September 28 – Human?

//September 28 – Human?
September 28 – Human? 2016-09-28T22:48:48-04:00


Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. (1818). Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. New York: Simon & Brown.

Saunders, George. “Jon.” New Yorker 27 Jan. 2003. Condé Nast
“Episode 2.” Humans.  AMC. 21 June 2015 (Available on Amazon and Itunes)

Theory and Commentary

Hayles, Katherine. 1999. Chapter 10 (247-82) in How We Became Posthuman. Chicago, Ill. : University of Chicago Press.

Significantly, all of these texts are obsessed in various ways, with the dynamics of evolution and devolution. Underlying their obsessions is a momentous question: when human meets the posthuman, will the encounter be for better of for worse? Will the posthuman preserve what we continue to value in the liberal subject? Will free will and individual agency still be possible in a posthuman future? Will we be able to recognize ourselves after the change? Will there still be a self to recognize and be recognized? (Hayles, 281)


Gormel, Elana. 2011. Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human. The European Legacy 16(3): 339-54.

Additional Materials

Want to see Mary Shelley’s actual manuscripts of the novel Frankenstein? The Shelley-Godwin Archive has them, and they are way cool.

Want to explore the genre of Romance literature more broadly? Romantic Circles is an online scholarly community that focuses on discussions about Gothic novels, early works of horror, and proto-science fiction, among other treasures.


  1. smishara September 28, 2016 at 4:56 pm - Reply

    1) In the short story “Jon” by George Saunders, how are the limitations of language expressed and what is the purpose of speaking in reference to other things? How do metaphors become more precise than reality?

    2) What is Aurabon? How does it already exist in today’s society, and is it harmful?

    3a) How are the ‘workers’ in “Jon” similar to the synths in season 1 episode 2 of “Humans”?

    3b) What are fundamental human traits that a robot cannot accurately mimic? How is this problem, as well as the limitations of a ‘robot’ expressed in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Saunders “Jon,” and episode 2 of “Humans”?

  2. Johnathan McCauley September 28, 2016 at 7:51 pm - Reply

    Sexuality plays a significant role in the Humans episode. Here we go . . .

    Is it morally wrong for a human to engage in sexual conduct (of any kind) with a synth/robot? It seems that the question of Will comes into play here quite centrally. Since the synths (most of them, we suspect) possess a different kind of Will than humans do (since it is programmed, computerized, relatively speaking less authentically voluntary than a humans Will in significant ways) how should human beings (in the role of the higher consciousnesses) think of these sexual acts? The philosophical question of Will as it relates to sexual acts with synths/robots seems divided.

    Given the above initial questions, it seems that there are two ways to think of the robot’s will as it relates to sexual acts with humans.

    A.) the synth/robot does not have free will with respect to freely choosing to engage in a sexual act with a human being, therefore, the act should be seen as predatory or morally wrong along these lines. This idea of freely (soberly, truly, willfully, honestly, consciously, voluntarily, lucidly, wholeheartedly, intimately, earnestly – the list of adjectives one could insert goes on and on depending upon personal preference so, choose whatever one you like along these lines) engaging in a sexual act with another being is one we often think of when discussing the very problematic of sexual assault. Wrapping up point A, a robot can’t freely choose to have sex with a human, it is a forced choice, therefore it is wrong (I feel a gust of the age old debacle of free will versus determinism versus compatibilism blowing through here). One has and is expressing their free will if they can and do [soberly, truly, willfully, honestly, consciously, voluntarily, lucidly, wholeheartedly, intimately, earnestly] choose to do an action. If not, it is a forced action.

