There’s a very interesting discussion of the merits of Marxism and an Anarchist-Green politics set out in John Zerzan’s book Twilight of the Machines (which I’ll admit to downloading, not reading!) over at the (Dis)loyal Opposition to Modernity. As I understand from the gloss in the DOM post, Zerzan views technology as inherently alienating and destructive and proposes its relinquishment in the interest of human autonomy and the planet (this gloss may need nuancing, obviously!).
Unlike some technophilic left-liberals, I treat relinquishment as a serious moral response to the incompatibility of technical modernity and political transparency. This is because modern technological systems are post-geographic and post-cultural – that is, any invention or device can be replicated in multiple contexts with inherently unpredictable results on the rest of the system (think, for example, of the global impact of Tim Berners Lee’s invention of hypertext for cabal of physicists at CERN). If modern technological systems are inherently unpredictable, then they are inherently uncontrollable. So even if we replace capitalist forms of ownership with a more rational way of allocating resources we’ll still be “living on this thing like fleas on a cat” (to quote Dr Gaius Baltar,)
The only options to verminous status I can conceive are relinquishment or a kind of anti-technological theocracy that artificially restricts the dynamism of self-augmenting technological systems (SATS). Both solutions are arguably based on a self-defeating ideal of sovereignty or autonomy. As Martin Hägglund argues via Derrida, there is no decision without the spacing between now and then – meaning that we can’t live without chancing the worst. The Anarcho-Green is thus a wrong-headed, philosophically naïve death-obsessive but, as fantasies of self-immolation go, his a relatively intelligible one.
I stupidly missed the London screening of this prize-winning indie documentary back in April, so I don’t know when I’ll get to see it. On the strength of this preview, Director Ilana Rein has produced an intelligent, layered exploration of BSG’s themes, iconography and audience culture.
Diatribes against “humanism”, “species relativism” and “anthropocentrism” abound in many quarters, but answering the question ‘What does it mean to be human?’ remains vital for understanding what it means to be non- or inhuman: for example, what might ceasing to be human involve? It’s a truism that Battlestar Galactica was one of the few popular entertainments that addressed this issue with speculative rigor; but that does not make it any less true. As I argue here it has a consistent exploration of the not-unrelated issue of justice.
Brother Cavil’s speech from BSG’s episode ‘No Exit‘ is the plaint of a being whose morphological freedom has been arbitrarily denied. Cavil’s romantic transhumanism is far more cogent and appealing, here, than Ellen Tigh’s feeble humanism.
Given the argument of the previous section, it is not surprising that I was slightly worried when I read that Roden affirms the move away from “bio-political organizations such as liberalism or capitalism” (2010, 34). I wonder what is the alternative, because I think we have done pretty well recently in Western industrial countries with liberal and social versions of democracy. I do not think that there is nothing which can get improved or criticized, but generally speaking I am very happy living in a Western liberal democracy with a well developed health system and permanently new technological innovations that help us in improving our lives as long as we do not let ourselves get dominated by these developments. Most other types of political organization so far have led to paternalistic systems in which the leaders exploited the citizens in the name of the common good (Sorgner 2010)
To be clear, I don’t think that Sorgner misconstrues me. Although ‘Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism’ (DCE) is concerned with metaphysical issues, the affirmation is genuine. However, I’m a reflexive liberal. I also think that liberal societies are preferable to the paternalistic societies Sorgner dislikes. Like him, I would prefer humans to live in liberal regimes and not under the heel of theocratic (or other) apparatchiks.
So am I politically inconsistent?
The passage to which he refers advocates a process of technological refashioning which ‘might conceivably weaken affiliations to preceding form of bio-political organization such as liberalism or capitalism’ (Roden 2010, 34). The overthrow of liberalism is a liability of this process, not its goal. Technological refashioning is advocated in response to an ethical problem presented by the metaphysical status of the posthuman.
To get a handle on this it is important not to conflate the posthuman and the transhuman. Transhumans are humans that (by current standards) are exceptionally gifted in virtue of their augmentations. A posthuman, by contrast, is a hypothetical entity whose augmentation history renders it inhuman. Whereas a few humans may have accomplishments that future transhuman enhancements might afford the many – e.g. running a 3 minute mile or being able to improvise three part counterpoint – the accomplishments of the posthuman would have no place in the horizon of humanity. Since posthumans would be historically emergent kinds, there can be no a priori understanding of what being posthuman might involve (no transcendental posthumanology). Given that current technological practice might engender posthumans (whether in the form of artificial intelligences, synthetic life forms, or through means that we cannot currently envisage) the only viable method for understanding, and thus evaluating, posthuman life is an engineering solution. To understand the posthuman we must refashion ourselves as posthumans.
So the ethical imperative to evaluate our posthuman prospects implies a practical interest in approaching posthumanity by degrees. The only alternative to this, I would argue, is a panic humanism whose logical conclusion is the relinquishment of characteristically modern technology. Interestingly, this is the solution adopted by the traumatized refugees of an ancient technological singularity in the finale of the acclaimed TV series Battlestar Galactica (BSG) and it doesn’t work out terribly well.
Which brings me to why posthuman polities might be necessarily illiberal, since BSG offers a remarkably clear analysis on this point.
