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Elective: How we are human. Cultural reflections on human identity in contexts of technology, digitization and gender.


Admission requirements

This course is only available for students in the BA International Studies who have succesfully completed the second year elective course.
The number of participants is limited to 25.


Artistic and cultural reflections on human identity in the context of technological developments, rapid digitization and notions of gender.

The idea of an autonomous, individual identity is often seen as a Western invention, stemming from the Enlightenment period. Traditional ideas about human identity have been essentialistic, assuming clear distinctions between the human species and other animal species on the one hand – based on our self-awareness – and between the human species and men-made machines on the other – based on an essentialistic dichotomy between the natural and the artificial. The notion of an essential human identity is, furthermore, deeply rooted in a dichotomous, biological understanding of gender identities.

New developments in technology, science and cultural studies are rapidly changing our ideas of what is means to be human, leading to interesting debates within the Humanities. This course sets out to discuss novel ways in which we view ourselves as humans. It brings together aspects from biology, technology, science, culture and art to complicate the deceivingly simple category of the ‘natural human’. When do methods of tempering with our DNA and bodies or enhancing ourselves with technology start to make us artificial? Are we artificially creating new subspecies and genders? Are our fears, of genetic manipulation and the rise of the cyborg endangering our core human nature, justified? In this course we will together address such questions and come to a new understanding of various aspects of the human identity.

To this end a series of seminars will deal with topics such as listed below (the list will be amended and expanded upon). For each of the topics reading material will be provided in the form of articles and book chapters, to be discussed together during the seminars. Since artists, novelists and film directors often reflect on these topics in critical ways, the course will approach the different issues with a particular focus on case studies of art works (with a particular interest in the field of Bio-art and science fiction), films and novels, to examine the cultural and artistic reflection on these developments. In addition to the group discussions and presentations, we would like to include an excursion to a relevant exhibition, in order to familiarize ourselves with the current work within this field.

Topics include:

  • Does a pace-maker make you a cyborg?
    => Cyborgs and humans (cf. Donna Haraway, A cyborg manifesto [1991], the film Blade runner [1982], the Japanese anime film Ghost in the shell [1995], performance art by Guillermo Gomez-Peña)

  • If it’s not on Facebook it didn’t happen
    => Identity through social media (cf. Dave Eggers, The circle [2013])

  • Is a better version of you still you?
    => Human enhancement (cf. art project Jalila Essaïdi, Bulletproof skin [2012])

  • How many genders are there and does it even matter?
    => Gender diversity (cf. Judith Butler, Undoing gender [2004])

  • Will recording when you sneeze prolong your lifespan?
    => Quantified self (cf. biobanks, film Minority report [2002])

  • Pick’n’mix your genes
    => Eugenetics (cf. film Gattaca [1997], embryo selection)

  • Give me my amputated arm back!
    => Gene patenting and ownership rights to human tissue and cells (cf. the court case on the use of HeLa cells in medical research, the court case on gene patents of the breast cancer gene BRCA)

These topics will be introduced during the sessions, upon which the students will ciritically present and discuss the assigned readings, leading to a better understanding of the issues at hand and the arguments used by different stakeholders. In addition to the discussion of reading material (as well as art works and film excerpt), the students will formulate individual research questions and carry out research projects, which will be presented during the seminars and will result in individual papers.

Note that, while an interest in scientific and technological developments is of course an advantage, no background in science or technology is needed to attend the course.

Course objectives

At the end of the course:

— students have obtained a thorough insight in the contemporary debates on the human identity related to cultural practices;
— students have obtained introductory knowledge of developments in the fields of biology, technology, digitization and cultural studies, all with respect to questions about human identity
— students have learned to problematize these theoretical positions and on the basis of these insights will be able to formulate relevant research questions;
— students have become acquainted with some important contemporary art works, films and novels, cricitally exploring the topic of human identity;
— students are able to initiate and execute a research project on a particular (cultural) case study, in which they position themselves critically in contemporary scholarly debates, and in which they explicitly frame their own reading/approach;

Academic skills that are trained include:

Oral presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject in) the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured oral presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using up-to-date presentation techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience;
3. to actively participate in a discussion following the presentation.

Collaboration skills:
1. to be socio-communicative in collaborative situations;
2. to provide and receive constructive criticism, and incorporate justified criticism by revising one’s own position;
3. to adhere to agreed schedules and priorities.

Basic research skills, including heuristic skills:
1. to collect and select academic literature using traditional and digital methods and techniques;
2. to analyze and assess this literature with regard to quality and reliability;
3. to formulate on this basis a sound research question;
4. to design under supervision a research plan of limited scope, and implement it using the methods and techniques that are appropriate within the discipline involved;
5. to formulate a substantiated conclusion.

Written presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject in) the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured written presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using relevant illustration or multimedia techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience.


The timetable is available on the BA International Studies website.

Mode of instruction

Weekly two hour sessions, consisting of introductory lectures, student presentations (each student will present an article from the reading material, as well as their own research project), seminar style discussions and supervised research.
A wiki will accompany the course and is designed to facilitate an interactive approach to our debate. Throughout the course, the key texts be presented and discussed by the students. In order to stimulate the discussion and to make sure the presentations extend our shared critical understanding of the texts, instead of merely summarizing them, we will use a wiki.
A wiki is open to (and indeed specifically designed for) extension and amendment by the users. The basic structure of the wiki is there, but the content is meant to be provided by you. We would like contributions from you in the following sections:

  • analysis of the assigned literature, presented and discussed during the seminar sessions of the course

  • lexicon of terminology in need of defining and clarifying, pertaining to the human identit, notions of posthumanism, gender etc.

  • individual student research projects; the wiki contains a page for each individual student project, for you to construct and use to present your research

Course Load

Total course load for the course: 10 × 28 hours= 280 EC, broken down by:

  • Hours spent on attending lectures and seminars: 2 hours per week x 12 weeks = 24 hours

  • Excursion = 8 hours

  • Time for studying the compulsory literature, preparing presentations and discussions and collaborating on Wiki: 8 hours per week x 12 weeks = 98 hours

  • Time to write essay and paper (including reading / research): 16 hours per week x 10 weeks = 150 hours

Assessment method

  • Presentation of article from reading material and collaboration on Wiki (20%)

  • Short midterm essay, 1000-1500 words (20%)

  • Overall participation in seminar discussions (10%)

  • Presentation of own research and final paper of 4000 words, exluding bibliography and notes (50%)

Note: The maximum possible grade to be obtained for re-submission of the final essay is a 6.0


Blackboard will be used. For tutorial groups: please enroll in blackboard after your enrollment in uSis
Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading list

Articles will be made available online. No textbook is used, but the following titles might be of interest for those looking to read more (none of these are mandatory reading):

  • Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman, 2013

  • Kaja Silverman, Flesh of my flesh, 2009


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

The student administration will register all first year students for the first semester courses in uSis, the registration system of Leiden University.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.