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.