Ambiguously Human: Questioning the Dichotomy between Person and Thing


About the project

How can bringing together explorations of the boundary of the human versus thing across disciplines generate new understandings and questions about that delineation? Ambiguously Human looks at a small group of such investigations through public events at Duke University as a kind of case study of this question.

Defining humanity is a fundamental motivation in human intellectual explorations. Individual disciplines choose their own relevant issues as the important point to investigate along this boundary. They also generate their own methods to conduct that investigation. Some contemporary biology investigations are interested in how genetics and neuroscience offer unique ways to measure humans, while in some visual arts pursue emotional connections or conscious perception, each in their own way. Any investigation of what defines humanity needs an opposition. This question isn’t one that can be answered in the abstract. It needs a particular context. In order to find the border between the human and thing, you need two things to evaluate across that line. In the question of defining the human as opposed to a robot, the selected contrast might be material substance. With a human as opposed to a chimpanzee, it might be genetics. An investigation of the human as opposed to a deity might highlight the scope of knowledge.

The boundary of the human is a question that draws investigations across disciplines. Visual artists engage with it as much as neuroscientists do. But each field’s investigation tends to be restricted to its own (often academic) context. Of course, these diverse investigations are dependent on their context to some degree, and therefore incomparable in certain ways. Disciplinary investigations rely on the context of their field to be fully understood and can lose their specific meanings when taken out of it. DNA as a molecular biologist understands it is different than DNA as understood by an artist, and even though both may take it on as the nominal subject of their exploration they are not in fact investigating the same thing. Bearing that in mind these incomparabilities, though, there is room to overlay definitions.

Ambiguously Human explores how disciplinary investigations of the human-thing boundary intersect (or don’t) by bringing together artistic works and discussions (written and verbal, from biology to philosophy) into one unified setting. These works complement each other and build the project’s context and structure in an attempt to facilitate a more nuanced and holistic understanding. In the context of Ambiguously Human, these explorations probe the demarcation between the human and thing. They challenge us to articulate the distinctions between a human and a doll or a human and an artificial intelligence. Often, features defining the human aren’t exclusive to humans, and those of non-humans are present in humans. Humans have a body and make individual decisions, but neither of those is unique to humans. Things rely on humans interactions to achieve meaning, but in many ways so do humans. How much of a dichotomization really exists between the human and non-human? I believe these are ambiguous categories; they bleed into each other and are not a true dichotomy.

About me

I’m Kati Henderson, a student in Duke’s Graduate Liberal Studies department, where I’m creating a program of study on interdisciplinary public engagement. Ambiguously Human is my master’s thesis project. I’m interested in where and how explorations across academic fields intersect, and how those overlaps can be ripe for new ideas, questions, and public education. My undergraduate background is in visual art and neuroscience & molecular biology (my personal academic favorites) but I’m interested in many disciplinary practices as well as the potential of digital media for communication and education. Since moving to Durham I’ve had the pleasure of learning ways to approach these multidimensional public transdisciplinarities through my work with the Nasher Museum of Art, Sarah P. Duke Gardens, the Duke Campus Farm, and the Museum of Life + Science.

Please let me know your ideas or questions on the project! You can contact me at