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

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

My Despotism

I'm very happy to play host to comments that disagree with my posted observations and arguments and, heaven knows, I enjoy my share of snark, and the give and take of contentious, even testy, debates. I publish rather longform blog-posts (well, when time allows) here, and my debates in the Moot are often even longer still. I find this sort of thing provocative and clarifying, and usually fun. Although they both seem to me profoundly wrongheaded and annoy me to no end sometimes, both the bioconservative John Howard and the transhumanist Michael Anissimov, for example, have lately engaged with me and other commenters here in lengthy and passionate debates that have been illuminating in many ways, whatever their downsides.

However, the simple fact of the matter is that this isn't exactly an enormously high-traffic blog, and the conversation of the cohort of smart and accomplished people who enjoy what I talk about here enough to return regularly (none of whom, I hope, agree with me on close to everything) seems to me to get derailed or altogether stymied sometimes by anonymous sniping that makes no discernible contribution to the conversation of Amor Mundi on its owns terms. My own style is acerbic and I enjoy the occasional rant, and so it has always seemed only fair that I would welcome a fair measure of the same in response.

The simple fact remains, however, that I have attracted a handful of trolls who seem to have the inclination to vandalize the conversation that can take place here otherwise. I realize that I should have expected this, since Amor Mundi has become, among other things, one of the places online in which one finds a serious and ongoing online critique of certain Robot Cult discourses, subcultures, and organizations of a kind that otherwise receive only the sustained attention of their own already-fervent membership.

Although the Robot Cult organizations of the so-called transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians, liberal eugenicists, and techno-immortalists remain, for now, quite marginal in the overall institutional scheme of things, they certainly do have the sub(cult)ural and organizational energies to provoke a few overenthusiastic True Believer types in the full-froth of futurological faith into dive bombing into the Moot and dropping dumb insults, unsubstantiated assertions, and highly sophisticated rhetorical gambits along the lines of "I know you are but what am I" all the live-long day, with the consequence that the more edifying company that gathers here tends to quiet or make way for more congenial climbs.

From now on, in light of all this, my responding to comments in the Moot will take one of three forms (only one of them new): [1] I will respond to content, [2] I will ignore content, or [3] I will delete content. You should regard deletion as a real response, with a definite message it's sending.

Even the most egregiously offending commenters have sometimes posted material from which I've benefited and so I am not banning anybody in particular from Amor Mundi, but only content that fails to pass muster on my terms. It's my blog. This salon is taking place in my elegantly appointed suite of rooms, as it were, and anonymous jackholes who think it's cute to swoop in uninvited and poop on the lampshades aren't welcome. I don't have any obligation at all to provide a forum for Robot Cultists or those who want to ridicule the good people who happen actually to like reading and conversing with one another in the Moot.

Don't like it? Fly. It's not like anybody here will miss you.

Today's Random Wilde

Despotism is unjust to everybody, including the despot, who was probably made for better things.

Nurse With Wound Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Today's Random Wilde

[A] community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime.

Postmarxist Aesthetics and Politics

Students in my Postmarxist Aesthetics and Politics course at Berkeley are hard at work on their take-home finals these days. They are answering a question of their choice from each of the two parts below, A and B, and then tailoring the many prompts available in the questions they have chosen into the basis for strong claims they substantiate in five pages or so of close reading of texts from the class. It's been an enormously rewarding course, very provocative and also clarifying to my own thinking. Many of the themes from the course reappear in the consummating exam, of course, and so I thought it would provide an interesting glimpse into the work that has preoccupied most of my attention these last few months, a glimpse readers of Amor Mundi would not really have otherwise, since I spend so much of my time here squabbling with bioconservatives and techno-utopian idiocies and the cult formations that encrust them like barnacles.


Question One:

Bill Brown writes of "the suddenness with which things seem to assert their presence and power: you cut your finger on a sheet of paper, you trip over some toy, you get bopped on the head by a falling nut." Jeanette Winterson begins her own account of an education into visual art by telling a story that seems to complement Brown's in key respects: "I was wandering happy, alone… when I passed a little gallery and in the moment of passing saw a painting that had more power to stop me than I had power to walk on." Brown draws on such experiences to flesh out his sense of the thing as distinct from the object. "These are occasions outside the scene of phenomenological attention that nonetheless teach you that you're 'caught up in things' and that the 'body is a thing among things.'" As for Winterson, it would seem for Brown that aesthetic encounters have something to teach us, especially when we are unprepared for them. What are the politics of this aesthetic education for Winterson and Brown? Do they seem to follow the same route from their initial encounter? Do the politics of this encounter differ or do they resemble the political education attributed to the "realist" art object in some of the Marxist aesthetics we read early on in the term? Assume a perspective on one of these questions, and make a claim that you substantiate with close reading of relevant passages from the texts.

Question Two:

Identify what looks to you like a key difference in the way Simon Frith and Iain Chambers document possible forms of political commitment in popular art practice and popular culture. What political significance attaches to this difference in your view? Substantiate your claim with close reading of relevant passages from the texts. In highlighting this difference you may (or may not -- it's entirely up to you) choose to point to the way in which you find in this difference an echo of a difference between Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno reflected in their writings "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and "The Culture Industry."

Question Three:

Name a way in which the treatment of the figure of the Spectator differs in Wilde's "Soul of Man Under Socialism" from its treatment in Debord's Society of the Spectacle. Make an argument about the key political significance that attaches in your view to this differing treatment of spectatorship in these texts and then substantiate your claim through readings of relevant passages from both texts.


Question One:

Charity Scribner proposes that in Joseph Beuys' Economic Values a collection of objects memorializes a State while Rey Chow proposes that in Lao She's story "Attachment" a collection of objects threatens a State. A work of Stately memory, it would seem, confronts a work of non-Stately priorities; and an uneasy past confronts an uncertain future. But how different, finally, do you think these projects of collection really are, how different do you think the works of collection they are documenting really are, how different do you think their politics really are? Does it matter that in each of these essays the State under scrutiny is at once an example, however flawed, of "actually-existing socialism" as well as a failed or tyrannical state? Substantiate your claim with close reading of the essays themselves.

Question Two:

The paradox of Luis Bunuel's film The Milky Way is that it denounces religious, philosophical, political, and artistic zealotry, but at the same time it embraces religious mystery, philosophical passion, political idealism, and artistic imagination. Does the film provide a clear path or even clues that might help us along the way toward reconciling this paradox? Is it possible in the terms of the film to embrace mystery without feeding tyranny? Provide your answer through close readings of scenes in the film itself or through an examination of what you take to be the film's larger narrative, formal, logical, or tropological structure.

Question Three:

In Mythologies, Barthes claimed "to live to the full the contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth." How does his sarcastic truth differ from the fidelity of "blasphemy" Donna Haraway claims to express in her "Manifesto for Cyborgs'? When Haraway announces in her opening sentence that the project of her Manifesto is "to build an ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, and materialism," it would seem that she is using myth in a different way than Barthes does. Or is she? Choose at least two moments in Haraway's Manifesto that seem to you to illustrate how her ironic cyborg mythologizing either is essentially continuous with or significantly different from the demythologizing drive of Barthes's project.

Del the Funkee Homosapien Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Monday, April 28, 2008

Supreme Sophisticate

[via ThinkProgress]

Every Movement Conservative's favorite Supreme Court Justice, Antonin Scalia appeared on 60 Minutes last night. Here he is playing high-school debate team word games around the subject of the Constitutionality of torture. Like most conservatives he seems to think there's something clever and even cute about these sorts of antics. This is the country we live in now. Smell it.
LESLIE STAHL: If someone’s in custody, as in Abu Ghraib, and they are brutalized, by a law enforcement person -— if you listen to the expression “cruel and unusual punishment,” doesn’t that apply?

SCALIA: No. To the contrary. You think — Has anybody ever referred to torture as punishment? I don’t think so.

STAHL: Well I think if you’re in custody, and you have a policeman who’s taken you into custody –-

SCALIA: And you say he’s punishing you? What’s he punishing you for? … When he’s hurting you in order to get information from you, you wouldn’t say he’s punishing you. What is he punishing you for?

The Vandermark 5 Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Today's Random Wilde

[T]he recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism, and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses. It has led Individualism entirely astray. It has made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be. The true perfection of man lies not in what man has, but in what man is. Private property has crushed true Individualism, and set up an Individualism that is false. It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road and encumbering them.... The industry necessary for the making of money is also very demoralising. In a community like ours, where property confers immense distinction, social position, honour, respect, titles, and other pleasant things of the kind, man, being naturally ambitious, makes it his aim to accumulate this property, and goes on wearily and tediously accumulating it long after he has got far more than he wants, or can use, or enjoy, or perhaps even know of. Man will kill himself by overwork in order to secure property, and really, considering the enormous advantages that property brings, one is hardly surprised. One's regret is that society should be constructed on such a basis that man has been forced into a groove in which he cannot freely develop what is wonderful, and fascinating, and delightful in him in which, in fact, he misses the true pleasure and joy of living.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

For Shame, McSame

For the sake of her Party, for heaven's sake, Clinton should stop chewing the scenery, already, gobbling up endless millions of activist dollars and endless hours of airtime squabbling and dart-throwing and derailing progressive enthusiasm for vitally necessary change November in her continuing failed scorched-earth bid for the White House so that we can redirect our righteous energies to corporate media darling and cynical warmongering cronyist neoconman John McCain.