    B.) This is probably the less popular choice. Disclaimer: merely philosophizing here, just presenting possible views, pretty staggering contemporary societal implications if you ask me. Choice B is the other horn. The synth/robot does not have free will thus cannot freely choose to do anything. The synth/robot shouldn’t be thought of as anymore human than (excuse the crudity but I think for analogical purposes it’s poignant) a sex toy (or a shoe, brick, rug, any other inanimate object) because it lacks what one might call ‘necessary human qualities’. The robot’s lack of free will and consciousness make it of a lesser nature than humans. Like water and air and cattle and chickens or wheat and plants and legumes and vegetables, we can consume and do whatever we want to these non-conscious things so long as they help us perpetuate our health and happiness. If a thing has no free will, and free will is a Necessary Human Quality, then who cares!? Well. What about when we, as former beings who possessed all the NHQ’s are heavily influence by drugs or worse suffer major injuries that significantly deteriorate our ability to interact [soberly, truly, willfully, honestly, consciously, voluntarily, lucidly. . .] with reality and make free will decisions? Are we no longer human? Yikes. . .

    Philosophically speaking, if one were to try to argue that robots occupy an in between space, that they are somewhat demi-human because they look like us and use words and things of that nature and thus should be treated like humans because they occupy some NHQ’s (they look like us and were built by us so should be treated with decency and not abused as sex slaves and allowed to eat at the dinner table etc.) I would argue that one can very easily find the opposite to be true if they are not careful in determining what the NHQ’s are. These are important qualities to discuss and consider not only in regards to robots but to primates and other advanced species found on our planet. They’re tricky too. . . because, if animate growth is among these necessary human qualities (physical like the literal development of cells from a sperm-egg, or mental like the growth and development of the brain) , then a robot is arguably less human than a tree or an animal or a watermelon. Just thinking of a few of the first possible necessary human qualities, it seems probable that robots are likely no more human than a toaster.

  3. Sam September 28, 2016 at 8:14 pm - Reply

    1. In “Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human,” Gomel speaks of the “ethical difficulty of judging the actions of non-human agents,”(p. 351). Her essay poses many questions without answering them. How can we judge actions of beings with a different code or vision of morality? What rights are afforded to non- or post-human beings?

    While Frankenstein’s creation does not fit firmly within any of the three categories Gomel discusses (animal, alien, or AI), he is decidedly an Other. He also fits within the criteria Gomel discusses to be a being worthy of rights. He is a self-conscious subject, an ethical agent, and he possesses a moral capacity (p. 347). He is also, throughout the text, shown to as a somewhat sympathetic character, and as having similarities to his creator (a love for nature’s simple pleasures, for instance).

    How, then, do we judge this “demon?” Can he be bound by the same moral code we apply to humans, or to our lawful code? What rights was he worthy of? What does justice mean in this situation—as applied to the creation’s rights as a sentient being, and in light of his terrible crimes?

    2. In “Jon”, the title character is incapable of expressing emotions without a Location Indicator (LI), or some sort of produced cultural reference, to compare his feelings to. Without the gargadisk that has been implanted, he will lose his ability to effectively communicate. “I will turn to her and say, Honey, uh, honey, there is a certain feeling but I cannot name it and cannot cite a precedent-type feeling, but trust me, dearest, wow, do I ever feel it for you, right now. And what will that be like, that stupid standing there, just a man and a woman and the wind, and nobody knowing what nobody is meaning?” (p.6-7)

    In this way, Frankenstein’s creature is more rational and worldly than these ‘enhanced’ people. Who in this case is more “human?” How do we create a spectrum of (post)humanity?

    3. There is something to talk about with “Jon” and Frankenstein and their conceptions of cognitive development. Frankenstein’s creature gains knowledge and ability by watching his “protectors” through an opening, while Jon and his fellow TasteMakers gain it through LIs. What can we learn from these origins of intellect? How do they intersect and differ? What are other interesting ‘intellectual histories’ of fictional posthuman beings?

  4. iautin September 28, 2016 at 8:18 pm - Reply

    Oh man (or should I say post-man?)! What a great geek of the week choice to lead the way! There is soooo much to talk about in “Humans”!

