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

by Gough, Philip

Abstract (Summary)
This purpose of this dissertation is to discover if the presence of the posthuman influences identity formation in adolescent fiction. The primary text under consideration is Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy. In this dissertation, I am asking whether the presence of the posthuman introduces new modes of identity formation, or are conventional modes merely being reinscribed in the guise of technology? The trilogy is examined in light of adolescent identity formation theory I have drawn from the social sciences and from a literary perspective of identity theory in adolescent fiction. These readings were augmented by a selection of materials on posthuman theory as well as studies of popular cyborg fiction. The analysis of the trilogy seeks to discover if the presence of the posthuman suggested innovative ways in which identity formation occurs where the characters are either influenced by, or are, posthuman. The result of the analysis showed that despite the presence of a number of science fiction tropes, including dystopia, technology and cyborgs, the manifestations of identity formation conformed to conventional models. The conclusion of this dissertation is that conventional modes of identity formation persist in adolescent fiction despite the presence of the posthuman. 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.
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Bibliographical Information:

Advisor:Dr. Alison Waller

School:Roehampton University

School Location:United Kingdom

Source Type:Master's Thesis

Keywords:Scott Westerfeld, Uglies trilogy, identity, posthuman, dystopia, cyborg, young adult, science fiction

ISBN:

Date of Publication:08/31/2010

Document Text (Pages 1-10)

“Who am I? Who was I?”:
The Posthuman and Identity Formation

in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies Trilogy

Philip Gough

This dissertation is presented in part fulfillment of the requirements
of the MA in Children's Literature of Roehampton University

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Abstract
This purpose of this dissertation is to discover if the presence of the posthuman
influences identity formation in adolescent fiction. The primary text under
consideration is Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy. In this dissertation, I am asking
whether the presence of the posthuman introduces new modes of identity formation,
or are conventional modes merely being reinscribed in the guise of technology?

The trilogy is examined in light of adolescent identity formation theory I have
drawn from the social sciences and from a literary perspective of identity theory in
adolescent fiction. These readings were augmented by a selection of materials on
posthuman theory as well as studies of popular cyborg fiction.

The analysis of the trilogy seeks to discover if the presence of the posthuman
suggested innovative ways in which identity formation occurs where the characters
are either influenced by, or are, posthuman. The result of the analysis showed that
despite the presence of a number of science fiction tropes, including dystopia,
technology and cyborgs, the manifestations of identity formation conformed to
conventional models.

The conclusion of this dissertation is that conventional modes of identity formation
persist in adolescent fiction despite the presence of the posthuman. 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.

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Acknowledgments
My interest in children’s literature was inspired by Jane Flick, who introduced me to a
world I was unaware of until I sat in her classroom one evening at the University of
British Columbia six years ago. While teaching at UBC, she always championed
children’s literature, and has been encouraging and supportive of her students.

I would also like to thank my partner, Linda Chow, who introduced me to Harry
Potter; she has tolerated my interest in children’s literature and stood by patiently as
the house slowly filled with children’s books. Also deserving of my thanks, my longtime
friend Don Anderson, for his reading and listening skills.
Last, and no less important, I thank Alison Waller at Roehampton University for her
advice and analysis from afar during this challenging process.

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Contents

Introduction 4
Chapter One: Uglies 13
Chapter Two: Pretties 30
Chapter Three: Specials 43
Conclusion 59
Bibliography 64

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Introduction
“A lot of YA is about identity: 'Who am I?' 'How do I fit into this world?'
There's that uncomfortableness in your skin. And if you're a science fiction
writer or reader that never goes away, because you're still looking at the world
and challenging it, saying 'Does it have to be this way? Does it make any
sense that we follow these rules?' Science fiction is about thought
experiments. What does it mean to tell stories set in a different place than this
one? How does that affect our world? It's a completely philosophical
enterprise.” Scott Westerfeld (Locus online)
In the final pages of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy – Uglies (2005b), Pretties
(2005a), Specials (2006) – Tally Youngblood, introduced in the opening pages as a
young girl anxiously anticipating her sixteenth birthday and the changes it will mean
for her life, is now delivering her manifesto to the world. She is confident, she is
strong, and she has agency and power: she is a cyborg. Tally’s journey to this
climactic moment begins as an “ugly,” an identity that she is culturally conditioned to
despise; then to a “pretty,” an empty-headed but beautiful posthuman; finally, as she
appears in the last book, she is a “Special,” a cyborg. Westerfeld’s subject matter, the
presence of the posthuman and the dystopian setting, firmly places the trilogy in the
genre of Young Adult science fiction. Carrie Hintz and Elaine Ostry have concluded
“utopias predominate in children’s literature, whereas dystopias are far more common
in young adult literature” (9). Since literature often reflects the life conditions of its
audience, dystopian fiction, reflecting collective suffering and the unsavoury
workings of society, is appropriate to “adolescence [which] frequently entails
traumatic and personal social awakening” (9). In light of Westerfeld’s assertion that
“[a] lot of YA is about identity” this dissertation will be considering whether the
presence of the posthuman introduces new modes of identity formation or whether
conventional modes are merely being reinscribed in the guise of technology.

