Thursday, January 29, 2009

Option 3: Shelley's Definition of Post-Humanism

Lyotard’s polyvocal essay ‘Can Thought Go On Without A Body?’ (Lyotard, 1991), is full of convolutions as a result of his two-sided conversation with the abstract. Lyotard stages the conversation as a dialogue between a ‘He’ and a ‘She.’ The essay frames a discussion of the nature of thinking through a typically Lyotardian conceit. Lyotard’s conceit, technically speaking is that of how it thought itself might continue in the wake of the imminent explosion of the Sun, an event of unprecedented catastrophe due sometime towards the latter part of the next four and a half billion years. Of course, as Lyotard tells us, it is impossible to think such an end, because an end is a limit, and you need to be on both sides of the limit to think that limit. So how could thought – as we know it or otherwise – go on? This is the question that postmodernist Lyotard is asking of the “post-human” world.

The ‘He’ and ‘She’s subjects are opposing views. In the ‘He’ Lyotard states that artificial intelligence is necessary because it will allow humanity to save its thoughts, providing meaning in lives that would otherwise be meaningless at death. However, the view, developed in the “She” section, questions the ability of artificial intelligence to characterize and provide others with a sense of humanity. The “post-human” is the society that develops after this earth and our race’s inevitable demise. Human is the human race’s current state of existence. The ‘He’ and the ‘She’ are arguing over not ‘what is post-human?’ but ‘is post-human even possible?’ Despite Mary Shelley’s gender, her vision of the post-human is not femininely questioning our ability to create artificial intelligence that can retain and exhibit humanness; instead she shows us that it is possible.

Shelley’s representation of the post-human is Frankenstein’s “monster” or creation. Compiled of dead human parts, and a spark of light, Frankenstein’s creation is Shelley’s example of artificial intelligence. Light reveals, illuminates, clarifies; it is essential for seeing, and seeing is the way to knowledge. Just as light can illuminate, however, so can it blind; pleasantly warm at moderate levels, it ignites dangerous flames at higher ones. Light is balanced always by fire, the promise of new discovery by the danger of unpredictable—and perhaps tragic—consequences. Being analogous to knowledge, the light that struck the composition of dead body parts is Shelley’s example of what Lyotard is talking about in the ‘He.’ If we think of Frankenstein’s creation as a robot and the light as the humanness that Lyotard feels should live on, then we have artificial intelligence onto which humanity can save its thoughts.

Frankenstein’s creation gives hope to the ‘She’ argument as a result of Shelley’s emphasis on his very strong human emotions, crying, desire to love, loneliness, and need for revenge. Shelley produced in the creature what Lyotard felt was impossible, a true post-human. The post-human recognizes imperfectability and disunity within him or herself, while also understanding the world through context and heterogeneous perspectives while maintaining intellectual rigor and a dedication to objective observations of the world. Frankenstein’s creation is but a year or two old, however his knowledge of things and ability to understand is increasing exponentially.

While Shelley makes a good example of combining the arguments/concerns of the ‘He’ with those of the ‘She,’ the story’s final fate for the creature, in which he ends his own life is essentially unraveling any hope for the possibility of having a post-human that is both human enough to demonstrate what Lyotard feels is the most important human emotion, pain, but also utilitarian enough to maintain the utmost of intellectual rigor. The creature’s death states that the only way to create something human enough to car on our thoughts past our inevitable end is to literally make it a human. By definition if it is human, it is not artificial, and as human it’s life will end as any of ours could.

Shelley’s example of the post-human is more like a statement of her non-belief in such a thing. Frankenstein’s creature is considered part “monster” and part human, however he died like a human making him less monster than human, or similarly less artificial or robotic than human.

1 comment:

Adam Johns said...

"Polyvocal" - clever.

What does it mean to say he is having a conversation with "the abstract?" What is "the abstract?" I could see understanding it as a conversation between *two abstractions* (he and she), but I'm struggling with the other one.

Your definitions of "human" and posthuman are sensible and compact. I did wonder if, taken together, the first two paragraphs might have been compressed somewhat: they seem to be a prologue to your main argument.

"Being analogous to knowledge, the light that struck the composition of dead body parts is Shelley’s example of what Lyotard is talking about in the ‘He.’" -- This is an interesting thought, but not one that you make fully comprehensible. It is also rooted in a problematic reading of Shelley - e.g., Frankenstein is using human bodies as one of several sources of materials: "The dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials" (Chapter 5). Your exploration of the role of light here is underdeveloped - I'm really not sure what you're talking about.

The last several paragraphs - where you both argue that the creature is a demonstration of the possibility of the Lyotardian posthuman and its refutation - is simply underdeveloped. In what sense is the monster human, or posthuman? How (to push an obvious point) is that humanity or posthumanity related to gender? Was the monster's destruction necessary or contingent (which, to me, would ultimately help us understand whether this is a proclamation of or refutation of the posthuman).

This is an interesting piece, but its underdeveloped at the end, where it most matters, and perhaps overworked at the beginning - you spend too much time summarizing Lyotard for an essay which is ultimately about Shelley.