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Mistaken Identities: Passing and the (In)Human

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Organizer: Takeo Rivera

Co-Organizer: Joshua Williams

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Now that the “post-racial” mirage of the Obama years has definitively dissolved, revanchist forms of white supremacy have infused long-standing debates about identity politics with fresh danger and urgency. Increasingly, hegemonic anxieties about minoritized subjects traffic in a hardening of identity categories. Theorizing this development requires a geographically and historically expansive approach that also takes on board the epistemic pressure exerted on the very idea of identity by non-human specters, bodies and forces. This seminar revisits one of the familiar bugaboos of racist, classist, misogynist, homophobic and transphobic ideation — passing — in light of the politics of our present, foregrounding the inescapable presence of inhumanity. 

The Turing Test’s promise that artificial intelligence will one day succeed in passing for human consciousness obscures the fact that the uncanny valley has always been populated with inhuman beings and forms. This is apparent even at the level of language: Karel Čapek derived his neologism “robot” from the Czech for “slave labor;” “Harvard computers” were underpaid women scientists who crunched the numbers for marquee astronomical research. Meanwhile, the eugenic pseudoscience of Western modernity routinely placed the colonized and feminized on the lower ends of spectra of evolutionary existence, forcing a homology between subalternity and animality to justify a global politics of domination. The machine, the thing, the animal, the zombie — figures of less-than- and more-than-humanity intervene decisively in the constitution of identity categories into which one can, or cannot, pass. Both the hypersynthetic and the hyperorganic have provided discursive vocabularies for rationalizing otherness, from Black fungibility and techno-orientalism to sexbot pornotropes.

This seminar mobilizes these formations — biopolitical, (pseudo)scientific,  speculative, futurist and otherwise — as they intervene in the politics of identity. We are interested in moments of mis-seeing prompted by hegemonic fears of the passing subject. At the same time, we are also curious about modes of negotiation, reappropriation, disidentification and subject formation in between human and nonhuman identity categories. Might passing be a form of deliberately cultivated misrecognition? If so, how might we understand its political, aesthetic and ethical dimensions? How is identity formed from mistakenness?

We welcome submissions from a broad range of fields, including but not limited to literary studies, critical ethnic studies, queer studies, theatre and performance studies, film and media studies, animal studies, object-oriented ontology and new materialism.

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