2. Narrating Life: contagion, immunity, and mutation
Convenors: Manuela Rossini, Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities and the Social Sciences, Berne; Cristina Iuli, Università del Piemonte Orientale; Stefania Sini, Università del Piemonte Orientale; Stefan Herbrechter, Coventry University
This strand of the SLSAeu proposes to engage with the relationship between literature and life. More specifically, how does literature and the literary imagination affect and is affected by the emergence of a critical culture of biopolitics and its rhetorical figurations? For Deleuzians, the technological, the corporeal, and symbolic dimensions of language converge in the notion of human language as viral vector; for system theory, literature is an immunitarian meta-system for social self-representation and self-criticism, for critical posthumanists literature or fiction might serve as a privileged access to the in/human. All seem to share the idea that literature is a somehow special “medium” (among other fictional and non-fictional media for the production, transmission, storage, and recombination/activation of discursive systems) and maybe offers a privileged site for a “laboratory of thought and experimentation of future forms of subjection of life among different media” (Guattari).
Under the conditions of a generalized biopolitics, one might ask, what historical and contemporary mutations of literature in the past and the present – for example, as a cognitive apparatus for interfacing with the post-biologic, the hypermedited and the current, highly codified environment can be traced? In other words, how do the current conditions of hypermediality and biomediality affect our understanding of literature as a cognitive device in a diachronic perspective? Or, how does the specificity of literature survive under the current, generalised condition of mediality and biopolitics? What strategies of mutation, contagion, and replication of textual and critical practices do writers of fiction, or poetry foreground in order to address and maybe produce the future and/or survival of literature and the narrating of “life”?
Suggested topics include:
- New forms of life writing
- Posthuman (auto)biographies
- (Science) fiction and “life”
- “Alien” life
- Literature and (post)human(ism)
- Poetry without/after/before humans
- Mutations and metamorphosis
3. The Matter of Life: Art and design of the Living
Convenors: Monika Bakke, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan; Jens Hauser, Ruhr University, Bochum
The transformation of nonliving to living matter has been traditionally a question for philosophy, science and religion, while it is increasingly becoming an object of interest for bioengineers enabling forced evolution through the creation of novel organisms. Artists and designers inspired by bioengineering practices propose alternative futures for life and critically reflect on a growing tendency to instrumentalize it, however, without necessarily attempting to answer the big question about what life is or to shed light on the origins of life. Especially now, while the concept of life is often being reduced to the spatial and temporal organization of matter at our own disposal, it is crucial to reflect on self-organizing matter, abiotic factors in the origin of life, as well as on the chemical and physical components that have an impact on evolution and geo-diversity. And yet, as life may have originated more than once and in more than one location, we cannot exclude the possibility that life emerged in forms other than that represented by ourselves – such as life of a different type of carbon chemistry, non-carbon based life or Nonorganic Life with a “single phylogenetic line cutting through all matter, ‘living’ or ‘nonliving’”, to paraphrase Manuel DeLanda. By focusing on art and design involving living matter and biological processes, this session is making an attempt to answer a question posited by Evelyn Fox Keller: “Is the demarcation between the living and non-living finally so categorical as to admit no intermediates, no bridges that might link the two domains?”
4. Life, in Media: Neocybernetics, General Ecologization and the Rethinking of Environmentality
Convenors: Erich Hörl, Professor of Media Philosophy and Technology, Ruhr-University Bochum; Mark Hansen, Professor, Literature and Arts of the Moving Image, Duke University
The complex historical imbrication of human becoming and technics has entered a new phase in our world today. Life has become so entangled with media technologies that we can no longer speak of man-machine relations, but must rather face – and embrace – the total cybernetizing of our form of life as the basis for (re)thinking human technogenesis.
The contemporary entanglement of life and media is informed by two fundamental tendencies. On the one hand, there is what Eugene Thacker – emphasizing the intersection between the biological and computational sciences, as well as the evolutionary continuum among physiology, technology, cognition, and behaviour in human and other animals – has dubbed “biomedia” or “the technical recontextualization of biological components and processes.” On the other hand, there is what Mark Hansen – embracing the explosion of environmental agencies at issue in the technical contamination of life by ubiquitious computing, multiscalar network technologies and automatic sensory environments – has theorized as “our original environmental condition.”
As non-differentiated, both medially and environmentally, from processes of the living that they increasingly inform, today’s media technologies provide an opportunity for us to reverse the longstanding forgetting and trivializing of environmentality that marks the Western philosophical tradition generally and the study of media specifically. Probably for the first time in history, technologies operate in ways that highlight environmentality as such and that advance the process of a “general ecologization” (Erich Hörl) of all spheres of existence and value. Faced with this fundamental shift in the operation of media technologies and in the economy driving human technogenesis, we must rethink environmentality beyond all anthropocentric framings. This is the meaning of general ecologization, understood as a fundamental rethinking of the concept of ecology. It calls on us to eschew the traditional semantics of ecology, its hitherto defining amalgamation with nature, and its risky immunopolitical implications, in order to liberate the environmental or “superjectal” power of ecologization. Today a thousand ecologies are blooming: ecologies of sensation, ecologies of mind, libidinal ecologies, ecologies of desire, ecologies of power, media ecologies, ecologies of belonging, etc. For us to make good on the promise of this ecological explosion – its promise to catalyze a total cybernetizing of our form of life – we must embrace its impact on our cognitive participation. For what is at issue in our contemporary moment – hence the term “cybernetization” – is a general ecologicization of thinking as such, an ecologicization capable of placing thinking itself into immanent relation with other material processes of ecologization.
