October 20th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Cultural Paranoia - Part VII - The Posthuman Future?

"Terminal identity speaks with voices of repressed desire and repressed anxiety about terminal culture. In postmodern science fiction, a pervasive parallel population comprised of genetically engineered wetware wonders, electrically addicted buttonheads, fragmented posthuman enclaves, and terminal cyborgs has arisen to embody our new, and inescapable, state of being. Terminal identity negotiates a complex trajectory between the forces of instrumental reason and the abandon of a sacrificial excess."
         - Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity

Are we on the verge of a posthuman apocalypse? Is the merger of humans with their machines in some symbiotic relationship not only possible but inevitable? Are we moving beyond the ancient strictures of both ethics and religion that have guided humans for thousands of years? Is Conspiracy Theory a wake up call, a fictional construct created by men and women who fear this Brave New World of cyborgs and artificial life forms? Are we about to tip the balance of natural limits in the favor of the anti-human forces at the heart of the MegaMachine? Or is this all but one more step in the grand design, the Plot, that the global elites in their quest for a New World Order have concocted to enslave humankind in a world prison? Is this all a fantasy, a sci-fi extravaganza of epic proportions, spawned by madmen and schizoanalysts of the unending nightmare of modernity and conspiracy, or is it an evolutionary adaptation toward a new view of humanity, a fundamental transformation in our view of what it means to be human?

Is our view of the 'human' changing? Is the Enlightenment view of humanity guided by 'Reason' toward greater and greater human liberty still valid? It was Adam Smith in his Wealth of Nations that declared the "fundamental values -Enlightenment values - were involved in the issue of economic freedom, most notably man's right to determine his own fate, his right to be treated not as a ward of supremely wise government but as an autonomous being." Autonomy, individual rights, and liberty were at the center of Enlightenment view of humanity. As Peter Gay states it:

"The men of the Enlightenment united on a vastly ambitious program, a program of secularism, humanity, cosmopolitanism, and freedom, above all, freedom in its many forms -freedom from arbitrary power, freedom of speech, freedom of trade, freedom to realise one's talents, freedom aesthetic response, freedom, in a word, of moral man to make his own way in the world.'"

Murray Rothbard, always an a firm believer of human freedom stated:

"Perhaps a world exists somewhere where intelligent beings are fully formed in some sort of externally determined cages, with no need for internal learning or choices by the individual beings themselves. But man is necessarily in a different situation. Individual human beings are not born or fashioned with fully formed knowledge, values, goals, or personalities; they must each form their own values and goals, develop their personalities, and learn about themselves and the world around them. Every man must have freedom, must have the scope to form, test, and act upon his own choices, for any sort of development of his own personality to take place. He must, in short, be free in order that he may be fully human."

Is this still true?  Edwin Hutchins believes that modern humans are capable of more complex cognition than cavemen not because moderns are smarter, but because they have constructed more intelligent environments in which to work. N. Katherine Hayles sees in this a move toward a new posthuman ideology in which humans "working in partnership with intelligent machines is not so much a usurpation of human right and responsibility but as it is a further development in the construction of distributed cognition environments, a construction that has been ongoing for thousands of years (p. 290, How We Became Posthuman, 1999)." In this worldview humans and machines are seen not as opposing forces but as symbiotic partners, co-creators who shape and or shaped by each other in ways that benefit both. She believes that humans are a flexible unfinished project, and that the more we understand and can conceptualize the interactions between humans and machines in these distributive networked environments the "better we can fashion images of ourselves that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system(p. 290, ibid.)."

