The Sexual Politics of Transhumanism
Technological consumerism, like any other form of consumerism, exists on a market where one rule has prevailed despite more progressive values being introduced slowly into media and marketing. That rule? Sex sells. Whether or not sex actually sells is a whole different matter (hint: there are a lot of reasons why it doesn’t) but the idea that it does for every type of product continues to have an impact.
But what about our less consumerist interests? What about our political movements, our innovative technological ideas, our campaigns for brighter futures? As you can see by the title, what I’m talking about here is transhumanism: an international cultural and intellectual movement with an eventual goal of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities. (You can read my overview of transhumanism here).
Visually, transhumanism is identified by augmenting the physical human body with technological enhancements, whether they be replacing lost body parts or providing a physical body that is more durable and more athletic. The mental aspects of transhumanist development are often visualized in the eyes (tech-looking contact lenses to symbolize the ability to quickly accessed data) or sometimes around the back of the neck (nodes that can sometimes be “plugged in” or merely a symbol of stored mental data). The 2013 video game Remember Me makes use of the back of the neck node motif for storing and even sharing memories, but the technological eye motif has been much more common. The eye motif relies on the idea that the eyes are a part of the human body that reflects our personality or our mind, as well as our ability to visualize information. The back of the neck motif relies on the idiom or phrase sometimes used for human compatibility and co-adaptation to technology known as being “plugged in” or “jacked in”.
There are many other common themes that become apparent when transhumanist inspired visual arts are brought together, such as common colours, shapes, and various artistic styles. And many of these themes inevitably change over the years as we adapt our vision of technological perfection and the future of transhumanism. Earlier science fiction, for example, enlisted fewer neon or vibrant colours in its visualization than we do today, choosing to stick to a metallic pallet (with the exception of a few technologically inspired pieces of science fiction media, of course). So it is no surprise that we should go looking for other themes outside of simply colour and texture - since transhumanism is about more than the inorganic, it becomes important to ask not just what, but who is used as the face of human augmentation - and in what ways, for better or worse, do these organic themes arise?
Again looking back at the title, you may have an idea as to which direction I’m heading. You also may notice that the title bares resemblance to Carol J. Adams’ critical theory text The Sexual Politics of Meat, in which Adams explores a relationship between patriarchal values and meat eating by interweaving the insights of feminism, animal defense, and literary theory. A key focus is how women’s bodies and female sexuality have been usurped in the marketing and propaganda for the meat (and dairy) industries, and how the sexualization of the product reflects a misogynistic practice within the ideology of non-vegetarianism/veganism.
How does this tie in to transhumanism in the media? While I am not saying that the movement or ideology of transhumanism is inherently misogynistic in any way, I cannot ignore a wide spectrum of trends which lead me to believe that the conception of modern transhumanism is being too strongly influenced by patriarchal worldviews. For now, instead of trying to immediately prove the point with words, I think my best approach here will just be to show you what I mean with images that have been used throughout media to represent transhumanist ideals…
And last, coming from a television series that some of you may be familiar with, and may strike up controversy in those who enjoyed the series, but nevertheless deserves to be mentioned here…
Has it become clear yet what we’re talking about, and why it needs to be discussed? Male representations of transhumanism are nowhere near as sexualized as female representations. Male bodies are never partitioned in the same way the above bodies have - in vulnerable, incomplete, or submissive poses, making sure to include any and all body parts that may offer sexual stimulation. Interlaced with this issue, if you take another look at the images, are themes of race and conventional Western beauty standards.
Transhumanism is not a product. Yet looking at these images, it feels as if we’re trying to be sold something through the use of the consumerist rule: sex sells. How many of the above images portray users of products rather than the product themselves? How many portray a sense of autonomy and freedom granted through human technological augmentation and development?
How many of the above get to…
And finally (warning: humor ahead, put your internet hard hat on!) why is it that…
I mean, c'mon guys. Why can’t you all be as ridiculously sexy as Adam Jensen?
Joking aside, my real final question is: why does it feel like nobody is talking about this, and what are we doing to change it? You want me to believe we should just leave a movement that’s supposed to be for the benefit of each individual person like this, so one-sided, so male-oriented? I don’t think so. It’s time to ask whether women are being shown as users of technology in the visualization of transhumanism, or being used like mannequins, props, or… dolls, like in some sort of… I don’t know, Dollhouse or something.
A truly egalitarian future is shockingly more important than your boner.