Greg Egan on the Transhumanists

Greg Egan is, in my estimation, among the greatest science fiction writers now living. He is also, together with Vernor Vinge (whose work I'm a fan of as well, as it happens), one of the authors who transhumanist-identified technocentrics tend to venerate with special fervor, especially because he explores questions of identity and consciousness under profoundly different material instantiations.

Techno-immortalists who pine (in my view incoherently) after a spiritualized digital eternity as "uploads" take a measure of comfort from Egan's daring and dazzling and, above all, detailed fictional explorations of this terrain.

Where I look for (and inevitably find) provocation in Egan, I suspect many of the transhumanists are seeking plausibility in his work, hankering after a "reality effect" with which they can infuse their superlative aspirations, a welter of details sufficiently substantial to offer a hat-hook to the hyperbolic hat of their techno-utopian handwaving.

Where for me Egan rewards the suspension of disbelief with an enrichment of imagination, I fear that for many transhumanist-types he affords an ascension into True Belief that impoverishes sense.

It must have come as something of a shock, then, to read Egan's dismissal of much of the transhumanist "movement," so-called, in the comments section of Russell Blackford's blog Metamagician and the Hellfire Club a few days ago. I am going to devote a few posts to an engagement with Blackford's discussion, as well as to some of the other comments to his post, but I wanted to begin by quoting Egan's comments, with most of which I agree.

I am excerpting from a few different comments Egan made over time and in conversation, and so I strongly encourage people to follow the link to Blackford's blog for the full passages in their actual context, both the initial piece and ensuing conversation, all of which are well worth your attention.
Though a handful of self-described Transhumanists are thinking rationally about real prospects for the future, the overwhelming majority might as well belong to a religious cargo cult based on the notion that self-modifying AI will have magical powers….

While at some level it's good to insist that every quality of the human phenotype be subject to clear-eyed scrutiny, the word "Transhumanist" appears to suggest the foregone conclusion that everything about the present species is destined for the rubbish bin -- which neither accords with what most people who've considered the matter would wish for, nor does much to encourage anyone else to treat the movement seriously….

I share [the] concern that so many prominent Transhumanists are anti-egalitarian, but at this stage, quite frankly… I [simply] consider a self-description of "Transhumanist" to be a useful filter to identify crackpots….

The word "transhumanism" (or, even worse, "posthumanism") sounds like a suicide note for the species….

And I'm not sure quite how much solidarity I'm compelled to have with someone, just because they've also noticed that we're not going to see out the millennium with physical substrates identical to those we've had for the last 200,000 years. People who think their manifest destiny is to turn Jupiter into computronium so they can play 10^20 characters simultaneously in their favourite RPG are infinitely more odious and dangerous than the average person who thinks this whole subject is science-fictional gibberish and would really just like to have 2.3 children that are members of his/her own species, so long as they don't have cystic fibrosis and live a slightly better life than their parents.

I don't doubt that there are, also, some dangerously intemperate adherents to the notion of humanity retaining its ancestral traits forever.... But for actual deranged monomaniacs on this particular subject, the pro side has a far higher proportion of nutjobs than its opponents….

I don't want to single anyone out for disparagement, either here or in private, because I haven't actually read anyone's entire corpus. I don't spend much time reading academic papers on this subject, or Transhumanist manifestos; the impression I've gained of the movement comes largely through the popular media and random exposure to blogs by people self-describing as "Transhumanist", regardless of their affiliations and qualifications. A large number of those bloggers will be people whose names are not famous and who have no particular influence; nonetheless, they consider themselves to be part of the Transhumanist movement, and so surely they contribute something to the wider public's impression of what such a movement entails. As with, say, socialism, it's not the academic definition that interests the general public, it's the behaviour of people they know (either personally or through the popular media) who self-describe as socialist.

Now there are obviously some grave deficiencies with such a viewpoint; I mean, a similarly based impression of quantum mechanics would also yield a picture of a world dominated by crackpots. But while quantum mechanics has a sound historical and academic bedrock that can (largely) withstand all the noise that surrounds it, I'm much less sanguine about the T word, given that its origins lie as much in SF, SF fandom, and technopunditry as it does in bioethics and other fields of philosophy. There's nothing wrong with that; SF and various non-academic techno-boosterist subcultures ought to be inspirational. But the lines between what's imminent, what's plausible in the medium term, what's possible in the long-term, and what's sheer wish-fulfilment fantasy, remain utterly blurred for most "rank-and-file" Transhumanists I encounter on the web, and also (from my limited reading of them) a substantial number of more prominent commentators. It's this that prompted me to say, earlier, that to first order I consider a self-identification of "Transhumanist" to be a sign of a crackpot. While there are doubtless people to whom that's unfair, filtering out anyone who uses that label is a pretty reliable way to ensure that you don't end up wasting time reading people who've completely lost touch with reality.

Notice that Egan has not offered up a substantial critique of transhumanism here for the most part, nor has he tried to leave the impression that he has done. He is just testifying to impressions of transhumanism that seem to me to be pretty generally true of people (though transhumanists are very quick to deny this, often in something of a panic), but which become especially notable coming from a writer and thinker whose imagination shares common ground with so many transhumanist preoccupations.

Egan makes comments about the PR problems of any movement foolish enough to name itself "post-humanism" and then expect human adherents here and now, and worries that a movement with goals arising out of sf fandom is going to be bedeviled in general by hyperbole that renders it impractical. But he hasn't asked here the question whether it makes sense in the first place to organize a "movement" based on shared identity (and on the relative disparagement of those outside that identity) that seeks to achieve technodevelopmental outcomes that sweep the world, including those who share the world but not the subculture itself. This is not a "PR" problem to be addressed, as Blackford honestly and well-meaningly proposes, by insisting on greater "inclusiveness" and "outreach" by the sub(cult)ure. Exclusivity is built in to any identity politics model, sub(cult)ural movements always substitute a moralizing fantasy of prevailing over difference for the properly political work of the ongoing, and in fact interminable, reconciliation of the aspirations of the diversity of stakeholders with whom we share the world.

For me, the transhumanists make the mistake of hoping to circumvent the political altogether (the "anti-egalitarian" tendencies of many of its adherents that worry Blackford and Egan -- both those transhumanists who incline disturbingly in the direction of market-fundamentalist foolishness or toward eerily eugenicist parochialism -- are just the iceberg tip of this deeper anti-politicism in my view) through the application of transcendentalizing technologies.

What Egan dismisses as a rather muddled enthusiasm arising out of fandom, I think is in many (possibly most) cases better described as a pernicious commandeering of the uncertainties of disruptive technoscientific change by a constellation of uncritical True Beliefs, an investment of a superficially instrumental vocabulary with what I describe as super-predicated "outcomes" -- superintelligence, superlongevity, superabundance -- that both mime and mine the irrational energies of the theological imaginary: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. This suggests that the problem of transhumanist implausibility is not an accidental expression of overeager undereducated fans, but arises out of the very substance of transhumanism as such.

Richard Jones is a critic of Superlativity who focuses on the very questions of science that no doubt Egan would be most interested in himself, and Jones makes the point that the primary or at any rate unique content of transhumanism ultimately is confined to its rhetoric, its ideology, its subcultural idiosyncrasies. And hence it is to those dimensions of transhumanist discourse -- and not to the so-called "technical" questions that transhumanists at once hyperbolize beyond sense but then commandeer to create the impression of their relevance -- that we should turn if we would understand how transhumanism operates in the world, how it solicits identification among its members, how it impacts the discourse of technodevelopmental deliberation more generally and so on.

Justus Kohncke Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Today's Random Wilde

We are often told that the poor are grateful for charity. Some of them are, no doubt, but the best amongst the poor are never grateful. They are ungrateful, discontented, disobedient, and rebellious. They are quite right to be so. Charity they feel to be a ridiculously inadequate mode of partial restitution, or a sentimental dole, usually accompanied by some impertinent attempt on the part of the sentimentalist to tyrannise over their private lives. Why should they be grateful for the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table? They should be seated at the board, and are beginning to know it. As for being discontented, a man who would not be discontented with such surroundings and such a low mode of life would be a perfect brute. Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion. Sometimes the poor are praised for being thrifty. But to recommend thrift to the poor is both grotesque and insulting. It is like advising a man who is starving to eat less. For a town or country labourer to practise thrift would be absolutely immoral. Man should not be ready to show that he can live like a badly-fed animal. He should decline to live like that, and should either steal or go on the rates, which is considered by many to be a form of stealing. As for begging, it is safer to beg than to take, but it is finer to take than to beg. No; a poor man who is ungrateful, unthrifty, discontented, and rebellious is probably a real personality, and has much in him.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Rufus Wainwright Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

You took advantage of a world that loved you well. I'm going to a town that has already been burned down. I'm so tired of you, America. Making my own way home, ain't gonna be alone. I got a life to lead, America. I got a life to lead, I got a soul to feed, I got a dream to heed, and that's all I need.

