Friday, May 28, 2004

More on Dacey in Free Enquiry

Also in that issue is an article by me on the common threads linking humanism and transhumanism, in particular a non-anthropocentric ethics. So I read Dacey's piece as more of slam against subcultural extremism and an endorsement of the philosophic gesture I make in the accompanying article. Also, its not entirely bad to be acknowledged as a movement, even if, like every movement, we have some clowns.

Having the US' two largest humanist magazines both have cover stories on transhumanism in the same month is quite a splash, at least among the 65 year-old, sherry-hour-drinking, bicoastal PhD who subscribe to humanist publications...nah, just kidding. Humanism, I know for a fact, is also a growing movement among college students and a diverse group of people worldwide, just like transhumanism. But humanism was here first by 400 years, and like any sibling we need to expect a good bit of older sibling rivalry, so long as they acknowledge that we're part of the family, which I think Austin does.

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Free Inquiry on Transhumanism

[via Sentient Developments] Austin Dacey has published an article in Free Inquiry Magazine titled "The New Perfectionism." The June/July 2004 issue has a cyborgesque figure on the cover and reads: "Updating Humanity: Is Man Obsolete?"

Dacey briefly characterizes transhumanism as a fairly homogenous philosophy and makes a number of sweeping generalizations about the movement -- claiming in fact that its weakness resides in the fact that it is a movement. Interestingly, Dacey lists Betterhumans among the major players in transhumanism today, the other groups being Extropy and the World Transhumanist Association:
One obstacle to discussion is that transhumanism is not just a philosophy; it is also a grassroots movement. The movement, which has gathered force in the last ten years and coalesced around organizations like the Extropy Institute, the online magazine BetterHumans, and the World Transhumanist Association, is a motley crew of serious academics, journalists, and scientists, cyber self-help gurus, nanotech venture capitalists, polyamorists and gender-benders, cryonics freaks, and artificial intelligence geeks.

Freaks? Geeks? Whatever, Austin.

While somewhat sympathetic to transhumanist goals and perspectives, Dacey is clearly uncomfortable with some of the more extreme or unconventional cultural aspects of the movement -- Extropy in particular and its libertarian and Randian flavorings:
Like other iconoclastic movements, organized transhumanism attracts its share of sheer goofiness. The co-founder of Extropy Institute, a Southern California body-builder and Ayn Randian named Max, had his last name changed from ’Conner to More, because “I was going to get better at everything, become smarter, fitter, and healthier.” The co-mingling of serious theory and policy consideration with a grab bag of techno-utopian projects makes for easy targets for the biocons, diverting the debate from core substantive issues.

Additionally, the prominence of organized transhumanism in the debate reinforces the illusion of an all-or-nothing choice between the bio-Luddites and the Borg. Grand Zarathustran dreams of becoming posthuman may leave you cold, though you might nonetheless favor some of the specific developments being proposed. You might be for life extension and gene therapy while being indifferent to whether nanotechnology will ever materialize and opposed to colonizing Mars. Unfortunately, this moderate, piecemeal approach is seldom represented by the ideological camps now squaring off.

And in tune with what I've been saying for some time now, most humanists should have no trouble with transhumanist ideals. In fact, a case can be made that traditional humanism runs the risk obsolescence (and even orthodoxy) should it ignore the changing landscape of technological capabilities and its relation to the human condition. Dacey and other humanists are catching on to humanism 2.0.

Dacey closes by offering a challenge to transhumanist thinkers:
Understood as the body of intellectual and moral ideas that united Renaissance classicists, Enlightenment rationalists, and twentieth-century scientific naturalists, Western humanism was a great and necessary thing. But its moment may have passed, if only because its anthropocentrism accords too little concern to nonhuman animals and too much to human non-persons. The moment may be right for a posthumanist philosophy, if it can be articulated and ethically defended by enough clever and resourceful—you guessed it—human beings.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Is Aging A Natural Kind?