Unlike the dystopias envisioned by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) or in
Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), that conclude with a loss of hope for their

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protagonists and leave the reader with a vision of a bleak and pessimistic future,
Westerfeld’s trilogy is set in a critical dystopia. Critical dystopias are open-ended
with ambiguous endings and offer opportunities for envisioning a better world and
sustaining hope for utopia, rejecting the subjugation of the protagonist, a common
trope of dystopic fiction (Baccolini and Moylan 7; Bradford et al. 60). Westerfeld’s
text presents the reader with an interesting overview of the posthuman, in particular
the cyborg, as manifested through Tally Youngblood, the young protagonist. As noted
above, Tally experiences a number of transformations: as an ugly, a human, she
interacts with technology as part of daily life; as a pretty, a posthuman, she is
subjected to technology as her body and mind are remade to meet the agenda of her
society; as a cyborg she is radically modified with technology beneath the flesh and
enhancing the surface of her body. With each transformation there are also challenges
to identity formation and identity stability. In Chapter One, I will examine Uglies and
show how identity is shaped through education and conditioning, as well as
conventional identity formation informed by humanity in a posthuman world. In
Chapter Two, the focus will be on Pretties and the effect of the posthuman on
identity. The final chapter will examine Specials and the challenges posed to identity
by cyborgization.

Psychologists and sociologists have identified the adolescent’s foremost concern
as identity. Jane Kroger (1996) has gathered together and analyzed some of the major
theories on adolescent identity formation and I will be referring to her text in this
dissertation. Reflecting social science’s interest in adolescent identity is adolescent
fiction, which often focuses on the challenges of forming and establishing identity.
For an understanding of how identity formation is manifested in adolescent fiction, I
will be referring to Robyn McCallum’s work (1999). These two works will be

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augmented by cyborg and posthuman theory as well as popular culture readings of
cyborg fiction.

The raw materials of identity formation for most adolescent protagonists and their
real world models are found in family, friendships made and lost, romance, clothing,
body modifications, and even exchanging a known environment for the unknown.
Tally shares many of these same experiences, but with a difference: she lives in a
future world where it is a universal practice to employ technology to transform the
human into the posthuman. There has been an interest in the influence of technology
and utopian/dystopian worlds on young protagonists in children’s and adolescent
literature and a number of excellent studies have been published (Hintz and Ostry
2003; Bradford et. al 2008; Applebaum 2010). In western adolescent fiction, the focus
on the posthuman has been mainly in the areas of cloning, psychopharmacology, and
genetics, with only occasional references to cyborg literature for adolescents.

Theorists such as Chris Hables Gray and N. Katherine Hayles suggest that we are
already posthuman and many of us are, in a technical sense, already cyborgs. The
various medical appliances that are implanted to ensure the continuation of life or
regulate the flow of drugs make us cyborgs. Similarly, artificial bones and limbs,
psychopharmaceuticals that alter mood and behaviour, and implanted RFID chips for
monitoring our health or gaining admission to nightclubs and letting us run up a tab
make us cyborgs (Gray, Mentor and Figueroa-Sarriera 1995; Hayles 1995). Many
more of us are metaphorical cyborgs in the sense that each time we access the Internet
or play a videogame, we are experiencing what has been referred to as “terminal
identity” (Bukatman 1993). Bukatman has coined the term “terminal identity” to
identify the condition that signals the end of one form of identity and the beginning of
another that is induced by cyber-technology. However, rather than signalling the end

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of one form of identity and the beginning of another with the potential for extending
the reach of the human through technology, the term can be applied to the Uglies
trilogy to indicate an identity that is finite, designed to be inert with no hope of ever
developing beyond its given parameters. In many ways, Westerfeld’s posthumans and
cyborgs are informed more by popular culture than theory. The posthuman pretties
are constructed to conform to an ideal model of appearance as envisioned in body
morphing simulations based on technology used in contemporary cosmetic surgery,
and the Specials are cyborgs with implanted technology that resemble a modern
fighting machine that owes more to pop culture imaginings that theoretical models.

