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Alexander Wilson: Techno-Optimism and Rational Superstition

This paper examines some of the implications of technological optimism. I first contextualize, historically and culturally, some contemporary variants of techno-optimism in relation to the equally significant contemporary exemplars of techno-pessimism, skepticism and fatalism. I show that this techno-optimism is often instrumentalized in that the optimistic outlook as such is believed to have some influence on the evolving state of affairs. The cogency of this assumption is scrutinized. I argue that in the absence of explicit probabilities, such optimism presupposes some form of retro-causation, where the future is held to somehow have a retroactive effect on the past. This suggests, I argue, that the underlying mechanism by which techno-optimism is supposed to be instrumental in bringing about the future is fundamentally superstitious. But does this superstition not go against our common understanding of reason and rationality? To adopt rational expectations about the world, after all, should we not attempt to avoid the emotional over-determination of our assessments? I show that applied reason is conceptually entangled with this superstitious optimism in the continued successes of technology. The article thus reveals a curious sense in which reason is intrinsically superstitious. I offer an evolutionary explanation for this, showing that the biological origins of reason will by nature tend to produce rational agents which are superstitiously bound to realism and causality, and thus implicitly optimistic about technology’s capacity to overcome contingency.

Ashley Woodward: Posthumanism as “Post–Grand Narrative”

This paper will interpret and critically interrogate Jean-François Lyotard’s contributions to the question of the posthuman in relation to the idea of the grand narrative, and to art. While Lyotard is famous for declaring, in 1979’s The Postmodern Condition, that Grand Narratives have lost their power, he soon revised this position and pointed to a new narrative form of legitimation. This is the narrative of ‘development,’ which Lyotard dramatized as the ‘postmodern fable’ of the preparation of life for extraterrestrial survival after the death of the sun. This new narrative can be characterised as posthuman, and for this precise reason can best be described as a ‘post-Grand Narrative’: like Grand Narratives it is a story which purports to collect all events and give them meaning within an overarching framework, but it no longer situates the human being as the hero of this narrative. Rather, it is only ‘negentropic complexity’ which is now given value, and increasing order in the universe is the only ‘good’ that is admitted. Lyotard sees this new, posthuman narrative as complicit with the logic of ‘performitivity’ which dominates and diminishes the value of life in developed countries, and dramatizes its stakes by suggesting that from its point of view we would be better off without the populations of the Third World, since they appear as nothing but an entropic drain on available energy. Art played a central role in Lyotard’s thought, and is positioned as a potential for resistance to the post-Grand Narrative. Lyotard argues that the avant-garde have explored in a vital way the mutations in our perceptions of time and space that technoscientific development has thrust upon us in a disorienting fashion. In this way, art promotes a more life-affirmative and existentially valuable kind of posthuman (or, to use a term Lyotard preferred, ‘inhuman.’) After reconstructing Lyotard’s position, the paper will conclude with some critical reflections concerning its currency. I will argue that, on the one hand, the relatively stable world view which formed the backdrop of Lyotard’s analysis, in which a ‘New World Order’ of capitalist liberal democracies seemed to have brought history as dramatic conflict to an end, itself ended with September 11, 2001. Yet on the other, the logic of performativity seems only to have increased its power in the developed world, and today calls all the more pressingly for resistance.

Jacob Wamberg: Mapping a hyberobject: Posthuman spatio-temporal co-ordinates in avant-garde art

When the posthuman is brought into connection with art it typically happens in contemporary contexts where technology explicitly is crossed with the world of organisms (bioart, robot art, representations of cyborgian hybrids). In this paper I wish to broaden the posthuman manifestation in art considerably, seeing it explored throughout the twentieth- and twentifirst-century avant-gardes, and giving resonances to earlier periods, both cultural, biological and pre-biological. The basic idea is that the posthuman is a hyberobject in Timothy Morton’s sense, a pervasive phenomenon that cannot be sensed directly but only be traced in many separate dimensions. Negatively, the posthuman manifests itself in art by attacking, undermining and displacing the two strongholds of the humanist subject, the autonomous body and the autonomous mind (intersecting cognition and perception). These strongholds, manifested in art broadly in naturalism since classical antiquity and living on in popular visual culture, should in fact be seen more as precarious islands that emerged in a non-human ocean. This ocean of subject embeddings in what Tim Ingold terms meshworks, ecologies of less complex matters and forces, was recreated by cultures as protective shells, fusing nature and culture, in order to inhabit an otherwise hostile nature. Saturating pre-ancient cultures and re-flooding the Middle Ages, this in-human ocean of ecologies now re-emerges as the posthuman condition, pervading art on many levels, from the material to the immaterial. It is the spatio-temporal co-ordinates of these levels I seek to map: from a pervasive material embedding (eg. performance art, flatbed painting, echoing Lower Paleolithic indexical abstraction), objects in close interaction with the environment (eg. minimalism, installation art, echoing tribal cultures’ semi-embedding in nature), to explorations of sense perception itself (visually oriented abstraction, echoing medieval anti-figurative art), to exposition of immaterial codes (Conceptual art).

