Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Monday, July 31, 2006

Me'Shell Ndegeocello Tribute Week: God.Fear.Money

This week I am going to offer tribute to Me'Shell Ndegeocello, one of the most righteous, funky, provocative, joyful, enraged, intelligent, endlessly creative and talented soul artists on the planet. Today's tribute is a clip from a live performance in 2001 of a piece from her Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape.

Murray Bookchin Has Died

Murray Bookchin died yesterday in his home, from heart failure. He was 85 years old. Bookchin was a libertarian socialist and social ecologist who wrote a number of wonderfully provocative, promising, poetic, uncompromisingly radical works.

Among these was a book called Post-Scarcity Anarchism which had a profound early influence on my own political thinking. I was deeply inspired by Bookchin's advocacy of a radical democracy inseparable from sustainability, his advocacy of an ecological consciousness inseparable from a demand for emancipatory technoscience. I drew abiding clarity and confidence from his uncompromising repudiation of corporate-militarist vocabularies of global "development," from his repudiation of uncritical technophobia or nostalgic luddisms, and from his refusal of the facile biological determinism that freights so much of the discourse of technoscientific culture to this day. My own insistence that technoprogressives should never speak of "technological development" but always of "technodevelopmental social struggle" (despite the gawky awkwardness of the phrase) derives ultimately from Bookchin's own insistence that technologies are never politically neutral.

An online archive of works by Bookchin is available here , and I can think of no better tribute to Bookchin than to encourage those who do not know his work already to begin an exploration of his thinking online today.

Here are the opening paragraphs from a piece published in 1969, Toward a Post-Scarcity Society:
The twentieth century is the heir of human history -- the legatee of man's age-old effort to free himself from drudgery and material insecurity. For the first time in the long succession of centuries, this century has elevated mankind to an entirely new level of technological achievement and to an entirely new vision of the human experience.

Technologically, we can now achieve man's historical goal -- a post scarcity society. But socially and culturally, we are mired in the economic relations, institutions, attitudes and values of a barbarous past, of a social heritage created by material scarcity. Despite the potentiality of complete human freedom, we live in the day-to-day reality of material insecurity and a subtle, ever-oppressive system of coercion. We live, above all, in a society of fear, be it of war, repression, or dehumanization. For decades we have lived under the cloud of a thermonuclear war, streaked by the fires of local conflicts in half the continents of the world. We have tried to find our identities in a society that has become ever more centralized and mobilized, dominated by swollen civil, military and industrial bureaucracies. We have tried to adapt to an environment that is becoming increasingly befouled with noxious wastes. We have seen our cities and their governments grow beyond all human comprehension, reducing our very sovereignty as individuals to ant-like proportions -- the manipulated, dehumanized victims of immense administrative engines and political machines. While the spokesmen for this diseased social 'order' piously mouth encomiums to the virtues of 'democracy,' 'freedom' and 'equality,' tens of millions of people are denied their humanity because of racism and are reduced to conditions of virtual enslavement.

Viewed from a purely personal standpoint, we are processed with the same cold indifference through elementary schools, high schools and academic factories that our parents encounter in their places of work. Worse, we are expected to march along the road from adolescence to adulthood, the conscripted, uniformed creatures of a murder machine guided by electronic brains and military morons. As adults, we can expect to be treated with less dignity and identity than cattle: squeezed into underground freight cars, rushed to the spiritual slaughterhouses called 'offices' and 'factories,' and reduced to insensibility by monotonous, often purposeless, work. We will be asked to work to live and live to work -- the mere automata of a system that creates superfluous, if not absurd, needs; that will steep us in debts, anxieties and insecurities; and that, finally, will deliver us to the margins of society, to the human scrapheap called the aged and chronically ill -- desiccated beings, deprived of all vitality and humanity...

The debasement of social life -- all the more terrifying because its irrational, coercive, day-to-day realities stand in such blatant contradiction to its liberatory potentialities -- has no precedent in human history. Never before has man done so little with so much; indeed, never before has man used his resources for such vicious, even catastrophic ends. The tension between 'what-could-be' and 'what-is' reaches its most excruciating proportions in the United States, which occupies the position not only of the most technologically advanced country in the world but also of the 'policeman of the world,' the foremost imperialist power in the world. The United States affords the terrifying spectacle of a country overladen with automobiles and hydrogen bombs; of ranch houses and ghettoes, of immense material superfluity and brutalizing poverty. Its profession of 'democratic' virtue is belied daily by racism, the repression of black and white militants, police terrorism, Vietnam, and the prospect of Vietnams to come.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Conversation With a Student

I realize I haven't posted to the blog in over a week. I'm preoccupied at the moment with some writing deadlines and with summer teaching, and in any case Amurrica's bloody-minded boy-king and his killer clown college has me in something of an enraged despair over this latest absolutely disgusting proxy war with Iran, taking place among the catastrophically terrorized civilians of Lebanon (and, as it happens, many civilians in Israel as well).

Anyway, I thought it would be more, er, soothing to post a transcript of an exchange I just had with a former Rhetoric student of mine to help him fulfill a course requirement elsewhere. His interview gave me a chance to pause and think a bit about teaching and it was actually quite clarifying and enjoyable for me.

Eugene: What is your job title?

d: I am a lecturer in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California at Berkeley and a member of the Visiting Faculty in the Humanities at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Eugene: How do you describe what you do to others? I’ve had a hard time explaining what it is I do to others, and I was wondering what you tell people.

d: The Rhetoric Department at Berkeley is a diverse and interdisciplinary place, and so people tend to do very different sorts of things when they “do rhetoric” there. What most of our work has in common, though, is its indebtedness to critical theory as a way of understanding the work that discourses do in the world. My training has been in twentieth century philosophy, literary criticism, and critical theory. My own work has tended to focus on digital and biomedical networks and what get called "emerging technologies," and their impacts on democratic politics.

Eugene: How is communication important in your profession?

d: Well, I’m a teacher and a writer. Communication is literally all that I do.

Eugene: In your line of work, is there a specific type of communication that is more important than another (i.e email, oral, etc.).

d: Every teaching situation is different, as every student is different. For me the key thing is to use every possible tool, every avenue of communication available to me, to determine how best to connect a student to the material I am trying to illuminate, how best to excite the student to connect that material to their own personal concerns, experiences, and hopes.

In a smaller class, teaching can be like trying to facilitate a conversation, while in a lecture hall teaching is much more like a performance. Office hours can be like therapy sessions. Every assignment, every in-class exercise, every test is an effort to solicit responsiveness in the student, to elicit the student’s participation as a peer in a conversation.

So much of teaching isn’t a matter of the transmission of knowledge from “the teacher” who is full of knowledge to “the student” who is empty of it, but an ongoing improvisation through which the teacher struggles to enlist the student in conversation with the materials and with the community of the classroom struggling along with her in that conversation.

It is in that conversation itself that the student takes up on her own terms, in the time and texture of her everyday life, the habits, the perceptions, the general coloration of novelty and knowledge. That, I think, is really what teaching amounts to for me.

Eugene: Of all the rhetoric professors I have encountered so far, all of them are extremely eloquent and have an exceptional command of vocabulary. Does this stem from reading vast tracts of books, practice, or is it just a natural ability? In other words, have you always been able to speak so eloquently or was it something you picked up and worked on? If so, what did you do to sharpen your speaking, writing, and communication skills?

d: I think most people who are attracted to rhetoric have already fallen in love with language, with discourse, with the costly knowledges that empower and disempower the ones who own up to them. If rhetoricians have a way with words, it is usually because words have already had their way with them.

As for your more practical question, I think the key is not only to read widely and carefully, but to be sure that you read very different things. Read arguments that bedevil you, that threaten your sense of yourself, that enrage you. Read the texts that you want to dismiss as immoral, as frivolous, as nonsense, and find a way to inhabit them instead. You may still dismiss them then, but you will come out of the other side of such encounters with greater intelligence and individual insight.

As far as “natural ability” goes, I don’t believe there is such a thing. I think the very idea is damaging and distracting, to tell you the truth. People’s abilities reflect their interests and their histories, that is all.

Eugene: Do you have any advice or tips for me as a rhetoric major for developing my communication skills?

d: Find people who are excited about ideas, who are driven to testify to their experiences and hopes in order to change the world, who want to put arguments to use in the world. It is infinitely better to spend time in the company of people who find ideas compelling than it is to spend time in the company of people who agree with your ideas. Find people who challenge you, who respect differences of opinion, who listen as much as they talk, and who can offer up reasons in support of their convictions.

Conformity always signifies thoughtlessness, so whenever you find yourself in the death grip of conformists and comformity be sure to seek out difference, provocation, the shock of the new elsewhere or you will risk the drift into dullness. That will be just as true on the last day of your life as it is today.

