This article analyzes a contemporary posthuman culture of work through a critical disability optic and, in particular, examines the disability aesthetics employed by Ferris and Faber in their novels. It opens with an outline of how contemporary post-industrial work cultures fixate on notions of speed and efficiency, and then reads the ideas of 'humanity', embodiment and power that result from this, before situating the difference of disability as a critique of such focus on immediacy and productivity. Ferris' and Faber's novels are read in terms of their analysis of disability and work, exploring how each creates complex ideas of embodiment, time and subjectivity from their very different contexts (the corporate world of the Manhattan legal profession in The Unnamed and an isolated alien/posthuman work environment of food production in Under the Skin). While offering a critique of the posthuman as it is figured in neo-liberal conceptions of work, the article concludes by suggesting the productive possibilities of aligning a critical posthumanist anti-humanism with contemporary disability theory in further understanding representations of work and disability.
He was there to work, and when work was over, to leave the office and resume life
and there was nothing to do but go to work
The pace of posthuman work and the time of disability
The twenty-first century has seen the consolidation of a neoliberal, post-industrial conception of work that, as many commentators have noted, increasingly revolves around ideas of speed, productivity and efficiency. "We have never experienced such a world", Robert Hassan notes in his study The Empire of Speed: Time and the Acceleration of Politics and Society, "where rapidity – speed – is at the very core of our collective and individual experience" (Hassan 2009, 7-8). Contemporary social formations, he goes on, are marked by an "open-ended form of speed, which means that the rate at which humans communicate and the rates of increase in productivity and efficiency can never be fast enough. In this postmodern economy the rate at which we do things has become the defining factor" (Hassan 2009, 7-8 and 17). Likewise, John Tomlinson, exploring speed in terms of an idea of immediacy in his book The Coming of Speed, maps out the contexts of technology, the media, institutionalization, regulation and the everyday that have combined to produce "a broad condition of immediacy" that establishes "cultural assumptions and expectations of effortlessness, ubiquity and endless delivery in a fast-paced, technologically-replete and telemediated world" (Tomlinson 2007, 158). As both writers show, effortless efficiency, delivered constantly, has become the expectation in many contemporary spheres of activity.
I will explore other critical accounts of speed and its relation to work, but first I want to make an immediate link between the concepts outlined above and formations and understandings of disability. I will claim in this article that it is the particular character of speed and efficiency in the workplace that lends the contemporary moment its power; a unique constellation in which ideas of the human, and increasingly the non-human and posthuman, form complex patterns of meaning – especially in relation to embodiment and cognition – that shape both disabled lives and the perception of the people who live them, frequently in pejorative terms. And, I want to assert, this character and the meanings it collects are thrown into sharp vision by contemporary cultural narratives that explore how disability and work interact. In such narratives, there is both a disability aesthetics, produced from within understandings of disability experience and informed as to its detail, and an aesthetics of disability, symptomatic of wider expressions of disability representations and again often pejorative, that come to the fore in texts that self-consciously seek to explore the nature of human difference. The two positions both overlap and exist in an uneasy tension, and I would stress that I am not reading them as, respectively, expressions of 'authentic' or 'inauthentic' versions of disability. Rather their complications add to Tobin Siebers' deployment of disability aesthetics as "a critical concept that seeks to emphasize the presence of disability in the tradition of aesthetic representation". Siebers claims that, "the acceptance of disability enriches and complicates notions of the aesthetic"; it "enlarges our vision of human variation and difference, and puts forward perspectives that test presuppositions dear to the history of aesthetics" (Siebers 2010, 2-3). If an emphasis on 'presence' and an 'acceptance' can be read as positive, as in Siebers' formation here, we also have to admit that such presence can remain unaccepted, in aesthetic as well as social moments. As we shall see, contemporary disability narratives of work negotiate the space between such positions.
I have argued before that understanding disability experiences by mobilising the forms of aesthetics and critique that originate from within those experiences and their representations, offers a powerful tool in the examination of social and cultural formations (Murray 2008). In this article, I will do so again, looking at two novels - The Unnamed (2010) by Joshua Ferris and Michael Faber's Under the Skin (2000) – that situate issues of disability and posthuman difference within (very different) work settings. The Unnamed investigates work in urban contexts of speed living and the corporate 'hypereconomy' of the legal profession, while Under the Skin explores ideas of a slower cycle of harvesting and production, in which an alien posthuman seeks to define subjectivity and belonging through work centred around bodily difference. In both texts, ideas of a singular and coherent body or self, a humanist 'proveable identity', are critiqued through a creative disability lens and its interrogation of the constitution and consequences of work.
