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Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 1-9

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Toward a Critique of Posthuman Futures

Bart Simon

Francis Fukuyama's latest book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, opens with a description of Aldous Huxley's scientifically engineered dystopia in Brave New World. "The aim of this book," states Fukuyama, "is to argue that Huxley was right, that the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a 'posthuman' stage of history" (7). Both sympathetic and critical readers of Fukuyama's previous work may be able to discern how the book proceeds; it is an impassioned defense of liberal humanism against contemporary cultures of laissez-faire individualism and unregulated corporate technoscience. While scientific progress is needed and desired for the good of all, if unchecked that progress threatens to alter the conditions of our common humanity with the prospect of terrible social costs. The threat here is fundamental for Fukuyama; genetic technologies will alter the material and biological basis of the natural human equality that serves as the basis of political equality and human rights. Fukuyama asks, "[W]hat will happen to political rights once we are able to, in effect, breed some people with saddles on their backs, and others with boots and spurs?" (9-10).

Fukuyama's book is timely, not for the persuasiveness of his arguments, but for his staunch defense of the state regulation of biotechnology grounded in an Enlightenment narrative of a shared and inviolable human essence. In a world increasingly populated with genetically modified organisms and artificial life of all kinds, including the practical and potential manipulation of the biology of [End Page 1] human beings, the return of human nature in Fukuyama provides fresh reinforcement for the crumbling humanist barricades in the rising tides of posthumanity. Fukuyama's arguments are also emblematic of the contradictions that arise when a historically humanist public culture confronts contemporary corporate technoscientific fantasies of infinitely malleable life. We need not just look to Fukuyama for this; in public debates over reproductive technologies, artificial life, biometrics, genetically modified organisms, gene therapy, cloning, and stem cell research, we can witness the confrontation on a daily basis around the globe.

But what precisely is this posthuman future that should be the cause of so much concern? With respect to this question, there has been unproductive confusion between what one might call a popular and a more critical posthumanism. Fukuyama's concern targets the popular form, reducible perhaps to the following description from Christopher Dewdney's Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era: "[W]e are on the verge of the next stage in life's evolution, the stage where, by human agency, life takes control of itself and guides its own destiny. Never before has human life been able to change itself, to reach into its own genetic structure and rearrange its molecular basis; now it can" (1). This popular posthumanist (sometimes transhumanist) discourse structures the research agendas of much of corporate biotechnology and informatics as well as serving as a legitimating narrative for new social entities (cyborgs, artificial intelligence, and virtual societies) composed of fundamentally fluid, flexible, and changeable identities. For popular posthumanism, the future is a space for the realization of individuality, the transcendence of biological limits, and the creation of a new social order (Terranova 1996; Thacker, in this issue). While extreme versions of this discourse, such as the writings of Max More (founder of the California-based extropian movement), remain on the margins of public culture, less extreme versions can be found in the pages of Time magazine and the New York Times, popular films such as The Matrix, the writing of scientists like Hans Moravec and Ray Kurzweil, and the public relations of the Monsanto Corporation. Fukuyama has good reason to be concerned.

However, while targeting popular posthumanism, Fukuyama misses out on the substantial contributions of what Jill Didur (in this issue) calls a critical posthumanism, an interdisciplinary perspective [End Page 2] informed by academic poststructuralism, postmodernism, feminist and postcolonial studies, and science and technology studies. It is on...