Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia

by Paweł Majewski (Author)
Monographs 246 Pages
Open Access
Series: Modernity in Question , Volume 10

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Series Information
  • Introduction
  • Lemology Pure and Applied
  • Part One Dialogues – Cybernetics as an Anthropology
  • 1 The Genesis and Growth of Cybernetics
  • 2 Cybernetics in Poland
  • 3 Philosophical Implications of Cybernetics
  • 4 Introduction to Dialogues
  • 5 The Structure of Dialogues
  • 6 Attempt at an Interpretation
  • Part Two Summa Technologiae – Technology as Lifeworld
  • 7 Kołakowski’s Review
  • 8 What Is “Lem’s Essay”?
  • 9 Prolegomena
  • 10 Evolutions
  • 11 Taking UFO Seriously
  • 12 Turing Body
  • 13 Metatheory
  • 14 Phantomatics
  • 15 On How to Farm Information
  • 16 Putting Pieces Together
  • Part Three Autoevolution and Posthumanism
  • 17 Themes of Lampoon of Evolution
  • 18 Utopia in ST
  • 19 Introduction to Autoevolution
  • 20 Around Autoevolution
  • 21 What Is Posthumanism?
  • 22 Posthumanism as a Theoretical Discourse
  • 23 Cyborgs, Androids and Robots
  • 24 A Critique of Posthumanism
  • 25 Hidden Premises Behind Posthumanism
  • 1 Philosophy
  • 2 Society
  • 3 Psychology
  • 26 Posthumanism and Gender
  • 27 Posthumanism and Bioethics
  • 28 Final Remarks
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography



Edited by Małgorzata Kowalska

Volume 10


Lemology Pure and Applied

Győrgy Lukács’s book about young Hegel has 606 pages in a classic English edition, and 1,011 pages in the Polish edition.1 A book about the life and work of Faulkner by Joseph L. Blotner consists of two volumes amounting to 1,846 pages of the main text, supplemented by 269 pages of references with separate page numbering.2 A biography of Thomas Mann, written by Klaus Harpprecht in its one volume edition consists of 2,253 pages of very fine print,3 while Sartre’s unfinished work on Flaubert takes up 2,801 pages (in three volumes).4 So how many pages would it take to write exhaustively about the life and works of Stanisław Lem? A comparable number perhaps. Such an exhaustive description is not what this work is after though.

The readers’ response to Lem’s works has gone through a number of phases. His novels and short stories started being talked about and appreciated in the 1950s in communist Poland, as well as in other countries of the Soviet Bloc, especially the USSR and East Germany. By the late 1960s they gained renown in West Germany and the United States as well. For a long time, however, he was perceived as a sci-fi author, and the genre was seen as inferior literary production by institutions in a position to determine literary value. The label did a lot of evil to Lem, because for years there would be no appreciation of intellectual values of his works. And once they eventually started being noticed, they left many critics puzzled, as the intellectual input made by Lem by far exceeded the competence of most literary scholars, while scientists representing particular disciplines explored by Lem did not deem his literary works and essays worthy of a thorough discussion.

This somewhat schizophrenic state seems to continue until today really. In the 21st century the intellectual circles appreciate Stanisław Lem, but the appreciation is often conventional. He is being praised for some vague achievements bordering on literature and science, for accurate predictions of technological ←9 | 10→development – but it is not easy to tell what that in fact meant. Every once in a while his work is still seen as “not quite serious.” His situation as a writer is peculiar: his work as a whole is not “literary” enough for literary circles, and it is not “scientific” enough for scientists. Therefore, it is very difficult to classify him into any literary or philosophical current. On the other hand his work cannot be qualified as “science.” From the very beginning Lem would take up topics in-between two disciplines – which has become a scientific practice only several decades later (apart from the episode of cybernetics). So to any specialists he by necessity appeared to be an amateur. The unlucky proximity with trashy sci-fi and pseudoscientific charlatans, combined with the seeming abyss separating his work from the pantheon of literature and philosophy have contributed to the unfortunate image of Lem as a sort of technology prattler. Only as late as in the 1970s have there emerged a thorough criticism and interpretation, both in Poland and abroad, which would place him among the most eminent contemporary authors. Decades of being underestimated had grown in him into a lasting sense of frustration, which only became stronger in the last years of his life.

This book will be primarily devoted to Stanisław Lem’s two discursive works: Dialogues and Summa Technologiae. I will try to prove that they are the author’s most significant input in the process of understanding civilizational changes in the West in the late 20th and early 21st century – even though they were in fact written several decades earlier. Lem’s fiction will be referenced here often, but marginally, as a detailed analysis would complicate the argument excessively. Lem’s two later theoretical treatises are wilfully omitted here: The Philosophy of Chance and Science Fiction and Futurology. They are devoted to completely different issues and employ different theoretical and interpretation methodology. They deserve a separate monograph.

Both Dialogues and Summa Technologiae are presented here against a broad theoretical background, as this approach helps unveil the intellectual sources that inspired them. Part One is devoted to Dialogues, which constitute Lem’s interpretation of cybernetics. After outlining the history of the discipline and its significance in world science in the 1950s and 1960s, I proceed with an analysis of Dialogues, where I show that by writing the book Lem attempted to apply the system of categories provided by cybernetics to build his own anthropological project. However, being aware of philosophical contradictions inherent to the attempt, he could not coherently complete the plan.

