McDonald’s, or the irrationality of rationality

mcdon

For anyone interested in the intricacies of contemporary society from the perspective of such an ubiquitous  institution as the fast food outlet McDonald’s, George Ritzer’s The McDonaldization of Society (Pine Forge Press, 2000) is a must read. This is not a treatise against fast food outlets, nor is it a simple acceptance of them. The book  endeavours to account for the hold fast food outlets (and other institutions) have on society as well as provide possible ways out of this hold. The slender volume fulfills the former aim more successfully than the latter.

Ritzer suggests that there are four main dimensions which underpin McDonald’s business acumen: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology. Efficiency basically means “the optimum method for getting from one point to another” (p. 12). Calculability subsumes such notions as “the quantitative aspects of … portion size, cost… and services”, where “quantity has become equivalent to quality” (p. 12). Predictability is “the assurance that products and services will be the same over time and in all locales” for both clients and workers (p. 13).  Control through nonhuman technology includes, among others, quickly moving customer lines at the counter, limited menus, few options, uncomfortable seats, in addition to precise directives for the workers to behave and to accomplish their roles. The four dimensions then form what Ritzer termed McDonaldization, a process found in all human for-profit institutions. He gives specific examples as this process relates to universities, hospitals, sports and other recreational activities,

Clearly, and very generally, there are advantages and disadvantages to these four dimensions: advantages point to profit-making and customer satisfaction to a certain extent; disadvantages to workers’ and customers’ personal preferences, food safety and quality. Ritzer’s critique is based on the fact that it is impossible to go back to “the world, if it ever existed, of home-cooked meals, traditional restaurant dinners, high-quality foods, meals loaded with surprises, and restaurants run by chefs free to express their creativity.” (p. 18). For him, it is more valid to critically analyze McDonaldization from the perspective of the future. Although he admits that McDonaldization is both enabling and constraining, his stance in the book focuses on the constraints this type of business system brings to human society.

Ritzer uses Max Weber’s theory of rationalization, claiming that McDonaldization is an amplification and an extension of this theory. (p. 23) According to Weber, formal rationality is a process by which optimum means to a given end are shaped by rules, regulations, and larger social structures, often resulting in irrational outcomes (among the examples given are ClubMed and the Holocaust). The means constrain humans to act according to a predetermined set of procedures and allow for little or no choice. However, humans are rarely content with being constrained: they prefer to make their own choices, so the irrationality of rationality closes them in an iron cage of scientific management. Ritzer describes McDonaldization in detail as it is clearly followed in automotive assembly lines, Levittown type of construction, shopping centers, and McDonald’s. The bulk of the bulk is devoted to an exemplification and critique of efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control through nonhuman technology., especially focusing on the following settings: higher education, entertainment industry (amusement parks, sport TV programs, etc.), health care, fast food industry, food industry. Chapter 7, “The Irrationality of Rationality”, evaluates the design flaws of rationality from the perspective of the loss of magic and mystery, inefficiency, illusion of good value at a good price, false friendliness, environmental hazards, homogeneization, dehumanization. The next chapter goes beyond present-day practices and looks toward the future by giving McDonaldization  “an inexorable quality, multiplying and extending continuously” (p. 146), from birth of an individual to death and beyond.  The last two chapters show the driving forces pushing McDonaldization along: “It pays, we value it, it fits” (p. 168) and a practical guide to dealing with this inexorable process, listing some of the suggestions for breaking the imposed “rules”, such as valuing quality (not quantity), B&Bs (rather than hotel chains), slow food, local produce and products, avoiding routines, do things for yourself, never buy artificial products, etc. In one of the last paragraphs, Ritzer justifies the writing of this book as follows:

      Although I have emphasized the irresistibility of McDonaldization throughout this       book, my fondest hope is that I am wrong. Indeed, a major motivation behind this book is to alert readers to the dangers of McDonaldization and to motivate them to act to stem its tide. I hope that people can resist McDonaldization and create instead a more reasonable, more human world. (p. 232)

