Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era
Author: Christopher Dewdney
Publisher: Toronto: HarperCollins, 1997
Review Published: February 1999
Christopher Dewdney's Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era could have been entitled 91 Ways We Are Transhuman. He catalogues nearly a hundred facets of human life at the cusp of the third millennium but never develops any of his ideas beyond a page or two -- a guerrilla format that pelts readers with a shower of sensual and intellectual nuggets but leaves them without a sense of a sustained and scholarly argument. An award-winning poet (on top of being a recognized cultural critic for his The Secular Grail ), Dewdney draws on his artistic sensibilities when relating his views of what life is like now and how it will change. In his more poetic moments, he presents an impressionistic interpretation of the world that he fatalistically (and usually optimistically) believes is headed to a specific posthuman destiny: "Subway trains sparkling blue. The scent of smoke and ozone. Lightning in the wires. The exquisite, metallic sourness of pure DC current tingling the tip of your tongue" (31). One must approach this work with the expectation that it is part art and part criticism, an odd borderland of literature shared with Umberto Eco and Susan Sontag. He inserts imaginative, concrete, and succinct images into his rather short sentences, making them seem more like image bytes than coherent arguments. A small bonus to be had from this book are the clever terms (some neologisms) that Dewdney wordsmiths: "logo sapiens," "auraltectural," and "mutagenesis" are a few. Finally, the slim volume, double-spaced and type-faced with a large font, more than anything conveys brevity -- a theme he explores as part of the transhuman's need for quickly assimilatible information.
This book introduces a flurry of ideas, highly accessible for a layman audience, and not without value to an advanced student of transhuman culture, if not simply for the fact of Dewdney’s audacious propensity to put forth creatively outlandish ideas. At times his points regarding how we inhabit the transhuman age are obvious, at other times insightful, and at still other times a bit insane. For example, at one point he suggests that fluorescent lights “are why offices, libraries,and government buildings sometimes create such intense sexual-fantasy lives in their employees” (34). Clearly, he has used an unsupported enthymee -- a rhetorically manipulative given -- that asserts a premise that employees of these particular professions are more given to having sexual-fantasies than those of other occupations. Furthermore, he cites no evidence that fluorescent lights do indeed provoke this sort of psychological shift in its receivers. But he also makes other creative points that do not ruffle one’s sense of logic. For one, he critiques the new parameters of contemporary life set up by the Global Positioning System (GPS), a satellite system that subtly but profoundly introduces a total digitalization of space; no longer can the transhuman become lost in a world that has been installed into an exact grid. Observations such as these make this book worthwhile for the reader who already owns twenty books on the implications of genetic engineering and cybernetic implants for humanity. Here, readers will find transhuman avatars where they might not expect them: in walkman CD players, voting polls, role-playing games, and more. But, not unexpectedly, Dewdney always returns to the notion that the pathway to the posthuman era will be through a migration from the corporeal self into a digital substrate.