Jan Bäcklund: ’Why should flies be without art?’ Preparations for a non-anthropocentric and post-historical art

Taking Robert Smithson’s seemingly whimsical question (Why should flies ...?) in his Yucatan-essay seriously, I will attempt to delineate a possible logic of art in our immediate future, and probably the only feasible one, given that there will be such a thing as ‘art system’ in the future (still a contingent question). I will focus on two characteristics of this logic, the first is that it is time-symmetrical, meaning that art history will be replaced by an art topology. The other being that the author function (including all art of the past) will be transferred from the artist to a non-human intelligence. With ‘logic of art’ I understand a set of necessary preconditions for an art world to exist at all. The maybe most important of these is an idea of finality or perfection, the metaphysical point in timespace when art is ‘revealed.’ Every art work has been, and is, projected and observed from this vantage point. Since Pop art and, especially the Scull auction in 1973, with the advent of “contemporary art,” there is no such idea of finality. Therefore it has been impossible to write a “History of Art,” because when the future of art is contingent, then the art of the past becomes contingent as well. Consequently, today it is impossible not to have noted the blurring of the previously well-guarded borders between art and, for instance, design, technology, or arbitrary idiosyncratic projects which never understood themselves as art. These phenomenons could be interpreted as ‘whimsical’ (if art will disappear), but they could also be symptoms of a desire of the art world (if art will persist). The recent interest in the Russian biocosmists, Hilma af Klint, Erkki Kurenniemi present the most obvious examples, but I will stick to the less spectacular case of the priest and pomologist Korbinian Aigner. When his gouaches of apples were included indOCUMENTA (13), the reason was of course not to include an art that never was, but rather that the very compossibility of Aigner’s ‘work’ with art, suggests that the author function of the art project is a future intelligence. It is the nature and properties of this future intelligence or vision which will be my subject.

Jan Vanvelk: Sociability in Search of Mediation: Science Fiction and the Human Animal.

One of modernity’s cultural shocks that science fiction writing has recorded so vividly is, undoubtedly, the human animal’s perceived lack of agency and control over its own future. By projecting humans’ species-being against the backdrop of deep time, people like Malthus and Darwin wrote about natural forces and their machine-like inevitabilities, fundamentally challenging any desire to witness within history a revelation of human intentions and purposes. Specifically in late-Victorian culture, the clash between human ethics and nature’s cruelty (the waste) resulted in an impasse that (arguably) remains to this day. Some science fiction works since have tried to escape the challenge by reading human intentions in nature, others invoked the power of science and technology as ways for human beings to seize control over nature, while yet another set of works merely committed to inevitability itself to then arrive at an entirely new scheme of human morality and species-being altogether. Although they offer different solutions, a substantial portion of science fiction works are fundamentally grappling with the same problem: How, if at all possible, can the human species be saved from its natural determinacy? One specific route of speculation extends the question into the domain of politics: How does the human animal, with its tendency to love and care for those in its immediate proximity, manage to care for all species members, not just those it encounters personally? In this paper, I will discuss three works that present three different approaches to digest this conundrum: Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930), Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993). These works do not just contain different political projects with regards to the issue of human sociability, but they invest in aesthetic programs too, specifically of course, the opportunity of science fiction itself to generate species-wide solidarity and cooperation by its ability to allegorically transform their specific stories into ‘grand narratives’. We are not supposed to read these texts as simply amusing or intriguing pieces of writing that offer self-contained experiences of localized events, but as vehicles for a far more powerful message, one with stark political ramifications for intraspecific and interspecific relatability. By aesthetically and politically investing into this power of fiction as meaning-generating machine, these texts offer a window through which we can retrace the history of the question of the human.


