The Politics of Perfection: Technology and Creation in Literature and Film. Kimberly Hurd Hale. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016.
It is a nearly universally acknowledged fact that technology carries the potential for both great benefits and great dangers to human beings. Few question the assumption that science and technology, in themselves, are mere tools in the hands of human beings capable of turning them to good or ill.
But are these assumptions correct? Does science itself have a moral character? Does humanity have a nature, and is that nature malleable? Is life sacred, either to god or to nature? At the beginning of courses on political philosophy, I often ask my students these questions: What is a human being? What is a person? Are these terms synonymous? Why does it matter?
Understanding what it means to be a human being is the fundamental task of political philosophy. One cannot build a city without accounting for how people will actually live in its borders. Political thinkers must grasp human nature if they are to understand human behavior. We cannot hope to understand the ends of political life, or what regime will best allow us to reach these ends without first knowing and understanding humanity.
My students typically offer a variety of definitions, based in biology, rationality, or emotion, eventually rejecting each in turn. The most obvious definition is biological: a human being is a creature classified as Homo sapiens due to physical characteristics determined by DNA. While this definition is technically correct, it is unsatisfactory. Human beings possess an animal nature, but people are able to overcome the bounds of nature. We somewhat successfully mitigate the natural dangers of disease, extreme weather, and violence. We overcome the animal instinct to use violence to acquire the things we desire. We are able to suffer in the short-term in order to gain long-term benefits. Unlike other animals, we are not simply subject to our biology. We are more complex; this definition begs the question of whether human being and person are synonymous terms. We do this through the use of reason. This prompts many to argue that the essence of the human is reason.
This argument asserts that reason defines a person because our reason allows us overcome nature. But this definition is also insufficient. What of human beings who lose the ability to reason through injury or illness? Are they no longer people? What of newborn babies who lack all but the most rudimentary understanding of the world around them? Lack of cognitive capacity does not eradicate one’s human biology, but it does compromise one’s autonomy. A human who lacks reason is practically dependent on others for survival, and can be made legally dependent on a guardian, via a non compos mentis ruling, effectively undermining the subject’s ability to exercise free will. Morally, the answer must be that these types of humans remain human. Human beings are privileged above other life forms. Stripping individuals of their status as human would also strip them of the natural rights that form modern society’s basic notion of ethical treatments of others. It would be inhuman to declare them . . . un-people?
This consideration leads to the third frequently invoked definition of personhood: the ability to feel complex emotions, notably empathy or love. We, as a society and as individuals, do not abandon other human beings to the harshness of life, because we feel an emotional attachment to our fellows. Though biology may link individuals into a species, and reason may differentiate individual humans from the animal world, emotion is what causes persons to regard humanity itself as special. In general, love and empathy prevent people from casually ignoring the suffering of creatures recognizable as fellow humans. Of course, history (and the news) is riddled with examples that belie this definition. Human beings are eminently capable of cruelty towards others they perceive as vulnerable.
Human beings suffer at the hands of one another, just as they suffer at the hands of nature. Even when pangs of empathy are felt, many people fail to translate that emotion into action that will alleviate suffering. If complex emotion is to define humanity, then almost all human beings will fall short of the standard of personhood at some point in their lives.
The fourth definition of a person offered by my students echoes Justice Stewart’s proclamation that he would know pornography when he saw it. Simply put, a person is someone another person recognizes as human. This definition of personhood rests on the common sense agreement between members of a political society that human beings are people, and people are afforded natural rights and civil rights. Periodically, the definition of full personhood has been expanded to include racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and others who differ from the society’s existing dominant paradigm. Technological advancements in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence will soon present a new challenge to the definition of personhood, one that distinctly separates “person” from human being.
Our understanding of personhood is complicated by technological forays into the building blocks of human life, particularly those that target human biology and the human mind. Hannah Arendt eloquently expresses what is at stake in this line of inquiry. She writes:
[W]e are able to destroy all organic life on earth and shall probably be able one day to destroy even the earth itself. However, no less awesome and no less difficult to come to terms with is the corresponding new creative power . . . and we hope that in a not very distant future we shall be able to perform what times before us regarded as the greatest, the deepest, and holiest secret of nature, to create or re-create the miracle of life. I use the world “create” deliberately, to indicate that we are actually doing what all ages before ours thought to be the exclusive prerogative of divine action.1
The field of artificial intelligence has already produced machines with greater rational capacity than the human brain. The field promises to unlock the secrets of emotion in the near future. If that occurs, understanding the unique combination of rationality and emotional intelligence that defines “reason” may not be far behind. Once this Rubicon is reached, myriad vital, difficult questions arise. If a machine can be said to possess reason, is that machine in effect a “person”?
