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

Saturday, March 31, 2007

The World Needs Democracy, Not Saving (And Especially Not Self-Appointed "Saviors")

Given the planet-scaled disasters that have properly come to preoccupy our attention -- from disruptive climate change, to global pandemics, to proliferating weapons of mass destruction, to the ongoing precarization of humanity via the dominance of neoliberal market fundamentalist ideology -- it is not surprising to hear progressive people phrasing their hopes and fears more and more often as matters of the need to save the world.

In general, I think this is a seduction democratically-minded people should try to resist.

Certainly, my point is not to deny the scope and urgency of the planetary problems that beset humanity. But I think it is crucial to resist the messianic paraphernalia that inevitably freights projects of world-saving: the embarrassing narcissism of the self-appointed elites who eagerly assume the role of would-be world-saviors, the terrible bulldozing of the "niceties" of democratic process and respect for diverse aspirations and perspectives that quickly occurs when the hardboiled "realism" of world-saving rationality gets its way and then gets seriously underway, the scared, scarred sycophancy of the True Believers who swarm out of the woodwork, craving surrogate parents to order them around, and all-too-eager to police human plurality into deathly conformity in exchange for a consoling pat on the head from their masters.

Of course, many of the problems I am thinking about here have been diagnosed most clearly by concerned scientists: climate-change, toxicities, pandemics, landmines, wmds, etc. At the same time, many of the villains exacerbating these problems in the name of shabby corporate and military competitive gain are especially eager to undermine the good scientists and consensus science that exposes their criminal conduct. Meanwhile, many of our reasonable and superlative hopes to overcome these problems and progress beyond them are pinned on technoscientific accomplishments: new medical cures, renewable energy technologies, abundance via molecular manufacturing, global information and communications technologies and social software. Given all this, it has come to seem ever more "natural" that we would turn to science in particular as the location to which we genuflect when we hanker after a savior.

Now, few who read this blog on anything like a regular basis would ever think to accuse me of hostility to science or to technological progress. But I do find terribly worrying the way in which so many self-identified "champions of science" I encounter seem to me in their own enthusiasm perniciously to rewrite science in the image of a messianic religiosity of the worst, most fundamentalist, most authoritarian kind.

There has always been a tendency, and certainly there now remains an impulse, to vulgar reductionism and scientism in an enormous amount of contemporary technocentric salon culture. There is a kind of triumphalist and eliminativist materialism that plays out in too much sociobiology (much of which -- and you guys might as well face up to it here and now -- is going to end up looking like phrenology and phlogiston look to us now). It returns in the smug self-congratulatory dilettantism of's so-called "Third Culture" (which takes up Snow's account of a confrontation of scientific with humanistic culture, but then pretends that another episode of Old School scientism constitutes an "overcoming" rather than just a new skirmish in this confrontation). One finds it in the bland obliterative universalism of many of the grander information theories out there and, even more, in the nearly ubiquitous informational metaphors technocentrics seem so enamored of: culture conceived as viral informational patterns or "memes," political plurality conceived as "bias" to be overcome in the service of technocratic "objectivity," organisms conceived as instantiations of genetic information, consciousness conceived as a computer, immortality conceived as identities "uploaded" into computers, and so on. This tendency is described at length in the work of Katherine Hayles and diagnosed as well by Jaron Lanier as the curiously cult-like embrace among technophiliacs and "futurists" of an attitude of "cybernetic totalism." It is there in the various know-nothing caricatural critiques of "postmodernism" one finds arising out of the self-appointed inheritors of the Enlightenment tradition who like to decry the "fashionable nonsense" of contemporary theory -- as well as in the rampant dimness of the "Brights" -- usually in ways that activate the ever-available resources of American anti-intellectualism, saucer-eyed conformism heralded as "individualism," and Puritanical moral panic. (Some progressives, incidentally, have lately jumped on the anti-pomo bandwagon themselves, no doubt thinking such a stand is of a piece with the necessary defense of "reality-based" policymaking and good government, not to mention as an understandable form of populist protest against the dense difficulty of so much contemporary theory. It is easy to see why this move is attractive at first, but it seems to me to be deeply wrongheaded, not to mention the fact that it puts otherwise sensible progressives in bed with lizard-brained reactionaries).

Quite apart from the ill-informed parochialism and wooly-headed sensationalism of so much of this strain of "pro-science" "pro-technology" "futurology," it is important to stress just how well and how often this reductionist scientism plays into complementary conservative politics. Sometimes it does so by justifying literal defenses of a technocratic elitism that would circumvent democratic process in the name of "necessity": The people are too ignorant, stupid, emotional, or whatever to deliberate in their own best interest in a complex technoscientific world such as our own, and so on and so forth. Sometimes it plays to conservatism more straightforwardly, by championing the interests of incumbent elites above others: Given the extent to which technodevelopmental policy is almost exclusively understood in terms of corporate and military competitiveness, this tendency is well-nigh inevitable (and note how often the technocratic attitude I mentioned first of all will amount in practice to the defense of such elites). Or sometimes it does so in bolstering a cynical "apoliticism" or "anti-politicism" that amounts in almost every case to a de facto endorsement of the status quo. ("Politics is so divisive, let's focus on the engineering!" "Don't be so negative all the time!" "Don't get so open minded that your brains fall out!" they cry to the calliope crank of a cash register ka-ching!)