In their formulations of ideas of speed and immediacy, both Hassan and Tomlinson write in the wake of Paul Virilio, whose work since his ground-breaking 1986 text Speed and Politics has connected speed to questions of power and violence and an idea of 'hypermodernism' (James 2001, 29-44). For Virilio, interviewed in 2012, speed's "damage is its success" and "its success is also its damage" (Virilio 2012, 69). His writings outline a world where speed has been at the heart of social and (especially) industrial/technological development; but in the contemporary moment we have hit what he has termed a "wall of acceleration" (Armitage 2001, 97-98) where such 'progress' and linearity is no longer possible. Virilio's work allows us to connect ideas of speed to the emerging space of the posthuman; his claims about the critical point of society chart currents of spatial and technological transformation that align with the kinds of posthuman landscapes described in the writings of Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles, Rosi Braidotti and other critics working at the vanguard of critical posthumanism. Virilio's exploration of ideas of 'lost dimensions', 'tele-presence' and 'visual machines' maps on to the kinds of post-anthropocentric formations central to what Braidotti has termed "the Posthuman as Becoming-machine", the processes through which the human and non-human interact (Virilio 1991 and 1994; Braidotti 2013, 89-95; see also Haraway 1991, Hayles 1999). In particular, Virilio paints such moments as being constituted of fear and panic; a loss of logic as speed, in effect, becomes impossibly fast.
Virilio's stress on speed's relationship with power and contemporary manifestations of space, like Hassan's characterization of its inherently imperial nature, speaks to its connection to work, an obvious space of power configurations. It is in structures specific to work environments and practices where ideas of efficiency and the speed of productivity in particular accrue vital meaning. In virtual work cultures especially, what Virilio calls the "direct perception of objects, surfaces and volumes" becomes lost, replaced with an "indirect and mediatized reception" that, precisely because of its lack of presence, can be accelerated to produce the kinds of contemporary speed, with the consequent emphasis on immediate efficiency, explored by Hasan and Tomlinson (Virilio 1991, 84). Hasan, for example, cites working in the realm of computer-based temporality as the perfect exemplar of such a notion, where it is "seen as a badge of honor to speak of one's life as existing in the 24/7 society" (Hasan 2009, 23), and Tomlinson cites what he terms the "weak demarcation between 'work' and 'life'" that results because of "the reach of capitalist (or capitalist-inflected) work relations into private life" Tomlinson 2007, 88). The speed of contemporary work, all three writers stress, influences and indeed often regulates core notions of how we have come to define individuals, families, community and society.
It is Jonathan Crary's work that has most recently explored the relationship between culture, speed and work. In 24/7, his excoriating essay on the workings of late capitalism, Crary notes the "expanding, non-stop life-world" of contemporary life is increasingly dominated by a search for perfect, endless production and consumption, or what he calls "a generalized inscription of human life into duration without breaks, defined by a principle of continuous functioning" (Crary 2014, 8). Crary laments the culture of 24/7 work precisely because it seeks to erase what he terms the "shadows and obscurity […] of alternative temporalities". He continues:
A 24/7 world […] is a world identical to itself, a world without the shallowest of pasts, and thus in principle without specters. But the homogeneity of the present is an effect of the fraudulent brightness that presumes to extend everywhere and to preempt any mystery or unknowability (19).
It is the contemporary conception of speed as linear and quantifiable that seeks to erase the kinds of 'mystery' of which Crary writes here; in such formations disability becomes what Alison Kafer has termed part of "a future that bears too many traces of the ills of the present to be desirable". Noting that "how one understands disability in the present determines how one imagines disability in the future", she continues: "In this framework, a future with disability is a future no one wants" (Kafer 2013, 2). As Kafer stresses here with her concentration on futures, disability conceived over time within neoliberal structures is understood to be unendurable.
Such logic positions disability within what is an all too often familiar and stereotypical position. In the introduction to the 'Work and Employment' section of the 2011 World Health Organization World Report on Disability, the authors note that, "working age persons with disabilities experience significantly lower employment rates and much higher unemployment rates than persons without disabilities" (WHO 2011, 235). In exploring this, they go on to outline the misconceptions and processes of discrimination that surround people with disabilities when being considered for work, observing that, "such attitudes may stem from prejudice or from the belief that people with disabilities are less productive than their non-disabled counterparts" (240). In recommending that social attitudes change as much as laws and regulations, the WHO report identifies a need to "instil a belief among the public that people with disabilities can work, given the proper support" (251). In so doing, it identifies the intersection between the kinds of speed economies as outlined by Hassan and Tomlinson and the public perception of the extent to which those with disabilities are seen as 'productive' or 'efficient'. As Katherine Quarmby puts in bluntly in Scapegoat: Why we are failing Disabled People, a study in which she recounts numerous accounts of hate crimes and violence towards disabled people: "Disabled people are not seen as equal citizens. They are seen as a useless burden" (Quarmby 2011, 226); in the context of work, 'burden' takes on a specific dimension. It connects the perception of lack and absence, so common to a majority social view of individuals with disabilities, to levels of productivity that they are understood never to be able to meet. And it then reads the necessity to 'make up' the 'shortfall' that such under-productivity produces, in terms of benefits and allowances that society has to pay to support people deemed unable to contribute effectively.
An idea of the 'underserving poor' is, of course, nothing new, but the contemporary moment reconfigures how such status can be read. Crary argues that elements of life that fall outside the frame of neoliberal work structures suggest "thresholds at which society could define or protect itself" (25). With such thinking in mind, might we claim disability as one such threshold, a liminal space in which we can reconfigure embodied experience and, as a consequence, the boundaries of selfhood? For all that disability might seem to be a collection of positions that is more associated with vulnerability rather than protection, we can read the difference it brings to bodies and minds precisely in terms of new 'definitions' of the personal and social. What Crary terms the "weakness and inadequacy of human time, with its blurred, meandering textures" (29) has no place in configurations of work that see the human body as a biohackable platform.
