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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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Tally’s rejection of her own humanness is also a rejection of Zane’s frail body,
something her Special side despises. When Zane eventually succumbs to his
debilitation and dies, Tally exhibits no visible sense of loss or remorse, only anger
and a desire for revenge. The impression is that she is angry, not so much because she
has lost Zane, but because she has lost part of herself.

Returning to McCallum’s concept of character displacement in the adolescent
novel offers an insight into the nature of cyborg identity and subjectivity as portrayed
in Specials. As an amalgamation of two entities, each with an individual identity –
one a product of nature and the other a product of technology – cyborg subjectivity
poses new problems for Tally. In adolescent novels that feature a double, or
doppelgänger, the “main character has a double or counterpart, internal or external to
that character, which is crucial for the construction and representation of that
character’s subjectivity” (McCallum 75). McCallum identifies doubles appearing in
various manifestations: as an actual twin, an actual “other” that is the result of
characters changing places, and as an internalized “other” (75). “The double
represents another possible position that the character might occupy, an internalized
aspect of “otherness”, and/or is indicative of the internal division of the subject” (77).
Tally’s doppelgänger is an internalized actual self that has been suppressed with
technology and, under certain circumstances as discussed in the previous chapter, can
be liberated. However, unlike in Pretties, where the release of the suppressed identity
found no opposition from the pretty identity, Tally’s Special identity is much stronger
and benefits from the strength of a collective identity. This sets the scene for a
confrontation with one’s “other.”

The cyborg of popular fiction is an unstable being that violates boundaries, exiting
in a space between the world of the human and the world of technology. As it is


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conceived, the cyborg facilitates a conflict between the subjectivity of the flesh and
the subjectivity of the machine, each seeing its companion as “other” and a threat to
the stability of identity. The dual identity of the cyborg needs to be resolved so that a
stable identity may emerge. “As a hybrid, or body-machine, the cyborg, or the
companion species, is a connection-making entity; a figure of interrelationality…that
deliberately blurs categorical distinctions” (Braidotti 200). Being a conflation of these
two opposing concepts, the cyborg is susceptible to internal conflict that is manifested
as an identity crisis: resolution can only be achieved by making a choice between the
two. When it comes to the body, human or cyborg, there is only room for one identity.
The nature of Tally’s identity crisis will be discussed below.

The primary difficulty Tally is confronted with is that two identities occupying the
same body might prove to be problematic if one tries to assert authority over the
“other.” There is no question about the two living harmoniously as the needs and
desires of each identity are not compatible. To give in to one identity means the
possibility of damage to the survivor, because of their interdependence. The cyborg,
as a conflation of human and machine, exists in opposition to its own being. The
anxieties generated in humans by the threat of the machine and its programmed
identity, is a threat to the existence of the human and stands in opposition to what it is
that makes us human: freedom to choose our own identity. Now these opposing
philosophies are contained within one being.

Dualistic thinking sees the body and mind as separate entities, implying that at
some point the body can be left behind and identity will continue to exist as pure
energy. However, as noted above, the body is essential for cyborg fiction, as the body
is not only the site of inscription, but it is the identity of the being.
The body and the mind, intelligible and empirical, nature and culture are thus
bound together through the body. But being a body-subject does not only


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mean constant mediation between inside and outside, between me and the
other. It also implies that, as a physical being, one is always situated in a
world to which one refers in perceiving, acting, and reflecting. (Becker 363)
As a cyborg, embodiment plays a large role in Tally’s identity formation and sense
of self. The cyborg body exiting as more than just a support system for the mind,
moves the centre of being from the head, a fragment of the body, and makes the entire
body an integral part of identity. Tally’s identity is informed by a heightened
awareness within and without her, engaged by the interaction and interdependence of
mind and body, consciousness and body as a totality; it can be said that Tally is her
body. Her embracing of this relationship sets Tally apart from many other similar
protagonists who reject the cyborg body as unnatural and consider the mind as the
true seat of identity. This becomes clear during one particular encounter with Zane.

