Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Leon Trotsky's Transhumanism

Back in June I commented on Dale Carrico's critique of the Singularity as a neoliberal fantasy. As I stated then, there is much to his critique of the ideas of Ray Kurzweil and company as such, but it would be a mistake to regard them as the whole of transhumanist and posthumanist thought, which has seen contributions from all across the political spectrum. Indeed, in the early part of the twentieth century leftist thinkers may actually have been more closely associated with such thought than the techno-libertarians who dominate the discussion today--Marxists like J.D. Bernal (via The World, The Flesh and the Devil) and Olaf Stapledon (who pioneered the fictional treatment of the theme in novels like Last and First Men).

Nor was such thought wholly the purview of scientists making forays into futurology, or writers of science fiction, and nor have they wholly belonged to the West. Russia's late nineteenth and early twentieth century Cosmists were perhaps the first modern school of such thought. Given that this is the case, it does not seem a very great surprise that Leon Trotsky expressed such expectations--notably in Literature and Revolution, a work which may have had as its primary focus the state of Russian letters, but in which, far more than in his works of political theory, commentary and history, he painted a portrait of what he thought socialist society might be like decades or centuries on. These speculations extended beyond the artistic to the technological, Trotsky predicting the tapping of "inexhaustible sources of super-power" and "the regulation of the weather and the climate" and even the transformation of the world's surface through such techniques as the movement of mountain and river until it has "rebuilt the Earth."1

Indeed, just as humanity collectively liberated itself from the "dark," "unconscious" element in economic, political and social life with theoretical and applied science, human beings would be liberated individually from their own unconscious through "artificial selection" and "psycho-physical training," producing a "higher social biologic type . . . immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler," and continuously improving itself further still, this vision of transcendence in fact the book's closing words--with transhumanism another aspect of humanity's broader social and political liberation rather than an alternative to it. And indeed, it was one of the more long-term issues, too far away to be of really serious concern for the present-day artist, Trotsky criticizing "Cosmist" poets as essentially escapist, and even lazy, taking the easy way out of the difficulties of understanding, depicting, making art out of the present-day world by "jumping into another world" altogether.

One could imagine the same being said of those promoting the more facile versions of Singularitarian thought today.

1. An echo of the thought of Nikolai Fedorov? It does not seem unlikely.

The Neoliberal Singularity
6/7/12

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