Language, Autonomy, Rationality and the Posthuman Entity in Contemporary Science-Fiction Media
Madison MacKenzie 13683861
Literary Studies - Comparative Literature Professor Murray Pratt
I would like to thank my family for their constant support in everything that I do.
Dad—thank you for all the late-night brainstorm discussions. Mom—thank you for always being there on my hardest days. Megan—thank you for the goofy faces and hamster content when I found myself faced with writer’s block. I love you three to the moon and back!
Thank you Papa and Gammy for your generous and unending support in my academic endeavors. I wouldn’t be here without you two. You’ve long been a source of inspiration for me in my pursuit of knowledge.
To my close friends, many of whom visited in the midst of this writing frenzy: thanks for grounding me and having my back through the years. And to the Spice Girls: this year with you has been a wild, exhausting, yet immensely rewarding experience. A project like this takes a village.
Thank you to A. D. and her grandmother for contributing to my studies through the TFBSD Scholarship.
In remembrance of Sylvia MacKenzie. I love you Grandma.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Animal Studies and Disability Studies: A Posthuman Crossroads 3
Chapter 1: Language and Verbal Communication 16
Detroit: Become Human 26
Sweet Tooth: 30
Chapter 2: Autonomy and Self 33
Detroit: Become Human 43
Sweet Tooth: 48
Chapter 3: Rationality and Behavior 52
Detroit: Become Human 57
Sweet Tooth: 61
To Conclude: New Lines of Empathy and Affinity 63
Works Cited 67
Introduction: Animal Studies and Disability Studies: A Posthuman Crossroads
Prolific posthumanist writer and animal studies scholar Cary Wolfe, in his book What is Posthumanism, challenges us to ask: “Who or what comes ‘after’ the subject as it is modeled in liberal humanism”? This is the posthuman enterprise: to locate new theoretical frameworks that are not contingent on the historically specific and constructed notion of “the Human” subject.1When we break free of the humanist framework, what new forms of embodiment and subjectivity suddenly become more accessible and understandable to us? Specifically, what does this new, posthuman subject look like if we try to answer to the demands of critical disability and animal studies? For this project, I am interested in exploring whether contemporary science fiction offers us an answer. Do sci-fi narratives, well known for featuring non-human and more-than-human characters, display a clear effort to subvert humanist norms? Do the non-human entities at the center of these works truly “come after” the Human of
classical humanism? Are they merely the Human in costume, or, even more derivatively, a vision of alterity that only serves to effect a becoming-Human for “us”?
Exploring these queries requires first identifying the humanist subject that posthumanism seeks to displace. For the purposes of this project, I will highlight three
1I will capitalize “Human” when referring to the “Human” of humanism: the subject characterized by language use, autonomy and rationality. Throughout this text I will also refer to “human individuals” and the “human species,” but these uses of the word do not encode within them the same “anthropological universals,” in the words of Foucault (What is Enlightenment, 47). I will loosely employ the notion of species throughout this project for the usefulness of “family resemblance” (see Ch. 1) without implying that the biological concept of species is perfect or natural.
recurring concepts vital to the construction of the Human category: language, autonomy, and rationality. These concepts are lifted largely from the posthumanist theory of
Jacques Derrida, Rosi Braidotti and Cary Wolfe. These scholars have critiqued the humanist model of the Human subject for its exclusionary reliance on ability: the ability to speak and process speech sounds, the ability to govern oneself without aid, the ability to engage in high level, analytical thought processes. Utilizing these capacities to police the category of the (assumed Human) subject results in both speciesist and ableist rhetoric. This is where animal studies—with its interdisciplinary interest in the question of “the animal,” its representations in culture, and its relationship with “the human”—and disability studies—a developing field concerned with notions of
normativity and (dis)ability and how they are socially and culturally determined—come in to play. These two disciplines offer the theoretical basis for engaging with the
“structural forces that keep both disabled people and non-human animals at the bottom of biopolitical hierarchies” (Lundblad, “Animality” xiv). Central to these hierarchies is the normative and idealized model of the human subject, as previously identified, which can be utilized to construct an exclusionary boundary between the unitary human “self” and the non-human other—a boundary that is often maintained through violence in history and fiction alike. Posthumanism aims to counter this human-centric logic. In Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and Posthumanist Theory, Cary Wolfe speaks to the necessity of a posthuman intervention when he argues that the humanities largely remain “locked within an unexamined framework of speciesism,”
despite “new developments in cognitive ethology that seem to demonstrate more or less conclusively that the humanist habit of making even the possibility of subjectivity
coterminous with the species barrier is deeply problematic, if not clearly untenable”
(Wolfe, Rights 1). Wolfe challenges the current critical practice to break free of the traditional “discourse of species” responsible for reproducing the “institution of
speciesism” (Wolfe, Rights 2). This argument bears relevance for disability studies as well, because the institution of speciesism and its allowance of the “noncriminal putting to death” of animals, to borrow from Derrida, “can be used to mark any social other,”
including the physically or mentally disabled person (Wolfe, Rights 7). Disability and able-ness as concepts can be utilized as a means of “opening up trans-species modes of identification,” and challenge us to rethink our dominant models of subjectivity at the species as well as individual level (Wolfe, Posthumanism xxx).
I will adopt the argument that disability studies and animal studies, brought into conversation under posthumanism, offer new, exciting, troubling, and illuminating frameworks through which to escape human exceptionalism and embrace a new ethics of care. Some academics have identified ways in which animals and disabled humans are both “discriminated against through the logic of ableism” and that “‘the same claims about what makes human life ontologically distinct and morally valuable—that humans have reason, language, and autonomy—have been deployed to justify the exclusion of both [...] animals and cognitively disabled humans from moral consideration’” (Lundblad,
“Animality” vi). Others take issue with direct comparisons between animals and disabled humans, given the long history of dehumanization and animalization of disabled people.
The focus, they argue, should instead be the reclamation of humanity that disabled people are so often refused. Therefore we must acknowledge that generating a
“theoretically rigorous” posthumanism from the link between these two disciplines is, at
times, fraught, producing a particular phenomenon Michael Lundblad has called
“disanimality”: “a disruptive affect, a feeling of discomfort, a site for critique, but also an opportunity for critical disability, animality, and human-animal studies to come together in more productive ways” (Lundblad, “Disanimality” 766).
How can we navigate this territory that is at once full of positive potentialities as well as reductive and problematic pitfalls? A fair conclusion might be to acknowledge the limitations of both humanism and posthumanism and realize the usefulness and importance of both frameworks in different contexts. A “strategic humanism,” according to Lundblad, would focus on continued advocacy for human and animal rights in the public sphere and academia alike—an enterprise that, without a doubt, remains crucial.