I happen to suspect, incidentally, that the heart of much of the abiding hostility to so-called "postmodernism" (or however our solid stolid self-annointed scientismic champions are decrying the rampant "relativism" of effete elite literary and humanistic criticism these days) in technocentric salon discourse is the usefulness of these critiques as a way of selectively decying as "politicization" the introduction of anything but neoliberal political considerations -- that is to say, anything undermining the global corporate-militarist "free market" ideology of the so-called "Washington Consensus" -- into technoscientific developmental deliberations.

Now, I realize that there are contexts in which the intervention of a novel figure (the meme, the singularity, spontaneous order) or vocabulary (consequentialism, evolutionary psychology, existential risk assessment) can break the crust of convention, shake up sleepy incumbent orthodoxies, invigorate intellectual energies to solve shared problems, and so on. More to the point, I will admit that I have felt personally the compelling tug of quite a bit of the work and energy and ingenuity arising out of technocentric salon culture, whatever its conspicuous blindspots and silly narcissisms. I adore its can-do let's-put-on-a-show! interdisciplinarity, I share the selective reverence for Darwin, I appreciate the whole part-time garage-inventor hacker ethos, I enjoy many of the same science fiction novels and movies with explosions in them that they do (even the crappy ones), I suffered as a geek in high school as did so many of them and haven't entirely forgotten or forgiven, either, I was handwaving to my indifferent and perplexed family members about atheism and nanotechnology twenty years ago as were so many of them… believe me, I understand the subculture, I get where this stuff is coming from, I get it.

But I just think that there happen to be some very useful technoprogressive interventions to be made by technocentric discourse at just this historical juncture, insisting on certain demarcations in our practices of reasonable belief ascription (especially in sensibly distinguishing the quite different work and reasonable warrants for scientific as opposed to moral as opposed to political beliefs), and by resisting reductionism (especially where reductionism amounts to the suggestion that descriptive vocabularies available mostly to elites say the way the world is without remainder and justify technocratic circumventions of democratic deliberation), right about now. Also, frankly, it always pays to remember the speed with which what was really, truly, at least momentarily, a vital and subversive subculture can sometimes harden with alarming stealth and speed into an orthodoxy and elite apologia -- especially when corporate-military incumbents sniff out a line of self-serving justificatory hype there amidst all the hellraising.

By way of conclusion I will add that I think quite a lot of contemporary criticism of religion at the moment is coming out of this worrisome technocentric scientistic salon culture, and that this point of origin perniciously misdirects what I would otherwise cheerfully welcome as a much-needed critique of fundamentalist social formations. I refer of course especially to the polemics arising out of the new atheistical militancy (like the popular writings of Sam Harris and the latest work of Richard Dawkins) who are raising such a ruckus these days. Some of this work I still welcome as an urgently useful reinvigoration of the tradition of Anglo-American freethought in an era of noisy moneyed bloodthirsty gay-hating racist religionists brandishing clubs, but some of it simply makes me cringe and squirm -- for reasons some of which are well expressed by Terry Eagleton, others of which I will get to in a moment. Too often these works -- and even more so the mainstream discourses through which their works are popularized and disseminated by their enthusiasts -- seem to indulge in reckless overgeneralizations ("the Islamic world," "people of faith") that get actually-existing triggers pulled that get actually-existing innocents killed. Meanwhile, they mistake as essentially a matter of faith or religiosity what looks to me personally more primarily a matter of authoritarian, racist, patriarchal political and social formations. This latter argumentative move of theirs seems doubly troubling to me since for one thing it renders people ignorant, intolerant, and insensitive to the crucial progressive and democratizing (even secularizing!) force of many historical religions and traditions of esoteric mysticism, while at once letting people who claim -- or proclaim more like -- "scientific worldviews" for themselves to imagine themselves "therefore" wonderfully immune to the authoritarian trappings of priestly religiosity (which, I'm sorry to say -- and here I circle back to the criticisms of technocentric reductionism and scientism with which I began -- I think is the farthest imaginable thing from the truth).

Sunday, March 25, 2007

BSG Finale (Where's the Reset Button?)

Just watched the season three finale of BSG -- and found it almost flabbergastingly bad.

Minor uninteresting characters played by actors of lesser talent have dominated the whole third season, the fabulous Roslin has been backgrounded, the brash bratty Starbuck has been soap-operad into irrelevance, that dullard Agathon has struck endless stolid poses (I think of Agathon as the BSG analogue to Peter Jackson's version of Sam Gamgee in his LOTR, a gag-inducingly "sympathetic" crypto Middle American figure forever threatening to render an otherwise relatively enjoyable sf entertainment periodically unwatchable), Lee has wishy-washed unattractively the whole season through (sometimes in a completely gratuitous fat suit, thereby eliminating the one consistently edifying thing about Apollo: his appeal in a skimpy towel) -- only Saul Tigh of all people has offered up a spectacle worth watching this season and now....

*spoilers* (I guess, kinda sorta)

....he is apparently, idiotically, a Cylon, together with a handful of other characters who've fluttered boringly lately in the background (among them, the eye-rollingly bad Blanders).

