‘What it means to be a human being’

Upon entering a bookshop, the canny reader/consumer (a heart-breaking slash) becomes aware that critics’ praise now adorns the cover of every newly released book, and therefore no book can be chosen on the basis of what critics are saying on its dustjacket. A massively inflationary adjectival market has rendered superlatives valueless. Every newly released book is smothered in superlatives, and so, following the logic of The Incredibles’ villain Syndrome, when every book is praised, none of them are. Among the words cherrypicked by publishers to appear on the covers of their new releases, the abundance of one adjective in particular triggered a critical debate in 2017 about its helpfulness as a description: ‘readable’. Yet the contours of this debate, which for my money was easily won by those arguing that the term is indicative of both reverse snobbery and the infantilization of the contemporary reader, also apply to another overused adjective: ‘human’. The debate over this term, and its more saccharine encapsulating phrase ‘what it means to be a human being’, actually started nearly two decades ago.

In 2001, literary critic James Wood wrote a famous article bemoaning the literary movement that he called ‘hysterical realism’ for supposedly exchanging insight into human consciousness for encyclopaedic mania. Zadie Smith, one of the hysterical realists, responded: ‘Be more human?…I’m not sure what to do with that one. Are jokes inhuman? Are footnotes? Long words? Technical terms? Intellectual allusions? If I put some kids in, will that help?’ From the perspective of an author seeking feedback the word ‘human’ implies only a vague warning against formal innovation, the mechanisms of the highbrow, as though Wood had read White Teeth and Infinite Jest and somehow decided that neither have emotional heft. ‘Human’, as an adjectival term of praise, is equally useless for a reader (or curmudgeonly student) looking to a critical article for insight into the various merits and shortcomings of a work of art.


What are critics seeking to express when they use the word? And they are using it, in their legions, even making lists of books that ‘will make you think about what it means to be human.’ The term abounds across genres and mediums, from a film review of Charlie Kaufmann’s Anomalisa to book reviews of The Echo Maker, Mend the Living, Natural Causes, The Mars Room, Northern Lights, the work of Eugene O’Neill and Jane Smiley. The filmmaker behind The Reluctant Fundamentalist, in a pre-release statement, said that it ‘isn’t just a film about the US or Pakistan, it is about what it means to be a human being.’ Prior to the release of Smith’s Swing Time, its publicist described it as a book about ‘two brown girls [who] dream of being dancers’, a book which is ‘deeply human’. These last two instances betray something insidious. ‘Human’ implies that each work transcends its particular plot or characters to achieve a striking universality – a laudable aspiration certainly, but also one that, I would cynically suggest, seeks to reassure a white middle class consumer set that they should see a film or buy a book whose synopsis may not instinctively appeal.

Reverse snobbery and capitalist machinations aside, the term has been used in a variety of contexts which readily present alternative, preferable terms. If to be ‘human’ means that a work is emotional or moving in spite of because of its formal or theoretical innovations (as in Natural Causes, The Echo Maker  and Anomalisa), why not use the terms ‘emotional’ or ‘moving’ instead, and remove the false dichotomy between cerebral and emotional? If ‘human’ is synonymous with ‘universal’ or ‘thought-provoking’, then either of those work just fine. Doesn’t the readily apparent polysemy of the word diminish its potency as a decisive term for use in criticism that purports to be penetrating? All works of art illustrate what it is to be human simply by virtue of having been made by one and experienced by another, and adjectives like ‘moving’  or ‘thought-provoking’ are not freighted with quite so much philosophical difficulty as the phrase ‘what it means to be human’. In fact, with the rise since Katherine Hayles’ 1999 How We Became Posthuman of two intertwined fields of study that question the boundaries between the human and the non-human – posthumanism and ecocriticism – the term’s become more nakedly problematic than ever.

To his credit, Wood wasn’t quite as facetious as Smith perhaps implies. ‘A space may now open’, he hoped, ‘for the kind of novel that shows us that human consciousness is the truest Stendhalian mirror, reflecting helplessly the newly dark lights of the age.’ Try fitting that onto book covers if you’d like, but in the interests of deflation it’d be better if the spaces on dustjackets just remain unfilled.

About Gabriel:
Gabriel graduated from Exeter University in 2017 and is currently studying for his MSc in Literature and Modernity at the University of Edinburgh. Whilst at Exeter he contributed film and book reviews to student and local press, and he’s hoping to pursue a PhD in Modernist Literature.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s