Recently, I attended a brilliant address in Cambridge by the remarkably insightful quasi-prophetess, Mary Harrington. She spoke about the age of social media and presented the degree to which, in her view, we are not so much on the verge of a transhumanist world, but already living in one. She pointed to the contraceptive pill as the first great transhumanist innovation, which, as she put it, “moved us into a completely new paradigm in regard to what medicine and healthcare actually are.” Harrington began as a feminist thinker, and today calls herself a “reactionary feminist,” which is fast becoming a title for several public intellectuals who are developing certain feminist criticisms into a full-scale assault on late modernity. The contraceptive pill, Harrington argued, changed healthcare as a discipline exclusively organised to remedy failing bodies to include the altering of well and properly functioning bodies as if they were problems to be solved. Whilst contraception per se frustrates the procreative act, the pill is unique in doing this by modifying what would otherwise be the natural functioning of the body. She claimed that this moved us into the transhumanist epoch, in which we are now far more entrenched than we realise.
There are various ways, Harrington noted, by which we are already very much transhuman. The modern person conducts most of his relationships in a disembodied, technologically mediated way. He has, in many of his behaviours, adopted technology not only as a tool to be used but as a teacher by which he may be formed. Rather than developing opinions in order to live better, he doesn’t live at all while he habitually reacts to social media notifications about—you got it—how to live better. He fails to give his children the attention they need whilst he scrolls the comment boxes on parenting websites. He delegates his own parenthood to various screens left around the house. He no longer forms the habits of a sharp memory because he subcontracts his memory to his phone, which can recall for him any information he needs. He only moves in a world of objects out of necessity; his real self is an avatar that ‘interfaces’ with other faceless avatars of the cyberworld, a ‘world’ that now seems markedly more real than the domain of “medium-sized dry goods,” as the philosopher J.L. Austin called the world of our senses, that now seems a distant and uninteresting realm.
Ideas and Events
In her talk, Harrington quoted the historian and philosopher Yuval Harari, saying that “Modernity is essentially a pact that exchanges meaning for power.” She traced this ‘pact’ back to Bacon and Descartes, as is a common theme among historians of ideas. Downstream from their philosophical worldviews, she claimed, we have found ourselves jaded and ‘disenchanted’ in late modernity, and thus we are currently witnessing in the ‘transhumanist revolution’ a last desperate attempt to recover meaning. According to Harrington, in this transhumanist effort of technological takeover, we are largely seeing a new form of Gnosticism emerging as a final pursuit of meaning, before the venture is snuffed out altogether by the paradigm of pure power. ‘Gnosticism’ here chiefly means the radical conceptual separation of mind and body, the understanding of the ‘self’ as a personal identity only accidentally related to the body, and the struggle to emancipate the self from embodied experience.
I shall not attempt to present any further the content of Harrington’s extremely rich analysis of what we’re witnessing in the near totally technologized era of late modernity—or what she called “hyper-modernity”—for her ideas will be presented at length, and with the proper rigour for which she is known, in forthcoming columns for UnHerd (where most of her work can be found). I do, however, want to suggest that one of the ongoing problems associated with historians of ideas in general, and a problem that I detected in Harrington’s account, is that they see ideas as efficient causes of ideas and events, but rarely see events as efficient causes of ideas. This, it seems to me, is a mistake. Indeed, I’m unconvinced that ideas possess quite the causal power that we tend to attribute to them—being as we are, inordinately formed by the truncated epistemology of rationalism.
It’s no doubt true, for example, that the contractarianism with which Thomas Hobbes cursed the discipline of political philosophy enormously affected the world, and changed politics forever, and certainly for the worse. It is also no doubt true that Hobbes was deeply cognizant of the political tradition of Western Europe, and aware that his mind was deconstructing it like woodworm in an ancient church. Nonetheless, he desired to put an end to barbarism once and for all, to stamp out the bloodbathing of human history by subjugating the frenzied passions of the human hive to the “mortal god” of a draconian autarch. This universal servility, to which all would agree through a contract that raised man out of his natural atomised state and into the society of Leviathan, would simultaneously redeem him. Such a view was not predominantly conjured up out of the world of ideas, but by the gore of the English Civil War, the astonishing violence of which—with brother slaying brother, and father slaying son—shook Hobbes to the core.
