Feature 03.08.2023 7 minutes

Human Matters

Sex and Gender 3

The conquest of the body has not been as equitable as advertised.

The more time you spend online, the easier it is to believe who you are in relation to others is separable from who you are physically. In his recent book, How To Save The West, Spencer Klavan says of this phenomenon that “the most cutting-edge current expression of the body crisis is not the hormone injection but the digital avatar.”

But perhaps we might extend this further and say the most cutting-edge expression of the body crisis is the de-materialization of flesh in the acid bath of digital Prometheanism. Plants and animals have of course been subject to such experimentation for decades. But as Klavan notes, the transition to digital-first culture has normalized a radical mind/body dualism that prepares the ground for cultural assent to the idea that lab-grown monsters may legitimately be sculpted from human flesh as well.

This is most visible and subject to mainstream cultural contention in the now-widespread social contagion referred to as “trans identity.” But it would be a mistake to suggest this phenomenon is confined to “LGBTQ+” communities, or even that it originated here. The mutiny against “normal” began more than half a century ago, with the mass adoption of a technology that set out to interrupt normal human organismic functioning in the name of individual freedom: the contraceptive pill.

The Pill shunted the West from a restorative medical paradigm, in which intervention remedies departed from normal health, to a “meliorist” one in which patients/customers pursue (theoretically limitless) improvements on the norm. This shift signaled a convergence described by Paul Virilio, between the “genetic bomb” and the “cyber bomb.” The effort to enclose and commodify the “external” worlds of plant, animal, and mineral “resources” turned inward, to enclose and commodify human culture and human flesh. In other words: what we usually call the sexual revolution was, in truth, the transhumanist revolution.

But medical control of sex, from the Pill to the remodeling of sex dimorphism across the board, was just the beginning. Among advocates, trans activism is framed explicitly as a vector for the attainment of full-spectrum transhumanism. Martine Rothblatt, for example, states this plainly: “Freedom of gender” is “the gateway to freedom of form.” And for those who, like the multimillionaire Rothblatt, possess the wealth to capitalize on this dream of radically soluble and pliant flesh, the transformational promise beyond its gateway is near-irresistible.

We might, like Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos, pursue eternal life. We might seek selfhood liberated from sickness or aging. We might long for life as a “digital person,” escaping the embodied, “irrational,” evolved urges that form an inextricable part of what transhumanist ethicist Elise Bohan calls our “ape-brained meatsack.”

None of this can happen without the abjection and, ultimately, utopian abolition of any shared understanding of human nature. This is the driving force behind much of trans activism, whose advocates argue that it’s a “fallacy” to view puberty as “natural,” even as they mobilize arguments from the civil rights era to supersede its concept of personhood, replace legal identities based on a belief in natural givens with those based solely in dematerialized self-description.

Prime Matter

The elite vanguard bankrolling this revolution is motivated in part by “Enlightenment-based ideals,” as Bohan puts it. These include human individualism, self-optimization, and scientific progress. But as I argue in Feminism Against Progress, this onward march of liberation is inescapably also that of the market. So even as some dream of self-optimization, others eye the commercial opportunities to be realized by opening the human body up to commerce.

This colonization of the body is in truth already well under way. The privatization of sex’s moral valence, which attended its decoupling from procreation, enabled not just individual freedom but also a libertarian defense of the porn industry. Subsequent advances in mastery of life itself have gifted us not just more “choice” in family formation, but a trade both in the termination of embryos and also their creation: a marketplace for gametes, in vitro fertilization and for-profit surrogacy. Liberal feminism itself is centrally implicated in this dynamic, routinely reframing any and every advance in the manipulation of fertile bodies as still more “choice.”

Our transition to a digital-first culture has accelerated this beyond the domain of sex. Now all of politics is reimagined as radical self-fashioning, whose endgame is already envisioned in dark corners of the culture as technocapital enabling the ultimate free play of desire: “a sexless, genderless slime swarmachine.”

