Friday, March 30, 2007

an explanatory note

Since I've never bothered to define "posthuman"...

There is an ambiguity at play that is really very significant. When I use "posthuman," I mean something like this. But it seems that quite a few people critiquing the idea of the posthuman use the word to refer to this. I think this second definition is properly considered a specific, and deficient, vision of posthumanity.

posthuman Dawn

This past week for ED 325, "Science Fiction, Social Criticism and Eschatological Thinking," we read Octavia E. Butler's Dawn, the beginning of her Xenogenesis trilogy. This is a fascinating novel about the posthuman, not least because it recasts the possibility of the posthuman into a fate not necessarily chosen by humanity itself or wrought by human technological achievement.

This is such a departure from the typical portrayal of the posthuman as the monstrous result of out of control (human) technology that it demands scrutiny. Why does Butler reconceive the posthuman in this way, and what does it say about her anthropology?

Throughout the novel Dawn, human beings are portrayed as a species uniquely constituted and conflicted. Twice, human uniqueness is affirmed as the contradiction of being "so full of life and death" at the same time. The Oankali, a three-gendered (male, female and ooloi), non-hierarchical species driven by a need for genetic exchange with nearly all other species they encounter, seem to regard humanity with a mixture of horror and irresistible romantic attraction--a reaction inspired by the uneasy mix of bipolarities that describe human nature. As the plot unfolds, we are given no unambiguously admirable human character (nor, for that matter, any unambiguously admirable alien character); even the protagonist, Lilith, with whom I as a reader sympathized immensely, is not without the flaws that seem to be definitive for human nature for Butler. Violence erupts with a slow, inexorable, tragic inevitability that no amount of foresight on Lilith's part can avoid. Misunderstanding, self-loathing, shame and desire, the need for expiation and punishment--all are incomprehensible to the Oankali, who not only are unified within themselves and never experience such inner conflict, but achieve unity, through the ooloi, with each other that humanity cannot properly conceive and cannot experience except through the ecstasy made possible through union with the ooloi--are presented by Butler as both the human flaws that trigger violence and tragedy, and the defenses which preserve the essentially human, or even the strongholds which enshrine the essentially human, and as that which is endangered by the posthuman future offered by the Oankali through the genetic blending of the two species. To be essentially human, and remain so, is to remain flawed. The dualism of humanity is both its uniqueness and its doom.

This view of humanity is one in which technology can never become a means of salvation, but only a means of destruction. Technology in the hands of fatally flawed humanity can only mean bigger, better, faster and more total means of self-destruction. And indeed, the book begins there: in post-nuclear-war devestation, from which humans must be rescued if they are to survive at all.

It seems logical to expect, then, that the Oankali are god-like beings--and such indeed they are. Personally, I am convinced that the Oankali are not simply god-like, but are Butler's image and theological critique of God--the Christian God--specifically, the Baptist God. The Oankali are a unified three-in-one, a trinity, in which the ooloi (the third gender) act much like the Holy Spirit in Augustine's description of the Trinity, as the "bond of love" between the other two. They are, in comparison to humans, omniscient (or close enough), and they are (or believe themselves to be) benevolent; they are powerful and in control of individual human lives as well as the collective fate of humanity; they make of Lilith a kind of prophetic leader; they intend the transformation of flawed human nature into something better.

And yet the Oankali are not, in contrast to humanity, completely harmonious and unconflicted moral beings. There are disagreements among them as to how to best handle their contact and interaction with humans. They seem to desire, above all, a mutual and reciprocal relationship with humans; but at the same time, they are distant, controlling, manipulative, ostensibly beneficent but unbearably patronizing. And they propose to transform humanity in ways that they refuse to describe, and proceed to do so without anything resembling consent. Lilith, whose relationship with the Oankali is the only one which comes at all close to one of equality and respect, resents the "need-to-know" justification for her ignorance, the callous disregard for her feelings, the deaf ear which the Oankali turn to her well-founded misgivings, and most disturbingly, the physical changes they effect in her without her knowledge. If relationship is indeed their goal, the means by which they try to achieve are incredibly counterproductive. The Oankali, too, are flawed. And this is what I think Butler wants to say about God: that if this is how God deals with humanity, an ostensibly beneficent but unbearably patronizing deity, then God too is flawed.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

MS Walk

Hi everyone,
After you've spleened all over the last post, here's something you can do to restore your sense of goodwill and faith in humanity.

Check out this link to CCfB's team for the MS Walk on April 22. Clare and I briefly considered walking but...oh yeah, she doesn't walk yet. (She is standing up on her own, though, and cruising along the furniture--but if she really wants to get somewhere, she uses the Old Reliable: crawling.)

There's a donation link available from the site linked above if anyone wants to contribute. I would like to consider myself as performing the service of linking up readers with something resembling "disposable income" with a nice way to dispose of a bit of it.

the temptation of theodicy

I received the following as an email forward a few days ago. I thought about "replying all" with my response but decided against it since I don't have any idea who most of the other people on the address list are. I reckon theological ranting is really only barely tolerable when you know someone well, and from a virtual stranger, completely uncivilized. But that's what blogs are for!

