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“Who am I? Who was I?”: The Posthuman and Identity Formation in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy

by Gough, Philip

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desired; “meeting” her other self, is an encounter with something that is unfamiliar.
The discovery of the letter, and the possibility of another self, rather than resolving
the issues of inexplicable fragmentation of memory and imparting wholeness,
“disrupts any sense of a unified, stable and bounded subjectivity” (Landsberg 182).
The question Tally is faced with answering is not “Who am I?” but “Who was I?”

Tally resists the truth contained within the letter, since it is a threat to the stable
identity she has. There is security in a stable identity; a sense of knowing whom you
are and where you belong. In identity formation, adolescents strive for certainty and
stability. What sways Tally is that the contents explain the uncertainty of her
memories and “a sense of moral responsibility outweighs any claims…exerted by the
pull of an ‘authentic’ identity” (Landsberg 183). The desire to know the truth and
unravel the tangle of memories she has is what prompts Tally to accept the contents
of the letter and understand that her pretty identity is false. However, as Landsberg
suggests, “memories are less about authenticating the past, than about generating
possible courses of action in the present” (183). The letter Tally writes to herself in
the past serves more to spur her to action in the present with concern for the future,
rather than reviving her own past. Tally’s “true” identity emerges and, with it, her
awareness of why she submitted to the transformation as a means of finding a cure.
Once liberated from the stricture of the pretty operation, Tally is able to escape from
the city. However, her freedom is short-lived as she crashes just outside the city, lost
and without transportation.

Stranded in the wild, she encounters a tribe of primitive humans. But Tally’s
meeting is not open-armed and friendly; on the contrary, they try to kill her in a most
vicious manner; chasing her down and using clubs as if she were an animal. What
saves her is that she is posthuman, a pretty, and as such is considered to be a “god.”


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One man tells her, “I know little the god’s tongue,” and they only attacked her
because, “Never gods use fire before” (260-261). Tally is being identified as a god
comes not just from her clothing but her physical appearance, her “perfect” human
body and she speaks the language of the gods.

Just as technology is used to construct identity in the pretties, here technology is
used to retard the development of an entire culture by confining its members and
denying them the opportunity grow and develop. Technology imposes a form of stasis
on both the pretties and the tribal humans, keeping them trapped at a particular level
of development. “Technologically advanced societies tend to prolong adolescence and
give weight to the concept of adolescence as a cultural phenomenon rather than
biological” (Kroger 5). Although the tribal humans physically resemble the uglies and
live in the wild like the Smokey’s, here the resemblance ends. They have more in
common with the pretties as they endure similar limitations on freedom and cultural
manipulation of identity.

As in the city, where cultural ideology is maintained by enforcing boundaries, the
primitive identity of the villagers is maintained the same way. As Smith tells Tally,
his world has a boundary that no one can pass beyond. This is the boundary that keeps
the villagers in their “world” and, just like the pretties, prevents them from forming an
identity beyond what is required of those studying them. Smith, as a human, expresses
a desire to grow as a person, to learn and explore what lies beyond his world. But as
an experimental being he is denied the opportunity. In other words, like the pretties,
his opportunities to grow as a person and to develop his identity further by leaving his
“world” is denied by the technology that holds him captive.

The villagers embody everything that has been sacrificed for a posthuman world
and this is what keeps them prisoners of the city. Like the Smokies, they are a threat,


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but even more they offer a glimpse into the past, an opportunity to see where humans
came from, an opportunity to study “certain fundamentals…of human nature” that
have vanished from the posthuman world (Pretties 313). Essentially, the things that
make one human, and many of the markers of identity formation which have also
been jettisoned in order to create the posthuman are still present in the primitives. For
this reason they are kept prisoner and their humanity is studied by posthuman
scientists. Tally has a mission to complete and must escape.

