By Emilie Whitaker
Saramago’s Death at Intervals depicts a country without death; over seven months the text explores the consequences of death postponed. He tells us of what happens when immortality becomes a lived experience – of those left suspended between life and death, of the crisis of religion and philosophy and a state on the brink of economic and social collapse. Religious leaders begin a national campaign of prayer asking God to bring about the return of death. Philosophers are reconvened to ask, yet again, whether the glass is half empty or half full. Undertakers bemoan the collapse of the death industry and their slide into ostentatious burials of parakeets to keep bankruptcy at bay. There is a spatial and resource crunch. Freed from biological death, inhabitants are faced with a void of meaning and a pervasive sense of social death culminating in a demo-dystopia. Instead of ushering in a new paradise, immortality triggers an unparalleled state of unrest. ‘If we don’t start dying again, we have no future.’
Saramago’s magical realism plays with what Professor Barbara Adam would call the ‘future present’. His fiction concerns itself with the potential impacts of current predilections and actions – the desire to have death postponed – and its distributed effects on unknown others. Of course the quest for immortality has had a prophet for each generation from the Epic of Gilgamesh onwards. Today that prophet is distinctly material rather than spiritual, technological rather than religious. The prophet is Transhumanism, the ideology techno-utopian, and it comes with a political programme and financial backing.
Coined by eugenicist and biologist Julian Huxley in the 1950s, transhumanism is a project of self-overcoming. It takes the central tropes of modernity and injects them with steroids – infinity, progress, the transcendence of bodily confines, control over evolution, belief in the human capacity to remake itself, the limitless capabilities of human intellect. Science and technology are the keys from which to advance to a state of ‘death postponed’ whether in biological, silicon or digital form. When it comes to enhancing the individual beyond the confines of our earthly form it is inevitably about self-deification even if this is seldom said. The calling card of the ‘human’ is neither biology nor ethical self-awareness, but rather a mastery drive realised through science and technical advance supporting man to ‘prepare for cosmic office’ as Huxley put it.
The philosophical roots of such a drive are complex; where Saramago depicts the collapse of religion in the face of immortality, for some Gnostic-inspired transhumanists, this is a simple misreading of the resurrection which should be taken more literally. Here, man is god-like, our historic projects of ‘uplift’ indicate this capacity to enhance, the difference between man and god is one of ‘degree not kind.’ There is the dark-underbelly of Neo-reactionary nihilism in some quarters, in others a techno-progressivism. For most transhumanists their touchstone is Sartrean. Our reluctance to free science and technology from regulation and the qualms of ethics is a collective act of Bad Faith. We are too precautionary and not proactionary enough.
So far so sci-fi. But transhumanism as an ideology is no longer confined to the fringes of libertarianism or the dark threads of reddit. Billions of dollars are being poured into the cryonics industry seeking to ‘revive’ the biologically dead, the Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov created the 2045 Initiative with the goal of achieving physical immortality within the next three decades, the ‘immortalist’ Aubrey De Grey argues ageing is a disease in need of a cure. The biotechnological quest to expand a ‘healthy life span’ would avoid Saramago’s devouring gerontocracy because in the enhanced world of tomorrow there may well be ‘immortal geriatrics’ but they would look and feel 30, rather than 120. If biological forms of immortality seem too crude, you can hop on the Kurzweil bandwagon and aim for digital eternity instead. Helpfully, these views of cyber/carbon immortality have recently been set out as a transhumanist parable of Brexit.
When transhumanists do turn their attention to the present and the near-future we find their accounts caught within a nexus of capital. Where the state is considered, it is positioned as collectivised insurer for risk taking – citizens are encouraged to volunteer themselves as part of a DIY ‘protscience’ ethic and the state will deal with the consequences through the form of compensation. Privatisation of gain and the collectivisation of risk aside, there is a deeper issue at play; the reconfiguration of transcendence not as a collective project of enhancement for all, but as a game in which people themselves become means to an increasingly abstracted end. This is the flipside to playing God; it demands a standing reserve of humanity as resource, a collective of demiurges doing the dirty work of creation through sacrifice.
