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Page history last edited by OncoMouse 11 years, 11 months ago

Area #3, Question #1


Saint or heretic? The case can be made either way when one considers the work of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, especially in his major work, The Phenomenon of Man. The nature of his work would, on a quick examination, suggest the saint role, and, in fact, many commentators, including Julian Huxley in the intro to The Phenomenon of Man, talk about Teilhard within this register. Many focus on his persecution at the hands of the Catholic church for espousing unorthodox views on evolution, god, and The Bible. Despite the body of of commentary suggesting that Teilhard was a saintly and kind individual (often connecting to the trope of the kindly monk), a closer reading of The Phenomenon of Man reveals a much more conflicted intellectual landscape than easy summaries often depict. Partly, this tension reflects a tension within the discourse of evolution itself: Teilhard's work reveals a clear oscillation between the ecstatic possibilities of unfettered evolutionary progress for all and the discourses of primativism, scientific racism, and eugenics that often become tied up with such visions.


An interesting way of exploring the split between ecstasy and eugenics in Teilhard lies in Fredric Jameson's exploration of Utopia in Archaeologies of the Future. For Jameson, the Utopian imagination often bifurcates into what he calls "Utopian Science" and "Utopian Ideology" (following Marx and Engel's usage of those terms within their work). For Jameson, Utopia itself is the ongoing process of imagining future spaces and worlds without the taint of capital, and, as he says, this imagining takes two shapes. In the case of Utopian Ideology, the broad vision is the substance of future imagining: the impulses and political ambitions that drive the hope for a better future. This concept, however, does not cover the full range of Utopian activity, as Jameson finds in reading works by authors as diverse as Francis Bacon and B.F. Skinner. Often times, Utopian novels contain baroque explanations of the stuff of Utopia, the way, for instance, in B.F. Skinner's model of the future, the lunch trays will be much easier to clean in cafeterias. While Jameson is clearly troubled by this nerdy detail-obsession (and who could blame him? It seems difficult to hang the hopes of post-capital life on the shape of lunch trays), he calls this thought Utopian Science, which I would suggest is the material practices of producing and living in the Utopia described by Utopian Ideology. In other words, this split between Science and Ideology could be thought of in terms of the how and the why of Utopia.


Analyzing Teilhard's work in Phenomenon of Man in terms of Utopian Ideology and Utopian Science may help to explain some of the problems that exist within his work. Teilhard's account of transhumanism lies primarily within the sphere of Ideology, while the discourse of race that gets opposed to this argument may be thought in terms of Utopian Science.


Teilhard's ultimate vision involves the rise of consciousness towards an Omega Point at some time in the future. He sees the increasing complexity and organization of consciousness (represented at its peak by the human) as an oppositional force to the decay brought about by entropy. Teilhard arrives at this discourse through an attempt to merge the discourses of Hegelian dialectics, The Bible, and thermodynamics. He describes the dialectic as a wave that gains force as it crashes into the shore to be destroyed, given the fact that thermodynamics posits that any increase in order results in the lose of some heat to entropy. As such, for Teilhard, the dialectical universe will inevitably end in heat death. He finds this absolute end of all life to be at odds with the Biblical promise of life everlasting (taken, for Teilhard, literally, rather than in a figurative after-life). Therefore, Teilhard begins to consider the rising force of consciousness, as matter becomes increasingly cooled by heat death, as the answer, a force he calls negentropy.


He suggests that, ultimately, the negentropic force of consciousness, which has been increasing in complexity throughout the history of the universe, will arrive at an Omega Point in which the individual atoms of consciousness represented by human lives will merge into a single, planetary mind and exist in a state he calls "transhuman". This vision of transhuman life appears as an exciting vision of a Utopian future, but there are interesting complications in Teilhard's vision.


In one passage of The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard talks about how the gates to this transhuman future must be open by all and for all, so that people of all races and creeds can share in the "ultra-cerebralised", "ultra-technologized" "mass of humanity." While this may seem opposed to my earlier claims of racism, these statements about opening the future to everyone by everyone is rendered problematic by the presence of a footnote in which, at the bottom of the page, Teilhard explains that this condition of universalism can be meet even if the mass of humanity is guided towards the Omega Point by a small elite.


Who is this elite? A more difficult and interesting question that begins to suggest some problems.


The manner in which this small elite is summoned suggests another problematic vision of a Utopian future that is surprisingly similar to Teilhard: H.G. Wells's The Open Conspiracy. In this work, Wells discusses the possibilities of producing a post-national, world government organized around anti-war and socialist themes. For Wells, this process will be an adventure in which a small minority of true thinking, open conspirators would work to abolish the nation-state in an attempt to produce a Utopian worldview. In addition to being one of the main texts discussed by various New World Order/anti-UN conspiracy theories, the work had some influence on Teilhard. There is some evidence that Teilhard and Julian Huxley (as well as Lewis Mumford and others) were interested in the possibility of using UNESCO as a vehicle for establishing such an open conspiracy. In any case, a clear connection exist between Wells and Teilhard on the linguistic level (Teilhard refers to negentropy as "the adventure of consciousness" at a number of points in The Future of Man). What is important, for the present discussion, is to show how Wells discussion in The Open Conspiracy ultimately ends up arguing against many of its own claims. Reading through the chapters of the work on the actual process of creating a post-national government Wells is ultimately drawn to the violent coercion of the very national apparatuses he is descrying. For instance, he mentions that the struggle will often be hard and that, because the enemy is violent, the members of this global elite must also employ violence in order to arrive at their goals. While the interest in violence suggests the way Utopian Science can often undercut Utopian Ideology, it also suggests a hint of threat to the model of the elite that Teilhard is possibly drawing in the above-discussed footnote.


