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

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Don't Be Too Quick To Identify Transhumanist Politics With Transsexual Politics

Over on io9's Observation Deck Irae Northpole proposes that "Trans People Are Transhumanists":
When people talk about transhumanism I like to joke trans people have been on the forefront of transhumanism for the last century for the sake of our own lives and survival. Biology isn't Destiny. Th[ere are]... parallels between cyborgs and trans people and their treatment by others. Unfortunately I don't have a laser eye yet but maybe some day. I like Zinnia Jones' view that you can see changes to your body through transitioning as upgrades... So whether you are pondering the future of humanity or just hating on trans people while you watch or read your favorite sci fi, give this a thought. And remember: Resistance is futile.
This has been a periodically recurring observation in and of transhumanoid sub(cult)ure politics over the years, and of course it is easy to see why. Frankly, in early writing of mine I made some similar claims, as witness: Technology Is Making Queers Of Us All. Later I began to have serious doubts and sounded serious warnings about any too glib identification of transpolitics and transhumanoid identity politics, for example, in this brief comment: Transhuman Transsex.

Whatever the initial intuitive appeal of the connection, it is hard to read actual transhumanists on feminist and genderqueer topics and hold fast to the sense that it is a connection that takes us to genuinely emancipatory queer places. Three quick examples of what I mean are elaborated in "Post Gender" Or Gender Poets, in which I critique George Dvorsky's so-called "post-gender" politics, and also in Robot Cultist Thinks There's Something Revolutionary About A Skeletally Thin "Androgynous" White Guy Being A Successful Model, which I suppose is pretty self-explanatory from the title, and also Anarcho-Anti-Sexist Robot Cultist Decides Feminism Is Too Hard, Declares Himself A Robot, which, come to think of it, is pretty self-explanatory from its title as well. Also relevant, from a slightly different angle of view, is Calling Bullshit on the "World's First Cyborg Hate Crime".

Northpole already raises a host of key issues about political problems of poverty and healthcare access and (I am reading into eir piece a bit) the stratification of the field of prosthetic self-determination by racist, sexist, heterosexist, cissexist norms and forms. It isn't clear to me that ey has quite grasped the extent to which these are also discursive and practical stratifications playing out in transhumanist/singularitarian subcultures as well, even those that might seem superficially sympathetic (even earnestly so) to queer interventions.

But, look, far too many transhumanoids, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, and so on across the Robot Cult archipelago reveal distressing tendencies to loathing of the aging, vulnerable, desiring "meat" bodies and brains in which human lifeways and intelligence are actually incarnated, far too many transhumanoids still defend The Bell Curve to this day and all the rest of those evodevo rationalizations for the most awful racist patriarchal nonsense imaginable, far too many digi-utopians and upload fantasists disdain the material carrier on which all information is always instantiated giving way to weird Cartesian spiritualizations of a cyberspace that is in fact coal-powered and accessed on toxic devices manufactured by exploited wage slaves in the material world, far too many futurological subcultures amount to uncritical celebrity tech-ceo PR operations and gizmo-fetishizing consumer fandoms full of techbros and male guru wannabes scratching around tinpot fiefdoms over territory, far too many futurological AI-deadenders are devoted to flabbergasting (phal)logocentric reductionisms of the complexities of the dynamic lived shared world... and the simple truth is that polycultural lifeway-celebrating woman-positive queer-positive sex-positive politically-organized freedom fighters really shouldn't ignore, evade, deny, or wish all that crazy ugly retro-futurological stuff away just for the sake of a shared trans- prefix.

Even in the brief passage I quoted above I am troubled by the ways futurological assumptions and aspirations may be skewing Northpole's articulation of transpolitics: To figure transitions as "upgrades" risks the usual eugenic transhumanoid moralism about changing/chosen prosthetic/cultural performances, tapping into a host of instrumentalizing, performance-enhancing, falsely naturalized norms that may stealth reactionary assumptions and aspirations into transpolitics. To embrace a "pro-technology politics" always first demands the prior politics of assigning to some but not all artifice the status of the "technological" while usually uncritically naturalizing other artifice: Never forget that cissexual presumption is a technique, subversive queer mis-citations of heteronorms are also techniques, queer polycultures imbricated in demanding (even lethal) histories and yet at once siting unpredictable (even emancipatory) improvisations are all prosthetic, all culture is prosthetic. To say the least, queer politics that affords and celebrates wanted transsexual prosthetic self-creation must at once be a queer politics that attends and respects resistance to unwanted (or not yet known to be wanted) intersex prosthetic self-creation. What counts as "technology" and as its agentic assumption will differ in these among many other instances of queer lifeways, and techno-determinist, techno-reductionist, techno-fetishizing, techno-transcendentalizing futurologies don't exactly have a very good track record when it comes to these urgent nuances in their discourses and practices. Judith Butler's Undoing Gender and Gayle Salamon's Assuming a Body: Transgender and the Rhetorics of Materiality are better places to look for the master's tools we make our own the better to dismantle the master's house with them.

Even granting the humorous intent of the closing remark, it is important to recall just how often futurological narratives of technodevelopmental change take on the coloration of techno-triumphalist variations of "manifest destiny," in which technology inevitably (even "naturally") progresses, accelerates, converges, or what have you onto emancipatory or even transcendental outcomes. But of course, progress only happens because people educate, agitate, organize, legislate to make it happen. Neither progress nor resistance is futile in the least. Again, I don't like to be a stick in the mud all the time: I too am thrilled by the queer feminist polyculture politics of, say, Janelle Monae's emancipatory Android imagery -- but it is crucial to remember that for Monae the android is a figure in which reactionary otherings of people of color, poor folks, women, and queers are subsumed in a single unifying allegory of intrumentalized infrahuman exploitation, solidarity, and resistance, her afro-futurist frames are testaments to both suffering and creativity in the present, comments on resources for hope and change in the here and now, not escapist speculations or futurological predictions.

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