God, the narrative "twists" and "turns" scream of desperation, of exhausted inspiration, of indifference to the weight and recalcitrance of established history and character.... The courtroom speeches! The discarded prop! The "shocking" return of Starbuck! Creak, creak, creak go the cliches, sleepwalking their way between car commercials (by the way, you foolish people who buy and drive cars for whatever reason: trust me, they all look exactly the same).

For heaven's sake, I wish Ron Moore et at would let Starbuck be a badass again, I wish they would let the Cylons be arbitrary and scary again, I wish they would let Lee have sex with the President or just kill him already (maybe that one is just me), I wish they would let Baltar actually act like an opportunistic genius slash perpetual id instead of a glycerin-eyed bowling pin, I wish they would let Six show her venom, let Sharon be schizo, let Adama be our grim and grizzled flawed patriarch, and I wish that please please please they aren't really making Saul Tigh a Cylon.

Nobody in the BSG audience was surprised by any of the "surprises" of this unbelievably dumbed down finale. I'm embarrassed for the show. I'm embarrassed by all the desperate reiterations about "The Best Show on Television" every commercial break. BSG this season has been the furthest thing from the best show on television. I'm so annoyed, I can't believe a show so good has gone so bad.

A Moratorium on New -Isms In the Name of an Open Futurity

I've mentioned before that the term "technoprogressivism" is one with which I have become associated (not to be pedantic, but actually I used to refer to "tech-progressive" outlooks, and it was the advice of Ryan McReynolds that I shift to the more euphonious "technoprogressive" term he had already been using; meanwhile, my friend and colleague, the socialist-feminist bioethicist James Hughes has pointed out that the term had a few precursor uses as well), but, anyway, I've written a lot about technoprogressive politics, and it's a term that has acquired some small currency and entailments -- not all of which I approve of, actually -- and so occasionally I get asked for formulations and clarifications about what technoprogressive politics means. Since I have a strong temperamental aversion to formulations that "block the road of inquiry" I understand that those who want to appropriate the technoprogressive term in the service of some specific "movement" or other can be frustrated by what looks to them like my perverse obscurantism and refusal to proffer up "final formulations" in the name of political expediency.

A good and well-meaning friend has recently made the following request of me:
Without it being or becoming a (religious) creed, what do you think are
the principles of techno-progressivism?

1. Metaphysics:
2. Epistemology:
3. Ethics:
4. Politics:
5. Esthetics:

This is how I answered them (somewhat revised):
When such a question occurs to you, the sensible thing is not to seek an
answer but to seek to understand from what initial confusion the question has arisen.

It seems to me that the formulation of the question in terms of an "-ism" probably already sets one on a path of religiosity that no amount of subsequent care and qualification will protect them from.

"Technoprogressive Principles" (so-called) are nothing more nor less than progressive principles focused on technodevelopmental social struggle. As there are of course many, conflicting, open-ended examples of progressive principles, so too there are and will be many, conflicting, and open-ended examples of technoprogressive principles.

Technoprogressive = progressive first + technodevelopmentally focused in particular.

You know, Democracy against Oligarchy is an old, old story. And technodevelopmental social struggle happens to look to be the most vital, promising, and threatening arena in which that story is playing out at the moment and probably for the forseeable future. Hence, technoprogressive campaigns and analyses will contribute uniquely relevant resources to progressive politics in this era. It really is that simple for me.

Look, lots of people are scared, scarred, and confused, and so too lots of people are itching for some quick "score" (for reasons of revenge and defensiveness directly connected to the first three things I mentioned in that laundry list). Radical technodevelopmental churn, simply put, is a fertile ground for fundamentalisms and cults and mass panics, as for authoritarian politics of all descriptions.

I'm sorry to say that I have come to think almost every "futurist" seems in some special way, some more than the usual way, to risk nudging into an authoritarian mindset -- and usually with easy-to-read fundamentalist religious paraphernalia conspicuously in play, however counterintuitive that may seem given the insistent materialism of the self-appointed futurological congress. (Old School "Extropians" and quite a few so-called "Singularitarians" are undeniably cultists, to provide the obvious examples of this, as are many, though not all, transhuman"ist"-identified persons). It's just that so many of these people are silly sociopaths that we fail to credit the near-ubiquity of the form among "futurists" nor do we take its implications particularly seriously.

The connection of "commitment" among the futurologically-inclined to nostalgia among oligarchs is very palpable, and helps explain the susceptibility of "the future" as a discourse to the damning characterization that it is always already "retro-futural." That is to say, to the extent that they "commit" to their various imaginary scenarios rather than simply working (through scenario building among other tools) to contribute primarily to fairer, more diverse, more democratic technodevelopmental social struggle, they are often engaging in conspicuously defensive and potentially oligarchic subcultural politics rather than in progressive politics.

So many "futurist"-types online seem already to be circling the wagons to "preserve" some idiosyncratic perspective they have assumed or even, somehow, what they have come to think of as a "way of life" from the inevitably unpredictable tides of history as it is made by free people, even when that "way of life" has not yet come into existence... just as so many conservative types struggle to "preserve" what amount to utterly fanciful "ways of life" retroactively constructed to "describe" some never realized Golden Age or other. The gesture is in both cases deeply anti-democratic.

