Tracing the Post-Human impulse: Confessions of the Messenger

Curator's Note

This week’s theme asks us to think through a reoccurring trope in recent sci-fi oriented films. The super-intelligent, post-human, dream woman. This trope is embodied by a woman of incredible abilities, not the least of which is their astounding intelligence, and has exhausted the bounds of the human body. Easily recognizable in Luc Besson’s latest work Lucy, this trope is embodied by Scarlett Johansson’s character who moves from a physical human body to a new shape composed of extreme intelligence and capable of manipulating time and space. The other contributors to this theme week will be discussing her recent numerous roles that embody this trope so I will not address it here but note solely as a type of marker for thinking through this trope as one of process.

I suggest that we think of Lucy as a representation of a more fully realized post-human dream woman. This character has fully developed past the bounds of the body to provide a new world of possibility for thinking through the normal questions of gender that so often code the body. However, if we are to think of Lucy as the marker at the far end of the post-human then how can we think of the beginning of this process? Following Katherine Hayles provocation that becoming post-human is a process, one in which we are able to question the seemingly stable categories of human subjectivity from the inside. I suggest that we understand this argument better by framing it in terms of exposure. That is to say that we can see the beginning of the post-human process as a type of reaching for a new physical medium with which to explore consciousness. To demonstrate this idea I turn to a different film from Luc Besson, The Messenger. Retelling the story of Joan of Arc, The Messenger gives us an image of Joan as a fierce solider plagued by fear and spiritual visions that push Joan to madness.

Besson has continually provided viewers with strong woman characters who embody elements of post-humanist theorization. I suggest that this clip presents the question is the process of becoming post-human displayed as a type of madness? Can we see the projection of Joan’s religious fervor in this clip as a moment of post-human exploration where the limits of Joan’s body have forced her to see a new medium of expression for her overwhelming intelligence and power. More importantly can we view this film as part of a larger argument wielded about Besson that mirrors the possibility of the post-human to reconfigure the conception of the body and the categories of gender that help to stabilize meaning?


Thanks Jason! I think your suggestions to both look to the "birth" of posthuman transformation and to link said transformation to depictions of madness are quite powerful. For me, the later in particular brings up salient thoughts on both what posthumanism might do as a theorietical impulse. At best, poshumanist theorization has allowed for critical new connections to be fostered between ourselves and other objects/spaces/configurations that force us to recognize relationality beyond the material confines of human bodies. In this way, it has worked to decenter the anthropocentric model of existence that has ruled for so long and wrought so much havoc on the environment in particular. At worst, posthumanism and related strains of vital materialisms can slip into a mode of imagining that risks diminishing the bodily stakes of existence (in particular, raced and gendered violence) through (following Rosenberg). rendering the "molecule as metaphor". Your call to read depictions of madness as depictions of posthuman transformation, I think, works to remind us that even in thinking "beyond" the (myth of the) bounded human body, posthumanism should centralize the stakes of life and death (of human and machine, of the environment, of empathic connection alike) it is grappling with.

Thanks for great first post! I like the doubleness of the words 'exposure' and 'medium' in your description-- the relationship between technological artefacts and technologies of expression (something spectral here?). I think this usefully complicates any sense of before/after binary in terms of making a posthuman visible. These technologies do not show us what is a priori posthuman; they are an enabling aspect of Hayles' 'process'. And this seems a way of thinking of both the image and the fervour/madness.

So many interesting points here, Jason. My comments: 1. You make a great point about LUCY's titular character representing the far end of post-humanization. Indeed, I can't really see an alternative interpretation, since Lucy does literally disintegrate and take up a new form of existence as something omnipresent, perhaps even omniscient. However, and following from this in fact, I'm not sure why we should insist that the process of post-humanization, or "becoming post-human," should continually seek new *physical* medium(s). Is it not, instead, that we're striving to shrug off the impairments of physical existence? Should we not read Lucy's disintegration as a gesture that underscores the very limitations of her human body? I guess what I'm saying is that I have trouble seeing why physicality is a necessity. 2. I think your point about representations of this process resembling depictions of madness is an excellent one. WJT Mitchell at the University of Chicago offered a course not too long ago, titled "Seeing Madness," which explored historical representations of madness. And there is of course a long history of madness as simply a marker of (extreme) Otherness. Often, such radically Other bodies were imbued with superhuman qualities. They were also considered to be capable of communing with the divine, or with devils. The character of Renfield in Bram Stoker's Dracula comes to mind. So, to sum up: On the one hand, I think it's a useful idea to consider insanity and sanity as existing along a spectrum rather than as an opposed pair (in fact, much recent work in psychology also tends toward such thinking). In this context, we might consider a more positive inflection to representations of madness. On the other hand, I wonder how far we can reasonably push this line of thinking. Reconfiguration must operate within certain stable parameters, or else it simply leads to chaos. If we understand madness, transports of passion, and other such tropes to capably represent the process of becoming post-human, how do we take care that it doesn't confuse itself with the non-human? Or, ultimately, is one identical to the other?

A very interesting week with some really great posts and provocations. I wonder about how far the idea of "radical" + posthuman + woman is taken by the texts this week (and how far we are willing to take things). I would say that the problem with most imaginings of the "post" often gets recuperated in order to protect and privilege a legible human (and in our case woman). In other words, I am interested in the posthuman that might get read as nonhuman and what is useful about that radicality, queerness, nonnormativity.

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