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

Friday, December 21, 2012

"Is Transhumanism Racist?"

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot, "Black Guy From the Future Past" has this to say:
Hello Dale. Is transhumanism racist? I've been reading your blog and you continually make reference to how most futurists tend to be white. Also, many scientific fields are dominated by white people, more specifically white males. How does this skew ideas about the "future". I await your response. Thank you. (BTW I am that rare black guy who has encountered transhumanist ideas on the net and have noticed the alarming lack of representation of other races, cultures and their ideas)
Is transhumanism racist? Since there are unquestionably transhumanist-identified people who are conscientiously anti-racist anything like an affirmative answer by me will provoke the usual howls about my hostile unfair ad hominem attacks. As always, one needs to recall at the outset that one can benefit from racist legacies or mobilize racist discourses without necessarily affirming racist beliefs, indeed while earnestly affirming anti-racist ones, and so recognizing the force of racism is often a matter of exposing structural effects rather than making accusations of unalloyed bigotry.

Still, as you mention in your comment, as a subculture the transhumanoids and other sub(cult)ural futurologists are relentlessly white, male, and privileged folks, and I do think their assumptions, aspirations, and discourse reflect that demographic reality.

For as long as I've been studying them, this non-representativeness has occasionally provoked nervous efforts at "outreach" which inevitably produce little change, and to the extent that "outreach" as an organizational operation aimed at diversity is always a matter of "us" (North Atlantic upperclass-identified white males) "reaching out" from where "we" are to "them" (the Ladies, the Blacks, the Poors, the Olds, etc.), of course it structurally replicates the terms of exclusion in the very gesture of welcoming, so I am not surprised that these inept efforts tend to go unrewarded. Transhumanoids will probably point to their latest efforts to build missionary "chapters" in the "third world" or "developing countries" (I probably don't need to tell you that describing overexploited regions of the world as if they were an alien "third" world or as if they are parts of the world that have not yet "attained" presumably supreme western developmental standards in the first place are inherently colonialist/ racist) as evidence belying their endless futurological white penis parade, but I daresay the historical precedents/ analogies of racist "civilizing missions" are too obvious to require spelling out here. Usually, the better, more anxious transhumanoids (of whom there are not really very many as far as I can see) will trot out photogenic links to afro-futurist aesthetics occasionally -- Sun Ra and Octavia Butler come up a lot, and after all, Sun Ra and Octavia Butler ARE fabulous -- but the exceptions here scream out the rule to my ears, especially when they remain so few, so static, so defensive.

I mean, there are some elephants in this room, aren't there? Like the fact that transhumanism in its sanewashing efforts at academic and media respectability has had a wee bit of trouble with links cropping up to straight-up neo-Nazi white-power sites online, with a distressing tendency to be a place where explicitly racist Bell Curve nonsense is defended, with a fatal susceptibility to evopsycho bio-reductionist nonsense more generally -- again, much of that being an endless occasion for sexists and racists to air their sexism and racism with a pseudo-scientific patina. This susceptibility to evopsycho is a problem shared across digital-fixated subcultures and discourses as an effect of their aversion to materiality and coping with that aversion through a (false) equation of the digital with the spiritual conjoined to a (false) refiguration of evolutionary biology as an algorithmic optimization randomly exploring an abstract "problem space."

Is such "digital-utopian" disdain of "meat bodies" racist? Well, it need not be on its face, certainly, but given the whiteness of these subcultures and of the "reason" qua rage for order with which they so often identify, and given the distressing tendency of race to function precisely as a discourse producing bodies raced qua "the bodily" as such -- that is to say, as the epidermalized body, the muscularized body, the body as bestialized, infantilized, precivilized atavism, the body as seat of irrational and threatening passions, and on and on -- one doesn't have to look very hard to find all sorts of racist symptoms cropping up in these precincts, even among the, er, nicest people.

And, oh yes, many transhumanists explicitly champion eugenics. No racism to see here, folks! Pretty much all transhumanists, as a matter of their very definition qua transhumanists, defend an "enhancement" discourse that stealths its eugenicism by pretending to advocate an "inclusive" "access" to parochial norms pretended in turn to name "neutral" markers of "capacity" or "optimality," blissfully unaware of all the racism and sexism and imperialism so many of them are letting in through the back door.

