Schedule and abstracts: 2013-2014

All meetings take place on a Monday at 6:30pm – 8pm

King’s College London, Strand campus, WC2R 2LS

room S2.39


14th October 2013:

11th November 2013:

9th December 2013:

  • Victoria Grace Walden (PhD student, Queen Mary University of London) – ‘The Non/Human as Other in Holocaust Films’
  • Short article to be circulated and read beforehand: Georges Didi-Huberman, ‘Similar, Dissimilar, Survivor’, in Images in Spite of All: Four Photographs from Auschwitz (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 41-47.

13th January 2014:

3rd February 2014:

10th March 2014:

7th April 2014:

12th May 2014:

2nd June 2014:

Abstracts

Dr Gerard Briscoe (Queen Mary University of London) – ‘Being Posthuman: Who Controls the Cyborg’
It has been suggested that the fourth discontinuity to be overcome is the distinction between humans and machines. We consider posthumanism to include the range of debates that examine the potential changes in the human body and its relationship with technology. So, debating what is human, especially with regards to our relationships with technology, in which humans can be seen as mixtures of machine and organism. Cybernetics can be seen as the foundational step in this fourth discontinuity, which governs the study of regulatory systems and self-governing mechanisms. This is because it was the point when machines and humans were imagined as self-regulating patterned information processing systems. These cyborg constructions are the conversion of the material into the informational in two ways; as the flesh into data (extropanism) and the conversion of data into flesh (technology embodiment). Therefore, the realisation of the posthuman will be defined by the nature of the relationship between the human and technology in cyborg constructions. Considerable fiction has presented the merging of human and machine as degenerating, even threatening to humanity. Instead, we generally believe we integrate technology when it is enabling rather than disabling, but unintended consequences can result in disabling effects. For example, the balance of control can become lost and the integration becomes degenerative. Cases will be considered where human machine integration is expected to be enabling, but eventually becomes disabling and even degenerative. Back to schedule

Jon Garrad – ‘ “Who’d choose to be a human? I do that in real life…” – Race, Species and Identity in the MMORPG’
The academic criticism of computer games has achieved a concern with the politics of identity that is both extensive and limited. It is extensive in the depth of answers to questions articulated most plainly by Meadows (2007), questions I shall reluctantly summarise as “where does the player end and the avatar begin?”; it is limited in that it seldom moves beyond those questions, save in the realms of gender objectification and identification, in which the gender of the player is often the primary focus of investigation (Norris (2004), Gallelli (2010), Carr (2011) et hoc genus omne). I propose a project investigating a similar choice that can be made by players in fantasy and science fiction games, focusing for the sake of brevity and ease on World of Warcraft: the choice of a ‘race’ – or, more accurately, ‘species’ – which is not the player’s own. The paper will present and explore reasons for choosing a non-human, even monstrous avatar, and the extent to which such avatars are characterised both in the game’s representations and in the players’ interactions with those representations, made to occupy a liminal space where they can be occupied/inhabited/identified with by their player, and yet remain tantalisingly Other. Some of this implications of this choice – the reification and reframing of racial difference into species differences, the luxury of being able to choose from potential prejudices, and the taxonomic aspects of the ‘level/race/class’ identification of player avatars – will also be considered. The project’s objective, ultimately, is to establish a basic understanding of the motivations and implications surrounding the choice to ‘be non-human’. Back to schedule

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

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

Victoria Grace Walden (PhD student, Queen Mary University of London) – ‘The Implications of the Non/Human as Other in Holocaust Films’  There are a number of Holocaust films which represent our inability to fully comprehend the years 1933-1945 in European history by abstracting the human body. Using a phenomenological framework, influenced by the work of Vivian Sobchack and Laura U.Mark, I will investigate the replacement of human bodies with non-organic objects and the use of cinematic techniques to turn the human body into object in Kornblumenblau and Zyklon Portrait. Cognitive film theory teaches us we connect emotionally with human forms on screen; as we follow their stories and get “up-close” we sympathise with them. Neuroscience research suggests we mirror the emotions of others, thus when we see happiness we reflect happiness back. But how do we relate to films where human bodies are abstracted – where we do not see the straight-forward “characters” of cognitive theory? I will explore why these Holocaust films disturb our relationship with screen bodies and how this relates to ethical issues of Holocaust representation. Back to schedule

