You’re sitting on a train at the station. Another train slowly passes by on the next track over. You feel yourself leaving the station, only to realize – once the other train has passed – that you haven’t moved an inch. While illusions of motion and directionality are most often associated with spatial location (“Am I going up or down, shifting left or to the right, moving forwards or backwards”), we are often victims of illusions regarding the progression and regression of our culture and our inner lives: A culture celebrates its progressiveness, its forward thinking attributes. However, this optimism can obscure revelations of a nationally sanctioned genocide or atrocity; an individual feels exceedingly active, strong and free, only to find some months later that this period of euphoria has betrayed a destructive psychological pathology.
Today, our clearest illusion of motion is demonstrated by our orientation to technology. Fervor over the latest gadgets permeates our popular culture. Spinning through the whirlwind of digital do-gooders promising a freer, more connected and transparent future, it is difficult to determine whether we are being propelled forwards or dragged backwards. We are usually told we are marching forward, but what if we are the victims of an optical illusion?
Our most aggressive technophiles, the Transhumanists, pine for the glorious day when human beings will be H+ : having overcome our tragic old selves, the limits of our imperfect fleshy bodies, and our endless lamentations on the horizon cast by our eventual death. When this new, endless day dawns, our mind (synonymous with our ‘self’ for the Transhumanists) will have been transformed into a code capable of being uploaded into virtual worlds and synthetic bodies. Likewise, advocates of radical body modification strive to extend our limited human morphology into unlimited formations and combinations. The always gusty and unpredictable wind of technology has gained tornadic intensity, and all around us crackles the lightning of technical wizardry, the thunderous crash of our subsequent inventions and the howling hysterical cries that we are moving beyond the human.
But how are we to tell which direction humanity is moving from within this violent funnel? Has this disorienting condition finally knocked directionality – and thus the question of human progress – out of our skulls altogether? Is this great trans-formation, this Next Great Exodus of Man, allowing us to stand firmer, freer and more independent on our own two feet, or returning us to crawling on all fours at the throne of a cruel Sun God?
The philosopher Jean Baudrillard, surveying the technological tornado, observed that “the human does not give way to the superhuman, as Nietzsche had dreamed … Rather, it gives way to the subhuman, to something not beyond, but underneath the human, to an erasure of the symbolic marks that make up the species”. Instead of moving toward the overman, our trans-, or post- humanity, Baudrillard suggested that we may actually be moving us into the realm of the subhuman, that which is under man. In this critical light, the liberatory deathlessness of the Transhumanists becomes the creation of digital sarcophagi (“deathless alter-egos”) for the human species; the morphological freedom of the body modification advocates becomes destructive self-mutilation.
Keen detectives of popular culture know better than to take “the new” at face value. Simply because a consumer or cultural product is released this year does not require that it has gesticulated wholly in the womb of present day techniques, habits and practices. Consider our robust nostalgia industry and the myriad of ‘new’ products that emerge from it. We find ‘new’ products that are not simply marked by nostalgic yearning, but the drive to identically simulate an earlier form. The word “nostalgia” itself derives from the Greek “nostos”, usually translated as “homecoming”. While we tend to use nostalgia to describe a temporal looking back, it originally described a spatial returning home; rather than a time-sickness (yearning to repeat the experiences of an earlier time), the term originally signified a home-sickness (the motor behind Odysseus’ journey home).
A homecoming, returning-home, a home-sickness. But what is our true home? And how long are the tendrils of nostalgia? Baudrillard answers that “Contrary to everything that seems obvious and ‘natural’, nature’s first creatures were immortal. It was only by obtaining the power to die, by dint of constant struggle, that we became the living beings we are today … [F]irst the reign of the immortals, than the mortal and sexed beings overtaking the immortals”. Our original home was an indivisible one, an immortal one, an identical one; there was no division, no sex, no alterity. (Residues of the journey away from thisoriginary state exist in the Old Testament, where Eve and Adam are barred from access to the Tree of Eternal Life, introduced to the nakedness of the distinct sexes and the burdened with the cultural differences that provide the basis for human history. God scolds the first humans thusly: “I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, And between your offspring and hers.”)
