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

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Futurological Identity Politics and Its Problems

There were some interesting objections raised by "JM" over on Giulio Prisco's blog in the ongoing "Superlativity" discussion taking place there. This post is adapted from part of that exchange.
[C]onsider ["transhumanism"] a “Gay Rights movement” for sorts of people who don’t (or who possess characteristics which do not) exist yet. The problem, of course, [is]—who needs a Gay Rights movement if there’s never been anybody of homosexual orientation before?

I definitely agree that this is what "transhumanism," so-called, is up to. And I strongly disapprove of that.

Identity politics are organized by the complementary gestures of identification (with those with whom one identifies, “we") and crucially of dis-identification ("they"): Every “we” has what deconstruction terms the “constitutive outside” on which it depends for its sense.

I disapprove of the politics of identification in general, because it seems to me politics properly so-called is about the ongoing contingent reconciliation of a diversity of stakeholders who share the world, many of whom are “theys” rather than “we’s” in the relevant sense.

I prefer to consign identification/dis-identification to the field of the moral (from mores, what Sellars would call “we intentions"), and strongly distinguish the pleasures and costs of moral membership from those of political participation.

But, setting all that to the side for a moment, a "futurological" identity politics of the kind folks like the so-called "transhumanists" or "Singularitarians" or "Extropians" or "libertechians" or "Upwingers" or "Dynamists" and so on engage in seems especially troubling to my way of thinking these things.

That is because "futurological" identification is actually performing a double dis-identification: On the one hand, there is already the dis-identification of so-called “post-human” beings (NB: on some idealized construal impossibly ascertained from the present pre-post-human vantage) as distinguished from those beings who fail to "pass muster" on the terms of this construal, with all the anti-democratizing exclusivity that this always entails. But, in some ways even worse, in this "futurological" form there is a second dis-identification in the present itself from those with whom one shares the world from this pre-post-human vantage, a dis-identification with the actually existing field of the political (politics is contestation in an open present aspiring in the direction of futurity) for an idealized field assigned the status of “the future.”

And note that "the future" of futurological identity politics is always preceded by the definite article to indicate its essential closedness, its idealization, against open futures as the open presents to come, emerging out of this open present.

(As it happens, I think that no small amount of this futurological discourse is really -- as is just as true of science fiction literature, corporate futurist "non-fiction" and marketing literature -- more an allegorical or symptomatic engagement with disavowed complexities in the present. And this means that the dis-identifications in futurological identity politics may be functionally triple, even: first, dis-identifying with present politics for "the future," so-called, second, dis-identifying with futural "outsiders" who fail to "pass muster," but also, third, stealthy dis-identification with disdained lifeways and locations in contemporary culture: This is why bioconservatives futurological identity politics often functions as a surrogate racist, sexist, anti-gay politics in the present, as well as why "transhumanist" futurological identity politics often functions as an "apolitical" but anti-democratizing technocratic politics or as an anti-intellectual and especially anti-"humanities" politics in the present, not to mention its tendencies to endorse prevailing terms of global development with reactionary implications and to endorse reductive understandings of an "optimality" that trumps consent and diversity as values, also with reactionary implications.)

As I argue elsewhere, it seems to me to be the case that either people are already post-human (in the sense that we no longer expect a humanist meta-narrative of species solidarity to deliver universal rights, having learned the hard way that this never pans out but functions as an alibi for an anti-democratic politics in which "exemplary" humans exploit and otherwise violate "abject" humans) or we never will be. This is an important insight to have, but it is distorted by transhumanists and any other comparably facile assimilations of an aspirational post-humanist politics of secular consensual democratic planetary multiculture into an advocacy for some particular construal of a post-human futural "species" standing in some definitive relation to a marginal sub(cult)ural movement of “transhuman” believers here and now.
Dale, you once indicated that if transhumanism were to be denatured of its superlativity and hyperbole, that it would be little more than standard liberal democratic, pluralistic fare—I agree wholeheartedly, but there’s a rock (the disparity between reality and principle of transhumanist aspirations) and a hard place (the clannish tendency of people to self-organise into social classes according to shared perceptual identities) which must be overcome first.

Draining "transhumanism" of its superlativity and sub(cult)ural substance it would immediately vanish altogether as a phenomenon as far as I can tell.

The technoscientifically literate advocacy of secular consensual democratic planetary multiculture is more or less the emerging technoprogressive mainstream. Technoprogressive education, agitation, and organizing is just a matter of democratizing technodevelopmental social struggle. Technoprogressive perspectives, campaigns, aspirations are not monolithic enough or unique enough to foster tribal identification or justify tribal dis-identification.

One is very likely retroactively to discern anti-democratic tendencies or implications in one's own conduct or in that of one's allies and close fellows otherwise, but the struggle for democracy, social justice, emancipation goes on. The point is to work to distribute the costs, risks, and benefits of technoscientific change as fairly and freely as one can by the lights of the actual diversity of stakeholders to that change, not to find one's way to belonging in a community of affiliation.

All the Robot Cult nonsense is entirely beside the point if what one wants is just to facilitate technoprogressive outcomes.
From the form of your debating, I find it hard to imagine that you are an educator. Debates, useful ones at any rate, are predicated upon a mutual sphere of agreed upon presumptions, which strikes me as conspicuously absent here.

Well, you know, I don’t blog for the same reasons I teach. When I teach I am actually being paid to treat every student equally and I am happy to do so. The community of the classroom is united by our shared engagement with a constellation of texts, our shared commitment to understand and to connect our emerging understanding to our lives outside that community. The fact is that everybody is ignorant, everybody is mistaken, and everybody always has the capacity to learn more. That is what is so beautiful about the pedagogical scene. Online, though, I am clarifying my own views through contestation, or just blowing off steam in the face of outrageous contemporary injustice and irrationality, or, you know, making polemical cases in the face of urgent problems of various kinds. I tend to argue online with people with whom I disagree or to focus on areas of disagreement with people with whom I more generally agree. This is because that’s what I learn from most, because that’s the place that is most likely to overturn my settled convictions. I think it is probably very difficult to imagine my teaching practice from observing my blogging practice, and vice versa.

1 comment:

jfehlinger said...

> [C]onsider ["transhumanism"] a “Gay Rights movement” for sorts
> of people who don’t (or who possess characteristics which do not)
> exist yet. The problem, of course, [is]—who needs a Gay Rights
> movement if there’s never been anybody of homosexual orientation
> before?

This metaphor really pisses me off.

My strong impression of the entire >Hist community is that, in
the aggregate, they're not too keen on queers and their problems.
They may not be fulminating about the "homosexual agenda"
like the Christian Right, but at best they think that any
political agitation on behalf of such unpopular minorities
is a distraction from the "important" goal of getting to
robot-godhood ASAP. This "benign" neglect goes for ethnic
and religious minorities in this country, too, as well as
for women. In other words, it's very congenial to right-wing

At worst, there are certainly >Hists who don't like faggots,
and who get to tip their hands occasionally without the
danger of being called on it by their >Hist compadres.

No, forget >Hism as **any** kind of "rights movement." If
you've got the shitty end of some stick, the >Hists will simply
tell you that when the Robot God ascends his heavenly throne,
you'll get your Christmas presents too, if just a little
bit later than everybody else. Sound familiar?

Preacher preaching love like vengeance
Preaching love like hate
Calling for large donations
Promising estates
Rolling lawns and angel bands
Behind the pearly gates
He will have his in this life, but
Yours'll have to wait

He's immaculately tax free. . .

-- Joni Mitchell