To the extent that transhumanism styles itself a humanism at all, of course, one would hope it tries to be vigilant in the aftermath of a long humanist history in which a presumably universal humanity named only a minority of actually living humans and universal human rights were enjoyed by that minority usually at the expense of other actually living humans, a project organized around the figure of a "human race" often deeply indebted to racist legacies for its categories and institutions. At least some academic variations of the "post-human" -- with which the transhuman is sometimes identified by observers, possibly too glibly -- are indebted to Fanonian ambivalence about the humanist project, at once recognizing its racist legacy but also demanding it live up to its universalism in a way that facilitates anti-racism.

I would like to say that the transhumanoids partake in that tradition -- but I can't say I have seen much inclination in any of them even to read Fanon, let alone take up such a nuanced discourse on humanism. More usual are the most facile imaginable re-enactments of racist imperialism, as when non-human animals are refigured in their exclusion from the human race as always only suffering lack in ways that demand the ethical response of techno-transcendently re-writing them in the image of parochially-imagined human conformity and then declaring this flabbergasting chauvinist aspiration uplift. Is transhumanism racist? I leave that to the reader to decide.


jimf said...

> . . .assumptions, aspirations, and discourse. . .

The logic is simple. The Way Ahead will be discovered, cleared,
and paved by the tiny handful of people with the smarts, power,
and money to do so. Most of those people will be white, male,
and wealthy (and probably unapologetic Republicans who are at
heart Ayn Rand fans).

The other 99.99999% of humans (including most people of color,
inhabitants of the Third World, and women) simply do not matter.
They are as irrelevant to the Bright Shining Future as the
99.9% of living species that have gone extinct in the history
of life on earth.

To tender-heartedly listen to them (the irrelevant 99.99999%)
begging for equal consideration, or even to be distracted by
their claims to basic minimum sustenance, is to lose sight
of the Important Things (things that will lead to Artificial
Intelligence, Nanotechnology, Life Extension [for the .0000001%
who can actually make good use of it], etc.).

> . . .their endless futurological white penis parade. . .

Well, in the future, they'll have turned blue.

jollyspaniard said...

I wouldn't be quick to say that a lot of scientific fields are dominated by white people. That may be true of the USA but there's a heck of a lot of research being done in Asia nowadays, it doesn't get much press in the western media but it's happening.

Black guy from the future past said...

Thank you Dale. This article is so well written and so dense, I will have to read it at least three times. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my inquiry. It is quite alarming indeed to see the parallels between racism and transhumanism, in how transhumanists literally aspire to make everything so "neat", "clean", "orderly", homogenized...dare I say "white" (using it in the most abstract sense). Thank you.

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks! Sorry about the denseness -- I teach a lot of postcolonial, anti-racist, and environmental justice material in my critical theory courses for undergraduates and so there's always a lot of stuff packed into the writing on those occasions when my blogging and teaching happen to co-incide a bit (which is rarer than you might think).

Anonymous said...

Transhumanist thinking has been used to justify anti-semitism in the past. It's a little odd since Jews are disproportionately represented among transhumanist authority figures -- Yudkowsky, Goertel, and Kurzweil, to name three off the top of my head. It has also been used to justify white power ideologies. Many things that aren't racist have been warped into the service of racism, so the mere fact that it could be used to justify racist ideology doesn't seem to me to dispose of the issue. The lone black transhumanist of any note, Vladimir De Thezier, quit the club years ago. De Thezier is/was a Haitian-Canadian, and I don't believe any of his reasons for quitting transhumanism involved anything like racism. He'd be the person to ask though, having been directly in a position to have experienced any actual (rather than theoretical) transhumanist racism first-hand.

Dale Carrico said...

As I said in the piece, "racism is often a matter of exposing structural effects rather than making accusations of unalloyed bigotry." I do think it's hard not to be to perplexed, to say the least, at the ongoing lack of any real diversity among the "go-to" transhumanist-identified figures decade after decade, especially as the Robot Cult "goes global." The deep eugenicist logic of "enhancement" discourse and the rather facile conception of the humanism within the transhumanist imaginary go some way to accounting for this, to my way of thinking.

jimf said...

> The lone black transhumanist of any note, Vladimir De Thezier,
> quit the club years ago.

Well, I don't really know who's considered a "transhumanist of note"
(other than the most obvious cases), but there is also
Kennita Watson, who is both black and female.

De Thezier used to comment on this blog, but I haven't noticed
him around here in a long time, years now I think.