IN THE SPOTLIGHT: Teresa HeffernanIN THE SPOTLIGHT: Teresa Heffernan

Theresa Heffernan is Acting Chair and Professor of English Language and Literature at Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS. Her current area of research is on how the field of robotics and artificial intelligence is shaped by fiction.


What were your first thoughts when you saw the call for applications for the fellowship?

A friend sent it to me, and I thought this is my kind of fellowship! I loved everything about it – from its stress on interdisciplinarity to its recognition of transhistorical and transcultural apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic narratives to its appreciation of collaborative dialogues across the humanities and social and natural sciences. The Centre sounded brilliant and timely.

What does the apocalypse and/or post-apocalypse mean for you? 

Growing up in a nuclear age and aware of the environmental crisis, I think it was hard to ignore the sense that we are living in some version of an “end time.” If traditional apocalyptic narratives have held out hope for a better world, since the 1950s the term apocalypse has increasingly come to mean only catastrophe. I wanted to understand the reasons for that change, which was the focus of my first book: Post-Apocalyptic Culture: Modernism, Postmodernism and the Twentieth-Century Novel. It explored how twentieth-century fiction responds to living in a world that has a diminished faith in the existence of an inherently meaningful end, and it considers the political implications of living in a world that does not rely on revelation as an organizing principle.

My second book Veiled Figures: Women, Modernity, and the Spectres of Orientalism works with the etymological origins of apocalypse – to “unveil” or “reveal.” It asks why veiling and unveiling are such highly charged acts and traces these debates about the figure of the (un)veiled woman across three centuries of the East/West divide, from the rise of Western secularism to racialized nationalism to the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

Around the early 2000s, I started to follow some of the claims about human-like artificial intelligence and the coming of a “superintelligence” that had the potential to either destroy and/or renew the world. I wanted to understand the basis of these apocalyptic claims, and so I travelled to labs around Japan, Europe and America and, amongst other things, stayed at a hotel staffed by robots, hung out with a geminoid (a robot that looks like its owner), and interviewed people in the field.  I returned from these travels more than a little skeptical about the claims, so I organized a workshop with academics working on the AI industry from various disciplines, which resulted in my edited collection Cyborg Futures: Cross-disciplinary Perspectives on Artificial Intelligence and Robotics.

What is your fellowship trying to achieve, which questions is it addressing, and with which methods? 

I have been exploring the ethical and existential questions that emerge from the entanglement of the science and the fiction of AI and the ways in which apocalyptic rhetoric has shaped the field of AI from its early days as proponents look forward to such things as casting off the biological body in exchange for an “eternal” machinic or virtual body. Some of my questions: What is at stake when science, fiction, and myth are entangled as they so often are in this field? What is the difference between language and code? Why are animals (including humans) so often compared to machines and what are the limits of that metaphor? What are the dangers of apocalyptic rhetoric? And what happens to knowledge in the age of AI?

What do you hope to take with you from the project and its results?

Working at the Centre will give me the time to finish my book, tentatively titled Where Science Meets Fiction: AI and the Ethical Imagination, so I am very grateful for that.

What are the aspects you are looking forward to at CAPAS? 

I love working at this Centre as whenever I have a question or want to find out more about a topic, I just have to put it out there and there is a scholar nearby who can give me an update on the latest in the field, from ruins to quantum physics to computing to Sanskrit to feudalism. The Centre has created such an intellectually rich environment and has amassed an impressive and diverse team.

To get some practical advice: What would be the three things you would definitely need in a post-apocalyptic world?  

Books by authors like Simone de Beauvoir (All Men are Mortal, one of the saddest books about living forever), Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, T.S Eliot, Anne Carson, the ancient tale The Epic of Gilgamesh… Oh dear this might get a little long, and I am aware I am cheating but I would also need some pen and paper.

A bathing spot surrounded by a lush garden with birds and bees… Ok I will stop as these lists are maybe not fair. 

Loved ones who would hopefully be much more resourceful than me!

What are some of your favourite pop culture references?

I think Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence, which was released in 2001 in honour of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, is so prescient as it encapsulates the fairy-tale of techno utopianism within the reality of the climate catastrophe.  DeLillo’s White Noise and Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb on the absurdity of living in the nuclear age. Octavia Butler’s The Parable Series for tips on how to build back a better world.