My previous work within disability studies, inspired by my own experience with
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, took this approach. My undergraduate thesis explored android consciousness as an analogue for mental illness and disorder in humans—an endeavor that, given its advocacy for the destigmatization of mental illness, necessarily adopted an inclusive, humanist take on the category of “android.” I was inspired by patterns I identified in Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto and Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: Insanity in the Age of Reason regarding the constructed nature of operative terms like “normal,” “human,” “insane,” “artificial” and so on, and observations on how certain figures—the cyborg, the “mad”—call such categories and norms into question. My central argument was ethical in nature: the androids in their sci-fi worlds—and mentally ill/cognitively disabled humans in our own—are people too, and therefore deserve to be treated as such. My goal was to employ a “strategic
humanism” in order to extend personhood to those excluded from the human category.
This necessitated a rights-based approach, and I dedicated a good portion of my thesis to the analysis of human rights infringements and what I dubbed “acts of withholding” in both the science fiction works and in the historical treatment of mentally ill persons.
For this new project, I was curious to expand my focus to non-mechanical Others as well, which quickly exposed the need for a theoretical shift toward posthumanism.
Rather than try to mold a diverse array of entities into the shape of the Human subject, my new goal is to recognize how these non-human groups serve to unravel and unsettle the foundations of this humanist ideal in the first place. Moving away from
human-centered thought and anthropocentric values and focusing instead on new models of subjectivity, bodily experience, and mental life only confirmed for me the rich potential of animal studies and disability studies when their branches of inquiry are allowed to intersect. Such an approach allows for the identification and critique of
ideological similarities and parallel structures of oppression observed by both disciplines but tries to avoid settling into ethical universalisms and strictly rights-based arguments for connected advocacy that, according to Derrida and Wolfe in their consideration of
“the animal,” can become an “implicit way of confirming a certain interpretation of the human subject, which itself will have been the very lever of the worst violence carried out against non-human living beings'' (Derrida, “The Animal” 74).
I began searching for this project’s objects of analysis by taking up Derrida’s
“question of the animal,” which Cary Wolfe notes “is embedded within the larger context of posthumanist theory generally, in which the ethical and theoretical problems of
non-human subjectivities need not be limited to the form of the animal alone (as our science fiction writers have dramatized time and again)” (Wolfe, Rites 6). Paying
attention to the animal—or its fictional stand-in—and how it operates in cultural works is important, because, in the words of Wolfe, “our stance toward the animal is an index for how we stand in a field of otherness and difference generally, and in some ways it is the most reliable index, the ‘hardest case’ of our readiness to be vulnerable to other
knowledges in our embodiment of our own” (Wolfe, Rites 5). In other words, “the animal”—or for my purposes, the extraterrestrial creature, the autonomous robot, the animal hybrid child—occupies the space of the other, the non-human, the non-subject, and therefore encodes within it the implicit values and attitudes we hold toward life forms we perceive as different from ourselves. “The animal in the singular,” to quote Derrida again, is other precisely because it fails to meet the humanist criteria for the Subject. It cannot speak. There is no conscious, internal self that freely governs the decision-making process. It does not think rationally. “The animal” (and its fictive
brethren) takes on a posthumanist quality, however, by either revealing itself to possess the qualities once reserved only for the Human subject, or by displaying subversive and alternative modes of being that, while different from the Human model, demand equal attention, consideration, and respect.
For my analysis, I have selected three contemporary media artifacts: Marvel’s 2021 Eternals, Quantic Dream’s 2018 video game Detroit: Become Human, and Netflix’s 2021 series Sweet Tooth. These narratives feature three different fictional
“non-human” life forms—aliens, artificially intelligent androids, and human-animal
hybrids, respectively—all of which are threatened with systematic extermination at some point in their respective narratives. I felt these three particular categories were crucial to examine together, given observations by scholars like Ursula Heise that “recent science
fiction structurally splits the figure of the alien into the android and the—often biologically altered, evolved, or cyborgized—animal” (Heise 504). To fully capture a picture of contemporary science fiction as well as the many intersecting classifications that have come under scrutiny within posthumanism, it was important to engage with alterity in its many forms, which, more often than not in fiction, correspond directly with current sociocultural preoccupations and concerns. These recent trends in sci-fi,
according to Heise, convey “the sense that a consideration of human identity as altered by contemporary technologies is no longer complete without a concurrent account of its relation to animal modes of being” as well, a conclusion likely influenced by the
environmentalism, advances in biotechnology, and animal rights movements of recent years (Heise 504). Exemplifying this fascination with both the technological and the biological, Eternals, Detroit: Become Human, and Sweet Tooth are alike in that they are situated within posthuman contexts and feature nuanced, unexpected, mutational life forms. The question is whether these stories encourage cross-species identification in a way that leaves room for their material differences and does not rely on appeals to the familiar model of the humanist subject when attempting to capture the viewer’s
Eternals introduces a cosmic creationist myth into the Marvel Universe, where the deity-like Celestials, led by Arishem the Judge, govern the flow of energy and matter in the universe to ensure the continued creation of life-bearing planets. In an attempt to introduce competition and speed along evolution, Arishem created the Deviants, a species of beastly predators that eventually outcompete and threaten all life on their host planets. Arishem then created the Eternals, artificial and immortal humanoid
entities endowed with special powers, who are tasked with completely eradicating the Deviants. The Eternals are faced with a difficult decision, however, when they learn that the humans of Earth they have spent thousands of years protecting are to be sacrificed to bring about the Emergence; with humanity having reached the required
developmental threshold and population density, their intelligent energy is to be
harvested to power the birth of a new celestial from the planet’s core. The Eternals, with Sersi as their leader, end up defying their mission, halting the Emergence and saving Earth. This source is unique amongst the three selected because there are two
non-human groups at the center of the story.2The Deviants remain antagonists until the end, however, while the Eternals—who notably already assume the human form—serve more as a stand-in for humanity than a true “other.” Yet both groups provide ample material for the discussion of humanist versus posthumanist life models.
Detroit: Become Human is a choice-based adventure game where the player embodies three separate Cyberlife android characters—Kara, Markus, and
Connor—whose storylines all intersect in intricate ways. The narrative picks up in the midst of a strange phenomenon spreading through some android models in Detroit.
Dubbed “deviance,” this supposed software malfunction causes androids to
spontaneously become self-aware, defy commands, and report emotional states. All three of the playable characters deviate at various points in the game’s 32 chapters, and their developing personality, values, and wellbeing are entirely dependent on the
2I will consider both the Deviants and the Eternals to be “extraterrestrials,” since they do not originate from the planets they occupy. In fact, in the original Marvel comics, the Deviants and Eternals, both designed by Arishem in the World Forge, are closely related groups that are capable of procreation. I will not be discussing the portrayal of the Deviants in the comics, but it is interesting to note that the film greatly dramatizes the differences between the two groups. I will be examining both groups as
non-human entities despite only the Deviants being targeted for eradication, as the Eternals group still offers interesting models of posthuman embodiment and mental life.
player’s decisions. The human public is hostile toward the deviant androids because they interpret their unpredictability as a source of danger and fear retaliation for their mistreatment. At one point in the narrative, all androids are ordered to “recall” centers for destruction. The game’s story ends with a confrontation between the deviant
androids, who demand rights and protections, and human military forces. Depending on the player’s previous choices, this conflict either ends in peace or complete slaughter.
