Thursday, 18 July 2013

What I learned on my research trip (part 3)

In the past 2 weeks my posts have looked at what Olaf Stapledon saw as the place of fiction in exploring the future of humanity/posthumanity and his personal philosophies on the future of humanity/posthumanity.

The third question I set myself for my research trip was:  What did Stapledon see as the purpose of the evolution of humans/posthumans?

Nowhere in any of his notes, articles, letters or scribblings does Stapledon use the terms "posthumanism" or "posthuman". Rather, he wrote about "superhumanism" or "superman", which were the terms in use at the time (posthuman being coined, I think, somewhere around the 1970s but don't quote me on that).

In the University of Liverpool's Stapledon archive I found notes for a lecture titled "Humanism and Superhumanism", dated 1934, where he wrote the following definitions.

For humanism:

Humanism: an attitude of mind, a policy, a way of living, according to which -
"the proper study of mankind is man", -
the proper object of all devotion is man
1. nothing less than man is worthy of devotion
2. nothing more than man is knowable by men
therefore all service, all loyalty, all praise and worship is due to the awakening spirit of man
 For superhumanism:
Let us call it: an attitude of mind, a way of living, a policy, according to which -
humanism is not enough
Though the positive state of humanism is sound, and essential
the denial of the superhuman is an error
starting point of superhumanism:
either - a feeling that man is not enough (a vague dissatisfaction)
or some positive experience of -
worship of a non human Other
which may be conceived as
gods, fate, God, Nature
a principle of Order, the Whole, etc
When I read these definitions I feel Stapledon reaching for something more, something beyond, the current state of the world of 1934, which was a world becoming (for someone living in England) an increasingly frightening and out of control place. Above all, it seems to me that Stapledon was looking for a way to make sense of it all, to try and see his way clear to a way forward for the future of human beings.

The notes for this lecture are comprehensive, and one of the things I love about Stapledon's writing and thinking is his willingness to look at all sides of the argument. He genuinely wants to explore all positives and negatives. After defining humanism and superhumanism he goes on to attack and defend both concepts, acknowledging in one instance the possibility that a desire for superhumanism is an expression of "suppressed infantile cravings with glamourous feeling tone" and a "tissue of biased reasoning". He struggles with himself, seeing himself as a humanist and yet as "demanding more".

His language is often vague as he struggles to express his reasons for believing that superhumanism is a concept that must be seriously examined. In laying down his argument he uses phrases including "felt acquaintance with a positive something"; "those who already know will understand"; "a sense of 'the numinous', 'the holy'". He writes:
...bearing all this in mind, and also  the present growing humility of science - is it reasonable to blinker oneself with humanism? is not concern with the superhuman the way of life (though a dangerous way)
... the universe may be intelligible
though not to man
and even man may progressively understand
and must try to do so
Stapledon's chief concern is that human beings strive to reach their full potential, to understand themselves and their universe to the fullest extent possible, not in a search for perfection but for humans to explore their best selves. His novel, Last and First Men, was one exploration of these ideas, and he continued to explore human and superhuman potential throughout his other novels, Starmaker, Sirius, Odd John and Last Men in London. Each was an examination of what human beings might become physically, emotionally and spiritually; and how these future humans, in whatever form they evolved, might communicate, interrelate and build meaningful, purposeful lives.

At the time of writing the notes for this particular lecture, Stapledon and his contemporaries had yet to witness the worst of humanity. Yet throughout his life he continued to explore the possibilities of the best that human beings might become. In creating some of the first fictional posthumans he rejected the notion of homo sapien as the 'final' human being, and succeeded in laying the groundwork for science fiction and speculative fiction writers of the second half of the 20th century and beyond to explore subsequent evolution of the beings we call human.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

What I learned on my research trip (part 2)

In last week's post I looked at what Olaf Stapledon saw as the place of fiction in exploring the future of humanity/posthumanity. The second question I set myself for my research trip was:

What were Stapledon's personal philosophies on the future of humanity/posthumanity?