After all, the ability to reason is the source of much anxiety and mental anguish. If a machine can suffer, do people have the duty to prevent that suffering to the best of their abilities? What is the true origin of natural rights? If natural rights are exclusively human, i.e., if they were gifted to humanity from a deity, then human beings are correct to deny other reasonable creatures the protection of those rights. If instead natural rights are a philosophical construct to explain the way human beings actually act, in order to better order political society, then any creature with reason can claim those rights. If the political society refuses to recognize the natural rights claim of these persons, that society definitively gives civil rights preeminence over natural rights, upending five centuries of liberal tradition.
Proponents of classical liberalism maintain that inviolate, or inalienable, natural rights are essential to the preservation on individual liberty. Civil rights can confer great benefits on the citizens of a society. Civil rights can give citizens the ability to select officeholders, the comfort of knowing that they will be treated equally before the law, and the opportunity to advocate for their preferred vision of the future. Civil rights are, by definition, flexible. They are meant to provide a means by which citizens can express and enforce their vision of what their society should be.
However, civil rights are not inviolable. They can change, if a controlling faction of citizens believes it to be beneficial. Natural rights, on the other hand, are rooted in the concept of individual rights and individual agency. Even if a person chooses to give up a portion of his or her natural rights, in favor of the protection offered by society and civil rights, that person’s natural rights do not cease to exist. The individual always retains the option of opposing the actions of government, violently if need be, if the individual perceives that his or her natural rights have been dangerously compromised. Liberal societies retain this sense of individualism, resisting calls from socialists, communitarians, and progressives to conceive of citizens as a “public,” rather than a collection of individuals. Liberal thinkers argue that this is the only feasible method of protecting against tyrannies of the majority; each member of a minority faction is free to assert their rights to life and liberty.
Genetic engineering offers different, but related, challenges to the definition of “person.” Whereas artificial intelligence begins with a machine that may become a person, genetic engineering begins with a person who may cease to be a human being. The future of genetic engineering offers a world where genetic disease is eradicated in utero, parents can select the physical characteristics of their offspring, and the boundaries of human capability are annihilated. The mysteries of human genetics are untold; it is nearly impossible to conceive of the modifications that may become possible, or even standard. If genetic engineering of human beings is embraced, it is inevitable that the species will evolve beyond Homo sapiens.
No evolution is simple or orderly, however. Members of a species do not adapt or evolve in unison. There will be a period when political societies will contain both human beings and whatever comes after the human being. This technology promises utopia, but may actually result in dystopia. It is Leo Strauss’ contention that the political emancipation of the individual, the foundation of classical liberalism, is based on the philosophic liberation of the human from natural teleology and from all ways of thinking that measures the human by some superhuman standard.2 Though classical liberalism originally opposed itself to divine standards of being, it may now be faced with a similar challenge emanating from human creation.
Poetry and Political Thought
This book takes as its topic the treatment of artificial intelligence and genetic engineering in dystopian tales, specifically as they relate to the pursued perfection of human beings. I examine Western society’s recent struggles to understand and address these problems though the mediums of literature and film. The choice of fictional narratives allows one to examine how popular culture is reacting to the rapid advances in this realm of scientific inquiry. The benefits of this are twofold. First, literature and film present the opportunity to reach a wider, more democratic audience; an opportunity which should ideally lead to a deepening of public questioning. Second, fiction is not bounded by the strict dictates of reason. As a result, fictional artifacts are not as philosophically rigorous as treatises, but they are able to tap into, and express, the irrational components of the human experience in a way not accessible to philosophy.
Popular culture serves as a sort of bell-weather for the tides of change in the larger society. In a democracy, it is especially important to understand the public view on issues of technology and philosophy, as it translates into public policy. Political leaders must guide and educate the public; yet they are also bound to shape the laws according to public mores. Modern science, with its complicated relationship to democracy, presents a unique challenge to this dynamic. In some ways, science aids democracy. Widespread availability of information leads to a better educated, better informed populace. Technology reduces the amount to time and resources individuals must spend meeting their basic physical needs, freeing them to engage in the higher pursuits of mankind, notably politics.
