the tragedy of angelism

Consider this the mirror-image of my previous post.

In Lost in the Cosmos — about which I wrote an enthusiastic length here — Walker Percy offers a “semiotic primer of the self” which takes as one of its chief concerns the problem of alienation and re-entry: experiences that throw us out of our familiar patterns, in ways both good and bad, and thereby generate the challenge of finding our way back into our lifeworld. For instance, this is a pattern generated by both the making and the experiencing of art:


But the problem of re-entry can also be created by suffering of any kind, what Hamlet called “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”; and this alienation, this being-cast-out, can be either the worst or the best thing that happens to us. Percy’s contemporary and coreligionist Flannery O’Connor writes of a character who has been so cast out receiving “some abysmal and life-giving knowledge”; but more commonly the knowledge is just abysmal.

Percy first used his space-age metaphor in his 1971 novel Love in the Ruins, whose protagonist, Dr. Tom More, invents the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer, a device capable of measuring a person’s alienation from his or her own life. For instance, here’s his description of the reading he gets when a troubled graduate student comes to him for help:

He registered a dizzy 7.6 mmv over Brodmann 32, the area of abstractive activity. Since that time I have learned that a reading over 6 generally means that a person has so abstracted himself from himself and from the world around him, seeing things as theories and himself as a shadow, that he cannot, so to speak, reenter the lovely ordinary world. Such a person, and there are millions, is destined to haunt the human condition like the Flying Dutchman. (34)

More comes to believe that humans who are so orbiting their own lives may eventually decide that theirs is a superior way, a higher calling — that they are somehow meant to live in orbit (like the “citizens” of Egan’s Diaspora who shake their digital heads at “bacteria with spaceships”). This is, More thinks, an understandable but catastrophic affliction. Recall that for space capsules the problem of re-entry is twofold: if the capsule approaches the atmosphere at too shallow an angle, it will bounce back out into orbit; if at too steep an angle, it will be consumed by fire. That’s why the the condition of orbital exile is so prone to a Rortyan redescription as a Better Way. But we weren’t made to live in orbit, and Percy calls the belief that we can flourish out there “angelism”: trying to live like angels, disembodied creatures, we who are made to be embodied. An understandable catastrophe, but a catastrophe all the same.

It happened, he thinks, to his first wife, Doris, who

was ruined by books, by books and a heathen Englishman, not by dirty boooks but by clean books, not by depraved books but by spiritual books. God, if you recall, did not warn his people against dirty books. He warned them against high places. My wife, who began life as a cheerful Episcopalian from Virginia, became a priestess of the high places.… A certain type of Episcopal girl has a weakness that comes on them just past youth … They fall prey to Gnostic pride, commence buying antiques, and develop a yearning for esoteric doctrine. (64)

When they were still married, Doris was puzzled that her Catholic husband would always want to make love when he returned from Mass:

What she didn’t understand, she being spiritual and seeing religion as spirit, was that it took religion to save me from the spirit world, from orbiting the earth like Lucifer and the angels, that it took nothing less than touching the thread off the misty interstates [Ariadne’s thread, that leads him out of the maze of the cloverleaf intersections and to a church] and eating Christ himself to make me mortal man again and let me inhabit my own flesh and love her in the morning. (254)

Eating Christ is how More finds the safe and right angle of re-entry, how he avoids both bouncing and burning. In Christ and not otherwise may be be brought back to his life. But Doris could not join him there, at the Altar or in daily life: her “clean books” had taken her to “high places” from which she would not, could not, come down. And so they were parted.

Angelism is not just personally catastrophic; it is socially so, one might say planetarily so. This becomes clear in a scene in which Tom More — whose medical speciality, not incidentally, is psychiatry — is confined to a psychiatric hospital and finds himself joined by a new patient: his priest, Father Rinaldo Smith, who had unexpectedly fallen silent at Mass when he was supposed to be preaching a sermon, then left the church, muttering that “the channels are jammed and the word is not getting through.”

Father Smith ends up at the hospital in the bed next to Tom More, who thus hears the questioning of the priest by a team of psychiatrists, led by one named Max.

“What seems to be the trouble, Father?” asks Max, pens and flashlight and reflex hammer glittering like diamonds in his vest pocket.

“They’re jamming the airwaves,” says Father Smith, looking straight ahead.… They’ve put a gremlin in the circuit.”

