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?

Friday, 3 May 2013

Posthuman, the grotesque and the pursuit of power

A PhD is about deep thinking. By the time you've been awarded your PhD you are considered to be an "expert" in your particular topic. To me this implies digging deeper and deeper, getting right into the guts of a topic and finding nuggets of knowledge no one else has discovered. Which is great, if you can stick to one topic. But I find so many different topics fascinating, it's hard to choose.

Over the past 6 to 8 months I've been on a path from neuroscience to the grotesque to the monstrous to the posthuman and back and around (and in and out). In the early part of my research my supervisor asked me over and over again: why neuroscience? what is it about neuroscience that fascinates you? why not something else? As a fiction writer, one of the most interesting things about neuroscience for me is not only its plethora of discoveries but also why particular lines of enquiry are pursued above others. Neuroscience provides a wide and deep pool of ideas I can draw from for my writing, which I can examine and explore within a range of fictional contexts.

My co-protagonist, Quarter, becomes what he is thanks to the wonders of (not quite yet invented) modern neuroscience. But it is what he has become, rather than the technical reasons behind his transformation, that hold the most potential for discovery. He's a weird looking guy: apart from the birds' eyes transplanted into the side of his head he has multiple grafts of animal skin on his body. This places him nicely in the grotesque, perhaps even the monstrous, in terms of his physical body. Quarter's grotesque body is designed. He needed he technical expertise of a gifted, if somewhat psychopathic, doctor (the character of Surgeon) to make the changes to his body. In this way he reflects the assertion of Paul Starr in his essay More Than Organic: Science Fiction and the Grotesque that:
The grotesque bodies of nuclear fiction and SF, which may include the mutant, the alien and the cyborg, directly demonstrate what the organicist grotesque often avoids or denies: that bodies are the products of technologies, that they are continually reformed by processes which are mixtures of the organic and inorganic.
The grotesque, and the monstrous, also hold fascination for me. I could choose to pursue the grotesque in my exegesis (the part of my thesis that supports the creative practice) and look deeply into the "mixtures of the organic and inorganic" in creating the grotesque. But then I ask myself: why did Quarter choose to change himself in this way? Although Surgeon performed the operations that gave Quarter his animal skin grafts and birds' eye transplants, he wanted, and asked for, those changes. Why did he want them? And what do they make him: grotesque; monstrous; posthuman; or all of these?

As a character operating within a narrative, Quarter does not reflect on any of these concepts. His choice to have the animal skin grafts and birds' eye implants are based on his desire for power: he wants others to fear him, and so obey him. To him, the grafts and implants signify his physical superiority, and thus his greater fitness for leadership. His goal is not to be a god or a monster or a posthuman but a powerful leader of the Dirt Circus League and beyond. However, in my search to discover why I write what I write, I have placed Quarter firmly within the realms of the posthuman. Does this mean I am positioning the move towards posthumanity as a search for power? Perhaps.

There are many ways to become posthuman. Some may pursue it to become more enlightened, more intelligent, more able or more creative. Through the character of Quarter, however, the striving for power, a power over others reinforced by the ability to engender fear, is what drives his pursuit of physical changes both on his skin and in his brain. In this way, his visually grotesque body and his posthumanism, brought about through the technological feats of surgery and neuroscience, are by-products of his pursuit of power.

Here's hoping, that in my circuitous meanderings, I'll be able to bring my research interests in neuroscience, the grotesque and posthumanism together in a way that, when I finally pull my PhD thesis together, will offer some deep insights into my creative practice.

Friday, 26 April 2013

Look once, look twice, look again: searching deeper to make research connections

My focus in the last week has been pulling together a proposal to take a research trip to England. At times writing it felt a bit like having my teeth extracted one by one without any anaesthetic but I think I've got it sorted out now. The interesting thing about writing the proposal, though, was following the trail of connections that led to to where I wanted to go.

It started about 8 weeks ago, when I saw a call for papers for a conference on research into speculative fiction being held at the University of Liverpool. It sounded like exactly my sort of thing, so I wrote an abstract and sent it off. The problem was, the conference was only for 1 day. And it takes 24 hours (minimum) to fly from Australia to England. So if I was going to go to the conference, I had to work out what else I would do while I was in the UK because there was no way I was going for less than 2 weeks.

