I have just bought a copy of Slavoj Zizek’s book Disparities, a philosophical tour-de-force that would be considered anyone’s magnum opus were it not Zizek’s 50th or so book. Here Zizek outlines his concept of disparity and comments upon (and differentiates himself from) other philosophical opinions, or in Zizekian terms, recognizes the fundamental disparities between his vision, grounded in dialectical thought and the Hegelian tradition, and the positions of other philosophers. Here he sets up a fundamental opposition, one which runs through the book, between his view and the ontological position of Gilles Deleuze, namely opposing his views on rhizomes and the univocity of being (while still giving credit where credit is due). However that theoretical disagreement is not the aim of my article: my aim is to elaborate on my thoughts inspired by the first chapter of Disparities, called “From human to posthuman…and back to inhuman: the persistence of ontological difference”. In this chapter Zizek addresses and categorizes multiple types of “posthumanisms”, from transhumanism to structuralist anti-humanism. Interestingly, he also categorizes the “Gaia hypothesis” deep ecology view as another anti-humanism, in which humans are seen as a virus on the planet which in its hubris, destroyed the environment. Zizek sees transhumanism (which, briefly, is the theory popularized by Ray Kurzweil in which man will gradually merge with the technological machine and transcend the meek and mortal human) as a kind of reemergence of Soviet biocosmism, an ideology popular in the USSR in which the human being would be gradually overcome in the new Communist utopia.
Before I go on, it is interesting how both of these ideologies (and they are properly ideologies, because they rely on a fantastical element) are dependent on a utopian view of society, as either being saved by technology, or saved by Nature. Therefore, it is natural to oppose these utopian views of society, which have as their forbears the scientific rationalism of the Enlightenment and Rousseauian concepts of human nature, with the properly Marxist or dialectical answer: that technology is simply a tool utilized by humans in a particular historical and economico-productive context. However, we must go further than Marx here. Technology is neither the alienating object which separates man from his true nature, as in the early Marx, or the means by which to propel man into the Communist utopia, as in the Communist Manifesto of middle period Marx. It is rather, that technology is just one of the means of production, or the means of reproducing society, and is as such neutral, a product and reflection of the social organization. Thus, the material base of society itself must be transformed along with the social organization of society if society is to be truly revolutionized. And, a proper Marxist would recognize that the material base of society does not propel society along as its single causal determinant, and that ideology is also a fundamental determinant, with superstructure and infrastructure intertwined and mutually dependent. Therefore, technology should neither be demonized nor fetishized, because demonization is another form of fetishization which misses the fact that all material goods are the product of labor, human labor to be precise.
However, from the Grundrisse, we can say that Marx toyed with the idea of technology itself doing the dominating. But this is only by design of the capitalist- yes, the machines handled by the factory workers are inherently dangerous, but we should not seek salvation in automation, thereby rendering human labor useless. Rather, we should seek to balance automation with a humane labor policy, enforced strictly by the revolutionary state. It is in this way that fetishizing nature, and lifestylist primitivism, can only do a disservice not only to the cause of Labor, which must by necessity deal with technology for its livelihood, but also the cause of indigenous and tribal people, who do not have to by choice.
However, if forced to pick one of these two poles of the false dichotomy, primitivism and technological transhumanism, I would much prefer primitivism, because at least that goes against the grain of technological capitalism and its commodity fetishism. Zizek has revealed how there are also new forms of ecological fetishism, but it is true that industrialization itself, as Marx recognized, produces new horrors, reductions in standards of living that not only class society entails. The factory itself oppresses not just because of machines which wear down the body, but also the polluted air, the lack of available farm labor, the appropriation of the land by business. Land reform may work in an already agricultural society, but in a society driven by technology, is it possible, or even good policy, to enact a redistribution of land, to agriculturalize an essentially industrial and post-industrial workforce? No, I don’t believe this will work culturally as well as bureaucratically. However, we do need to take the ecological crisis seriously, and seriously think about reorganizing our food production system so that not only the health of the consumer is emphasized, but the health of the producer and the health of the environment is as well (and throw on top of that the health of livestock, to please the animal rights activists and vegans).
To add another sufficiently Zizekian or Hegelian dialectical reversal (one I’m sure Zizek has already said)- transhumanism is not sufficiently anti-human enough, not only because it does not recognize the fundamental antagonisms within the human itself (the inhuman in the human, as Zizek says), but it also posits technology as an inherently moral good. To this we can ascribe this law of human historical development: technological progress does not equate to moral progress, and neither does moral progress equate to technological regress. This is because there are too many other complicating factors. However, as an anthropologist, I will make one more caveat: primitive tribal societies did just fine without modern technology, but that was not the only source of their relative abundance and happiness. It was also the egalitarian nature of their societies, societies which were almost eliminated by the development of class-society and the State, which emerged at the same time. Paradoxically, however, this does not mean we should eschew the state or technology, because neither are fundamentally sources of oppression, only with their coupling and emergence from stratified society. Thus, we should reimagine the State, transform it, just as we should reimagine and transform technology to suit human necessity, and not just the necessity of the elite.