This talk will provide a critical reflection of the work of traditional philosophical anthropology by focusing on the relation between human and machine and not – as conventionally in the pre-Anthropocene ages – human and animal. Considering young disciplines such as robot ethics and discourses with several anthropological assumptions such as trans- and posthumanism it is surprising that there still exists no systematical work on a philosophical anthropology between human and machine. The project rests on the premise that man is a bio-technological being, i.e. she is part of the organic as well as the technical universe; humans do not have completely non-technological modes of existence. In the light of these reflections I will sketch the agenda for a gradual and negative anthropology by using Wallach’s and Allen’s concept of functional equivalence in order to include it in a relational approach (Coeckelbergh) – understanding functionalism phenomenologically rather than essentialistic. The approach presented here intends a critical perspective on traditional philosophical-anthropological thinking insofar as it abandons the vision of an essentialistic defined human (or any other being’s) nature. In transcending dualisms and categories of species and beings it rejects an anthropocentric setup and by this is thought as a posthumanist approach in the tradition of Haraway, Barad, Wolfe, Latour, Gunkel, and others. A not-anthropocentric anthropology can still pose the fundamental question of classical philosophical anthropology: “What is man?”. However, my posthumanist answer to that question has twofoldly varied by contrast with the traditional philosophical-anthropological way of thinking during the pre-Anthropocene ages: (1) I understand the differences between species and beings shifting and gradually (instead of fixed and categorically) and (2) I alter the focus from the subjects in question to what lies “in between” (Arendt) in order to articulate an alternative to an essentialist anthropological approach. The age of the Anthropocene is defined via man’s influence and power that even includes her own decentering in the one discipline that explicitly asks for “the human”: anthropology. The final conclusion of a truly posthumanist anthropology might even dismiss this traditional philosophical discipline altogether. It might be that philosophical anthropology in the age of the Anthropocene ultimately transforms to a posthumanist “otherology” or “alteritology”. If we believe Gunkel who claims that “[t]here is […] always someone or something that is and must be the other” (Gunkel 2012, 160) this might appear as the adequate response to the decentering of the “anthropos” from the center of the stage of her own age: In the age of the Anthropocene there exist only the others, the alterities.

Jason Hoelscher: The Maximum Potential Entropy of Posthuman Aesthetics: An Information-Theoretic Interpretation of Grand Narratives

As a framework that both grounds and potentiates events within a comprehensive context, a grand narrative inevitably conditions those events that take place within it. For example, the work of Copernicus or Galileo are quite different in content and implication if considered in the context of a religious grand narrative, than those same events are if considered in terms of a grand narrative of scientific progress. Or consider the early 20th century painter Hilma af Klint, whose work was arguably more radical than anything else happening at the time, but who operated outside that era’s dominant art world grand narratives and was thus largely overlooked. Additionally, beyond conditioning how events are understood, grand narratives also play a role in creating or limiting the possibility spaces within which new developments are able to emerge. Considered this way, a grand narrative operates in information theory terms as what Claude Shannon of Bell Labs, who first formalized information theory in 1948, described as the maximum potential entropy of a message space. Without getting too technical, consider how the English alphabet contains 26 possible symbols from which a message can be constructed. These symbols constitute the maximum possible interchangeability, or entropy, a message can have. A message is constructed by selecting particular letters from that alphabet—the field of maximum potential entropy—thus reducing each letter’s individual entropy by placing it in a specific and non-interchangeable position: the sequence of “o” and “n” aren’t relevant in the general alphabet, but is very relevant if one wants to spell the word “on” rather than “no.” The probabilistic friction that arises between the maximum potential entropy of the available alphabet and the actual, reduced entropy of a given message is the information. In this paper I will show how grand narratives constitute a form of maximum potential entropy, expanded from the scale of a message to the scale of a cultural context. Rather than transforming entropy into information, however, a grand narrative transforms entropy into events. In our information age—“information age” itself being a grand narrative—grand narratives alternately potentiate and delimit cultural, artistic and posthuman modes of emergence that take place within their framework. I will show that it is precisely those emergent events that operate on the cusp, in a dynamic equilibrium between the potentiating and limiting effects of grand narrativity, that catalyze and transform their surrounding grand narratives into its future states.