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?
    Back to schedule

Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn (PhD student, Queen Mary University of London) – Apichatpong and Agamben: Terminating Anthropological Machine in Tropical Malady
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 an anthropological 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  he wants 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). Back to schedule

Chris Pak (University of Birmingham) – ‘ “Earth is that Blank Materiality of Nature that Exists Before Us”: Nature’s Otherness and Terraforming’
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. Back to schedule

Clare Walker-Gore (PhD student, University of Cambridge) – ‘ “Half Man, Half Chair”: Sensationalising Disability in Wilkie Collins’s The Law and the Lady
In this paper, I will focus on Wilkie Collins’s representation of the disabled character Miserrimus Dexter in his 1875 novel The Law and the Lady. Miserrimus is introduced as “fantastic and frightful”, his use of a wheelchair sensationalised as the “blending” of “man and machinery”, and in a series of images he is depicted as inhuman or animalistic. Yet the “grotesque horror” of this representation gives way, I will argue, to a challenging exploration of what it means to be fully human, to ‘count’ as a novelistic character. As the sensational plot unfolds before us, the husband whom Valeria is seeking to clear of murder, and the marriage she is trying to save, seem less and attractive, Macallan’s cruel sexual rejection of his ‘ugly’ first wife turning out to lie at the heart of the mystery, and Miserrimus’s thwarted passion for her assuming a tragic aspect. The characters who have been deemed marginal turn out to be at the heart of the mystery; the hero recedes before us both in interest and in moral stature. Miserrimus’s uncomfortable relationship with his ‘slave’ Ariel, whom he regards as sub-human due to her intellectual disabilities, but whose devotion to him is unswerving, even heroic, comes to seem a grotesque mirror-image of Macallan’s relationship with his first wife, and perhaps even with Valeria. I will argue that we are forced to see the novel’s ‘normal’ characters through a prism of the ‘freakish’, categories that are further collapsed by Valeria’s relationship with Miserrimus, in which his difference seems to fascinate and compel her, as it does the reader. The scene in which Miserrimus attempts to kiss Valeria was seen as so shocking that, to Collins’s fury, the editor of The Graphic (in which the novel was serially published) cut it: I will ask whether Miserrimus is humanised by his denied desires, or whether the scene confirms him in his dehumanised identity as the novel’s grotesque villain. More broadly, I will attempt to address the question of how ‘sensational’ characterisation challenges our conception of how characters are made ‘human’ for us: do we feel for Collins’s sensational creations as we do for George Eliot’s ‘real’ people, for example? What does the connection between sensationalism and disability do for our understanding of either category, and in the last analysis, what would it mean to claim full humanity for “the creature in the chair”? Back to schedule

Joanna Coleman (PhD student, University of Chichester) – ‘Becoming Beast: Metamorphosis in Contemporary Young Adult Narrative’
In the realm of the fairy tale, transformation is a constant. The human body is an unstable site,  feathered, furred or scaled in accordance with word or spell. Contemporary ecocritical perspectives, such as Timothy Morton’s vision of an open-ended, infinite ecosystem with no clear boundary between species or organisms, or even between the within and the without, may seem closer to the fairy tale realm than the law-abiding mind/matter universe of which we have been assured for the past few centuries. It is no surprise, then, that today’s fairy tale writers make extensive use of the shapeshifting theme to respond to and explore this shifting world. Fairy tales themselves are a metamorphotic species, shifting with the beliefs of every teller. Modern young adult fiction uses the fairy tale to explore the possibilities of a posthuman paradigm in which the permeable nature of human identity is not a fantastic nightmare but a secret and/or sacred truth. The transformed partner is loved for his/her beastly nature, and the cursed metamorph becomes leader and healer. Boundaries are broken between animate/ non-animate, real / imagined, wild / wise, and the animal companion is placed within the human soul. Contemporary authors Philip Pullman, Ursula Le Guin, Cornelia Funke, Tamora Pierce and others have written the shape-shifting tale into a new quest, no longer a journey to return a human to an animal-invaded body, it becomes a quest to reach and relish the non/human on the borders of the tale and the self. A discussion of metamorphosis in the work of these authors, this paper will present the findings of my ongoing research on the topic of animal transformation in contemporary narrative. Back to schedule

