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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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18 Utopia in ST

18Utopia in ST

While describing and analyzing the content of ST, I pointed to those qualities of the work that can be seen as utopian. It is important because if it can be proved that ST is a kind of utopia, it would have bearing on all types of thinking about social practice that repeat the model of ST – that is, autoevolutionary ideas. Again, I have to emphasize methodological difficulties one encounters studying (not to mention producing) a discourse that is somewhere in between four different domains: humanism and posthumanism; theory and social practice. It is extremely difficult to determine the relationship between such a discourse and its subject. It is hard to tell where a description ends and a manifesto begins; what is a theoretical concept and what is an actual plan of action.

I treat the utopianism of ST as one of the implicit anthropological assumptions Lem accepts. He rarely and marginally formulates them overtly (and I have quoted many of such passages here). A deep conviction about human rationality is a recurring thread. The thought is usually an axiom for Lem, which does not need to be justified. It does come into conflict though with the opposite view, which he has been articulating from the very beginning of his writing and which is the dominating one. However, we can omit that contradiction here, as it has no bearing on the current argument. It is an element of conflict between naturalism and culturalism in Lem’s thought.188

Human rationality is the necessary condition for autoevolution. Science and technology, which make autoevolution possible and, in fact, necessary due to unstoppable progress,189 have no necessary rationale for themselves. Even “information farming” does not produce one for itself, and “pantocreatics” is but a set of Designer’s internal rules, which have nothing to do with the “User.” In short, science and technology can never answer what it is that they exist for and what the purpose of their products is. Therefore, if there is no obvious pragmatic ←159 | 160→criterion (applicability of medications, practical usefulness of technical devices), the question of purpose becomes problematic. What makes it even more difficult is that the availability of a pragmatic criterion entails a question about whether the achievements of science and technology are always used for a common good (and we know they are not). Lem rarely says any of these things, as they are problematic from his point of view. He would rather that the meaning of science was implicit to it, as is the case with art that is separated from social issues. However, he knows this is not the case, he assumes human rationality is what gives meaning to science.190 Rational people – and only they – can make such a use of the fruits of the growth of technology based on science, that it will not turn against them and will not degrade the progress itself. Lem realizes how risky such a thesis is – and that is why he conceals it beneath the surface of the text of ST.

Yet, the social reality contradicted this thesis already when ST was being written. Today this contradiction is even more striking. And I do not just mean those versions of thoughtlessness, stupidity and bad intentions, which we witness daily on the web, nor am I thinking about the deep separation between pragmatics and ethics in how technology is used. The thing is also that – despite the claims of “third culture” enthusiasts – science and technology do not help introduce order into the exponentially increasing amounts of meanings available in our culture, while they themselves keep adding on meanings. One of the diseases that destroy the Western culture today is semiotitis191 – excessive growth of chaotic meaning, which cannot be put into “grand narratives.” A thoughtful person is drifting today on the surface of an infinite and bottomless ocean of meanings, with no navigation tools, and with every move or gesture, every word, even accidentally dropped, immediately becoming meaningful in any number of ways. Scholars and intellectuals work compulsively producing new meanings. But this whole infinitely chaotic field of meanings makes no sense. (And the distinction between sense and meaning comes more from Sartre than Frege here.) Lem understood that a long time ago – I believe that his Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1961) is one of the most powerful descriptions of semiotitis, if we only go beyond the level of political readings. Memoirs… are a startling description of ←160 | 161→a desperate work on sense, a futile work with no grounding in any kind of lasting foundations.

Autoevolution, seen as a product of science and technology, is devoid of sense, even if we assume that it does include a pragmatic criterion, which is not self-evident at all. To give it sense, Lem has to introduce an anthropological premise. And it is the thesis about human rationality. It is a utopian thesis. This means that the idea of autoevolution is utopian itself.

But what are we speaking about when we use the word “utopia”? Studying two of the best discussions of the problem that have been written in Polish,192 one could come to a conclusion that nearly every conceptual system referring to social and cultural reality, which is not a straightforward description, is a utopia. Any such discourse includes either certain assumptions about human nature or postulates about how the social world should be arranged. Wishing to avoid getting into vague discussions, I accept the understanding of the concept of utopia presented by Karl Manheim: utopia is a system of thought, discourse or narrative, which calls for a change of the existing social order; as opposed to ideology, the aim of which is to preserve such order. The important point is that Manheim does not assume that utopia describes the perfect state – which was a characteristic of old utopias, from Plato’s republic, through More, to Wells’s positivist projects.