Bioconservative Fearmongering and Transhumanist Hypewhomping Against the Progressive Advocacy of Consensual Lifeway Multiculture

From a comment upgraded and adapted from the Moot

Amor Mundi's resident bioconservative sniper seeks in one fell swoop to undermine my credibility as a progressive and to smear me as one of the very transhumanists to the critique of whom I've devoted at this point thousands upon thousands of words of denunciatory analysis. He wants to know, do I or do I not actually believe that support of "same-sex conception" is a mainstream progressive position.

The problem, of course, is that there is no "same-sex conception" to actually support or not in the actual world, even if science and policy are beginning to nibble around the edges of such technique. This is a point that recurs in many of my critiques of both bioconservative and transhumanist discourse and so I want to elaborate it in more detail. What I want to insist on first of all is that progressives must pay very close attention to what is actually being supported and disapproved of through the conjuration of the spectacle of a not-yet existing but possibly-emerging but crucially not-actually-characterizable technique either by fear-mongering bioconservatives or by hype-whomping transhumanists.

Such always-idealized technique (and this point is generalizable, the same goes for the whole constellation of hypothesized technique hyperbolized, superlatized, demonized by, and definitive of, both transhumanist and bioconservative discourse) would arrive, were "it" to arrive, only by way of a contingent and contested developmental path of funding, discovery, regulation, publication, application, education, distribution, appropriation, interpretation, and use none of the concrete vicissitudes of which can be specified at a level here and now to yield much if anything in the way of either science or policy.

Instead, abstract projections of "technodevelopmental outcomes" but indifferent to the historical, social, practical vicissitudes of which technodevelopment actually always consists are offered up to our scrutiny: Debates about the logical feasibility of these abstraction are proposed as "technical" and "scientific" discussions -- deranged away from the actual state of the art of scientific consensus. Irrational passions of impotence and omnipotence occasioned by these hyperbolized abstractions churn up dystopian and utopian imaginings the debates about which are proposed as "serious" and "policy-oriented" discussions -- deranged away from the actual testimony of actual stakeholders to deliberation who exist in the present not "the future," and are coping with current, emerging, and proximately upcoming technoscientific change.

So, what do I "support," exactly, on the question of "same-sex conception"? What do I think mainstream-legible technoscientifically-literate progressives would and should support?

It's perfectly simple.

I expect that fraudulently promoted, unsafe, deregulated for-profit, dangerously developed, prohibitively expensive versions of "same-sex conception" therapies would not be supported by mainstream progressive opinion (and rightly so), while scientifically warranted, reasonably safe, well regulated, transparently developed, fairly available "same-sex conception" therapies would indeed be supported by mainstream progressive opinion (and rightly so).

Bioconservative horror of idealized techniques they have fixated on as "unnatural" too often seems to derange their capacity to focus in on the actually relevant factor to a properly progressive perspective: that what matters for human dignity is the respect for informed nonduressed consent and the celebration of the lifeway diversity arising out of its exercise, not the policing of consensual lifeway diversity wherever it happens to scare them because of its "difference" from their own parochial preferences and the privileges they imagine to depend on the preservation of that parochialism. So, too, Transhumanist devotion to idealized techniques they have fixated on as "optimal" or otherwise "post-humanizing" too often seems to yield comparable derangements, an ecstatic identification with "the future" and its idealized membership purchased at the price of a dis-identification with their peers in the present, a disdain of scientific consensus mistaken for a "championing of science," a denigration of democracy for technocratic and sometimes disturbingly eugenic circumventions of the plurality of political contestation.

Friday, April 25, 2008

My Enthusiasm

Upgraded from the Moot, mostly just to post something new... I'm SWAMPED by end of term review of student theses right now...

Richard Jones wrote (and I am excerpting from a much longer, excellent comment with which I entirely agree):
Transhumanists look forward to germ-line genetic engineering with enthusiasm, and bioconservatives regard it with horror. I can't say I'm massively enthusiastic about it myself, but this is more because I can't see it actually delivering enough to meet either these hopes or fears. It seems to me to be another area where, with the passage of time, we don't see so much accelerating change to a future that fascinates or appalls, but the recognition that everything seems more complicated than it once seemed. Certainly, in the 8 years since the human genome was published, the idea that most diseases would be simply associated with genetic faults that could easily be corrected seems a lot more further away. If any progress is to be made in Alzheimer's disease, it isn't going to be through germ-line GE.

Amor Mundi's resident Bioconservative sniper these days, John Howard, replied:
Transhumanists look forward to germ-line genetic engineering with enthusiasm, and bioconservatives regard it with horror.

Exactly right -- and Dale looks forward to germ-line genetic engineering with enthusiasm. Ergo Dale: search your feelings, you *know* it to be true!

I am enthusiastic about individual informed nonduressed consensual recourse to, as well as disinterest in, particular medical techniques, whether normalizing or not, whether old-fashioned or emerging, however they are actually wanted, whenever they are well regulated and reasonably safe, and especially to the extent that progressives can make them universally available and struggle to make the risks, costs, and benefits of their development fair.

This is a perfectly mainstream-legible progressive position as far as I can see.

I don't even think about "technology" in the way that gets demonized by stupid bioconservatives or fetishized by stupid transhumanists. I don't believe there is a monolithic technological "it" to be "enthusiastic" about in the way that gets deployed in the rhetorical skirmishes between ecstatic transhumanists and hysterical bioconservatives, especially not when "it" becomes fantastically inflated by some of them on both sides to designate some epic battle between "pro-" and "anti-" "technology" politics in some sweeping fashion that simply makes no sense at all as an abiding antagonism among the thoroughly historicized, technologized, acculturated tool-using language-using collaborative beings human beings simply are.

Speaking in the way bioconservatives and transhumanists do (and technophobes and technophiles more generally) is almost always just to redirect attention and deliberation from the actual questions of scientific warrant and stakeholder impact that are really under contest at particular junctures within technodevelopmental social struggle as it is actually playing out in the world. This redirection is never sensible or helpful, though there is no question that it is a good way to whomp up irrational passions for the benefit of opportunists and flim-flam artists of various descriptions.

I consider Richard Jones to be making a complementary point when he predicts (exactly as I would) that "with the passage of time, we don't see so much accelerating change to a future that fascinates or appalls, but the recognition that everything seems more complicated than it once seemed."

Just to repeat myself, I don't believe in the notion of "technology" in general. I think it is better to think of "technology" as a verb (technodevelopmental social struggle, processes of discovery, regulation, invention, distribution, appropriation, interpretation and so on) than as stable objects disembedded from the vicissitudes of history and then, even worse, invested additionally with superlative aspirations.

Definitely, I especially abhor the notion of the customary treated as "natural" (a rhetorical gesture typical and well nigh definitive of bioconservative discourse) or the parochial treated as "optimal" (a rhetorical gesture all too typical and well nigh definitive of the transhumanist discourse on "enhancement" medicine, so-called).

My enthusiasm is for actually informed actually nonduressed actually wanted consensual practices that solve shared problems and contribute to free lifeway multiculture.

"Transhumanism" at its worst is an outright Robot Cult consisting of an archipelago of organizations devoted to promoting the cause of a "movement" with which its members identify, filled with many people who behave recognizably like cultists always do. And even at its "best" Transhumanism represents in my view (to the extent that one can attribute to it views that manage to be both coherent and unique to its adherents in the first place) an undercritically hyperbolic technology-centered discourse, reductively scientistic in its values, anti-democratically technocratic in its ideal of governance, invested in a eugenicizing prioritization of "optimality" over either diversity or consent, and, most crucially of all, offering up an understanding of ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle in essentially theological terms coupled with the strategies of subcultural identity politics to invest its membership with superlative aspirations.

Bioconservative John Howard calling me a transhumanist "deep down" or in my "heart of hearts" or "unbeknownst to myself" or "in the closet" or whatever is, frankly, stupid and just plain flabbergastingly ignorant given how much time I've devoted to the critique of transhumanism and its fellow-travelers. Handwaving away all my interventions and analyses of transhumanism's pernicious hyperbolizing and anti-democratizing effects as utter irrelevancies says to most readers, I hope, much more about the assumptions or psychological dynamics driving Howard's bioconservative framing of the technodevelopmental terrain than it does about me.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Diminishing Returns

Edifying though it has been, the exchange with John Howard seems to be hitting a wall. We'll see if he comes up with anything provocative or useful when he cools down, but in case he doesn't and in the meantime I was trying to think which of these many posts over the last week or so most deserves to get anthologized, since many of them cover the same basic ground. Any of these feel to you like they deserve collection more than others -- and where should I put them? There is always a weird overlap between the superlative critiques, the bioconservative critiques, the eugenicist critiques, and the pluralist arguments. Since so many of these recent ones have highlighted the bioconservative/transhumanist/eugenicist parallelism they are even harder than usual to place. Hmmmmmm.

k.d. lang Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Forsake the logic of perfect plans, a perfect moment slipped through our hands. Sweet, sweet burn of sun and summer wind, and you my friend, my new fun thing, my summer fling. Laugh, oh, how we would laugh at anything, and so pretend a neverending summer fling. Strange the wind can change so quickly, without a word of warning, rearrange our lives until they're torn in two.

