Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Letter from Utopia

There have been a few times in the past when I have mentioned on this blog Nick Bostrom, philosopher [among other things], co-founder of the transhumanist movement , and director of The Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University. Recently he has written a "Letter from Utopia," which is a kind of fictionalization of how a "possible" transhuman in the future might address we "mere humans" situated here in the present. I excerpt part of this letter here:

The challenge I put before you is one of self-transformation. To grow up. This is not only about technology, but technology is necessary to participate in this way of life. If you want to live and play on my level, you need to acquire new capacities. To reach Utopia, and experience life here, you must discover the means to three fundamental transformations.

The First Transformation: Extend your life.


Your biological body, in it its current form, will not take you far. It wears out too soon. Eighty years is not enough even to get started in a serious way, much less to complete the journey. Maturity of the soul takes more than eighty vigorous years to develop. Why, even a tree-life takes more time to complete.

Death is not one but a multitude of assassins. Do you not see them? They are coming at you from every angle. Take aim at the causes of early death - infection, violence, malnourishment, heart attack, cancer. Turn a big gun on aging and fire. Claim control over the biochemical processes in your body in order to eliminate, by and by, illness and senescence. In time, you will discover ways to move your mind to more durable mediums. Then continue to improve the system, so that the risk of death and disease continues to decline. Any death prior to the heat death of the universe is premature if your life is good.

Oh, aging is a cruel cage. Gnaw and pull at the bars, and you will slowly loosen them up. One day you will break the grid that kept your forebears imprisoned. Gnaw and pull, redouble your efforts!


The Second Transformation: Amplify your cognition.

Your brain's special faculties: music, humor, spirituality, mathematics, eroticism, art, nurturing, narration and gossip! Aren't these the spirits with which to fill the cup of life? Blessed you are if you have a cask of any of these, or even as much as single vintage bottle.

Be not afraid to grow. The mind's cellars have no ceilings! But what other capacities are possible? Imagine a world with all music dried up - what poverty, what loss. Thank not the lyre but your ears for the music - and for the babbling brook, and the human voice.


What other harmonies are there in the air, that you lack the ears to hear?
What vaults of value are you standing outside, lacking the key sensibility? Your brain needs to be enhanced beyond any genius of your kind, both in its special faculties and its general intelligence, so that you can learn, remember, and understand better.

Mind is a means: for without sagacity you will lose your way or get bogged down, and your journey will fail.
Mind is also an end: for it is in the spacetime of awareness that Utopia will exist. May the measure of your mind be vast and expanding.

Oh, stupidity is a loathsome corral! Gnaw and pull at the poles, and you will slowly loosen them up. One day you will break the fence that held your forebears captive. Gnaw and pull, redouble your efforts!


The Third Transformation: Elevate your well-being.


What is the difference between indifference and interest, boredom and thrill, despair and euphoria?
Pleasure. A few grains of this magic ingredient are worth more than a king's treasure, and we have it aplenty here in Utopia. It infuses everything we do and everything we experience. We sprinkle it in our tea.

The universe is cold. Fun is the fire that melts the blocks of hardship, and creates a bubbling celebration of life.
It is the birth right of every creature, trampled upon since the beginning of time. There is a beauty and joy here that you cannot fathom. It feels so good that if the sensation were translated into tears of gratitude, rivers would overflow. I wish I could elaborate but language abandons me. I grope in vain for words to convey to you what all this amounts to…

I will not speak of the worst pain and misery that is to be got rid of; it is too horrible to dwell upon, and you are already aware of the urgency of palliation. My point is that in addition to the removal of the negative, there is also an upside imperative: to enable the full flourishing of enjoyments that are not currently viable.
The roots of suffering are deep in your brain. Weeding them out and replacing them with nutritious crops of well-being will require fine instruments for the cultivation of mental soil.

For Nick Bostrom, utopia is akin to living forever ["any death prior to the heat death of the universe is premature if your life is good"], never growing old ["aging is a cruel cage"], never suffering the most painful emotions ["what a gruesome knot suffering is!"], only experiencing the positive, more euphoric emotions, and being all mind and no body ["mind is . . . an end"]. The fictional author of this letter, "Your Possible Future Self," is not something beyond or past the human [a pure machine, let's say, devoid of human-ness or human "parts"], but is rather, something further along the evolutionary human chain yet somehow stripped of everything we usually associate with "being human": mortality, limits to comprehension, passio, and the situation/habitation of time.

So here's my question to all of you: if you could live forever, would you want to? Would you still be human?

28 comments:

J J Cohen said...

I think Nick Bostrum is too easy a target. What silliness.

But, then again, what human-ness. The desire to live forever, to be enclosed in an impermeable bubble of pleasure, to have infinite power (shooting guns to blast away disease! a cognizance that spreads across the cosmos!) We've always dreamed such things, but we've typically given their attainment to impossible creatures like gods.

What Bostrum is missing from his picture is the body -- or at least the body as inextricable from subjectivity. I think of Liz Grosz and her notion of body and subjectivity as a Moebius strip, inextricable. Bostrum imagines that there is a "we" existing outside the flesh, as well as outside of temporality. Thus an old man is a young soul in the cage of decrepit flesh, not a person whose subjectivity has been changed by disability and experience and pain and loss ... and so on. I know he implies that we keep growing, maturing, changing ... but that image of senescence REALLY says it all.

In theory, who wouldn't want to live forever? In fact, who'd want Queen Victoria still regal on her throne, or Ronald Reagan dictating economic policy ad infinitum? Our mortality, our time-boundedness, is sad. Eileen, you stated once that you grieve your own body's passing in advance. What sane person doesn't? But Bostrum's world without bodies and history really is a world evacuated of the human. His utopia is field of frozen semblances extracted from what was only at one point mortal, frail, moral.