“They?” asks Max. “Who are they?”

“They’ve won and we’ve lost,” says father Smith.

“Who are they, Father?

“The principalities and powers.”

“Principalities and powers,” says Max, cocking his head attentively. Light glances from the planes of his temple. “You are speaking of two of the hierarchies of devils, are you not?”

The eyes of the psychiatrists and behaviorists sparkle with sympathetic interest.

“Yes,” says Father Smith. “Their tactic has prevailed.”

“You are speaking of devils now, Father?” asks Max.

“That is correct.”

“Now what tactic, as you call it, has prevailed?”

“Death…. I am surrounded by the corpses of souls. We live in a city of the dead.”

And — I believe this is the key theme of this brilliant if flawed novel — it is the voluntary self-exile of human beings, our acceptance of life in orbit, our defection from our proper role in the cosmos to a bogus angelism — that makes room for the principalities and powers. Thus near the end of the book, in a ruined but not destroyed world, as More reflects on the possible restorative uses of his Ontological Lapsometer, he offers, among other things, a wonderful repurposing of the favored populist slogan of Huey Long.

For the world is broken, sundered, busted down the middle, self ripped from self and man pasted back together as mythical monster, half angel, half beast, but no man. Even now I can diagnose and shall one day cure: cure the new plague, the modern Black Death, the current hermaphroditism of the spirit, namely: More’s syndrome, or: chronic angelism-bestialism that rives soul from body and sets it orbiting the great world as the spirit of abstraction whence it takes the form of beasts, swans and bulls, werewolves, blood-suckers, Mr. Hydes, or just poor lonesome ghost locked in its own machinery.

If you want and work and wait, you can have. Every man a king. What I want is no longer the Nobel, screw prizes, but just to figure out what I’ve hit on. Some day a man will walk into my office as a ghost or beast or ghost-beast and walk out as a man, which is to say sovereign wanderer, lordly exile, worker and waiter and watcher.

Sovereign wanderer, lordly exile: dominion not as a simple possession but as a calling to which we may be at any given point more or less worthy, towards the fulfillment of which we should be moving as pilgrims, here and now, not afflicted by “the new plague, the modern Black Death” that flings us into orbit and keeps us there and teaches us to prefer the airless void to the things of this world.

“Liberal Education Deserves a Whole Lifetime”

Speaking of liberalism and the Socratic method — and the Singularity, for that matter — here’s New Atlantis contributing editor Peter Lawler:

The “Socratic method,” so to speak, was conversational, and its results hugely time-consuming and inconclusive. The conversation in the Republic takes 14 hours, and when it’s over it’s unclear anyone knows what justice is. One thing the guys do end up agreeing on is that conversations of that importance deserve a whole lifetime. Who has that kind of time these days? (Well, things may change if the singularity really comes.) But the truth remains that liberal education does deserve a whole lifetime, and anyone who doesn’t have it is missing out.

Also, speaking of drugging people out of their psychological ills:

A good clue at what you miss is described by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. He contrasts the old method of conversational psychiatry (often Freudian), which involved a huge number of expensive, talky sessions and got unreliable results, with the new drug-based psychiatry which often gets fast and reliable results. The alleviation of symptoms, however, isn’t the same as really knowing what’s wrong with you. That’s why Percy said you have a right to your anxiety as an indispensable clue to who you are. Anxiety, of course, can be prelude to wonder and the joy of shared discovery. You have the right not to be diverted in one way or another from knowing the truth about who you are. The old-fashioned doctor of the soul was far less about cure than about understanding.

a Kierkegaardian thought from Walker Percy

Not only should connoisseurs of Bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth — all real dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking, that is, the use of Bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’

— Walker Percy, “Bourbon”

Peter Singer’s utilitarianism increases human suffering

They told you life is hard, Misery from the start, It’s dull, it’s slow, it’s painful. But I tell you life is sweet In spite of the misery There’s so much more, be grateful. -Natalie Merchant
Peter Singer recently published a New York Times blog post seriously posing the question of whether the human race should allow itself to go extinct. Most of the post is built around the arguments of philosophy professor David Benatar, author of the book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence. Singer writes:

We spend most of our lives with unfulfilled desires, and the occasional satisfactions that are all most of us can achieve are insufficient to outweigh these prolonged negative states. If we think that this is a tolerable state of affairs it is because we are, in Benatar’s view, victims of the illusion of pollyannaism. This illusion may have evolved because it helped our ancestors survive, but it is an illusion nonetheless. If we could see our lives objectively, we would see that they are not something we should inflict on anyone.

