Today, I’m interested in the relationship between world-making or world-managing (dare I say “world conquest”?) and transhumanism, especially in the decades prior to the emergence of contemporary transhumanism in the 1970s. Transhumanism is the term for a loose confederation of optimists who articulate a Utopian theory of technology as a vector of evolutionary changes in human sociology, psychology, and morphology. Today, I want to discuss the relationship between the world as such, an object whose awareness first arguably coalesces as a manipulable totality during the modernist period, and these transhumanist impulses. To do so, I discuss Markus Krajewski’s work on “world projects” (in his book of that title) before World War I, J.D. Bernal’s 1929 text The World, the Flesh, and the Devil which articulates the future as a vast transhuman world project, and Philip K. Dick’s early critique of transhumanist world making, The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch (1965). In connecting these texts, I question the standard narrative of transhuman history that sees it as an outgrowth of digital technology. Instead, I show that transhumanism responds to earlier, pre-digital information systems and specifically the vision of the world conjured by them.
Pre-Digital Information Systems
(slide) In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard de Chardin, the French Jesuit paleontologist who first used “transhuman” in its modern context, writes that transit technologies, such as the rail, the motor car, and air travel extend the scope of human cognition (Teilhard de Chardin 240). For Teilhard, this extension yields to the “noösphere,” the term for a collective supramental space of shared feeling and thought he developed in collaboration with the Russian geologist Vladimir Vernadsky and the French philosopher (and student of Henri Bergson) Edouard Le Roy, . Teilhard would label this shared, suprahuman mental realm as transhuman in his letters to Julian Huxley, the polymath who wrote the essay “Transhumanism,” that formally inaugurates the movement in 1957.
Transhumanism is often associated with this perspective, though through digital technologies such as the Internet. In this way, extropian thinkers, who articulate a futuristic vision in which we all upload digital representations of our brains to computer networks and live forever post-embodiment, are emblematic of a certain strain of transhuman thought. Here, Teilhard’s analog version of global consciousness adds a transhuman valence to the work done by Markus Krajewski’s World Projects: Global Information Before World War I, which traces the turn-of-the-twentieth-century origins of various world projects, projects that all prepend “world” to their title—Krajewski lists “Fleming’s unified ‘world time,’ the implementation of a ‘world auxiliary language,’ the spread and circulation of ‘world currency,’ the standardization of various national units of measurement into a ‘world format,’ and not least the conflation of the collective knowledge of humanity into a ‘world brain’”—(Krajewski x).
(slide) Krajewski situates these various projects in Teilhard’s milieu by suggesting that “the ‘world,’ with its advancement to the beginning of the project title, asserts a programmatic and overarching claim that ultimately characterizes an expansion of the scope or the broadening of a realm of possibility,” namely the world itself (Krajewski xi). Like Teilhard, Krajewski sees these world projects as “encouraged by innovative technologies … to open up the last corners of the world” (Krajewski xi). However, he intensifies this technological claim by asserting that not only do new media make possible the kind of world project he describes, first grasped, he argues, in Phineas Fogg’s famous 80-day journey, but that “media such as the railroad, telegraphy, steamboat travel, or mail … intertwine …, dovetail, must be synchronized or adapted to one another, so that at the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a proper multimedia system evolves” (Krajewski 2). This “international infrastructure” constitutes the world itself as a multimedia platform, prefiguring the rise of what Nick Srnicek will label “platform capital” in our own age of Facebook, Google, etc. Thus, these world projects, according to Krajewski, respond to the possibility of considering the world in totality as “vast minutiae” that can be sifted, sorted, and ordered to further facilitate the circulation of letters, goods, and people through this new network (Krajewski 31).
While Krajewski argues World War I is the end of the world project, this spirit of sifting the vast minutiae of the world and of optimizing global flows persists in transhumanism, especially in the early decades, when the idea of evolutionary futurism was still nascent. Specifically, I consider J.D. Bernal as a transhuman world projector.
