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On Planet of the Apes and the Posthumanities

August 1, 2017

Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D., assistant professor of rabbinic literature, recently published “ Jews, Gentiles, and Other Animals: The Talmud After the Humanities,” a critical study of one of the Talmud’s most controversial tractates, “Avoda Zara.” In a post for the University of Pennsylvania Press’s blog, Rabbi Wasserman relates her book—and her efforts to compare Talmudic thought to posthumanist ideas—to the latest film in the Planet of the Apes saga.

Wasserman writes that: The sub-title of my book, “The Talmud after the Humanities,” refers to my effort to bring talmudic studies into conversation with posthumanist theory. I have been searching for an accessible way to explain posthumanism to friends and colleagues. This weekend, I found what I was looking for at the summer movie blockbuster War for the Planet of the Apes.

Directed by Matt Reeves, this is the third film in the third Apes franchise—there were five original Planet of the Apes movies from 1968-1975, and an earlier reboot by Tim Burton in 2001. Those who remember the basic scenario in the original series will appreciate the stunning reversals in this summer’s new release. The first film, starring Charlton Heston, was set in the distant future. A crew of astronauts crash onto a planet ruled by apes. These apes are intelligent, but cruel, and they govern a strictly stratified society in which humans are subjugated and harshly oppressed. In the iconic image with which the movie ends, the astronauts discover the ruins of the Statue of Liberty, and realize that this alien planet ruled by apes is actually earth, centuries after nuclear devastation. In this 1960s version, human beings are vulnerable and virtuous, and they must struggle for liberation from heartless, simian rulers.

The new Planet of the Apes turns the tables, making humans the bad guys, and aligning our sympathies with the intelligent apes who resist a violent human regime. The hero is Caesar, an ape who as a Moses-figure embodies many virtues that are quintessentially human: He speaks, he loves, he acts with compassion and with bravery, he has a moral conscience. In this 2017 version of dystopia, humans are heartless and cruel, and the best hope for peace and justice is the demise of humanity, and the rise of something new—a community of human/ape hybrids that combine morality and intelligence and live in harmony with the rest of the natural world.

Read the rest of the piece here.