Prophets of the Posthuman

American Fiction, Biotechnology, and the Ethics of Personhood

Christina Bieber Lake

Prophets of the Posthuman provides a fresh and original reading of fictional narratives that raise the question of what it means to be human in the face of rapidly developing bioenhancement technologies. Christina Bieber Lake argues that works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Raymond Carver, James Tiptree, Jr., and Margaret Atwood must be reevaluated in light of their contributions to larger ethical questions. Drawing on a wide range of sources in philosophical and theological ethics, Lake argues that these writers share a commitment to maintaining a category of personhood more meaningful than that allowed by utilitarian ethics. Prophets of the Posthuman insists that because technology can never ask whether we should do something that we have the power to do, literature must step into that role.

Each of the chapters of this interdisciplinary study sets up a typical ethical scenario regarding human enhancement technology and then illustrates how a work of fiction uniquely speaks to that scenario, exposing a realm of human motivations that might otherwise be overlooked or simplified. Through the vision of the writers she discusses, Lake uncovers a deep critique of the ascendancy of personal autonomy as America’s most cherished value. This ascendancy, coupled with technology’s glamorous promises of happiness, helps to shape a utilitarian view of persons that makes responsible ethical behavior toward one another almost impossible. Prophets of the Posthuman charts the essential role that literature must play in the continuing conversation of what it means to be human in a posthuman world.

Christina Bieber Lake is professor of English at Wheaton College. She is the author of The Incarnational Art of Flannery O’Connor.

“As we attempt to make sense of the technologically accelerated—and ‘enhanced’—world in which we find ourselves, Christina Bieber Lake provides incisive analysis of contemporary encroachments upon our common humanity. She demonstrates how centrally significant the inexorable march of science to know and do whatever it can will be to our individual and collective sense of self.” — Avis Hewitt, Grand Valley State University

“In Prophets of the Posthuman, Christina Bieber Lake unfolds in detail her belief that ‘fiction is the art of love for persons.’ Her aim is, in part, to help scholarly students of literature once again focus attention on the question of how we should live. But she also wants to help us all read in such a way that we see others as persons to be loved rather than as collections of attributes to be reshaped and enhanced. Wide-ranging and discerning, this is a book full of insight.” — Gilbert Meilaender, Duesenberg Professor in Christian Ethics, Valparaiso University

“Prophets of the Posthuman ought to be heeded as a humane and Christian counter-witness to the powerful forces of consumerism and scientific positivism that threaten to dominate the cultural landscape, especially where matters of healthcare are concerned. To my mind, this book is best suited to ethics classes and to general readers concerned about the implications of biotechnology.” — John Sykes, Wingate University

Reviews

“Prophets of the Posthuman provides a fresh and original reading of fictional narratives that raise the question of what it means to be human in the face of rapidly developing bioenhancement technologies. . . . [It] insists that because technology can never ask whether we should do something that we have the power to do, literature must step into that role.” — The Midwest Book Review