[via Amor Mundi] There is a saying that nothing is inevitable but death and taxes, but it is beginning to look, strangely enough, as if taxes will end up being the more inevitable of the two. In fact, reading the reports of gerontologists these days (for highly readable surveys of what I mean, here’s something by Chris Mooney, and here’s something by Aubrey de Grey) sometimes suggests that if we just put our tax dollars to work in the right places we might have the whole death thing licked in no time at all.

Once upon a time, aging meant a shrivelling of features, a creeping infirmity of frame, the loss of libido and of memory. Already, pharmocological interventions are changing what it means to embark on the profound metabolic processes we associate with aging. It is such a commonplace to cynically observe that face lifts and viagra have not in fact conferred immortality upon the foolish and superficial dreamers of late modernity that I think we sometimes overlook just how profound a transformation these interventions have introduced into our sense of what we can properly hope for and expect from a human life.

With each passing year, indeed with each passing month, medical science offers up to swelling ranks of gerontocrats in the developed world genetic, prosthetic, pharmacological interventions into what have been called the “diseases of aging.” Although it is foolish to leap off the deep end and start talking in an alarmist or ecstatic fashion about the immanent arrival of human “immortality,” one has to wonder just how proximate is the date of the arrival of the longevity singularity, the threshold date when average life expectancy begins to increase one year per year in a sustainable fashion.

As our assumptions and expectations about what it must mean for a human body to age fall one by one in the face of medical intervention, I begin to wonder if there really is such a thing as “aging” in the first place. Is “aging” a word that will soon outlive its usefulness?

Maybe “aging” is a word like “instinct”: Just as when we propose to explain a behavior in the natural world by positing an instinct as its source we are admitting our ignorance about its actual causes while following the forms of an explanation of causes, maybe the word “aging” is also one we have used to pretend mastery in the face of deep perplexity.

What remains of “aging” when “its” underlying processes and outward forms explode into a rich tableau of multiple and competing descriptions, each one of which then, in turn, becomes a field for intervention rather than a "natural" limit to contemplate? Scientists are beginning to speak not just of “diseases of aging,” now, but of “aging as a disease.” And inspired by this new confidence, technophiles are beginning to call for a "War on Aging."

But is it so much that aging is an enemy we soon hope to be equal to, or that we are discovering that “aging” is another artifact of ignorance, a shorthand label for complex realities we never before could get a handle on?

Treating “aging” as a natural monolithic thing easily misleads us into imagining that our interventions into its forms amount to a comparable intervention into the other mysterious monoliths with which “aging” has been associated historically – mortality, finitude, and so on. But there is nothing to suggest that overcoming senescence will confer immortality on beings still prone to mischief or mischance. Nor should we imagine that tweaking our biology will confer on us some kind of godhood. If anything the promise of the ongoing therapeutic amelioration of the processes and effects we have historically associated with “aging” will mean that we will cease to freight these pernicious processes with this enormous metaphysical baggage in the first place.

As we learn that there is not just one way that “aging” threatens to claim our lives, we set out upon the road along which ever more of our lives are our own to claim. Perhaps the point will not be so much to defeat “aging” as to proliferate its forms and so replace it simply with the story of our lives.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Dreams of Liberty? Or of Control?

Here are the concluding paragraphs from a longer essaylet, “Trouble in Libertopia,” over on Amor Mundi:

“Lately, I have begun to suspect that at the temperamental core of the strange enthusiasm of many technophiles for so-called "anarcho-capitalist" dreams of re-inventing the social order, is not finally so much a craving for liberty but for a fantasy, quite to the contrary, of TOTAL EXHAUSTIVE CONTROL. This helps account for the fact that negative libertarian technophiles seem less interested in discussing the proximate problems of nanoscale manufacturing and the modest benefits they will likely confer, but prefer to barrel ahead to paeans to the "total control over matter." They salivate over the title of the book From Chance to Choice (in fact, a fine and nuanced bioethical accounting of benefits and quandaries of genetic medicine), as if biotechnology is about to eliminate chance from our lives and substitute the full determination of morphology -- when it is much more likely that genetic interventions will expand the chances we take along with the choices we make. Behind all their talk of efficiency and non-violence there lurks this weird micromanagerial fantasy of sitting down and actually contracting explicitly the terms of every public interaction in the hopes of controlling it, getting it right, dictating the details. As if the public life of freedom can be compassed in a prenuptual agreement, as if communication would proceed more ideally were we first to re-invent language ab initio (ask these liber-techians how they feel about Esperanto or Loglan and you will see that this analogy, often enough, is not idle).

“But with true freedom one has to accept an ineradicable vulnerability and a real measure of uncertainty. We live in societies with peers, boys. Give up the dreams of total invulnerability, total control, total specification. Take a chance, live a little. Fairness is actually possible. Justice is in our reach. Radical technological development regulated to ensure that costs, risks, and benefits are all fairly shared can emancipate the world. Liberty is so much less than freedom.”

Monday, May 24, 2004

Martha Nussbaum's latest book

[via James Hughes]Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law, a book by philosopher Martha Nussbaum, has just been published by Princeton University Press. A long-time critic of conservatism (in both its traditional and communitarian incarnations), Nussbaum now launches an attack on bioconservative Leon Kass and his so-called "wisdom of repugnance". A consistent move from a consistent liberal. Let's hope it encourages others to head in the same direction.

From the back cover
Should laws about sex and pornography be based on social conventions about what is disgusting? Should felons be required to display bumper stickers or wear T-shirts that announce their crimes? This powerful and elegantly written book, by one of America's most influential philosophers, presents a critique of the role that shame and disgust play in our individual and social lives and, in particular, in the law.
Martha Nussbaum argues that we should be wary of these emotions because they are associated in troubling ways with a desire to hide from our humanity, embodying an unrealistic and sometimes pathological wish to be invulnerable. Nussbaum argues that the thought-content of disgust embodies "magical ideas of contamination, and impossible aspirations to purity that are just not in line with human life as we know it." She argues that disgust should never be the basis for criminalizing an act, or play either the aggravating or the mitigating role in criminal law it currently does. She writes that we should be similarly suspicious of what she calls "primitive shame," a shame "at the very fact of human imperfection," and she is harshly critical of the role that such shame plays in certain punishments.

Drawing on an extraordinarily rich variety of philosophical, psychological, and historical references--from Aristotle and Freud to Nazi ideas about purity--and on legal examples as diverse as the trials of Oscar Wilde and the Martha Stewart insider trading case, this is a major work of legal and moral philosophy.
From Publishers Weekly:
Often, contentious social issues like gay marriage, pornography and stem cell research are framed in terms of religion, morality and the public good. This erudite and engaging treatise contends that these debates are frequently really about the primal emotions of disgust and shame. Philosophy professor Nussbaum, author of Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions, challenges a number of fashionable intellectual currents, including Leon Kass’s notion of a bioethics based on "the wisdom of repugnance" and communitarian Amitai Etzioni’s championing of public humiliation of drunk drivers and other criminals. In response to advocates of populist reflexes of disgust and shame as a cure for social degeneracy, she mounts a critical defense of the classical liberal philosophy of John Stuart Mill, one refounded on a psychoanalytic theory of the emotions. She argues that while disgust and shame are inescapable psychological reactions against human animality, weakness and decay, injecting them into law and politics ends up projecting these troubling aspects of ourselves onto stigmatized groups like homosexuals, women, Jews and the disabled, and is therefore incompatible with a liberal and humane society. Writing in an academically sophisticated but accessible style, Nussbaum is equally at home discussing Aristotle and Freud, Whitman’s poetry and Supreme Court case law. The result is an exceptionally smart, stimulating and intellectually rigorous analysis that adds an illuminating psychological dimension to our understanding of law and public policy.
From Booklist
A citizen filled with grief or anger may advance the cause of liberal equity, but a citizen filled with disgust never will. So argues an acclaimed legal theorist in this sophisticated exploration of how emotions enlarge or contract the nation's commitment to equal dignity for all. Nussbaum insists that no strictly intellectual approach to law will ever illuminate the true reasons humans join in self-governing unions. Because they reflect humans' true vulnerability, the emotions of fear, compassion, and indignation provide guides to sound legal philosophy, but disgust, Nussbaum argues, should never form an emotional basis for law because it springs--in her view--from fantasies of superhuman purity and omnipotence. Too scholarly for most casual readers, Nussbaum's analysis nonetheless treats topics (such as same-sex marriage and nudity) sure to interest nonspecialists--many of whom will find her theories about disgust and shame too psychoanalytic to justify her support for judges who have frustrated electorates motivated by such passions. Populists and communitarians will lock horns with legal theorists in the debates this book will provoke.
The blurbs:
"This exciting book on emotions and the law tackles universal questions central to every legal system. We may pretend that law is a wholly rational discipline. We may try to tame strong emotions. But as Martha Nussbaum shows in her analysis of the passions that influence our attitude to law and its problems, we cannot deny our human feelings. Sometimes in the law, however, we strongly need to keep them in check. Intuition, in particular, is often wrong. Disgust is sometimes based on an infantile dislike of the unfamiliar."--Justice Michael Kirby, High Court of Australia