    Anita the cyborg, (to use Donna Haraway’s term) is obviously going to blow the Turing Test away when the show progresses. But my analysis of the show comes from a Marxist perspective. I think the themes of “what makes us human?” is exceptionally explored in the show: Why does the mother have such a problem with Anita? Anita is made for taking care of the reproductive labor of the household. This doesn’t seem to affect wanker dad who is always with his eye on Anita’s 18+ feature package, but when Anita takes care of the family, the mom (even though she is the breadwinner, and kudos for the show) is frustrated because she is separated from the reproductive labor of the household like tucking the kids or making dinner. For the mom, it is this labor that makes her human, and Anita is making her lose control of her humanity.

    Also themes from the cyborg manifesto: the synth sex-joint.

    However, with Frankenstein I wasn’t able to explore themes of humanity that much because I kept getting distracted by plot things that I am not used to encountering because the book was so old. So the questions I was left with from Mary Shelley’s book were “Who goes for a stroll right after creating a living creature?”, “How did Daemon make it to Geneva so fast?”, and “What type of judiciary system was in place in the eighteen-hundreds that the entire family of the deceased comprises the entire defense of the accused and the state still prosecutes?”
    Also the whole thing is that the daemon is ugly? Yeah man, it’s your first try, you’re just making it out of college, maybe the next one will be prettier, get over the fact that he’s yellow.

    Now I’m reading Jon, and the hyper-consumerist environment of their workplace is creepy but actually not that different from where we stand. Elana Gormel asks what is it about humans that makes us different from animals? Could consumerism be one of the human only traits?

    Other comments:
    Long live British near-future dystopia! I read that Black Mirror Season 3 is coming to Netflix next week.
    Speaking of Netflix, those memories accessed in Jon were kind of like Netflix episodes in my head.
    other interrogatives as posed by the Killers: “Are we human? Or are we dancer?”

  5. Sigrid von wendel September 28, 2016 at 8:48 pm - Reply

    Can a being become, or unbecome “human?”
    Or is “human” a physiological definition that is imposed on birth (or before?) and cannot be gained or lost?

    At what point in Frankenstein does the “monster” become or unbecome human?

    Is it possible that human is a transient trait?
    In the “posthuman” world described in Gomel’s essay and the Humans episode, can “human” be a performed or chosen identity, informed and sometimes dictated by social norms, similar to gender?

    What are one or two most uniquely human traits? Are these traits learned, inherited, or innate? Do they alter over time (i.e. is the most human trait of today different than what it was in antiquity, or in the Middle Ages)?

  6. Arline September 28, 2016 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    1. Victor Frankenstein draws a line between himself, a human, and his creation, The Monster. This is definitively stated when he clears the guilt of “every human being (Shelley, 60)” of the murder of his brother William, with full knowledge that it was The Monster who was guilty. The usage of the word “monster,” however, is not only used in reference to his creation:

    “…and men appear to me as monsters thirsting for each other’s blood (Shelley, 71).” [after Justine is condemned to death]

    “Ever since I was condemned, my confessor has besieged me; he threatened and menaced, until I almost began to think that I was the monster that he said I was (Shelley, 66).” [Justine in response to confessing to a crime she did not commit]

    Both of these descriptions of a monster are attached to a human being. What can Shelley’s usage of the descriptor and name of “monster” tell us about how she defines humanity? Are its borders biological?

    2. Should Frankenstein have created and kept the companion that the Monster asked for?

    3. “[p]osthuman ethics…suggest that an alternative hierarchy can be created, in which regardless of their biological classification, self-conscious subjects, by virtue of their status as ethical agents, possess right that other entities do not (Gomel, 347).”
    This quotation first raises the question of how we would measure and define self-consciousness, which is the ever-burning question. But more that that I wonder what this delineation would do for human (as is now defined biologically) rights. Since a category necessitates an out-group, what would be not-human?

