Monday, 3 October 2011

Acheron Interview with Steve Fuller on "Humanity 2.0"

The following interview with Steve Fuller explores some of the issues raised by his new book, Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future. For further background reading I recommend two other recent interviews with Steve in The Observer and Vice UK. A glance at Steve's schedule, including the RSA event featuring China Mieville (which this interview was also intended to help promote), shows that his commitment to this book is keeping him very busy indeed:

He will be speaking at the RSA on the 6th October:

And at Humanity Plus UK on the 8th October:
Beyond Human: Rethinking the Technological Extension of the Human Condition

You can also view chapter-by-chapter videos of Professor Steve Fuller talking about Humanity 2.0 here: I really must thank him for being so generous with his time by providing such detailed responses to my questions.

I must also thank Gregor Wolbring and Roger Griffin (Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University) for responding to my requests by contributing a question each. Steve also wishes to express his appreciation for your respective contributions. And so now to the interview....

The popular market is filled with books by self-styled “futurists,” who are usually quick to adopt a technophile perspective, of whom Alvin Toffler and, more recently, Ray Kurzweil, are two of the most well-known examples. How can your approach be distinguished from that genre?

First, as someone who has been on the editorial board of the journal Futures for the past fifteen years, I suppose I am a ‘futurist’ of sorts. Certainly my views were canvassed in a recent survey of the epistemic horizons of leading futurists. Moreover, I am unapologetically normative, so I have no qualms about being called a ‘futurist’. After all, the future is the natural stomping ground of unrealised ideals. Indeed, I only object when futurists present themselves as pure describers, failing to acknowledge the forward momentum they give to the possible futures they deem likely – if they do not then go on to suggest ways in which those futures might be mitigated, diverted or reversed. In any case, all of this futurology is simply a secular extension of eschatology, an outgrowth of the prophetic religions, where ‘the point of it all’ is revealed. The scientific advance on this idea is to acknowledge both the fallibility and corrigibility of the piecemeal predictions we make along the way – and perhaps a recognition that whoever the deity may be, it needs humans to finish the job of creation. Humanity 2.0 is an account and defence of this line of thought.

A good way to see my starting point is by reading David Noble’s neglected classic The Religion of Technology: The Spirit of Invention and the Divinity of Man (1997). He clearly sees the seamless transition from medieval theology to modern technology – but only to condemn it. My Humanity 2.0 backs this view of history but gives it a somewhat more positive spin. To be sure, such an understanding of the human trajectory a mixed blessing, and my book aims to sharpen our sense of the costs and the benefits. All the talk in the book about ‘theodicy’ (the branch of theology devoted to the explanation of evil in a supposedly God-inspired world) is to do with this point. Toffler and Kurzweil don’t really acknowledge the costs of their techno-utopias (let alone who might bear those costs) or the groups – generically captured as ‘ecologists’ – who are prepared to resist them to the bitter end. These opponents are not scientific illiterates or technophobes but they still believe that humans need to live in some balance with nature. While in the past one might have associated these people with religiously inspired views (e.g. calling for our humility before the natural order), nowadays these people increasingly take to heart the Darwinian view that we are just one among many animal species with no special powers over the whole of reality. This is a remarkably defeatist view that, had it been taken seriously 400 years ago, would never have led to modern science.

As it turns out, I happen to think that history is on the side of the technophiles, but we shall need to play a long game. In particular, we need to overcome the idea of nature as a normative ideal once and for all. Appeals to ‘nature’ invariably aim to standardize for all times and places, often in the spirit of inhibiting humanity’s creative tendencies. This is something that the 18th century Enlightenment and the early 20th century ‘modernist’ movements understood very clearly in their attempts to valorise ‘artifice’ over ‘nature’. However, there are some tricky bits ahead, in particular how to reinvent the concept of ‘dignity’ in a world where humans regularly alter their own and others’ bodies. This concept, historically tied to the inviolability of ‘the human’ in natural law theory and lingers in today’s human rights legislation, has rested its intuitive appeal on a clear conception of the normal self-maintaining and self-determining human body. Not surprisingly, we nowadays find bioethicists, following the lead of the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, trying to consign the concept of dignity to the dustbin of history. But that cannot be the final word on the matter. We need an ‘enhanced’ concept of dignity to create a normative boundary around the new and improved autonomous ‘human 2.0’, regardless of whether it is fully Homo sapiens.

