Strange Bodies: Why we need the Humanities

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Sometimes – let’s admit it, often – I’m asked about the purpose of the Humanities. Why not take a course in accounting? Or better yet, something in engineering? Why not, indeed.

Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies gives us the great, and oft repeated, justification for the Humanities: the Humanities let us explore the moral and ethical dimensions of our current (and future) worlds, with keen critical awareness and imaginative and robust analyses of complex problems. And what does that mean?

In the novel it means humans have developed the capacity to download an individual consciousness (not as far off as you might think) into a ‘new’ (that is to say, harvested) body. It means the humans involved need to work out all the philosophical and ethical implications of this new technology: who/what/where is the individual? what is the relationship among body, mind and spirit? how can one consent to a technological and biological process with unknown or unforeseen outcomes? just because we can do something with technology, ought we to? It means we read a novel to explore these questions through story in a way that lets the nuances and complexities of the questions unfold through plot and character.

We also get the book’s provocative thematic question on the relationship between immortality achieved in text and immortality in body. That is, the novel poses that all writers of all ages who have active readers have already achieved a certain kind of immortality (hardly a new argument, but a fascinating one all the same). In writing and reading we engage in a dialogue that transcends time and space. (you might want to say ‘dun dun dun’ right now – as if you’ve just realized something brand new and shocking, rather than something you’ve always known).

I admit I found the conceit of the novel exciting at first. I eagerly read the quasi-mystery, quasi-thriller as I worked to figure out how our protagonist could be at once living and dead. Midway through the book, once the urgency of the mystery resolved into the still-urgent-if-less-car-chasing-and-explosions questions of the nature of humanity, identity, memory and the soul, I was a little less wholly captivated. Call me a lazy reader, or more properly, call me one who likes her philosophy and ethics neatly packed in a story compelling in its own right. That is, I’m a student of literature, and not of philosophy.

But I’m nevertheless a proud student of the Humanities. I see this novel as a prescient and provocative call to question (if not challenge) the way we make use of technology and the way we work towards technological change that is neither good nor bad on its own. So we need the Humanities to help us make sense, to urge us to pause, to discuss, to question. And we need this book as a captivating means to do just this work.

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery

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