The Posthuman Existence in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

Through the pages of Shteyngart’s dystopian novel we enter a world where people’s reality is not just perceived through the judgmental lenses of their äppärät – it is a possible future in which a swipe at someone conveys the information that IS literally reality itself. This world, where the inhabitants from flesh and blood are reduced to an unnoticed medium for conveying information in constant engagement with the disembodied content of digital networks, marks a posthuman existence where surveillance, control and greed for profit are extended into infinity itself.

Illustration by Dave Plunkert

The posthuman culture whose goal is to escape materiality for the eternal digital realm starts with the human body. The physical regeneration of older men through younger women does not point to the sexual habits naturalised by media forms. It points to “the ways in which technological limitations in a given medium become the frameworks for the aesthetic judgments” (Malewitz 113). The immortal posthuman realm requires nano-sized bodies, training in one of the “Zero Mass” or “No Body” gyms, which can easily become disembodied computer simulations, leaving behind their unnecessary shell of a human body. Celebrated are physical features Eunice has, such as lack of hair and scent which “exist as easily on an äppärät screen as on the street” (112).

But what of those bodies whose form and substance are not as easily translated into technological interfaces of the posthuman age, the ones whose traits differ too greatly from the norm? “The people whose personal information cannot be broadcast digitally are rendered aesthetically illegible” (Malewitz 114). By possessing a body of too much substance and untranslatable features (or by refusing to own an äppärät), they are unrepresented, invisible, unable to participate in “a culture founded upon digital frameworks of subjectivity” (114). Thus they become an undermining threat to the symbolic system of the posthuman fantasy.

Being rendered unhuman, their biological and computational data resist the applications of concepts such as FACing. They cannot partake in human capacities of love and friendship, whose values are recognised only for their ability to be converted into digital data. Since the äppärät’s technologies (such as RateMe) with their influence on who may speak to whom, their calculations whether the relationship is worth pursuing by taking into account everything from sexual preferences to pH levels, form the reality of the posthuman world, such individuals cannot move on the social ladder of the digital world. The only reality being the digital one is proved by Eunice’s friend Jenny’s conclusion that her boyfriend is cheating on her. Although she sees him cheating in real life, the real proof of his infidelity is his electronic “illiterate love notes” on GlobalTeens.

A piece from a comic by Gary Clemens

These ideas might make the reader feel “so TIMATOV”, but there is more to it than “JBF”. The posthuman society’s view on bodies, the encouragement to use web-speech instead of “verballing”, and the desire of improvement of the digital profiles to perfection, have serious political consequences. This posthuman realism possesses absolute power through the controlling system of meanings and values which offer the individuals as a controllable mass that aides the economy and its profiteers more than any other system before.

Shteyngart’s society is one where the fear of “corporate dictatorship in various guises, with the privatization, marketization, and monetization of all available resources, to the benefit of the wealthy” (Willmetts 270) has been realised. It is a world marked by the concept of Zuboff’s “surveillance capitalism” where “the most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data” (Zuboff in Willmetts 271). Enough for maximum surveillance of the people is an all-controlling system which threatens the individual with “a sense of permanent social precariousness” (272) subjecting them to the need for perpetual transformation to achieve perfection. Achieving it is impossible since “under the conditions of surveillance capitalism, identity is always an unfulfilled project” in a permanent state of becoming (Bauman in Willmetts 272).

Becoming towards what? Immortality – the established final desire. This is the most desired product of the market and is obtainable only by the ultimate preservable citizens. The lowly LNWI masses with their low credit and fuckability scores are unworthy of preserving. Their lack of ability to spend and their bodies mutilated by the lack of privilege make them but vermin subjected to “harm reduction”. Immortality is targeted towards the HNWIs which must prove their worthiness by keeping their ratings high enough to deserve to be immortalised. Proof of the existence of a higher-ranking profiting class is Lenny’s notion that “the truly powerful did not need to be ranked” (Shteyngart in Willmetts 276).

Zuboff’s surveillance capitalism translates human experience into behavioural data (14). It can thus predict future possible markets where consumers can be herded to in the future (14). Immortality as a future market leads people to offer exactly what its price is – their data. The resulting instrumentarian species of power rightfully predicts that people will be willing to do anything to remain top class citizens, the only group considered for the ultimate product of immortalisation, agreeing with everything to the point where their consent need nothing but to be implied. Would anyone really dare to disobey the otter who controls all their yuan-pegged dollars in a world where losing credit literally equals the death sentence?

Primary Source

Shteyngart; Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. New York: Random House, 2020. E-book.

Secondary Sources

Malewitz, Raymond. “Some new dimension devoid of hip and bone”: Remediated Bodies and Digital Posthumanism in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, Volume 71, Number 4 (2015): 107-127. Project Muse. Web. Accessed on 21 Nov 2020.

