Roy: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I’ve watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those … moments will be lost in time, like tears…in rain. Time to die.
Most of us remember Roy and his fellow replicants, artificially constructed autonomous systems that reduplicate human appearance, fought wars at the edge of the galaxy, and returned to earth to seek out the one thing that would give them what they needed, more life – a life without end. In the end though they, like us die; yet, they were built to die within a prescribed time, a fatal time of a few years. The difference for them is that they new exactly when they’d die, unlike us who live with the illusion that we have years and years ahead of us, that death is something beyond – an unfathomable destination or as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “The Undiscovered Country”.
Being animals we’ve watched as loved one’s went to that silent world of darkness, pondered the fate of this realm of finality. Throughout time humanoid like beings, even our extinct neighbors, the Neanderthals were fascinated by death, creating art and ritual for burial and mourning. Humans have always been fascinated by the prospects that death is not final, that there must be something beyond, something that transcends this plane of existence, something else that continues on beyond oblivion. In our age at post-Enlightenment philosophy we still ponder the world of death. Atheists and secularists will side with the sciences and naturalists who say: This is it, there is nothing else, we die, caput. In fact, there is no one and nothing that even exists to go on, that the illusion of self is itself a product of a phantasm created by the brain itself; the first-person perspective that the “I” exists is nothing more than the projections of the brain’s own interventions into the body’s processes, a continuity of phenomenal naturalism that creates the illusion of self as the center of consciousness, when in fact it is but the ephemeral bit player and end point of processes that take place deep within the decisioning systems of the brain itself. That the free-will we think we have is actually the fatal strategy of necessity itself, a part of the fatalism of the brain’s own processes in its quest to survive in a hostile universe.
Some like the philosopher Gilles Deleuze would describe the illusion of self and world, this notion of an inner self and an external world is merely a trick played on us by the brain, that in fact things are closer to what Spinoza once suggested, that there is no duality, that we exist on a plane of immanence. Deleuze would say it this way: “The important thing is to understand life, each living individuality, not as a form, or a development of form, but as a complex relation between differential velocities, between deceleration and acceleration of particles. A composition of speeds and slownesses on a plane of immanence.” … and, that our bodies are shaped by “capacities for affecting and being affected… not by its form, nor by its organs or functions, nor as substance or subject. (123)”1 Against Plato, Aristotle, the Scholastics, and all those who had seen life under the eye of a dualistic structure of Subject/Object and Substantive formalism Spinoza, Nietzsche, Bataille, and Deleuze would say ‘no’ – there is only velocities and capacities, not form and substance, minds and bodies. So that we are pure process rather than things that exist as definitive beings. In fact the whole conception of Western Metaphysics is a lie for such thinkers, the whole notion of some grand unified Being, the One is itself an illusion of the Philosophers. That there is only becoming, only process, and nothing else.
So that with Lucretius the first poet of process, and who would introduce the trope for change, the clinamen or swerve. He gave us this power and force of endless metamorphosis, of a universe open and unfinished. One that had no beginning, no creator; and, no end point, or telos, toward which everything is moving; no progress of time. In a realm of pure creation there is no time, no stopping point, no settled place or resting point to stabilize the realm of Being, to solidify and capture, freeze the world into form or substance. We’ve been tricked and captured by an ancient fear, a world of thought and logic that sought to keep us ill-informed, to bind us to its rigid hierarchy of Being, to dominate us and imprison us with its dubious and corrupting logic of the Word. So began the long invention of the human.
