WHO'S IN YOUR GENES »
There may have never been a moment in history when human beings imagined themselves as only human. Throughout the ages we've fabricated ourselves as Animals, Demi-Animals, Demi-Gods, Gods, Stars (think constellations), Superheroes, Super-Machines... everything but human. Many of these roles and titles have been recurring; with futurism promising to take the baton from evolution and fast forward man beyond his boundaries of human.
To be human is to be mortal, and both those terms are practically synonymous with "ordinary". For instance, we "immortalize" great men who have done something extra-ordinary. The fact that we even use the term "immortalize" to suggest being remembered reveals just how unmemorable the mortal experience really is. No fool aspires to be "mortalized". Quite the opposite, actually. In his book The Art of Dramatic Writing Lajos Egri begins his sagacious instructional with the retelling of a Greek legend of an average, unexceptional man who goes about the task of desecrating the statues of the Gods. He repeats this offense over the course of days, somehow evading detection and capture, until finally, to the surprise of all, he turns himself in. When questioned about his self-surrender, knowing that he faced certain death for his crimes, the unexceptional man replied boldly, confidently, maybe even provokingly, that this was the only way for an average man like himself to gain immortality. He had to kill a God to become one. If the same man were to reincarnate into our own time and repeat his actions at, say, the Lincoln Memorial he would achieve his goal all over again, proving that, like the Pharaohs of Egypt, our Presidential history is comprised not of mortals, but of Gods. Consider the sculpture of George Washington by Horatio Greenough, whom intentionally mimicked the famed "Zeus Olympios."
In the Summer of 2011 I published a fiction novel titled Clone, a story about man's relationship with the technology that promises to elevate him to beyond human. Shortly after the release of the book I designed and curated an exhibition of the non-fictional version of the same tale. The exhibition was titled Only Human and was purposely buttressed with the release of Clone to show that the novel was anything but original. That is to say that for thousands of years man has created stories and images about his shift from Mere Mortal to, forgive the corny wordplay, More-tal. The story begins, appropriately, in the stars (notice the direction that Washington, Zeus and St. John are pointing) where humans began to project images of themselves, their animal neighbors and even a hybrid of both.
It may be impossible to know precisely when the human imagination first began doing this or even why since there are no obvious and overt anthropomorphic forms in the clusters of stars. We tend to grant only a primitive, child-like intelligence to our earliest ancestors, and yet it is far more likely for a child to find a recognizable shape in a day time cloud than in a night-time sky. How and why the "child-like" imagination of ancient man saw human and animal bodies in the stars escapes us. Maybe it was because it was simply a nice idea: stars are up there and we're down here, and equating ourselves with the heavens is a definite upgrade from being just plain ol' human. Carbon, which is present in all known life forms, and is the 2nd most abundant element by mass in the human body, was created by nuclear fusion in stars. If you entertain the ancient and New Age romanticism which decrees "As Above, So Below"; or if you prefer the modern scientific assertion that we are made of the same stuff as stars; it seems that the notion of originating among the stars is just too sexy for even modern man to brush off.
When finally descending from the heavens and taking human form on Earth, the human body quickly becomes restless and takes on a number of transhuman shapes and forms. The Egyptians excelled in this area. In their Book of Coming Forth by Day, which, unfortunately, is more commonly known by the erroneous title The Book of the Dead, we find recitations or formulas for transforming the human body into other forms. Formula 77 is for "transforming into a falcon of gold." The next formula takes it up a notch with transformation into a divine falcon. Jump ahead to the 80th recitation and you learn how to transform "into a God and project light into the darkness." Before you rush and buy a reprint of these books you should know that they are rich in symbols and defy any literal understanding as to how these formulas were intended to work. The Greeks were fascinated with the mythology of the Egyptians, borrowing freely from their inventory of Gods and Bodies while adding some of their own creative inspiration; though the Greeks seemed to have been just as concerned with realism as surrealism. The Body, as represented by the Greeks, is identical to the celebrity bodies of today, which is to say, all muscular contours and zero fat. Gods and Goddesses never lose their figure as we mere mortals are apt to do.
Only Human abruptly jumps from Antiquity to the Renaissance since this was a period of looking back at the wisdom of the ancients. They were a strange breed of futurists since, and quite paradoxically, by looking back they moved forward. A strange and sometimes amusing mixture of the science and sacred informs the depictions of the human body from this period. On one hand there is an anatomical accuracy reminiscent of the Greeks; on the other hand the depictions of the dissected body are of living, breathing people who are wont to show off their entrails as if it were a fashion statement. Among the plethora of poses of these undead subjects are those that are religious in tone (a kneeling, praying skeleton), suggesting that anatomists and artists of the Renaissance were trying to convey a certain sanctity of the human body. However, a careful and closer examination reveals that these animated zombies are actually subjects of medical illustration!
Of course, there's nothing to say that these Body Images didn't serve both ends as many anatomists felt that they were revealing the intricacy of God's masterwork: the human body. However, the more that was learned about this master work the more the body was suspected to actually be a machine-at-work. The planets must have aligned for this revelation when, remarkably, the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius published his book Fabric of the Human Body, reputed for its anatomical accuracy, around the same year that Copernicus demoted and displaced the Earth (and every human body on it) far away from center stage of the Solar System. Suspecting the far reaching implications of his work, Copernicus waited until just before death before releasing On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres. The timing of the release of these two groundbreaking books confirmed the Hermetic axiom "As Above, So Below"; just not the way the ancient mystics had intended: the heavens and the human body were mutually machine-like in nature. The sacred body was on its way to being wholly secularized, a process that culminated with the schematic and impersonal deconstruction of Gray's Anatomy.
