About beingnonhuman

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group aimed at postgraduates and early career researchers. The group was set up and is run by Sophia Wilson and Lydia Zeldenrust. Our group is funded by the English departments of King’s College London and Queen Mary, University of London.

Medieval Sci-Fi?

Like many of those attending this roundtable on the festival’s closing day, I was mostly drawn to the Medieval Science Fiction event out of a sense of curiosity as to what this term might refer to. At a first glance, one would think that the words ‘medieval’ and ‘science fiction’ do not – and perhaps should not – mix. However, the event showed that these seemingly opposite concepts can be brought together, and that this combination may lead to interesting discussions for researchers and science fiction writers alike.

The roundtable discussion was organised as part of the ongoing Medieval Science Fiction project, and the panel consisted of three speakers.
Andy Sawyer (Science Fiction Critic and Librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection) started the discussion by highlighting that the medieval period is often underrated in terms of its contributions to science. He also argued that medieval travel tales can be seen as useful analogues to science fiction, in that these stories often discuss issues of exploration and make us wonder what kind of creatures might be found beyond the borders of the habitable world. According to Andy, some medieval writers have indeed written works that we would group under the heading of ‘science fiction’.
Edward James (Emeritus Professor of Medieval History at UCD and Chair of the Science Fiction Foundation) then asked what exactly what the term ‘science fiction’ refers to. He argued that the genre not only deals with science but also deals with visions of the future. Since the Middle Ages are part of our historical past and are often perceived as forming an earlier stage in mankind’s ‘development’, this can make things difficult for a science fiction writer – and indeed the medieval period has traditionally been seen as a more suitable setting for fantasy novels. He added that some science fiction writers create alien cultures that remind us of medieval times, which are often seen as being a little ‘backward’.
Liz Williams (Science Fiction Writer, several times nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award) argued that much of science fiction writing revolves around trying to understand that which is alien, whether on another planet or in another time period. She also gave several interesting examples of late medieval discoveries and inventions that we now view as having been ahead of their time. According to Liz, the medieval period can be an invaluable source for modern science fiction writers.

Part of the reason why such a discussion on medieval sci-fi is interesting is because it begins to challenge some of the common misconceptions about the Middle Ages and the people who were alive then. There is no record, for example, of anyone in the Middle Ages ever believing that the earth was flat – this was a myth popularised mostly by nineteenth-century historians and scientists– and yet nowadays we happily believe this to be true. It is also commonly held that the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ saw little to no scientific discovery and that people for several hundreds of years simply sat around discussing the bible and burning a witch or two (or a few thousand, depending who you talk to) – again the result of ‘propaganda’ from a later age. Also, as one of the audience members pointed out, we all know for certain that medieval people never bathed – a modern view that seems to overlook the large amount of medieval records describing available facilities for bathing, both in the private and public sphere.

This roundtable helped to highlight that much of what we think of a period such as the Middle Ages is shaped not just by our own ideas but also by the ideas of people writing in the centuries before us. The past is not a set of fixed rules or ideas, but it is always reinterpreted and reimagined by different generations who sometimes see what they want to see. As Andy Sawyer commented, “each time period has its own Bacon”, as an illustration of how some of Roger Bacon’s ideas and discoveries are nowadays interpreted as precursors of modern inventions – though we might wonder whether he himself would have seen such discoveries in the same light.

There are still some issues that could be raised when looking at medieval science fiction – Can we call medieval inventions science? Does there need to be a word for something for it to have existed? Did medieval people wonder about the future (in a non-religious sense)? Did medieval monsters gradually move to further regions to become what we now call aliens? Can we refer to the ‘medieval period’ as if it was some great homogenous being, or are there differences to be found between cultures, regions or centuries? Nevertheless, it seems that the medieval period is more compatible with modern notions of science fiction than one would first think. I, for one, am very curious about the direction of this project and I look forward to reading its forthcoming essay collection. I want to believe.

Lydia Zeldenrust (Queen Mary University of London),
on behalf of the Being Non/Human Group (http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/).

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The Limits of the Human: Vampires, Werewolves, Serial Killers…

‘If we catch John Doe and he turns out to be the devil, I mean if he’s Satan himself, that might live up to our expectations, but he’s not the devil. He’s just a man.’

So says Detective Somerset to his partner in Se7en, a film which tracks the police hunt of a serial killer. Why is it, Professor Richard Dyer asks, that serial killers are so frequently associated with the supernatural – that we desire them to be supernatural figures?