Just as the villagers determined Tally’s identity by her physical appearance,
assumptions are not exclusive to humans. When Tally meets the late-pretty scientist
who has come to study the villagers, he assumes certain things about her based on her
appearance as a pretty. Tally peppers him with questions about why he is here but he
treats her as a pretty, answering her questions as if he were speaking to a child but
“perplexed that a new pretty was asking questions instead of whining about getting
home” (312). He assumes that as a pretty Tally will be docile and compliant, but
Tally shatters his assumptions. “Pretty? Think again.” She smiled. “I’m Tally
Youngblood. My mind is very ugly. And I’m taking your car” (313). Her aggressive
and threatening actions place her on a level with the primitive villagers that the latepretty
is here to study. That she holds a knife makes him fear her as much as he fears
the villagers; her actions are very un-pretty-like and make her more human, like the
villagers. “The doctor was quite afraid of savages, it seemed – even beautiful ones”
(313). As in Uglies, Tally’s identity is in her name, not the physical identity that
marks her as a pretty. Her confidence and pride in who she is, is on display. As Tally
gets ready to leave Andrew’s world she tells him, “Don’t look at me that way…[l]ike
a…god. We’re just humans” (315). Tally, even though she has the body of a pretty, is
still human.


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Chapter Three: Specials
In this chapter, I will be considering the impact of the cyborg on human identity. I
will continue referring to standard notions of adolescent identity formation but will
also be considering more speculative notions of cyborg identity from analyses of
popular fiction. The cyborg of popular fiction reminds humans of their uneasy
relationship with technology and the anxiety it inspires. On the one hand, there is a
desire to embrace technology and to experience how technology can extend the reach
of the human – moving humanity closer to realizing their potential; but on the other
hand is the fear that it will subsume us and we will lose our humanity, our
individuality, and our identity. The cyborg represents technology’s assault on the
body, “the visible sign of our being,” and the reshaping of the human form”
(Bukatman 1993:17). Cyborg fiction embodies these anxieties and poses the question,
“What becomes of the human, the ‘I’”?

In the final instalment of the Uglies trilogy, Tally has been transformed into a
cyborg known as a Special, and she is a member of a group known as Cutters led by
her friend, Shay. Tally is drawn in the image of the cyborg of popular entertainment,
not the utopian being of theory. Her body is enhanced with technology that allows her
to see in the dark (Specials 29) and hear through her fingertips (76), and her
appearance is designed to frighten and intimidate. Tally is a “cruel beauty” with
“cruel features”: her face is covered with “pulsing tattoos that [web] her flesh in
scintillating black lace” and set into it are her “wolfen eyes” and when she smiles she
reveals her “fangs” (18).

The Cutters are charged with protecting the wild from human violation and to that
end are programmed to seek out and destroy the New Smoke. This community of
runaway uglies is perceived as a threat to the integrity of the wild, and is also the


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source and distributor of the “cure” that is subverting the technology that created and
maintains control of the pretties.

As Specials begins, Tally and the Cutters are crashing an uglies party in search of
Smokies who are spreading the cure for the lesions. Tally is still adapting to her
transformation and her nervousness shows. Shay, who can “smell what you’re
feeling,” reaches out and squeezes Tally’s hand in reassurance (7). Fausto, another
Cutter tells her, “They’re only uglies” (8). Shay reminds them all that uglies are not
clueless like pretties and “[h]owever zitty and uneven their faces, the uglies’ eyes
[are] sharp, full of nervous stabs of awareness” (9-10). Uglies are still human and
possess all of the human qualities that are taken away by the transformations. Just as
Shay can smell emotions, Tally’s new gifts allow her to read the thoughts on the faces
of the uglies and to “watch the jealousies and the hatreds, rivalry and attractions
written on their faces” (9). Perception of self, others, and the world, is affected when
viewed through the lens of technology. This is Tally’s “otherness” – she sees, hears,
smells and conceives the world through heightened senses that translate experiences
as information rather than as sensation. This places her in a state of being that can be
regarded as alterior; her perception of the world is no longer related to “human”
perception and sensation. The emotions and frailties that make uglies human are
purged when creating a Special:
She had done a lot of average things in her past, and it had taken a while for
the doctors to strip away all the built-up guilt and shame. Random leftover
emotions could leave your brain muddled, which wasn’t very special. Power
came from icy clarity, from knowing exactly what you were, from cutting.
In some ways, the transformation that makes Tally a Special has restored some of her
previously “lost” human qualities. “Tally’s memories were perfect now, not like when
she’d been a bubblehead, confused and muddled all the time” (8). Unlike the


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posthuman pretties who are constructed to be controlled, the cyborg Specials need to
be able to think and react quickly, qualities muted by the pretty lesions. But in other
ways Tally is less than human. Anything that can potentially impede her ability to
efficiently execute her programming has been removed from her consciousness or
technologically suppressed. Emotions and memories coming suddenly to the fore can
mean the difference between success and failure when hunting prey. Unlike the
pretties, who found that stressing the body through emotional extremes or selfinflicted
pain negated the effect of the lesions, for the Cutters the experience instils a
heightened sensitivity that they refer to as “iciness.” However, as Tally learns, not
even Specials are immune to falling prey to their own buried memories and emotions.