He wrote notes for several lectures that look at various aspects of this question, including lectures titled Interplanetary Man, Possible Futures, Ourselves  and the Future and Humanism and Superhumanism. The strongest thread I found running through his notes on this topic was his focus on how humans might reach their potential in the far distant future, in the millions of years to come. This was probably a reflection of the times in which he was writing - the 1930s and 1940s - when the future of humanity was at a major crossroads and the possibilities - atomic war, fascism, wage slavery - were overwhelmingly bleak.

Degrees of futurity

In the lecture notes for his talk on Possible Futures he defined the following "degrees of futurity":
near - next 100 years
middle - 1-10,000 years
far - millions of years and onwards
In terms of the far future he posed the question: "Will there be men?" and noted:
certainly not like us
things move too fast and ever faster?
or stagnation
new intelligent species or improved humanity?
The question of what "future men" might look like is explored in his novel Last and First Men. However, reading through his lecture notes and a couple of his journal articles, his philosophy on the future of humanity and posthumanity - what we might become - was based on a concept he called "personality in community".

What is "personality in community"?

Stapledon's lecture notes contain snippets that pertain to the concept of "personality in community" but he more fully explored this philosophical concept in his article Sketch Map of Human Nature, published in the Journal of the British Institute of Philosophy in July 1942. He wrote that human goals:
...are all approximations to the ideal of the full expression and further development of the individual's capacity for personality, or, more accurately, personality in community.
He went on to define community as equalling social environment, that is, " mental achievement, mutual valuing, and mutual responsibility..." and further, that "...without community a person is but a frost bitten seedling...". He continued:
...with increasing clarity the goal appears as the ever fuller expression and development of man's powers of conscious activity in relation to the actual universe...

Future/post/super humans as better humans

Despite the horrendous times in which he was writing, Stapledon continued to hold an optimistic outlook for humankind. Perhaps this is why he set his fiction so far in the future; by taking himself as far as possible from the devastating present he was able to look more objectively at what a future might hold for humans. However, his overriding goal was to look at ways that human beings might better themselves, not necessarily physically (although he did write and think about this) but more psychologically and emotionally. He explored concepts such as telepathy, and had a keen (yet somewhat sceptical) interest in the paranormal, but such ideas were for him a means to achieve the end goal of a harmonious community in which each individual was able to reach their full potential, and thus contribute to developing the full potential of humankind.

It was, and is, a high reaching goal. But by exploring his philosophies through his fiction, Stapledon demonstrated the potential of the human imagination expressed through fiction that Elaine Graham writes about in Representations of the Post/human when she describes storytelling as  "......the human imagination - not technoscientific this time, but activities of storytelling and myth-making - is constitutive, a crucial part of building the worlds in which we live." Graham concludes:
Fantastic encounters with representations of the post/human offer important insights into the many meanings of being human, but they are also devices by which new worlds can be imagined.
This is exactly what Olaf Stapledon did. By writing about the possible futures for humanity - good, bad and everything in between - he explored what we could become in our posthuman world while always keeping the end goal in sight: reaching the full potential of what we might be emotionally, psychologically and physically both as individuals and as a community.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

What I learned on my research trip (part 1)

My research trip is already over and now (theoretically) I have all the materials and information I need to write my exegesis (the research part of my thesis, as opposed to the creative part). Naturally, I'm procrastinating, or as I prefer to term it, letting the research sink in.

I set out on my research trip with a plan. My goal was to answer these three questions:

1. What did Olaf Stapledon see as the place of fiction in exploring the future of humanity/posthumanity?

2. What were his personal philosophies on the future of humanity/posthumanity?

3. What did he see as the purpose of the evolution of humans/posthumans?

I was able to get answers to all three questions after a few days of reading his many, many lecture notes (a whole box of them, loving indexed and catalogued by library staff). The lecture notes were written on small cards, around the size of a postcard, in perfectly neat but teeny, tiny writing. I had to use a magnifying glass to read them. I'm sure his handwriting tells us a lot about the kind of man he was (he sure didn't think about poor researchers going through his archives in the years to come!) but onto the answers I found.

Science and fiction

The answer to question 1 wasn't difficult to find, as Stapledon had written up two lots of lecture notes relating to that theme: Science and Literature; and Science and Fiction.

