What else is speculative fiction other than a bagful of nickels?
This image, from Dexter Palmer’s book, has long haunted me since I first encountered it. Hope, possibility, dreams unrealized—the nickels manifest an interesting relationship between Harold and technology that extended far beyond the original creator’s intention. And, in a way, isn’t this what steampunk and science fiction are all about? It is what is represented by the nickels rather than the nickels themselves that are important and we might even turn to Saussure’s semiotic labels of objects, signified, sign as we realize that there also exists a tension because the only way to manifest the dreams is to spend the nickel—what is the balance between dreams realized and the pull of dreams left to dream?
Ultimately, however, we must also ask ourselves just how “punk” is steampunk? If the term endeavors to draw upon the Western history of punks from the 1970s, it must then speak to a form of subversion or resistance against the dominant culture of the time. Although one might argue that the aesthetic of steampunk along with an emphasis on construction or reappropriation of machines certainly represents a challenge to the status quo, the centrality of technology in the lives of steampunks certainly seems to remain aligned with current views. Technology looks different, but does it function in a fundamentally different way?
Although a casual fan of the culture, I also continue to wonder about just how deep this love of Victorian-era ideals go. Perhaps I am just sensitized to the resurgence of Gothic (e.g., horror, gothic Lolita, etc.) and Victorian because of my research interests? I find myself struggling with the grand visions put forth in steampunk (not unlike other forms of technological utopia we have encountered previously in the course) as erasing the very real struggles that surrounded the appearance of steam-powered technology in the 19th century. In addition to the pollution and physical hazards mentioned in Rebecca Onion’s piece, I also think about how the new machine culture affected workers’ health. But even beyond the scope of the machine and the factory, steampunk seems to pluck out fetishized elements of clockwork while leaving the very real (at the time) menaces of disease, improper sanitation, and corpse stealing that were intertwined with developing technology in the Victorian age.
But then again, perhaps I am reading this all wrong. Does steampunk speak to a deep cultural need for us to strip away the layers of shine and sheen that surround modern implementations of technology? To see the gears and pistons is to see behind the curtain and experience a different type of technological wonder all together. Is there a sort of excitement that comes from knowing that gadgets might not work? And, as mentioned earlier, surely the culture of production that pervades the experience of being steampunk speaks to an increasingly diminished notion of the average person as tinkerer.
There is, for Western male bodies in particular, a very distinct sense of the body as discrete and whole. In contrast to permeable female body—associated with tears, lactation, childbirth, and menstruation, women demonstrate a tendency to ooze—male bodies appear much more concerned with integrity and resistance to invasion or penetration.
The male anxieties surrounding penetration are also a bit ironic given that, in some ways, the current ideals of straight Western male bodies derive from an attempt by the gay community to respond to the threat of AIDS. In short, one factor in the rise of the ideal hard body—although certainly not the only influence—was the effort made by gay individuals to project a healthy and robust body in the 1980s. As AIDS was considered a “wasting disease” at the time, exaggerated musculature served as an immediate visual signal that one did not have the disease. As this particular image propagated in society, societal norms surrounding the male body changed and straight men began to adopt the new form, although importantly not for the same reasons of gay men.
This process, then, challenges the naturalization of the ideal body—and even the idea of the body itself. The concept of the body can be seen as a constant site of negotiated meaning as our understanding of what the body is (and is not) arises out of an intersection of values; this means that we must look closely at the ways in which we privilege one form of the body over another, maintaining a static arbitrary form in the process.
Here, Jussi Parikka’s notion of body as assemblage offers an interesting lens through which to examine the concept of the body: the “body,” in a sense is not only an amalgamation of parts, sensations, memories, and events but also is forged in the interaction between the components that make up the body and those that surround it. What if we were to rethink the sacred nature of the body and instead understand it as a fusing of parts on multiple levels? Would we care as much about the ways in which organic and inorganic pieces interacted with our bodies? What if we changed our understanding of our body as inherently natural and saw it as a prosthetic? The state of the body is in constant flux as it responds to and affects the world around it—put another way, the body is engaged in a constant dialogue with its surroundings.