As part of the plan to discover the source of the cure, Shay and Tally meet with
Zane. However, Tally is unprepared for her meeting with Zane as she is unaware of
his deteriorating condition. Zane is damaged by the “cure” when the nanos that
destroyed the lesions failed to stop once their task was completed; parts of his motor
control are damaged, leaving him crippled. Tally’s enhanced senses make it difficult
to be with Zane as his frailty is magnified for her. “Tally dropped her eyes to the
floor, wishing she could turn off the perfect clarity of her vision, She didn’t want to
see all these unsettling details” (82). Her reaction to his condition is decidedly uncyborg-like
and afterwards she experiences strong emotions, which she needs to
temper with her cyborg enhancements:
Tally took a deep breath, trying to get her anger under control. She let her
senses expand, until she could hear the wind playing in the pine needles.
Scents rose up from the water–the algae on its surface, the ancient minerals
down below (Specials 94)
Tally relies on her technology to keep everything in order, everything in its place, just
like her culture. Through the act of cutting – self-inflicted wounds that penetrate the
flesh – she experiences the depth of her being that is now contained in and part of her


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cyborg body. As Tally wraps her hand around Shay’s knife she feels the sharp edge
cutting into the “fine-tuned nerves woven into her palm, a hundred times more
sensitive than any random’s, split apart, screaming” (95).
The special moment came with its wild clarity, and Tally could finally see
through her own tangled thoughts: Deep inside her were threads of
permanence, the things that had remained unchanged whether she was ugly or
pretty or special–and love was one of them. (95)
Even though she is aware that the sensations and emotions she is experiencing with
greater intensity and clarity are technologically enhanced, she does not want to be
human again; rather she wants Zane to be like her so that he can also “see the world in
all its icy clarity” (96). Zane, however, wants Tally to be human again. He tells Tally,
“You can do it again,” and when she asks him what he means he says, “Undo what
they did to you” (85). Zane, like Tally, believes that her true identity can be released,
but only is she wants it to. Once again Westerfeld reaffirms his belief that the
qualities that define the human are resistant to total subjugation by technology.

Shay orchestrates Zane’s escape and Tally volunteers to follow him and his
friends. She feels that they need protection from pursuit by the wardens and they are
unprepared for a journey in the wild. Shay, however, questions Tally’s motives for
wanting to follow the pretties on her own. “Did you think it all through and then
realize we should split up? Or had you already decided to stick with Zane, no matter
what?” (emphasis in original, 170). Tally denies this and pleadingly states that she is
still loyal to the Cutters, but Shay just replies, “I really thought you’d changed. But
you’re still the same self-centered little ugly you’ve always been” (170).
Once again, human frailties impinge on cyborg identity in the form of jealousy and
anger. Shay continues: “I thought changing you into a Special would change you. I
thought you could see the world more clearly you’d think about yourself a little less”
(emphasis in original, 169). The implication here is that Tally is not conforming to the


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hive-like mentality identity of the collective. She is acting as an individual and
thinking about herself rather than the group. But Tally insists that Shay is wrong: “I
care about the Cutters” (169).