The Italian word for serial killer is ‘il mostro’ – the monster; serial killers are frequently given nonhuman (or, perhaps more fittingly, inhuman) nicknames, from Peter Kürten aka the Vampire of Düsseldorf to Fritz Haarman aka the Werewolf of Hannover. Moving from what is probably the first film focusing on a serial killer, Georges Méliès’s Barbe-bleue, to more recent films such as Silence of the Lambs, Se7en and Antikörper, Dyer highlights the various supernatural associations these murderers have – with Barbe-bleue’s fairy tale connotations (and the threatening disquiet hidden within the seemingly innocuous phrase ‘fairy tale’) to the more overtly malign manifestations of the serial killer’s supernatural qualities in later films. Serial killers are frequently presented as possessing either superhuman or subhuman features. There is the unnerving intelligence of Hannibal (able to tease and manipulate victims and police alike), the superhuman strength of Gabriel Engel, and the animalistic nature of these killers – whether it’s eating human flesh or covering themselves in blood.

As suggested by Detective Somerset, Dyer argues that serial killers are typically associated with the supernatural – as beings whose humanness is called into question – because this ‘lives up to our expectations’. The enormity of such a crime can only be matched by a figure that equally goes beyond its confines, an entity that cannot be contained by a human body and human abilities but must be a supernatural or near-supernatural being. Dyer suggests that the horrific nature of mass murder exceeds our understanding of motives, raising the disturbing thought that the murderer kills simply because he/she enjoys it. So how do we deal with this? We transform or at least align the serial killer with the supernatural being. After all, what is more horrifying? The serial killer as an inhuman supernatural figure, or the serial killer as a nondescript uninteresting human – just like us?

Moving from a broad discussion of serial killers in film, Dyer then focused on the German expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919). The film’s highly stylised set designs enhance the audience’s sense of unease. Do these sets present contemporary German society as damaged? Do they suggest it is not just German society but the entire world that is somehow twisted? That the film’s plot is narrated by a man confined to an insane asylum offers another alternative. Dyer raises the possibility that perhaps the corrupt nightmarish state of serial killing can only be truly comprehended through the lens of insanity or the lens of the supernatural. If we can only imagine the serial killer as a figure divorced from reality, a figure closer to a supernatural being than a human being, then perhaps too great a comprehension of the serial killer means we also become divorced from reality and so deviate from the normative human. The implication seems to be that mass murder pushes not only the serial killer but also the witness to the limits of the human.

Following Dyer’s lecture, the audience were treated to a showing of the film, accompanied by music from Stephen Horne (acclaimed silent film pianist based at the BFI Southbank).

Reviewed by Sophia Wilson, co-convenor of the Being Non/Human discussion group: http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/

Being/Human or Being Non/Human

This is to announce that the new Being Non/Human discussion group will have its first meeting during the Arts and Humanities Festival, on Monday, October 14th at 6:30pm – 8pm at King’s College London, Strand campus, room S2.39.

Being Non/Human is an interdisciplinary discussion group that meets one Monday evening a month. The meetings either focus on the presentation and discussion of papers or combine papers with the discussion of reading material.

The Being Non/Human group focuses on recent theoretical developments which question the role of the human, analyse what it means to be a nonhuman entity, examine the validity of terms such as ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’, and look at the (shifting) boundaries between the human and nonhuman. This year’s papers concern, amongst other things: cyborgs and golems; physical and figurative metamorphoses; composite and alien creatures; Giorgio Agamben’s ‘anthropological machine’ and Vivian Sobchack’s work on phenomenology; and questions of how medicine, technology or performance art may affect the relationship between the human and the nonhuman.

As our group is concerned with many of the issues related to this year’s festival theme of ‘Being/Human’ we would like to invite all of those interested in humans and nonhumans alike to join us for our first meeting. This meeting will feature two papers, one concerning cyborgs and the other focusing on gaming avatars:

Dr Gerard Briscoe (Queen Mary University of London) – ‘Being Posthuman: Who Controls the Cyborg’
Jon Garrad – ‘ “Who’d choose to be a human? I do that in real life…” – Race, Species and Identity in the MMORPG’

For more details on the papers, our 2013-2014 schedule, and further details concerning the group, see: http://beingnonhuman.wordpress.com/.

Feel free to come along to the meeting (no booking required; just meet us at room S2.39) or join us for one or more of our future meetings. And, as with any discussion group, there will be snacks and drinks to keep us going!

Members of the Being Non/Human group will also be attending several of the events during this year’s festival (such as the ‘Medieval Science Fiction’ event and ‘The Limits of the Human: Vampires, Zombies, Serial Killers…’ event), so keep an eye out for our reviews here – or join our group and write a review yourself!Being Non/Human organisers –
Sophia Wilson (King’s College London)
Lydia Zeldenrust (Queen Mary University of London)