Transgression, transcendence and posthumanism in Han Kang’s The Vegetarian

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

What makes us human? Descartes believes it is the cogito – the rational mind, or the soul. “Reason,” he writes in the Discourse on the Method, “[is] the only thing that makes us men and distinguishes us from the beasts.” This categorical distinction between the human species and all other living things is embedded in the western philosophical tradition which has held, since antiquity and even before, that man has a privileged position in the natural world. Human life is endowed with intrinsic value, while other entities, such as animals, plants or minerals, are resources that may justifiably be exploited for the benefit of humankind.

If humankind’s core characteristic is intelligence, and the body (to quote Katherine Hayles) may be seen as a mere accessory, then the transference of intelligence to a different kind of body – let’s say, a machine – may create an even more perfect and entitled being. This is the underlying premise of post-humanism. Post-humanism envisions a condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined. It focuses on function rather than form and defines a species by the way it operates – in other words, processes information – rather than by the way it looks. The post-humanist worldview dethrones the human subject from his privileged status and transcends the boundaries of the human to include other intelligent systems, such as machines, animals and even aliens.

Trans-humanism does not aspire to transcend the boundaries of the human but rather to overcome its limitations. It seeks to enhance the functions of the human body via implants and prosthetics, and to modify human brain power and longevity with the help of technologies such as bio- or genetic engineering. While the post-humanist perspective denounces anthropocentrism, which celebrates the exclusivity and hegemony of the human species, trans-humanism may be described as “anthropocentrism on steroids”, because it centers on the enhancement of the human.

Both post-humanism and trans-humanism address the question of what makes us human, but offer two different answers. A third answer is suggested by the concept of the ecological self, coined by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess. We tend to confuse our self with the narrow ego, he argues, but “human nature is such that with sufficient, comprehensive (all sided) maturity we cannot help but identify our ‘self’ with all living beings.”

This is the attitude apparently adopted by the protagonist of The Vegetarian, a novel written by the South Korean female author Han Kang. Winner of the 2016 Man Booker prize, it describes a young woman who refuses to eat meat, repudiates her body and her very humanity and yearns to become a tree. The taboos she breaks, the transgressions she commits and her shocking and spellbinding transcendence of the human are the topic of this paper.

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Cecilie Klingenberg