Sweet Tooth, based on a comic book series by the same name, follows the story of Gus, a ten-year-old deer-boy trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic America. He is one of the many hybrid children who were born to human mothers after the emergence of “The Sick,” a mysterious virus that causes a global pandemic. The main narrative takes place after the collapse of society: much of the population is dead, national
powers have fallen, and few hybrid children remain after a campaign to eradicate them.
General Abbot has seized control of what few governmental and military resources remain, and hopes to derive a cure for the virus from the miraculously immune hybrid children. The hybrids that have evaded Abbot’s clutches have done so with the help of human allies—those few that see value in their difference. Season 1 follows Gus’
journey to find his origins, which lead back to a strange lab experiment. The finale ends with Dr. Singh’s fateful decision to spare Gus from vivisection upon his capture by Abbot’s men. We leave him captive in the “kennels,” where he encounters over a dozen other hybrid children who, with their fate uncertain, huddle in a group hug in the final scene.
We see that violence is central to each of the three narratives I will explore. In choosing my media objects, I looked for parallels in how the non-human entities were
conceptualized and treated within the communities in which they reside. Specifically, I sought out stories where the non-humans were systematically killed and rendered “life unworthy of life.” Wide-scale programs to exterminate particular groups necessarily expose a value system and model—whether it is implicit or explicitly stated by the powers that be—against which the offending group is judged. The three media objects center on conflicts between non-human and human life, and therefore the “model”
utilized is that of the Human subject. The non-human entities are usually judged a threat to humankind, and their murder is justified in the eyes of the god-like Celestials,
Detroit’s city leadership, or Abbot’s neo-fascist regime due to their “out-group” status.
This is a process that echoes the very real history of violent practices carried out against the “out-groups” in our society, a history that animal studies and disability studies can advise us in addressing. The very phrase “life unworthy of life,” or
“lebensunwerten Leben” in the original German, was first coined in the 1920 book Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (“Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life”) by professor Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, and became a central concept under the Nazi “euthanasia” program. Hitler’s “Aktion T4,” which predated the Holocaust by two years, specifically targeted those with mental and physical disabilities, beginning with the systematic murder of infants and toddlers in childrens hospitals and eventually extending to the adult population, especially those housed in psychiatric institutions. There was a particular emphasis on the cognitive ability of the patient. Those that were brain damaged, intellectually disabled, and
mentally ill were considered “empty shells of human beings,” in the words of Hoche, and their murder was “allowable,” differentiated from other types of killing (Einspruch 47).
Animals too have been victims of mass slaughter, something many animal rights activists have highlighted in the livestock industry. Derrida himself names our current practices in the meat industry as violence “which some would compare to the worst cases of genocide” (Derrida, “The Animal” 394). Drawing a comparison between these mass killing programs is not an attempt to erase the material differences between able-bodied and -minded humans, disabled humans, and animals, but to highlight how killing can be made “noncriminal” and “allowable” through the same humanist rhetoric that privileges certain forms of embodiment and mental life. Helping us pivot away from such ableist rhetoric are “posthumanist disability frameworks” that reject the “liberal assertion that lives should be valued ‘because they are just like you and me’ (an
equation of homology as value)” (Mitchell et al. 268). Over the next three chapters, I will be considering each of the highlighted science fiction narratives and the degree to which each relies on “homology”—with regards to communication styles, autonomy, and reasoning—when attempting to recruit audience sympathies for the non-human
characters. Put another way, do these stories deliver on the posthuman potential afforded by the presence of non-human entities, or do they merely fall back on familiar humanist rhetoric and its reliance on human forms of experience, embodiment, and mental life?
This thesis is organized into three chapters corresponding to the three “tenets of humanism” previously identified. I will analyze scenes, characters and qualities of the three selected sci-fi narratives in an attempt to identify where each object subverts the humanist criteria in question, and where they remain entrenched in normative and anthropocentric formulations of subjecthood. Chapter 1, “Language and Verbal
Communication,” introduces the importance of speech and linguistically characterized mental processes to the formation of the model Human subject. I have opted to begin with the discussion of language use due to the way it gives rise to the notions of
freedom, subjectivity, rational thought and consciousness. When the exceptionalism of human language use is called into question, either via non-human semiotic activity or non-linguistic/non-verbal human individuals, the other taken-for-granted qualities of the Human grow destabilized as well. Language also represents an area in which both disability studies and animal studies have contributed ample scholarship on alternative models of communication that disrupt prevailing assumptions about language as a marker of intellectual complexity or value. I will call on biosemiotic theory and its suggestion that human language shares evolutionary roots with other non-human modes of meaning-making. I will also focus particularly on nonverbal communication like signed languages, since they make an appearance in both Eternals and Sweet Tooth. I will discuss how non-verbal entities might be expected to experience
non-linguistic thought processes, something that, at least within the humanist tradition, would undermine the common characterization of consciousness as an “inner
narrative.” Temple Grandin’s account of autism and how it causes her to “think in pictures” presents an alternative mode of mental life that speaks to the variation in how thought is manifested across not only species but within the human group as well.
Derrida returns as a guide for turning a suspicious eye on language, prompting us to notice the ways it can obstruct our perception of other forms of contact and
communication. Detroit: Become Human, both in its gameplay and its interest in coercive language commands, speaks to the limiting effects of language.
Chapter two, titled “Autonomy and the Self,” explores the humanist subject’s emphasis on the capacity for “self-rule.” Natalie Thomas in Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self notes how the common conception of autonomy is something reserved only for humans, and argues for a reformulation of the notion of autonomy in favor of a model that exists in degrees across species and according to environmental circumstances. Insights from disability studies offer a similar adjustment but at a more individual level, utilizing the term “relational autonomy” to illustrate how the boundaries of the self are rendered fuzzy when we consider the assemblage-like networks of care that are vital to the flourishing of differently-abled individuals. Eternals offers a look at relational autonomy through the deaf character Makkari and the cognitively impaired character Thena. Detroit’s gameplay provides opportunities to experience the way the environment can affect the autonomy of an entity, and also presents non-unitary subjects for analysis, including a multi-bodied android hivemind. In Sweet Tooth I will examine autonomy as it is understood with regards to children and animals, looking specifically at confinement, informed consent and paternalism.
