Show Less
Open access

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.

Show Summary Details
Open access

26 Posthumanism and Gender

26Posthumanism and Gender

In the multitude of contemporary intellectual currents, gender studies are now among them most important. As I have suggested a number of times already, placing sex, gender and human body at the center of philosophical and social thought may be caused by the fall of metaphysics and historicism. “Body,” both “sex” and “gender,” as well as “sexuality” are used in this discourse as primary terms describing fundamental elements of the human condition. A full account of gender studies or even its intellectual genesis, even a brief one, goes beyond the scope of this work. By “gender studies,” I mean some types of contemporary feminism – LGBTQ+ studies and queer theory. I believe the way these social theories conceive of history and identity is very similar to how posthumanism understands them. How is it so?

One of the main theses of the gender studies discourse since at least the early 1990s is the “construction of gender,” best laid out by Judith Butler. The thesis is that gender and even biological sex is not a given characteristic we are born with (a “core” of our condition), but a product of complicated norms, conventions and social roles implemented through performance; it is not an element of “nature” and can therefore be modified in all sorts of ways.236 To prove the thesis, Butler and other authors focus on those forms of human sexuality which have so far never been mentioned or have been treated as odd exceptions because they did not abide by those norms, roles and conventions, by violating and confusing them. This includes above all some “borderline” forms: androgyny; homo-, bi- and transsexuality; hermaphrodites; transvestites; including especially camp and drag – as cultural phenomena; and also all “non-standard” sexual behaviors described medically as paraphilias. Gender studies’ authors analyze these phenomena in detail on many levels (sociology, psychology, political studies, literary studies, media studies, etc.). The fact that “gender games” are the focus of gender studies is the inevitable result of making body, sex and gender main instances of human identity understood in a Nietzschean way. Just as in posthumanism, we are dealing here with the task of constructing an identity without reference to ←217 | 218→tradition, which has been rejected as a source of limitations and repression. If so, if identity is no longer determined by cultural past – it cannot be built with the existing set of cultural symbols (which was still done by early postmodernists), and the only available means of constructing identity is sexuality, especially those kinds of sexuality which were forbidden before. Gender studies can be seen as a “quest for the limits of humanity,” but the quest only happens in the absolutized sphere of sexuality (just as in Sade’s works interpreted by Bataille), because the “spiritual” sphere, which had determined the shape of the Western civilization for at least thirty centuries, was pronounced to be a construction governed by hegemonic discourses, which ultimately boil down to body and sexuality too. In light of gender studies, the only reality directly available to us is the materiality of our bodies (and especially the surface of our bodies) and sensory experiences; and this reality is “most real” when it is vague and is not governed by any norms.

Of all subfields of gender studies, I believe the queer theory is most similar to posthumanism. In this theory, first created in the 1990s, mostly through Judith Butler’s inspiration, both principal premises of gender – that sexuality determined our identity and that sexuality is not conditioned in any way – are developed to the limits of their consequences. Queer theory rejects both the notion of heterosexuality and homosexuality – both are equally fictitious and do not represent the infinite complexity of the real libido. They are replaced by the concept of identity as a continuous process, with final form as its goal. According to theoreticians of queer, human identity should be constantly changing, never fully graspable, always in statu nascendi. On the discursive level, this is represented by using the methods of deconstruction in the analysis of the social reality.

How does such premise translate into practice? Can normative identity be truly rejected? It seems that a man who would do that would also face the same problem that appeared when we were considering the consequences of the notion of Übermensch and posthuman: how to create oneself anew? How to be more than a desiring surface of a body? And just as in the other cases, “a queer human” should have an immense intellectual and spiritual potential in order to face the existential challenge of a “self-made man” and not reduce their odyssey of continuously creating identity to what we see today in mass culture: thoughtlessly adopting the newest ephemeral trends and “serial individualism.” Life as a work of art is a much harder task than one would think. Few can afford to fulfill this ideal.237 ←218 | 219→

