Vintage Mark Jones

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Jul 21 10:46:40 MDT 2003


Do androids dream of anything?

(posted to PEN-L in April, 1998:
http://csf.colorado.edu/mail/pen-l/apr98/0552.html)

A genetic engineer has created a mouse with ears that glow in the dark,
by splicing firefly genes into mouse DNA. More practically, transgenic
pigs that freeze to death if left in the open because the human genes
they've got don't let them accumulate fat, already make our bacon.
Coming soon: bespoke pig heart transplants in case the fat-free pig
didn't help us avoid coronaries. I have been reading up on genes and
transgenic science, and how the media handle it all.

The stories and images arrive by stealth in our unconscious from inside
the labs where evolution is being undone. They ought to make your hair
stand on end (when the journal Nature broke the story of Dolly the
cloned sheep -- 'More important than Darwin, Einstein and Copernicus
together!' -- its graphic designers airbrushed one leg black, to make
the thing look more cuddly. They forgot a cloned sheep whose 'parent'
has four white legs can itself only have four white legs).

These images of biotech at work are mostly like that: not stark tekno,
but homely flesh-tones: a bowl of rice, an ear of wheat, cheerful
rodents made literally anthropomorphic, like the mouse with a human ear
growing on its back. Oh, cute!

These images condition us to accept something more terrible than
anything Himmler, Pol Pot or Mengele did. None of them managed to rob
their victims of their humanity. We can feel pity and terror for the
hollow-eyed, numbered prisoners of Tuol Sleng, but a mouse with luminous
ears? You cannot pity the loss of something that was never there in the
first place. This not a living thing, it is quasi-alive, it is just an
agglomeration of high-spec cells which happens to move around and stare
vacantly. Now, just as the first slaves were modelled on the first
domesticated animals (hunter-gatherers do not enslave) so the first
not-human humans, or bits of humans, will be modelled on the mice with
the ears. Headless humans grown from our own nail parings for our own
transplants. Androids like in Dick's 60's classic, the basis of Blade
Runner.

They have no rights _by design_. That's different from just *saying* to
someone: 'You have no rights,' as the Nazis did.

Sometimes they will just be bits of protein-computer embedded in
domestic appliances but sometimes they will be just like us. Then
Scientology will rule the world, because how will we imagine ourselves,
distinguish ourselves from the Wogs, except as trillion-year old Thetans
inhabiting living corpses, as Scientologists think they are (everyone
else is a 'Wog', in L. Ron Hubbard-speak. Andrei Kiriyenko, the new
Russian prime minister-designate with the robotic voice, is said to be a
Scientologist, so his was an inspired choice of Yeltsin's, now all
Russians are Wogs).

The Nazis were a colourful, queer flop. Denying the humanity of victims
ludicrously achieved nothing except a lurid posterity and fashions for
patent knee boots and black jodhpurs. You could not actually efface a
Jew's humanity (of course, people can get used to anything: During WW2,
a popular brand of soap in Polish shops was labelled 'RJF', meaning
'Pure Jewish Fat').

On the contrary; the camps affirmed the value of life. E P Thompson said
the Prussian goose-step always made him think of a boot descending on a
face. The face becomes our own kin, the boot makes the victim the centre
of our world. If only they'd figured a way to make Jewish ears flash
like diodes in the night.

All a mouse wants is the right to BE a mouse. You can kill it in a trap
but at least you know it was a mouse. With ears that glow in the dark,
this is not-mouse, nothing more, an aberration, a pathological joke at
nature's and our expense.

The joke won't stop there. It started long ago, during the LAST global
warming when the seas rose, the ice melted and the present interglacial
began. Tides flooded the land bridges, the permafrost turned to
impassable sludge and made our free- roaming ancestors into miserable,
arthritic swamp-dwellers who had to cultivate grain and domesticate
animals to survive (check out Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs, and Steel').
That was when the comedy started.

Peter Dickens in his 1992 book 'Society And Nature: Towards A Green
Social Theory', describes the moral universe of the Yanomani, with its
spirit-world that is coterminous with the tribe, with its rites and
shamans, its two-hour working day, its playfulness.

Anyone who has consulted the literature on shamanism sees the same
themes everywhere where humans lived immersed within nature, not trying
to domesticate it and themselves. The hunter apologises to the animal he
kills, propitiates the anger of its departing soul, promising it will
return stronger and more beautiful next time around. The shaman dresses
in the animal's skin, becomes it and forgives the tribe. The webs that
connect all living things are rendered whole and seamless. The anger of
the ancestors is propitiated and the spirits of each tree, river, rock,
of the night stars and the seasons, greeted.

Once you start to domesticate animals the process of desacralising
nature is set in motion, and the only thing that might stop it is to
abandon settled, surplus-gathering culture and revert to hunting and
gathering. So the fate of our world was decided with the first woman (it
was certainly a woman) to plant the first row of seeds in one furrow,
and the first man who turned a wolf into a dog and a boar into a pig.