Take another example: It’s no doubt true that the privatisation of religious convictions or moral claims which purport to follow from an objective apprehension of the good—a process of privatisation which is a chief characteristic of liberalism—came about by the convergence of certain ideas promulgated in the Anglosphere by the Lockean legacy and on the Continent by that of Rousseau and the philosophes. But this privatisation of the good life also came about by the reduction of religious conviction to something arbitrarily determined by national borders in the Peace of Westphalia, which was itself responding to ideas that had arisen from the experience of the Thirty Years’ War.
My point is that the genealogy of liberalism, which has morphed into progressivism, which itself is fast becoming transhumanist utopianism, is not merely one of a sequence of ideas in a causal chain, but of the complex causal interplay of ideas and events. Those ideas and events are both stained with human suffering, from which arose the question of how to address the problem of human suffering, and ultimately fix it.
I don’t deny the main thrust of Harrington’s point, that transhumanism, and a particular development of transhumanism on which she especially focused, namely our approaching migration into the Metaverse, is a new species of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism. I do, however, think there is another aspect to this which is less based on the genealogy of ideas, and more on the experience of suffering and liberalism’s ongoing and ill-fated project to eliminate suffering.
When John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration, suggested that the law of the land ought to permit all religious practice and belief (except that of Roman Catholics) so long as such religious commitments didn’t conflict with the law of the land in any way—because politics was a public matter and religion a private matter, according to Locke—he was bringing to the fore the first principle of the liberal tradition. That principle is that all claims about the end for which we exist constitute private opinions, with which the state should be unconcerned: the state should only be concerned with those moral requirements that maximise security and minimise suffering. Antithetical to the proposed Lockean political settlement would be any privileging of what we now call a ‘worldview’ above any others, which would—according to Locke—invariably effect conflict and therefore suffering. (This, of course, was a self-defeating position, for the privatisation of worldviews is itself based on a worldview that claims to be universal, the disastrous effects of which we have had to watch unfold over the past three centuries.) In any case, this Lockean project marked the first big step towards ridding the public arena of all questions of meaning and purpose, leading to the very disenchanted, grey world that Harrington so skilfully diagnosed.
When I was growing up, it was widely said that there were three topics that should never be discussed: politics, sex, and religion. It’s worth reflecting on this for a moment, for these three aspects of human life together cover the determinates of our existence. How we behave and live together in the building up of communities; how we form relationships, establish stable families, and produce offspring to which we can hand on our civilisation; and what the purpose of our being here actually is—these are the fundamental questions of human existence. The fact that English etiquette forbade anyone from discussing the purpose of our existence indicated to me that at some point in history a pathology had sunk its talons so deep into my nation’s psyche that it had succeeded in never letting go. The corollary of this disdain for truth, one that we have successfully exported to almost every corner of the world, is that we treat niceness—a ‘value’ that rejects offending truths, which is to say, all truths—as the highest possible value (even if niceness perpetuates the most horrific injustices, especially towards children—as is observable in the examples of divorce and abortion, both of which are routinely defended on grounds of ‘niceness’).
Liberalism as a political and social worldview adopted the paradigm bequeathed by Bacon and the 17th century ‘scientific revolution,’ which not only prioritised domination of nature over understanding of nature, but domination for the sake of human ‘progress.’ When firmly set within the framework of liberalism, this ‘progress’ is largely understood as the ongoing process of privileging technique and technological advancement to eliminate suffering—suffering chiefly seen as pain. For this reason, those of us who are sceptical of the entire concept of ‘progress’ as a theory of moral history—among whom stands Mary Harrington—are customarily told that we needn’t look any further than the evolution of medical science to be convinced by this theory. This, of course, is because ‘moral progress’ is understood by liberals principally to mean—perhaps solely to mean—the diminishment of suffering understood as pain. Again, this is why the disappearance of beauty from our civilisation, and its replacement with mass production, junk art, and glassy, facetious architecture does not pose a problem to the liberal conception of ‘progress’—such things are simply outside the immediate concern of how to eliminate suffering.
