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Between an Animal and a Machine

Stanisław Lem’s Technological Utopia

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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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25 Hidden Premises Behind Posthumanism

25Hidden Premises Behind Posthumanism

The subject of this chapter has already been started on the final pages of Chapter 24. But it is not the hidden similarity between posthumanism and religious faith that is the most important in order to understand the crucial problems of the doctrine. On the following pages, I will further develop the discussion of philosophical, social and psychological problems implicit to posthumanism and autoevolution.

1Philosophy

If posthumanists read Kant, or at least Isaiah Berlin, they would probably say: “Since the crooked timber of humanity cannot be fixed, it ought to be cut down, rooted out, and then new planted. The new one will certainly be straight.” The posthumanist utopia is extremely liberal, and its critique is a conservative critique. It is obvious and it is equally obvious what are the main characteristics of liberal and conservative thinking, seen very clearly in the discussion I have just described here. But it is worth it to investigate closer some characteristics, which, I believe, are peculiar to posthumanism only, or at least of all the contemporary types of thinking about the society here they are most evidently present.

Posthumanism unconditionally rejects historicity of the human condition. It rejects the notion of identity of an individual as correlate to tradition and history. In brief, it rejects the historical temporality of human existence. In that respect, it resembles other liberal currents, but it is more radical in one regard. This is because of autoevolution, of course – none of the liberal doctrines assumes that people will reject their history so much, that they will cease to be people. What is it then that is happening with the earlier definitions of human identity?

The notion of Übermensch in Nietzsche is connected with a rejection of the past. Übermensch constructs his identity on his own, with no reference to tradition, social and moral norms or any kind of models derived from the past. His “amoralism” does not imply a lack of rules, but adopting rules he himself sets up, independently of the consensually determined social norms. Nietzsche was not interested in the possible social consequences of the idea of Übermensch nor in the intellectual challenges it poses.

An amoral Übermensch is thus also antisocial, because his rules are not created in communication with other people. “A society of Übermensch” is a contradiction in terms, because there is no agreement between them about the form of ←207 | 208→social existence, which would only be a constraint. If culture is to be understood as correlate to interpersonal communication – Übermensch have no culture. They are strictly monadic.

Being an Übermensch poses immense intellectual and ethical challenges for anyone who would like to become one. An Übermensch needs to create himself anew, build his identity with no support from the outside and independently from the entire “methodology of identity” so far, based on layers of the past. And once he achieves that, all that remains is absolute loneliness. Unless he realizes the gravity of these challenges, his self-determination will be merely a caricature of Nietzsche’s ideas.

At the end of the 20th century, Pierre Hadot, a French historian of philosophy, suggested an understanding of the ancient philosophy, especially Stoicism, as an “existential project.” In his book What is Ancient Philosophy? (2002), he claimed that it was only the emergence of Christianity that led to philosophy no longer being treated as a “way of life” and becoming an abstract discourse. The Hellenistic philosophy, understood in the way suggested by Hadot, offers an existential project that is similar to the Nietzschean project of Übermensch. In both cases, human identity is understood as task, not a heritage. In Hellenistic thought, this detachment from past models was caused by a vast change in the condition of existence after the conquests of Alexander the Great and the creation of a universalist monarchy, and then of Hellenistic states. These developments destroyed the Greek notion of social life, shaped by the classical period, almost entirely.

This way Nietzsche and the Stoics are placed on the same continuum: they all call for man to design his own identity independently from any external circumstances, which could determine it. These philosophies are radically antisocial and this is the difference between them and the 19th- and 20th-century emancipatory doctrines, which were to achieve their goals through rules pertaining to the community at large.

What does it all have to do with Lem and posthumanism? I believe that the project of autoevolution is in some ways similar to these philosophies. Completely neglecting the past, tradition and historicity makes posthumans the equivalent of Nietzschean Übermensch – if they are to have any identity other than the physical one, they need to create it themselves, with no reference to the external factors. I will leave the question whether an ex nihilo identity is possible at all unsolved – it goes beyond the sphere of discourse available here.

