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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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19 Introduction to Autoevolution

19Introduction to Autoevolution

Małgorzata Szpakowska titled one of the chapters in her book “Lem i trzy ewolucje” [“Lem and three evolutions”].196 In it she discussed his views on biological evolution, evolution of technology and evolution of culture. She skipped a fourth evolution though, which is the most important one for this work: autoevolution.

The word occurs in ST the same way “Nature” and “Designer” do – as a primary notion, which is never defined with any precision. Until today it has gained no strong presence in the language of science and humanities. It is therefore necessary to attempt to define it and its scope. What is human autoevolution, what can it be? Is it just an idea, or is it a tangible process, or one that is close to becoming tangible?

In light of ST, the main theme of which, as has been shown earlier, is the call to “rationally exceed Nature,” autoevolution is a rational, planned process of transforming human genotype and phenotype, as well as his sensorium until biological forms of existence are completely rejected; the aim of the process is to achieve physical and intellectual prowess that is higher than a human can ever achieve within the potential provided by the random process of biological evolution. Going beyond the discourse of ST, it also needs to be said that the theoretical reflection on autoevolution has to include an analysis of its possible implications for human and posthuman spiritual, social and political life. Posthumanism is the discursive correlate of autoevolution. The analysis that follows here will be based on this definition.

In Lem’s fiction there are two scenarios of autoevolution present: serious and grotesque. The former can be found in Golem XIV (1981), the latter in “The Twenty-First Voyage” in The Star Diaries (1971).

Golem, a supercomputer built by people, which achieved intellectual independence and became something of an oracle, in its Inaugural lecture discusses in brief the entire history of life on Earth and the human species from the point of view of Lem’s interpretation of biological evolution. It predicts the further development of humans, claiming that unsolved contradictions that torment us and our cultures will eventually push us to reject the current form of existence – the body – and to transition to other forms of existence197:←167 | 168→

Can you remain in place standing stubbornly at the crossroads? But then you will lapse into stagnation, and that can be no refuge for you! … So you will embark on the expansion of Intelligence, abandoning your bodies, or you will become blind men led by one who can see, or – ultimately – you will come to a halt in sterile despondency.

The prospects are not encouraging, but that will not hold you back. Nothing holds you back. Today a disembodied Intelligence seems to you just as much a catastrophe as a disminded body, for this act of resignation entails the totality of human values and not merely man’s material form. This act must be to you the most terrible downfall possible, the utter end, the annihilation of humanity, inasmuch as it is a casting off, a turning into dust and ashes of twenty thousand years of achievements – everything that Prometheus attained in his struggle with Caliban.

I do not know if this will comfort you, but the gradualness of the change will take away the monumentally tragic – and at the same time repellent and terrible – significance contained in my words. It will occur far more normally, and to a certain degree it is already happening: areas of tradition are beginning to bother you, they are falling away and withering, and this is what so bewilders you …

You will manage to neither perish not triumph as of old.

I feel that you are entering an age of metamorphosis; that you will decide to cast aside your entire history, your entire heritage and all that remains of natural humanity – whose image, magnified into beautiful tragedy, is the focus of the mirrors of your beliefs; that you will advance (for there is no other way), and in this, which for you is now only a leap into the abyss, you will find a challenge, if not a beauty; and that you will proceed in your own way after all, since in casting off man, man will save himself.198

Golem’s words resemble contemporary posthumanist manifestos (see Chapters 21 and 22 here), but have much higher artistic and intellectual standing. The description of autoevolution in “The Twenty-First Voyage” is much more elaborate, if a lot less lofty. Here199 again, as in other grotesque writings by Lem, he describes “the other side of the coin,” mirroring his own “serious” texts, but with a lot less serious effect. ←168 | 169→

Golem’s version of autoevolution is similar to the extropians’ idea, although unlike them Lem’s Golem knows what shock it would be to culture. And this is one of the main conceivable versions of autoevolution. Ijon Tichy, on the other hand, having arrived on the planet of Dichotica, has a chance to learn about a new version in which humans200 do not abandon their bodies, but begin to radically transform them.

