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.