The Necromantic Urge: Some Thoughts Following The Zoltan Istvan/John Zerzan Debate

An Eruption by Bellamy Fitzpatrick

This essay was originally written in the week following the debate at Stanford, a recording of which can be found here. A shorter, differently edited version of this essay will appear under a different title in the Spring 2015 issue of Fifth Estate. This version has been displayed here with their permission.

“Come and hear the views of two thinkers who […] arguably have defined, the two polar opposite views on the effects of technology […]” (1)

Grimacing at the clash-of-the-titans-esque rhetoric that epitomized the debaters, I nonetheless made my way eagerly to Stanford on November 15th to watch Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan debate Anarcho-Primitivist John Zerzan.

As someone “in the very back […] who some suggested were black bloc participants” (2), I should reveal to readers that Zerzan’s Elements of Refusal had a tremendous influence on me and remains one of my most recommended books. That being said, Zerzan and I have areas of disagreement, and I do not consider myself a blind loyalist.

Zoltan contrasted a Hobbesian portrait of primitive life as dirty, unpleasant, sickly, and ignorant with a positive case evoking a kind of Randian humanism (3). The individual manifesting their power through applied rationalism and technology seemed a self-evident virtue to Istvan, who exemplified it with “shoot[ing] our Tweets off to our friends” (4), the “8,000 planes in the sky”, and the conquest of Nature (5), with which we are “in complete conflict”.

Zerzan encapsulated his case by labeling Transhumanism “an unhealthy fantasy”. He continued with the Anarcho-Primitivist mainstay that it is “indisputable” in modern anthropology that peoples living in gatherer-hunter band society were and are prevailingly pacific, egalitarian, robust, and non-patriarchal. John lamented the death of community via mass society and emphasized the inability of mainstream culture to offer any real explanation or comment about mass shootings or the Japanese hikikomori phenomenon (6), arguing its inability lay in the fact that to do so would betray the alienation engendered by this culture.

Unfortunately, the structure of the debate entailed obvious restrictions in the breadth and depth of dialogue. The competitors had only a constructive speech, a rebuttal, and a conclusion, with neither the opportunity to cross-examine one another nor to give a midway summary speech (7). As an attendee remarked to me in the immediate aftermath, “I was hoping for more of a bloodbath!”

At times the competitors were, as John acknowledged, “shooting past each other”. Though both referenced Nature numerous times, for instance, exactly what was meant by that bleached term and what that definition’s implications were vis-a-vis a human/nature dichotomy or human/non-human relationships were left mostly unspoken. When Zerzan articulated the possibility that Technopositivism is replacing political ideologies as the abstract authority, the point was left unaddressed and lost in the debate except for some loosely related statements by Istvan later about the importance of democratic controls on the development of artificial intelligence (8).

Still, points of conflict were present. Subjectivity was featured prominently in both speakers’ initial constructive speeches; Zoltan argued initially that technopositivism was “better for our happiness [and] spirit”. Later, though, he ceded that Anarcho-Primitivists had a better case when it came to happiness and community; though he then denied the importance of happiness, reducing it to “just a bunch of neurons firing” and insisting it, along with mass shootings, “will be overcome” by future technology.

Istvan’s statements pithily express the archetypal perspective of consciousness held by most, though not all, adherents of the related tendencies of Transhumanism, artificial intelligence, and Singularitarianism. It is a computational and materialistic view of the mind, one that underlies an interesting paradox.

On the one hand, you have the transhumanist downplay if not outright denial of subjectivity: the argument that consciousness, or subjective phenomenological experience, is not at all mysterious, but instead explicable entirely in material terms. Where its existence is acknowledged, its importance is dismissed (9). At its zenith, one ends up in the borderline Behaviorist perspectives of the likes of philosopher of science Daniel Dennett, saying “Consciousness is a bunch of tricks in the brain.” (10); unintentionally completing his statement is artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky: “When you know how the magic trick works, then the sense of wonder goes away.” (11) Such voracious reductionism denies the very existence of the qualitative, in spite of serious arguments to the contrary among their peers (12); with the death of the qualitative (13) comes the hegemony of the quantitative with its attendant mutilation of subjective life.