In conclusion, Ritzer’s account and critique of McDonaldization point to the cage of every “modern” human being. His attempt to stem the tide of rationalization may work for a while, but then it is inevitable that profit wins over any other consideration. What is more disheartening is the fact that both McDonaldization (the irrationality of rationality) in conjunction with the absurd  rush for technological innovation at all cost deny a less forceful development of the future human being. The book evaluates the notions that many have had about the modern world, such as fear of unpredictability (and the concomitant drive to organization: ClubMed web site claims that it “organizes unforgettable events”), the burden is on the user (customers, patients, students do work formerly done by paid employees as part of efficiency). While Ritzer delves into activities and institutions such as home cooking, shopping, higher education, health care, entertainment (all-inclusive trips, TV programs, sports, political debates),  his analysis does not touch upon the workings of politics (exemplified by state/national governments – although he analyzes the irrational dealings of the tax offices), nor the advances in the military. It seems that governments and the military complex are either immune to McDonaldization and/or support it wholeheartedly for the citizens of the world. Another question which remains unanswered for me is this: Can search for a more equitable, peaceful and tranquil human life be McDonaldized? If the answer is yes, there is no escaping the rationality cage; if not, whose duty is to keep searching?

 

 

Millennia of collective dreams shattered

pilgrim

Timothy Findley’s novel Pilgrim (Harper Perennial Canada, 1999) has all the characteristics of a grand gesture, encompassing historical and fictional characters, psychology and art history, sexuality and sainthood, all in the direction of questions rather than answers.  The narration follows Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), the Swiss psychiatrist, while he deals with Mr. Pilgrim, a patient at the clinic for mentally ill patients. Pilgrim claims not only that he has lived numerous previous lives, but that he cannot die, having unsuccessfully attempted suicide a number of times. Pilgrim’s letters, interviews, diaries give us glimpses of Jung’s work with this patient who was an art historian by profession. Jung’s own growing demons of depression, his insight into collective unconscious, his attempts to help the inmates of the hospital by trying to understand their fixations and going along with their obsessions weave together a complex and heavy blanket of pessimism which covers human history. The novel’s multifaceted narration gives many characters a full treatment on account of their relationship to Jung and/or to Pilgrim, and  they receive detailed descriptions of their past, their amusements and dislikes, substantially enriching the plot. In what follows, three themes have been chosen to illustrate Findley’s craftsmanship: 1) the role of art in human experience; 2) the nature of relationship; 3) the meaning of madness. These exemplify some of the novel’s preoccupations, but, above all, they shed light on the most perplexing, contradictory and unexplainable characteristics of human behaviour, violence.

  1. The role of art in human experience

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the stained-glass window Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere of the Chartres Cathedral play a crucial role in the construction of  Pilgrim’s past lives: in fact, he asserts that one of his previous lives he lived as Elisabetta Gherardini (Madonna Elisabetta del Giocondo), whose first encounter with Da Vinci ended with her being raped by him. The other meetings resulted in her portrait being painted (the painting which is now known as Mona Lisa). Findley’s description of Pilgrim’s experiences as a strong and decisive woman and Vinci’s violence add to Pilgrim’s sense of doom. In another life (the word incarnation is not preferred), Pilgrim lived as the stain-glass worker who actually put together the stained glass Notre Dame de la Belle Verriere, with its beautiful blue hues. According to Pilgrim, this life was one of the most satisfying, as he remembers the hard work with his hands but also the gratification received from the final work. This particular area of the Cathedral was the only one which survived the great fire of 1194. Clearly, these two examples (Mona Lisa and the stained-glass work) show that there are hidden complexities behind any artistic product. But that is not all: Pilgrim questions whether art is really useful in transforming human experience and behaviour, which for him are full of injustices, violence, and abuse. In a letter, Pilgrim writes:

Looking back, I am sorry I was ever the advocate of any form of art – but music is the worst of them. … Bach and Mozart indeed! Bach inevitably makes me think of fish in a barrel! Round and round and round they go and nothing ever happens. Nothing! … As for Mozart, his emotions did not mature beyond the age of twelve. He never even achieved  adolescence, let alone puberty. … Beethoven – pompous; Chopin – sickly sweet and given to tantrums… And Wagner – a self-centered bore.  And this young Turk Stravinsky – the name says it all: discordant, rude and blows his music through his nose!                                                      There.                                                                                                                                                 Shall I go on?                                                                                                                          Literature. Will it put an end to war? War and Peace itself is nothing better than enticement to create new battlefields. […] Tolstoy himself was a soldier at Sevastopol and gloried in it – then he pretends to hate it – after which he ends his life as a mad proponent of world peace, for God’s sake, while he drives his wife away from his death bed. And I am crazy? Me?                                                                                                                                           Yes. So they tell me. (p. 437-438)

The question, then, is whether art is capable of putting an end to war. The answer is evident. And yet, Pilgrim insists on certain upper-class style of the good life, and he is not adverse to enjoying beautiful views. All is not gloom, perhaps only up to the very end when it is Pilgrim’s desire to destroy the painting and the stained-glass window.

2. The nature of relationships: human to human, human to god(s)

In one of the previous lives, Pilgrim was admitted into to circle of Oscar Wild’s lovers and admirers, taking a stance against those who would vilify Wild’s homosexuality, such as Whistler.

Jung’s relationship with his wife Emma comes to a sour point after Emma discovers his infidelity to her with an ex-patient of his, Toni (the second one Emma is aware of). The important consideration is that Emma has a different take on marriage from the opinion Jung expresses about it. She saw herself as his companion, researcher, mother of his children, and he was the light of her life. After her discovery, she still loves him, but does not like him any longer; they do not share the matrimonial bed and they do not spend time with their children together. To Freud, Carl Gustav expresses his idea that extra-marital relationships are crucial for a good marriage. Jung continues his relationship with Toni without regard to Emma’s feelings.

Doctor/nurse to patient rapport in the clinic clearly reflects the superiority of the medical staff who hold the keys to the mental patients’ real and metaphorical cages.

But the most intriguing liaison is between humans and their god(s): according to Pilgrim, humans, having abandoned their gods, cling to the one who does not see.

3. The meaning of madness

Pilgrim believes that he cannot die, that his previous lives are real and that he can account for them: he was in Troy during the war, at Chartres during the construction of the Cathedral, in Florence with Da Vinci, in Avila with Teresa (not yet saint),  in London with Oscar Wilde; he lived as a man and as a woman; as a beautiful rich woman (Madonna del Giocondo), and as a poor cripple shepherd Manolo, as a dandy in London. He does not remember any of his lives before the age of 18 (i.e. childhood is not accounted for). At the outset, Jung does not believe that anyone can have such detailed recollections of particular previous lives, a belief which inches him closer to elaborating his idea of collective unconscious.

Teresa of Avila, as all saints, showed abnormal behaviour, and surely her acting would have made her end up in an asylum in the early 1900s. Findley’s description of her quest is thought-provoking:

This was the pattern of Teresa’s beliefs. To find the Holy Grail, to sail with the great explorers to America and the Orient, to climb through the sky to find the Almighty or to dig through the earth and drag the Devil into the light of day.  She read poetry. She read novels. She dressed as Queen Isabella.  She affected the robes of the Carmelites. She experimented with theatrical, even whorish cosmetics – and had once dyed her hair with henna. But the discovery of self had not so much to do with one’s destination as with one’s capacity to achieve it. Clearly, for Teresa de Cepeda, God was at the far end of all these dreamings – but could one reach Him? (p. 340)

So what is madness exactly? Luigi Pirandello’s dictum and the title of one of his plays, Così è, se vi pare (“It is so if you think so/ Right you are if you think so”) gives an indication of the complexity of human psychological networks which the novel describes in such detail: each character has certain beliefs about herself/himself which are rarely reflected in the opinions of others. Jung’s strategy is to “indulge” in the beliefs of his patients by attempting to understand their view of themselves. But this is a vicious circle, since even he makes a cage for himself (he is right if he believes in his convictions) and he lives in it accordingly, all the more so when he persists in his own certainties. Findley’s philosophical stance in this novel, therefore, can be described as Pirandellian, since the characters do not believe each other’s certainties. Granted, Pilgrim is condemned on account of his sacrilege having seen the mating of the Sacred Serpents (yet another imaginary human invention).