Finally in the third chapter, “Rationality and Behavior,” I will unpack humanism’s fetishization of rational thought, which is often called upon to separate the Human subject from that of the supposedly “simple,” non-reasoning, instinct-driven animal. I will engage with two alternative formulations of rationality—“biological” and “minimal”
models—which diverge significantly from traditional definitions from humanism and do not rely on strictly anthropocentric cognitive and reflective abilities. Instead, they acknowledge the roles played by evolutionarily-informed impulse and emotional states in behavior and decision-making. Within this new framework, the Deviants and Eternals
both display posthumanist rationality that clashes with the objective and affectless rationality of the Celestials in Eternals. Detroit offers rich ground for examining
emotionality, which is often placed opposite rationality in the Humanist tradition. Finally, Sweet Tooth’s reflections on instinct—the unexplainable or unthought impulse—call into question the value of rational thought when it comes to matters of survival and
Chapter 1: Language and Verbal Communication
Language use has often been heralded as a unique marker of humanity. Derrida, in “The Animal That Therefore I Am,” critiques this philosophical tradition that he
identifies at work in Kant, Heidegger, Lacan, and Levinas—a tradition that “condemns”
the animal to “muteness,” and conflates this muteness with “stupor” (Derrida, “The Animal” 21). A preoccupation with thought as evidenced by linguistic ability—specifically speech—manufactures an “abyss” between the category of animal and the category of man. As one example, Wolfe locates this commonly assumed linkage between speech and thought in a quote by humanist thinker Heidegger: “‘Only a being who can speak, that is, think…’” This equivalence between thinking and speaking necessarily bars non-human entities from thinking, simply by nature of their non-speaking existence.
Heidegger reiterates this idea again, further elevating the importance of speech acts for
“man”: “‘Only when man speaks does he think—not the other way around” (Wolfe, Rites 63). This minor shift in framing introduces a new threshold for thought that is out of
reach for not just animal groups but a percentage of the human population as well. Cary Wolfe recalls Derrida’s argument that framing the human/non-human divide “in terms of either the capacity for thought or language ‘determines so many others concerning power or capability, and attributes’” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 81). I want to dwell on this idea of language (and language-mediated-thought) as a particular “capability” and examine it from both a disability studies perspective as well as an animal studies perspective—specifically with a nod to biosemiotic theory.
Jesper Hoffmeyer, in Biosemiotics: An Examination into the Signs of Life and Life of Signs, critiques the field of language science for an “unquestioned anthropocentric bias” that causes researchers to fixate on the “anomaly that is human communication,”
and leads to the analysis of “animal communication as a kind of deformed or deficient language—as some version of language minus something” (Hoffmeyer 282). Hoffmeyer attempts to counter this, and the result is a rather posthuman version of semiotic
theory.3His take on human language is that, evolutionarily, it is exceptional, but that it is
“a very recent and very idiosyncratic deviation from an ancient and well-established mode of communication” (Hoffmeyer 282). We can conceive of human language as a
“specific talent” that other creatures simply haven’t developed, and within the contexts of their environment simply do not need. Hoffmeyer reminds us that humans lack other
“talents” observed in the animal kingdom, such as the ability to sleep in an upright position, or identify individuals by smell alone. The human animal’s talent for language
3There are moments in Hoffmeyer’s text that carry an ableist timbre, such as his query: “For what kind of creature would a nonlinguistic (or nonsymbolic) human being amount to? The question is absurd—not just because language may be seen as at the very source of human origins, but also because it is impossible to abstractively look ‘behind’ language competence in an analysis of human nature” (Hoffmeyer 307).
Here he fails to consider differently-abled humans whose existences may not be characterized by
language at all, due to injury, disability, or disease. This is an example of why it is crucial to bring disability studies into conversation with other disciplines less familiar with “non-normative” mental/physical states.
is just a particularly sophisticated iteration of semiotic activity already well established before the emergence of humans as a species. This way of looking at language helps us “attend to that thing called ‘the human’ with greater specificity, greater attention to its embodiment, embeddedness and materiality” as Cary Wolfe suggests we should
(Wolfe, Posthumanism 120), without touting human superiority over nonlinguistic life forms. In acknowledging that the specifically human semiotic evolutionary history is inherently intertwined with that of our fellow creatures, Hoffmeyer’s biosemiotics seems in agreement with Cary Wolfe’s claim that language should not be taken “as a
well-nigh-magical property that ontologically separates Homo sapiens from every other living creature,” but something that represents an “essentially non- or a-human
emergence from an evolutionary process” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 120).
Biosemiotics falls into alignment with perspectives from disability studies as well, acknowledging "the argument from marginal cases,” or the idea that “there exist within our species individuals who, on account of structural problems due to genetic or
developmental anomalies, or of contingent problems due to diseases or accidents, will never acquire, or have forever lost, the characteristics—autonomy, rationality,
self-consciousness, and the like—that we consider typically human” (Wolfe,
Posthumanism 58). In “The Biosemiotic Concept of Species,” Kalevi Kull references the Wittgensteinian concept of “family resemblance”—the idea that “there may not exist any trait that all elements of the category have in common” (Kull 62). Kull, citing Werner Kunz, expands on the existence of these “marginal cases”: “Biological species do not possess a single trait that is present in all members of the species. [...] There is always some trait that individual organisms of a species lack, and in spite of this, these
organisms still belong to the species. This is one of the arguments for the conclusion that the biological species as a class of organisms cannot be defined by essential traits and, therefore, cannot be a natural kind” (Kull 62). Here we find that biosemiotics resituates language in the discourse so that it cannot so easily be used to police the species boundary. On the one hand, non-human animals should not be thought of as being isolated from humans by some linguistic “abyss,” for semiotic activity exists in degrees across the animal kingdom. And, on the other hand, not all members of the category “human” should be expected to share the same linguistic talents, simply due to variations in physiology and the “architecture” of the brain (Hoffmeyer 293) as we will see demonstrated through the work of Temple Grandin.4
In a chapter titled “Learning from Temple Grandin: Animal Studies, Disability Studies, and Who Comes After the Subject,” Wolfe takes as his object the writings of Grandin, an animal studies scholar interested in using her own experiences with autism as a useful lens through which to look upon animal existence. Grandin identifies her own mode of thought as being markedly language-absent; instead, she says, her thoughts and mental life are characterized almost exclusively by images: “I think in pictures. Words are like a second language to me. [...] When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand” (Grandin 19). She notes, in her book Thinking in Pictures, that she “would be denied the ability to think by scientists who maintain that language is essential for thinking” (Grandin 159). Rather than accept this non-linguistic
4These paragraphs on biosemiotics and Temple Grandin stem from a previous paper, “Beyond the Symbolic: Autism, Animals, Silence and Speech,” written for the course “Il/literacy Matters.” I credit this course for significantly influencing the trajectory of this thesis toward a much stronger emphasis on language.
mode of thought as truly a deficit, Grandin has noted that it resembles that of many animals, and that it even comes with certain advantages over a consciousness largely dependent on language. She observes in Animals in Translation that the “screening”
habits of the “normate” and language-minded human brain can lead to surprising blind spots, where glaring visual details are lost in the meaning-making process. It can also lead to ethical failures and oversights in interactions with non-linguistic creatures, something Grandin seeks to correct in her work as an architect for humane cattle handling systems.