Why did you decide to call the book Humanity 2.0? There have been some heated debates recently in response to the release of the movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes about whether we should feel obligated to "uplift" non-human animals as well. What’s your take then on the need for a Non-Human Animal 2.0?

To be honest, ‘Humanity 2.0’ began as a personal working title to keep me focused on the theme, given wide range of issues discussed in the book. But the publisher grew to like it for its marketing potential, and so there you have it. In the end, the full title – ‘Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future’ – is an accurate description of the book’s contents. The book is not meant to be yet another mail order catalogue from the future written for today’s Geeks! More seriously, as I suggested in answer to the last question, the title Humanity 2.0 refers to the fact that our conception of the human is changing so that it need no longer involve the self-sufficiency of the biologically given human body, the traditional locus of the concept of ‘dignity’. However, from here we can go in two different directions, either or both of which could be ‘Humanity 2.0’ (There is an interesting policy question here about compatibility of the two alternatives, which I pick up again in the next question.)

On the one hand, we may head down the route of Peter Singer and adopt the normative standpoint of nature, which means setting standards of adequate living that have cross-species validity, such as the avoidance of pain, which would convert the value of human life as such from a constant to a variable, and hence open to manipulation and trade-off vis-à-vis the value of other life-forms. This is quite recognisable from ecologists and those who would curb (often militantly) the sacrifice of animals used to advance human medicine. On the other hand, there are those who would leave nature behind and identify their humanity with an existence outside their bodies – such as avatars in cyberspace. They are even willing to place their own biological lives and those of others at risk to be able to spend more quality time in a space where they feel they can really come into own. Throughout the book I stress that this option is legitimately seen as a secular continuation of the pursuit of a ‘spiritual’ existence, which has, generally speaking, taken our biological natures as a necessary evil – the more necessary, the more evil.

A clear transition point in the secularisation of the spiritual was Marx and Engels’ attitude towards capitalism as a waystation on the road to Communism. They clearly admired the efficiency generated by the Industrial Revolution, which held the potential to massively reduce the drudgery of labour, leaving time and space to pursue more ennobling activities that raised us above the animals. Of course, they objected to the social arrangements that inhibited this potential. But most interestingly, from the standpoint of Humanity 2.0, is the extent to which they and subsequent Marxists have promoted self-sacrifice and outright violence in pursuit of this aim – that is, they were definitely students of the ‘no pain, no gain’ school of progress, something that flies in the face of Singer’s global pain minimisation moral horizon. It would be interesting to see what Marx and Engels would make of the increasing technological mediation of human relations that mark our own times. Would they see it as a form of extended self-harm, à la Sherry Turkle or Susan Greenfield? Or, might they see it as the imposition of a new form of self-discipline, as in the original monastic orders? My guess is that the answer would turn on their assessment of the political economy governing cyberspace – and here I’d guess they would side with Evgeny Morozov of Net Delusion fame.

As for ‘Non-Human Animal 2.0’, I actually don’t believe that is implied by Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If anything, the new movie is very much in the spirit of my book in an important sense: It highlights the idea of the world becoming a ‘hominised substance’, to recall the phrase of the great heretical Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is one of the heroes in Humanity 2.0. At first the apes are used as vehicles for testing a cure for Alzheimer’s disease but that allows them to develop intellectual capacities to outfox their human captors and eventually dominate the planet. Although the humans are ultimately vanquished for reasons not entirely related to the designs of the apes (i.e. a deadly virus that the ape’s blood transfers to humans), the plot is very transhumanist in that the means by which the conquest happens involves forms of intelligence that are very recognisably human: i.e., the ‘enhanced apes’ = how would humans respond if their minds were embodied in non-human primate bodies. It is a very non-Darwinian story of the future, since Darwin proposed a species egalitarian view of evolution, whereby any successor species to our own, while well adapted to its environment, may possess few of the qualities that we value in our own species.

