Professor Oakes is a Professor of English at Furman University, teaching Early Modern literature and Humanities courses. Her specialty is 16th and 17th century British poetry, and her research interests currently focus on Milton, Shakespeare, Margaret Cavendish, seventeenth century book frontispiece portraits, early modern humanist education, the history of scientific writing, Reformation theology, British detective fiction, and children’s fantasy literature.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix contains a storyline with some of the more enigmatic characters in the series: the centaurs. They have rejected the appellation of “Being” placed on them by the Ministry of Magic and thus are not included in the governance of the Ministry (the Centaur Liaison Office is a lonely place). They actually prefer being classified as “Beasts,” defined in the Harry Potter Wiki as “a magical creature that does not have sufficient intelligence to understand the laws of the magical community nor bear part of the responsibility in shaping those laws,” and this despite the fact that they clearly are highly intelligent creatures.
This example reflects the difficulty of applying a notion such as “posthumanism” to a magical world, and not just this one, but any mythopoeic universe that includes non-human individuals that possess some elements that we consider part of “humanness.” Those elements may include human subjectivity, creativity, judgment and decision making abilities, or power over one’s environment (including through technology), among other things. Many entities that are not human (wizard or Muggle) in Rowling’s series display one of these elements. But these entities cannot be classified as posthuman, in the sense that they are seen to be developed by humans, controlling humans, or replacing humans (either in anatomical parts or as a species). The dystopic feature of much of posthumanism is not present in these types of fictional universes. So what kind of creature is a centaur, that doesn’t want to control or replace humans, that doesn’t even care whether humans think about them or not? This world contains many other half or whole, real or fictional animals that possess qualities that are greater than we usually attribute to animals: owls that willingly convey messages, talking snakes, flying horses. But what about normally inanimate objects that have similarly higher abilities: how do we categorize the existence of plants that scream, books that bite, buildings that move, mirrors that don’t reflect their reflection, brooms that hover and throw off humans that attempt to hold onto them?
Like human technology, the power harnessed by wizards is the result of study, practice, and research; it is no accident that the pivotal event of the series is an invitation to come to school, and that much of the action of the overarching plot and internal stories of the series hinges on the correct and ethical practice of magic learned in that education. But that is where the similarity to humanly created technology, and its attendant problems, ends. None of these entities – animal, vegetable, or mineral -- have been created by humans, so transhumanism, and AI are not concerns here: none of the “technology out of our control” that is a frequent underlying theme in science fiction. I have argued elsewhere that wizards do not need technology because they have other, organic ways to understand and control their environments. Ontological schemes not based or in or in opposition to a foundational notion of human subjectivity seem to be in order to understand the range and nature of magical power that does not neatly fit into concepts of posthumanism.
Space forbids a thorough discussion of the philosophical scheme of Herman Dooyeweerd, except to say that his system of “aspects” allows non-human entities to function somehow through certain inherent qualities. I would propose that the arrogance of humanness, human subjectivity, or human biological and cognitive functions is too limiting. The eastern idea of “sentience” is informative, which endows all beings with subjective consciousness as the regulatory element of determining how individuals interact with each other, create power relationships, and understand the widely varying abilities of others. The Ministry of Magic seems to make this error in its dealings with the centaurs when the only measure of the centaurs’ worth is in how they fit into the Minstry’s plan of political organization. Another of many examples from the series include the mandrakes in Chamber of Secrets. The standard mythology of mandrakes is that their scream when uprooted will kill a human; Rowling takes this one step further and has them raised by the students as crying babies and obnoxious, sulky teenagers. The entire basis of the Care of Magical Creatures class is that the creatures encountered by wizards can have a heightened sense of consciousness: almost any living thing or inanimate object (the Mirror of Erised, the Whomping Willow) can be considered something which may have to be treated as an equal, a partner, or an adversary in some way, with diplomacy and respect. (I for one have great respect for poison ivy, but not because it can kill me by hitting me). The unpredictable, unreliable nature of objects in the magical world are caused by the actions and reactions of consciousness over which wizards have no control, but for very different reasons than with human technology. Magic, available to any entity, creates a parallel existence for non-human agency rather than one that will eventually overcome human existence.
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Scholastic, 2003.
---. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Scholastic, 1999.
Oakes, Margaret. “Flying Cars, Floo Powder, and Flaming Torches: The Hi-Tech, Lo-Tech World of Harry Potter.” Reading Harry Potter: Critical Essays. Ed. Giselle Anatol. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2003.
The Dooyeweerd Pages. http://kgsvr.net/dooy/index.html
Jen is an Instructor of English at East Stroudsburg University. Views and opinions expressed here are her own, and not those of the University or any other organization.