"This elegantly written book interweaves materials from psychoanalytic theory, ancient and contemporary moral and political philosophy, literature and law. Hiding from Humanity represents a comprehensive, sustained, and highly impressive analysis of the emotions of shame and disgust and the role they play in moral and legal analysis."--Seana Shiffrin, University of California, Los Angeles

"A pleasure to read. The skill and dexterity of Nussbaum's arguments demonstrate why she is so widely admired."--Jack M. Balkin, Yale University

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Forty Whacks

Last week I was at the second installment of Stitch and Split: Selves and Territories in Science Fiction, in Seville, sponsored by the Universidad Internacional de Andalucia. On the plane over I had a window seat. Saw the white cliffs of Dover, the Channel Islands, Britanny, the Bay of Biscay and then a long stretch of Spain. You can tell a country's system of inheritance from the air. Big fields <- primogeniture. A book idea: interesting stuff you can see and figure out from the window seat of an airliner. I can imagine a children's book, but also an adult one.

The University had a taxi waiting for me at the airport. The hotel was in an area called Triana, across the river from the older city and close to the Magic Island of buildings from Expo 92, and to the enormous former monastery in which the university has some rooms, and where the event
was taking place.

I freshened up and got there in good time. Isabel, a very attractive and pleasant young woman, took me through hundreds of metres of architectural marvel to meet the organisers, the two Belgians I'd met at the earlier gig in Barcelona - Laurence Rassell and her partner Nicolas - as well as other participants and the translator, a bouncy muscular guy who has translated a lot of top-level meetings and is fairly sceptical of the top level as a result.

A Spanish SF writer, Juan Miguel Aguilera was also on the first evening, and he talked about space colonies. I missed some of his talk through not having my translation headphones gadget on the right channel, or something. My talk ('We are one people') was a run-through of the Fall Revo future history and an explanation of what political motives it had (basically a re-work of the Nova Express article from way back) - against identity politics and balkanization. A lot of lively discussion followed.

After that we had a break then watched Born in Flames (1983) a film by Lizzie Borden. This film is a cult classic, and deservedly so. Its innovative style and editing stand out and the passion of its creators and actors is evident, and it's a film I intend to see again. As a comment on the earlier discussion it was an inspired piece of programming by Laurence. The premise of this documentary-style film is that ten years after America's peaceful, democratic socialist revolution, women are still oppressed, and a new campaigning movement, the Women's Army, arises to fight this oppression. This would have been a fascinating film if that is what it had been about, but it isn't. It's still fascinating, but in a train-wreck kind of way.

