Žižek’s Concern with Transhumanism

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Detail from the poster for Zizek’s film, ‘The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology’.

This is a guest post by Toby Coe. Most readers will be at least aware of the Slovenian philosopher and intellectual cult figure Slavoj Žižek. The message of his 2011 book, Living In The End Times (published by Verso) is the prediction that has been repeated by almost every Marxist intellectual who has ever taken up a pen in anger, namely, that capitalism will inevitably collapse due to imbalances inherent in the system it creates. Living In The End Times does not really fulfill the promise of showing why this will happen, but is the umbrella under which several interesting discussions of various issues takes place. One of these concerns Transhumanism.

Žižek thinks that Transhumanism is a kind of “apocalypticism”, in other words an ideology that is parasitic on religious notions of an “end times” or “reckoning”, where the old order is brought violently to an end. (p. 336) Whilst reading much actual Transhumanist discourse might not give you this impression, many philosophers do think that the biogenetic revolution will cause massive societal and political upheaval. Transhumanists are usually anti-religious in some sense so they do not feel comfortable using the rhetoric of apocalypse when propagating their ideas.

After discussing these classificatory issues, Žižek goes on to argue that there is a major weakness in current Transhumanist arguments: “…they somehow presuppose that the autonomous subject freely deciding on his or her acts will still be present, deciding on how to change it’s ‘nature’…But what about the prospect of the loop being closed so that my very power of decision making is already ‘meddled with’, by biogenetic manipulation, and the autonomous individual is no longer there?” (p. 347) Somewhat paradoxically, the arrival of biogenetic technology may affect our ability to choose whether to adopt it or not. What are we to make of this claim?

One potential response would be to insist that if by focusing on the fact that technology is neutral, in so far as it can be put to both beneficial and harmful uses. In this way concerns about biotechnology can be averted. However, whilst it is true this in principle it is rarely the case in practice. Technology is used by human beings, and human beings have goals they wish to achieve and are forever seeking new way to achieve these goals. This tendency can be seen clearly in the writing of leading Transhumanist philosopher Max More, he describes Transhumanists as people who “seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its current human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life promoting principles and values” (True Humanism, available on More’s website).

The most pressing question here is what these “life promoting principles” are? If they are ones that see any rejection of human enhancement as irrational then Žižek may indeed be right. Our own rationality towards the future, which is meant to help us decide whether or not to adopt biotechnology, may already be “enhanced” by those overseeing a Transhuman future so that we have already chosen to be enhanced.

On the other hand, if a humane compromise could be reached between the enhanced and those who remain human, Žižek’s worry would be mitigated: biogenetic change would not be coerced. However, with the general tendency for technology to advance according to its own logic, and any attempts made to regulate it coming only after the fact, the future of Transhumanism may not even be in the hands of the Transhumanists themselves. Humanity could be changed by something more like a virus than a deliberately undertaken medical procedure.

Therefore, Žižek raises an urgent concern that has not currently been addressed by the Transhumanist community. This should make people be more hesitant in their endorsement of the movement or at very least curb some of the blind optimism that is so often the lifebood of futurist movements.

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4 responses »

  1. Here’s a great article on this same very subject of whether we really can choose to not be transformed by the onset of the singularity (the transhumanist vision). The very idea that a non-enhanced human can exist with a manufactured evolutionary jump is like expecting the Homo neanderthalensis to live alongside homo sapiens sapiens. The enhancement promises increased strength, length of life and intelligence. It is also becoming more and more evident that it will only be available to the few and not the many. More and more however we are accepting transhumanism without really knowing if we “choosing” it. For example more and more people “live” online, we accept each new technology whether it be the iphone or a drone. We are being mentally prepared for this new world through films that outline the ideology through films like the Matrix Triology, Ghost in the Shell, Avatar and Wall-E to name a few. Its coming faster than we can imagine since the technology is already here. I suggest everyone should watch the documentary “Plug and Pray” where the now deceased computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum discusses the ethics of artificial intelligence and where the hell are we going with it anyway. Its very interesting. There’s a lot of room for dialogue on this subject, its just too bad its not being had by the general public.

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