Jeff Michael Hammond: Uncanny Bodies: Aesthetics of the posthuman in Japanese visual culture

Any attempt to flesh out a history of the aesthetics of posthumanism, whether a grand narrative or a chain of linked meta narratives, requires an examination of its international dimensions. As part of this endeavour, this paper addresses some of the contributions of Japanese visual culture over the 20th and 21st centuries, particularly regarding changing perceptions and visualisations of the human body in response to technology. Accounts to date of Japan’s explorations of posthumanism have largely concentrated on animation, manga and cinema of the 1980s and 1990s [i.e. the animated films Akira and Ghost in the Shell and the film Tetsuo the Iron Man, etc.], but Uncanny Bodies: Aesthetics of the posthuman in Japanese visual culture will stretch both further back to the beginnings of a man-machine aesthetic in the art of Japan in the first half of the 20th century, and also up to the present day to take account of new Japanese works claiming a place in posthumanism. The paper will look at the 1920s and 1930s when an artistic movement emerged incorporating images of the machine with that of the human body. At times this was seen as a liberating force and at others as a source of anxiety, and sometimes it was viewed ambivalently, such as, arguably, with the mechanical human figure in Yorozu Tetsugoro ’s Leaning Figure, painted as early as 1917. That this painting pre-empts some of the celebration and neurosis surrounding the biomechanical raised in 1989’s Tetsuo the Iron Man is a point that will be discussed here. The meaning and place of the physical body in a world/culture where social interaction is increasingly being carried out in the virtual realm of cyberspace will also be examined, as well issues of technology, human bodily behaviour and social control. These concerns will be addressed through readings of classic Japanese posthuman/ cyber punk texts of the 1980s and 1990s, and extended to evaluate how a work such as Yutaka Tsuchiya’s 2013 independent film GFP Bunny continues to visualise and explore similar themes (such as genetic manipulation, body modification and patterns and technologies of control). Allied with these explorations, this paper will propose possible ways to construct a narrative of posthumanist aesthetics in an age when grand narratives are increasingly questioned, combining an attempt to provide depth and historicity with a popular horizontal and rhizomatic approach across texts and cultures.

Johannes Korsholm Poulsen: Pioneers of Posthumanity – Evolution, Environment and Society in Digital Strategy Games

Throughout the history of the digital video game medium, visions of posthuman futures have been the subject matter of many of the most popular iterations of the genre. The scholarly reception of this tendency has largely focused on the way immersive game genres such as the first-person shooting game or the roleplaying game allows the player to experience being posthuman, not just through the narrative but also through the interaction between player and computer interface. In the spirit of the conference’s focus on grand narratives, however, this presentation turns its attention to another video game genre with a wealth of posthuman visions, that has not been the object of the same scholarly scrutiny: The digital strategy game. This presentation analyzes visions of humanity’s future as a new “frontier” in digital strategy games. Through an examination of two recent entries into the genre, Civilization: Beyond Earth (Firaxis 2014) and Stellaris (Paradox 2016). Both games task the player with leading humanity (or, in the case of Stellaris, a customized anthropomorphic race) on its first foray into the colonization of space. The presentation argues that what needs to be exposed to a “posthumanist” reading in this case is not so much the background story or characters in the game, but the representation of attitudes toward the relation between humans and environment, and the concept of human evolution, in the games’ rules and systems. This is exemplified through a reading of the three possible attitudes toward the colonized planet in Beyond Earth, “Harmony”, “Supremacy” and “Purity”, and in the rules for species customization in Stellaris.