Eugene: Rhetoric clearly has a lot to do with communication in one form or another, so how can individuals turn those skills into a career or use them in business? In other words, how can a rhetor use their skills and apply them in the business world? What jobs are out there that really suit rhetoric majors and let them apply their skills?

d: Good communication skills, good critical thinking skills, good analytic skills are indispensable in any number of careers, in business, in media, in politics, in social service, and so on. Whether you find yourself in an administrative position, in a public relations career, in a mediating role, you’ll find that you call upon the skills you acquired in your rhetoric courses time and time again –- even if it is unlikely that “rhetoric” is the word most people would use to describe that skillset you have mastered. Students in Rhetoric often go on to pursue jobs in law, in advertising, in public relations, in journalism, and so on. Frankly, I think rhetoric should be a crucial part of every single democratic citizen’s proper education in a world of deep differences and unending dynamism.

Eugene: As a follow up, is it rhetor or rhetorician? I recall in 10, [another instructor in the Department] said that it was rhetor and not rhetorician, but my memory is fuzzy and since then I’ve never heard anyone use the term.

d: Rhetor is a term of art, an acadmic designation for one who is skilled in the arts of rhetoric, especially as they were conceived in antiquity. I doubt that either “rhetor” or “rhetorician” will ever become a commonplace term -– even though everybody does rhetoric in some form or other all the time, and everyone would benefit from a clearer understanding of rhetoric.

Eugene: How important is it to be able to speak in front of others? (odd question, sorry, but I have to ask this for my assignment).

d: Well, for me, as a teacher, it is key, of course. I often teach a workshop in public speaking in the Rhetoric Department, and it seems to me that it is almost universally an incredibly positive experience for my students. Very elementary skills, practice with posture, breathing, pacing, memorization and such, provide an occasion for extraordinary transformation in many students. Shy, even painfully awkward students, find sources of inner strength, discover individual voices, overcome long-felt limitations. I’m a big believer in public speaking courses, actually!

Eugene: How have you dealt with a difficult communication situation in the workplace? What was the result? What would you have done differently?

d: Constantly. As I said, every classroom situation is different. A text that provokes great enthusiasm in one classroom may generate boredom or ridicule in another. An in-class exercise that produces excellent results in one community will be a waste of time in another. There is sometimes no way to know in advance what will work at all.

I try to ensure that I am always teaching new material and trying new methods so that my teaching toolbox is as full as may be, so that I have more and more resources at my command to confront new situations, and so that I don’t become complacent or stale.

There have been countless times that I wish I would have done things differently in the aftermath of some particularly brutal teaching session! Almost every time the thing I should have done differently was to pay closer attention to my students, to listen more intelligently to their signals. That is an ongoing struggle for me, to listen more intelligently.

Eugene: Rhetoric often involves explaining complicated or abstract theses. What is an effective way to communicate these concepts to others who may not have rhetorical training?

d: Make the abstract as concrete as possible by translating it into narrative terms, or by providing a diversity of clear everyday illustrative examples.

Also, sometimes a teacher has to be able to seduce students into their own excitement about difficult ideas so that they will do the ideiosyncratic and time-consuming work of clarification on their own terms and in their own time.

Everybody has ample experience in rhetoric, you know, even if they lack the terminology and hence the clarity of a rhetoric student’s training in the subject. It should always be possible to activate any student’s intelligence and critical thinking skills, although sometimes this requires a more personal and protracted engagement with a student than the limitations of a particular situation of instruction will bear.

But it never fails to astonish me just how much real teaching can happen even when circumstances are conspicuously limited, so long as everybody involved is truly open to the risky, costly, empowering changes that teaching inevitably brings about for everyone involved, including the teacher.

Eugene: Thank you again, I really appreciate all your time and effort.

d: I was happy to do it.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Today's Random Wilde

One should read everything. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn't read.

Commerce and Corporations to Come

Another snippet of the conversation I had with Jose Garcia a few weeks ago has been published over at Meme Therapy today. One of the pleasures of the interview with Jose was that half the questions he asked me weren't really questions I was expecting at all. The question this time was: The corporation is ubiquitous in future visions of commerce. Do you envisage any novel types of commercial organizations emerging in the first part of the 21st century? Here's what I said:
This isn't really my subject, but it seems to me that there are a lot of social forms that can be called commerce, a lot of forms that can be called corporations[ --] after all workers co-operatives are often limited liability corporations as well. Similarly, a lot of the things that are rightly criticized by anti-corporatist politics could very well be ameliorated in a world that still had legible corporations in it.

The provision of a global basic income guarantee would, among other good things, provide all workers with a kind of permanent strike fund to ensure they could bargain collectively for better work conditions and pay without the threat of economic catastrophe to constrain them. Global fair-trade, labor, and environmental standards, empowered regulatory bodies, and international courts would, among other good things, provide balance to the current market regime that unfairly and relentlessly privileges rich nations over struggling ones. Focus on these reforms, institute public financing of election campaigns and rethink the decision that money is speech and I won't much care after that if the legal fiction of corporate personhood might not be the best or only way to protect the social benefits that attach to limited liability for some commercial associations.

Peer-to-peer networks facilitate co-operation by rendering it incomparably less costly. Like distributed renewable energy technologies, these p2p networks can be radically decentralizing. Who knows what the impact of genetic engineering will ultimately be on agriculture, or of molecular manufacturing on consumer goods?

The constant re-eruption of inevitably dashed dreams of direct participatory democracy in the workplace as well as civic life attests to an apparently ineradicable ideal, as does the repeated re-emergence of the dream of a high-tech gift economy. If the political will is there to demand it, technodevelopment may well render negligible sooner rather than later the real costs that hitherto have kept these democratic dreams woolly and wild. It may be technoprogressives who finally manage to bring home the force of the quintessential slogan of 68: Be realistic, demand the impossible!
Definitely follow the link to check out the other responses to Jose's question, as well as for his own interesting comments on the topic.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

"26 years ago, I was told that I would never walk again..."

Rep. Langevin: "When I was injured in an accidental shooting as a young police cadet only 26 years ago, I was told that I would never walk again. The promise of embryonic stem cell research was at that time unheard of. While I always held out hope that I would one day walk again it was not until the tremendous potential in advances in the field of stem cell research that I truly understood how a cure might work."

Lovely Looney Laloux

Rene Laloux brought us the wonderful weirdness of La Planete Sauvage (Fantastic Planet). Clips from his comparably crazy Gandahar are featured in this French review. (Side note: is this reviewer some kind of superannuated Clay Aiken or what?)

MundiMuster! Support Cure Discovery, Support the DNC

[via the DNC]
Today George Bush chose political posturing over human life, denying hope to millions of Americans, their families and loved ones who are affected by debilitating diseases.

He used his first-ever veto to stop the discovery of new cures for diseases like juvenile diabetes, leukemia, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, and many others. More than 70% of Americans from every walk of life -- whether in the faith community, the science lab, the hospital or at the bedside of a sick relative -- and majorities in both chambers of Congress disagree, but that didn't stop him.

The bill he vetoed wasn't a sweeping change -- it was a small, practical measure that would have made a big difference for medical research based on sound science. But the consequences are sweeping: the proposed law would have allowed research on excess embryos generated during processes like fertility treatments -- embryos that would otherwise simply be discarded.

Now is the time to speak out. Send a message to your representatives letting them know that you support cure discovery now:

If George Bush truly believed his rhetoric about stem cells, he would do something about the processes that create the excess embryos in the first place. But he won't. They will continue to go unused (his spokesman limply calls it a "tragedy"), and cures will continue to be beyond our reach.

Bush may not be willing to choose cure discovery over his right-wing base, but the vast majority of Americans support cure research.

Even after his veto, Democrats in Congress will continue to keep the pressure on to get more votes. If Republicans refuse to join the cause and override Bush's veto, it will have to be decided at the ballot box in November. Democrats will continue to fight to keep this hope for the discovery of new cures alive.

The Congress and the rest of the country are paying attention right now, and we have to seize this moment to build the coalition of support for cure discovery. Please add your name to the list of supporters and we'll send your message to your representatives:

As a medical doctor I'm offended at the political meddling in potentially life-saving research. All of our families could be touched by hope found through stem cell research: from juvenile diabetes to Alzheimer's, it offers the opportunity for new cures. Yet this important research has been dwindling because of restrictions put in place by Bush five years ago.

That's half a decade we have lost. How much longer will those suffering and their families have to wait?

People can disagree in good faith on this issue, but Bush's extraordinary action doesn't meet that threshold -- it smacks of political calculation. The opportunity to save lives of people with debilitating diseases, and to reduce suffering for them and their families, requires that a president respect the will of the people and the Congress.

Join the cause supporting cure discovery:

History will judge this veto as a sad political calculation.

Just a few votes stand in the way. With your support we'll get them -- either now, or in the new Democratic Congress you elect in November.

When we do, we will restore hope through life-saving research and cure discovery.

Thank you.

Governor Howard Dean, M.D.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

So, What Do the Murderous Mean When They Say "Murder Is Wrong"?

[via the Center for American Progress] Today, a reporter asked Press Secretary Tony Snow why Bush opposed the bill [to expand funding for stem-cell research -- a Bill that passed 63-37 (not enough to override the Veto that America's Worst President in History promises will be, surreally, the very first of his catastrophic and criminal Administration)]. Snow responded, “The simple answer is he thinks murder is wrong.”

