Saturday, March 24, 2007

Who's posthuman

I grew up on that most marvelous of BBC creations, "Doctor Who." I still love it. Partly of course it's the nostalgic affection one inevitably has for any childhood love, but as an adult one can appreciate the deliberate comedic aspects so much more clearly. One of the many joys of going home to visit Mom and Dad is re-watching favourite episodes from their vast VHS collection of Doctor Who, all recorded sans commercials from the PBS station, although the occasional fund-raising blip does rear its ugly head every once in a while. Though Brent holds this element of Thweatt family culture in utter disdain, we don't care. It's fun to tease him with quoted lines of obscure dialogue and bits of family history like Emily's childhood fear of "tappers" and fondness for the "molopoligans."

Sometime in the 90's, there was an American made-for-TV movie attempt at resurrecting Doctor Who. It sucked. I don't remember much else about it, other than that it sucked and that a major reason for its suckiness was that they--clueless American They!--introduced a romantic angle into the Doctor's relationship with whatever chick was a part of that movie. So not the Doctor. We didn't have high hopes for it, really, and it still managed to disappoint us.

So I was suspicious of the new Doctor Who I heard about, even though it was BBC and being carried by the SciFi channel. But in due course my local Battlestar Galactica suppliers threw in the 2005 season of Doctor Who, and then then 2006. It took a few episodes but I ended up hooked. I'm still uncomfortable with all the hugging--the Doctor I grew up with only ever offered people jelly babies if he wanted to be friendly. But I can (just) overlook it.

So, not that Doctor Who is on the more philosophical end of the SF spectrum or anything, but the posthuman theme crops up every now and again. There's the universe's "Last Human"--a piece of flesh stretched out on a framework with a face in the middle, female of course, who keeps demanding "moisturize me, moisturize me!" in a riff on the perils of too much plastic surgery. But, more seriously, there is also the return of some classic Doctor Who villains: Daleks, and Cybermen.

It's the Cybermen that seem the more significant posthuman figure, despite the long history of Time Lord warfare with the Daleks, because we are offered a story of Cybermen origins in the double episode "The Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel." Here, in a human world closely parallel to Rose and Mickey's own, Cybus Industries has established a monopolizing hold on information technology, and introduced the innovation of earpieces that allow users to access the Cybus internet wherever they are. There's a great scene on the street, where, inexplicably, everyone around the Doctor, Rose and Mickey stop moving, wait for their daily download to complete, laugh in unison at the downloaded daily joke, and then resume walking. Of course, the earpieces become invasive technology in the hands of their insane inventor, the head of Cybus, John Lumic. Terminally ill and desperate to stave off physical weakness and imminent mortality, Lumic has invented the Cybermen: transplanted human brains in robotic metal bodies, bodies which, unlike their fleshly counterparts, do not wear out. As the plot unfolds, the earpieces become devices which override personal agency and people begin to march zombie-like into the factory for "uploading" (or alternatively, "deletion").

What is interesting to me, however, is not how the plot unfolds, which is of course predictable. The commentary on the posthuman along the way are the intriguing bits, as well as some of the specific features of Cybermen as posthuman figures.

