The (Re)birth of Cycles: (Re)examining the quest of Transhumanism
In recent years science has been put in the awkward position of explaining just how insignificant humanity is. Cosmology has revealed a vast, unknowable universe (and it’s quite possible there are others out of our reach) with Earth being nothing more than a speck of cosmic dust. Biology continues to break down the individual – deconstructing emotion, thought, and personality as the outcomes of chemical reactions and genetic codes; nothing is unknowable, nothing is unique. In the face of this existential crisis transhumanism has emerged as a new messiah for humanity: if we are insignificant now, then we must change ourselves to be better; we must rise above our humanity to achieve meaning. In the end, this interpretation of transhumanism is misleading and outdated: if we can break the cycle of humanity; move beyond birth, life, death; move beyond the limitations of memory and the constraints of the body; then where do we exist in the Universe? What exactly is the final frontier that transhumanism claims to approach?
Before diving into the digital stream of transhuman thought, we must try and figure out what transhumanism actually is. The term transhumanism (also referred to as posthumanism) is usually referring to a movement of thought intended to consciously expand the capabilities of humanity to the point where our species has broken the limitations of what it means to be human. What, exactly, will cause this change has been hotly debated among scholars and scientists, contenders include: the creation of Artificial Intelligence, cloning, genetic modification, the digitization of the human mind, and even “uplifting” other animals to human intelligence. Others have argued that transhumansim is less about the integration of technology into the body and more about our understanding of the human body. In his book Body Drift, Arthur Kroker suggests that transhumanism isn’t so much a side effect of technological advancement, but rather a reinterpretation of humanity’s place in a multi-bodied state. Body drift refers to “the fact that we no longer inhabit a body… but rather a multiplicity of bodies – imaginary, sexualized, disciplined, gendered, laboring, technologically advanced bodies.” (2) Our evolution comes not from changing the body, but from our understanding and control of our bodies. Accepting our embodiment throughout multiple forms is the first step in breaking the human cycle of life and death. By accepting and owning the various forms of our bodies we move from life and death to the realm of rebirth: rebirth of memory through technology, physical rebirth in medicine and genetics, ecological rebirth through symbiosis, sexual rebirth through performance, and intellectual rebirth from the shattering of the human cycle itself.
This concept of breaking the cycle isn’t entirely unfamiliar. Anyone who’s acquainted with Buddhist or Hindu philosophy, or even the works of Nietzsche, will undoubtedly notice similarities. The transhuman revelation is, in many ways, the synthesis of western empiricism with eastern concepts of transcendentalism. Nietzsche, perhaps the most influential philosopher in modern philosophy, spoke of eternal reoccurrence as an escape in and of itself – a way of pursuing meaning and satisfaction through life. Nietzsche’s work is a microcosm of the posthuman transformataion, in particular Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “the work of an utterly lonely man.” (Kauffmann 103) Nietzsche’s lonely, introverted, suffering embodies the present human state in the face of scientific nihilism, but recurrence can become a savior. “The eternal recurrence of his solitude and despair and of all the agonies of his tormented body… man is capable of standing superhuman suffering if only he feels sure that there is some point and purpose to it, while much less pain will seem intolerable if devoid of meaning.” (111) The Hindu system of reincarnation similarly confirms the immortality of the soul through a continual cycle of life and death. As Krishna explains in the Bhagavad-gītā: “Never was there a time when I did not exist, nor you, nor all these kings; nor in the future shall any of us cease to be.” (2:16) In his commentary in the Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda writes: “There is no endurance of the changing body. That the body is changing every moment by the actions and reactions of the different cells is admitted by modern medical science… By nature, the body is ever changing, and the soul is eternal.” (78) Whether or not one believes in the soul, or in literal reincarnation, there is undoubtedly deep truth in the teachings of Krishna and Nietzsche, and their teachings regarding the conflicting flux of the body and eternal soul (or personality, if you prefer) are more relevant than ever. For, truthfully, the recurring cycle of the body is simultaneously opposed by the Übermensch and Transcendence. Nietzsche and Hinduism espouse the virtues of eternally, only so far that we can learn to transcend our humanity, to become better. Kroker even claims “Nietzsche could reflect with such devastating insight in Thus Spoke Zarathustra that the logic of the self-identical could never rest easy … precisely because the will to power would be based, then as it is now, on the death of death.” (31) Appreciating the cycle of life and death is a necessary part of escaping it, for it is this appreciation that allows for greater understanding of our embodiment and it’s place within the system of the world. Once we have embodied ourselves in the cycle, then we may transcend it.