J J Cohen said...

BostrOm, I mean.

Scott Lahti said...

>if you could live forever, >would you want to? Would you >still be human?

Life's long enough as it is - let's not make it any longer...

Our culture seems to have but two defaults - overgrown permanent adolescence on the one hand (see everything from the White House 1993-present to Trump to Viagra/Cialis/Levitra/Enzyte to *Girls Gone Wild*, &c.), and imperial arteriosclerosis/premature senility on the other (obesity as destiny, aka *Girth Gone Piled*, fiscal-reform gridlock, entrenched geo-petro denial, a bipartisan, ignorance-and-fear-based foreign policy of endless global social engineering *avant et apres les deluges* ensuing, enacted by both ''liberal'' and ''conservative'' partisans), without so much as a moment's pause to savor the charms of life as grownups.

The common Californicating fetish for the Endless Summer of perpetual suntanned youth, and the desperate quest for it upon which whole lives and industries are built, incarnates a social and moral derangement characteristic of an age of rootless and unprecedented affluence, whose reigning belief in the false god of Progress is a legacy in large part of the cold nineteenth-century materialism of the sort which found its 200-proof incarnations in the pyramid-building ''isms'' which crashed and burned across the C20, viz., Marxism, top-down ''scientific'' socialism, capitalism, industrialism - scientism, in brief.

The denial of death and of the limits inherent in being human, of the cycles of nature and mortality upon which wholesome, organic life of all species is dependent, the estrangement from nature and tradition, the loss of the tragic sense of life under the relentless Promethean futurism of what Albert Jay Nock called ''economism'' - as we sow (''Sow? *Si.* Sigh.'' - Jack Benny, Mel Blanc), so shall we weep...

Grow up. Grow old. Live. Die. As that latter-day Scarlet Pimpernel of New Grub Street, Christopher Hitchens put it recently in whacking the bishops on behalf of his own shopworn C18 Enlightened infamy-crushing from that burning deck of ''brave'' atheism whence all but he and Dawkins/Dennett/Harris
and their millions had fled the better to boost book sales, our culture could do with a lot less sentimentality and a lot more stoicism. Spot on, Chris (to quote John Cleese's theory-possessive ''Ann Elk'')!

Like drama king Bernie Shaw sez, the true joy in life is ''the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap-heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.''

Or as Benny Hill sang with his sad-clown apple-cheeked puckishness, ''Give me an older woman every time, every time/Give me an older woman every time/'Cos they don't yell and they don't tell/And they're grateful as hell/Give me an older woman every time.''

Karl Steel said...

Yes, Bostrom's forgetting the body (among other things), at least in this manifesto. The tree thing is silly. But I think we can work a body, of some sort, into this utopia. Would it be a human body anymore? No, thank god. And given the flux of evolution, are we ever biologically fixed, anyhow? There's a constant shifting away from/within the 'human,' even (especially) in a biological sense.

Of course I don't want to die. Nor do I want to be eternally young. Being eternally 36? Wouldn't mind it. What I'd like better would be a destruction of young/old as categories except in a strictly temporal sense (although transformed biology would also transform mind and with it temporality).

Bostrom's rhetoric of choice of course obscures much: who's choosing? And with what? And (if this is fair) with whose resources? These questions don't kill his mission. If we have the power to arrest aging, and to arrest it ethically, hurrah. If we can at least open up the possibility for more choices, especially before this most terrible of limits, this is also to be praised.


(If an extended me ascended to the White House by some misfortune, well, there are term limits: so nothing to worry about on that front, JJC.)

MKH said...

I'm not really sure what to make of Bostrom. He seems to make the mistake that a lot of science fiction/fantasy writers do (I don't think I'm saying anything previous commenters haven't already articulated) in that he assumes that if we could just get rid of those pesky things that are holding humanity back (violence, poverty, old age, death) that we would be able to transcend the pitiable weaknesses that bind us to our failing bodies and our fading selves.

Yet, I wonder if the body -- that's still present, if different, in Bostrom's "utopia" -- is simply functioning as a kind of false front for what really worries us. The body has to change, biologically, in order to continue -- science has taught us this much. But Bostrom is positing the body as what holds us back from becoming -- well, whatever it is we're becoming in this vision -- really all that different from saying we need to arrest aging, destroy all disease, etc.? It's like the body replaces those outside forces, and becomes the force that must be altered in order to make a human future possible. What seems to be left out is that if we were to alter ourselves on a genetic level (which it seems would need to happen in order for this vision of an evolved human to exist), "we" -- the generation making the changes, I mean -- would never see the results, because our DNA would not (yet) be altered.

Yet I'd agree with JJC -- Bostrom's positing a sort of eternal referent of human subjectivity that isn't bound to chronological time -- something that deserves to be continued, and deserves better life. My problem with that way of seeing it -- is that shouldn't the human itself, with all its failings and frailties included, be worth eliminating disease and poverty and violence for? The "human" as it now, as it is in the process of becoming, rather than the utopian vision of what it might one day be?

In the end, I might just be too much of a pessimist. I'm not sure that, given an infinite lifespan, or even the resources to build it, humanity would be able to approach that evolution in an ethical way.

Or maybe I've just watched too much Highlander...

Anonymous said...