Laura Benìtez Valero: Monism, Immanence and Biohacking. Rethinking the nature-culture continuum from Spinoza’s monistic ontology applied to bio-mediation

Monism, Immanence and Biohacking. Rethinking the nature-culture continuum from Spinoza’s monistic ontology applied to bio-mediation, proposes to develop a research on the potentia of Monism, in terms of Spinoza, applied to biohacking practices. Some biohacking proposal confront us to evaluate the relations between Science(s), Art(s), (bio)Ethics, (bio)Politics and Society(ies), developing new approaches, methods and methodologies for research, from the interaction between artistic practices and biology in an academic and non-academic context. The aim of this proposal is to work in common on the possibilities of connecting with the others, from a posthuman condition perspective, but specifically related to post-anthropocentrism. Biomaterials let us to re-think “traditional” dualisms, but artworks or artistic projects give us the chance to re-think the dualisms giving special attention to matter, giving a special attention to the process of materialization. Monism, Immanence and Biohacking. Rethinking the nature-culture continuum from Spinoza’s monistic ontology applied to bio-mediation is a proposal to work on the following questions: How are (bio)technological artifacts embodied, transformed, assimilated and appropriated in biohacking practices? How to introduce desire into thought, into discourse, into action? Is possible to decolonize Hegemonic Narratives on Identity, Aesthetic Categories and Art History(ies) hacking biomaterials and artifacts? How to develop action, thought and desires by proliferation, juxtaposition and disjunction and not by subdivision and pyramidal hierarchization? How matters comes to constitutive matter in the nature-culture continuum through bio-maediation? Can we consider that a renewed agency could be an extended and distributed agency? A sort of Spinozean-Deleuzian agency, distributed but not suspended? An agency that belongs to the amount of others that compound the non-unitarian post-anthropocentric subjectivity?

Mads Rosendahl Thomsen: The last good grand narrative?

Following the delegitimization of religious and political grand narratives, evolution has emerged as what could be called ’the last good grand narrative’. The usually toned down Charles Darwin ended On the Origin of Species on that note claiming the ’grandeur’ of this perspective, and contemporary advocates for evolution, such as Richard Dawkins, have also invoked a perspective of evolution as an enchanted principle that goes beyond the mere science of understanding the development of life. Evolution is of course different from other narratives as it has no teleology and is highly depended on contingency. It also decentres the place of human existence and opens up to deep history as the proper frame of reference rather than the small window of historical time that opened up 10,000 years ago. In this paper, I will discuss the conflict between evolution by natural selection and interference in the process of evolution through technology. Ironically, the high regard of evolution comes at a time when tools for deliberate design and sophisticated selection is developed and put to use. This raises many ethical questions about the future development of human life and life as such, as well as a larger question of whether humanity should work against evolution. The perspectives of either choice – to comply or to combat – is accompanied with potentials for both disenchantment and reenchantment of the world; an aspect which is underlying all grand narratives, but never with a higher stake than facing the idea of a posthuman, post-evolutionary existence.

Nathan Roberts: Two Atmospheres, One System: Late 20th Century Networks and Affected Bodies in Safe and The Double Life of Véronique

It has been widely observed that Fredric Jameson’s postmodernism refers less to the elimination of metanarratives than the subjection of individuals to the totality the world system. The historical development of the “world system” is crucial to Jameson’s own metanarrative: the world system is the network through which individuals find themselves to be mere (arguably posthuman––or at least lacking modernist subjectivity) nodes operating within the larger flow of capital. In this paper, I explore the aesthetic strategies by which two roughly contemporaneous films––Safe (Todd Haynes, 1995), and The Double Life of Véronique (Krzysztov Kieślowski, 1991)––express how, despite Jameson’s famous diagnosis regarding “the waning of affect,” networked life in the world system of the 1990s affected individual subjects with incredible intensities. Both films express this by literalizing and aesthetically enacting what has been termed “affective atmospheres.” As Gernot Böhme has theorized, affective atmospheres are characterized by affective qualities that radiate out from constellations of things, projected through the spatial environment as they “actively intrude into the human body.” These films suggest that affective atmospheres proliferate out of geographic and spatially instantiated metropolitan and multinational networks. Safe’s protagonist, Carol White, is affected by a literal atmospheric intrusion of car exhaust that perpetuates through space on the rhizomatic network of Los Angeles’s freeways. Yet as Carol’s mysterious illness worsens, Haynes suggests that harmful atmosphere derives from broader sources, too, like architecture and noise pollution. In The Double Life of Véronique, on the other hand, Kieślowski uses a “warm” atmosphere––formally endowed by a golden filter––to exemplify the way that individuals can be moved (in more than one sense of the term) and connect with each other through spatially instantiated networks: due to media technologies and the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. The Double Life of Véronique is enchanted with the way that selfhood can proliferate through space, how isolated individuals can join in various constellations of affective connection. Despite the way that both films emphasize affective atmospheres, my paper will end by discussing how the juxtaposition of these different films implicitly suggests that grand narratives fail to account for the diversity of individuals’ affective experiences, even as endowed by the same broad system. The neoliberal “world system” that endowed late capitalist consumption in Southern California–– and Carol’s anxiety and illness––also influenced opening of Eastern Europe, exemplified as an occasion for both love and mourning by Weronika/Véronique. Also, while theories of affective atmosphere can also implicitly posit subjects as posthuman “affect channels” stripped of uniquely embodied personhood, differences between Carol and Weronika/Véronique suggest that individual subjects ought to be thought of, as James Ash has suggested, “allopoeitic” with regard to atmospherically-projected affects: “selectively open to their [unique] environments.” When examined together, I claim both films urge us to consider networks as they are geographically, locally instantiated, and as they affect the unique bodies of individual subjects in equally unique ways.

