Demon, Wolf, and Robot The Nonhuman: Spirits, Animals, Technology Victoria, BC, Canada - September 21-24, 2018


Conference on the Nonhuman in Japanese Society and Culture, University of Victoria, Canada, September 21-25, 2018

South Wind, Clear Sky. 凱風快晴. By Hokusai. 1830-1832.

Japanese culture traditionally situated humankind into a larger and more complex matrix of sentient life that encompassed everything from plants and trees to invisible spiritual entities. As in many other Asian belief systems, metamorphosis and transmigration, rather than a particular sense of a privileged place in “the Great Chain of Being,” determined human existence and individual identity. At the same time, however, recent advances in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and computer graphics have transformed our own notions of the limits of what is the human and how to represent or simulate it. New media and technology undermine traditional Judeo-Christian concepts of human uniqueness and individual agency, perhaps opening us to something closer to the traditional Japanese worldview, one that is basically pagan, a world of gods and not God. In Phantasmagoria, her study of European science, art and spirituality, the English literary scholar Marina Warner notes that, “a non-Christian, classical, mythical idea about individual potential and polyvalence has set aside a traditional concept of the soul.”

A monster, from Bakemono Zukushi. Unknown artist. 18th century.

The nonhuman is a useful conceptual framework that encompasses a number of other concepts such post-humanism, transhumanism, new materialism, animal studies, deep ecology, science and technology studies and new media. In contrast to recent studies postulating a new geological age—the Anthropocene—the nonhuman focuses not on humanity’s impact on its environment so much as the manifold ways in which the environment—both natural and man-made—is deeply implicated in everything to do with the human. Humanity is subject to nonhuman forces that are constantly not only changing how we interact with the world and each other, but also redefining what it means to be human.

A robot, Japanese matchbox label, 1920s.

This conference will bring experts from a wide array of disciplines—from the humanities and social sciences, visual and performing arts, and engineering, scholars as well as artist-practitioners—to explore issues concerning how the nonhuman has impacted their own fields, both practically and conceptually. Areas of theoretical inquiry and expertise include: animal studies; new materialism; new media studies, including digital and interactive media such as virtual and augmented reality; computer graphics and imaging; social robotics, including human-robot interaction; artificial intelligence; gaming and martial arts; the philosophy of mind/body; bioengineering; science fiction, material performance and puppetry; and new media dramaturgy and performance.

Musashi Plain moon, from the series One hundred aspects of the moon, 02 Jan 1891. By Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

The conference will target a wide array of issues in Japanese society, including both traditional and popular (particularly otaku) culture, digital media, and social robotics. The event is therefore open to a variety of disciplinary approaches, including: science and technology studies, robotics, anthropology, religious studies, philosophy, literature, law, animal studies, environmental studies, visual and performing arts, and new media. More than three-dozen scholars, artists and engineers with expertise in these fields are confirmed to attend. A highlight of the conference will be presentations by performance artist Stelarc; Jennifer Robertson, author of Robo Sapiens Japanicus: Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation; Tatsumi Takayuki, author of Full Metal Apache: Transactions between Cyber-Punk Japan and Avant-Pop America; Kotani Mari, author of Evangelion as the Immaculate Virgin; Barbara Ambros, author of Women in Japanese Religions; Thomas Lamarre, author of The Anime Machine; and Tawada Yōko, a celebrated novelist who writes in both Japanese and German. Keynote lectures, performances, and readings will be open to both students and general public. The Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives, which for thirty years has been the focus of research on the contemporary Asia-Pacific at UVic, will host this conference with generous support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Japan Foundation, and several units of the University of Victoria.