Project Outline

Artificial or cloned organs, babies with multiple parents, expansion of longevity, brain-controlled remote action compensating paralysis: biotechnology, backed up by information science, increasingly challenges what it means to be human. Evaluating the ethical perspectives, public debates still tend to stick to a static image of the human body, seeing the goal of biotechnological interventions as only alleviating deficiencies in relation to human normality. But what if these interventions are becoming so comprehensive that our notion of a shared human identity is radically transgressed – that we become posthuman?

Expanding groups of transhumanists are indeed pursuing this possibility with the specific aim of enhancing human capacities. And in the last two decades discussions of the posthuman have also intensified in the academic world, especially in the social sciences and philosophy (Lippert-Rasmussen, Rosendahl Thomsen and Wamberg Savulescu; Habermas; Lippert-Rasmussen). However, the aesthetic domain – including art, visual culture and literature – still seems to be only patchily represented in these discussions. Although key concepts of the posthuman (such as the cyborg, the synthesis of machine and organism) are often included in analyses of contemporary artworks dealing with advanced technology, this is mostly happening in synchronic ways without a historically reflected idea of what the posthuman might mean in relation to the aesthetic domain, and vice versa.

Believing that the posthuman dimension, in fact, signifies a long-enduring transformation of our high-technological culture, we aim therefore to investigate recurrent patterns for (a) the ways in which the posthuman is represented in art and popular culture in the last century; and for (b) the ways in which aesthetical and artistic values may contribute to a historical framing of the posthuman field. Directed as it is toward future ways of being, the posthuman generally intersects the field of core competences in aesthetics: imagining other worlds and possibilities of existence. More specifically, the project is guided by three closely interrelated themes with seperate working hypotheses: (1) evolution as grand narrative: conceiving the posthuman as a convergence of biological and cultural evolution, a historical synthesis which art’s multifarious experiences with narrativity may help to represent; (2) creativity with suspended purpose: although both technology and avant-garde aim at interfering in actual life, art transcends the dominant ultra-utilitarian notion of technology, thereby approaching visions for a more open and adaptable posthuman life world; and (3) imperfect enhancement: exploring worlds in which imperfection is inescapable art might prove to be an ethical corrective to visions of posthuman enhancement beyond aesthetics.

The empirical basis for the exploration of these themes is five subprojects, focused on 20th century literature and art, that are concerned with

(1) Emergence in biology and popular science (Postdoc Laura Søvsø Thomasen),

(2) Artistic explorations of tissue culture (Postdoc Pernille Leth-Espensen),

(3) Heroes in popular culture (PhD candidate Johannes Kaarsholm Poulsen),

(4) Temporal imperfection in 20th-century literature (Assoc. Professor Mads Rosendahl Thomsen) and

(5) The mechanized body in Duchamp and other avant-garde artists (Professor Jacob Wamberg).