Here it is:

This is one of the best explanations of why God allows pain and suffering
that I have seen. It's an explanation other people will understand.

A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed. As the
barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation. They talked about
so many things and various subjects. When they eventually touched on the
subject of God, the barber said: "I don't believe that God exists."

"Why do you say that?" asked the customer.

"Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn't
exist. Tell me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would
there be abandoned children? If God existed, there would be neither suffering
nor pain. I can't imagine loving a God who would allow all of these things."

The customer thought for a moment, but didn't respond because he didn't want
to start an argument. The barber finished his job and the customer left the
shop. Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long,
stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard. He looked dirty and un-kept.

The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the
barber: "You know what? Barbers do not exist."

"How can you say that?" asked the surprised barber."I am here, and I am a
barber. And I just worked on you!"

"No!" the customer exclaimed. "Barbers don't exist because if they did, there
would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man

"Ah, but barbers DO exist! What happens is, people do not come to me."

"Exactly!" affirmed the customer. "That's the point! God, too, DOES exist!
What happens, is, people don't go to Him and do not look for Him. That's why
there's so much pain and suffering in the world."


Now, don't you feel blessed? Come on, don't you? I know you do. If you don't, well, it's your own damn fault and don't blame the barber. But, on second thought, why expend all my ranting energy myself? Really, there's too much else to do, people. Kitchens to clean. Laundry to fold. Sick babies to make well, or, since I can't really do that, sick baby's unhappy wailings to endure. Books to read, lessons to prep, dissertations to write.

So I invite you, loyal readers with untapped ranting potential and capabilities, read on, and unleash your Inner Angry Diatribe! Fill my comments with bitter invective! Theological vituperation! Righteous outrage and scorn! Go ye forth!

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.

Saturday, March 17, 2007


Today's AWAD quote:

Rudeness is a weak imitation of strength. -Eric Hoffer, philosopher and author (1902-1983)

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

on abortion

Here is a comment I made on a recent blog discussion over at Scott Freeman's free thoughts. I am posting it again here because, upon review, I think I managed to articulate exactly what I feel--not a common enough occurrence, generally speaking, and even more rare in the blogosphere.

"Caring for the unborn and for the mothers both is exactly what I’m trying to advocate for. Nor do I assume anyone here is unconcerned with this matter. But here is the difference. I don’t think it constitutes “care” for the mother to explain to her why she is wrong. Women who have abortions know exactly what it is they are doing. They know it better than any of us, because they know it from the first person perspective. They don’t need an ultrasound to show them it’s a baby. Their own bodies tell them in a way that it is impossible to appreciate until you experience it. Having my own baby radically changed my thinking on abortion–not in the sense that I “switched sides” but in the sense that I finally understood what it meant to have an abortion. It meant experiencing the anticipation of pregnancy as terror. It meant experiencing the growing life within you with dread. It meant agonizing over the fact that the tiny life completely dependent on you for survival is one whose blind trust is misplaced. It meant knowing in a place far deeper than the brain that the wrongness that marks our world runs so incontrovertibly deep that the possibility of new life is not always a good one. I firmly believe that most women who have abortions do so out of a sense of care for their unborn child–care that emerges in this monstrous and perverted form not because the mother is at fault or is morally deficient or ignorant, but because the world in which we live offers her no options than a choice between horrific evils. Is it caring for a child to bring her into a world where hunger, abuse, neglect are as inevitable as destiny? If you loved the baby in your womb, would you condemn her to that? What about women whose lives are so marginal that they physically cannot adequately nurture a child even in pregnancy? Is it caring to carry that pregnancy to term, knowing that you cannot provide even in the womb what that new life requires in order to flourish? Guilt lies in every direction for these women. Guilt for being pregnant–whether or not it’s their “fault.” Guilt if they birth a child they can’t protect and nurture. Guilt if they don’t. Yes, we don’t want her to live with guilt. So let’s recognize that no matter what the decision, guilt is there to be absolved. And that is certainly our job as the church. But we as the church cannot even begin the task of addressing and absolving this guilt unless we are also doing what is necessary to create a place for women to see beyond these desperate, guilt-inducing options. We have to make it possible for these babies to be born, and not just born, but nurtured and cared for in the same security we seek for our own. And we have to make this not only a fragile possibility but a stable reality that women can count on and expect, so that it is no longer necessary to end a life before it begins out of fear of what that life will mean. That is our real task. Legislation be damned."

For further reflection, here are a couple links to follow: "A Place to Turn when a Newborn is Fated to Die," (thanks to Joe for this link) and "Italy Takes High-Tech Tactics for Abandoned Babies" (thanks to Brent).

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Baby Einstein

Clare's been addicted to Baby Bach since she was a couple months old. Couldn't get enough of it. Brent and I could, though: I started hearing Bach as performed by the Baby Einstein Music Box Orchestra in my head while grocery shopping, I would hum along while cooking dinner, it was the soundtrack to my dreams at night. So for Christmas we requested some more Baby Einsteins for Clare, looking for a little relief from the awful monotonous tyranny of Baby Bach. Unfortunately for us, Baby Mozart doesn't play on our DVD player, so now we are sampling as many Baby Einsteins as we can get through Netflix to find the best replacement.