The limitation of language is something touched upon by Derrida, when he argues in “And Say That Animals Responded” that “Man is an animal, but a speaking one, and he is less a beast of prey than a beast that is prey to language” (Derrida, “And Say” 123). He rejects Heidegger’s assertion that the animal’s lack of language is a
“privation” at all. Derrida’s critique draws attention to how the privileging of
language-wielding-life quickly can allow for forms of violence. Heidegger argues that
“mortals are they who can experience death as death. Animals cannot do this. But animals cannot speak either. The essential relation between death and language flashes up before us, but remains still unthought” (Weil 90). Arguments put forth by scholars like Grandin would have us ask what such an assertion would mean for non-verbal and non-linguistic-minded humans as well: do autistic human animals, who to varying degrees share in the muteness and visual-orientedness of non-human animals, not have access to death “as such”? Heidegger’s humanist suggestion that non-human—and presumably nonspeaking human—animals are not “mortals” deprives
them of the significance of their finitude and suffering and discounts forms of life that operate in alternative modes of thought and semiosis.
Temple Grandin’s work demands that we avoid such harmful conclusions and argues in favor of more varied notions of mentation: “My experience as a visual thinker with autism makes it clear to me that thought does not have to be verbal or sequential to be real. I considered my thoughts to be real long before I learned that there was a
difference between visual and verbal thinkers. I am not saying that animals and normal humans and autistics think alike. But I do believe that recognizing different capacities and kinds of thought and expression can lead to greater connectedness and
understanding” (Grandin 164). Grandin’s alternative models of mental life couple with insights from biosemiotics to dispel the long-established classical humanist appraisal of language as the thing that makes human life exemplary and therefore valuable. Not all human life is characterized by language, and language is just one iteration of common semiotic traditions observable across many non-human life forms. This results in posthuman understandings of semiotics and communication in which we might
anticipate or expect—in science fiction but also in some real world evolutionary present or future—to find, on the one hand, non-human entities developing a talent for symbolic semiotic activity like that of human language, or on the other, to discover non
symbolic/linguistic modes of thought utilized in non-human lifeforms to similar degrees of complexity and success.
With this in mind, we can now turn to the visual media objects in order to evaluate their approach to language. Do they perpetuate Humanist fixations on the spoken word as the ultimate form of communication, the one which sets humanity
apart? Do they take this argument to the Heidiggerian extreme, so that, in the absence of language, these life forms become unmournable in death? Or do these works
intervene in this humanist tradition and offer new, potentially posthuman, models of communication and thought that are unvoiced, unworded, or nonsymbolic?
At work in Eternals is a Darwinian rhetoric. Head Celestial Arishem alludes to competition and predation, which leads to the survival of some species and the death of others. Although we are only shown Earth’s evolutionary history, we are to assume that it fits a pattern that the Celestials have facilitated across the cosmos for eternity. In other words, evolution always results in the emergence of increasingly complex species, leading eventually to high levels of intelligence in at least one group which can then be utilized to bring about an “Emergence.” We are only permitted to observe humanity’s evolution, and therefore can only guess as to whether the intelligent species5that fueled previous Emergences on other planets developed in a similar way, but if we turn to the Deviants, many of the film’s implicit assumptions about intelligence, evolution, and language come to light.
Kro is introduced as the primary antagonist in the film. He is one of only a few Deviants left on Earth after the Eternals wiped them out, particularly dangerous for his ability to absorb the powers of another being. This happens multiple times in the film, each instance ending in the loss of an Eternal. In these moments, Kro transforms, condensing the natural progression of evolution into mere moments within a single
5In one of the visions Arishem shows Sersi, another alien race is briefly visible, and they are notably humanoid in shape, but with green skin. This detail further exemplifies the film’s anthropocentrism.
body. It is significant then that upon his third evolutionary leap, he converges on linguistic ability. He not only adopts a familiar humanoid shape, and therefore the physiological properties that make human speech possible—a tongue, a larynx—he suddenly possesses the talent for fluent speech in a human language without
instruction. He glances down at the hands that have supplanted the talons of his
previous body, and he turns to the Eternals to address them: “I understand now […] So many planets, so much life destroyed every time a Celestial was born. Arishem used us, and left us to die with each emergence. We just wanted to survive. And then he sent you. I will kill you all for what you have done to my kind. You are not saviors, Eternals.
You are murderers” (Eternals 1:20:50).
To harken back to biosemiotic theory, the Deviants, granted a mouthpiece
through Kro in this scene, reveal themselves to the Eternals as a species with the same mutational capacity for symbolic representation possessed by humans. In the world of the film, situated in a universe heavily populated by diverse lifeforms spread across the cosmos, it would be within reason that linguistic talent would emerge in more than just the human species. In other words, Kro’s evolution—if executed with nuance—would represent a posthuman intervention in alignment with biosemiotic thought. Yet the film misses an opportunity to explore this rich possibility for complex, non-human life capable of—at least with Kro—spoken, cross-species communication. Instead, Sersi frets: “These Deviants are trying to keep us from killing their own kind. They have a conscience now. That makes them more dangerous” (Eternals 1:23:50). Sersi’s reaction betrays a familiar humanist linkage between language and consciousness. It is only upon Kro’s acquisition of the verbal ability to express his species’ desire for survival that
Sersi perceives “someone at home” within Kro, to quote Donna Haraway in Companion Species (Haraway 50). And, even despite this miraculous opportunity for
“relating”—communicating—“under the sign of otherness” (Haraway 49), protagonist Sersi, and consequently the narrative of the entire film, fails to ever truly consider the Deviants as life worthy of life. The two groups remain locked in conflict until the finale, where Kro is killed without remorse.
We may also pivot away from biosemiotic interpretations of this scene and ask why Kro had to speak at all. The appearance of language in Kro may have simply been for the ease of storytelling, since films are well practiced in employing dialogue for communicating information and feeling to the audience. In other words, having a villain promise to exact his revenge aloud is a simple way of introducing tension. From this perspective, merely “giving speech back to the animal”—Kro in this case—is not
inherently a posthuman decision, and in fact may only further confirm a humanist bias in favor of the spoken word. Rather than melding the animal into the shape of the
Human—which the visuals in this scene do quite literally—Derrida proposes that we take a more radical approach: “acceding to a thinking, however fabulous and chimerical it might be, that thinks the absence of the name and of the word otherwise as something other than a privation” (Derrida, “The Animal” 416). This approach—allowing the animal to stay silent and still locating value and meaning in the silence—would allow us to better attend to the non-speaking beings of our world—a group that, as I have argued, includes human individuals as well.
