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Fren 690: Artiface and Intelligence

M 3:35-6:05pm
Dey Hall 302
Prof. Sean Singh Matharoo (

What does it mean to say that something is artificial? What does it mean to say that something is intelligent? How, after all, do we define artificial intelligence (AI)? What is happening to thinking and being in light of accelerated machine learning? What can the study of aesthetic form teach us as we grapple with the ongoing advent of artificial general intelligence (AGI)? In this seminar, we will answer these questions by taking recourse to French and francophone intellectual and literary histories. This move, however, will necessitate a preliminary return to Lucretius’s epic poem De rerum natura, which we will read before leaping into the 12th century with Abelard’s nominalism, according to which only individuals exist, and all universals are “simply” words. Following a brief return to Descartes’s speculations on wonder, we will then jump to the Enlightenment, investigating Rousseau’s second discourse, Diderot’s poetics of energy, and La Mettrie’s proto-cyborg. In the 19th century, we will critically reappraise Comte’s positivism and Taine’s understudied psychology of intelligence, in addition to poets obsessed with the artifice of the poem itself. Finally, moving into the 20th and 21st centuries, we will take a quick detour through Jarry’s play Ubu roi, before studying the alternative surrealisms of Bataille and Caillois alongside French structuralist philosophies—namely, Lévi-Strauss’s structuralist anthropology, which we will consider against the grain as a proto-posthumanism. We will then dwell with Derrida’s famous lecture on play, before moving into anticolonial, antiracist, feminist, and queer theory, concluding with Malabou’s plastic philosophy of AI. Alongside the theoretical materials mentioned, we will predominantly study anticolonial, antiracist, feminist, and queer literature and media. We will remain attentive to questions and problems of sensation, time, ethics, ecology, and language.

This seminar is specialized insofar as its focus will be on reading closely, or explicating. However, no prior familiarity with these thinkers and artists—or even with the critical reading of literature, media, and philosophy—is required, just a willingness to engage fully. Students from departments other than Romance Studies are welcome, as the seminar will be facilitated in English, and all materials are available in translation. A final question to guide us: Can we conceive of the literary and intellectual histories explored in this seminar, and our study and your writings in response to them, as part of the development of a program for AGI?

Repeat rules: May be repeated for credit; may be repeated in the same term for different topics; 9 total credits. 3 total completions.