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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Overcoming Gender Among the Transhumanists

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot:
George Dvorsky supposedly coined the term Postgenderism and it might be considered a strain, since lots of Transhumanists might not think about it much, and might still want genders in their enhanced future, but its also kind of central to Transhumanism to not be constrained by any vestiges of our biological evolution, isn't it? And being constrained to one gender and having to reproduce with someone of the other gender is definitely something that EVERY Transhumanist would agree is something to overcome.

I've written on this topic elsewhere, if you want to pursue it beyond this exchange. Whatever else one might want to say about Dvorsky's piece (which is interesting, even if I focus mostly on my disagreements and concerns about his ideas in it), you certainly can't sensibly attribute the coinage of that term to him, and neither does he claim to do. I mean, he cites the influence of Donna Haraway (he mostly misreads her in my view) who used the term in work predating his by nearly a quarter century, for example. And I doubt she coined it either, to be honest, or even thinks she did, or would care in the first place about such things.

I quite agree that there is a real strain -- in more senses than one -- that one discerns among many of the superlative technocentrics, the transhumanists, extropians, singularitarians, cryonicists, cypherpunks, and so on... a horror or disdain of the vulnerable, ageing, messy, desiring "meat body," and there is no denying that a pining to be beyond morphology, beyond death, beyond materiality (in many senses) recurs in much of their literature. To be "beyond gender" or "post-gender" in their accounting of it is very likely of a piece with that tendency.

It is interesting that this "post-gender" attitude is often mistaken by the transhumanists (or by sympathetic readers of theirs) as a kind of feminist tendency in their movement -- but I think there is a crucial difference between the feminist desire to resist and overcome patriarchy and what seems to be afoot in most of the transhumanist pining after a post-gendered post-embodied post-historical and somehow thoroughly instrumentalized agency.

It is useful to note that Judith Butler's wonderful book Undoing Gender indicates in its title at one and the same time, (first) its commitment to a feminist project to undo the patriarchal sex-gender system, (second) its commitment to a "performative" understanding of embodied materiality in which gender to be a thing we "have" must be understood in a key sense to be a thing we "do", and (third) its commitment to an understanding of gender as a site of a desire in which subjects are "undone" in ways that constitute our freedom in both its real danger and real pleasure/productivity. Think of the richness available to a feminist and queer gender politics so construed!

Glib discussions from transhumanists (and, as usual, mostly other people) about "overcoming gender" seem to me rather comically beside the point, inasmuch as gender is a site in which we are invested with the agency that "overcomes" in the first place. To be sure, I find "post-gender" manifestos like those of so many of the transhumanists too typically to signal a complacent declaration of an "accomplishment" of post-sexist consciousness and practice that usually amounts to a kind of dumb "post-feminist" sexism when all is said and done, and certainly manages at best a facile engagement with gender-work as it actually plays out in the world.

The comment goes on to mention that humans are "constrained" to one gender, and then genuflects to the notion of a "natural" biological act of heterosexual reproduction as well. Let me point out that both intersex and transsex people and lifeways actually do exist, right here in River City, and so the "constraint" to which the comment refer so confidently and which seems so foundational to so many of the commenter's assertions is quite simply a facile falsehood.

There is no need to invoke techno-utopian or techno-dystopian teledidonics or chimeras or metamorphs to find yourself in a world underconstrained by the iron limits you speak of, you're already soaking in it.

I leave to the side the fact that the comment uses the word gender rather than sex though all of this, since I'm assuming the terms are are being treated roughly interchangeably, even though it is a convention to use the word "gender" to describe the extraordinary historically and socially contingent and multivariate roles taken up by individuals marked by sex and marking them in their sex, something which hardly lends credibility to the evocation of a gender "constrained" to a stark reproductive imperative and pristine sexual dimorphism.

(None of this is to deny the real costs exacted by the force of socially specific gender-typicalities on those who are seen to deviate from them. One of the strengths of performative accounts that make them worth their complexity is that they really try to do justice both to the contingency and to the density of the historically embodied lifeways in which humanity is materialized.)

But quite apart from the fact that the world seems to me already considerably more contingent and multivariate and deviant from the strict heteronormativity that the comment seems to take for granted, I would also point out that even heterosexual sex scarcely seems to pass muster by the standards of "naturalness" it seems so invested in, really.

"Conventional" reprosexuality, playing out here and now on our streets and on our screens and on our bodies, its desires, its significances, its capacities, are all inextricably embedded in the contingent formations of patriarchy, "natural" only in the sense that its typical forms are indeed the customary ones for the moment. For "straight" folks as well as for queer ones, gender is already a site in which we overcome and are overcome (and sometimes when we are lucky, come).

When one speaks of overcoming gender it takes us to the heart of the work of gender in history, a history bound up in hideous sexist and heterosexist violences, to be sure, but not exhausted by these.

Bringing clones and male pregnancy and avatar sex and all that hype into the discussion and then getting all hot and bothered by it -- whether in a bioconservative reactionary sex-panic or a transhumanist adolescent circle-jerk -- seems to me to indicate a rather impoverished take on the matter, when it comes down to it.


John Howard said...

he mostly misreads her in my view

Ha! That's because it's prototypical feminist literature. It was miswritten.

jimf said...

> Bringing clones and male pregnancy and avatar sex and
> all that hype into the discussion and then getting all
> hot and bothered by it -- whether in a bioconservative
> reactionary sex-panic or a transhumanist adolescent
> circle-jerk -- seems to me to indicate a rather
> impoverished take on the matter. . .