There is a simple riposte, of course, to anyone seriously claiming we should not exist: one simply need note that no rational being is capable of posing such a claim, for once he believes it, if he is fully consistent in his conclusions and convictions, he should immediately kill himself, and so never have the opportunity to communicate the argument. Of course, I’m not suggesting that extreme utilitarian philosophers should kill themselves (though one could consider their existence as a special sort of suffering), and the fact that they don’t do so should be the first indication that something is amiss in their arguments. They live, like the rest of us, based on the notion that their lives are worth living, even though they are uniquely incapable of understanding that they are and why.
Even the most hardcore of evolutionary psychologists can agree with the notion that an organism that has lost the will and drive to continue its own existence is deeply sick — indeed, not just sick, but suffering from sickness. And it is a sickness of the highest degree, overwhelming as it does the most fundamental imperative of any organism or rational being: to exist, to maintain the prior condition for any state of goodness, joy, or wellbeing. We consider this true for animals so ill they have ceased to eat; and we consider it even truer for human beings who are suicidal: over and above whatever suffering has caused their state, we understand the state of not wanting to live to be itself a profound form of suffering — literally, the deepest form of existential despair.

Nietzsche said, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” So, also, he who has no why to live cannot bear with almost any how. Walker Percy claims that postmodern man “has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and … finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.” Singer et al. turn this problem into the explicit question of why we shouldn’t, and when it exposes the gaping vortex of nihilism at the center of their philosophy, they attempt to divert our gaze with posturing of bold discovery and heroic honesty.

What we risk suffering from most deeply is not the physical anguish that concerns the utilitarians, but the very existential despair they so eagerly prescribe. By defining the value of our lives as simply the absence of physical suffering, philosophers like Singer may actually markedly increase human suffering. Not only does their philosophy provide an active reason for people to be suicidal, but it commits extreme utilitarians to arguing that the profound suffering of being suicidal is itself good reason for the suicidal to go ahead and commit suicide. (Notably, I know of no utilitarian philosophers who have had sufficient confidence in their convictions to openly advance such an argument.)

It is indeed a profound loathing for most of human existence that undergirds Singer’s philosophy. At the end of his post, he poses the question to the readers, “Is life worth living, for most people in developed nations today?” Though Singer allows, both here and in the conclusion to his post, that life is under the right circumstances worth living — presumably, under circumstances similar to his own — it is apparently taken for granted in this question that life is not worth living for people in undeveloped nations. And it must be even more taken for granted that life was not worth living for the thousands of generations of ancestors to whom we owe our own (at last potentially worthwhile) existences. Posterity, then — the accumulated infliction of the suffering of existence by each generation on the next — must be an injustice of unthinkable proportions.

It is in this understanding of the meaning of posterity, of course, that Singer most profoundly misses the worth of life, as available to today’s poor and to our impoverished ancestors as it is to affluent college professors. As a commenter on the Singer post, Pierce Moffett, puts it:

Maybe most normal people enjoy their lives to a greater extent than the typical philosopher does. It wouldn’t surprise me. I don’t know about you, but I’m glad I’m here. I have unfulfilled desires, but I have also had a great deal of enjoyment. I experience a few minutes of profound joy every morning when my 5 year old gets out of bed, comes to my office, and crawls up into my lap for a still-sleepy hug — and by having her, I’ve made it possible for her to have that joy herself someday if she has a child of her own. This sort of utilitarian, weigh-everything-on-the-scales approach is the worst sort of academic pseudo-philosophical nonsense.

As a philosopher, Dr. Singer is surely aware that the notion that [the] world is getting worse every year has been around among philosophers for a very long time. But out in the real world, people do the millions of things they like to do — from roller skating to playing computer games to solving differential equations to flying hang-gliders … and many of these things we love to do involve our children.

Humanity’s Last Breath

In Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 tome The Singularity is Near, he has a section rebutting what he calls “the criticism from holism” — the idea that “machines are organized as rigidly structured hierarchies of modules, whereas biology is based on holistically organized elements in which every element affects every other.” His response is that “It’s true that biological design represents a profound set of principles … [but] there is nothing that restricts nonbiological systems from harnessing the emergent properties of the patterns found in the biological world.”

