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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Robot Cultists Battle the Relativist Menace of the Academic Left?

Australian bioethicist and fine science fiction author Russell Blackford has published a surprising sort of defense and endorsement of the Order of Cosmic Engineers and their recent "Yes! to Transhumanism" manifesto. You may recall that I have ridiculed both of these myself (here and here). Of the Order of Cosmic Engineers, Blackford writes that it "includes a veritable who’s who of notable transhumanist thinkers," which I certainly agree is true -- very much to the cost of a movement transhumanism that would be considered as anything but a Robot Cult.

When I say that Blackford's defense and endorsement of all this is surprising what I really mean to emphasize is the form it takes. First off, Blackford quotes the entire "Yes! to Transhumanism" manifesto, without criticism or elaboration, and only then does he propose to look at the piece in a critical way. That is to say, he doesn't just link to it, but re-publishes the entire text within his own, rather than focusing in on particular selections he approves of or finds especially relevant. This seems to me to imply a kind of blanket endorsement of the whole, as at least worthy of serious attention in its entirety.

As a result, we are fully halfway through his whole piece before we arrive at the sentence: "All that now said, what should we make of the manifesto itself?"

And what does he make of the manifesto itself? I have to confess I'm at a bit of a loss to say.

Blackford describes the piece as "timely," presumably because there are burning debates taking place among the various movement transhumanist organizations at the moment about tactics, promotion, direction, and so on. I must say that these flare-ups occur among the transhumanists fairly regularly (I was a fly on the wall for more than a few), usually provoking a spate of new online manifestoes and breathless founding of organizations, but never as far as I can see cashing out in any significant differences in the sorts of things transhumanist-identified people really talk about or the numbers of people talking about them in the way they talk about them.

One would like to hear how these debates might be "timely" in some larger sense, how they might bespeak larger technodevelopmental quandaries in some way rather than sectarian he-said she-said squabbles among marginal Robot Cultists. Blackford is actually quite capable of translating these local squabbles into more generally relevant terms, but that doesn't seem to be his interest here. That's too bad, if you ask me, and a missed opportunity.

Blackford then goes on -- rather mystifyingly to my mind -- to change the subject entirely. Leaping into the Wayback Machine he declares, as if this were 1990 or something, that "no one should feel constrained to be 'politically correct,' if this means subscribing to whichever ideas are currently fashionable with the academic Left." Are people really still agonizing over the bugaboo of political correctness? And is it really the case that only the "academic Left" exhibits this tyrannical impulse?

From my own nook teaching humanities courses in a Bay Area University Rhetoric Department and an Art School committed to some construal of "theory" I am presumably in the belly of the beast if there is an "Academic Left" in a position to issue proclamations about political correctness, and I am here to tell you that nothing so monolithic exists as "the academic Left," that I haven't heard a demand for "political correctness" in two decades' time, and that in the age of the corporate university humanities education is far from all-powerful but is indeed scarcely hanging by its fingernails over an abyss.

Still, we are fully a paragraph further now into Blackford's actual "turn to the manifesto" he is defending and what we are hearing is: "I don’t subscribe to the various kinds of epistemic relativism that are fashionable on the Left, nor its crude cultural relativism." In the next paragraph, still without any actual contact with the manifesto presumably being defended: "I intend to put unpopular views -- unpopular with the academic Left as well as the general public -- as fearlessly as I can." The next paragraph: "Most of all, I don’t want to be beholden to what is fashionable, from time to time, among the ranks of the academic Left." A sentence later: "I also don’t see the need for transhumanist organisations to be beholden to the academic Left or notions of political correctness."

Quite apart from what seems to me a rather… skewed? …sense of the monolithic character of theoretical and political commitment among the professoriate, not to mention what seems an investment of that imaginary monolith with oppressive powers that simply don't square with anything remotely like my own sense of reality, quite apart from that, I am not sure why this particular line of criticism is one that connects us to the reasons why Blackford is defending the Cosmic Engineers exactly. Is the idea that there is a cabal of transhumanists who read Derrida holding back the emergence of the Robot God and Nano-Santa's treasure cave by demanding "lefty political correctness" rather than allowing transhumanists to let their freak flag fly?