I believe ST is a utopia, which does not assume perfection of the project it presents, but its inevitability. Lem emphasizes that on many occasions. The utopianism here is not about claiming that autoevolution is a telos for the humanity, a paradise or any other such ultimate point of arrival. (It is different in some of the newer concepts, e.g., for the extropians, but that’s another story.) At its core, however, there lies an assumption of human rationality that in fact makes ST similar to projects of enlightenment, positivism and liberalism (the differences between Lem’s thought and the former two has already been analyzed here). There are two options then: Manheim’s utopia of change and liberal utopia of rationality. They are complementary with each another. Lem believes that any description of future changes of humanity is only justified when one accepts some basic assumptions about human nature, which would inform the ←161 | 162→changes. Otherwise such description would be pure fantasy. We have already seen how the view materialized in “metatheory of autoevolution,” which determined its technological scope. Now I am trying to show that the utopian assumption of rationality is what determines the autoevolutionary pragmatics in Lem’s discourse. Pantocreatics determines the Designer; rationality determines “the User.” However, while the former is “real” as an essential component of the autoevolutionary project, the latter is an ad hoc assumption with a status of an axiom, which cannot be treated as a practical rule.

The difference between the two can be illustrated as follows: let us imagine that a computer at an IT store comes with two user’s manuals. The first one is a regular manual on how to use it, install software and so on; while the latter is a manual of virtuous use of the computer, which, for example, includes a directive that the computer cannot be used to browse pornographic websites, and anyone who does that will be naughty. In the autoevolutionary project pantocreatics is the manual of the first kind, whereas rationality – of the second. Pantocreatics is essential for autoevolution to happen, rationality – unfortunately is not. And that is also a reason why rationality is what makes the project utopian.

It is a complex issue. We have here: Lem’s explicit discourse in ST and other “essays,” with all its difficulties; Lem’s fiction, which largely corresponds with the discourse193; Lem’s project of autoevolution; we have the twofold utopian character of the project as I am presenting it; the implicit and contradictory anthropological assumptions accepted by Lem; the evolution of his thinking between the 1960s and the end of his life; and finally there is the issue of how it all relates to the social and political practice, especially the contemporary state of biotechnology and surrounding debates. It is a conundrum that is difficult to analyze and I shall not disentangle it on every possible level. However, later in this chapter I will be describing sections of the contemporary (post)humanist discourse that have something to do with Lem’s utopia. I want to emphasize here that the thesis about the utopian character of the autoevolutionary project is applicable to all concept I will be referring to on the following pages.

A few more general remarks need to be made about the utopian character of autoevolution. We already know that the main ethical condition for ←162 | 163→autoevolution is human rationality. Without it, autoevolution may become what Internet can be: a trifle for entertainment only. Yet, this liberal and meliorist assumption that makes Lem resemble many of the “old” utopians drawing visions of humanity without law and violence, governed by natural virtues, conflicts with another assumption, equally, if not more important than this one. As the author of the autoevolutionary project, Lem rejects – he wants to and has to reject – the entire humanism. Autoevolution is unhistorical, as it reveals the entire past of the species, not only biological past, but historical and cultural too. This may seem not to contradict the earlier characteristic, especially as it is shared by most liberal social theories that assume people are independent from the past and are almost infinitely malleable in their humanity. However, therein lies the problem: such thinking requires that we reject the notion of “human nature,” and treat it as a “naturalistic fallacy.” Meanwhile, the assumption of rationality does imply the existence of human nature – one that would include rationality. If I am right in seeing an aporia here, it is one that Lem shares with most liberal and posthumanist thinkers – it will be evident as I discuss the notion of identity in contemporary (post)humanist discourse.

The fact that in ST, Lem almost never ponders on whether people will actually want to subject themselves to autoevolution may be an evidence that he does not deem the notion of “human nature” necessary. It clearly does not cross his mind that people could be willing to retain their current condition. Most likely it is simply because he sees this condition as extremely meager, but partly also because he shares a liberal conviction that this condition can be freely shaped, that it is independent from all that is past – and so that there are no imponderables that used to be seen as “human nature.”

A psychoanalyst would certainly wonder about the impulse that leads Lem to change everything. But even in this case our author is not consistent. In 1978 the monthly Znak asked scholars and intellectuals about their views on science and faith. Here is an excerpt from Lem’s response:

The newer extremists on the other hand dream about a real “etorevolution” involving redesigning a human that would be in every respect “better” than Homo sapiens. The biggest risk lies in the fact that this whole designing endeavor unwittingly goes beyond real history of the humanity. The thing is that every social or philosophical system, every religion, every historical time accepted and assumed all the qualities and values present in the natural man. The natural man was and is “a constant,” an unchangeable element in its own history. It is easy to speak generally about a “better human,” but in no tradition of earthly cultures, no philosophical and religious systems, no ethical codes can one find any directives what would suggest what this “perfected” man would be like. By stepping beyond the state of things we have, we are losing any normative, legal, axiological and ←163 | 164→theological ground, we are left with no compass – this whole meliorist concept is left in a vacuum. But one day it will be possible to carry out psychological and bodily changes of great scope, and there may be no shortage of fanatic supporters of the process then. This is likely the biggest threat ahead of us.194

It looks like Lem in 1978 is criticizing Lem’s ideas from 1964. It will not seem odd if we take into account how unstable his anthropological views were. However, the evolution of Lem’s anthropology is not my concern here – it would make my argument too complicated. In the quoted excerpt Lem emphasizes the problem that has now become the main argument for the opponents of biotechnology: the rejection of history as a road sign, and of ethics grounded in history – even though he did not mind it back in ST at all. It needs to be added that the issue itself is still valid, because, as I shall try to show later, posthumanism is the first period in our history when the content of the past in no way helps us understand the present. The disconnect is too radical.

