OOK at that: it’s the new year and that goddamn chapter is still not finished. Well. This week, my dears. This week. (Promises, promises!) Due to having much work to do I’m taking the lazy way out and giving you kids a sneak peek at the paper I presented at the CSAA conference (bitchy diatribe about that one below; though putting that together made me realise how much the good stuff had been, actually, really good. It’s just that it was kinda few and far between. But I appreciate them! It did take the bitchy edge off my report. I’m not sure how I feel about that!). The ACRAWSA report is on its way!
So about this paper: this would be the one in which I tried to take out my usual technique, which is to edjacate people in the theory I’m trying to use, in order that they will be equipped (as many of them are not, before hand, being different people with different interests) to understand what I might possibly mean by ‘memorialising the gifts of generous others in the flesh, and forgetting the gifts of othered others, and thus rendering them not only without property, but without value, thereby reiterating the asymmetries which ensure that privilege remains privileged.’ Ahem. So in order to do that, I took something that had troubled me for a while, which was the apparent lack of critical awareness that seems to exist in some though not all forms of transhumanism and its alleged other, bioconservatism. It arose out of attending conference run by the Institute for Ethics and Enhancement Technologies (IEET), the Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights Conference (HETHR, coz I think they like their acronyms). My paper there was basically an attempt to get at why suffering, for all that it calls (in a Levinasian fashion) for ethical response, is problematic when taken as a straightforward legitimation of the alteration of bodies, without some attendant critical interrogation.
This paper (the CSAA one) took a bit of a backwards step: it simplifies, and oversimplifies (to some extent) the transhumanist movement. It is, of course, not the monolith I present it to be in the paper, and there is nuance and caution and critical engagement within it. (I am less concerned about bioconservatism, which tends towards essentialism which is just so entirely problematic in a context where essentialism is regularly being ground to bits in the critical mortar!). Whilst I apologise to my tech-savvy transhumanist interlocutors for these injustices, it is simply to make clear my overall anxiety, which is that the kinds of alterations that they are working towards are occurring in the context of a non-critically-engaged science (for the most part, though again, not a monolith) and a normalising society. As a result, the ability to change one’s body is shaped not by neutral desires, but by desires engendered within that context. This isn’t all bad, not at all (I do not think that ‘natural’ desires are pure, either; that is, there is no ‘outside’ to the context which might engender desires that would be okay); but to the extent that normal and normaller (I know, I know) bodies, even ideal bodies, are what is sought, this problematically reiterates existing hierarchies of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, intelligence, worthiness and so on. And to this end, this citation from Judith Butler seems to me to take on an even more striking resonance (a resonance, it must be said, to which my entire project, my entire politics seems to vibrate):
Hence, it will be important to think about how and to what end bodies are constructed as is it will be to think about how and to what end bodies are not constructed and, further, to ask after how bodies which fail to materialize provide the necessary ‘outside,’ if not the necessary support, for the bodies which, in materializing the norm, qualify as bodies that matter.
How, then, can one think through the matter of bodies as a kind of materialization governed by regulatory norms in order to ascertain the workings of heterosexual hegemony in the formation of what qualifies as a viable body? How does this materialization of the norm in bodily formation produce a domain of abjected bodies, a field of deformation, which, in failing to qualify as the fully human, fortifies those regulatory norms? What challenge does that excluded and abjected realm produce to a symbolic hegemony that might force a radical rearticulation of what qualifies as bodies that matter, ways of living that count as ‘life,’ lives worth protecting, lives worth saving, lives worth grieving?’ (Bodies That Matter, p. 16)
And so: [clears throat]
The television show Heroes has been an enormous success both in the United States and here in Australia. Building on a not-particularly-innovative concept, there’s a number of reasons that one could offer for the triumph of yet another story of people with extraordinary abilities. But I want to suggest that rather than being something peculiar about this text (as contrasted with others of its ilk, say, X-men, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Jake 2.0 and so on), there’s something peculiar about this cultural moment. The envisaging of extra ‘abilities’ in Heroes–Claire’s regenerative skills, Nathan’s flying, Micah’s talking to machines, DL’s walking through walls, Hiro’s playing with time–sits alongside the increasing visibility of biotechnology and the promises it holds out. The future is invoked as justification for investment in it.