Even more problematic to Teilhard's mentioning of the elite within his framework for negentropic revolution is the probable whiteness of the global elite he envisions leading all the peoples of the world into a the Omega Point. There are a number of bits of evidence scattered throughout the text that suggest that Teilhard was allied with some of the more unfortunate aspects of evolutionary thought during the 19th and earlier 20th centuries. At a number of points within The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard points out that Australian Aborigines are less evolved forms of humanity, akin to Gorillas or Orangutans. Additionally, he says similar things about "negrillos." Moreover, his comparisons between non-Western cultures draws on the discourse of primitivism by suggesting, for instance, that while Chinese and African cultures have much to offer the world, they are not as privileged, evolutionary, as the West. He is rather explicit about this last point, suggesting in The Phenomenon of Man that the revolution in consciousness represented by the Omega Point has been forming around the Mediterranean for several centuries.


This presence of orientalism within Teilhard's work suggests unexplored comparisons between Phenomenon of Man and the French discourse on colonialism, in which, unlike other nations, the mission of colonists was, specifically, to help make other peoples of the world more French. Because, after all, despite Teilhard's evolutionary hierarchy of races (that places Whites at the top), he still views that the capacity for thought present in all humans is enough to warrant inclusion in transhuman existence. The possibly problematic element of this formulation is this role of the elite: by connecting his Utopian Science to French colonialism, Teilhard suggests problems within the totality of his system.


Or does it? One of the interesting and un-discussed problems with Jameson's split between Science and Ideology is what relationship the two spheres have to one another. While he spends a lot of time discussing Skinner's trays, he never really suggests what the one has to do with the larger Utopian program (leaving readers with the unhelpful suggestion that sometimes Utopians think about Science and sometimes about Ideology). While Skinner's trays may not suggest a problem, Teilhard's connection of the process of negentropy with the institutions and goals of colonialism does suggest that some theory of the links (or lack of links) between Ideology and Science is critical to the study of Utopia.


It does seem unfair to throw out the Ideological bathwater of transhumanism with the Scientific baby of Teilhard's colonialism, especially given that his attempt to think the human organism as subject to evolution (rather than merely being the product of evolution) is so important to much of 20th century thought. While building a unified theory of Utopian Ideology and Utopian Science is beyond the scope of this essay, I would like to suggest that divorcing Utopian Ideology from Utopian Science may, in fact, be easier than initially thought.


In Sri Aurobindo's The Life Divine, a vision of human evolution that is remarkably similar to Teilhard's theses is presented. For Aurobindo, the sphere of the supramental, a universal envelope of life (connecting all living things) and mind, surrounds us all, despite the fact that our individual, mental perspectives separate us from the unity that is possible within the supramental. Aurobindo suggests that the eventual re-merging with the supramental is the inevitable, evolutionary destiny of all humans, but he also points out that through meditation and study of the Vedic texts, the individual can gain access to the supramental at any time. While these two systems (Aurobindo and Teilhard) share the same Utopian Ideology, Aurobindo's context within Hindu thought creates a system of Utopian Science remarkably distinct from Teilhard's. In fact, a number of commentators on Aurobindo have noted this. In, for instance, K.D. Sethna's Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin: A Focus on Fundamentals, we find Teilhard's work being discussed in terms of an unnecessary complication of Aurobindo's orignal vision. For Sethna, both scholars share the same Utopian Ideology, but Teilhard has distorted its presentation by forcing it to fit within Christian eschatology and Biblical ontology. Sethna goes on to suggest that scholars interested in Teilhard are advised to learn more about Aurobindo (the book, it should be noted, was published by the Sri Aurobindo Ashram) due to his presentation of a transhuman vision that is much less encumbered.


Sethna's critique of Teilhard is an important point on which to conclude. While I have been discussing Teilhard's reliance on colonial and racial discourses, he is aware of the problematic ability of his own evolutionary vision to slip into such discourse formations. At a number of points in The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard points out that he is aware of this problem and is struggling to resolve it in his own thought (he is able to do so in some of the later essays in The Future of Man, for instance). Additionally, Teilhard's discussion of European fascism is interesting on this point. He mentions, a number of times, that there exists a similarity between what he is describing and the fascist politics of European at the time of his writing. He says that the reason for this is because fascism represents "the subtle deformation of a great truth" and that, while it eventually fell away from the Utopian vision of the transhuman in an obsession with violence and racialization, fascism is the closest Europeans have come to the necessary political apparatuses of negentropy. In any case, we can perhaps claim, in light of Aurobindo, Sethna, and Teilhard's own claims, that his reliance on colonial discourse and eugenic theories ultimately represents another instance of a subtle deformation of a great truth.

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