In another short text, written somewhat earlier, Lem described various “effects” occurring within futurology. Among them there is “Archimedes effect.”

The ARCHIMEDES EFFECT is the search for support for thought. It is nonsensical to claim that full freedom, that is, lack of limits, is what gives wings to thought. Weightlessness only seems to give cosmonauts full freedom of movement (if they weigh nothing, they do not pull, so they have no limitations), because in reality it paralyzes orientation and turns man like a wriggling baby; similarly thought with no support in known templates does not fly infinitely but it holds on to anything it can, at random.

Our era invalidates all the traditional supports, including the experience of previous generations, customary prohibitions and the belief in unconditional benefits of economic growth, and thus it takes away the tested structure that the thought ruling action could lean on. That is why the Archimedes effect occurs so spasmodically today. The more things happen, that even yesterday seemed impossible, the more dramatically thought turns to the past, searching for directions.

Hence the popularity of historical parallels, hence the imposing tendency to remind us we come from apes, hence the discussions about the inescapability of inborn qualities – and hence the sudden interest in history and ethology. Perhaps we can be saved by studying the behavior of Romans at the time of the fading empire? Or maybe rather we should focus on anthropoids? Maybe the behavior of rats, lemmings and predators will be our compass? Or maybe man is ←164 | 165→a domesticated animal that domesticated itself? And we should look for a solution in a cow or a ram? Why does the enlightened audience now read all the bestsellers on its apish qualities, while a century ago similar revelations would provoke anti-Darwinian fury? Because the limits posed by apes are better than none.195

Here is yet another approach to the matter: the past (biological rather than cultural, but not only) is a remedy to the instability of an era of great changes. But it is not a sure remedy, it is straw that a drowning man clutches at. It can fail us because the connection with the past is no longer organic, the past is, so to say, brought back artificially. The wave of sociobiological books on “ape roots” of human social institutions, which started in the 1990s, confirms Lem’s thesis. The remark about “cosmonaut’s baby-like helplessness” coincides with his normative attempts in ST (“pantocreatics”) and Lem’s dislike of “wild sci-fi.”

All these different views Lem expressed about the past share one thing: the past as understood by the classical, 19th- and 20th-century humanism, that is, the past that contains the meaning of the present, is irretrievably gone.

188Commentators have been pointing out for a long time that Lem’s fictions and discursive texts are swarmed with contradictory assumptions. See, for example, N. Katherine Hayles, “Chaos as Dialectic: Stanisław Lem and the Space of Writing,” in: idem, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990). The author (who is one of the leading theoreticians of posthumanism) outlines an interpretation of Lem’s work as constant attempts to marry various contradictory statements about man and the world.

189The conviction about the “inevitability of progress,” which has been discussed here before, is another element of his discourse that contributes to its utopianism.

190I am using the term “rationality” in its standard meaning, as shaped by the thought of the Enlightenment and Positivism.

191By creating this neologism, I am referring to the book by Constantin Noica Six Maladies of the Contemporary Spirit, where the Romanian intellectual described catholitis, horeitis and todetitis and their opposites: acatholia, ahoretia, atodetia – they are an original diagnosis of the crisis of culture in the second half of the 20th century.

192These are: Aleksander Świętochowski, Utopie w rozwoju historycznym (Warszawa: Gebethner i S-ka, 1910), 347; and Jerzy Szacki, Spotkanie z utopią (Warszawa: Sic!, 2000), 240 (new edition). Świętochowski is of course outdated now in his interpretations, but most of the book is a description of tens of utopian systems, and it has lost no value as a compendium.

193I am only referring to those connections marginally so as not to make my own analyses even more complicated. Lem’s novels, especially Wizja lokalna [“Observation on the Spot”] and Eden have been studied in search of their utopianism both by Szpakowska and Jarzębski. Cf. also Mariusz M. Leś, Stanisław Lem wobec utopii (Białystok: Towarzystwo Literackie Im. Adama Mickiewicza, Oddział Białostocki, 1998).

194Stanisław Lem, [A response], Znak, no. 291 (1978), 1148.

195Stanisław Lem, “Refleksje 1974,” in: Rozprawy i szkice (Kraków: Wyd. Literackie, 1975), 335. ←165 | 166→←166 | 167→