Voyou Désœuvré

A little while back, Warren Ellis wrote an appropriately sharp post describing the Technological Singularity as “the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community.” The post is worth reading for its own sake, but it’s also fun to read the hilariously pissy trackbacks from members of the singularitarian community. Belief in the singularity, part of the belief system called extropianism and/or transhumanism, is a strange thing; it’s probably best to understand it as one of America’s quaint 19th century excentricities, like libertarianism or private health care.

It’s funny, though, that these advocates of our glorious extropian future don’t seem to realize how historically specific is the idea of the “human” that they’re so keen to transcend. As Foucault puts it in The Order of Things:

It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that  man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form (xxiii).

The transhumanist idea that at some point in the future technology will lead to a radical alteration of what it means to be human assumes that there is something fixed about “what it means to be human” in the first place. But it seems to me that, if there is a defining characteristic of human beings, it’s our lack of a defining characteristic: “man is what he is not, and is not what he is,” as Sartre says. To put it another way, the technological event that changed the meaning of being human is the invention of technology itself; our bold futurists aren’t just 19th century throwbacks: they’re a couple of million years behind the times.

The other 19th century ideology underlying transhumanism, of course, is the idea of progress, the idea that the present will have its meaning given to it by something existing in the future; “the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist,” as Ellis puts it. Though he doesn’t mention it in the post, this aspect of the Singularity ties in with Ellis’s new comic series. Doktor Sleepless is about the future or, rather, the absence of the future. The story is complicated, and the motivation and character of the “cartoon mad scientist,” Doktor Sleepless remain opaque. One theme, though is disappoint at the failure of the future to materialize: “where’s my jetpack?” But I wonder if the Doktor’s nurse (in the panels at the top of the post) doesn’t have it right. If the future was always a trick, “pie in the sky when you die,” shouldn’t we start thinking about the absence of the future as a liberation?

(This might tie in with discussions at Nate’s about an obsession with “newness” in political theory, as well as Benjamin’s connection of futurity with social democratic reformism. And, I recommend reading Doktor Sleepless while listening to Benga’s  “Zombie Jig”).


  1. Theo H, 8:29 am, July 7, 2008

    Don’t confuse theory with ideology. You can legitimately criticize the transhumanist ideology if you want, as Ellis has done, but this post is a mess because it attempts to make a theoretical argument against what is essentially an empirical position.

  2. voyou, 9:11 am, July 7, 2008

    But transhumanism isn’t an essentially empirical position, that’s the point. It takes something with some empirical basis (or something that used to have an empirical basis: AI theory circa 1960) and interprets it in the light of certain much broader tropes. That’s how ideology works: in the foreground you have something that looks empirical, but it gets its force from the more-or-less hidden conceptual framework in the background. And hence why it makes more sense to argue against transhumanism theoretically, rather than empirically (because there’s no real empirical there, there).

  3. echeneida, 1:38 pm, July 7, 2008


  4. Nate, 10:22 am, July 8, 2008

    hey Tim,

    it’s been a while, I hope you’re well.

    At this point I think it’s very clear that the future/novelty stuff is not really about the future or the past, but is really about the present. (On that, I’m mostly done with Negri’s new book Porcelain whatsits, and I simply hate it, post coming in the … um… near future.) Tronti has several remarks on all this in relation to the future in his piece the Strategy of the Refusal –

    the downfall of all the future Utopias which have been built on the working class (…) finally offers the subjective possibility of enclosing the class struggle within the chain of the present in order to smash it.”

    “the final act of the revolution requires that there should already be the workers’ State within capitalist society – the workers having power in their own right and deciding the end of capital. But this would not be a pre-figuration of the future, because the future, from the working class point of view, does not exist; only a block on the present, the impossibility for the present to continue functioning under its present organisation”.

    “communism (…) instead of constructing a model of the future society, supplies a practical means for the destruction of the present society”

    Anyhow, I’ll have to give these comics a look, I’ve only read one comic by Ellis, Black Summer, which I really like.

    take care,

  5. voyou, 10:30 pm, July 8, 2008

    “The future/novelty stuff is not really about the future or the past, but is really about the present.”

    One of the things I do find troubling about epochal political theory is not so much the newness of the present, but the (obviously related) insistence on seeing the past as very definitely past (passed), as finished, done with, and carrying no echoes into the present. Now, this isn’t always the case with Negri and people: one of the things I like about the analysis in Empire

  6. Dan, 2:07 am, July 28, 2008

    On this topic, I’m currently reading, and very much enjoying, Erik Davis’ book ‘techgnosis’. His website, http://www.techgnosis.com/, gives a pretty good idea of the style

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