Szpakowska meticulously analyzed one of the themes in “The Twenty-First Voyage”: the religiosity of monks-machines, which are the last creatures on this planet who believe in transcendence. Yet, she completely ignored autoevolution, even though the two topics are complementary. The name of the planet resembles the word “dichotomy” – and the very dichotomy in this case lies in the growing “transcendental spirituality” of machine on one hand and “wild” autoevolution of humans, devoid of any higher meaning on the other.

Tichy makes no contact with the Dichoticans. He learns about the autoevolution which has been going on for more than ten centuries from books, provided by Demolitian Friars living in hiding (they and the Prognosites are two orders of machines). The autoevolution on Dichotica started with a rejection of mortality, which was turned into action through the progress of technology. It started modestly with biotechnology and intelectronics, which spread cloning, designing and resurrecting people, quickly leading to deconstruction of the truth and dogmas of the (Christian) faith, especially the immortal soul and the personal identity. Then

I learned that in the year 2401 Byg Brogar, Dyrr Daagard and Merr Drr threw open the gates to limitless autoevolutionary freedom; these scholars earnestly believed that Homo Autofac Sapens, the Self-made Man, made possible by their discovery, would achieve the ultimate in harmony and happiness, endowing himself with those aspects of form and qualities of spirit he judged to be most perfect … For such hopes usually attend the appearance of any great and new technology.

At first autoevolutionary engineering, or – as they called it – the Fetalistic Movement, burgeoned in a way that seemed to accord with the expectations of its illustrious inventors. Ideals in health, congruity, spiritual and physical beauty became universalized, by constitutional law every citizen was guaranteed the right to acquire whatever psychic or somatic attributes were deemed the most desirable … But progress has this about it, that it is driven ever onward by its own advance, hence things did not stop there. The transformations that followed seemed innocent enough at the outset. Young women ←169 | 170→beautified themselves by the cultivation of epidermal jewelry and other efflorescences of the flesh … young men sported side and back beards, cockscomb crests, jaws with double bites, etc.

Twenty years later the first majority parties came into being. It took a while before I realized, reading, that “majority party” meant something different on Dichotica that it did to us. In opposition to the majority party platform, they called for the proliferation of anatomies, there was the minority group, which advocated reductionism, that is, the elimination of those organs considered by the minority leaders of various factions to be non-vital. (180)

Biopolitics is thus born on Dichotica – political views and programs are linked with autoevolutionary practices. We should add that people on Earth are close to this stage, even though they are not there yet in terms of technology. What else are the discussions on euthanasia, cloning and applied genetics that have been growing since the early 1990s if not just such biopolitics? Later in his readings,201 Tichy learns the details of autoevolutionary propaganda and the subsequent stages of autoevolution, its meandering development and its gradual degeneration, which produces changing trends in increasingly odd transformations of bodies; a state institution called SOPSYLABD (the Soma and Psyche Planning Board), itself disintegrating into bureaucratic subinstitutions such as LA (Lip Administration), BUFF (Beautiful Figure Foundation) and NIFTY (the National Institute of Fingers and Toes) is striving in vain to control such tendencies. Without renouncing the grotesque aesthetics, Lem also shows that autoevolution can fall prey to the same social, political and bureaucratic processes that harmed all utopian and revolutionary ideas of transforming existence.

Later on in the process of autoevolution the existing notions of gender and sexuality are destroyed. This grotesque destruction seems today like a caricature of the discourse of gender and queer studies:←170 | 171→

Showing their contempt for all things utilitarian, they set eyes in their armpits, and one group of young biotic activists made use of innumerable sound organs … Then came the fashion – the mania rather – for long tentacles … And, since no one could lift those piles of coils by himself, so called processionals were attached, caudalettes … In the textbook I found illustrations depicting men of fashion, behind whom walked tentacle-bearing processionals on parade; but this was already the decline of the protest movement, or more precisely its complete bankruptcy, because it had failed to pursue any goals of its own, being solely a rebellious reaction against the orgiastic baroque of the age.

