Monday, August 26, 2013

Aliens Among Us: a Casual Stroll through Harvard's Natural History Museum

            It’s incredible that we (well, some of us, I suppose) are so intrigued and excited by the prospect of extraterrestrial life and intelligence that we fail to notice the aliens all around us.
            I recently went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, and, probably needless to say, I really got my nerd on.  Beginning in the Earth Sciences section, I read about the accretion of materials that led to the formation of our planet and walked around an impressive collection of elements, gemstones, amethysts, and rocks collected from various places across the globe as well as a few from meteorites.  As I moved through the institution, the exhibits gradually shifted away from inorganic compounds and toward discussions of climate change and finally onto biological specimens ranging from deep-sea Pompeii Worms (an extremophile found only in hydrothermal vents) to Siberian Tigers, and even a few fossilized remains of dinosaurs and other creatures from the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous.  Finally, the institution also features the interesting Peabody Museum, which houses artifacts from Pre-Columbian American cultures as well as small-scale recreations of temples and murals.
            As I toured the exhibits, I once again was floored by the sheer difference that separated me from what I was looking at.  The interesting, albeit brief, exhibit on evolution offers a bit of clarification for those unsure on the tenets of natural selection (which, as far as I’m concerned, is the closest thing to fact that we’ve yet discovered about the development and emergence of species); but it is a whole other matter to stand beneath this…

 (Fin Whale)

…and marvel at the aliens our planet already has in store for us.
            Some might object to calling creatures such as the Fin Whale “alien,” but I actually intend it in the politest way possible.  Only by really trying to acknowledge the diversification already present among the ecosystems of our planet can we then begin to perceive ourselves as part of this diversification, rather than some pinnacle or omega point at the top of it, straining toward divine transcendence.  Toss us in the middle of the ocean without a boat or paddle, and I guarantee you that all of the sudden we won’t find ourselves at the top of the food chain any longer (hell, throw me in with a boat and paddle – give me a cruise liner – I’ll still probably succumb to the elements).  What I found in the Natural History Museum at Harvard reawakened me to the truth that even I find it difficult to maintain occasionally: that evolutionarily, we are far from the “best,” and that if we seek the alien other, not only are we already among it – we are it.
            I don’t bother memorizing all the transitional epochs and eons during which our planet formed (Hadean, Achaean, Proterozoic, etc.); I can look them up on the internet whenever I need to.  But I am still in awe at the sheer weight of time, even within the scheme of the age of the universe (the accretion of the Earth is believed to have occurred about 4.56 billion years ago, while the universe is believed to be about 13.5 billion years old[1]); and modern human beings – in an anatomical sense – occupy approximately 0.00004% of the entire age of the Earth.  Prior to that time, we can trace the evolution of what we call “humans” back to increasingly more and more alien forms:

Evolution of the human skull (apologies, my camera couldn’t fit all the distinct examples)

Where do we draw the line?  Modern science chooses an entirely arbitrary point, which makes sense in hindsight once we’ve applied the schematics of biological classification.  We see some semblance creeping along the diverging lines, one strand that ends with us; but if we follow this strand back far enough, we will likely stare in disgust at our supposed ancestors.
            The other divergent lines offer glimpses into such unique forms of life that we can’t help but feel as aliens on our own planet:

Ground Pangolin

Right Whale 

Sperm Whale

I could spend hours walking around Harvard’s Natural History Museum; actually, I did.  The exhibit of glass flowers is as breathtaking as their collection of elements and animals.  Finally, what I found most exhilarating wasn’t any one exhibit in particular, but my own body – my own limbs, gait, brain, and the fact that I was part of a culture that put things in museums.  We privilege our eyes; sight is our dominant sense.  We need to see things in order to understand them.  Museums are an institution of seeing…
(don’t ask me exactly what this thing is)

…but we must remember that whatever we look at looks back at us.
            In Arthur C. Clarke’s iconic 1953 science fiction novel, Childhood’s End, the character Jan Rodricks is taken on a tour through an alien museum and witnesses an exhibit that causes immediate terror, and then gradual wonderment:
It was lifeless, of course – not, as he had thought in that first moment of panic, consciously staring up at him.  It filled almost all that great circular space, and the ruby light gleamed and shifted in its crystal depths.

