I was browsing through my Robinson Jeffers anthology yesterday evening before bed, reading one of his last poems, “Granddaughter,” when I was struck by a certain turn of phrase, as often happens with his poetry:
When she is eighteen \ I’ll not be here. I hope she will find her natural elements, \ Laughter and violence; and in her quiet times \ The beauty of things - the beauty of transhuman things, \ Without which we are all lost.
It was that one line - the beauty of things - the beauty of transhuman things - that grabbed me. The term transhuman in these times suggests a notion of technologically enhanced human consciousness, quite different from what Jeffers had intended then. Transhumanism posits that consciousness will one day defy the mortal limits of our biology, ushering in the singularity, an event in which human consciousness essentially becomes data and merges with the artificial intelligence currently evolving out of our most advanced technologies.
Transhumanism as a term approaching the sense in which we understand it today, that is, as advanced by Ray Kurzweil and company, was first popularized in a 1957 essay by the biologist Julian Huxley, brother of Aldous and grandson of Thomas Henry Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog.” But Jeffers’ use of the term transhuman in one his last poems, probably written around the same time as Huxley’s essay, is diametrically opposed in most ways to our current understanding of that word.
Jeffers devoted most of his work to developing what one might call a poetics of the inhuman – An aesthetic theory and philosophy in which human history and human consciousness is not the sun around which everything else in nature revolves, but instead perhaps a distant moon, orbiting a planet defined by geologic timescales and natural forces beyond the grasp of any merely intellectual human understanding. These symbols of the inhuman are represented in his poetry by the ubiquitous granite that defines the Carmel coastline, as well as the house and tower he built by hand from granite and spent much of his life inhabiting; Or the sea itself, as it breaks down all things over time and represents the ur-womb from which terrestrial life emerged.
… Meanwhile the image of the pristine beauty \ Lives in the very grain of the granite, \ Safe as the endless ocean that climbs our cliff.– As for us: \ We must uncenter our minds from ourselves; \ We must unhumanize our views a little, and become confident \ As the rock and ocean that we were made from.
Thus concludes another of Jeffers’ later works “Carmel Point,” which had begun with the lament “This beautiful place defaced with a crop of suburban houses–”. Jeffers died in 1962, as America’s post-World War II expansion shifted into high gear. The years following the end of the war saw the rise of suburbia and the interstate system, the beginning in earnest of mass culture and the wholesale destruction of all things wild in the service of rampant consumerism and unfettered worldwide population growth.
Jeffers missed living through the Cuban Missile Crisis by almost a year, but as early as the 1930s he’d glimpsed the horrors of the world that has since come fully into view. In “The Purse Seine,” the poet has witnessed the spectacle of the sardine fishermen working the Pacific coast at night, sighting the phosphorescent clusters of fish and drawing in the net of the purse seine: “I cannot / tell you / How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, when the crowded fish / Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of their / closing destiny…”
As the poem turns, Jeffers is looking down from a mountain on a city at night and is reminded of the sardine fishing
…how could I help \ but recall the seine-net \ Gathering the luminous fish? I cannot tell you how beautiful the city \ appeared, and a little terrible. \ I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into \ interdependence; we have built the great cities; now \ There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of free survival, insulated \ From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent. \ The circle is closed, and the net \ Is being hauled in. They hardly feel the cords drawing, yet they shine \ already. The inevitable mass-disasters \ Will not come in our time nor in our children’s, but we and our children \
Must watch the net draw narrower, government take all powers –or \ revolution, and the new government \ Take more than all, add to kept bodies kept souls- or anarchy, the \ mass-disasters.
These things are Progress;
From the vantage point of 2017, it seems that Jeffers was remarkably prescient in his premonitions of the world awaiting his grand children’s generation. While we may not yet be truly living in the age of mass-disasters, they’re surely on the way. And though he could not have specifically anticipated climate change and its knock-on effects, thermonuclear warfare, genetic engineering, or the societal hazards of runaway computer and communications technologies, he surely understood the ramifications of population overshoot and the ensuing ecological collapse.
Perhaps more poignantly, he understood the dangers of the herd mentality, the hazards of a species enamored of its own image and multiplicity. In human terms, this amounts to the abandonment of our own wild nature and sense of place and belonging within nature for the aggregated culture of the anonymous cities and the soul crushing suburbs. This comes, of course, at the expense of our freedom, our independence, and our individual safety, in which we offer ourselves as “kept souls” on the altar of technology. Technology, that modern god born of human ingenuity, has only recently come to completely eclipse Gaia, the mother goddess from which we are all descended, in the pantheon of human wonder.
And so we find ourselves as a civilization at the outset of the Anthropocene, peering into our electronic oracles, if not with wonder, then with a hope tinged with desperation that technology will intervene in our favor to save us from ourselves, from the mass-disasters looming on the horizon. And the more fanatically deluded among us believe that technology will grant our souls - which we’ve already bartered away for the easy comforts of domesticity and the lure of progress - with everlasting life as data in some electronically emergent consciousness.
The transhumanist agenda is the ultimate expression of a civilization beholden to a god of its own creation. If we can’t fix the problems that technology has created with technological solutions, for example geo-engineering to mitigate the consequences of climate change, then we’ll use our technology to find and inhabit other worlds. Or failing that, we’ll literally merge with our technologies once and for all and surrender our humanity, our biology, and our mortality to the technosphere, where our consciousness, if you can call it that, will live on forever in some virtualized simulacrum of the world we traded away for it.
The biosphere, on the other hand, ailing as it is, represents an emergent consciousness that we are already embedded in, even as we actively or tacitly work to destroy it. James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis through Gaia theory have provided evidence that our seemingly inert geologic and atmospheric systems have co-evolved with the biological systems they sustain, seeking equilibrium through self-regulating feedback loops of greatcomplexity. These systems are composed not just of the biota that inhabit our planet, but of the seas and the rocks and the skies, those transhuman things as Jeffers perceived them, that through their interactions with each other on geological timescales exhibit a kind of emergent intelligence.
My recent reading of Dmitry Orlov’s Shrinking the Technosphere has brought into sharp focus the antipathy of the technosphere towards the biosphere. It has become increasingly apparent to me as it has to others like Orlov that technology has a teleology of its own, that it has its own agenda and is using humanity in much the same sense as Richard Dawkins conception of the gene: That is, that human lives and bodies represent nothing more than survival machines for the gene.
Technology is the ultimate meme, a term that Dawkins invented, in his discussion from The Selfish Gene to describe the concept of ideological self-reproduction. But the technosphere, as Orlov says in so many words, is bent on destroying all life, starting with that which can’t escape its net of quantification.
It is urgent now that we choose sides as partisans in this conflict between the technosphere and the biosphere. My loyalty is to Gaia and the beauty of truly transhuman things.
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