Dr James Lloyd  – Weland the Smith: Man or Superman?
The legend of Weland the smith was one of the best-known in the Germanic milieu, with allusions to it or narrations of it surviving in Old English, Norse and German sources. The plots of these versions all differ from one another but share the common synopsis of a smith, called Velent, Weland or Völundr, who is taken into the service of a king who abuses and mistreats him. He takes a gruesome revenge by killing the king’s sons and turning their skulls into goblets that he presents to the king as a gift. He also impregnates the king’s daughter, before flying away from the palace. Weland is hard to categorize as either a mortal or supernatural figure, for in all versions of the story he seems to show attributes of both. Smithing was regarded as a semi-magical activity in the Iron-Age society in which the legend developed and Weland himself, who in some versions is said to be descended from supernatural beings, can transform even human flesh into ornaments. On the other hand, he is hamstrung by the wicked king in order to prevent his escape and this is initially successful, suggesting that he suffered some human limitations. In the Norse version, he assumes the power of flight by apparently magical means but in the English and German he constructs false wings, like a primitive aeronautical engineer. I am of the opinion that Weland began as a purely supernatural figure, who evolved into a mortal through centuries of re-telling. I propose to examine and compare the English, Norse and German traditions of Weland in order to establish the course of his transition from superhuman to human. Back to schedule

Karen Graham (PhD student, University of Aberdeen) – ‘“The eye is always caught by light, but shadows have more to say”: Reflections of the Non/Human in Gregory Maguire’s Mirror Mirror’                                                                                                                                                                        There remains in popular culture a persistent appetite for adaptation, something particularly evident in the various retellings of fairy tales in literature and film. While the market is, it seems, saturated with these retellings, a change in the perspective of the original tale is evident in the most successful stories. These innovative retellings re-position the antagonist from marginalised other to the main focus of the narrative. It is a vital component of this new form of fairy tale in which the appeal is not aspiring to beautiful, demure perfection as in the Disney adaptations, but the identification of the audience with the ostracised individual who is not accepted by society. At the centre of these narratives lies the questions of what it is to be human, or what it is to be a person and how the two are not always necessarily one and the same thing. Drawing on the existing framework in fantasy, myth and fairy tale, author Gregory Maguire expands on such common tropes as talking animals to highlight the blurring of these boundaries between the human and the non-human to draw our attention to the insubstantiality of these categories. While this aspect of both Maguire’s Wicked series of novels and the Broadway musical inspired by them has been well discussed, his other works based on more traditionally canonical fairy tales have hitherto been largely overlooked in critical discourse. This paper proposes to begin to redress this imbalance by examining the non/human in Mirror Mirror, Maguire’s re-envisioning of Snow White. It will pay particular attention to the intertextual practices used by Maguire in the reforming of the familiar, both in terms of the narrative and the construction of the human within it. Back to schedule