But we might note that such meanderings can be claimed as critical disability tools, in the ways in which they emphasise the distinctiveness that different bodies and minds produce. Writing on disability aesthetics, Michael Davidson observes that such aesthetics "foregrounds (sic) the extent to which the body becomes thinkable when its totality can no longer be taken for granted, when the social meanings attached to sensory and cognitive values cannot be assumed" (Davidson 2008, 4). Davidson supplies here a critical frame that fits not only the novels I will discuss, but also a wider idea of how disability works to question and destabilise broad social and cultural 'assumptions'. Working in the wake of such a critical positioning, I want to assert that thinking through the optic of a disability-led critique results in positive and productive ways to understand the complexities of the present. As I will show, it is through the processes of such critique that we might better formulate an intersectional critical space in which disability perspectives intersect with ideas of a productive posthumanism, a space that can illuminate a variety of social and cultural moments, those of work included.
While work is a much-discussed and vital category in understanding social experiences of disability, the ways in which it is represented through fictional narratives has received far less attention. This is almost certainly because the link between work and quality of life has been, and continues to be, so important across the disability rights agenda. But a concentration on the social consequences of disability, employment and the nature of work should not be at the expense of our understanding of the ways in which cultural narratives open up and illuminate how disability changes how we see work and what that might mean. As we shall see, the two novels to be examined here offer powerful insight into work environments precisely because of their disability focus.
Throughout history, those with disabilities have been seen as being unable to contribute to work as effectively as those without, a perception usually read in terms of physical difference or cognitive deficiency. But the kinds of speed economies Hassan and Tomlinson outline present new contexts for our understanding of disability and work. In an internet-based, connected workplace for example, physical impairments may not be as much of a limitation as they were during a period of machine and engineering domination. Indeed, a culture of work acceleration and multiple-project multitasking or, conversely, sustained concentration and single tasking, might seem to welcome the forms of cognitive variation inherent in some neurobehavioural conditions, such as autism. Extending this, the kinds of networked assemblages identified by scholars of the posthuman, with their focus on non-linear, symbiotic and co-evolving existences, also appear to lend themselves towards the inclusion of those with different bodies and minds. When Pramod K Nayar speaks of "the human as a dynamic hybrid", for example, focused "not on borders but on conduits and pathways, not on containment but on leakages, not on stasis but on movements of bodies, information and particles all located within a wider system", there is an apparently easy move to see how such plasticity can incorporate the divergent states disability brings with it, and that work might be one of the locations within which an enabling hybridity might flourish (Nayar 2014, 10). But for the most part the kinds of immediacy demanded by neoliberal regimes lack this broad view of systems. Hassan stresses that it is "constant acceleration" (my emphasis) that is "the defining process of our postmodern, post-Fordist and post-industrial age", and this stress on the constant, the need to always be mobile, responsive and flexible, in fact produces work cultures and structures that – as the bare statistics of the WHO Report testify – are not designed for those with disabilities (Hassan 2009, 19; Avent 2017).
Indeed, it is intriguing to note the ways in which the language that frequently describes contemporary work cultures contains multiple metaphors that invoke disabled states of being. When Hassan notes that, for proponents of neoliberalism, acceleration equates to 'efficiency', he goes on to observe that within this logic:
To be efficient is also necessarily to be flexible – to be physically, cognitively, psychologically and metaphorically able to 'move fast' when the time comes […] To be efficient and flexible is to be able to move rapidly in response to 'outside' economic influences that constantly demand our attention. To be willing and able to move fast means that you can be 'successful' in your life, be able to 'synchronize' with fast-changing scenarios and rapidly unfolding events, staying 'ahead of the game' and hopefully out of trouble […] In the opening decade of the twenty-first century, we find the pursuit of purported efficiency through speed almost everywhere. To be outside the network is to be cut off from the spaces and times of economic opportunity (Hassan 2009, 19-20).
Here, the language of speed explicitly connects to physical mobility, with 'flexibility' and its connection to 'success' employing a particularly overt reference to bodies and norms. One can only be successful it seems if one is not simply able-bodied, but rather in addition athletic and fast. At the end of this article I will ask how disability might interact with ideas of 'slow' or 'weak' time and strength, set against what Thomas Hylland Eriksen, examining the concept of 'slow time', has called "the tyranny of the moment" (Erikson 2001). But for now we might focus on how we can better understand the seemingly pervasive ubiquity of the immediate and accelerated in work cultures of the present.
