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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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trilogy is set in invokes Foucault, and Westerfeld clearly illustrates how invasive and
manipulative technology can potentially be used to control the conception and
formation of identity.

In Westerfeld’s trilogy, the primary site of identity formation is the human body,
the most visible sign of identity. But even in a future posthuman world the modes of
physical identity rely on conventional forms of expression: clothing, body art, and
cosmetic surgery. The most radical enhancement in the trilogy is the Specials,
cyborgs that are highly technologised, but even their technology illustrates and
emphasises the importance of group membership and collective identity in
adolescence.

David DeGrazia argues that enhancement technologies do not pose a threat to
human identity. The argument against allowing enhancement technologies,
transforming humans into posthumans, is that this practice would redefine the human
and “lead to the creation of a new species or subspecies of humans” (277). If,
DeGrazia argues, it were possible to create a new species, it would still be human,
since the core identity would continue. Westerfeld’s follow-up to the Uglies trilogy,
Extras (2007), explores this very concept and is worth a brief mention. In Extras,
thousands of humans take it upon themselves to be transformed into extraterrestrials,
adapted to live in space, so that they can relieve the planet of the burden of a
burgeoning population. Despite the radical enhancements and modifications
necessary to adapt the human body for life in space, their humanity and sense of self
persists, affirming that these “extras” are indeed, still human. Similarly, the trilogy
can be read in the same light: despite the presence of the posthuman, human identity
remains, even when subjugated by technology.

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At one point in Pretties, when Tally tells Peris, “I want to be myself” (232), the
question that begs to be asked is, which self? Tally, who experiences all three forms
of being in the trilogy, does not consider her appearance to be the foundation of her
identity. Tally believes that, despite the cosmetic reconstruction that will transform
her into a pretty, she will remain Tally Youngblood, an unchanging identity that
informs her sense of self. This view is confirmed throughout the trilogy by the
repeated emphasis that no matter how much a person changes on the outside – her
question to Peris about their shared blood; telling Shay that becoming a pretty is just
cosmetic; reminding David that even though her face is different she is not; Zane
reminding her of what’s buried within her cyborg body; what she discovers about
herself – beneath the façade, as Tally continues to believe, she and her friends are still
the same person. This, for Westerfeld, is a primary concern, the continuity of memory
and identity. The reconfiguration of a body that appears more malleable in light of the
advances being made in cosmetic surgery makes that aspect of identity tenuous at
best. What Tally objects to most is the control of her mind and the subjugation of the
identity that she believes as being her authentic self.

Since Westerfeld rejects many of the standard tropes of the genre, he is not obliged
to endorse the technophobia that informs much of adolescent science fiction (Ostry
2004; Applebaum 2010). Westerfeld, as mentioned above, is writing within the
parameters of a critical dystopia, and this implies a hopeful future. I would suggest
that not only is Westerfeld endorsing technology, he is also acknowledging the
likelihood of the human embracing the technology that will make the posthuman
possible. Even though the presence of the posthuman does not introduce any new
modes of identity formation it does invite the reader to reconsider how conventional

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modes of identity formation might be compromised or reconsidered in light of
posthumanism.

At the end of the trilogy the posthuman remains, and it is implied that it will
continue to be the state of being – but free of the lesions that reduced the population
to a state where they were no longer human. As Peris tells Tally, he and his friends
are finding the villagers in the wild and teaching them how to use technology. This is
not the standard message in a genre that is acknowledged to be technophobic. Tally’s
choice to remain a cyborg is also radical, but what is reinstated is the idea of the
human, perhaps not in a familiar form, but the essence, what is found inside rather
than on the surface, as an integral part of the posthuman being. Westerfeld is offering
an alternative to the posthuman portrayed as a threat to the sanctity of the body and
human identity. The posthuman body, despite its altered appearance, is still, as
DeGrazia argues, essentially human. This is the function of the critical dystopia: not
to abandon the dystopia for an impossible utopia premised on a past that never
existed, but to build on the positive aspects and offer an alternative that implies a
hopeful future.

I would argue that, just as science fiction deals in speculation, it follows that an
appraisal of the formation of the posthuman identity is also going to be very much
speculative. What is certain is that through science fiction the invocation of the
posthuman facilitates speculation about the “ontological purity according to which
Western society has defined what is normatively human” (Graham 5). Westerfeld’s
trilogy offers one possible future where that question is considered and, as has been
demonstrated, even though the physicality of the human is subject to change, the
essential identity, what makes a person human, remains constant.

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The conclusion I propose is that, despite the attempts made to control, manipulate
and to construct identity through technology in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy, the
concerns and challenges of adolescent identity formation remain firmly grounded in
conventional models. The presence of the posthuman and the futuristic setting suggest
the potential for new modes of identity formation, but only serve to place
conventional modes within the context of a society dependent and shaped by
technology but maintaining while conventional values and notions of humanity.
However, what does emerge from this analysis is an opportunity for new ways of
considering how subjectivity might be influenced by technology and what it means to
be human in a posthuman world. What Westerfeld offers the reader though, is new
ways to consider the relationship between humans and technology, and the
opportunity to consider and question how the posthuman might very well represent
the next stage of human development. Much like what Tally does for Smith,
Westerfeld is offering the reader an opportunity to “see the world differently”
(Pretties 301).

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