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

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Supernative Summary (Was: A Bioconservative Bestiary)

"Bioconservative" is a term I long used to describe political and cultural arguments that oppose particular medical or other technodevelopmental outcomes in the name of a defense of "the natural" deployed as a moral category. Needless to say, there may be endlessly many good reasons to oppose particular medical or technoscientific outcomes on their merits, apart from bioconservative worries about their "unnaturalness" or our "playing God" (which we surely already did in inventing Him/Her/It/Them).

Such opposition on the merits isn't inevitably "bioconservative" or "luddite" by my lights, as far too many futurological cheerleaders would have it. (The question whether "luddite" is rightly a term of opprobrium at all given that the historical Luddites were precisely right to fear that certain devices were being deliberately deployed to disrupt their lifeways and hence perfectly reasonable to resist is another matter.) But it is also true that many critiques of the furniture and preoccupations of "technological society" will raise legitimate questions of safety, inequity, misinformation, misplaced priorities commandeered into the service of a larger bioconservative project of anti-democratizing "naturalizations" in the service of elite-incumbent interests and parochial concerns. It remains important to find ways of disarticulating these strands in assessing the force of any particular technodevelopmental critique.

I tend to regard the obvious and endlessly self-asserted antagonism between "bioconservative" and "transhumanist" advocacy also as a mutually enabling partnership in hyperbole -- rather like the way the antagonism between technophobic and technophilic attitudes can mask the pernicious undercriticality toward matters of technodevelopmental social struggle they often share and to which they contribute more or less equally -- and as a broader antagonism between what I call supernative and superlative futurological formations and figurations yielding mirror image retro-futurisms.

Lately, I have taken up this admittedly awkward, idiosyncratic term "supernative" instead of "bioconservative," in part to take a measure of distance from the confusions arising from these sectarian ideological disputes, but also to emphasize what I take to be key logical, topical, and tropological connections emerging between my critique of "bioconservative" futurology and my critique of the superlative futurology of the so-called transhumanists, singularitarians, techno-immortalists, nano-cornucopiasts, and other assorted Robot Cult ideologues one finds online (and in California).

I have engaged in quite a lot of forceful critique against the hyperbolic inanities of superlative futurology and the antics of the Robot Cult organizational archipelago devoted to such futurology, probably too much to the neglect of supernative formulations. Nevertheless, here is an anthology of pieces in which I have occasionally taken up these questions and problems.

1. Conservative Wants to Enslave Women to Make More Gay Babies, February 2005.

2. Healthcare and Private Perfections, February 2005.

3. Keep Your Laws Off My Body!, March 2006

4. “Where’s the Outcry?”, March 2005.

5. Bioconservative Bigotry's New Frontier, August 2005.

6. Bioconservative Bait and Switch, March 2006.

7. Bioconservative Crimes Against Humanity, March 2006.

8. A Dose of the New Medical Reality, April 2006.

9. Chimera, May 2006.

10. With Enemies Like Saletan Who Needs Friends?, June 2006.

11. Mass Mediated Hand Holding: Depressive Bioconservative Cinema and Its Manic Technophiliac Twin, February 2007.

12. Michael Sandel's Contribution to the Burgeoning Bioconservative Canon, February 2007.

13. Two Variations of Contemporary Eugenicist Politics, January 2008.

14. Resigning Oneself to Bioconservatism, April 2008.

15. My Enthusiasm, April 2008.

16. The Superlative-Supernative See-Saw, January 2009.

17. The Essential Continuity and Co-Dependency of Supernative and Superlative Futurisms, of Biocons and Robot Cultists, May 2010.


VDT said...

Hello Dale,

Could you at some point write a post detailing the meaning, use and misuse of the terms luddite, neo-luddite and bio-luddite.

Anonymous said...

If we accept the notion that "nature" should not be deployed as a moral category, then what room is left for talking about "nature" and "human nature" in progressive ways?

Judith Butler tells us that human nature is marked by mortality and vulnerability. The next step is to decide what is to be done with that human nature: transform it, transcend it, or leave it as it is -- options which are, respectively, progressive, superlative, and conservative. Presumably, the demand to "leave it as it is" is no different from the choice to use it as a moral standard.

When on my couch I lie in vacant or in pensive mood, reflecting on my mortality, mourning my losses, and wondering if I should feel guilty for fantasizing about SENS, I start to feel like an emo kid, and worse, like a bioconservative.

Actually, that's not really true. But my point is that I have trouble understanding how any well-considered conception of human nature -- be it Butler's or anyone's -- does not lead to bioconservative conclusions in the context of technodevelopmental politics. Is it because Butler's assertions do not contain any "moral" or "esthetic" content that would adulterate any purely political discourse? How can human nature be discussed if not in a normative way?

I'm admittedly confused.

Dale Carrico said...

If one really must speak of nature at all, then the thing to do is de-naturalize it. I would say Butler's "nature" is a discourse of naturalizing and denaturalizing effects, rather like a discourse of the familiar and the unfamiliar (something that for me connects her to Rorty -- but I can't think she would be thrilled by my looking at it that way particularly).

Nature is an enormously tricky thing, you know. There is the discourse of "the natural" that opposes it to the supernatural and so affirms the force of public experimentalism (a very progressive discourse in my view), there is the discourse of "the natural" that insists on the value of ecosystems about which we have imperfect knowledge and which we value at the cost of a relative disvaluing of things that seem more urgently and obviously valuable in the short-term like consumption and pollution and convenience (another very progressive discourse in my view), there is the discourse of "the natural" that insists on the value of the sublime or the wild (a progressive discourse as it connects in its anti-reductionism to the second discourse, but one which also re-introduces in other versions a backdoor endorsement of the supernatural which starts to really complicate matters at hand), there is the discourse of "the natural" which identifies with the naturalist outlook (a discourse that on one hand affirms the priority of this world over a supernatural one, but which also tends to endorse reductionist moves to denigrate whatever fails to pass muster as properly scientific -- which, in a troubling development -- tends to include the reasons why one would value the value itself), and so on. There is also the discourse of "the natural" which would try to identify the customary with the inevitable and so endorse the status quo and impugn all resistances to it -- which I take as the essentially anti-democratizing and conservative political gesture and tend to foreground in my own discussion of the politics of nature.

But that's just because it is so easy and so clear. The truth is that the politics of nature, of naturalization and denaturalization are hideously complicated indeed. This is a topic I am much better teaching about in discussions over weeks and weeks with engaged students than trying to write about in a delimited text like this. It is hard to capture the stresses and dynamisms and inter-implications in this form, if you know what I mean. Hope this begins to help in any case. I agree that it is confusing.

Poor Richard said...

Dale, I agree with you about the continuity and co-dependency of supernative and superlative futurologies. I often see in human conflict the coevolution we see in nature where organisms compete, which is especially interesting in the predator-prey case. For example, humans are often characterized as wolves and sheep, and the coevolution and codependence of the two "species" is obvious.

One of my very humble attempts to write about natural vs supernatural is a piece I call "Is spiritual the new supernatural?"

We may think a lot alike except I think you do it better. I was attracted to this page of yours because of the word "bestiary". A while back I started a project I call the "Economical Bestiary", a collection of crazy ideas in main$tream economics. I like the bestiary framework because it doesn't have to be as formal, comprehensive, and serious as a taxonomy, an "encyclopedia", etc.

Recently I thought of another framework for writing about crazy ideas with a special focus on their psychology. I'd like to see a group of collaborators do alternative versions of a "Diagnostic and statistical manual" (DSM) patterned after the familiar catalog of mental illnesses. The DSM-P would be the politics edition and the DSM-E would be the economics edition.