Performing that-which-will-become posthuman and queer bodies in the works of Heinrich von Kleist and Oscar Wilde
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This dissertation focuses on two playwrights, at either end of the nineteenth century, who engage problems of the human body as a site of legitimation and authentication of identity by staging inversions of the categories of natural and artificial. Against the backdrop of increasing mechanization and dematerialization of embodiment, Heinrich von Kleist and Oscar Wilde explore the transgressive possibilities of artificial bodies as reactions against the erasure of the diversity of actual bodies. I read in their works similar rejections of the body as a site that narrowly prescribes gender identity and sexual behavior according to mechanistic views of physiology. In doing so, I argue that their aesthetic theories and dramas evince a longing for more flexible and complex models of embodiment that do not prescribe or authenticate gender and sexuality as functions of a mechanistic physiological nature. This project, then, locates some roots of posthuman and queer theories of embodiment in the dramas and aesthetic theories of these two dramatists. Kleist and Wilde use the dialogue form to explore the paradoxes produced by the distinction between the natural and the artificial and by the construction of the natural body as fundamentally mechanical. Kleist’s Penthesilea and Wilde’s Salomé resist the humanist naturalization of gender and sexuality via the mechanization of the body. As anti-humanist counter-discourse and performance, the femme-fatales of their dramas are virtual bodies or bodies yet-to-come. I examine how these virtually queer, posthuman bodies in the text are performatively actualized on stage to provoke audiences to imagine modes of embodiment yet-to-come, or to pretend them into existence. I read theatre theory and practice as part of the complex technical and philosophical tools, for imagining bodies, as well as defining and performing identities, that precede the concept of the virtual in the context of computer technology. I conclude by arguing for the importance of literature, dialogue, drama, and the embodied materialities of performance to digital media or new media, as an attempt to steer thinking away from the VR model to the MOO model, from readymade product to participatory, dialogic process.