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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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7 Kołakowski’s Review

7Kołakowski’s Review

In the November 1964 issue of the monthly Twórczość (which was then the most important Polish literary journal), in the regular “Book of the Month” column, there appeared an extensive review of Stanisław Lem’s newest work. The work was Summa Technologiae,91 and the review was penned by Leszek Kołakowski.92 Kołakowski admits in it that he has not been able to evaluate the book properly. He not only emphasizes the remarkable intellectual qualities of the book, but also points out that Lem mixes up science and futurology so completely that

the work … merges a huge amount of concrete information and observations with fantastic ideas about the future of the world of technology into an indistinguishable alloy; consequently these ideas become as realistic, as if they were merely plans to build a new bridge over the Vistula River, and certainly more realistic than new water filters for Warsaw. (116)

The bold visions for the future presented in ST must have seem grotesque and ill-suited for the realities of the Polish People’s Republic, which he ironically expressed in the following sentence:

I think … that the observations about transgalactic transportation can be useful even in our world, where real technological dreams lead us to imagine that one day people will invent phones that connect between Warsaw and Pruszków [a suburb of Warsaw] without interruption; that one day there will be elevators working without errors for weeks at a time, or a glue that glues things and razor blades that actually shave beards. (117)

But the main target of his criticism was different. The author of what would later become Horroris Metaphysicus held it against the author of Summa Technologiae that he was excessively prone to reduce human metaphysical needs to physiology and cybernetics and he believed firmly in the rational progress of technology. He wrote:

His predictions are guarded with many “maybes” and “ifs”. Yet, I do not hesitate to call him a brilliant ideologist of scientist technocracy, that is a person who is convinced that there is no real human problem that cannot be solved with technological means, without assuming, of course, that people will effectively find solutions to everything. (117) ←69 | 70→

Stanisław Lem would never forget Leszek Kołakowski’s this sentence.93 In 1991, 27 years after this review, he published an article titled “Trzydzieści lat później”94 [Thirty years later] in Wiedza i Życie journal, in which he was extensively showing that “the virtual reality,” which was then the fresh and highly publicized achievement of technology, was a faithful fulfillment of his own predictions from ST about phantomatics.95 This was exactly the part of ST that Kołakowski considered pure fiction. Lem responded:

Kołakowski censured completely the very core of the predictions contained in Summa, by stating that the reader would have difficulty distinguishing fairy tales from information in it. He did honey the author with some compliments but they went completely sour when he accused me in conclusion of “intending to liquidate” the real of philosophy, and most particularly he blamed me for presuming that one day in the future this realm could be invaded by products of technology. He then broke the camel’s back by saying: “Hence one could answer Merleau-Ponty’s question about what was left of philosophy after the results of modern science by simply repeating: everything that had been there before.” (12)

He then added some quite straightforward allusions about the meanders of his adversary’s intellectual development (Kołakowski was enthusiastic about the communist system in Poland in the 1950s) and accused him that he never made the effort to get acquainted with the effects of technological progress, and that “infallibilitas philosophica remained the corner stone of his position” (13). In ←70 | 71→conclusion of the text, half of which basically consists of excerpts from ST, Lem sums it up as follows:

What then does a philosopher do when preparing a selection of his essays from 30 years earlier? Following the title of the anthology of these reprints Pochwała niekonsekwencji [“Praise of inconsequence”] [which is the title of the collection in which the text about ST was reprinted – PM] he calmly repeats that everything Lem made up about phantomatics back in 1963/64 is sham. (23)

Kołakowski responded in a letter to Wiedza i Życie,96 in which he wrote, among other things:

Lem states with triumph that – as opposed to all other futurologists – he was the real prophet, because “phantomatics,” i.e. creating perfect illusions, came true, while he had been teased when 30 years earlier, rather than a year or two ahead of the time, he accurately predicted the future, and “fame and fortune” do not come to the early prophet, endowed with a special sense to scientifically look into the future, but to the poorer one, who comes on time; well, indeed, sad is the fate of minds too sharp … (71)

What follows is a polemic with the charge of ignorance about the realm of virtual reality, but in nearly every sentence Kołakowski suggests mockingly that Lem is suffering from an “omitted prophet syndrome.” Finally he writes simply:

Lem’s resentment leads him even to an observation that “‘infallibiltas philosophica’ remained the corner stone of his [i.e. my] position” – the very absurd view that I have mocked so many times … he claims that my 1964 review was a barely honeyed criticism; I thought the proportion was reverse; but who could measure that accurately! … It seems, however, as an author of a review of his book in Times Literary Supplement remarked a few years ago, that he feels hurt that the humankind does not admire him as much as it should. … Vanitati creatura est subiecta, as the Scripture puts it; vanity is common, but the art of vanity lies in not showing it; it is not difficult – all it takes is a sense of when one becomes absurd. (72)97

Great people tend to have great memory and a sharp tongue. I daresay, however, that this conflict may seem pointless, as it is stems from a basic misunderstanding. Kołakowski’s review did not condemn Lem completely, and yet this is all Lem saw in it. The reviewer’s torn position was not merely caused by ambivalent impressions, but had roots in the book’s inherent qualities. What were they?

91In order to avoid the stylistic difficulties of declension of a Latin title, from now on I will mostly abbreviate the title as ST.

92Leszek Kołakowski, “Informacja i Utopia,” Twórczość, no. 11 (1964), 115–123.

93He produced a replica in a discussion about ST published in Studia Filozoficzne journal, where Lem wrote: “Does the book express a position that could be described as ‘apologetic to technology’? I do not think so; I have too many reservations about the mighty forces we have ourselves set in motion. Am I the ideologist of a ‘scientistic technocracy’? As much as a person in a dinghy in the middle of the sea can be an ideologist or an avid follower of a faith that states that if they do not make the best possible use of oars, sail and mast, this journey will not end well for them. If I kept repeating in the book that the only cure for technology (its terrible effects) is another technology, it was because I was convinced this is the actual state of affairs; not out of some enthusiasm” (Studia Filozoficzne, no. 2 [1991], 97).

94Stanisław Lem, “Trzydzieści lat później,” Wiedza i Życie, no. 6 (1991), 10–23.

95A little later in one of the articles in PC Magazine, which were then collected in the volume Tajemnica chińskiego pokoju, he admitted that he had got carried away by the enthusiastic media reports: “I sinned with triumphalism, because my ‘phantomatics’ is to the technologies of Virtual Reality what perhaps a new Mercedes model is to a steam-engined three wheeler, built in 1769 by an engineer called N[icolas] J[oseph] Cugnot” (Tajemnica chińskiego pokoju, Kraków: Znak, 1996, 33).

96Leszek Kołakowski, “Lemowi,” Wiedza i Życie, no. 12 (1991), 71–72.

97An echo of the letter returns in Lem’s article “Fantomatyka (II)”; cf. Tajemnice chińskiego pokoju…, 51. ←71 | 72→←72 | 73→