On the other hand, modern science is complex to the point of near absurdity. Only those who dedicate a significant portion of their lives to study can hope to master the language, let alone the principles, of advanced physics. An elite class is formed by modern science, one based in scientific understanding rather than birth or wealth. The public grows dependent on the technologies supplied by elite scientists, looking to science as a source of infallible, inscrutable knowledge.
Before addressing the texts directly, it is first necessary to examine the importance of poetry to the study of political philosophy. The best exploration of the intersection of poetry, philosophy, and politics is, of course, to be found in Athens. Poetry, in the classical Greek understanding, encompasses both written works and performed works. The plays of the Greek tragedians are both literature and performances. Both aspects of any work must be considered in order to grasp the full impact of the poetry. The works I have chosen to study are not plays, yet they can be examined in a similar context. Literature and film are not exact correlations of Greek poetry, but do fill much of the same societal need. The study of literature and film as poetry is complicated by the division into stories that are read and stories that are watched. Yet this division also allows for new innovations in storytelling. The novel can delve into extensive details of an imagined world, and films are not restricted by time and space in the same way as are plays. Novels that have been adapted into films theoretically provide a marriage between writing and performance, though in reality the process of adaptation often produces competing visions of the story, and is less artfully done than one would like.
Therefore, I have chosen to treat film and literature as varied approaches to poetry, in its classical form. Fiction allows the reader to participate in the argument of the work. Even Plato himself was concerned about the ability of written speeches or treatises to transmit philosophical wisdom; this concern goes far in explaining his choice to write dialogues rather than treatises.3 Plato’s dialogues present philosophical arguments in a poetical form. His dialogues force the reader to actively engage in the search for wisdom. The dialogues rarely reach satisfactory conclusions, and one cannot assume that Socrates is always right or always truthful.4 Often, Socrates and his various interlocutors take the value of poetry and myth as the topic of their philosophical discussion.5 Plato’s descriptions of myth and use of myth point to a strong belief in myth’s value. Myth is used to educate children and adults who have not fully developed reason.6 This does not mean that philosophy loses its place as man’s most important task, however. Rather, Plato points towards a belief that only a few will be both naturally inclined towards philosophy and willing to work tirelessly to gain philosophic understanding. Everyone else is at least partially reliant on myth for moral guidance.
Catherine Zuckert convincingly articulates the role of philosophy in a well-ordered city. She argues that human beings cannot comprehend or achieve political order simply by controlling their passions through reason. Rather, “Human passion must be attached to appropriate goals . . . philosophers, like Socrates, have to surpass the poets in learning what human beings really desire.”7 Plato understands this; political philosophers must employ myth if they are to educate the city. They must learn from the poets and teach the poets to use their knowledge wisely.8
Poetry aims at a goal very similar to that of political philosophy, though fiction is not bound by reason. Both poetry and political philosophy aim to understand man as he exists by nature and in society. And, as Strauss and Velkley argue, the subject matter and treatment are fundamentally of the same character in poetry and philosophy; both bring to light what the law forbids.9 Unlike philosophy, however, poetry does not necessarily seek to improve man or the city; it rather serves as a mirror for the audience. Though authors certainly attempt to make philosophic arguments, the works themselves are not held to the rigorous standards of logic and truth which guide philosophy.
This observation does not seek to demean art. Classical philosophers believed that the ability of tragedy to mirror man’s irrationality was one of its strongest assets. Human beings are not unfailingly rational creatures. One can argue that political philosophy largely regards the unreasoned aspects of human nature as necessary evils; philosophical education is meant to overcome the wild passions of the unreasonable man. Human nature may contain elements of irrationality, but human society can teach man to overcome his worst inclinations. Poetry, however, argues that a great danger exists in the attempt to suppress these primal passions. Whereas political philosophy concerns itself with strengthening moral excellence, poetry reveals the tenuous balance of reason and passion in every person.
