- Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia by Andrew Pilsch
Philosopher Slavoj Žižek outlines multiple imminent challenges to late capitalism, threats based in what he calls “questions of commons” unresolvable by capitalist market forces.1 One of these crises of commons, he argues, will occur in the arena of biogenetics, the manipulation of human genetic codes by technology to prolong life and eliminate disease. For Žižek and other cultural critics, claims for a return to authentic Nature, isolated from technological manipulation, are ideology par excellence because it presupposes an “authentic” organic nature to which we can somehow return. Instead, we hurtle toward a world in which the boundaries of human existence confront the increasingly scarce and managed technologies of our commons. Technological intervention has become a reality of life in the West.
Like technology itself, debates about the limits of the human body and the role of technology in improving human life have accelerated exponentially over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Technological supplements to the human experience have become second nature for many of us in ways that the science fiction of yesteryear could only imagine. Concurrently, thinkers have advanced transhumanism, a philosophical, technological, and epistemological transcending of humanity’s boundaries. As Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom explains: “Transhumanists view human nature as a work-in-progress, a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.”2 Essential to the transhumanist perspective is that current human existence is not at an “endpoint of evolution”; rather, through a responsible application of technology and science, humans will evolve into “beings with vastly greater capacities than present human beings have,” (Bostrom, “Human Genetic Enhancement,” 493–506). For transhumanists, technological and scientific innovations will catapult human life into a new existential phase in which disease and death can be regulated or eliminated altogether.
Andrew Pilsch’s Transhumanism traces the intellectual formation of transhumanist ideas and movements. In this regard, his book is a history of sociocultural phenomena that are still in the [End Page 209] process of evolving. But Transhumanism is more than just a history; it is also an engagement with the philosophical underpinnings of transhumanist thought. Pilsch examines disparate strands of transhumanist ideology, putting them into dialogue with one another. While transhumanism can be critiqued for not fully thinking through its positions, Pilsch contends, “transhumanism offers a Utopian goal for humanity . . . At some point in the work of negation, we must find a theory of the positive, something to sift out of the ashes of the Enlightenment” (176). In a time of amazing and often terrifying technological changes, the possibility of a utopian future based loosely on transhumanist ideas is intriguing, even as we see the ashes of the Enlightenment project cooling rapidly.
Transhumanism first appears in the early twentieth century as technological developments radically alter human conceptions of the world. Over the course of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, communication, medical, and transportation technologies exploded in complexity and breadth, connecting the globe and expanding conceptions of the human body. As a result of such colossal changes, modernist experimentation flourished as a cultural response. Pilsch locates transhumanism’s genesis in this modernist moment, unearthing traces in the works of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, poet Mina Loy, and esotericist P. D. Ouspensky. Pilsch reads both Loy and Ouspensky as following a Nietzschean philosophy of the Übermensch: the notion that humans can and should exceed their spiritual limitations, giving rise to a new permutation of humanity based on internal developments. During the explosion of experimental art, literature, and thought that succeeded Nietzsche, intellectuals engaged with notions of what Pilsch calls “evolutionary futurism,” a belief in the extensibility of the human through an internal spiritual awakening. For Loy, evolutionary futurism resists the technological fetishism of the Italian futurists led by F. T. Marinetti, with whom she affiliated, offering instead a poetics that questions the body’s limitations. Pilsch reads texts such as Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” within this framework, arguing that “poems...