In the Science and Literature notes, under the sub-heading Function of Literature in a Scientific Culture, he'd jotted down the following points (these are direct quotes from his notes and underlining is how it appeared in his notes):

A. Suggestive speculation in terms of culture itself
B. Criticism of the culture, correction of the specialist's fallacy
myopic detail
Must stress the higher human capacities - which science cannot yet tackle (and therefore fails to notice)

In his notes for a lecture on Science and Fiction he wrote:

Rules of the game of science fiction
1. Conform to current scientific ideas
be plausible
2. Imaginatively explore -
further possibilities i.e. must create (within framework)
3. be humanly plausible
and significant i.e. a symbol for current Man
myths for a scientific age

Stapledon saw science fiction writers as having the responsibility to explore what science was unwilling to or refused to explore. It was, for him, a way of exploring the realm of possibilities of what humanity could become, both good and bad. In this way, he perceived science fiction as having a vital role in illuminating what futures might be open to us.

A writer of modern myths

Stapledon stated that his own aim as a writer was to "write modern myths". If you consider the breadth and scope of Last and First Men, in particular, I think it's fair to say he achieved his goal. The 18 "stages of man" he describes in the novel cover every kind of human-type species that fiction writers have explored since the book's publication in 1930. People who could fly; giant brains who were, as Stapledon described them, "sessile" (unable to move); ape like creatures obsessed with gold; six fingered humans with elephantine lower limbs and sensitive upper limbs; humans who communicated telepathically; seal-like humans with great lung capacity, a horizontal rudder and a fin: Stapledon created all these and more.

Stapledon wrote most of his fiction during the 1930s, in the lead up to World War II. It was a time of overwhelming fear and unease where the future of humanity looked bleak. He wanted to look beyond those bleak times, millions of years into a distant future, to explore humanity's fullest potential. What was the best humans could become? How could humanity bring out the best in itself, rather than the worst?

Question 1 successfully answered?

I think it can truthfully say that my reading of Stapledon's teeny-tiny lecture notes enabled me to successfully answer my first question. In a nutshell, he believed fiction was a vital tool to explore questions that science did not or could not answer, with a view to opening up the many possible futures that may be open to humans in all their possible forms.

Next week, I'll summarise how I went with answering question 2.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

PhD basics: academic journals and presenting your thesis

In the lead up to my research trip I've been attending a couple of seminars for post-grad students at my uni. Here is a brief overview I've some of the tips I've picked up.

Submitting to academic journals

Last Friday's seminar was titled Where to publish and what to consider, which focused on the whys and wherefores of getting published in academic journals. As a creative-practice led student who is not considering a career in academia, I'm more interested in having books published and proudly on display in bookshops (both bricks and mortar and virtual). However, I have had one journal article published and would like to have another under my belt before my PhD is done.

For those, like me, who don't have an academic career at the top of their list, the best piece of advice I took from that seminar was to spend plenty of time reading the journal you're considering submitting to. This sounds obvious, but it's something I didn't do when writing an article (which was rejected) that I based on a conference presentation I gave. I thought if the conference paper was accepted then my paper based on the conference paper would also be accepted. Wrong! In hindsight, if I'd taken more time to read the journal, and read articles by the journal's editor, I would have seen that we were never going to see eye to eye on the ideas I was putting forward. Still, it was a learning experience, albeit a frustrating one at times.

The PhD examination process

This morning's seminar was on the PhD exam process, which took students step-by-step through all the processes our university requires to get to that fabulous wearing-a-floppy-hat-on-stage moment. Most universities will follow slightly different processes. However, I think the following points can be useful for all higher degree students.

1. Your abstract is crucial.
Some examiners, when reading through a PhD submission, may start by reading the abstract, the introduction and the conclusion to get an idea of the flow of your argument. If your abstract clearly and succinctly outlines the flow of your argument, you're going to give your examiner a good first impression.