One of the reasons the University of Liverpool is a great place for a conference on speculative fiction is that their library has a Science Fiction Special Collection. I was sure there had to be something in there for me but searching on the terms 'posthuman' and 'posthumanity' got me nowhere in their library catalogue. I kept searching around the Science Fiction Special Collection website looking for clues but I wasn't getting anywhere with skim searching. It was time to look deeper, and pay close attention to each page on the site.

Digging deeper

On the 'Scholarship' web page (which I'd previously ignored because I thought it related to getting a scholarship), was a list of links under various headings including 'Courses', 'Conferences and events', 'Themes & subjects' and 'Theses & dissertations'. Under the heading 'Themes and subjects' was a link 'posthumanity'. I clicked on it - it took me out of the library site to an unassuming (a bit dodgy looking, actually) page. On this page, under the heading 'Books' it listed fiction by just three authors, none of whom I was overly familiar with but one name jumped out at me: Olaf Stapledon. I knew I'd seen his name in my wanderings around the Science Fiction Special Collection site. I went back and double checked and bingo - the special collection has an extensive Stapledon archive.

So far in my research into posthumanity I've focused on recent theory and criticism, and each of the novels I've chosen for my case studies are from the late 20th/early 21st century. I hadn't really looked for where the beginnings of fictional posthumanity might be. Turns out, Olaf Stapledon is pretty much it - he is the forefather of posthuman science fiction. And now here was a whole archive of his writing, notes, correspondence, lectures and more staring me right in the face. This is what I'd (unknowingly) been searching for.

Lessons learned

There are a couple of lessons to learn from this exercise. The first is, if your instinct is telling you something you're searching for is somewhere on a site, keep searching. Look deeper and if you don't find it the first, second or third time go back and look differently. Secondly, don't assume the page title or even the visible headings are telling you everything you need to know. I'd dismissed the 'Scholarship' page several times because of its title and because the first two headings (courses and conferences) on the page confirmed what I thought the page was about. I'm not sure how many times I'd looked at that page before I finally scrolled down to see the 'posthumanity' link, but it was at least 2 or 3.

The Olaf Stapledon archive could turn out to hold the core ideas and concepts that will pull my PhD thesis into a cohesive whole. And although it was staring me in the face, I very nearly missed it. This is very unscientific of me but I believe it was my instincts telling me to keep going back and look again.

By the way, my abstract for the conference paper wasn't accepted. But to be honest, it doesn't really matter. I'll still go to the conference as a delegate, and it'll be a great networking experience, but in the end the conference was just a pathway to me finding what I really needed.

Friday, 19 April 2013

There's more than one way to become a posthuman

I've just finished re-reading Peter Dickinson's Eva, which I'll be using as one of my case studies for my PhD thesis. My thoughts about the book, which I wrote about in last week's post, haven't changed much from my initial reading. The way I see it,  Eva is not merely something other than human; she is posthuman because she finds a way to synthesise her human-ness and her chimp-ness into something new, and live a meaningful life in a future world. She is not merely rejecting humans and embracing chimpanzees, she is incorporating aspects of both and in doing so becomes a version of what it might mean to be posthuman.

Next on my reading list is Kevin Brooks' iBoy. iBoy offers a different perspective of the possibilities for posthumanity, one that is probably closer to the more popular perception of the posthuman because it incorporates technology. Despite the dissimilar ways in which Tom and Eva become 'other', however, they share the distinction of being 'one-off' posthumans. There will never be another Eva - subsequent attempts at human brain into chimp body transplants during the narrative fail, and result in the death of the patients. Similarly, Tom's transformation is the result of an assault; the iPhone fragments have not been strategically placed in his brain; and so the impacts of technology on his brain are random and could not be duplicated.

