Monthly Archives: October 2013

Meeting – November 11th

The next meeting of the Being Non/Human discussion group  will take place on Monday, November 11th at 6:30pm – 8pm at King’s College London, Strand campus, room S2.39.

Please join us for two interesting papers that examine the limits of the human:

Sam Curtis (PhD student, University of Hull) – ‘Life without a Soul and Bodies without Life’

Abstract: As scientific research and technology have advanced it has thrown into question at which point humanity originated and therefore how to distinguish between what is human and what is not. Within myth and religious narratives the creation of humanity is highly influential in providing an explanation for precisely what it is that makes us human. While these stories are no longer generally considered to be factual the story of creating life has continued to be a have a powerful hold over the human imagination, seen in the prevalence of stories about robots, androids, artificial intelligences and monstrosities made in laboratories. I will argue in this paper that artificial creations, formed in the shape of humans, have provided an ‘other’ with which to create and police the parameters of what it is and what it means to be human. By briefly exploring the nineteenth century stories of the golem; a Jewish legend of a man created from the earth by a Rabbi and the narrative of Frankenstein, I hope to demonstrate that these stories depict a physically and mentally inferior version of humanity which can highlight more precisely than a comparison with other animals and machines what is and is not human. While these stories have long been noted as early examples of the machine story, it is their emotional responses and similarity to humanity which are the driving forces of the narratives. I would then go on to summarise how these flawed creations were influential in the formation of the modern robot in the Carpeck play R.U.R, where the term originated. I would conclude by highlighting how other texts have developed from this notion.

Sam Curtis is a second year PhD student whose thesis is provisionally titled ‘Making Bodies and Becoming Human’. This thesis is focused on comparative readings of stories that feature artificial creation, which Sam has been exploring using a variety of approaches (predominately disability, gender and genre).

Ben Davies (PhD student, King’s College London) – ‘Living Longer, Staying Human’

Abstract: Biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey argues in favour of research into physical ageing, so that we can greatly extend human life spans and end physical senescence. Nicholas Agar counters that individuals who became ‘negligibly senescent’ would effectively remove themselves from the human species, and would become alienated from distinctive human goods. He offers a theory of value that is ‘species relativist’: central goods are valuable for you only as a member of a particular species; you should refuse any intervention that would remove you from that species, even if you would have even more valuable experiences post-change. Agar concludes that we should avoid radical life extension, even if its benefits are objectively greater than its losses. I argue that 1) Agar fails to show that negligibly senescent persons would leave the human species, and 2) even if species-relativism about value is true, the negligibly senescent person does not lose contact with human values in the right way. 1) Agar suggests that species are delineated by reproductive barriers. He extends the ordinary biological understanding of this theory to include psychological barriers to reproduction. I argue that even if psychological barriers can contribute to our species categorisations, a freely chosen capacity such as extended life cannot contribute to species separation. 2) Agar’s species-relativist argument depends on the idea that we will stop valuing certain things, such as our personal relationships, and even that we will come to regard them negatively. I argue that his description of a negligibly senescent life only shows that we will choose not to pursue these things, not that we will stop valuing them. As such, even if Agar’s description reveals serious costs to life extension, we should not give extra weight to the goods we will lose on the basis of a species-relativist argument.

Ben Davies is in his second year of a PhD in philosophy at King’s College London, working on the ethics of extending lives by manipulating the ageing process. His interests are in bioethics (particularly human enhancement), concepts around death and dying, and political justice.


Reviews of events from the ‘Being Human’ Festival

Hi all! Just to note that the fantastic ‘Being Human’ festival ended on Friday, and finished with two very interesting and fun events: ‘Medieval Science Fiction’ and ‘The Limits of the Human: Vampires, Zombies, Serial Killers…’

You can read our reviews of these events at the festival’s blog: http://kingsahfest.wordpress.com/

If you went to any of the events and would like to write a review, then please get in touch and we’ll post it on the festival’s blog.


Michael Landy exhibition and discussion (saints, art and automata)

Just a quick note for anyone interested in art and/or robots: there is currently an exhibition on at the National Gallery by Michael Landy which combines the bodies of saints (as depicted in the gallery’s medieval and Renaissance paintings) with machinery. Creating collages merging saintly human bodies with wheels and cogs, as well as building these machinic holy bodies as huge interactive automata, Landy’s work has divided audiences somewhat. Is it disrespectful of faith, or even art? Or is it offering an insight into the mechanisms of belief? Can the saintly body be understood as a human body, or does faith transform it into something else?

There will be a roundtable discussion on Landy’s exhibition – topics include ancient and medieval saints, modern art and robots – on Tuesday 29th October 7pm – 8pm, room K-1.56 (lower level), the Strand campus, King’s College London.

Landy’s exhibition at the National Gallery ends on: 24th November 2013:
http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/michael-landy-saints-alive


Small report of our first meeting

Our first meeting combined discussions on cyborgs and technology with questions of species and race in MMORPGs.

We questioned where the boundary lies between using technology as a tool and becoming dependent upon technology as a kind of cyborg. We wondered where the ‘control’ of technology and online games might lie – is it the company, the consumer or perhaps some sort of mix of these that truly controls the product and the experience? Can technology control human lives? What happens when everything goes wrong and technology starts to think for itself? We also wondered why players of online multiplayer games might choose to play as a nonhuman character, and what the results of this choice may be. What does it mean to play the monster? To what extent does someone play a character that reminds them of themselves? How much of human nature is found in these nonhuman game characters?

We hope to have an equally interesting discussion for our next meeting, which will take on November 11th. Same room, same time. We hope to see you there!


‘Green Letters: Studies in Ecocriticism’

One of our speakers for this year – Chris Pak – has kindly pointed out that Routledge have recently collated a series of ecocritical articles on the theme of “Being Human”, and that this may be of interest to some of you. The articles will be available for free online until the end of 2013 via this link:  http://explore.tandfonline.com/content/ah/green-letters-being-human.


Interesting Festival at King’s College London

From 11 – 25 October King’s College London will be hosting the annual Arts & Humanities Festival, with this year’s theme of Being/Human. The festival brings together researchers, artists, and scholars for a mix of lectures, performances, and exhibits centred around the question: ‘What does it mean to be human?’.

More information and the programme can be found here: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/ahfest/index.aspx. Also, check out their blog: http://kingsahfest.wordpress.com/ (we will be posting some reviews of several events on there ourselves).

They have put together a very interesting and varied programme, and many of the questions discussed during the different events are the same questions that we wish to tackle in our Being Non/Human group. We therefore thought this festival will be of interest to some of you.

If you were planning on coming to our first meeting on October 14th, why not see if you can join some of the other festival events that day?