- Caprica Nuked
BSG begins with the nuclear destruction of a highly advanced and tolerant liberal society on the planet Caprica by Cylons, vengeful descendants of robotic slaves created by the Capricans some fifty years before (The name is short for ‘Cybernetic Lifeform Node’ as we subsequently learn in the prequel series Caprica). Many billions on Caprica and other human colony worlds die in the nuclear attack while survivors are murdered piecemeal or used for procreative experiments (See episode 5, Season 2: The Farm).
However, rather than resembling the walking chrome ‘toasters’ from which they descended, the Cylons in charge of this attack have evolved into superficially human entities, with a number of posthuman capacities. Smarter and tougher than most humans, Cylons have perfect health, and can interface directly with machines. Above all, they’re immortal. Instead of dying when their body is destroyed, a Cylon “downloads” to an identical cloned body. “Death” for Cylons “becomes a learning experience” (Scar).
Despite the moral failings demonstrated by the near-complete destruction of human civilization, Cylon society is not presented unsympathetically. For one thing, there’s no ‘Imperious Leader’. Cylon decision-making seems open, participatory and egalitarian compared with the more hierarchical humans who maintain the integuments of a liberal polity in their ‘rag-tag fleet’ of starships – with all the social abuses this entails (Dirty Hands). There’s no Cylon state, police force or civil service. Indeed, Cylon society has no institutions, and no class structures other than between the humanoid “skin jobs” and the Centurions (military robots) and Raiders (cyborg space fighters). The latter barely qualify as social beings however, since the humanoid Cylons have hobbled them cognitively, suppressing their capacity for self-awareness.
Now, the lack of institutions is key to why the Cylon polity could not be a liberal society, in spite of its democratic character.
Liberalism is a theory of governance: in particular, a normative theory of what the philosopher John Rawls refers to as the ‘basic structure’ of social institutions. In liberal societies the basic structure is charged with the distribution of primary social goods (PSG’s) such as access to health care, or with the enforcement of basic liberal rights. However, in Cylon society the PCG’s are not institutionally accessed but technologically controlled. Health (not access to health care) is a PCG in cylon society since health is furnished reliably by Cylon technology without institutional mediation.
Thus Cylon society is democratic but necessarily illiberal. Lacking public institutions, it could never instantiate liberal principles. As the series shows, this has disadvantages. It renders Cylon decision-making open to technical fixing and sly demagoguery. But it remains a fact that one cannot have a liberal polity without public institutions backed up by a coercive legal apparatus. Some Cylons, as we learn, eventually become reconciled with the human population and live under the same political structures. But this is only achieved at the price of relinquishing their posthuman-level technology and thus their Cylon nature. Cylon nature is defined relationally by involvement in a posthuman technological network. Detach a cylon node from its network and she becomes functionally if not phylogenetically a human subject.
If actual posthumans ever result from an iteration of our technical activity, they will probably not resemble Cylons!
However, the impossibility of a liberal Cylon polity illustrates a fact of political ontology recognized by Marx. Liberalism – like all social forms – has material preconditions. If posthuman life is metaphysically possible it may be ontologically incompatible with the realization of these conditions.
Thus the process of technological refashioning sketched out my article may result in entities for whom liberalism is not a political option just as it is also not an option for technologically simple societies.
I think liberalism is a decent model for humans. It may be the most decent society to which we can aspire, for all I know. But it could be metaphysically impossible for posthumans (as in the Cylon case). If so, the fact that technical refashioning may result in the end of liberalism is only a criticism of it if we hold that liberalism expresses ultimate values that we should never relinquish. But liberalism (at least in its anti-perfectionist forms) is not a theory of ultimate value, but a theory of governance and distribution. The fact that posthumans might require alternative principles of governance cannot constitute a problem for an anti-perfectionist liberal. Whether we should self-refashion in a way that might result in our descendants ceasing to be human remains an open question; but it should not be conflated with the issue of whether liberalism is a good thing.
Roden, David. 2010. Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism. Journal of Evolution and Technology 21(1) (June): 27-36.
Sorgner, Stefan (2010), ‘Nietzsche, the Overhuman, and Transhumanism’, Journal of Evolution and Technology – Vol. 21 Issue 2 – October 2010 – pgs 1-19
I’m sympathetic with this polemic by Damien Walter on the generic badness of Hollywood science fiction cinema but also bothered that it levels differences between the different mediums and ignores non-English SF cinema. Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Chris Marker’s La jetée (one of J G Ballard’s favourites, incidentally) are as innovative and important as 2001 and Blade Runner. Most importantly, they do things that only cinema can do.
2001 is arguably a mediocre novel, but a great film due to Kubrick’s estranging montage of image and music. The cinema of David Cronenberg (above all, Dead Ringers) has an implacable perversity that few SF writers – other than his inspirations, Ballard and Burroughs — have achieved. Elsewhere, in TV say, the new BSG had its speculative misfires, but was brilliant in depicting realistic characters addressing seemingly incommensurable political differences. Literary SF is rarely so character-driven, or so timely. But, hey, I’d queue for the Accelerando Flick, and let’s hear it too for the Gwyneth Jones Aleutian blockbuster!
No particular philosophical justification for posting this – though watch out for an upcoming post on True Blood and Galactica. It’s just a very funny, well-produced and thrilling mash-up, capturing the visceral excitement and scale of the new BSG whilst ‘latinizing’ its soapier leanings to hilarious effect. If nothing else it confirms Roden’s first law viz: ‘Any dramatic situation can be made more dramatic by the simple expedient of setting it on a big fracking spaceship!’
Now for a blasphemous musical repudiation of the Cylon God. All together now…