The impulse to formulate easy-to-understand principles that constitute "a worldview" with which to identify arises from this larger political failing (as seen from a progressive point of view). I understand the demand to be clearer in one's thinking and writing in the service of properly democratic politics, but I disagree that party platforms and sloganeering philosophical "system-building" and the manic delusive identificatory energies they mobilize have anything to do, finally, with "clarity" -- however often they are proposed in its name.

Progress happens when we struggle to encourage diversity and equity in the world, when we work to implement more democratic societies and to democratize technodevelopmental social struggle.

Don't cater to the hucksters, the bootlickers, the True Believers, the cultists. There will always be plenty of dumbasses around to do that whatever we do. We can only endlessly expose them for sad sociopathic clowns and potential frauds, while doing our modest best to support democracy all the while.

I'll add, in conclusion, that the terminally awful Ayn Rand -- in my view among the very most catastrophically damaging American public intellectuals of the twentieth century -- once claimed to be able to delineate her philosophy while standing on one foot. Ayn Rand was of course revealed in that boast (among so many others) to be a huckster rather than a philosopher. The various libertopians, singularitaritarians, extropians, corporate futurists endlessly and eagerly leap to embrace the Randroidal format, some hoping to reproduce for just long enough the correlated cash cow, some hoping, embarrassingly enough, to "sweep the world" with their elite soopergenius master plan, some hoping to revenge themselves on a world that has mostly disdained them -- but all of them too silly, too sad, too dumb for words.

Don't try to understand technoprogressive politics through the lens of the Randroidal form, else you'll just end up crafting some new idiotic online manifesto or Institute or -ism to bore the world with. Democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle to facilitate greater progress, greater diversity, greater equity isn't like starting a band, or a kewl kidz club, or a sub(cult)ure. The democratic politics of open futures needs to disdain the online cottage industry of new -isms for the time being and focus on struggle.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Differently Enabled Americans Call for Election Systems Featuring Both Accessibility and Security

Champions of electronic voting machines often tout their benefits for differently enabled citizens in particular. Although concerns about the underaccessibility of old voting systems are certainly legitimate (and overdue), too often this rhetoric of improved accessibility has actually functioned as a way of deflecting growing criticism of the extraordinary insecurity of many of the actual systems that have been put in place across the country. Pushing a rhetoric of enfranchisement for the differently enabled, corporate hucksters and partisan hacks have facilitated disenfranchisement for all, pimpling over the electoral landscape with easily hackable machines that provide no paper trails, systems that can be stealthily manipulated and are incapable of recount should problems arise (even in jurisdictions where such recounts are mandated by law).

A recent statement by Noel Runyan is being endorsed by a growing number of signatories to indicate that many differently enabled people and communities actively oppose the use of Direct Record Electronic (DRE) voting systems, that they disapprove of any false suggestion that accessibility and security are somehow at odds with one another as valuable features in any proper voting system, and that they reject the cynical use of the needs for accessibility of differently enabled citizens to undermine the needs for security of all citizens, including, of course, differently enabled ones (however construed). Here is an excerpt of the statement:
Voters with disabilities, sensory impairments, and special language needs have long been disenfranchised in large numbers as a result of lack of access to the voting process. For many of us, the passage of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 held tremendous hope and promise for secure and reliable voting, a guarantee that every voter would have access to the voting process.

Electronic ballot systems such as the direct record electronic (DRE) machines (formerly called "touch screens") now in use have quickly proven to be neither fully accessible to all voters nor secure and accurate methods of recording, tallying, and reporting votes. While the goal of private voting has been achieved by some voters, this has often been without meaningful assurance that our votes have been counted as cast....

It is now clear that in order to guarantee reliability and security in our elections, it is necessary for the voter to be able to truly verify the accuracy of his or her ballot -- the ballot that will actually be counted. The only voting systems that permit truly accessible verification of the paper ballot are ballot marking devices. These non-tabulating devices, either electronic or non-electronic, assist the voter in marking and verifying votes on paper ballots that can either be optically scanned or hand-counted. (Some DRE voting machines that have already been purchased may be adapted to be used as acceptable ballot marking devices, assuming their accessibility can be preserved or improved.)

The technology for inexpensively providing good accessibility to voting systems has been commonly available for more than a decade, and it can and should immediately be required for and applied to all modern voting systems....

We leaders and members of the disability rights community assert that neither accessibility for all voters nor the security of the vote can be sacrificed for the sake of the other. Fortunately, true accessibility and election security can both be achieved; there is no inherent incompatibility between voting system accessibility and security.

We recognize that electronic ballot systems are inappropriate for use, because these systems make it impossible for voters to verify that their votes will be counted as cast. We call upon all disability rights groups, other civil rights groups, election protection groups, and elected officials to recognize the necessity for an immediate ban on any voting system that fails to meet the twin requirements of full accessibility and election security.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hillary Clinton Can Kiss My Hippy Faggot Ass (Updated)

I'm flabbergasted by the things coming out of Senator Clinton's campaign today. Dig this one-two punch of tin-eared immoralism, first a call for an indefinite occupation in Iraq (in 2007?), then a cowardly punt on the question whether homosexuality is "immoral" (in 2007?):

[via The New York Times]
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton foresees a "remaining military as well as political mission" in Iraq, and says that if elected president, she would keep a reduced military force there to fight Al Qaeda, deter Iranian aggression, protect the Kurds and possibly support the Iraqi military... She said in the interview that there were "remaining vital national security interests in Iraq" that would require a continuing deployment of American troops.