Transhumanism Takes Control
Written in 1929, J.D. Bernal’s The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is an early articulation of a transhuman ethos. In that work, Bernal—a physicist and active Marxist—surveys the three limitations to the future evolutionary change of humans. In the third section, on the devil of doubt and desire, (slide) he writes, in a very transhuman vein, “the progress of the future depends no longer on physiological evolution but on the reaction of intelligence on a material universe” (Bernal 49). Like contemporary transhumanist Max More, who rejects “utopia” in favor of extropia (his term for “perpetual progress-a never-ending movement”), Bernal calls for a future of perpetual accelerating returns; not just change but one radical overcoming piling atop another (More 140). On this model of the future, (slide) Bernal decries our tendency to let “imagination stop in some static Utopia in despite of all evidence pointing to ever increasing acceleration of change” (Bernal 5).
This emphasis on continuous acceleration forms Bernal’s Utopian hope and the core of his method. In The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, Bernal traces three limits currently placed on human evolution: we are trapped on Earth, we are trapped in dying bodies, and we are trapped by our desires and our doubts. In three similarly structured chapters, he traces out how these conditions limit the human and, more importantly, how speculative extrapolation on contemporaneous science yields plans for the removal of these limits. However, he continually stresses that these plans themselves impose new limits and that Utopia is always the ongoing quest for a better world, one that must be continually renewed.
The first chapter, dealing with The World, is most closely related to Krajewski’s account of early 20th-century world projects. As is the rhetorical pattern in this book, Bernal begins by showing how increasingly advanced agriculture and logistics technologies will ultimately increase the sustainable population of the Earth; (slide) however, and this is key to Bernal’s method, he then shows how conquering this limit introduces it’s own limit: “All these developments would lead to a world incomparably more efficient and richer than the present, capable of supporting a much larger population, secure from want and having ample leisure, but still a world limited in space to the surface of the globe and in time to the caprices of geological epochs” (Bernal 14). Once a globally distributed food supply is available, the fact still remains: the planet is only so big and we are at the mercies of things like the inevitable death of the sun.
Bernal then discusses rocketry and space exploration. (slide) However, once again, space travel introduces another limit: as the population expands, they will need places to live. He suggests “when the technicalities of space navigation are fully understood there will […] come the idea of building a permanent home for men in space” (Bernal 17). From here, he begins to describe “a spherical shell ten miles or so in diameter, made of the lightest materials and mostly hollow,” suggesting that, rather than placing mineralogical burden on a future Earth, “the great bulk of the structure would be made out of the substance of one or more smaller asteroids, rings of Saturn or other planetary detritus” (Bernal 18). So, to clarify, Bernal is imagining building a vast network of hollow, habitable spheres made up of stellar junk.
The ultimate purpose of these Bernal spheres, as they came to be called, is two-fold: they solve the aforementioned over-population problem by devising a clever solution to the problem of finding space in space, but they also, as Bernal notes, solves the problem that currently, even with 100% efficient solar panels, Earth is essentially “wasting all but one two-billionths of the energy that the sun gives out” by not capturing solar energy not directed at our planet (Bernal 17). Bernal imagines this networks of spheres would come to surround and optimize solar energy output.
While many of the ideas depicted in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil were picked up by science fiction writers, these artificial structures was specifically expanded upon by Olaf Stapledon in his 1937 novel, Star Maker. (slide) There, imagining a future civilization united in the kind of telepathic hive mind Bernal imagines in “The Flesh” chapter, Stapledon describes “every solar system now surrounded by a gauze of light traps, which focused the escaping solar energy for intelligent use” (Stapledon 380) (Chapter X in Last and First Man)
(slide) In 1960, physicist Freeman Dyson, expanding on Stapledon and Bernal, would propose that “any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star” assuming a sufficiently advanced industry. For Dyson, these structures, which (over Dyson’s objection) came to be called “Dyson Spheres” (in the scientific and science fictional literature about them) would be composed of the sum total of all material in a particular solar system, such that the fate of a planetary civilization was to surround its sun with a solar energy absorbing sphere made from the broken-down material of its former planets.
