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.