The basic plot of iBoy is that Tom, a teenager living in a rough London suburb, ends up in hospital after someone throws an iPhone at his head. The phone shatters and parts of it embed in his brain. These shards somehow transform Tom’s brain and, as he wakes from his coma and is then released from hospital, he realises he has become “connected”: 
“I could hear phone calls, I could read emails and texts, I could hack into databases…I could access everything. All from inside my head. I was connected.”. 
Through this event, Brooks explores the moral and ethical dilemmas of having an enhanced brain. Tom is faced with situations where he can use his 'powers' to exact revenge on those who assaulted him, as well as those who raped his friend. The consequences for his actions are beyond those he has imagined; however, and he must deal with the repercussions in the same way that any human would. That is, while Tom's altered brain gives him powers that other humans don't possess, they do not give him any extra insights or abilities to dealing with the ramifications of his decisions and actions. In this way, Tom's posthumanism is more based in physicality than Eva's. Whereas Eva is able to successfully synthesise the chimp and human aspects of herself to become something other, Tom struggles with the powers his altered brain functions give him. At one point towards the novel's conclusion he considers suicide as an escape from his permanently altered brain and the problems it brings him. Although he rejects suicide as a solution, the struggles he faces due to his "connected" brain highlight that the transition from human to posthuman is not an easy one. Furthermore, an 'enhanced' brain does not necessarily remove the need to address, or improve the ability to successfully navigate, moral and ethical choices.

Thus it could be argued that, by the end of the novels, Eva is more posthuman than Tom. However, the possibility exists for Tom to more fully integrate his 'powers' and thus evolve into something other than human in both a physical and psychological sense.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Peter Dickinson's Eva: a posthuman perspective

A couple of years ago I put a call out through blogs and social media asking people to give me examples of young adult fiction that dealt with neuroscience in some way. Someone recommended I read Eva, by Peter Dickinson. I can't discuss Eva without giving the plot away so if you want to go away and read the book first, look away now.

In a nutshell, Eva is the story of a young girl who was severely injured in a car accident; so severely that although her brain was undamaged, her body was beyond repair. The medical establishment's answer to this problem was to transplant her human brain into the body of a young female chimpanzee, Kelly.

There are several readings of this book that critique it from an environmental or animal ethics perspective. And the novel does raise many questions about consciousness and the rights of humans over animals as well as desecration of landscape (the book is set in a future where all animals, except for chimpanzees, only exist 'virtually' and cities have completely overtaken natural landscape except for a few isolated pockets). My interest in the novel, however, came firstly from a neuroscientific perspective, and now from a posthumanist perspective.

The neuroscience in the novel is based around the notion of 'neuron memory'. In the novel the character of Eva describes it as follows:
What you are is a pattern, an arrangement...all your thoughts and imaginings and dreams and memories make up that pattern, and are kept there by the neurons in your brain that have sent their wriggling axons and dendrites branching and joining and passing messages to one another through the incredible complex networks they have grown into...
However, right from the start of the novel, it becomes apparent that Eva has not only her own memories but those of Kelly, the chimp. Thus the novel moves beyond neuroscience as a tool to an exploration of consciousness being embedded in the body as well as the brain. One of the first questions that Eva asks herself after she discovers what has happened to her is: "...what had happened to Kelly, the real Kelly, the one who used to live in this furry skin. Where was she now?"

But now that my research interests have moved beyond neuroscience to its potential role in creating posthumans, the key question that Eva raises for me is not is Eva human or chimp (by the end of the book she has rejected humans and lives with chimps), but is she a posthuman? She definitely fits my definition of posthuman, in that her body has been altered to have skills and abilities she wasn't born with. She has a superior intellect to the chimps she decides in the end to share her life with; thus she is not an animal. And she has kept her human intelligence while gaining physical skills of the chimpanzee (although this means she has lost some human physical skills).

Much of the writing about posthumanism is focused on technology, on the changes to what it means to be a human brought about by mechanical, computing or neuropharmalogical means. There appears to be little focus on becoming posthuman through the transplantation of organic material or tissue. But it is, I think, an equally valid way to become posthuman.

Eva is clearly something other than human, and I believe that 'other' is posthuman; not just because of her chimp body but because she has found a way of living in the world that is not human and yet not animal either. She did not have a choice about whether or not she wanted to live in a chimp body; however she did make deliberate choices about how she would live once she was in that body. And what is a posthuman if not a person that is not only altered physically, but emotionally and psychologically, to adapt and live a satisfying life in a techno-centric world.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Neuroscience versus the unknowable: revisiting Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia

…if we fail to take care of the Earth, it surely will take care of itself by making us no longer welcome.
This quote from the introduction to climate scientist James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia was an important catalyst for the the plot of Dirt Circus League. I can't remember how I first came across this book - like many of the books/articles I find that end up being important to me I suppose it's just serendipity. But the idea of planet Earth as a living, breathing, self-regulating system, and the notion that it would kill off humans in order to save itself, fascinated me. It was the core idea I needed to bring my story idea to life.

