Monthly Archives: January 2014

Next Meeting: 3 February

Our next meeting will take place on Monday, February 3rd at 6:30pm – 8pm at King’s College London, Strand campus, room S2.39. As per usual, all are welcome, and snacks / drinks will be provided! This meeting will have a more traditional format than the previous ones, as we will be listening to two papers:

Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn (PhD student, Queen Mary University of London) – ‘Apichatpong and Agamben: Terminating Anthropological Machine in Tropical Malady

Abstract: Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul made his name in the international scale with films like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) and Tropical Malady (2004). For the cinema of Apichatpong, forest is a signature landscape. Not only that forest is a setting for most of his films, but the landscape is also a playground that holds a promise of a non-anthropocentricism. At the center of the haptic forest, it is a space of interconnection between man and magical creatures such as a ghost monkey, a talking catfish and a man-tiger. These creatures are outstanding enough to be a long-lasting image the spectators remember after watching his films. If the relationship between human and animal, or any magical beings, is the recurring theme in his films, this element is, by far, less researched compared to the studies on the film’s reception and its position as a local-transnational auteur cinema. To open the discussion on Apichatpong’s cinema with the framework of critical animal studies, I match his cinema with the philosophy of Giorgio Agamben. In The Open: Man and Animal, Agamben treats the various marking points that have been designed to draw a line between human and animal as ananthropological machine – a man-made discourse that is not already naturally included in a structure of human. Rather, it is ‘a historical production which…can be properly assigned neither to man nor animal.’ (Agamben, 2004: 36). Not only does he want us to realize the politics of the discourse but he also provokes us to terminate the anthropological machine. Echoing Agamben’s concept, this paper will discuss how Apichatpong presents the blur area between human and nonhuman and how he abolishes the anthropological machine, with his cinematic style, in his award winning Tropical Malady(2004).

Dr Chris Pak (University of Liverpool) – ‘ “Earth is that Blank Materiality of Nature that Exists Before Us”: Nature’s Otherness and Terraforming’

Abstract: Science fiction (sf) has traditionally explored multiple forms of otherness, whether this is based upon species, racial, gender, socio-economic or cultural dimensions. Terraforming (or geoengineering if conducted on Earth), the adaptation of planetary landscapes, is an sf motif that centres on the interaction between the human and the non-human, the latter often conceived of in terms of a “nature” defined against “culture”. This notion of nature in sf is contested at a fundamental level. Terraforming narratives deploy various strategies to scrutinise the human / non-human relationship, providing a space for enviro-ethical reflection on what nature means, given the epistemological challenge that manifestations of radical otherness in sf represents to human knowledge systems. Terraforming offers a space for environmental philosophical speculation over the concept of nature’s otherness, the relationship of difference that non-human nature bears to the human, and to what Eric Otto has called the Illusion of Disembeddedness from nature, the notion that humankind denies their dependency and connectedness to nature. Between the two poles of difference and identity, various types of otherness offer ways to explore different relationships to nature, whether this be cosmological nature, nature as defined against culture, or human nature.  The sf terraforming tradition includes a wide variety of treatments of all these issues and, taken as a whole, provides an imaginative space and a library of examples for thinking about nature, humankind’s relationship to that nature, and the relationship of planetbound nature to the wider nature of the solar system and, indeed, the universe. During this discussion, several examples of sf narratives of terraforming, such as Olaf Stapledon’s 1937 Star Maker and Kim Stanley Robinson’s acclaimed Mars trilogy (Red Mars 1992, Green Mars 1993 and Blue Mars 1996), will be explored and discussed for their contributions to thought about nature.

So, it promises to be a very interesting meeting indeed – we hope to see you there!


Report on January meeting

A great variety of topics presented this month!

Given that the term ‘human’ is used from the fifteenth century onwards, can it be applied retrospectively to earlier time periods? Can we actually say that there are ‘humans’ in the early medieval period? And what type of bodies do Adam and Eve have? Francesca Allfrey stressed the physicality of Eve’s body (as well as her curious connection to the fatal apple, noting that the Anglo-Saxon Genesis poem describes Eve as both holding an apple and having an apple at her heart – a strange image in which Eve’s body and the apple almost become interchangeable). Dr Clare Lees emphasised the uncertain physical makeup of Adam, whose body is not just made from flesh and blood but also a pound of earth and andweorc, an Old English word meaning ‘substance’ or ‘stuff’. Andweorc also refers to the material that comprises heaven and earth, the raw material used in building-work and the initial beginnings or ‘raw material’ of the thought process. Dr James Paz raised the possibility that the multiple uses of andweorc are trying to suggest a state before the use of language, a state in which we did not need to connect or perceive things through language but instead had direct access to them – a state without the strict divide imposed by language and so a state without strict division between materials or between different types of bodies (whether they are ‘human’, heavenly, or even possibly immaterial).

Dr Paz’s analysis of Anglo-Saxon riddles revealed the co-dependency of humans and nonhumans on each other, but also how the fragile balance of power can easily be tipped. People may make mead, but mead can definitely have the upper hand! Rebecca Hardie suggested that it is signs of the wasteful and the useless, in relation to both human physicality and human personality, that is typically cast as nonhuman in early medieval homilies. Whilst human waste is a sign of humanity’s corrupt state (the nonhuman element of humanity unavoidably connected to the body), Hardie argues that such waste is aligned with corrupt human desires – useless desires that drive one away from God. From this perspective, anything which turns a person away from God threatens to drive them closer to the nonhuman than the human.