The baroque had its apologists … who maintained that the body existed for the purpose of deriving the greatest amount of pleasure from the greatest number of sites simultaneously. Merg Brb, its leading exponents, argued that Nature had situated – and stingily at that – centers of pleasurable sensation in the body for the purpose of survival only …

Brb received the enthusiastic support of a group of talented young designers from SOPSYPLABD, who invented brippets and gnools … ecstasy centers, of course, were implanted in the brain … Thus were created the brippive and gnoolial drives, also activities corresponding to those instincts, activities which a highly rich and varied range, for one could gnool and brip alternately or at the same time, alone, in pairs, trios and later – after noffles were tacked on – in groups of several dozen individuals as well. Also new forms of art came into being, master brippers appeared, and gnool artists, but that was only the beginning; towards the end of the 26th century you had the mannerism of the marchpusses … and the celebrated Ondor Stert, who could simultaneously gnool, brip and surpostulate while flying through the air on spinal wings, became the idol of millions. (194–196)

Behind the mocking style of the passage, we can read a certain vision of a continued Copernican revolution. In the process of the increasingly all-encompassing autoevolution the very notion of what it means to be human – at least in a physiological sense, which, as we know, is particularly important for Lem and the contemporary anthropological thought – begins to lose its uniqueness. It becomes relative by being placed on a broad scale of forms of existence that can be designed or assumed. Our planet is not in the center of the universe, nor is our galaxy, we are not the ultimate goal of creation, and our universe is not the only universe – and if that were not enough, it turns out that body and sex, through which we define our humanity, are not the only possible option of corporeality and sexuality, but only one of the possible options drawn from a nearly unlimited spectrum. It is one of the possible consequences of autoevolution in its “somatic” version, especially when there no longer is any hierarchy of higher values. The writings of Judith Butler, describing “a gender continuum” replacing the binary opposition of “masculinity-femininity,” contains a similar thought, except articulated in all seriousness.

Further on in “The Twenty-First Voyage” there is a scene that corresponds even better with gender studies, and that also feeds into Lem’s taste for the ←171 | 172→macabre.202 Tichy and the friars go out on the surface of the planet. They come across a small building, and then Tichy says:

I heard groans issuing from that place, and a throaty rattle so dreadful, my hair stood on end. The voice, undeniably human, chokes and moaned in turn. I knew for a certainty that this was the cry of someone being tortured, being murdered perhaps; I looked at my companions, but they paid absolutely no attention to those grisly sounds … There on a blood-spattered table lay a naked figure, surrounded by machines that had sunk gleaming tubes or tongs into its body, which was now dead, and so contorted by the final throes, I couldn’t tell arms from legs … I stood, overcome by the horror, the ghastliness, the mystery of the scene, for the corpse was alone – I could look into all the corners of that mechanized torture chamber …

The shining bell lifted and I beheld a face, an inhuman face; by now all the machines were working at once, and so rapidly, that I saw only a blur and the motion of glass pump beneath the table, inside which a red liquid churned, till finally in the middle of this confusion the chest of the corpse began to rise and fall; before my eyes his wounds sealed up, he twitched all over, he yawned.

“He’s come back to life?” I asked in a whisper.

“Yes,” said the prior. “In order to die once more.”

The one lying flat looked around and with a limp, seemingly boneless palm gripped a handle that stuck out on the side, gave a pull, and the bell slid back over his head, the slanting pincers, emerging from their sheaths, clutched the body, and a scream rang out, the same scream as before …

it was the prior explaining that the pavilion was a special service station, where one could live and relive one’s own death. The purpose here is to experience sensations as powerful as possible, and not necessarily suffering, for with the aid of the stimuli transformers pain becomes an excruciating pleasure. All this derives from the fact that thanks to certain types of automorphosis Dichoticans can enjoy even the pangs of death … This particular method bears the name of “Agonanism.” (204–206)

The description of the execution of Robert Damiens, which opens Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, is very similar. In both cases we are dealing with a typical sadomasochist phantasm: surrendering to pain and torture till death. Except in the autoevolutionary world of Dichotica such dream can be fulfilled more than once, while in our world it can happen only once.203 For Lem this image is a ←172 | 173→testimony to the degeneration of the Dichoticans. Absolutizing the bodily and sensual experiences is a substitute for the lost faith in transcendence. Again, it is impossible not to notice such substitution today. The entire huge realm of gender studies, largely shaped by Foucault’s influence and the feminist thought, focuses on the very question of the body – the problems of older metaphysics are considered musty and irrelevant. The body and gender perform the function of a center of thought – detached from their biological qualities and reduced to symbols of their social functions. Moreover, such theory of gender favors all these forms of the bodily and the sexual, which were previously not mentioned, were repressed as “nonnormative,” beginning with the trivial homosexuality, through all forms of transgender to sadomasochism and other highly nonnormative phenomena. By making them the center of its attention, gender studies largely contribute to the destruction of the existing way of understanding the issues of bodily and sexual identity, and hence to the rise of posthumanism.