Bostrum implies that the current human life span really isn't enough time to accomplish much of anything, and that humanity will only really begin to achieve once we have overcome mortality. I can't help wondering if removing mortality would also remove our ambition and drive: I only have 70 years or so to accomplish the things I want to accomplish, so I'm working really hard at it now before it's too late. If I had infinity, or even several hundred years, would I be so driven?

I also can't help but think that somehow wisdom and mortality are tied together. The people who seem truly wise to me are those who have faced their own mortality, grappled with it, dealt with it, and moved beyond their fears of it. I'm too young to have done this yet--I still find death horrifying and prefer to avoid thinking of my own mortal end. If we didn't have to come to terms with our mortality, would we be able to achieve wisdom, or would we retain an immature fear of the death we are avoiding?

- Morgan

srj said...

NB is a materialist - even his concepts of pleasure and pain are framed in terms of heat and cold. Perhaps that is where his mindset departs most radically from those who experience pleasure through thoughts and words?

I don't want to be his apologist, but we do need to ask what utopias are for? They are clearly never attainable - (nor ever meant to be?). They are mostly ridiculously simplistic (and pre post-modern...). They are a means of focussing on certain goals (often deliberately excluding others) and thinking through their desirability.

As a scientist NB focuses on material frailty and inadequacy and on physical disease. While his Utopian vision in itself is preposterous - is the desire for better materiality so bad a thing? 3/4 of my grandparents died at 60 or before - largely because of the poor material and health conditions, and hard physical labour, they experienced. I am very glad that advances in medicine and science mean that I have the chance to live much longer. The bodily experience of senility is as much constructed as other parts of our subjective selves.

Strangely, news reports over the last few days suggest that my children's generation if the first in the over-developed world to be at risk of experiencing a worse life expectancy than their parents - because of the bad material choices we have made.

So while I can happily agree with JJC that NB taken literally is silly - there are still issues there that even humanist thinkers need to deal with.

J J Cohen said...

Oh, I agree: the issues motivating Bostrom are to be taken very seriously indeed; aren't the essence of our humanity? It's just that his point of departure (that subjectivity is somehow separable from embodiment; that subjectivity is atemporal, since it exists outside of a ever-mutable fleshiness) makes his utopia more illustrative of eternal human desires than an inspiration to human change in the present or future. Isn't Bostrom really just another version, this time in a scientific language, of what many Christians believe: that we have souls that exist outside of our body, and that these souls are eternal and nontemporal. He's just trying to give these souls their promised heaven.

Eileen Joy said...

"Isn't Bostrom really just another version, this time in a scientific language, of what many Christians believe: that we have souls that exist outside of our body, and that these souls are eternal and nontemporal. He's just trying to give these souls their promised heaven."

Now, substitute "mind" for "soul" and I think that, yes, this is a great description of what Bostrom "is on about." I don't consider him silly, though [although, yes, he's an easy target, I admit it], mainly because he and a group of other very important humanists and scientists are located at a so-called very important university where they have a fairly large pot of money to play with, they publish articles in important journals like "Bioethics," etc. etc. So, when I read "Letter from Utopia," I think, "this is nuts," partly because of the hyperbolic style of it, but then I recall to myself that the same Nick Bostrom who wrote the, yes, silly letter, also wrote "In Defense of Posthuman Dignity," considered one of the best articles published in "Bioethics" in the past twenty years. Of course, maybe none of this ultimately means anything if, in the end, Bostrom's primary objectives are wildly un-realizable, as in:

"to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities"

and:

"to overcome fundamental human limitations" [by, of course, eliminating aging, but also, through technology, by unleashing more of the brain's potential and then giving that brain a new "body" that doesn't wear down or wear out, oh, and also, if necessary, because of global catastrophe, finding a new planet for all of this to have the best "field of play"].

But I guess, for me, I keep going back to the question of how much we believe our human-ness [however we define that] is tied to our mortality, or more narrowly, to our vulnerabilities in general, which vulnerabilities are tied to our bodies, of which our minds are an extension of sorts.

No, I don't want to die. Yes, if someone told me I could live forever, I might, at first, say "yippee!" until a certain realization would set in--i.e., do I want to be married to one person now "forever"? where are we all going to live, since there will now be so many of us, OR, conversely, who is going to decide, given our limited resources and space, who gets to live forever and who doesn't? will I just be perpetually bored? will I, as morgan asks, lose my ambition to do anything substantial since I now have all the time in the world? do I really want to be around to see the heat death of the universe or the rapture, whichever comes first? But perhaps most importantly, will I still be myself, recognize myself [even, my child-self, who I never want to lose], after hundreds, maybe thousands of years? If wisdom does, indeed, come with age, wouldn't this kind of immortality actually increase, rather than alleviate, my suffering? If I am already all-too-human, would my immortal self not be so unbearably human as to almost not be able to stand living?

Related to these questions, I was really affected by Peter Kramer's book "Against Depression," which I read two summers ago when a very good friend of mine was suffering from severe clinical depression [and I often read these kinds of books, anyway, because manic depression runs in my family, mainly just in the men on my father's side, so I've always been fascinated, and frightened, by what some call "clinical" depression and want to know as much about it as possible--one of my favorite books on this topic is William Styron's "Darkness Visible"]. In his book Kramer argues against the romanticization of depression--all the ways in which, over time, we have romanticized depression as being, somehow, a necessary attribute of the highly sensitive or artistic personality, when in fact, it is simply a physiological disease of the brain that needs to be treated with medical therapies or it will simply get worse and worse. But because some patients cling so desperately to the idea that their depression is somehow a vital part of *who they are* as particular and singular "human" persons, they will often obstruct or outright refuse the therapeutic process [and boy oh boy have I seen this a gadjillion times, with family members and with friends].