The ways in which we might all make our bodies and minds faster are part of the characterization of work speed and efficiency, and its consequences for our physical and cognitive selves, which flood contemporary media networks. Traditional diet, workout and meditation regimes have been supplemented by ideas – from mindfulness to biohacking – that specifically aim not simply at well-being but also, in language that often borrows from the posthuman, at enhancement. To take one example, the team behind Nootrobox, a pharma/tech start-up firm based in Silicon Valley, market Nootropics, "a broad classification of cognition enhancement compounds" designed to accentuate the augmentation of creativity, memory and concentration. According to Nootrobox's publicity, those who take Nootropics are engaged in an explicit process of "hacking your biology" to produce "optimal cognition" and the direct development of their neurophysiology. "Humans are the next platform", Nootrobox's co-founder and CEO Geoffrey Woo observes in an October 2016 interview, using the classic contemporary start-up mix of science and business language that saturates everything the company does (fellow co-founder Michael Brandt adds at one point in the interview: "The way Nike owns physical performance […] we want to own mental performance") (Morris 2016). But if it seems that Nootropics might promote a general improving of health, it is in fact clear that much of its product is actually aimed at enhancing work performance. SPRINT, for example, is essentially a compound of caffeine, L-Theanine and various Vitamin B complexes, to be taken as needed "to get the job done" in order to produce "higher-order cognitive work". Nootrobox's "cornucopia of self-actualization", as journalist Alex Morris puts it in his interview with Woo and Brandt, assumes that our actual selves want, more than anything else, to work harder and faster. "As a group of biohackers, technologists, and researchers" the Nootrobox team note, "we believe life should be lived to its fullest potential. That potential is tested and ultimately judged by the work we produce" (Nootrobox, 2017).
Whether through enhanced cognition or optimized physicality then, contemporary work produces workers set on pursuing the ever-disappearing horizon of 'efficiency' in ways that have changed dramatically in the last ten years. In this time of posthuman work, the idea of the worker as a unit challenges the idea of a self-contained and autonomously rational human agent. Becoming faster and more flexible threatens to go beyond the characteristics that supposedly make the human being knowable and expressible. But, as scholarship on disability shows time and again, because of the differences it entails disability also revises humanist conceptions of the self. A result of the necessary re-thinking of bodies and minds that disability creates (as noted with Davidson earlier), is that the limitations and boundaries of 'selfhood' – especially notions of a rational, coherent and unitary singular individual – are laid bare. Disability, then, suggests its own different pace. Making meaning of disabled ontologies in a time of accelerated immediacies is no simple task.
Not being able to stop
It is precisely the ideas of speed, mobility, work and their connection to success (and to concomitant topics such as family and community) that is critiqued in Joshua Ferris's 2010 novel The Unnamed. As a whole, Ferris's work is strongly focused on work practices and environments: his 2007 novel, Then We Came to the End, takes place almost exclusively within the offices of a Chicago advertising agency; while To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, his most recent (2014) novel, revolves around a New York dentist, again with much of the narrative set in the workplace. For Ferris, work is one of the ways in which the contemporary moment is most clearly defined. It becomes the context for many of the major themes of his writing.
The Unnamed centres on Tim Farnsworth, a successful Manhattan lawyer, who suddenly develops a condition that causes him, against his will, to have to walk without stopping. Farnsworth's walks take him through and out of New York, often only stopping when, exhausted, he falls asleep. His walking literally embodies the idea of a self out of control: "He looked down at his legs. It was like watching footage of legs walking from the point of view of the walker. This was the helplessness, this was the terror: the brakes are gone, the steering wheel has locked, I am at the mercy of this wayward machine" (33). Farnsworth can be read in a number of ways: as a contemporary flâneur, or as a man experiencing a crisis of masculinity for example (Ferry, 2011); but a disability reading provides the most productive way to unpack the complexities of his selfhood and environment. Because of his inability to stop moving, Farnsworth is thrown into a disability that, through the actuality and metaphorical extensions of his walking, forcibly removes him from the stable and ordered life he has been living.
The condition's origins baffle clinical expertise, while Farnsworth can only describe its manifestations and sensations in "nonmedical and not very useful ways"; he talks of feeling "jangly, hyperslogged, all bunched up," noting that "he spoke a language only he understood" (Ferris 2011, 126). In a clever analysis of the poverty of medical knowledge surrounding many neurobehavioral conditions, Ferris has Farnsworth subjected to multiple opinions from doctors with different medical specialisms: he is, varyingly, referred to neurologists, psychiatrists, and environmental psychologists; is subjected to multiple MRI scans; is recommended to group therapy because of possible problems with compulsion; is given a list of urban toxins as a possible cause; is prescribed muscle relaxants; and is recommended for rebirthing. One clinician tells him that, given that there is "no laboratory examination to confirm the presence or absence of the condition" it might not "even exist at all"; while another diagnoses "benign idiopathic perambulation," a nod to the idea that, in a world governed by new neurological knowledge, any unusual activity can be seen as a syndrome (41). Although "the health professionals suggested clinical delusion, hallucinations, even multiple personality disorder," Farnsworth is sceptical of their expertise. He believes that, "his mind was intact, his mind was unimpeachable. If he could not gain dominion over his body, that was not 'his' doing. Not an occult possession but a hijacking of some obscure order of the body" (24). For Farnsworth, the possibility that such an "obscure order," affecting the body but located in the brain, is the cause of the walking allows him to admit to a disability while preserving the sense that, psychologically, his mind is intact. As the above description of the walking makes clear, he understands his self to be at the 'mercy' of mechanical control.