By the way, this is why it’s always important to distinguish ‘posthumanism’ and ‘transhumanism’. The former simply refers to what historically comes after human dominion of the planet, regardless of whether humans are involved. In contrast, ‘transhumanism’ refers to the project of making the world more ‘human’ as a whole. I belong to the latter camp and so I am sympathetic to ideas floated intermittently from the Marquis de Condorcet to HG Wells and Buckminster Fuller of a ‘world brain’, as well as Teilhard de Chardin’s vision of evolution as a convergent process, whereby organisms coming from different biological starting points aim towards some ideal which so far Homo sapiens has achieved best but will be fully realized in some ‘omega’ moment in the future. I find it hard to entertain such an idea without presupposing a divine intelligence in the background as motivating the entire process. After all, the history of science and technology demonstrates the need for indefinite faith, tolerance and perseverance in order to endure the sacrifice and damage that have been done in pursuit of the so-called ‘heaven on earth’ we inhabit today. Most other cultures, including the Greeks and the Chinese, even when possessing many of the same guiding ideas, never took them with the West’s bloody-minded literalness. The best explanation is that we have believed those ideas to be divinely inspired, not simply passing fancies or clever tricks of limited application – and that belief has given us the requisite confidence, which has been empirically borne out over time. That ‘literalness’, by the way, is an outgrowth of first Franciscan and then Calvinist attitudes to the Bible, which by the modern period gave writing in general (as our expression of God’s creative logos) an unprecedented power to authorise the exact governance of society and the world at large. John Milton’s classic defence of freedom of the press, Areopagitica, is very good on this close connection between the divinity of written expression and the capacity for self-governance.

Can the book be usefully contextualized in relation to “technoprogressivism,” which Wikipedia defines as: “…a stance of active support for the convergence of technological change and social change. Techno-progressives argue that technological developments can be profoundly empowering and emancipatory when they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities to ensure that their costs, risks and benefits are all fairly shared by the actual stakeholders to those developments.” To me, that pretty much describes the mandate of the social epistemology which you have developed over many years. Would you assent to a characterization of Humanity 2.0 then as a kind of technoprogressivist manifesto? (*note: interested readers might like to test the extent of their own “techno tolerance” by completing this short quiz)

Yes, except with the proviso that we’re entering into a period when who counts as part of the ‘we’ engaged in this project of collective self-improvement is open to serious re-negotiation. The Royal Society of Arts in London has agreed to launch my book with a conference on 6th October that is being prompted by a blogpost where I take the issue head-on by considering what our National Health Service might look like, if we included elected animals and androids, alongside humans, amongst those under its coverage – keeping in mind the current regime of fiscal austerity, in which adding new entities de facto means eliminating others, unless some more creative solution is on offer (e.g. merging of individual identities into some more borg-like entity: a more Star Trek view of ‘empowerment’). Let me say that on this issue, Peter Singer’s hard-nosed utilitarianism with its open discussion of costs, benefits and trade-offs for individual lives in relation to an overall social welfare function is right on the money. (Too bad he fetishises carbon-based entities!) In contrast, I find the ‘irreductionist’ crowd surrounding Bruno Latour and other ontological inflationists (aka ‘speculative realists’) as simply dodging this normative bullet and rendering themselves irrelevant to the emerging political economy debates. I realize that part of their own normative position is to complicate the world with agents to render their own interpretive services necessary but these might be usefully employed elsewhere.

One of the most distinct features of your position when compared with the self-described technoprogressives though appears to be your emphasis—albeit without using this specific term—on afflatus: i.e. the sense that science has historically being reliant on a sense of divine inspiration to help rally others behind its cause. I can see how this could be advantageous in technoprogressivist terms when it comes to ensuring that “risks and benefits are all fairly shared.” It surprises me though when even an evolutionary biologist such as David Sloan Wilson (see his Darwin’s Cathedral) is willing to refer to sociologists, such as Durkheim and Rodney Stark, to bolster a (at first glance) similar argument about how the purpose of religion is to unite human groups. It seems then that some might be happy to think that this is because of our status as adaptive organisms, while others (such as most technoprogressives, apparently) prefer to rally around democratic norms, without feeling any need to dress them up in religious garb. Some sociologists might use the Thomas theorem, or, what basically amounts to the same thing, Robert K Merton’s “Matthew Effect,” to frame these respective preferences as examples of a self-fulfilling prophecy—i.e. if people define a situation as real, it will be real in its consequences. I can see some benefits of this pragmatic stance as far as facilitating the kind of broad coalition-building upon which democratic politics depends is concerned; at least when understood as “the art of the possible.” I sense though that this kind of approach falls well short of the kind of social constructivism you prefer, right? 