This investment is not simply financial. Medical science has been a major part of the formation of contemporary culture. As Foucault observed, it took centre stage in the development of biopower, permitting the disciplining of individual bodies–anatamopolitics–and the management of the body of the population–biopolitics. Scientific and medical developments have led to longer and longer lives, which in turn have led to therapeutic techniques for improving and sustaining health in the face of aging. Yet the framework which allows medicine to be understood as therapy has also lent itself to the continual redefining of the healthy, normal human body. Indeed, in many cases forms of bodily being which would not once have been a problem have now become disabilities in need of therapeutic intervention: the creation of ‘idiopathic short stature,’ that is, shortness that arises without a cause (and here the genes from short parents are not considered a medical cause), which requires and permits human growth hormone treatment. What we see here is that therapeutic techniques have blurred into what are called ‘enhancement’ technologies. It is not just extraordinary amounts of funding that have been poured into biotechnological and medical research. Hope and optimism, both at the personal and state level, are increasingly being pinned on the capacity of science. Science is the primary, if not the only, site of progress. It will save us, if all the stories are to be believed, from epidemics and climate change, from bad memories and disability. It isn’t just science fiction that sketches what science might bring us, but increasingly television dramatises the promise of improved health in hospital shoes, the assurance of objective, forensic truth in crime shows, the guarantee of new and exciting cars, gadgets, tools in explicitly future-based programs. This doesn’t even touch on the incredible profusion of pop science content across a variety of media, which is marked by its astonishingly powerful appeal to its public, made through the tracing of potential benefits. These potential benefits engage, in a point I’ll return to, with our contemporary values. Science has developed some fairly astonishing PR, and a major part of this discourse is the continual imagining of an appealing future.
Transhumanism is a key part of this extraordinary PR campaign, even when there is a distance between the two. Tranhumanism is, as Bostrom describes, “a grassroots movement that advocates the voluntary use of technology to enhance human capacities and extend our health-span,” a neologism that attempts to get at the regular non-coincidence of extended life-spans with continued good health. The term ‘transhumanism’ was probably first used by Julian Huxley (Aldous’ brother), when he stated: “The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself – not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way – but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.” I’m leaving the exclusive language in place because, as it will become clear, it does indicate something key about how transhuamnism operates. But in the end, transhumanists, being concerned for the transition between the human and the posthuman, advocate massive investment, both public and private, in biotechnology and especially genetic engineering. This grounds dream dizzying science fiction dreams not only of of dramatically extended lives, of continual perfect health, free from disability and illness, eradication of disease the world over, but of of perfected memory, of inescapable virtue, increased intelligence, of animals ‘uplifted’ to be just as intelligent as us. As Bostrom waxes lyrical about these
“extremely valuable ways of living, feeling, thinking and relating[:}… We can conceive, in the abstract at least, of crackling sensual pleasures more blissful and thrilling than any in human history; aesthetic contemplation more rapturously sublime or more perfectly Apollonian [they do so love their Nietzsche, these transhumanists!]; nonpareil levels of personal development and maturity allowing for the first time that precious inner core of each one of us to suffuse and fill out our whole personas; a vastly richer understanding of the human condition, derived from having savored life more fully and reflected more deeply; a keener intelligence and a quicker wit, grasping the whole of science better than any current expert understand her own speciality; philosophical thinking more profound and disillusioned; and love so passionate, ever-fresh and secure that its reality surpasses our maddest moonstruck longings. We can also conceive of some of the secondary effects of such capacities–wonderful new art forms, truer science, more enlightened philosophy, and closer unions between lovers.” (Bostrom, “Transhumanist Ethics,” [pdf], 11)
They offer ideas of a society made entirely equal, of no child, to put a futuristic spin on President Bush’s education agenda, left behind. They dream of better and better humans, as they put it, humans able to enjoy more and longer, and at greater leisure. All these are concerete possibilities hovering on the horizon, and their promise is such that, whatever our concerns about misuse, we have a responsibility to invest as much as we can in the scientific research that will bring us these futures.