Have we, in the same fashion, romanticized our own deaths, our own mortality, such that we cannot imagine what it would mean to *still* be human and also be immortal? [I will plug here an essay by Myra Seaman that addresses this subject, "Beoming More (than) Human: The Posthuman Past and Future," which will be appearing in BABEL's special issue of the Journal of Narrative Theory, and which explores how mortal, imperfect bodies and certain affective vulnerabilities are often seen as critical, in the medieval past as well as in conceptions of the future in popular culture, in the construction of what might be called the "sacred" human.] If my body is impervious to time, but can still be my present, feeling, touching, moving, be-coming body, within which I can live and extend myself--my sentience which is nevertheless rooted in my wetware--into the far future, am I then living outside of time, or am I still in it yet untouched by it, such that the universe ages but I do not [isn't that kind of like wishing one were like god, or *a* god]? Like Karl, I wouldn't mind being 36 forever, either, I don't think [or 44, which is what I am now], but I also can't imagine how I would really construct how I would want to live my life without some notion of a terminus, or at least with some kind of ethics of self-care rooted in a notion of needing to "take care" of that which is ephemeral, fragile, and vulnerable [this, too, extends to the idea of the world as a kind of garden and we, its gardeners, tending ourselves and others, protecting ourselves and others from the elements, creating beauty which can only be temporary, cultivating hybridity, etc.].

Ultimately, as MKH points out, whatever it is we humans are destined to "become," we will need our bodies as the primary vehicles for our future transformations, which will be genetic transformations, perhaps also the result of hybridizations we cannot now imagine. Maybe I want to live forever, but I cannot imagine a life as a thing, or person, invulnerable to the changes of the world or un-contained by time.

Eileen Joy said...

I also think, of course, that we should pay attention to srj's question: what are utopias *for*, anyway? Nick Bostrom knows full well that the uptopia in his "Letter" is a fictional fantasy but it serves as an important fictionalized end-point [that I think he knows he himself will likely not attain--but who knows, he's such an optimist!] toward which certain intellectual and other energies are generated with the hope of productive change--that is the point of utopian thinking, in a sense: not to actually get to utopia but to make interesting [and socially + personally beneficial] "events" happen along the route of a path that is pulling you toward an image of a so-called "perfect place" that is also "nowhere." So, Nick Bostrom may not actually figure out how to re-engineer humans so that we can live forever, and maybe on another planet [he and his compatriots at Oxford and other affiliated universities really *are* working on the "other planet" scenario in addition to everything else], but if, in the process of their work, they enhance our biology so that we can live longer and with more capabilities that are, let's hope, productive of well-being, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

J J Cohen said...

You're right, Eileen, I ought not to call it silly, because NB is an influential person and his ideas are taken seriously. And as many commentators have pointed out, there are some important issues raised in the fictive missive. Also, the utopian striving and the epistolary form do demand their literary and historical readings.

I suppose what I was reacting to was my initial sense of: what is new here? Aren't these the same desires that you find expressed in ancient cyberpunk like Gibson's Neuromancer? Aren't these the same old "Cogito ergo sum" divorces from fleshliness that recur so regularly in the history of thought? Isn't NB's subjectivity (yawn) just another version of the Christian indestructable soul?

But still. I know one possible reaction to these machine dreams is alarm ("Humans without bodies!") But it is difficult for me to be too alarmed when the project seems doomed -- or, at least, error laden -- from the start. Still, your question is a good one: who would want to live forever? Is that really something that can be logically thought without changing the nature of what a "who" is?

Karl Steel said...

Isn't NB's subjectivity (yawn) just another version of the Christian indestructable soul?

What must be remembered is that this ind. soul is incomplete without its (eventually impassable) body. In that sense, Bostrom's ageless, expansive, even limitless self is, yes, a version of the Xian self, of the somatic ensouled self.

But it's not just another version because, first, it is not changeless self. Far from it. Moreover, the impassability of self Bostrom wants to have is not a gift, an obligation, a divine mark of our humanness. On the contrary, it is something that we make ourselves (in both senses of "we make ourselves"). There's a difference in that.

Do I think Bostrom's utopia is merely fantastic? In part, yes, but what would the Internet have been thought 40 years ago? I expect something can happen to make this kind of subject possible. Would it transform everything? Yes. Marriage, for one, I expect, and time, and urgency, and all that. But the utter transformation of the rules, now, is not reason enough not to try for this possibility.

Re: discussions of needing mortality to 'get things done.' I'm disinclined to seek justification for my life. I had this life unwillingly thrust upon me; I don't want to be compelled to justify my existence any further. Let those who brought me here justify my being. For now, I just want to live.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

"In theory, who wouldn't want to live forever?" (JJC)

"Being eternally 36? Wouldn't mind it" (KS)

"I was born to be dead, you try and stop me" (Today is the Day)

Bostrom is a fool, but not the sort one can't learn from. The value of his fantasy, like other science fictions, is as a kind of reductio ad absurdum that pushes and pressures important questions, such as the one Eileen draws, about living forever and whether that living would be human. I suspect that for those who indulge it literally, NB's thinking offers a way of being aware of the kinds of pervasive faulty assumptions about the nature of life that SL details without having to really face their falsity, while remaining safely and paradoxically within technology's dreams. For some reason he strikes me as an intellectual version of the thrill seeker whose compulsive performance of acts signifying freedom from the fear of death only testify to and finally fulfill an unconscious, inadmissable desire for it.

