Sunday, 20 December 2009

How to Destroy the World

So I am sitting at home on my downtime, idly flipping through a range of texts dealing with the contemporary significance of nihilism. What impresses me is the willingness of authors to interpret this defining problem of modernity in relation to science and technology issues, most especially biopolitics. No doubt there will be a flood of other texts for me to read in the form of Christmas gifts, so I probably won't be getting to The Italian Difference for a while yet. I also hope to get better acquainted with Nihil Unbound and even Conor Cunningham's Genealogy of Nihilism. If I had to relate it to my previous post, and other references I've made to nihilism, my interest is in how the same mindset can crosscut every strata of modern societies. So it's really beside the point to just specify problems in the aesthetic realm as generative of the mindset, when it can clearly migrate to the sciences as well (thereby increasing its political significance). It seems to me that too much attention is given to the "creative process" in a manner that fetishsizes personal idiosyncrasies. Here's a litmus test: read this interview with author Thomas Ligotti, then consider his philosophical magnum opus, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. One finds there a pure distillation of nihilism, in the sense that it marks a renouncement of the Enlightenment project of actively working towards the perfectibility of the world.

In other words, nihilism can help foster epistemological relativism wherein all actions are portrayed as equally doomed to failure. Scientists are treated as no different in this respect. This position marks a decline from the well known trope in which the "mad scientist" retreats to an isolated location, such as an island, where they can lose themselves in "pure research", without worrying about being held accountable by public standards of reason. In these scenarios, (e.g. Frankenstein, The Island of Dr Moreau), the horror came from the personal revelation of having profaned a sacred boundary, for which they are in turn punished when their creations run amok. Hence, at the end of the day, they offered the reassurance of a restoration of order, even in the absence of a public sphere. Such morality tales still presumed that modern society (and therefore science) was worth saving- provided that certain kinds of inquiries remained taboo. But in the more nihilistic register of recent works, scientists deliberately set out to strike a Faustian bargain because they know the consequences will be disastrous for humankind as presently conceived. Science therefore paradoxically becomes the means to realise an entirely new order, which need not even involve humans, or minimally, is compatible with Ligotti's prescribed integration of humans into the "natural world" (to the point where we no longer will anything at all):

"The perfect manner of existence that I’m imagining would be different than that of most mammals, who feed on one another and suffer fear due to this arrangement, much of it coming at the hands of human beings. We would naturally still have to feed, but we probably would not be the omnivorous gourmands and gourmets that we presently are. Of course, like any animal we would suffer from pain in one form or another—that’s the essence of existence—but there wouldn’t be any reason to take it personally, something that escalates natural pain to the level of nightmare. I know that this kind of world would seem terribly empty to most people—no competition, no art, no entertainment of any kind because both art and entertainment are based on conflict between people, and in my world that kind of conflict wouldn’t exist. There would be no ego-boosting activities such as those which derive from working and acquiring more money than you need, no scientific activity because we wouldn’t be driven to improve the world or possess information unnecessary to living, no religious beliefs because those emerge from desperations and illusions from which we would no longer suffer, no relationships because those are based on difference and in the perfect world we’d all be the same person, as well as being integrated into the natural world. Everything we did would be for practical purposes in order to satisfy our natural needs. We wouldn’t be enlightened beings or sages because those ways of being are predicated on the existence of people who live at a lower epistemological stratum".

Not surprisingly, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race reads at times like The Unabomber Manifesto; the linkage here is the ascetic sensibility that Nietzsche observed with respect to science in general, "Science today has no belief in itself, letalone an ideal above it- and where it survives at all as passion, loving glowing intensity, suffering, it constitutes not the opposite of the ascetic ideal but rather its most recent and refined form" (On the Genealogy of Morals, p124). Asceticism can therefore rationalize misanthropy to the point where humanity is hardly considered worth saving, period (for another example, recall Furedi's reference to climate change science in my previous post). Any scientist holding to this standard makes the world view offered by cultural workers such as Boyd Rice look like very small beer indeed.

Here's a satire then of the kind of scientist who embodies Nietzschean ressentiment. The clip specifically references the threat of "grey goo" oftentimes associated with nanotechnology:

On a more serious note, I take some comfort from efforts to risk manage such new technologies for our collective benefit. But I also pay heed to Michael Sandel's warning in his Reith Lecture, Genetics & Morality, that going too far in this direction will in itself create problems. To remove chance, or "contingency" if one prefers, through excessive human engineering, is likely to diminish a sense of responsibility for those less fortunate than ourselves. A success seen as self-made through bioengineering will therefore produce a meritocracy less chastened by chance, and thus harder and less forgiving. Hence Sandel urges, "So I say rather than bioengineer our children and ourselves to fit the world, let's instead create social and political arrangements more hospitable to the gifts and the limitations of the imperfect human beings that we are".

Furthermore, Sandel in effect offers a corrective to the strands in the Transhumanist Movement that espouse liberation biology (which I classify as a variant of Nietzsche's "active nihilism"). Here's something else they should be paying attention to:

For "evolution" into a different species to occur, however, they would need to be fundamentally redesigning the genetic structure of their children, and then those children would have to mate with similarly redesigned neo-homo sapiens to pass on their new attributes. Are the super-rich capable of such coordination? Isn't it just as likely that they'll all redesign themselves in different, innovative ways, and then discover that they are biologically incompatible and incapable of reproducing? Problem solved....And finally, there's an easy way to avoid this dystopian future in which the descendants of Bill Gates and Lloyd Blankfein are born with immaculate complexions, huge brains, and the ability to run 40 yards in under 4.0 seconds. Tax the hell out of the rich, and use it to pay for healthcare for the rest of us neo-Neanderthals. Problem solved, again.

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