‘You have to be with other people’, writes Philip K. Dick in his classic science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), ‘you can’t go from people to nonpeople’. To which I may respond: what are people?

‘You have to be with other people’, writes Philip K. Dick in his classic science fiction novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), ‘you can’t go from people to nonpeople’. To which I may respond: what are people?

This is the question that lies at the heart of posthumanist studies, a rapidly expanding field within cultural studies which examines the myriad of complex forms taken by human and non-human subjectivity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The changes wrought during this turbulent period, particularly in the emergence of new social groups that have challenged the hegemony of classic Eurocentric models of subjectivity, have led to a reevaluation of what precisely it means to be a human in the current time. By recognising the limitations of classical humanism—which, even as it sought to establish an egalitarian plane upon which to found concepts of human subjectivity, retained a limited understanding of the term ‘human’ that excluded those who did not fit the mould of rational, autonomous social agent—posthumanist theorists, including figures as diverse as Donna Haraway, Cary Wolfe, Jacques Derrida and Bruno Latour, instead turned to alternate understandings of subjectivity inclusive of those traditionally marginalised groups.

Often included within the rubric of posthumanist studies, and of personal interest in my own research in this area, are both non-human animals and the intellectually ‘disabled’ (and I retain the scare quotes around this term in order to counter the normalising impulse implied by the term). Although it is both important and necessary not to blur the distinctions between these two social groupings, and thereby risk falling into the humanist trap of brushing too many individuals with too broad a categorical brush, it is nevertheless possible to discern the ways in which both non-human animals and the intellectually ‘disabled’ often become symbolically associated with one another in the socio-cultural imagination. Both groupings often fail to meet the criteria that would qualify them for the status of subjects under traditional definitions of the term, a status necessary for true ethical consideration, and hence both often suffer, and often in quite literal terms, from this failure. Yet the argument has been forcefully made by those working in both animal and disability studies that the failure lies not with these individuals themselves, but instead with the limited and limiting definitions of the traditional subject propogated by classical humanism that fail to take into account any deviation from the classical model of individual subjectivity. It is precisely this failure that posthumanist theorists set out to challenge.

Thus, debates in posthumanist, animal, and disability studies revolve closely around definitions of the perpetually contentious terms ‘human’, ‘animal’ and ‘subjectivity’. These are categories that are regularly thrown into rich and revealing counterpoint in science fiction (‘sf’) works, a mode of writing that lends itself to the imagining and exploration of alternate modes of being. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algerno (1966), for example, a celebrated ‘soft’ sf text exploring issues of intelligence, self-representation, and socio-cultural views of disability. In Keyes’ text, the ‘moron’ Charles Gordon undergoes an experimental procedure to increase his intelligence, and, like the eponymous Algernon, a laboratory mouse given the same treatment, becomes entangled in complex discourses of agency and self-representation with the institutions and bio-technological industries that ‘created’ both Algernon and himself. Flowers indicates the manner in which marginal humans tend to become symbolically linked with animals in a way that other characters do not, a coupling that, it is proposed, has as its locus the body. Thus cultural portrayals of both marginal humans and non-human animals such as those in Keyes’ novel are necessarily limited by their failure to imagine such individuals as possessing full subjectivities, while also raising thorny questions of representation within a wider society that struggles to slot them comfortably into a system of social relations built around a series of discrete, subjective social ‘roles’.

In Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, meanwhile, on which I will be hoping to present at the New Perspectives conference in Maynooth, the intertwining of non-human animal and intellectually disabled human takes a slightly different form. Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth destroyed by warfare, on which genetically damaged and intellectually ‘disabled’ humans called ‘specials’ are employed in menial labour, narratives of disability in Dick’s novel are intertwined with those of the ‘transhumanist’ androids. Both groups form part of the economic network as dispensable menial workers on the poisoned planet, and are also thematically linked to non-humans animals, the ‘electric sheep’ of the title, which themselves exist in semiotic relation to humanity as symbolical representations of economic status. The narratives of disability in these texts compares and contrasts socio-cultural understandings of disabled humans to those of non-human animals, as both categories of beings become embroiled in a network of economic relations with the surrounding society in which they cannot fully partake. Yet aside from the obvious problematics raised by the ‘disabled’ humans, there is also the challenge of the androids themselves. The androids—not fully human, yet possessing an irrefutable subjectivity—expose the fault lines that lie within humanist understandings of subjectivity. Despite possessing all the faculties nominally required to qualify for human status, the androids are doggedly pursued and viciously destroyed whenever they appear to exercise the free will that comes ‘naturally’ to them. Dick thus offers a double challenge to classical humanism, both in the form of uncanny doppelgangers of the androids, whose very non-biological existence issues a challenge to the ontological supremacy of the rational, thinking subject that must be swiftly destroyed, and in the specials, whose cruel treatment exposes the ethical limitations of traditional definitions of the human.

These are just two examples of the kinds of narratives explored by sf writers, but they serve to demonstrate the diversity of approaches taken to this most difficult of questions, that which crops up again and again in posthumanist studies: who does and does not get to be a subject, and according to whom?

Thomas Connolly is a third year doctoral candidate at Maynooth University. His research examines the development of the themes of technology and evolution in Anglo-American science fiction from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. He completed both his BA in English and Mathematical Physics and his MA in Twentieth-Century Irish Literature and Cultural Theory in Maynooth University, and was the recipient in 2012 of the John and Pat Hume Scholarship. Thomas can be contacted at Thomas.Connolly.2009@mumail.ie