However, if in “The Twenty-First Voyage” we can find so many traces of our contemporary reality of the 21st century, does it make sense to treat the text as a description of future autoevolution? Perhaps autoevolution is only one of the grotesque masks that Lem gave to our world, so the description of our problems becomes less straightforward? Yes and no. Yes, because “The Twenty-First Voyage” can be read as a critique of the current situation, just as any other of Lem’s grotesque texts. No, if we assume that the autoevolution in “The Twenty-First Voyage” is the same autoevolution that he discussed in ST, seen from a different point of view. These interpretations are equally acceptable and are not contradictory. In light of the latter it is visible that autoevolution of the “somatic” ←173 | 174→type will not liberate us from the problems of the body and gender, or other social issues.

The following stage of autoevolution on Dichotica focused on the mind and produced wisdomites, who settled down due to the size of their brains. Later, it turned to another extreme:

The reaction, when it came, was violent. Our medieval woodcuts, offering representations of dragons and monstrosities from other lands, are child’s play alongside the physical abandonment that then beset the globe … This was also when agonanism came into vogue. Civilization retrogressed … In the parks all overgrown with table weeds and wild china there lay basking, between clumps of napkill, hullocks – veritable mountains of breathing meat. The majority of these monstrous forms did not arise through conscious choice and planning, but rather were the ghastly consequence of breakdowns in the body-building machinery: it produced not what had been ordered, but degenerate and crippled freaks. (207–208)

Even though in the 20th century, dictator Dzomber Glaubon temporarily introduced “unification, normalization and bodily standardization,” as well as desexualization, soon after the Dichoticans returned to autoevolutionary practices, biopolitics and multiplicity of sexes. As a result, during Ijon Tichy’s stay on Dichotica the only humanoid creatures were Fathers-Robots. In his last conversation Tichy finds out that their credo is “non agam” (“I will not act”). This point reveals the radical difference between the Dichoticans who were in the process of constant autoevolution and the machines-believers, as the covert credo of the Dichoticans is the opposite sentence: “semper agam,” and they share the attitude of people that I mentioned in the previous part of this book: “if we can do it, let us do it!”

So it turns out that Lem can criticize even the most fundamental of his own beliefs. While analyzing the implicit assumptions behind the ST, I emphasized on many occasions, that one of the necessary conditions for the project of autoevolution to make sense is the assumption that people sooner or later will fulfill their entire intellectual and technological potential. In Lem’s discursive works this assumption is unquestionable. Meanwhile in his grotesque texts this very assumption is questioned, which implies that they can be understood as an internal critique within Lem’s work.204 ←174 | 175→

The analyses presented so far show that Lem allows for three types of autoevolution, which I here call: “somatic,” “cyborg” and “mental.” Somatic autoevolution is a biological manipulation of the form of the body through genetic engineering (“The Twenty-First Voyage”; “the weak variant” in ST); the cyborg autoevolution is about a far-reaching synthesis between body and machine (cyborgization in ST); the mental autoevolution is about radical separation of mind from the body and placing it in another “vehiculum,” for example, a computer network (Golem XIV, “the strong variant” in ST). Further on I shall trace those themes in contemporary culture, which include these three types of autoevolution in one way or another.

There is also a short text by Lem from 1969 called “Autoewolucja.”205 The theme of the text is as follows: any autoevolutionary practices (which for Lem include, e.g., contraceptives) are “a clash between faith and empirical knowledge.” The autoevolution itself – a thorough transformation of the entire species – will be the biggest of those clashes and religion (at least Roman Catholicism) will never come to terms with that. In broader terms the question about the possibility and acceptability of autoevolution is for Lem a question about the limits of human freedom. He sees here the problem of discrepancy between the performative power of technology and its sensible use. But, as I have mentioned before, such doubts only come up marginally in his works. They are completely absent from ST.