Once More, With Feeling

Transhumanism invests both actually-existing and actually-imagined technoscientific changes with what I call superlative significance, just as bioconservatives invest them with apocalyptic significance.

Transhumanism is an ideological and rhetorical project of the would-be "transcendence" of human finitude while Bioconservatism is an inter-implicated ideological project of the would-be "preservation" of a set of parochially preferred customs designated as "natural."

I advocate regulation and oversight of the provision and administrations of existing, emerging, and proximately upcoming genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies, while advocating bans on clinical trials until a consensus of relevant scientists affirm that a technique looks promising enough to justify them, and then I advocate a scene of actually informed actually nonduressed consent (through positions on single-payer healthcare, basic income guarantees, and access-to-knowledge politics that recur in both my writing and teaching, which is where my work is actually located) all to facilitate a fairer distribution of technodevelopmental costs, risks, and benefits once emerging techniques are made available.

Again, I think our attention as technoscientifically literate secular democratic progressives should be on preserving a scientific practice that names medical risks, costs, and benefits as reliably as possible, on a commitment to universal access to knowledge -- rather than proprietary secrecy or for-profit misinformation/fraud or corrupt oversight in the service of incumbency -- and on the provision of universal basic healthcare and basic income to minimize the duress under which medical decisions are made.

The value and vision I champion is for the informed, nonduressed consensual recourse of my peers to wanted therapeutic interventions whether these are normalizing or not, and the celebration of lifeway multiculture in a pluralist present emerging into open futurity.

Bioconservatives like John Howard claim that they cannot see the difference between my vision and positions and those of the transhumanists I also criticize so relentlessly here on Amor Mundi. And of course this is largely because bioconservative hyperbole functions as a distorting lens such that anything that isn't immediately legible as bioconservative almost inevitably and automatically is shunted across the bright dividing line of "the natural" for bioconservatives into "the unnatural" of their polar opposite, their mimetic co-dependent evil twin transhumanism. The same goes, I fear, for transhumanists in the other direction, across the bright dividing line from their splendid "enhancement" and "Enlightenment" directly across to the "disability extremism" and "deathism" and "relativist Endarkenment" of their Objective Enemies, as witness my many exchanges with prominent transhumanist "luminaries," Giulio Prisco and James Hughes. (And don't even get me started with the even crazier Ayn Raelian contingent of that Robot Cult!)

The thing is, I just believe in good universally available healthcare, and in well-regulated well-funded research and development to make healthcare more capacious and effective in meeting the needs of those who would make consensual recourse to it.

I advocate consensual healthcare, whether applied to the constellation of techniques we're used to now (you know, people were arguing against the indignity and unnaturalness of anesthesia, making nearly identical arguments to the ones bioconservatives are peddling now a little over a century ago) or to the constellation of emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive therapies, whether these consensual interventions yield effects that are deemed normalizing (and hence "therapeutic") or non-normalizing (and hence "enhancing" or "de-naturalizing," depending on which kind of True Believer you are, transhumanist or bioconservative).

I don't believe in the "natural" idealized human being bioconservatives faux-nostalgically hope to actualize through their Prohibitionism, nor do I believe in the "transcendent" idealized post-human being transhumanists superlatively hope to actualize through their "optimizing" Enhancements.

But what do I think should be resisted, then, if not the "unnaturalization" and "unmanning" of Man the bioconservatives rail against, or the "Deathist" scourge and "negativity" the transhumanists rail against?

Well, I think that what should be resisted is unfairness, violence, exploitation, duress, corruption in healthcare practices, now and emerging and upcoming, as elsewhere in society. Where there is exploitation, duress, actual reckless endangerment, misinformation, fraud, and unfairness in medical development or adminsitration, I oppose that as every progressive person does. Incredibly enough, bioconservatives who want to focus on non-existing clone armies and designer sooper-babies and transhumanists who want to focus on nanobot treasure caves and immortal brains in digital networks will chide my own discourse here for its insipid vacuity and refusal of their own hard technicality.

Intriguingly enough, when they like me transhumanists like to call me a "closeted transhumanist" just as when they disapprove of me they like to call me a "closeted bioconservative," meanwhile bioconservatives, when they disapprove of me, like to call me a "closeted transhumanist" (I think I'm too queer for bioconservatives ever to like me, particularly). Quite apart from the personal issue of distaste I feel as someone who actually did come out of an actual closet with real costs twenty years ago at being rhetorically "recloseted" by cultists for refusing to join their scared scarred little tribal sub(cult)ures, the larger point here is that with these guys it's always: Yer Either With Us or Agin' Us!

The fact remains that, in my view, transhumanism is a Robot Cult consisting of an archipelago of actually-existing self-identified organizations, embedded in a conscious sub(cult)ure that explicitly fancies itself an identity movement, devoted to a transcendentalizing derangement of technoscientific language and promising super-predicated capacities to its membership, superintelligence, superlongevity, and superabundance, not one of which makes any kind of sense. As far as I know there are no self-identified "bioconservative" organizations nor an explicitly "bioconservative" identity or program (as there is for, say, neoconservatism); there is instead only a series of rhetorically customary gestures that is susceptible of analysis as bioconservative in my definition of it in certain quarters of social and religious conservative discourse that also sometimes attracts the sympathy of people who otherwise like to think of themselves as "progressive."

I have written literally thousands upon thousands of words delineating the limitations of the transhumanist organizational movement, this sub(cult)ure, this discourse, this rhetoric, and also connecting it up to more prevalent neoliberal and eugenicist Developmental and Bioethical vocabularies that are also enormously damaging in the real world (and thousands more delineating no less pernicious bioconservative discourse as well). If bioconservatives cannot grasp the difference between what I am advocating and what transhumanists are up to (or vice versa) it is surely because their own hyperbolic moralizing assumptions and aspirations blind them to all the differences that make a difference here.

From Neocon to Biocon

Neocons trump up an apocalyptic "War on Terror" designed to enable incumbent interests to centralize control and loot resources -- not to mention, distract attention from environmental disaster the remediative politics of which profoundly threaten their position -- and that rhetorically claims to defend "Democracy" while dismantling the rule of law and civil liberties on which democracy actually depends, all the while activating deep ugly irrational racism to set the tyrannical machineries in motion.

Biocons trump up an apocalyptic "War on Nature" designed to enable incumbent interests to maintain control over diversifying networked multiculture, and that rhetorically claims to defend "Dignity" while dismantling the scene of legible informed nonduressed consent on which dignity actually depends, all the while activating deep ugly irrational sexism and homophobia to set the tyrannical machineries in motion.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Manu Chao Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Moralizing Isn't Politics

The polis is not a moral community. Politics isn't Morals. And moralizing isn't politics.

Politics isn't organized by the demands of identification and dis-identification in the way morals are. The reactionary political philosopher Carl Schmitt made precisely the contrary claim in his own influential theory of the political, thinking politics through a Friend/Foe distinction that is indeed at the heart of mores, what Sellars called "we-intentions" (which deconstruction in turn reminds us rely on the disavowal of imagined "they-intentions"). But politics in my view isn't about policing the continence of tribal/subcultural formations at all the way morals very definitely are.

Politics is the ongoing, and in fact interminable, contingent reconciliation of the diverse aspirations of the stakeholders with whom one shares the world, on whose differences we will variously depend for our flourishing while at once they are potentially threatening of our positions.

All politics is strategic, dynamic, finally unpredictable, generating effects of resistance precisely where it generates effects that are compelling. It is in part against the grain of this agonism of present plurality and open futurity that we are drawn to engage in the formal universality of Ethical norms that solicit, again only formally, a more general affirmation, with an eye to "the decent respect for the opinions of mankind," the project of meta-moral meta-political cosmopolitan normativity, Universal Declarations of Rights, the priority of consent over virtue, the adherence to rules of order and published conventions even in war, and so on.

Our inhabitation in multilateral societies with a complex functional division of labor and liberal division of powers, and further, our immersion in networked mediation (both mass and p2p), solicit us into multiple moral identifications over the course of our lives. It is in part against the grain of these parochial, partial, dynamic -- also, by the way, absolutely indispensable to human flourishing -- moral identifications/dis-identifications that we are drawn to engage in the formal universality of Ethical norms that solicit, again only formally, a more general affirmation, with an eye to "the decent respect for the opinions of mankind," the project of a narratively coherent ethos, of public-selfhood.

At its essence the "Left" is the commitment to the fraught process of democratization, in all its centuries of vicissitudes, the commitment to the nonviolent resolution of disputes among peers all of whom deserve a say in the public decisions that affect them. (I have delineated this Left "ethos" in greater detail here). The "Right" at its essence is the commitment to the defense and consolidation of incumbent interests in the face of social stresses, whatever the costs, because the diminishment or downfall of incumbency is imagined to be the worst conceivable outcome.