2. Your final seminar presentation must show breadth and depth.
At my university PhD students have 45 minutes to present the key points from their thesis. That's not a lot of time to highlight 80-100,000 words of hard work created over 3 or more years. But the key is not to just summarise the main points, which will show breadth, but also to choose some highlights where you can also demonstrate depth.

3. Know the opening lines of your presentation off by heart.
You'll probably be the most nervous at the start of your presentation. Knowing the opening lines of your presentation off by heart will help you ease into the process, and overcome that initial attack of 'big moment' nerves.

After your presentation

There is one BIG question that has been haunting me almost from the start of my PhD: what happens if an examiner or audience member asks you a question about your thesis that you don't understand?

This morning's presenter, a veteran who has delivered hundreds if not thousands of presentations throughout her academic career, gave the following advice:

1. What is your research 'boundary'? Is the question about something you probably should know, or is about something that is really outside your thesis/area of expertise. If it is outside your area of research, say so.

2. If the question is about something you think you should know, ask the questioner to repeat the question. This will give you a little time to play around with it in your mind, and consider a response.

3. Your supervisor isn't allowed to answer the question for you but if you're really struggling they may be able to prompt you along the lines of "remember when you did such and such...", which may be enough to get you started on an answer.

4. If you probably should know the answer to it but you don't, be honest. Tell the panel that it is something you haven't thought about. They may grumble a little, but then the moment will be over and you can move on.

If you try to answer it without know what you're talking about you might just dig yourself into a deeper hole, making it much harder to move on.

Attend seminars and build confidence

Seminars are filled with valuable advice from people who have been there and done it before you. I find that with each seminar I attend, I am building up my knowledge and confidence in how the PhD process works, and how I can maximise my success. So my final piece of advice is, if seminars are on offer at your university, make sure you take the time to attend. It should be well worth it.

Thursday, 30 May 2013

Countdown to research trip

In two weeks time I'll have landed in the UK for my research trip. I'll be spending most of the time in Liverpool, specifically at the University of Liverpool's Science Fiction Hub where I'll be searching my way through the Olaf Stapledon archive. I'll only have 3 and a half days at the library so I can't afford to muck around. I plan on being there when they open the doors and they'll have to find me at the end of each day to throw me out!

Luckily, the library has an online Finding Aid to the archive, which has been invaluable in helping me sort out what items I'd like to look at.  I've worked out a priority list of items I want to see but it's been hard culling down what I'd like to see (almost everything!) to what I really need to help me with my research. Maybe it's just the book nerd in me, but how can I not get just a little over-excited at the opportunity to see original letters to Stapledon from H.G. Wells and Virginia Woolf, among others? Hopefully I will have enough time to get to those but the main items of interest for me will be his lecture notes, where I'll be looking to glean insights into his philosophies on the future of the human race.

This morning I listened to a brief interview with author Mohsin Hamid, who spoke on BBC's Cultural Exchange program about Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker (which is next on my reading list) and also to a snippet from a 1979 interview with author Arthur C. Clarke on why Olaf Stapledon was his biggest literary influence. Stapeldon has been a major influence on science fiction in the twentieth century, and his influence continues today (whether writers are aware of it or not). I can see how ideas such as telepathy and genetic selection, in particular, play out in the novels I'm looking at for my case studies.

The aim is that once I get back from my research trip I'll be head down and bum up working on the first complete draft of my exegesis, which will be around 30,000 words. The plan is to have that first draft finished by the end of September. I figure that's around 2,500 words a week. I can manage that, no problems!

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Lovelock, Noe and Stapledon walk into a bar

James Lovelock, Alva Noe and Olaf Stapledon walk into a bar.
'We're all connected,' says Lovelock, the scientist and thinker.
'We are not our brains,' says Noe the philosopher.
'How do you know,' asks Stapledon the science fiction writer and philosopher, 'that we're not just connected brains?'

No, this is not a pitch for an obscure Big Bang Theory spin-off series. It represents some of the threads of thought I'm attempting to grapple with in the amorphous monster that my thesis is threatening to become. Yesterday I attempted to gather my thoughts about how Lovelock's Gaia Theory and my deep curiosity about neuroscience and its place in contemporary western culture link together. Into my head popped Stapledon's vision of the 'fourth men' from his novel Last and First Men.

