Gerald L. Bruns, William P. & Hazel B. White Professor Emeritus of English, taught at Notre Dame from 1984 to 2008. In “retirement” he has recently published several studies, including, On Ceasing to Be Human (Stanford University Press, 2011), of which Professor Steve Tomasula writes:
The genius of Gerald L. Bruns has always been his ability to ask exactly right questions about exactly right subjects to reveal why people write literature, how we read, and what the literature of the past can tell us about the world outside the book at our contemporary moment. When the very idea of meaning was under question, Bruns gave us Inventions: Writing, Textuality, and Understanding in Literary History, an analysis of literature from ancient to modern that was as breathtaking in its scope as it was for his insight about writing and meaning making as a social practice. As it became increasingly commonplace to think of poetry as irrelevant, marginalized by the uses to which it is put, Bruns taught in The Material of Poetry how the most aesthetically extreme poems reveal poetry to permeate the most fundamental questions, as well as the most common of places.
And so it is with On Ceasing to Be Human, which can be seen as an extension of the lifelong conversation Bruns has been having with philosophers, poets, and other thinkers. In this book, he takes as a starting point the position of Maurice Blanchot: an author for whom “writing is neither the expression nor construction of anything, nor transport to a higher (or nether) world; instead it is a kind of limit-experience in which the one who writes is…evacuated, becoming something entirely other, without identity.” In characteristic Bruns fashion, he draws on an astonishing breadth of reading (he seems to have distilled everything ever written on his subjects) not so much to answer questions as to raise them: what could it mean to no longer be able to say “I”? That is, to recognize ourselves as beings who are “singular-plural”: entities from which nothing can be excluded, not animals, not machines, not each other? Has “the human” become a poetic concept, like “the divine,” in need of constant revision? What does it mean to feel compelled to ask these questions? To be more than human (or is it less)? To be more (or is it less) free? Ranging from the metamorphoses of Ovid to those of Kafka to Derrida’s musing on his cat, he observes, “clearly, being human, at least as it is imagined in art and literature, has never been a given.”
In the chapters that follow—on being other than human, human recognition (e.g., Jane Goodall being accepted by the sign-language-using chimpanzee, Lucy), and other chapters—Bruns explores the sense of our selves at the close of the human age and the opening of that of the posthuman: a time when our science, social history, and changing perspectives make pervasive (and literal) the fluid nature of the individual that has always been a given in literature. The translation into law, and life, of the philosophical questions posed in this slender volume will be profound, and as with Bruns’s other books, readers will turn to On Ceasing to Be Human as yet another instance of Bruns’s attunement to the context in which his questions are asked, as well as for insight into how they are experienced at our moment.