So, reading the comments so far, I am wary of our not really answering Eileen's question and hiding instead behind its hypothetical, impossible character. All questions are in essence hypothetical, a placing of something into suspension, only some you have to answer (will you marry me?) and some you don't (why is anything happening at all?), and the creative work of discourse is to experience and realize the necessity and always already operative force of unanswerable, impossible questions. So I find the preservation of hypothesis in the answers above ("in theory" "would") interesting as a suggestion that what Eileen's question might really be prompting is something like "yes, I do want to live forever as long as I don't actually have to, and moreover, my 'yes' is not so much about me wanting to be this particular embodied self forever as a general 'human' desire for immortality."

Do you want to live forever?

My experience of this question is that it puts a kind of unbearable pressure on the structure of identification, on my identifying with a transitory, born to be dead body. In other words it exposes the fact that my being a body is not simply a durable fact, something that was/is/will be, but an inhabiting, a constant, necessary, unavoidable negotiation of the fact of finding myself as a body (think Milton's Eve). This is not a negotiation between a disembodied intellect (Bostrom's utopian "spacetime of awareness") and a material thing, but an experience of the material body as always more than material, as a thing, indeed the thing, which I have direct conscious experience of but for which I have no adequate concept. Because of this, to limit myself to this body forever, to define myself as forever identifying with this body, is unthinkable. Such a life would merely and thus not truly human, would not be my life, but me acting out a fiction of myself.

Our intellects can come up with some pretty good rational answers as to why we would and would not want our current existence to continue ad infinitum/ad nauseam. But I suspect that rational answers, i.e. those that assert reasons for living/not-living forever, must remain, by their their very intellectual nature, hopelessly outside the realm of real answers, staying within the hypothetical rather than accomplishing the translation from the hypothetical to the real that questioning invites and accomplishes.

I do not think this means that the question can only be answered via actual choice, via actually facing the opportunity to live forever, only that the question, like other impossibles, can only be answered intuitively, poetically, with a feeling for what the actual totality of one's being really seeks and wants. Hence the value of SL's and Anon.'s answers (immortal life is too long and too stupid) lies for me in their being signs of a deeper silent sense that living forever as this me is not a reality that I, as a being fundamentally incommensurable with my body as materially, transitorially defined, could ever accept or desire.

Why? Because (and because I can only answer poetically) every moment of this life, the only moment, is already forever. Because not dying would destroy the asymmetrical symmetry of individual life, our happening to have been born and happening to die at particular timespace moments that are always now. Because I love and anticipate my death and could not live without it. Because fearing death is extremely, shamefully unchivalric.

"For, come, tell me, can there be anything more delightful than to see, as it were, here now displayed before us a vast lake of bubbling pitch with a host of snakes and serpents and lizards, and ferocious and terrible creatures of all sorts swimming about in it, while from the middle of the lake there comes a plaintive voice saying: 'Knight,
whosoever thou art who beholdest this dread lake, if thou wouldst
win the prize that lies hidden beneath these dusky waves, prove the valour of thy stout heart and cast thyself into the midst of its
dark burning waters, else thou shalt not be worthy to see the mighty wonders contained in the seven castles of the seven Fays that lie beneath this black expanse;' and then the knight, almost ere the awful voice has ceased, without stopping to consider, without pausing to reflect upon the danger to which he is exposing himself, without even relieving himself of the weight of his massive armour, commending himself to God and to his lady, plunges into the midst of the boiling lake, and when he little looks for it, or knows what his fate is to be, he finds himself among flowery meadows, with which
the Elysian fields are not to be compared"(Quixote, I.50).

Leslie Donn said...

Well, you folks sure can give a body a lot to chew on. Fascinating how discussion grows in lumpy, chunky forms when it is not in person.] Though I am merely a youthful and relatively unlearned (accent on the "ed" for style) undergrad, I find myself compelled to contribute my small sum of thoughts here.

I do not want to live forever. I do not have the faith in humanity to reach the point where it would be a good idea to let them, us, live forever. Even if we were to reach a point of a sort of bodyless Utopia, we will still suffer the scars of the foolishness of humanity. Even if we are having a ball galavanting through fields of poppies and geraniums, the very state of the human mind is change and will grow bored with geraniums and poppies. The removal of the mortality of our bodies would present us with far more problems than it would seem to solve, unless of course, we have reached the point of technology where we can follow Bradbury and Whedon to the stars.

I was once told, in my freshman year in college, that nothing worthwhile is achieved during a single human lifetime. Not only did this sound depressing, I disagreed then and I still disagree heartily. “Worthwhile things” are relative, to people, to communities, to nations. The good life is not necessarily an immortal one. Without the effort of growing up, how would one know what is good?

One last note on the effort "to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.” Would the elimination of aging remove the necessity of the human mind (soul, spirit, essence, etc) to grow, change and adapt? I must say, I like change, and I like that some things end, even when I am wholly unprepared for the happening. Even if people lived forever, the world would change and fail in ways that could not be overcome by all of the love or pleasure the perfect soul could offer.

Perhaps, if we reach the point Mr. [Doctor, Professor, High Lord Chancellor?] Bostrom desires, then we will be able to discuss this matter with some semblance of a point. [As Chesterton says, "for me all good things come to a point...swords for instance."] For, by then, we will have fundamentally altered ourselves to such a point where the change seems unnecessary.

Until this happens, I will live and I will die and I will keep trying to learn things. It really is all I can do.

srj said...

Afraid it is one of those days when everything has gone bullet pointed, so:

1) First, true silliness. A good while back I was roundly castigated by certain bloggers here for doubting the future and insisting on the importance of the present. So, now that you are offered an endless future, why are you so reluctant to be part of it? Where does the dreaming about futures fit with today's insistence on living now.