This species of posthuman are indeed their brains, and nothing but their brains. Stapledon describes them as living in “a large circular brain turret…divided with many partitions, radiating from a central space, and covered everywhere with pigeon holes.”.  However, they are doomed to extinction because despite their incredible intelligence, their genius, and their telepathic communication, the superbrains are helpless. They cannot move and so are reliant on the more able bodied ‘third men’ to operate the complex machinery that keeps them alive.

Stapledon’s fictional example is an extreme one that takes the idea of ‘we are our brains’ to the point of ridiculousness, yet it also illustrates the illogicality of the assertion that humans are our brains. There are amazing discoveries being made in neuroscience, discoveries that can improve the quality of life for people with neurological diseases, people with spinal cord injuries, people who have lost limbs. I agree that our incredibly complex human brains can reveal much about what makes humans tick. Neuroscience is opening up to us more about who we are, and why we are. But I would argue that neuroscience can only ever be one small part of the story of human life on earth. It is one small window into humanity but can never provide a definitive answer about what it is to be a human because we are more than our brains.

Lovelock’s Gaia Theory gives me a way in to explore this argument - that we are not our brains - because he provides the ‘big picture’ about humans as an organism not merely living on the Earth but intimately connected to it through our flesh, our blood, our cells, from the micro organisms that live in our gut to the manner in which our bodies expel waste products. It is through Lovelock’s work that I can step back and understand that we are not just our brains. If we were we might well evolve into giant posthuman blobs of grey matter sitting in a pen like a factory-farmed animal. Even worse, we may become like the fourth men who, as Stapledon describes, "had a growing sense that though in a manner they knew almost everything, they really knew nothing."

And that would be no fun at all.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Stapledon's posthuman vision

I'm almost three-quarters of the way through Olaf Stapledon's exploration into our posthuman future, Last and First Men, which was first published in 1930. From a 21st century perspective, it can be viewed as both insightful and naive. But the overall sense I get from the novel so far is that of Stapledon's quest to understand why humans, in their constant quest for perfection, continue to make the same errors that lead to their own downfall.

Stapledon approaches the evolution of humankind through various phases of posthumanity from physical, social, psychological and spiritual perspectives. However, his work is not prophetic in the way of some early 20th century science fiction, which foreshadowed various scientific and technological advancements. His posthuman approach is more focused on the human species search for continual improvement, for meaning, and to some degree for immortality. There is a strong focus on a search for spiritual meaning, and so far, most of the various evolutions of humans he describes have followed religions ranging from the profound to the nonsensical. (The exception to that are the 'fourth men' who are static superbrains who communicate telepathically; their sole concern is the intellect.)

One theme common to the various species of human and posthuman that people First and Last Men is self-destruction. No matter how much progress is made in intelligence, spirituality, art, intellect or humanity there is always conflict or crisis which results in the species' downfall. Sometimes this is deliberate, sometimes not. The 'third men', for example, aimed to create a form of human perfection that was able to achieve immortality. They eventually succeeded in  creating the 'fourth men', who were essentially giant brains without bodies that communicated telepathically, and who eventually enslaved the 'third men'. Thus the 'third men' achieved their goal of creating an immortal species, but in doing so destroyed themselves. In contrast, the giant-brained fourth men, realising the pointlessness of a life lacking in a value system, created the giant-sized, super-intelligent and gifted race of 'fifth men' to replace their physically restricted selves.

I'm interested to find out if, by the end of the novel, Stapledon creates a posthuman species that no longer strives for perfection, and if so, how these 'last men' find meaning in their lives. For all his posthuman creations - from standard sized humans who fight clouds of hive-minded martians, to small, six-fingered and big-eared creatures with a religious devotion to music and a penchant for creating art out of living things, to immobile brains housed in large buildings fuelled by radiation, to 3 metre-tall intellectually, artistically and psychologically gifted beings - have one thing in common. They search for knowledge, for perfection, for immortality but ultimately for meaning in their lives. The question I'm hoping Stapledon may try to answer is, once you've attained perfection, what's next?