The Dyson Sphere became as much a trope in transhuman science fiction as it did in transhumanist philosophy. Extropians often write about the destiny of man lying in the creation of these Dyson spheres. Raymond Kurzweil, in The Singularity is Near, extends this vision into the digital age by imagining the entire matter of the solar system converted into a giant solar powered computer, whose purpose is to simulate the minds of uploaded, immortal posthumans.
While Bernal’s spherical habitations are not of the same order as Krajewski’s other world projects, I find Bernal’s brand of accelerationism partaking of this ambition: it is a project that remaps and reorders the world, literally in this case, as a platform for human use. As Bernal suggests, these cosmic projects are necessary “because the transforming of the universe” provides “a real externalization” for the inner struggles being mapped in his time by psychoanalysis (Bernal 57). Bernal’s optimism and faith in reason and technology leads him to suggest the project of remaking the entire cosmos into a space for human habitation (and cheating heat death, which he discusses toward the end of the book) “drives man through the universe in understanding and hope” (Bernal 58).
Psychedelic Information Systems
This optimism is important to transhumanism; however it is in the realm of science fiction where we see the validity and sustainability of these ideas questioned and tested. Specifically, I turn to a Philip K. Dick novel from 1965 that critiques this impulse while simultaneously critiquing transhumanism at the moment of its formal organization as a modern ideology. In Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, the transhuman tendency toward world-making is associated with authoritarianism. Moreover, Dick’s account of an attempt to steal reality, which is the plot of Three Stigmata after all, highlights the specific problems when these two impulses collide: not only can technologies of simulation create new realities, they can do so in a way in which that creators of these new realities might become gods.
Writing in 1975, literary critic Peter Fitting suggests that the core novels of Dick’s mid-career (starting with The Man in the High Castle (1962) running roughly to Maze of Death (1970)) are “centered on the ‘reality problem’- on the efforts of a group of people to grasp an elusive, changing, sometimes hallucinatory and often hostile reality” (Fitting, “"Ubik"” 47). Dick’s novels during this period all feature at least one incident where characters are spectacularly knocked out of the reality they thought they inhabited and into another. In The Man in the High Castle, for instance, several characters living in a world where Nazi Germany won World War II learn they are actually living in an alternate history novel written by a hack pulp novelist (who may or may not be Philip K. Dick himself).
In Three Stigmata, two industrialists, Leo Bulero and Palmer Eldritch, sell competing illicit drugs to off-world colonists, who use these pills to escape the crushing dullness of their lives. At the novel’s opening, Bulero’s Can-D is the dominant means of escape. Its users purchase elaborate doll houses that they are collectively “translated” into while under the effects of the drug. These doll-house are modeled Barbie and Ken dolls; the users of Can-D jet ski and ride in a convertible from their mansion on a simulated, plastic California coast.
Then, Palmer Eldritch, maimed in a rocket accident and repaired using alien cybernetics, returns from a visit to the aliens of Proxima system. A newly sinister figure—about whom it is observed that “that’s not a man in that Palmer Eldritch skin”—begins to market a competing drug, Chew-Z, to the colonists (Dick 186). Promising a better escape from reality and at a cheaper price, Chew-Z begins to cannibalize Bulero’s business. However, as the novel reveals when Leo Bulero is dosed with Chew-Z, the new drug’s users are permanently trapped within an artificial world that appears to be of Eldritch’s creation. This new reality is possibly part of an alien invasion of our solar system, but more provocatively, Dick strongly hints that Eldritch’s simulation of reality is an attempt to capture people in a pocket universe in which Eldritch has replaced God.
In Krajewski, world projectors, his term for the archetypal leaders of such projects, “operate in an idiosyncratic intermediate stage of megalomaniacal design fantasy and sober reformation measures,” which seems like an adequate description of Eldritch in Dick’s novel (Krajewski xiii). Furthering the mania of world projects, Krajewski suggests the world projector was created by “an ensemble of progressive euphoria and technocratic optimism, the supposed possibility of total organizability coupled with the fantasmatic excesses of the media-technological a priori ‘world transit’” (Krajewski 199). While for Krajewski, World War I represents the conclusion of this moment, when the idea of a totally ordered world was violently interrupted by the spontaneous and projector-less world project of the war itself, as I’ve shown with Bernal, world projects of this sort continue within the Utopian, transhuman imaginary and, in the figure of Eldritch, they reach a certain kind of critical mass, especially regarding the “megalomanical design fantasy” side of Krajewski’s binary.
