In reaction to last week’s column, Bill Mishler of the University of Minnesota remarks that “Medical science has shown itself capable of modifying the biological givens of the situation… babies can be produced in a variety of ways that have little to do with the seeming givens of ‘biological rationality.'” This leads me to reflect on the question of what I would define as futurism: the notion that technological progress is an independent variable that can modify against our will the basic modalities of human interaction.
I have always found futurism suspicious because it implies not change, which is inevitable, but an ethical shock administered by technology, as though we might suddenly be thrust malgré nous into a “brave new world.” This is the subject-matter of science-fiction, which as the co-owner of a SF-Fantasy bookstore I suppose I should encourage. But it is based on the fallacy that technology can impose ethical imperatives on people not yet ready for them. Technological developments emerge, for good or for ill, within a social order of great complexity and inertia. Unlike new diseases, which spread “naturally,” a new technology can succeed only on the basis of human choice; if we don’t like it, it can’t come to dominate us in spite of ourselves.
More specifically, the futurist reproductive u/dystopia has not yet arrived. We can–or at least, could–travel to the moon; but the basic biological realities of human life and reproduction have not yet changed. Such practices as artificial insemination and even in-vitro fertilization, to which Bill is no doubt alluding, are still relatively minor modifications. But, he might answer, cloning, and the eventual possibility of the test-tube babies that have been spoken of for so long, would be far more radical changes. And who is to say what the future holds concerning the prolongation of life, brain-body transfers, etc. etc.? To this, I have two reactions, one on a pragmatic level, the other on that of fundamental anthropology.
My pragmatic reaction is one of measured skepticism for the foreseeable future. There is a strong moral reaction against practices like human cloning, which (unlike the proliferation of weapons, a far more disquieting problem) require an important technological infrastructure that cannot easily become the object of a basement industry. The possibilities of genetic manipulation will surely continue to be regulated. What is more, I am almost ready to claim that the current trend toward the dissolution of the nuclear family, which owes nothing to biotechnology, is in the process of being reversed. (Certainly among the young graduate students I know best, there are a lot more couples and babies and a lot less amour libre than even a decade ago.) Awareness of the generally deleterious consequences of single motherhood should lead to its partial restigmatization and decline, while “alternative families” like communes or homosexual couples will always remain marginal.
But the more fundamental point is that, in contrast with Bill’s concern that it may not be “a good idea for GA to base its thinking in this area on such a frangible basis,” a generative approach to the human has no difficulty with this or any other kind of historical evolution. To say that the biological function of reproduction is at the origin of the couple-establishing performative “I love you” is not to say that this performative cannot be extended to other couples, or to the as yet inconceivable pairing or grouping arrangements that might become dominant if, in some distant future, the production of offspring is entirely detached from female pregnancy. Originary thinking reminds us of the source of cultural phenomena; it does not reduce the latter to the former.
I am mindful of the fact that the first theoretical model of anything like romantic love in Western culture is the homosexual couple of Plato’s Symposium. The simplest Other to theorize is that which is a mirror of the Self; in Plato’s vision, the most important step is made when the lover stops caring for his beloved as an individual and begins to see in him a representative first of corporeal beauty, then of beauty in general (211b-c). This distinguishes Plato’s model of sublimation from that of Dante and the Renaissance neo-Platonists. Beatrice in heaven retains her individuality; in Du Bellay’s Sonnet de l’Idée, the “Idée” the poet expects to find in heaven is that of “la beauté qu’en ce monde j’adore,” [“the beauty that/whom in this world I adore”] that is, of his beloved as an individual instead of / as well as Beauty as such. Christianity, by providing a model for the sacralization of the beloved as a person, provides the context for the cultural valorization of “practical,” heterosexual love, the vulgar functionality of which is explicitly eschewed by Plato’s notion of love–which, as is sometimes forgotten, excludes sexual satisfaction of any kind.
How is the specificity of “practical” sexual difference realized in the cultural matrix of love? The love-tradition, with only minor exceptions, takes desire for the female body as its model for love of the central divinity. (It is no small matter that Sappho, the first great love-poet, perhaps the most powerful of all, albeit lacking in the spiritual dimension of the later tradition, begins from the same vantage-point, and indeed explicitly presents herself as a mimetic rival to her beloveds’ husbands.) Women have no doubt written lyrics to men (Pernette du Guillet to Maurice Scève, or Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her husband, not coincidentally both poets themselves), but like male strip-tease and Playgirl magazine, this proves only that humans are mimetic, not that their differences are reversible.
I’m “sociobiological” enough to be skeptical of futurist transformations of the very foundations of our interactive behavior. The future will surely bring unanticipated change, but I cannot believe that technological progress in itself will force us to accept any innovations that we have not given our ethical consciousness time to assimilate.