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Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia


Paweł Majewski

The subject of this book is the philosophy of Stanisław Lem. The first part contains an analysis and interpretation of one of his early works, The Dialogues. The author tries to show how Lem used the terminology of cybernetics to create a project of sociology and anthropology. The second part examines Lem’s essay Summa technologiae, which is considered as the project of human autoevolution. The term «autoevolution» is a neologism for the concept of humans taking control over their own biological evolution and form in order to improve the conditions of their being. In this interpretation, Summa is an example of a liberal utopia, based on the assumption that all human problems can be resolved by science. Various social theories, which can be linked to the project of autoevolution, are presented in the final part.

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4 Introduction to Dialogues

4Introduction to Dialogues

Lem’s Dialogues, just as many other of his works, underwent significant transformations. The first edition54 included eight dialogues, between Hylas and Philonus, written between 1954 and 1956. The second edition55 was supplemented with two annexes, each consisting of two separate texts. The first annex (“Dialogues” after 16 years) is strictly about cybernetics, the second one contains two sizeable treaties, originally published in Studia Filozoficzne.56 Their content, although going beyond cybernetics, should be discussed separately in this chapter, as it connects cybernetics with other fields Lem is interested in.

The full title of the first edition is Dialogi o zmartwychwstaniu atomowym, teorii niemożności, filozoficznych korzyściach ludożerstwa, smutku w probówce, psychoanalizie cybernetycznej, elektrycznej metempsychozie, sprzężeniach zwrotnych ewolucji, eschatologii cybernetycznej, osobowości sieci elektrycznych, przewrotności elektromózgów, życiu wiecznym w skrzyni, konstruowaniu geniuszów, epilepsji kapitalizmu, maszynach do rządzenia, projektowaniu systemów społecznych [“Dialogues on atomic resurrection, theory of impossibility, philosophical advantages to cannibalism, test-tubes sadness, cybernetic psychoanalysis, electric metempsychosis, evolution’s feedback, cybernetic eschatology, personalities of electrical networks, deceitful electronic brains, eternal life in a chest, constructing geniuses, capitalism’s epilepsy, management machines, designing social systems”]. The readers could easily feel overwhelmed just opening the book. The fact that it was not understood is best testified to by the number of reviews that came out: a note in Nowa Kultura57 (describing it as a “read for the select audience”) a summary in Nowe Książki58 and a review by ←39 | 40→Wacław Sadkowski in Trybuna Ludu,59 including statements such as “Philonous’s long rants become boring and pointless”; and the conclusion “[Dialogues are] completely devoid of excitement, creative anxiety and – so to speak – the pathos of seeking the truth.” It is hard to imagine a more inaccurate judgment about this or any other of Lem’s works. And that is about it when it comes to the response the first edition of Dialogues received in the Polish press, although it needs to be said that journalists at the time were very accustomed to saying things in an indirect manner (which is what Sadkowski might have been doing there), and cybernetics (especially as it was presented in Dialogues) was not a subject that could be praised openly. To be precise I should add that the second edition was met with complete silence, while the only (but thorough) review of the third one was written by Marek Oramus.60 As to the Annexes, their reception boils down to texts such as a few sentences’ long mention in a press review in Twórczość61 where the author (Andrzej Kijowski) states: “No dictionary of foreign words will be enough to translate Lem’s scientific and philosophical code into a layman’s parlance.” Until now Dialogues have also been very carefully omitted from Polish monographs on Lem’s works.62

The causes of the situation are rather clear. The subject of Dialogues was foreign to most Polish readers, and the author – as I have mentioned earlier – did not include any basic explanations in the book, employing (consciously or unwillingly?) a method that Oramus later described as “natural selection of readers.”63 Dialogues surprised the readers of Lem the novelist, ←40 | 41→the humanities never understood them and the scientists – just never noticed them.64

It does not mean that Lem’s earlier works: The Astronauts, The Magellan Nebula, Time Not Lost trilogy containing Hospital of the Transfiguration and a number of short stories were praised by the critics. The reviews, while much more numerous, were characterized by a lack of understanding of these works comparable to the reviews of Dialogues quoted earlier. The history of Lem’s reception is one of the sad themes of the Polish culture after 1945. Following it highlights a number of issues: from the backwardness of the Polish humanities and science in regard to world trends, to an old man’s frustration and author’s bitterness (he was never particularly easy-tempered, as can be seen in the Letters published in Polish in 2002). This not being my main subject here, I have to limit myself to these remarks, returning to them occasionally, as I will be discussing Lem’s works.

Undoubtedly Lem has been somewhere between the humanities and science from the beginning, and even though (or perhaps because) he was moving between the two areas with bigger ease than most specialists can boast in their respective fields, he remained an outsider in both. In literature, he was perceived as the storyteller whose fantastic narratives were freckled with weird terms; the scientists were suspicious of his way of turning their professionalized knowledge into stories. It was only in the 1970s that critics such as Małgorzata Szpakowska, Jerzy Jarzębski and Stanisław Bereś undertook successful attempts to build a strategy to read Lem.