This time around I read The Revenge of Gaia much more thoroughly from beginning to end and many of Lovelock's ideas and beliefs surprised me: the fact that he is a strong believer in nuclear energy as the solution to the world's energy problems, for example. He also poo-poohs organic farming, thinks pesticides have a bad name, and that we are more likely to get cancer from simply breathing oxygen than anything else (except cigarette smoking and excessive sunburn). He's not exactly the type of environmentalist I thought he was!

Knowing versus the unknowable

Environmentalism aside, it is the notion of the unexplainable that appeals to me, and Lovelock's particular view of it. I think this quote sums it up well:

The universe is a much more intricate place than we can imagine. I often think our conscious minds will never encompass more than a tiny fraction of it all and that our comprehension of the Earth is no better than an eel’s comprehension of the ocean in which it swims. Life, the universe, consciousness, and even simpler things like riding a bicycle, are inexplicable in words. We are only just beginning to tackle these emergent phenomena, and in Gaia they are as difficult as the near magic of the quantum physics of entanglement. But this does not deny their existence.
 And this:
[there is] an acceptance that Gaia is real to the extent that we have a self-regulating Earth but with a growing recognition that many natural phenomena are unknowable and can never be explained in classical reductionist terms – phenomena such as consciousness, life, the emergence of self-regulation and a growing list of happenings in the world of quantum physics. It is time, I think, that theologians shared with scientists their wonderful word, ‘ineffable’; a word that expresses the thought that God is immanent but unknowable.
Does this have anything to do with neuroscience?

Of course it does! Reporting of neuroscience (in the western world at least) is littered with articles that try to convince us that everything in the world can be explained by brain scans (if you don't believe me read Neuroaesthetics is killing your soul). I love neuroscience. It's an incredibly diverse and fascinating field of study that is discovering more and more about the human brain. But it will not and cannot explain everything about what it means to be a human (or posthuman for that matter).

When I embarked on my PhD my goal was to write a neuro-novel for teenagers. Now that I have an (almost final draft) manuscript the neuroscience aspects of the novel, although they exist, are quite minor. I have included some brief references to neuroscience to explain how Quarter's eye implants work, and one of the characters (Surgeon) is, among other things, a neurosurgeon. But the neuroscience is just one eye-catching pathway into the real guts of what the story is about: belonging, identity, power and interconnectedness.

Lovelock's book inspired me to write about an earth-based religious cult that worships Gaia, and has as a core belief Gaia's right to destroy human life in order to save herself. But his ideas flow through my manuscript in other ways too. The notion of a single, interconnected organism that needs balance to regulate itself, for example, is expressed through the relationship of the two main characters, Quarter and Ava. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that neither will survive life in the Dirt Circus League without the other. They have a physical attraction but deeper than that is their connection that expresses itself through protection (Quarter of Ava) and healing (Ava of Quarter).

Lovelock is also keen on metaphor. He states: 'We have to use the crude tool of metaphor to translate conscious ideas into unconscious understanding.’. Perhaps Quarter and Ava's relationship may be seen as a metaphor for humanity's relationship with the Earth in its struggle to balance technology and the environment?

Or maybe I'm starting to over think it...

By the way, Lovelock does temper the notion that the Earth will kill off humans to save herself to some degree throughout the book, saying that most likely some humans will survive but that civilisation is in danger. So all is not lost. Yet.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Defining posthumanism in 25 words or less

I'm a big fan of '25 words or less competitions'. I've never won one, never really cracked the formula, but I like giving them a go.

Defining posthumanism in 25 words or less is not easy. The Wikipedia entry for posthumanism gives it 5 separate definitions. It took Cary Wolfe an entire book. N. Katherine Hayles has had a few goes at it as well, as have countless other writers.

I'm defining posthumanism for my own specific purpose as part of my practice-led PhD. Naturally, this means it's only one of dozens (hundreds?) of possible definitions, and will open up more questions than it answers. But when I had my first bash at it yesterday this is what I came up with:

Posthumanism is a deliberate act to alter the human body surgically or chemically in order to attain additional skills, abilities or (???) beyond those a human maybe born with. The deliberate act must not merely enhance an existing skill or ability; rather it must create an new one that had not existed before.
Three problems immediately arise with this definition. Firstly, it's generally not good form to have ???? in the middle of a definition. Secondly, it's way over 25 words. Thirdly, (though I'm not sure this is a problem so much as a choice) it tends to focus more on physical attributes rather than philosophical ideals that define a human being.

