Archive for the ‘ HUCO617 (2010) ’ Category

A Nostalgic Look Back: Cloning

Whatever happened to cloning?

No, no, this is a legitimate question.  I remember about ten years ago, maybe a little bit more than that, there was a buzz around ‘cloning’ as the next big scientific development.  I was in high school at the time, and I recall devouring every news story about Dolly, the first cloned sheep, that I could get my hands on.  I imagined a future in which the tiniest bit of our genetic material could be used to replicate life, and pondered the murky ethics that arose from this.  And then time passed, and the whole craze just sort of faded away.

I was reminded of this in reading Robert Pepperell’s 2003 edition of Posthuman Condition: Consciousness Beyond the Brain, in preparation for my term paper.  In the preface, Pepperell mentions with much urgency developments in the field of genetics and cloning specifically, and what this might mean in the re-definition of the ‘human’.  He references in particular a 2002 article in the Sunday Times about the imminence of the first successful human cloning (I’m fuzzy on this point, but I suspect my lack of memory suggests it wasn’t as successful or as imminent as Pepperell claims.)

So my question is this:  What happened to all the hype about cloning?  Would it have featured importantly in my Posthumanism course had it been offered eight years ago?  Is it strange that cloning hasn’t even gotten the merest mention in class?

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Hayles and the Erasure of Embodiment

In the prologue to How We Became Posthuman, Hayles proposes two different definitions of intelligence: 1) “a property of the formal manipulation of symbols”, and 2) “enaction in the human lifeworld”, that is “embodied reality”.  The first, ‘disembodied’ version of intelligence, she suggests, occurs in Turing’s imitation game as described in “Computer Machinery and Intelligence”, identifying that seminal paper as the historical moment in which intelligence—and information—is separated from the body.  Historically, Turing’s paper is positioned at the forefront of the first wave of cybernetics, which inspired Claude Shannon’s theory of communication and the notion of information as something that can be codified and transmitted from and through one body to another, as “an entity distinct from” the physical media that carried it.  Based on her argument one would infer that, before Turing, intelligence and information were embodied.  Only definition #2 applied pre-Turing.  However, Humanism and Modernism as we’ve seen them discussed both contributed to the definition of information and intelligence—at least in the way both concepts help define us as ‘human’ and ‘modern’—as separate from material reality, predating Turing’s imitation game.

I would propose that this disembodiment takes place with Burkhardt’s historiography of the Renaissance (Davies, 16-17) and the creation of “the myth of essential and universal Man” (24):

Above all, Burkhardt’s Renaissance was the epoch of the individual.  …the concept, the central one in his understanding of the period, denotes not just those heroice or demonic uomini universali, the gifted brutal Sforzas, Borgias and Medicis who haunt the popular histories of the period, but the development of a universal capacity to think of yourself, in a fundamental way, as a free and unique being: not as Florentine or Marseillais or a sailor or a Roman Catholic or somebody’s daughter or grandson, important though all those affiliations might be, but as a free-standing, self-determining person with an identity and a name that is not simply a marker of family or ‘occupation’, but is ‘proper’… (16-17)

I’m also sure that each one of us could think of at least one other example in the history of Humanism or Modernism (or elsewhen/where) that could account for the disembodiment of intelligence/information.

Hayles even contradicts her own construction in chapter 1 by acknowledging that the “erasure of embodiment” is common to both Humanism and Posthumanism, that the humanist ideal presupposes that you possess your body but are more than just the sum of your parts (4).  Whatever part of you that makes you “you”, that is, an individual, lies beyond the material realm; and you share this ephemeral quality—let’s call it ‘identity’, or ‘self’—with all other humans.

Here’s a thought: the capacity for identity implies ‘intelligence’, in the way Hayles uses it (which I’d suggest is subtly yet distinctly different than the way Turing uses it).  For Hayles, does the reverse also follow?  That is, does intelligence imply ‘identity’?

Does the probability that the “erasure of embodiment” is not localized in the historical moment of the birth of cybernetics (but possibly in the historical construction of humanism and modernism!) invalidate her premise that intelligence should be embodied?  Is Hayles’ desire to re-insert intelligence and information in the body justified, or are Moravec’s mind children not only plausible but represent the natural (if I can use such a word) evolution of the human into the posthuman?  Another way of phrasing this question would be to ask: do you agree with Kurzweil, the transhumanists* and the notion of the Singularity, or not?  If yes, how does this change how Hayles defines the posthuman?

*as an aside, we’ve talked a lot about antihumanism, humanism, posthumanism (not to mention (premoderns, moderns, postmoderns, nonmoderns and cyborgs)… but we really haven’t said a lot about transhumanism.  What’s the deal with that, Harvey?

(post)Humanism

This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism. This week we were reading Humanism, by Tony Davies, which describes the emergence of “Humanism” as a concept, a movement, a pedagogy, a philosophy, an ideology, a ‘Snark’. http://www.amazon.com/Humanism-Critical-Idiom-Tony-Davies/dp/0415420644/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1286296464&sr=8-1-spell

There are so many weighty concepts and reversals worth discussing in Davies’ Humanism that it is hard to know where to start.  Perhaps the most important aspect of Davies’ history of the term is something he never quite addresses: the structure of the text itself.

Davies’ approach to reaching a whole and encompassing definition of ‘Humanism’ says quite a lot about our own historical moment and the current state of (post)Humanism.  In his introduction Davies carefully notes that his history is not strictly chronological but should follow an internal logic, a narrative that identifies the plurality of Humanism and enumerates its myriad conflicting variations.   He begins with the 19th and 20th century attempts to first legitimize the essential and universal qualities of Humanism (undermined by the political ends such attempts are invariably put to) and then to deconstruct and disable the validity of these same qualities, and indeed, the validity of Humanism itself as a concept; then moves on to 15th century Italy and the origins of the European Renaissance (a period he does not forget to point out is just as fabricated as ‘Humanism’), pauses on the Enlightenment when the notions of essence and universality of Man are at once crystallized and inextricably bound up in the very real politics and power structures/struggles of the period; and, finally, ends at the present moment, with the realization that the very idea of Humanism is so problematic—so “chimerical” (128)—that it might not be salvageable, and yet it remains a sole refuge from a vast, cold, and unsettling universe within which our utter insignificance is wretchedly felt.  Derrida whispers through Davies’ approach to defining Humanism within a particular historical context, and then starkly proving how the definition is not humanism, is in fact an antihumanism according to how we have come to conceive the concept in terms of universality and individuality.  Like Derrida in Différance, Davies enacts the quixotic struggle to find a central truth in the plurality of meanings by circling the concept of ‘Humanism’, and in so doing proves that there is no centre [1].  There is no one ‘true’ meaning, only movement between different conceptions of the word, between the presence and absence of supporting values, humanism and antihumanism, human and Other.

I want to linger a moment on the idea of the Other, which Davies only briefly touches on in his conclusion with a too-quick summary of Emmanuel Levinas and Ted Hughes’ ‘Wodwo’ (142-146).  Making a radical move Davies denies himself, I’m going to define ‘Humanism’ right now as “the pursuit of human identity “; Levinas says that ‘humanity’ is “a continuous and precarious process of becoming human…[and] the inescapable recognition that our humanity is on loan from others” (142).  We are defined as human by those things we perceive as not-human, we become ‘human’ only as a mirror reflection of the foreign, the different.  Ted Hughes’ poem gives voice to the Wodwo, a “half-human”, “larval shape” arrested in a state of becoming (144); to me, it reads rather like the internal monologue of Frankenstein’s monster in the moment it achieves self-awareness.  In Davies words, the poem is about “identity as movement, not destination; seeking, not finding” (143).  Both the Wodwo and the Monster are figures moving between the Other and the Human.  And perhaps this movement is what (post)Humanism should be about, what it has always been about.

I’m fascinated by the notion of the Other because I feel it plays a key role in the analysis of popular science-fiction narratives.  It provides a fertile landscape in which to explore the figure of the robot, the cyborg, and its significance in literature.

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[1] In his concluding chapter, Davies describes how the pursuit of progress through a science founded on Reason—a defining feature of Humanism—has displaced “the very notion of ‘centre’ that secures the conceptual scaffolding of the human.” (132)

Roman classics? No, China

Following last week’s readings for Posthumanism, it seems like a broadly accepted fact that the European Renaissance is the primary cause of Humanism.  The Renaissance is often characterized by a renewed interest in classical Roman and Greek literature in the late middle ages, during which seminal texts by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Cicero, Boethius, Ovid and Homer (to name a few), were more widely taught in European universities.  But there’s another cause of the Renaissance that is perhaps less commonly known.

This week I ran across a book by Gavin Menzies, 1434.  1434 is the year Chinese navigator Zheng He (who is credited for circumnavigating the globe in 1421– Menzies’ previous book, btw, titled 1421) landed in Florence and met with the pope (http://www.amazon.ca/1434-Gavin-Menzies/dp/0061492183/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1285550195&sr=8-1).  The book describes the events leading up to the Chinese Emperor sending Zheng He and this illustrious fleet around the world in detail, and the noted encounters of the Chinese delegation with the Italians.  To sum up, Menzies credits the Renaissance to the knowledge the Chinese shared in these encounters.

So, added to the list of the possible origins of Humanism now is Zheng He and the Chinese. Granted, Menzies’ version of history is fanciful and hard to believe, but really is it any more far-fetched than Harold Bloom asserting that Humanism is entirely the product of Shakespeare’s plays?

Understanding Robots Through Derrida

This post is written in response to weekly readings for HUCO617: Posthumanism.  This week we were reading Jacques Derrida; specifically in the context of this response, “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Writing and Difference, pp. 278-293.