On a macro scale, this adaptation might take the form of Darwinian evolution but on an individual level, we might also think about things like scars or antibodies as ways in which our body (and not our mind!) evidences a form of memory as it has been impacted by the world around it. Although layers of meaning are likely imposed upon these bodily artifacts, on their most basic level they serve as reminders that, as stable as they seem, our bodies continually contain the potential to change.
And, ultimately, it is this potential for transcendence that forms a thread through most of my work. Stretching across the lineage of Final Girls who had power in them all along, to youth striving to maximize their education, to the transhumanist tendency to push the boundaries of the body, I hold most affinity for people who cry, “This is not all that I am.”
It should come as no surprise that the futurist perspective of transhumanism is closely linked with Science Fiction given that both areas tend to, in various ways, focus on the intersection of technology and society. Generally concerned with the ways in which technology will serve to enhance human beings (along the way possibly evolving past “human” to become “posthuman”), the transhumanist movement generally adopts a positivist stance as it envisions a future in which disease and aging are eradicated or cognitive processes accelerated.  In one way, transhumanism is presented as a cure-all for the problems that have plagued human beings throughout our history, providing hope that our fragile, corruptible, mortal, and impermeable bodies can forever be augmented, maintained, fixed, or reconstituted. A seductive promise, surely. Science Fiction then takes the ideas presented by transhumanist theory and makes them a little more tangible, affording us the opportunity to visit these futurist communities as we dream about how our destiny will be changed for the better while also allowing us to glimpse warnings against hubris through works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Without giving it much thought, it seems as though we are readily able to spot the presence of transhumanism in Science Fiction—but what if we were to reverse the gaze and instead use Science Fiction as a critical lens through which transhumanism could be viewed and understood? In short, what are lessons that we can garner from a close reading of Science Fiction texts can be used as tools to think through both the potential benefits and drawbacks of this particular direction for humanity?
Although admittedly an oversimplification, the utopia/dystopia binary gives us a place to start. Lest we become overly enamored with the potential and the promise of a movement like transhumanism, we must remember to ask ourselves, “Just whose utopia is it?” Using Science Fiction as framework to understand the transhumanist movement, we are wary of a body of work that has traditionally excluded minority perspectives (e.g., the female gender or race) until called to explicitly express such views (see the presence of, and need for, works labeled as “feminist Science Fiction”). This is, of course, not to suggest that exceptions to this statement do not exist. However, it seems prudent here to mention that although the current landscape of Science Fiction has been affected by the democratizing power of the Internet, its genesis was largely influenced by an author-audience relationship that drew on experiences and knowledge primarily codified in White middle-class males. Although we can readily derive examples of active exclusion on the part of the genre’s actors (i.e., we must remember that this is not a property of the genre itself), we must also recognize a cultural context that steered various types of minorities away from fiction grounded in science and technology; for individuals who did not grow up idolizing the lone boy inventor/tinkerer or fantasizing about the space race, Science Fiction of the early- to mid-20th century did not readily represent reality of any sort, alternate, speculative, future, or otherwise.
