I’ve been preparing for a seminar to be held next week at the Oakley Center for the Humanities & Social Sciences at Williams College in Massachusetts. Along with a small group of other professors and writers, I’ve been invited to travel to Williams to consider the topic of post-humanism.
Truth be told, I had to do some homework when I first received the invitation. What exactly is post-humanism? As I’ve been learning, the general idea is to consider whether a focus on the humanities—with its hard emphasis on all things human-- has perhaps run its course in today’s world. Animal studies and the study of machines, including cyborgs (part real, part artificial creatures) are all the rage these days.
Here are the key questions to be considered at Willliams (I’ve retained the organizers’ wording but edited for length):
What intellectual and practical problems arise from conceptually separating humankind from other species?
How can we strike an acceptable balance between thinking about humanity in the most general sense and attending to group or individual differences?
Does the contemporary convergence of human bodies with products of human technology (IT resources, prosthetics, genetic modification, pharmaceuticals, and the machine world in general) render humanism obsolete?
If not humanism, then what?
I take my role to relate primarily to the first and fourth questions. How does a focus on other creatures—the sentient apes, elephants, and dolphins to be sure, but also cats, frogs, and spiders—lead us to rethink claims of human uniqueness?
I have lots to say on this topic. We humans are animals too, after all.
Maybe an equally important role I can play is to anchor the jargon-filled and somewhat abstract discourse that tends to reign at these seminars (to which I definitely contribute myself) in discussion of animals’ everyday realities. When I sent in my paper for the seminar, across the top I noted:
It was an interesting experience writing [this paper] during a week when I had sole (usually shared) responsibility to care for 29 cats, some feral, some ex-feral, and some indoor companions, a few with labor-intensive special needs. This experience underscored my wish to remember, as I write, to keep front and center in my mind not just the abstract animals of academic discourse but also the flesh-and-blood animals all around us, and the concerns that occupy their thoughts and feelings each day.
We’ll see how it goes at Williams; I expect to learn a lot.
Meanwhile, a funny thing: As I was reading through the other participants’ papers, many primarily about machines, I had to call my local hospital to set up an MRI. As anyone who’s undergone this imaging test knows, patients must answer a roster of safety questions in advance. Did I have cardiac valves or stents? Implants of certain kinds?
I was offering my no, no, and no answers until this question: Any metal in the eyes?
Bingo! In my own way I’m a little bit cyborg. Ten years ago, after my second cataract surgery (needed at an unusually young age), my retina detached. A skilled surgeon at Richmond’s Eye Hospital restored my sight by draining the vitreous fluid from my eye, and reattached my retina by means of a gas bubble and what he called “a metal buckle.”
On the phone I shivered a little when the MRI technician indicated that we had, er, a slight problem. “The MRI magnet is powerful,” she said, “and it will pull that metal right out of your eye.”
Needless to say, I investigated further. My eye surgeon has by now retired, but my regular eye doctor was able to assure me that in fact what’s termed “a metal buckle” is actually synthetic material—a type of silicone that the MRI magnet will show no interest in.
So, I will fly to New England next week thinking of myself as part machine—and entirely animal.