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Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era

Christopher Dewdney: original photo by Tineke de Lange, filtered by M. Soules In this 1998 meditation on the growing interdependence between humans and digital technologies, Toronto poet Christopher Dewdney probes the psyche of an emerging being, the "transhuman":

Never before has human life been able to change itself, to reach into its own genetic structure and rearrange its molecular basis; now it can. Perhaps we are already in the last few generations of our embodiment as carbon-based life forms. What is relatively certain is that we are about to enter the transition period between the human and the posthuman eras--the transhuman age. The goal of transhumanism is to surpass our current biological limitations, be it our life span or the capabilities of our brain...
On a planetary scale, most of us are already transhuman to some degree. We are the products of bioengineering. Our immune systems have been altered by decoy viruses injected via vaccines. We consume genetically altered food. We use mood altering psychopharmaceuticals, from fermented grape juice to Prozac. More recently, our bodies have become sites for more than 250 types of artificial implants: synthetic heart valves, pacemakers, artificial hip and knee joints, synthetic arteries and eye lenses, not to mention those used in plastic surgery. Eventually neural implants will be used to augment our brains. Prostheses to restore the vision of blind patients have already been successfully implanted in human cortexes. (1-2)

Last Flesh has a decidedly optimistic tone, reminiscent of McLuhan's catholic embrace of human creativity and ingenuity. Like McLuhan, Dewdney harbours the poet's desire for sublime transcendence, and the evolution of human capacity:

The transhuman epoch will not be based as much on political, or even material, power as on the unprecedented expansion of human capabilities. Genetic engineering will soon create an equal partnership between us and DNA in determining our biological destiny. Neuroscience and artificial intelligence are about to give us the keys to our own consciousness and psychology. Computer-assisted literature and art, as well as sophisticated virtual realities, will give us a cultural richness hitherto undreamed of. (4)
Last Flesh

We are, with this vision, realizing long-held collective dreams: "Our visions, historically documented in our mythologies, are proof that we always knew our potential. Fundamental among these visions are the idea of immortality and the notion of the immaterial soul...[W]e will see these aspirations become a tangible reality, rationally constructed by science out of the material realm we so long thought unbridgable to the immaterial" (4-5).

As a poet, Dewdney has always been at home in the material world of science; in fact, much of his poetry attempts to integrate the documentary impulses of the sciences with the imaginative and transformative power of the poetic vision. He is thus concerned that we are entering a period of "growing scientific illiteracy, an age of superstition and dangerous credulity" (5) He cites as an example a 1996 Gallop survey which "found that 49 percent of Canadians believe that antibiotics would be effective against viral illnesses such as colds and flu" (6). He concludes, "The time is ripe for a new dark age."

At the same time that he is clearly fascinated with the recombining that humans will be doing to become transhuman, Dewdney is also conscious that all may not go as smoothly as Wired magazine predicts:

There are ominous trends that have the potential to stop our progress and reverse everything we have gained. For every new technology brings with it contradictory social effects--the potential to empower or subjugate those touched by it. Relatively cheap, mass-produced camcorders are a case in point. In the hands of ordinary citizens, they are a tool for democracy and can prevent the abuse of power, when, for example, they are used to document police brutality. Conversely, used for surveillance by governments or corporations, the same cameras become a threat to privacy.(5)

In this, Dewdney uses insights explored by McLuhan in The Laws of Media where it is proposed that, while new media extend and disturb the equilibrium of the senses, they also reverse and displace ("obsolesce") previous extensions. The new digital media giveth, and taketh away. Dewdney hopes to act as our guide in negotiating the threshold--the limin--between the human and transhuman: "It is important at this point in our history, when we are about to take our most momentous step, possibly leaving our DNA-based substrate behind, to prepare our psychology for the next phase" (6). Are you ready to make some art?

Rik's (Rick Sacks) Review's Of Dewdney's Work (to 1994)