Poetry, along with all other forms of art, demonstrates important commonalities with technology. Heidegger writes, “Not only handcraft manufacture, not only artistic and poetical bringing into appearance and concrete imagery, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. Physis also, the arising of something from out of itself, is a bringing-forth, poiesis. Physis is indeed poiesis in the highest sense.”10 The act of creating, of making a thing out of new knowledge, is vital to our understanding of human nature. Creation of life then offers a crucial meeting point between the interests of poetry, science, and political philosophy. Science and technology offer human beings an alternative means of creation, including alternative means of procreation. Something that can alter our most basic biological and evolutionary function must have consequences for our relationship to nature.
As Paolo Rossi notes, Francis Bacon’s Advancement of Learning serves to present poetry and philosophy as co-conspirators rather than rivals. Like Plato, Bacon argues that fables contain ideas that aren’t yet able to be expressed by philosophy.11 He asserts that philosophers shouldn’t seek to separate art from nature; art, and thus technology, is merely man applied to nature. Man can only affect nature by combining or manipulating natural bodies.12 Of course, modern technology will soon render that statement false.
Works of artistic creation are capable of revealing the nobility and baseness present in human beings. They also serve to warn their audiences about the dangers of ignoring one aspect of humanity in favor of the others. Yet, in the end, poetry cannot accomplish the task of philosophy. As Socrates argues in Plato’s Apology of Socrates, poetry can speak the truth, but it cannot know that it does so. He declares: Almost everyone present, so to speak, would have spoken better than the poets did about the poetry that they themselves had made. So again, also concerning the poets, I soon recognized that they do not make what they make by wisdom, but by some sort of nature and while inspired, like the diviners and those who deliver oracles. For they too say many noble things, but they know nothing of what they speak.13
Socrates asserts that poets speak the truth, but they cannot explain that truth to others or provide logical proof in support of their arguments. Plato makes this assertion as part of a poetic work of philosophy. The Platonic dialogue marries philosophy to poetry in a way that demands recognition. Poetry cannot be dismissed as entertainment; philosophy cannot be reduced to cold calculation. Each needs the other to find a place in political society.
True wisdom must be grounded in reason, even if part of wisdom is recognizing the place of the irrational. Plato’s estimation of tragedy can be seen in the very form of his writing, which, as discussed, is the form of a play. Characters do not make grand speeches; they engage in conversations with one another. The reader cannot exclusively read the words of Socrates; he must also consider the role of the interlocutors. Just as tragedy presents two aspects of humanity in conflict, Plato uses his interlocutors to introduce specific aspects of political society and human nature into his dialogues. A marriage of philosophy and poetry is necessary to understand the full depth of human nature. Though philosophy must be primary in the just city, it is exceedingly dangerous to ignore the demands of passion.
Once the claims of poetry have been understood, the specific role of speculative tales must be examined. It is necessary to understand the identifying features of an apocalypse, a utopia and a dystopia. Benjamin Kunkel presents apocalypse as destruction of the old order, while dystopia is the perfection of order itself.14 This distinction is an important one for the study of political philosophy. Creators require periodic destruction; as Nietzsche argues, destruction must precede creation.15 One cannot create unless the status quo is untenable. In that case, an apocalypse carries infinite potential for rebuilding. Dystopia, on the other hand, prevents creation. One can see how the line between a utopia, understood as a perfectly ordered society, and a dystopia, understood as a society that pursues order for its own sake, could be very thin indeed. Proponents of any utopian vision would likely be unable to discern the difference at all.
The question, of course, is whether utopia proves inevitably stifling to human creativity. If so, then it becomes clear that any society that touts itself as utopian would be inherently dystopian. A world without human creativity is a world without any new art, science, or philosophy. Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor argue convincingly that the utopia/dystopia divide is often not useful when discussing proposed societies, as any vision can be viewed as either utopian or dystopian depending on the preferences of the reader.16
Going forward, I will use the term utopian to mean any imagined society that proposes a serious institutional change in order to correct a failing of human nature. Like L. E. Hough, I argue that utopian societies and utopian thought is characterized by a collapse of the distinction between public and private life.17 The new society depends on total cooperation from its citizens. Any private dissent is a matter of public concern. I further argue that the collapse of the public/private distinction is inherently totalitarian. Meaning that utopia must also be dystopian, if free will is to be valued. The attempt to freeze political society, to prevent change, necessitates suppression of human greatness and individual liberty.
