Thursday, 23 August 2012

Superhumans in London - an Exhibition

Last week I had some time to spare in London and, prompted by a poster that I happened to come across, visited the Superhuman exhibition in the Wellcome Collection. I hadn't heard anything about it, so was curious what to find. The exhibition was rather small, and the exhibits appeared curiously random. There was a little statue of the flying Icarus, obviously meant to be a potent symbol of human enhancement (a rather unfortunate choice given the disastrous consequences of Icarus's attempt to fly to freedom), various devices that were thought to represent early enhancements, such as glasses, dildos, a set of teeth, and running shoes, pictures of comic book superheroes, prosthetic limbs, a video of a pretty, naked female artist whose body is being marked by a plastic surgeon, other "artistic" films dealing in some way with the human body, its frailty and the possibility of its transformation (providing, among other things, a good view between the wide open legs of another naked female, which seemed of particular interest to the group of college students that also happened to be there), a microchip similar to that implanted in the arm of Kevin Warwick, a robot wheelchair that moves by itself through a room, and last, but not least videoclips showing some of the usual enhancement suspects - Julian Savulescu, John Harris, Andy Miah, Anders Sandberg, Barbara Sahakian and Bennett Foddy - giving speeches about both the desirability and ordinariness (same old, same old) of human enhancement.

Sandberg: "Why should we have to exercise in order to be strong and fit? Couldn't we achieve that using a pill or some other means? (...) Human technology is something natural."

Miah: During the "ancient Olympic Games 2700 years ago (...) athletes were using technologies or natural products to make their products more capable for the sporting environment. Athletes would rub oil on their bodies to protect themselves against the baking heat of Olympia when they do their marathon (...). 2700 years later, not much has changed: athletes are still experimenting with technology to try and push themselves as fast and as hard as they can."

Foddy: "People often think of anti-ageing medicine or lifespan enhancement as somehow being outside the domain of medicine but almost every medical intervention that we've made over the past 150 years has extended human life, and to a lesser degree, human youth. Really it's the project of medicine to extend human life, to enhance life and human youth and to defeat age and death."

Harris: "Enhancement is part of medicine. (...) I'm mystified by the resistance that human enhancement faces. (...) we've got to enhance ourselves; we know we have (...); there is literally no alternative."

Both the exhibits and the comments by the experts strongly suggested that human enhancement is nothing new, nothing out of the ordinary. Enhancing ourselves is what we've always done. That there might be a difference between external devices such as glasses and the permanent transformation of the human body, between the replacement of lost limbs and functions and the attempt to gain superhuman abilities, is clearly denied. Yet it is strange that so little of the actual exhibition has got anything to do with "superhumans". There is no clear idea here what would turn us into better humans, or beings that are better than humans, unless it is the image of the comic book superhero. Distinctions are blurred, everything is the same as everything else, we're all enhanced anyway, so what's the big deal. This appears to be the message conveyed. Just listen to what Emily Sargent, the curator of the exhibition has to say in the introduction to the exhibition brochure:

"While human enhancement might initially seem to be the preserve of science fiction, the exhibition examines the subject through the lens of broader human experience. Initial fears that enhancement might compromise our core values are dispelled as we unravel the subject and face the possibility that it is our very desire to improve ourselves that makes us human. The extraordinary range of objects, artworks and ideas that have been brought together for this exhibition reflects this. Superhuman hightlights the ingenuity displayed in the past to overcome obstacles or conquer new frontiers, while offering a glimpse of what we might look forward to in the future." So there's nothing to fear really and everything to look forward to. Unfortunately, the exhibition itself does not dispel any fears at all, simply because it doesn't even address them. Neither does it show us what we "might look forward to", unless this is looking like a robot (yeah!) or perhaps having prosthetic devices that are indistinguishable from real limbs. And there is certainly nothing there that would suggest, let alone demonstrate, that "it is our very desire to improve ourselves that makes us human".