In conclusion, at the core of all of Findley’s naturalistic descriptions of various settings and the in-depth treatment of each character is the quest for the value of literature in human lives. This art form does not prevent humans from unthinkable violence, but it points to another, more profound direction, that of imagination. If we invented our god(s), the invention itself is not enough. We have to abide by this creation. In Pilgrim’s words,

No wonder the gods are departing, he thought. We have driven them away. Once, every tree out there was holy – every tree and every strand of grass and clod of earth. The very stones were holy and everything that lived, no matter how small or large…every elephant and every ant – every man and every woman. All were holy. Everything – the sea – the sky – the sun – the moon – the wind – the rain – the fairest and the worst of days. … All of it gone and only one deaf God, who cannot see, remains – claiming all of creation as His own. If people would invest one hundredth of their devotion to this God on the living brothers and sisters amongst whom they stand, we might have a chance of surviving one another. As it is…       (p. 479.)

Both Pilgrim and Jung had dream premonitions of the coming of the Great War. This is where Findley’s novel’s ends: in pessimism.

It could be argued that perhaps it is time to work on a different creation by our psyche, one that for sure will not allow the atrocities that continue those of the 20th century. Alternatively, we are condemned to the cage of our collective unconscious, yet knowing this does not alter our behaviour.

 

Fondness for and frustration with Dr. Pereira

It is a sure sign of a great writer when the reader’s heart is filled with fondness for a character just from the first 15 sentences or so of terse yet rich description. This is precisely what happened to me while reading the first page of Antonio Tabucchi’s  novel Sostiene Pereira (Feltrinelli, 1994; translated into English as either  Pereira Maintans or Pereira Declares – none of which I like, but that’s another story; I would have opted for Pereira’s Testimony). Some examples of Pereira’s being lovable are these: he converses with the photo of his departed wife (and therefore he brings this photo with him when he travels); as a good Catholic, he believes in the soul but does not believe in  the resurrection of the body since he is rather heavy and does not see the need to resurrect the “lard and sweat and all the breathlessness going up the stairs”. Furthermore, he does not create problems for others, he keeps to himself and that makes him lonely – but he never complains of loneliness. Above all,  there is more: as the novel progresses, the fondness for him becomes accompanied by stronger and stronger frustration. Why does he act as he does? What are his unspoken motives?  So at the end,  after closing the last page, I am left with a mountain of unresolved issues which surround the lovable yet aggravating Dr. Pereira.

sostienepereira

There is no doubt that the novel deals with some of the most troublesome problems facing (not only) Portugal in 1938: violence, police brutality, citizen apathy, political upheaval. It is small wonder that Dr. Pereira has death on his mind: but death for him is a philosophical matter, and linked to literature  through the passing of important literary figures. As the editor of the cultural page of a literary magazine, he wants to be prepared for deaths of famous poets, philosophers, novelists and he engages an unknown young man Monteiro Rossi to write obituaries, both in the form of anniversaries of death and of notices of passing.  The hold Monteiro Rossi has on Pereira is inexplicable (is it because if Pereira had had a son, he would have been of the same age?), and in terms of the plot development, the least tangible and most frustrating element. This young man, it turns out, brings complete upheaval into Pereira’s life, as well as a concrete and real presence of death. Pereira ends up doing what he knows how to do best: he writes the account of police brutality which would have surely gotten him arrested, and he leaves Portugal presumably for France.

Three ideas keep surfacing in my mind which Sostiene Pereira forefronts but really does not come to terms with. They are the following:

  1. Who is a hero? What is a hero? It could be surmised that by having his damning testimony of police brutality published, Pereira is a hero of sorts: his words are available for people to read, but his readership is minimal, so his verbal effort surely does not bring down the corrupt and hated political system.
  2. Is the pen mightier than the sword? It could be argued that the repressive political system is dead, but Pereira’s written testimony lives on. However, it is obvious that other repressive systems thrive, other abuses of power come to the surface, other types of violence are born. The final judgment as to the greater mightiness of the pen or the sword is still to be made.
  3. What is fiction good for? I heard some author state that “All fiction is a lie.” This statement is blatantly not true, as you cannot prove that Pereira lied in his testimony, that his life is a lie, that this journal article is a lie, etc. etc. Others say that fiction makes us more in tune with, more caring about our fellow beings, human or not. Still others claim that fiction helps us forget our sorrows and transports us to other realms where we forget our troubles. Rater than closing ourselves within a created world, it is more likely that this imaginary world allows us to open up to other possibilities and other lives, not to make ours more palatable, but to make it richer. I am grateful to Dr. Pereira for doing this for me and to Tabucchi for creatively elaborating a real flesh and blood journalist’s life.

There are many fictional protagonists for whom I feel a strong fondness, and there are others who swell up seas of frustration for me, but very few imaginary characters combine both fondness and frustration in a way that Pereira does.

Social Media: Implications for the University

book

The purpose of this volume is to offer a balanced critical reflection on the role of social media in the workings of the engaged university. The 15 contributors analyze, critique, and explore the rich ideological and pragmatic relationships ensuing from the intersection between social media and academic life. This book is the sixth volume in the Social Theory: Communication and Media Studies published by Aracne Editrice (Rome). Its contents are definitely of interest to 1. those who work or have a stake in modern academia, as well as 2. those who observe the radical transformations of the manner in which knowledge is shred, elaborated, and used in contemporary life and 3. those who reflect on the unforeseen ramifications of technological advances. Moreover, many contributions have readers step outside of the classroom, presenting bridges especially to the arts communities: bridges that would have been impossible even 5 years ago. Oftentimes, edited volumes are criticized for “unevenness”, but the pleasure deriving from reading various ideological perspectives on, and multifaceted illustrations of the same general topic overrides any “unevenness”. The individual voice of each of the contributors is clear and purposeful.  It is hoped that the volume engages all the crucial players in today’s academic life and that the contributions may reach those who work as platform designers, making the most of (automated) connectivity and (human) connectedness (J. Van Dijck’s terms). In times such as these, when the end of many human occupations and professions are being placed in the hands of robots, questions should be asked also of what will become of the engaged and purposeful university – and it is without doubt that social media will have a significant role to play in the spread of knowledge. Decisions must be made regarding the balance between academic gatekeepers and technological gatekeepers: this volume provides a number of starting points in order to reach satisfactory answers.

The book is available from http://www.aracneeditrice.it/aracneweb/index.php/pubblicazione.html?item=9788854897427.

 

 

Food and (Italian) science fiction, or where are the transhumanist sources of energy?

Some years back, in Toronto, during one scrumptious supper, while the banqueters (mostly Italians and Italian Canadians)  were enjoying their tasty food, they all joined the discussion about what menu they would like to imagine for the next day’s meal. The Italian cultural attaché, one of the diners, exclaimed: “Italians are the only people who, while eating, think of the next meal!”. Whether this is true or not, food is a universal concern, although Italians, given their historical, regional, cultural, and character traits, seem to be overly obsessed with what, how, when, where, why they eat. So it is no surprise that food and science meet in Italian speculative fiction, although not as often as could perhaps be anticipated. This is why a lot of my expectations surfaced as soon as the publication of the volume Ma gli androidi mangiano spaghetti elettrici?  was made public.  The book is edited by Francesco Grasso, Marco Minicangeli, Massimo Mongai, and published as a companion to activities planned for the World Expo held in Milano in 2015. It contains 18 short stories by sci-fi known and less-known writers (among whom 4 women), and an afterword which attempts to tackle the question “Why do women not read and not write science fiction?”. The contents of this collection receive a more academic review in a forthcoming specialized publication, so the following muse on two considerations (out of many) which arose from having thought about food, science fiction, and transhumanism.

 

ma gli andr

 

Cyborgs and electric spaghetti?       

Although the title is a catchy transparent spoof on Philip K Dick’s Do androids dream of electric sheep? (this ploy was also used in an academic article entitled “Do androids eat electric sheep?” by Josh Toth), the stories do not involve androids and the protagonists do not eat or prepare electric spaghetti. (Caveat emptor.) Every contribution has to do with food: either in the form of seeds, insects, reclaimed produce after a cataclysmic disaster, humans as choice fodder for aliens, and many others. But it is still food for biological beings (human and otherwise).

If food provides energy (food apparently provides much more than that as the scientific literature on food informs us: see for ex., the Works Cited section below), it is legitimate to ask what would the sources of energy be for augmented humans? We need speculative fiction to give us imaginative answers to this. Energy provided to biological beings is surely different from that required by mechanical/nano-bio-cyborgian embodiments (the Borgs “regenerate”). Augmentation-prone transhumanists have so far avoided to deal with this topic, and it is highly surprising since the energy sources and the ways of their ingestion/ injection / imbibing/etc. are crucial for the augmented body. Senescence-abolishing transhumanists, though, will soon have a crowd-sourced cookbook (https://mariakonovalenko.wordpress.com/tag/longevity-cookbook/).

Transhumanists and gastronomy

Perhaps silence about food in transhumanist circles stems from the trouble with the visionary separation already anticipated by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in his Manifesto della cucina futurista (1930). Marinetti, a clever self-promoting artist, bon-vivant and iconoclast of traditional ways of doing things, envisaged two types of food: 1) Pills to satisfy the working classes’ need for energy during their couple of working hours a day and 2) Special banquets  with newly invented courses. It’s a pity that every commentator concentrated on the second suggestion, rather than elaborating on the first. Suffice it to say then that according to the Manifesto of Futurist Cooking, food is either to be swallowed without regard for any sensory input, or enjoyed with almost a sensory overload. There are no half-measures, no in-between compromises. This may be the reason for the transhumanist gastronomic and ironic quandary: in the augmented beings, every feeling, sense, cognitive capabilities are ameliorated, so how can they accept eating pills/getting their energy from electric pulses, which presumably do not give any sensory pleasure at all?  Or will they, and how will this be accomplished?

In conclusion, it is hoped that future sci-fi and/or real nourishment will not be devoid of sensory pleasure, unless augmented beings lose that part of humanity which craves and is able to enjoy the energy consumption, whatever form it will take.

 

Works Cited

Belasco, Warren. Food. The Key concepts. Berg, 2008.

Jurafsky, Dan. The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu. W.W. Norton, 2014.

Marinetti, Tommaso Filippo. The Futurist cookbook. Translated by Suzanne Brill. Edited with an introduction by Lesley Chamberlain.  Bedford Arts Publishers, 1989.

Pautasso, Guido Andrea. Cucina futurista. Manifesti, menu, documenti. Carte d’artisti 158.Milano, Abscondita, 2015

Poulain, Jean-Pierre. Alimentazione, cultura e società. Il Mulino, 2008, trad. Aldo Pasquali.

Riva, Franco. Filosofia del cibo. Castelvecchi, 2015.

