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  • Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia by Andrew Pilsch
  • Gerry Canavan (bio)
Andrew Pilsch, Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, 244 pp. $27.00 paper.

If anything can compete with imminent ecological apocalypse as the dominant futurology of our time—no sure thing—it is surely the utopian notion of a coming technological Singularity. Indeed, with consumer capitalism exposed as a sort of climatological Faustian bargain with carbon extraction, and communism a now-decades-old dead letter, the Singularity may well be the only competition to apocalypse left standing. Tech billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, and Elon Musk openly speculate about a near-term total transformation of both society and the human body, not only including radical human augmentation and the widespread elimination of human labor in favor of robotic and artificially intelligent automation, but even the elimination of death. (The precise terms of this ostensibly liberatory future, and what percentage of the currently existing population of the planet it will apply to, and what will happen to the rest of us when it arrives, of course vary strongly from proponent to proponent.) It could even be argued that the true ideology of Silicon Valley is actually not the disruptive "creative destruction" of neoliberal capitalism but rather a post-capitalist, postliberal, posteverything singularitarianism that envisions a millennialist future for (some) people currently alive that is utterly different in every respect than what now exists—with, of course, the techies as its prophets, its high priests, and its philosopher-kings.

In Transhumanism: Evolutionary Futurism and the Human Technologies of Utopia, Andrew Pilsch has produced the essential handbook for understanding and critiquing this futurology, as well as for shifting it from a toxic, fascist-curious discourse of eugenic meritocracy toward something that might genuinely be called utopian. Both intellectual history and philosophical manifesto, Pilsch ably situates contemporary transhumanism in the context of a much longer history of fantasies of human transformation, while incisively interrogating the key assumptions that drove its development and proposing (via his proposed term "evolutionary futurism") an alternative way forward. Chapter 1 locates the origins of transhumanism in Nietzsche's infamous Übermensch as well as in the modernists and futurists who followed (especially the poet Mina Loy, who comes in for a much-needed close appreciation here). Chapter 2 provides a fascinating history of the early Golden Age of Science Fiction, with its ecstatic visions of psychic superbeings, alongside the rapid rise and equally rapid fall of fan communities devoted to making those visions real. Chapter 3 inaugurates the study of what we might call "contemporary" transhumanism through an engaging extended discussion of one of its key progenitors-turned-heretics, the Jesuit priest [End Page 493] and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, whose articulation of a Singularity-like "Omega Point" offers a materialist vision of the Kingdom of Heaven (and thus seeks to reconcile Christianity to twentieth-century physics) that inspired many later transhumanist thinkers while ultimately proving out of step with the subsequent direction of the movement. Finally, chapter 4 explores the emergence of a transhumanist aesthetics, with particular attention to writings of Natasha Vita-More and Ray Kurzweil, the architecture of Shusaku Arakawa and Madeline Gins, and mimetic digital culture online, while a brief conclusion extends these observations into a discussion of such already essential texts like the "#ACCELERATE Manifesto."

Pilsch's wide-ranging but highly approachable introduction lays out several key problematics of transhumanism that helpfully inform through the analysis that follows, perhaps most crucially among them its closeness to a related term, "posthumanism." While transhumanism denotes a transformation of the coordinates of the human—along whatever axis, to whatever extent—posthumanism denotes instead an end to the human and the emergence of something else (perhaps something better, perhaps something radically worse). The issue is that transhumanism is unable to find any bulwark to prevent its inevitable slide into the post-; while transhumanism is ostensibly devoted to (in Cary Wolfe's formulation) an intensification of the human rather than the eradication of it, in practice it is impossible to find any principle of demarcation that can keep the one from turning...