Going back through the reading I've done on posthumanism, there are several definitions that appeal to me for different reasons. In his book What is Posthumanism, Wolfe quotes Joel Garreau who defines posthumans as:

beings ‘whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to no longer be unambiguously human by our current standards.’
In Our Posthuman Future Fukuyama describes posthumanism as a "potential moral chasm" and focuses on the dangers of biotechnology, in particular the use of neuropharmalogical drugs and genetic screening, while in the opening pages of How We Became Posthuman Hayles states:

Whether or not interventions have been made on the body, new models of subjectivity emerging from such fields as cognitive science and artificial life imply that even a biologically unaltered Homo sapiens counts as posthuman. The defining characteristics involve the construction of subjectivity, not the presence of nonbiological components.
In a nutshell, then, Garreau thinks posthumans are some kind of superhuman; Fukuyama thinks posthumans are potentially dangerous and socially divisive and Hayles thinks we're all posthumans. Okay, so that's a gross oversimplification but it does help me position my definition of posthuman more towards Garreau and further away from both Hayles and Fukuyama.

This is because I'm framing my definition for a fiction-writing perspective: if I'm to have posthumans in my book, particularly for a young adult novel, I want them to look or act posthuman in some way, and I guess, for me, that means having a skill or ability that no human is born with. Also, I'm writing a speculative fiction manuscript so the notion of the superhuman is not only accepted it is to some degree expected.

So for the purposes of my creative practice research, I'm offering the following definition:

A posthuman is someone who has chosen to alter their human body to attain additional skills or abilities other than those they were born with.
It passes the 25 words or less test, so that's a positive. But of course this definition is still problematic. For example, if you are born without legs and you use prosthetic legs does that make you posthuman because you were born without legs, even though most people are born with legs? What if you lose a limb in an accident and replace the lost limb with a prosthetic one that works better than your original limb - does that make you posthuman?

For now, at least, I think I'll use the above as my working definition. But I'm open to suggestions!

Thursday, 21 March 2013

I'm not procrastinating, I'm thinking


I think it's a great activity and doesn't deserve all the bad things people say about it. Any successful piece of writing requires some successful procrastination (and yes, you can quote me on that, just make sure you send me the royalties).

Maybe this past week, since I last met with my supervisor and she told me I should start writing my thesis, I've been procrastinating just a little. I looked at submitting a previously rejected journal article to a different journal. I toyed with the idea of writing a 4000 word journal article for a post-grad journal that was due in 10 days. I even wrote a rough outline for it before deciding I couldn't really match my argument to the theme (or research and write it in 10 days).

I watched some episodes of the Twilight Zone for a short story competition with a Twilight Zone inspired theme. I read a chapter of Susan Merrill Squier's book on the liminal and biomedicine, Liminal Lives. I admit, it didn't really have content I could use in my thesis but I really enjoyed the chapter I read on transplant medicine and transformative narratives. I tried once more to read Donna Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto and found it hard work.

But I am tiptoeing around the answer to the 'big question': what is Dirt Circus League about? Not in terms of plot and narrative, but what is the core idea that is at the heart of the story?

To answer that I'm going back to reading James Lovelock's The Revenge of Gaia. I first read it quite early on in my research and writing process (around September/October 2010) and was fascinated by his idea that Planet Earth is one single living, breathing organism. It's more than the idea that everything is connected; and it's more than the concept that every organism on the planet relies on another to sustain life.

Lovelock states:

" occurred to me in 1981 that Gaia was the whole system - organisms and material environment coupled together - and it was this huge Earth system that evolved self-regulation, not life or the biosphere alone."

Balance within this organism is the key. If factors creep into the system that cause it to destabilise, it will try to right itself but if too many of these factors come at once, or start to overwhelm the system, it is unable to correct the balance and chaos rules. Eventually, to save itself, the planet may rid itself of the cause of that chaos: human beings.