Tally traces the beginning of all her troubles to when David had told her she was
beautiful:“[t]hat was the moment Tally’s world began to unravel” (Specials 192). Just
as Tally had asked Peris about their shared blood coursing through his body and
David had taught her that beauty is something that is inside the body, Zane is now
telling her the same thing. He reminds her of how David was able to see past the
imperfections of her “ugly” body and see the inner beauty, yet she averts her eyes
from Zane. “And now you can’t even look at me just because I’m shaking a little?”
(emphasis in original, 192). Zane is asking Tally to be “herself” and reject the
transformation and tells her, “The alternative is inside you….You freed yourself once
before. You beat the pretty lesions” (193). Tally then tells Zane what it is she really
wants and it is not to be like him: “…it’s different being special–it just isn’t some
little piece of my brain. It’s my whole body. It’s the way I see the world” (193).

As they stand together, their conversation slowly involves physical contact. She is
aware of his heart beating and the change in his breathing as she holds him. As much


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as she might not want to Tally cannot eliminate the way her cyborg senses interpret
her contact with Zane:
And suddenly Tally could see inside him: his damaged nervous system, the
corrupted connections between body and brain. She tried to blot the image
from her mind, but it only grew clearer. She was designed to spot weaknesses,
after all, to take advantage of the frailties and flaws of randoms. (emphasis in
original, 194)
Tally’s differences are so highly developed that her sensations are overwhelming,
particularly her sense of touch, since her entire body is now one vast sensory organ.
Touching or being touched, coupled with the emotional response and memories that
are aroused, is so overwhelming that this common human act of touching, caressing
and kissing is not seen as the prelude to intimacy but as threat to the stability of her
identity. Now that Tally experiences the world through the lens of technology, levels
of experience are revealed to her that were previously inaccessible.

Becker writes that “the concrete materiality of others,” that is, all the things that
indicate a physical presence – their smell, the sound of their voices – can throw an
individual off-balance. In order to avoid this state the sensations needs to be reduced
to information and integrated into the memory of the observer (Becker 365). This is
the situation Tally finds herself in with Zane but it is more extreme than what Becker
considers since, as a cyborg, Tally’s senses are heightened and there is too much
information for her to take in and resolve without becoming conflicted.
The dissonance and noise of the material world, which cannot be reduced to a
discursive construction, and the thrilling strangeness of the other are both
successively obliterated in favor of a solipsistic turning to an inner world,
accompanied by the illusion of control. (365)

Tally recognizes that by giving in to her humanness, she will sacrifice the control that
has been given her as a Special. Her retreat into her cyborg self engages defence
mechanisms as the body feels that its safety is threatened. A wave of razor spines is


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released cutting into Zane’s flesh forcing him to let her go. “Bile rose in her throat, as
if the memory of kissing him was trying to free itself of her body” (Specials 195).
Tally feels “less special, more human” and wants to cut herself so that she can feel
“icy” and push her rising humanness back down and deep inside where it will not
pose a threat (197). The usual pattern in cyborg fiction is that human qualities rise
from suppression to temper technological aggression. This can be seen in Philip
Reeve’s Stalker Fang, a cyborg that experiences a situation similar to Tally’s identity
crisis, where one identity is bent on destroying humanity but at the last moment is
defeated by the more humane identity. In Robocop, his suppressed human qualities
play a similar role in subverting the programming that limits his aggression and
prevents him from resolving his own identity problems. However, Westerfeld does
not adhere to this tradition and it will be demonstrated that he will continue to reject
the standard tropes of the genre.

As shown in Pretties, pain plays an important role in countering the effects of the
technology that suppresses emotions and memory associated with identity formation.
In Specials, pain appears in various guises but what is of concern here is the role that
pain plays in initiating Tally’s identity crisis. Holland proposes, “The concept of pain
– a common theme in the philosophy of ‘mind’ – is invoked as a sure signifier of
humanness in cyborg fiction” (162-163). Tally feels emotional pain when she sees
Zane for the first time since they parted in Pretties, and even though she has endured
various forms of physical pain over the course of the trilogy, this is her first encounter
with emotional pain. Tally’s experiencing pain is ironic as the technology that is
designed to subdue human emotion and memory in this situation facilitates its revival
and amplifies it to the point where it is painful.
First and most obviously, advanced technologies challenge conventional
understandings of the human subject by transforming the body into a conduit