The assumptions behind the queer theory are the same as the theses of the noblest liberalism: each individual should have a right to freely search and shape their identity. But in a situation when the process of shaping can never end; when each individual is to have their very own, unique identity (and blurred at the same time); when there is no norm pertaining to many, nor even any scale for comparison; finally, when identity is to be constructed based on “blurred” bodies and sexes only, then the very notion of identity loses its meaning. The protagonist of Dukaj’s Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość talks about just that when he is speaking about posthuman forms:

These phoebes, who modify themselves… How does it happen? They decide that they’d rather be different and reprogram themselves. And having reprogramed themselves, with the new network of fears and desires, they choose yet another type of phren. And so on, and so on, with no end; and all very honestly. Can they predict and simulate the state of their minds after X modifications? When in the state N they hope for N+1, but do they also want N+1-, N+100? … Where is identity in this process? Or maybe it is no longer a state but the process itself? (363; translated by OK)

And Greg Egan describes asexes as follows:

Asex was really nothing but an umbrella term for a broad group of philosophies, styles of dress, cosmetic-surgical changes, and deep-biological alterations. The only thing that one asex person necessarily had in common with another was the view that vis gender parameters … were the business of no one but verself … What a person actually did in response to that attitude could range from as little as ticking the ‘A’ box on census forms, to choosing an asex name … all the way to full physical and/or neural asexuality, hermaphroditism, or exoticism. (34–35)

Theoreticians of queer intended to create a model that would best fit the infinitely complex social reality. But when the authors of queer theory started to confuse theory with social activism, they forgot about the difference between a description and the phenomenon described, and about Max Weber’s remark that no theory can describe any reality in full and thinking otherwise is one of the biggest mistakes that can be made in the humanities. Just like gender studies, posthumanism and partly like Lem in ST, queer theory forgets that lesson. And, as I have tried to show, in all these cases forgetting it has the same effect of confusing theory and practice, thought and a manifesto, philosophy and ideology – and with best intentions. This is why the anthropological premises adopted by those authors, their belief in the existential independence of an individual, lead ←219 | 220→to such extraordinary consequences. Posthumanism, gender studies and queer theory all represent the challenge of absolute egoism: negating all forms of social existence combined with fetishism of individual beings. The result is a loose group of monads.

Authors such as Dukaj and Egan realize what kind of problems are caused by constructing identity independently from all tradition, based only on gender – or lack thereof – and biotechnology. But in their novels they carefully avoid describing the internal life of posthuman beings, especially those aspects of it which for humans are shaped by nonbiological factors. They do not suggest that posthumans are determined solely by their physiological qualities, however imaginatively designed. Hence they produce an impression in the readers that posthuman identity is just as diverse as ours, except it is not revealed in full. But the theoreticians of queer want to grasp identity in its totality – and that is how, without realizing it, they contradict themselves.

The practical aspect of the queer theory is occasionally reduced to complex plastic surgeries today, changing sex or combining male and female features. Of course, in many cases, this is a life-saving option for people who are transsexual and whose “body” is tragically unfit for their “soul.” Sometimes, however, it is more about manifesting one’s power over one’s body, a liberty in shaping it and hence a liberty to shape the most basic elements of identity at will.238 “Self-creation” even includes sex here (although the word “even” suggests a traditional humanist point of view – in light of the queer theory there is not much more left to be shaped). Another type of such practice is voluntary castration239 or asexuality – a complete rejection of sexual life caused by a lack of sex drive or a lack of a desire to follow it.240 The emancipatory quality of the queer theory invites such ←220 | 221→experiments and it is clear we are dealing with a specific type of autoevolution here, limited to surgical and hormonal treatments, and certainly primitive in eyes of “serious” posthumanists. It turns out they were not the only ones who came to the conclusion that it is time for freedom from the chains of biology.

It may seem somewhat surprising that the technological utopia of Stanisław Lem and gender theories have something in common. These two very different areas of thought are dominated by the same conviction that, just as Baron von Münchhausen, we can pull ourselves by hair from the swamp of humanity.