The Cutters is a collective individuality that, like the pretties who seek to be
individual, offers a sense of rebellion that gives them a feeling of autonomy. “It is the
peer group which, under optimal conditions, supplies support during the loss of
childhood psychic structure. …the adolescent seeks solace from peers” (Kroger 55).
In the posthuman world of the trilogy where aspects of “normal” identity formation
are suspended or artificially induced, only selected elements appear. With the
memory being modified at each transformational stage, there is no need for solace
from a loss that the individual is no longer aware of. As in Pretties, the group satisfies
the inherent needs of the individual seeking reassurance and approval as they assert
their individuality by seeking membership in a group. However, it is also at the
adolescent stage of identity formation that the individual seeks out groups outside of
the one they have associated with in pre-adolescence (Coté and Levine 166). This can
be seen as the initiation of the process of forming a distinct identity by exploring the
various possibilities available to them. But, unlike the real world where an adolescent
can be a member of more than one group – sports team, clubs, clique – that serves to
offer support through membership and identity approval, there is no such option in the
world of Westerfeld’s trilogy. As noted earlier, this is a society with specific and
clearly defined boundaries, and within these boundaries identity is defined with no
allowance for deviance from the established “norm.” Each stage of development is an
exclusive community of people all cast from the same mould, sharing the same
desires, all on the same life trajectory, and more than likely sharing similar thoughts


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which limits the scope of identity. The singular nature of each community is reflected
in a singular group membership.

Throughout the trilogy it is clear that one of Tally’s greatest fears is being alone.
“The Cutters were connected, an unbreakable clique. She would never be alone again,
even when it felt like something were missing inside her” (Specials 8). But, now she
is alone again, in the wild, cut off from the collective, and Tally is no longer “we” but
“I”, and this is not something she is prepared to deal with. “This is an exaggeration of
the typical adolescent feeling of being separate from others, and from oneself, a
feeling which resonates with adolescent readers” (226 Ostry) As a member of a
collective there is no opportunity for a dominant self or repressed identities to emerge,
as they are subjugated to the group identity. But out in the wild, once the Cutters are
out of range, Tally finds herself alone and being emotionally close to Zane she feels
vulnerable, fearing any memories that might be brought to the surface if she comes
into direct contact with him.
Out here alone, she felt herself changing again. Somehow the wild made her
feel less special. She still saw the world’s icy beauty, but something was
missing: the sounds of the other Cutters around her, the intimacy of their
breathing in the skintenna network. She began to realize that being a Special
just wasn’t about strength and speed; it was about being part of a group, a
clique. (Specials 184-185)
Without the group identity, she needs to fill a void in her identity and when she is
unable to regain what she has lost she can only turn to the past. Her relationship with
Zane slips in easily to fill the void. She desires to be with him as much as she desires
to be a Cutter and realizes that she cannot have both, initiating her identity crisis, the
“war” within herself. By giving in to her feelings for Zane, Tally becomes a free
“posthuman” and by abandoning her machine identity, she would no longer be
repulsed by Zane’s body as experienced with her heightened Special sensitivity.
Zane’s condition represents not only the weakness of the body but also what can


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happen when invasive technology goes wrong. In effect, technology has turned
Zane’s body against him and as a marker of identity; a traitorous body creates a
disturbing image for Tally. Seeing Zane in his debilitated state, Tally considers the
only logical solution to the problem is for Zane to become a Special like her. Erikson
argues that in adolescence
not even falling in love is entirely or even primarily, a sexual matter. To a
considerable extent adolescent love is an attempt to arrive at a definition of
one’s identity by projecting one’s self image on another and by seeing it thus
reflected and gradually clarified. (132)
By remaking Zane in her image, Tally believes she will resolve the identity crisis she
is experiencing and, thus resolved, can remain in her preferred identity of a Special
and still be with him. Becker refers to this as the narcissistic act of making others part
of one’s self (365), which is what Tally wants for Zane. Tally wants Zane to be
remade as a Special; then he would be free of his frail and diseased body, but even
more, as part of a communal identity they could experience a union that would be
beyond anything available to mere humans. However, she is overlooking the fact that
even though union with Zane as a Special might resolve the frailty of the flesh, her
feelings for him will still remain and as has been shown, she is unable to control the
humanness that is buried within her. The persistence of emotion, as noted above,
conflicts with her programming and is not only a threat to the stability of her Special
identity but possibly to her very existence. There is an irony in Tally’s solution since
the cyborg as it is constructed, a being of flesh and machine, is not granted immunity
from the vulnerability of its human configuration. In his analysis of Robocop, Thomas
Foster argues, “cyborg embodiment constitutes not a transcendence of bodily frailty
and vulnerability, but an incessant repetition and intensification of that vulnerability,
on the psychic rather than physical level” (201). For Tally, as well, there is no
escaping the frailties of the human especially when magnified by cyborg technology.


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