Even though characters experience multiple transformations, they are enacted
more as a form of control than a means of transcending the boundaries of the human
mind and body so as to come closer to realizing human potential; posthumanism in
the Uglies trilogy can be read in terms of creating stronger boundaries that frustrate
human growth through subjugation to technology. The anxiety about technology and
the perceived threat it poses to our identity and continued existence as human beings
is perpetuated through popular culture and enters the public consciousness through
books, television programs and films. Fear and anxiety about the posthuman and
resistance to it is often the plot line of science fiction.

The fictional encounter with the posthuman often involves some form of
technology gone awry that threatens the survival of humanity. The site of this battle is
often the human body, which is modified, invaded or harvested so that it might be
integrated with technology that will be used to control or replace humanity. The
message in these fictions is that a technology that violates the body threatens not just
the sanctity of the body but threatens our identity, our individuality and our humanity.
But perhaps the anxiety should not be so much about losing one’s old identity as

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acquiring a new identity, one that is informed by the technology we appear to be so
dependent upon. This might still cause anxiety in many, but the reality is that a stage
is being reached where it is becoming more and more difficult to separate the human
from its technology. The implication is that this interaction with technology, making
it such an intimate part of life, must be playing some role in identity formation.

In the fifties, Hollywood envisioned the human body as a site where a battle would
be waged over who or what would control and determine human identity in films such
as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), It Came from Outer Space (1953), and
Invaders from Mars (1953). Thinly veiled tomes on the dangers of Communism, these
films nonetheless were warning that this “otherness” threatened our identity and
individualism. Encounters with threatening technological posthumans continues to be
popular in the fictional universe and appears in the form of Doctor Who’s Cybermen
(2006), David Thorpe’s Hybrids (2007) and Star Trek’s Borg (1990). These are just a
few of the posthuman “others” that have been created to explore the potential threat
the posthuman poses for human identity. In the fifties, this threat was always
neutralized as “popular culture was committed to a defence of humanism (the aliens
were always defeated, frequently by a uniquely ‘human’ quality)… this was destiny,
the law of nature” (Badmington 8). In adolescent and adult science fiction, the
scenarios of the fifties are being replayed in a technophobic world where threats
against identity and individuality continue to be defeated by our “uniquely human”
qualities; qualities, we are told, the machines can never possess. Perhaps in
Westerfeld’s text, the idea of what constitutes the human and its continuity is more at
issue than what constitutes the posthuman.

The posthuman body represents a shift in emphasis from what is produced by
nature to something that is produced by technology. As Bukatman observes, the

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Cartesian Dualism of mind and body is replaced in the posthuman as an embodied
mind, which implies a new way of considering corporeality (1993: 208). With this
new method of production come new challenges for identity formation, the assertion
of individuality and a reassessment of what it means to be human.

The emphasis on the body as a site of identity is appropriate to adolescent fiction
because the body is the primary focus of attention by developing teens. Physical
appearance, the shape of one’s body, physical enhancements such as piercing and
tattoos, and in extreme cases the resorting to punishing one’s body through eating
disorders, all impact on adolescent identity. The cosmetic transformations depicted in
the trilogy resound strongly with a Western youth culture that views cosmetic surgery
as a normal activity, just one more option in identity formation. Similarly, the fears of
violation, the body being penetrated by foreign objects or disease is also expressed
through the trilogy and is a conscious concern in the real world. As Elaine Ostry
observes about the manifestation of posthumanism in adolescent literature,
“biotechnology is used as a metaphor for adolescence…and adds a dramatic
dimension to the changing adolescent body and the identity crisis that arises from it”
(222). Erik H. Erikson defines an identity crisis as a condition where an individual
loses their “sense of personal sameness or historical continuity” (17). In the world of
the trilogy, it will be shown that the processes that transforms humans into
posthumans compromises identity “sameness” and “historical continuity.” When the
condition occurs during adolescence, Erikson describes it as a “war within
themselves” (17).

Cyborg fiction is premised on the body because it is on the body that cyber identity
is inscribed; and it is in the absence of humanity that cyber otherness and identity is
defined. The qualities that are often considered in defining what makes a human are

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