As ThinkProgress points out: "An embryo is not a baby or even a fetus; it’s a cluster of about 150 cells, also known as a blastocyst, which forms a few days after the joining of a sperm and egg, and is no larger than the period at the end of this sentence. Stem cells are derived from the center of this cluster, and are like biological blank slates. They have the potential to become any of the 200 kinds of cells that make up the human body. [And i]n any event, the embryos at issue are currently being discarded."

It's always interesting (in an utterly desolating kinda sorta way) to see what a "murder is wrong" commitment looks like when it froths from the mouth of a pro-war, pro-gun, pro-capital punishment, pro-mercury in drinking water, pro-staffing FEMA with incompetents, pro-depleted Uranium weapons proliferatin', pro-climate change denyin' neocon/theocon brainless bloodthirsty bullying bigot like George W. Bush.

Today's Random Wilde

The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Love City

Sly & The Family Stone at Woodstock.

Does Technology Really Trump Left vs. Right?

A friend and very interesting interlocutor of mine registered the impression earlier this afternoon that I appear to think technoprogressive folks are closer politically and culturally to what he called "environmental primitivists" than to "tech-positive libertarians." I am assuming this means folks like John Zerzan on the one hand and Tim May on the other. Anyway, my friend wondered, "As time passes, and debates get hotter, can we imagine how the opposite might become true?"

The quick answer is simply to say that I personally feel no closer to luddite Deep Ecologists than to libertopian technophiles. Both perspectives seem to me wrongheaded for multiple, but mostly different, reasons. But I think it is more important to notice that the question has been framed here in a way that virtually ensures any answer that follows will be misleading.

The key issue for me is not whether one's politics are "tech-positive" or "tech-negative." "Technology" has no interesting political existence at that level of generality. What is wanted are technodevelopmental outcomes that are democratizing, consensual, sustainable, emancipatory, and fair. What is resisted are technodevelopmental outcomes that consolidate elites, are nonconsensual, unsustainable, exploitative, and unfair. The politics are prior to the toypile.

Although this perspective does require that one concede the principle, I suppose, that technology can be positive so long as we educate, agitate, and organize to facilitate these outcomes, that is actually not a whole lot to hang one's hat on as far as "doctrine's" go. But all the actual programmatic details will derive from the commitment to democracy, peace, and fairness, rather than to some diffuse commitment to "technology."

As far as neoliberals, neoconservatives, and free marketeers go -- well, no doubt these folks will regularly feel a thrill of excitement about some particular emerging technology or other, if only because they think there is money to be made in it or because they think elites with whom they identify will be especially empowered by making recourse to these technologies. I'll admit that it is hard for me to see why I should call them allies for that, particularly, though you can be sure I will be as happy to accept their votes when technoprogressive campaigns require them as I will be to resist and regulate conservative abuses of technologies when technoprogressive campaigns require that instead.

Don't get me wrong. There is unquestionably something to be said about how left and right are not historically stable or predictable in the vicissitudes of their position-profiles. TR's Republican Party is not Bush II's. And it also appears to be true that biotechnologies are a socioculturally destabilizing development that contemporary political formations have not accommodated in any kind of uniform or final way, especially at the level of partisan politics. James Hughes' writing on this topic is still some of the best on offer.

But I have to admit that I think a left versus right distinction of democratic versus anti-democratic or establishment politics provides a considerably better guide to concrete political reality than one would glean from the many technophile writings one encounters claiming to be "beyond" left and right.

Given the recent strong historical association of technophilia and libertopianism, and the fondness of libertarians to claim likewise to be "beyond left and right" (which is pretty much never actually true in fact), I hope I will be forgiven the suspicion that there is often a connection between the two claims -- best symptomized by Virginia Postrel who simply grafts libertarian rhetoric onto technophilia and hopes a little terminological razzle dazzle will distract people into thinking she has said something interesting or new.

Peer to Peer

We will use the Master's tools to dismantle and remake the Master's House. For once we take up the Master's Tools they are not the Master's Tools anymore but our own. And the Street finds its own uses for things.

Today's Random Wilde

When one is in love one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends up by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

When Meat Culture Meets Cultured-Meat

An article that appeared last week in AlterNet, written by Traci Hukill, sounded a strong warning about the prospect of laboratory-produced “cultured meat” substitutes to animal corpses as food, and the piece has attracted widespread attention. As a longtime ethical vegetarian who has written on this topic before, Hukill’s piece certainly attracted my own attention.

The title of Hukill’s piece takes the form of a question: “Would You Eat Lab-Grown Meat?” One quickly gets the impression that this question is a rhetorical one for Hukill, and that the article pretty much assumes that the prospect of “Lab-Grown” meat will inspire almost universal revulsion in its largely progressive AlterNet readership. But what we discover from a survey of the reader-comments that actually appear alongside the article is that few people seem to share Hukill’s bioconservative assumptions at all. I’ll discuss some of these comments -- and their implications for my emerging technoprogressive mainstream thesis -- in a moment. But first I want to take a closer look at Hukill’s piece itself.

“As I type these words,” the article begins, “men and women of science are growing meat in a laboratory.” Although this opening snapshot is probably intended to highlight from the get-go the urgency of what Hukill takes to be an emerging atrocity, it crucially highlights for the apathetic and the sympathetic as well the crucial fact that this is not some fantastic or science-fictional but a proximate real-world development.

Hukill goes on to point out that this “growing meat” is not “hatched or born. It doesn't graze, walk or breathe. But it is alive. It sits growing in a room where somebody has called it into existence with a pipette and syringe.” Presumably, this conjuration of alienness inspires shudders of repugnance in Hukill. But for me it raises questions and inspires hopes.

Now, I feel the force of Hukill’s “But it is alive” here quite as surely as I am meant to do. But the simple fact is that there is a difference between what I mean when I say that a cow is alive and when I say that broccoli is alive. And this is a difference that makes a difference to me as an ethical vegetarian making choices about my own eating practices. Everything Hukill is saying here, apart from using the term “meat” in the first place to describe this food product, locates “cultured-meat” closer to the ethical location where I place broccoli now than where I place cows. And nothing about a “pipette and syringe” changes that assignment, since I know well enough that all agriculture, including the long history of cultivation practices that have brought us what we now regard as “broccoli,” is technoscientific through and through. Indeed, even in my most stridently vegan organic revolutionary moods (yes, I have them occasionally) I turn to technoscientifically literate intervention to provide the superorganic foodstuffs for an agricultural practice that could feed actual real-world populations in a healthy and sustainable way (rather than the romanticized post-genocidal die-off fantasies of diminished population that “naturalists” would need to impose their nostalgic feudalist fantasies of technophobic sustainability).

"Cultured meat," writes Hukill, “is supposed to save us from the execrable pollution and guilt of factory farms while still allowing all 6.5 billion of us to stuff our gullets with ham sandwiches whenever we want to.” I share Hukill’s view that factory farms are an environmental, health, and moral atrocity. And I also strongly share Hukill’s skepticism about techno-hype in general, and am especially skeptical of the endlessly reiterated corporate-futurist promises of painless techno-fixes which are almost inevitably and disastrously doomed to failure without real education, agitation, organization, regulation to articulate technodevelopment in democratic and emancipatory directions.

But it seems to me that the conclusion one should draw from these shared views is that we should educate and organize to ensure the regulation of lab-grown cultured meat-making will in fact ameliorate the environmental, health, and moral atrocity of factory farming. For Hukill it seems that the better course is for vegetarians to make fun of meat eaters for liking to eat sandwiches with meat in them. I will admit that I cannot see any reason to agree with Hukill that this is a strategy likely to achieve the outcomes we both would claim to desire.

As of now, cultured meat involves “[t]ak[ing] some stem cells, or myoblasts, which are the precursors to muscle cells. [One s]et[s] them on [a] ‘scaffolding’ that they can attach to, like a flat sheet of plastic that the cells can later be slid off of[, and then p]ut[s] them in a ‘growth medium’ -- some kind of fluid supplying the nutrients that blood would ordinarily provide. [Then one] ‘Exercise[s]’ them regularly by administering electric currents or stretching the sheets of cells mechanically.” And then? “Wait. Harvest. Eat.”

Of this process, Hukill then says: “The concept is as simple as it is horrifying.” I have to admit, this is an utterly confounding moment in the article for me. Why exactly is the process described here “horrifying”? Is Hukill comparably horrified by the process through which one makes seitan, blue cheese, or beer? Or, not to put too fine a point on it, is Hukill not incomparably more horrified by the “process” through which animal bodies are turned into sausages and steaks?

