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.