“We worship perfection because we can’t have it; if we had it, we would reject it. Perfection is inhuman, because humanity is imperfect”. These words were written by the restless and brilliant Fernando Pessoa, and which today read like a prophecy and a warning.
They sound a warning, because thus far we have headed blindly along the road of technical feasibility. Science and technology tell us what can be done, not what is the best thing to do; and, these two perspectives rarely coincide. In fact, more often than not they are at odds. We have managed to split the atom, and that was a great achievement, but dropping atomic bombs was not good, even though it was technically possible.
But let’s restrain ourselves from stepping into a barren moralistic terrain.
Unlike animals, human beings are born incomplete. We are neotenic because the process of the differentiation of our organs and accomplishment of our final form is gradual and late in development compared to that of other living beings. For this reason we are also malleable, and unlike (other) animals, we do not limit ourselves to adaptation, but take form giving shape to the world. It is our “nature” to intervene on ourselves and on the world through technical skills, and which occurs as a consequence of the development of uniquely human capacities to manufacture, to form, to produce, to be. For those who believe, this is a sign of our similarity to God, who has given mankind the mandate to bring creation to completion.
For the human being, nature exists only in so far as it is “inhabited”, that is, it is imbued with meaning and shaped in ever new forms, wrote Romano Guardini. The “law of nature” is the ability of the human being to intervene on nature itself. We are symbolic, cultural beings. Today, the nature/culture debate can no longer be read in a naive, and above all dualistic, manner. Dualism, according to Guardini, is a “metaphysical original sin”. To say that man must be only nature, or that he must emancipate himself from nature to be only culture, are two equally absurd and mutilating partialities. Dualism, which is the act of dividing of what is united, concludes in the legitimization of monstrous separations: if I can separate the body and the mind, and if the body in this separation is devalued, I can also reduce it to an instrument of the will, to manipulable matter to the measure of my intentions. The Platonic dualism of the body as the prison of the soul -which Catholicism too has in some ways paradoxically endorsed-, with the loss of religious horizons, the body becomes available matter
Man is the only animal that is not content to be what he is, wrote Albert Camus. We are beings pushed beyond ourselves; desiring, self-transcendent beings. But this tension toward the beyond can take on fully human, and inhuman forms.
Posthuman, and Transhuman are relatively recent terms, and carry an ambivalence that cannot be addressed solely within a technical perspective. Posthuman can indicate the overcoming of a “despotic anthropocentrism”, as Pope Francis calls it, where man’s superiority has been translated into the unscrupulous exploitation of nature and the world, and which is now turning against us. However, to fall into excess in the opposite direction, that is, into the equivalence of the human being with animals, plants, and technical artifacts, would lead to us remaining victims of a dualistic fallacy: either you are everything or you are nothing; either you are sovereign, or you are a servant. Obliterating the boundaries between people and things is risky, Jürgen Habermas reminds us, and it is not a zoocentric egalitarianism that will make the world more livable.
So, regarding the concept of transhumanism, going beyond the human is, paradoxically, typically human. How, and to what extent we should go beyond, and if every “beyond” is legitimate, is also for human consideration, and cannot be left to the autopoietic laws of technical feasibility .
We must therefore make distinctions. To give a contemporary example, a person whom most people are familiar with, namely Bebe Vio, and how technology has become an ally in her life against death. This is called healing, which infers a healing to regenerate, and thus to revive. However, technology does much more than just “repair”, for it strengthens, too. This is called enhancement which is fundamental to the transhuman argument. Here, I am thinking of the dream of fabricating life in a test tube, and extending the right to parenting to everyone (those who can pay), regardless of any other consideration. The human being has entered the age of their technical reproducibility.
As Sylviane Agacinski writes, today “medicine goes beyond its therapeutic mission to assume an anthropotechnical function, which allows us not only to repair but to rectify the human body and even to produce it from scratch”. Hannah Arendt had previously spoken of the effort to manufacture the human being in a test tube as the attempt to exchange the life received for a product of one’s own making. To transform the process of generation (which is relationship: with the one who has preceded us, with the partner, with the progeny) into fabrication (which is an extension of the will of the absolute self, released from bonds) means to consider any limit solely as an impediment, rather than an opportunity for freedom.
But what is this limit? It is the gateway to a reality where everything is possible and nothing is real, writes Miguel Benasayag. Is it really through the erasure of limits that one becomes freer?
Technology does wonders, but it proceeds with its own laws, and when it is fused with an enslaving techno-economic system, the freedom it sells us is only apparent.
Gender difference is also a limit. The Croatian-Austrian philosopher, and Roman Catholic priest, Ivan Illich, argued that science is doubly sexist, for it is an activity dominated by men, and second, because it is based on “neutral” categories and procedures (for which the feminine is a troublesome point of resistance).
The thesis I am attempting to communicate is that the path of radical abstraction, through the overcoming of every limit, such as the one that technology proposes as a condition of freedom, is actually the path to alienation, to a transference of control to others -to the technocratic system- , and therefore of slavery. In addition, the antidote to this drift does not come from a battle of principles; instead, it comes from consciously recognizing and knowing how to experience (and anti-dualistically at that) the concreteness of the tensions that mark human existence, such as that between life and death, between the self and the other, and between activity and passivity.
This is also true of the symbolic, non-biological, dimensions between the male and the female, which are not dualistic but mutual. Every dualism that opposes; every rejection of difference that equates it to a domain; every attempt to emancipate oneself from the limits of nature in the name of an alleged “neutral” that technology proposes and imposes, are all ways destined to produce new and more powerful inequalities, and new and more subtle forms of control.
“To go beyond” does not mean to erase the confines, but to assume them. Reality imposes a limit that resists the ego; it is given by the other, and it is a beneficial limit. It reminds us of the sense of our precariousness and interdependence. But, also that we do not have a body, we are a body. And this body cannot be alienated (as in the Declaration of Human Rights).
In a context where the neutral is a masked male, femininity becomes dangerous: “The desire to be freed from the flesh can be read as a male desire, the desire to be freed from this feminized flesh” writes Agacinski.
Technology’s ultimate goal is to fabricate life, and render the reciprocal contribution of the feminine pleonastic. Therefore, it is precisely here that a core of resistance to the overpowering power of technocracy, and successive re-humanization can come about today because the maternal code has inscribed otherness -and therefore the limit- in its matrix. To seek to free oneself from the “dictatorship of the womb” would involve an attempt to erase every limit, and to dispose of everything. And, if we were to embrace this logic, we would surrender ourselves to a power greater than ourselves and agree to being treated as objects. The other forces us to confront our limit and at the same time we are opened to someone other than ourselves. This is the shift to a fruitful relationship and also one of faith. After all, there is no prayer without a sense of our precariousness, and it is no coincidence that there is a common etymology between them.
The quotation from Pessoa that commenced this article could also be considered a prophecy, for the era we are living through is a slap in the face to our hybris, to our claim of being masters of life, and creators of immortality. At the heart of the very advanced European continent, a minuscule organism is travelling at lightning speed along the connective infrastructures we have built, and it is almost impossible for it to be defeated with technological tools. Instead, hospitals have become places of covid-19 contagion: from healing centers they have become hotbeds of contagiousness, from structures where we go to be healed to places where we go to die, alone.
In avoiding any apocalyptic rhetoric, we cannot but be questioned by the time in which we live. Technology is a blunt weapon that is devoid of responsibility, or consideration of the dedication of those on the front line healing the sick; it is without a sense of solidarity for the most fragile amongst us, or the reciprocity between men and women, young and old, healthy and sick. We need a miracle today, but we cannot make it happen. The only miracle we are capable of will be to continue living, and to defend the fragility of day to day life (José Saramago).
by Chiara Giaccardi