Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

fleshers and stoics

I’m going to be traveling for the next few days, by automobile, and will therefore be mostly away from the internet. I have queued up a few posts that will show up during that period, but I will probably be slow in approving comments.

Greg Egan’s novel Diaspora came out twenty years ago, and it anticipates in really interesting ways conversations that are going on right now. We have the uploading and downloading (and digital generation) of consciousness, explored in more detail than is usual in novels pursuing that theme, and in far more detail than Cory Doctorow gives in Walkaway. But Egan also provides some interesting, though not to my mind very satisfying, reflections on sexuality, gender, and embodiment.

In this far-future universe, we find a comparatively small number of fully, permanently embodied people. These “fleshers” have undergone profound genetic enhancement and modification — some of them, the “dream apes,” have even chosen to eliminate speech and certain high-level cerebral functioning in order to draw closer to Nature, or something like that — but despite their astonishing variety fleshers are perceived as a distinct group because of their permanent and stable embodiment. In this sense they differ from “gleisner robots,” who take on bodies of various kinds and live in the same time-frame as the fleshers, but are fundamentally digital intelligences. The third group are the “citizens,” who are generated digitally and exist in purely digital environments they call “scapes” — though citizens can take gleisner-robot form when they want. They don’t often want, though, and can be scathing in their contempt for embodied intelligences, whom some of them call “bacteria with spaceships.”

The citizens appear to one another as avatars, and typically these avatars have no determinate gender, so they refer to one another, and Egan refers to them, as “ve”, “vis”, and "ver.” (I was surprised in reading the book at how quickly I got used to this.) Some citizens, though, take on distinctively male or female form and assume the associated pronouns, though this appears to be one of the few things you can do in this world that generates widespread revulsion.

Here come the spoilers. Insofar as the story has a protagonist, that protagonist is a citizen called Yatima, and ve has a friend named Paolo (a gleisner/citizen) who decides to die. Yatima considers dying verself, but then says “I’m not ready to stop. Not yet.” However, ve is concerned for Paolo. “Are you afraid to die alone?”

“It won’t be death.” Paolo seemed calm now, perfectly resolved. “The Transmuters didn’t die; they played out every possibility within themselves. And I believe I’ve done the same, back in U-double-star … or maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere. But I’ve found what I came to find, here. There’s nothing more for me. That’s not death. It’s completion.”

“Maybe I’m still doing it, somewhere” refers to the possibility of clones of Paolo that are doing their own thing. Yatima thinks this really matetrs: “Paolo was right; other versions had lived for him, nothing had been lost.” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide whether this is a compelling point of view.

The most interesting thing here, though, I think, is Paolo’s assumption — which, for reasons just noted, among others, Yatima doesn’t question — that there are no longer any reasons to live once you have “played out every possibility.” That is, the value of life depends wholly on novelty. In a provocative digression in his book Early Auden, Edward Mendelson writes,

In romantic thought, repetition is the enemy of freedom, the greatest force of repression both in the mind and in the state. Outside romanticism, repetition has a very different import: it is the sustaining and renewing power of nature, the basis for all art and understanding…. Repetition lost its moral value only with the spread of the industrial machine and the swelling of the romantic chorus of praise for personal originality. Until two hundred years ago virtually no one associated repetition with boredom or constraint. Ennui is ancient; its link to repetition is not. The damned in Dante’s Hell never complain that their suffering is repetitive, only that it is eternal, which is not the same thing.

Many, many centuries from now, Paolo’s self-understanding is still governed by the valuation of repetition given us by the Industrial Revolution — or rather by Romanticism’s reading of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. If it really works out that way, if the love for repetition cannot be recovered and neophilia reigns forever, then the Industrial Revolution will ipso facto turn out to be the most consequential event in the history of humanity. And post-humanity.

I wouldn’t mind reading a science-fiction novel that assumes the opposite. (I don’t know of one.)

There is one more illuminating moment in the scene I have been describing:

Paolo took ancestral form, and immediately started trembling and perspiring. “Ah. Flesher instincts. Bad idea.” He changed back, then laughed with relief. “That’s better.”

Paolo’s mind isn’t afraid of dying — but his body is. A good thing, then, that, since he has purposed to die, his body is dispensable, is merely an “ancestral form” that can be donned and doffed at will. For if the mind craves novelty and can’t think of reasons to live when the possibilities for novelty have been exhausted, the body takes the opposite view: it craves repetition, delights in repetition, and shakes in fear when it’s about to be deprived of the simple pleasure of “bearing witness / To what each morning brings again to light.”

People will call Paolo’s mind’s viewpoint Gnostic, but that’s a word that is used far too loosely these days. Paolo doesn’t hate embodiment, or think embodiment a curse: it is because he values embodiment that at this crucial moment he wishes to “take ancestral form.” But he believes that the body’s verdicts are not wholly trustworthy, and that at times they need to be overridden by the intellectual powers he believes to be higher. This is not Gnosticism; it is Stoicism.

In C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, when the Fox, the Greek tutor of the book’s protagonist, falls out of favor with the King, he decides that his best remaining course is to take his own life:

Down by the river; you know the little plant with the purple spots on its stalk. It’s the roots of it I need.”

“The poison?”

“Why, yes. (Child, child, don’t cry so.) Have I not told you often that to depart from life of a man’s own will when there’s good reason is one of the things that are according to nature? We are to look on life as — ”

“They say that those who go that way lie wallowing in filth — down there in the land of the dead.”

“Hush, hush. Are you also still a barbarian? At death we are resolved into our elements. Shall I accept birth and cavil at — ”

“Oh, I know, I know. But, Grandfather, do you really in your heart believe nothing of what is said about the gods and Those Below? But you do, you do. You are trembling.”

“That’s my disgrace. The body is shaking. I needn’t let it shake the god within me. Have I not already carried this body too long if it makes such a fool of me at the end?"

That the Fox is a Stoic is clearly marked throughout the novel, not least by his repeated reference to what is or is not “according to nature.” What we see in Diaspora and Till We Have Faces alike is not Gnosticism — the idea that some evil demon has imprisoned us in bodies and delights in our imprisonment — but rather the characteristically Stoic attempt to reckon with the unquestionable truth of “nature” that bodies are vulnerable and bodies know that they are vulnerable.

The root of what I am calling our Anthropocene moment is the desperate hope that the very technological prowess that has put our natural world, and therefore the bodies of those who live in it, in such dreadful danger may also be turned, pivoted — as it were converted — to safeguard Life; that we may overcome by technical means the vulnerability of those bodies. It’s really the most sophisticated (and potentially insidious) version I know of Stockholm Syndrome.

Look for a rather different fictional perspective on these matters in tomorrow’s post.


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