All in all, it seems to me that this exhibition does not do what a good exhibition should do, namely increase knowledge and stimulate reflection. It is, I'm afraid, ultimately just a piece of pro-enhancement propaganda.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Cormac McCarthy Buries a Wolf

I just finished Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy last night. It took me a while to get used to his style, which most of the time is unusually barren, all bones and no flesh. Things and actions are named in the most general way possible, rather than properly described. Short sentences, hardly any subclauses, lots of "ands", all verbs and nouns, mostly short ones (with Anglo-Saxon rather than Latin roots), very few adjectives, no adverbs, as if the world consisted only of things and actions and not also of colours and sounds and smells. The whole rich texture of the world is absent. Here's a typical sentence: "He took off his hat and passed his shirtsleeve across his forehead and waved her forward and put his hat back on and reined the horse off the road and through the sedge and turned so that he could watch her pass." The frequent dialogues are equally bland:

"What are you doing? he said.
Why don't you come back inside.
I'm all right.
They've offered us to spend the night.
Go ahead.
What do you aim to do?
I'm all right."

Those characters don't explain anything, they don't seem to think much, or feel much, at least we don't get to know their thoughts and feelings and motivations because they don't talk about them, and neither does the narrator. Yet every 100 pages or so we get a philosophical discussion between the main characters and people they chance upon on the road that reveals some deeper concerns. Discussions about fate and free choice, about living and dying, about purpose and chance. All the characters seem to be driven by events that they cannot control, but they somehow manage to hold on to their dignity by being strangely stubborn in their pursuit of certain goals that to the rest of the world make little sense and that usually don't do them any good. Violent death is always close, an integral part of life and no big surprise.

"What did you do?
You aint got a cigarette have you?
No. What did you do?
Didnt think you did.
What did you do?
Lord what wouldnt I give for a chew of tobacco.
What did you do?
I walked up behind him and snatched it out of his belt. That's what I done.
And shot him.
He come at me.
Come at you.
So you shot him.
What choice did I have?
What choice, said John Grady."

People make their choices, and they don't. They are agents, and their actions are also unavoidable. Their history makes them what they are, and what they are shapes their history. But the choices they do make are still important. Their very stubbornness in the pursuit of their aims allows them to hold on to their humanity and to give some meaning to a life that is to be lived in a world devoid of meaning. Thus Billy, the hero of the "The Crossing" starts out hunting wolves that kill cattle, and when he finally catches one in a trap, a pregnant she-wolf, he does not kill her, but tries to bring her to Mexico, intending to set her free once he gets there. Why exactly he does that, is not explained. We can only guess at his reasons. He finally gets to Mexico, but the wolf is taken away from him and, tied to a stake, made to fight against dogs that were bred to kill and to which she must sooner or later succumb. He tries to rescue her, but fails, and is driven away. Yet despite the danger to his life he gets his rifle and once again goes back to the place where the dog fights are being held. He walks in and shoots the wolf: "No one paid him any mind. He made his way through the crowd and when he reached the estacada the wolf was alone in the pit and she was a sorry thing to see. She'd returned to the stake and crouched by it but her head lay in the dirt and her tongue lolled in the dirt and her fur was matted with dirt and blood and the yellow eyes looked at nothing at all. She had been fighting for almost two hours and she had fought in casts of two the better part of all the dogs brought to the feria. (...) He stepped over the parapet and walked toward the wolf and levered a shell into the chamber of the rifle and halted ten feet from her and raised the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at the bloodied head and fired."

The wolf dies, and the crowd turns on him, but he manages to leave unharmed after giving his rifle to the man who was supposed to get the wolf's hide. He takes the wolf and rides with her to a place where he can bury her. And McCarthy's description of this burial is worth all the barren prose that the reader has to wade through to get to this point, suddenly bringing to the open the wonder and beauty that lies hidden beneath the bleakness and brutality of life: "He squatted over the wolf and touched her fur. He touched the cold and perfect teeth. The eye turned to the fire gave back no light and he closed it with his thumb and sat by her and put his hand upon her bloodied forehead and closed his own eyes that he could see her running in the mountains, running in the starlight where the grass was wet and the sun's coming as yet had not undone the rich matrix of creatures passed in the night before her. Deer and hare and dove and groundvole all richly empaneled on the air for her delight, all nations of the posssible world ordained by God of which she was one among and not separate from. Where she ran the cries of the coyotes clapped shut as if a door had closed upon them and all was fear and marvel. He took up her stiff head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh. What blood and bone are made of but can themselves not make on any altar nor by any wound of war. What we may well believe has power to cut and shape and hollow out the dark form of the world surely if wind can, if rain can. But which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it."