In Three Stigmata, the nature of reality itself breaks down in the moment of ingesting Chew-Z. As Fitting observes, the novel details a world in which “the liberatory potential of the media and of new technologies has been completely debased” (Fitting, “Reality as Ideological Construct” 227). Indeed, the world of Chew-Z seems to be a total and complete colonization of reality by consumerism, both the completion of the promise of the world project and its ultimate nightmare. When trapped in this simulated reality, Bulero begins to see manifestations of Palmer Eldritch everywhere: people on the street will appear to have Eldritch’s three characteristic wounds and will be able to speak to him as Eldritch. (slide) After Bulero has a conversation with one such avatar, Leo observes that this reality is “not an invasion of Earth by […] beings from another system […] It’s Palmer Eldritch who’s everywhere, growing and growing like a mad weed” (Dick 184). Thanks to the advanced simulation powers of global media, Eldritch’s world project becomes coterminous with Eldritch himself: the world projector as reality pilot.
Bulero goes on to speculate “Eldritch somehow controls each of the hallucinatory worlds induced by the drug … that the skunk is in all of them” and that “the fantasy world that Chew-Z induces […] are in Palmer Eldritch’s head” (Dick 185). The imagery that Dick uses to describe Eldritch from this point in the novel is one of consumption: Eldritch–be he alien or mutated human–wants to consume reality and store it up inside his head. (slide)At the end of the novel, Leo has realized that he is still trapped in Eldritch’s head, but he holds out the possibility of escape: he believes that there is something inside of him, an essence, that Eldritch cannot consume (Dick 229). Leo’s ultimate insistence on the holiness of the gnostic soul, a particularly well-documented obsession of Dick’s during this period, is a buttress against Eldritch’s influence but, at the same time, the novel ends with Bulero forgetting his own name and insisting “I’ll keep thinking … I won’t forget again” (Dick 230). Of course this is the final image of the novel, Dick never tells us if reality is restored; all we are left with is the fragments.
This notion of a reality shattered by media technology and a hasty, partial reassemble within the private will of a world projector marks Dick’s main critical intervention into this pattern of transhuman world projection I’ve been tracing here. Despite Krajewski’s assertion that the era of the World Project passed with the dawn of World War I, in works such as Bernal’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, we see that within the conceptual universe of transhumanism, the discourse of the world project continued unabated. The idea of an individual system-builder sorting out the vast minutiae of the world is a potent one, and becoming more urgent with the discovery of the greatest world project of them all: the Anthropocene. Recent works of critical theory—such as (slide) Benjamin Bratton’s The Stack, (slide) Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering, (slide) Laboria Cubonik’s “The Xenofeminist Manifesto,” (slide) or Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek’s Inventing the Future—call for a reengagement of the attitude of the world project, or at least argue that we are living in an accidental world project and need to manage it toward better ends. However, in the context of this re-emergence of a certain kind of world-making, Dick’s critique of the megalomania of the world projector is more and more pressing.
Bernal, J. D. The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. Verso Books, 2018.
Dick, Philip K. The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Vintage, 1991.
Fitting, Peter. “Reality as Ideological Construct: A Reading of Five Novels by Philip K. Dick.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 10, no. 2, 1983, pp. 219–36, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4239550.
---. “"Ubik": The Deconstruction of Bourgeois SF.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 2, no. 1, 1975, pp. 47–54, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4238910.
Krajewski, Markus. World Projects: Global Information Before World War I. Translated by Charles Marcrum II, Minnesota UP, 2015.
More, Max. “True Transhumanism: A Reply to Don Ihde.” H+/-: Transhumanism and Its Critics, edited by Gregory R. Hansell, Metanexus Institute, 2011, pp. 136–46.
Stapledon, Olaf. Last and First Men and Star Maker : Two Science Fiction Novels. Dover, 1968.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Phenomenon of Man. Harper, 1965.