Within Lem’s oeuvre, Dialogues prepare the ground for a much bolder work: Summa Technologiae. The scope and the open structure of the text make it impossible to come up with unequivocal interpretation. In Part Two, I offer an interpretation according to which Summa Technologiae is an elaborate utopian ←10 | 11→project of autoevolution of the human species, of transition from a phase of haphazard biological evolution toward a planned phase of controlled regulation of human biological and physiological features.

Part Three, which takes up most of this book, is devoted to contemporary intellectual currents, which take up on Lem’s project of autoevolution. The most important among them is posthumanism, which was established in the United States in the 1980s.5 Similarities it shares with Lem’s thought, while significant, are in fact accidental. Yet, it does not change the fact that Summa Technologiae and posthumanism belong to the same intellectual process.

My main task when analyzing both Lem’s texts and the works of other authors referenced here is to reconstruct their covert assumptions. By revealing and analyzing them, I offer and further prove a thesis that both Lem’s and posthumanists’ anthropology have traits of utopian liberalism, based on an assumption of human rationality. In order to interpret Lem in a way that will not be limited to a narrow range of linguistic and genre-related issues, I need to refer to a wide range of disciplines. Therefore, this book will invoke tools of literary criticism, sociology, history of ideas, philosophy, science studies, bioethics and a few other disciplines, which means that as a whole this work cannot be classified as belonging to any single of the disciplines listed above. It can be its disadvantage, but it may also open a broader perspective on Lem’s works.

1Győrgy Lukács, The Young Hegel: Studies in the Relations between Dialectics and Economics, trans. by R. Livingstone (Cambridge: MIT, 1977). Idem, Młody Hegel: o powiązaniach dialektyki z ekonomią, trans. by M. J. Siemek (Warszawa: PWN, 1980).

2Joseph L. Blotner, Faulkner: A Biography (London: Chatto and Windus, 1974).

3Klaus Harpprecht, Thomas Mann: eine Biographie (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1995).

4Jean-Paul Sartre, L’idiot de la famille (Paris: Gallimard, 1971, 1975).

5In this book I use the notion of “posthumanism” in a different sense that is prevalent today – I do not mean an intellectual current, which developed from a rejection of anthropocentrism in the humanities, but a technocratic ideology of sorts that allows a possibility that the human species could transcend its biological limitations with advanced technology. ←11 | 12→←12 | 13→

1The Genesis and Growth of Cybernetics

The intellectual climate of the 21st century is not particularly favorable to the so-called “grand narratives” – intellectual approaches that aim to explain the entire reality available to human mind, or at least a large portion of it. It is commonly accepted that structuralism was the last such grand narrative, which seemed to serve as a metatheory of the humanities in the 1960s and 1970s. However, its predecessor in that regard – cybernetics – is rarely mentioned, even though it was even more prevalent between the end of the 1940s and mid-1960s.

Part One of this book is to be devoted to Dialogues – the one among Lem’s works in which his fascination with cybernetics is the strongest.6 In fact, Dialogues cannot be understood without referring to the swift career of the discipline. Therefore, before discussing cybernetics itself, I should outline briefly its history. This description of what cybernetics is will, however, come from an amateur. The mathematical tools and vocabulary used by the creators and proponents of cybernetics remain unavailable to me. I will be treating cybernetics as a phenomenon in the history of science and ideas, leaving mathematics in a sort of “black box,” which is not to be opened, but which is being observed focusing on its location and functioning. It is justifiable, as the cyberneticists never limited themselves to producing mathematical arguments. The founding father of cybernetics himself, Norbert Wiener showed the path here (I will return to it). In fact, some branches of cybernetics detached themselves completely from science. And these branches happened to wither the earliest.

Cybernetics is commonly described as “a scientific study of control and communication in complex systems” – this is how it was defined by its creator, Norbert Wiener.7 The general character of this description is quite significant, indicating not only a broad background and a variety of sources of the discipline, but also its broad scope. Wiener gave it a name derived from Greek.8 “Kybernetes” means ←15 | 16→“helmsman” and is derived from the verb “kybernao”, meaning “to steer.”9 The term “governor” has the same root.

Cybernetics was largely born from war-time needs and was related to technologies of building quick counting machines – in both cases the purpose was to facilitate calculating trajectories of missiles targeting bullets. In an introduction to his book Cybernetics, Second Edition: or the Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine,10 which became the founding work of the entire discipline, Wiener describes in detail how the ideas of cybernetics were born during seminars he participated in at Harvard’s Vanderbilt Hall in 1941–1944 together with mathematicians (including von Neumann), engineers, biologists and doctors.11 This interdisciplinary gathering observed that there are numerous analogies between the functioning of new calculating machines and biological organisms when it comes to mechanisms of steering and control. It turned out some processes within calculating machines and human nervous systems can be described with the same mathematical formulae – that is, processes that include feedback and oscillations.12 Research continued after the end of the war was conducted simultaneously in engineering and biology. This duality of research directions is characteristic of the entire cybernetics, and it will be important for the argument that follows.


Open Access
Publication date
2018 (December)
cybernetics autoevolution posthumanism transhumanism queer studies literary studies
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. 243 pp.

Biographical notes

Paweł Majewski (Author)

Paweł Majewski is Associate Professor at the Institute of Polish Culture at the University of Warsaw. His main areas of research are: influence of writing on the intellectual and cognitive processes in the human mind; history of communication; bias of alphabetic writing as a vehicle of cultural communication.


Title: Between an Animal and a Machine