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).

EAAS 2022


34th European Association for American Studies Conference

The 34th EAAS Conference starts today (6-8 April), organized by the UNED. It is a hybrid event, with some presenters attending the conference on-site and some participating virtually.

The title of the conference, meant to be a homage to the centenary of the publication of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land, is particularly adequate for the times that we live in, and as the organizers explain in their letter to participants, it “reflect[s] on issues that are central to U.S. Studies and the world at large: the urgency of climate change, economic problems, wars, migration, or pandemics and illness.”

Five of our team members will be participating in this very exciting conference:

Thursday, April 6, 11.30-13:00 (GTM+1)

Dr. Sonia Baelo Allué: “The Dangers of the Posthuman: Datafication and Biowaste in Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box””

The time of the posthuman has seen the definition of the human evolve. The human as autonomous and self-willed, dominating other life forms and defined by his exceptionality, rational thinking and uniqueness has given way to a human subjectivity which is relational, interdependent and co-evolving with other nonhuman animals, material forms and machines. This paper will focus on the new relationship between the organic body and the machine and the ways in which this porous border has been theorised by both transhumanism and critical posthumanism. Transhumanists believe in the need to embrace the machine to create radically enhanced humans (Bostrom 2005) and be free from biological/corporeal limitations. However, the transformation of humans into informational patterns so that we are more compatible with computerised systems or artificial intelligences, turns us into “datafied” humans (Miccoli 2010), imperfect machines dependent on advanced technological systems and trapped in biological bodies, useless and inadequate biowaste in the face of the fourth industrial revolution. Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box” originally published in 2012 as a series of tweets and later as a short story in The New Yorker, illustrates both the transhumanist enhancement and datafication of the body and its subsequent transformation into biowaste. The story takes place in the near future when a female spy uses her technologically enhanced body and her sexuality to gather information that will prevent a terrorist attack. Her body literally becomes a “Black Box” that records the information and that needs to be delivered to her superiors dead or alive. Once the information is subtracted the biological body becomes expendable bio-matter that reminds of the need to construct a form of posthumanism embodied and embedded in the material world (Braidotti 2013), ready to embrace the other (be it the animal, the material or the machine) without losing ourselves in the process.

Wednesday, April 6, 17.30-18:30 (GTM+1)

Dr. Francisco Collado Rodríguez and Dr. Miriam Fernández Santiago: ROUNDTABLE “Human Waste: Embodied Vulnerabilities in the 4th Industrial Revolution”

In the context of the socioeconomic and political order of the 3rd millennium, the 4th Industrial Revolution (IR) renders the allegedly utopian vision of a technologically enhanced human and environmental future. However, such vision is grounded on discriminatory ideologies against specific social collectives that are ontologized as human waste on account of the diverse forms of vulnerability that they might embody. The diversity of human forms of vulnerability in the 4th IR underscores the actuality of the growing numbers and pervasiveness of the human waste it generates in the social ecology of the USA as a human wasteland. Nevertheless, human vulnerability has been put forward as a condition for human resilience and social cohesion that can lead to new strategies of political and economic organization that find in posthumanism an ideological frame for the 4th IR.

Thursday, April 7, 15:30-17:00 (GTM+1)

Dr. María Ferrández-Sanmiguel: “Intertextuality, Social Criticism and Myth in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy”

What do an American expatriate poet living in England in the 1920s and a Nebula-, Locus- and Hugo award-winning contemporary African American writer have in common? What can T.S. Eliot’s 434-line modernist poem and N.K. Jemisin’s speculative fiction trilogy possibly share? It might seem that very little. Yet, their very titles indicate a common preoccupation with the condition of the land that has been broken, that has gone to waste. This paper will explore the intertextual connections between Eliot’s The Waste Land and Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The focus will be on their thematic concerns and their use of myth. In both texts, civilization is at the end of a cycle and needs to be regenerated, as it has been brought to exhaustion by human malpractice—the First World War, the empty values of the aristocracy, the corruption of the Church, etc. in the case of The Waste Land and technoscientific experimentation, ecological devastation and racism in the case the Broken Earth trilogy. As will be contended, the two works express with remarkable power the disillusionment and disgust that the writers feel over the corruption of their societies and map a mythic search for redemption and renewal in a sterile and spiritually empty world. In so doing, the texts enter into an intertextual dialogue while specifically engaging with the ills of the society in which they were produced. Thus, they point to the ethical and political role of art in general, and literature in particular, to inspire change while confirming Eliot’s belief, expressed in essays such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” in a collective unconscious of art.

Friday, April 8, 9:00-10:30 (GTM+1)

Lucía Bennett-Ortega: “Representations of Mental Illness and Vulnerability in the New Amsterdam (2018-) TV Series”

New Amsterdam is a 2018 American medical series that follows the medical director of the oldest public hospital in the U.S. as he aims to reform the facility by dismantling its status quo and providing patients with better care. The stories of patients in the series fulfil the purpose of exploring wider social themes of vulnerability and waste. In my paper I argue that the emphasis on mental health works against using disability as a narrative prosthesis (Mitchell and Snyder) and instead aims to give mental illness visibility by resisting stock characterization and stigmatization. For my analysis, I have chosen an episode in which a psychiatrist deals with a patient whose brain tumour originates from systemic racism [season 2 episode 14], and a second episode in which a patient develops PTSD due to an active shooter drill that takes place in her school [season 2 episode 16]. I aim to ascertain how mental illness is portrayed through a close analysis of the language and point of view used. Secondly, I examine the extent to which these cases of mental health are used as aesthetic speculative images (Garland-Thompson). The final focus on my paper is the identification of the ethical demands that are brought to the fore against the backdrop of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Schwab), a society of both vast technological advances, and great waste of resources, paying special attention to its relationship with the patients’ situation of vulnerability and precarity (Butler). In essence, whilst the show breaks the patterns of traditional narratives of disability and mental health, it nevertheless constructs the hospital as an idealised place which surmounts the social collapse and waste that occurs outside its walls.

ExRey Conference

Some of the members of our research team attended the conference ExRe(y): Exhaustion and Regeneration in Post-Millennial North-American Literature and Visual Culure.