You raise a couple of interesting points here. First, on the role of religion as human motivator: The world-religions really divide on this point. The great non-Abrahamic religions of the East, the so-called the ‘wisdom religions’ (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism), do indeed orient people in ways that might fit a story of evolutionary adaptation, since they aim to get people to reach equilibrium with their environment, typically with minimum force applied to those concerned. In contrast, the Abrahamic religions are all about living up to God’s standards, which invariably means a radical transformation of ourselves and our world; hence, the great stress that especially Christianity and Islam place on deciding to believe –i.e. drawing a line on your past life and embarking upon a new one fully of uncertainties yet no less purposeful for that. This empowering sense of religion is not easily explained in evolutionary terms because it calls for us to continually de-stabilise our default mode of being, most notably by developing moral commitments to those outside our immediate family and community, which would otherwise be the locus of concern dictated by the Darwinian logic of survival.

This brings us to the second point: While it is certainly fair to describe the Abrahamic concern for a ‘universal humanity’ to be ‘artificial’ as opposed to ‘natural’ (which explains the need to enshrine this concern as an explicit code of conduct), the ‘social constructions’ one subsequently engages in do not necessarily bear fruit immediately or even directly. In that respect, the pragmatic payoff of living, say, a Christian life is typically not realized in proportion to the effort put in -- that’s one operational way of defining reality as ‘independent’ of us. Indeed, as in the case of Calvinists, the benefits may be deferred for one’s entire biological life, only to be redeemed in the afterlife. As I suggested in answer to the previous question, the history of science and technology in the modern period partakes of this mode of thought, so we continue remaking the world in our image and likeness, always presuming that the benefits outweigh the costs, even as the columns of the our collective existential balance sheet mount up differently. Recalling Karl Popper’s famous distinction in The Poverty of Historicism (1957) between ‘prediction’ and ‘prophecy’ as a rough-and-ready way of distinguishing science from religion, I would stress that our commitment to science itself (as opposed to its particular theories) is in the mode of a prophetic religion. Indeed, Popper would be in agreement, since he believed that the faith-based nature of science was demonstrated by our belief that we could reach the truth – as opposed to a sceptical dead end -- by engaging in the resolute elimination of error

Ok, that explains why you think we need a Religion 2.0 to complement the conception of Humanity 2.0. I notice that one of your co-panellists in the discussion on Humanity 2.0 to be held at the RSA on October 6th is the renowned fantasy fiction author, committed socialist, and atheist, China Miéville. I expect Miéville will go out of his way to emphasise (what he would most likely regard as) the inherent limitations of any reliance on liberal democratic institutions in the face of the powerful logics of commodification driving the technoscience behind genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Unequivocal arguments along these lines have also been issued by critical theorists such as Frédéric Vandenberghe and Glenn Rikowski.

I only mention these points because on page 215 you write: “Marxism as the putative ‘no discount zone’ failed because, in the end, the labour theory of value provided at most a regulative ideal towards which an existing society might aim but little guidance in either identifying or redressing ‘differences that make a difference’ in such a society. In this respect, Marxism lacked a distinctly sociological sensibility, which is perhaps most evident in the movement’s eschatological impulse to end history formally and create society anew.” You then go on to give a positive account of the tax system as a social democratic solution for “administering justice across classes and generations.” What is the intended take-home message for Marxists here? Should the book be understood as providing this needed “sociological sensibility” to Marxist critiques of transhumanism etc, or is it implying that the best we can probably hope for in the future is managed affluence—meaning that piecemeal reforms are the most realistic means of curbing the excesses of what you refer to as “bioliberalism”? 

First, I must confess that I do not follow the Deleuzians as closely as others do, but I notice that they do tend toward the mealy-mouthed when dealing with Humanity 2.0. Really now, what is this backhanded ‘let’s hope for a post-human that’s not inhuman’? Why not call it by its proper name and fight for it: ‘transhumanism’? We should be about promoting as widely as possible the aspects of our being that we find most admirable and take collective responsibility for the consequences. Of course, the political implications of this idea are far from obvious and are bound to be controversial. Still, the transhumanists start the argument the right way round – instead of looking at the world as we find it and then expressing our disappointments, regrets and fears in ever so artful ways, which seems to be the Deleuzian policy, as they simply take the animal side of the argument as given. In this I am very much with the Fichtean idealist roots of Marxism, with its proactive stance towards the intelligently guided human will.