My biggest problem with this work is that it fails to make a clear distinction between the transhuman era and transhumanism; the former seems to refer to a stage of being whereas the latter insinuates a philosophical paradigm. Dewdney says “the goal of transhumanism is to surpass our current biological limitations, be it our life span or the capabilities of our brain” (2), but he goes no further in establishing either the basic philosophical assumptions sustaining this agenda or the tradition of thought (mainly humanism) preceding it. It appears that transhumanism for Dewdney is a norm, based on a desire intrinsic to human nature, but then later he refers to transhumanists as an intellectually defined group, linked to futurists, software writers, and Xerox PARC executives -- all libertarians, according to Dewdney. So at one level he speaks of human eras, the pre-human, the human, the transhuman, and the posthuman, assuming that tagging -ism at the end of these terms does not alter their meaning, while at the same time acknowledging, briefly, an instance in which the word transhumanism represents an ideology. There is indeed a World Transhumanist Association, complete with a credo outlining a desire to continue the humanist effort. Transhumanism goes a step beyond traditional humanism, which asserts a secular view of humans, in particular, man, as the center of the moral universe. A transhumanist thinker understands human identity, or human “nature” to be malleable, or more specifically, he or she understands it to be a system capable of infinite self-improvements. The rise of human consciousness is the most significant event in the history of the universe for the subscribers to this ideological program. Typically, transhumanist agendas address the junction of nanotechnology and the body, as in the cases of genetic engineering, life-extension therapies, pharmacological mood enhancers, and intelligence amplification. The ultimate transhumanist project would enact a human migration from biological embodiments into digital substrates, a step Dewdney believes will complete an inevitable process that will begin with the first neural implant. Katherine Hayles (1997) deconstructs transhumanism as the heir to Western liberal humanism and yet also points out that the posthuman state will inevitably undercut the humanistic notion that the individual self is distinct from the will of others (242). Tiziana Terranova (1996) depicts the transhumanist movement, also known as the extropian movement (the word extropian indicates the human potential to overcome entropy), as technological utopians who advocate free-market principles for implementation of a digitalized culture: “Not primarily biological determinism, then, but rampant super-voluntarism is the problem with cybernetic posthumanism," she says referring to the conspicuous absence of society in trans-post-humanistic thought (173). But not all those who advocate taking steps into a transhuman era are necessarily transhumanists. Donna Harraway’s vision of a cyberculture, within which the binaries of gender and sexuality and class structure are disintegrated, demonstrates the viability of a transhuman era in opposition to transhumanistic principles.
Where does this close reading of terms leave us with respect to this book? Dewdney himself comes across as a middle-of-the-road transhumanist; it seems he does not undertake a systematic study of the intellectual assumptions behind transhumanism because his own ideology is so heavily imbricated with a liberal humanism. Indeed, in his introduction he claims that “life on Earth has undergone two major metamorphoses: the first complex molecules that linked themselves together into self-reproducing units -- and the emergence of human consciousness” (1). That he can evaluate biohistory with such authority, and that he so exalts human consciousness, clearly indicates a humanistic paradigm. Thinkers in the deep ecology movement may have trouble with Dewdney’s frequent privileging of human ontology; Dewdney consistently engages in gestell -- Heideggar's term for the attitude which perceives everything as a potential resource -- though he also briefly expresses a concern for waste dumping in the ocean. Furthermore, Dewdney seems to favor a Cartesian understanding of consciousness as being an enclosed theater, a perceptual unit that provides being and meaning to the world -- cogito ergo sum. He dwells on Daniel Dennett and Marvin Minsky’s rather traditional modelsof consciousness which both locate it in the mind, and he does not consider Katherine Hayle’s point that consciousness is instantiated as a part of the body (she refers to the new work being done with cellular memory as evidence of a consciousness tied to the whole body). According to Hayles, “the posthuman view privileges informational patterns over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life” (242). Dewdney, however, believes “immortality is the rightful inheritance of self-consciousness,” a view laden with humanistic principles if there ever was one (169), and so he devotes a large amount of time to the work of Hans Moravec, director of the Mobile Robot Facility at Carnegie Mellon. Moravec’s detailed plan as to how we will effect the translation from body to robot assumes that selfhood can be reduced to informational patterns.
In summary, Dewdney, by proposing that the next phase of evolution will entail life taking control of itself, makes the paradoxical argument that it is natural for us to become unnatural; humans are currently initiating a transhuman phase, and with grandiose and visionary language (replete with phrases such as "the verge," "destiny," and "never before") he predicts our immortality.
Hayles, N. Katherine. "The Posthuman Body: Inscription and Incorporation in Galatea 2.2 and Snow Crash." Configurations 5.2 (1997) 241-266.
Terranova, Tiziana. "Posthuman Unbounded." In Future Natural, edited by George Robertson. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Anna Cooper is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of British Columbia. She is interested in metaphorical treatments of viruses, the marginalization of cyborgs and androids in fiction, and the informatics discourse permeating conceptions of the genome. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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