ENGL 430 B3: Studies in Theory: After Humanism

M. Litwack

What is a human? Who is a human? What does it mean to fight for or on behalf of humanity, to take up “the human” as your defining political constituency? How have formations of race, colonialism, gender, and sexuality variously defined and troubled universal conceptions of humanity? Are humans really so different from other animals? Have changes in our media environments and the development of intelligent machines altered what makes us uniquely human? In our age of permanent war and ecological catastrophe, is humanism still a useful project for imagining and enacting visions of collective freedom and emancipation?

In this seminar, we will trace competing responses to these questions to consider why the meaning of “the human” has figured a persistent site of intellectual and political contestation. Through readings in cultural theory, audiovisual media, and public culture, we will examine how a range of cultural workers have answered or challenged the question “what does it mean to be human?” by engaging issues of racial and sexual difference, violence and sovereignty, technology and animality, relationality and non-relationality, embodiment and non-human life. In the process, we will draw on a range of traditions concerned—albeit often in quite distinct ways—with the ethics, politics, aesthetics, and limits of the human. These include black feminist theory, biopolitical thought, anticolonial thought, queer theory, and animal studies. We will not attempt a comprehensive review of these fields but rather examine and assess how, across a diverse set of critical projects, energies have been directed toward excavating what the human has historically meant; tracking what or who it has been defined against; and re-imagining what it still yet might mean, as well as what alternative modes of existence and social life may be possible outside, beyond, or after humanism.

In lieu of a final exam, participants will complete either a research paper or a research-based creative project based upon their interests within the framework of our seminar.