First, we soon find that there has been no socialist revolution. The economy is obviously still capitalist, and not even what a hard-liner might call state capitalist. The new order is called 'social democracy' but it is not even that. Sweden could knock spots off the place. Absolutely no social gains are shown or implied. Not only has nothing changed for women, nothing has changed for anybody, apart from the rhetoric of the rulers. However, this is not a point made strongly in the film. Its whole thrust makes no sense unless it is saying that socialism makes no difference for women, but does for men.

The oppression of women in the future socialist America is in no way subtle. They are forced out of industrial jobs in favour of 'male heads of families'. They are raped in broad daylight in the street. Rape rehabilitation centres are set up to reintegrate rapists into society. Rape victims get nothing. Leave revolutionary or democratic socialism out of it - there is not a Stalinist or Social Democratic bureaucrat in the world who wouldn't jump at the chance to fix women's oppression at that level by pulling women into factories and pushing rapists into labour camps, as formerly existing socialism did. The actual forms of women's oppression in actually or formerly existing socialism didn't get a look-in.

The very best feature of the film was some rap-style singing by a young woman in one of the radical feminist radio stations.

The women's army has a charismatic lesbian black construction-worker leader, who has a charismatic black older feminist mentor behind the scenes. Their first actions are defending women raped in broad daylight in the streets, or hassled by boors on the Metro. Then they escalate to a big demo in New York. This is shown by clips of women's liberation demos of the 1970s, in which unfortunately for the film's thesis the banners and placards of revolutionary socialists are prominent.

The heroine is sacked from her construction job. Women demonstrate in hard hats for union jobs. Nothing happens. The young female editors of Socialist Youth Review, journal of the youth wing of the ruling party, denounce them on television. They, unlike the radical women, wear bouncy
styled hair, blouses, and skirts. They mouth absurd lines without conviction. Young white men riot for jobs. Young black men riot for jobs. Secretaries strike for job advancement prospects. After more of this sort of thing, the women's army gets serious, as only macho New Left Americans can get serious: they pick up the gun.

The heroine is arrested on return from the Saharan republic, where she has been getting military training from disaffected/betrayed Polisario women. She dies in prison in an apparent suicide, but actually a murder. The Socialist Youth Review women see the light, denounce this in their
journal, and lose their positions on the editorial board.

Women's Army cadres seize television studios at gunpoint and forcibly broadcast their version of events. Repression hammers down. The radical feminist radio station is blown up. The Women's Army then plants a bomb in the transmission mast at the top of ... the World Trade Center. The last frame is of a big explosion at the top of the Twin Towers. Fade to black. Credits roll.

Scattered applause from the audience.

I asked feminist SF critic Catherine Ramirez what she thought of it. She said she found it painful to watch.

The next day I wandered around the centre of Seville, taking in the Cathedral and the Alcazar. For sheer aesthetic overload I've seen nothing like either of them since I stood in front of the wall of the Library of Celsus at Ephesus. I also happened upon the Seville Book Fair, at which I was startled to find a stand of literature from the Fundacion Frederico Engels, associated with the website In Defence of Marxism. I had a brief and friendly conversation with them, mainly about recent events in Spain.

That evening the British academic and political theorist Salman Sayyid gave a carefully reasoned discourse on how SF was an intrinsically anti-political genre, of which more later, and Catherine Ramirez gave a lecture on slavery and freedom in the SF of Octavia Butler.

I have to say that though I disagreed with it Salman's talk was the high point of the two days I was there, and the discussion that followed was intense. The film that evening was Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (Craig Baldwin, 1991), a hilarious send-up of the maddest UFO conspiracy theories combined with an account of US interventions in Latin America (explained as its struggle against the aliens).

After each evening we all went out and had dinner around midnight, for 10 Euros and 13 euros per head respectively, of some of the best food I've tasted anywhere.