If we accept that many of the same cultural factors that worked against diversity in early forms of Science Fiction continue to persist today with respect to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (Johnson, 1987; Catsambis, 1995; Nosek, et al., 2009) we must also question the vision put forth by transhumanists and be willing to accept that, for all its glory, the movement may very well represent an incomplete ideal state—invariably all utopias need revision. Although we might consider our modern selves as more progressive than authors of early Science Fiction, examination of current discourse surrounding transhumanism reveals a continued failure to incorporate discussions surrounding race (Ikemoto, 2005). In particular, this practice is potentially problematic as the Biomedical/Health field (in which transhumanism is firmly situated) has a demonstrated history of legitimizing multiple types of discrimination based on dimensions that include, but certainly are not limited to, race and gender. By not attempting to understand the implications of the movement from the viewpoint of multiple stakeholders, transhumanism potentially becomes a site for dominant ideology to reinforce its sociocultural constructions of the biological body. Moreover, if we have learned anything from the ways in which new media use intersects with race and socioeconomic status, we must be wary of the ways in which technology/media can exacerbate existing inequalities (or create new ones!). The issue of accesses to the technology of transhumanism immediately becomes pertinent as we see the potential for the restratification of society according to who can afford (broadly defined, including not just to cost but also including things like missed work due to recovery time) to have these procedures performed. In short, much like in Science Fiction, we must not only question who the vision is authored by, but also who it is intended for. Yet, far from suggesting that current transhumanist aspirations are necessarily or inherently incompatible with other strains, I merely argue that many types of voices must be included in the conversation if we are to have any hope of maintaining a sense of human dignity.
And dignity plays an incredibly important role in bioethical discussions as we being to take a larger view of transhumanism’s potential effect, folding issues of disability into the discussion as we contemplate another (perhaps more salient) way in which society can act to inscribe form onto a body. Additionally, mention of disability forces an expansion in the definition of transhumanism beyond mere “enhancement,” with its connotation of augmentation of able-bodied individuals, to include notions of treatment. Although beyond the scope of this paper, the treatment/enhancement distinction is worth investigating as it not only has the potential to designate and define concepts of normal functioning (Daniels, 2000) but also suffers from a general lack of consensus regarding use of the terms “treatment” and “enhancement” (Menuz, Hurlimann, & Godard, 2011). But, looking at the overlap of treatment, enhancement, and disability, we must ask ourselves questions like, “If one of the potential benefits of transhumanism is the prevention and/or rectification of conditions like disability and deformity, who should be fixed? Who deserves to be fixed? But, most importantly, who needs to be fixed?”
Continuing to apply perspectives used to analyze the intersection of race, class, and technology, we see the potential for transhumanism thought to impose a particular kind of label onto individual bodies, inscribing a particular system of values in the process. Take, for example, Sharon Duchesneau and Candy McCullough who have been criticized for actively attempting to conceive a deaf child (Spriggs, 2002). Although the couple (both of whom are deaf) do not consider deafness to be a disability or a liability, a prevailing view in America works to force a particular type of identity onto the couple and their child (i.e., deafness is abnormal) and the family will undoubtedly be forced to eventually confront thinking informed by transhumanism in justifying their choice and very existence.
However, even seemingly straightforward cases like Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius have forced us to grapple with new questions regarding the consideration of recipients of biomedical augmentation. Born without fibula, a state that would likely be classified as “disabled” by himself and others, Oscar Pistorius won gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter events at the 2008 Paraolympic Games but was initially banned from entering the Olympic Games due to concern that his artificial legs conferred an unfair advantage. Although this ruling was later overturned, Pistorius failed to make the qualifying time to participate in the 2008 Olympics Games. Pistorius has, however, met the qualifying standard for the 2012 Games and his participation will assuredly affect future policy regarding the use of artificial limbs as well as a renegotiation of the term “disabled” (Burkett, McNamee, & Potthast, 2011; Van Hilvoorde & Landeweerd, 2010). Interestingly, Pistorius also raises larger issues about the nature of augmentation in Sport, an area that has long wrestled with the concept of competitive advantages conferred through body modification and enhancement.