When life is entirely measurable and divisible, it becomes impossible not to conceptualize it as an ever-diminishing stack of uniform moments – yawning death steadily devours our stack. And there we find the second half of the Transhumanist paradox: the allergy to death. In his Laws of Transhumanism (14), Istvan expresses brazenly that one’s first priority ought to be the avoidance of death, which he has called the “most important goal” of Transhumanism (15). This drive manifests itself in such absurdities as his proposed “Jethro Knights tax” (16); even more extreme is his supposition that we might all achieve immortality by uploading our minds to become virtual avatars (17), which, in light of persuasive arguments that consciousness is not reducible to computation (18), seems a death urge. Somehow, we must both deny that life is truly lived and felt even as we consider its unlived permanence of the utmost importance.

It is difficult not to make psychological inferences when confronted with such feverishness – is Transhumanism a fantastic case study in Terror Management Theory (19)? As life becomes more drained and mediated, and as the threat of death abounds in a toxic and violent culture, many are clinging more and more fiercely to ideology. Indeed, Zoltan acknowledges that his interest in Transhumanism accelerated when he had a near-death experience of stepping on a landmine; he has also stated that, were he able, he would monitor his daughters with drones and implants in order to protect them from death and injury (20).

With such considerations, Transhumanism seems the ideology of Progress’s ultimate realization. The qualitative implications of Progress are manifold: the inadequacy of the human being as such, the loss of immediate presence, and the Productionist ethos that demands sacrifice now for future gain. Whereas Classical Greece demanded the enslavement of some so that others might engage in contemplative life for intellectual progress and the modern society condones ecocide for the sake of raising the Commodity’s standard, Transhumanism would throw the whole world on the pyre (21), in the ultimate abstracted Progress that seems to envision an absolution for the human race in the form of the resurrection of a quasi-deific entity: a greater-than-human intelligence that they envision ushering in a new era, the Singularity.

An incredible, and thoroughly sad and pathetic, ideology has taken hold largely due to the fear of death, an especially tragic event considering that the key to true immortality was articulated at least one hundred years ago by Ludwig Wittgenstein:

“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.” (22)

 

Endnotes:

1. “Zoltan vs. Zerzan”, The Stanford Transhumanist Association, November 4, 2014. http://events.stanford.edu/events/470/47033/

2. “A Stanford University Debate: Transhumanism vs. Anarcho-Primitivism”, Zoltan Istvan, The Huffington Post, 11/20/2014. In contrast to Istvan’s perception of a “tense” environment, I saw only the prejudicial one that one might expect from such a polarized audience. During the debate, one individual laughed audibly and made one heckling comment at Istvan, prompting Zoltan to exclaim “I’m going to throw you out” – an interesting declaration of physical activity given his claim that “transhumanists were worried about safety issues because no university security was present”. Zoltan’s fear of anarchists is palpable as he mentions in an article preceding the debate that he was considering wearing a bulletproof vest (“Why I’m Debating an Anarcho-Primitivist Philosopher About the Future”, Zoltan Istvan, Motherboard, 11/14/2014.). It seems the circle-A remains a bit of iconography sufficiently frightening to distort reality and truth for some. After the debate, a number of transhumanists and anarchists remained for some time, until the auditorium closed, to earnestly discuss the issues brought up and those left unresolved. While pessimism about anti-civilization anarchists and transhumanists reaching much agreement is difficult to resist, it seemed they could at least agree that the status quo is very much undesirable and in need of massive change.

3. Istvan’s novel The Transhumanist Wager has been compared to Rand’s work by both critics and praisers – Istvan has acknowledged this himself, seemingly welcomely.

4. This quote and all future unreferenced quotes are verbatim statements from Istvan and Zerzan from the debate itself.

5. I use capital-N Nature here intentionally to refer to the reification whose existence I do not endorse, but which both debaters appeared at times to be referring to: Nature as some imagined whole that is all things on Earth that are neither human beings nor human artifice.