John A W Lock – ‘The Dark Side of the Park: How Deer see People’                                                                                                                                           Today Richmond Park is a National Nature Reserve and has many other environmental designations to its name. Historically it was a hunting ground and subsequently a finishing ground for fallow deer destined for the beneficiaries of the Crown’s Venison List. The deer were regarded as little more than carcasses-in-waiting, differentiated only by age and sex. This ‘establishment’ view of  the deer has only changed insofar as the animals are now regarded as a ‘resource’ to be ‘managed’ and harvested ‘scientifically’ through culling, achieved using formulaic strategies devised in Nazi Germany for the ‘final solution’. Casual visitors to the park see the deer rather differently, in terms of their cuteness (‘the Bambi factor’) while animal rights activists get very upset about the culling. I promote another view of the fallow deer in the park which sees them as a complex social network containing many de facto sophisticated social structures, essential for the successful conception, birth and rearing of young deer and for the education of the young bucks. This social order has much in common with many traditional or pre-modern human societies. I then turn my attention to how the deer see things – how they perceive themselves and the park, and in particular how they view and tolerate the people who daily invade their domain and how these views vary according to the demography of the deer. In short the piece examines the position of  the Richmond Park deer as an ethnic minority within a larger population. It looks at the resilience of an alien culture to the pressures of diaspora, integration, internment, population control and concepts of difference and race. It seeks to demonstrate that the deer in Richmond Park are as cosmopolitan as any of the other inhabitants of the metropolis. Back to schedule

Susan Richardson (poet) – ‘Writing on All Fours’
My next collection of poetry, to be published in 2015, is themed around human-animal metamorphosis and it explores our dys/functional relationship with the wild. My sources of inspiration include human-animal shapeshifting tales from a number of different cultures, from Inuit to Celtic, Native American to Norse, as well as the work of visual and performance artists including Marcus Coates and Oleg Kulik, and extensive personal experience of both shamanic journeying and shamanic trance dance. For the Being Non/Human discussion group, I will intersperse an overview of the research I have undertaken over the past two years with performances of new poems that explore a range of questions: where is the borderline between humanity and animality? What are the animal possibilities of the self? Is it feasible to believe that exploring the ‘becoming animal’ theme through poetry may help to reestablish the connection with the animal parts of ourselves and with the wider natural world, where we are just one animal among many, that Western culture has lost? Can revisioning myths and fairytales help to enable this reconnection?  My performance/presentation will aim to convey, too, how the human-animal metamorphosis theme can be reflected in the form and language of the poem. Linguistic transformations will take place, mirroring the subject-matter. Language will slip and slide and shapeshift, with verbs becoming nouns and adjectives morphing into verbs. Dramatic monologues, written in the first person, will transform into third person poems, and vice versa. Tenses that may trap a stanza in the present or past will start to loosen their grip. Back to schedule

Mariel Jana Supka (PhD Student, University of Roehampton) – Improv[is]ed Dwellings: Encounters with ‘Alien’ Animals in Performance Arts’
Non-native animals are commonly described as harmful to the environment. Government bodies and other interest groups advocate their elimination, frequently using an aggressive and criminalising language, which adopts military metaphors and builds on xenophobic sentiments. This representation develops people’s sense of cultural and geographical belonging through an emphasis on differences, and a romanticised image of an unspoiled natural countryside. Although non-native animals in many cases do constitute a serious challenge to existing ecosystems, the current discourse in both lay and scientific contexts seems to a large extent informed by philosophical and political interests that originate outside the realm of ‘care for the environment’. In my PhD research project, I seek to unpick this discourse and investigate to what extent the presence of non-native animals may also facilitate a rethinking of cultural uncertainties about the ecological changes these animals represent. My project aims to develop new strategies to engage with live non-native animals in performance arts, building on a critique of prevailing concepts of nature-culture dualism and the dominating anthropocentric engagement with non-human agents. I will propose an artistic strategy to experiment with alternative human-animal relations in dwelling practices, which seeks to interrogate common hierarchical understandings of human-animal relationships. Building on Donna Haraway’s concept of ‘becoming with’ (2007: 3), which concerns a practice of interspecies engagement, I propose an exploration of possibilities for shared constitution of living conditions, by humans and non-humans. These explorations will take place in the form of different performance arts projects, which will take place in the habitats of non-native animals such as the Chinese Mittencrab. Human and animal performers will contribute to the creation of architectural artefacts. Back to schedule

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