Patriazia Costantin: Inorganic materials and agential decay: posthuman temporality in the Anthropocene

Inspired by Jean-François Lyotard’s Les Immatériaux (1985), this paper explores the tension between the different materialities and temporalities of digital culture and puts forward a curatorial reconceptualization of the idea of decay as a form of material agency. The concept of decay is by definition referred to organic matter and has been commonly associated with vanitas in art practice. What happens to the idea of decay when time becomes deep-time and evokes the inorganic materiality of digital culture? Since the 1980s, the presence of digital technology has grown exponentially and artists have started to explore the unseen materials of computers, video games consoles and information technology. Using a postmedium approach, the conceptualization of decay as a form of agency of digital materials is built upon the concept of deep time (Zielinski, 2006) and is tied to ‘non-human earth times of decay and renewal’ (Parikka, 2015:44). It stems from Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of materiality as stratification, from the idea of technology as a ‘material assemblage that partakes in machinic ecologies’ (Goddard and Parikka, 2011) and from the belief that there is the need to finally overcome the assumption that digital materiality is immaterial, in order to explore how its material decay is defining our current technological condition. This paper brings together a group of artists that explore the double nature of digital (im-)materiality and puts forward the idea that the decay of such materials acts as a form of agency and contributes to shaping the current posthuman ecology of the Anthropocene.

Paul Hamann: In Praise of Posthumanism’s Paradoxical Historicity: Aesthetics of Human Nature in a (Post-)Genetic Age

While novels that address genetic engineering and its effect on human nature have been a staple of literary fiction, recent works in this tradition have emerged, such as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy (2003-2013), that are attuned to contemporary advances in genetics to an unparalleled degree and that explore their scientific and social ramifications. Prominent commentators on the new genetics’ ability to change genetic material irrevocably, such as Francis Fukuyama (2002) or Jürgen Habermas (2003), describe this ability as a threat to human nature, while remaining problematically vague on their definition of the term. The discourse of critical posthumanism offers a revaluation of this term that allows a framing of the new technology in a more open and less normative way, thereby exposing some of the arbitrariness surrounding the new genetics’ perceived danger to said human nature. However, posthumanism can only re-frame the new technology, and thus its aesthetic negotiations, if conceptualised as being ‘both before and after humanism’ (Wolfe 2010), that is, by embracing a paradoxical historicity. Any grand narrative of posthumanism would have to either state that ‘we have always been posthuman’, or that it demarcates a distinct new phase in human development. The former would drastically reduce posthumanism’s topicality and thereby its capacity to assist in understanding what is new about, for instance, Atwood’s trilogy; while the latter too quickly implies a transhumanist teleology. In my paper, I will argue that a posthumanism of indeterminate historicity is uniquely able to assist in elucidating and interpreting Atwood’s aesthetics of a conciliatory human nature in the face of advanced institutionalised genetic engineering and post-genetic research in proteomics. This is because a posthumanism envisaged in this way circumnavigates the pitfalls associated with any of its potential grand récits by stressing both the human’s diachronic embeddedness in technological and animal networks, as well as what is ‘unprecedented’ about the posthuman (Callus, Herbrechter and Rossini 2014) and historically specific about the discourse of critical posthumanism.

