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ERCC Conference Inventing the Human
Conference 2023: 'Inventing the Human' - University of Melbourne & Online
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The Human & the Posthuman

From the 18th until the 20th century, challenges to social and political injustice were commonly carried out in the name of Enlightenment humanism and human rights, understood in summary form as liberal humanism, which proposes that ‘man. . . is the free, unconstrained author of meaning and action, the origin of history.’ During the 20th century, amplifying important strands of thought already evident in Romanticism, the category of the human was subject to critique from feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory, disability studies, ecology and animal studies. More recently, advances in neuroscience, cognitive science, and biopolitics, and developments in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and neurotechnologies have reframed terms previously thought constitutive of the human—such as reason, creativity, empathy, autonomy (self-determination); and uniqueness (measured by our distance from machines and animals).

This brings us to the posthuman, a historical phase imagined by Mary Shelley in The Last Man (1826), hoped for by Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), and predicted by Foucault in Les mots et les choses (1966) as a time when ‘man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea’—a formulation made poignant by the unfolding disaster of climate change. As the humanities, creative arts, and social and political sciences begin to reimagine themselves as post-humanities, we believe it is now urgent:
  • to complicate debate, by canvasing the range of European thought on this topic, in which liberal humanism is a single and often not a dominant stream.
  • to broaden discussions, by including in the conversation non-European, particularly indigenous and southern hemisphere, traditions and knowledges.
  • to resist simplistic accounts of cultural/social change, by mapping encounters and negotiations between different traditions, understandings, and discourses of the human, with the aim of exploring not just what can be dispatched but what should be carried into the future.
Our aims are to provide new insights into the past and present-day trajectories of our plural humanity, by broadening the field being considered, and to help shape understandings of what it means to be human or posthuman in the 21st century—understandings that concern questions of agency, ethics, reason/creativity, the body, knowledge, culture, the non-human, and even the status of life itself.
These remarks provide a frame for Inventing the Human, the first of a sequence of three conferences—the second on the Human / Non-Human (2024) and the third on the Human / Inhuman (2025)—which we propose as the starting point for the development of an interdisciplinary, cross-cultural program of original research and public debate. We anticipate that each conference will be composed of four elements:

  • Provocations—presented by our keynotes speakers as public lectures, which introduce aspects of the topic and act as catalysts for later discussions.
  • Conversations—hosted in more traditional conference format, which welcome a wide range of voices to the debate, from diverse cultural traditions and from a wide range of disciplines.
  • Futures—round-table discussions, designed to foster public dialogue between, on the one hand, the humanities, social sciences, or creative arts and, on the other hand, stakeholders or practitioners in one or more of the fields relevant to each conference, such as education, ecology, architecture, medicine, artificial intelligence and the cognitive sciences.
  • Exhibition—developed to engage a wide audience in the debates initiated by our conferences.