196Dyskusje…, 54–89.

197Here and further on I skip the issues of the nature of the relationship between consciousness and body (mind–body problem, self-awareness, etc.), which have not been definitively solved and to which Lem devoted a significant part of Dialogues. Within the radical approaches I am discussing now, it is assumed that this problem will be solved through technology, or that it is merely a result of the limited humanistic imagination, or an erroneous interpretation of reality (i.e., the so-called Cartesian mistake). In fact, if it is to be taken as a real problem (i.e., if the human consciousness is really essentially and inextricably related to human body and senses), there could be no moving or extracting the mind out of the body.

198Stanisław Lem, “Golem XIV,” in: Imaginary Magnitude, trans. by M. E. Heine (San Diego-New York-London: A Harvest Book, A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984), 41–43.

199Stanisław Lem, The Star Diaries, trans. by M. Kandel (London: Secker & Warburg, 1976), 66–219; paging further on follows this edition.

200Actually it is Dichoticans but the masque is very transparent in this case. The drawings that Lem places in the text and the words of the narrator make it very clear what species the author had in mind.

201In the structure of the text of “The Twenty-First Voyage” two motifs, human autoevolution and machines’ faith, correspond with two different layers of the plot. Tichy’s reading of books on autoevolution is interrupted by conversations on faith which he is having with Fathers-Robots. There are also some external interruptions as well. A detailed analysis of the structure of the plot is not my subject here, although one could make some interesting observations about it, for example, that Tichy’s contact with Dichoticans is almost entirely mediated by text, while his contact with machines is direct (bringing to mind a Turing test in a rebours). The scene in which friars are checked by a Dichotican patrol is equally subversive: people play the part of heartless oppressors, while machines are presented as the delicate, spiritual victims.

202Such themes can be found in nearly every work of fiction that Lem produced, starting with the collection of monstrous fetuses in Kauters’s apartment (Hospital of the Transfiguration), to the pornographic X-rays in Imaginary Magnitude (which are perhaps a distant echo of the exchange of X-rays between Castorp and Clavdia Chauchat in The Magic Mountain). I have pointed to possible reasons behind this tendency in the article “Lem fantastyczny czy makabryczny?”

203In 2001 in Germany 40-year-old Armin Meiwes used an Internet forum for cannibals to contact Bernd Brandes, who agreed that Meiwes would kill him (by cutting off his genitals and bleeding to death) and eat him. In 2004 Meiwes was sentenced to 8 years in jail, but his trial triggered a hot discussion whether he should be punished for killing and eating someone who expressly wished that to happen. And it is by no means the only such case. A desire for extreme sensual experiences and absolute domination and submission have the main role in S&M phantasms. Such practices are usually highly conventional and can take up the form of a ritual or highly complicated and staged game. The emotional bond is absent or reduced to a minimum, while pure, depersonalized bodily experience is absolutized. Having such practices performed by machines, as it happens in Lem’s writing, might be a well-conceived literary idea. It can be put in the same realm as other mass culture products that raise the issue of sex between men and machines or cyborgs – for instance David Cronenberg’s films or video clips made by Chris Cunningham.

204“The Twenty-first Voyage” is similar in that regard to the short story “Altruizine” in The Cyberiad. In this story Trurl sets off to the planet of H.P.L.D. (Highest Possible Level of Development; in Polish, however, the creatures are described as N.F.R., abbreviation from Najwyższa Forma Rozumu, but with clear political allusion to German Federal Republic, in Polish Republika Federalna Niemiec), where he deals with creatures degenerated by their own omnipotence. It includes a discussion of the contradiction entailed by the notion of omnipotence for a human being who is finite in time and space (Borges’s short story The Immortal has the same message). The sentence from “Altruizine”: “whether one thinks in metal or jelly is completely irrelevant,” is a paraphrase of Turing’s thought.

205Argumenty, no. 34 (1969), 7, 14. ←175 | 176→←176 | 177→