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Abou Farman’s On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience

On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience

Abou Farman

University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 360 pages. 

Max More, a trained philosopher and the present Ambassador and President Emeritus of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, is of the opinion that most of us are caught in a “deathist”[1] trap. Aubrey de Grey, a noted gerontologist whose presence has become increasingly common on screens and magazines, expressed a similar sentiment in pointing to the “pro-aging trance”[2] to which, he states, many of us have succumbed. These two men are a part of a larger circle of “immortalists” who want to query our passivity in the face of ageing and death; death, for these men, doesn’t mark an inevitable end to life but is a “contingency of evolution’s” (p. 2), and a disease to boot, that needs to be averted. They also form the prime interlocutors of Abou Farman’s fascinating text titled On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience. Farman’s interlocutors, or at least a large chunk of them, are striving to realise a techno-future in which human beings would no longer be tied to their deficient biological carapaces. Intelligent life, thus freed from its organicity, could then proliferate as “information-beings” or “informatic selves” (p.4). To a reader whose proclivity would be to dismiss these visions as deeply narcissistic at best and outlandish at worst, Farman’s wonderfully considered ethnography also reveals the more familiar grounds on which this project stands. 

The book’s animating thrust is evinced by the tense articulation of “secular” and “immortality” in the subtitle. Immortality, a concern more readily identified with religion is explored here as a growing interest in secular scientific circles[3]. Inspired by Talal Asad’s formulation of the secular as a “social formation” and approaching secular immortality as a historical and a distinctly American project Farman inquires “what […this project] can tell us about secular assumptions and how…death and not dying [are] related to secular notions and ways of being human and of moving beyond the human” (p.6). By locating this project within a larger historical formation of secularism Farman gestures at the tensions in its folds which makes the project—its impulse, the unease it generates and its shaky status as science—better appraisable. Farman identifies these tensions as being generated by the “discontinuities” that secular modernity has engendered through 1) the elimination of the soul, 2) the elimination of the afterlife and, 3) the elimination of cosmological order and its incumbent excision of a telos/purpose. It is within and through a grappling with these “gaps” that immortalism as a secular project becomes meaningful. 

The book consists of 6 chapters of equal length, the first of which historically situates the project within larger currents of immortality research in the sciences. The first chapter details the potted history of immortality research in the West as spawned by, and sustained despite, the materialist elimination of the soul—not only in its invocation as merely symbolic and experiential in the social sciences and psychology but also as a legitimate concern within the sciences from the 1880s to the 1930s. Immortality, in these experiments at the time, came to be parsed through a materialist key. Time is of the essence in Farman’s argument here. Farman argues that biopolitics not only articulated an “individual” who was variously reduced to the finite goings-on of physiology and interpellated as a member of an abstractable “species being” but also effected a temporal politics. This temporal politics was at work through the recalibration of time to the workings of biology in the form of an organised finitude of the individual and its simultaneous expansion in the form of a progressivist species time through evolutionary theory. That is, whereas on the one hand secular time was not only expanded but also imagined as progression on the other hand the individual, restricted to its biological finitude, was unable to meaningfully partake of this progress in its comparatively fleeting lifetime—and this tension is what ultimately made these (materialist) immoralist enunciations meaningful. Much of this debate on immortality was thought to have been settled, before its more contemporary resurgence, with the growing consensus around the Hayflick limit in the 1930s that reintroduced decay as an inevitable part of biology. 

The following chapter details the resurgence of these interests in the more contemporary Silicon Valley backed immortalist project in America. It isn’t surprising that Silicon Valley, the prime hub of high-tech ventures, has capitalised on immortality’s “collapse of prediction and promise” (p. 29). Farman details the journey of contemporary immortalist research from its more humble beginnings in cryonics to the more recent iterations it has received under the influence of cybernetics, nanotechnology, the information and cognitive sciences. Immortalism, Farman argues, has been able to garner some form of scientific credibility andbacking by Silicon Valley partly because of its functioning as a “catchment site” that brought together “several groups and networks…around a common set of concerns and goals (p. 116). “Radically extended human lives” is surely a shared goal here but what brings these immortalists together is also their libertarian political ideals. The overt invocation of these political ideals remains despite the close associations many of them have with US government institutions such as the DARPA and the military. It shouldn’t surprise us to learn that immortalist ventures are dominated mostly by white men (although the gender composition seems to be slowly changing)—a fact that, needless to say, “impacts… their imperial claims on the future and their neglect of structural matters (such as race and gender) that shape the technologies and societies in which they work” (ibid.).