It is not correct, however commonplace it may be, to think the distinction between Left and Right as a conflict between two vast moral communities or meta-cultures, because most people will exhibit progressive or conservative tendencies in some of their organizational affiliations (a progressive political party can incubate a conservative politics in some of its members who foreground the defense of a party Establishment or system of established procedures, and patronage, while still remaining legible as progressive in its larger platform), their attitudes toward some historical change if not others, and so on.

The proper normative work of the moral consists of policing the continence of their community -- by securing its borders, disdaining its Significant Others, and maintaining the continuity of its members -- the better to provide the membership with the indispensable concerns of the moral: legibility, belonging, solidarity. Whenever moral communities acquire more properly "political" ambitions, whenever they become imperial or evangelical, their characteristic modes of policing (entirely proper to the moral in its proper sphere) substitute catastrophically for the proper work of the political, imposing the ambition to prevail over difference rather than contingently to reconcile diverse aspirations, inevitably replacing political agonism with a genocidal rage for order. The substitution of the moral for the political, properly speaking, is moralizing and not politics, and it seems to me it is an enormously dangerous thing that so many seem to think the political through the lens of such moralizing.

By the way, the contrary substitution of the political for the moral seems to me to be just as disastrous in practice. People who misapply the contingency of political strategy to the moral communities they inhabit will acquire soon enough the reputation of opportunism and untrustworthiness, while the pluralism of the political will always seem suspiciously like relativism from the perspective of the moral. Needless to say, in an epoch of moralizing mistaken for politics such as out own, charges of relativism are rampant and, more often than not, bespeak an incomprehension of and hostility to the exactions and pleasures of the political as such.

Long time readers of Amor Mundi will recognize that this is an argument embedded in my larger proposal that secularism involves more than a separation of Church and State but (at least) a five-fold demarcation of human concerns, each of which yields reasonable beliefs and practices according to its own mode, with its own criteria of warrant, and with its own indispensable benefits. These are, again, briefly, an efficacious mode (under which the scientific is subsumed and for which the scientific has come to paradigmatic) yielding powers of prediction and control, a moral mode yielding legibility and belonging, an aesthetic mode yielding personal perfections offered up to the hearing of the world, an ethical mode yielding from the interminability of political normativity and incompleteness of moral normativity a formally coherent ethos and faculty of judgment, and a political mode reconciling the aspirations of the diversity of peers with whom we share the world, whether we identify with them or not.

While I have focused here on the proper demarcation of the moral, the ethical, and the political in particular, and on the mischief and confusions that arise from mistaking or substituting one mode for the others among these three, it is also true that the other modes can come into play here as well, as when too emphatic a valorization of the efficacious mode can inspire projects to circumvent the political altogether and substitute for it social engineering and technocratic policy, or as when too emphatic a valorization of the aesthetic mode can inspire what Benjamin diagnosed as the consummation of art pour l'art in fascism.

Calling Names and Making Change

The point of calling out those who claim to be or think of themselves as progressives actually as conservative when they make bioconservative arguments for bioconservative outcomes is hardly because it affords the presumably delirious pleasures of calling people not-nice names.

Look, it should be evident to anyone that even committed progressive people have conservative reactions to some prospective changes in the world, just as even committed conservative people will sometimes collaborate in the accomplishment of progressive ends. This is one of the reasons why we can be hopeful about democracy and progress even in times like these. Everybody has hearts and minds that can be changed by argument or touched by empathy, everybody negotiates partial, multiple, conflicting identifications that demand a measure of flexibility and critical thinking.

The theoretical point that matters to me here is simply this (a familiar point I hammer here a lot and about which I will say more in my next post): Politics isn't morals.

If you aspire to be a secular democratic progressive person and work to facilitate progressive democratic outcomes (like I'll admit I very much want to do myself) that doesn't mean you won't inadvertently or sometimes even quite consciously contribute to very different outcomes out of fear, ignorance, weakness, prejudice, skewed priorities, bad luck, inertia and so on, here and there (as I have done countless times all my life myself).

The point is that when these things are pointed out to you, what you do, it seems to me, is you reassess what you are up to, you change direction precisely because you want to be progressive. You don't pout and stamp and get defensive about the unfairness of being criticized for your hypocrisy or your complicity (well, maybe a little bit, maybe initially, since we're none of us Saints) in outcomes you do or know you should disapprove of.

You try to understand what went wrong, or why you looked at things wrong, or why your critics are looking at what you are doing wrong, or try to rethink how better to keep from getting read wrong.

In a moment when fear of difference or greed for one's position or privileges get the best of you, you can easily act against the grain of the democratization you would otherwise struggle to realize in the world with your peers.

Still, the business of analysis is to call a spade a spade when it is one. If somebody tells me my fear is making a conservative out of me, that is a charge I am going to take seriously. That doesn't mean I'll agree with every indictment I hear that takes such a form, especially when I realize it is coming from cynical conservatives scoring gotchas to undermine progressives by using their actual earnestness against them.

But when a presumably progressive person starts advocating blanket perpetual bans of all genetic engineering out of a declared fear for same-sex conception, refusing to grant that any treatments might eventuate from this banned work that might be safe, useful, wanted, or empowering, well, you'll forgive me when I say that their fear has caused them to become conservative.

Not only is this not counterproductive or facile but it may be the single most useful thing to say to such a person.

To construct elaborate "new" political mappings letting people think they are "beyond left and right" in such moments is just to provide alibis for people when they are at their worst, when they need to think more deeply about what they are doing and change course.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Today's Random Wilde

Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner.

Random Observation

Red wheels of gouda -- not only delicious, but also the cutest of cheeses?

David Lynch Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

in heaven everything is fine

Resigning Oneself to Bioconservatism; With Some Concluding Notes on the Co-Dependency of Bioconservatism and Transhumanism

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:

Friend of Blog Vladimir de Thezier writes: [S]ome non-bioconservative progressives believe that since the best efforts to provide universal/safe/voluntary access to modification medicine will probably prove inadequate to confront the negative social consequences of "enhancement" interventions, banning modification medicine would prove more effective, despite the fact that they will continue fighting for universal health care. One rebuttal could be that such a ban would be ineffective, have many unforeseen negative consequences, and ultimately worsen the problem[.]

We don't relinquish the effort to make and enforce laws just because there will always be criminals who break them. We don't relinquish the effort to discover the best truths just because even warranted beliefs are always open to replacement by better truths we may discover later.

I actually don't like the rebuttal that bans on technodevelopmental outcomes in particular are sure to be "ineffective" -- since it seems to me too readily to tap into the triumphalist mindset of so many technocentric arguments: "this or that fetishized developmental outcome will arrive inevitably," "it will overcome any regulatory barrier," and so on. I mean, it's a reasonable practical consideration in some cases, but as a generalization this sort of attitude connects to the anti-political views (and very often the libertopian tendency) of far too many technocentric discussions.

I also think it forces those who would emphasize social concerns always into a defensive and "negative" argumentative position. Simplistic insensitive technologists who frame themselves as spokespeople of an inevitable future, assuming the mantle of the bulldozing forces that will eventuate in that future, delineate its glories (sometimes offering reassuring pats on the head to those who worry about the losers in such a future and along the path to it)... meanwhile, critics just constantly point to complexities, uncertainties, costs, risks, and maldistributions that the triumphalists are incessantly missing or evading or denigrating in their accounts. Even if the critics are more right than not, it remains true that triumphalist enthusiasm will have an allure that is compelling.

It seems to me it is better by far to find the affirmative vision that you advocate as a technoscientifically literate progressive person and which would solicit collaborators and attention to make a better world. I defend consensual lifeway diversity, peer to peer, because I think that it is such an affirmative vision.

Democracy, consent, free expression, equity, and diversity are values we can celebrate, and strengthen, and defend, and implement. They can capture people's imaginations and provoke their engagement.

I champion the notion of the informed nonduressed consensual recourse to wanted non-normalizing medical techniques because I celebrate consent, because I believe in the intelligence and dignity and autonomy of my peers, because I celebrate the richness, robustness, and resilience of lifeway multiculture that arises from the collaborative and contestatory exercise of consent by a diversity of peers.

We should positively celebrate the empowerment and creativity and intelligence and autonomy of our peers. Notice that this isn't a celebration of some particular future that is imagined to be the one that will inevitably arise from the exercise of this creativity and autonomy, peer to peer. We are celebrating the path and not some abstract destination we claim to know better than others, we celebrate freedom now in the struggle to expand it, in the expression of it around us.

Bioconservative bans are recoils in horror from some bleak destination they imagine they know better than others, transhuman futures are identifications with hyperbolized destinations they imagine they know better than others. It is in no small part the denigration of others and the ferocious identification with the like-minded sharers in this vision of the destination that makes these ideologies moralizing projects as well as anti-political ones.

Those who think we must give up freedom and free expression and the defense of the autonomy of our peers because these will "probably prove inadequate to confront negative social consequences" are claiming to preserve democratic civilization by demolishing it.