Posthumanism can then be described as the most radical emancipatory project. Through it, not only people are to be liberated from the constraints of ←208 | 209→history and social norms, but they will also be free from Culture and Nature, and eventually from being human altogether. Deification and self-salvation will happen through renunciation of humanity. It is implicitly assumed that the only way to eliminate the kind of issues that are inherent to human condition is to give up on being human. However, as the veracity (or falsity) of this proposition can only be determined in actu, the utopian character of posthumanism seems all the stronger.

In a famous opening passage of Politics, Aristotle writes that animals and gods live in solitude, while people have to live in a group, because this is their nature. Posthumanism confirms this view in a peculiar way. As I have tried to show posthuman beings will be unable to live in a group, because rejecting tradition, past and history – and, consequently, rejecting culture and society as well – precludes any kind of group mode of existence. This isolation is not caused by closing oneself in cyberspace, as it was predicted by some popular thinkers (and which Lem describes with more subtlety in his analysis of phantomatics), but by the very core principles of posthumanism. It seems, however, that posthumanists are unaware of these consequences.

What can we compare this state to? Is Stoic “ataraxia,” the eternal “present” without time known to mystics or the Buddhist nirvana something similar? I believe such speculations are pointless. We can have no idea what a self-aware, rational being detached from any past or community would be like. Our entire existence depends on them.

Polish sociologist Jan Strzelecki opens his book Próby świadectwa with the following: “If we were – ultimately, with no appeal, no chance and no one to save us – a product of a meaningless explosion of existence bustling in a thousand forms; if we were pure existence…” Contemporary science led us to just such state. This is what we are exactly in science’s light. People thinking in terms of science cannot understand what a work on sense is – and this is what Strzelecki believed to be the most important goal of our existence. But they do understand that man – whether a purely biological creature, or maybe even a product of history and its meanings – is certainly imperfect and does not fulfill the ideals humanity placed in front of him; a man is torn by contradictions that are the essence of humanity. All utopias were born from this perspective. But the posthumanist utopia is unique – because it is science that is to lead to salvation; the very science that first took away the meaning of our existence. The deification is to happen in a machine. Thus scientism becomes mysticism: cyborgs will step out on the banks of the river of time. They will forget Homer, Kant and the Second World War. Forty centuries will still look down on them, but they will no longer be feeling the weight of that gaze. ←209 | 210→

2Society

It would not be true to say that all authors interested in posthumanism agree on such radical consequences I have described earlier as entailed by its hidden premises. They are a result of somewhat irresponsible thinking of some theoreticians who treat autoevolution as a process independent from external factors. Many authors try to outline those factors. Because of how “fanatic” posthumanism generally tends to be, most such attempts happen within sci-fi literature. Such writers as James Gunn, Greg Egan or Jacek Dukaj think about the possible social stratification autoevolution may lead to. The question is simple: who will be affected? What social groups will have the possibility and willingness to subject themselves to autoevolution and what social tensions may result from that? The problem can be seen as another stage of biopolitics (similar to what Lem describes in parody in “The Twenty-first Voyage”). Some such intuitions can be found in Fukuyama as well, when he considers the negative economic results of biotechnology.

It seems clear that if autoevolution happens in practice on a bigger scale, the first level to be involved will be economy; simply speaking: the costs. At least at the beginning it will be a luxury available only to the wealthiest. As there will gradually be more and more posthuman beings, there will certainly occur a difficult legal and public discussion on their legal status in coexistence with people. All the social process that took place when introducing any important technological innovation will take place. Autoevolution will shift from a purely rational idea (which it is both in ST and in posthumanist texts and which in its pure form could lead to what I have described earlier) to the level of social practice, brimming with random difficulties I have mentioned.

James Gunn (born in 1923), an admired American sci-fi writer, is the author of the novel The Immortals (1964), which develops the theme of advanced somatic autoevolution, limited to political and financial elites, isolated from the rest of the society. The most sought-after social role is working in the biotechnological and medical sectors. As a result of the elites’ isolation, the social order is disrupted and individuals mutated through flawed autoevolutionary interventions form a cast of outlaws and criminals. At some point in the novel, it turns out that the members of the social elite did not achieve any kind of perfection through autoevolution – quite the opposite; just like Lem’s H.P.L.D.’s and Borges’s immortals, they became mentally and physically degenerated by the feeling of their omnipotence.