This stream is dedicated to the imperative, posed to us by general ecologization, to develop new phenomenological agencies, political concepts, and theoretical strategies for thinking our coming ecotechnological life. The stream will provide a forum to discuss issues and perspectives of this general ecological transformation and the radical environmental constitution that lies at the heart of our technological condition and ongoing technogenesis.
5. Gaian Ecologies: Gradients and Boundaries
Convenors: Bruce Clarke, Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science, Texas Tech University; Dorion Sagan, science journalist, author of Notes from the Holocene and Cosmic Apprentice
Is life considered in its seemingly individual manifestations sufficient to provide a theory of life, or to ground various theorizations of life? What are the boundaries of life as a phenomenon, what lies beyond them, and what does it matter what that is? Can one ecologize the issues around life in theory by observing living systems in relation to environmental contingencies? Such frames are obviously wide ranging. They may be cosmological, solar, and/or thermodynamic. They may be geological, chemical, climatological, and/or meteorological. They may be ecological per se, Earth-systemic, or Gaia-theoretic. For instance, Lynn Margulis’ theory of endosymbiosis in Earth system context systematizes the connections among microbes, macrobes, and the geobiological environment. Here the terms and conditions of existence and possibilities of living systems are not determined by individual organisms, but by emergent properties deriving from the cooperation of organisms interacting among themselves and with the environment. Evolution through endosymbiosis, as well as newer theories of the symbiotic holobiont formed from microbiomes in relation to host organisms, work both above and below individual and species boundaries, operating horizontally by genetic transfer between different organisms in their mutual relations and aggregations, rather than vertically through linear phylogenies. In so doing, symbiotic ecologies challenge the dominant immune/autoimmune paradigm of biology and contemporary biopolitics, just as Gaian science marginalizes the position of humankind in the biosphere and calls attention to both the heterogeneity and coordination of biotic and abiotic phenomena.
6. Life at risk: environmental devastation, the biopolitics of catastrophe, and biotechnological risks and benefits
Convenors: Ivan Callus, University of Malta; Najeeb Jan, University of Colorado, Boulder
For this strand of the “Life, in Theory” conference, delegates are asked to consider the diverse ways in which 21st-century pressures on life, in all its forms and extensions, make life’s discontinuity anything but theoretical. Environmental devastation, natural catastrophe and new biotechnological affordances render life’s very survival the outstanding biopolitical problem of our time. The awareness of “living in the end times”, to borrow a phrase from Slavoj Žižek, is irrepressible—and yet it may be not so much the absolute passing away of the anthropocene or apocalyptic scenarios that are the most urgent consideration, as the inexorable gradualism of life’s precariousness. Amidst that, life’s transformations as it adapts both autopoietically and as a result of human reengineering of its scope and shape demand close interdisciplinary and transciplinary attention. Various challenges, indeed, arise from the dynamics of life’s modes of retrenchment before its own tenuousness. Among them is the need for a multivalent praxis of reflection and action on matters concerning ecological (im)balances, epidemics and new diseases, diverse forms of militarism and armed conflict, and, not least, the ever present threat of humanity’s potential for planet-wide self-destruction. Before all that, it becomes evident that a “life at risk” existence, more so than ever before, is neither hypothetical nor avoidable, but, rather, overcome by actuality and permanence. To be sure, life has always been shadowed by its terminality and death and its passage to finitude, and it is not certain that it is cheaper or more in danger now than it ever was previously. Life, after all, is risk—this defines it. Life, by definition will always end up consumed by its nature as—and coextensiveness with—risk. It does seem true, however, that the congruence between life and risk has taken on sharper identities in the 21st century—which is why the call for a focus on how risked life and lives are currently lived and given up may sound louder and more resonantly than ever.
Accordingly, papers within this strand of “Life, in Theory” are invited to propose analysis of the literary, artistic, ecological, scientific, political, economic and legal narratives and representations of life at risk. Proponents may wish to bear in mind the work of thinkers like Jacques Derrida or Roberto Esposito on immunity and auto-immunity. That is because the relations that arise there between particularized and collective risks in relation to the other and the alien configure various spaces in which power over bios can be reasserted across various ethical, political and biological contexts which purport to save life (from) itself.
In view of the above, papers may focus on, but are not limited to, any of the following:
- Evidence of risked life, risked lives: forms and representations.
- Life as capital : strategies of risk and reinvestment in life and lives.
- Biotechnology and the reengineering of life at risk.
- Staking life : politics of life, politics of death, politics of risk.
- Living, simply : practices and narratives of life at the edge of risk.
- Life devastated: disaster, death, and realised risk.
- Democracy, justice, life :
- Patenting, privatization and ownership of life.
- The right to live, the right to die :
- Distributing risk : inequities in the social and economic reorganization of dangers to life.
- “It’s life, but not as we know it” – new forms of life and living.
- Disease and life’s new risks.
- Climate change and the impact on human life, animal life, plant life.
- New risks, other lives : how life reshapes itself before and after the worst.
- Managing risk : data and information strategies on dangers to individual, community and collective life.
- Revealing risk : dissemination and narrativisation strategies concerning risks to individual, community and collective life.
- Easing risk : the politics and management of aid to threatened life and lives.
- Easing life : strategies of aid, care and respite in contexts of threatened life and lives.
- War and mass engineered death.
- Life and the machine : technology and its risks.
- (Auto)immunity : life and other risks.