Cultured meat-making “seems like something out of a chilling sci-fi future,” writes Hukill, “the very epitome of bloodless Matrix-style barbarism.” The proposal that cultured meat-making nudges us onto a slippery slope that will lead us ineluctably to the enslavement and slaughter of living human beings is apparently commonplace, despite its conspicuous curiosity. Consider that the cultured meat-making process doesn’t require the death or enslavement even of the nonhuman animals for whose flesh the cultured-meat would provide an alternative for corpse-eaters. Through what argumentative contortions, exactly, would one find oneself turning from the delighted contemplation of one’s cultured-meat sandwich to entertaining as a good idea that one might scoop up some fellow human beings to put them on a bun? Just how is that argument supposed to happen, again?

“[R]evulsion seems to be a common… response to the idea of meat grown in a petri dish,” writes Hukill. But is that really so? Certainly few of the people actually interviewed for the article seem to share Hukill’s knee jerk shudders of Kassoid repugnance to the very idea of cultured meat-making. And, as we shall see, neither do those who responded to the article seem to share it.

For me, as for many others, a more congenial point of view is offered up by Jason Matheny, “a doctoral student in agricultural policy at the University of Maryland who sits on the board of New Harvest, a research organization for in vitro meat.” He says of cultured meat-making, quite simply, that "[i]t's cleaner, healthier, less polluting and more humane[.]"

There’s more. “Meat grown in the sterile environment of a laboratory wouldn't harbor zoonotic diseases like avian flu or contribute to antibiotic resistance… As for human health, artery-clogging beef fat could be swapped out in vitro for salmon fat, for example, with its salubrious omega-3 fatty acids. And the squalid misery of factory farms could be bypassed altogether. No river would be fouled with manure and no chicken's beak would be clipped in the making of dinner.”

Writes “Bruce Friedrich, vice president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals,” cultured meat is "the best thing since sliced bread." As Hukill pithily summarizes Friedrich’s position, for somebody “who energetically denounces the eating of ‘animal corpses’ every chance he gets... "anything that takes the cruelty out of meat-eating is good."

This certainly sounds pretty good to me (with caveats). Again, I would insist that some of the rosy scenarios being painted here are more speculative than others. And no doubt it is only within the context of proper regulation, testing, safeguards -- not to mention trade policies to ensure that economic dislocations arising out of these developments are more properly addressed than is usually the case -- that we can speak of this (or any other) technoscientific outcome as a progressive one.

Hukill is right, then, to follow the hopeful technoscientific best-case scenario with the more cautionary note that “[t]here are a couple of serious problems with cultured meat[.]” Astonishingly, though, for me is that these “problems” for Hukill return us to the supposed “fact that people seem to find the idea repellent.”

But surely it is clear by now that only some people react this way. Can Hukill offer readers a reason to identify with the prejudices of the hostile over those of the hopeful here? Observe the very instructive exchange that immediately follows in the article: “Presented with the argument that cultured meat just ain't natural, Matheny gamely counters that wine and cheese are engineered products, too. ‘And I would say cultured meat is not inherently more unnatural than producing chicken meat from tens of thousands of animals raised intensively in their own feces and fed antibiotics,’ he says.”

Even Hukill concedes that this “is a very good point.” Hukill counters that as a vegetarian Metheny “probably” (I suspect this means that Hukill didn’t actually ask) won’t eat cultured meat, just as PETA’s vegetarian Friedrich doesn’t plan to do so. Neither do I plan to eat cultured meat, as it happens, since I have lost the taste for it in over a decade and a half of vegetarianism (I might very well indulge in cultured bacon or pepperoni, though, since these occasionally still exercise an allure for me even after all these years), but this distaste doesn’t come close to the kind of ethical aversion that might make me itch to get prohibitive laws passed.

For this ethical vegetarian, any unpleasantness that freights cultured meat, is no more ethically significant than the unpleasantness of tempeh of gorgonzola -– neither of which I find particularly appealing either, but both of which I strongly champion as ethical alternatives to animal corpses treated as food.

But for Hukill, cultured meat-making is just “a lot of trouble to go to for a solution that is frankly nightmarish.” Especially traumatizing, apparently is “the ‘exercising’ of the disembodied muscle by means of electrical shocks.” Perhaps it would be kinder to leave these matters to Hukill’s therapist.

Certainly, this reminds us what we should do with those bioconservatives who claim there is some special "wisdom of repugnance" (whether Hukill's aversion to a stream of electricity pulsing through organic matter in a petri dish, Leon Kass's aversion to the very idea of cloning, even if it comes to be a safe and desired procedure, Margaret Somerville's aversion to gay marriage, or any random racist's aversion to an interracial kiss). Shudders of repugnance must simply never trump democratic deliberation and contestation, the offering up of arguments to one's fellow citizens to educate, agitate, and organize and so facilitate what come to be more generally desired outcomes.

“Fred Kirschenmann of Iowa State University's Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture” introduces some reasonable skepticism, finally, and registers the hope -– which I say must be a demand rather than a “hope” –- that “there will be plenty of testing.” He goes on, "I'm not saying some of these new ideas can't be done and they won't work at some level, but every time we mess around with our ecological heritage there are always unintended side effects that come from it... We have a long history of unintended consequences.”

I could not agree with him more.

And it seems to me that reasonable concerns and reasonable regulatory environments are far more likely to arise in the context of a discussion defined neither by those given to uncritical starry-eyed techno-hype nor by those given in to the full-froth of technophobic panic.

Hukill proposes as an alternative to cultured meat the inculcation of greater awareness and self-discipline. It is easy to dismiss this as a more sanctimonious than serious recommendation if what is wanted is to truly ameliorate the institutionally entrenched and culturally ubiquitous slaughter and exploitation of human and nonhuman animals facilitated by the contemporary meat industry (I talk about some of the theory and politics of this ongoing catastrophe elsewhere), but the truth is that I agree with Hukill that we should work to increase awareness and organize movements with these desirable outcomes in mind. Again, though, I agree with Matheny, who Hukill quotes as “think[ing that] cultured meat can be ‘a stopgap measure’ aiding that process [of mainstreaming vegetarian practice, like] methadone for meat eaters to ease the transition out of the era of 72-ounce steaks and into the days of dollops of hummus.”

Hukill snarks in response: “Maybe he's right. Maybe in vitro meat can serve that purpose. Or maybe it will work in a different way -- by so thoroughly grossing people out that they'll gladly reduce their meat consumption just so they lessen the risk of accidentally eating a meatri burger.” Since I doubt that few people share (or will long continue to share even if they think they do so now) Hukill’s spastic “gross-out” at the very thought of cultured meat, I think Metheny is more likely to be right on his own terms. If corpse-eaters discover that their taste for flesh can be satisfied without demanding the suffering and slaughter of the sentient nonhuman humans with whom we share the planet, I suspect this realization will go a long way indeed in hastening the day when murderous meat is history and obscene factory farms are universally condemned.

Now, I must admit that I was intrigued and mostly quite pleased to discover that the comments generated in response to Hukill’s article accorded much more than I expected them to do with my own. The article has generated nearly two hundred responses so far, and so, I thought I would briefly survey just the first ten, whether I agreed with them or not, as a roughly representative sample and see whether any interesting trends suggested themselves.

Under the heading “Good idea,” the first response to the piece, by one “nbrown,” enthused: “I like it! This comes with less baggage than the existing system. If you don't believe me, go work in a slaughterhouse for a minute.”

Next up, “prod” suggests “We already have lab grown kids. Why not meat? I bet it will never be as good as the veal my girlfriend makes though. It is the best!” Since it isn’t actually true that we “already have lab grown kids,” unless “prod” refers to IVF and other assistive reproductive technologies, it is difficult to see why the ontological status of human beings would actually find its way into the discussion so quickly. But, as we shall see, the issue of “human status” is one that recurs again and again here. For me, it would be more to the point to say, “We already eat hybrid and otherwise cultivated foodstuffs. Why not meat?” The conclusion about veal -- which requires what is already widely viewed as brutal treatment of animals -- suggests to me that “prod” is being ironic here.

“JamesRollins” tells us that, “[w]hen I was eleven years old I read a book by the name of ‘Revolt in 2100’ by Robert Heinlein. In the second story of that book (named Coventry) the main protagonist talks about this same thing. And in the future, people (most of them anyway) eat lab-grown meat. As I grew up, I became a struggling vegetarian, mainly out of moral issues, and I used to think back to this book and truly wish that it was a reality. How I could truly enjoy a guilt free hamburger, only if an animal didn't die to make such a burger. I say amen! Finally, and when it becomes less costly, my family and I will fully enjoy lab-grown meat.”

Notice a pattern emerging here yet?

“BlueStateBitch” offers the slogan: “No kill; therefore no ‘yuck’” And then she elaborates: “It will be wonderful to eat "meat" without an animal having to die a painful death. Protein is protein. As long as it's healthy and tastes good, who cares if it's been grown in a lab?”

“davidhobby” wonders in his subject line whether or not Hukill has offered us a “Biased article?” He has a point. His comment: “This wasn't reportage, so much as a long screed about how awful , yucky, revolting, vile, ... lab grown meat was. That's news to me, though. I'm surprised that it seems most people have this attitude. To me, meat is meat. But then I've been a vegetarian for many years. Since I do it partially for ethical reasons, I guess that I'd eat cultured meat. It seems every culture gladly eats the ‘familiar’ meats, which may be bugs, blood or whatever, but that unfamiliar meats are considered gross. It's interesting that people don't have a big problem with unfamiliar vegetables...