Where Marxism has faltered – and interestingly my criticism applies more to Marx’s so-called ‘humanist’ early work than his later more ‘scientistic’ phase – has been in its essentialism towards our ‘species being’, which is ever on the lookout for the negative consequences of alienation but seemingly blind to the positive consequences of having a legally protected sphere of free exchange. In this respect, Marx continued down the path of Rousseau beyond the point that Kant got off. Because Kant does not identify our unique potential for autonomy with the sheer possession of a human body, he lacks Marx’s fastidiousness over whether individuals are selling their birth right by acceding to substandard work conditions. For Kant, what matters is the state of mind in which such a decision is taken, not the impact that the decision might have on the future condition of the body. If I were of a more panglossian frame of mind, I would be tempted to say that capitalism has actually helped people to think about their humanity more sharply by forcing them continually rethink what is essential and accidental in terms of the sort of being that they aspire to be, since any advancement will invariably involve selling some part of oneself.

The problem I raise about Marxism’s ‘sociological deficit’, so to speak, relates to the sharp disjunction, even schizophrenia, in the Marxist literature between the Communist ideal of human equality, understood as a state of universal emancipation, and whatever means it might take – be they parliamentary or revolutionary -- to reach it. For a political movement that is officially committed to ‘the unity of theory and practice’, Marxism has had a long and embarrassing tendency of not owning up to the history of its own practice, a point that eventually led Popper to revoke Marxism’s scientific credentials. Marxist theorists routinely distance themselves from both the peaceful and violent sides of that history, as ‘failures of the revolution’: Social democrats are co-opted wimps, and totalitarians over-the-top monsters. Against this backdrop, one comes to appreciate the distinctiveness of Lenin who clearly wanted to honour both Marx’s philosophical integrity and political animus in his own practice. But of course this meant killing people when they got in the way of the dialectic. I talk about ‘theodicy’ in this context as well. While Marx himself would have known that Hegel got his ironic view of world-history from Leibniz’s theodicy, his followers have been reluctant to admit the full force of this lineage, which entails accepting that people will have to suffer before they become better.

One of the most vocal advocates of “democratic transhumanism” is James Hughes (author of Citizen Cyborg). In an article entitled “The Politics of Transhumanism,” Hughes worryingly refers to a small group of neo-Nazis who have attached themselves to the movement. This might be an ideal segue-way for Roger Griffin, who sent the following response:

ROGER GRIFFIN: I do not wish to comment on the book as a whole. I notice, however, several passages that refer to the ongoing historical significance of the Third Reich with respect to how scientific developments might be harnessed to a progressive future. For the sake of brevity, I will confine my remarks to the following passage, which appears on page 244:

"Albeit often in defence of odious policies, this strand of the American political tradition has consistently upheld the legitimacy of social action taken by self-organising individuals. Can such a story be told even for Nazi Germany, in spite of the enormity of the suffering it caused? If we wish to continue including the Nazis as part of the history of humanity – as opposed to the history of nature – then the answer must be yes, however difficult at first glance that may seem. Put bluntly, we must envisage the prospect of a transformation in the normative image of Nazi Germany comparable to what Barrington Moore described for the French Revolution. This is not easy. The makeover Moore observed occurred over a couple of generations, and in that same amount of time there have been only the barest hints of Nazi rehabilitation. But hints there are, helped along by the death of those with first-hand experience of Nazism. To be sure, some areas of Nazi science that did not figure prominently in the Second World War – such as space travel, ecology and cancer research – were easily, if somewhat surreptitiously, assimilated by the Allies. But even in the case of the Nazi science of ‘racial hygiene’, there is a dawning realisation that ‘eugenics’ and ‘genetic modification’ more generally have been always integral to progressive normative agendas. In that case Nazi science policies are perhaps best seen as opportunistically extreme versions of tendencies long present and accepted by the intellectual vanguard of Western culture. Lest this speculation seem, once again, too panglossian, it is worth noting that Nazi Germany promoted itself in just this way – with considerable success in the international media – before the presentation of evidence for the Holocaust. If one is inclined to think, as I am, that the Holocaust was produced by the exigencies of war rather than intrinsic to the Nazi agenda, then a key to recovering the ‘good’ in Nazism might be to rewind history to the 1920s and 1930s when the movement appeared to offer the promise of a progressive future. Back then the Holocaust did not appear to be an inevitable outcome of Nazism, which in turn enabled observers to see Nazis as fruitfully extending existing scientific agendas" (cf. Fuller 2006b: chap. 14).