Jacek Dukaj presents a completely different version of events in his book Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość (2004).230 The complex novel is set in the 29th century ←210 | 211→in the world in which people and posthuman forms coexist in relative harmony within a technosphere permeated by nanomatic devices and controlled by computer software. There is a network of connections between living creatures and computer programs, which allows for complete virtualization of reality. Dukaj gives detailed descriptions of social hierarchies and economic and status competition between the stahs (standard Homo sapiens) and phoebes (posthuman being; the names are honorific). Phoebes can program their personality and forms of existence at will. There are higher autoevolutionary forms in this world as well: inclusions, similar to the old notion of omnipotent gods. Within my typology they correspond to the category of advanced mental autoevolution. In the novel it is often emphasized that the consciousness and the experiences of the phoebes (not to mention inclusions) are unavailable to stahs. Undergoing autoevolution depends on financial capacity, which is only available to a small percentage of people, and the conventions governing that reality have been laid out 600 years earlier by the industrial and political establishment. Posthuman beings do not fulfill the definition of gender, and Dukaj created a special grammatical conjugation for them.231 Lem’s influence is clearly visible in Dukaj’s prose, including Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość, but there is no place here for a detailed textual analysis to prove it. Yet the vision of autoevolution in this novel can be seen as a literary rendition of the discursive project of ST; the difference is that Dukaj is fully aware how this project is impacted by other factors (i.e., economy, rivalry between individual subjects in fight for higher stages of development, the politics of symbols, etc.). In Dukaj’s text, the element of the “ultimate” version of autoevolution, which I have described earlier, takes up the form of complete inaccessibility of the internal life of posthuman beings to people. The problem of retaining identity in a situation when it is possible to shape and transfer it with no limit is illustrated here by the characters’ meticulous use of proper forms and rituals.

Ray Kurzweil also allows for dividing people into humans and posthumans. In his The Age of Spiritual Machines, he outlines a scenario of how civilization will develop in the 21st century, and under the year 2099, he puts the emergence of a cast called MOSH (Most Original Substrate Human) – as a relic of sorts. The 800 years between Kurzweil’s and Dukaj’s versions is no accident. The former, in a manner characteristic of American posthumanists, does not ←211 | 212→think much about the persisting social issues that have been troubling civilization from the very beginning. So for him, it is not impossible that we will deal with ignorance, poverty and violence within one century. Despite appearances, Dukaj is more of a realist and assumes it will take eight times longer, and even then for him autoevolution will only apply to a small section of the population.

Australian writer Greg Egan (born in 1961) also elaborates on themes of autoevolution in his works. He is currently highly admired in the sci-fi and posthumanist circles (accidentally, Dukaj is a fan as well). His fourth novel Distress (1995)232 is set in 2055, when as a result of advanced somatic and cyborg autoevolution, as well as advanced biopolitics, human population is divided into seven biotechnologically modeled sexes. These are: u-, n- and imen; u-, n- and iwomen (prefixes meaning, respectively, “ultra,” “normal” and “infra”); the seventh sex consists of asexes – individuals renouncing sexual life to avoid being entangled in the “politics of gender,” determining social life. The plot focuses on the announcement of the final version of the physical Theory of Everything and related cognitive complications. Egan weaves into the plot a number of thorough descriptions of political and social conflicts, which occur in the context of advanced biotechnology, “migration of sexes” and possible cultural factors impacting science. The image of the struggle of “two cultures,” which I have described in Part Two of the work, is here led to its radical consequences, and the author strongly opposes the old humanism. Proponents of “traditional” culture are a group of demagogue extremists in Egan’s world. Similarly to posthumanists, but with more understanding of the complex nature of the world, Egan is convinced that the forms of humanism, which have framed our understanding of ourselves for centuries, fail completely when we gain the possibility to determine our identity through pharmacology, surgery and nanotechnology. It is the exact same problem that Fukuyama warned against, except Egan treats it as obvious (just as the rejection of old norms is obvious). In other works, Egan often describes the world of mental autoevolution.