Willmetts, Simon. “Digital Dystopia: Surveillance, Autonomy, and Social Justice in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story.” American Quarterly, Volume 70, Number 2 (2018): 267-289. Project Muse. Web. Accessed on 21 Nov 2020.

Zuboff, Shoshana. The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs, 2019. E-book.

6 thoughts on “The Posthuman Existence in Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story

  1. A very interesting take on the novel Neli. I enjoyed your exploration of the citizens within Super Sad that refuse to live within the constraints of digital society, the ‘apparat-less’ people. It got me thinking that this is quite relevant to our own digital age, as we advance so quickly we often leave those that can’t participate in the technological era behind. Systems that have been commonplace for many years such as in-branch banking are now becoming increasingly sparse in favour of online banking or automated money handling bank machines. Are we moving too far beyond our roots and leaving certain people behind (like the elderly) with no way of them able to catch up?

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      Although it sounds like a terrible thought I think that you are right to suggest that we are definitely “moving too far beyond our roots” and leaving people behind. I don’t think it’s problematic when it comes to apparate-less people that wish to go against the expectations of the system, but when it comes to the marginalised groups that have a hard time following these expectations, the way we are made to rely on technology is getting progressively problematic. I think that with progress we are becoming more and more ageist as a society, prejudiced beyond the point of technology when it comes to older generations, which is evident in the worsening conditions of the elderly. In my opinion, Shteyngart calls us out on this kind of behaviour when he continually expresses the opinions of the young on how unworthy of preserving old bodies are and how they were a group completely forgotten about after “the Rupture”.

  2. I found this piece very interesting and I particularly liked how you figured the posthuman and unhuman elements of the novel. I agree that Shteyngart’s novel depicts a kind of corporate dictatorship but I’m particularly interested in the inclusion of immortality as a theme within the book. After reading your piece I was left contemplating what immortality means when humanness is so detached from the physical, the corporeal, and the emotional? And what is the value of this immortality in this new society? I would love to hear any view you have on this topic, and well done on an excellent piece!

    1. Thank you, Lerato!

      In my opinion, it is relevant to think about the detachment from the corporeal when it comes to the concept of immortality today. That is precisely because of the value of this new reality which we can find “online”, rather than in a physical kind of existence, meaning, for example, “you are your Instagram profile”. I think that when your online presence becomes more important to you than your physical one, you would like to preserve the first rather than the latter, your body becoming a means of updating it, and not something you would like to keep forever. What I mean is you cannot preserve your online existence without your physical body so its importance is secondary. This I think is very evident in the popularity of influencers who practically augment their body to support their online presence without any consideration on how they may harm themselves physically. Thank you again for the comment, I hope this answer manages to address at least a part of this interesting issue. 🙂

  3. I think the ways in which this post analyses the various different facets of Shteyngart’s dystopian future to discern the overall philosophy of the society depicted is really excellent, Neli. I think your argument that the concept of human immortality results in a kind of distaste towards corporeal bodies is particularly prescient – Lenny certainly seems to be repulsed by the artist who is harassing Eunice when they first meet, less due to his behaviour and more due to his weight and alcoholism. Meanwhile, he fetishises Eunice for the slight and insubstantial – almost androgynous – nature of her body. You refer to digitization of the body as an ultimate endgoal, which is a major facet of contemporary transhumanist thinking, as well as a common sci-fi trope and cultural anxiety, cropping up in popular culture shows such as Black Mirror. However, I thought it was strange how Shteyngart’s vision of immortality doesn’t explicitly refer to taking digital form as the telos of that journey, besides a vague allusion towards transcendence over corporeality at the beginning where Lenny writes “my personality will jump into a black hole and surf into a dimension of unthinkable wonders.” Nonetheless though, the immediate goal of Post Human Industries appears to be preservation of the physical body and minimisation of its innate defects and frailties. It’s surprising because, as you write in your post, the novel foregrounds the ubiquity of “apparat” technology – how it informs (and impoverishes) social encounters, though perhaps it’s a sign of how the novel has already become dated in the decade since its publication that digitization of consciousness feels tangible today in a way that couldn’t be conceived of in 2010.

  4. This is a really excellent article, Neli! I think you identify and explore the main concerns of Shteyngart’s novel very well – as you point out – the movement towards a post-/trans-human world has significant ethical and political consequence. I’m particularly interested in the problem of consent, which you highlight in your post. What Shteyngart imagines as a possible future comes from a consideration of the increasing power and unaccountability of tech, online, and social media corporations, which has only continued to grow since the time of the novel’s publication. As you rightly suggest, the pervasiveness of this new form of social organisation reduces human beings to points of data, which can then be used to “predict future possible markets where consumers can be herded to in the future”. It is the end goal of consumerism in many ways, the total reduction of people to disembodied consumer statistics. I especially like your phrase “posthuman realism” as it captures the objective power that this system wields, stratifying further inequality and dispossession, moulding the mass of society without any room for democratic, or other, opposition. Well done on the thought-provoking piece.

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