Incoming Transmission: Transhumanism and the Future of the Human Body (Part 7 – Immortality and Modernity)

Modern Death: In A History of Transhumanist Thought, Nick Bostrom explains that in the 18th and 19th centuries “we begin to see glimpses of the idea that even humans themselves can be developed through the appliance of science”. (He cites the sentiment of Marquis De Cordorcet, Benjamin Franklin and the importance of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.)

Happening alongside is a radical change in our relationship towards death. Historian Phillipe Ariès discusses how death in the modern day has become ‘forbidden’.  He goes on to describe a key work in the sociological study of death by G. Gorer entitled Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain (Ariès, Western Attitudes Toward Death, 92). Gorer notices that in the 20th century death has become a taboo “replacing sex as the principal forbidden subject”. He argues that as society became liberated sexually it increasingly began to reject things that had to do with death (Ariès 93). Such observations as to the ‘forbidden’ nature of death might not strike us as revolutionary but they are integral to our discussion.

One feature of modern death is that it is seen as something less destined or fated and more of a problem to be treated or cured so that the individual can return to their life. In The Birth of the Clinic, Michel Foucault describes the modern medical gaze, an aspect of which includes understanding people as if they were solely the sum of their anatomical parts. He writes:

In the depths of its being, disease follows the obscure, but necessary ways of tissual reactivations. But what now becomes of its visible body, that set of phenomena without secrets that makes it entirely legible for the clinician’s gaze: that is, recognizable by its signs, but also decipherable in the symptoms whose totality defined its essence without residue (Foucault, Birth of the Clinic 159).

What is important for us concerning the clinician’s gaze is the manner that it has become increasingly technological. Not only has the clinician’s gaze been assisted by technological mediums, but dying individuals are routinely relocated from their familiar family homes to the hospital-institution where they are surrounded by medical tools and machinery meant to treat the anatomical ailment responsible for causing their death.

Allegoria dell'immortalità, dipinto di Giulio Romano, 1540 ca,

Ariès suggests this displacement of the site of death from home to hospital occurred between 1930 and 1950. Occurring alongside the displacement is a shift from death as destiny or fate to death understood as a state that follows the doctor “failing to succeed in healing” (Ariès 87).

It is in the modern shame associated with dying, the optimism of positivism and medical engineering, and the reduction of the person to the functionality of their discreet organs that we find the groundwork for the techno-dream of curing death.

Hence it is not solely that, to quote leading Transhumanist personage FM-2030, “The elimination of death has never been on anyone’s agenda because throughout the ages we were never able to do anything about it”, so much as it was that we were in no position to do anything about it (FM-2030’s Are You Transhuman).

The pagan, for example, understands his death in the great chain of nature. His will becomes the planetary will. The soldier’s death might be an ideological dissolution. The monotheist knows her time on earth is destined; her soul is guaranteed immortality.

The modern dies solitary. His death is a ‘plastination’. His body is a circuit board. He is unable to consider himself organic or inorganic. He wavers through ideologies and ethics, all the while clutching the remains of his dead God.

The modern lives in the age of flesh, like the protagonist Case in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, contemptuous of the flesh and exclaiming that his “body [is] meat”.

Scene from Aronofsky's The Fountain (2007)

Certainly death has fallen outside of the realm of necessity. The modern dies imagining the disease that is sapping his energy. He considers the demise of his body in the language of immunology. Around him may buzz respirators and defibrillators, jolting him and in and out of consciousness. Cambridge biogerontoligist, and leading Transhumanist, Aubrey de Grey explains aging as “a collection of cumulative changes to the molecular and cellular structure of the adult organism, which result from essential metabolic processes, but which also, once they progress far enough, increasingly disrupt metabolism, resulting in pathology and death” (Liberation Biology 28). One’s death rarely escapes the clutches of this mechanical narrative.

As a result, death becomes something fixable – something one can correct. Recall the scene in Aronofsky’s film The Fountain where Tom Verde haughtily exclaims: “Death is a disease. There is a cure, and I will find it”.

———–Cybject is nothing more than a thought experiment————–

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~ by dccohen on December 16, 2009.

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