  7. Matthew Dischner September 28, 2016 at 9:02 pm - Reply

    1) How much does medium shape storytelling in these pieces? I think, specifically, of “Jon” and “Frankenstein.” “Jon,” for instance, being a short story, cannot include long world building sections even though the world is clearly to the story.y quite different from our own and needs explaining. It tackles this problem, quite excellently, by showing us the world in piecemeal, adding an element of suspense to the story. With Frankenstein, I think more on how all the film adaptations I have been exposed to over the years are quite different, and I wonder if the story as told by Shelly would not work outside of the medium of the novel.

    2) Having never actually read “Frankenstein” before, I found it stylistically a bit different than what I expected, my expectations having been shaped by centuries of other media surrounding the work. While “horror,” I don’t find it particularly horrifying. Is this due to a modern perspective? I also feel this way about some other older/contemporaneous gothic works, such as “The Castle of Otranto” and most Poe. Is it just me?

    3) There seems to be something of Asimov’s three laws of robotics at play in “Humans”, yet they seem ineffective or at the least problematic. Why do is this kind of story so popular? Maybe this is a question better suited for next week, but still it stuck out to me watching the episode.

    And to Ivan’s postulation about The Killers, I know I’m “Dancer”

  8. jpetinos September 28, 2016 at 9:19 pm - Reply

    1) Unlike “Humans,” and “Frankenstein,” “Jon” does not examine nonhuman beings, but does examine the adoption of technology for the pursuit of pleasure, comfort, efficiency, convenience etc. and how these goals might come in conflict with qualities that separate human from machine.

    What aspects of our humanity are lost in this frictionless environment? Why does the protagonist of the story, Jon, choose a life of hardship and yearning over a life of plenty and comfort? How does life in “the facility’’ mirror life for those of a certain U.S. consumer demographic in the present day?

    2) How is love examined through the parenting of Sophie, and through the wife of the male police officer in “Humans”? The wife requires therapy for an unstated injury. Her therapy synth is stronger, more capable, and better knows her preferences than her husband. Anita, a synth, is similarly more efficient at parenting than Sophie’s tired, multi-tasking mother. What does this episode of “Humans” have to say about love, divorced from, or tied to, utility? Why does the creator of synth tech keep his older, obsolete, outdated technology in lieu of a more efficient, newer model?

    3)How does Mary Shelley convey the science of “Frankenstein” using her knowledge of her own time? Is the science important to this story, or to the genre of science fiction?

    4) How can we think about current experimentation with artificial intelligence through the lens of Frankenstein’s motivation to create life, or through the synths of “Humans?”

  9. Stacy Shirk September 28, 2016 at 9:46 pm - Reply

    I’m really interested in exploring the human responsibility, or perceived lack thereof, to the creatures of their creation (or possession), as well as the ways in which gender plays out in “Frankenstein” and “Humans.”

    Doctor Frankenstein abandons his creation when he discovers its ugliness, shrinking away from the “monster” that he didn’t expect. Similarly, most of the humans in “Humans” treat their synths horribly, essentially keeping them as slaves. Both of these actions lead to rebellion and disaster for the creators/owners. Is it fair to call these actions irresponsible considering that the creators were intentionally making human-like creatures? Does it show a lack of foresight, and are we headed in that direction ourselves?

    We also get really specific depictions of gender in both the Monster and the synths. Doctor Frankenstein deliberately makes his creature incredibly large, which I saw as representing hyper-masculinity, and then of course the synths are all preternaturally, purposefully beautiful, with the two women being treated as sex objects by most (if not all) of the people around them. There is a more complex relationship between Anita and the mother, because it is a different representation of womanhood – that of the mother figure. The mother is the breadwinner for the family, and yet she still feels that drive to be perfect in her roles as wife and mother, and Anita threatens that. It could be said that Frankenstein flees the monster because he is horrified that he created a creature more powerful than himself, and of course the Monster proves to be incredibly intelligent. Niska, a sex synth, escapes her prison and says to the human woman “everything they do to us, they want to do to you.” How do our greatest fears play out in these false humans? Do they represent a culmination of human insecurity, or human hopes? How do these fears play out differently between the male figures and the female figures? In real life, why do we keep edging towards artificial intelligence when we clearly fear our creations surpassing us? And finally, are these creations in a way even more human than we are, because they serve as representives of so much human emotion?