I thought for a long time that my manuscript and thesis would be focused on neuroscience. The neuroscience research and reading I did was vital to my work, and it continues to fascinate me. But the core idea that holds Dirt Circus League together is this connection between neuroscience and the future of the planet, and a striving for balance in that connection. It is about using technology and natural resources together - harnessing the incredible power of the human brain - to help restore the Earth to state where humans can continue to live on it, rather than the Earth killing us all off like a cloud of annoying mozzies. This striving for balance is reflected in the personalities, behaviours and actions of the two main characters, Ava and Quarter, who are both dependent on each other (whether they like it or not) for survival and growth.

It's taken a great deal of procrastination to come to this point, and it'll probably take a fair bit more as I attempt to tease out the threads of this idea in my writing reflection, and bring the elements I've researched - neuroscience; posthumanism;carnivale and grotesque; Lovelock's theory - into a coherent thesis that will (hopefully) be PhD-worthy.

But of course it's not really procrastinating, it's thinking.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Osmosis and the hokey pokey: that's what creative-practice led research is all about

The past week I've focused on reading N. Katherine Hayles' How we became posthuman. It's a fascinating book that has sparked off lots of questions for me around what my creative piece is really about. It's also got me thinking about the relationship between my creative writing practice and my research; that is, how I use my research to inform my thinking about my creative practice.

Creative-practice led research is a tricky beast. It is often difficult to define the exact nature of the research/creative practice relationship, well for me anyway, but I'm going to put some thoughts down about how I see it working.

Almost three years ago, back when Dirt Circus League was a bunch of random ideas in a long-winded narrative that had no beginning, middle or end,  I stuck a sign on my mirror that encapsulated what I might want a reviewer to say about my book, once it was published. The sign says:

A Vonnegut for contemporary young adult readers... Wacky, fast-paced, original, off-beat, funny and wildly imaginative, always with an eye on the obscure and the absurd. A mash-up of neuroscience, action, dark humour and adventure with absolutely no lesson to teach.

It will be up to readers to tell me how much of that 'review' is true for the final product when Dirt Circus League is eventually published. But in terms of my PhD, and how my creative writing practice informs and is informed by my research, there are some interesting things to note about the 'review'.

From the start, it was always going to be speculative fiction. It was not going to be didactic. Like my writing hero Kurt Vonnegut, I wanted to make my readers both laugh and think and get some insight into the beauty, cruelty and absurdity of our planet earth. I referred back to the sign often but didn't try to specifically add in to the story elements from the sign, which would come across as false and implanted rather than naturally occurring. In other worlds, I wanted those elements to seep in by osmosis. And I want my research reading to do the same thing.

Research informing writing informing research

The timeline of story writing/ reading research breaks down roughly like this: 
  • July 2010- March 2011: initial reading/first draft of manuscript simultaneously
  • March 2011 - November 2011: lots of research into neuroscience and related fields (including reading my favourite Fundamentals of Human Neuropsychology)
  • November 2011-May 2012: further drafts and changes to manuscript along with reading into neuroscience and related fields such as critical neuroscience and reading another important text for me, Brain Culture)
  • June 2012-October 2012: research reading, focusing on Bahktin's Rabelais and His World (my first real departure from neuroscience related reading)
  • October 2012-December 2012: another significant rewrite of the manuscript
  • December 2012 - now: reading literary criticism, some related to eco-criticism but mostly around speculative and science fiction; reading focused on posthumanism
The pattern shows intense periods focused on either researching or writing, with fewer periods where the two overlap. However, the basic plot and narrative of the story essentially hasn't changed. What the research does change in the manuscript is the deeper layers, the foundations of the manuscript and the ideas that form it. It's not so much that new ideas come into the manuscript, but that my research illuminates on what those ideas are really about. In turn, I make changes (sometimes quite subtle) that add layers of meaning to the surface story.

Coming back to Hayles' book, for example, I read a paragraph where she writes about Norbert Weiner's book The Human Use of Human Beings. Hayles posits:

'If memory in humans is the transfer of informational patterns from the environment to the brain, machines can be built to effect the same kind of transfer. Even emotions may be achievable for machines if feelings are considered not as "merely a useless epiphenomenon of nervous actions" (HU, p. 72) but as control mechanisms governing learning.'