Here, human and nonhuman living matter alike are re-classified as primordial matter for remodeling, via a convergence of software programming and bio-engineering. But this isn’t merely the dream of internet crazies. It’s a vision that reaches to the heart of government, as evidenced by a statement from the White House last year on “high risk, high reward” new technologies that aim

to develop genetic engineering technologies and techniques to be able to write circuitry for cells and predictably program biology in the same way in which we write software and program computers; unlock the power of biological data, including through computing tools and artificial intelligence; and advance the science of scale-up production while reducing the obstacles for commercialization so that innovative technologies and products can reach markets faster.

Those with the power to capitalize on either the liberatory promise or the commercial potential of this vision may see only upside. For anyone outside the elect, though, the dematerialization of human form and human flesh signals proletarianization at the cellular level: flesh commodified while living, cut up for sale, blindly replicating in laboratories, but always ordered to the impersonal, instrumentalized logic of the market.

Iterated embryo selection takes this to its logical conclusion, conceiving human babies in vitro so these may be genetically sequenced, their stem cells harvested and turned back to gametes. Here we find human tissue disassembled not just to component parts, but something still more formless, dehumanized and abject. If used, as proposed, for cognitive enhancement, it offers us both extremes in one: a primordial flesh-soup from which (or so we are promised) the superman may arise.

The Buyers and the Sold

In this Promethean landscape, our bodies aren’t just workplace and product: they’re also raw material. Thus it’s in the space in between flesh-soup and superman that the wildly asymmetrical politics of the transhuman era come into view.

Predictably, this dynamic persistently tracks the net-native 1-9-90 model: most gains to the 1%, some to the 9% below, and the rest a largely powerless long tail. Elon Musk may dream of decanting consciousness from one body to another. His baby-momma, the singer Grimes, may speak hopefully of how we’re all now cyborgs even as she employs other women to gestate her babies. But the physical and emotional dangers endured by women thus “employed” makes it clear that it won’t be the daughters of the wealthy choosing this “career.” Rather, as in the “sex industry,” those assenting to the transformation of their bodies into both product and workplace are, for the most part, the 90% horde, compelled to these measures by economic necessity.

Now extend this still deeper into our dismantlement for sale. Treating humans as Meat Legos is all very well if you’re the one buying parts, but a different story altogether if you’re being disassembled. China already solves its shortage of donor organs by the horrific and well-documented expedient of killing political prisoners to order. Now, a recent proposed bill in Massachusetts suggests the only slightly less coercive measure of offering convicts reduced jail time in return for donating bone marrow or organs. As the right to sculpt and remodel extends ever further beyond medical emergency into the realm of self-actualization, how far can we expect demand to grow?

Even as new political battlefields emerge, concerning which entities have “moral status” and which may legitimately be treated as mere resource, the Right remains acutely ambivalent about the new flesh. Conservatives reflexively decry pediatric “transition” as child mutilation and denounce the TikTok teratologists sculpting themselves for clicks. Most pushback against splicing human and animal tissue comes from the Right, for example in the 2021 Republican attempt to amend a technology sought to ban human/animal chimeras. But the picture is far less clear where Prometheus’s stated aim is not to create monsters but supermen, for example via human/machine interfaces or polygenic embryo selection in the would-be ubermensch-factories of “pronatalist” baby-engineers. And yet all these are products of the same war on “nature” in the name of freedom, progress, and desire.

It’s true that disembodied online sociality has normalized radical body dissociation. But it’s harder to argue against this paradigm than to assent to it. And to the extent that conservatives remain as divided as everyone else, in the post-Christian era, on the ontology or moral status of human personhood as such, conservative counter-arguments will remain toothless or outright incoherent. But even more than sex, and for related reasons, the dematerialization of flesh is the scissor issue in 21st-century politics. No political movement with aspirations to mass support can afford to ignore how its asymmetric blessings and curses are distributed beyond the 1 and the 9, among the 90.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

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