    In trying to “play God,” and create creatures in our own image, something always goes wrong, and humans are inevitably hurt. Could these stories be seen as a religious indictment? Or is that too much of a reach?

  10. Charlie Peterson September 28, 2016 at 9:50 pm - Reply

    1. Compare and contrast the experience Jon of finding a deep reality in the blades of grass and the flower to the posthumans in “Blood Music.” While Suzy cannot mutate because of her blood chemistry, the changed humans she encounters all insist they still have their full lives and full individuality but that they are enhanced by communication with others. In “Terminal Games” the human minds that are lost into the basement are found to have lost their individuality. This begs the question: can human minds be integrated as cells are integrated? Is the final nature of a technologically enhanced reality unindividuated computation or historical embodiment?

    2. The 2nd Episode of “Humans” suggests that the arrow can go either way. The man held captive by his nurse is shown working on his watch. The watch functions as a symbol of deterministic mechanism. He views all machines like he views the watch. But the show uses the examples of the different synths to ask the question of whether agency and qualitative experience could come from a machine. The screaming pain of the sex worker Synth points to this possibility as well as the peculiarity of the different synths.

    3. Focusing on the experience of Jon going Out – there is the question of the relative “realness” of each possible world and the value judgements associated with the tech vs. analog worlds. Jon has a Plato’s cave like experience as he leaves the technologically isolated world he finds a word he has no language for. Compare this to the world in Terminal Games. The digital world is confused as being more real. Do the digital and real worlds compete with each other by nature or can there be harmony?

  11. jexcell September 28, 2016 at 9:52 pm - Reply

    I have to confess that I’ve never read Frankenstein before. The most surprising difference to me between the book and later depictions of Frankenstein’s monster was the monster’s eloquence. He is given a powerful and fluent voice in the book that I have never seen reflected in other representations of him. I would guess that this is done to further dehumanize him, and I found this interesting given that in the book, it is through words alone that we come to know these characters, while in movies, cartoons, etc., we can actually see the monster’s face. Why, then, did it seem more necessary in those visual formats to further separate him from humanity by taking away his power of speech?

    In her essay “Science (Fiction) and Posthuman Ethics: Redefining the Human,” Elana Gomel cites several different definitions of humanity, including Aristotle’s, that it is “an activity or actions of the soul implying a rational principle,” and Singer’s observation that, “[w]e like to distinguish ourselves from animals by saying that only humans are rational, can use language, are self-aware, or are autonomous” (343). By both of these definitions, Frankenstein’s monster could be said to qualify as “human.” His major disqualification in the book seems to be based on appearance. This implies to me that however logically we may go about defining what is human, inclusion of those who vary from whatever we think of as “normal” has as much to do with our willingness to accept that variation as it does with any rational checklist of “human” qualities. Does Frankenstein offer us any insight into how we might overcome the stigma of difference, or does it serve only to reinforce the idea that variation from the norm invites exclusion?

    Both Frankenstein and Humans grapple with fears about the sentience of beings created through man’s scientific advancement. At some level it seems ludicrous to do one’s utmost to create something as close to human as possible, only to regret creating it when it gets too close. This fear is echoed in numerous other stories, such as Battlestar Galactica and I, Robot. How can we explain this fascination with destruction through our own creation? Is there a specific horror to the idea of engineering a form of destruction which mirrors the humanity that it destroys, or can these stories merely reflect a larger fear of the danger of actions whose consequences are beyond our control?

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