There is more, but the comments are quickly becoming to elaborate to discuss in all their implications. I’m excerpted from the next, even longer, post as well. (For the full discussion, absolutely one should follow the link to the article itself and read the many interesting comments there.)

“Maybe it's just me,” writes “Lizmv,” “[b]ut human insanity seems to be a growing threat. People are getting weirder every day. Yeah, growing a little bit of ‘meat' in a laboratory may be nice and clean, but what will it look like when it is produced in huge factories? Most likely as dirty and detrimental as factory farming is now. Why is it we keep looking for expensive solutions to problems caused by the insanity of economic growth that will only continue the insanity? The real solution is already known: Learn to live sustainably. This is just another scheme by the mega-corportations to further control our food supply.”

While I think some of this skepticism is quite useful, it seems curious that “Lizmv” would rather consign this emerging development to the dustbin of history in advance dismissing it as a corporate conspiracy destined to maintain the status quo or make things worse. But why not treat this potentially destabilizing and potentially promising (not perfect, not utopian, not inevitable, just promising) development as an occasion for technoprogressives commited to democracy, sustainability, and social justice to opportunistically seize the historical forces that confront us and work to turn them to more democratizing and emancipatory ends?

There is nothing in such a vision that stands in the way of “Lizmv’s” recommendation that we “[l]earn to live sustainably.” How can she be so sure that organizing to regulate, fund, and distribute the costs and benefits of cultured meat is not one of the key demands “learn[ing] to live sustainably” makes of us in our own historical moment?

Next up, “gilliani” shares a few more interesting and reasonable concerns. The article “makes me nervous. There is a great deal we don't know about long term consequences of engineered food, veggies included. I feel it's safest to eat locally produced, organic food as much as possible.” I agree with this myself.

“gilliani” continues, “I am a vegetarian, but I also worry about the fate of all the animals we have now on farms if everyone gave up meat. We (the big we, that is) have created this method of raising animals. Those animals have lots of babies, and they're good at it. If everyone stopped eating meat, what would happen to all those animals? Will the farmers continue to feed and care for them until they die natural, peaceful deaths of old age? Maybe, but I doubt it.” It seems to me that even cultured meat will not end the meat industry overnight. I think that there would be global shifts in demand that would discourage the frantic facilitation of breeding for foodstock. A little family planning would go a long way to diminishing subsequent generations of “supply” as “demand” likewise diminished. The specter of sudden slaughter seems to me to misconstrue just how relentlessly the meat industry must actively facilitate the ongoing generation of the nonhuman animals it goes on to slaughter as food.

”gilliani” concludes: “My point is that it would take a huge cultural shift on many levels to get the carnivorous guts of North Americans off meat, and I'd rather see us make that cultural shift gradually while considering the condition of existing livestock.” I suspect myself that even with the most optimistic arrival of cultured meat-making that catastrophic violence of the meat industry will vanish from the scene of civilization far more slowly rather than too suddenly for our taste as ethical vegetarians!

“rsaxto” posts the perplexing comment that “[m]aybe we will end up eating ourselves (steaks grown from our own cells). Would it taste good or not -- only cannibals know for sure.” Again, I can see no logical or practical connection between these issues. I suspect this sort of argument arises so regularly either because it is a cynical effort of a negligible minority to make a congenial practice seem more revolting than it otherwise does to majorities, or it symptomizes the deeper irrational fears that nudge people into that negligible minority in the first place.

“I would love it,” “Samantha Vimes” posts next in conspicuous contrast. “I'm a vegetarian,” she writes, “and there's no fake salami that tastes like the real thing. These cultured meats would be meat, but they would not be part of an animal. I'd eat it. I don't even understand the ick factor. Laboratory meat doesn't have feces ground up in it, and never got a parasite infection. It seems far less icky than carcasses.”

And then, in conclusion, “deo508” ominously demands “When will we get our gr[e]en crackers?” in his subject line. “See the movie S[O]YLENT GREEN. Oh no! there feeding us people! What hell, WalMart sells baby oil made from virgin (first press) Chinese babies why not eat labratory meat?” Quite apart from the claims about WalMart (where I refuse to shop even though I am a bit skeptical about the baby oil accusation made here), it really does matter enormously to me that cultured meat-making demands the sacrifice of not one animal, as opposed to the scenario in Soylent Green in which bulldozers cheerfully scoop up crowds of living humans from urban streets, murder them, and then feed them to the remaining population. Failing to grasp this as a difference that makes a difference is, to say the least, puzzling.

Now, I think it is quite clear where I stand on the specific questions raised by Hukill’s argument, but what I find especially heartening is that the mainstream progressive audience of AlterNet seems to be responding much the same way. The conspicuous irrationality and hysteria of the exemplars of the bioconservative left in evidence among the respondents is heartening in its way, too, in its extremity and marginality.

I have been repeatedly making an argument here lately that there is an emerging technoprogressive mainstream in the American and in the global left. The emerging technoprogressive mainstream is a technoscientifically literate left that is coming to understand the affinities between the use and defense of digital networks and peer-to-peer democracy, the defense of consensus science, the need for well-regulated and radically increased medical research and development, and the demand for an immediate shift from primitive extractive petrochemical and military industries to renewable technologies.

This is a new left, a genuinely emancipatory left. This is a left that has no patience with the technophobic luddism of Deep Ecology, but neither has it any truck with the complacent corporate-militarism of the DLC. The technoprogressive left is not seduced by the nostalgia of anti-democratic elites that gets peddled in the name of “nature,” “natural markets,” or “nature’s God.”

And in consequence, I think it is less and less relevant all the time for technoprogressives to decry as their chief antagonists “left luddites,” when clearly it is “bioconservatives” of the religious and social right and “corporate futurists” of the neoliberal, neoconservative, and market fundamentalist right who are our more conspicuous antagonists. Although there are vestigial pockets of technophobia and naturalist nostalgia on the left, it seems to me that there is little remaining energy to be discerned there, and that technoprogressives would do better to educate and outreach to the reasonable among those folks and otherwise let them drift out of the picture.

Today's Random Wilde

Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Thinking About Rights Again

"Natural rights" aren't particularly appealing to those of us who think the term "natural" just names an ideological project to render contestable customs apparently inevitable, usually to the benefit of elites. But, needless to say, I think there is still an important place for rights talk, so long as rights are construed as historical rather than natural. I think of rights as part of the ritual artifice of working democratic cultures, and I think it is helpful to keep in view here the etymological connection between right and rite.

Rights are like prohibitions, in that they function as links between the various dimensions of our normative lives. Bans or prohibitions arise out of our moral normativity (morals, from mores, speak to the way in which norms confer the sense of membership or belonging through operations of identification and disidentification), while rights arise out of our ethical normativity (ethics take a form that solicits universal assent and confers legible subjecthood). Political normativity, in turn, takes an ineradicable plurality of human aspirations as its point of departure and the ongoing contingent reconciliation of these aspirations as its end -- but inevitably draws on the forms and experiences of other normative modes to do important parts of its work.

It is true that once we relinquish the futile project to ground rights (claims of universal entitlement) in "nature" they are exposed in their interminable vulnerability to abuse or replacement. But presumably it was our realization that ascribing "nature" to the rights we hold most dear already actually fails to confer invulnerability on them that we are moved to repudiate the notion in the first place. It is difficult to see why we should mourn too much the loss of something we never really had -- and seeing clearly how fragile our rights are only motivates us to better secure them on terms that are actually available to us.

It seems to me we will still want to define a field of entitlements that formally aspire to universality and hence will be less likely to give way under the vicissitudes of politics and culture. Locating rights at the heart of law creates conditions in which the violation of the right threatens the edifice itself, and this does provide for right a real measure of security even if such universality is never actually secured in fact.

Since self-evident truths are self-evident whether they are held to be so or not I have always taken that curious phrasing ("We hold these truths to be self-evident...") in the Declaration to indicate that the focus of the phrase was the connection of that "we" to the rights enumerated thereafter, rather than a grounding of rights in nature or in divinity. That life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident rights is a nonsensical claim, inasmuch as its evidence has scarcely been universally affirmed historically. What matters is the conjuration of a "we" who are defined by their shared assertion that these rights are self-evident to them. These rights are secured by the fact that their preservation is placed at the heart of the polity itself, so that to threaten them is now to threaten more than these rights but the polity itself.

Because rights are not self-evident, not underwritten by natural law nor nature's god, but only by the significance with which we invest them and the devastating costs we manage to connect to the prospect of their overthrow, it is key that we refrain from declaring entitlements a matter of right too lightly, too often, or in cases too prone to ready displacement, else we risk undermining the force of law itself.