Carl Kears discussed beserkers, warriors described in Old Norse literature as entering a trace-like state in which they were impervious to pain and attacked their enemies with animalistic violence. However, their lack of control sometimes meant that they not only attacked their enemies but their own community, resulting in the beserker’s exile. In this case, extreme rage and loss of control over one’s emotions results in one occupying an uncertain status – a human that acts like an animal, a person cast out of society and so undefined by community bonds. Victoria Walker cited two instances in the Old English text Orosius in which the supposed human/nonhuman divide is questioned: Cyrus’s head cut off and stored in a leather bag, dehumanised and robbed of speech; in contrast, the desolate town Babylon is personified, capable of speech and comments on manmade edifices – a bizarre case of town discussing its buildings.

Janel Fontaine analysed how the status of slaves depended very much on the current ruler. However, the status of a slave appears to be necessarily complex, neither fully human nor nonhuman, treated as property yet – under the rule of King Alfred (c.871-899) – able to sell goods (and so eke out a living) on certain feast days and protected against rape. At the same time, the equation of slave with property was maintained. For instance, a slave guilty of theft was stoned to death by other slaves – slaves who were then given away as compensation for the original theft. Possession of a human status is obviously changeable and not so much self-determined as imposed by society. Hana Videen meanwhile considered the effect of Judgement Day, in which humans enter an alternate state (and therefore diverge from regular humanity) and nature assumes an alternate agency – namely, the trees start to bleed.

These presentations undermine the human/nonhuman divide (and so question the validity of these supposed binary terms) and suggest that humanness (or perhaps personhood?) is determined in various ways. There is a spatial aspect – Adam and Eve, once cast out of the garden of Eden, change from pre-human to human, in their corruption and mortality. There is a temporal aspect – Judgement Day changes humanity’s state (from human to post-human?). Control also determines one’s humanness. Losing control over one’s desires (desires which turn one away from God) or one’s emotions (e.g. beserkers unable to handle their rage) weaken your claim to humanness. It is not only self-control which affects your humanity – the community at large exerts a power over one’s human status (the existence of slaves in the early medieval period attests to this). The relationship between one’s humanity and these shifts in time, space and power deserve further exploration.

More info on these presenters can be found on the King’s College London website. Hana Videen also has a blog at http://beoshewulf.wordpress.com/, as does Francesca Allfrey at http://almostanglosaxonist.wordpress.com/

The next Being Non/Human meeting takes place on Monday 3rd February, with papers from Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Dr Chris Pak (see the Schedule and Abstracts page for more details).


Being Non/Human Facebook Group

Good news: we now have our very own group on Facebook!

The group can be used to advertise events – which could be our own meetings but also other events related to research into the non-human or posthuman – or to distribute reading materials for our meetings, discuss relevant topics, get into contact with other researchers, talk to the organisers, etc.

Feel free to join the group if you are interested. Here is the link (you must log in first to view the page, of course):

https://www.facebook.com/groups/251515761679792/.

Or, you could type in ‘Being Non/Human’ in the search bar and the group should come up there as well.


Next Meeting: 13th January

Happy New Year to all humans, nonhumans and anything beyond, in-between, or in defiance of these categories!

Our first meeting for 2014 will take place on Monday, January 13th at 6:30pm – 8pm at King’s College London, Strand campus, room S2.39. As per usual, all are welcome, and snacks / drinks will be provided!

This meeting will focus on a group presentation given by PhD students, post-doctorates and lecturers who research the early medieval period.

Please note that there are two accompanying handouts to this presentation: a selection of images taken from Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Junius 11, and two very short poems: an Old English charm against a swarm of bees, and an Old English riddle (as well as their modern English translations). To receive these handouts in advance of the meeting, please email us at: being.non.human AT gmail.com

Francesca Allfrey, Janel Fontaine, Rebecca Hardie, Carl Kears, Dr Clare Lees, Dr James Paz, Hana Videen, Victoria Walker (group presentation comprising PhD students and researchers, King’s College London) – ‘A Gathering of the Non/Human in the Anglo-Saxon World’
We are proposing a different sort of session for the ‘Being Non/Human’ discussion group. All of us work in different areas of Anglo-Saxon literature and history, and we would like to present ‘snapshots’ of our unique interests in the context of ‘Being Non/Human’. Each participant would present a three-minute sound-bite about a specific example of the ‘non/human’ in Anglo-Saxon culture. This would take approximately 30 minutes. Afterwards, we will invite questions/discussion about our snapshots, and we will also encourage the group members to think about the different questions we raise in the context of their own research. A few potential ‘snapshots’ (we will not necessarily discuss all of these, but they give an idea of the topics to be discussed):

  • De/humanising: Cyrus and Babylon in the Old English Orosius
  • Traces of the Wolfman: the vestiges of ‘berserkers’ (Germanic superhuman shape-shifters) in Anglo-Saxon England and contemporary pop culture
  • How is the non-human (food and dung) a productive way of thinking through what is integral to the human (soul and salvation)?
  • How does Christian doctrine ‘humanise’ the unfree in the context of Anglo-Saxon slavery?
  • How much information do we need to make a person in the past fully human?
  • In the Junius MS’s Genesis poems, is Adam human, pre-human or post-human?
  • What does it mean to technologically enhance the human body, transforming it into something superhuman?
  • How does voice mediate human and nonhuman agency in Old English literature? Where and with whom does the power really lie?
  • How does the natural world become more ‘human’ than humans on Doomsday?
  • How does the tempter shape-shift in the illustrations of the Junius MS? How are Eve’s ‘weak’ mind and Adam’s ‘strong’ mind represented?

So, superhuman shape-shifters, food and dung, the soul, nonhuman agency, and a natural world potentially more human than human beings themselves. Something for everyone, then. Hope you can make it!