[via ABC News]
I [Jake Tapper, ABC News Senior National Correspondent] also asked [Hilary Clinton] about the comments by General Peter Pace that homosexulity is "immoral."

"Well I'm going to leave that to others to conclude," she said. "I'm very proud of the gays and lesbians I know who perform work that is essential to our country, who want to serve their country and I want make sure they can."

I'm going to leave that to others to conclude? Somebody needs to pink their triangulation, like, um, yesterday.


[via AmericaBlog] To her credit, Clinton speedily and appropriately issued the following corrective statement:
"Well I've heard from a number of my friends and I've certainly clarified with them any misunderstanding that anyone had, because I disagree with General Pace completely. I do not think homosexuality is immoral. But the point I was trying to make is that this policy of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is not working. I have been against it for many years because I think it does a grave injustice to patriotic Americans who want to serve their country. And so I have called for its repeal and I'd like to follow the lead of our allies like, Great Britain and Israel and let people who wish to serve their country be able to join and do so. And then let the uniform code of military justice determine if conduct is inappropriate or unbecoming. That's fine. That's what we do with everybody. But let's not be eliminating people because of who they are or who they love."

Key for me in this statement are the words: "I've heard from a number of..." Backchannel critics of my harsh words yesterday, please make a note of it. Don't expect chocolate if you settle for shit.

Happi Pi Day

Yes, the song is three minutes fourteen seconds long. For more, there is, of course,

Saturday, March 10, 2007

I Won't Be Watching 300

...inasmuch as the gay porn I prefer has the guys stabbing each other with their penises to their mutual delight rather than self-righteously hacking each other to death with their big boring blades. I quite understand, however, that the boys these days need simultaneously to feel all rough and tough even as they whomp themselves up into pointlessly pissing themselves in abject fear here in Bush's America, what with us feminazis to contend with and the global war on terra 'n all. What could be better at a time like this than blowing glossy light-saturated slow-mo kisses via the bloodyminded misanthropic mind of Frank Miller to an unspeakably despotic militarist hell that left the world not a single worthy cultural trace except for the vestigial echo of an exhibitionary he-howl of the kind every stinky asshole showoff at the gym burdens the world with every day of our lives anyway to our endless dull despair. For those who pine for antiquarian manflesh, honest homoeroticism, and a not-too-embarrassing indulgence in philosophizing here and there, I would recommend Amorous Mundyites turn instead to Derek Jarman's first feature length film, a dramatization of the ordeals of Sebastian, filmed with no money at all but with a surfeit of lean lovable big nosed men, in Latin of all things, with English subtitles.

Today's Random Wilde

Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.

What "Becomes" Post-Humanity?

Over at my stomping grounds at the IEET there is another interesting survey up, this one asking which of a number of past, ongoing, or possibly upcoming technodevelopments is the one that nudges "we humans" into the status of "posthumans."

As often happens with surveys, I can't really take this one because none of the responses comes close enough to the one I would offer. But, also as often happens, the survey has got me thinking about its topic, and now I'm hooked. (At least I'm hooked for as long as it takes to drink my morning coffee.) The fact is, even when a survey engaging with some fraught and complex question manages to offer up an option I can live with it always does real violence to the richness of the debate and stakes of all of its actually-existing stakeholders. Normally, this inherent oversimplification produces both what is useful and provocative in the exercise as well as what risks distraction and obfuscation in it.

The reason I can't take the survey (except to the extent that talking about it here is another form of "taking it," or at any rate taking it up) is because the nine options we have to select from really amount to only two kinds of options. There is a list of eight technodevelopments ("written language," "inheritable genetic enhancement," "brain prosthetics," "radical longevity," "emotion/memory modification," "borganismic collectivities," "uploading," etc.) and then a "none of the above" parachute clause that protests the term "posthuman" is meaningless.

If I were to take the survey, I'd have to opt for that last option. But that doesn't feel right to me, since I think the "posthuman" is a perfectly meaningful and indeed indispensable designation, only not in the way implied by the survey's premise (as expressed in the options it offers).

That is to say, "posthuman" does not designate for me an ontological status conferred by the intervention of technique (language, pharma, mediation, longevity, and so on) into a human organism. For me, "posthumanist" simply designates an attitude of informed skepticism about the claims conventionally made by, and in the name of, humanism.

For my part, it is hard to shake the sense that the universalizing accomplishments claimed for humanism (rights, dignity, civilization, and so on) have always only been enjoyed in fact by a fraction of the actual human animals on earth in eras that liked to congratulate themselves for their humanism. Typically, the "universal humanity" celebrated by humanism has really testified (not entirely but altogether too much) to the parochial prejudices and relative complacencies of a socioeconomic sliver of the "membership" of the human race, and often a sliver within that sliver further carved up according to "race," "gender," "avowed belief," and so on and on.

My own "posthumanist" sensibility arises primarily out of my anti-naturalist convictions, and one way to characterize my worries about the mistaken identification of "species-membership" with "ethical personhood" is to suggest that it is a matter of expecting an altogether unreliable attribution of "human nature" to do the difficult and crucial work of deepening democracy and promoting general welfare.