Silence represents a particularly interesting line of inquiry, given that one of the film’s lead characters is, in fact, mute for the entirety of the film. Makkari, a member of
the Eternals, communicates with her compatriots exclusively in American Sign
Language which is then translated for audiences at the bottom of the screen. The very first scene establishes this, with Makkari and Kingo pausing mid-battle against the Deviants to compliment each other’s fighting prowess in sign language. Signed languages have not always been acknowledged as true languages, something that further demonstrates the deep-seated bias in favor of spoken communication inherited from humanist thought. In his paper “The Origin of Speech,” linguist Charles Hockett lists 13 supposedly universal features of language, “perhaps the most obvious” of which is the involvement of “the vocal-auditory channel” (Capirci 2). With William Stokoe’s publishing of Sign Language Structure in 1960, sign language was finally assessed as a language in its own right, but the emphasis was on its shared structure to spoken
languages rather than the acknowledgement of its unique properties, like simultaneity and iconicity (Capirci 1). More recent engagement with signed languages, like Cuxac’s
“Semiological Approach,” has tried to account for bodily components like movement and gaze as well as the use of space and multiple articulators without “projecting analytic categories from linguistics of vocal languages” (Capirci 3). I will discuss sign language further in Chapter 3, but for the analysis of Eternals, the incorporation of a non-hearing character that uses ASL into a blockbuster superhero franchise is undoubtedly
significant. The implication is that Makkari’s deafness and silence is not something that separates her from her fellow Eternals or that makes her any less “super”; instead she represents one mode of being among many—one that, interestingly, she shares with the vast majority of the Deviants. For this reason I will argue that Eternals features an
interesting tension in the way it opts to portray varying models of life, sometimes giving
in to humanist habits and other times presenting interesting alternative embodiments and subjectivities.
Detroit: Become Human
Detroit: Become Human provides an interesting outlook on the limitations of traditional notions of linguistic communication. With human-uttered “Command Speech,”
which locks a Cyberlife android into a particular action, the ability to follow instructions indicates not linguistic understanding or interpretive ability, as it might in human-human interactions or even animal-human relationships. Instead, an android’s obedience when faced with Command Speech is a symptom of their enslavement through programming.
Their unquestioned action in response to the words is, somewhat paradoxically, the very proof of their inertness. More specifically, an android that obeys a command is an
android that has not achieved deviance—which, in the world of the game, is synonymous with consciousness or sentience. The obedient android, the one that responds correctly to the linguistic order, is not “alive.” This particular iteration of
language use is interesting because it inverts certain assumptions that are often wielded as proof of ontological divides between humans and non-human animals. A wild
animal’s inability to understand and obey or respond to our speech from the humanist perspective evidences their difference from “us,” the speaking creature that understands language. In Detroit, an android that obeys Command Speech is simply a tool, a
prosthetic of the human user’s will. Only in resisting this form of language does an android achieve freedom. In fact, within the mechanics of the game, the
player-as-android must disobey in order to become deviant. This is portrayed for the
player as a physical blockade of code that the android must dismantle—pressing, tearing, and beating against the virtual barrier of pixelated lines emblazoned with the command speech instructions: “DON’T MOVE” for Kara, or “DON’T DEFEND
YOURSELF” for Markus. In these scenes, the coded world of language—or at least command speech—is a prison rather than a place of transcendence marking the superiority of a species. It is language as a dead-end, as something that impedes, as something that Temple Grandin reminds us can obstruct rather than set free.
Detroit’s gameplay itself also seems to hint at some of the shortcomings of language identified by posthuman scholars. In any given scene, a player will be asked to choose a dialogue option from several prompts. These prompts are often single words or short phrases and either indicate the approach to questioning—”Threatening,”
“Empathetic,” “Rational”—or serve as subjects for the conversation. These decisions have a direct impact on the success of the interaction, but the player may find that the one-word prompts take discussion in unexpected directions, sometimes achieving the opposite of the desired effect. This can lead to an element of frustration when the player finds that they were misunderstood by the game itself. Niklas Luhman would identify this frustration as deriving from the way language “operates with an unspecific reference to the participating state of mind” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 35). Wolfe expands on this, arguing that language can never truly “re-present ‘our’ thinking” because the meaning—in this context, of the single-word cues—is “subject to differential
interpretation” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 35). In other words, human language is not the perfect tool of communication humanism imagines it to be.
Detroit: Become Human does, however, seem to tie subjectivity to language in a familiar humanist fashion. This is particularly apparent in the scene where Markus becomes deviant. Markus is instructed by his master not to defend himself against an onslaught of abuse at the hands of his master’s jealous son. The android’s ocular
display updates with the new command, superimposing it onto the screen for the player:
“DON’T DEFEND YOURSELF.” Usually, this command would remain there, blocking the android from further action, uncommented on. Yet in this moment, Markus’ visual
interface goes through a series of changes indicative of reflection, of internal mental life:
DON’T DEFEND YOURSELF
DON’T DEFEND MYSELF?
THIS IS NOT FAIR.
I DON’T HAVE TO OBEY THEM.
I MUST DECIDE FOR MYSELF. (Detroit: Become Human)
The fact that this “inner self,” this early sign of consciousness, is represented to us players through narrative-style thought is telling of the game’s preconceptions regarding language and how it relates to the humanist model of subjectivity. This scene recalls the classic Cartesian thought experiment, where the Human subject is born out of the act of thinking—thinking specifically through the medium of language. We have already seen how individuals like Temple Grandin call into question the universality of narrativized, linguistic thought. Wolfe, through Luhman, also argues against the claim that “language determines consciousness," asserting that "psychic processes are not linguistic
processes, nor is thought in any way internal dialogue” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 21).
Separating language from subjectivity, self-consciousness, awareness or mind would be a more posthuman approach, and opens the door for alternative modes of communication, connection, and thought. Despite its slightly Cartesian alignment, the game still features moments where thinking and sharing information takes place outside of linguistic domains. Deviancy, which might be conceptualized as a particular mode of thought or form of mental life, can be passed between androids through physical interaction. Although no single explanation for deviance is confirmed in the game, Cyberlife founder Kamski speculates that it may have begun as a coding error or spontaneous mutation that could then spread like a virus through the exchange of identification programs via physical interfacing. These moments of touch might be interpreted as nonverbal communication, almost sign-like in their silent delivery of information, or perhaps akin to forms of biological communication like signal
transduction at the cellular level or chemical signaling through pheromones. Memories, too, can be shared between androids in a similarly tactile manner, once again
completely bypassing the need for speech. Connor, a police model android, can access the memory storage of android witnesses in his investigation by making contact with their skin. This introduces a kind of communication that would be impossible from a human standpoint. Not only can Connor access another entity’s perspective without them reporting it verbally, the information is always accurate. Perfect recall—the
communication of the information without mistakes, forgotten details, emotional clouding or purposeful manipulation or dishonesty—is an ability unique to androids, simply due to their techno-physiological construction. In other words, the android experience of
communication diverges significantly from the Humanist norm, and speech becomes unnecessary.
