Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Transhumanism and the Escape from the Everyday

I don’t often turn to French Marxists for wisdom about the world, but a passage in Declan Kiberd’s Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Life in Joyce’s Masterpiece called my attention to something Henri Lefebvre wrote about everydayness that is relevant to a theme introduced in an earlier post by Ari. In his 1947 book Critique of Everyday Life, Lefebvre argues passionately that modern philosophy, art, and politics alike are alienated (a key concept for him) from the everyday. Only Marxism, he thought, provides the proper perspective from which to appreciate the profound significance of everyday life, and how it has deteriorated under the rule of the bourgeoisie. His view of the crisis of everyday life is not the same as Ari’s or Yuval Levin’s, but I think at least one of his observations does not stand or fall on the truth of Lefebvre’s Marxist foundations:

Escape from life or rejection of life, recourse to outmoded or exhausted ways of life, nostalgia for the past or dreams of a superhuman future, these positions are basically identical.... Make the rejection of everyday life — of work, of happiness — a mass phenomenon ... and you end up with the Hitlerian ‘mystique.’

The Palace of SovietsTranshumanism is of course not (yet) “a mass phenomenon,” nor by its own lights does it reject happiness (even if it does reject mere human happiness). But it quite possibly rejects work and, as Ari pointed out, it certainly rejects everyday life. On the other hand, transhumanists in effect accuse their critics of adherence to, or nostalgia for, outmoded ways of life.

Were Lefebvre alive today, he might be content with viewing these charges and countercharges as simply more proof of the decay that defines what he would probably call neoliberalism. I don’t think that point of view is correct, and in any case, my point here is not exactly to make his argumentum ad Hitlerum. But looked at more broadly, I think Lefebvre’s warning about rejecting the everyday has merit, in two respects.

First, even if it would be wrong to say that transhumanism has a Hitlerian mystique, it most certainly has a mystique. Its mystique forms at the intersection of the modern academy and the Web, which is to say, a good deal of transhumanist advocacy is sufficiently long, jargon-ridden, and impenetrable to ensure that only the initiates will follow it. These high barriers to entry mean that it is easy to hold the comforting belief that anyone who disagrees does not actually understand. And when concepts are not in fact all that hard to understand — “the singularity” being a noteworthy instance — there is a fetishistic attention to details that only those on the inside are likely to care much about. Like sectarian movements generally (see Wildavsky and Douglas’s classic, Risk and Culture), transhumanism’s first concern is its internal cohesion; the mystique both encourages and enforces unity. Mystique as such also turns sectarians away from the everyday, in the sense of things that can be experienced in common between those inside and outside the sect. On the outside, “everybody poops,” and that’s that. On the inside, “we” have the more sophisticated understanding that allows us to ask why we should have to poop if we don’t want to.

Second, as Lefebvre suggests, rejecting the everyday is playing with dynamite. Most of the time we make our way decently in the world because of the power of the everyday, not out of high principle, rational decision-making, noble characters, perfect faith, creative brilliance, or any of the other high-toned qualities to which we might aspire. If we had to depend on the best in us, we would be lost. To paraphrase a thought in Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, to reject the everyday is to sail without ballast on a stormy sea. It is not guilt by association to remind ourselves that the totalitarian movements of the twentieth century, sailing without ballast, self-consciously set out to create a new kind of man, with terrible results.

Of course, for all too many human beings, terrible things are very much part of the everyday. We can certainly be grateful, even if not slavishly grateful, that we live in a time and place so different from the norm, the millennia in which the everyday was literally every day. Nothing about taking the everyday seriously requires us to accept every aspect of the everyday that characterizes a given time and place. But if we want to be serious about progress, we have to start from where we are, and why we are here. A clear eyed view of the everyday, however prosaic, is a better guide to what progress might mean than a starry-eyed view of fantastic futures.

2 comments:

  1. If there is inevitability in the directionality of cultural and economic evolution then many of the trends we see on the horizon, workerless factories, fewer hours required to purchase the basic necessities of life, food, clothing and to some extent shelter (the housing bubble notwithstanding) then work as it has been largely construed for millenia is coming to an end. Rejection of the past or the nearly past is not irrational or some attempt to reject the everyday it is embracing and preparing for what is to come. Thinking through the coming revolution is what we need to be doing. If transhumanists are not thinking through consequences then they are quite literally playing with fire. But our fears should not make us blind either to imagining futures and embracing the concept of progress again. Transhumanists are shaping the debate and making us think differently. Is aging a disease? What is the meaning of work? If strong AI emerges what role, if any, will humans play? Will people who choose death be viewed as pathological?

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  2. Restricting transhumanism to the escape of the everyday is pretty narrow to me. The "everyday" would definitely be transformed however. It always transform. It has been for ages.

    Should we go blind through the changes or completely remove all the possibilities? I prefer is some things are thought before they happens.

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