Because utopia seeks to fundamentally alter the way human beings relate to one another, its residents must collectively and consciously forget the old ways. As George Kateb notes, a decided break from tradition is needed—one in which history, suffering, and mortality are forgotten.18 It is this requirement that has led so many liberal thinkers to reject utopian thought as inherently totalitarian.19 Apocalyptic scenarios, on the other hand, reveal the true foundation of modern virtue. As Kunkel argues, the modern, liberal apocalypse does not resolve itself through the founding of new, better political communities.20
The stories I have chosen to examine all contain an apocalypse of one kind or another. In some, such as Metropolis and Never Let Me Go, the apocalypse is well in the past and the society has become dystopian. In others, such as Prometheus, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Oryx and Crake, the apocalyptic event is part of the story itself. Though they differ in their philosophical influences and political inclinations, and these stories all reject utopian world-building in favor of presenting love stories—stories about the creation of families. Thinkers ranging from Plato to Arendt have noted that love is the most potent enemy of political engineering. The loyalty and devotion individuals express towards their spouses, parents, and children will overcome the patriotic claims of the political society. It is this truth of human nature that renders any utopian tale dystopian to the liberal reader. Any political unit larger than the family, either biological or chosen, is to be suspected.21
The character of utopian thought is largely determined by the thinker’s view of mankind’s place in nature. Some utopians advocate a return to harmony with nature, others argue for using technology to decisively overcome flawed, often harsh, nature. Northrop Frye argues that utopian thought is akin to social contract theory, in that both can only be expressed in terms of myth.22 The latter provides an account of the origins of society, while the former posits a telos. Utopias, because they are all-encompassing, must either change man into something in harmony with nature, or change nature into something controllable by man. After Francis Bacon laid the foundation for the era of modern science, utopian thought primarily focused on using technology to manipulate nature to alleviate man’s condition.
This has led to extremism on both ends of the ideological spectrum; some embrace utopianism, possessing an unmitigated faith in science, while others reject technology as inherently problematic, losing much relevance to contemporary philosophical debates. Paul B. Sears, on the other hand, argues that both approaches are flawed. True progression towards a better society requires acknowledging humanity’s place as a part of the whole of nature, and that adjustment requires “the fullest use of science rather than its rejection.”23 The work of Darwin and Freud destroyed the hopes of eighteenth and nineteenth-century utopians. They disproved the idea of a peaceful, orderly, progressive world.24 Faced with the chaos of an uncontrolled and uncontrollable nature, mankind must address the questions raised by the works I have chosen to study. Is humanity worth preserving? Is the pursuit of perfection the next step in moral evolution? Or is it the demise of something beautiful and essential in human nature?
Portraits of Technology in Action
This book specifically focuses on technologies that necessitate either expanding the definition of human nature, or redefining it altogether. I have chosen five works that investigate the malleability of human nature, the importance of science to liberalism, and the role of friendship/love in scientific society: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (film), Ridley Scott’s Prometheus (film), Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (film), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (novel), and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (novel). Each of these works explores a different aspect of the relationship between technology and creation. Metropolis and Prometheus present central characters who happen to be humanoid robots.
The characters and plots of Never Let Me Go (NLMG) and Oryx and Crake are driven by experiments into the genetic manipulation of human beings. The role of creation in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (ESSM) is less obvious; the film explores the attempt by human beings to use technology to aid in self-creation, or self-perfection. Artificial intelligence and genetic engineering are different expressions of the same impulse, the impulse to understand how life is created and to ourselves become creators.
These works are philosophical literature. They manifest ideas brought forth by thinkers ranging from Plato to Arendt. Yet, the ideas presented through the medium of poetry are often fragmented or incomplete. That does not mean the ideas are not present in the background. Through these works of literature and film, I illuminate the important questions at stake in our current technological age. The philosophical touchstones of these works are divergent; therefore, I have not attempted to find a common thinker or tradition that will explain them all. Rather, I use a variety of works and thinkers to explore the dynamic, often contradictory, lessons of each story.
