December 8, 2009KR BlogKR

The Posthuman Always Rings Twice

So I’m drunk this week on nostalgia for the futures of the past. Plus, I finished Don DeLillo’s Underworld, a Great American Novel, whose ending I want to write about, while going to great lengths not to specifically blow. (You’re welcome.)

DeLillo begins his novel (published in 1997) with a home run, 1951’s Shot Heard Round the World, then sings the Cold War era to life. As in White Noise and Libra, DeLillo’s conceit is that post-war American consciousness became something fundamentally unique in history.

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It makes sense that– after America survived mass culture, paranoia, technological acceleration, and high-yield weaponry– the near-near-future envisioned in Underworld‘s coda combines all four. This unique American consciousness gets chased to its logical conclusion: a world of mass destruction, capital, God, and cyberspace. We readers encounter a ghost’s (not saying whose) digital dream of a nuclear test.

All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password–world without end, amen… When you decide on a whim to visit the H-bomb home page, she begins to understand. Everything in your computer, the plastic, silicon and mylar, every logical operation and processing function, the memory, the hardware, the software, the ones and zeroes, the triads inside the pixels that form the on-screen image–it all culminates here.

Underworld is staggeringly beautiful, all-encompassing, and spiritually rich. Its vision of the future also feels fundamentally dated. Like the 30s’ food pills and finned jetpacks, or the 60s’ solar sails and coral-helix sky spires, the 90s’ images of the spiritual and post-human possibilities of technology feels quaint now.

After the Cold War, the philosopher Francis Fukuyama posited the end of history in liberal democracy, and the Wired crowd’s farthest thinkers, the transhumanists, pushed to “radically alter” humanity– spiritually, digitally, genetically, nanotechnologically. Earthly difficulties made such posited transformations desirable; the internet made it inevitable.

I’m not too young to remember that superhuman chill. The notion of the Web as a post-state information utopia, repeated in manifestos and implied in DeLillo, seemed to reflect the same transhuman talk, the same millennial vision. Remember when most ads for the internet sighed over “endless possibility,” and looked like Windows XP’s wallpaper?

What changed? Was it the internet’s emergent workaday utility (the iPhone sure makes your old job more efficient) and power to socially isolate? September 11’s horrifying shock? Our widening class divisions and economic unstitching? The rise of China and the fear of terrorism looming over the self-described “unipolar” power of the US and the European Union? Setback dampens ecstasy. Practicality dampens ecstasy even more. The field of dreams is clouded and gridded, and the Singularity hasn’t come.

Do Great American Novels (I mean besides Moby-Dick) always wind up spiritually dated by their eras? Would DeLillo have written the same way last year, on Facebook and reading about the mortgage crisis? Who could have foreseen X is an old outcry, with limitless variables. I also wonder what the novel will be to document what’s unique about America now, and to persuade us (briefly) that it’s our current era which gives the blueprint for the future. We never can be too sure.

On the other hand, we now have a machine that can copy itself.