Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Transhumanism

Body Assembly

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.”

Eat My Dust: Uncovering who is left behind in the forward thinking of Transhumanism

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. [1] 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?”[2] 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[3] 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.

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

Works Cited

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.

Mind over Matter? Mind as Matter!

If Cyberpunk was concerned with mapping, defining, and controlling the Metaverse—the space out there—then this week’s readings largely seemed to concern themselves with disciplining the space in here, invoking aspects of Cartesian dualism along the way.

Helping us to transition from Cyberpunk to Cyborg Feminisim is Pat Cadigan’s Mindplayers. Thematically, the book seemed to express striking elements of the cyberpunk ethic (as much as the movement can be said to express a unified voice) with the subjugation of the body to the mind. Perhaps expected from the book’s title, I was still struck at how personhood was defined in terms of the mind and not the body.

In any case, Gladney (who was apparently still going by that name for the sake of convenience) had passed all the critical points in redevelopment and become a person, again or for the first time, depending on your point of view. He was certainly not the same person—the man who had emerged from the blank brain was (probably?) reminiscent of his former self but no more self than he was anyone else. (200)

This is, of course, not to imply that the point of view expressed in Mindplayers is at all invalid, for one readily sees the important role that the mind plays in cases like Terri Shaivo’s with respect to identity and personhood. However, at the same time and for all of the interesting thought experiments that occur in the overlap between mental and virtual worlds, I think that Cyberpunk does us a disservice by leaving out discussion of the body.

And what are the causes and implications of such a move?

I don’t think that we, as a culture, have forgotten about our bodies but I do think that Cyberpunk has helped to naturalize the sense that we have domesticated, controlled, and tamed our bodies such that the “body” is simply not worth talking about anymore. Cyberpunk is, of course, not solely responsible for this act as we have come to do much to discipline our bodies over the years (easiest to see in the realm of health/sanitation and cleansing the body, removing/cutting hair, etc.) but it did seem to further drive a wedge between the potential of the mind and that of the body.

Getting away from the Cartesian dualism, I do not think that we can only talk about the body at the expense of the mind, but I am incredibly interested in understanding how these two perspectives are linked. Although we know that both systems can operate independently of one another (with reflexes on one hand and brain activity after death on the other), I am most curious about the ways in which the mind knows the world only through the body and how the body can have its own form of memory.

Speaking somewhat to this point of view, Cyborg Feminism also joins the discussion at roughly the same time as Cyberpunk (if perhaps a tiny bit later). Although not expressly concerned with these issues of the body per se, I see Cyborg Feminism as a movement that seeks to reincorporate discussion of the body by challenging the notion of the body’s construction as natural or sacrosanct. In Cyborg Feminism we see the beginning of themes that will continue on in Transhumanism as we cobble together new bodies out of bits of technology, as the movement argues for the extension of the human body. (As a side note, I am just starting to look at the movement from Posthumanism to Transhumanism and how this trajectory mirrors the transition from Cyberpunk to Cyborg Feminism with respect to the obliteration/eradication/subjugation of the body and its reformation.) Ultimately, however, I am interested in what all of this might mean for the ways in which we define our bodies—beyond discussion of bioethics (although this is surely a part of the conversation), I am curious to see whether we will work to reconcile new manifestations of the body with our evolving identities or instead seek to repress them.

Our Hearts Are Restless Until They Find Rest in Thee

Flailing, lingering, drifting; in a word: restless. Horror is filled with those who cannot sleep. Ghosts, perhaps our first association, are ultimately the least helpful for they have one thing that all other undead envy: a purpose. Conversely, modern day vampires struggle to reconcile their “true natures,” cyborgs wrestle with post-humanism, and despite zombies’ evident drive, they are still miles away from truly possessing purpose. In their own ways, members of the undead horde toil without rest. Although we continue to tell tales, huddled in the dark, perhaps the decline in ghost stories means that we are no longer haunted by our pasts, instead unsure about our futures.

Narcissistic, apathetic, bored; in a word: restless. Modern youth have increasingly been painted in negative terms, each indicative of declines in the current generation. Yet, instead of castigating youth, how might we use the undead as a lens to sympathize with teenagers’ search for meaning? Both groups exist in worlds that have begun to move away from institutional and overt aspects of religion—how does each endeavor to fill the void? In a post-modern world, where all paths are equal (and hence, equally unhelpful), how do the undead and youth both fight to inscribe meaning through lived religion?