Humanity is a celebration of endings, distinctions, duality and differentiation. Baudrillard’s warning was that we often believe post-humanism to be creating new types of life, when it is in fact a nostalgic homesickness for our distant past as inorganic, unsexed, undying creatures. The unpopular contrast to today’s post-humanism, whose aims include exploding the male-female sex binary as an artificial and unnecessary construct, was voiced by Michael Valentine Smith near the conclusion of Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land: “Male-femaleness is the greatest gift we have—romantic physical love may be unique to this planet. If it is, the universe is a poorer place than it could be … and I grok dimly that we-who-are-God will save this precious invention and spread it. The joining of bodies with merging of souls in shared ecstasy, giving, receiving, delighting in each other—well, there’s nothing on Mars to touch it, and it’s the source, I grok in fullness, of all that makes this planet so rich and wonderful.”
What is curious about our popular culture, our collective subconscious, is our romanticizing of infantilism and intoxication leading to the loss of consciousness and the control of motor reflexes. Consider Breathe Carolina’s ‘Blackout’, which begins: “Caught up and I can’t feel my hands, No need to chase. Can you relate?” or Taio Cruz, who in ‘Hangover’, wants to “[G]o until I blow up. / And I can drink until I throw up / And I don’t ever, ever want to grow up / I wanna keep it going, keep it going, going, going”, or the anthem of our gurgling age, located in Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance’: “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah!Roma-Roma-ma-ah! Ga-ga-ooh-la-la!”
The music video for Lady Gaga’s (her name is itself evocative of an insecurity about the demarcation between infancy and adulthood) song ‘Born this Way’ begins with a transparent, antiseptic looking, glass throne floating through space, followed by the birth of a new, asexually produced, race. The narration over this curious mythical scene – which must be quoted in full – tells us: “This is the Manifesto of Mother Monster. On G.O.A.T, a Government Owned Alien Territory in space, a birth of magnificent and magical proportions took place. But the birth was not finite. It was infinite. As the wombs numbered and the mitosis of the future began, it was perceived that this infamous moment in life is not temporal, it is eternal. And thus began the beginning of the new race, a race within the race of humanity, a race which bares no prejudice, no judgment but boundless freedom.” The sexless, deathless Mother Monster: indivisible, immortal, identical, floating on its throne through infinite space, enclosed in antiseptic, transparent, glass.
Baudrillard’s warning was that today “the [ancient] immortals are avenging themselves through the [technologically new] process of sex and cloning, through interminable reduplication, through the obliteration of sex and death”. After the revolutionary advent of sex and death, which freed us from our originary incest and primitive entropy comes the liberation of sex and death, which is “recreating precisely these [pre-sexual, pre-mortal] conditions”. After the revolution, an involution: the process whereby when something turns upon itself. “Liberty is hard to take. ”From immortal to mortal and back to immortality – asexual to sexual back to asexuality – total to individual and back to totality – indistinct to distinct and back to indistinction.
We are homesick, are repentant for leaving our origin, and have embarked on an involution back to our home port. But on the journey “backwards” we are surrounded by things that are associated with being “forwards”: cloning, simulation, programming, and genetic management. Around us are minstrels singing ballads about the loss of individual consciousness, about blacking out, and worshiping at the indivisible, immortal, throne of Mother Monster, at upwards of 170 BPM (beats-per-minute). We may believe we are setting out further beyond the Pillars of Hercules, into wholly uncharted waters, when we are actually returning home. Teenagers aboard this ship spend their evenings in the Church of the Undying Vampire, using their parent’s Visa Infinite card to purchase a ticket to the latest ‘Twilight’ film Breaking Dawn, whose tagline is Forever is only the Beginning. They avoid sleep with Red Bull and dance the night away to the music video for Lady Gaga’s “Born this Way”, which begins with Mother Monster’s cellular mitosis and concludes with a skeleton that is very much alive.
We are in motion, that is certain, but whether we are the victims of an illusion obscuring the amplification or attenuation of our humanity is a question for us unrepentant humanists, increasingly few and far between, who are not “sick of sex, of difference, of emancipation, of culture” and who remain able to defend our diversity, our complexity, and our alterity.
All Baudrillard quotes are from “The Final Solution: Cloning Beyond the Human and the Inhuman” in The Vital Illusion (Lectures given in May, 1999)
Special Thanks to Alison Cohen for her keen observation that the Billboard top 100 is currently full of songs about getting black out wasted.