Judaism Panel on “The Irreplicable Human/-ities?”
Conference for the International Society for Religion, Literature and Culture (ISRLC)
Hotel Rebild Bakker, under the auspices of Aarhus University, Denmark
Conference Dates: 5-8 September 2024
Deadline for Abstract Submissions: 15 December 2023
“The Irreplicable Human/-ities?”
Since the Enlightenment, the Humanities have held a central position in Western cultures, reflecting on how humans relate to each other, on how to interpret the diversity and complexities of human life, and on what fosters the good life within the human household called society. The Humanities are, however, demanding and importunate disciplines. They require not only freedom, but also time and space to let the imagination and emotional intelligence run freely in the pursuit of new or more complex knowledge. Their curiosity is inhibited by requests of efficiency improvement, external funding, employability discourse, marketing terminology, and digitalisations. Instead of complying, the Humanities repay society for its sustenance by complicating public debates and political decision-making, by deconstructing and being critical of societal beliefs and practices as well as power structures. It is no wonder then that Western cultures prioritise investments in the more practical and instrumental disciplines of Natural Sciences, Technology, Engineering, and Medicine. The purpose of the ISRLC Conference 2024 is for scholars working specifically or broadly in religion, literature, and culture to reflect on and exemplify what scholarship within the Humanities, including Theology, has to offer in contributing to a renewed mission for the Humanities, and in concretising its value for our rapidly changing world.
Much has happened to human life and culture since Renaissance thinkers founded the Humanities to liberate humans from religious truth claims and power, and since Humboldt argued for academic freedom independent from political and economic influences. Enlightened cultures developed into belligerent nations, some engaged in genocides, and all share a responsibility for the exploitation of non-Western cultures and the Earth’s resources, leading to demographic and ecological crises as well as postcolonial and posthumanistic countermeasures. Humans have also invested in the development of technology and artificial intelligence (AI) so successfully that many humans have come to fear for their own dispensability. Lately, search engines and now chatbots, drawing on infinite, digitally stored external memory processed at warp speed, have accelerated in providing not just trivia but eloquent elaborations in reply to complex questions. This raises questions as to the uniqueness of the human mind. This interdisciplinary conference will therefore interrogate the resulting lines of inquiry: Is the human replicable, or is there something in the human executive functions that is irreplicable? Is there still a human “spirit” that goes beyond the input/output schema of machinery? As artificially produced knowledge, “social” media, incessant information flow, and digital entertainment compete for our attention, what can motivate engagements among humans, particularly on the basis of knowledge about religion, literature, and culture, that may be heard above AI and other digital productions? The ISRLC Conference 2024 and its individual panels will reflect on the irreplicability of the human, and on what would constitute a meaningful, ethical, and fulfilling attentiveness in a world with so many options and challenges.
Judaism / Jewish Studies Panel
The Judaism Panel of this ISRLC Conference calls for papers from scholars within the fields of Jewish religion, literature and culture – past and present – willing to discuss the uniqueness of the human and a renewed mission for the Humanities in light of posthuman critique, the emergence of chatbots, and other forms of AI. For more on how to submit an abstract proposal, please visit the Judaism Panel’s call for papers on the conference website: https://events.au.dk/isrlc2024/judaism.
As God formed the psalmist’s golem (unshaped matter, cf. Ps. 139:16), so Jewish mystics and artists have tried through centuries to create humanoid creatures, intelligent enough to do the work that humans needed done and sometimes could not do themselves. Past Jewish productions of artificial intelligence (AI) have been interpreted in many ways such as pious, salvific acts of imitatio dei; pretentious constructions of new towers of Babel, and as ominous engagements that will eventually rebound on people involved. As the 4th century rabbi Rami bar Hama said, “A wild animal does not have power over a person unless he seems like an animal – like ‘beasts that perish’” (bSan 38b, quoting Ps. 49:13). Jewish religion, literature, and culture seem to have a tradition for problematizing not only the production of AI, but also the fact that humans behave like robots, act in predictable ways, offering perfect computations based on all too limited accounts of this- and otherworldly complexities, ignoring what sets humans apart from other creatures despite their interdependence and entanglements?
In the course of Jewish history, many sources testify to centuries of attentiveness toward the complexities of human life. The figure of David with all his human flaws has been much more popular than Job with his perfect faith or Moses entangled in the segmenting lines of law (e.g. Gabirol: Keter Malkhut). Remembered are rabbis like R. José who protested against the inconsistencies of the anonymous rabbis when they tried to define the sex of the androgynos by means of the gender binary instead of recognising the androgynos as sui generis (tBik 2:3-7). After the fall of the temple, many new genres, for example midrash, emerged because the new contexts were too complex for the older sacred texts to address. R. Nahman of Bratslav turned to dance, music and telling tales when the typical genres of religious communication fell short of fuelling the salvific imagination of lay Jews. Jacques Derrida and Hélène Cixous criticised Western fallogocentrisme and pointed once more to midrash to access the plurivocity in human life up against monologue representations. Yet, what is it that analyses of such reactions to complexity can offer in reflecting on the human without reinvigorating essentialism, universalisations, and colonisations of organic and inorganic others? What skills in the human can be outsourced/replicated and what is irreplicable? What is so unique – or maybe dispensable – that nobody thinks or bothers to invest in its replicability – the virtual potentiality of surplus that falls outside the panopticon of technological production and institutional society? What would answers to these questions offer to renew the focus of the Humanities and to define the uniquely human up against AI from a Jewish Studies perspective?
Queries and abstract proposals of no more than 350 words should be sent to Marianne Schleicher (Aarhus University) at email@example.com no later than 15 December 2023.