2)Our sense of time is so stretched compared to those of past generations. We spend less time procreating, we survive more illnesses that would have killed our ancestors, and generally have perhaps twice (?) the living time of those we study. So we could use that experience to think through what a still longer, even endless, time-evaporated life might be like. We may not be able to see far, but our time-extended lives are maybe on the threshold of a timeless life. In that context it is strange how anxious we are to deny that possibility and to insist there are things that we cannot (should not?) know.

Well these are the kind of dumb thoughts you get while cooking tea.

Eileen Joy said...

SRJ: dumb thoughts? Terribly challenging is more like it. And as to Nicola's post: whoa. I'll check back in after my Tolkien class. The mind (and heart) reels. Brew a cup of tea for me, SRJ.

Laudine said...

An obvious point is how we conceive of the human body (or, rather, human bodies, rejecting the idea of a universal and homogeneous human body), in terms of a "lifetime," in the context of the life-enhancing/ -enabling technology already at our disposal. The experience of a "human" life prolonged by dialysis, pacemaker, prosthetic, etc. redefines not only our idea of what a lifetime is (as srj pointed out re: grandparents and life expectancies), but also of what we consider the human body to be: where does the I end, and my mechanical circulatory system or lung or heart begin? The question of the immortal human/machine seems not just important or provocative or otherwise hypothetically valuable, but also relevant and personal to me. We can try to predict how human nature, whatever that is, would change if given the chance to persist beyond the normal span, whatever that is. But does someone who survives what we consider, or may once have considered, to be a deathly blow, who suddenly gains a new lease on life--50 more years, in health (whatever that is), perhaps very well assisted by a machine--not only feel the shifts that we're predicting, be they megalomania or depression or boredom or a burst of productivity, but, more to the point, become somehow no longer human? Is it only a kind of politeness born of acceptance and habit that allows us to think of that person as a normal mortal human in recovery, and not as either a super- or a sub-human? Disability studies have a lot more to say on these points than I can deal with here.

With that said, I'm all for my own limited present. If not for my allergies and the fear of death, I'd be out there oppressing people as hard as I could. And speaking of individual human bodies, I would also like to say that I prefer Eileen's hair to Bonnie Wheeler's. Who gives out those Best Medievalist Hair awards? The Tiny Shriner?

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I dunno -- I'd like another 20 or so years with me at this age, more or less, and the ability to spend it with LDW with him not aging for 20 years. Getting back wasted time just by having a bit more of it would be nice. Not that I want to burn out so very quickly at the end like Roy Batty, but yeah, I'd like to slow down the process not that I seem to have got the hang of things.

Or maybe live forever, if I could do it with the people I love and know that there was still room for new people.

J J Cohen said...

Hmm, I don't want to be 42 forever (contrary to what was promised, the answer to life, the universe and everything did not arrive this year). Also, there is the inconvenience of the kids: will they be forever 10 and 3? Do I have to know them eternally as adults or forever as munchkins? You see, Nicola, it's not merely that the thought experiment stays hypothetical to keep it bay, it's that it is actually impossible in practice. And as to the Quixote quote, lovely as it is, don't forget that he was mad (truthful, I suppose, and a dreamer of impossible worlds, but mad).

So, srj, it's not rejecting the future so much as a present in eternal stasis passing itself off as a future. But which present ... ? And so on.

dtk said...

Only if my kids (and their kids) could also live forever...

Along with Highlander, hasn't Bostrum read any good vampire novels? Or even Anne Rice? Or maybe Tennyson's 'Tithonus'? Eternal life without eternal youth would really suck.

Perhaps it's that I'm on a Levinas kick, but I'm beginning to doubt that subjectivity without community (lit crit = the Other) is about as nonsensical as a subjectivity without a body. I haven't read Grosz's most recent stuff, Jeffrey, but I'd put community as the supposed other side of the mobian relation with subjectivity.

J J Cohen said...

Intimations of mortality: we just watched Charlotte's Web with our three year old, Kid #2 on this blog. When it was clear that Charlotte's number was up (Charlotte had become lethargic and was blinking a lot -- sure sign in a kid's movie of looming death and approaching choir music), Kid #2's eyes welled up with tears and she started to sob "I don't want the spider to die! I don't want the spider to die!"

In a way, I think, she was crying about endings in general. We were having so much fun, our family of four with our popcorn and our pillows, watching a movie during the week (we never do that). Kid #2 realized in Charlotte's death the transitoriness of every pleasure as well as the brevity of life.

Or so I think.

Eileen Joy said...

In an earlier post, Nicola wrote, regarding the question, "Do *you* want to live forever?">

"My experience of this question is that it puts a kind of unbearable pressure on the structure of identification, on my identifying with a transitory, born to be dead body. In other words it exposes the fact that my being a body is not simply a durable fact, something that was/is/will be, but an inhabiting, a constant, necessary, unavoidable negotiation of the fact of finding myself as a body (think Milton's Eve). This is not a negotiation between a disembodied intellect (Bostrom's utopian "spacetime of awareness") and a material thing, but an experience of the material body as always more than material, as a thing, indeed the thing, which I have direct conscious experience of but for which I have no adequate concept. Because of this, to limit myself to this body forever, to define myself as forever identifying with this body, is unthinkable. Such a life would merely and thus not truly human, would not be my life, but me acting out a fiction of myself."

