Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Vinh Cam reviews The Modernist Corpse

Erin E. Edwards. The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018. 240 pp.

Review by Vinh Cam

Erin E. Edwards’s The Modernist Corpse: Posthumanism and the Posthumous is the latest attempt to revive death in the academy.[1] Like many scholars in this tradition, Edwards draws on vitalist philosophers—namely Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari—to reimagine the corpse as a site of “teeming presence” capable of yielding new configurations of life (quoted on p. 13). Combining new materialism with insights from feminism, queer theory, and media theory, The Modernist Corpse attempts not only to reanimate the corpse in modernism but to reimagine experimental modernism itself by rereading and reassembling its corpus.

“The posthuman corpse is not evolutionarily ‘after’ the human but is posthumanist” (p. 5). This conceptual shift frees the corpse from the teleology we find in certain strands of transhumanism that project the corporeal as a mortal boundary to be transcended. Refining the discursive work of the corpse also allows Edwards to develop the book’s central literary claim, “that the corpse in American modernism is involved in a trenchant reexamination of who—and what—counts as human and as ‘alive’ in the early twentieth century” (p. 2). Rather than recuperating the humanity of modernism’s dead, Edwards’s project focuses on scenes where the undead resist “the binaries that have typically structured the category of the human” (p. 14). Tracking this “anticipatory posthumanism” in the modernist archive allows Edwards to generate intricate and often revisionist readings of canonical works by William Faulkner, Jean Toomer, Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, and Mina Loy, while also shedding light on less-studied modernist figures such as Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.

The introduction argues that World War I’s mass “body count” provided the corpse a new visibility in the early twentieth-century media context, which simultaneously “attenuated the finitude of death by reproducing images and voices of the dead” (p. 25). We are also told that the corpse, positioned at this intersection between civilizational destruction and the possibilities of modern technology, becomes a conduit for modernist writers and artists to imagine what lies beyond the horizon of man. But it is the second chapter “Autopsy-optics” that makes the strongest case for why, specifically, the American corpse is an exemplary site for imagining “less exclusionary definitions of life” (p. 39). If modern categories of the human and nonhuman are constructed upon the racialized autopsy-optics of science and photography, then (African) American modernists’ attempts to undo the binaristic associations between slavery and death offer new ways of encountering bodies that are deemed to be already dead. More specifically still, Toomer and W. E. B. Du Bois recognized the need to disassemble the “ideological apparati” of visual technologies dividing the (white) living viewer from the (black) corpse (p. 81).[2]  The “anti-optic, auditory, and materialist modes of representation” in Toomer’s Cane and Du Bois’s “Georgia Negroes Exhibit,” Edwards argues, not only contested the racialized image of death but also pioneered posthuman(ist) strategies of collective and embodied spectatorship.

The Modernist Corpse expands its archive in chapter three, “Sutures and Grooves,” to offer a fascinating transatlantic account of modernist attempts to devise new interfaces between technical media and dead matter—namely the skull—by the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, Loy, Man Ray, and von Freytag-Loringhoven. This discussion, coupled with the earlier chapter on visual technologies, foregrounds the imbrication of contemporary thanatology and theories of technical media ever since the advent of photography—a   tendency that emphasizes the necropolitical effects of media or, to use Marcel O’Gorman’s term, necromedia.[3] The Modernist Corpse intervenes in this debate by approaching the problem from a posthuman(ist) angle. Edwards suggests (re)mediations of the dead are not only mortifying but necropolitical when they reproduce ideological associations between death and “racialized others, gendered others, queer others, and an array of ‘other others’ [who] have been systematically dehumanized” (p. 2); but that the reanimated dead can also reconfigure the hierarchical relations between the human and nonhuman when they afford “a posthuman position whereby one might use the prosthetic extension of technical media to engage in a radical . . . ‘auto-autopsy’ that bypasses the evaluative apparatus of the Enlightenment subject” (p. 115). Broadly speaking, this maps onto a (re)representation versus (re)assemblage axis that allows Edwards to distinguish practices of “‘bad’ posthumanism” (p. 63) from a preferable “critical posthumanism” (p. 14)—a crucial adjudication, she argues, if we wish to disentangle the historical relations between modernist necropoetics and necropolitics.

In order to fully realize these ethical goals of critical posthumanism, Edwards proposes an analytics of “meataphor rather than metaphor” to ensure the reader is materially connected “with excluded forms of bare life” (pp. 19–20, 19). But as The Modernist Corpse unfolds its (primarily) aesthetic archive we often lose touch with the very “matter” of bare life, including the posthumous corpse that bridges the human and nonhuman, and which Edwards’s theoretical apparatus relies so heavily upon to revivify the text. This culminates in the coda, where she argues the formal difficulty of a modernist text like Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons forces the reader to “ingest” or “inhabit” the materiality of the text as a “nonhuman corpse”—something already “etymologically implied” when we refer to a body of work as a “corpus” (p. 30). Despite the complexity of Edwards’s argument and the exhilarating reading of Stein in these closing pages (which I can’t do justice to here), we are nevertheless left wondering if this transition from corpse to corpus is an instance of text made flesh or of flesh made text.

Likewise, how might the disappearance of the posthuman corpse diminish the corpse’s unique “referential” power, as Margaret Schwartz puts it, by virtue of being the indexical “remains of someone”?[4] For Edwards, this is a moot point. Rejecting both the subjectivity and the ideology of loss implied in Schwartz’s formulation, Edwards cites Rosi Braidotti in arguing the need for “extending the horizon of death” rather than recapitulating “philosophical conceptions of the subject’s finitude [that] ‘fuel an affective political economy of loss and melancholia’” (p. 5). The Modernist Corpse goes about achieving this by reorienting the temporal referentiality of the corpse—not as the remainder of human form but as that which bears us toward posthuman forms of life. Ultimately, Edwards’s archive and theoretical conclusions point toward a posthuman that isn’t just “vibrant matter” but something decidedly more queer, like the “exquisite corpse” figures she unearths in the surrealist archive, the cyborg she beholds in von Freytag-Lorenhoven’s bodily assemblages, and Robin Vote, whose desire for the nonhuman in Nightwood conjures a scene of nonreproductive worlding—of “becoming posthumous” (p. 171).[5]


[1] This phrase refers to Tony Walter’s The Revival of Death (New York, 1994). Recent, notable examples of this revivalist tradition include Thomas Laqueur’s The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains (Princeton, N.J., 2015) and the special edition of New Formations on “Death and the Contemporary,” ed. Georgina Colby, New Formations 89/90 (Winter 2017).

[2] Edwards contrasts these modernist projects to early Hollywood “zombie” movies that “stripped away the cultural complexity and specificity” of the Haitian “zonbi” myth on which they were based. As a result, “the zombie of early Hollywood reifies the relation between slavery and inhumanity, constructing an imaginary binary between blackness and whiteness through a more fundamental divide between the dead and the living” (p. 22).

[3] See Marcel O’Gorman, Necromedia (Minneapolis, 2015).

[4] Margaret Schwartz, Dead Matter: The Meaning of Iconic Corpses (Minneapolis, 2015), p. 4.

[5] See Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, N.C., 2010).