Pia Heidemeier: “In Search of a New Order: Cannibalism Versus Community in the Posthumanist World of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road”

Set in the aftermath of postmodern scepticism, posthumanism appears as the deconstructivist approach to that which has come to signify for and as the human. Similar to the postmodern balancing of nihilism and relativism, posthumanist theories seek to find an equilibrium between the deconstruction of anthropocentrism on the one hand and an arbitrary and indeterminate “anything goes” of human identity and values on the other. In 21st century English fiction, the current theoretical conditions are displayed in speculative and post-apocalyptic scenarios, many of which appear as quite literally posthuman. The loss of structures and order, and the resulting circumstances of chaos and disorientation leave the humans in these fictions struggling for survival and in search of the re-establishment of securing patterns. One of these works – Cormac McCarthy’s The Road – shows its protagonists making their way through a post-apocalyptic America, which has been destroyed by an undetermined catastrophe. Set about ten years after the apocalypse, when flora and fauna are long extinct and supermarkets ransacked, food resources are scarce and hunger appears as a category encompassing both the physical and the metaphysical condition of the human. Many of the novel’s survivors have replaced the pre-apocalyptic structures of society with a new kind of ’post-apocalyptic order’ and have resorted to cannibalism, which feeds their stomachs and provides for a new code to hold on to. With the strong effort to persist the decline to such ego-centrism and anarchy, father and son pursue the strict mantra of “carrying the fire,” which is expressed in a clear ethical tenet: They do not eat people. I argue that in presenting a strong advocacy of community, The Road can be read as a fictional depiction of the current mood in theory and criticism, and especially of the twofold need to overcome anthropocentric epistemologies as well as to avoid the ethically alarming tendencies of an indeterminate posthumanism.

Sabine Schönfellner: Discrediting Narratability? The Challenges of Narrating a Lifespan of Centuries in Kaspar Colling Nielsen Den Danske Borgerkrig 2018-2024

Extended life spans of human beings might increase the demand for grand narratives (again), for interpretative patterns that help to structure and understand these longer periods of time. While bioethicists have discussed the challenges and chances of longer life spans (e.g. Harris 2004, Knell/Weber 2009), the narrative possibilities of these have yet to be analysed. Kaspar Colling Nielsen’s novel Den Danske Borgerkrig 2018-2024 addresses the problems of narrating long life spans and forming a coherent understanding of these. In Nielsen’s novel, the 475 years old protagonist seems to tell his autobiography. He reminiscences about the civil war, the social life among the several hundred year olds and his boredom of everyday life. But his narration is interrupted by absurd short stories – e.g. pornographic stories, urban legends, parodies of children’s stories – that seem to be situated on a higher narrative level. In my presentation, I will firstly analyse the narrative strategies used in the novel that appear to discredit coherent narration, e.g. the different narrative levels and their plausibility, their link to the De Camerone-like setting the narrator experiences among his peers, and the ambiguity of the short stories – a narrative technique already used by Nielsen in Mount København. Secondly, I want to discuss if this novel casts doubt upon the functioning of grand narratives or confirms the need for them, as it e.g. paradoxically presents these challenges to narratability in the form of a novel.

Sophie Wennerscheid: “Love is an intervention. Why do we not choose it?” Queerying posthumanist historiography in Jeanette Winterson’s The Stone Gods (2007)

Jeanette Winterson’s 2007 novel The Stone Gods tells the repeating (his)story of mankind’s development and self-destruction. In the novel’s three chapters the reader moves through three different eras in which the novel’s protagonists – Billie Crusoe, a non-conformist scien-tist, and Spike, a sexy female Robo sapiens –, reappear in different guises. The novel starts in a seemingly distant, technologically advanced future world that, however, turns out to have been humankind’s past. Spiraling back and forth through millennia the novel questions the notion of a ‘straight historiography’. Straightness is also queried when it comes to the pro-tagonists’ sexual and technological identity. Both forms of identity are depicted as highly fluid, and thus, it is thus not only history’s linear evolution that is regarded as queer, e.g. deviating from the hegemonic notion of clarity and definiteness, but human’s nature in general. In my talk I want to investigate how the novel at the same time queries and queers first, stable gender identities, second, the border between human and posthuman, and third, the space-time continuum. Drawing on Gilles Deleuze’s concepts of difference and repetition, special attention is paid to the question whether or not it might be possible to break the vicious cycle of mankind destroying itself. Notwithstanding the impending loom, a subtle hint to a possible change can be found in the concept of (post)human love as a means of societal invention, developed by Spike as facing her approaching death. Another hopeful sign is the (wo)men’s ability to decode other peoples’ messages. In the novel’s third and final section, Spike and Billie find an old radio telescope and manage to detect a repeating signal (sent off millions of years ago by Spike’s former self). The novel itself can thus be regarded as such a message in the bottle that has to be decoded to possibly save (posthuman) humanity.

