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‘What is man but a mass of thawing clay?’: Thoreau, Embodiment, and the Nineteenth-Century Posthuman

Issue: Vol 26 No. 3 (2013) Rethinking Religion and the Non/Human

Journal: Journal for the Academic Study of Religion

Subject Areas: Religious Studies Buddhist Studies Islamic Studies Biblical Studies

DOI: 10.1558/jasr.v26i3.254


This paper argues for a new understanding of Thoreau’s appraisal of the relationship between humans and the natural world by locating him in current posthuman discourse. Examining the developing nineteenth-century inclination to emphasize basic hybridities between humans and nature reveals how Thoreau’s later work pointed toward an ecological yet non-reductive materialism, neither reducing nature to mere matter nor elevating it to ineffa¬ble spirit. As Thoreau erased distinctions between natural and supernatural realms, an interplay between religion and science in his writing unfolded with respect to competing views of natural history in the nineteenth-century transatlantic world. In this reading, Thoreau destabilized traditional interpretations of the afliation between humans and nature and, in their place, offered a model with interpenetrating identities between matter and spirit. This paper therefore situates Thoreau as a transitional gure occupying an intermediate space between liberal humanism and posthumanism. In the end, Thoreau’s struggle—namely, to resolve his wavering between identication with and alienation from the material world—produced new and radical answers to the questions: What is humanity, what is nature, and what is the true relation between the two? In this way he was a forerunner of the posthuman, a radical rethinking or rewriting of what it means to be human.

Author: Daniel C. Dillard

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