I'll say a few more comparatively generous things by way of conclusion at the end, but first I am a critic and I criticize. I must say, I was interested to notice how interested R.U. Sirius seemed to be in having folks not notice the extent of his connection to the transhumanist sect of techno-transcendentalist robocultism. After ending his stint as editor of h+ magazine (h+ stands for humanity-plus, which in turn is the PR repackaging of the transhumanist term itself -- and if you didn't know that already or question any of that, many transhumanoids would no doubt deem you humanity-minus), R.U. insinuates that he has somewhat lost touch with the many fleeting and competing sub(cult)ural strands of "the transhumanist movement." He also takes great care to express dissatisfaction with what he regards as the reactionary politics and Randroidal stylings of Zoltan Istvan, who he seems to consider a rather looming recent mouthpiece for transhumanism more generally and perhaps the symptom of a worrying turn.
I sympathize with the judgment that it is no easy thing to keep up with all the wacky twists and turns of robocultism and even harder to justify the effort given the marginality and imbecility of so much of it. And needless to say I quite agree that all these transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, digi-utopians, nano-cornucopiasts, geo-engineers, and so on are indulging and elaborating an essentially reactionary ideology, and some of them are well-funded and organized enough to do real damage in the world. None of this is the least bit new, however, and R.U. Sirius, while he may never have endorsed any of this always infantile and usually reactionary nonsense in an explicit or unqualified form, has been up to his neck in this stuff for as long as anybody else.
The two instances that strike me as most relevant to my point are responses R.U. Sirius published in answer to earlier critiques of the reactionary politics of transhumanism, Annalee Newitz' Extropian Trash from 2004, and Charlie Stross' Deconstructing Our Future from 2012.
First, in response to the Newitz piece, R.U. Sirius (and quite serious he seems to be), said the following (I found this transcript in an old Cyborg Democracy archive, and would be pleased if anybody has a better or more substantial reference):
NEOFILES: I was a little surprised by your take on transhumanism. Sure, the sensibilities that seem to accompany a lot of this is sort of Heinleinian “Amazing Stories” ubergeek; not particularly sly or post-punk. But I would expect you to be more aligned with James Hughes and his lefty-oriented “Democratic Transhumanism” (he links to you) than to just sort of nay-say longevity, bio-enhancement, and all these areas of intrigue, given your previous radical pro-tech “biopunk” writings. It seems to me that once you say “yeah”! to biopunk -- decentralized, independent noodling with life forms … biology (presumably including our own) … you’re about 99.9% of the way to a transhumanist perspective (and in some ways, beyond it). I mean, we’re talking TRANS here, right? TRANShumanity, TRANSexuality (that’s all about self enhancement too. So why is this one’s challenge to biological destiny hip and trendy and the other one gauche?) Recontextualizations, reconfigurations, moving into zones of uncertainty where positive mutation might occur: this is all in the spirit of the “Cyborg Manifesto,” no?This paragraph red-lights the whole control board for me, and so let me just make a few almost random critical interventions at a run, starting at the end and working my way to the beginning. First, I think it is a profound misreading of Haraway's "Manifesto for Cyborgs," to describe its "spirit" as the least bit allied to faith-based futurology and hyper-consumerist gizmo-fetishism. In a later interview published as the final chapter of The Haraway Reader (Routledge, 2004) she says all you need to know about the loose ascription R.U. Sirius is proposing here:
There were some who regarded it [The Cyborg Manifesto] as… promoting a kind of blissed-out, techno-sublime euphoria. Those readers completely failed to see the critique. They would read things that for me are highly ironic and angry… they would read these things… as if I was embracing and affirming what I am describing with barely restrained fury… I have had people, like Wired Magazine readers, interviewing and writing about the Cyborg Manifesto from what I see as a very blissed-out, techno-sublime position.I have similar objections to his free associational leap from "biopunk" to what he calls a "radical pro-tech" position. Quite apart from the fact that there are too many differences that make a difference among the capacities and applications of the events and artifacts that get called "tech" for it to make any kind of sense to be monolithically either "pro" or "con" that whole mess and then go on to describe such an utterly confused state of mind as in any sense a "radical" one, the fact is that "biopunk" as a discourse, a literary genre, and a cultural site is enormously critical and skeptical and nuanced in ways all his glib talk here disavows utterly. I taught a course at Berkeley years ago about bioethical discourse and biopunk literature (the syllabus is still available here, the bioethical articles and op-eds we read are not included, unfortunately, since they were always assigned one week in advance because I tried to make them as topical as possible and they often were published just days or weeks before we read them in the course itself), and it seems to me that the vitality of biopunk is indeed allied to the spirit of Haraway's manifesto, in ways that R.U. Sirius is utterly missing here and encouraging others to miss at the same time. I do not regard this as innocent in one both so knowledgeable and aware. Further, I regard his cheerleading of the essentially eugenicist project of transhumanist "enhancement" as terribly wrongheaded and his effort to repackage it as appealingly "pro-choice" through a glib slippage of transhuman optimally-profitable people-engineering into a celebration of transsexual queerness very familiar and very pernicious indeed.