  1. Cybermen are transplanted brains in metal bodies. Perhaps I notice this particularly, having just finished Robert Sawyer's Mindscan, another narrative of a posthuman vision based on the desire to rid oneself of pesky mortal fleshly bodies. In Mindscan, however, the brain is not transplanted; instead, Sawyer offers a scenario in which one's mind is scanned and then recreated in another medium, so that Sawyer's posthuman is, physically, wholly artificial, with no organic component. The human element of Sawyer's posthuman is the mind, and it is the mind unattached to the organic brain. Doctor Who, on the other hand, presumes that the mind/brain is a single entity which must be physically transferred. There is still a dualism that must be presumed, but it is nowhere near as hardcore as Sawyer's, due to the slippage between the material/immateriality aspect.
  2. Lumic himself resists being uploaded, and it is his Cybermen who force the issue by removing life support and making it a necessity; so that we, as audience, are presented with the fact that the creator of the Cybermen himself in the end holds an ambivalent attitude toward the "Good" of this posthuman destiny that he is forcing others to embrace. This is less about the ambivalence of the posthuman (after all, the posthuman in this scenario is unambiguously horrible) than it is about the hypocrisy of power: what is mandated for humanity's own good is so often something power exempts itself from.
  3. Cybermen, like Daleks, are inhuman posthumans not because of the material of their bodies or the fact of cyborg hybridity, but because of a chosen/enforced inability for human emotion. The Daleks deliberately purged themselves of emotion; Lumic builds an "emotion inhibitor circuit" into the Cybermen. It is this that is the effective cause of the monstrous disregard for the other that is the common failing of both Daleks and Cybermen. When Mrs. Moore asks the Doctor why there is an emotion inhibitor chip, the Doctor replies, "because it hurts": that is, the fall (Fall?) from human into monstrous posthuman is emotionally unbearable, and so emotions, "the one thing that makes them human," must be eliminated. Cybermen are all rigorous logic and thorough application. The human brain is transplanted, but not the human heart (metaphorically speaking, of course). Cybermen are no longer human because the underlying anthropology at work here is one in which cognition as simple rationality is not, by itself, definitive of humanity. Rationality and emotion cannot be separated without doing violence to the meaning of being human. (In addition, empathy is predicated on emotional capacity, and morality on empathy, supposing a Humean view of morality.)

  4. Alongside this, the elimination of all individuality is characteristic of the Cybermen. Reduced to mere logic, all individuals are merely parts of a technologically interconnected whole, with no volition or desires of their own. This seems to be an inescapable corollary to the elimination of emotion, and together, these lacks constitute a weakness exploitable for the Cybermen's defeat.

  5. The restoration of emotion to these pitiable posthumans is the means by which they are defeated. The moment of realization of their posthuman state gives rise to a self-annihilating anguish expressed by wordless mechanically vocalized screams. Quite eerie, really. In the conversation leading up to the Cyber defeat, the Doctor cites imagination, emtion and personal agency as distinctives of humanity that make humans far superior to their posthuman Cyber-counterparts. But the final comment here is the most intriguing: when Lumic (the only Cyberman to retain an individual personality) demands, "what have you done?" The Doctor replies, not with a literally descriptive, 'I destroyed their emotions inhibitors' but with the statement, "I've given them back their souls." Souls!
  6. But interestingly, in confronting Lumic, the Doctor also comments that everything Lumic has done is to fight sickness, and that this is brilliant and "so human." The problem the Doctor identifies is that the negativities of human life serve as the motivation for the struggle to overcome; without them, human striving for the good will cease. Cybermen are static; humanity is progressive. The implication is that there must be a human hope of utopia, but never a human-achieved consummation of that hope; humanity must exist within this eschatological paradox. When Lumic very logically counters with an exposition of the negativity of emotion and the offer of a "life without pain" the Doctor, like John the Savage of Brave New World, opts to embrace pain as the better (the human) choice.


Anonymous said...

JTB-I'm not a huge sci-fi fan (sorry!), but I am fascinated with your musings on the post-human and the theological implications inherent in such a concept. I appreciate your passion for this topic and look forward to reading more.

Emily and Elliott said...

You know, the tappers still come for me in my nightmares.

priscilla said...

Thank you for spelling 'favourite' properly. By being your 'suppliers', does that mean we are also 'dealers'. Hmmm

JTB said...

I think that would only apply if I actually paid you...

JTB said...

BTW, the "gender genie" thinks I'm a dude:

Female Score: 1352
Male Score: 2554

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

Anonymous said...

at least you only look partially like one

JTB said...

John Flett, I know who you are.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is me, and sorry, that was a little obtuse and potentially very rude. What i tried to indicate, given your post-human fascination, that a curious non-post-gender position remained in place. Indeed, post-human seems a way of surpassing "gender roles", i.e., 6, while retaining things like femininity as a tool to advance the post-human.

Anonymous said...

... the gender genie is, after all, a simple algorithm of the type basic to post-humanity, i.e., gender is reduced to maths.

JTB said...

Oh, I only even posted that comment because of this.