The three subsequent chapters take us to the ethnographic crux of the text. In chapter 3, titled “Suspension”, we are introduced to the “suspended figure” of the cryopreserved “patient”. These “de-animated” (quasi-)persons, suspended between legally pronounced death and their promised (this worldly) reanimation, are preserved in cryostats filled with liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius. Although pronounced dead by secular medico-legal authorities in the eyes of the immortalists they are merely in a state of de-animation awaiting science’s purported progression so that they can be reanimated as informatic beings. The very low temperatures of liquid nitrogen defer decay, as most biochemical processes are almost brought to a halt, and in so doing allow the addition of time to these “after-lives”—in other words, allowing them to wait it out. This leads Farman to understand suspension as “a space of translation between biological and chronological time, one that emerges as meaningful through the broader historical and cultural relation to finitude and infinitude, to secular eschatologies that on the one hand confined time to the body and on the other expanded the time of the world in which the body finds itself thrown” (p. 124-25). Farman parses this coming together of biology, politics and temporal experience as “chronobiopolitics”. The cryopreserved figure shifts the horizon of secular chronobiopolitics which sees death as the ultimate end. Although, the cryopreserved figure might be suspended “[i]n the virtual space between the actuality of a frozen body and the projected future of technoscience” (p. 126) it also exists contemporaneously as an actual (quasi-)person who is neither alive nor dead but in a “third state” which hovers in the cracks of and heightens the inherent instability of the secular dispositifs of the state, science and medico-legal regimes. 

In the next chapter a riveting account of a cryonics team navigating the secular “immortality regimes” in a bid to ensure the cryopreservation of patient X33 sets the scene for the ensuing discussion. Immortality regimes, Farman writes, “are the set of norms, knowledge, practices, rules, authorities, and institutions through which the transition between states of being is evaluated and processed in society” (p. 166). The chapter familiarises us with the intricate web of material-semiotic practices of the secular immortality regime through and with which the cryonics team has to negotiate to effect the transition from life to after-life, from “irreversible death” to the possibility of re-animation. The cryonics team finally succeed in transporting patient X33’s brain—after all for these cryonicists the brain is the person—across state lines to a cryonics organization. This chapter highlights the fraught nature of periods that mark the transition between states—between life and death or that between life and cryopreserved figure. Secular medico-juridical regimes try to quell the anxiety these transitional moments create by crafting “legal fictions” that peddle certitude but reveal their own instabilities at the last instance, instabilities which here are enhanced and exposed by the tussle with immortalists. For secular immortality regimes death signals the end of the “person” (subject) and their transformation into a mere (dead)body” (object) but legal institutions still leave room for various forms of postmortem protection—for instance corpses cannot be legally sold as commodities. On the other hand, for cryonicists the work of care and protection begins after the legal proclamation of death. In order to assure the protection of these after-lives cryonicists have to constantly use legal loopholes to their advantage while continuing to technically play by the rules. The question “what or who is being cared for” after the legal proclamation of death in this instance should direct us, Farman maintains, not to the purported absurdity of cryonic care but to the “zones of indeterminacy” which haunt secular institutions themselves. For secular regimes, suspended as they are between materialist and rationalist understandings of personhood (both borne by the same mind-body dualism that undergirds the secular),”the cryopreserved figure of Patient X33 emerges as the…ideal- typical escape artist” (p. 195). Cryonicists, through pushing reductive materialism to its limits, have constrained X33’s personhood to the brain. However, this reduction is insufficient in itself to warrant the “personhood” of patient X33, who in the absence of consciousnesses or any discernible biochemical markers, still continues to exist as “some-sort-of-person” wholly contingent “on a small community’s recognition of its potential for consciousness or autonomy” (ibid.)—pointing to the crucial relationality of personhood that much of anthropological literature has insisted on. Patient X33’s existence as an immortalist person-in-possibility calls our attention to how “the secular body describes a particular way in which an unresolved relationship between mind and matter becomes problematized in the nexus of law and science” (p. 169). 