There is, of course, a variety of voices attempting to put the brakes both on the financial investment in biotechnology and the cultural investment in science as the source of progressive hope. These voices are dubbed ‘bioconservative’ by the transhumanists (that is, they rarely actually name themselves in this way, even though they may feel this name is accurate, and I suspect they avoid adopting this title because they want to retain the sense that their perspective is mainstream). This loose affiliation of people, from Fukuyama to Habermas to Kass, tend to argue against such things as stem cell research, genetic testing and manipulation, as well as more explicitly articulating concerns about the possibilities transhumanists push for. As Fukuyama states, transhumanism is “the world’s most dangerous idea.” (“Transhumanism” in Foreign Policy, 2004) There is, for this group, an underlying anxiety that in our swift embrace of these imagined futures, we forget to hold onto something fundamental. In general, the concern is not about the potential deaths resulting form insufficiently tested scientific innovation, although numerous transhumanists argue that with proper forms of testing the majority of their concerns could be allayed. Rather, bioconservatism worries that humanity will lose its way, its nature, its humanity, even, sometimes, its nature as made-in-the-image-of-God. The transhumanist desire for progress forgets to pay attention to what would be lost in such a future, although there is at least some diversity in what they assume would be lost.
There are a variety of things that different bioconservative thinkers fear we would lose. Some appeal to the ‘rightness’ of the natural body, and this appears to be a similar argument to the anti-cosmetic surgery perspective held by some, though by no means all, feminists. Kass, for example, argues that human morphology is bound up for us with our respect for the divinely-given but still biological human essence. In this respect, the discourse of the religious right which has come to dominate the North American political sphere is married to biological essentialism, permitting the often implicit invocation of God as the Author of the human body and the nature it contains. Thus our deviation from our naturally given bodies becomes a straying from God. Yet even when the word ‘God’ is not mentioned, bioconservatives are very clear about what and who we ought to be, and this essence takes on an almost divine dimension–it becomes a source of moral judgement. Fukuyama, for example, avoids overt religiosity but replaces it with an incredible faith in liberalism: “The political equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence rests on the empirical fact of natural human equality… [A fact, I might add, that is regularly taken as not needing to be established] Underlying this idea of the equality of rights is the belief that we all possess a human essence … This essence, and the view that individuals therefore have inherent value, is at the heart of political liberalism. But modifying that essence is the core of the transhumanist project. If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?” (Fukuyama, Our PostHuman Future, 2002, p. 9) This is, of course, the traditional naturalisation fallacy: that what already is is what ought always to be, that anything that deviates from what has already been is a perversion of an essence, a truth of our nature. Cultural studies, amongst other disciplines, has long been suspicious of ideas of truth, nature and essence. Such concepts are all too regularly married to the maintenance of asymmetries of what is valued, and what is permitted. The liberal claim to equality that Fukuyama relies upon is thoroughly critiqued–feminists, queer theorists, race and critical whiteness scholars and of course critical disability theorists have long demonstrated that the assumption of ‘equality’ is a false universalisation of what is already privileged: the white, male, heterosexual, able-bodied norm. Against this norm, it has become possible for Plato to claim that woman is nothing more than a deformed man, for heteronormativity to read the divine rejection of homosexuality from the ‘naturally interlocking’ form of male and female genitals, and for eugenicists to see the natural superiority of whites indicated in their high foreheads and strong chins. When bioconservatives invoke ideas of essence, then, they reify very particular forms of being-in-the-world, avoiding an interrogation of how and why those forms of being have become privileged. Even the secular liberal essence that Fukuyama has invoked suggests that there is a level at which all humans are the same, and this is the basis on which they should be treated as equivalent. Yet as feminists such as Susan Moller Okin have demonstrated, liberalism was designed by and for men, deeming white maleness to be the essence upon which liberalism is built; and this ensures that women’s rights are rarely considered. There is a little doubt, then, that the bioconservative reliance on ideas of nature, human nature, truth and essence is conservative and requires interrogation. The flexibility of transhumanism is progressive by comparison–or so it appears.