"I’m not a fan of Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, or Stanley Fish," Blackford assures us. Are there a lot of transhumanists who feel otherwise? I've been arguing with Robot Cultists for nearly two decades and I have yet to meet one who has read substantially among these figures at all, although many dismiss them without reading them in the usual manner. Incidentally, I think one can reasonably distill a broad even programmatic viewpoint in the shared space of the thinkers "Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Steven Pinker" Blackford claims to be a "fan of" as opposed to the laundry list of poststructuralist, feminist, literary, and psychoanalytic theoryheads he disapproves -- but I strongly disagree that these figures he's corralling together in his disapproval are anything like so easily synthesized into an affinity group. Stanley Fish and Luce Irigaray? What on earth is their affinity supposed to consist in exactly?

While Blackford is quite conversant in the fashion of denigrating as nothing but fashion certain debates among some scholars in the humanities he happens to disapprove of or be disinterested in -- it is really a bit mysterious to me why this is what he is talking about at all when presumably what he is doing is defending these Superlative Technocentrics. How does Blackford's endorsement of ridiculous Robot Cultists land us back in the tired Culture Wars? For me there is a real disconnect happening here.

After decrying the sinister mavens of political correctness of the academic left, Blackford does go on to add that he would "hate to see transhumanism turn into something much closer to a theological system." On my view he's rather out of luck here, inasmuch as transhumanism, like all superlative technocentricities, seems to me an essentially theological viewpoint, producing subcultural identification among a community of True Believers in a constellation of imaginary technodevelopmental "outcomes" amounting to secular variations on traditional religious omni-predicates. I have to assume that Blackford would disagree with this characterization but no alternative to it is forthcoming from him, any more than there is any actual engagement with the substance of the Order of Cosmic Engineers he is presumably defending.

He talks about the need for "inclusiveness" and "debate" if the "trasnhumanist movement" is to "thrive," which certainly sounds reasonable enough. But, as always, I am left wondering what worldly result is imagined to follow from such "thriving" in "movement transhumanism"? What is the actual content in the service of which it is desirable that "transhumanism" thrive? Clearly, there are limits to the debate it can be open to or the ends it can be inclusive of if it is to remain intelligible as some particular thing in the first place? But what is that thing? Apart from the relativist menace of lefty politically correct postmodernist intellectuals in the humanities it isn't clear who is to be cast outside of thriving transhumanism, nor is it clear to me why this is a particularly urgently relevant villain to transhumanism in the first place -- even if the villain really existed in the form Blackford is lampooning -- I mean, why not fixate on bioconservatives rather than effete elite aesthetes in the context of a militarized and corporatized anti-intellectual world in which few of them can even make a living let alone constitute some authoritarian force keeping down the righteous enlightenment technocrats of the futurological congress?

Blackford writes: "I have no wish that someone who disagrees with me be ostracised for it or that anyone’s ideas be censored." Fair enough, I suppose, but I cannot think Blackford would hesitate to describe views he truly finds dangerous or ridiculous or both as precisely that for reasons he would offer up to the scrutiny of others. "I’ll be making alliances with like-minded people wherever I can find them, whether they are inside and outside the transhumanist movement." But this seems to me to assume he affirms at any rate the mild "ostracism" of not allying with those with whom he is not so like-minded. While transhumanists hold many eccentric positions on questions of technodevelopmental priorities and possibilities and plausible timelines, because they form a sub(cult)ure in their belief they often seem to confuse strong disagreement with their premises as defamation of their identities. I have to assume that Blackford (a strong critic of organized religiosity otherwise) sees the problems and dangers of this sort of thing, and that when he declares "Let a thousand flowers bloom!" he would include among the flowers we shouldn't cull those that disapprove what others enthuse about, demur where other assent, criticize proposals offered up to public scrutiny. I hope that Blackford would not mistake any of that for intolerable ostracism and censorship in the context of consensual secular multiculture -- even if it is coming from a lefty like me who writes and teaches literary and critical theory Blackford personally has little patience for.

I have one more quick point to make, but I'll save it for my next post.

1 comment:

Anne Corwin said...

Dale wrote: What is the actual content in the service of which it is desirable that "transhumanism" thrive?

Heck if I know. This is one of the main things that compelled me to stop calling myself a transhumanist -- neither I nor anyone I talked to could put forth a description of "transhumanism" that went beyond the uselessly vague.

Like many who "discovered" transhumanism on the Internets, I was one of those who had the initial reaction of "oh, huh, there's a word for people who like robots and stuff? Cool, I'll use it" -- but eventually I realized just how seriously some people took that kind of identification, while strangely at the same time seeming to lack any consensus on what they were identifying with.