The prophanisation of nature has obviously now been consummated and
Nature capital N, as Bill McKibben says, has been abolished and will
never come back, except in our guilty dreams. This gives me the ultimate
answer to Euroecentric notions about science. As Joseph Needham points
out in 'Moulds of Understanding', Christianity was always more primtive
than its rivals: Islam, Taoism, Buddhism -- because these
world-religions were humanist at the core, and were about reconnecting
the human with the world, and resacralising Nature (a particularly
strong theme in Islam and in Indian religions).

Not so Christianity, which never rose out of its primitive origins in
superstition and magic (or perhaps its Judaic nomothetic basis clashed
so violently with the pantheistic paganism of the northern tribes that
the result was a bastard, pastiche religion, a barbaric pageant
incapable of any gnostic self-transcendence: shamanism without nature
(does not the Bishop were a skin?), God without Reason.

The Christian act of faith in the Resurrection is not required of the
Muslim. This bit of obscurantism (resurrection from death) creates a
schism between the material world and its Creator. Functionally, the
policing of such beliefs also explained the rigid orthodocy and
murderous intolerance of the early medieval latin church; this
monotheism created a monolithic European culture quite unlike the
thriving communities of the Arabo-Persian world, where Jews, Muslims and
Christians lived cheerfully side by said (along with Zoroastrians, and
even Confucianists).

When Bacon imported Chinese and Islamic science, one of two things
became historically inevitable: either the Church would destroy science,
which after Copernicus' heliocentrism was confirmed by Galileo, became
an obvious enemy to orthodoxy; or a mutually-agreed divorce between
church and science would happen. Both processes were evident, but we
know which won out. And the church's divorce from science was not so
hard to effect, really: that obscurantism at the heart of latin
christianity concealed what soon became the well-known materialism of
Counter-Reformation theology: since God created the world, it must
exist, be material, and obey the physical laws God imbued in it. This
quite dubious speculation soon assumed a dogmatic, positivist certainty
which underlay science until Einstein. No other historic culture shared it.

Alternative Christianities were possible but they always lacked the
totalising zeal of the Latins even when they had the wealth and power to
assert themselves. Thus the millions of Nestorians in their communities
strung out along the Silk Roads from Damascus to Beijing were the
wealthiest Christians in the world. Their bishops advised Genghis-khan
and converted most of his family, but they never pressed home their
advantage and when the Mongols chose a state religion it was Islam. The
Nestorians shared the Muslims easy-going humanism - they did not believe
in the Holy Trinity, without which of course, the notion of a Risen
Christ becomes both impossible and unnecessary.

The moral, philosophical and theological caesurae in the latin church
explain why (according to Needham) science was possible in the Christian
west but not in China or Islam, which were incapable of prophanising
Nature. The Chinese remained prescientific but in Europe, descralising
Nature allowed the sciences to be launched in their Baconian, faustian
form. The reduction of human nature too, was just a matter of time.

Nothing is really new. Victor Hugo wrote a famous novel about the
child-procurers for medieval kings, men who understood which glands to
cut and organs to remove in order to create different functional dwarves
(for service at table, sexual service, espionage), or eunuchs (tall,
gangly, intellectual mandarins, wrathful soldiers: the Chinese navy had
fleets whose entire complements from admiral to rating, were castrates);
eunuchs had no family ambitions, were greedy on the king's behalf etc.

Nevertheless, despite all the anticipations and prefigurings history
offers -- barbarism, mutilation, the denial of fellowship, the effacing
of the humanity of the weak and the poor by the powerful and rich, I
think it is clear that we stand on the threshold of something
qualitatively new. It is not just that our senses have become so
brutalised that the image of a mouse with a human ear growing on its
back or with luminous ears, only makes us laugh, just as Germans once
laughed at Jews, no, it's worse. With great eagerness to explore what
lies behind it, we have forced open the door of hell and rushed inside.

It is not just inevitable, it is presumably already happening,
somewhere, in some terrible place: the creation of beings devoid of
purpose, sense of self or destiny, wich, unlike mice, may be conscious
of all that (this is torture worse than domesticated animals feel,
because at least a never suspects it's anything else whatever it's
circumstances). Hard to imagine the despair an entity might experience
if its only consciousness of self is that it has none.

How will we interface with this highly productive, profitable,
beneficial, useful, desirable world of black biology and terminal moral
squalor which is already upon us? How will we save ourselves from being
unselved by it?

Food shortage, disease, eco-collapse, and social disintegration will
conjoin with the mindless egotism of wealthy transplant and brain
enhancement clients, and while the planet cooks the talk will all be of
downloading ourselves (BT, the British comms provider, actually has an
R&D unit called 'SoulCapture'). Converging in the general onrush will be
systems that interconnect protein-based computers which have all, some
or none of the attributes of their remote (human) DNA-ancestors, with
systems, anthropoid or other, conscious or not, connecting DNA to
electro-mechanical and nano-scale hardware, to semi-liveware, to the
faustian/Mary Shelley dreamworld. The greed of the North, the cataclysms
of the South, and the need to save something, somehow, will fuel the
whole lurching thing, and none of us will think it matters, any more
than it mattered when someone made a pink mouse with luminous ears.

Mark

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