However, the anthropological autobiography doesn't end with Gray's Anatomy. Nor is it entirely accurate to call this juncture a new beginning. What happens next is more like a Hollywood re-boot of an old movie franchise. All of our ancient archetypes are being re-visited and refurbished for this next Renaissance where we look back once again at the Greek Body before rushing to our surgeon who re-opens his copy of Gray's; then nips, tucks and sucks our blundering bodies into those images and forms once reserved for only Heroes and Gods. The celebrity body used to be regarded as a parody of the human body; especially in the case of women like Pamela Anderson who decisively ordered their portion of technological enhancements in sizes of XXL. A friend of mine coined the term "Pam Burger" as a catch-all label for any person, man or woman, who had obviously subjected their MeatWare to multiple surgical upgrades. Pam Burgers never caught on as a meme despite the increasing volume of paddie-people walking among us. In fact, these days the tables have turned. The Celebrity Body is no longer a parody of the Human Body, but rather the other way around. The Human Body in its raw, fat and saggy condition is proving that it is better to be a Pam Burger than a Ham Burger. I think now of the book The Body Sacred, written by Dianne Sylvan, when she quite humorously and desperately tried to remind her readers that "There are people out there who love themselves just the way they are. No, really." Her petition, though good for a laugh, failed to be convincing, even to herself. People are turning to technology, or at least to the gym, to have their form and figure made to mimic The-Body-As-Seen-on-TV, which was made to mimic The-Body-As-Seen-In-Myth.
Speaking of mythology... is there any denying that our Modern Superheroes, with their zero-fat bodies, are mythological reboots of the Ancient Heroes of old? Sure, "Comic Book" doesn't sound quite as venerating as "Holy Book", but try telling that to someone who preserves their sacred collection in plastic protection bags and who will stop short of bitch-slapping your ass at the mere suggestion that these modern myths are for kids only. You'd fare better making the same insult to a religious fundamentalist. Consider yourself warned.
Believe it or not, even our Robots, which epitomizes the Machine Body of Gray's Anatomy, are not exactly a new invention despite the intellectual threat posed by them. The very notion of a Machine Body was probably the greatest ego-breaker from the time of Descartes to today, and this is probably because machines lacked an intelligence that seemed exclusive to man. Though they were birthed from man's intelligence, they lacked it and that meant they were far from being our equals. They performed routine tasks, ad infinitum, without complaint or quarrel (unless of course we consider the occasional breakdown to be a machine's way of saying enough is enough).
To call the human body a machine was nothing short of blasphemy. Machines taking the form of humans was even more challenging to the human psyche, implying that The Newtonian Body, like all machines, was animated by mechanical laws and not a mystical soul.
These days machines aren't so dumb anymore. Mark Twain, whom from his adventures in book publishing, knew the tremendous skill involved with justifying text and figured the automatic typesetting machine of James Paige to be the advent of Machine Intelligence. Computers, which perform such tasks instantly, must then be Machine Intelligence 2.0. Surely Artificial Intelligence, depending on our preferred definition of it, is either here or just around the corner. Take this intelligence and place it in the noggin of a Robot's body and you have... well, something that the ancients thought they had five thousand years ago. Like the number crunching of Machine Intelligence, the star watchers of the ancient world were convinced that the "wandering" bodies of the heavens, which could be predicted and understood with number, signified a type of intelligence. A 2nd or 3rd Century-ish Hermetic document describes how the ancients summoned down this Astronomical Intelligence (A.I.) from the stars and imbued them into statues. Laugh if you want, but these God-Bodies were God-Bots running on Artificial Intelligence. Okay, most likely they weren't running on anything but rather standing still in their sacred sanctuaries; but the cultures that conceived this idea perceived otherwise. Fast forward to today and we realize that not a lot has changed. Not everyone is convinced that Robots, even with face recognition algorithms and expanding libraries of keywords that broaden their ability to find the right response when addressed, really are endowed with "intelligence" or consciousness. Then again, not everyone is convinced that intelligence or consciousness is anything other than the ability to process information. If the human brain and body are really just data crunchers then the only thing machines need to do to lessen the gap between us and them is jazz up their appearance a bit more; a detail already kick-started by Apple Computers.
Intelligence or not, the bodies of these “beings” haven’t changed:
Gods and Robots are made in the image of the human body.
Finally, there's the cracking of the genome; which brings us to today and back to Clone which has a time-setting of only "Ten Years from Today." As mentioned before, Clone is meant to be a continuation of the story of the past, present and future body. Modern technology has given us the license to re-imagine ourselves with new archetypes, but biotechnology in particular seems to promise that these archetypes can be made real. When I read about the various transgenic experiments of biotech I can't help but think about the Centaur, the Minotaur and other transgenic bodies of ancient mythology. Perhaps these archetypes are recurring because they are inevitable. Perhaps human imagination is limited by its own body.
Or maybe the past is as compelling as the future. Hopefully Only Human proves that the past and the future do not mutually preclude each other. There is an antique symbol of West African heritage called Sankofa. Like the Ouroboros (a snake biting its tail) which is more familiar to Western culture, Sankofa depicts a bird arching its head and neck back far enough to touch its tail feathers, symbolically reacquainting the future with the past. The present, with its stubborn obsession with NOW, seems to be the only one ambivalent about the other two. Such indifference is strange since the present seems to only harbor mere mortals, whom as we've seen, historically crave to be More-tal. If humans are to ever become more than human we must take the advice of Sankofa and look to the past and the future. Only in these exotic dimensions do we find ourselves as Gods, Angels, Heroes, Cyborgs, Robots and Super Humans. And maybe a few clones...