The reason all this connects up to the discourse of technodevelopmental social struggle is because "anti-naturalism" names (for me, at least) the crisis of technoscientific churn. As I have written elsewhere:
What I am calling "denaturalization" in particular consists essentially of two trends: First, denaturalization names a growing suspicion (one that can provoke either fear or hopefulness, often in hyperbolic forms) of the normative and ideological force of claims made in the name of "nature" and especially "human nature," inspired by a recognition of the destabilizing impact of technological developments on given capacities and social norms. Second, denaturalization consists of an awareness of the extent to which the terms and pace of technoscientific developments, and the distribution of their costs, risks, and benefits, is emerging ever more conspicuously as the primary space of social struggle around the globe.

Ultimately, then, I think "posthumanist" names an attitude of wariness rather than an attribution of ontological status. Further, I think there are probably many posthumanisms, some "post" in the sense of after, some "post" in the sense of anti-, some "post" in the sense of out of, some "post" in the sense of over, and so on.

And, further still, I think the various logically possible alternative "posthumanist" viewpoints are not united in any kind of positive doctrine with much in way of claims of fact or value that solicit general assent (the same is true of the "anti-naturalism" to which I connected "posthumanism" above). No, I think "posthumanisms" simply share a broad repudiation of the common but questionable misidentification of a biological specification of membership within the human species for a moral, ethical, or political membership.

For me personally, my "posthumanist" skepticism about this move would likely be charged with the paradox that it is inspired by motives that look pretty intelligible within conventional humanist ethics: That is to say, I worry that "humanism" is a term that functions too often as an alibi for the moral, ethical, and political complacency, exclusiveness, prejudice, and indifference to actual violence and injustice of privileged minorities of human beings with respect to suffering majorities of human beings. I will cheerfully admit that my problem with "humanism" is that it does not seem to me to be reliable enough as a guarantor or even an indicator of the humaneness I would demand of a properly ethical and democratic culture. And I think this probably makes me a rather humanistic "post-humanist," which is probably about right -- however uncomfortable it is -- for an academic intellectual who earns his bread and board in humanities departments.

I must admit that I have grown ever more suspicious of the discourse of "posthumanity" when it seems to name not just my sort of humane skepticism about the progressive ethical and democratizing force of a so-called "species identification" which rarely really seems to function as advertized, but instead seems to name an actual identification by some lucky people who happen to live in technoscientifically rich sectors of societies with some one particular fantasized cyborgic not-human "species," a strong subcultural identification with some one particular construal of "the future" (rather than an open futurity) that functions here-and-now primarily as an affirmation of "not-this," "not-now," "not-you-all."

I think "posthumanist" discourse in this mode -- which often fancies itself a kind of moral doctrine or even an autonomous philosophical viewpoint (not that its enthusiasts really ever address themselves to the range of questions one normally associates with a fully fledged philosophy) -- is usually an expression of straightforward social alienation, and sometimes even an embrace of outright sociopathy (which helps account for the abiding and non-negligible presence of anti-democratic politics of the market libertarian, neoconservative, and neoliberal varieties one finds among so many people who bandy about the "posthuman" term with any regularity in online fora, for example).

"Posthumanism" in this register is yet another mode of moral identification, mobilized as usual by the questionable attribution of "substance" to members (and its denial to non-members). I am distinguishing here, then, the moralizing, substantializing "Post-Humans" -- the ones who claim to identify here and now with what they take to be an "aborning" new species, a prostheticized homo superior -- as against people who act on a diversity (and not necessarily a particularly coherent one) of democratic "posthumanist" convictions -- the ones who share little more than a commitment to progressive forms of technodevelopmental social struggle in which as many of the actual stakeholders to technoscientific change as possible have as much of a real say as possible in the ongoing distribution of technodevelopmental risks, costs, and benefits.

It is crucial to understand that "Post-Humanism" in its moralizing modes is still a profoundly naturalist attitude on my terms, even when it lodges its own attributions of identificatory "substance" at the site of what appears to be anti-naturalizing prostheses. It pays to remember that the distinction of the natural and the artifactual has never been a "metaphysical" one in the first place -- to use a awkward, gawky, and thankfully almost defunct phrasing appropriate to weird philosophical claims of this kind -- but is always, as we say in the halls of the humanities departments, "socially constructed." That is to say (and this is for those eye-rolling stolid he-men in the house who have no truck even with the sensible claims people make when talk turns to "social construction"), the things that get called "artifacts" and, more importantly, which get called attention to in their essential "artificiality" really do change quite a bit over time. And so, that long process of socialization through which what once seemed conspicuously artifactual comes to seem instead "natural" (Mill's feminism, Marx's cherry tree, Wilde's queerness, my own generation's outsourcing of "memory" onto their keyboards, and so on), looks less like ontology and more like familiarization when all is said and done.