For the purposes of the argument at hand, though, all I need to point out is that R.U. Sirius was pushing back in 2004 against a critique of the very kind R.U. Sirius in 2014 now implies is second nature to him, and also that he has been affiliating with transhumanism more insistently (and with a clearly fine-grained awareness of strands and positions and figures in that discourse and movement, and this already years and years ago) than his cavalier dismissals now would imply.
In his more recent response to Charles Stross' critique of reactionary transhumanism he wrote:
I have lately tried to stay away from calling myself a transhumanist largely because I’m intimate with the unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that often shakes my brain and therefore resist labels. But I also like to steer clear because people who don’t self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who “the transhumanists” are. And every now and then, a fairly predictable group of thinkers… some of them friends of mine… beat the straw out of their conception of transhumanism. They give it a damn good thrashing. Now, if these folks were criticizing some tendencies within some prominent self-identified transhumanist circles, they’d often be on target. But what we get from them is something akin to some people attacking atheism in the 1960s based on the prominence of Madeline O’Hair and Ayn Rand.When he writes that some have beaten the straw out of transhumanism he links to Stross' critique directly. The phrase suggests that Stross' piece is indulging in the torching of straw men. This is hard to reconcile with his admission in the next sentence that there are in fact plenty of transhumanists, even "prominent" transhumanists, even whole transhumanist "circles" for whom the critique is in point. That's a lot of substance for straw.
What makes R.U. Sirius squeamish here is that he identifies transhumanism with an "unpredictable and indescribable iconoclasm that… resist[s] labels." But is it really true that transhumanism is so unpredictable and indescribable? For whatever it is worth, by far the most widely read piece I've ever written is The Unbearable Stasis of Accelerating Change in which I bemoan precisely the robotic predictability and painful obviousness (yeah, it's describable) of transhumanist discourse. It also just happens that it was an affirmation of this piece of mine which occasioned the Stross critique which provoked R.U. Sirius' response. That piece of mine was also mentioned and linked by the Mindful Cyborgs show and was part of the conversation I am talking about now.
It is very hard to make sense of R.U. Sirius' assertion that transhumanism in the sense that interests him "resists labels." Transhumanism is an -ism, after all, and inter-sectarian squabbles among the futurological faithful inevitably take the form of a ramification of labels with which the partisans identify with an energy hard to square with the marginal stakes of the whole business given the number of folks directly involved (but this sort of thing is of course quite familiar in cultic ideological formations and defensive fandoms), singularitarian-ISM, immortal-ISM, cosm-ISM, liberal eugenic-ISM, neoreaction-ISM, and on and on and on.
In the very paragraph in which he declares transhumanists label-averse he also refers to the labeling practices of "self-identified" transhumanists, going so far as to say that "people who don't self-identify with the label have a lot of misconceptions about who 'the transhumanists' are," which implies that the transhumanists are indeed enough of something that people can have misconceptions about them but also that the only people who might be qualified to criticize transhumanism self-identify as transhumanist and hence are little likely to do so -- now isn't THAT convenient? Look, is transhumanism a discourse or isn't it? Is it an ideology or isn't it? Is it a movement or isn't it? There are people who are calling themselves transhumanists who seem to mean something by that and who expect others to know what they mean when they do so. There are transhumanist membership organizations with actual members, actual subscribers, actual participants. To say that all the different instances subsumed under a concept exhibit differences is to state a truism, but if you choose a label the very legibility conferred by the choice also exposes you to scrutiny. One can delineate the logical, citational, and figurative associations playing out in an ideology, in a discourse, in a constellation of cultural practices without claiming that only those associations are at hand, or that they are always on exhibition, or that all of them are even intended by those who are caught up in them. If there are people who are represented by transhumanism this implies that transhumanism has a representativeness the legibility of which is available to everybody and with which everybody can come to terms as they see fit -- including those who would see all this critically.