Speaking of impoverished takes and transhumanist
adolescents, one false note I detected among the >Hists
(not all of them, but in general), back when I took them
more seriously than I do now, was that at the same time as
they were earnestly fantasizing about the radical
transformations that human life was about to be
blessed with via technological augmentations, there
remained a kind of 50's Ayn Randian squicked-outness
surrounding the whole topic of homosexuality. Some folks
batted the gay rights thing away by dismissing
it as one of the trivial primate preoccupations of
contemporary mere humans, all of which will be magically
sorted out come Superintelligence and the Singularity,
and yet I could not help but suspect (especially
after reading books such as Damien Broderick's
_Transcension_ -- he's one of the few contemporary
SF authors to take the >Hists at face value) that
what these people **really** assumed (not to mention **wanted**)
was that the Robot Gods would of course continue to be
**heterosexual** Robot Gods ("And God made man, according
to the image of God he made them, male and female he made them. . .")

See also, for example, John C. Wright's "Golden Age" trilogy,
and the hysterical bits of dialog between alpha-male
transhuman "Phaethon" and his wife "Daphne":

_The Phoenix Exultant_, p. 237:

"Daphne said, 'I've got something sort of really
unbelievably important to say; can I interrupt at this

Phaethon said, 'Please excuse us for just a moment,
my dear. There is just one more matter I need to settle
with Marshal Atkins.'

Daphne muttered, 'Which one of you produces more
testosterone . . . ? Don't worry, lover, I think he's got
you beat on that one . . .'

Phaethon, with dignity, pretended not to hear."

Cherchez la femme! Vive la difference!
Ecrasez le feminisme! Upload Ozzie
& Harriet! Blondie & Dagwood forever!
Make Room for Daddy! To the moon,

p. 198:

"'Do one of those things you are always doing to our
systems at home whenever you are ignoring
Rhadamanthus [the house AI] and don't want to hear
why what you are doing is going to make things worse.'

He blinked. 'Like when?'

'What about the time you collapsed the east wing of
the mansion, when we were staying in New Paris?
Or what about the time you were trying to re-thread all
the impellers in our confluence register, because you
thought it would get more tension out of the drive?
All you did was capsize us into the lava.'

'I cannot believe you would bring that up again!
That was caused by a flux in the current around us:
and even Boreus [sic Probably 'Boreas' was
intended: there are too many copyediting mistakes
in these books] Sophotech said later that that was
an unexpected consequence of chaotic flows in
the magnetic core! And I'm sorry about the wing
collapsing, but I thought we could save power by
running it through a nonlinear interrupt.'

Daphne rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling.
'Men! You are so touchy. All I'm saying is, how did
you right the mole boat again? How did you
erect the mansion-fields? Just hit the damn reset
button. Null everything back to the default.'

Phaethon frowned. 'That seems too easy. But there
is no reason why that should not work . . .'

'And besides, you were monkeying around with the
east wing to show off, not because we needed to
save any energy, and you know it.'

'Fine! I cannot believe we are going through this old
argument, when you might actually be a horrible
puppet controlled by the Silent Ones.'

'What a terrible thing to say about a person!'

He shook his finger at her. 'I'm telling you, if this
turns out to be a Silent One trick, and if you killed
that sweet Daphne-doll -- the image of the woman
I love -- I'll destroy your whole damn civilization
with no more hesitation that if I were wiping out
a nest of cockroaches! You tell that to your
masters! I was born to burn worlds!'

'Don't be silly, dear, you sound like a caveman.
But I appreciate the sentiment; not every girl
gets a maniac to slaughter people indiscriminately
for her. So do you really think I'm sweet?'

'It's not funny. Well, perhaps it is a trifle funny, but
it's really not entirely funny.' He threw off the
housecoat and stepped back over to his armor."

Etc. Yeah, it's pretty funny.

Dale Carrico said...

Of Donna Haraway, John Howard writes: it's prototypical feminist literature. It was miswritten. Wow, you really are just a dumb jackhole troll, aren't you? Tastes and influences vary, of course, but I am very happy to say that there are few writers who have had an impact on my thinking and writing as enriching and illuminating as Donna Haraway has. Her writing is, in my opinion, beautiful, provocative, incisive, careful, sensitive, transformative, wonderful.

Dale Carrico said...

Jim: Yeah, I've run into phobic heebie-jeebieness around queerness among humanityplustron-types here and there, too (especially among the shock! level! four! extreme! boy-n-toys contingent), but I've generally found the queer thing not an issue, indeed, quite the contrary. More usually in my experience the body loathing stuff really seemed to come up around personal mortality freakouts and surreally misplaced disdain at the "stupidity" of people who don't try to pretend in public that their own brains are versions of AI from mid-century sf (which also helps account for some of the continuities with Randroids probably).

Ernesto Lopez said...

Hi Dale,

I’m probably speaking completely out of turn here, but perhaps I could be allowed some clarification? Are you arguing that desire is central to the variation of gender (be they post, a typicality, done, undone, overcome, etc.) within all of these argumentative games? Is it safe to read that desire as expressed in a position to a type of gender introduces a kind of condition to the discourse of sexuality, introducing a limit and scope to the engineering of sex through the performative space unfolded while engaging a desired position of gender? Also, if this is the case, then what in effect is this desire of gender eclipsing, and I’m not speaking here of the real dimension of sex which through the articulation of desired gender is constrained by the power of its episteme matrix (hetero, homo, trans, inter, repro, etc,)…sex in these senses is obviously operating in a place of discourse, public or private, and so its real dimension belongs to a kind of plane of immanence that gender brings into a place of definition through difference/signification; which is perhaps why gender as a historical condition has given rise to so much violence…but desire works to define sex through gender not eclipse it…is there something else being lost, I feel that your consideration of the “impoverished take on the matter” suggests another place to focus the discussion on, but what?