And so, in turn, it is only apparently paradoxical that the artifactual (and, in this case, the imaginary, projected artifactual at that) should function as the register of substantial identificatory "naturalness" for some currents of contemporary moral and subcultural identification, among them some "Post-Humanists." Onto whatever projected technodevelopmental scenario the substantial "Post-Humanists" have lodged their identificatory energies -- be it superlatively therapized bodies with exquisite capacities and "infinite" lifespans, be it shiny robot bodies cavorting through outer space, be it spiritualized informational "inhabitations" of networks (and, don't get me wrong, I am edified by these flights of fancy quite as much as the next sf geek) -- here they discern the new "nature," the new emulation of perfection that will bind their moral community in shared affinity as well as in shared disdain for its constitutive outsiders.

Just as: The substantial "Post Humanist" anti-naturalist embrace of "technology in general" will provide no check on the market fundamentalist politics of some of its adherents, even when these politics rely for their intelligibility and force on the absurd "naturalization" of historically contingent, parochial, and elitist social norms, trading protocols, laws and treaties, infrastructural accomplishments and so on, all of which simply get treated as though they arise "spontaneously" out of the tidal forces of "supply and demand" construed as natural and eternal verities. So too: The same substantial "Post Humanist" anti-naturalist embrace of "technology in general" will provide no check on the eugenicist politics of some of its adherents, even when these politics rely for their intelligibility and force on the absurd "naturalization" of historically contingent and parochial standards of "optimal" health or "normal" function or "basic" decency, usually as these are conveyed by priestly authorities (some of them calling themselves "scientific") in the conscpicuous service of incumbent elites.

To the partisans of "natural markets" I recommend the contrary attitude of democratic experimentalism. And to the partisans of "natural optimalities" I recommend the contrary attitude of informed, nonduressed consent. Just so, to the well-meaning and progressive partisans of "natural humanisms" I recommend as more reliable the contrary attitude of a post-humanist skepticism that nudges one into the same embrace of democratic experimentalism and of the scene of informed, nonduressed consent. As for the partisans of substantial "Post Humanisms": I share with you a preoccupation with technodevelopmental change as a force deranging the existential and normative terrains in which worldly humans and their peers struggle to do justice to/with one another in unprecedentedly threatening and promising ways. But when all is said and done it seems to me too often to be the case that yours is a "post-humanism" that keeps what was worst in the humanism you disdain (a moralizing and inadequate naturalism), while jettisoning what is best in it (an exhortation to humaneness). This, I fear, looks to be a fault, and I recommend to you all a timely re-assessment of your convictions.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Aesthetics and Politics Midterm

Curious to know what one of my mid-terms looks like? Here are the five questions I have provided students in my upper-division Berkeley course on postmarxist aesthetics. For the scene of the examination itself, I will select two questions for them to answer from these five. They will have had weeks to think them through by then. Sound fun?

1. Explain how Guy Debord's description of the Spectacle, Walter Benjamin's notion of the Aura, or Naomi Klein's treatment of the Logo (choose one of the three) re-stages Marx's account of the Fetish, then propose a way in which you think the formulation you have chosen extends or subverts Marx's account in some key respect.

2. How does the treatment of the figure of the Spectator differ in Wilde's "Soul of Man Under Socialism" from its treatment in Debord's Society of the Spectacle? What political significance attaches to these different treatments in their respective texts in your view?

3. How do the differing attitudes toward German Expressionism conveyed in Ernst Bloch's "Discussing Expressionism" and in Georg Lukacs's "Realism in the Balance" provide a window onto the larger stakes of their differing views on the relation of aesthetics and politics?

4. Describe the different ways in which Simon Frith and Iain Chambers discover possible forms of political commitment in popular art works, popular art practices, and popular culture. Highlight their differences by showing how their two accounts might be considered as an echo of the debate of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno which began with the publication of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and continued in the exchange of letters published in the volume Aesthetics and Politics.

5. What is appealing about the idea of "ambiguity" in William Empson's literary criticism for Terry Eagleton and in Max Raphael's art criticism for Michele Barrett? How do Eagleton's and Barrett's sympathetic treatments of the work of a key critic from an earlier generation of the Left provide each of them with an occasion to model a form of committed criticism that simultaneously overcomes some deep impasse they discern in traditional Marxist aesthetics (for example, tendencies toward elitism, reductionism, formalism, or the like) while also guarding against some troubling tendency they discern in the criticism of their contemporaries (for example, relativism, antihumanism, complacency, or the like). Does it matter that each seems to admit that the project of their model fails in some key respects?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Today's Random Wilde

The only thing that one really knows about human nature is that it changes. Change is the one quality we can predicate of it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Ooh, Pretty!

Robin's redone hyper-textual ontology, and it's gorgeous. Check it out and don't forget to genuflect in her general direction!

Today's Random Wilde

Time is waste of money.

The Right is Wrong, the Left is Right

I agree strongly with Jerome a Paris -- whose words over at The European Tribune very directly inspired this entry -- that people of the Left need to say these things to ourselves from time to time to hold steady in our view the righteous force and conceptual coherence of our outlook. But, more important, of course, we need to say these things often and out loud to enlist reasonable others to the cause of their own best interest and to demolish the lies of the Right and their incessant appeals to the worst in us all. So, here's my version of his own list of basic Left affirmations. This is why I am a person of the Left, and this is why I think you should be, too.


