In this course we will investigate historically situated notions of “the human” and the set of attitudes and assumptions revealed and supported by different conceptions of “the human.” In the process, the course will engage with fundamental questions of temporality, pushing you to situate texts and views in dialogue across the usual divide of time and place. One aim is to challenge a facile and superficial sense of the “universality” of the human by pointing toward unexpected and suggestive moments and sites of exchange that generate more complex and provocative engagements with views from seemingly incompatible historical periods: the premodern and the postmodern.
The sources for this investigation will be imaginative texts from both eras, initially in terms of the liberal humanist construction of the human—which the premodern period pre-existed and against which the postmodern defines itself, but with which most people today are already (if uncritically) familiar. That critical engagement with “the human” as it continues to be conventionally understood will prepare you to read differently the medieval human and the postmodern human through the ways the nonhuman and the superhuman are defined and imagined in each era. The postmodern posthuman will be observed in the theoretical and popular engagements with it as revealed in a key site of debate, technoscience (particularly genetics and information technology). We will read theoretical discourse on both issues and will analyze films and fantastic literature (Moon, Minority Report, Battlestar Galactica, Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, and others) where popular anxieties and fantasies about the posthuman—in its genetically refined and technologically enhanced form—appear. From the premodern period, we will look to Christian theology and its manifestations in mystical writers (Julian of Norwich et al.), hagiography (that is, saints’ lives), popular religious belief (e.g. Margery Kempe), and to romance (such as the werewolves in William of Palerne and in Marie de France’s Bisclavret). Here we will see examples of the extra-human that point to an understanding of the human as, generally, elevated through God’s earthly intervention in human form. Ultimately, we will consider how these conceptions of the non- and super-human influence our attitudes toward the human and, by extension, the humanities within the university—and what it says about and can offer to the contemporary (and future) human.
The class is discussion oriented, with the first section of the course devoted to developing theoretical frames for the encounters with the primary sources of both periods that will fill the majority of the semester. It is also a writing-intensive course, with regular informal written responses to the individual readings (considered in terms of the course’s larger thematic focus), and two extended written analyses that will bring together in a range of ways the themes of the course, pursuing in depth the responses at a given time and also across time.
Margaret Atwood. Oryx and Crake.
NY: Anchor, 2004.
Elaine Graham. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2002.
Kazuo Ishiguro. Never Let Me Go.
NY: Random House, 2006.
Robert Venditti. The Surrogates.
Top Shelf Productions, 2009.
Jeanette Winterson. The Stone Gods.
Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
N. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Julian of Norwich. Showings of Julian of Norwich. Ed. Denise N. Baker. NY: W. W. Norton and Co., 2005.
Margery Kempe. The Book of Margery Kempe. Trans. and ed. Lynn Staley. NY: W. W. Norton and Co., 2001.
The Romance of William of Palerne. (1867) Rpt. Elibron Classics. Adamant Media Corp., 2005.
Movies and TV programs: DVDs of movies/TV shows will be available for viewing in Addlestone Library. (Note: The Media Center has moved from the third floor to the Circulation Desk).
Iron Man (2008)
Dark City (1998)
Battlestar Galactica (2004-09)