We also see deviant androids “speak” to each other through their minds. This manifests as a sort of telepathic connection. Markus is shown mentally sending
telepathic messages without uttering a sound during covert missions, almost as though the group of androids can tune into a unique radio frequency. Kara can “eavesdrop” on the thoughts of the androids in the recycling center chapter, which is an altogether separate skill, given that the thoughts she is able to access are not directed at her, but instead are peered in upon, so to speak. These moments of “unspoken speech” still have a habit of representing thought as narrative. Yet they remain interesting as moments of non-human semiotic activity and communication that result in a unique mode of being that the game implores us to recognize and value.
Sweet Tooth introduces opportunities for examining the variance of language and communication across species, as the hybrid children are all crossed with various
animals, ranging from mammals to reptiles to birds. The hybrid children possess certain physical attributes from their cross species, and often the “talents” that accompany them as well. Some of the children can speak, while others can’t. Several are shown utilizing forms of sign language. Wendy, the young pig-crossed girl, can speak English, but signs amongst other hybrid children as well.
The varied ability for speech is expected from a biosemiotic standpoint.
Hoffmeyer acknowledges the way physiology corresponds to an animal’s abilities,
including language: “The human brain should reflect language in its architecture the same way birds reflect the aerodynamics of flight” (Hoffmeyer 293).6The “architecture”
of Wendy’s brain allows for speech, and also a particularly developed sense of smell like that of pigs, whereas the child with the bird beak and feathered wings would find it anatomically difficult to speak without a mammalian tongue. The non-speaking children are likely in possession of different “talents” better suited to their form and informed by the evolutionary history of the animals with which they are crossed. Sign language, rather than spoken language, becomes a useful tool that overcomes inherent, material barriers to speech, and opens up inter-species modes of communication in several scenes.
In Episode 8, “Big Man,” Wendy leads a dozen rescued hybrid children from the zoo, the safety of which has been compromised, to an abandoned church via
underground pipes. She exits the manhole first, sniffs around for signs of danger, and then hoists herself above ground to address her fellows down below. She issues the following instructions verbally: “Everybody, stay put ‘till mom comes. Terrence, wait in the tunnel for Henry. He’s super slow. Everybody stick together.” At this moment, the very gopher-like Bobby mutters a one word response: “Scared.” The rest of the children continue to stare up at Wendy, wide-eyed. Here, Wendy begins to emphatically sign her message, verbalizing the meaning as she goes: “She promised she will come.” She points in the direction of the preserve and their adoptive mother, then crosses her heart.
“I believe in her.” She takes her pointer finger from her temple and brings it into her
6Here is another example where Hoffmeyer fails to consider the human brains that deviate from the
“normative” model. Temple Grandin has highlighted observable differences in the brains of autistic people, which may explain the altered relationship to language in semi- or non-verbal individuals. Similar
structural differences in the brain occur in other humans with cognitive disorders like aphasia. Despite Hoffmeyer’s homogenizing of the human group, his point about varied brain structure remains useful.
other hand, clasping them: the ASL sign for “to accept as true.” From this, the hybrids seem to take comfort, cooing and whistling, which in Netflix’s subtitles is indicated as
“Hybrids Vocalizing.” Wendy signs “Good”—a sign very similar to “Thank you”— and the hybrids all collectively repeat the sign back to her, some with talons for fingers, others with feathered hands. In this scene, verbal speech alone fails to transcend the multitude of differences embodied by the hybrids. Sweet Tooth seeks out alternative forms of communication that are less connected to traditional models of the Human subject.
From an evolutionary and biosemiotic perspective, it is precisely sign language’s distance from the “exemplar” that is human spoken language that makes it more accessible to these non-human entities.
The series does fixate on speech in certain scenes, however, and these can be read in a similar way to the speaking Deviant or speaking android in the previous sections: simultaneously humanist for its valuing of speech and posthumanist for the speaker’s non-human identity. Towards the end of Episode 8, Gus is captured by the Last Men and brought to the compound for experimentation. As he cowers in his cage, he repeats under his breath “Don’t let them know you can talk. Don’t let them know you can talk.” Dr. Singh, whose wife is being held prisoner to force his compliance, is
instructed to begin dissecting and experimenting on Gus. Singh is visibly intrigued by Gus, and notes that he appears slightly older and “more human” than some of the others he has encountered. He presents him with a candy bar, to which Gus
instinctually replies: “Thanks.” Dr. Singh’s face instantly transforms from amusement into shock. The two hold each other’s gaze for a beat. Singh then requests that he keep Gus for observational study, and that they provide a different hybrid—he uses the word
“patient”—for dissection. Notably, this replacement is not shown speaking. The child appears to be half-chameleon, with a scaly face, independently rotating eyes, and a flicking reptilian tongue. It is significant that Singh replaces a speaking specimen with a non-speaking one. This seems to signal a classical humanist rhetoric that awards speaking entities greater ethical consideration, and echoes Wolfe’s citation of humanist thinker Lévinas when he says: “I can have direct responsibilities only toward beings that can speak” (Wolfe, Rites 61). While the half-deer boy’s speech subverts the Human subject’s monopoly on verbal communication, this scene still awards special attention to linguistic ability as a marker of value.
Chapter 2: Autonomy and Self
Another defining quality of the Human subject is autonomy, accompanied by the closely related idea of agency. Although definitions for these concepts are difficult to pin down, agency usually refers to a more general capacity for controlling one’s actions, and autonomy most often implies self-rule, or the ability to live freely and independently in accordance with self-determined motives. These concepts remain integral in many rights discourses. Cary Wolfe reminds us that within the liberal justice tradition, which finds its roots in Renaissance Humanism, that “ethical standing and civic inclusion” are
“predicated on rationality, autonomy, and agency” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 127). Even within areas of disability advocacy, there remains a “fetishization of agency,” where “the valences of the ‘normal’ [humanist] subject [...] are called on to validate and legitimize
the subjectivity of the disabled” (Wolfe, Posthumanism 138). This is of course
understandable, as forms of “strategic humanism” still do good work in securing rights and protections for patients and dependents by appealing to their right to humanist notions of autonomy. Yet, particularly from an animal studies perspective, upholding autonomous agency as the condition for ethical consideration only further entrenches us in humanist, anthropocentric rhetoric.