Ultimately we see that while improvements in human-computer interfaces, computer-mediated communication, neuroscience, and biomechanics paint a resplendent future full of possibilities for a movement like transhumanism, the philosophy also reveals a struggle over phrases like “human enhancement” that have yet to be resolved. Although I am personally most interested in issues of identity and religion that will most likely arise as a result of this cultural transformation (see Spezio, 2005), I want to suggest that larger societal issues must also be raised and discussed. Although we might understand the fundamental issue of transhumanism as a question of whether we should accept the body the way it is, I think the more instructive line of inquiry (if perhaps harder to initially understand) thoroughly examines the ways in which transhumanism builds upon a historical construction of the concept of the body as natural while simultaneously challenging it. Without such critical reflection, transhumanism, like many utopic endeavors, runs the risk of limiting our future to one that is restricted by the types of issues that we can imagine in the present; although our path forward is necessarily guided by the questions that we ask today, utopia turns to dystopia when we fixate on a idealized state and forget why we even bothered to seek advancement in the first place. If, however, we apply the theoretical frameworks provided by Science Fiction to our real lives and reconceptualize utopia as a process—a pursuit that is ongoing, reflexive, and dynamic—instead of as a product, we stand a chance of accomplishing what we sought to do without diminishing individual autonomy or being consumed by the very technology we hoped to integrate.
 Interestingly, in some conceptualizations, aging is now being understood as a disease-like process rather than a biological inevitability. Aside from the radical shift in thinking represented by a movement away from death as biological fact, I am fascinated by the ways in which this indicates a changing understanding of the “natural” state of our bodies.
 This should not suggest that a utopia/dystopia binary is the only way of considering this issue, but merely one way of utilizing language central to Science Fiction in order to understand transhumanism. Moreover, like most things, transhumanism is multidimensional and I am hesitant to cast it onto a good/bad dichotomy but I think that the notion of critical utopia can be instructive here.
 A complex notion itself worthy of detailed discussion. A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics featured a number of articles on the concept of dignity and how transhumanism worked to uphold or undermine it. See de Melo-Martin, 2010; Bostram, 2008; Sadler, 2010; Jotterand, 2010. Although “dignity” seems difficult to define concretely, Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard suggest a “personal optimum state” based on cultural, socio-historical, biological, and psychological features (2011). One might note, however, that the highly indivdualized nature of Menuz, Hurlimann, and Godard’s criteria makes implimentation of policy difficult.
Bostram, N. (2008). Dignity and Enhancement. In A. Schulman (Ed.), Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics (pp. 173-207). Washington, DC: The President’s Council on Bioethics.
Burkett, B., McNamee, M., & Potthast, W. (2011). Shifting Boundaries in Sports Technology and Disability: Equal Rights or Unfair Advantage in the Case of Oscar Pistorius? Disability and Society, 26(5), 643-654.
Catsambis, S. (1995). Gender, Race, Ethnicity, and Science Education in the Middle Grades. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 32(3), 243-257.
Daniels, N. (2000). Normal Functioning and the Treatment-Enhancement Distinction. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 9, 309-322.
de Melo-Martin, I. (2010). Human Dignity, Transhuman Dignity, and All That Jazz. The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 53-55.
Ikemoto, L. (2005). Race to Health: Racialized Discourses in a Transhuman World. DePaul Journal of Health Care Law, 9(2), 1101-1130.
Johnson, S. (1987). Gender Differences in Science: Parallels in Interest, Experience and Performance. International Journal of Science Education, 9(4), 467-481.
Jotterand, F. (2010). Human Dignity and Transhumanism: Do Anthro-Technological Devices Have Moral Status? The American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 45-52.
Menuz, V., Hurlimann, T., & Godard, B. (2011). Is Human Enhancement Also a Personal Matter? Science and Engineering Ethics.
Nosek, B. A., Smyth, F. L., Sriram, N., Lindner, N. M., Devos, T., Ayala, A., et al. (2009, June 30). National Differences in Gender: Science Stereotypes Predict National Sex Differences in Science and Math Achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(26), 10593–10597.
Sadler, J. Z. (2010). Dignity, Arete, and Hubris in the Transhumanist Debate. American Journal of Bioethics, 10(7), 67-68.
Spezio, M. L. (2005). Brain and Machine: Minding the Transhuman Future. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 44(4), 375-380.
Spriggs, M. (2002). Lesbian Couple Create a Child Who Is Deaf Like Them. Journal of Medical Ethics, 283.