In its advocacy of such things as the right to morphological self-determnation or the uplifting of animals, transhumanism seems the epitome of progressiveness, a movement that refuses to be bound by the past. And indeed, in many ways this is true; yet spectre-like, I want to suggest that conservatism–of a far more insidious kind than that manifested by bioconservatism, which at least confesses it–lies at the very heart of tranhumanism.There is the obvious kind, which assumes that there is an unalterable human essence, or human culture, which would underlie every alteration that transhumanism could make. This was implicit in the Huxley quote I cited earlier: “man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.“ (from Religion without Revelation). This assumption that no matter what changes occurs, the same underlying ‘man’ would exist. There are some who also, countering Fukuyama’s (and other’s) concern about the formation of an ‘unenhanced underclass,’ argue that there is a fundamental human essence whose moral worth would ensure that this underclass would never form. They would do well to listen to the plight of those whose moral worth is always already conceived of as lacking–the disabled, the racialised, women, and so on– who always lose out to the supposedly universal norm of the white, straight, middle-class able-bodied man.
Yet there’s a more insidious form of essentialism at work in transhumanism. The attributes transhumanism suggests we ought to aim to enhance, or new attributes that would be unequivocal goods are not neutral. The cries of higher IQs, for increased rationality, for less disability, for chemically-induced virtue appear neutral in some sense, but only because they cover over existing class, race, sexual, ability and other hierarchies. Let’s take the suggestion of ‘increased rationality.’ This would appear to be a simple, straight-forward good. More rational citizens, as James Hughes argues, would be able to make more and better political decisions. Another speaker at 2005’s Human Enhancement Technologies and Human Rights conference argued that increasingly rational citizens would be more able to achieve consensus. Implicit in both arguments is the idea that rationality is a knowable, singular trait that we can assess people according to. And more problematically still, it assumes that rationality is ahistorical and acultural. It is, simply, naturally and of itself a good thing. Rationality, in fact, as Genevieve Lloyd so eloquently argued in ‘Man of Reason’ is the name given to the way a particularly elite group of European men have thought, a way of thinking that has developed rules and names and systems as techniques of maintaining the privilege of particular positions, perspectives and people. Quite aside from the problematic mind/body split it requires, it has, of course, been historically formed in and through the deeming of other ways of thinking to be ‘irrational’; ways of thought, not-so-conincidentally, that have tended to be manifested by women and racialised others. Thus the increase in rationality that is advocated by transhumanists takes this attribute as a neutral, ahistorical good, and fails to see that its formation is implicated in a continuing privilege of male thought, and the continuing marking of female thought as irrational, foolish, and fundamentally against the best interests of humanity, politically and otherwise. The essentialism may not attach to ideas of what it means to be human, but this is only because it detaches the valorisation of particular attributes from the privileged identities which have constituted those attributes as valuable. The apparent inherent goodness of rationality, then, its essential positivity, naturalises a historically and contextually specific process.
What is fundamentally forgotten in both transhumanism and bioconservatism is that the various forms of essentialism that they each deploy require an other for their constitution. That other isn’t just conceptual, but an embodied, living person: the racialised, women, those with disabilities and so on. Indeed, the contributions that these ‘others’ make, not just to the construction of straight white able-bodied male privilege, but to community as a whole is continually forgotten, even as this difference is key to its formation. These are the others who lose out in and through the enhancing of ‘good’ attributes: it requires that they either assimilate, in and through developing or adopting these attributes, or alternatively, they, at least insofaras they display their irrationality, their disability, their racialised difference, and so on, all of which are marked as different kinds of lacks, are denied recognition of their essential role in the public and political sphere. In this respect, then, the continued privileging of these already-privileged attributes only makes more hegemonic the forgetting of the unmarked generosity of these others. Bioconservatism is clearly not the answer, with its appeal to essentialism which always forgets the difference required to constitute that essence. Yet whilst the possibilities of transhumanism may be heady and exciting, in so far as it continues to valorise sameness, and value what has already been valued, it operates in and through the unethical denial of difference. As such, it functions to perpetuate and even strengthen the hegemonic privileging of a homogenous, normalised form of subjectivity.
So there you go: WildlyParenthetical attempts non-theoretical (and shush! I know it’s still theory-ish, but did you notice the distinct lack of ‘being-in-the-world’s and ‘power/knowledge’s and ‘alterity’s in there??). [nods] Enjoy 2008!