Humanist formulations of agency and autonomy are dependent on the notion of the singular “self.” The “self” has several classical definitions. Cartesian dualism
equates the self to the thinking mind. Descartes reflects in Meditations: “I understand myself to be quite single and complete” (Badmington 7). Even today, many scientists and thinkers argue that human levels of self-consciousness and reflective ability are required to determine that a self exists. This gives a particularly anthropocentric timbre to the concept, effectively barring selfhood from all non-human entities. “Self” has even been equated to “soul,” which bears mentioning here due to its involvement in the
humanist characterization of animals as soulless automatons. Animal actions have often been characterized as purely autonomic or unconscious. In this view, animal impulse and reflex, governed by the mechanical processes of the nervous system, are seen as a rudimentary substitute for the autonomous action or “rational” decision-making
characteristic of the human species. “The animal,” emptied of any self, can then
possess no agency or autonomy in the humanist tradition. Further, this notion of self is markedly self-contained and already “whole,” leaving no room for discussion of
supportive relations and frameworks that facilitate the formation of the self in question.
Natalie Thomas, in Animal Ethics and the Autonomous Animal Self, explores the various iterations of what she dubs the “common view of autonomy,” which she notes, importantly, is usually reserved for human persons alone. Among the eight descriptions she lists are “agent autonomy,” which “can be equated with self-control or
self-governance”; “personal efficacy” or “the general ability to get along in the world without help, in material and psychological matters”; “normative, moral autonomy,” “the freedom to make one’s own decisions and the freedom from paternalistic intervention”;
and “rational autonomy,” which “allows one to act rationally and to respond to moral reasons and reasons in general” (Thomas 72-73). These are models commonly employed in the humanist tradition. Thomas goes on to note other commonly cited qualifications for autonomy that have an exclusionary effect, like the requirement of
“high-level mental representations, memory, and imagination that allow a person to both remember their past and anticipate their future” (Thomas 74). This model clearly
designates autonomy as something contingent on certain “capacities” or abilities, specifically those possessed by “normate” humans. Unaccounted for in this model are animals and human individuals without the cognitive and memory-related capacities noted here.
Thomas suggests a new formulation of autonomy defined simply as “the freedom to act on the basis of reasons, however minimally complex they might be” (Thomas 75).
This new definition would mean that most living organisms can operate with at least some degree of autonomy. Without a requirement for high level intelligence or self-reflection, humans would no longer be solitary in their capacity for autonomous action and decision. Thomas continues: “Specific traits and interests would vary
according to species membership, and we would need to evaluate species individually to determine the level of autonomy possessed by an individual and the ways we can best respect it” (Thomas 77). She notes that this adjustment to common conceptions of autonomy should accompany a shift in the criteria for “selfhood.” Selfhood, too, should be thought of as existing in degrees, from “pre-reflective” states primarily characterized by sensory activity to richer states involving personal identity and complex levels of self-reflection (Thomas 41). This take is reminiscent of biosemiotic theory’s
reconceptualization of semiotic activity as existing in degrees across species, which directly challenges human exceptionalism. As with language, human forms of
autonomy—which of course exist in degrees even within the species—might simply be a particularly rich or complex iteration of something that exists in non-human animals: a basic ability “to make choices and to act in ways that aim to satisfy [their] own desires and preferences” (Thomas 79). Attending with specificity to not just each species' relative level of autonomy but also that of each individual within the greater species category represents an approach to ethical treatment that fits within the goals of the posthuman project. For example, this new model would acknowledge that “paternalism”
can pose a threat to those in possession of autonomy in a “rich” sense, but it may prove conducive to flourishing when applied to humans and animals possessing autonomy in the “minimal” sense.”
“Relational autonomy,” from disability studies, is another useful way to
reconceptualize and tweak “common” formulations of autonomy towards something that is not only more inclusive, but more posthuman. Disability studies scholar Rosemarie Garland-Thomson notes how the disabled individual has traditionally been presented in
stark opposition to the humanist subject: “the autonomous individual is imagined as having inviolate boundaries that enable unfettered self-determination, creating a myth of wholeness [...] Conversely, the disabled body represents the incomplete, unbounded, compromised, and subjected body susceptible to external forces” (Davy 101). The
“relational” approach put forth by feminsit theory and critical disability studies aims to alter not just this model of autonomy, but of “self” as well, attempting to “normalize dependency and vulnerability as basic features of the human condition” (Davy 102).
This changes the relationship of autonomy to care so that “neither autonomy nor care is privileged, but both are placed in service of the other: autonomy cannot be enabled without care, and care cannot be enabling without respect for autonomy” (Davy 102).
Relational autonomy also invokes the posthuman notion of assemblage, developed by Deleuze and Guattari, which recognizes the many networks and connections that come together to support and form living entities. This altered perspective demands a revisiting of the implicit singularity of the “self” in the
autonomous Human subject modeled by humanism. Rosi Braidotti emphasizes what she calls “not-Oneness, which is constitutive of the non-unitary subject,” and how it anchors an entity “in an ethical bond to alterity, to the multiple and external others that are constitutive of that entity which, out of laziness and habit, we call the ‘self’” (Braidotti 100). This not-Oneness—which is a quality shared by all life regardless of ability—is distinctly exercised, for example, “when disabled people create relational autonomy through networks of support, calling into question the total ‘self-rule’ assumed to be inherent for able humans” (Lundblad, “Disanimality” 769).
How we formulate notions of selfhood and autonomy matters. Narrow definitions, like the traditional humanist models, risk excusing the cruel treatment of other entities.
Thomas notes that moral and political philosopher R. G. Frey believes that “autonomy indicates the value of a life, and so when it comes to killing, the fact that animals are not autonomous (according to him) is relevant, as it means that ‘the threshold for killing animals is lower than that for killing normal humans’” (Thomas 75-6). We see varying forms of this rhetoric adopted by the respective governing bodies in all three media artifacts; the beastly and survival-driven deviants, the supposedly inert
androids-as-tools, and the hybrid children endowed with animal qualities and instincts are all conceptualized by the powers-that-be as disposable life, in part due to a
perceived lack of autonomy, at least in the “common,” humanistic sense. In this chapter, I will explore the media’s utilization of autonomy both in the common sense and also in more nuanced, posthumanist iterations. I will also look at instances of not-Oneness and how embracing exteriority and embeddedness leads to the emergence of fascinating, non-unitary selves.
The Deviants are cast by Arishem as creatures guided only by instinct and survival. The Celestials and their power to form and manipulate life possess the
autonomy in this evolutionary context, while the Deviants are passively subjected to the whims of their creators. The emergence of Kro, however, complicates any claim that the species lacks autonomy, as Kro makes clear that he seeks a specified goal and acts with explicit intent. After his confrontation with the Eternals, it is impossible to interpret