Bans run the same risk -- and it is especially reckless to attempt to secure momentary respite from proximate technodevelopmental problems through absolute legal prohibitions, since, needless to say, many of these problems will wither in time (especially whenever they really amount to problems of engineering rather than ethical quandaries), and the prohibition will come to seem absurd despite its formal assertion of universality, and hence legal prohibitions that deserve to remain absolute -- on murder, on torture, on lying under oath -- risk trivialization by association.

Thinking About Democracy Again

Relatively democratic societies strive to facilitate ongoing nonviolent reconciliation between deeply diverse stakeholders to issues at hand. This is because what we call "democracy" really amounts to a long history of experimental institutional implementations of the ideas that (a) people should have a say in the public decisions that affect them and that (b) the reconciliation of diverse human aspirations is better the less violent it is.

The problem is that there are real tensions between (a) and (b), since the commitment to (a) puts nearly everything "up for grabs," a state of affairs that produces a general anxiety and can facilitate outcomes that actually violate (b), especially if we accept that humiliation and insecurity can be kinds of violence.

Rights are formal affirmations of certain universal entitlements that seek to contingently restabilize the conditions on which human integrity and dignity are provisionally thought to depend, in the face of the relentless destabilization of social conditions unleashed by democratic processes themselves.

Two key caveats: First, needless to say, an affirmation of an entitlement is not the same thing as its accomplishment, and the fact is that even entitlements protected by right (rite) remain vulnerable.

Rights can only seek to secure key entitlements by frustrating their violation, for example by connecting them as directly as possible to the foundation of the ritual artifice of law and governance in such a way that to threaten them will be tantamount to threats to the given social order as such, and hence threats in which majorities should sense a personal stake.

Second, any characterization of the conditions on which integrity and dignity depend necessarily will be more parochial and contingent than the universal form in which it will be phrased, and there will always be a tension between what is an essentially conservative defense of any such characterization and the thrust of democratic politics itself.

But it seems to me that we have no choice in the matter of whether or not we will find this "not-democratic" kernel at the heart of any implementation of the democratic project, inasmuch as some conception of integrity and dignity will always mobilize and maintain the project of democratization in the first place.

Even as deep democrats, we cannot not want to preserve an inviolable human agency from even the energies of democracy itself. Indeed, it is only in the name of the protection of this agency and in the hope that this agency will so find its fullest flowering that democracy usually will be deemed worth fighting for in the first place.

But make no mistake, this is a way of naming a paradox but not resolving it. Democracy is always striking balances and bargains arising out of the different entailments of the commitments to ongoing democratization and to human rights.

And in the End It's Only Round and Round and Round

Disability-Discourse As Moralizing

I have said that the discourse of "disability" needs to give way to a discourse of "different enablement." This would be a discourse that embraces the ineradicably prostheticized rather than natural character of proper human bodies and lifeways in all their splendid and proliferating variety. It would also be a discourse that recognizes the ways in which morphological variations that appear to disable humans who incarnate them from the perspective of certain values will often appear instead to enable humans from different value-perspectives.

The special difficulty of such a viewpoint, of course, is that it might seem too easily to translate into a kind of bland relativism masquerading as "tolerance" that becomes an alibi for the complacent acceptance of abuse or neglect, or provides an abstract rationale for what really amounts to an indifference to avoidable suffering or to the difficult demands of ambivalent cries for help from our peers.

I have proposed that a commitment to consent (in a specific construal I call substantiated rather than vacuous consent, propped up by firm social commitments to universally available trustworthy information, lifelong education, professional advice, basic guaranteed income, universal healthcare, and so on to ensure that legible performances of consent are always both as informed and nonduressed as may be) helps adjudicate these difficulties. And I have proposed specifically that such a consensual criterion would have been a better guide by far than the crabbed moralism of "normality" (or "basic health" functioning as a stealthy terminological and discursive substitute for such "normality") in coping with the quandaries posed by homosexuality in 1950s America, say, and a good guide for coping with the apparent quandaries posed by the occasional affirmation of desirable deafness, by widespread mild autism, by intersex bodies, and so on today.

This is a perspective that affords me the ability to celebrate differences that I would not seek to incarnate as part of my own personal practices of self-creation for now, and to champion tolerance for some differences that I fail to understand or even actively disapprove so long as these differences do not impair the scene of legible consent. But I must insist that this is not in the least a position of relativism and neither does it disable my capacity to argue forcefully for my own vision of a social justice underwritten by standards of general welfare and representation that solicit the formal universal affirmation of ethical norms.

Needless to say, not everyone agrees with me. "Do I think deafness is a disability? I sure do," remarked one recent critic, as if to deny such a thing is the most absurd idea on earth. I know just what my interlocutor means, but I think it pays to look at this declaration much more closely.

When one declares "deafness" to constitute a clear-cut disability, one might mean by this assertion something like the declaration: "I would rather be hearing than not." If one really means to signal the latter declaration, then I agree that there is nothing objectionable in such preferences at all (any more than precisely contrary preferences would be), and neither is there anything necessarily damaging to democracy in voicing such preferences.

Consider the key difference between an evangelical Christian who thinks it is quite a shame that an atheist (like me) will probably go to hell for his repudiation of faith, as opposed to an evangelical Christian who thinks an atheist should not be allowed to testify under oath in a Court of Law because of his repudiation of faith. I can grasp the force of this distinction while fully affirming the value or truth of atheism or, to the contrary, any number of faith perspectives. This is the inaugural insight of secularism, not of relativism.

Now, one of the key problems with "disability" discourse for me is that it tends to speak in the technoscientific language of medicine. Warranted scientific beliefs satisfy criteria that make them good candidates for at any rate provisional consensus given the current state of knowlege. In this they differ deeply from moral beliefs which tend to be testify to one's membership in particular communities distinguished from each another through their definitive differences with other communities.

I worry about what happens when moral beliefs that testify in fact to one's membership or not in moral communities, take up the superficial forms of scientific claims that solicit rational consensus. The solicitation of such consensus tends to provide a rationale for and thereby presage nonconsensual public interventions in the name of general welfare once we move into the political arena.

Again, I am not denying that there is a place for moral identification and disidentification in the normative life of human beings -- far from it. But I think we need to be much more conscious than we sometimes seem to be about the different forms of warrant and obligation proper to scientific, moral, ethical, esthetic, and political belief.

These forms of belief are interdependent but remain crucially irreducible to one another. And in an era of rapid, disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle such as our own, freighted with the highest imaginable stakes, there will inevitably be confusions about which mode of belief is in play or speaks best to the demands of particular technodevelopmental situations. The crisis of "disability" discourse in this fraught technoscientific moment of emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive medicine is just one key example among countless (and multiplying) others. The worst possible move at such a time would be to give in to the temptation to fixate on any single mode of belief as the meta-rational category under which all other modes are subsumed and so confront the era of global disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle with dangerously false clarity: At once, blind to most of what is actually possible and important in the world and yet unshakably convinced that one is all-seeing. Whether one chooses to be a priestly mouthpiece for science (reductionism), morality (fundamentalism), aesthetics (fascism), ethics (totalitarianism), or politics (nihilism), what is lost in such monocular construals of rationality is the democratizing discipline of a rationality attuned to the different demands of all of these modes, and hence to the different demands of the actually diverse stakeholders to the historical moment of struggle in which we find ourselves and from which we must somehow manage to build that bit of the road together that an open future obliges us to do.

Friday, July 14, 2006

"I Will Always Show a Dildo in My Window"

A father is shocked -- shocked -- to discover upon moving into his new home in San Francisco's Castro neighborhood that his family might be exposed to gay people being, like, all gay there. Won't somebody please think of the children! A Proud paterfamilias commends "discretion" to his demonstrative new neighbors in America's "Gay Main Street" who, one can be sure, will know just what to do with that recommendation.

Terry Curtis Fox Asks A Question

What if Gore had been more like Obrador?

ABe Appreciation Week: Texhnolyze

Today we turn to a series that re-teams a number of the creative people who collaborated to create Serial Experiments Lain five years before. Much of Texhnolyze focuses on gang warfare in a crumbling underground city called Lukuss where radical prosthetic medicine is practiced. Later in the series the plot widens to contemplate the fraught relation of Lukuss to the surface world. Deeply preoccupied with the ineradicable embodiment and hence vulnerability of human experiences of dignity, intimacy, difference, and indifference, Texhnolyze is a brutal and relentless thing, incredibly tender to the touch. I admire the extravagant experimentalism of the series (there are whole episodes in which scarcely any dialogue is spoken at all, for example), the vividness of so much of the imagery in it, the unflinching intergrity of its thematic explorations. But I have to admit it is my own least favorite work connected to ABe at an emotional level -- I find it just too pessimistic for my tastes. Still, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Today's Random Wilde

I sometimes think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability.

