Superhuman?

Human enhancement comes under the microscope at the Wellcome Trust's current collection, 'Superhuman'.

Now the fevered flag-waving has finally wound down, let’s put the Olympics into perspective - my cat could outrun Mo Farah. This isn't the delirium of a besotted owner. No, the brutal truth of the matter is that, however many medals we humans award ourselves, in terms of pure physiology the naked ape pales beside our animal brethren. In spite of this, cats don't rule the world and this is because where we do win gold is our use of tools, which we have been successfully incorporating into the schema of our ineloquent neotenized bodies since before antiquity. Indeed, philosopher Andy Clark argues that homo sapiens are “natural-born cyborgs, factory tweaked and primed so as to be ready to grow into extended cognitive and computational architectures: ones whose systemic boundaries far exceed those of skin and skull.”

Superhuman, the new collection by the Wellcome Trust, is a shrine to such self-augmentation. Its glass cases are crammed with the strange and familiar - a false nose for syphilis suffers that looks like something out a Christmas cracker, dentures made of real teeth, glasses, early dildos, high heels, a leg prosthesis, pills, and many other cunning and bizarre contraptions, which together act as an effective wake-up call to how extensively "enhancements" permeate human existence. Accompanying these artifacts are art, films and academic interviews, which offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of enhancements and raise some crucial questions about how we should react to the approaching acceleration of augmentation.

At times, there is a little too much of this unstructured questioning. A talk by Clinical Neuropsychologist Barbara Sahakian, though otherwise insightful, soon dissolves into a slightly condescending barrage of ‘what do you think’? And by the end of exhibit being called upon so regularly for your opinion starts to appear less like open-mindedness and more like perspirative desperation at a lack of substantive answers.

The biggest disappointment, however, was the absence of interiority. Contemporary philosophers of embodiment tend to distinguish between the body as an object (this being the body of externality and organs as studied by medicine) and the lived body (that forms the locus of an individual’s experiences, existence and selfhood). Though enhancements can be directed towards the body as an object, for instance cosmetic surgery (though this does, of course, modulate an individual’s affect towards their own selfhood), it’s the impact upon the lived body, on an individual's abilities and experiences, that is surely the most appealing facet of human augmentation. After all, comic fans fantasise about being superheroes not for, say, the interesting molecular structure of the Hulk's muscles, but for the experience and power that having these muscles would entail.

Despite this, the lived body is a silent witness to the exhibit. There was one touching interview with boy with thalidomide impairments, but, as a child of merely five years old, his reflections were incredibly naive. One has to ask why they couldn’t have shown an interview with an insightful and articulate disabled adult like artist Alison Lapper? Unless, of course, you’re averse to giving the differently embodied an equal voice. Perhaps accusations of disablism are too harsh, but there is an awkwardness to a museum collection about body enhancement which invites us to address the topic through objects rather than subjective experiences.

If these omissions are shaming, the talk by philosopher Julian Savulescu is actively terrifying. Savulescu works from the sound speculation that our moral shortcomings could lead to our extinction, and proposes that we use our knowledge of neuroscience and psychology for the "moral enhancement" of humanity. Never mind trying to define the specifics of morality, it’s surely wishful thinking to believe that a society so self-serving that it risks its own existence can be trusted with invasively altering humanity's in-built morality in a way that's truly altruistic.

This sort of obstinate blindness to the real dangers of human augmentation pervades Superhuman. For though it goes some way towards addressing the ethics of individuals choosing to enhance, and successfully tackles irrational fears of technology subjugating humanity, no mention was made of how enhancements could be used by humans to subjugate each other. I shivered on reading the exhibit's projected timeline, which flings out predictions: by 2020 “people from all backgrounds and of all ranges of ability will acquire valuable new knowledge and skills more reliably and quickly”, while by 2030 “the ability to control the genetics of humans, animals and agricultural plants will greatly benefit human welfare; widespread consensus about ethical, legal, and moral issues will be built in the process”. Surely it isn't merely cynicism that calls this over-optimism? Foucault argues that the body is the primary target for societal control and considered through the prism of history it almost certain that the more radical augmentations on the horizon will only be available to the rich, and occasionally used for oppressive means. As an exhibit organized and funded by a scientific body, Superhuman aims to quash public fears that could dissuade research grants, yet such rose-tinted predictions are at best naive and at worst reprehensible, for blithely ignoring the dangers only increases the likelihood of their coming to being.

It's this unwillingness to address these darker, deeper and more radical aspects of enhancement that impairs Superhuman. As a collection of curios it can’t be faulted, but as an in-depth exploration of human enhancement, for all its blue-skies talk, it fails to soar to the heights.

Prosthetic legs are exhibited at the Wellcome Trust's new exhibition 'Superhuman' (Image: Getty)

Emma Geen is a freelance writer. She tweets @EmmaCGeen and blogs at www.emmageen.com

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism