BY JOANNA ZYLINSKA
Professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London
How do things emerge in the world?
What is the relationship between an organism and its environment?
In recent years both the humanities and the sciences have embraced a more process-based, relational way of thinking about these questions, with matter seen as stabilizing into organisms which always remain intertwined with their environment. If the process of organismic differentiation is continuous, the organism needs to be perceived not as an entity but as multiple processes of entanglement, a temporally unfolding set of relations that keep making and unmaking the topological boundaries. This brings us to a view of life as creative potential. Such a mode of thinking was already at work in Darwin’s theory of evolution but, in its later incarnations, such as Spencer’s theory of “natural selection,” it became translated into a linear force with a set of predesigned tasks to accomplish. Henri Bergson’s 1907 book, Creative Evolution, was an attempt to counter such a teleological and instrumentalist reading of evolution.
Bergson’s argument in Creative Evolution is premised on the critique of the human intellect. Rather than seeing it as a pinnacle of evolutionary development, he positions the intellect as a fossilised product of evolution that is structurally incapable “of presenting the true nature of life, the full meaning of the evolutionary movement in the course of its way,” and thus a regression as much as a progression. Bergson justifies his conclusion by explaining that the intellect deals only with “solids,” temporarily stabilized images and concepts of the world which we take for the latter’s true representations. He encourages us to resort to intuition, a mode of apprehending the world which bridges instinctual actions and reactions with our habits of thought in order to recapture what the intellect has banned us from experiencing. Reconnecting the intellect back to intuition can help us experience the vibrant vitality of matter, its ongoing dynamism and productivity. Bergson goes on to argue that “[t]he universe endures”, which means that by studying the nature of time we shall comprehend that “duration means invention, the creation of forms, the continual elaboration of the absolutely new.” It is in this sense that evolution for Bergson is creative rather than pre-planned and mechanistic. If evolution occurs across different scales and at different speeds – and if, on a human scale, we call it “culture” or “history,” while on the scale of the geological epochs we refer to it as “biology” – then the argument about the supposed purposefulness of its unfolding is not really sustainable, especially when we consider multiple evolutionary blind alleys and false starts.
The latter line of thinking is developed most powerfully by the Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who is best known to English readers as a science fiction writer but who also penned a number of philosophical commentaries on science, technology and evolution – the most accomplished of which is his 1964 treatise on futurology, technology, and science called Summa Technologiae. Serving as a perhaps unwitting counterpoint to the idealism that underpins the French philosopher’s Creative Evolution, with its notion of vital impetus (élan vital), Lem’s Summa offers a much more sober, even ironic view of evolution, one that is rooted in scepticism and in the scientific method. Lem’s investigation into the parallel processes involved in biological and technical evolution provides an important philosophical and empirical foundation for concepts that humanities scholars use somewhat loosely today, such as “life,” “entanglement,” and “relationality,” while also stripping these concepts of any vitalist hubris. For Lem, evolution “just happened,” we might say.
This way of thinking is no doubt a blow to anthropocentrism, which positions the human, and human consciousness, as the pinnacle of all creation. For Lem, not only did evolution not have any “plan” or “overarching idea” behind its actions, it also seems to have moved in a series of jumps which were full of mistakes, false starts, repetitions, and blind alleys. He argues that any attempt to delineate a straight genealogical line of man would be completely futile, given that attempts to descend to earth and walk on two feet had been made by living beings over and over again in the course of the evolutionary process. Lem also draws a distinction between biological evolution and the evolution of reason, rejecting the assumption that an increase in the latter automatically means improved design capacity. Predating Richard Dawkins’ idea of evolution as a blind watchmaker by over two decades, Lem’s view of evolution is not just non-romantic; it is also rather ironic – as manifested in the closing chapter of Summa, “A Lampoon of Evolution.” Evolution is described there as opportunistic, short-sighted, miserly, extravagant, chaotic, and illogical in its design solutions.
The product of evolution that is of most interest to us – i.e., the human himself – is seen by Lem as the last relic of nature, which is itself in the process of being transformed beyond recognition by the invasion of technology. There is no mourning of this impending change on the part of Lem though, no attempt to defend nature’s ways and preserve the essential organic unity of the human, since the latter is seen to be both transient and to some extent fictitious.
And yet, even though none of the entities in the universe are pre-planned or necessary, and even though the human functions as a fictitious point of unity in the non-purposeful unfolding of evolution, one that in time will no doubt will be overcome by other forms of matter’s stabilisation, its temporary presence in the duration of things arguably poses him or her with a unique responsibility.
Joanna Zylinska is translator of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem. She is professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, and author of Bioethics in the Age of New Media and The Ethics of Cultural Studies.
“At the end of the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote the Summa Theologiae, an ambitious compendium of all orthodox philosophical and theological knowledge about the world. Seven hundred years later, science fiction author Stanisław Lem writes his Summa Technologiae, an equally ambitious but unorthodox investigation into the perplexities and enigmas of humanity and its relationship to an equally enigmatic world in which it finds itself embedded. In this work Lem shows us science fiction as a method of inquiry, one that renders the future as tenuous as the past, with a wavering, ‘phantomatic’ present always at hand.”
—Eugene Thacker, author of After Life