Food and Transhumanism*

trans

Although transhumanism, an international philosophical and social movement, has been growing steadily in the past twenty years, there are no formal, programmatic statements regarding this ideology and nutrition. In the 9 forward-looking proposals that comprise the Transhumanist Declaration, food has found no place. Paradoxically, this lack of specific and systematic mention of the role, nature, and importance of food in transhumanism is both understandable and appalling at the same time. One side of this paradox is understandable on account of at least two reasons: 1. Food has not been recognized (and it still is not in certain circles) as an academic field worthy of thorough scientific, social, and philosophical scrutiny. Most of the signatories of the Transhumanist Declaration were, in one way or another, part of the academia, and therefore the topic of nutrition fell easily through their ideological sieve.  2. All the x-human philosophies (such as posthumanism and metahumanism) propose a positive, if not optimistic view of the future and this presupposes a taken-for-granted, steady, and general availability of nutrition to everyone. This assumption needs more than a fleeting look, however.   The appalling aspect of the lack of mention of food stems from the fact that all that transhumanism stands for, expressed so clearly in the second sentence of the first point in the Transhumanist Declaration, relies on the continuous, balanced, meaningful intake of nutriments: “We envision the possibility of broadening human potential by overcoming aging, cognitive shortcomings, involuntary suffering, and our confinement to planet Earth”. Clearly, the human body is the main object of the possibilities of enhancement, and therefore, the view of the body underpins all the transhumanist developments. The idea of morphological freedom guides all the transhumanist scientific research. Transhumanism aims at enhancing and therefore going beyond the existing, biologically determined, human capacities. To obtain night vision, to breathe like a dolphin, to learn all the languages of the world instantaneously, requires some type of prostheses, implants, DNA manipulation, and these, in turn, require additional energy for the body. It may be that a specific enhancement will need particular sets of energy-boosting elements, and therefore transhumanism cannot predict what these may be, especially when the body is seen as an individual work of art (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/zoltan-istvan/transhumanist-art-is-brin_b_5447758.html). An enhancement which is eloquent in its absence is that no transhumanist wants to have two stomachs or additional taste buds, or to predispose his/her stomach to digest what is so far not digestible by humans, although here science fiction has something to say on the subject (photosynthesis tweaked for humans, nano implants capable of producing the desired energy, etc.).

 

And yet, without the expressed, concrete and profound discussion regarding food and nutrition (whether it be called fuel, energy, or otherwise), all the transhumanist scientifically-based developments remain abstractions without concrete support. What is at stake are not single opinions regarding the desirability or safety of GMOs, or replacement choices of beef (such as worm meat or lab-grown substances from beef muscle cells), but the interaction and interdependence between the individual and society. True to the postmodern attitude of celebrating the self as a “free” individual actor, transhumanism also boasts that its philosophical and conceptual bases have roots in humanism, hence in the belief of positive social results of scientific advancements. But this tension between the individual and society has unforeseen consequences for the role and meaning of food (not only in the sense of eating alone as opposed to eating in company). This tension is illustrated by a whole gamut of concepts, experiences, feelings which comprise the triangle suggested by Warren Belasco (in his Food. The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg, 2008). This triangle has at its points (consumer’s) identity,  (maters of) convenience, and  (sense of) responsibility. Furthermore, creating ad hoc solutions such as a Longevity Cookbook does not answer the individual nutritional requirements once the varied and possible enhancements will take place. The question, therefore, to be answered is the following: Will the enhanced individual be able to sustain her/his/its body on her/his/its own or will it need societal help?

 

*This is a continuation of my research presented at the international conference entitled “Gastronomy, Culture, and the Arts. A Scholarly Exchange of Epic Portions” , University of Toronto at Mississauga, 12 March 2016.

Livido/Nexhuman

Livido/Nexhuman

 

Francesco Verso’s SF novel Livido has recently been translated into English with the new title Nexhuman (Xoum 2015). What follows is a slightly reworked short Afterword* to the English version (with permission from Francesco Verso).