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that Kurzweil is correct in claiming that all of the phenomena of the human being can be replicated on machines. Let’s instead consider a different proposition: that the transhumanist understanding of humans is by its nature shallow and incomplete — in particular, its methodology blinds them to aspects of human nature only apparent when the human being is considered as a whole, and in relation to society, culture, and environment. If so, then transhumanists are not able to recognize many of the defining characteristics of that “pattern” known as the human being, and so by their approach won’t be able to fully replicate and modify us — even if such a feat is in principle possible.
Kurzweil’s description of the replacement of the human circulatory and respiratory systems perfectly exemplifies this myopic methodology. Kurzweil notes what impressive “machines” the heart and lungs are but highlights their vulnerability to failure, and argues that we can replace them with machines that perform the same functions but with much greater efficiency and reliability. Soon a runner might only need to take a single breath to sprint a mile, and

Eventually… there will be no reason to continue with the complications of actual breathing and the burdensome requirement of breathable air everywhere we go. If we find breathing itself pleasurable, we can develop virtual ways of having this sensual experience.

This argument gets to the heart (a phrase that may lose its meaning if this scheme is carried out) of the transhumanist approach to the human being as a sort primitive production economy just waiting for its own Henry Ford to break it into processes fit for assembly lines. At first blush (another phrase that draws its meaning from human respiration and circulation) the approach seems sensible enough, particularly in a case like this: breathing is simply a bodily function for providing oxygen for respiration, with the apparent epiphenomenon of a pleasurable sensation. Why not separate the two, maximizing both by making the respiratory function more efficient, and the respiratory sensation more pure and not dependent on the function?
But since Kurzweil here at least implicitly claims to be interested in replicating and improving all of the “patterns” of human existence, his scheme for replicating breathing should capture all of its goods before it sets about improving them. So let’s take a look at how his ostensibly complete account of breathing stacks up against other commonly available accounts.
Just to name a few:
  • A quick look at the scientific literature shows that breathing is not simply a respiratory process but, as a function of the autonomic nervous system, is integrally connected to other bodily processes. For example, as yoga instructors have long known, proper breathing is strongly correlated with overall physical wellbeing: labored breathing can contribute to and breathing therapy can alleviate stress and stress-related diseases such as hypertension and blood pressure.
  • In a New Atlantis essay from last year, Alan Rubenstein notes that “The activity of breathing demonstrates very nicely how action on the world can be initiated by an organism either deliberately, as in conscious breathing (think yoga, or simply ‘take a deep breath’) or ‘unconscious’ breathing (think breathing while we sleep or, in fact, most of the time that we are awake and not paying attention).”

    Further, he writes, “Breathing is an activity of the whole organism, an action taken by the organism, toward the world, and spurred by the organism’s felt need. The body of an animal needs what the world has to give and works constantly in its own interests to obtain it.”

    Rubenstein suggests that the absence of an organism’s impulse to breathe, its drive to continue its existence through a basic engagement with its environment, ought to be considered alongside the absence of heartbeat, brain activity, and awareness as one of the basic markers of death.