If you’ve ever read the French author Michel Houellebecq and found him disturbing it’s because like many children of Democritus, Lucretius, Spinoza … he discovered early on that modern Westerners are hopelessly lost in a false world of narcissistic self-immolation, because they have removed themselves from life through layers and layers of abstraction. The greatest abstraction ever invented by the human is ‘transcendence’, the notion of immortality, the notion of survival of a substantive form, the Self itself transcending death into a life-without-end. Norman O. Brown once suggested:
It is the flight from death that leaves mankind with the problem of what to do with its own innate biological dying, what to do with its own repressed death. Animals let death be a part of life, and use the death instinct to die: man aggressively builds immortal cultures and makes history in order to fight death.2
Western Civilization and Culture is itself an immortality machine, an engine of transcendence, and even now at the edge of extinction, when climate change and the slow death of earth is before us our fantasists, the Transhumanists dream of the purity of perfection and immortality, of overcoming death in a life without end. As Ernest Becker in his Escape From Evil once stated:
Civilization, the rise of the state, kingship, the universal religions-all are fed
by the same psychological dynamic : guilt and the need for redemption. If it is no longer the clan that represents the collective immortality pool, then it is the state, the nation, the revolutionary cell, the corporation, the scientific society, one’s own race. Man still gropes for transcendence… (119).3
Talking of Alan Harrington’s book from 1977 The Immortalists, one of the early technoimmortal visionaries of the transhuman project, John Gray the conservative philosopher would suggest, “Like the anti-heroes of Dostoevsky admired by Stalin, believers in technological immortality want to become God.”4 There are those like Ray Kurzweil who dream of even living on through changing substrates, unsatisfied by the organic bodies we have through evolution been subjected too for millions of years, he believes it is time to go robotic,
The most radical aspect of transhumanism is the scenario that humans will be able to transport the content of their brains, their minds, to a nonbiological entity and thereby achieve immortality. Kurzweil and other transhumanist visionaries imagine a “brain-porting scenario” that will involve “scanning a human brain capturing all of the salient details.” This will entail reinstantiating the brain’s state in a different—most likely much more powerful—computational substrate. According to Kurzweil this will be a feasible procedure and will happen most likely around the late 2030s.5
As a recent article on the Guardian suggests “immortality could be sneaking up faster than we can believe. Barely a month goes by without some new advance in organ replacement, and a recent operation to replace a boy’s windpipe with one generated from his own stem cells was called “embarrassingly simple” by the specialist in charge.” This article mentions the Sens Foundation, led by the radical immortalist Aubrey De Grey, who proposes a brutally simple plan to give humans an unbeatable protection against cancer. This involves limiting human cells’ ability to divide at cancerous levels, with regular top-ups from externally grown cells replacing worn-out tissue.
Alexander Chisholm makes light of such an immorality saying, an immortal future would not be a perfect utopia. Deadly accidents would still happen. Society would still be riddled with flaws, foibles, sorrows and absurdities. We would have to deal with those, as we always have done. At an individual level, people worry about their health, avoid the red meat counter, and spend a fortune on supplements while grinding themselves to a pulp in the gym. All these tiny tweaks add but a few years to your life and come at a cost of time, money or sensation.
Chisoholm takes the liberal stance nonchalantly, as if the world would go on as usual, that people would just continue their haphazard way, with just a few minor updates here and there; no big deal. But … there is always a but… what of a world that continues to populate itself? With the billions already existing how would we look a few centuries from now? If we have 6 billion now… would we think 20, 30, even a 100 billion down the pipe… and, would the earth support and sustain such a population? Would things become quite maddening in a world of density, a maze world, much like the experiments of the 50’s with rats running in a maze, overpopulating to the point that in the end they kill each other off, then go extinct? I josh, but seriously… or, we could take it the other path, that immortality would become something earned, or monetary, or lottery? Would it become a transhuman species bifurcation, wherein only the new update humanity 2.0 can enter this immortal realm? Or, even the next step, only those who have become robotic transplanters, shifted substrates? And, who will qualify for such a shift?
As Massimo Pigliucci said recently in critique of such a world of immortals and transhumanist techno-untopianism:
There are several problems with the pursuit of immortality, one of which is particularly obvious. If we all live (much, much) longer, we all consume more resources and have more children, leading to even more overpopulation and environmental degradation. Of course, techno-optimists the world over have a ready answer for this: more technology. To quote Munkittrick again: “Malthus didn’t understand that technology improves at an exponential rate, so even though unaided food production is arithmetic, the second Agricultural Revolution allowed us to feed more people by an order of magnitude.” Yes, and how do we explain that more people than ever are starving across the world? Technology does not indefinitely improve exponentially, and it must at some point or another crash against the limits imposed by a finite world. We simply don’t have space, water and other prime materials to feed a forever exponentially increasing population. Arguably, it is precisely technology that created the problem of overpopulation, as the original agricultural revolution (the one that happened a few thousand years ago) lead to cycles of boom and bust and to the rapid spread of disease in crowded cities.