From the tensions of secular personhood contingent on the mind-matter discontinuity we move to, in the penultimate chapter titled “Convergence”, a discussion of the last secular discontinuity diagnosed by Farman, i.e. the one between mind and the universe. In this chapter the focus shifts from cryonics to transhumanism which, according to Farman, articulates a novel cosmology, erected on the concept of “information”. Information here, by figuring both self and universe asinformatic, allows the possibility of a continuity between the cosmos and the self, between matter and meaning. “Super-intelligence” is the telos of the transhumanist cosmos and information its prime currency. The reader is familiarised with immortalist-transhumanist strategies such as creating and uploading “mindfiles” and breaming them out into space. No matter how “eccentric” and/or “esoteric” these practices might seem, Farman maintains, they reflect “other emerging views in other fields responding to the same secular gap” (p. 201). This is evidenced by the fact that information also serves as the token through which the “convergence” of the different fields of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and cognitive sciences (NBIC) is imagined. And, it is indeed this convergence “…around the notion of information that has energized the possibility of immortality through AI and turned immortalism into a computational or informatic assemblage” (ibid.). The chapter closes with Farman’s speculative musings on the cosmopoetic possibilities of  this “informatic cosmology”. In the informatic view of the self and the universe Farman diagnoses a cosmological response to the anxieties of entropy and heat death. In the informatic cosmos, in contrast to the entropic universe, complexity and order increase. In the transhumanist rendition of this informatic cosmos humans are but a mediary stage in this purported increase of complexity. However, it is humans, and an extremely slim minority at that—Silicon Valley technofuturists—who are tasked with enabling this transition; those who don’t share this vision of progress are willy nilly excluded from the future imagined here. Farman, however, wishes to recover a more “symbiotic” version of this cosmos, for the purposes of which he proposes a marriage between Amerinidan perspectivism (with a nod to Viveiros de Castro) and an informatic cosmology which he terms “informatic perspectivism”. Informatic perspectivism could be thought of as a “technoanimistic ontology, whereby the multinatural world is not exactly natural and the cultural substrate is not quite cultural, but actually information-based” (p. 233 emphasis added).  Although, information presents an interesting opportunity to possibly subvert the nature-culture/form-content dichotomy and a way to include “…nonhuman and nonorganic entanglements in the experiment of collective becoming…” (p. 234), it still makes me wonder in which cosmos (heaven) is this Amerindian and informatic match made?

The project of secular immortality having arisen from the “gaps” and “tensions” within secularism itself effectively pushes the ground on which it stands and generates possibilities that Farman wishes to recuperate. However, given that the project remains distinctly tied to the monies and technofutural imaginaries of Silicon Valley and underwritten by American frontierism it behooves us to carefully dissect the politics it effects. In the last chapter titled “Progress and Despair” the text careens to the considerations of the politics this project enacts under the garb of a universal appeal to extend/save lives. What is extended though, Farman argues, isn’t just lives but very “particular futures”. And, it is precisely this purported universalism which conceals the situatedness of the project and directs attention away from the structural asymmetries which animate it. Farman is right in asking whether “…extending life and defeating death [is] a matter of universal concern, as many immortalists argue, or is it a matter of selective power, a new configuration of biopolitics, of racial and geopolitical reconsolidation via technological rather than social arrangements?” (p. 240) On Not Dying is a wonderfully crafted ethnography which will appeal to a wide array of audiences including, but not restricted to, those interested in STS, anthropology and the history of science.


Purbasha Mazumdar is a PhD candidate at the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at The Graduate Institute, Geneva. Her intended dissertation, through its focus on a range of sites in India, seeks to ethnographically investigate the impending crisis of Antimicrobial Resistance and the history of its constitution as a global health concern.


Notes

[1]https://www.nytimes.com/1997/09/28/magazine/technology-makes-us-optimistic-they-want-to-live.html

[2]https://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/12/03/aubrey-de-grey/old-people-are-people-too-why-it-our-duty-fight-aging-death

[3]This tension is also exemplified by how, in the bid to insist on the scientific nature of these ventures and to distance themselves from the “whackadoo” (p.45), several of these projects have abandoned or tried to steer clear of the “immortalist” nomenclature.


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