If The Unnamed presents a clever spin on the mind/brain conundrum, much of the force of Ferris' presentation of Farnsworth's syndrome lies in the ways in which it offers a specific critique of the culture of work. As a trial lawyer, Farnsworth's world is the detailed preparation of cases that involve endless late nights in the office, or the total commitment to work that demands travel all over the country. The financial rewards are considerable but, Ferris makes clear, it is the work itself that drives Farnsworth: "The point was Houston, Seattle, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Charleston, Manhattan – wherever the trial was. The trial, that was the point. The clients. The casework. The war room […] And he worked in midtown amid the electricity and the movement. And his view of Central Park was amazing. And he liked the people. And the money was great. And the success was addictive. And the pursuit was all-consuming, And the rightness of his place was never in doubt" (37). Indeed, on one occasion when he is remembering again working into the dark of another late night, Farnsworth observes simply: "That was happiness" (37).
But his condition destroys this capacity for work. Unable to physically stay in his office, make meetings and see clients, Farnsworth becomes desperate. In an environment that demands immediate expertise and continuous productivity, and despite the irony of his own hyper-mobility, he cannot keep up. Having to explain his multiple absences, he falsely claims that his wife Jane has cancer and ultimately fails in his duty to defend a high-profile client, who is (wrongfully) convicted of murder. When he does attempt to attend the trial in a frantic attempt to intervene, Farnsworth experiences a walking episode, leaving the Manhattan courthouse and finally waking up "in a booth in a KFC in Queens […] a crazy man possessed" (103). This change in location, from smart Midtown to working-class suburb, and Farnsworth's shedding his bespoke work suit as he walks, serve as a marker of the change (here, the literal journey) his disability produces.1 He is sacked, and while he is re-hired as a lowly staff attorney following an excruciating interview ("Oh please, please take me back!" his internal monologue recounts; "Grant me the full measure of life again […] I will be good, will do as told. No more breakdowns, promise, promise" (129)), he again fails to hold down this job.
Farnsworth's commitment to work means he is frequently absent from his wife Jane and daughter Becka. Ferris presents this as an all-too-common deal in the world of high-pressure work, supposedly justifiable because of the remuneration. But in the same way as Farnsworth's walking destroys his ability to function as a 24/7 employee, it also totally re-orders his relations with his family. "I've always felt a strong sense of duty to provide for you and your mom. I've worked hard so that you would never have to want for anything", Farnsworth says to his daughter, in a rare moment when they are in the house together, only to be met with the retort: "I don't really think that's why you worked hard" (34). But Farnsworth is, in fact, working up to a confession: "Point is […] I hid behind my duty. I used work as my excuse to avoid you" (35). Despite such seeming self-knowledge, Farnsworth cannot process this insight to produce greater insight into his closest relations: Becka's response – "The only reason you're apologising is because you're sick again. If you weren't, you wouldn't even have thought about it. You could have been stoned on crack since I started high school, nothing would have been different" – is withering in its summary and contempt (36). Farnsworth's failure as father, unable to help Becka through her teenage anxiety about her appearance, is matched by his being powerless to stop Jane's drinking or understand her version of living with his illness, while his condition changes the literal space of the family home. In a desperate attempt to prevent the destructive consequences of his walks he is restrained in his bedroom, tied to a bed while his legs move constantly and either Jane or Becka watch over him.
The novel also connects Farnsworth's condition to wider narratives of American individualism and success: "Before he got sick, he was under the illusion that he needed only to seek help from the medical community, and then all that American ingenuity, all that researched enlightenment, would bring about his alienable right to good health" (63). But, as Ferris makes clear, the humanist language of rights, enlightenment and scientific knowledge constitutes an illusion when disability effectively casts Farnsworth into the world of another America, one of unemployment, homelessness and despair. Farnsworth's belief in his 'right' to be successful at work through study and application, processes of self-knowledge and advancement, is precisely the logic that his condition unpicks. Disability here counters the speed of the efficient and immediate workplace, the endless drive of casework and trials, with a different, embodied, pace: that of Farnsworth's walking. His body's motion and mobility destroy not only the possibility of his work, but the sense of self and the meanings he derives from it. In the end, Farnsworth literally walks out of both the narrative of his work self and his place in his family. As Jane becomes genuinely sick with cancer and Becka's adult life continues with her wedding, Farnsworth is estranged from them both. He follows a loop of continuous walking until by the novel's end he lies down in a tent in a snowstorm, apparently to die, feeling "He never had to rise again […] Never had to walk" (310).
Crucially, Ferris presents Farnsworth as a figure who learns little or nothing from his walking. He barely registers the details of the environments through which he passes, nor is he prompted to reflection by them. The Unnamed is not a disability narrative that resolves itself through a protagonist finding 'human' meaning because of their condition. "Try your best that he doesn't forget what it means to be human" a doctor tells Jane after another failed medical intervention (117). But this is precisely the forgetting and failure the novel charts. Exiled from the posthuman space of work, Farnsworth has become non-human by the story's end, animal-like in his roving across the landscape at the mercy of nature. The Unnamed refutes the notion that, continuing a long tradition in American writing, there is individual or social insight to be gained from a flight from the complexities of society back to nature.
