainted with poststructuralist theories knows that any textual person, whether in fiction, in nonfiction, or research, is a construction. However, the same student is encouraged and even required to assemble and congeal textual persons that are plausible to the assumed reader, that ring true. They are encouraged to feel such persons as natural, as expressions of themselves. This is anthropocentric subjectivation at work. 

How would one construct posthumanist textual agencies that ring true? Figurations that manage some kind of plausibility and still acknowledge the messiness and heterogeneity that make up writing bodies and subjects? What kinds of posthumanist voices can there be, now, at this moment in time? 

I do not know. I have no practice in developing such voices. So far, I have only practiced coherence and communication. In more-than-human environments, this practice makes me feel insecure, untruthful, and alone. 

In the thesis, the “clear and self-confident voice” states that “the ethical and practical starting point as well as the ongoing process” of the study is marked by Donna J. Haraway’s (2016) notion of staying with the trouble. On the first page of the book of the same title, Haraway writes of learning to be present “as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.” My thesis takes on the task of staying with the human figure – as it is repeated and reconfigured in certain works of science fiction, and as it constrains and structures both embodied experience and scholarly subjectivity. As I was being shaped in those seminars, such a task seemed proper. After the work was done, the old bricolage figure also seemed proper. 

My best hope for the future is that after all these years, the papery figure is still falling. Maybe the glue slowly erodes, and the pieces come apart a little. Maybe there are cracks and pores for new growths in and out. Maybe there is also room for a present in which such figurations of metamorphosis can be inhabited, not in escapist or romantic mental enclaves but in more-than-human daily lives. 

*** 

On most days, Kaisa Kortekallio, Ph.D., can be found staring and poking at various living things in a garden in Espoo, Finland. Her Ph.D. thesis, Reading Mutant Narratives: The Bodily Experientiality of Contemporary Ecological Science Fiction, is available here.

 ***

References: 

Haraway, Donna J. 2016: Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham & London: Duke University Press.  

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