This is a curious passage: historians have long been working on integrating Nazism within human history rather than demonizing it simply as ‘evil’ or ‘barbaric’ or ‘monstrous’. A whole industry of sophisticated Third Reich history exists, prominent representatives of which writing in English are Richard Evans, Michael Burleigh, and Ian Kershaw. So Nazism is already an integral part of human history. 

But rehabilitating Nazism, Stalinism, the Pol Pot regime etc is quite another issue. Germans have been rehabilitated and reaccepted into the fold of civilized humanity, but somehow accommodating Hitler’s regime as a positive episode of human history is simply perverse. It sounds as if the author wants to cherry pick aspects of Nazism which are somehow ‘progressive’ in order to graft Nazism back into the Western scheme of ‘progress’. This would be a deeply mythic exercise which has a lot to do with how ‘the general public’, ‘collective consciousness’ digests human atrocities (First World War, WW2, 9/11) or forgets them (US genocide in North America, the Slave Trade etc). Digesting them reminds me of how a snake eats a dog, namely by dislocating its jaw.

Who is the ‘we’ that must envisage a transformation of the normative image of the Third Reich? Historiography is not about normalizing but understanding. Cancer research is not about normalizing cancer but understanding its mechanisms.

Unsurprisingly then, I disagree with the claim that eugenics has ‘always been integral to progressive normative agendas’. Eugenics grew up in the 19th century and in its ‘positive’ but non-coercive concern with health has been embraced within enlightened social policies the world over. But the negative eugenics of the sort that sterilizes and kills which lay at the heart of Nazi social engineering has been utterly discredited as a perverse, deeply irrational ideology which acquired the deeply pathological momentum of a crusade against decadence for some believers in science as a substitute religion on which to base a healthy society and had long been rejected by humanists.

I also have considerable reservations about the claim that the Nazi eugenic campaign was due to the exigencies of war because it borders dangerously on revisionist history (e.g. of someone like Ernst Nolte) which rehabilitates Nazism by using a range of arguments that rework the facts. The works of Browning and Kershaw offer a great deal of historical evidence to undermine any relationship between the exigencies of war and the Holocaust.

The historical fact is that the Nazi war on communism, democracy and what were deemed ideological and racial enemies was integral to the whole being and purpose of the Nazi revolution, the premise for the construction of a new order and a new Nazi empire purged of undesirable elements/filth. Auschwitz was called “the anus of Europe” by the Nazis because it excreted Jews, and the genocide continued to the last days of the war long after the exigencies of war had stopped.
My concern is that the revisionist thrust of this passage is basically scrambling the valid point that Nazism is an integral chapter of the history of modernity (which does NOT mean something intrinsically good). I hope the author might consider a close reading of Bauman’s The Holocaust and Modernity (and even my Modernism and Fascism) as a corrective.

In sum, I would strongly argue that there was no 'good' in Nazism because (from a non-Nazi perspective) all the good was at the expense of bad (persecution, torture, the destruction of lives, genocide etc) and this ‘bad’ was integral to the ‘good’. It is possible to imagine counterfactually a French Revolution without the Terror and even a Russian Revolution and a Maoist Revolution that did not cause scores of millions of deaths and create vast systems of prison camps and oceans of suffering (just): but the revolutions undertaken by Hitler and Pol Pot were destined in their very conception to mass produce atrocities, and there can be no ‘rehabilitation’ of a regime that does this, just de-demonization by humanistic historians interested in making sense of history rather than trying to cling desperately onto the mast of the Ship of Enlightenment as it is battered by the waves of the ‘storm of progress’.  