Van Hilvoorde, I., & Landeweerd, L. (2010). Enhancing Disabilities: Transhumanism under the Veil of Inclusion? Disability and Rehabilitation, 32(26), 2222-2227.
It seems only fitting that Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” begins with a domestic scene that features a housewife vacuuming, for perhaps no time in recent history has been as evocative as the mid-20th century matriarch. Arguably trading potential for security, women were indeed presented with “overchoice” as hundreds of new products became available for consumers—but although the sheer number of choices available increased, one might also argue that the meaningful choices that a woman could make also decreased as society restructured itself in the years following World War II. Science fiction offerings by authors like Pamela Zoline and James Tiptree, Jr. point to various roles for women in America at the time, illuminating the narrow ways in which women could insert themselves into a world that was not their own. Moreover, the path highlighted society lay fraught with ennui, boredom, monotony, and despair—so much so, in fact, that Pamela Zoline’s Sarah Boyle attempts to disrupt her routine and, in so doing, bring about the heat death of the universe (and the end of her suffering).
Fast forward fifty years and we again see another batch of Desperate Housewives, who suffer from some of the same emotions as their 50s counterparts. Restless and losing a sense of self, the women on Marc Cherry’s drama attempt to illustrate that even well-to-do mothers living in gated communities still struggle to have it all.
And, in many ways, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror have dealt with the same issues throughout the years, with witches in the 60s like Samantha Stevens (Bewitched) going through the same sorts of domestic trials as the modern Halliwell sisters (Charmed). Important in both of these shows is the presence of the accepting/tolerant (White) male who, although occasionally lacking in comprehension of women or their magic, is certainly understanding. In the case of Bewitched, we see a male who puts up with his wife’s misdeeds and tolerates the existence of magic even as he discourages its use.
Additionally, we see women in these shows often struggling with the expectations of motherhood, which raises notions about feminine identity, female bodies, and reproduction. Explored by Octavia Butler, we are introduced to the theme of male pregnancy, which often results in disastrous consequences for men. Men’s bodies, it seems, cannot handle the task of birth as they are often destroyed in the process of labor.
Although uncomfortable, I believe that these types of fiction allow our culture to wrestle with pertinent questions about our relationships to our bodies. Although some scenarios seem impossible (at present, for example, biological males are unable to give birth to offspring), the idea that technology might eventually intervene and allow men to carry to babies to term does not seem to be out of the question. Should such a day come, we can refer back to fiction like that of Octavia Butler in order to better articulate our views on reproduction and sex as we come to see that what we have long considered “natural” is, in fact, merely socially constructed.
1660 was a year of great upheaval in England, with the beginning of the English Restoration marked by the ascendancy of Charles II to the throne. That same year, another event—lesser known, although no less revolutionary—occurred, which would affect the future of Science forever: the invention of air.
Now I don’t mean that someone found a container and mixed together 78% Nitrogen, 21% Oxygen, and some other stuff. Air as a gas had existed for millennia. And I don’t mean air as an idea or concept. Rather, I mean the invention of air as an object of inquiry—something that could be studied and was worthy of such scrutiny.
Using the recently invented vacuum pump as an experimental apparatus, Robert Boyle published a book called New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, a volume that aimed to describe the properties of air. Although this milestone may seem somewhat uninteresting to non-science geeks, the thoughts forwarded in this work formed the cornerstone of Boyle’s Law, which would later become incorporated into our fundamental understanding of how gasses behaved in closed systems. In short, Boyle’s publication helped to change the way in which we saw the world, rendering the once-invisible apparent, if still ephemeral.
But when we think about air today—if at all—we don’t stop to ponder how it works. We just know that it does. We instinctually know that creating a small vacuum at the top of a straw will cause the liquid below to move up due to a pressure differential and this, in many ways, demonstrates the true power of science, for many of its principles are simply accepted as truth.