In its libertarian formulation the state needs to simply get out of the way, social democracy is a failure and we should embrace an accelerationist paradigm in order to free capitalism. Phantasmic imaginations abound of regulation free corporate spaces, seasteading cities packed full of risk-taking volunteers. No death, no taxes. For all the talk of morphological freedom, of technological/biological fusion, digital afterlives and biohacking, a transhumanist programme centred upon a libertarian philosophy has little truck with a plurality of value. Wealthy tech-backers have deemed social democracy a ‘failure’, bemoaned the enfranchisement of women and condemned the development of social security systems. The libertarian interest in algorithmic trading, biotechnology and artificial intelligence as tools to decouple individuals from the State, collectivity, and even of mortality suggests a desire for a still deepened form of sovereign power. Billionaire Peter Thiel encapsulates these pulls of escape and control,
‘The fate of our world may depend on the effort of a single person who builds or propagates the machinery of freedom that makes the world safe for capitalism.’
When ‘creative destruction’ is valued in and of itself we are a heartbeat away from the techno-noir of autocracy. Given this and the contemporary ties between libertarian ideology, wealth and power there is just cause for pessimism as to who will be given keys to the technologies of enhancement and those who will be rendered mere means. We should be paying attention.
Futures: Or why should we care about the immortal dreams of tech millionaires?
The transhumanist imaginary has no qualms in moving into territory once cordoned off for the occult. The elixir of life will be provided through ‘regenerative therapies’ seeking to remove, repair, replace, or render harmless the cellular and molecular ‘damage’. The resurrection can be answered by cryonics; ‘life after death’ through the uploading of consciousness and legacy through digital afterlives. There is a creative, if unsettling, force at work here which stands in stark contrast to exhausted austerity memes in the post-Brexit era of ‘bring backery’. Transhumanists as a collective are an interesting psychosocial phenomenon, seemingly faithful to an unrealised future premised upon a hopefulness which feels otherworldly, if not indulgent. Ethnographers and anthropologists take note; there is significant scope to explore the being/becoming of the transhumanist.
The transhumanist appears to have a different sense of the possibility of the future, seemingly able to project beyond the painful social fissures of the present. If sociology is about seeing other orders of possibility between and beyond the temporal plains of fantasy futurism and enforced presentism, then transhumanism and its critics provide a lesson in imagination. At a time where the social sciences are accused of abdicating their responsibility for the study of the future to futurologists driven by paradigms of ‘impact’ and ‘prediction’, exploring the implications of the techno-utopian march goes hand in glove with surfacing its political undergirding. Saramago’s Death at Intervals has been a useful conceit here for exploring the ethical problematics of a near-future world, but it also speaks to the revival of interest in sociological fiction and futures.
Saramago’s work gives a reality status to the future by considering the material and immanent as an indivisible unity. His work prods the exploitation of cheap nature in the name of progress whilst his quiet critiques of human exceptionalism illustrate how we obscure the ties between capital and the web of life. Cross-over work like Doyle’s Wetwarestreads the line between made and made up, placing itself in the future to view the present from that perspective. The transhumanist imaginary invites an expose of its material, processural and ecological consequences and reliances as much as its ethical implications and philosophical inspirations. Sociological fiction is the cultural phenomenologist providing the ethical tenor to our future present.
So even if we profoundly disagree with the politics and philosophies of the transhumanist, be it libertarian, ‘bioliberal’ or nihilist accelerationist, theologically-inspired or existentialist, there is a need to force the immortality dreams of tech millionaires from the present future to the future present. Whilst the futurescapes of the transhumanist appear akin to the musings of fanfic sci-fi, they gain social acceptance as tech titans push transhumanist ideals and fund their endeavours. For a culture so fixated on the notion of ‘disruption’, and where biotechnologies are increasingly corporately driven and controlled, the immortal dreams of Silicon Valley do need to be taken seriously. As Jana Bacevic notes, ‘the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented’.
Emilie Whitaker is Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Salford and holds an Honorary Lectureship in Sociology at Cardiff University. She tweets at @Dr_EmWhitaker.
Originally published 8th January 2017.