Beginning with Plato’s Republic, political philosophers have used the portrait of fictional societies to speculate about political and philosophical arguments. There is something indisputably appealing about seeing a fictional society made whole; imagination allows for interpretation and lessons can be gleaned from the haziest of visions. These fictional societies are rendered extreme; they examine principles by taking the underlying ideas to their logical end, resulting in either a perfected society or a totalitarian one. A good work of utopian/dystopian fiction describes a fictional society, makes a central change to the society, and then follows the progression of that change’s consequences. For the purposes of this study, the change must aim towards the perfection of the human through a technological advance, and the compromising of natural, individual rights. I have chosen works that seek to alter human DNA, to perfect existing human minds, or to replace fallible humans with machines.
This line of scientific inquiry is best illuminated in the context of Francis Bacon’s Instauration, which proposed to tame nature, forcing it to reveal its secrets and bending it to benefit man’s estate.25 Though Bacon is not the sole, or even primary, philosophical influence of the works I am investigating, he is the originator of the modern idea that human beings could achieve perfection through our own technological efforts. Bacon sought to give science, religion, and politics a common ground: the alleviation of man’s suffering.26 Religion would no longer view science as a threat to God’s supremacy or the Church’s place as the preeminent source of cosmic knowledge. Instead, science would provide the means to fulfill the Church’s goal of universal charity. Political leaders would be able to use the technologies from Church-endorsed science to increase the wealth of their states and the power of their armies.
Bacon persuades the power centers of early Enlightenment Britain that science is an invaluable tool. He leaves subtle warnings for those charged with guiding the new society. For example, his retelling of the Greek myth of Daedalus in Wisdom of the Ancients, illustrates how science can easily slip from human control. Bacon was acutely aware of the dangers presented by modern science and technology, but he believed that the certain benefits outweighed the potential dangers.27 He provides enough signposts for the careful reader to grasp the importance of individual, natural rights in mitigating the worst effects of a scientific society.28
By securing the foundation of political society in individual, immutable natural rights, classical liberalism attempts to prevent political leaders from justifying tyrannical policies enacted “for the greater good.” Modern science, and modern scientists, would tend towards these types of utilitarian calculations, according to Bacon.29 The peace, security, and prosperity promised by science’s advocates could justify any number of atrocities in the short-term. Because the human mind is infinitely complex, and largely defies empirical observation, science would come to prioritize the more easily comprehended and measured human body.
Relentlessly rational scientists would not credit the value of the irrational things that comprise so much of human greatness, such as love, art, and honor. Society would follow suit, prioritizing wealth over greatness, and power over goodness. Classical liberalism does not seek to answer all questions or solve all problems; it only seeks to allow individuals the freedom to do so for themselves. Only by maintaining a strong grounding in the lessons of classical political philosophy, and embracing the modern political tenets of natural rights and limited government, can science’s power be channeled away from tyrannical impulses.
Bacon’s vision has only been partially realized. His intellectual heirs have failed to maintain unity between natural science and natural philosophy. 30 Philosophy became abstract, focusing on questions of epistemology and ontology, or relativistic. Science became unphilosophical, arguing that the fabric of the universe could be investigated amorally.31 Scientists now seek to uncover knowledge, but maintain that their responsibility ends with discovery. Knowledge is neither good nor bad, and scientists cannot control how their discoveries are used in the political or economic realms. The amoral stance of scientists has allowed science and technology to progress in leaps and bounds beyond what early Enlightenment thinkers could have imagined (though Bacon’s New Atlantis paints an astonishing portrait of science’s potential power). The twentieth and early twenty-first centuries are marked by abrupt leaps forward in technology, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Industrial Revolution, and technological progress shows no signs of slowing down.
On its own, this is not necessarily problematic. However, political philosophy has also spectacularly failed to guide the development of modern science. The modern world has managed to thus far preserve the ideas of classical liberalism that protects individual liberty, though serious challenges have periodically arisen in the form of fascism, communism, and religious extremism. The twenty-first century will produce real challenges the liberal foundations of western society, challenges that were once the sole domain of science fiction. In the interests of illuminating these challenges, this study examines the way that the fiction of the past century has grappled with the philosophical and political issues at stake.
Metropolis, an artifact of early twentieth-century German anxiety, provides the first example of a false utopia in film. It also introduces the idea of the robot as perfected man/woman. The viewer is presented with a seemingly superior society, one free from want and full of idealistic purpose. The society focuses on, and is organized by, misguided ideas regarding human evolution and our ability to control human nature. The city is planned and managed with oppressive detail.
