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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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8 What Is “Lem’s Essay”?

8What Is “Lem’s Essay”?

Lem’s four big discursive works: Dialogues, Summa Technologiae, The Philosophy of Chance and Science Fiction ad Futurology tend to be described by critics as “essays.” The term is not quite accurate in so far as a typical essay would not be more than a few dozen pages long, whereas all four of Lem’s “essays” are hundreds of pages long, with Science Fiction and Futurology nearing a thousand. They do however fulfill other criteria of essays in the Polish sense of the word: they follow a fairly liberal line of argument and include very limited academic references and tools (i.e., notes and references, bibliography). These features, however, which sometimes work perfectly for a “typical,” short essay, can have a very different effect in a text exceeding 700 pages, or even just 300. Such a huge essay, a hybrid form in size and text structure, becomes difficult to grasp and categorize, especially if the author had large aspirations, and the text subject touches on science – and both are definitely the case with Lem. Lem uses both the right that authors of informal essays have to construct his argument with a degree of liberty, and the right of a scholar to produce a synthesis of his subject matter. It is particularly troubling for someone trying to analyze ST and to grasp what theses the author is actually striving to prove. The richness of knowledge contained in it and the very peculiar structuring make ST a typical example of “an open text,” which can be subjected to divergent interpretations. That’s why Kołakowski could find in it a proof of “scientist technology” and Lem could feel offended by it.98

Before I undertake my attempt at an analysis of ST, a few words about the title. Kołakowski wrote about it that: “if Aquinas’ Summa Theologica were to the heritage of theology what Lem’s Summa is to technology, it should contain hypotheses and information about quaternizing trinities, perspectives for cherubinizing humans and about pseudo-pandemonic mercy” (116). Jerzy Jarzębski believes that the title is a sign that God has been replaced by Reason as the principle ←73 | 74→ordering the world, “as a power which had agency and is independent from biology, aiming in its evolution in its own uncharted directions.”99 The problem is that for Aquinas God is the only and the absolute principle, and the entire gigantic intellectual structure of Summa Theologica, with its clockwork precision of questions, arguments and counterarguments, is unconditionally subordinate to this one principle. Meanwhile, in ST the Reason has a primary role, as it does throughout Lem’s philosophy, but it is not an Absolute and it cannot be in light of the views of the author, who always avoided seeing anything as an Absolute. And when it comes to the formal qualities of the two works: one would be hard pressed to find two texts as different as Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Stanisław Lem’s Summa Technologiae, the reasons being the ones I have listed before (rigorous treaty vs. liberties of an informal essay). Therefore, I believe the choice of Lem’s title was really determined by aesthetics and ambition rather than any precise idea of analogy.

What is the subject matter of ST, how can it be defined? Or rather, what answer can be given to this question based on the context of the work and author’s intentions? If I wanted to outline the historical context for ST, as I did for the Dialogues before, I would need to write a history of the entire 20th-century science, with the history of its first half as the background of Lem’s book, and the history of the second – a verification of his predictions. Perhaps it is exactly when analyzing ST that a Lem scholar has the strongest sense of his or her incapacity to handle the task fully and of the task’s immense scope; when writing about Lem it is hard not to write about everything. And it is because he writes about everything.

But how does he do it? Only a naive reader could believe that Lem really mustered the entire human knowledge, more than any expert in any discipline. He has indeed exceeded most of them in creativity of his thought on science and the world in general, but his method of navigating the seas of scientific knowledge is somewhat different from the typical scientific methodology. It could not be otherwise, given that his ambition is to grasp those seas from shore to shore, sail high seas and not just stride along coastlines. In short, Lem’s method is to write scientific informal essays. He has amazing knowledge, certainly vaster than most of his contemporaries, but he juxtaposes different elements in a way that is neither scientific nor unscientific. It is something in-between, which translates into the convention of an informal essay causing not small a headache for someone ←74 | 75→who strives to interpret him. The latter’s level of scientific immersion is usually very different still. Lem is the genius amateur, while a Lem scholar – just an amateur. These three levels of thought raise great problems in categorizing any “lemological” research: they are neither literary criticism, not science studies, but it should combine the best in both. If it could succeed, the interdisciplinary character of this three-level structure (science–Lem’s works–research on Lem’s works) would undoubtedly yield remarkable results.

The unscientific character of ST can be seen not only in the liberty of arguments (which still form a subtle structure), but also, it would seem, in its main objective. It is an elaborate prediction of how technology and science would develop; it is a type of futurology – but a very peculiar one, as I shall show soon. And predicting future on a scale undertaken by Lem in ST is very foreign to science, which does formulate predictions based on research into the current state of affairs and theory (and some threads of positivism and contemporary philosophy of science assume that this is its main goal), but certainly in a much more limited way.

This is enough at this point about the metaproblems with analyzing ST. It needs to be added that Lem was hardly ever interested in sociology of science and knowledge, or their social context. He was wholeheartedly a scientist, convinced about the absolute independence of science and technology from anything outside their realm. Małgorzata Szpakowska has laid out this quality of his thought very accurately.100 Interestingly enough, however, he did see the social context of science in his literary works, especially in His Master’s Voice.

98Another difficulty are the changes that Lem introduced in ST in subsequent editions. My interpretation is based on the 4th amended edition (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Lubelskie, 1984), 352. The quotations and references in English come from the translation by Joanna Zylinska (Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013). It does not, however, include the afterword “Dwadzieścia lat później” [Twenty years later] which is included in the 4th edition in Polish. Neither includes the original first chapter “Sztuka i technologia” [“Art and technology”], which the author removed from it after the 1st edition. In the subsequent editions Lem would expand on certain chapters.

99Jerzy Jarzębski, “Summa technologiae i jej potomstwo. Posłowie,” in: Stanisław Lem, Summa Technologiae. Dzieła zebrane (Kraków: WL, 2000), 494.

100Dyskusje ze Stanisławem Lemem…, 73–74. There is a sentence about it in ST: “Even though it may seem strange [emphasis mine – PM], there are many contradictory viewpoints with regard to what a scientific theory actually is” (382). Lem put the sentence in one of the notes, not in the main body of text. ←75 | 76→←76 | 77→