Stephen Darren Doughert: “Messages from the Stars: Posthumanist Grand Narratives in Science Fiction”

“Grand Narratives, Posthumanism and Aesthetics” cries out for consideration of science fiction narrative as a crucial element within the amorphous discursive field it gestures towards. The field of “posthumanist grand narrative” is by its nature critical, theoretical, philosophical, and also fictional. Science fiction is nothing if not a laboratory for posthuman narrative wherein, as in Bernard Stiegler’s notion of originary technicity, the human is always already technical, and post-humanist in that sense. But how is such an awareness likely to condition the kind of “grand narrative” an sf writer might construct? The short answer is, in as many ways as human (or posthuman) imagination allows. For the longer answer I would like to discuss two sf novels from the year 1968: Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Stanislaw Lem’s His Master’s Voice. Both novels offer grand narratives in the classic sf tradition, steeped in the kind of Darwinist influences that helped to shape the cosmic sf visions of H. G. Wells and Olaf Stapledon. What sets Clarke and Lem apart from such literary forebears is their decisive neo-Darwinian influence. I am interested in the distinctive ways in which these two mid-century giants of sf respond to the “modern synthesis,” or the conjunction of evolutionary theory with information and communication theory. Since this modern synthesis crucially informs “how we became posthuman” (invoking Katherine Hayles’s influential study), we can think of these 1968 novels as grand narratival sf responses to our posthumanization. In both 2001 and HMV a signal is received from outer space. This event is the point of departure for starkly different meditations on the relationship between the human figure and the technical systems—largely information processing systems—in which we have become embedded and intricated. Clarke’s novel, as well as the famous Stanley Kubrick-directed film, foregrounds the lively presence of the communications and information systems that define the modern, postwar technical milieu, and that shelter and nurture the astronauts bound for the outer solar system. I would argue that 2001 is an aborted human rescue operation, in the philosophical sense. If not explicitly thematized, the failure of that operation is both allegorized (in Frank Poole’s death) and symptomatized in the exploding (or imploding) plot of the novel/film. In Lem’s HMV, the “message from the stars” sets off a profound first-person rumination on the impact of information theory on ontology, epistemology, and ultimately, cosmology. Unlike for Clarke, what lies behind the message is the real message for humankind. Not only does the failed attempt to decipher the signal enmesh “the human” in the micro-worlds of DNA and neutrinos, in the sense that the human loses any ontological primacy. Ultimately the universe itself becomes informatic.

Su Chia-Hua: Phytophallogocentrism: Thinking about Plant in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves

Appropriating Derrida’s logic of supplementary, plant philosopher Michael Marder adds the affix “phyto,” meaning plant, to phallogocentrism, which evolves around the name of the Father and stresses reason, language, logic, vision, and science, over body, feelings, sensations, and emotions. Playing with the pun of “photo” and “phyto,” he contends that plant’s peculiar relations to light could foster a new thinking pattern that grows, multiplies, and proliferates on the margin of the rigid edifice of western metaphysics. Borrowing and extending Marder’s concept, I will try to explore the posthuman aesthetics of the vegetal life in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. In Woolf’s writing, plants are often related to death and memory. Being insensible by most people, plants are sensitive and responsive to surroundings, especially to light, and thus showcase the “insensible sensibility” through the mechanism of photo-tropism. I will argue, while human symbolic activities depend on making tropes, plants in their way also make tropes through their relations to light. Moreover, seemingly lifeless and obscure, plants store memories and sensations. I will, thus, bring up the current discussions of Media Studies of Woolf and argue that plants, being sensitive to light and sound waves, are bearer, transmitter, and reservoir of non-human collective memories and emotions. In other words, plants function in the way very similar to new media, such as camera and gramophone. The plant writing of Woolf, therefore, could help us to consider how phytophallogocentrism could pose challenge to traditional Western thinking from a posthuman perspective.