Residents are divided between rulers and workers, living and working completely within their own class. The city’s structure is threatened by the sole female character, Maria, and a robot built in her likeness.32 Both Marias are intent on destroying the rigid class divide, but their methods diverge widely. The robot uses sexuality and deception to incite riots. The human Maria persuades the son of the city’s ruler, who has fallen in love with her, to unite the classes through a common need for peace. Metropolis reveals the fear of technology, especially as it relates to sexuality and creation, which grips the imaginations of science fiction writers and filmmakers for the next century.
Prometheus, an epic science-fiction opus, identifies knowledge of God as the key hindrance to human happiness. If only we knew why we were created with inherent flaws, we would be able to stop our self-destructive cycle of progress and degeneration. Humanity pursues this knowledge without recognizing its own increasingly urgent impulse towards haphazard creation of life. The film contains a multi-generational saga exploring the relationship between creators and creations. As the human scientists search for the ultimate source of human life, they are accompanied by an android bearing a flawlessly human appearance. The android(s) in the film are humanoid creatures devoid of human frailty.
Little affection exists between creators and their creations; humans are incapable of viewing androids as anything but machines, while the alien originators of humanity view their offspring as a failed experiment. Neither creator species is able to control the actions or command the allegiance of their creations. The creation of an artificial intelligence capable of acting independently from human control shows a key fault line in the unregulated pursuit of technological development.
Next, I turn my attention to the alteration of human beings, rather than creation of an automated human. A recognized feature of utopian thought is the notion that a single factor stands in the way of infinite progress. If only one facet of human nature could be corrected, our doomed selves would be redeemed. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind explores this impulse in the context of interpersonal relationships. Ordinary citizens are given the choice to erase memories of events or persons, in the hope of alleviating emotional suffering. Questions of identity, learning, and the mind-body connection arise in response to the violation.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go continues this examination of how the body and soul become separated through the technological pursuit of physical perfection. The world of the novel is one in which human cloning has revolutionized medicine. Disease and aging no longer pose a significant threat to the human lifespan. The price of these advancements is a program that breeds, raises, and then systematically kills clones, harvesting their organs for transplant. Ishiguro does not focus on either the science or the politics behind cloning. He instead tells a hauntingly normal story about childhood friendships, love, jealousy, and loss.
Never Let Me Go is not a thrilling tale of overcoming destiny; nor is it a political thriller about normalizing atrocity. It is a story about three likable young people playing out familiar scenarios while utter horror lurks in the background. Through the three clone protagonists, Ishiguro demonstrates the humanity of the clones and the inhumanity of those who exploit them. His clones are created and harvested to keep human beings young and healthy; bodies are prioritized over moral virtue.
This theme is taken to the extreme in Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Oryx and Crake depicts the development and aftermath of an apocalyptic event in genetic engineering. A rogue scientist, deciding that Homo sapiens would soon destroy the planet and themselves, designs a humanoid replacement species. The new species, the Crakers, are human in appearance, are capable of speech, and are perfectly suited to live in harmony with nature. Atwood asks: if human beings are truly self-destructive, then why should we seek the preservation of the species? If technology allows us to evolve purposefully, do we not have an obligation to oblige? Atwood shows the reader the next step in human evolution: a physically superior, peaceful species with little capacity for human greatness. Her scientists embrace eliminating scientific society in order to find harmony with nature. The novel reverses Bacon’s intention. Rather than human science conquering nature, human science returns nature to its place of supremacy.
The works analyzed in this book in no way represent a comprehensive account of popular culture’s depiction of the relationship between technology and human nature. Nor do they accurately grasp all of the nuances of the philosophical treatment of technology and liberal society. My aim is to begin a conversation, and emphasize the necessity of classical liberal thought for navigating the future of our scientific society. I do not argue that technology is either the savior or doom of humanity. I do argue that humanity is worth preserving, and that the most important aspects of humanity are those that cannot be easily quantified. I moreover argue that the only feasible way to preserve these human things is through a reaffirmation of natural rights, individual liberty, and friendship.