It was a single giant eye. (Clarke 214)[2]

Jan explains that he feels panic, at first, because the situation was unexpected; but the details of expectance are never clarified.  Is Jan afraid because of the size of the exhibit, the reorientation of frame and perspective… or is he afraid because suddenly, in an institution of seeing, he feels that he has become the sight.  Those who know their Foucault may recall the succinct summary of his panopticon writings from Discipline & Punish: “Visibility is a trap.”[3]  As we walk through a museum, we are under the impression that nothing looks back at us – but the museum is not Foucault’s panopticon.[4]  We are not disguised in the central tower.  When we walk through zoos, we are fully aware that animals look back at us; we are not invisible.

Stanley Kubrick, “How People Look to Monkeys,” 1946

It is foolish to believe that simply because the exhibits in a museum are not living, breathing organisms, they do not look back at us.  We are (most of us) unaware of the deep cultural affect that permeates the museum environment.  We separate the museum out, believe it to be an objective space that distinguishes each exhibit, and us from the exhibits; but we do not consider the fact that, amidst the diversity of expunged life, we are the purest exhibit.  Our fascination with other creatures signals the greater imperative: our fascination with what we are, where we fit in the exhibition.
            We need not invoke the technologically advanced aliens of Clarke’s Childhood’s End in order to conceive of this fascination.  All we need to do is reorient ourselves with respect to our fellow terrestrial organisms.  Dismiss for a moment the museum as a “book of nature,” with ourselves as the author, and consider that what we take to be our authorship is actually a reflexive effort to comprehend ourselves.[5]
            Despite the reflexivity inherent in the instance of exhibition, we can still find ourselves in awe of the creatures before us, particularly when all we have left are the bones:

Triceratops skull


Contemplating these strange looking things in turn raises questions about our ability to contemplate other animals at all.  Observing living animals in their habitat, as is the business of biologists and other scholars of the life sciences, certainly assists in the matter; but we must acknowledge, at some point, a barrier in what we can hope to understand.  Dinosaurs, unfortunately, have left us only their bones.  We don’t have any cave paintings, photographs, or home videos, despite our fond memories of this adorable bunch:

(I’m the baby!)

It helps to anthropomorphize things, but as any good scholar will tell you, this doesn’t get us any closer to understanding the thing-in-itself (in Kantian terms).  So we attempt to separate, to classify, and to organize in an effort to achieve the most objective, neutral knowledge possible of the things around us; but turning to Foucault one last time, no matter how complex our instruments or how specific our naming system, the utter alien-ness of the creature will evade our best attempts.[6]
            This is not an admission of futility or a concession to the inestimable forces of the inhuman world (which, let’s face it, is the world we live in; it makes no sense to think of it as “ours”).  The further science pushes its boundaries, the more discoveries we will continue to make, and the more (hopefully) we will understand, at the very least, about the consequences and effects of our existence in the world.  By continuing to pursue and discover we will not only continue to develop our knowledge, even if it will always remain imperfect; we will also inaugurate and catalyze the ever-shifting relationship of humanity to the world, culturally, economically, ethically, etc.  As we continue to make new discoveries we must also continue to reassess our economic and political foundations, because whether we consciously choose to or not, we will change.  It will not be for better or for worse – it will just happen.
            And, eventually, we will likely be as bewildering to something else as this is to us:


Kronosaurus (I’m glad I’m not swimming with this thing still in the water)

[1] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude, Trans. Ray Brassier, New York: Continuum, 2011, p. 9.  This is also very common knowledge, and can be found easily on the internet.  I think Wikipedia even has the correct figures.
[2] There is also some speculation that the final “starchild” sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey portrays the protagonist, David Bowman, walking through some kind of celestial museum, but unaware of his spectators…
[3] Michel Foucault, Discipline & Punish, New York: Vintage, 1995, p. 200.
[4] In Discipline & Punish, Foucault writes that the Panopticon is “a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen” (Discipline 202).  The architectural model of the panopticon was designed by Jeremy Bentham for use in prisons.
[5] For more on the museum as a kind of “book,” see Laura Rigal’s fascinating study on excavation, exhibition, and expansion, The American Manufactory: Art, Labor, and the World of Things in the Early Republic, Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998, p. 96-97.
[6] See Michel Foucault, “Classifying,” The Order of Things, New York: Vintage, 1994, p. 125-165.