 This is a very interesting and perhaps telling line of inquiry. Roger is certainly right that I disagree with Bauman’s The Holocaust and Modernity (I briefly critiqued it in The New Sociological Imagination but merely ignore it in Humanity 2.0), and we certainly disagree about the role of eugenics in the history of progressive politics – which is something I raise not only at the end of Humanity 2.0 (as noted by Roger) but throughout the book, especially chapter one, where I note the generally strong support for eugenics on the part of the Fabian socialists who were behind the funding of the UK’s first sociology chair, at the London School of Economics in 1907. This was no fluke but quite consistent with the biopolitics surrounding the establishment of welfare states throughout Europe. It’s no accident that eugenics originated with a self-identified progressive, Francis Galton, and his work was translated into German by Otto Neurath, then a young socialist associated with the Vienna Circle (i.e. not some disgruntled racist Junker). Moreover, the political economist William Beveridge, while LSE director, and just before he created the British welfare state, got the Rockefeller Foundation to fund a chair in ‘social biology’ that would operate as both a mass data gatherer of vital statistics of the body politic and a theoretical foundation for the social sciences. This move proved unpopular and ultimately failed, but for reasons unrelated to matters of genocide. A book due out next year by a young historian (for which I wrote the Foreword) goes through this history quite carefully, in an attempt to explain why British sociology so thoroughly turned its back on biology, even though the country was seen as very much in the vanguard at the dawn of the 20th century: Chris Renwick, British Sociology’s Lost Biological Roots (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).

Once we set aside the assumption that the Holocaust is a necessary consequence or ultimate expression of eugenics – in other words, once we refuse to let our current moral response to the Holocaust colour our understanding of all the preceding relevant history – it should be pretty clear that eugenics was a left-wing project, both in its ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ forms. I don’t deny that people were sterilised without their consent or appropriate legal representation. To be sure, this is very much to be regretted. However, given the routine violation of human dignity that has attended the history of scientific medicine more generally, I doubt that those episodes alone would have warranted the censoriousness with which people like Roger regard eugenics. Clearly the Holocaust is driving his understanding of an entire scientific project that had promised a gradual, collective, empirically monitored and politically accountable upgrading of the human condition. This is precisely what attracted the Fabians (whose name comes from the Roman general who beat Hannibal by not acting impulsively). While virtually all social reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were calling for greater education and improvement of living conditions as vehicles of social transformation, there was also a general recognition that people with right capacities were also needed to make maximum use of those opportunities, understood as choices that such people could make for themselves without excessive state intervention. In short, the eugenicists committed themselves to building a society whose members were ‘fit to be free’, you might say. Ideologically speaking, I see this project as treating the human gene pool as collectively owned property, whose state-managed cultivation aims to produce people capable of flourishing in a liberal society. You may find this vision heroic or scary or both, but I believe that developments across the sciences and technologies increasingly beckon us to revive this project in a new key, ‘Eugenics 2.0’, if you will. ‘Transhumanism’, a coinage of the eugenicist Julian Huxley, is one of the popular labels under which it nowadays travels. Put that way, humans are clearly claiming some of (the Abrahamic) God’s powers for themselves. But in the early 21st century this should be no cause for alarm. After all, modernity has been all about prior sacrileges being upgraded into the sincerest form of flattery to the deity.

As for my wishing to ‘rehabilitate’ Nazism, yes, in the sense that their activities come to be understood as having served larger goals that in the long run have benefited humanity—in particular, by testing the limits of our knowledge and being. ‘National socialism’ was commonly used for the nation-based welfare states of Scandinavia that inspired Hitler. This was to do with the accuracy of the phrase, especially in contradistinction to a Trotsky-style free-floating World Communist movement that denied the possibility of socialism in one country. We need to put our understanding of Nazism back into that context. I am not trying to rewrite Nazi motives, but write them more completely -- and I freely admit that their motives became corrupt by the time of the Holocaust. My aim is to broaden the context for assessing the consequences of Nazi actions, something very much in the spirit of ‘theodicy’, that is, God’s sense of justice. It involves treating every act – however prima facie noble or ignoble – as ultimately no more and no less than a means to a more exalted end, namely, completion of the divine plan, in which we are the principal agent. This is the moral horizon of Humanity 2.0. At the very least, it allows us to get the most mileage out of the Nazi experience – which, like it or not, we’re stuck with -- by refusing to set up artificial barriers to our treating it charitably, perhaps in the spirit of ‘it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it’. Indeed, maybe the Nazis reveal that even God must operate with dirty hands.