When I read that I think about my protagonist Quarter, and how he is deliberately doing something to his body and brain that interferes both with memory and with how/what type of informational patterns will transfer from his environment to his brain because some of these patterns will now be bird patterns. I may use that thought to go back to my manuscript at some point and add in a detail, or perhaps even alter the ending slightly, to reflect that notion of the human and animal patterns within him. I'm not going to alter his character to add machine parts, or to incorporate a cyborg into the plot. Nevertheless the point Hayles raises inspires a series of questions for me about who or what Quarter really is, and what he may become.

In this way, my research dips and wiggles its fingers and toes in and out of my creative practice. It's kind of like the hokey-pokey but probably more like osmosis. Just as that sign on my mirror has influenced the type of book that Dirt Circus League is now and will become, so the research seeps its way into my creative writing, sometimes in ways I don't consciously recognise until my supervisor asks me a question about my work, and I realise that I can answer it.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Monsters, gods and posthumans - oh my!

This past week my reading has continued its focus on posthumanism and I read the two books at the heart of last week's journal articles: Francis Fukuyama's The Posthuman Future and Elaine Graham's Representations of the post/human, both published in 2002.

First up, Fukuyama (and yes I see where O'Hara's 'conservative populist' description comes from). At the start of his book Fukuyama tells us his aim is to prove that that 'Huxley was right' and '...the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a "posthuman" stage of history.'

Fukuyama is not a huge fan of biotechnology, and sees it as a threat to creating an overclass of genetic-enhanced haves dominating an underclass of plain old humans. His book is more about the moral and political threats posed by, in particular, neuropharmacology and genetic enhancement. It doesn't really examine what posthumanism is in terms of what makes someone human rather than posthuman. He is more focused on rights and morality.

For the purposes of my research, The Posthuman Future tended too much toward the political implications of biotech. Nevertheless, I found some of his insights interesting. Rebel that I am, I liked his "people's revolution" scenario, where he states ''s unlikely that people in modern democratic societies will sit around complacently if they see elites embedding their advantages genetically in their children' and sees that this could inspire political activity by those wanting the same advantage. 

After Fukuyama I tackled Elaine Graham's treatise on what posthumanism might be. Keeping in mind O'Hara's criticism of Graham that she completely misreads Foucault, I nonetheless found Graham's book a thought-provoking and insightful examination of all things post- and transhuman.

In terms of my research, her book had a lot more to offer me, and sparked some new questions and ideas about whether or not my co-protagonist Quarter, the leader of the Dirt Circus League, is or is not posthuman. Is he something other? A hybrid, or perhaps a monster? Do the birds' eyes displace his humanity or merely weaken it? The animal skin grafts on his arms, face and chest were also created by technology yet they did not make him less-human. But the birds' eyes, by changing the nature of his brain and how it works, I believe do have the potential to make him other than human. But after reading Graham's book, I think that Quarter's potential as a posthuman, and what that might mean, is more of an open question.

I also liked what Graham had to say about the place of story-telling:

'It is a reminder that 'the stories we live by' can be important critical tools in the task of articulating what it means to be human in a digital and biotechnological age.' And, '...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.'

After all, I am a storyteller, and although my focus right now is on the research to build the thesis side of my PhD I must always keep looping it back to my creative practice, which is my speculative fiction manuscript, and the reasons why I chose to tell this particular story.

I believe we do live in a posthuman world, the implications of which we're not really sure of (can we ever really know the implications of the technology we produce?). However what is known is that it is today's children and  young adults who are growing up in this world. They are the ones that must deal with the fallout, whether that be Fukuyama's bleak view of Huxley's nightmare come true, or another future where the struggle to retain whatever it is that makes us human must be balanced against a bombardment of new technologies that promise to make us as perfect as gods. Which leads to the question, do we want to be perfect, or just better? And where is that line?

Where better to explore those questions than through story-telling.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Posthumanism, power and the search for "infinite self-enhancement"

Most of my reading over the past week has focused on posthumanism and I've stumbled across a few really good articles. Often it seems the right article just seems to turn up unexpectedly in search results when I was looking for something else.