  • For Alexi Murdoch and Radiohead, to remember to breathe is to remember to be grounded in the world, to maintain sense and clarity in the face of confusion, alienation, and suffering. For R.E.M., to stop breathing is to surrender to these forces.
  • For Laika, breathing signifies a connection to wind and the seasons, the breath of nature.
  • For The Prodigy, Frou Frou, and The Police, to feel the breath of another is to have one’s being wrapped up in theirs. For Telepopmusik, to breathe is to be grounded in the world or taken out of it through another.
  • For The Corrs (among many others), to be in awe is to be breathless.
  • For Margaret Atwood, to love and be loved, to live for another, is to wish “to be the air that inhabits you for a moment only…to be that unnoticed & that necessary.”
  • For Roger Ebert, the feelings we have towards other human beings — as equal or lesser beings — are something we breathe.
  • For Geography professor Yi-Fu Tuan, in Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience, “The real is the familiar daily round, unobtrusive like breathing.”
  • For Lydia Peelle, the Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing include a rootedness in existence that allows us the possibility of catching “a glimpse of the infinite.”
  • For Walker Percy, breathing is the first force of gravity that grounds a person in his own existence when he attempts to fly away from it entirely through scientific detachment: “I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it…. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.”
Just to name a few.
One may dismiss some of these understandings of breathing as unreal or unimportant. But if any of these aspects are deemed integral to our experience, it must be noted that none will survive the transhumanist decomposition of the human in general and breathing in particular into function and sensation. Just in the attempt to isolate the respiratory function of breathing, the place of breathing within the whole human body — its autonomic connections to other bodily functions — will make the task of decomposition far more practically difficult than its proponents suggest. But that’s only part of the picture.
In the basic act of breathing, there is not simply a feeling of pleasure and a co-incidental act of sustenance, but a feeling of pleasure as an act of sustenance. The sensation of rhythmed breathing during a long jog, or gasping for breath after surfacing from the bottom of a river, is not simply a feeling of pleasure as pleasure, like eating a sweet dessert, but the feeling that comes from the being’s act of sustaining its own life. No matter how accurate a virtual simulation of breathing, the sensation when divorced from function can never be the full phenomenon, the phenomenon of breathing as the act of a being working for its existence from the surrounding world. None of the other aspects of breathing — its connection to love, to spirit, to nature, to the experience of being — could survive either.
Transhumanists find the relationships between the various components of human existence quixotic, and best to ignore. It’s easy to pick us apart, and so, they assume, it must be to put us together — so even when it comes to a feature of our existence as basic as breathing, they cannot grasp that there might be some purposeful relationship worth preserving between what it is, what it is like, and what it is for. Transhumanists may succeed in making us into some new being, but it will be one bereft of all the everyday depths of experience to which they are now so blind.
[Image credit: “breathe” by deviantart user sibayak.]

Walker Percy, science, and the everyday

Micah Mattix noted last week at First Things the twentieth anniversary of the death of Walker Percy. Percy sought to answer that pressing question of modern life: “How, indeed, is one to live in this peculiar time and history and on ordinary Wednesday afternoons?” It is a question left glaringly unanswered by science, and near-unanswerable by the reign of scientism; a void which transhumanism seems to answer by simply unmooring from the everyday and the weight of the question, embracing instead some (quite extra-scientific) combination of fantasy and the will to power.

Mattix’s deft and insightful post compares the legacies of Percy and his contemporary Flannery O’Connor, and I think is quite right in its analysis that interest in O’Connor now outpaces interest in Percy because she was the markedly better fiction writer. (Our New Atlantis colleague Caitrin Nicol penned a graceful essay on O’Connor’s fiction last year.)

One of Percy’s central preoccupations was with the dissolution of the self under its own image — the way the individual, whether it be a singular fish, poem, place, or person, is lost behind its own symbols and expectations:

First Bird Watcher: What is that?

Second Bird Watcher: That is only a sparrow.

A devaluation has occurred. The bird itself has disappeared into the sarcophagus of its sign. The unique living creature is assigned to its class of signs, a second-class mummy in the basement collection of mummy cases. But a recovery is possible. The signified can be recovered from the ossified signifier, sparrow from sparrow…. The German soldier in All Quiet on the Western Front could see an ordinary butterfly as a creature of immense beauty and value in the trenches of the Somme.
But this very ossification is also the root problem with Percy’s fiction: he too seldom manages to recover his characters as unique individuals from the types they are meant to represent. One wishes that more of them would leap out of the pages with the same baffling realism of O’Connor’s best characters, as breathing and vital beyond our immediate comprehension; as characters who seem like real people suffering the sorts of despair Percy portrays. Percy’s depiction of The Moviegoer’s protagonist, Binx Bolling, is brilliant — but Binx’s ironic malaise, like the earnest malaise of Camus’s Mersault, is too pure. Binx is the ideal realization of a very real mode of being, but he could never exist as a real person.

The stylistic flaws of Percy’s fiction, however, are actually integral to its philosophical strengths, for central to his work is a notion that the modern individual really is at great risk of vanishing into constructed types. (This notion is played to great comic effect in the stilted affectation of characters like Walter Wade, with his “damn good bunch of guys” and “ace gents.”) And if Percy’s characters’ lives seem fragmented, and his plots sometimes lacking in narrative coherence, it is in no small part because his work seems to depict modern life as susceptible to such fragmentation and incoherence. Still, the flashes of profound insight into the human condition that make up Percy’s work might in some cases have been more effectively rendered in short stories.