There are a LOT of Baby Einsteins. Baby Monet, Baby van Gogh, Baby da Vinci, Baby Shakespeare, and on it goes. Right now Clare is watching "Baby Einstein: On the Go," which I guess was a hard concept to find a genius for (Henry Ford? Wright brothers? James Watt? Pierre Lallemont? Really, with Google all you have to do is type in "bicycle inventor"!). It's okay: organized around vehicles that go on land, on water, in air...and I was all set for another segment for "in space," but apparently we don't want to encourage our babies to leave Earth no matter how fast and cool the vehicle is.

So I'm disappointed. But rather than just sulk about it, I'd like to encourage Julie Aigner-Clark (the inventor of the Baby Einstein stuff; you may have seen her singled out for recognition in GWB's State of the Union address) to produce a "Baby Armstrong," or maybe--this is even better--"Baby Buzz." Our kids need to know that Earth isn't the center of the universe, right?

While we're at it, I'd also like to see a "Baby Margaret Mead"--let's teach our kids that America isn't the only country in the universe as well (maybe we have a philosophical disagreement on this point--after all, Julie was lauded by President Bush)...just please, oh please, not "Baby Columbus."

Oh, but here's the best idea of all: how about a "Baby X"? Oh, okay, fine; I can settle for "Baby MLK, Jr." (although James Cone would advise you to partner them up for effectiveness). While we're teaching basic shapes and colors, why not add a little dose of political activism? All sorts of possibilities here: teaching babies how to march, make the peace sign, shout slogans, make signs...these all incorporate practice of basic skills! Brilliant!

Any other suggestions for Julie while we're at it?
Update/correction: Julie sold Baby Einstein to now who do we talk to??? But surely a quick word from her would hold some weight still...

Saturday, March 10, 2007

what can Clare do now?

  1. eat Cheerios...and more Cheerios...and nothing but Cheerios
  2. look at books instead of eating them
  3. say "book" rather indiscriminately
  4. pull herself up, chase the cat 'round the apartment, and stand on her own momentarily
  5. screech like a chimpanzee
  6. play nicely beside others...
  7. and bully those others.

Clare discovers Cheerios. And how to get them to her mouth. Yay!

O Happy Clare!

Clare loves her Elmo book. Thanks, Grandmom!

Everybody meet Sylva!

Clare meets Sylva and discovers the joy of playing beside another baby.

We have matching hats! Huzzah!


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

yao bu yao

So, yesterday I was feeding Clare lunch--yummy yummy baby oatmeal, green beans, mashed banana, and the inevitable Cheerios since nowadays she gets frustrated after too long without being able to take control of her own eating process. I was sneaking in spoonfuls of green beans in between the Cheerios and her attention began to wander: the cat had walked over to our corner and Clare got all maniacally happy like she does when she sees the kitty. So I attempted to get her attention. "Clare," I said, to no avail. "Clare! Clare!" and holding out a spooful of green bean mushiness, "Clare! Yao bu yao?" That got her attention. And she started giggling maniacally at me...every time I asked, "yao bu yao?"

"Yao bu yao" is Chinese for "do you want it?" although literally it's more like "want-no-want." I guess I've never spoken Chinese to Clare before. I wasn't planning on making lunch a Chinese lesson yesterday, but it was such a simpler way of asking "do you want more green beans?" Chinese is such an economical language--all kinds of meaning packed into a few single syllables.

So why was it so funny? She kept laughing so much every time I said it that she nearly spewed green beans all over both of us and everything else in the vicinity including the cat. I don't know. Maybe after 8 months of incomprehensible English noises coming at her she somehow knows that these syllables don't make sense? Could she know somehow that this is a different language? Even before her own Chomskian black box of language acquisition apparatus starts humming?

Well who knows. But I am going to start incorporating some of my favorite and more useful Chinese phrases into our daily one-sided conversations. Mei wen ti. Hao bu hao. Mei guan xi. Zou ba. Kuai le! Maybe even the Wuhan-hua "ni he wo!" Because although I, as a kindergartner, found it dreadfully inconvenient that my teacher couldn't understand me when I told her, "I have to go xiao bian" (xiao bian means pee, and da bian means poop. "xiao" is little and "da" is big; I don't know what "bian" is, but Chinese is nearly always politely euphemistic so it can't be too bad) it's also really cool that I have tidbits of Chinese in my childhood vocabulary, and something of Thweatt family history that I'd like to pass along.

Of course, she's also going to have to learn Spanish if she doesn't want to be shown up by her cousins...

Friday, March 02, 2007

PTS blogs

Okay, so I found one of you through statcounter and I know who you I have added you to my links and you are, for now, the sole representative of the category "PTS bloggers." But surely there are others. Not everyone can be so driven that they haven't discovered the Great Timewaster, the internet's Gift to All Procrastinators and Free Thinkers, the Electronic Abyss into which we type our best thoughts...ah, blogging.

Are there any other PTS bloggers out there who want to 'fess up?