Monday, August 12, 2013

A Posthuman Manifesto

            My interest in the posthuman provokes a variety of responses, but more often than not I get questioned on what exactly the posthuman is, and how exactly it is useful (i.e. practical).  The posthuman, of course, is not simply a study of what might come after humanity; in fact, it more specifically signals an interest in what exactly the human is.  Taking a posthuman stance means not taking the human, and anything we associate with the human, for granted.  It means making no assumptions on what human beings are or do, even on a general level.  It means trying to assess every situation from not only the human perspective, but from (potentially) all perspectives.  Ultimately, we are all entrenched in our own method of thought and knowing, our own observational strategies and informational paradigms – down to the very way in which our senses perceive the world, we are embodied in a way that conditions our interaction with external reality, what Immanuel Kant labeled the noumenal.  A skeptic of posthuman irrationality (which is what it can often appear as) will likely say: Yes, and that embodiment is as a human body.
            But what really is this body that we so presumptuously call “human”?  What do we really know about it?  Perhaps the assumptions we make about the body are not indicative of the way the body really is, but are only our perceptions of the body.  But then, our perceptions are certainly part of the body since they are generated (to an extent) by it; that is, our perceptivity would not be possible without a body to act as a perceiving agent.  We arrive here at the notion of reflexivity, and it is defined in the following way by N. Katherine Hayles in the first chapter of her book How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics: “Reflexivity is the movement whereby that which has been used to generate a system is made, through a changed perspective, to become part of the system it generates” (Hayles 8).  Our own sensory perceptions allow us to generate a system of the body – to systematize the body, to organize it according to a field of knowledge; but those same perceptions are also a part of the system of the body that they have allowed us to create.  Pursuing this tangent, we can lose ourselves down the proverbial rabbit hole, continually halving our frame of reference, only asymptotically nearing zero-level – Zeno’s Achilles chasing the tortoise.  As Hayles puts it less than a page later: “Reflexivity tends notoriously toward infinite regress” (9).
            The impracticality of this conundrum rings too loud for some.  Humans do in fact engage with their world, often successfully, and they do in fact interact with their surroundings in certain ways.  Can we not then admit that it is practical to make certain assumptions about what the human is and about how it behaves?  For the sake of survival and immediate action, I would agree with the previous rhetorical question.  The danger arrives when we expand our assumptions into universalizations; when we become so entrenched in our assumptions that they become absolute.  I call attention to the posthuman, and to its concerns, because I want to remain vigilant on an expansive, general level.  I want to protect us from ourselves – the selves we take to be so human.  It may be practical, at our moment in history, to view ourselves in a constitutive way, to accept as given the manifest image of humanity, in Wilfred Sellars’s terms.  But practicality can change with the wind, and it can be extremely difficult to alter our cultural attitude toward ourselves and our environment when what conditions this attitude becomes universal.
            In this post, I want to cite Hayles’s opening assumptions regarding the posthuman, and offer them (with some explication) as a kind of posthuman manifesto.  There are four total:
1.      “First, the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life” (2).
This first assumption is a bit misleading considering Hayles goes on to challenge the subordination of material embodiment: “It is this materiality/information separation that I want to contest […] My strategy is to complicate the leap from embodied reality to abstract information” (12).  We must understand Hayles to be constructing a heuristic relationship between information and materiality, rather than allowing information to subsist in an idealistic fashion.  Hayles specifies what she means later in the text, in the chapter titled “The Materiality of Informatics”: “Since the body and embodiment, inscription and incorporation, are in constant interaction, the distinctions forming these polarities are heuristic rather than absolute.  They nevertheless play an important role in understanding the connections between an ideology of immateriality and the material conditions that produce the ideology” (193).  An emphasis on immateriality and information is only possible through specific material conditions, including the instantiation of information in a material body.  Thus, rather than pursue information as a kind of Platonic form subsisting beyond materiality, Hayles seeks to ground the ideal within the material.
2.      “Second, the posthuman view considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition long before Descartes thought he was a mind thinking, as an epiphenomenon, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when in actuality it is only a minor sideshow” (2-3).