Philosophical and social theories that have been discussed here have their equivalent in visual arts. Body art has existed since the 1960s and the late 1980s brought abject art, the “art of disgust.” Human body, body of an artist or dead body of an anonymous human is the material of art in these currents. Bodies are injured, cut, subjected to all kinds of mechanical and surgical treatments, exhibited as anatomic preparations and finally combined with machine installations. Art theoreticians emphasize the rich intellectual background of such works, derived, among other sources, from accepting body as the only foundation of human condition as imposed by gender studies.

Thus we reach an interesting paradox – a strong desire to become independent from our “natural” conditions leads to a focus on a body deprived of a cultural meaning, treated as a lump of matter – so a focus on this element which is the most “natural” in us. The most abstract philosophical discourse takes as its subject the most material being, rejecting the richness of mediating symbols created by the Western culture. Is it not similar to the “wild” autoevolution, deprived of any supreme meaning, of the Dichoticans in “The Twenty-First Voyage,” where the faith in transcendence was rejected at the beginning?

In the conversations with Stanisław Bereś Lem, lamenting the fall of contemporary art, he said that soon galleries would be exhibiting human stomachs. ←221 | 222→As usual, this was a correct prophecy. He did not take into account the truly shocking fact that these stomachs will be a result of premises not very different from his own. We may only wonder where the deep belief in our own power of self-creation may lead us.241

236This premise implicitly contains the thesis about invalidation of the opposition between what is Natural and Artificial – and it may be no accident that it is so (if we accept Donna Haraway’s influence on Judith Butler). Thirty years earlier Erving Goffman wrote that social being is a perfromance, but it probably never occured to him that this perspective could include biological sex…

237In “The Twenty-First Voyage” by Lem, which I have analyzed here, there is a sentence that describes one of the stages of autoevolution of Dichoticans, which expresses the issue well: “when you can be anyone and have any conviction, then you are no one and have no conviction.”

238For example, Pedro Álmodovar’s films illustrate the transgender problematic. Among such “manifestations of power over one’s body,” we could also mention plastic surgeries in general, especially the radical cases, such as “human lizard” (with green skin and split tongue), “human cat” (with moon-shaped pupils and fur) or “human enigma” (with skin covered in a checkered pattern). This is probably a passing trend, but the very fact it occurred has a lot to do with the theories I am discussing here.

239This is the subject of a documentary American Eunuchs, Italy 2003, directed by Gian Claudio Guiducci. It shows that a significant number of men are getting voluntarily castrated in the United States (a few hundred every year). The main cause is fatigue with one’s sex drive.

240So far it remains unclear whether asexuality is a psychosomatic disorder, or fourth sexual orientation (although the theoreticians of queer would reject both terms and would likely see it as just a point on the continuum of sexual identities). Egan describes it as one of the forms of existence. It might include cases that would have been described as “frigidity” in the past. J. M. Barrie (the author of Peter Pan), Salvador Dali, Glenn Gould, Maurice Ravel, Immanuel Kant, Isaac Newton, John Ruskin, Nikola Tesla and Antonio Salazar are among historical figures deemed today to have been asexual. “Asexuality” is another term that introduced into discourse a phenomenon that had existed in reality for a long time. There are many such terms in contemporary social discourse, including “domestic violence,” “sexual harassment,” “pedophilia,” etc. A thorough analysis of their evolution, similar to what Foucault did for the 18th and 19th centuries, could give us a valuable image of the mutual influence between social and theoretical reality of the late 20th century, of how new notions “discover” previously unnoticed phenomena, and of the extent to which these “discoveries” are projected back on history, impacting the social theory as well.

241Another possible interpretation of these phenomena is that they signify finally accepting the body as the last element of “nature” in the context of the “artificial” world, or treating it as a sphere of struggle between Nature and Culture. The problem of the body in the Western philosophy dates back, of course, at least to Descartes, and becomes particularly poignant in Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. However in this continuum, “body” is the link between the external and the internal world of man, not the center of human identity. ←222 | 223→