The Flabbergasting Madness of the Rapture Right

Check out the giddy chat thread that follows from a comment (under the Subject Line: Oh, Happy Day) from a Rature Rightist whose contemplation of escalating Mideast violence and civilian slaughter the last couple of days provokes "excitement." Animated winking shimmying smiley-faces accompany many of the declarations of joy that follow, presumably so that any fundy females wisely protected from the soiling evil of literacy by their Patriarchal Papas can still join in on the joy of mass-murder with the rest of these nice people so filled with Christ's love. The combination of insanity, bloodlust, stupidity, clueless self-righteousness and, well, just rampaging cheesiness of these people is a sight to see.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

EFF's FRAQ (frequently awkward questions) to the Media Industry

[via The Electronic Frontier Foundation] EFF has compiled a handy, pithy list of questions that should be frequently asked of the dinosaurs of coporate media to short-circuit their dishonest spin-doctoring and obfuscations. I think of such indispensable truth-to-power FAQ-like advocacy resources as FRAQs (and any BSG fan can surely tell you why). Here's a slightly abridged version of EFF's Media FRAQ highlighting my own favorite moments:
The RIAA and MPAA trot out their spokespeople at conferences and public events all over the country, repeating their misleading talking points. Innovators are pirates, fair use is theft, the sky is falling, up is down, and so on. Their rhetoric shouldn't be given a free pass...


1. The RIAA has sued more than 20,000 music fans for file sharing, yet file sharing continues to rapidly increase both online and offline. When will you stop suing music fans?
2. The RIAA has sued over 20,000 music fans for file sharing, who have on average paid a $3,750 settlement. That's over $75,000,000. Has any money collected from your lawsuits gone to pay actual artists? Where's all that money going?
3. The RIAA has sued over 20,000 music fans for file sharing. Recently, an RIAA representative reportedly suggested that "students drop out of college or go to community college in order to be able to afford [P2P lawsuit] settlements." Do you stand by this advice? Is this really good advice for our children's futures? ...
5. Major entertainment companies have repeatedly brought lawsuits to block new technologies, including the VCR, Digital Audio Tape recorders, the first MP3 player, the ReplayTV PVR, and now P2P software. Why is your industry so hostile to new technologies? ...
8. Recording off the radio is clearly permitted by copyright law and something Americans have done for over 25 years, but the RIAA supports legislation restricting devices that record from digital radio. Why are you against TiVo for radio?
9. Sony BMG recently implemented a DRM technology that damaged users' computers. But for independent researchers' analyses, this serious flaw may have gone undiscovered. After this scandal, will record labels allow any computer scientist or security expert to examine these products and agree not to sue them under the DMCA?


1. The major movie studios have been enjoying some of their most profitable years in history over the past five years. Can you cite to any specific studies that prove noncommercial file sharing among fans, as opposed to commercial DVD piracy, has hurt the studios' bottom line in any significant way?
2. Is it legal for me to bypass CSS DVD encryption in order to skip the "unskippable" previews at the beginning of so many DVDs? Why should I have to be forced to watch these ads when I already bought the DVD?
3. Is it legal for me to skip the commercials when I play back time-shifted TV recordings on my TiVo or other PVR? How is this different than getting up and going to the bathroom?
4. Why are there region-code restrictions on DVDs? How does this prevent copyright infringement? Is it illegal for me to buy or and use a region-free DVD player, or to modify a DVD player to be region-free?
5. In several lawsuits, the MPAA has repeatedly said that it's illegal to make a back-up of a DVD that I purchased. Why is this illegal? ...
8. If the MPAA-backed "broadcast flag" bill passes, I won't be able to move recorded TV content digitally to my current video iPod. Why should TV studios get to take away my ability to lawfully time- and space-shift? ...
10. Hollywood is pushing legislation to "plug the analog hole." These restrictions won't keep copyrighted video off of file sharing networks, but they will block me from excerpting a recorded TV show for a school report or using tools like the Slingbox to send recorded TV shows to myself over the Internet. Why are you trying to restrict these legitimate uses?

ABe Appreciation Week: Serial Experiments Lain

Okay, so today's tribute turns -- as was inevitable -- to Yoshitoshi ABe's Lain... For this series ABe did the character design among other things. Lain was the first of his works to attract my own attention and probably remains the anime series that still solicits the widest devotion among his fans. I think this is because the piece connects up with quite a lot of the moody coloration, thematic preoccupations, narrative complexity, and visual tropes you find in influential anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. For today's tribute, I'm offering up two selections: first, the somewhat melancholy opening sequence for the series above, as well as an AMV that foregrounds the work's cypherpunk appeal for many of its fans. Here you go:

Today's Random Wilde

They say that when good Americans die they go to Paris. -— Really! And where do bad Americans go when they die? —- They go to America.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

ABe Appreciation Week: Haibane Renmei

Today's tribute to the work of Yoshitoshi ABe focuses on Haibane Renmei, one of the most melancholy, mysterious, and for me possibly the most fully-fledged ABe worlds. This thirteen episode anime series is based on a set of dojinshi both written and illustrated by ABe. The story focuses on Rakka, a pseudo-angelic young girl who arrives (strictly speaking, she hatches) without memory in the walled City of Glie from which nobody is permitted to leave. She finds herself in a community of Haibane, and we explore this strange world through her own perplexity. It is an anime filled with grace, tenderness, and simply lovely surprises. ABe leaves many mysteries intact by the end of the series, and really makes you pay for the knowledges he does reveal with an emotional wallop.

This clip consists of the music and imagery that opens each episode, and it nicely and quickly conveys the flavor of the series.

Today's Random Wilde

Twenty years of romance make a woman look like a ruin, but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.

This is definitely one of those Wildeisms that should be universalized... Think how much better, and funnier, it would be as: "Twenty years of romance make a person look like a ruin, but twenty years of marriage make one into something like a public building."

Monday, July 10, 2006

ABe Appreciation Week: NieA_7

Some of my very favorite anime series bear the creative imprint of the incomparably talented Yoshitoshi ABe, and I’ve decided to devote some space on the blog this week to a tribute to some of his work. I’ll begin with the wistful, comedic, and ultimately rather mysterious NieA_7 (“NieA under 7”), a thirteen episode series about a starving, introverted student who lives with an alien squatter NieA who constantly eats her food. Throughout the series, themes of alienation, alien immigration, discrimination, the awkwardness of devotion, the presence of the past are all woven with a surprisingly light and graceful touch into a series of comic plots that can get surreal and loud in a flash. The series was based on a doujinshi by Yoshitoshi ABe, and many of the people who worked on NieA_7 were also involved in ABe’s more famous and considerably darker series Serial Experiments Lain, to which I’ll turn later in ABe Appreciation week.

This AMV is marvellous, I think, but its darkness is actually a bit out of sync with the spirit of the series itself, which is rather like a kinder, gentler FLCL, if that means anything to you. More ABe appreciation to come soon.

Cackles from the Balcony: Baby's First Words Edition

[via AmericaBlog]
"According to [Karl] Rove, [Soopergenius,] Bush is 'emphatic' about vetoing the stem cell bill -- which means he's emphatic about making sure that science doesn't advance, that diseases aren't cured and that lives aren't saved. That should help the GOP in November."
Once again, by the way, I think this brief post is an illustration of the powerful connection between the emerging technoprogressive mainstream and the rising People-Powered Blogospheric Left I keep yammering about.

Posthuman Terrains

I think... that we have not yet become human. Or, I might say, in a different way, that the category of the human is in the process of becoming. What constitutes the human is a site of contestation. [T]here are clashing cultural interpretations about what the human ought to be, and... every time you assert human rights, you are also adding to the meaning of what the human is. -- Judith Butler

What Our Bodies Say "After" Humanism

I have long wondered what difference it might make to think that when Aristotle defined "man" [sic] as the "political animal," this formulation constituted a fledgling kind of cyborg manifesto written many centuries before Donna Haraway's own. What if Aristotle's definition amounts to the claim that human (and possibly other) animals have become different in their “essential natures” because they have come to live together in cities?

On such a view, this Aristotelian formulation is not a replacement but a complement to his more commonplace definition of humanity as the "rational animal." For Aristotle as for most of the Greeks reason is dialogic and there is a real sense in which one cannot claim to “know” a thing until one is capable of communicating that knowledge successfully to one’s peers. For Aristotle’s political animal, then, to be rational is always to be able to communicate intelligibly to others, to testify to one’s experience in public, to convey one’s desires and intentions successfully, to be responsive in the face of failure with one's peers, to facilitate acting in concert. Taken together these definitive political/rational characterizations make humanity prostheticized or cultural through and through, they understand human animals as beings constituted in conversation and in collaboration, sustained by ritual and infrastructural artifice as surely as we are by food and air.

Our biological bodies are sites of transformation, not only of metabolism but of significance. That is to say, for one thing, we are maintained and transformed in the ongoing metabolism of the human organism with its environment. But we are maintained and transformed no less in our constantly adapting signifying practices as well as in the significance borne by our bodies themselves. Just think how, over the course of our lives, as our bodies first mature and then as they age, how differently promising they are in their bearing, how richly and differently scarred and skilled they become, how they come to be differently raced, differently sexed, differently sexualized, and so on.