I should also mention an author who is far from science fiction in his work, but who offers his own version of autoevolution. I mean Michel Houellebecq and his novel The Elementary Particles (Les particules elementaires 1998),233 ←212 | 213→which triggered a discussion in Europe on a subject that can be described as follows: are the ideals of modern Western civilization irrevocably over, or can they still be raised from the dead? Houellebecq himself believes the first option to be true and that is why one of the protagonists of the novel, a distinguished biochemist, is working on a project of a “genetic reform” of the human species, after which people would stop reproducing sexually. The project is implemented in the epilogue.

Houellebecq’s novel is interesting to me for a number of reasons, although the project of autoevolution as such has a marginal role in the plot. The asexual utopia of the French writer is a type of cri de coeur, inspired by the complete emptiness of the emotional life of the inhabitants of postindustrial Europe; and Houellebecq is deeply convinced that this is the state of Europe. The Elementary particles is the only case of a literary description of autoevolution (a somatic one here, with an emphasis on physiology rather than morphology) that is not set in a science fiction environment, but in a tradition of realist novels. The disgust with body and sexuality constantly demonstrated by the narrator and the characters makes Houellebecq resemble Lem and Turing with their obsession of human existence freed of the bodily aspect. (It is no accident that Slavoj Žižek begins his 2001 essay “No Sex, Please, We’re Post-human!” by invoking Houellebecq, Foucault and Turing. Similarly to my own argument, Žižek emphasizes that humanity and human identity are rooted in notions such as historicity, trauma and Heideggerian temporality.) A conversation between two brothers is also significant – the two protagonists of the novel – in brothers Julian and Aldous Huxley. The former, we should remember, is the author of the term “transhumanism,” and the latter – the author of one of the most famous antiutopias based on the concept of technological improvement of man. Houellebecq suggests that both these thinkers were right in predicting a spiritual crisis in the postmodern society and the possibility of overcoming it through autoevolution. In the novel, he includes a number of statements on reducing the role of the past and the disappearance of the sense of existential and cultural continuity in contemporary society, which is to be a harbinger of the posthuman era. Finally, the epilogue tells the story of implementing the project of autoevolution, under the aegis of UNESCO, ending with a success in 2029. The posthuman narrator says around 2075:

There remain some humans of the old species … Their reproductive levels fall year by year, however, and at present their extinction seems inevitable. Contrary to the doomsayers, this extinction is taking place peaceably … It has been surprising to note the meekness, resignation, perhaps even secret relief with which humans have consented to their own passing. ←213 | 214→

Having broken the filial chain that linked us to humanity … Men consider us to be happy; it is certainly true that we have succeeded in overcoming the forces of egotism, cruelty and anger which they could not … Science and art are still a part of our society; but without the stimulus of personal vanity, the pursuit of Truth and Beauty has taken on a less urgent aspect. To humans of the old species, our world seems a paradise. (263)

All posthumanists would likely second those words that grasp the very essence of the utopian dreams of autoevolution.

3Psychology

We can now ask what psychological premises stand behind posthumanist thought? Why some people want to stop being human so much that they write books about it and come up with entire theories? What is the psychological background of posthumanism and autoevolution?

I believe there are at least six possible impulses for the development of such thought. I shall list them starting with the ones I deem most important:

1.Hatred of one’s own species, caused by its imperfect physical and spiritual form. I have tried to trace it in Lem and Turing. It is also visible in many authors writing on artificial intelligence (AI) and information technology (IT). These are “Turing’s men” in a sense proposed by Bolter, accustomed to the precision and “purity” of machines. The “blurriness” of human mind, the indeterminate emotions and all bodily experiences (from illnesses, through age and death, to everyday soiling and secretions) must seem most disgusting to those people, and they often express that. A hundred years ago they would not even have theoretical chances to go outside their race and “oppose nature,” but the progress of technology, which made the project of autoevolution possible, also allowed for an “inhuman” plan to free them from the abominable “meat machine.” It brings to mind a comparison with the anachorites of the late antiquity who tortured their bodies in a way that would have seemed pathological to us, because they deemed them an obstacle on their way to sanctity. Again, posthumanism becomes an analogue of religious mysticism.