Whatever an individual person's strength, he is mastered by the strength of the confederacy of the weakest few or the merest machine. Whatever an individual person's genius or discernment, her intelligence is corrected and outpaced by the aggregation of the most everyday perceptions, knowledges, and attentions expressed through a network. Whatever an individual's contribution to the public world, each depends on community with living others, each is bolstered by the incomparable archive of past accomplishments, each is a precarious organism beset by a rich and demanding environment.
Yes, that's right, true prosperity is not a matter of protecting the profits of a few before all else, but first of all a matter of supporting the planetary commons of the environment that sustains all our lives, of expanding the cultural commons that sustains all our minds, and of deepening the commonwealth that sustains all our society.


There has been a struggle throughout all of recorded history between the politics of aristocracy and the politics of democracy, between what has come to be known since the French Revolution as the Right and the Left. Aristocrats are privileged and powerful people who struggle not only to retain and consolidate their position in the world but who imagine that it is right and natural that they should enjoy their status for all time in consequence of their superior capacities and accomplishments. On the side of aristocracy one finds as well the many people who identify with these privileged and powerful people in the unlikely hope to gain something like their lot, in timid fear of their incumbent strength, in shabby contentment to bask in their reflected glories, or in a passivity to their commands that eases the inherent exactions of personal responsibility through robotic obedience. Democrats, on the other side, are those who believe that everyone should have a say in the public decisions that affect them, who believe that the overabundant majority of people who are not under duress, or straining to meet the conditions of day to day survival, or bewildered by the lies and fraud of the unscrupulous are quite competent to acquire and weigh the knowledges and consent to the terms to conduct their lives as they see fit and fair, and who believe that the unsettling diversity and dynamism of modern life is a choir of freedom rather than, as aristocrats would have it, an endless threat to right order.
Yes, that's right, the Left has always been and always will be home to the politics that contributes the measure of progress by which each generation is known to history, the Left will be the force that implements and reforms institutions to better support the scene of informed, nonduressed consent, challenges the public imagination to accommodate ever more different lifeways as peers in progressive struggle, works to create a prosperity shared by all, crusades to banish force and duress from interpersonal affairs, and celebrates the proliferation of knowledges and creations that arise from a free people.


People differ from one another in their situations, in their capacities, in their desires, and either they will interminably fight out their differences with the means at their disposal or they will institute democratic government to reconcile their differences in as fair and nonviolent a manner as possible.
Yes, that's right, democratic government is an incomparable force for good.


Taxes are the way governments fund their activities, and yoking taxes to representation is a way of ensuring that government is democratic rather than yet another instrument of violence through which the strongest exploit the more vulnerable.
Yes, that's right, taxes are indispensable to a civilization that works and a means to ensure that governments remain democratic.


The rich should pay taxes like everybody else and, indeed, in a proportion that reflects the extent to which they disproportionately benefit from the work of civilization, its physical and legal infrastructure, more than everybody else.
Yes, that's right, the rich are not our natural betters, nor our proper rulers, but lucky people who should be eager to pay their fair share in maintaining the civilization on which they depend so deeply for their continued good fortune.


People in democratic societies are free to speak their minds and to peaceably assemble together and to organize together to better their lot. This is especially important for those who lack resources on their own to ensure their true perspectives are heard, their actual contributions respected, and their legitimate needs met.
Yes, that's right, unions and activists and troublemakers are vital to the progress of which we are all beneficiaries.


On the day you die, your thoughts are little likely to turn to the status of your bank accounts, but to the terms on which you maintained and concluded your relationships with loved ones and neighbors. A person would be an abject fool to live life in a way that does not reflect this reality.
Yes, that's right, there really is more to life than making money.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Elizabeth Edwards Responds

Although her words did not hurt us, they may have hurt some in the gay community. We are all sick and tired of... people like Miss Coulter thinking that her use of loaded words about the homosexual community in this country is remotely humorous or appropriate.

Elizabeth Edwards had this to say in response to the ugly brouhaha arising out of the latest successful attempt by Ann Coulter to attract undeserved attention to herself yet again by behaving badly, and predictably, in public. (How it must rankle Coulter to be so cruelly eclipsed of late as the neocon High Harridan by La Malkin, how galling the epic exertions of hatespeech required to lure the mean and menacing gaze of movement conservatism her way these days!)

Edwards points out that
[t]he first reaction in the room at the conservative convention yesterday was a gasp -- a horrified gasp, even -- but it did not last. In a few seconds, those who were not horrified started clapping and drowned out the gasps.

Now it is our turn to drown out the hate. Find a way... not to sit silent in acceptance. It doesn't change until we say we will not be silent when this happens.

Nice to see that Elizabeth Edwards understands what is afoot here, and responds in a truly decent and generous way.

There has been far less of a critical response to Coulter's disgusting performance and the conservative mob's disgusting glee at that performance than attaches to whatever faux scandal de jour conservatives cough up interminably on topics that they couldn't care less about in the first place. But too many of the responses that do pause to point a hesitantly admonitory finger end up adding insult to injury in my view by failing to point out clearly enough that what was so awful in the way Coulter spit "faggot" from her fangs is the way she sought to denigrate all queer folks and not simply the blatantly false ascription of queerness to John Edwards.

One wonders if Coulter's "faggot" friends spit in her cocktails at parties, or if they are all too joyously joined at the hip in their shared sacred membership in the "haves and have-mores" contingent in the Class War to give a damn about such fripperies.