One only needs to consider how we deal with death in our culture. Rather than the mature confrontation with death that characterised so much of the artistic inheritance of the West (and not the West only), we hide death away, leaving people to perish alone in the cells of hospitals, or, soon, we’ll whisk people off to be euthanised (it’s coming in the next decade—mark my words). Then, we refuse to look upon the dead body. Instead, we have it flame grilled to ash and thrown to the winds, that we may pretend that the deceased never really existed, and thus nor did his death occur.
Today, one of the few ways in which we can maturely and ceremonially engage with the reality of suffering and death is through hunting, and hence it is an activity despised and derided by our liberal culture. The widespread disdain for hunting does not arise from a genuine concern for animal welfare, as most of those who condemn it will happily tuck into a battery farmed chicken—whose death was no tragedy for the creature but a liberation from the wretched life of torture it had known since it hatched, already a mutant, in a dark metal container. In the end, the liberal will accept suffering, as long as he never has to see it. He will accept death, as long as it is hidden. Were one to announce in polite company that one keeps pigs and chooses to slaughter them oneself, one would soon find oneself a pariah. The man who can maturely confront suffering and death, accepting them as undesirable yet unavoidable facts of life, is deemed a weirdo within the hypocritical liberal order.
A Universal Pathology
Of course, the upshot of this pathological aversion to suffering and pain is the absolute prioritising of pleasure and appetitive sensation. And since certain pleasures are inextricably bound up with suffering, and other pleasures entail suffering if pursued to their excess, we end up with the sort of meaningless bio-asceticism which now characterises Western culture as a whole. It was precisely the absolute prioritising of pleasure and appetitive stimulation that led to the pornification of our culture, with the most extraordinary perversions immediately subject to our voyeurism with just a few clicks on our ever-present portable devices. Now, we’re porned-out, jaded, and exhausted. In turn, that suffering too must be eliminated.
The Metaverse, then, it seems to me, is the ultimate stage of liberalism’s long history of eating itself. Having discovered that we can’t eliminate all suffering, we have sought to hide it, and having hidden it we find it keeps sneaking out and finding us. A pandemic comes along and shakes us all up, and we think that we can stuff suffering back into its box and hide it away again if only the measures are severe enough and the hysteria excessive enough. What we cannot allow is the return of pain, for that would mean that liberalism’s messianic enterprise really had failed.
We’ve tried to emancipate ourselves from every possible source of pain: we’re now post-history, post-inequality, post-religion, post-metaphysics, and we’re only a vaccine or two away from being post-suffering altogether! … But the damn thing keeps coming back! Finally, now, we’ve found a way to deal with the suffering of our world once and for all: we shall flee this world altogether and enter a world of our own making, where there shall be no history, no future, no opinions, no pain, no suffering, no death, and the only value will be ‘niceness.’ Here, in the Metaverse, there will only be pleasure, and every pleasure will be cut loose from any correlative suffering. Behold, the end of the process of Progress.
It is inevitable that we, like all animals, should seek to minimise suffering and pursue pleasure. What liberalism has done, however, is take a natural impulse—and it is the fact that it is a natural impulse that accounts for liberalism’s success—and turn it into a universal pathology. We must have the courage to say, in the words of John the Savage to Mustapha Mond in Huxley’s Brave New World: “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.” The alternative is a grey and levelled world, one without meaning, without purpose, and submerged in a bubbling despair that will blast like an exploding pressure cooker sooner or later. And whilst I don’t doubt that neo-Gnosticism is part of the account of how we found ourselves in the dismal condition in which we now toil, the pathological trepidation with which we approach pain must be a crucial part of the story. And it is time to write a new story, preferably one that tells the truth.