2.Powerlessness, or a sense of powerlessness rather. It is caused by a Pascalian disproportion between our bodies and minds and the scale of the physical reality that was unveiled to us by the 20th century science (see Chapter 11). This feeling is most visible in authors who draw visions of omnipotence of posthuman beings (Jacek Dukaj is among them).

3.Frustration. The source of it is the sense of ultimate waning of the life force in the Western civilization and a conviction that there is no “normal” way out of the situation. It is most visible in Houellebecq’s work. It is also connected ←214 | 215→with a sense of fatigue with the questions of body and sexuality in the postindustrial era, as for Elfriede Jelinek who “asked whether she would rather have a different body [hating her own], responds: ‘No, I wouldn’t want a dick like men either. I wish I didn’t have anything. Angels don’t have genitals too.’”234

4.Curiosity – as is well known, it has always been one of the main impulses driving the civilization’s growth. Today, too, it pushes authors to think about “what will happen, when we stop being human?”

5.Play. The motif can be found in the writings of some American posthumanists. If technology allows us to carry out autoevolution – let us do it, “just for fun.” Such thinking comes from a complete ignorance about all the issues related to autoevolution, which I have been discussing here. Clearly, the fact that AI experts mostly see people as “meat,” as do gender studies authors (to which I will return again) is mostly a result of a rejection of historicity.235 If the network of symbols through which we have been explaining our existence to ourselves for centuries has no more meaning, all that is left is the body, that is, as the poet Sekułowski observed in Hospital of the Transfiguration, “a pile of meat.”

6.Fatigue. This motif is similar to the previous one, but it derives more from an unpleasant feeling that people have already fulfilled their entire existential potential and, if they do not do something spectacular with themselves, they will be facing an eternity of ennui. Such approach is typical for people who are constantly hungry for new experiences. This hunger is intensified by most ←215 | 216→kinds of contemporary mass culture, which imposes on consumers a desire for ever-new experiences.

This list could go on, but I believe that the six psychological motifs are enough to answer the question posed.

Why does Lem create the project of autoevolution? I believe the first four motifs are the most important for him, and most particularly the first two. This should be clear from the analyses included in Part Two of this book. The question about deeper psychological reasons will have to remain unanswered. Lem is careful to obliterate traces of his own biography and psyche. Yet, some traces can be found in his earliest works and in the novel Wysoki Zamek. His negative way of seeing humanity was certainly influenced by his wartime experiences and his medical studies.

Here I end the analysis of the hidden premises behind posthumanism. In Chapter 26, I will be showing the links between posthumanism and some types of postmodernist thinking.

230Jacek Dukaj, Perfekcyjna niedoskonałość. Pierwsza tercja progresu (Kraków: WL, 2004).

231It brings to mind Lem’s teasing descriptions from “The Twenty-First Voyage,” but the problem is completely serious for Dukaj, which is something that connects him with queer theory.

232Greg Egan, Distress (New York: Harper Prism, 1995).

233Michel Houellebecq, Atomised, trans. by F. Wynne (London: Heinemann, 1999); published in the United States as The Elementary Particles (New York: Vintage, 2001). Quotes from: The Elementary Particles

234Anna Rubinowicz-Gründler, “Elfriede Jelinek. ‘Nie umiem się niczym cieszyć’,” Wysokie Obcasy, October 23–24, 2004.

235A particularly telling example of such ahistorical (and psychologically ignorant) thinking can be found in Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines (163–166). He writes about “cybernetic poetry,” that is, poems generated by computer programs. For Kurzweil such poems are in no way different from poetry written by people. It means that he does not understand the role of cultural tradition and the psyche in the creative process that goes into producing a work of art (which could ingratiate him with extreme structuralists). And Roger Schank, a distinguished expert in AI, writes: “I’ve been able to find remarks on the subject by Thomas Aquinas, Montaigne and Aristotle… These people have a vague, hand-waving notion of what consciousness is about, with a religious tinge to it. Their work wouldn’t fly at all in modern academics” (Third Culture…, 28). Schank’s arrogance is made even deeper by his certainty that is it him and his colleagues, for example, Daniel Dennett, have actually discovered the essence of consciousness. (By the way, if Schank did not underestimate the old authors so much, he might have a little less regard for his own achievements.) ←216 | 217→