Posthuman Aesthetics

In order to gather sufficient resources to support my self, my spouse, and my offspring, I must augment my vision with externally mounted lenses, which I wear on the bridge of my nose. My glasses make me feel professorial; without them, I still feel like an ordinary person pretending to be qualified to teach. But if I didn’t like them, I might consider eye surgery.

Twenty years ago, I got a cavity in a molar; the filling recently fell out, and now I wear a ceramic inlay that perfectly matches the color of my teeth.

In Florida, a newborn was recently fitted with a pacemaker the size of a quarter. How many of us know people who wouldn’t be alive now, or at least wouldn’t be the same, were it not for some technological advancement? Even if you exclude pills and other medical technology that doesn’t actually live with you in your body, or treatments that reduce the pestilence that would have destroyed food and thereby limited our access to nutrition, or things such as an oxygen mask that can help us breathe for short periods of time, I wonder how many of us were at one point hooked up to some device that kept us alive or help us function on a daily basis.

We are becoming posthuman.

In a talk that covers the same ground as her book, How We became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles notes that becoming posthuman invokes both feelings of terror and pleasure. The terror, she says, is easy to understand — she cites others who suggest that “Humans can either go gently into that good night, joining the dinosaurs as a species that once ruled the earth but is now extinct, or hang on for a while longer by becoming machines themselves.”

She has more, however, to say about pleasure:

For some people, including me, the posthuman evokes the exhilarating prospect of getting out of some of the old boxes and opening up new ways of thinking about what being human mans. In posting a shift from presence/absence to pattern/randomness, I have sought to show how these categories can be transformed from the inside to arrive at new kinds of cultural configurations, which may soon render such dualities obsolete, if they have not already.

She traces challenges to Plato’s assumptions involving a “stable, coherent self that could witness and testify to a stable, coherent reality.” As humans, Hayles wants us to emphasize our embodied condition: “the complexities of this embodiment mean that human awareness unfolds in very different ways than intelligence embodied in cybernetic machines.”

Our fascination with artificial life is not new. In the past, divine intervention was responsible as Cadmus sowed dragon’s teeth that grew into an army; Ezekiel saw dry bones in the desert come to life and start praising God; Pygmalion carved the perfect woman who came to life as Galatea.

While I haven’t done a full-scale examination of the history of artificial life, it seems that the earlier stories depended upon the gods, and tales that people of the past told each other to help them deal with the natural phenomena they observed but could not control. There are stories of mechanical birds and other toy-like amusements that depended on simple mechanical principles (springs and so forth) that only emperors could afford.

While we are fascinated by hybrids, but that fascination is closely mingled with repulsion.

Pairings of the gods with morals, half-human images such as the Sphynx, and the Minotaur, the story of which is worth quoting . Minos, king of Crete, offends Poseidon,

who avenged the insult by causing queen Pasiphaë to fall madly in love with the white bull. Her request to Daedalus was that he should help her consummate this passion. He did so by building an ingenious hollow wooden cow, covered with hide and with a door on top through which she could lower herself inside. Together, they wheeled it into the pasture where the bull was kept; Daedalus helped her get in, and then discreetly withdrew. Pasiphaë was completely satisfied, but to everyone’s horror, she then bore the Minotaur, a creature with a man’s body but a bull’s head.

Our more recent stories rely more directly on the efforts to control nature. You may know Disney’s version of The Sorcerers’ Apprentice, where an army of brooms comes to life; that story is based on a legend, which seems to have more to do with science than with religion (a sorcerer, of course, being someone who can control the powers of nature in a God-like way, and who is therefore a threat to societies that would prefer not to have freelancers performing the duties traditionally reserved for uniformed specialists whose goals are better understood). The lazy apprentice uses magic to get out of doing his chores — and the result is chaos.

Another quote from my book…

McLuhan queries the relationship between soul and machine with the following parable:

As Tzu Gung was traveling through the regions north of the river Han, he saw an old man working in his vegetable garden. He had dug an irrigation ditch. The man would descend into the well, fetch up a vessel of water in his arms and pour it into the ditch. While his efforts were tremendous the results appeared to be very meager.

Tzu Gung said, ?There is a way whereby you can irrigate a hundred ditches in one day, and whereby you can do much with little effort ?. You take a wooden lever, weighted at the back and light in front. In this way you can bring up water so quickly that it just gushes out. This is called a draw well.?

Then anger rose up in the old man‘sface, and he said, ?I have heard my teacher say that whoever uses machines does all his work like a machine. He who does his work like a machine grows a heart like a machine, and he who carries the heart of a machine in his breast loses his simplicity. He who has lost his simplicity becomes unsure in the strivings of his soul. Uncertainty in the strivings of the soul is something which does not agree with honest sense. It is not that I do not know of such things; I am ashamed to use them.? (Understanding Media, 63)

The gardener in the parable seems to have no problem using tools (such as the shovel, with which he presumably dug the ditch, or the water vessel, both of which mimic the human action of cupping the hands). Yet the old man is ?ashamed to use? a machine (a word that comes ultimately from the Greek word for ?expedience?) that would allow him to ?do much with little effort.? (Jerz 4).

While my job wouldn’t exist were it not for computers, it’s far from a common experience that people who touch computer suddenly become rich without doing any real work. (Insert angry diatribe against the evils of e-spam.)

I read in the news that a military robot blew up in Iraq.

This is a good thing, those in the know are saying, because one of the things the designed to do is dispose of explosives. In “Firm Cheers Loss of Robot in Iraq,” we read the CEO of iRobot saying, “It was a special moment — a robot got blown up instead of a person.”

 The Czech play “R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots),” introduced the word “Robot” to languages around the country. In the play, Robots are an artificial form of life, created from what a non-scientific character in the play calls a chemical substitute for protoplasm.

The mad inventor Old Rossum was bent on usurping the role of the Creator by artificially reproducing a man in painstaking detail, while the practical industrialist Young Rossum produced a stripped-down version of humanity to be sold as inexpensive workers:

Domin: Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?
Helena: The best? Probably the one who– who– who is honest–and dedicated.
Domin: No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs… [Young Rossum] chucked out everything not directly related to work, and [in] doing that he virtually rejected the human being and created the Robot. (41)

Mass-produced by Robot-run assembly lines, Robots remember everything, and think of nothing new. According to Domin, “They’d make fine university professors.” Rejecting Helena’s theory that Robots have souls, the psychologist Hallemeier admits that once in a while, a Robot will throw down his work and start gnashing his teeth. The human managers treat such an event as evidence of a product defect, but Helena prefers to interpret it as a sign of the emerging soul.

In my book, Technology in American Drama, I comment briefly on the aesthetics of the Robot society:

The Robot is the ultimate commodity?a factory-built living machine, marketed by an idealistic businessman who hopes to turn human society into a work-free utopia. After human anxieties and greed lead to wars and depopulation, an awakening Robot society learns how to hate and how to kill. Lacking any frame of reference outside of the technological environment which gave them birth?no Nature to follow other than the restrictive order of the assembly line?their rebellion ushers in a grotesque new civilization that values nothing but self-serving efficiency and meaningless industry. After the extermination of all human consumers, unwanted goods pile up in storehouses, and the Robots keep working, simply for the sake of the ideals of productivity and efficiency. (17) (emphasis added)

If the story of robots taking over the world appears cliche today, that’s because it speaks so powerfully to our present condition that artists can’t resist putting their own spin on the story.

Posthuman AestheticsJerz’s Literacy Weblog)