This course draws on cultural anthropology, science studies, religious studies, feminist and postcolonial theory, and literature to think about European modernity’s concept of the human, and its implications for scientific, political, religious and social discourse. In so doing, we will also attend to challenges and contradictions through which the notion of the human has been understood in different political and cultural contexts.
Over the course of the term, we examine the relationship between the material world – both our bodies and our environment, including other forms of life, and the intangible, including the spiritual or the divine. Through a consideration of different human and non-human interfaces we will ask how the human has been constituted in relation to the non-human. In doing so, we will examine figures of difference who have historically been defined as not fully human, such as Woman, Black, Jew, the child, the mentally insane and colonized people, God, and the figure of the cyborg. The term “cyborg” refers to organisms understood as a mixture of human and machine parts, or more broadly, a mixture of organic and synthetic materials – from human-machine life sustaining mechanisms in outer space, to Frankenstein and other science fiction figures, to the figure of the golem and to test tube babies.
We will use these examples to examine how the concept of the human shapes and is shaped by the claims of science and its relation to the political frameworks of liberal democracy – specifically in terms of what constitutes the human, the relation between individual and group, and the reproduction and representation of difference (gender, sex, species and otherwise). Doing so will allow us to address questions of human agency, responsibility, ethics, politics, reproduction, gender and other forms of difference through a focus on how the human has historically been defined in scientific, social, and political terms. Readings will include texts by Beth Berkowitz, Tom Boellstorff, Dipesh Chakrabarty, J.M. Coeztee, Naisargi N. Dave, Shannon Lee Dawdy, Joseph Dumit, Michel Foucault, Sigmund Freud, Faye Ginsburg, Donna Haraway, Stefan Helmreich, Bruno Latour, Emmanuel Levinas, Emily Martin, Catherine Mills, Timothy Mitchell, Diane M. Nelson, Marge Piercy, Rayna Rapp, Kathy Rudy, Mary Shelley, Robert Young, and Mary Wollstonecraft.