In her book Always Already New, Lisa Gitelman draws a parallel between the adoption of scientific knowledge and acceptance of media, arguing that both must fight to prove themselves and, having done so, proceed to weave themselves into our lives until they become unremarkable and it becomes difficult for us to ever imagine how we functioned without it. Divorcing media from technology, Gitelman suggests that a key point in understanding the impact of media is describing the social experience that arises around new forms of media and tracing how these experiences evolve over time. Indeed, the transitions between introduction, acceptance, and banality often tell us much about the socio-cultural context in which media reside, with concerns inevitably transitioning from “What is this new technology replacing (i.e., what is lost)?” to “What are the health implications (e.g., is this going to give me cancer)?” to “What are the implications for the community (e.g., will this bring about the apocalypse)?”
Gitleman further argues that as we forget the social processes that govern media, allowing its protocols to become invisible, media gains a sort of authority and legitimacy, as the state of being influenced by media becomes “the way it always was” even though it wasn’t. Take a second and think about how protocols surrounding media—all media, not just new media—have become incorporated into your life. How do you interact with media? What are the rules (official or otherwise) that govern such behavior?
In front of us is a sampling of the ways in which we might interact with media and, latent in these actions, is a set of protocols that instruct our behavior. But, more than just guiding our interaction with the media, Gitelman argues that these protocols also serve to update and stabilize our sense of the abstract public, with communities rising around shared ritual. Another way to think about this is that we ascertain our position in the community by locating ourselves within an ecology of practice.
In some ways overlapping with community bounded by taste, we see that similar patterns of interaction with, or response to, media helps to delineate those who are like us from those who are not. Speaking of taste how many of you prefer the ad to the left? The right? No preference?
In late 2009, IKEA decided to change its font from Futura to Verdana, a process that has little, if any, inherent significance. The switch, however, provoked no small amount of discussion online, with ardent supporters arguing against equally strident naysayers. Aesthetics aside, the interesting take home message from all of this is the way in which fonts—and typography in general—represent precisely the type of incorporation that Gitelman was talking about with respect to media. As media becomes naturalized, we tend to focus on the content such that methods of production become invisible. When we encounter text, we register what is said before we think about how it’s presented. To quote Adrian Frutiger,
“If you remember the shape of your spoon at lunch, it has to be the wrong shape. The spoon and the letter are tools; one to take food from the bowl, the other to take information off the page…When it is a good design, the reader has to feel comfortable because the letter is both banal and beautiful.”
Gitelman goes on to introduce other forms of inscription, namely recorded sound and new media, suggesting similarities between the cultural relationships that surrounded both sets of protocols.
“Whole new modes of inscription—such as capturing sounds by phonograph in 1878, or creating and saving digital files today—make sense as a result of social processes that define their efficacy as simultaneously material and semiotic.”
We see resonance between the early Dictaphone and speech-to-text input software like visual voicemail or between the gramophone and code-to-speech programs like auto-translation. Gitelman warns, however, that inscriptive media also are inextricably connected to history and attempts to examine these artifacts historically are necessarily affected for we are studying the process of inscription through the products those processes produced! Problematic, to say the least. I suggest that the first step to successful study is to attempt an understanding of the factors that guide our inquiry: our primary sources for understanding the phenomenon of recorded sound come from print, which means that we must necessarily question the relationship of print to recorded sound at the time.
How did these two media forms coevolve, abut, and compete? If we accept Habermas’ position that the protocols of print media and speech were ensconced in public life and that recorded sound helped to reshape the public, we immediately see the need to question written accounts of recorded sound.
Ultimately, Gitelman’s point is that the socio-historical investigation of media presents a dense and complex web of associations for the would-be researcher, with recorded sound intersecting with family structures, gender, economic demands, and socio-political concepts. The introduction of recorded sound, like that of new media, necessitated a corresponding response in established social structures as it floated out from the gramophone and through the ether, leaving a trail of revolution and restructuring…just like the last time we invented air.