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between (rather than a protective barrier against) external forces and internal
psyche. Second, as the body becomes a kind of permeable interface,
technological mediation seems to replace direct organic experience as the
subject’s primary source of information about itself and the world” (Yaszek 1)
Perception of self, others and the world are all affected when viewed through the lens
of technology. This is Tally’s “otherness” – she sees, hears, smells and tastes the
world through heightened and analytical senses that place her in a realm that can be
seen as alterior. Because of her enhancements, all Tally’s experiences of pain are
magnified to the point where the flesh component of her body as well as the human
aspects of her mind are unable to cope. But even though technology cannot
experience pain, it is capably equipped to inflict pain. Tally becomes aware of this
when she uses her technological defences to physically repel Zane in order to protect
the integrity of her identity, her very being, or else give in and allow her humanity to
dominate. The idea that pain is a favourable and necessary experience might be a hard
sell, but as Fukuyama argues, it is necessary in order to define what it means to be
What we consider to be the highest and most admirable of human qualities,
both in ourselves and in others, [is] often related to the way that we
react to, confront, overcome, and frequently succumb to pain, suffering and
death. In the absence of these human evils there would be no sympathy,
compassion, courage, heroism, solidarity, or strength of character. A person
who has not confronted suffering or death has no depth. Our ability to
experience these emotions is what connects us potentially to all other
human beings, both living and dead. (173)
Technology and machines, no matter how much they resemble humans in appearance,
function and “thought” cannot feel pain. As Miccoli so succinctly puts it: “As
humans, we are ultimately woundable because of our bodies. Technology, on the
other hand, is immune because it has no body” (29). Tally, as a conflation of machine
and flesh, retreats from the fragility of the flesh into her machine identity as a defence
against pain, and being human. As was seen in Pretties, the suppressed identity is


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regained by experiencing pain and extremes of emotion, experiences that are alien to
her machine identity. Prior to her reunion with Zane, her humanity was deeply buried
and pain was self-inflicted and used as a drug that made her feel the “iciness” that
comes when technology enhances the pain receptors and induces extremes of clarity.

When Tally experiences pain, emotional or physical, it is manifested in the
biological aspect of her body, not the technological. Technological damage is
replaced with new technology; biological pain is not so easily repaired. Physical and
emotional pain takes time to repair and the memory of these occurrences is stored and
can be recalled, reviving the pain. Technological “pain” is only recalled as data and
its affect on the body cannot be repeated. This dichotomy affects embodiment and the
sense of self. This is the situation Tally finds herself in.

Pain is a common experience throughout the trilogy and it is primarily the pain
from physical exertion, activity, and assaults on the body. The pain Tally experiences
now originates not externally, but internally, and originates in memory. The
technological contingent of her body does not feel pain but it does transmit the signals
that trigger the experience of pain, and as an enhanced being these will be greater
sensations than she has previously experienced. The fact that Tally is a conflation of
machine and flesh means that she can feel pain, whereas if she were not human she
could only understand pain. Tally experiences pain, not only the pain of the Cutters,
but also the pain that originates with her memories when she sees Zane and
remembers him as he was and how they were together: pain as loss. “We have only to
recall Robocop’s memory flashes that interfere with his programmed directives to
understand how the distributed cognition of the posthuman complicates individual
agency” (Hayles 1995:4).

But what she has lost by embracing technology is the ability to see as Zane does,


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informed by humanity. What will happen when the machine-human hybrid has
greater status than the human? Maybe the machines will become more important to us
than another human’s life. Those who have become cyborgs will be one step ahead of
the humans. And just as humans have always valued themselves above other forms of
life, it’s likely that cyborgs will look down on humans who have yet to evolve to a
level that they respect.