I am trying to wrap my head around this, with some difficulty, but also understanding. I cannot speak for Nicola, but for myself I would say that in the end, we are indeed that material body apart from which we cannot "live," either as disembodied mind or as some kind of supra-material excess. I've certainly spent enough time on this blog "confessing," or "admitting,." or "conceding," or what-have-you, that extra-personal "becomings" are available to us, such that I could "join" with other entities--human, animal, machine, etc.--but this does not negate the fact that I inhabit a certain material [biological] given-ness that, at least for now, I can never fully escape. Is my "self" on some level a "fiction," even a beautiful fiction? Of course. The "Real" is not bearable--it must be traversed as a kind of fantasy. This is okay, all to the good, etc.

But I agree with Nicola that the question "do *you* want to live forever?" does put a kind of "unbearable" stress, or pressure, on the fictions we create about our supra-material selves, and insists, moreover, that we at least try to confront what it is we think "we" are, in our most essential, material form, and how "I" might confront the idea, or fact, of the extension of that "I"--in its most statically material form--into an interminable future. I rather think I'd hate it, actually--both the idea and the possibility of the event itself. Does anyone, deep down, really want to be "only themselves," much less caught within that given reality into a limitless future? Aren't we all, at some level, hoping and striving for the very othering of ourselves, for some unforseen transformation into something finer we can barely anticipate but always hope for? We don't want to lose ourselves, but it is transformation or metamorphosis--through love, through various encounters with others, through various tests and circles of fire, through patient waiting, collisions, etc.--I'd like to think, that we're really after: to somehow be utterly changed, through some kind of trial/experience of ex-stasis/slow burn/expectant hesitation/catastrophe/accident/chance, etc., while still retaining a kernel of an originary, given self [which could also be the first wish you ever had for "how things might turn out for *me*"]. Is it possible, that by being given the chance to live forever, this kind of hopefulness could have its widest possible purchase? Or would it just be too much?

Eileen Joy said...

Laudine, as to "best hair," you are too kind. I myself would have voted for Betsy McCormick, with Myra Seaman being a close second. God knows, though, my opinion is compromised by my affections.

Eileen Joy said...

SRJ wrote:

"A good while back I was roundly castigated by certain bloggers here for doubting the future and insisting on the importance of the present. So, now that you are offered an endless future, why are you so reluctant to be part of it? Where does the dreaming about futures fit with today's insistence on living now."

The best way for me to answer this is to say that I see myself as always living in a present that nevertheless has inherent within it, at all points, the past and future. I *do* care immensely about the future, but not in the sense of wishing or stressing over how I could better control its outcomes or insure that I would "last" forever; rather, by inhabiting the present with certain forward-looking orientations, and by sheer optimism and hopefulness and creative thinking, I inhabit the present as one who hopes the future might have a slightly better chance of turning out okay, although ultimately, I don't want to live *for* or *in* the future. I want to inhabit, as much as possible, that space of what Benjamin called the "shock" of the "constellation" of the past and the Now which is, again, hopefully productive of better futures.

It strikes me that intellectuals are often either too turned toward the past, or the future, without enough consideration of how we, quite literally, "spend time" *together* in the here and now. Obviously, from all my past comments on this blog, I think everyone knows I worry a lot about the lack of historical meaning/understanding in present contexts, and I am also quite heavily invested in utopian modes of thinking--true enough. But what I really care about the most is trying to figure out ways to craft "sites" or spaces within and through which very material and *present* encounters can be enacted between those persons who, though they may be obsessed with the past, or with the future, or both, are even more interested in present virtualities, present embodiments, present connections, present conversations, present "presents" [gifts-to-each-other]. Relationality, and now, with each other while also with others in the past and future: that should be our chief project, our task.

J J Cohen said...

Eileen, in one of her many good comments last night, wrote:

in the end, we are indeed that material body apart from which we cannot "live," either as disembodied mind or as some kind of supra-material excess. I've certainly spent enough time on this blog "confessing," or "admitting,." or "conceding," or what-have-you, that extra-personal "becomings" are available to us, such that I could "join" with other entities--human, animal, machine, etc.--but this does not negate the fact that I inhabit a certain material [biological] given-ness that, at least for now, I can never fully escape.

This formulation is close to what I believe about the body-subjectivity knot, but I'd say not that "I can never fully escape" this given-ness" but that I am this very given-ness and am unthinkable without it. The given-ness, the materiality, isn't static (bodies age; they move in and out of disability; they grow in spurts and mutate under the pressure of hormones; and so on), so that means that the "I" is likewise changing (though obviously not so radically that it bears no relation to its history).

Eileen, you've always had some skepticism about my line about "residence in a lonely body" from Medieval Identity Machines, but I used that formulation to show the impossibility of such a dwindled or unchanging state. A body that exists in time and in relation to other bodies can't be a mere, singular, segregated thing. Yes, it is marked by difference and biology and chemistry and the worlds that pass through it, but it is also not capable of being the fleshly residence of a Bostrom-like mind that is trapped within it for a while.

I guess that's a long way of saying that the "certain material [biological] given-ness" mutates over time and changes as well according to the space it occupies and fills, so even "given-ness" isn't quite as solid or as describable as it would seem at first glance.

Does that make sense?

srj said...

Something more serious later on - meanwhile - have you heard the Zimmers?


http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/power_to_the_people/6615695.stm

Nicola Masciandaro said...