Part of the reason Percy’s prominence seems to have plateaued may be that he occupied a vital but nebulous region between fiction and philosophy, and between academic and popular writing. His nonfiction work is rather too informal and literary to fit into most of today’s philosophy curricula, and too formal (or formal in the wrong ways) for many English curricula, so the contexts in which it seems appropriate to read and discuss him are relatively few. But though his muddling of forms may not have helped his legacy, it actually made his ideas all the more effective — and it would be a mistake to pin him as in essence either just a fiction or a nonfiction writer, or to argue that he used one medium to advance arguments best suited for the other. The philosophical points Percy wanted to make could not find their full weight except when we could see the slices of life from which they were drawn, but could not find their full articulation except when he could grapple with them directly in essays; the two forms in which he wrote required each other. This is the main reason why Lost in the Cosmos, the book in which he combined fiction and nonfiction, was his best (and why, along with the conceit of it being “the last self-help book,” it was his funniest).

And though Micah Mattix is correct that Percy believes “that we do not know who we are because we have rejected our sole point of reference: God,” we should be cautious of thinking this is the only or ultimate question at stake in Percy’s work, which, as Mattix hinted, is another part of the reason it has often been underrated. In fact, some of Percy’s most ardent followers have been nonbelievers, and not for lack of understanding his work: for Percy — a Catholic convert, but one whose writing suggested an agnosticism that he would have preferred to call “searching” — the source of the malaise and the possibility of a recovery from it both arise first out of the everyday, which ultimately raises but does not rest on the question of belief.

It is a shame that Percy’s prominence has apparently peaked, for his work stands today as (to my knowledge) far and away the best depiction of the existential havoc wrought by scientism run amok — a hint of which can be found in this striking passage from The Moviegoer, with which I will close:

Until recently, I read only “fundamental” books, that is, key books on key subjects, such as War and Peace, the novel of novels; A Study of History, the solution to the problem of time; Schroedinger’s What is Life?, Einstein’s The Universe as I See It, and such. During those years I stood outside of the universe and sought to understand it. I lived in my room as an Anyone living Anywhere and read fundamental books and only as a diversion took walks around the neighborhood and saw an occasional movie. Certainly it did not matter to me where I was when I read such a book as The Expanding Universe. The greatest success of this enterprise, which I call my vertical search, came one night when I sat in a hotel room in Birmingham and read a book called The Chemistry of Life. When I finished it, it seemed to me that the main goals of my search were reached or were in principle reachable…. The only difficulty was that though the universe had been disposed of, I myself was left over. There I lay in my hotel room with my search over yet still obliged to draw one breath and then the next.

Why Hope?: Transhumanism and the Arts (Another Response to James Hughes)

In another of the series of posts to which Professor Rubin recently responded, James Hughes argues that transhumanism has been marked by a tension between “fatalistic” beliefs in both technological progress and doom. Hughes’s intention is to establish a middle ground that acknowledges both promise and peril without assuming the inevitability of either. This is a welcome antidote to the willful blindness of libertarian transhumanism.
But conspicuously absent from Prof. Hughes’s post is any account of why techno-fatalism is so prominent among transhumanists — and so of why his alternative provides a viable and enduring resolution to the tension between its utopian and dystopian poles.

I would suggest that the prominence of techno-fatalism among transhumanists is closely linked to how they construe progress itself. Consider Max More’s description of progress, which is pretty well representative of the standard transhumanist vision:

Seeking more intelligence, wisdom, and effectiveness, an indefinite lifespan, and the removal of political, cultural, biological, and psychological limits to self-actualization and self-realization. Perpetually overcoming constraints on our progress and possibilities.

What is striking about this and just about any other transhumanist description of progress is that it is defined in almost entirely negative terms, as the shedding of various limits to secure a realm of pure possibility. (Even the initial positive goods seem, in the subsequent quote in Hughes’s post, to be of interest to More primarily as means to avoiding risk on the path to achieving pure possibility.) The essential disagreement Hughes outlines is only over the extent to which technological growth will secure the removal of these limits.
Transhumanists, following their early-modern and Enlightenment predecessors, focus on removing barriers to the individual pursuit of the good, but offer no vision of its content, of what the good is or even why we should want longer lives in which to pursue it — no vision of what we should progress towards other than more progress. Hughes seems to acknowledge this lacuna — witness his call to “rediscover our capacity for vision and hope” and to “stir men’s souls.” But in his post he offers this recently updated Transhumanist Declaration as an example of such “vision and hope,” even though it turns back to the well that left him so thirsty in the first place:

We need to carefully deliberate how best to reduce risks and expedite beneficial applications. We also need forums where people can constructively discuss what should be done, and a social order where responsible decisions can be implemented.