But if Farnsworth fails to understand the effects his disability has on his life, this is certainly not true for us as readers. Ferris' central conceit – a pace that cannot be controlled in a world moving ever faster – presents a masterful destabilizing of the world of contemporary work. The disability lens the novel utilizes operates to activate precisely the kinds of aesthetics, as formulated by Michael Davidson, noted earlier. It is because Farnsworth's body rebels, through its excessiveness, that the social meanings it produces, especially those related to work, are thrown into relief and challenged. With a body that cannot be won over by casework, or long hours in the office, indeed one that is in fact immune to any attempt to establish argument through precedent, Farnsworth is projected into a realm for which he has no expression. Instead, Ferris unmasks the extent to which 'success' is constituted through many vectors of ableism: the compliant body; the idea of a unified, and humanist, self; the internalization of the need for competition; and the heteronormativity of family. All fail as Farnsworth's disability highlights the collapse of boundaries between the different states he assumed made up his self.
Work was the cure
In Michael Faber's 2000 novel Under the Skin a very different kind of work serves as the focus for an exploration of ideas of difference, the body and selfhood. Isserley is an alien sent to Earth by her employers, Vess Incorporated, to trap and kill humans who are then processed into exotic food products (voddissin) for consumption by the elite of her home planet. Isolated apart from a few colleagues who work in the production and packaging of the human meat for transportation, she drives back and forth across the often-deserted roads of the far north of Scotland, luring male hitchhikers into her car (in a subtle reference to an inverted mode of 'kerb-crawling' sex work), which is specially adapted to anaesthetize passengers through the delivery of a sedative called icpathua. Isserley takes the bodies to a farm that serves as a cover for the processing of the human meat, which is transported home through a regular delivery schedule. In a clever twist that informs much of the novel's politics of embodiment and physical difference, the aliens refer to themselves as human and the humans on Earth as 'vodsels'.
The novel situates the idea and practice of work as the context for a series of questions about subjectivity and agency. Isserley is solely on Earth to gather bodies because she is an employee, and only agreed to take the job because refusal would have meant being condemned to the 'New Estates' back home. The Estates are an underground housing complex composed of an "unmistakable ugliness" where "decay and disfigurement were […] par for the course", and where overcrowding, poor diet and sanitation, and a lack of medical care, produce what she terms "an almost subhuman taint" (Faber 2014, 64). But the price Isserley pays to avoid this future is her own disfigurement, as to work on Earth requires radical surgery that renders her alien features unrecognizable to vodsels. It is in the subtleties of this presentation of bodily change that the novel can be read within a set of disability aesthetics and critique of humanism, as Isserley's frequent reflections on what she sees as her enfreakment punctuate her developing psychological awareness of the alien race she is encountering and her place on their planet. Isserley has had a series of major operations to prepare her for work on Earth. She has "had half [her] backbone amputated, and metal pins inserted into what was left" (127) in order to remove a tail and, because of this, has had to re-learn how to walk – on two legs as opposed to her normal four - and balance. In addition, she has had "strange humps grafted onto" her body, her "breasts removed" to be replaced by vodsel breasts modelled on a glamour model, and her "fur shaved off" (232). Her "once-beautiful body" (64) has become, in her eyes, that of a "mutilated cripple" with "scarred flesh" (284), while her face "was the only bit she could look at nowadays without self-loathing, the only bit that had been left alone" (88). The gender implications of the changes are subtle: Isserley does not associate her previous 'beauty' with any model of the feminine, and her new breasts fundamentally serve a work purpose, creating an attraction that lures hitchhikers into her car. Ultimately Isserley is, she feels, "a freak", someone who has been made into a "hideous animal" by the transitions necessary for her to take up her new job (75).
In the face of such difficulties of self-image, Isserley initially falls back on the routine and detail of work to provide her with stability. "To stop herself thinking about the more embittering specifics of her sacrifice, Isserley abruptly decided to get back to work. Work was the cure" she asserts (65). But unlike the ideas of corporate efficiency and urban speed explored in The Unnamed, work in Under the Skin is less a process of continual 24/7 engagement. Although Isserley's drives across the Scottish roads are a constant, finding vodsels is occasional and random. As such, work prompts a more a more reflective state, and its time functions in a different way: "Nothing happened", the narrative notes at one point while Isserley waits in her car for a vodsel to appear, "and time stubbornly refused to pass" (88). Isserley is still subject to the demands of Vess Incorporated's business model and its need for product, and has to work to timetabled requirements surrounding delivery and quantity, but she is left to herself for the majority of the time, and decides upon her own driving routes and methods of vodsel capture. As such her reflection on her own perceived disabilities, a process that becomes integral to her sense of self as she realises the extent to which she is alienated from a sense of home, takes place in a slow time of contemplation and learning, what Tomlinson has termed "slow values" (Tomlinson 2007, 147). Central to this is a realization that work, in fact, is not a cure for the complexities of her position. Upon learning that the price of voddissin is so prohibitively expensive back home that almost no-one can afford it, Isserley is also informed that there are moves to make a synthetic, substandard, replacement. "Do me out of a job?" she responds, laconically, fully realizing that in all likelihood such circumstances will leave her 'mutilated' self useless and with no possibility of return (234).