The novels and films I have selected span the twentieth century, using a variety of techniques to examine the myriad ways that technology has changed the human experience of the world. Rather than attempt to find a common philosophical grounding for these works of fiction, a task which would be disingenuous, I will examine each work on its own terms. One can find echoes of thinkers ranging from Plato, to Bacon, to Nietzsche, to Arendt manifested in these popular culture artifacts. The thinkers discussed in the following chapters have left permanent marks on Western society; their ideas have been absorbed into the shared cultural traditions that inform our common sense understanding of human nature and the nature of politics. Even if the authors and filmmakers included in this project have little expertise in the field of political philosophy, their works exist in the political realm. One need not explicitly reference a philosophic work in order for that philosopher’s ideas to resonate. Analysis of my chosen works will therefore draw upon a variety of philosophical and political resources. The problems addressed in this project are infinitely complex, and one cannot hope to adequately illuminate them without the aid of our greatest thinkers.
1. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 268–69.
2. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 323. See also Richard Velkley, Heidegger, Strauss, and the Premises of Philosophy: On Original Forgetting (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 136; and Kimberly Hurd Hale, Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis in the Foundation of Modern Political Thought (Lantham: Lexington Books, 2013), 45–50.
3. Catherine Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 330.
4. Hurd Hale, 8–9.
5. Plato’s Republic, Laws, Timaeus, Critias, Phaedrus, Apology of Socrates, and Symposium all contain discussions relevant to this topic.
6. Luc Brisson, Plato the Myth Maker, translated by Gerard Naddaf (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 75.
7. Zuckert, 475–76.
8. See Hurd Hale, chapter 2 more a more extensive discussion of myth in Plato’s work.
9. Velkley, 23.
10. Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1982), 10.
11. Paolo Rossi, Francis Bacon: From Magic to Science. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), 85.
12. Rossi, Magic, 26. See also Hurd Hale, 50.
13. Plato, Apology of Socrates, in Four Texts on Socrates, translated by Thomas G. West and Grace Starry West (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 22b–c.
14. Benjamin Kunkel, “Dystopia and the End of Politics,” Dissent (00123846) 58, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 90.
15. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff, edited by Bernard Williams (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 70.
16. Barbara Goodwin and Keith Taylor, The Politics of Utopia: A Study in Theory and Practice, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982), 18.
17. L. E. Hough, “Disaffected From Utopia,” Utopian Studies 2, no. 3 (1991), 120.
18. George Kateb, (1966). “Utopia and the Good Life,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, edited by Frank E. Manuel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966), 248.
19. Popper, Kolakowshi, and Berlin all reject utopianism as dangerously totalitarian.
20. Kunkel, “Dystopia,” 94.
21. Kunkel, “Dystopia,” 94.
22. Northrop Frye, “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, edited by Frank E. Manuel (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966), 25.
23. Paul B. Sears, “Utopia and the Living Landscape,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, edited by Frank E. Manuel, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966), 137.
24. Frank E. Manuel, “Toward a Psychological History of Utopias,” in Utopias and Utopian Thought, edited by Frank E. Manuel, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966), 86.
25. Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, edited by Jerry Weinberger (Wheeling: Harlan Davidson, Inc., 1989), 71; see also Howard B. White, “The Political Faith of John Dewey,” The Journal of Politics 20 (1958): 354; and Natalie J. Elliot “The Politics of Life Extension in Francis Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients,” The Review of Politics 77, no. 3 (2015): 351–75.
26. Heidi D. Studer, “Strange Fire at the Alter of the Lord: Francis Bacon on Human Nature,” The Review of Politics 65 (2003): 209–35, 210; Hurd Hale, 50–52; Robert K. Faulkner, Francis Bacon and the Project of Progress (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1993), 62.
27. Hurd Hale, 52–55.
28. Hurd Hale, 129–30.
29. Francis Bacon, New Organon, edited by Lisa Jardine and Michael Silverthorne, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 36, 44; see also Antonio Pérez-Ramos, “Bacon’s Legacy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, edited by Markku Peltonen (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 330 for a discussion of Bacon’s influence on the French Revolution, most notably the thought of the Marquis de Condorcet.
30. Hurd Hale, 129–35; Paolo Rossi, “Bacon’s Idea of Science” in The Cambridge Companion to Bacon, edited by Markku Peltonen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 39.
31. See Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) for an excellent deconstruction of the battle between Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle over the future mission of the Royal Society.
32. The robot double is not named in the film. From this point, the robot will be referred to as Robot-Maria.