Much of the discussion of identity in this chapter has focused on the body. The
reason for this is because once Tally is no longer an ugly and has been transformed
into a pretty, the only site of identity formation left is her body. In her next
transformation, into a Special, she experiences a more extensive and intrusive
transformation of her body. However, her relationship to her body, her subjectivity,
differs each time. The pretty body is something she has been conditioned to desire
and her subjectivity is passive. As a Special, her body is a link between her inner
world and the outer world, which implies that the body plays a more active role in
identity formation. Writing on the cyborg body Bukatman notes:
The body is often a site of deformation or disappearance–the subject is
dissolved, simulated, re-tooled, genetically engineered, evolved, and deevolved.
The cyborg is the perfect symbol of the inseparability of human and
machine. The fluidity of its being in opposition to the “stability” of the human
identity leads to the cyborg being defined “at different times, as its body, its
mind, or sometimes as its memory. (emphasis in original, 1993:20)
Tally’s “quest” nears completion when she finally gains agency and an opportunity
for identity achievement. Tally has experienced a number of “identities” in her
various incarnations throughout the trilogy, each time temporarily regaining her
“true” core identity before being subjected to further transformations and subjection.
The death of Zane frees her from the emotional turmoil that initiated her identity
crisis. Identity formation is an ongoing process and it is necessary to draw on earlier
stages in order to move towards a stable identity. Kroger notes that commitment is


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implicit at this stage and there is a need to “become faithful and committed to some
ideological world view” in order “to affirm and be affirmed by a social order that
identity aspires” (27). Tally’s decision to return to her city and confront her maker is
not only an affirmation of agency but it is also an affirmation of her choice to
embrace her cyborg identity. However, as McCallum points out acts of transgression
or resistance often do not imply agency unless accompanied by action (118-119).
When actions “lead to commitments ‘for life’ then the adolescent process is
complete” (Erikson 155). Tally’s commitment to act is brought to an abrupt end when
she is captured by the city wardens and prepared so that the technology that made her
a cyborg can be removed and she can be remade as “normal”:
She was trapped now, immobilized, and the city could take its final
revenge on her: grinding down her bones to reduce her to average pretty
height; cutting the harsh angles from her cheeks; stripping out the beautiful
muscles and bones, the chips in her jaw and hands, her lethal fingernails;
replacing her perfect and black eyes. (Specials 351)
It is at this moment that she realizes that her very being is threatened; in cyborg
fiction the loss of the body is synonymous with the loss of identity (Pimley 5). This
view of the unified mind and body as identity can be read as a rejection of Cartesian
Dualism and acceptance of the notion of the cyborg as wholeness of being. Tally’s
orchestrated rescue and escape ensures the continuity and stability of her chosen
identity. Tally’s final act in the trilogy, the delivery of her manifesto and the promise
to enforce it with the power cyborgization has given her, confirms her agency and her
acceptance of her cyborg identity.


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The purpose of this dissertation was to discover if the presence of the posthuman in
Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy introduces new modes of identity formation or if
conventional modes are merely being reinscribed in the guise of technology. Much of
the research cited in the previous chapters suggest that the transformation from human
to posthuman will engender new concepts of how the human is defined and
subsequently how identity might be affected by these changes. These changes will
emerge as a consequence of greater interaction between humans and technology. The
question that has been asked throughout the trilogy is whether the posthuman
influences or offers new modes of identity formation. At times in the trilogy, identity
was directly influenced or shaped by the presence of the posthuman, but the modes
and manifestations always adhered to conventional models. The conclusion is that the
presence of the posthuman does not introduce new modes of adolescent identity
formation. Conventional modes persist, as do conventional challenges and concerns
that arise during adolescent identity formation.

Many of the modes of identity formation that occur in the trilogy can be found in
adolescent fiction. Throughout the trilogy, whether the focus is on uglies, pretties or
Specials, many of the traditional concerns and challenges of adolescent identity
formation are present – the fear of being alone, the desire to be part of a group, to be
an individual without being outcast, the need for purpose to make life meaningful,
and companionship and love. The desire “to be who I want to be” and the need to
stand apart from the crowd, but not too far, as an individual, also looms large in the
mind of both pretties and uglies. Even the cyborg Specials, with technology that
imbues alterity, still must endure and suffer through the joy and pain of adolescent
love, identity crisis, and rejection. The socio-political structure of the world the


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