18 January 2008

Straight Man: "For every complex problem there is a simple solution. And it's always wrong."

Straight Man
Richard Russo
Vintage Books, 1997

Russo's gaspingly funny Straight Man affords a knowing look at midlife crisis, parent-child dynamics, marriage, and tenured life in small-town academia. The novel's humor is leavened with mystery regarding various political machinations on the narrator's campus, including which of his colleagues (or is it the narrator himself?) is to be thrown under the bus. That narrator, William Henry Devereaux, Jr., known to his friends and enemies alike as Hank, is an anarchist by nature who finds himself in the unenviable position of chairman of his English department. Along with the typical struggles of academic life (I've heard it said that "never have the stakes been so low"), Hank is plagued with worries. He is concerned that he might have kidney stones (an ailment that plagued his highly successful novelist-academic father, a father who abandoned Hank and his mother when Hank was still a kid); he wants to sleep with several of the women with whom he works (including his secretary who ends every sentence with an upwards inflection, as if she is permanently uncertain about everything); and he is haunted by the fact that he wrote his only novel as a young man and has contributed nothing subsequently to American letters.

Needless to say the book is a very funny read. At one point the reader finds the narrator hiding in the ceiling whilst spying on the meeting which decides on his status as department chair. On another occasion and completely on the spur of the moment, Hank threatens (on live television, no less) to kill a duck (or is it a goose?) unless the state legislature and university administration resolve the school's funding situation. The cast of characters will be all-too-familiar to anyone fortunate (or is that unfortunate?) enough to work in academe. It includes the violent poet whose poetry isn't all that great, the aforementioned uncertain secretary?, and the young professor ("Orshee") whose sole academic specialty seems to be contradicting everyone else (a good obstructionist/deconstructionist, if nothing else) while posing as an uber-feminist at every opportunity.

Throughout the novel Hank repeatedly returns to his favorite philosopher, the medieval William of Occam (after whom his dog Occam is named), to find the simplest possible explanation for all the craziness that seems to be filling his life. Through the novel's wry twists and turns, Hank comes to the conclusion that life is a little more complicated, coincidental, mysterious, and perhaps even magical than he'd like to believe.
Because the truth is, we never know for sure about ourselves. Who we'll sleep with if given the opportunity, who we'll betray in the right circumstances, whose faith and love we will reward with our own...Only after we've done a thing do we know what we'll do, and by then whatever we've done has already begun to sever itself from clear significance, at least for the doer.

Which is why we have spouses and children and parents and colleagues and friends, because someone has to know us better than we know ourselves. We need them to tell us. We need them to say, "I know you, Al. You're not the kind of man who." (373-4)

A special thanks goes out to Bruce Clark, who recommended that I read this book over the Christmas break, and to his lovely wife Caryn Clark, whose copy I borrowed and devoured.

17 January 2008

Great Mambo Chicken and The Transhuman Condition: Jumping Snake River Canyon on a motorcycle might be one of the saner ideas in this book

Great Mambo Chicken and The Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over the Edge

Ed Regis
Perseus Books, 1990

I got depressed to tears reading Bill McKibben's Enough as part of my second brief and aborted post/transhumanism kick. I was frustrated with McKibben for not being radical enough in his criticisms of posthumanism, and also because, ironically, I'm intrigued by the posthuman ideas and ideals that McKibben derides. (I'm an SF fan, what can I say?) Another aspect of my funk was my reaction to the knee-jerk adulation and condemnation the book received on Amazon and elsewhere. In the interest of saving what remains of my sanity I put McKibben's book down---with the intention to finish it another day (see my forthcoming review on The Lord of the Rings to understand that sometimes "another day" is a long way from today)---and went in for something that approached post/trans-humanism with what I hoped was a lighter touch.

Luckily for me, Ed Regis' Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over the Edge fit the bill. It approaches fin-de-millennium technoscientific hubris with tongue well in cheek. The book begins with a vignette about the late Evel Knievel (!) and somehow manages to connect this famous exemplar of not-thinking -the-consequences-through---deftly, I should add---with contemporary (as of 1990) explorations of nanotechology, space colonization, artificial intelligence, uploading human consciousness, germline genetic engineering, and cosmic conquest. Regis exposes something maddeningly similar between Knievel's failed attempt to jump Snake River Canyon with a "Skycycle" and all the converging technoscientific innovations that threaten/promise to remake fundamentally the world we inhabit and which comprise the core of what is called "transhuman."

According to Regis, the "forward-looking" scientists discussed in this book want
"nothing less than reinventing Man and Nature. They wanted to re-create Creation. They wanted to make human beings immortal--or failing that, they wanted to convert humans into abstract spirits that were by nature deathless. They wanted to gain complete control over matter, and they wanted to extend mankind's rightful sovereignty out across the solar system, into the Galaxy, and out into the rest of the cosmos."(p.7)

Some of the thinkers described in this book "envisioned...a vast interstellar culture, a population of superintelligent robots and disembodied postbiological minds spread out across the stars and galaxies" (p. 7). Superintelligent robots? Disembodied postbiological minds? Spread out across the stars and galaxies? I leave it to you to decide whether this is aptly described as hubris.
And then we have Keith and Carolyn Henson, "a couple of extremely intelligent engineering types" who talk about life on earth as if it were passé:
"There isn't really much left to do here," said Keith. "The highest mountains and the lowest valleys have all been explored on earth. The opportunities are rather limited."