Of course we’ve all heard this argument before, too. The argument against technology, etc. Yet, ultimately Pigliucci’s real argument comes at the end when he tells us that true immortality …must be unbearable for any sentient being: imagine having so much time on your hands that eventually there will be nothing new for you to do. You would be forced to play the same games, or watch the same movies, or take the same vacation, over and over and over and over. Or you might kill time by reading articles like the one by Munkittrick literally an infinite number of times. Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but at least at the moment we don’t have to live in Hell forever. (ibid.)
One might call this the argument from boredom. Of course I’ve written of boredom before. I once suggested that behind the concept of the future there is a nagging sense that we may never transcend the present moment? Isn’t the future all about transcendence? Can we ever get out of this deadly circle and truly discover an unknown future, or are we condemned to repeat ourselves infinitely. The future as boring is like a character waiting for a Godot who will never appear, it’s the plunge of a vehicle toward a cliff in which one is handcuffed. With anxiety and trepidation one knows what is coming but one knows as well that one is without redress toward its consequences. All one can do is suffer the future; no more, no less. Is this not the predicament of the Left at the moment. Is this not what Debord railed against as counter-revolutionary? A nostalgia for possibilities rather than the knowledge that one must construct the future rather that wait for it passively like some bored aesthete of time.
And, I remember quoting Samuel Beckett who suggested “The boring is ugly, or rather: Ugliness to the point of the dead, empty, tautological awakens a feeling of boredom in us. The beautiful allows us to forget time, because, as something eternal and self-sufficient, it also transports us to eternity and thus fills us with bliss. But if the emptiness of a view becomes so great that we begin to pay attention to time as time, we notice the lack of content of pure time – and this feeling is boredom. Boredom is not comic in itself, but a turn-around towards the comic occurs when the tautological and boring are produced as self-parody and irony.” (Collected Short Fictions)
So if beauty and the sublime transport us to the utopia of immortality, and disgust, the ugly, and boredom keep us attuned to the comic truth of our mortality, our foibles, our finitude which side of the fence do you situate yourself? I admit a fondness for comedy, what about you; are you a comic, or rather a stern believer of the raptures of immortality? Nick Land once wrote in parodic mode saying,
The ‘Gothic avatar’ is a decadent Western dream of immortality, producing a corruption of the atmosphere wherever something refuses to die; clutching at the eternalization of self, or returning from the grave. White maggots heaving in the carcass of the social, rippling beneath the skin. Fortress Europe pustulation, subordinating techonomic efficiency to demonic negative transcendence.6
So is the dream of immortalization a dream of Zombiefication? A sort of transport into fixity, a substantive formalization of the Self-as-Eternal-Substance and Structure? Why do we persist in seeking to stop the world, the universe; seek to create eternal substance, to pour life into some mummified realm of Being, where like the first emperor of China we can sleep through eternity with liquid mercury of floating kingdoms floating by around our entombed dreams. Why not rather the endless liquidity of things in metamorphosis, process, openness and change; or the end as one more change into something else, particle to particle the eternal return of the swerve, the clinamen, the difference that makes a difference?
Revolted by the sublime and carnage, the mind dreams of a provincial ennui on the scale of the universe, of a History whose stagnation would be so great that doubt would take on the lineaments of an event and hope of a calamity… – E.M. Cioran
- Deleuze, Gilles. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. City Lights Publishers; First Edition in English edition (January 1, 2001)
- Brown, Norman O.. Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History (p. 101). Wesleyan University Press. Kindle Edition.
- Becker, Ernest. Escape From Evil. Free Press; Reissue edition (March 1, 1985)
- Gray, John. The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (p. 209). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
- Hansell, Gregory R.; Grassie, William. H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics (p. 42). Xlibris. Kindle Edition.
- Land, Nick. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 4728-4732). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.