Friday, 10 August 2012

The Averted Gaze of the English

A short while ago an American journalist asked me what I thought of the "averted gaze" of the English. I was unaware that there was actually a name for this strange phenomenom, but, a foreigner in England myself, I had indeed noticed that there is a tendency among English people to not look you in the face when you meet them on the street even if they have met you lots of times before. People who must know you don't acknowledge your existence in any way. Instead of giving you a friendly nod, they look sideways and thereby treat you as if they had never seen you before. I've noticed that especially with the theologians with which I share a corridor at my university. Some of them I've known for almost ten years, and I see them at least once or twice a week, but when we pass each other on the corridor I in vain seek their gaze to greet them. They just pass me, unsmiling, unnnodding, looking sideways. It used to annoy me quite a lot because I thought it was very rude and somehow dismissive. But why do we (unless we are English) seek the gaze of the other in the first place? It seems to me that by doing so we acknowledge the existence of the other and at the same time experience our own existence as being acknowledged by them. It's like saying "I know you are there, and I am willing to be there for you." By averting one's gaze one avoids making this initial commitment. One refuses the first step of communication, perhaps in order not be drawn into something, such as a conversation, which would require time and effort. So the chance to talk to someone else, to reveal one's thoughts, feelings, and "soul" to them, is not seen as an opportunity, but a dangerous, risky enterprise, which had better be avoided. I recall that in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings there is a saying that is alluded to especially at the beginning, I can't remember the exact wording, but something to the effect that once you have crossed the boundaries of your village, there is no way to predict where you will end up. This is meant as a warning to young hobbits not to become too adventurous. Perhaps the hobbit can be seen as the paradigmatic Englishman (or -woman): don't look, or you may get involved. The safest thing is not to engage with the world in any way. Each man an island. My home is my castle. It's a defence mechanism. Or perhaps even more pragmatic than that: a strategy to avoid distractions: I'm busy, don't get in my way. Whatever it is, I still find it curious. (It goes without saying that, of course, not all English people are like that. But it's still something you would notice as a foreigner and that you would not find in any other country I know.) Can anyone shed any light on this?

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The Olympic Spirit. Eight Badminton Players Disqualified

Eight Badminton players have just been disqualified from the Olympics because they deliberately played badly. Having already secured a place in the knockout stage, they had no real incentive to win. Moreover, a win would mean that they would have to meet two players in the next stage against whom they were likely to lose. So strategically it must have seemed a clever move to do everything in their power to let their opponents win. Yet as we know, the plan didn’t quite work out. They were accused of not using their best efforts to win a match, of conducting themselves in a manner that was detrimental to the sport, and of “seriously violating the Olympic spirit”, and were, for these reasons, thrown out of the competition, and most people seem to find this entirely justified. But what exactly was their mistake?

It is true, they did not use their best efforts to win the match, but arguably they did what they had every reason to believe was the best strategy to win the competition. They were already qualified for the next stage, so it was quite reasonable to save their energy for those future matches that would really count. It was also reasonable to work towards meeting weaker opponents in those coming matches rather than stronger ones. So if the ultimate goal of an athlete’s efforts during the Olympics were winning a medal, they would have done nothing wrong. On the contrary, since they did their best to win the thing without breaking any obvious rules (so it is not really a case of cheating), their actions should have been applauded as a tactical masterstroke. The fact that their actions are nonetheless widely regarded as wrong, despicable even, shows that sport, or at any rate Olympic sport, is not really about winning at all. It is not what is most important about it (even though it may motivate many athletes).

But if it is not that, what is it? ‘Giving one’s best’ certainly has got something to do with it, but in the sense of actually deploying the skills that define that particular sport, of engaging, as best as one can, in the kind of activity that makes a sport what it is. And why is that so important? I think it is because that kind of engagement makes athletic competitions so enjoyable to watch and participate in. It is, perhaps more than anything else, a display of beauty: the beauty of the human body, of human movement, speed, and strength. That is where the joy comes from. And if there is such a thing as the Olympic spirit, then the celebration of that beauty and that joy is certainly an essential part of it.