Dialogues is the one work by Lem that lost most of their appeal with time. I do not want to say they are obsolete. But the thing is cybernetics, their main subject, is obsolete – which Lem himself admitted in the first annex. I will try to analyze whether they can be read today. I assume here that cybernetics as presented in Dialogues is the first stage of Lem’s anthropology, and the specificity of how it is laid out in the book is that it goes beyond purely technological issues. I do not have to add that Lem extended the scope of cybernetics’ relevance in a way that is quite unlike what Polish social cyberneticists did. ←41 | 42→

In the later, “mature” criticism of Lem, insofar as it is, to a very limited extent, devoted to Dialogues, they are notoriously read through a political lens.65 The entire terminology is supposed to serve as a smokescreen, and the first six dialogues would allegedly serve as a misleadingly long introduction to the main component of the work – Dialogue 7 devoted to a critique of the socialist political system and the centrally planned economy. This is an acceptable interpretation of course, but limited; it turns Dialogues into a political pamphlet and dooms it – this time inevitably – to historical oblivion, as any pamphlet would be. It is also difficult to believe that Lem could write this whole book only to smuggle in an attack on the political system.

In order to look at Dialogues from a broader perspective, it is necessary to start by determining the most obvious textual links. The form of the book relates back to Plato and Lucian in the history of literature – they picked the form to emphasize some fundamental aspects of their philosophical and literary thought. But there is also a more immediate reference – Three Dialogues between Hylas and Philonous by Berkeley, which is where Lem found the names of his interlocutors: Hylas and Philonous. The first of these names means “bodily,” “material,” “concrete,” metaphorically also “earthly”; the second one means “thought liking,” “cerebral,” “intellectual.” Both for the English bishop and for Lem, in accordance with the meanings of the names, Hylas is a naive enthusiast, while Philonous a thoughtful sage, which has obvious consequences in the disproportionate structure of the dialogues.

54Kraków: WL, 1957.

55Kraków: WL, 1972; reprinted in 1984.

56“Etyka technologii i technologia etyki,” Studia Filozoficzne, no. 3 (1967), 107–142; “Biologia i wartości,” Studia Filozoficzne, no. 3–4 (1968), 35–78.

57Nowa Kultura, no. 29 (1957), 25.

58Danuta Kępczyńska, Nowe Książki, no. 17 (1957), 1054–1055. The author traces the sources of Dialogues back to the ancient forms of the genre. The obvious statement will be equally clear to other critics, but it does not seem like any major conclusions could be drawn from it. And “invoking Philonous and Hylas is obviously a joke, which is best in the first dialogue, made so archaic, so it ‘exudes’ the smell of agora and ancient Greece” (Tako rzecze… Lem, 84). Of course, the long title itself is styled in an archaic manner characteristic of the early print era.

59Trybuna Ludu, no. 223 (1957), 6. Lem wrote about this review: “I cannot quite understand, because it is as if someone said: this omelette does not fulfill the criteria for a beefsteak. It does not, because it was not meant to be literature” (Tako rzecze… Lem, 84).

60“Entuzjasta w sieci sprzężeń,” Przegląd Techniczny, no. 26 (1985), 44.

61Dedal (i.e., Andrzej Kijowski), Twórczość, no. 2 (1969), 142.

62Passages from Małgorzata Szpakowska’s Dyskusje ze Stanisławem Lemem [“Discussions with Stanisław Lem”] (amended 2nd edition, Warszawa: OPEN 1997, 93–99, 155–168, which include a detailed analysis of Dialogue 7) and Jerzy Jarzębski’s Wszechświat Lema [“Lem’s universe”] (Kraków: WL 2003, 37, 137, 162–163) are exceptions from the rule. See also: Marian M. Leś, Stanisław Lem wobec utopii [“Stanisław Lem on utopia”] (Białystok: Towarzystwo Literackie im. Adama Mickiewicza, 1998), 72–80 (on Dialogue 7’s relation to Eden).

63Marek Oramus. “Entuzjasta…”; Umberto Eco admits to a similar approach in his “Postcript” to The Name of the Rose. Joyce’s remarks about “the ideal reader suffering from an ideal insomnia” are generally known. This opens up possibilities to interpret Lem’s writing as erudite and hermetic in a manner characteristic of some of the currents of modernism.

64After the first edition, the only reaction in the field came from Greniewski, who mentioned Dialogues in his Elementy cybernetyki…

65Cf. Jerzy Jarzębski, “Lata młodzieńcze i dojrzałość cybernetyki”, in: Stanisław Lem, Dialogi, Collected works (Kraków: WL, 2001), 486. Małgorzata Szpakowska, Dyskusje ..., 155 and following. ←42 | 43→