As some of my readers may know, this is a topic that has been on my radar for a while now.  As usual, I turn to my homeboy Peter Watts: “Do you want to know what consciousness is for?  Do you want to know the only real purpose it serves?  Training wheels.  You can’t see both aspects of the Necker cube at once, so it lets you focus on one and dismiss the other.  That’s a pretty half-assed way to parse reality” (Watts 302).  Watts, of course, is a flagrant anti-humanist.  I don’t get quite the same impression from Hayles, or from most literary critics for that matter.  Despite the dawning revelation that we’re little more than chemicals and electricity (Watts’s own description), there still remains the undeniable fact that something rather miraculous happens when we truly try and think about our consciousness.  Even if it is a minor sideshow, it’s a pretty impressive one.  When we begin to consider the historical implications of consciousness – its contingency, its reflexivity – which is also what Hayles is interested in, tangentially (that is, how consciousness can arise from matter), we begin to notice how splendidly incredible it is.  If in my writings I seem to sideline consciousness, to subordinate it to matter, then I apologize, for I am being misunderstood.  I’m more interested in reveling in the utter unlikelihood of consciousness.  From inside the Cartesian theater, it appears as though consciousness must have been preordained, as though life had to evolve this way.  But Watts reminds us that evolution “has no foresight” (303).  It didn’t have to happen.  It was an evolutionary accident.  Whether or not one believes in a divine being, a creator, or not, we can’t deny the truth of the matter: that consciousness as an accident is the true miracle.  This is what, if we’re going to adopt a posthumanist position, we have to come to terms with.  This doesn’t necessitate an anti-humanist position, although there are some (including Watts) who tend in that direction.  Rather, we simply have to consider that consciousness is not the only way for life – even intelligent life – to exist.
3.      “Third, the posthuman view thinks of the body as the original prosthesis we all learn to manipulate, so that extending or replacing the body with other prostheses becomes a continuation of a process that began before we were born” (Hayles 3).
I am always struck when people lament or condemn the prospect of technological implants, the use of enhancing drugs, or the swelling of urbanization while at the same time praising artificial limbs or organs, medical marijuana, or the building of a well in Africa.  Hayles’s third assumption allows us to see how part of what the posthuman view allows us to do is to see how “the human” is never exactly what we think it is.  The divide between the natural and the artificial is more prevalent than ever, and one only needs to look as far as advertising to find countless products purporting to be more “natural.”  This divide, however, can be placed right back into the system itself, per Hayles’s invocation of reflexivity: the divide between natural and artificial takes place within the external environment.  Put more explicitly: the division between the natural and the artificial is itself artificial, and must be done away with.
            Life arose from natural inorganic matter, and human beings evolved naturally.  It makes little sense to draw an arbitrary, artificial line in the sand that marks where humanity suddenly started becoming artificial.  Everything we do and make – our earpiece phones, our ADHD medication, our skyscrapers, as well as our prosthetic limbs, life-saving drugs, and water distribution facilities – is just as natural as the first humans that transported wood on a wheel, or struck fire from stone, or used language to communicate.  In this very important sense, we have always been posthuman.  The human is not something static, something that stays the same; it evolves, it reacts, and it absorbs.  John Gray has evocatively written that “considering our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins,” and that if “we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors” (Gray 16).  What we might think of as the posthuman imaginary – cyborgs, cyberspace, and technological singularities – is little more than the natural development of what we call “the human.”  This is what I take Hayles to mean when she claims that the bodily absorption or replacement of new prostheses, according to the posthuman view, is part of a process that has been going on not simply before we were born, but even before the advent of civilized humanity.
4.      “Fourth, and most important, by these and other means, the posthuman view configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines.  In the posthuman, there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals” (Hayles 3).
In the work of Nick Land – which must be some of the most intriguing of recent decades, something between poetry and prose, fiction and philosophy, speculative exploration at its best – we get a glimpse of what machinic posthumanity might look like:
The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off.  Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway.  As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.