6. Hikikomori translates loosely as “shut-in” – it is a widespread psychosocial phenomenon in Japan in which adolescents and, more recently, older adults isolate themselves in their rooms and avoid social contact for at least six months. Some have maintained such behavior for decades.

7. The National Forensics League constructs debates of this nature very differently. In Public Forum, for instance, each side has a four-minute constructive speech, a four-minute rebuttal speech, a three-minute summary speech, and a two-minute final focus speech; between each of these speeches is a cross-examination. This format allows for far less evasiveness of points and talking past one another, as speakers can directly put one another on the spot during cross-examinations. Yes, I was a debate nerd in high school.

8. In spite of stating a commitment to democracy and government regulation in this debate, Zoltan has elsewhere stated that technology and democracy are antithetical to one another “Zoltan Istvan – The Transhumanist Wager”, Red Ice Radio, May 21, 2014.

9. Zoltan writes, “Such a computational-run world may at first seem alien, shallow, and devoid of compassion, but the nature of our digital selves will not know that.” “Should Transhumanists Have Children?”, Zoltan Istvan, The Huffington Post, 02/28/2014.

10. “Daniel Dennett Explains Consciousness and Free Will”, Daniel Dennett, Big Think.

11. “Marvin Minsky on Consciousness”, Marvin Minsky, Closer to Truth

12. David Chalmers, Ned Block, and John Searle, for instance, have all made numerous arguments against reductions and denials of consciousness as well as been skeptical of a computational/functional theory of mind that could result in true, or “strong”, artificial intelligence.

13. Accompanying this death of the subject is a curious forfeiture of personal agency. Singulatarians and transhumanists, Istvan being no exception, are commonly quite brazen in their statements that the singularity is incontrovertible in spite of the fact that it can obviously only come about through collective human activity. Some express this with a salivating eagerness, awaiting the realization; others, oddly, express mild to severe reservations about the possibility of catastrophe or genocide, but nonetheless maintain that it is unstoppable. Humanity, it would seem, is a mere passive pawn in the progress of the machine.

14. “The idea is built into my Three Laws of Transhumanism, which form the essence of the book’s philosophy, Teleological Egocentric Functionalism (TEF). Here are the three laws: 1) A transhumanist must safeguard one’s own existence above all else.2) A transhumanist must strive to achieve omnipotence as expediently as possible–so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First Law. 3) A transhumanist must safeguard value in the universe–so long as one’s actions do not conflict with the First and Second Laws.” “The Three Laws of Transhumanism and Artificial Intelligence”, Zoltan Istvan, Psychology Today, 09/29/2014.

15. “Should Transhumanists Have Children?” Even figurative immortality is preferable to death: “Having a child is also one way to achieve a sort of immortality; if I was to die, at least my genes (and hopefully some of my ideas) would be carried on. As a transhumanist, I don’t consider that an acceptable form of immortality, but I find some consolation in it, anyway.”

16. “Don’t Want to Die? Support a 1 Percent Jethro Knights Life Extension Tax”, Zoltan Istvan, The Huffington Post, 04/08/2014.

17. “Should Transhumanists Have Children?”

18. See John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment for one such argument.

19. “The terror referred to in terror management theory (TMT) is that which is brought on by the awareness of the inevitable death of the self. According to TMT, the anxiety caused by mortality is a major motivator behind many human behaviors and cognitions, including self-esteem, ethno/religio-centrism, and even love.” Psychology Today.

20. “Zoltan Istvan – The Transhumanist Wager”, Red Ice Radio, May 21, 2014.

21. In spite of his involvement in liberal environmentalism and wildlife photography, Istvan has stated quite clearly that he considers ecocide a necessary evil for the sake of Transhumanism. “Some Futurists Aren’t Worried About Global Warming or Overpopulation”, Zoltan Istvan, The Huffington Post, 02/18/2014.

22. Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.

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