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Nov 29 - Dec 2, 2023 | Inventing The Human - University of Melbourne

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Keynote Speaker Susan Stryker presents, "The Romantic Roots of Gender in the Anthropocene."

The “gender” concept has experienced such a meteoric rise in popularity over the past thirty years that graphing its usage rates produces one of those hockey stick-shaped trend lines similar to those that graph rates of atmospheric carbon increase and other similar markers of anthropogenic climate change—suggesting that the recent history of this concept is in fact one element of the so-called “Great Acceleration” of the Anthropocene. The orthodox history of the gender concept traces the long tail of its emergence to the work of New Zealand/US sexologist John Money in the 1950s, who is credited with first applying a term borrowed from grammar to the development of psychosocial identity. But the use of “gender” in the sense attributed to Money can in fact be traced to 1840s. It is deeply imbricated with the onto-epistemological fallout of Enlightenment humanism in ways that suggest, then as now, that “gender” does the work of aggregating disparate and incommensurable onto-epistemic power/knowledge formulations to produce a quotidian sense of lived reality—and that as such, it functions as a site for the transformation, as well as reproduction, of Anthropos itself.

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, and 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

  • 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.

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.

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