"Aren't we all, at some level, hoping and striving for the very othering of ourselves, for some unforseen transformation into something finer we can barely anticipate but always hope for? We don't want to lose ourselves, but it is transformation or metamorphosis--through love, through various encounters with others, through various tests and circles of fire, through patient waiting, collisions, etc.--I'd like to think, that we're really after: to somehow be utterly changed, through some kind of trial/experience of ex-stasis/slow burn/expectant hesitation/catastrophe/accident/chance, etc., while still retaining a kernel of an originary, given self" (Eileen)

I think so, absolutely. Eileen, you describe very powerfully an origin/end dynamic (each of which is "impossible"), which seems to govern individual and collective life and existence. It also works with your later comment about the present as becoming. Becoming is othering, but it is also, through its very presentness, a becoming of something one always already is. And we long for a becoming that is simultaneously truest, becoming what we really are, original becoming, and open, becoming other than what we are, for something like an infinite individuality. And this longing, in all of its lonesomeness, is something other and deeper than desiring some thing, some state or possession that “would” make us happy, a problem that Bostrom’s vision, like all static utopia pictures, suffers from.

Which raises the category I think this conversation is bound to raise, and which has been there all along, evolution, animal to human to posthuman evolution and the relationships between body evolution and self evolution or evolution of consciousness. The world-picture that currently dominates is something like there is a continuous evolution of bodies but not of selves, across, for instance, the animal human boundary. Selves may undergo change, even change that throws into question (as Jeffrey indicates) their very status as selves (Richard Sorabji’s philosophical survey is helpful here), but they are not evolutionary things in the full sense of the word, they do not fully participate in the evolutionary, becoming process that is on display all around us. Rather the self is conceived as an adjunct of or witness to the evolving body but only for a discrete duration of its evolution. In other words, we do not generally believe in the evolution of consciousness as a fully individualized process, i.e. in personal evolution from say gas to human to whatever. Instead we think the evolution of consciousness impersonally, as a species-process. This renders only more problematic the arbitrariness of one’s existence, the actuality of one’s happening to oneself (human, female, smart, etc), a fact for which there is no evolutionary-scientific account. Whence Karl’s wonderfully haunting “Let those who brought me here justify my being. For now, I just want to live.” There are no “those”! Karl may be able understand to some extent how he has become his present self, characteristically, but there is no mechanism, agency, nature through which Karl can say “I have become human.” Instead we are continually stuck thinking something like “humans have evolved and I happen to be one of them” and we accept this as part of what it “means” to be human.

What if individual life in all of its dimensions was brought within, in theory and practice, the evolutionary process of which it is perforce a part? And can’t the ancient-medieval understanding of habitus, of “second nature” or the principle through which individual action becomes nature play a role here? Isn’t the assumption that our actions do not fundamentally alter our natures, a belief in a vacuum like freedom that is not there, one of the most dangerous assumptions? (cf. Agamben on destruction of experience) Imagine if ethics could escape its imprisonment in “values” (the twin of this vacuum) and be brought back within an experiential/scientific understanding of evolutionary becoming at the level of the individual subject?

So much more to say, but other duties call. Had to write fast and I hope it mostly makes sense!

Eileen Joy said...

JJC wrote:

"Eileen, you've always had some skepticism about my line about 'residence in a lonely body' from Medieval Identity Machines, but I used that formulation to show the impossibility of such a dwindled or unchanging state. A body that exists in time and in relation to other bodies can't be a mere, singular, segregated thing. Yes, it is marked by difference and biology and chemistry and the worlds that pass through it, but it is also not capable of being the fleshly residence of a Bostrom-like mind that is trapped within it for a while.

I guess that's a long way of saying that the 'certain material [biological] given-ness' mutates over time and changes as well according to the space it occupies and fills, so even 'given-ness' isn't quite as solid or as describable as it would seem at first glance."

The phrase from JJC's book, more precisely is "lonely residence in a merely human body"--the whole phrase is what I always return to: both the supposed loneliness of habitation in a supposedly singular human body combined with the idea of our supposed "merely human" bodies/identities; the thing is, I keep returning to it because it speaks to a certain sadness regarding all the ways in which, historically, we've closed ourselves off from others modes of being and habitation [and here, I can only agree to be sad about that], while at the same time it marks off the status of "human being" as something that is always situated at some sort of minimum thresh-hold of embodied experience: simply put, the human can never be sufficient unto itself, it is always lacking something when it is by itself. Who could disagree with either sentiment [or argument]? Who also could really disagree with JJC's statement above that "A body that exists in time and in relation to other bodies can't be a mere, singular, segregated thing." Yes, JJC, it makes sense, and I understand you well. On this subject of the status of the "human," you are a chief spur to my *not wanting to let go* of the idea that, on some level, or in particular moments, maybe [as in: as I am sitting in a doctor's office and being told that there are irregular cells in my body that *might* be cancerous], that I *am* a singular, bounded self whoc omes into and leaves this world by herself, alone, perhaps cared for, but utterly singularly alone nevertheless: but this is the depressing, pessimistic scenario, and I know that. So I guess the other thing I do not want to let go of, which is a different idea altogether, is that "the human," even when, in certain moments, completely *by itself*, is never "merely" anything: it is, perhaps, the greatest site of possibility, even when inert or over-determined by philosophies that would describe it otherwise, for all those tactile encounters and becomings dreamed of so often in JJC's and Deleuze-Guattari's and Butler's and Grosz's and Levinas's and others' writing and philosophy. At the end of the day, I just don't want to loathe or despair over my human-ness because it is a dwelling that, in and of itself ["in and of itself" being, of course, a state of mind that nevertheless impacts my material life, my movements in and out of the world], and unless otherwise imagined, is incomplete or short-sighted or "closed" ahead-of-the-game to various joinings. Just as I would not want to think less of the sparrow who could not fathom joining with me, I would not want anyone thinking less of me because I could not fathom joining with the sparrow [although, actually, I could].