Do they give up on the rule of law when they observe its vulnerability to the thugs of the Right? Do they give up on free expression when they observe how many use it superficially by their lights or cynically abuse it? Do they give up on autonomy because they believe people are too infantile or deluded or error-prone to exercise it? (Even though they are people themselves and seem content to augment their own autonomy into authority at the expense of the consent of other people.)

You say you encounter many non-bioconservative progressive who seem oh so reluctantly to endorse a recoil from the dangers and disruptions of consensual multiculture in the midst of emerging unprecedented modification technologies.

I say you are actually encountering progressives whose courage has failed and who are at risk of becoming conservative precisely because they are afraid (or perhaps because they cling too greedily to a status quo they imagine more comfortable and supportive of them than the future their peers would demand and build together). This is nothing new. Almost every conservative on earth became one because of such fear or greed. That's what it means to defend incumbency over freedom, to disvalue the equity in diversity of which freedom consists and on which freedom depends.

Tell your friends that if they would be progressives they must find a way to defend equity, diversity, consent, and democracy in the world of changing realities, and that this is what it means to grow up. Otherwise they should just become conservatives and be done with it.

One of the reasons I disapprove of "beyond left and right" political models that add an axis of biopolitics to account for complexities like these is that I think in many cases the so called "people of the left" who are designated "biopolitically conservative" are really people for whom emerging biotechnologies and medical technique were the last straw that made them reject their left convictions and become reactionaries in a very conventional sense of that term.

Just as in the case of "libertarians" who claim the left-right mapping is inadequate to their own political positioning, all the while advocating corporate-militarist orders that are easily grasped as straightforward right-wing politics in actual practice (as opposed to the vapid abstractions they use for their self-promotion), so-called lefty bioconservatives are also firmly on the political right. Nothing is gained by confusing these matters (except for the people who on the right themselves who want fervently to con others or lie to themselves about what they have become).

People on the left who are fighting for universal health care, for the politics of Choice, and for funding and r & d for neglected diseases in the overexploited regions of the world as well as for hitherto untreatable conditions like Altzheimer's and Parkinson's Disease and MS and cancers and so on are already defending the politics of informed consensual lifeway diversity. To the extent that they are fighting to extend Medicare and Social Security into Universal Healthcare and Basic Income they are already struggling to make the scene of consent nonduressed. To the extent that they are fighting copyright extension, media consolidation, fraud and misinformation, institutional corruption and secrecy, corporate biopiracy, the enclosure of the commons, and so on they are already struggling to make the scene of consent informed. These are absolutely commonplace struggles across the left.

What is especially foolish is that because of transhumanist and bioconservative frames (which do find their watered down way to more mainstream neoliberal and neoconservative "development" and "globalization" discourses in my view) many of these people will understand the actual work of peer-to-peer democratization and the expression of consensual lifeway multiculture in which they are involved here and now through the narrative and figurative lens of immortal superbodies and clone-robot-slave armies and who knows what else and so radically misconstrue the meaning of what they are doing not as emancipatory ends in themselves so much as steps along some transcendentalizing or apocalyptic path toward some hyperbolized daydream or nightmare vision of "the future."

It is precisely this sort of hyperbole that deranges otherwise sensible progressives into bioconservative would-be prohibitionists or transhumanist would-be technocratic elitists as often as not in my view, and always absolutely to the cost of sense and effective progressive organizing in my view. I sometimes whether even framing these issues in terms of progress and emancipation rather than simply consent, fairness, and a fuller reckoning of consequences already opens up technodevelopmental discourse to these derangements but I'll leave that to the side for now.

Be all that as it may, we are left with a bioconservative tendency to advocate a tyrannical curtailment of autonomy to protect people from the "dangerous" diversity they would likely consensually collaborate in the making of peer-to-peer, together with a transhumanist tendency to advocate technocratic elite circumventions of peer-to-peer democracy to protect people instead from their "dangerous" ignorance, passions, biases, or to overcome the frustrating "sluggishness" of actually collaborative deliberation in the face of "accelerating change."

As you know, I also think both bioconservatives and transhumanists tend to advocate stealthy eugenicist politics -- one advocating a "preservation" of a parochial construal of optimal humanity they call "natural," and the other advocating the "engineering" of a parochial construal of optimal humanity they call "enhanced" or even "post-human."

This complementary eugenicism coupled with this complementary anti-democracy goes a long way in explaining why bioconservative and transhumanist positions in their absolute antagonism seem at once to mirror one another but also strangely to depend on one another. It also helps to explain why bioconservatives always accuse me of being a transhumanist and transhumanists always accuse me of being a bioconservative whenever they disagree with me, but both will exasperatedly insist I am a "closeted" or "stealthy" adherent to their own tribes whenever they find my arguments sympathetic. Every position on the technodevelopmental terrain is consigned to one or the other warrior tribe, every skirmish takes its meaning from its relation to the ideal of "the natural" or "the future" these antagonists would champion with their full devotion.

What they lose in their "clear-sightedness" is freedom in the present as open futurity. That is to say, what they lose is the world.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Exchange With Bioconservative John Howard Continues...

Upgraded and Adapted from the Moot:

John Howard: [A]llowing same-sex conception and approving of its development insults families where one or both parents are not related to their children.

Things that are different feel insulting to me, ban them! Bioconservativism in a nutshell.

[I]t sends a message to those kids that their parents don't love them as much as they would if only same-sex conception had been ready.

Quite apart from the fact that this "message" exists only in your mind, I daresay such "messaging" could be easily be compensated for by the actual parent actually indicating they actually love their actual child.

intentionally putting a child at extreme risk, which I don't think is eugenic to oppose, anymore than opposing someone purposefully drinking and smoking while pregnant who never drank or smoked before in her life, just to send some message of her right to do whatever she wants

Few parents want to harm their kids or put them at risk, you know, and providing reliable information about actual harms and risks according to scientific consensus (rather than transhumanist transcendentalizing hype or bioconservative reactionary panic) would go a long way to overcome your worries on this score, to the extent that they are legitimate ones.

There are also, by the way, laws against fraud and misinformation (that progressives should and most do want strengthened), or criminal neglect that would come into play in some cases.

I think we have to be very careful in deploying traditional intuitions about basic care or neglect, however, as healthcare shifts from a normalizing recovery model to a diversifying lifeway model. Some people seem to want to treat the conception of atypical offspring as a kind of "abuse" even if atypicality is not a barrier to flourishing on their own terms.

This is why it seems to me we need shift from the progressive ideal hitherto of an application of universal standards (which we never managed to implement in any case) to an ideal of universal access and informed nonduressed consent, else eugenic projects of bioconservative "preservationists" or transhumanist "optimizers" will trump consensual lifeway multiculture in an era of modification medicine.

exposing a future child to extra risk is wrong

What if the technique you disapprove of as "unnatural" doesn't expose a future child to undue risk, after all? Will you change your position then? Or is the "risk" that really exercises your imagination the "risk" of what you fear as difference?

Also, do you think that potential parents with strong dispositions to heart disease or other life threatening heritable conditions should be sterilized so that their kids won't be exposed to "extra risk," too? You'll forgive the "libelous" exposure of the eugenicism (possibly unconscious?) embedded in your position yet again.

I'm trying to stop all GE, and that includes same-sex conception too.

All GE? Even if it ameliorates suffering? Even if it treats hitherto untreatable conditions? Even if it is wanted by informed, nonduressed consenting adults?

It means preserving everyone's conception rights, everyone's right to use their own unmodified genes

Ah, the freedom not to be free to make consensual recourse to wanted techniques, the freedom to incarnate always only the parochial bioconservative vision of what humanity should look like and act like, whatever their peers have to say about it, the preservation of everyone's right not to have a right to modifications or modes of conception bioconservatives disapprove of. Up is down.

It's funny we both accuse the other of being an elite making a ban, but, well, I'm right and your wrong. I want Congress to make a law that makes it a major crime to attempt to conceive a child that is not the union of a man and a woman's actual representative unmodified gametes.

Yeah, isn't it "funny" how I accuse you of being a would-be tyrant when all you want is for "Congress to make a law that makes it a major crime to attempt to conceive a child that is not the union of a man and a woman's actual representative unmodified gametes." (I'm sure you are a perfectly nice fellow personally, of course.) It's also funny how I say you seem to have a wee problem with the Gay, endlessly intoning reverentially about the "natural" Union of "a man and a woman" and so on.

You want, presumably, a government agency, which will exist through clown administrations and even clowner adminstrations, that makes constant new rules and regulations and somehow prevents any labs from jumping the gun on any particular new technique before your agency says its OK.

Well, ya know, that's what regulation looks like in complex technoscientific societies. You act like I'm proposing some cr-a-a-a-a-a-azy new regime or something.

Progressives already know how corruptible regulatory and oversight processes are in principle and how utterly debauched they have actually become in the neoliberal era consummated by the Killer Clown Administration -- but few progressives are proposing junking rather than reforming these apparatuses in light of this understanding.

What, you don't like the EPA and OSHA just because Bush has screwed them up so royally? No, we fight to end the conflicts of interest, reverse the deregulatory trend, tighten the standards, make the processes more transparent, and so on.

