Incoming Transmission: Transhumanism and the Future of the Human Body (Part 6 – History)

Natural’ Death: When we read one of the oldest known literary works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, we find parallels with our own time. These parallels manifest in Gilgamesh’s fear of his own death and his desire to overcome mortality. Films such as Darien Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2007) illustrate how pervasive this fear obviously continues to be. 

After Enkidu dies Gilgamesh begins to search for the key to his immortality . At one point he says “Because of my brother I am afraid of death, because of my brother I stray through the wilderness and cannot rest”. He is told that: “when the Gods created man they allotted him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.” 

Gilgamesh is told that the Gods allotted death to man. We see here not only that death belongs to, and is a property of, man, but it is man’s task to enjoy the little life that he is granted. Likewise, when Eve and Adam are cast out of Eden they become mortals, doomed to age and stand apart from God and the angelic beings. Platonism bifurcated reality and considered matter dualistically in order to create a realm for the immortality of the soul. In Plato’s Phaedo, Socrates attempts to assuage the fears of the two Pythagoreans Cebes and Simmias who believe the soul dies with the body. At one point in the dialogue Cebes agrees with Socrates that his soul will not die, however he demonstrates his unceasing fear of death: 

“But in what relates to the soul, men are apt to be incredulous; they fear that when she leaves the body her place may be nowhere, and that on the very day of death she may be destroyed and perish-immediately on her release from the body, issuing forth like smoke or air and vanishing away into nothingness. For if she could only hold together and be herself after she was released from the evils of the body, there would be good reason to hope, Socrates, that what you say is true.” (Phaedo)

In the case of Platonism one’s death becomes ‘enrolled’ or ‘implaced’ in a specific narrative. Death symbolizes a passage, a death of the body and a rebirth of the soul. From the Phaedo to the more pessimistic Koheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes, we recognize a sense of naturalism associated with the end of one’s life. Injury, illness and disease seem necessary, ordained and a part of a process or will greater than our own. 

"The Death of Socrates" by Jacques-Louis David(1787)

In Western Attitudes Toward Death, Philippe Ariès outlines a number of changes that have occurred from the Middle Ages to the present in our attitude towards death. He begins by referencing Medieval examples, suggesting that death rituals were simplistic and without spectacular emotion, informed by a sense of necessity on behalf of the dying individual, and organized by them (Aires 11). In fact the pervasive life-death binary may not have been so rigidly defined in the past. (Historians such as Aries recount the manner that the church and its surrounding area was also hallowed ground and the manner that “the modern idea that the dead person should be installed in a sort of houre unto himself” was not yet born (Aires 18).) For instance, Tristan in La Roman de Tristan et Iseult, “sensed his life was ebbing away, he understood that he was going to die” (Aires 3). In Wagner’s treatment Tristan looks forward to his death as a completion and fulfillment exclaiming “What? Is it the light I hear? The torch, ah! The torch is extinguished! To her! To her!” (Wagner’s Tristan). 

Etchings of Transhumanism: Even Medieval and Early Modern conceptions of death are alien to their Modern medicalized counterpart. This may hinge on the contingent notion of the human. We notice the rise of a new sentiment beginning in the seventeenth century.  Such a sentiment is represented by Francis Bacons’ Novum Organum (1620). The Enlightenment extolled “effecting all things possible” and this included mastery over nature and a general anthropocentrism (Hankins 1). Thus, through the humanism of the Renaissance and the “new geometric spirit” of the Enlightenment a shift occurs in the place of the human (Hankins 2). We also begin to see the etchings of Transhumanism, rooted in the belief that past errors can be corrected through applied reason.

Certainly for modern day transhumanists death is understood as an error of the past that can, with enough applied reason, be corrected. Stephen Hawking once proclaimed that we might know the mind of God, carrying on the legacy of the Enlightenment to discover God’s intentions in the laws of nature. Furthermore, the tone of Transhumanism, working to benefit mankind, echoes the Enlightenment’s “unselfish search for truth…making the natural philosopher a man of virtue…[whose objectivity made him a “man of virtue”]…who served mankind rather than himself” (Hankins 7). The belief that society could be reformed through reason was, of course, never abandoned. 

But perhaps the most important shift stems from the 17th century. Materialism, alongside faith in applied rationality, is a part of our cultural psyche. Throughout the 17th century natural philosophy was divested of its search for “final causes and most of the Aristotelian concepts of form, substance and accident that had dominated medieval thought.” (Hankins 13). Matter became mere extended substance in the Cartesian sense, all places became spaces and nature was considered by the predictable movements of matter-in-motion (see Casey’s Getting Back into Place). And despite the resulting mind/body dualism that emerged, the last handful of years have demonstrated an attempt to dissolve this binary into a totally physiologically explicable singularity: the codified body. (think Human Genome Project)  The brain and mind are considered compatible with silicon as exemplified by an article of New Scientist entitled ‘The Man with a Silicon Brain’. (February 2007) We are finding ourselves increasingly concerned with the manipulation, increased efficiency, and control of matter without investigation of any sort of internal purpose. 

It should not seem odd that between the 16th and 18th century death becomes seen as a transgression “that tears man away from daily life, from rational society, from his monotonous work, in order to make him undergo a paroxysm, plunging him into an irrational, violent, and beautiful world” (Aires 57). Death opposes the rationalistic, machine-like view of the body. 

Although in the past death was omnipresent and familiar, it becomes understood as increasingly disquieting, greedy, and shameful in the West (Ariès 85). The sentiment is demonstrated in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, where Ivan refuses to accept his death. Recounting his horrible ordeal, a character explains that he “screamed unceasingly, not for minutes but for hours. For the last three days he screamed incessantly. It was unendurable. I cannot understand how I bore it; you could hear him three rooms off. Oh, what I have suffered!” (Tolstoy) Ivan’s death is seen by his family and acquaintances as a morbid disturbance to society.  All of this recalls Aries’ claim that “we must take for granted that it is impossible for our technological cultures ever to regain the naive confidence in Destiny which had for so long been shown by simple men when dying” (Aires 107).

———- Cybject is only a thought=experiment ——————

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~ by dccohen on December 14, 2009.

One Response to “Incoming Transmission: Transhumanism and the Future of the Human Body (Part 6 – History)”

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