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

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Political Problem With Transhumanisms

Upgraded and Expanded from a response of mine to some comments in the Moot: Well, I think probably the key conceptual problem with transhumanisms is that they have an utterly uninterrogated idea of "technology" that pervades their discourses and sub(cult)ures. They attend very little to the politics of naturalization/ de-naturalization, of habituation/ de-familiarization that invest some of techniques/artifacts (but not others, indeed probably not most others) with the force of the "technological." Quite a lot of the status quo gets smuggled in through these evasions and disavowals, de-politicizing what could be done or made otherwise, and hence rationalizing incumbency. Whatever the avowed politics of a transhumanist, their depoliticization of so much of the field of the cultural-qua-prosthetic lends itself to a host of conservative/reactionary naturalizations in my view.

This is all the more difficult for the transhumanists to engage in any thoughtful way, since they are so invested in the self-image of being on the bleeding edge, embracing novelty, disruption, anti-nature, and so on. I daresay this might have been excusable in the irrationally exuberant early days of the home computer and the explosive appearance of the Web (I saw through it at the time, though, so it can't have been that hard, frankly), but what could be more plain these days at least than the realization how much "novelty" is merely profitably repackaged out of the stale, how much "disruption" is just an apologia for all too familiar plutocratic politics dismantling public goods?

Transhumanists turn out to fall for the oldest Madison Avenue trick in the book, mistaking consumer fandoms as avant-gardes. And then they fall for the same sort of phony radicalism as so many New Atheists do: mirroring rather than rejecting religious fundamentalism by recasting politics as moralizing around questions of theology; distorting the science they claim to champion by misapplying its norms and forms to moral, political, aesthetic, cultural domains beyond its proper precinct. (The false radicalism of scientism -- not science, scientism -- prevails more generally in technocratic policy-making practices in corporate-military think-tanks and in elite design discourses, many of which fancy themselves or at any rate peddle themselves as progressive, and transhumanist formulations lean on these tendencies in their bids for legitimacy but also these already prevailing practices and discourses are vulnerable to reframing in transhumanist terms; there are dangerous opportunities for reactionary politics going in both directions here.)

Transhumanists indulge what seems to me an utterly fetishistic discourse of technology -- in both Marxist and Freudian senses -- out of which a host of infantile conceits arrive in tow: Failing to grasp the technical/performative articulation of every socially legible body, cis as much as trans, "optimal" as much as "disabled," they fetishistically identify with cyborg bodies appealing to wish-fulfillment fantasies they seem to have consumed more or less wholesale from advertizing and Hollywood blockbusters. Failing to grasp the collective/interdependent conditions out of which agency emerges, they grasp at prosthetic fetishes to prosthetically barnacle or genetically enhance the delusive sociopathic liberal "rugged/possesive individual" in a cyborg shell, pretty much like any tragic ammosexual or mid-life crisis case does with his big gun or his sad sportscar.

I have found technoprogressives to be untrustworthy progressives (I say this as the one who popularized that very label), making common cause with reactionaries at the drop of a hat, too willing to rationalize inequity and uncritical positions through appeals to eventual or naturalized progress -- progress is always progress toward an end, and its politics are defined by the politics of that end, and the substance of progress is not the logical or teleological unfolding of entailments but an interminable social struggle among a changing diversity of stakeholder -- whatever they call themselves techno-fixated techno-determinisms are no more progressive than any other variation of Manifest Destiny offered up to congratulate and reassure incumbent elites.

Time and time again in my decades long sparring with futurologists both extreme and mainstream I have confronted in my interlocutors curious attitudes of consumer complacency and uncritical techno-fixation, as well as more disturbing confessions of fear and loathing: fear of death and hostility to mortal, aging, vulnerable body, fear of error or humiliation and hostility to the contingency, errancy, boundedness of the biological brains and material histories in which intelligence are incarnated. To say this -- which is to say the obvious, I fear -- usually provokes howls of denial and disavowal, charges of ad hominem and hate speech, and so I will conclude on a different note: Again, I don't think any of these transhumanist susceptibilities to reaction are accidental or incidental, but arise out of the under-interrogated naturalized technological assumptions and techno-transcendental aspirations on which all superlative futurologies/ists so far have definitively depended.


Matt Janovic said...

Well put. There's a lot of body revulsion going on there with many of these transhumanists and so-called futurists.

That's when I reach for my satire gun and realize, yes, that I smell a bourgeois rat in these people.

Elias Altvall said...

More people need to read William James. I have always felt that he encapuslated one of the best defininations and defenses of progress as an expression of free will instead of a belief in determinism.