Hayles sees her posthuman philosophy as inhabiting an embodied vision of the human:

"As I have repeatedly argued, human being is first of all embodied being, and the complexities of this embodiment mean that human awareness unfolds very different from those of intelligence embodied in cybernetic machines(p. 284)." She tells us that the danger of a posthuman view of humanity lies in the "grafting of the posthuman onto a liberal humanist view of the self(p. 287)." This danger would lead toward a disembodied vision, a nightmare of reason, in which only the wealthy elites would control access to the cybernetic future, adapting the liberal humanist vision in a vain pursuit of immortality through merger with cybernetic machines. Instead of this she envisions a view in which "emergence replaces teleology; reflexive epistemology replaces objectivism; distributed cognition replaces autonomous will; embodiment replaces a body seen as a support system for the mind; and a dynamic partnership between humans and intelligent machines replaces the liberal humanists subject's manifest destiny to dominate and control nature(p. 288)."

As we navigate the posthuman dilemmas - the trajectories between an elitist society in which the wealthy merge with cybernetic constructs, adapting to an ever more disembodied image of the human; and, the other vision of humans and machines in a symbiotic relationship and co-creative adaptation toward smart environments and an illiberal vision of collective participation in cognitive networks and designer worlds -  we face difficult choices over ethical, religious, and social constraints and visions that will have to be challenged and redefined in the coming years.

This fear of the loss of autonomy within the liberal imagination is at the heart of Conspiracy Theory. Cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk sci-fi is leading the way in thinking through some of these issues. But that is to get ahead of ourselves. First we must explore how both left-wing and right-wing conspiracists are dealing with this loss of human autonomy as we move toward a posthuman future.

stay tuned...
S.C. Hickman

Cultural Paranoia - Part VII - The Great Divide: Toward a theory of conspiracy...

"Most of us live our lives in an uneasy alternation of two opposing superstitions: either everything that happens to us is arbitrary and haphazard or everything that happens to us is determined, or even overdetermined by fate, by heritage, by societal pressures, by economic factors, by systemic operations of one sort or another."
        - Harold Bloom, Kabbalah and Criticism

Mainstream scholars and media enclaves would tell us that history is arbitrary and haphazard, that there is no pattern to be found in the study of history. Conspiracists on the other hand see connections and patterns everywhere, links binding us to the far ends of history. Oscar Wilde once told us that "creation is always behind the age. It is Criticism that leads us. The Critical Spirit and the World-Spirit are one." By connecting the dots, by reading history as a fictional construct conducted for the most part by wealthy elites for the benefit of their own mastery of the world conspiracists join that ancient tribe of critics who have entered that defensive arena of antithetical combat for the future of humanity. 

In some ways both the liberal left and the conservative right conspiracists are battling for supremacy, each in its own way trying to stay the tide against a future that neither of them fully understands nor can control. Their fear of this unruly future focuses their version of reality and encompasses their embattled stance within a version of tradition that is slowly vanishing even as they try to resuscitate it from the impossible future. The left accuses the right of political dogmatism and religious bigotry, while the right accuses the left of progressive ideology and atheistic pretensions. Neither is able or willing to confront their own blind visions of themselves or their ideological enemies with a critical spirit void of conspiracy. Both wrap their projects in forms of conspiracy and paranoia that belies the fear both have of a future neither can control or accept.

In the next section I will deal mainly with the Religious Right and their grand conspiracy of the ages. If one spends any time on the web studying the course of conspiracy theory over the past one hundred years one discerns a few basic motifs that tend to crop up over and over: the New World Order, the Illuminati, the power of elite control(interlocking networks of politics, finance, and philanthropy), the manipulation and abuse of technology, alien abduction and ufology, and the ultimate destination of a globalist world tyranny.  Conspiracists of the Left uses many of the same issues but leaves out the occult connections and tries to frame the conspiracy within a progressive paradigm.

One need not spend too much time relaying the information of each of these topics since they have been covered within the books and web sites of many conspiracists. I will only highlight the basic tenets and storyline within which the Left and Right frame their respective conspiracy theories.

1. New World Order - the globalist world-view
2. Illuminati - Secret Societies?
3. Elite - Power and monopoly in politics, finance, and media
4. Technology - Energy and Genetic Manipulation
5. Aliens - Secrecy, Propaganda, and the Rise of the National Security State
6. Tyranny - Two paths to a future nightmare: Eco-fascism or?

stay tuned...