Isserley's selfhood is a careful construction of a subjectivity that sees itself as human and vodsels as alien. In one passage, Faber astutely reveals Isserley's value system through a description of vodsel limitations: "In the end, though, vodsels couldn't do any of the things that really defined a human being. They couldn't siuwil, they couldn't meshnistil, they had no concept of slan. In their brutishness, they'd never evolved to use hunshur; their communities were so rudimentary that hississins did not exist; nor did these creatures seem to see any need for chail, or even chailsinn" (174). While this is a powerful statement of superiority, at no point in the novel are any of the non-English words explained, so there is no possibility of the reader identifying with Isserley's own core 'definitions' of human agency and community. Seeing herself as human but 'crippled' by the violence produced by her surgery, Isserley is posthuman only within the context of our reading; her embodied difference working through the refraction created by our apprehension of our own 'humanity'. Such a process illuminates the ways in which the novel's inversions enact numerous processes of critique; for example the treatment of the vodsels after capture, as they are "shaved, castrated, fattened, intestinally modified [and] chemically purified" during their processing, serves as a clear comment on the nature of contemporary meat industries (97).
If Farnsworth's walking in The Unnamed raised the possibility of a posthumanizing process by the ways in which the human can become a machine, then Under the Skin suggests a parallel process of becoming-animal, a critical exploration central to much recent writing on the posthuman (Nayar; Wolfe 2013 and 2010, 99-144; Chen 2012). As Sarah Dillon has shown, the novel is full of inversions that tease out questions of species identification, particularly through linguistic transformations (Dillon 2011).2 Dillon notes how Isserley replaces possible empathic connections to vodsels with a more focused "animation of the inaminate", particularly (though Dillon does not stress this) in relation to the objects that are central to her work: "While the vodsels are drained of life, cars, road networks, tractors, steering wheels, factories, icpathua needles, machines, shower nozzles, windows and chocolates are all imbued with an uncanny vitality. Isserley seems strangely capable of more empathy with, and care of, her car, than with the vodsels" (143). But such identification is not strange if we understand that Isserley is seeking to 'cure' her sense of her own freakishness through a concentration on work. Though Under the Skin is full of material for the kind of human/non-human animal comparison in which Dillon is interested, the use of a disability optic to read the novel in terms of its presentation of embodied work alters the terms in which we might read Isserley as a character invested in 'becoming'. While Isserley can be read in terms of 'becoming-animal', she is clearly – in her own terms – attempting a process of self-identification in which her attitudes to work might reclaim her 'human' self from the mutilated, disabled subject she feels she has become.
But Faber makes it clear that cure, and Isserley's self-identity as a productive and respected worker, are not possible. Crucially, Isserley is working at the end of the novel when a car accident leaves her trapped and bleeding to death. The narrative concludes with Isserley at the point of committing suicide, about to detonate hidden explosives rather than allow herself to be identified by a woman who comes to her aid. Work has not saved her and it is rather an idea of connections to the natural world that appears as her last thought:
When it snowed, she would be part of it, falling softly to earth, rising up again with the snow's evaporation. When it rained, she would be there in the spectral arch that spanned firth to ground. She would help to wreathe the fields in mists, and yet would always be transparent to the stars. She would live forever (296).
In place of trying to negotiate the complexities of a disabled body through the detail of work, Isserley finally appears to reject embodiment altogether. The ending is, however, ambiguous: in her desire to become "part of the sky" (296) through her death, Isserley rejects both her adapted body and the terms of the employment that have defined her, but the novel offers little evidence that such abstraction is anything other than a final fantasy. Isserley exits our world, probably blown "into the smallest conceivable particles", with the same absence of full meaning with which she arrived (295). During the interval of her stay, however (the time of her work), her narrative enables a highly perceptive account of the nature of embodied work.
Conclusion: disability and posthuman refigurings of work
The disability aesthetics at work in The Unnamed and Under the Skin create powerful processes of critique that rework understandings of time and the body as they are inflected through work. If Ferris' novel articulates the complexities of speed and immediacy when read as determinants of efficiency and productivity, it is important to stress that the 'slow time' of Faber's narrative does not suggest a more enabling counter-discourse. The (apparent) death of both protagonists shows that slow time (and slow work) is no antidote to the destructive properties of the ever-increasing speed of contemporary work; it is rather its own space of restrictions and pejorative codifications. Any expectation that disability experiences might somehow constitute a preferred 'slow' mode of work is, in fact, just part of the same logic that assumes those with disabilities cannot be efficient or productive because they lack some attribute that qualifies all those without disabilities to work 'normally'. As Tomlinson argues: "The slow movement […] is congruent with the condition of immediacy, matching both its mood of fluid complexity and over-determination, and the individualizing effects of both telemediatization and the shaping of consumption towards delivery" (this last point rings especially true for the work practices explored in Under the Skin) (Tomlinson 2007, 149). In fact, advocates of slow time, and those who write on the topic, often invoke an idea of a collective 'us' in their discussions of how 'we' operate in the modern information age, a mode of writing that is essentially humanist in its assumptions around rationality, agency and individual action (Eriksen 2001, 147-164; Bertman 1998). As Under the Skin shows, Isserley's slow time does not allow for any such comforting affiliations.