This, along with much of the rest of the Declaration, reads as a remarkably generic account of the duties of any society — putting the transhumanists decisively back at square one in describing both social and individual good.

For transhumanists — or anyone — to articulate the content of the good would require an embrace of the discipline devoted to studying precisely that question: the humanities, particularly literature and the arts. Hughes is right when he suggests elsewhere the postmodern character of transhumanist morality. The triumphant postmodernist is a cosmopolitan of narratives and aesthetics, a connoisseur who samples many modes of being free of the binding power of any. Because the postmodernist redefines the good as the goods, he is compelled even more than his predecessors to be a voracious consumer of culture and cultures, particularly of narratives and aesthetics.
The transhumanist vision of progress begins from this postmodern freedom to function in any mode of being. But, seemingly paradoxically, transhumanists tend to be indifferent to the study of literature and the arts as a means of knowing the good(s) (with the notable exception of science fiction). If they were not indifferent, then they might be aware of the now-lengthy tradition in the arts dealing with precisely the postmodern problem of maintaining “vision and hope.” Near the middle of the last century, the novelist Walker Percy wrote of the subject of postmodern novel:

How very odd it is … that the very moment he arrives at the threshold of his new city, with all its hard-won relief from the sufferings of the past, happens to be the same moment that he runs out of meaning!… The American novel in past years has treated such themes as persons whose lives are blighted by social evils, or reformers who attack these evils…. But the hero of the postmodern novel is a man who has forgotten his bad memories and conquered his present ills and who finds himself in the victorious secular city. His only problem now is to keep from blowing his brains out.

Postmodern art moves from abstract theories to realized depictions of how the heroically actualized self lives. Inevitably in such depictions the triumphant victory of theory gives way to the unsustainable alienation of postmodern life, and the problem theory has shirked becomes pressing: Why hope? How to keep from blowing your brains out?
For the likes of the Beats, the solution could be found in a frantically earnest embrace of the postmodern imperative to move from one mode of being to the next. For Percy’s protagonists, the solution lies partly in embracing the same imperative, but ironically. For the readers of The Catcher in the Rye, the viewers of American Beauty, and the listeners of Radiohead, there is a consoling beauty to be found in the artistic depiction of alienation itself. For the French existentialists, the solution might just be to go ahead and blow your brains out.
That transhumanists have not grappled with the hollow and alienating character of their vision of progress could be taken as evidence of their historical and philosophical myopia. But of course their uninterest in depictions of the good(s) is not simply an oversight but an underlying principle. Whereas the postmodernist’s freedom from all modes of being is constitutionally ironic, the transhumanist is gravely serious about his freedom. His primary attitude towards discussions about the relative merits of different value systems or ways of life is not playfulness but wariness — or sometimes, as we have seen in the comments on this blog, outright hostility and paranoia.
Whereas the postmodernist takes the freedom from and to choose any mode of being as inherent, the transhumanist believes that it must be fought for — else there would be no gap between here and transcendence. Indeed, it is the effort to bridge this gap that constitutes transhuman teleology; the feat of the earning itself is the central end of transhuman progress. Transhumanism takes the lemons of postmodern alienation and makes the will to lemonade.
Hence the essential insatiability of the transhumanist project. It has as its goal not some fulfilled form, but a constant seeking after transgressive will and power which, once secured in some measure, surrenders its transgressiveness to the quotidian and so must be sought in still greater measure. The transhumanist, unlike even the theoretical postmodernist, can never fully actualize.
And hence the unsexiness Prof. Hughes bemoans in his project to split the difference between fatalisms, for his “pessimism of the intellect” appears only as a dreary accidental impediment to transcendence. A transhumanist project versed in the arts might be able to provide a more unified and compelling vision of its quest for progress — but it would also have to confront the everyday despair that lies at its heart.
[Images: “Transhuman DNA”, courtesy Biopolitical Times; Walker Percy; Radiohead.]