What follows is not intended to be a conclusive statement about this remarkable novel, but to serve as a springboard for discussion about the ever-elusive definition of what it means to be human, this time from transhumanist and literary perspectives.
Transhumanism is an international philosophical and cultural movement whose main tenet is the belief in the positive outcomes of enhancing and augmenting all human faculties. The improvements go beyond simply alleviating pain or bettering one’s eyesight. They involve using prostheses, implants, nanotechnology, exoskeletons, DNA editing, and much more to augment human abilities beyond their natural limitations (for example, adding gills, making night vision possible, etc.). Transhumanism values reason, progress and optimism through self-determined, self-directed evolution. According to this movement, death is not inevitable and senescence can be rendered negligible.
If science fiction can be defined as works of literature that are contingent upon some as yet unfulfilled scientific advancement, transhumanist science fiction refers to those works of literature that deal with self-directed evolution, not with cyborgs created by others, but with subjects whose enhancement is directly willed by themselves.
Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman can be considered a transhumanist trailblazer in the more and more verdant forest of Italian science fiction. Although the novel does not focus specifically on self-directed evolution, the narration proceeds towards one of the crucial aspects of transhumanism – that of mind uploading. Nexhuman paints a dystopian picture of the future, where the complexities of a consumerist, profit-driven, technology-obsessed, trash-filled world, populated by humans and nexhumans, seemingly obliterate those aspects of humanity which matter most: love, identity, family, friendship and aspirations, to name just a few. However, these themes and many others find a common thread in the question of the Self: not just the basic ‘Who am I?’ but other probing queries, such as ‘Who is the Other?’, ‘How do I exist with the Other?’, ‘Where do I fit in?’, or ‘What should I do with my life?’. And, above all, ‘Who will the Self be in a world where the external body can be of any shape and material?’.
Nexhuman offers a most noteworthy possibility regarding the relationship between the Self and the Other. For millennia, humans have acknowledged the fact that there exists a chasm between the Self and the Other: a binary, exclusionary relationship that separates the two fragments into clearly delineated compartments. It is true that anthropological triangulation, or double-consciousness, offers a tripartite view, but it still relies on the same components: self, other and other-self. The novel describes, in stark and nasty detail, the results of this antagonistic stance: quasi-fratricide, possible matricide, ‘nexhuman-cide’, exclusion (seen in the character of Ion) and separation (human vs. nexhuman; male vs. female). Peter Payne attempts to avoid falling into the trap of hate even when he is bent on vendetta. He falls in love with a being he does not know is a nexhuman, and he keeps loving her even after finding out that she is a copy of a sixty-year-old woman’s mind that has been uploaded. His search for Alba’s severed pieces symbolises his quest to find himself – but not at the cost of excluding others. And here is the point at which transhumanism’s mind-uploading technology shows yet another possibility, clearly illustrated in the novel: to live as Self within the Other(s). The Self can be uploaded into any form (human or not), of any age, and this can be done many times over – just as Alba’s example shows. The Self can live within other people’s memories: Peter Payne uploads his own memories into the program of his mother’s hologram, where she will live on. However, the most inclusive sense of the Self within the Other is Peter’s feeling that Alba lives within him. Of course, these serious aspects of the ‘payneful’ experience receive good doses of irony (specifically: love growing out of a trash-filled environment; trash-forming and recycling of garbage, but also of mind; Peter’s approval to upload his mind not because of his mutilated, bruised body, but on account of love; etc.).
Therefore, the Self and the Other(s) are categories that are not exclusive, but are subsumed within each other: the new consciousness of both Peter and Alba are not simply imagined but embodied, not dreamt but uploaded. There is no antagonism between the Self and the Other(s), nor are there blurred, indistinct outlines. They are enclosed, experienced, practiced, familiar and deeply felt. They are not fluid but embraced, and readily received.
Frederick Pohl, the American science fiction writer, claimed that, ‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.’ Nexhuman’s traffic jams include the usual problems encountered not only in science fiction – extreme environmental degradation, unscrupulous employers, failure to stop aggressive and violent behaviour – but also those created by new transhumanist technologies, such as self-constructed bodies, mind uploading, misuse of mind-transforming technologies, inability to educate the young, and wide gaps between humans and nexhumans. The novel does much more than this since it redefines the relationships between the Self and the Other(s), offering a new way of being human: that of embracing one Self within the Other(s).

 

*Some of the ideas elaborated on here were first presented at the Graduate Students’ Conference entitled ‘(Un)human relations/ Relazioni (dis)umane’, held at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, 6 May 2015.