Theses Doctoral

Homo Narrans: In Pursuit of Science’s Fictions of the ‘Human’ in Eighteenth-Century Science and Contemporary Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction

Carter, Noni

This dissertation is an intransigent probing into the Enlightenment scientific conjectures and theories of the eighteenth century that fantasized into existence a character called ‘Man.’ It explores how the category of the human, particularly at the intersection of certain genres like ‘race’ and ‘gender,’ was elaborated in the scientific thought of the eighteenth-century European Enlightenment and later re-scripted in contemporary art, literature, and film, both from the Afro-diaspora and otherwise. Working at the nexus of several intersecting threads of scholarship, including comparative literature, black feminist theory, performance studies, slavery studies, memory studies, and the history of science, this dissertation examines how this Enlightenment scientific writing and experimentation on the human turned to people racialized black, specifically young women—their bodies, their children—to construct speculative (and to a large degree, enduring) conceptions of a Western ‘Man’ universalized as the only iteration of the human.

In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the notion of the human was not a given but a problem, an unfixed nexus of ideas, contested beliefs, and scientific experiment central to the shifting conception of Western ‘Man.’ This dissertation sets out to emphasize both the “performative” and the “speculative” nature of these shifting perceptions as they were played out through the literal commodification of people racialized black and non-white. This commodification within scientific practice of the period not only perpetuated the ideologies of the system of Atlantic slavery and the slave trade, but also directly informed the evolution of these competing, scientific theories of the human. The labor these individuals racialized non-white were asked to contribute in the name of eighteenth-century science (via, for instance, their circulation and participation as subjects in experiments) would support the continuation of a scientific empire unapologetically structured around an anthropocentric project of whiteness.

This dissertation is structured around three core “Acts,” organized respectively around Denise Ferreira da Silva’s three onto-epistemological pillars of Western ‘Man’—separability, determinacy, and sequentiality. Each Act engages in reading practices in which the eighteenth-century archive is analyzed both through fiction and as a type of fiction. This type of reading helps denaturalize this Enlightenment archive’s performative fictions, pulling to the surface the speculative maneuvers at play in the formation of the category of ‘Man’ that continue, to this day, to present themselves as objective, axiomatic, factual, and universal. Through these cross-temporal analyses, this dissertation seeks to remain attentive to the ways in which the memories, postmemories, afterlives, and current-day lived legacies of this history all speak to a scholarly and artistic need to continue wrestling with the conundrums that this historical and intellectual construction of the human has left in its wake.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Dobie, Madeleine
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 27, 2022