If an actual consensus of relevant scientists propose that the basic science has reached a level that suggests clinical trials of a hitherto untried technique are warranted and desirable, then in a world that is operating more as it should (and can if we progressives make it so) I disagree that this is an evil thing to do. If informed nonduressed adults would make consensual recourse to emerging techniques eventuating from such a process of regulation and testing I disagree that this is an evil thing for them to do either.

Bioconservative fearmongering aside, people overwhelmingly like the idea of emerging medical treatments for hitherto untreatable conditions. But they want these treatments to be as safe as possible and they deserve access to reliable knowledge and the security of income and basic care to ensure they are not duressed in the decisions they come to. This seems exactly right to me, too.

Saying that it shouldn't be done until it is safe is meaningless because you don't have any idea how that determination would be made and how you would justify telling a gay couple that wants to try it anyway that the government doesn't think it is safe yet, but maybe next year it will be.

Again, it seems to me that we already have both professional organizations and regulative and administrative and legal apparatuses making decisions of this kind countless times every day. Obviously conflicts of interest, the short-sightedness of for-profit considerations above others, lack of transparency, insufficient regulation of fraud and misinformation and so on bedvil these processes, but part of what progressives are and should be devoted to is correcting these problems.

As I have already said, I do also happen to think it's true that emerging genetic, prosthetic, and cognitive techniques that will be wanted will include non-normalizing ones that trouble traditional progressive intuitions about universal standards of care and demand a shift -- about which debate seems to me perfectly warranted and useful -- into norms of universal access and substantial consent (substantial consent backed by real knowledge and real security, not the vacuous pro forma consent of duressed market outcomes). Be all that as it may, this is not a shift that demands an utter jettisoning of administrative apparatuses that are already functioning today, if not as smoothly or fairly or democratically as progressives are fighting for, and familiar to everybody.

I don't see how you are going to tell the libertarians that it is not safe enough to try yet.

However foolish I find them I don't think libertarians want to harm their kids any more than anybody else does, so if some emerging therapy isn't safe you and other qualified people should tell them why and the overwhelming majority will do the right thing if your worries are warranted. Libertopians will certainly benefit, as always, from life in a non-libertopian society that doesn't barrage them with fraudulent hype and misinformation from cynical for-profit health-providers (because that should be illegal).

But if market libertarians want to go ahead and do actually unsafe or harmful things therapeutically -- and by "unsafe" I am assuming you don't just mean either "unnatural" or "sub-optimal" by your lights but actually reckless (on a reasonable person standard) or demonstrably lethal things -- then I daresay they can be stopped in the same way that they can be stopped from murder or theft even if they want to commit them. With, you know, like, laws and police and stuff.

Tell me the mechanism, tell me, why are you not agreeing with me that it should be banned right now?

In perpetuity?

Right now it is legal!

So de facto are anti-gravity boots powered by black-holes in their heels, but if clinical trials for same-sex conception are actually being contemplated then of course professional medical organizations and government regulators will be stepping in to oversee what is afoot. Are you mad?

Right now any lab in the country could create an embryo however they want and implant it in a uterus (except Missouri, where they prohibit the implanting part). I smell something again.

Me too. Your paranoia.

Skepticism is one thing, especially in this era of corporate-militarist debasement. And, look, if patients are being used as test subjects for actually risky unprecedented medical procedures without oversight, without social workers and regulators with clipboards and sensible shoes, without schools of muckraking journalists sharking around, raftloads of professional reputations at stake, and armies of lawyers on hand -- you can be sure I will be right there on the barricades with you.

But even then I won't demand a blanket ban or a ban in perpetuity, because I see no compelling reason (I could definitely be persuaded otherwise if there were actual reasons and evidence on offer) to think that safe same-sex conception won't be made available soon enough.

Salt-N-Pepa Helps Make Amor Mundi More Positive

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Neither "Technological" Heaven Nor "Natural" Eden

Not so long ago, attentive readers may remember that Transhumanist luminary Giulio Prisco announced -- and not for the first time -- that he was no longer going to read or respond to Amor Mundi because my writing is such a defamatory, deceptive, and delusive waste of time (to be sure, he didn't put it so elegantly as that). Needless to say, very much as expected, here he is again, this time shaking his fist at the unfairness of my criticism of bioconservative John Howard's homophobic devoutly wished for perpetual ban of same-sex conception, given my critique of the superlative techno-utopian aspirations of transhumanists: Just replace "Queer couples having wanted babies, safely if unnaturally by your lights," with "Transhumanists who take very imaginative scientific speculations seriously," insists Prisco. It seems to me that if you want to defend your very correct statement you should also accept mine.

Observing the curiously mimetic while at once denunciatory co-dependence of transhumanists and bioconservatives over the last few days has been an enormously clarifying and edifying spectacle, I must say. Let's keep this exercise going while it remains useful.

The reason John Howard is concerned about same-sex conception and others (not only bioconservatives, certainly) are concerned about reproductive cloning is that we can now sketch actually plausible pathways to their palpably proximate realization. But neither of these proximately upcoming techniques can yet be described as "actually emerging" -- they are tantalizingly near, say, but not sound enough to be safely implemented even in clinical trials (but seem sure to be sooner rather than later).

To the extent that John Howard and others are zeroing in on the worry that this very proximity will induce some to jump the gun and "try it and see" he is saying something absolutely reasonable. This is especially so to the extent that medicine is a for-profit concern in the corporate-militarist epoch of capitalism, in which cost-externalization is as or more profitable than production and ubiquitous financialization constricts the horizon of concern to the quarterly profit report rather than the horizon of relevant foresight.

What might seem a critique of "technology" (and therefore get branded by a facile transhumanist as luddite or bioconservative) is in fact a critique that under these circumstances the distribution of technodevelopmental risks, costs, and benefits is exploitative and unfair, precisely because it is undemocratic. "Try it and see" will mean vulnerable people assuming possibly catastrophic risks to themselves and their offspring through misinformation and the duress of the precarity in an unjust world, to help hammer out the therapeutic details the better to make benefits available in a payoff for rich and privileged people soon thereafter who assumed far fewer of these burdens.

But I believe that these reasonable concerns are only the sensible face of a bioconservatism that is fueled in fact by the reactionary and eugenic project to constrain lifeway diversity into the forms in which bioconservatives are themselves invested, parochial forms which they then term the "natural" ones, in a project of policing they then term "defending dignity." These moves are very familiar from the anti-abortion/anti-choice framing of itself as "pro-life." I've been saying this for years, as in Bioconservative Bait and Switch, and also: Keep Your Laws Off My Body!

A bioconservative will say that the techniques that happen to push their "unnaturalness" buttons (all too typically these buttons will be legible, without much difficulty in the translation, as slightly skewed expressions of very familiar homophobic or racist attitudes, inter-generational anxieties, and the like, see my: Chimera) are not only unsafe here and now, but inherently unsafe, forever unsafe, and must be banned in perpetuity. The reason for this is because what is really "unsafe" about them is that they undermine the familiar "natural" world in which the bioconservative is invested. This is the biopolitical face of the political incumbency I rail against in my defense of p2p democratization.

Incidentally, note how an "old-fashioned" "calcified" left-right distinction of incumbency as against democratization seems, as usual, quite equal to technodevelopmental complexities here, while the introduction of new "clarifying" dimensions to the analysis of technodevelopment "beyond left and right" function only to enable reactionaries to lie about what they are up to and encourage progressives to forget what they should be working on.

In any case, the bioconservative seizes on sensible concerns and skepticism about proximately upcoming techniques (usually framed hyperbolically through the lens of more fantastical projections that are not yet even palpable: clone armies, designer babies), to indulge an hysterical repudiation of what they experience as change that is threatening to their parochial but familiar conception of the world, and their privileged place in it, a familiarity they term the "natural" and invest with moral significance. The proximate concerns on which they focus are just the occasion, the pretext for a project of profoundly anti-democratizing, anti-consensualizing reactionary policing in the service of the status quo.

Transhumanists like you Giulio seek to confuse the superlative outcomes in which you are invested with actually emerging or palpably proximately upcoming technodevelopment as well. But these just are not the same.

Same-sex conception may well be generally and safely available to the next generation of would-be parents, but neither you nor anybody else are ever going to be immortal, you are never ever going to upload your consciousness into a digital network, you are never ever going to find yourself in a post-political world of superabundance, you are never ever going to confront a Friendly or Unfriendly Robot God at the End of History.

These are not "highly imaginative scientific speculations" or "far-flung technical projections" but entirely conventional exhibitions of hysterical denialism about human finitude of a kind that tend more typically to invigorate fundamentalist and militarist social formations, only in the transhumanist case translated into superficially technological terms.

You say in your intervention that one can simply "replace" same-sex conception (which, mind you, the basic science of which should be publicly funded and regulated before clinical trials are contemplated, let alone the techniques made generally available, and, one hopes, progressive activists will struggle to render regulatory oversight incomparably less corrupt and more effective, provide ever wider access to knowledge that is reliable, and ameliorate the duress of neoliberal/neoconservative precarity through the provision of basic healthcare and income) with the more "imaginative scientific speculations" of transhumanists.

