Food and Transhumanism*

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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.

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College experience on film: “God’s not dead”

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There is no doubt that using the university classroom as a setting for any film could be entertaining and thought-provoking. The film God’s not dead misses these results since it attempts to account for Catholicism and postmodernity from the perspective of the “persecuted” and “silenced” believers placing the actions in an unreal, aseptic, conspiracy-filled setting. In a true postmodern fashion it discredits the professoriate*, and in a modernist fashion it relies on easily swayable underdog (student) body.
Although the generous reviews on the web give the film a mark of 3/5, the comments and reviews accompanying this mark tell the producers that viewers need more than was given to them in the first film. Obviously, the producers did not listen as God’s not dead 2 is to be released in April of 2016!

In any case, without getting into the content of the film marred by logical fallacies, slow pace, few examples of real suffering, and, above all, an unrealistic, static, one-sided vision of the academia, let me simply outline in three points through which the college experience in this film illustrates the amazing desire of film makers not to show the really messy, interesting classrooms of today. My more than thirty-year long academic life allows me to base these comments on facts.

1. In the film, the professor acts in a god-like manner but he is really less than smart.

Even for entertaining or teaching purposes, giving voice to a technologically-stupid and pedagogically-unprepared prof is a mistake, a mistake that obviously makes the life of the student who opposes him so much easier. It does not take much to shoot down an easy target. The prof relies on puny little white boards where his minuscule notes can hardly be read, whereas his adversary (the student) comes prepared with all the technological bells and whistles which dazzle the 80 or so classmates. What is more interesting, though, is the fact that this philosophy prof is made to miss the mark of a great prof by having students sign the statement “God is dead” (as if signing something had a pedagogical value). If the producers and directors had any insight into really great teaching, they would have had the prof make the students work (yes, thinking is work) to decide for themselves, through great teaching strategies, through comparisons, through deep reading, through writing. But all of this takes time and is as far from the day-to-day experiences of the fictional students as is the nearest galaxy for us. The makers of the film obviously did not ever step into the contemporary classroom, where technology allows students to be on the web (rather than to pay attention to what’s happening in the front of the auditorium: yes, the prof is forced to entertain), where they eat, drink, talk, comment, ask questions, send e-mails, think about their jobs to which they have to hurry after the class, etc. etc., all a far cry from the attentive student body in the film. The most unethical feature of the fictional prof’s behaviour is his letting the student “teach”: the teaching  unions in the real world would surely either slap the real prof’s hands or have the student be paid for his “work”. This, aside from not only illustrating (wrongly) but above all strengthening the postmodern view that anyone can teach.

2. In the film, the student body is easily swayed.

For all its proselytizing aims, the film makers’ biggest mistake is to show the student body as superficially savvy as the prof. In real life, there would be lots of objections and there certainly would not be a unanimous decision which sides with the student. There would be comments which show that some students did not pay attention at all, there would be attacks ad hominem, etc. On the one hand, students (whether fictional or not) will side with anyone who subverts the perceived god-like powers of the prof. On the other hand, in the film, the students are made to sign a statement to which only one of about 80 objects, therefore they side here with those powers who give them marks, showing their pragmatic view of what they expect from the course.

3. In the film, teaching is talking and learning is siding with whoever seems more popular.

One thing the film got right: if you are a boring prof. who is not passionate about what you teach, you might just as well let a student do your job. So beating up a dead horse, so to speak, is easy. But the old paradigm, shown in the movie, of teaching as pouring some knowledge into the learner’s head is long gone, replaced by the teacher being a facilitator of learning, thinking, critiquing, especially in the humanities.

It is clear that films are entertainment, but nowadays people “learn” from multimedia products, so any film also carries some type of teaching, reinforcing or subverting ideas, likes, dislikes, tendencies, and actions. Given the three points outlined above, it is clear that something is wrong with a not-so fictional society which 1. accepts a piece of paper containing one’s signature as a statement of one’s beliefs; 2. makes teaching/learning a popularity contest. What is the conclusion as far as the college experience on film is concerned? This film is not the answer to the real need of a well-though out, profound depiction of academic life today, with all its messiness, challenges, and excitement.

 

*By the way, Willie Robertson: the phrase God’s not dead has four, not three words.