Is it possible to be a posthumanist without affirming life? Must a posthuman materialism necessarily be lively? Recent contemporary new materialists— as part of their project to reclaim, among other things, the agency and activity of nonhumans—seem to suggest that, yes, a vitalist (Coole and Frost) or vibrant (Bennett) matter is necessary to think the posthuman. Coole and Frost in particular set their new, vital matter against the “dead” matter of Descartes, and imagine a matter that is not only alive but, in the case of Bennett, specifically and strategically anthropomorphized. This article will take Margaret Cavendish as a test case to think about the relationship between life, matter, and posthumanism. Cavendish is a vitalist monist and is in many ways posthuman, in the way we might understand that word today: her natural philosophy affirms that every kind of matter has some degree of life and rationality, and many of her poems think about the kind of thoughts that animals might have. But her valuable contribution to the new materialisms is the way her theories of matter cut across the life/death dichotomy: for Cavendish, death and life are simply two different physical motions of matter. Cavendish’s long digressions on death, the “materiality” of the afterlife, and the universal destructiveness of resurrection collude with her posthuman poems to create a radically different materialist ethics. By refusing to privilege life, I will argue, Cavendish actually becomes more posthuman; the concepts of motion and figure allow her to conceptualize nonhuman forms of matter without needing to translate them into a form of (human) life or (human) agency.
"After Life in Margaret Cavendish’s Vitalist Posthumanism,"
Criticism: Vol. 62:
3, Article 7.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.wayne.edu/criticism/vol62/iss3/7