It is more productive to read both novels in terms of the way they articulate moves away from the various categories – fast/slow, human/alien, identified self/erased self, embedded/dislocated - that at first seem central to the representations of their protagonists and environments. In each work identities fall away because of the messy embodied nature of disability, which proves to be beyond either institutional structures of control or any idea of self-will that might change the body back into some 'preferred' mode. It is important to stress that, although both Farnsworth and Isserley are frequently at war with their newly disabled bodies, neither novel posits disability experience itself as negative. Both authors refuse to indulge in the standard narrative moves – sentimentality, melodrama, or trajectories of overcoming – that traditionally create sympathy for the disabled protagonist when a character is understood to be 'suffering'. Rather each novel uses the clarity provided by a disability perspective to unpick the network of assumptions that underwrite albeist work environments and subjectivities. At the same time, these disability perspectives do not suggest that there is a simplistic process by which one mode of identity, the self as defined through work, is replaced by another, that of the disabled outsider. There are no "fantasies of identification" in either text, to borrow Ellen Samuels' useful phrase, no straightforward labels of belonging that offer restoration to some more 'authentic' subject position (Samuels 2014). Instead, disability functions in both novels to stress the non-normative nature of the body and its connections across objects and locations, as opposed to any iteration of an essentializing mastery. Whatever Farnsworth and Isserley might wish for their selves, their bodies refuse to submit to the centrifugal forces that might convey wholeness or some sense of unified being-in-the-world.
In this way, both novels portray disability as a set of anormative positions and experiences that rewrite assumptions about 'being human' or dehumanization. Because of their disabilities, Farnsworth and Isserley are seemingly caught on the wrong side of a boundary, that of class in The Unnamed and species in Under the Skin. But through highlighting the disabled body, each text demonstrates the fictional nature of enforcing such boundaries, as the building blocks of – respectively – prosperity and human/non-human identification are shown to be fragile entities rather than secure foundations. Here, then, we find a space of interaction between the relational, plural and unsettling productivities of disability critique and the positive energies of a critical posthumanism as envisaged by critics such as Hayles, Braidotti and Nayar. What Alison Kafer asserts as the "collective affinities" of disability, and its status as "a site of questions rather than firm definitions", is matched by Hayles' claims for the posthuman as being a condition that marks "the end of a certain conception of the human" (Kafer 2013, 11; Hayles 1999, 286). As Hayles adds, in terms that speak to the processes of critique at work in Ferris' and Faber's novels: "Located within the dialectic of pattern/randomness and grounded in embodied rather than disembodied information, the posthuman offers resources for rethinking the articulations of humans" (287). The combination of these two positions frames what I hope has been the articulation of my central concerns in this article, that the aesthetics of disability representation not only engage with such 'site of questions' and 'rethinking', but indeed go further – mobilizing critical insight into human activities that further reveals the differences of, within and between bodies as they engage with the world.
I am thus drawing a distinction between the nature of posthuman work, which we can characterise in the kinds of terms of neoliberal demands discussed at the start here, and the acuity of a critical posthumanist studies, which serves as an assembly of disciplines that functions to read the terms of contemporary cultures and society. Disability is only one part of this assembly, but its place in intersectional arguments that also welcome discussions of gender, race and forms of the non-human, is vital.3 To focus the power of this critical investigation upon work is especially fruitful, given the ubiquity of work, in its various manifestations, within global societies. The conjunction between work and disability is particularly important to subject to analysis, as stereotypes of the relationship abound. We are better placed to know more about both disability and work in our emerging posthuman present if we redouble our own work practice of critical intervention into their manifestations.
I am grateful to Amelia Defalco and Sophie Jones for reading a draft of this article.
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- In an interview the week before
The Unnamed was published, Ferris reflected on New York not
only as an environment for his fiction but as a place itself for his own
work. The city, he says, is "a very nurturing place, but the work itself is
at odds with that impulse because the work itself requires so much time and
attention". And, in an interesting link between his own working practice and
an explicit disability frame of reference, he goes on: "The city is a
guarantor of ADD, and you have to be steeled against your worst impulses"
(Atkinson 2010, 127).
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- Dillon characterises the novel as
being 'science fiction', although Faber has expressed reservations about the
label. I lack the space here to outline the relationship between science
fiction and the posthuman, or science fiction and disability. For more see
Graham 2002, Badmington 2004, Schmeink 2016, and Allen 2013.
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- There is not sufficient space here to
analyse either novel (but Under the Skin in particular) as much as
I would have liked in terms of gender or race. It is clear that there is a
process of 'becoming-woman' in Faber's novel, as it is only in the scene of
the car crash at the end that a vodsel is noticeably and continually
described as "female" and "a woman", in a move that suggests that Isserley's
slow learning has reached at a point where she identifies – through
the woman who comes to her aid – a possible emerging gender of her
own. Equally, the novel's many descriptions of skin, fur and bodily
difference invite a critical race reading that would offer more evidence of
its productive aesthetic strategies.
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