Human bodies are crucially maintained in both their biological continence and their social legibility in the company of others. Our bodies are exposed not only to the elements but to scrutiny, vulnerable to criticism, open to change, needy for connection, practically interdependent, eager for the pleasure and danger and the unpredictable novelty of public contact no less than for the security and support and quotidian routine of intimacy.

And so, for Aristotle as for us all our embodied selves do not decisively end in our skins, but spread out into and are definitively impinged upon by the world, by artifice and by the ritual and material artifice of normative cultures. This urban prostheticization of Aristotle’s political/rational animal does not and did not make human animals into some kind of "posthuman species," of all things, but defined instead the inaugural moment when humanity stepped onto the scene of history. This inaugural moment is a fable, of course. At best a fable, in fact: at once a promise and the broken promise. More to the point, this prostheticization names the abiding material reality of humanity -- such as it is: raced, gendered, aged, enraged, desiring, desirable, promising, calculating, skilled, scarred -- in a shared world of technodevelopmental social struggle among a plurality of stakeholders who are our peers.

What History Feels Like After Humanism

I think it is unquestionably true to say that neoliberal corporate-militarist flows of capital, force, and significance, the unsustainable practices of extractive global industrialization, the planetary distribution of information, communication and transportation networks, and so on, have transformed altogether the concrete forms, practical significance, and proper ambitions of "humanism" as a democratizing and emancipatory language of ethical universality.

For one thing, in the long bloody twentieth century, World Wars, genocides, avoidable famines and neglected diseases, vast forced migrations, the countless catastophes of petrochemical industry, the cynical anti-democratic deployments of mass media -- all of these struggles variously facilitated and exacerbated by unprecedented technoscientific developments, and all of them no less exposed and resisted through opportunistic recourse to technoscientific developments -- have undermined, probably fatally, any universal appeal that might once have been made in the name of humanism, exposing instead a vision expressing parochial pretensions, false promises, and endless alibis for current exploitation.

Clothed in the language of universality, the entitlements of the humanity proclaimed by humanists have never extended to more than a fraction of actual human beings. Assured of its location on a “natural” progressive trajectory attaining inevitably toward universal emancipation, humanism too readily accommodated contemporary injustices as temporary and, hence, somehow tolerable -- especially to those humanists who didn’t happen to suffer them. And, further, as the ethics of a questionably construed "human race" and of the universal "civilization" problematically connected to this race, it grows ever more difficult to shake the troubling analogies between humanism and its debased technoscientific companion discourse: the "race science" that legitimized every brutal imperial, colonial, globalizing, ghettoizing, apartheid regime in modern memory.

Needless to say, these painful recognitions demand painful reckonings. It is this crisis of humanist conscience -- which is not really one crisis, so much as many different crises, arising out of a variety of concrete situations and taking a proliferating variety of consequential forms -- that more properly goes by the name "post-humanism."

Post-humanism in its interesting construals is the furthest thing from some facile identification with any particular prosthetic practice, current or imagined. Contemplate, for a moment, the present, emerging, and proximate-prospective terrain of disruptive technodevelopmental social struggle -- with its battles over climate change, pandemics, intellectual property, media ownership, rigged election machines, unfair trade policies, proliferating weapons, neglected diseases, drug wars (that is, wars on some drugs through the mandated use of other drugs), clashes of extractive against renewable industry, and so on.

This already hopelessly (and hopefully) fraught technoscientific era is opening onto an even more perilous and promising terrain, named by the prospect (strictly speaking, probably another fable in its clearest formulation) of a "convergence" of nano- bio- info- and cognitive technologies, and an almost unfathomable transformation within the lifetimes of many now living of the fundamental terms of what is possible and important. It is this terrain of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle that defines the various post-human and post-humanist strategies and sensibilities, rather than any particular “post-human” personage, tribe, or social formation thrown up in any one moment of that world-historical technodevelopmental storm-churn.

The “post-human” is not one kind of prostheticized person, nor is “post-humanism” a singular response to a particular kind of prostheticized personhood, whether involving digital network immersion, peer-to-peer Netroots democracy, post-Pill feminism, transsexual queerness, post-“disability” different-enablement prostheses, open source biopunks and leapfroggers and copyfighters, or what have you -- nor certainly the more fantastic identifications with robots, or eugenicized superheros, or artificial intelligences, or aliens that seem to come up so often when “post-humanism” is discussed as a topic online.

Such identifications (and, crucially, their attendant disidentifications) are moralistic in form, not ethical. And whatever else we may say of it, the ongoing and upcoming crises of humanism -- no less than its emergence with the appearance of the political/rational animal -- are profoundly ethical: "Post-humanism," properly so-called, names the ethical encounters of humanism with itself, the confrontations of a universalism with its historical and practical limits and contradictions. And the ethical visions that emerge either out of ("post" in the sense of "after") or in resistance to ("post" in the sense of "over") that confrontation are themselves ethical terms. One might even discern in them the best impulses that have animated humanism in its emancipatory aspect.

If we accept Lyotard's definition of "post-modernity" as a distrust of meta-narratives then many post-humanisms certainly seem "post-modern" in his sense as well. But it is key to recognize that distrust need not imply dismissal, denial, or even overcoming. Post-humanism names a distrust of a particular metanarrative: a normative vocabulary presumably rendered universal through its grounding in a “human condition” shared essentially across the species. But whatever one’s distrust, it may well be that the universality of ethical language remains, in Gayatri Spivak's phrase, something "we cannot not want." Mistrusting, we miss trust. And in our distrust we need not break trust.

The technoscientific dislocations that have exposed the pretensions and limitations of humanism have not rid us of the need for a more general normativity than moralist identification, even if candidate-vocabularies for ethical universality inevitably come to be viewed retroactively as contingent or strategic, and freighted with qualification. Certainly, our distrust has scarcely nudged human beings into any ironic global bourgeois order that “ends history” in any meaningful sense, one in which more than a small pampered fraction of human beings could claim to be content with immersion in private moralisms and with the public adjudication of differences falling to “markets” or engineers or what have you. Far from it.

Instead, the eclipse of humanist pretension has coincided with the organization of a host of variously and curiously technoscientifically-competent compensatory fundamentalist formations -- among them superficially anti-religious scientisms and reductionist design discourses. These fundamentalisms are in fact moralisms re-engineered as bloody-minded pseudo-ethics, each one aiming to achieve universality by denying history and prevailing over living differences. In such an historical moment, especially, it seems to me disastrous to conceive post-humanism as a moralizing identification with some tribe defined by any idiosyncratic fetishization of particular technologies or other. Rather, we should think of it as an ethical recognition of the limits of humanism provoked by an understanding of the emerging terms of technodevelopmental social struggle and, hence, any ethical perspective arising out of this recognition that demands cosmopolitanism, democracy, and emancipation shape the terms of this struggle, come what may.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Balancing the Values of Consent, Diversity, and Universal Standards

So long as a trait does not render the scene of consent illegible -- the expressed need for sexual reassignment, valuing deafness, or the exhibition of mild autism, among countless other things, all seem to me clear examples of such traits -- then it seems to me that advocates of a culture of consent cannot properly deny any citizens who incarnate such a trait as a part of their own personhood either

(a) the validity of any of their performances of consent on that basis or

(b) the consensual recourse to modification medicine to come to exhibit that trait or the consensual restraint from modification so as to maintain the trait.

It is crucial to realize that legibility of consent is a weaker standard than, say, "optimality" (on whatever construal) would be -- and that it is a weaker standard for a reason: Too restrictive a standard will likely skew the difficult balance between the democratic value of informed, nonduressed consent (which, to be substantial rather than vacuous has to be propped up with universal standards on contentious questions of basic health and general welfare), and the no less democratic value of diversity.

People of good will can argue about the extent to which an "optimal" scene of consent might properly be encouraged or discouraged via strategies of subsidization and such, whether in the name of administrative economies, general welfare, or what have you. But the simple fact is that anybody who advocates both a substantive vision of the general welfare as well as for the value of diversity is eventually going to stumble onto fraught moments when they have to figure out how to reconcile these values on the ground.

I do personally think the legible, informed, nonduressed consent of citizens is the key to work through some of these difficulties, but it has to involve a substantive rather than vacuous commitment to consent. That is to say, to be legitimate, the scene of consent needs to be shored up with all sorts of assurances against misinformation, ignorance, force, and duress that don't presently prevail for the most part. Also, the standard of legible consent must be a standard weak enough to incubate a real proliferation of consensual performances rather than a standard so strong that it imposes conformity... and yet the standard must be strong enough to ensure that "consent" doesn't become an alibi for violation, exploitation, or neglect.

I speak, by the way, not as an autistic person, or as a deaf person who wants to raise a nonhearing child, or as the parent of a healthy child with three functional arms or intersex genitals unsure what their obligations are, or what have you... I speak simply as a big fag who knows all too well that had I been born just one generation earlier I might have had to defend my own sane healthy proper personhood in the face of "well-meaning" medical and social administrators who might have thought they had democracy, science, righteousness, and even my own best interests on their side even as they worked to "cure" or otherwise obliterate me.