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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From Loving to Gold, the films gripped by homebuilding in America

In all three films, capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked.

If you’ve been to the movies in the last couple of weeks, you might have seen a film set in a Southern US state. In it, a man drives out into the countryside, and finds a square of untouched land. Maybe he brings his wife with him. He stands on the land and imagines a future in which he has built his own tiny empire on this patch of earth.

Gold, Loving and The Founder, all released in the UK in the last fortnight, are all twentieth century-set films that touch on ideas of the American Dream, and all contain variations of this scene.

Loving would be the story of a typical all-American couple living out their white picket fence dreams, if it weren’t for the regressive laws that invalidate their interracial marriage and see them banned from their home state.

We first catch a glimpse of the domestic life they long for when Richard Loving drives his girlfriend, Mildred, out into a field near where she grew up. “Whatcha think?” he asks her. “Do you like it?”

“You mean this field?” she replies. “This field not a mile from my house that I’ve been knowin’ all my life?”

“I want to put the kitchen right back here,” he says, before beginning to explain. “I bought it. This whole acre. I’m gonna build you a house right here. Our house.” The violins swell suggestively, and Richard proposes.

The scene functions as a way to both paint a picture of the idyllic life that Mildred and Richard were well on track to attain: only a few scenes later we’re abruptly reminded that the deception of the American Dream, perhaps particularly in this period, is that it’s open to all, “regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position”.

In Gold, Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) begins to make his fortune when he builds a successful gold mine in Indonesia. Shortly after his discovery, he drives his girlfriend Kay into a field at Maggie’s Creek.

She steps out of the car with her hands over her eyes. When she opens them, Kenny announces, “It’s gonna be our place, away from it all, above it all, just like we always wanted. You like it?”

When she breathlessly says she does, he begins planning: “Ok, look. The house, right here, alright? The kitchen, facing there, the great room over here, two fireplaces…”

“Can we afford this?” Kay asks.

“Almost, baby, almost,” Kenny says. “We’re almost there. Now look at this, a couple of bedrooms on this end, couple on that end. Look at this playground for the kids! How many kids do you wanna have?”

Kenny’s financial success working the land in Indonesia and the domestic bliss he could achieve building his own home back in the States are intrinsinctly linked in one upward movement, dreams achieved through persistance, self-belief and the ability to visualise a perfect future.

In The Founder, we veer slightly from these familial images. We see the McDonald brothers lovingly sketch out the floor plans for their fast food restaurants over and over again with chalk on tennis courts.

“What if the fryer goes here?” they mutter, trying to find the perfect organisation of stations to maximise productivity and efficiency. Meanwhile, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), the man whose vision will ultimately eclipse theirs, drives out to a patch of land and grasps the earth in his hand, whispering to it.

We’ve seen tropes like this before: take the abandoned home trope, for example. In films like It’s A Wonderful LifeThe Notebook and Up, male protagonists adopt abandoned buildings their wives and girlfriends have romanticised in some way, and with physical, rather than financial, effort, transform these crumbling structures into a family house. There’s an idealistic quality to these scenes that suggest any American can stumble across the perfect home and move in, and present a communal attitude to landowning like something out of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”.

But the scenes in these recent three films suggest something rather different - capitalism, landowning and homemaking are inexorably linked. The success of Richard’s construction business and mechanic work allows him to buy the land where he can build Mildred’s home, while Kenny’s goldmine enables him to purchase a shiny new estate for Kay. Ray’s emotional connection with the ground comes after he realises that he’s “not in the fast food business,” he’s “in the real estate business”. The McDonald brothers put the love, care and attention into the floorplans of their restaurants usually reserved for domestic homebuilding. There are tonal and contextual differences in these scenes, but they all see familial and commercial spheres merge over floorplans. 

But these movies also suggest that there is a lie inherent in the idea that rampant capitalism can lead to domestic bliss. Mildred and Richard are told that the life they have built together means nothing by a Virgina courtroom. Kay and Kenny’s relationship breaks down as his financial success becomes more and more impossible. And as for the McDonald brothers? Both they, and Kenny in Gold, must later face the gut-churning realisation that as their businesses are built on land owned by somebody else, they can be taken away from them, with little to no financial compensation.

There’s a nostalgia to these films – in the blissful life Richard and Loving begin to glimpse towards the end of Loving, after their court case has been won; in the pioneering, take-life-by-the-horns spirit of Kenny Wells and Ray Kroc that secures them their fortunes.

But the Woody Guthrie spirit of “This Land is our Land” has changed its meaning over time: written while Guthrie was paying rent to Donald Trump’s father, it’s now been adopted by protesters at anti-Trump marches. And all these films also cast a retrospectively sceptical eye over the social and economic contexts in which their stories are set.

In an America helmed by the ultimate real estate capitalist with his own regressive views, there is an eerily well-timed hint of cynicism at play. The ideals of the American Dream – that you can prosper regardless of your heritage or background if you just work hard – are fragile. And you can be locked out of your home, however hard you worked in building it. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.