Victoria Flanagan: Technology and Identity in Young Adult Fiction: The Posthuman Subject (2014)

Victoria Flanagan’s point of departure is her description of the field of children and young adults’ literature as governed by an “anti-technology representational paradigm” since the 1980s. She links the fears related to this paradigm to the advance of posthumanism, which is often perceived as a threat to the humanities, due to its use of techno-science as an impetus for a radical revaluation of human subjectivity.

The basic fears underlying this techno-scepticism are that humans are losing their individuality and autonomy and that recent technological advances have compromised the human through changing our social, intellectual and physical lives (1).

Flanagan now perceives a change within the field of children’s literature, arguing that an increasing number of authors are producing more life-affirming narratives about technology. She terms this a paradigm-shift, arguing that it moves away from the dystopian rendering of techno-futuristic fictional worlds, and that the shift corresponds with the positive experiences that real life children have with technology, which they use mostly for entertainment and pleasure (2). The primary facet of this change, Flanagan argues, is that new fictions represent technology as enabling rather than disempowering for child and adolescent subjects – a change that she attributes in part to a change in the attitudes to digital technology that has arisen due to the global increase in internet access since the 1990s. She notes that “YA literature has become increasingly interested in posthuman issues and themes” – a trend not as evident within books for younger readers (7).

Her focus is on the willingness in her selected fictions to portray technology as empowering for child or adolescent subjects. Since the dystopian narratives of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games and Scott Westerfield’s Uglies are part of Flanagan’s sample material, her thesis of increasing techno-optimism is not an immediately obvious one. However, in the interesting second chapter, Flanagan discusses the narrative representation of posthuman consciousness and subjectivity, looking at the extent to which it differs from more humanist paradigms. Analysing fictions containing robot and cyborg subjects (Metallic Love, Girl Parts, Genesis, Cinder), she argues that the representation of these characters render problematic such concepts as consciousness and agency through interrogating traditional humanist conceptions of selfhood – often through the use of experimental narrative forms, the creation of parodic intertextual references and the use of unreliable narrators. This chapter is obviously useful to Posthuman analysis of children’s texts.

Flanagan also discusses how YA characters are empowered through digital citizenship and digital activism in texts like Little BrotherHomeland and “Anda’s Game”, and devotes a whole chapter to analysing the reworking of female subjects through an emphasis on technology and the body. Discussing UgliesSkinned, “Anda’s Game” and The Adoration of Jenna Fox, she finds that they all draw from both humanist and posthumanist discourses in their constructions of feminine subjectivity – which also traditionally has been represented through bodily reworking or makeover. The last three narratives feature female protagonist “who are remarkably adept at using technology to assist in self-transformation” (113) – thus actualizing NaChiLit’s concept of techne.

Flanagan’s conclusion is that in their alignment with posthumanism, these YA narratives define subjectivity as collective fractured and plural, with an emphasis on embodiment that is often questioned through the figure of the cyborg. A range of narrative techniques are used to reflect “the fluid, networked and shifting modes of posthuman subjectivity”, with a potential to deepen our understanding of what it means to be human in the techno-future (187), for instance by allowing us to imagine what it feels like to manipulate prosthetic limbs or to develop emotional relationships to robotic others.

(The book is part of the Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series edited by Kerry Mallan and Clare Bradford.)

Lykke Guanio-Uluru 01.04.2017