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

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Transhumanists Appoint Themselves Master Defenders of "The Enlightenment"

Some of the sub(cult)ural techno-utopians who call themselves "transhumanists" seem to have adopted lately, and ever more stridently, the line that they represent some kind of key bastion in the defense of what they are calling "The Enlightenment."

This move is, I suppose, commonplace enough for cultists of a particular stripe (one also finds this embarrassing delusion among many of the True Believers in the "Objectivism" of the terminally awful Ayn Rand, for example), that I guess I should have expected it among the transhumanists as well eventually.

While I suppose it is unobjectionable enough, in a general sort of way, to say that all social struggle to make our world more democratic, more consensual, more equitable, more diverse, more self-critical, more educated, more open, more peaceful and so on constitutes a struggle of Enlightenment against more ignorant, incumbent, faithful, authoritarian forces, I don't really agree that it makes much sense at all to try to simplify such a richly shifting and complex constellation of struggles into a few pat doctrines or slogans that could cash out in a fantasy of a monolithic Us vs. Them squaring off over "Reason" on History's Chessboard.

It should not be necessary to say, but "The Enlightenment" is the farthest thing from a monolith, or some singular unitary doctrine readily encompassed by an official "manifesto," or anything remotely so facile as that. Enlightenment has been and remains to this day an enormously rich and ramifying discourse, with many contrary tendencies and emphases, with a long history containing many unexpected developmental vicissitudes from figure to figure, nation to nation, era to era.

The critical projects of Sade, Kant, Mill, Marx, Freud, Foucault, and Rorty (among countless, countless others) could all be readily characterized as taking Enlightenment projects right to the center of their most fervent and animating concern. But it is hard to imagine polemical partisans for "Enlightenment" in the more sloganeering variations beloved of marginal membership organizations seeking to put more asses in their pews and more money in their collection plates being particularly well-pleased to take this range of positions into account in their earnest handwaving on the subject.

The idea of a simple straightforward struggle "for" and "against" some overgeneralized and highly personalized construal of "The Enlightenment" seems to me an idea almost as idiotic as American Chistianists fighting a non-existent War on Christmas. Now, don't sputter into your coffee mugs just yet, all you earnest Robot Warriors for "Reason." None of this is to deny the obviously pernicious effects undermining our efforts to solve shared problems and share lifeways openly with one another due to the workings of deliberate deception, ignorance, uncritical thinking, unquestioned faith in authorities and incumbency, authoritarian and reactionary politics and so on.

But it is one thing to point to the irrationality of a particular claim, tendency, movement, or discourse, or to point to the pernicious disrespect, misuse, or distortion of consensus science by incumbent interests who selectively disapprove of warranted scientific results at their convenience, and so on. And yet it is quite another thing to fancy oneself as bolstering, through one's resistance to particular instances like these, some more vast historical abstraction called "Reason" or "Enlightenment" as such with which one then identifies personally and to which one imagines oneself in that identification made thereby essentially indispensable -- with the inevitable dis-identification with vilified others cast as generically serviceable villains.

Indeed, whenever people come to view themselves as special guardians of Reason and Enlightenment in some more ecstatic construal (and their opponents inevitably as contrary forces of an equally epic Unreason or Endarkenment), one should expect truly fundamentalist and authoritarian recommendations to follow not too far behind.

Vast and horrific generalizations involving millions of people consigned to an undifferentiated mass of "fundamentalist" or "postmodernist/relativist" subhumanity are fairly typical, glib generalizations about a clash of civilizations with an absurdly monolithicized "Islamic World" or about a battle of "science" against the "fashionable nonsense" of an equally absurdly monolithicized archipelago of "University Humanities Departments" are commonplace sputterings in this rhetorical vein. The irony that such essentially irrational and hysterical expressions arise from self-appointed paragons of Enlightenment rationality seems not to give their enthusiasts the slightest pause (and the ugly insipid obviousness of it all provides scant opportunities for abiding mirth for the rest of us either).

As for the few hundred mostly white, mostly male, mostly privileged, mostly Euro-American techno-fetishists who refer to themselves as "transhumanists," "singularitarians," "extropians," or what have you, all pining for technological immortality, cyborg superpowers, and nano-riches beyond the dreams of avarice, I daresay the social struggle for a more Enlightened world even on the most oversimplified imaginable terms would manage to soldier on whether or not you guys manage to champion it from the Robot Cult clubhouses of your marginal membership organizations. A little perspective, guys, honestly.


De Thezier said...

Dale said:

Indeed, whenever people come to view themselves as special guardians of Reason and Enlightenment in some more ecstatic construal (and their opponents inevitably as contrary forces of an equally epic Unreason or Endarkenment), one should expect truly fundamentalist and authoritarian recommendations to follow not too far behind.

Indeed. This actually reminds me of something a Messianic Jewish (Jew for Jesus) scholar confessed to when I was interviewing pastors and theologians during my personal quest for the historical Jesus many years ago:

"Of course the vast majority of people you will encounter in the Christian churches I am happy to worship in are religiously-illiterate fundamentalists. However, be careful that your anti-fundamentalism doesn't become a fundamentalism that not only clouds your judgement but fuels your self-righteousness..."

Michael Anissimov said...

Sade was just a pervert, actually.

Dale Carrico said...

Sade was just a pervert, actually.

The same has been said of me.

You know, it's one thing to be a dull ignoramus, and quite another to be proud of the fact or to imagine oneself an expert qualified to level conclusive judgments on topics about which one is not only ignorant but disinclined to inquire further, or worst of all, to imagine that somehow it is precisely this ignorance and disinclination that somehow represents one's qualification as an expert on the topics one goes on summarily dismiss.

(A word often used to describe this kind of crusading self-righteous ignorance on a topic about which one nonetheless levels sweeping and withering negative judgments is "know-nothing,")

I'm not exactly a fan of Sade's work (I find the writing boring and the thinking mostly second-rate), but at least I am aware of the scope of his work and especially of the discourse it has occasioned. Even a glance at Wikipedia would disabuse you of too quick an identification of Sade only with sadistic pornography (his erotic literature contains possibly the most boring, mechanical, and untitillating depictions of sadism I have ever encountered, by the way).

"Simone de Beauvoir (in her essay Must we burn Sade?, published in Les Temps modernes, December 1951 and January 1952) and other writers have attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade's writings, preceding that of existentialism by some 150 years. He has also been seen as a precursor of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".

"Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 book Sade Mon Prochain ("Sade My Neighbor"), analyzes Sade's philosophy as a precursor of nihilism, negating both Christian values and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

"One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant.

"In his 1988 Political Theory and Modernity, William E. Connolly analyzes Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom as an argument against trend of earlier political philosophers, notably Rousseau and Hobbes, and their attempts to concile nature, reason and virtue as basis of ordered society.

"In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1979), Angela Carter provides a feminist reading of Sade, seeing him as a "moral pornographer" who creates spaces for women. Similarly, Susan Sontag defended both Sade and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil (Story of the Eye) in her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967) on the basis their works were transgressive texts, and argued that neither should be censored.

"By contrast, Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. One chapter of her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright claims that Dworkin's first novel Ice and Fire, which is rife with violence and abuse, can be seen as a modern re-telling of Sade's Juliette."

Nick Tarleton said...

Scoring points against the enemy, Michael?