Report on November meeting

Our last meeting focused very broadly on how we decide which bodies count as human. What are the limits of the human, the boundaries that define the human? And what happens when we question these limits? Sam Curtis’s paper examined manmade entities such as golems and Dr Frankenstein’s monster, whilst Ben Davies analysed the possibilities that negligible senescence (the idea that, in the future, age-related damage will be repaired so quickly and effectively that the person is not affected by the passing of years, their lifespan increasing and their youth preserved for a greater length of time). Both papers were interested in the idea that there are various levels of ‘humanness’ and the possibility that a body’s claim to humanness can be questioned.

The key question raised by Davies’s paper was whether or not a human body undergoing the processes of negligible senescence can still be considered human. If negligible senescence gradually enhances or manipulates the body, are you left with the same body? Is the body undergoing negligible senescence not equal to the human body, bearing in mind that the human body undergoes replacement at a cellular level over the years? Or does negligible senescence question humanness not so much by altering the body physically but by altering the body’s abilities? And at what stage is a life considering worth living? Should genetic changes only be available to adults or should they be available to embryos? Who controls these changes – can a person determine the genetic alterations made to their child or to a parent suffering from dementia?

Issues of power were also present in Sam Curtis’s paper: whilst creating a golem is an act that brings one closer to God (creation in this case is another form of worship) but does not dispute God’s power, Dr Frankenstein’s act of creation is seen as the transgressive ‘stealing’ of God’s power and so the disruption of the human-God relationship. Curtis’s paper, like Davies’s, also suggested the fragility of the human as a concept. That Frankenstein’s monster during the nineteenth century was often aligned with different ethnic and social groups (notably disempowered groups such as the Irish and the working class) emphasises that the human is not so much a stable scientific category as an entity that is culturally determined. The human as aligned with the perceived normative or perfect body is further suggested by the similarities drawn out between the manmade creations and the perception of disabled bodies. The rarity of manmade female creations adds another layer to this: if we consider the male body to be the normative body, then the female is inherently inferior. Could it be that there are fewer manmade female creations because women are already associated with the ‘less than human’?

Our next meeting is Monday 9th December, where we’ll hear a paper from Victoria Grace Walden on ‘The Non/Human as Other in Holocaust Films’. There is also a very short chapter to be read beforehand: ‘Similar, Dissimilar, Survivor’, in Georges Didi-Huberman’s Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2008), pp. 41-47.


About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London. View all posts by beingnonhuman

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