If transhumanists can identify as such and describe canons of texts and stand in organizational relations to one another then non-transhumanists can identify others as such and analyze these texts and delineate these relations in ways the transhumanists can like or not like. If transhumanists want to dismiss criticism as hate speech (something I am accused of quite a bit, and I think R.U. Sirius is leveling a mild form of the same accusation at Stross) then transhumanism cannot be a space of argumentation or publicity or change but is simply a sterile separatist subculture. That's fine, as far as it goes -- I am the last one to deny anybody their private perfections so long as they aren't harming anybody else -- but transhumanism and its cousin futurological sects are endlessly offering themselves up to public scrutiny, pretending to be engaging in scientific practice and serious policy deliberation. They cannot have it both ways. And, I'm afraid that goes for R.U. Sirius as well.
Again, as I said, I have always wanted to like R.U. Sirius. He makes me laugh, and not at him but with him as often as not. It isn't easy trying to be a counter-culture documentarian, especially one who, like Barthes, "claims to live to the full the contradiction of my times, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth." The Academy's authorities don't easily attach their credentials or their life-sustaining funding to this kind of work. Taste and tastelessness collide in it in ways that make academics nervous for their job titles. V. Vale is someone who has done indispensable work in this area, which is not to deny the occupational hazard of the occasional catastrophic critical misfire in that body of work. R.U. Sirius is a lot like that, too: vacuuming up all that gorgeous lifeway variation and marginal creative expressivity in that free associational way of his can yield deeply problematic undercriticalities and vacuities amid the buried treasure chests. Since R.U. Sirius is not just an archivist but also a kind of impresario of "cybercultures" -- given to pranks and performances -- there is a real seat-of-the-pants improvisational hustling going on in many of his enterprises. Like the head of an itinerate theater troupe in the nineteenth century bringing beauty and laughs to the yokels always on the brink of starvation or riot, R.U. Sirius doesn't always have the time or patience for what passes for legitimacy in official public culture. That critical intervention with a beat you can dance to, Mondo Vanilli, a joyous javelin straight to the heart and hardon of bad-faith authenticity performance in the entertainment industry, is a marvelous case in point. In this, he has my sympathies even when I cannot help but criticize his efforts here and there. I'm a fat fifty year old faggot socialist-feminist adjunct teaching critical theory and technoscience studies at a San Francisco art school, I know all about intellectual hustling.
The special danger of R.U. Sirius' position is that he is hustling in a sea of hustlers. There is an ominously tight connection of futurology with fraud. Even in its blandest and most prevalent forms, futurological imagery suffuses the marketing and promotional promises of consumer advertising (full of models in lab coats and sci-fi CGI peddling boner pills and anti-aging kremes) seducing us into unsustainable conformist individualism and official neoliberal think-tanks offering up "globalizing" "developmental" rationalizations for elite-incumbent corporate-militarist exploitation and violence. And at its gaudy extremes in the various robocultic sects of techno-transcendentalist futurological movements, the indulgence in outright pseudo-science and death-denialism and existential fear-mongering takes the con-artistry and fraud to evangelical heights (about these movements, you can read what everybody reads of mine if they read anything, the Superlative Futurology pieces in The Condensed Critique of Transhumanism).
The Future of futurology was born in the cradle of market futures, and there is a kinship between think-tank scenario spinners for the Pentagon and writers of best-sellers promising to provide the magic formula for Wall Street success. But true success in such spaces always finally depends on the fraud and corruption of insider knowledge and always comes at the expense of majorities of outsiders. Plutocracy and militarism are built into The Future at the ground level. The Future is always ultimately about the amplification of the status quo re-packaged for the masses as progress, disruption, and accelerating change. In this, The Future is crucially to be distinguished from the open futurity inhering in the present emerging into the next-present in consequence of the ineradicable diversity of its stakeholders (I make this argument most clearly in the Existenz piece, Futurological Discourses and Posthuman Terrains).
There is always a bit of credential-fluffing and con-artistry in counter-culture. And righteously so! since all culture is multiculture and since culture is a living thing, not a dead specimen preserved under glass, countercultural opportunisms and debaucheries are indispensably invigorating in their totality (if not always in their specificity), and also since turnabout is fair play. There is nonetheless a real danger that a focus on the countercultural forces futurism promises distracts from the reactionary forces futurology endorses, and the countercultural hustler enables the reactionary hustle of pseudo-science and uncritical True Belief and corporate-militarist policymaking. While I do not think this is R.U. Sirius' serious intention, I do think this is too often the result of his undercritical embrace of transhumanist discourses and sub(cult)ures. And whether or not he has thought this through enough for it to represent a fully-fledged intention his apologia for transhumanists and against critiques of their reactionary entailments don't look innocent to me whatever his intentions.