My inclination to forgive is not as crazy as it may sound. Indeed, the memory of the Holocaust is nowadays kept alive by a kind of suspended animation of historical consciousness that prevents it from being properly integrated into our collective psyche. Recall that the Arab-Israeli War of 1967, which resulted in Israel’s deeply unpopular redrawing of its territorial boundaries, unleashed what Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein have provocatively described as the ‘Holocaust Industry’, namely, a concerted effort to ensure that the Holocaust’s enormity was never forgotten. This project, which continues to engage some of social theory’s most sophisticated minds, is admitted by all sides to be an uphill struggle, since our default collective psychology is to forget, if not exactly forgive. To be sure, I don’t believe in forgetting Nazi atrocities. On the contrary, I believe that they remain pedagogically useful for illustrating what it means to realize long-held scientific desires with impunity and from which we now continue to benefit, even though we cannot see ourselves as having committed the original acts involved. But in the final analysis, the apparent moral and epistemic certitude with which Roger expresses his views leads me to two conclusions: (1) even today the history of science has yet to be properly integrated into the history of modernity; (2) our understanding of the causes and significance of the Holocaust is still very much distorted by a preoccupation with its most abnormal and abhorrent aspects – as if simply creating moral distance from the Holocaust were sufficient to establish our own superiority.

GREGOR WOLBRING: How can we mainstream ableism studies into academic and public discourses given that this lens gives us a fresh clue on dynamics and consequences?

According to ‘ableism’, the mark – if not stigmata – of the transhuman condition is that everyone, not just the conventionally disabled, will come to feel ‘always already’ disabled. This is because the increasing demand – and ultimately supply – or bio-enhancements will cause the standards of normative performance to shift upward. In effect, ‘being normal’ itself becomes what welfare economists call a ‘positional good’, which is to say, its value is tied to its relative scarcity: Thus, the value of being clever lies in being cleverer than others. The great virtue of ableism is that it places the questions surrounding our biotechnological enhancement squarely in the realm of political economy, very much as Francis Galton and William Beveridge thought about eugenics. Thus, contrary to the popular rhetoric of tranhumanist enthusiasts, transhumanist desires are not simply free-floating ideals or freely chosen identities, but emergent features of a fluid political and scientific situation concerning our future.

Gregor asks about how to make ableism studies ‘mainstream’. My general answer to ‘mainstreaming’ questions is to provide an adequate backstory in our common intellectual and cultural history. Like any recently identified movement, ‘ableism’ suffers from ‘the shock of the new’, which in turn instinctively inclines people to respond to it as alien, if not outright threatening. Ableism may be especially prone to this treatment because of the deep challenges it poses to how we define ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’ bodies. However, in Humanity 2.0, I observe that the hopes and anxieties generated by an ableist mentality is traceable to a semantic innovation of the fourteenth century Oxford Franciscan, John Duns Scotus, in discussing God’s properties. Scotus basically detached each of the divine properties from the deity so as to analyse each of them as independent capabilities that are developed finitely in humans but infinitely in God. For example, from the idea of ‘all-powerful father’ was derived the idea of ‘power’ as such as a dimension in terms of which God indefinitely surpasses us. Moreover, Scotus suggested that in humans all of these potentially divine dimensions are developed to varying degrees, and of course none to anything approaching the divine limit. While it may be easy to say that God is all-powerful, all-loving and all-knowing, just based on the range of humans that history has put on offer, it is difficult to imagine the sort of being in whom all those capabilities would be developed to such a great extent. Indeed, a major source of human misery is the uneven development of such capabilities within ourselves, whereby we are overdeveloped in some and underdeveloped in others. Ableism provides a high-tech secular way of revisiting those ontological concerns of the High Middle Ages.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

As my response to the several of the questions here indicate, proceeding to ‘Humanity 2.0’ requires a re-engagement with Western theology on at least three nowadays neglected fronts:
  • Theology as a discipline dedicated to human empowerment in search of divine reunion, which involves our emancipation from concerns that are limited to ‘this world’, however that phrase is defined. Such is the basis of modern ideas of progress. 

  • Theology as a discipline that encourages humans to take their own words literally and hence their ideas as blueprints or models for reality, things projected outward into the world rather than simply allowed to pass before the mind’s eye without consequence. 

  • Theology as the great recycler of meaning and rationalizer of action by providing the most comprehensive framework in terms of which anything may be understood as contributing to the global optimisation of divine creation.

1 comment:

HellCombatant said...

"Humanism" is a term that used to have some obscure meaning in a remote time which has past away. It will soon mean nothing at all after the "masks" will have been removed!