The body count climbs through a series of globe-wars.  Emergent Planetary Commercium trashes the Holy Roman Empire, the Napoleonic Continental System, the Second and Third Reich, and the Soviet International, cranking-up world disorder through compressing phases.  Deregulation and the state arms-race each other into cyberspace. (“Meltdown” 441)

Land’s apocalyptic writings are at times enticing and attractive, and at times terrifying, but always riveting.  What readers find in his texts are elements of a posthuman technocracy where the act of authorial creation itself becomes absorbed into the system it describes, thus following the theme of reflexivity.  Land purports to compose what he calls hyperstitions: “semiotic productions that make themselves real” (“Origins” 579).  One of the important aspects of hyperstitions is that their creators do not know they are hyperstitions at the moment of their creation; they appear as merely fictions.  Only in retrospect can they be revealed as hyperstitions.  It is important to note that the term is coined in one of Land’s most obviously fictional texts; that is, the term is coined as a fictional term.  Reflexivity works here in the most convoluted way; a fictional term, coined in a fictional text, but describing fictions that become reality.  In a purely representational way, the term – and the text – merely describes a certain system.  Only through a retrospective feedback loop can the term and text appear as part of the system they purport to describe.  We have to view Land’s work as fiction.  No rational person would claim that his texts accurately describe reality.  But we find within them the description of the system by which they become real.  So now we wait.
            In the aftermath, we will not be able to accurately draw the line between fiction and hyperstition.  There is no telling when the fictional becomes real, or when the text is absorbed into the system that it describes.  In much the same way, there can be no final division between the organic and the cybernetic, or between the human and the artificial – a conflation that appears as the subject matter of Land’s own speculative work.  Humanity, which has striven for so long to distance itself from its technologies, to keep them at arm’s length, to claim control and dominance over them, reorients itself in the posthuman.  It no longer sees its technologies and informatics as something separate, but as something at once constituted and constitutive: we, our environment and historical conditions, constitute the technologies that we create, but these technologies in turn constitute what we are as humans, and what it means to be human.  If we do control them, then they control us just as much.
            We can claim that there is something objective about the way human beings are born into the world.  We do not emerge with prosthetic limbs, or cell phones, or computers, or hammers, or even language.  We absorb and take up these things as we develop.  This we can be most certain of; but we can also be certain that this “state of nature,” in a Hobbesian sense, which we so often privilege and take to be pure, is not better or more valuable than any other later developed state.  If our bodies become poisoned (and this word should conjure an intense ambiguity for those familiar with Derrida’s fantastic long essay, “Plato’s Pharmacy”), or less pure as they mature and develop, this is no less natural than the entirely insufficient and helpless child that exits the womb.
            We are slowly embracing the posthuman, even if while doing so we continue to comfort ourselves with hymns to the ideology of the eternal human soul.  We are slowly embracing the posthuman not because a majority of us are actively pursuing this line of thought, but because the continual development of technology is forcing us to do so of its own accord.  Apocalyptic narratives that envision evil robots or technology run amok are merely examples of the popular imagination attempting to reinforce the bastions of the myth of Man (drenched in all its Western, white, European male self-glory) against the inevitable reality that we are just as contingent as the things we create, the things which create us.  It may be that, right up until the end (whatever this “end” may be), we continue to rebel against the tyranny of technology, to scream against the onslaught of an evolutionary motion that does not care about us, mistakenly believing that we had a destined right to soil, planet, and universe.
            Or, it may be that we come to see ourselves not as the creators of technology, but as its inheritors.  It may be that, through enough willing, reconsideration, and repositioning, we can see ourselves as creature and creator, not as part of a destiny that was designed, but as part of a process that is contingent.  The posthuman is not a philosophy of the end of humanity, or a politics that seeks an end of humanity; it is a way of thinking that allows us to understand ourselves in new ways, that allows us to coexist with the impure and the artificial, and that dethrones us from the pinnacle of evolution not to replace us with something more valuable, but to expose the reality that nothing is more or less valuable.  Perhaps, once we come to see ourselves this way, once we shed the rigid and ridiculous notion of the survival of that reified thing we call “the human,” we may actually find that we can continue to survive in new ways, in different ways, and, perhaps, even in more efficient ways.

Works Cited
Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Print.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999. Print.

Land, Nick. “Meltdown.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Eds. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. New York: Sequence Press, 2011. 441-459. Print.

-. “Origins of the Cthulhu Club.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. New York: Sequence Press, 2011. 573-581. Print.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tor Books, 2006. Print.