"In other words," Carolyn said, "we were worried about things getting very, very BORING if we stuck around on this planet for too long." (p. 58)

There isn't much left to do here?! Life on earth is boring?! I think the best response to this terrestrial ennui is found in Wendell Berry's Life is a Miracle. Berry discusses the infinitesimal beauty of the living world and talks about being able to explore almost infinitely the details of a single tree in our own back yard. He advocates this sort of attention to particularity and to detail as an antidote to the depression and boredom of our contemporary late-capitalist, technoscientific worldview. I also wondered as I read this quote what type of pathological boredom afflicts one to the point where LIFE ON EARTH (the only type of life with which any of us is familiar) is boring? What is the psychology behind that? I know that I occasionally get bored with my current life circumstances, but to be bored with terrestrial existence itself seems a wee bit mental. Aren't there always more books to read, movies to see, conversations to have, foods to eat, beers to drink, friends to make? What's truly crazy is that these same people are talking about scientifically engineered immortality! Why?? If three-score-and-ten years leave you breathless with boredom, why shoot for a millennium-long lifespan? Hubris isn't a strong-enough word for this lunacy.

Of course, some of these thinkers aren't just possessed of hubris. Some also seem terminally clueless. Take for instance an author named Tom Heppenheimer who wrote in the book Colonies in Space that Native Americans would find in space colonies a new homeland to replace the one that white folks stole from them:
"We may see the return of the Cherokee or Arapaho nation, not necessarily with a revival of the culture of prairie, horse, and buffalo, but in the founding of self-governing communities which reflect the distinctly Arapaho or Cherokee customs and attitudes toward man and nature." (73)

This is possibly the most transparent attempt on the part of technoscience to appeal to "liberal guilt" and utopian desires. Thankfully Dartmouth psychology prof Jack Baird pointed out the patent absurdity of this proposal:
"To the Native Americans, land is especially sacred...and today it is the particular land of their ancestors they would dearly love to recover and preserve for future generations. Circling the earth in a mammoth space station would hardly qualify as a promising spot from which to revive and pay homage to the traditions of their forebears." (73-4)

By viewing particulars, whether particular geographical locations or particular embodied minds, as interchangeable generals, a living world of singularities is reduced to an inventory of parts. Thus nothing untoward is seen about proposals to REPLACE these organic particulars with mass-manufactured simulations.

And then there's other talk in this book that frightens me, in part I guess because it is so TOTAL in its scope. Regis calls this type of talk the "Bashful Confession of Omnipotence." It is the belief among some of these forward thinkers that we humans will soon be able to "make anything that is physically possible" (120, emphasis in text) by having "complete control over the structure of matter" (p. 123). This is, after all, the fundamental premise of nanotechnology which seeks to replicate nature's means of building stuff atom by atom. And of course, there are the concomitant appeals to utopianism : this sort of power will mean no more poverty, no more human labor, no more centralized control, no more disease, no more death. The problem with these utopian appeals is that, like all utopian appeals, they suffer from naïveté. Will we transform human greed and selfishness nanotechnologically? After all, poverty and labor stem more from the need for some humans to be billionaires and to live off the sweat of others than from some fundamental lack of food and natural resources.

Futurist Hans Moravec comes on the scene with his notions of uploading human consciousness and of making back-ups of people. While I certainly understand the appeal of "saving copies" of those I love, at precisely the same time the implications horrify me. Don't I love my wife, daughter, family, and friends precisely because they are singular, irreplaceable, once-in-a-lifetime individuals? But for Moravec these issues are moot, since it is impossible for us to really determine whether or not we are live or Memorex (i.e., living in a simulation). I guess this is what happens when those midnight hookah circle discussions of being a brain in a jar go horribly awry. So is this hubris or solipsism?

Just when we think these scientists can get no more bizarre, we come to the ultimate example of hubris, in David Criswell's proposal to use the sun as a natural resource. Not a natural resource in terms of the light, warmth, and energy it supplies to the earth, but as raw material for absurd construction projects needed to support the trillions of people inhabiting the inside of the inevitable bubble around the solar system. And some folks are even wondering how on earth we humans will survive the heat death of the universe 10+ billions of years from now. Uh-huh. We can't even figure out how to live in peace with one another on the earth we share and how to feed every mouth with the food we already grow. Worrying about how we'll survive the end of the universe seems a bit premature if you ask me.

So do the ideas discussed herein constitute hubris or are they merely the inevitable march of technoscientific progress? That is the question left me by this book. Maybe the answer, chilling as it is, is both. Or maybe, just maybe, the seemingly imminent collapse of industrial society (read global warming + peak oil + peak water + peak population) will actually be a blessing in disguise, saving us from the futures outlined in books like this. That's a scary thought.