Fall 2014

Science Fiction or the Posthuman

Listed in: First Year Seminar, as FYSE-118

Moodle site: Course


Patrick Pritchett (Section 01)


What does it mean to be human, and how can we make sense of the emerging category of the posthuman? In this course we will examine some of the anxieties and aspirations clustered around the idea of the posthuman since its initial development by Norbert Wiener’s model of cybernetics following World War II. We will track the posthuman imaginary through contemporary novels, films, and significant essays by leading humanists and scientists. Central to our investigation will be looking at how the posthuman arises along the nebulous boundary between traditional notions of humanity and radical new modes that challenge those notions. If we use technology to colonize our environment, aren’t we always at risk of being colonized by our own tools? One could argue that the posthuman has always been with us in the form of traditional external information processing and data storage systems like books and libraries. But recent advances in computing capacity, digital and surveillance technology, and robotics have changed the rules of the game. The anxiety which the posthuman arouses comes from its perceived threat to an organic model of human personhood as a stable, unified self. At the same time, the posthuman offers a bold vision of secular transcendence by reducing, or elevating, the soul to data. In many ways, science fiction has become the definitive genre for mapping how we experience the modern since it continually poses compelling questions about the cultural implications of technology.  We will look at four groupings of classic SF texts: The Posthuman Body, Future Shock, The Sublime, and Trouble in Utopia. In each of these sections we will investigate questions about human-machine interfaces, the sacred and the secular, and the ways in which technology effects profound changes in everyday behavior, gender dynamics, and the basic cultural codes for understanding memory and identity.

Course Goals and Requirements:  This course will be a discussion-based seminar limited to 15 students. Its purpose is to introduce students at Amherst to a formal process of engagement through a humanistic framework of some of the major questions emerging from rapid changes in technology. As part of this students will learn such research methodologies as close reading, critical thinking, how to use secondary sources, and how to construct evidence-based arguments. Students will be asked to prepare for each class through careful reading of and reflection on course material, formulation of arguments in advance of class, active listening and regular contributions of their own ideas to class discussion.  In general, laptops will not be permitted in the classroom.

Responses: By the evening before class, students will contribute brief responses to each week’s readings on the course website.  These need not be formal, but they should be thoughtful.  Papers: Students will write two analytical papers, two short response papers, and one longer final essay or creative project which may be collaborative. Presentations: Toward the end of the semester students will give ten-minute presentations based on their (in-progress) final essays.  

Fall semester.  Visiting Professor Pritchett.

If Overenrolled: Dean handles this.


2019-20: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2014