If the humanities has a future as cultural criticism, and cultural criticism has a task at the present moment, it is no doubt to return us to the human where we do not expect to find it, in its frailty and at the limits of its capacity to make sense. We would have to interrogate the emergence and vanishing of the human at the limits of what we can know, what we can hear, what we can see, what we can sense.
--Judith Butler, Precarious Life (151)
This course will be organized around a set of theoretical questions generally associated with the idea of “posthumanism” – that is, with various, sometimes distinct, sometimes overlapping ways of constructing and interrogating the category of the “human.” The course will therefore explore the “boundary confusions,” between human and machine or human and animal, that Donna Haraway (in the “Cyborg Manifesto,” one of the course’s starting points) argues inform contemporary cultural logics. These theoretical questions and critiques will include the modern association of the human with psychic interiority and processes of individualism, problematized by cybernetics and cultures of computer-mediated communication; the association of the human with either sharp species boundaries or with sharp distinctions between nature and culture, problematized by animal rights movements, ecocriticism, and developments in biology and biopower; the assumption that the human body provides a natural ground for human being, also problematized by cybernetics and theories of social constructivism; the related association of the human with humanist claims to universality, problematized by certain versions of evolutionary theory as well as multicultural political movements. As this list suggests, the course is especially interested in forms of posthumanism that emerge from interdisciplinary approaches to culture, technology, and science, as well as the relation between these forms of posthumanist critique and the more directly political critiques of feminism, queer theory, and critical race studies. The course will therefore also be interested in the idea of the human as a basis for defining modes of belonging, connection, or kinship, and the posthuman as a critique of the modes of exclusion these ideas generate. Our readings will therefore also consider alternative forms of family and critiques of heteronormativity as a model for futurity and critiques of nationalism and national community. As time permits, we will discuss the relevance of more directly political ideas about social death (Patterson, on the history of slavery) and bare life (Agamben) to theories of posthumanism, as well as Alexander Weheliye’s critique of Agamben. We will turn to popular culture and genre writing as sites of reflection on these questions, alongside the theoretical readings.
The course will begin with two or three weeks of theoretical readings, along with some short fiction, probably including N. Katherine Hayles’s How We Became Posthuman, Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern and/or selections from An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, and Cary Wolfe, What Is Posthumanism? We will then 6 or 7 of the following novels: Octavia Butler, Dawn; Samuel R. Delany, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand; Alan Moore and Stephen Bissette, Saga of the Swamp Thing, vol. 1; Bruce Sterling, Distraction; Karen Joy Fowler, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves; Jeff Vandermeer, Annihilation; Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects; Hannu Rajaniemi, The Quantum Thief; and Charles Stross, Rule 34. Short fiction may include works by C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, Greg Egan, Rachel Swirsky, Ken Liu, Bruce Sterling, and Benjamin Rosenbaum. As time permits, may also discuss some short films by Greg Pak (Robot Stories) and Alex Rivera (Sleep Dealer). We will read these fictional works in relation to shorter historical, critical, and theoretical readings, by Norbert Wiener, Alan Turing, Gregory Bateson, Andy