In “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”, Derrida casts the use of discourses as a way of criticizing the discourse itself, of invalidating its own premises.  At this point, I don’t pretend to completely understand the significance of what Derrida is saying (I suspect I’d need months or years at a minimum to fully grasp it), but this notion of the destruction of a thing by its own means, its own contradictions, strikes a chord with me.  Specifically, the opposition of human-machine and the anxiety prevalent in almost all narratives about the robot seems to embody this principle in microcosm; we fear our own destruction or substitution at the hands of what we have created, artificial beings cast in our own reflection.

I use Karel Čapek’s perspective on the robot, as I’ve used it before, as an emblem of the opposition at the heart of defining what is human (https://cyborgia.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/robots-frozen-the-snow/).  Čapek’s 1921 play R.U.R. captures the fearful aspect of what results from the human endeavour to duplicate the creation of the Biblical God, to make life in our own image.  From a structuralist position, the “robot” is the centre of this discourse; the “robot” represents both the perfect human and the monstrously not-human, and as such exists both within and outside of the discourse depending on one’s approach.  From this we can already recognize the paradoxical difference Derrida suggests with post-structuralism.

The comment I want to make (and am probably making a hack job of it) is that perhaps the anxiety critics feel towards post-structuralism, like Harold Bloom from our previous readings, is at least similar if not identical to the anxiety we feel towards robotics.  We see this anxiety expressed in literature in innumerable ways: from Shelley’s monster to Rossum’s robots, Asimov’s laws to Dick’s replicants, Star Wars‘ droids to Gibson’s Neuromancer, they all represent the tension between progress (both technological and existential) and the fear of replacement (or death).  And isn’t that the same tension that exists in post-structuralism?  To take the concepts of a given discourse and employ them “to destroy the old machinery to which they belong and of which they themselves are pieces” (284); in other words, using principles from an existing system in order to re-imagine it, recreate it.  The tension is between method (the instruments of a system) and the truth (the “objective signification” it represents), borrowing from the language Derrida uses in his analysis of Lévi-Strauss.  Or is the tension between the old and the new in the continual act of re-constructing and replacing of the system from within itself?   All of these examples bring to mind the image of the Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail in a perpetual cycle of re-invention.

Bloom’s Cult of the Bard

This is a response to a reading for HUCO617: Posthumanism– The introduction and first chapter of Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

We were asked to read this selection while paying careful attention to how Bloom sets up Shakespeare as the origin of what we today call “humanism”, and to wonder, “What if Shakespeare never existed?  What if Bloom made him up?”

To start with, Bloom’s Shakespeare makes me think of the reverence and divine elevation of the title character in A Canticle for Leibowitz.  In the first part of Walter Miller Jr.’s novel, a novice monk uncovers some cryptic documents apparently written by the founder of his order, Leibowitz.   Over the centuries Leibowitz, a long-dead engineer, becomes a symbol for the preservation of knowledge.  Shakespeare and his works are also a symbol: for Bloom, he is a symbol of what it means to be human, and Bloom proselytizes about how significant his existence was in the promotion of that ideal.

If Shakespeare never existed, Bloom implies, our understanding of who we are as human beings– humanism, more generally– would be completely different, unfathomable.  I suggest that Shakespeare makes a convenient symbol for Bloom, just as Leibowitz was convenient for the Albertian Order in Miller’s novel… but if he had never existed there would have been someone else to take his place.

Bloom’s mistake is to present Shakespeare as existing in a virtual vacuum; he talks about influences on Shakespeare’s writing only in the context of how Shakespeare imitated existing forms, such as Ovid, to showcase his originality.  Bloom grudgingly admits Chaucer affected Shakespeare’s work (“He took hints from Chaucer…”), but Chaucer– who preceded Shakespeare by two centuries– began exploring the human condition in his Canterbury Tales in such a sophisticated way that it is still critically read for that reason today.  Shakespeare may crystallize several centuries of literary tradition and Renaissance thought in his plays, acting as a lodestone for generations of literary criticism, but he is hardly responsible for inventing humanism as a founding principle of western philosophy.  I’d contend the fact that Shakespeare so effectively summarized the prevailing philosophical bent of the European Renaissance has made it too easy for centuries of critics like Bloom to invoke his work as the culmination of western literary tradition.  Arguably, this position has stunted the growth of literary criticism, paying poor tribute to the many good creative works that have been written since, and we are only now beginning to grasp other approaches to criticism.

Another thought (and I have to say, I had many I’m leaving unmentioned in reading Bloom’s text): Bloom quotes T.S. Eliot in saying, “…all we can hope for is to be wrong about Shakespeare in a new way.  I propose only that we cease to be wrong about him by stopping trying to be right.”  This is a truism that should apply to all sufficiently sophisticated creative works, “literature”, not just Shakespeare.  The more closely you examine an object, and the more eyes you have examining it, the more it reveals.  We have had four hundred years to examine Shakespeare’s corpus– imagine what we could get out of four hundred years of interpretations of Joyce’s Ulysses?