Human and animal, man and machine, the arts and the sciences. On the surface we may appear to live in a world that is structured around opposites. However, Michael Mack suggests in his new book that literature and film show us how concepts that seem poles apart are in reality ‘contaminated’ with one another.
Take, for example, the sciences and the arts. We might superficially imagine that science is concerned with the physical world, with things that are objectively measurable, while the arts are interested in the subjective, the invisible world of the mind and of abstract ideas. However, close examination of literary texts shows us a more complex entanglement. For example, H.G. Wells’s novels often demonstrate how human morality and culture depend upon biological and evolutionary drives. Society does not transcend nature, but is contaminated with it.
Moving similar ideas into the twenty-first century, the idea that human and machine are separate entities has been troubled by the figure of the cyborg: a human contaminated with machine parts, whether robotic limbs or something as mundane as contact lenses. As machines start to become human-like in their ways of thinking or moving in the world, and as people adopt technologies ever more closely, we will need to rethink the ethics of the human-machine divide. A novel like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go offers a way of imagining this through literature, as it presents ‘clones’ who are unjustifiably treated like machines by their ‘human’ counterparts.
Moving from the emergence of the scientifically ‘pure objective’ worldview in the 1850s, Michael Mack traces the problems with dialectical ways of thinking, which have been increasingly revealed by the challenges of the twenty-first century, from the cyborg which complicates the man and machine divide, to climate change, which confirms man to be part of rather than superior to the natural world.
The underlying philosophy – the idea that categories that seem apart are not, and that narratives of literature and film can bring this to our attention – is not in itself a new one. However, Contaminations makes more explicit some of the themes that have been only implied within postmodern, poststructuralist and deconstructive theory. As well as considering literature and film, the book also takes a fresh look at key thinkers such as Spinoza, Benjamin, Pasolini and Freud.