One of these was Elaine Ostry's "Is He Still Human? Are you?": Young Adult Fiction in the Posthuman Age (2004). Apart from giving a comprehensive overview of young adult titles that deal with posthuman themes pre-2004, it also gave me some excellent material I can use to help me position my manuscript within the speculative fiction genre. Ostry's articles discusses the idea that children are already living in a posthuman world, growing up in it, and so are the most likely to be affected by it. She uses Francis Fukuyama's three main categories of posthuman - neuropharmacology, prolongation of life, and genetic engineering - as a framework to discuss several young adult novels, many of which I was unfamiliar with (although the themes and plots were quite familiar). Ostry's view is that exploring the ramifications of the posthuman is important to young adults as 'Through literature, young adults can become aware of, and participate in, the debates surrounding biotechnology.' This is something I relate to as one of my aims in writing about neuroscience and neuroscientific themes in young adult fiction is as a way for young adults to explore the implications of the "neurorevolution" and what it means for them and the world they are inheriting.

Another article discussing Fukuyama's views of posthumanism also caught my attention this week: Daniel T O'Hara's Neither Gods nor Monsters: An Untimely Critique of the "Post/Human" Imagination (2003). While Ostry is clearly a fan of Fukuyama's, I'm not so sure about O'Hara, as in his article he describes Fukuyama as a 'conservative populist' in a way that makes me think this is not a good thing to be. Anyway, name calling aside, O'Hara is clearly some sort of genius with an incredible knowledge of pretty much every philosopher around and basically blew my mind by explaining how he sees Nietzsche's and Heidegger's theories on will and power relating to posthumanism. Even more interesting was the series of questions he raised at the end of his article:

'That insatiable modern will-to-will indeed will, no must, not rest, cannot rest because its only aim is an impossible infinite self-enhancement. But what if the universe is as perfect as it can be already at every moment, and what if any change, however tiny, however carefully done, means everything is abolished as it is, and so all begins to swing wildly out of kilter...wobbling ever more crazily toward an absolute chaos...'

The phrase 'impossible infinite self-enhancement' appeals to me because I think this may be where one of my main characters, Quarter, is heading (although he probably doesn't quite realise it himself). It also ties in nicely with the criticism of neuroscience, expressed in Thornton's 2011 book Brain Culture and in some of the writings coming out of the Critical Neuroscience group, that certain sections of the "neurorevolution" push humans (or whatever we are becoming) to aim for an essentially unachievable goal of perfection.

So, after this week, my ideas board looks like this.

Neuroscience (yellow sticky notes) is looking a bit empty while post/transhumanism (orange) and belonging vs power (green) are coming along nicely with carnivale (pink) close behind them. Not that it's a race or anything...

Most important thing is, the connections are starting to appear.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Bypassing the middle, skipping to the end

In December 2012 I got the great news that I'd been awarded a scholarship to study my PhD full-time. Although the part-time study worked well for me at first, I'd reached a point where just grabbing a few hours here and there to devote to my research wasn't working. I'd start gathering ideas and pursuing a line of thought and bang - it'd be back to the day job. This meant I couldn't really bring my thoughts and ideas together, and I felt I was doing a lot of stopping and starting.

I had a few things to sort out but finally the time has arrived that I can get stuck into my PhD as a full-time student. I'm all too aware of how fast time can pass, though, so I'm determined to make sure I don't waste any time. (Ok, there may be the odd half hour here & there devoted to watching soap operas). So today I've organised my desk, done up a new project plan and set up a 'ideas board' on my wall (basically a bit piece of cardboard that will eventually be covered with sticky notes).

My PhD is creative-practice led, and the manuscript is well under control. So the next few months are all about trying to work out 'what it all means'. According to my ideas board, the four main ideas/themes underpinning my work are:

  • neuroscience
  • carnivale and the grotesque
  • post/transhumanism
  • belonging
My job is to somehow bring the threads of these themes together in a coherent way in a 30,000 word exegesis that supports/expands upon my creative practice (a 65,000 word manuscript). I've done a lot of reading on neuroscience, waded my way through Bahktin's Rabelais and his World, got a basic grip on the grotesque but I'm still trying to get my head around posthumanism/transhumanism. So, for the next few weeks at least, that's where I'll focus my reading.

I started off today with reading the final chapter of Katherine Hayles' How We Became Posthuman and was intrigued by some of the arguments/ideas she put forward. I particularly liked the idea that the posthuman is not necessarily apocalyptic, and that "...we can craft others that will be conducive to the long-range survival of humans and of the other life-forms, biological and artificial, with whom we share the planet and ourselves."

If there are any must-reads people can recommend on posthumanism and transhumanism, I'd really appreciate it if you let me know about them.