Well, first off, quite a bit of the highly "imaginative speculations" of transhumanists are actually science fiction rather than scientific practice, a distinction you, Giulio, seem even less capable of holding in your head than most transhumanists are, who generally have trouble with sort of thing. But more to the point, and contrary to incessant statements to the contrary by my transhumanist critics on this score, my point isn't just to urge more caution about "far-out" speculations. See my: Superlative Schema.

In that piece, among many others, I try to make plain the moves by which transhumanists take actually emerging and proximately upcoming technodevelopment (usually framed hyperbolically through the lens of more fantastical projections that are not yet even palpable: Drexlerian nanofactories, SENS therapies so successful they raise human healthspans past 120 years), and invest it with the transcendentalizing aspirations familiar from theological omni-predicates, but in technoscientific super-predicated forms.

The schema, in a nutshell:
I. Omniscience / Superintelligence / Singularitarianism --
II. Omnipotence / Superlongevity / Techno-Immortalism --
III. Omnibenevolence / Superabundance / Nanosanta-Digital Utopianism.

Superlativity is an infantile revolt against human finitude, against the contingency, mortality, fallibility, and inter-personal insecurities of human life. It is a project of reassurance that is deeply vulnerable to authoritarian institutionalizations (it is, after all, a precise correlate to the authoritarian politicization of religiosity that produces fundamentalist social formations with all their moralizing militancies).

Technoscientific change is indeed disruptive and radical, shifting the dynamic of history by making available new materials and tools that people will take up opportunistically in their collaboration and contestation with one another and toward their own projects of personal perfection. The opportunities for violence and exploitation and catastrophe are manifold -- demanding that actual progressives champion a scene of legible and substantial informed nonduressed consent for those who would make recourse to these new tools on their own terms. The opportunities for creativity and emancipation are also manifold, and actual progress (which is more than the politically indifferent accumulation of a toypile) demands that their costs, risks, and benefits must all be distributed fairly by the lights of the stakeholders to technoscientific change.

But come what may, technodevelopment will not "deliver us" transcendance. Nor will efforts to ban technodevelopment "return us" to a Lost Eden.

No Heaven before us. No Golden Age behind us.

Just ongoing technodevelopmental social struggle, rendered more progressive the more consensual (actually informed, actually nonduressed) we manage to make it.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Closing the Future to Open It

From an interesting exchange with bioconservative John Howard elsewhere in the Moot:

JH: The future is just as open if we prohibit non-natural conception

ME: Yeah, just like when you close a door, it's still open.

(I hope I don't have to keep defining what I mean by that for people)

No poofters!

in terms of human freedom, it would be more open,

Bioconservative freedom... now with more bans!

with less coercive eugenic pressure,

I also disapprove of eugenic pressure -- which is why I insist on the scene of actually informed, actually nonduressed consent. That seems to scare you -- because you want to exert the direct conspicuous pressure of bans to impose a eugenic vision of proper humanity you denote "natural" however parochial it actually is.

less government regulation,

Except, you know, for the police state enforcing bioconservative bans and stuff.

less forcing people to work a million jobs to research and develop it,

There are plenty of people who are eager to help relieve suffering from hitherto untreated conditions, there's no need to "force" people. Do you want to "relieve" people from being "forced" into healing professions here and now as well?

for the people created,

uh, you mean born?

more of a sense of self-determination and equality with humans throughout history and across the globe

Self-determination survives education, and it'll survive awareness that parents exercise prenatal care on their potential offspring as well.

If you are worried, sensibly enough, that some people will select offspring according to harmful or superficial or homogenizing criteria the democratizing solution to this concern is education, not bans... unless, of course, you would be a self-appointed Gatekeeper who thinks you know more than people do themselves about what they want.

In that case don't pretend to be democratic or progressive, because you're just not.

Also, solidarity does not require homogeneity with humans throughout history or across cultures, which is a good thing inasmuch as humans have never exhibited such homogeneity throughout history or across culture. What I celebrate is equity in diversity.

Saying "Enough" (I'm referring to the McKibben book that advocates a ban on germline GE) doesn't mean letting everything go to pot and stopping all research into diseases

A quick aside -- I strongly prefer McKibben's more recent book Deep Economy.

Now, to the interesting point at hand. You bioconservatives confront a real quandary as far as I can see: Even if you want to promote healthcare interventions that seem comfortably familiar but still progressive, something like, say, a "Hayfleckian" utopia that accomplishes the distribution to everybody of the best healthspan presently available only to a lucky few now, and you will still end up mobilizing r & d that also yields non-normalizing interventions of the kind you seem to abhor.

This doesn't yield the triumphalist escalator to superlative transhumanist super-capacities, but it does yield an enormously complex dynamic in which hitherto customary capacities, morphologies, and expectations are called profoundly into question, with important consequences to our efforts to determine equity, general welfare, basic standards, decisional competence, reliable knowledge, and so on.

Once again, the hyperbole of both transhuman rah rah and bioconservative tsk tsk makes this urgent deliberation far harder and less clear than it should be, and disastrously so in fact given the proximity and hence urgency of actually emerging techniques and their problems.

I understand, of course, many of the worries about corporatism, eugenicism, and irrational expansionism that fuel the politics of bioconservativism in its best most leftmost forms, but enforcing stasis in the name of a parochial conception of the "natural" seems to me a recipe for authoritarianism whatever one's angelic intentions, and so I turn instead to the strongest possible defense of the scene of legible consent. This approach too is fraught with difficulties, as no doubt you will be quick to point out (often to my benefit).

Germline GE won't help any people that are not privileged to have healthy lives

It is the task of progressives to see to it that it does.

diverts care from them in a very quantifiable way and also diverts sympathy from them, as they become to be seen as "defective" people that shouldn't have been born in the first place

That is indeed one of my critiques of many transhumanist formulations. Those that receive this criticism from me earn it by literally denigrating (or cheerfully aligning with those who do) neuro-atypical folks, non-hearing folks, non-human animals, and so on. But the fact remains that I personally take the opposite position very forcefully and consistently in my writing. Does that matter to you?

Be that as it may, there is more to say here. It seems to me a proper championing and celebration of the differently enabled in our diversity should include both a defense of all people's desires to make informed consensual recourse (or refrain from this) to non-normalizing technique (or "normalizing" ones) as we all see fit, in the service of whatever lifeways we would incarnate, so long as we do not deform the scene of consent itself in our ends.

Treating the differently enabled like endangered species or pets in a zoo or specimens to be frozen and pinned to a board is hardly the epitome of respect for living dynamic responsive diversity you seem to think it is. If you would actually respect the dignity of the differently enabled, it seems to me you would affirm what they consent to on their own terms in the expression and facilitation of their lifeways, and celebrate the lifeway multiculture that eventuates from such consent -- even where you find it skeery and unnatural.

It's like most of us are so privileged and satisfied that people that need our care make us uncomfortable, but we are also so selfish and lazy that we just want to reset the MAtrix with them not in it.

Speak for yourself.

We think that calling for research and development into germline GE so that we can "eradicate" their disease is somehow compassionate,

I don't, unless they do.

people actually are surprised when the people with the disease they want to eradicate point out that it is them they want to eradicate.

I make this point to transhumanists all the time. Does that matter to you?

I'm not selling nostalgia, you still are refusing to see how a ban would bring about those good things you say we agree on.

I'm sure your ban would be an awesome ban bringing all sorts of awesome good things to the lucky people living under your "natural" bioconservative regime.

You're the one that wants to keep slogging through the status quo that we've been in since HG Wells and Huxley's day

Except that, well, no, I don't. Quite to the contrary. Does that matter to you?

I'm advocating a major change,

Bans on procreative practices bigoted elites disapprove of aren't exactly new, guy.

one that is necessary if we are to focus on the things that matter, like global warming, economic justice, world hunger, etc.

Nonsense. Queer couples having wanted babies, safely if unnaturally by your lights, could still defend the multilateral treaties that would criminalize pollution of the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, could still struggle for a basic income guarantee funded by progressive taxation of income (including investment income) and real estate, and could still defend seed saving and sharing, water sovereignty, and so on.

If safer techniques do emerge for same-sex conception and some informed nonduressed people consent to these, the world won't end however skeered you are at that prospect, and nothing is to keep progressive people from concentrating on the other just and sustainable outcomes that are possible and necessary.

Remember the C[ivil]U[nion] compromise plan I'm proposing too, and how if we do this right, full equal protections and federal recogition would accompany giving up the transhumanist goals of same-sex conception and germline engineering.

Oh, believe me, John, I do remember your rather crazy homophobic plan to "ensure" the legalization of same-sex marriage only by proposing a ban on same-sex reproduction... as if anybody but reactionary bigots who don't want queers to get married in the first place give two shits about whether or not they safely find ways to have kids together.

Look, queer marriage is coming anyway. We don't need to enshrine second-class citizenship through a bioconservative procreation ban to get queer marriage rights -- we'll get all that anyway (those queers who want it, that is). Bioconservatives will just have to deal with it.