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“Human as Alien: From Frankenstein to Ex Machina and Annihilation”

  • Washington University in St. Louis Busch Hall, Room 100 (map)

N. Katherine Hayles, the James B. Duke Professor Emerita of Literature at Duke University, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles

The enduring appeal of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein testifies to our fascination with human-nonhuman distinctions and the boundaries that delineate human from alien. Arguably cobbled together from parts salvaged from different human (and animal) corpses, Frankenstein’s creature defies clear categorization as either human or non-human; its uncanniness derives largely from this ambiguity. In the digital age, similar uncanniness clings to human-like artificial beings, modeled on human anatomies and brains but fundamentally not human in their origins and functionalities. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina explores the qualities that make Ava, an advanced android with consciousness, a liminal creature poised between the human and the alien, an undecidable state emphasized by the film’s conclusion. In Annihilation, a film also written and directed by Garland and based on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, the human-nonhuman ambiguity derives from an alien presence’s intervention in biological DNA, creating hybrids by fiat rather than slow evolutionary processes. The film’s conclusion, significantly changed from the novel, suggests that human and alien have now fused to create beings indescribable as either. In different ways, these contemporary versions of Frankenstein’s project gesture toward a future in which “human” marks only one epoch in the history of intelligent life on earth, giving way to posthuman successors in which the human and alien are inextricably entwined.

N. Katherine Hayles teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Her book How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis was published by the University of Chicago Press in spring 2012. Other books include How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, which won the René Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Literary Theory for 1998-99, and Writing Machines, which won the Susanne K. Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship in the Ecology of Symbolic Form. She is James B. Duke Professor Emerita of Literature in the Program in Literature at Duke University, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles.