H.P. Lovecraft and the Horror of the Posthuman

The Shadow Over Innsmouth

Most boundaries have their origin in our fears, imposed in a vain quest of isolating what frightens us on the other side. The last two centuries have been the era of eroding boundaries, the gradual disappearance of what were once thought to be unassailable walls between ourselves and the “other”. It is the story of liberation the flip-side of which has been a steady accumulation of anxiety and dread.

By far the most important boundary, as far as Western culture at least is concerned, dealt with the line that separated the human from the merely animal. It was a border that Charles Darwin began the process of destroying with his book The Origin of Species in 1859, but though it was strongly implied in that work that human beings also were animals, and that we had emerged through the same evolutionary processes as monkeys or sea slugs, that cold fact wouldn’t be directly addressed until Darwin wrote another masterpiece – The Descent of Man in 1871.

Darwin himself was an abolitionist and believer in the biological equality of the “races”, but with his theory, and especially after The Descent’s publication, the reaction to his ideas wasn’t the a scientific affirmation of the core truth found in the book of Genesis- that despite differences in appearance and material circumstances all of humanity were part of one extended family- but a sustained move in the opposite direction.

Darwin’s theories would inadvertently serve as the justification for a renewed stage of oppression and exploitation of non-European peoples on the basis of an imagined evolutionary science of race. Evolutionary theory applied to human being also formed the basis for a new kind of fear- that of “master races” being drug back into barbarism by hordes of “inferior” human types- the nightmare that still stalks the racist in his sleep.

Darwin held views that while attempting to distance his theory from any eugenicist project nevertheless left itself open to such interpretations and their corresponding anxieties. Here Darwin’s humanism is much more obscure than on the question of race, for he drew a conclusion most of us find difficult to accept- that our humanistic instincts had combined with our civilizational capacities in such a way as to cause humanity to evolutionarily “degenerate”.  As he wrote in The Descent:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

Still, the ever humane Darwin didn’t think such degeneration was a problem we should even try to solve given, for in doing so we might lose those features about ourselves- such as our caring for one another- that made our particular form of human life meaningful in the first place. Yet, despite his efforts to morally anchor the theory of evolution his ideas became the starting point for the project to replace the religious nightmares populated by witches and demons that were being driven from the world from the light of an increasingly scientific and secular age with new “scientifically based” fears.

What indeed could have been more horrifying for bourgeois whites than barbarians breaching the gate they had so assiduously built, between Western and subject peoples, the upper and middle classes and the poor- who often were of another color and language, or lastly, erosion of the sharp line that had been established between man as the master of nature and nature herself?

H.G. Wells was one of the first to articulate this new seemingly scientific nightmare that would replace older religious ones. If evolution was even now reshaping our very bodies and minds should we not fear that it was molding us in ways we might dread?

Wells in his novel The Time Machine thus imagined a future in which evolution had caused a twisted bifurcation of the human species. The upper class after eons of having had every need and whim provided had become imbeciles and gone soft-his childlike Eloi. Yet it was Wells’ imagined degenerates, the Morlocks, the keepers of machines who had evolved to live underground and who lived off the flesh of the Eloi that would haunt the imagination of a 20th century beset by the war between classes.

In The Time Machine Wells reworked European anxiety regarding “savages” into an imagined future of European civilization itself that might be brought about should the course of future human evolution come to be shaped by the failure to address class conflict and preserve the types of challenges that made gave life meaning and had shaped human evolution in the past. He would explore a  similar to erosion of boundaries, only this time between the human and the animal, with his 1886 novel The Island of Dr Moreau, which I’ve discussed on a prior Halloween.

Yet Wells would never explore the racial anxieties that were unleashed with the Theory of Natural Selection, probably because he remained both too intelligent and too humane to be taken in by the pseudoscience of race even when racism was a common opinion among educated whites. The person who would eventually give vent to these anxieties was a strange and lonely figure from Providence Rhode Island whose rise to popularity might serve as a sort of barometer of the early 21st century and its’ mixture of new and old fears.

I can’t say I’ve read much of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps because I am no great fan of horror fiction generally, but after reading his 1931 tale The Shadow over Innsmouth I did understand much better what all the fuss over the last decade or so has been about.

Lovecraft is an excellent example of the old saw that brilliance and moral character need have nothing to do with one another. Indeed, he is a master storyteller of a sort of who excels at tapping into and exploring the darker human emotions. Where Lovecraft especially outperforms is at capturing less the emotion of fear than the sensation of suffocating disgust. Yet for all his brilliance, the man was also, indisputably, a racist asshole.

The plot of The Shadow over Innsmouth deals with an unnamed antiquarian who in search of the origins of an obscure kind of “crown” finds himself in the bizarre and ultimately horrifying coastal town of Innsmouth. What the protagonist discovers upon his arrival at Innsmouth is something close to a ghost town, an almost post- apocalyptic place neither fully abandoned nor alive and inhabited. Despite the tale’s setting near the sea the atmosphere Lovecraft describes reminded me very much of what is left from the man made disaster that is the town of Centralia, a place where our fantasies of the underworld meet reality in a way I know all too well.

The backdrop is important for the message I think Lovecraft is trying to convey, which is that civilization is separated from barbarism and violence, the angelic from the demonic, or the human from the animal, by a razor thin boundary that might disappear in an instant.

Against this setting Lovecraft succeeds in a mashup of the anxieties that haunted Westerners over the course of the modern age. The churches of Innsmouth have been converted over to a type of devil worship. Indeed, one of the most striking scenes in the story for me was when the protagonist sees one of the darkly robed priests of this cult walking across the street and finds himself struck with a strange sense of mental insanity and nausea- what fear can sometimes feel like as I myself have experienced it. Still, Lovecraft is not going to center his story on this one deep seated, and probably dying fear of devil worshipers, but will hybridize it and create a chimera of fears old and new.

The devil the inhabitants of Innsmouth worship will turn out to be one of the deities from Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. In fact, Lovecraft appears to have almost single-handedly revived the ancient Christian idea that the gods of “pagans” and “heathens”, weren’t, as modern Christian mostly understand them, fictions or childish ideas regarding the “true” God, but were themselves real powers that could do things for their worshipers- though for a demonic price. The ship captain who brought the worship of a dark gods from lands in the Pacific did so for purely utilitarian reasons- prayer to the entity works- unlike prayers to the Christian God, who in a twist I am not sure Lovecraft grasped the cleverness of, has left the the fishing community of Innsmouth with empty nets.

In exchange for full nets of fish, the people of Innsmouth agree to worship these new “dark ones” and breed with them like the “sons of God” did with the “daughters of men” in the Book of Genesis, and just like in the Bible where such interbreeding gives rise to human monsters hybrids that God later destroys with the Flood, in The Shadow over Innsmouth the product of these unnatural couplings result in similar hybrids only, in a dark reversal of both the Noah story and historical evolutionary movement from sea to land, the hybrids will be born human only to devolve by the time they reach adulthood into a sort of immortal fish.

Okay, that’s weird… and deep.

What’s a shame is that it’s likely Lovecraft we’ll be talking about in 2100, much more so than Joseph Conrad, who, despite attempting to wrestle with similar anxieties, and from a much more humane perspective, will likely be anchored in the 19th and 20th centuries by his historical realism.

Lovecraft will likely last longer because he was tapping into archetypes that seem to transcend history and are burned deep into the human unconscious, but it’s not just this Jungian aspect to Lovecraft’s fiction that will probably keep his version of horror relevant in the 21st century.

The very anxieties, both personally and in fiction, that Lovecraft exhibited are almost bound to become even more acute as fears over immigration are exacerbated by a shrinking world that for a multitude of reasons is on the move. These fears are only the tip of the iceberg, however, as boundaries are breaking down in much more radical ways, as the kinds of revolutionary changes in public perception of homosexuality and the transgendered within just the last couple of years clearly attests.

Add to that what will only be the ever more visible presence of cyborgs, the dread of animated environments, and ubiquity of AI “deities” running the world behind the scenes, and all this combined with the continued proliferation of subcultures and bio-technological innovations that will blur the line between humans and animals, and one can see why anxiety over boundaries may be the most important fear in terms of its psychological and political impact in the 21st century.

What makes Lovecraft essential reading for today is that he gives those of us not prone to such fears over eroding boundaries a window directly into the mind of someone who experiences such erosion with visceral horror that as in Lovecraft’s time (he wrote during the era when Nazi propaganda was portraying the Jews as vermin) quite dark political forces are prone to tap. For that we might be thankful that the author was as dark of soul as he was for because of it we can be a little more certain that such fears are truly felt by some, and not just a childlike play for attention, even while the adults among us continue to know there aren’t any such monsters under our beds waiting until the lights go out to attack.

 

God’s a Hedge fund Manager, and I’m a Lab Rat

God_judging_adam_blake_1795

Of all the books and essays of Steve Fuller I have read his latest The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism is by far the most articulate and morally anchored. From me that’s saying a lot given how critical I have been on more than one occasion regarding what I’ve understood as some troubling undercurrents justifying political violence and advocating a kind of amoral reading of history found in his work.

Therefore, I was surprised when I found The Proactionary Imperative which Fuller co-authored with Veronica Lipińska not only filled with intellectual gems, but informed by a more nuanced ethics than I had seen in Fuller’s prior writing or speeches.

In The Proactionary Imperative Fuller and Lipińska aim to re-calibrate the ideological division between left/right that has existed since the French Revolution’s unfortunate seating arrangement. The authors set out to redefine this division that they see as antiquated with a new split between the adherents of the precautionary principle and those who embrace a version of what Max More was the first to call the proactionary principle. The former urges caution towards technological and especially biological interventions in nature whereas the latter adopts the position that the road to progress is paved with calculated risks.

Fuller and Lipińska locate those who espouse some version of the precautionary  principle as tracing their modern origins back to Darwin himself and his humbling of the human status and overall pessimism that we could ever transcend our lowly nature as animals. They lump philosophers such as Peter Singer (whom I think David Roden more accurately characterizes as a Critical Posthumanist) within this precautionary sect whom they argue are united by their desire for the rebalancing of the moral scale away from humans and towards our fellow animals. Opposed to this, Fuller and Lipińska argue that we should cling to the pre-Darwinian notion that humans on a metaphysical and ontological level are superior and distinct from other animals on account of the fact that we are the only animal that seeks to transcend its’ own nature and become “gods”.

Fuller himself is a Christian (this was news to me) of a very peculiar sort- a variant of the faith whose origins the authors fascinatingly trace to changes in our understanding of God first articulated in the philosophy of the 12th century theologian Duns Scotus.

Before Scotus the consensus among Christian theologians was to stress the supernatural characteristic of God, that is, God was unlike anything we had experienced in the material world and therefore any of our mental categories were incapable of describing him. To use examples from my own memory an extreme Scotian position would be the materialism of Thomas Hobbes who held God to possess an actual body, whereas the unbridgeable gap between ourselves and our ideas and God, or indeed the world itself, is a theme explored with unparalleled brilliance in Milton’s Paradise Lost and brought to its’ philosophical climax in the work of Kant.

Fuller and Lipińska think that Scotus’ narrowing of the gap between human and godly characteristics was a seminal turning point in modernity. Indeed, a whole new type of theology known as Radical Orthodoxy and associated with the philosopher Slavoj Žižek has hinged its’ critique of modernity around this Scotian turn, and Fuller takes the other side of this Christian split adopting the perspective that because God is of this world we can become him.

Problems with using religious language as a justification for transhumanism or science I’ve discussed ad nauseum such as here, here and here, so I won’t bore you with them again. Instead, to Fuller and Lipińska’s political prescriptions.

The authors want us to embrace our “God-like” nature and throw ourselves into the project of transcending our animal biology. What they seem to think is holding us back from seizing the full technological opportunities in front of us is not merely our fossilized political divisions whose re-calibration they wish to spur, but the fact that the proactionary principle has been understood up until this point on primarily libertarian terms.

Transhumanism if understood as merely the morphological freedom of individuals over their own bodies for Fuller and Lipińska fails to promote either rapid modernization or the kinds of popular mobilization that can be found during most other eras of transformative change. We need other models. Unfortunately, they are also from the 19th century for the authors argue for a reassessment of the progressive and liberal aspects of late 19th and early 20th century eugenics as a template for a new politics, and it’s right about there that I knew I was in for a let down.

Fuller and Lipińska conceptualize a new variant of eugenic politics they call “hegentics”. From what I can gather it’s meant to be a left- of- center alternative to both the libertarian view of transhumanism as mere morphological freedom and the kinds of abuses and corporate capture of genetic information seen in novels like Michael Crichton’s Next or Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. This alternative sees genetic inheritance being reconceptualized as the collective property of groups who can then benefit from their genes being studied or shared.

The authors also want to encourage individual genetic and medical experimentation and encourage/celebrate individual “sacrifice” in the cause of transhumanist innovation in something akin to the way we celebrate the sacrifice of individual soldiers in war.

As in the past, I think Fuller fails to grapple with the immoral aspects and legacy of medical experimentation and eugenics even outside of the hellish world concocted by the Nazis. He seems to assume that the lack of constraints on human medical experiments will lead to more rapid medical innovation in the same way fans of Dick Cheney think torture will lead to actionable intelligence, that is, without assuming that this is a case that needs to be proved. If it were indeed true that weak rules on human experimentation lead to more rapid medical innovation then the Soviet Union or China should have been among the most medically advanced nations on earth. There’s a very real danger that should we succeed in building the type of society Fuller and Lipińska envision we’ll have exchanged our role as citizens only to have become a very sophisticated form of lab rat.

Another issue is that the authors seem informed by a version of genetic determinism that bears little resemblance to scientific reality. As Ramez Naam, no opponent of human enhancement indeed, has pointed out even in cases where genes are responsible for a large percentage of a trait such as IQ or personality, literally thousands of genes seem to be responsible for those traits none of which has been found to be so predominant that intervention is easy or without the risk of causing other unwanted conditions, so that, for example, enhancing the genes for intelligence seems to increase the risk for schizophrenia.

Naam points out that it’s unlikely parents will take such genetic risks with children except to protect against debilitating diseases- a case where genetic changes appear much easier in any case. Fuller and Lipińska never really discuss parental rights or more importantly protections for children, which is odd because eugenics has historically been aimed at reproduction. Perhaps they were thinking of the kinds of gene therapies for adults promised by new techniques like Crispr, but even there the kinds of limitations imposed by complexity identified by Naam continue to apply.

Nor do Fuller and Lipińska really address how bio-electronic prosthetics and enhancements fit into their idea of hegenetics. Here the idea of biology as individual or ethnic property would seem to break down as does the idea of state subsidized experimentation and enhancement unless we were to create a system of periodic and free “upgrades” for all. It’s a nice dream, but then again I can’t even get the state to pay to fix a broken tooth. Welcome to godhood.

What makes war between the US and China or Russia inevitable?

Battle of Lepanto

There is a dangerous and not so new idea currently making the rounds that not only is conventional war between the great powers inevitable, but that it would be much less of an existential threat to humanity than we have been led to believe and even might be necessary for human progress.

The appearance of this argument in favor of war was almost predictable given that it was preceded by a strong case being made that war was now obsolete and at least in its great power guise was being driven out of history by deep underlying trends towards prosperity and peace. I am thinking her mostly of Steven Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature, but he was not alone.

The exact same thing happened in the 19th century. Then, voices arose that argued that war was becoming unnecessary as values became global and the benefits of peaceful trade replaced the plunder of war. The counter-reaction argued that war had been the primary vector for human progress and that without it we would “go soft” or de-evolve into a species much less advanced than our own.

Given their racist overtones, arguments that we will evolve “backward” absent war are no longer made in intelligent circles. Instead, war has been tied to technological development the argument being that without war in general and great power war in particular we will become technologically stuck. That’s the case made by Ian Morris in his War What is it Good For? where he sees the US in shepherding in the Singularity via war, and it’s a case made from opposite sides of the fence regarding transhumaism by Christopher Coker and Steve Fuller.

The problem with these new arguments in favor of great power conflict is that they discount the prospect of nuclear exchange. Perhaps warfare is the heir of technological progress, but it’s better to be the tortoise when such conflicts hold the risk of driving you back to the stone age.

That said, there is an argument out there that perhaps even nuclear warfare wouldn’t be quite the civilization destroyer we have believed, but that position seems less likely to become widespread than the idea that the great powers could directly fight each other and yet some how avoid bringing the full weight of their conventional and nuclear forces down upon the other even in the face of a devastating loss at the hands of the other. It’s here where we can find Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s recent novel Ghost Fleet: A novel of the Third World War that tells the story of a conventional war, mainly at sea, between the US and China and Russia.

It’s a copiously researched book, and probably gives a good portrait of what warfare in the next ten to fifteen years will look like. If the authors are right, in the wars of the future drones – underground, land, air, and sea will be ubiquitous and AI used to manage battles where sensors take the place of senses- the crew of a ship needs never set sight on the actual sea.

Cyber attacks in the future will be a fully functional theater of war- as will outer space. The next war will take advantage of enhancement technologies- augmented reality, and interventions such “stim tabs” for alertness. Advances in neuroscience and bioelectronics will be used at the very least as a form of enhanced, and brutal, interrogation.

If the book makes any warning (and all such books seem to have a warning) it is that the US is extremely reliant on the technological infrastructure that allows the country to deploy and direct its’ global force. The war begins with a Chinese/Russian attack on American satellites, which effectively blinds the American military. I’ve heard interviews where Singer claims that in light of this the US Navy is now training its’ officers in the art of stellar navigation, which in the 21st century is just, well… cool. The authors point out how American hardware is vulnerable as well to threats like embedded beacons or kill switches given that much of this hardware has come out of Chinese factories.

The plot of Ghost Fleet is pretty standard: in a surprise attack the Chinese and Russians push the US out of the Pacific by destroying much of the American navy and conquering Hawaii. Seemingly without a single ally, the US then manages to destroy the Chinese fleet after resurrecting the ships of its naval graveyard near San Francisco- a real thing apparently, especially a newfangled battleship the USS Zumwalt, which is equipped with a new and very powerful form of rail gun. I am not sure if it helped or hindered my enjoyment of the book that its’ plot seemed eerily similar to my favorite piece of anime from when I was a kid- Star Blazers.

The problem, once again, is in thinking that we can contain such conflicts and therefore need not do everything possible to avoid them. In the novel there never seems to be any possibility of nuclear exchange or strategic bombing and with the exception of the insurgency and counterinsurgency in Hawaii the war is hermetically contained to the Pacific and the sea. Let’s hope we would be so lucky, but I’m doubtful.

Ghost Fleet is also not merely weak but detrimental in regards to the one “technology” that will be necessary for the US to avoid a war with China or others and contain it should it break out.

If I had to take a vote on one work that summed up the historical differences between the West and everyone else, differences that would eventually bring us the scientific revolution and all of the power that came with it, that work wouldn’t be one of science such as the Principia Mathematica or even some great work of philosophy or literature, but a history book.

The thing that makes Herodotus’ The Histories so unique was that it was the first time that one people tried to actually understand their enemies. It’s certainly eurocentric to say it, but the Greeks as far as I am aware, were first and unique here. It wasn’t just a one off.

Thucydides would do something similar for the intra-Hellenic conflict between Athenians and Spartans, but the idea of actually trying to understand your enemy, no doubt because so much about being an enemy lends itself to being hidden and thus needs to be imagined was brought to its’ heights in the worlds of drama and fiction. The great Aeschylus did this with the Persians as well with his tragedy named for that noble people.

It’s a long tradition that was seen right up until The Riddle of the Sands a 1903 book that depicted a coming war between the British and the Germans. Much different than the dehumanizing war propaganda that would characterize the Germans as less than human “Huns” during the First World War, The Riddle of the Sands attempted to make German aggression explicable given its’ historical and geographical circumstances even while arguing such aggression needed to be countered.

In Ghost Fleet by contrast the Chinese especially are reduced to something like Bond Villains, US control of the Pacific is wholly justified, its’ characters largely virtuous and determined. In that sense the novel fails to do what novels naturally excel at; namely, opening up realms to the imagination that otherwise remain inaccessible, and in this specific case the motivations, assumptions, and deep historical grievances likely to drive Chinese or Russian policy makers in the run up to and during any such conflict. Sadly, it is exactly such a lack of understanding that makes war great power wars and the existential risks to humanity they pose, perhaps not inevitable, but increasingly more likely.

The Kingdom of Glass Walls: A Fable

The-Emperors-new-clothes

There once was a king of extraordinary vanity who liked to spend his time riding throughout the great city he ruled on his gilded coach allowing all who saw him to marvel at his attire which was woven of gold thread and bejeweled with diamonds and sapphires.

The vain king especially liked parading himself in the neighborhoods of the poor reasoning that their sight of him would be the closest thing to heaven such filthy people would have before they died and met God’s glorious angels. It was during one of these “tours” that a woman threw a bucket of shit out of her window which landed squarely on the king’s head.

Who knows if it was by accident as the poor peasant girl claimed that she was merely emptying onto the streets the overflow of her commode when the bucket slipped from her hands and fell onto the king? In any case the king awoke from unconsciousness after the blow a changed man with his vanity transformed.

The changed king adopted the unusual style of doing away with all prerogatives of royal privacy and ordered the bricks of his castle walls be replaced with the most transparent glass. Anyone could now literally see all the doings of the royal household as if the court were now fish in a bowl to the great annoyance of the queen.

The king soon went so far as to abandon his former golden attire for no clothes at all. The queen at this point wanted to have the royal doctors declare the king mad on account of him having been hit by a bucket on the head, but there were powerful courtiers in the court who decided that the king was to remain on his throne.

After having a dream that his city-kingdom had been invaded by an enemy that feared the naked king was planning a surprise attack he had the defensive walls of the city leveled, so that no one could might think he meant them ill. Having experienced how liberating it felt to be open to all the world through his glass or torn down walls and nakedness the king wished that all his subjects could experience what he had.

He thus offered to pay out of his own treasury the cost of any of his subjects replacement of their walls of wood, brick or straw with walls of glass. Many of his subjects took the king up on the offer, for who would not want their cold house with walls of straw or dilapidated wood to be replaced with walls of clean, shiny glass?

But then a bug was placed in the king’s ear from a powerful anonymous courtier : “He with nothing to hide has nothing to fear” and with that the suspicion entered the king’s mind that the only people who would have kept their opaque walls must be hiding something.

Criminals and bandits soon found ways game this system largely by using disguises and fake scenes painted on their glass walls while those with enough money found that with the proper “donation” they could keep their brick houses if they just put in a few more windows. However most law abiding persons now completely surrounded by glass had left themselves open to all sorts of peeping toms, shisters, and burglars. And with the walls of the city taken down some said they could see the torch lights of an army on the nearby hills at night.   

Citizens began to complain that perhaps replacing the walls of their homes with glass and tearing down the walls of the city was not a good idea. Just then the king announced to everyone’s’ surprise that he had fallen in love with a pig and wished to divorce the queen and marry his newly beloved scrofa domesticus.

At this the queen and even more importantly the powerful courtiers had had enough. The king was arrested and placed in a dungeon, although, not to be accused of cruelty, he was allowed to keep his pig with him. New walls much thicker than before replaced the castle’s walls of glass and the walls around the city were rebuilt.  

A decree went out from the court declaring that no citizen was allowed to replace the glass walls of their homes. The queen claimed that such total transparency among the subjects was necessary to catch criminals and even more so spies from neighboring kingdoms who meant to do the city harm, and after many years the people forgot that things had ever been different or that they had once been ruled by a transparent king.