International Conference: Representing Human and Environmental Vulnerability in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

University of Granada, June 9-10 2022

The conference “Representing Human and Environmental Vulnerability in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” organized by the research team Interfaces and our team member Dr. Miriam Fernández Santiago, starts today. It is a hybrid event, with some presenters attending the conference on-site and some participating virtually.

The conference aims to identify and critically explore the forms of human and environmental vulnerabilities that are generated in the context of the 4th IR, focusing on literary and filmic discourses that represent human and environmental vulnerabilities as the object of aesthetic spectacularization.

Four of our team members will share their research in this conference:

Lucía Bennett Ortega: “Witnessing the Environmental Collapse in a State of Bewilderment:
a Richard Powers Novel.”

Set in the present capitalogenic climate crisis, Richard Powers’ most recent novel, Bewilderment (2021), follows the story of Robin, a neurodivergent child with a great sensitivity towards the natural world. However, technological and digital advances, the “race for priority” (Powers, 43), and the constant need for instant gratification do little to help Robin’s desire for “all sentient beings [to] be free from needless suffering” (Powers, 24). In the novel, climate change is not presented as the backdrop of the story, nor as a simple concern or preoccupation of the characters. Rather, it constitutes a trigger for Robin’s mental health issues. In my paper I argue that Bewilderment does not only raise mental health awareness by resisting the labelling and stock categorisation that frequently accompany notions of disability, it also allows for the character to become and intersectional site of functional and environmental vulnerabilities. What is more, Robin’s neurodivergence is not constructed as a literary device on which narrative prosthesis relies on (Mitchell and Snyder, 2000), but is instead presented as an experience of socio-political implications. In my analysis, I firstly examine the double conceptualisation of ‘bewilderment’ as on the one hand, the state of confusion that emerges within an anthropocentric and ableist society, and on the other hand, as a celebration of nature’s uncanniness, preventing disability from being limited to a positivist convention of normalcy (Michalko and Titchkosky, 2009). In addition, I explore how the novel, seemingly avoiding the cynical nihilistic misanthropy that Braidotti warns readers against falling into (2013), emphasises that climate change and ableism are brought about by a lack of human empathy, clearly evoking Philip K. Dick’s (2007) envisaging of a world in need of an empathy box for its survival. Finally, I delve into the sense of discouragement and impotence that dwindles all hope in the novel. Very much in line with Johns-Putra’s (2019) “sense of no ending”, Bewilderment concludes with an element of cyclicality, denying readers any sense of closure or optimism with regard to the vulnerabilities it depicts.

Dr. Sonia Baelo-Allué and Dr. Mónica Calvo Pascual: Plenary Lecture “Vulnerability and the Posthuman in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

The fourth industrial revolution is defined by its exponential speed, scope, and unprecedented impact on how we live, express ourselves, work, connect with others, and get information. It comes with a set of emerging technologies which make use of digital power and are organized around the physical, the digital and the biological domains which co-evolve, fuse and interact (Schwab 2016). This continuum between the physical, digital and biological domains also affects the definition of the human and fits well with the conception of the posthuman as seen by critical posthumanists who understand the human and the non-human (the machine, the plant, and the animal) as a continuum (Braidotti 2013; Herbrechter 2013; Nayar 2014). This nonfixed, mutable and co-evolving posthuman nature also brings new forms of vulnerability as the nonhuman becomes an essential part of the (post)human sense of identity. The dependence and entanglement of our organic bodies with the non-human brings both the unwillingness to accept but also the fear of losing this posthuman aspect of our previously autonomous selves. This talk will deal with two forms of vulnerability that have emerged from the fourth industrial revolution and our posthuman condition: the excesses of techno-scientific development and the consequent environmental degradation in the Anthropocene. Both types of vulnerability will be explored in the analysis of three recent dystopian novels: Don DeLillo’s The Silence (2020) with its aesthetics of melancholia caused by the sudden loss of technology and Larissa Lai’s Salt Fish Girl (2002) and The Tiger Flu (2018) and their depiction of the exploitation and resilience of the more than human world.

Dr. María Ferrández-Sanmiguel: “Vulnerable Selves, Weird (Eco-)Systems: Posthuman Intra-actions in Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation.

Matter has been considered by the dominant Euro-Western tradition as a passive substance intrinsically devoid of meaning. This conception of matter and the view of humans as ontologically different from and radically external to it has in recent years begun to be contested by new materialist critics. As Karen Barad argues in Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007), “[m]atter is neither fixed and given nor the mere end result of different processes. Matter is produced and productive, generated and generative. Matter is agentive, not a fixed essence or property of things” (137). For her, “matter is substance in its intra-active becoming—not a thing but a doing” (151; emphasis in the original), it is what it does. The emphasis is, therefore, on the intra-action, performativity and agency of matter. Barad’s work offers a compelling posthumanist model for reconceiving human and more-than-human nature, emphasizing the role of matter as “co-productive in conditioning and enabling social worlds and expression, human life and experience” (Sencindiver). This paper reads Jeff Vandermeer’s New Weird novel Annihilation (2014), the first book of The Southern Reach trilogy, from the combined perspectives of new materialism and critical posthumanism. As I will argue, Vandermeer’s Annihilation engages with a number of key western dichotomies, namely the human/nonhuman, meaning/matter, subject/object, self/other and nature/culture dichotomies, exploring the pleasures and anxieties derived from the breaching of their boundaries. Therefore, my main focus will be the vulnerability of the human and the performativity and agency of matter, bringing to the fore the posthuman subject’s relationality, embodiedness and embeddedness to the multiple ecologies that constitute us. My contention will be that the novel resorts to the speculative mode to dramatize the fact that “[w]e are of the universe—there is no inside, no outside. There is only intra-acting from within and as part of the world in its becoming” (Barad 396).

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