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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Paula Hawkins: a pulp-feminist follow-up on The Girl on the Train

Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion in misogyny. 

A couple of years ago, Paula Hawkins, an Oxford graduate with a run of chick-lit novels to her name (well, to her nom de plume Amy Silver), became the latest example of various splashy phenomena. Most obviously, The Girl on the Train, her first thriller, made Hawkins an out-of-nowhere, book-clubtastic, “movie rights gone in a flash” sensation, on the model of E L James. It also made Hawkins, who had formerly worked at the Times, one of those journalist-turned-juggernaut figures, like Robert Harris and Gillian Flynn, a beacon of light to every deadline-haunted hack.

Not so publicised was the kind of writer the book showed Hawkins to be. The Flynn comparisons were perfunctory, the overlap limited to shared use of multiple narrators and that not uncommon word, “girl”. A puff from Stephen King was a little more in tune with Hawkins’s sensibility, a taste for the Gothic intensities that lurk beneath the everyday; but King’s praise – it kept him up all night – still missed her strangest virtue: not the gift for making people turn a lot of pages and feel foggy on the next day’s commute, but for using the mystery thriller form as a back-door polemic, every revelation bringing an adjustment of world-view, every twist of the plot putting a spin on what we thought she thought. More striking than Hawkins’s late success or old career was her emergence as a new practitioner of feminist pulp, the sub-subgenre in which men destroy and women suffer, whose most recent classic had been Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and whose presiding genius – its queen for fifty years and counting – is the hydra-headed literary combustion engine who usually signs herself Joyce Carol Oates.

Hawkins’s new novel, Into the Water, serves to make things clearer. It enables her readers to sketch a Venn diagram to identify what was incidental to The Girl on the Train – what merely helped to grease the wheels – and what she is obsessed with. Why call it an obsession and not a crutch, a formula, the hardening of habit? Not because what Hawkins is up to conflicts with readability – clearly that isn’t the case – but because she is building novels more intricate, more packed with implication, than readability demands.

Like The Girl on the Train, the new novel centres on a female victim with alleged deficiencies as a woman and mother. The body of Danielle “Nel” Abbott, a writer and photographer, is discovered in the part of a lake known as “the drowning pool”. Nel wasn’t much liked by the other local women. She had ideas above her station. She was a “slattern”. In fact, Nel’s death goes unmourned by everyone except her wild 15-year-old daughter, Lena, who is convinced her mother jumped, but for a good – withheld – reason. To Nel’s unmarried sister, Jules, who ignored a number of phone calls and messages, and who has travelled from London to watch over Lena and identify the body, Nel’s death is the final insult, another way of upsetting her existence.

Into the Water follows its predecessor in applying laser scrutiny to a small patch, but there are signs of growth and greater ambition. Last time the setting was a pair of houses on Blenheim Road, Bucks. Here it is the community of Beckford, a village in or near Northumberland, several hours’ drive from anywhere civilised – “if you consider Newcastle civilised”, in the words of one character. The Girl on the Train had three female narrators describing events, in mildly jagged order, that occurred across a single summer. The new novel features testimony from five characters, including Jules, Lena and the brother of Lena’s dead best friend, and provides close access, in the third person, to another five, including the best friend’s mother. Alongside these ten voices are sections narrated by Jules in 1993 – her experiences carry echoes of Stephen King’s Carrie – as well as passages from Nel’s unfinished manuscript: a photographic history of the Beckford lake called The Drowning Pool, containing a prologue and descriptions of three previous deaths, dating from 1920, 1983 and 1679.

The book isn’t free of cliché – the phrase “out of the woods” is not a reference to the rural setting – and some of Hawkins’s devices border on cheating. At various points a narrator starts talking about a previously shrouded incident soon after it has been revealed elsewhere, as if the characters were in cahoots, conspiring how best to frustrate the reader. There’s much recourse to the undefined event, the word “it”. (What?!) The outsider figure, Detective Sergeant Erin Morgan, is severely restricted in her role as a conduit for backstory. “Have you not seen any background on this?” her superior asks. No, she hasn’t. But Erin “should have been given the files”. Well, she wasn’t.

But most of the time, the novel is plausible and grimly gripping, and Hawkins plays fair. Characters aren’t only lying to us, they are often lying to themselves, or else they’re misinformed. The reader always knows more than any one character but never knows all that a character knows, and Hawkins trusts that the promise of enlightenment is sufficiently seductive to deliver information by the drip.

So, Into the Water is on a par with The Girl on a Train – and of a piece with it, too. Hawkins’s writing displays a suspicion of power, especially male power, though she is also eager to identify moments of female collusion not just in patriarchal structures, but in misogyny. The blame lies with men, who react with violence and psychological abuse to the perceived threat of a woman’s independence. But one of the main products of this mistreatment is that the female characters overlook the role played by such damage when considering other women’s behaviour and subscribe instead to a male-sanctioned narrative of stubborn irrationality or wilful coldness.

Hawkins seems more engaged with the second part of the equation, the way that women see themselves and each other. The radicalism of The Girl on the Train and Into the Water depends partly on the persuasive depiction of figures such as (in Girl) the pathetic drunk and the unrepentant home-wrecker, and in the new novel the money-grabbing mystic, the joyless spinster, the trouble-making man-eater. Then Hawkins exposes the truth behind the cardboard, the way these images have been constructed and perpetuated. Her plotting works as an ambush and also as a rebuke. “You didn’t believe that nonsense, did you?” she seems to be saying. “Oh, you did – and here’s why.”

The effect is less patronising than perhaps it sounds. The rebuke is aimed at the reader not as a citizen but as a participant in the thriller tradition. After all, the victim who deserved it is a familiar character: we have little trouble believing the type. Hawkins has set herself the challenge of adding a third dimension to the dramatis personae bequeathed by Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. We are accustomed to characters shifting shape as a story develops. The obvious suspect – twitchy, tattooed, alibi-less – was all along a Good Samaritan; the spotless widow has a cellar full of skulls. Hawkins goes further, showing how narrative presumptions betray unconscious beliefs, upending clichés of other people’s making. You might dismiss her as a killjoy if she wasn’t so addictive. 

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

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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