This concept of the cycle-breaking birth is closely related to the cybernetic interpretation of autopoiesis, or the self-constructing system. As Katherine Hayles points explains: “Autopoiesis turns the cybernetic paradigm inside out. Its central premise – that systems are informationally closed – radically alters the idea of the informational feedback loop… in the autopoietic view, no information crosses the boundary separating the system from its environment. We do not see a world ‘out there’ that exists apart from us.” (10-11) While the human exists in an informational feedback loop where the body is a single system separate from the rest of the world. As the information of the outside world draws humanity out of the singular body we enter autopoiesis, and by extention, transhumanism, where “information… has sunk so deeply into the system as to become indistinguishable from the organizational properties defining the system as such.” (11) Finally, beyond autopoiesis rests the ability “to evolve the capacity to evolve.” (11) This last stage, the modification of systems to change the evolutionary process, may be the closest definition to true “posthumanism.”
These concepts – informational feedback loops, autopoiesis, and self-evolving programs – although originally applied to computer systems, hold water in the biological field as well. Consider the plot of Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn in which humanity, after destroying the Earth in a nuclear war, are saved by aliens. The remaining humans are forced to interbreed with the aliens, thereby simultaneously saving humanity, and condemning it to extinction through hybridity. In the novel the alien Oankali explain that humanity suffers from “two incompatible characteristics”(37): intelligence and hierarchy. The desire for information coupled with the pride of being an individual separate from the world is what makes humanism promising, but dangerous – this is the state of the informational feedback loop. The Oankali are already (for lack of a better word) posthuman in their ability to absorb and manipulate genetic and chemical information in living creatures – they are the biological self-evolving machine. When humanity mates with – or, perhaps more accurately, through – the Oankali we achieve autopoeisis, the transition to transhumanism as we give ourselves up to the information of the outside world.
This transition from the internalized system to the outer data stream is already making its way out of science fiction into the realm of real life; in fact, it’s been doing so for a long time. Individuals produce their identities and bodies from a variety of sources, we relate to characters in books and movies, we relate to specific songs even if we don’t understand the lyrics, we mold ourselves to seek or reject the approval of family and acquaintances. Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home examines Alison’s development as an individual through her relationship with her father and, by extension, the literature he so loves. In many ways Alison and her father are opposite sides of the same coin. Alison wants her father to be manlier, Bruce wants Alison to be more feminine – these inner desires for the self are projected onto each other: “while I was trying to compensate for something unmanly in him he was attempting to express something feminine through me. It was a war of cross-purposes, and so doomed to perpetual escalation. Between us lay a slender demilitarized zone – our shared reverence for masculine beauty.” (98-99) Alison and Bruce are constantly fighting a war to own, not just their own bodies, but each other’s bodies as well. Eventually the “slender demilitarized zone” grows through Bruce and Alice’s mutual appreciation for literature: “as I got older, he [Bruce] began to sense my potential as an intellectual companion. Years of neglect had left me wary. But then I ended up in his English class … and I found that I liked the books dad wanted me to read… Sometimes it was like we were the only ones in the classroom.” (198-199) Through literature Alison escapes the limiting expectations of her dad, and rebuilds a new identity for herself, and then manages to (briefly) reconnect with her father. To borrow words from my peer Alec Shashaty, “Fun Home is a book about books, being LGBT, and constructing an identity out of what seem like random, entropic experiences tossed at one by an uncaring and unfeeling universe.” Indeed, this construction of identity through the random experiences given to us by the universe is a sign of transhuman progression – the body and identity becomes a ship of Theseus, constantly being rebuilt into one form of many pieces. Fun Home reveals how internalization of the outside world through autopoeisis is a real process that’s alive and well in the modern world – it is the true story of a present-day transhuman relationship.
Humanity is in a period of transition, the informational-feedback-loop is not dead, but autopoeisis has not been fully realized either. We are not human, nor are we posthuman, we are currently in an evolutionary shift in between the two states. As information technology and international media continues to spread through the use of the Internet, individuals will begin to integrate this informational data into themselves to fill the existential holes left by continuing biological and cosmological research. The final push towards posthumanism will come when we can fully come to terms with our place as a piece of the cosmological cycle – escaping our individual life and death cycles to advance our evolution within the universal cycle. Just as the tesseract provides a visible shadow of a fourth-dimensional object, present research in gene manipulation, artificial intelligence, and hybridity are shadows of a possible posthuman future. But just as the third dimension can’t glimpse beyond the shadows of the fourth, there’s no saying what posthumanism has in store for us – or what may lie beyond the transhuman. Being reborn into posthumanism will reveal new opportunities, new information to absorb, and new cycles to break; this pattern of conscious evolution is itself a cycle to be explored, and posthumanism is the first step towards this new horizon.
Bechdel, Alison. Fun Home. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2007. Print.
Bhagavad-Gīta As It Is. Ed. A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupāda. Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2011. Print.
Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman. London: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Electronic.
Kroker, Arthur. Body Drift. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. Print.
Kaufmann, Walter. “Thus Spoke Zarathustra Editor’s Preface.” The Portable Nietzsche. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Penguin Books, 1976. 103-111. Print
Shashaty, Alec. “Forums of Identification.” Vassar Moodle. Moodle, 5 Oct. 2014. Web. 16 Nov. 2014.