In reading Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism, I came across for the first time the application of systems theory to literature. This unbelievably versatile theory refers to the interdisciplinary study of “systems” – any systems. In broad systems theory, a “system” is defined by its boundaries, and is also considered to be greater than the sun of its parts. An example might be a prokaryotic cell, which consists of different parts (such as the cell wall, cell membrane, a chromosome, and so on), which functioning together create a living organism. Bounded by the cell wall or capsule, the system is defined by the boundary which separates that which is inside the system to that which is outside. In a similar manner a human being, whose boundary might (somewhat arbitrarily according to posthuman thinkers) be supposed to be the skin, adds up to more than just a bundled collection of organs and tissues to become instead a thinking, dreaming, communicating human being as a result of the function of those parts together as a system.
So far so good, you might say, but how is this relevant to literature – and children’s literature in particular? Cary Wolfe explains the relevance with reference to both Jacques Derrida and Niklas Luhmann. For Luhmann (a German sociologist), what is critical about systems theory when applied to language is the concept of autopoesis – the concept that a system maintains and creates itself by controlling the flow of information between the inside and the outside of the system. Because the outside of the system consists of an overload of information, the system must selectively filter and process that information in order to define itself in the world. The prokaryotic cell selects which nutrients to take inside itself, for example, with which to sustain itself as a system, and the human being’s ears pick up certain wave-lengths of sound and filter out others, thereby influencing his or her perception of the world and his or her place within it. As Wolfe explains, for Luhmann this principle can also apply to social systems. In other words, a system such as The Roman Catholic Church or the Communist Party or the United States Government will also have a self-defined boundary, across which selected information will pass, and which will in turn be defined by the information selected. According to Luhmann, in a formula that sounds remarkably similar to Derrida’s ideas about différence, communication is what crosses that boundary and what, to all intents and purposes, defines the boundary.
Put simply, any system defines itself in opposition to what is not the system, and within a social system that difference is established through the medium of communication (although not necessarily human communication). Communication allows a binary situation to be constructed: what will be designated system, and what will be designated other – but, as Derrida has explained, those binaries must necessarily be constructed rather than absolute. They exist only in terms of the system, and have no fixed or universal reality. It is this idea that leads us not only to the text and posthumanism, but also to children’s literature more specifically.
Writing about the central dilemma that often occurs in environmental writing with regard to concepts of “place”, Lawrence Buell reminds us that “even designedly ‘realistic’ texts cannot avoid being heavily mediated refractions of the palpable world” (Buell 33). In other words, the text itself is a system, which selectively filters the information of reality to construct a new reality within the text-system, enclosed within the boundary of the text. Furthermore, that text-system is constantly re-defined by the flow of information between the system and the outside – between text and reader. What systems-theory reminds us, therefore, is the same as what Derrida reminds us: the reality and boundaries of the text are unstable, created only by the constructed binaries of the text-system itself. There is in this idea of the unstable boundary an uncanny echo of posthumanist ideas, and it is this similarity that Cary Wolfe explores at length in What is Posthumanism. The majority of posthumanist critics identify the roots of posthumanism within postmodernist and deconstructionist theory, and particularly in the destabilization of the humanist subject undertaken by theorists such as Derrida, Foucault, Levis-Strauss, and so on (Seaman 246). Wolfe makes clear this connection in his discussion of Derrida alongside systems-theory, showing how both theoretical approaches help to destabilize notions of self, text, and subject. It is Buell, however, who indicates a significant relevance of these ideas for children’s literature theory in his discussion of realism versus fantasy.
I am thinking, in particular, of a recent discussion that took place on the child_lit Facebook page, in response to a thought-provoking blog-post on diversity, “What About White Boys” shared by Roxanne Feldman. Spurred by this blog post, a theme that came up in the Facebook discussion was whether the fantasy genre did or could provide adequate reflections and interventions in what are seen as “realist” social issues such as diversity. Comments explored, amongst other texts, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, to consider how these decidedly fictional worlds nevertheless might reflect (or fail to reflect) real-life issues of race, diversity, equality, and so on. If we remember Buell’s assertion that even realist texts are “heavily mediated refractions of the palpable world” – systems, in other words, which have created themselves in opposition to carefully selected components of the “real” world – the discussion becomes one not so much of how texts reflect as of how they construct. Systems theory and posthumanism remind us that no text can provide an authoritative representation of reality: all textual representations exist as a constantly changing mediation of information between the reader (outside the system) and the text (inside the system). The question therefore becomes not only how, for example, Tolkien portrays race relations in his representation of men and orcs, but how concepts of race are negotiated between reader and text in each specific instance of the communicative act of reading. Hardly an original idea, but one that it is worth remembering: like any other system, the “children’s text” is not one half of a stable binary in which the reader is the other half; instead there is a constant play of différence between the two, a negotiation of meaning which mutually sustains and constructs both reader and text as constantly changing entities. Like the prokaryotic cell, the text is both separate from and inextricably entangled with the outer world.
Buell, Lawrence. The Future of Environmental Criticism: Environmental Crisis and Literary Imagination. Blackwell Publishing, 2005.
Niklas Luhmann. “The World Society as a Social System.” International Journal of General Systems, vol. 8, no. 3, 1982, pp. 131-138.
Seaman, Myra J. “Becoming More (than) Human: Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Future.” Journal of Narrative Theory, vol. 37, Summer 2007, pp. 246-275.
Wolfe, Cary. What is Posthumanism? University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
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.