Becoming Superheroes, the Race to Post-humanism

(Individualism vs Collectivism, 31 Oct 2012)

George Bickers ·

Images of post-humans permeate every aspect of both popular and high culture. They can be seen in anything from children’s television show to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Even stage magicians appropriate post-human fronts. With such huge levels of exposure across a broad range of culture, we as a society must crave ever more of the post-human. But why? And is the race towards collective post- humanism an important goal that we should actively pursue?

My first exposure to post-humanist ideas came from Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra”. Nietzsche’s contention that humanity in its current form represents a transitional stage to post-humans led me to a profound realization. Some of my favourite comic book characters represented Nietzsche’s übermensch: superheroes were literally post-humans.

And how could they not be? These were characters that left mere humans dazzled at their physical prowess. They may not always be ethically conscientious, but post-humans cannot entirely escape their evolutionary pattern, just as humans cannot fully escape their primitive past.

Tim Kring’s NBC show, “Heroes”, is a great example of post-humans in popular culture. The viewer is presented with seemingly regular members of the public who share a slightly different genetic code to the rest of humanity. When these people experience some sort of trauma, their latent superpowers are unlocked. These powers range from physical ones – such as flight, super strength, super speed etc. – to mental ones: telekinesis, bending time and space, reading people’s minds etc.

But what set this portrayal of the post-human aside from more traditional superhero representations was the actual evolutionary difference between these heroes and the rest of the general public. We see in comic books that the advent of superpowers usually arises from being an alien, or from some catastrophic lab accident, or just from having a lot of money to augment one’s body. They are technically not post-human – they either never were human, or haven’t biologically transcended humanity.

Why then this fascination, and in some cases obsession, with post-humans? In our secular, Westernised society, the post-human goes a long way to replacing the idea of gods. The post-human exceeds the power of humans to such a level that they are elevated to the prominence of the mythical heroes of antiquity and religion.

Prometheus stole fire from the gods. Meredith from .“Heroes” can conjure fire from her hands. The biblical angels are winged and can fly. So can .“Heroes” Nathan Petrelli. We view these mythical characters with reverence, and these modern post-human humans with envy and awe. To lift a quote from Nietzsche:

What is the ape to man? A laughing stock or a painful embarrassment. And just the same shall man be to the Superman: laughing stock or a painful embarrassment.

Humans aspire to the level of the post-human for many reasons, but I posit that the main reason must be to escape the normality and constraints of what it is to be human in order to make a real difference to the world. This is the root of the popularity of superheroes vs. super-villains. Who doesn’t want to protect their loved ones, their city, the world, from the evil they see around them? Alternatively, who has felt so strongly about something that they wanted to become a super-villain, to pit themselves against the world and whoever comes along to stop them?

The appeal of the superhero is the ability to be the individual that helps the collective around them. This could be for purely selfish reasons – the adoration of followers, the attention, the money even. But, one would hope that the post-human might not only have escaped the confines of human biology, but also the confines of human flaws such as greed and jealousy. Conversely, the appeal of the super-villain is to be the individual that disrupts the collective.

You may think that I’ve watched too many T.V shows and read too many comics. You may be right, but let us try to realign this argument: is the pursuit of post-humanism a worthwhile goal for humanity to move toward?

As hopeful as I may be, I don’t believe that there are humans out there sharing a different genetic code to that of the general population and that, more importantly, I am one of them. I don’t feel the push towards post-humanism is evolutionary – not in full at least. I believe what will one day be called  ”the post-human” will be a combination of intellectual and technological evolution.

To move forward intellectually, I am of the belief that one needs to “regress” culturally and re-establish scientific and individual experimentation with psychedelic drugs and the plants that they are derived from. We could use their imagination enhancing properties to further thought and discussion surrounding ideas both intellectual and non-intellectual. To move forward technologically, we must rely on biochemists, nano-technologists, and healthcare researchers to overcome the biological limitations of the human form. While the end goal of prolonging human life indefinitely may be some way off, the drive towards mechanising some human functions to prolong life perhaps even indefinitely is an exciting and daunting project to consider.

These pushes towards intellectual and technological evolution are not selfish goals that simply hasten the rise of the post-human. Often these innovations inherently yield benefits to humanity. Intellectual evolution stimulates new thinking, leading to new debates and, one would hope, positive outcomes to the problems facing humanity. Technological evolution – perhaps in its most accessible form – brings with it usable technologies that improve the lives of entire swathes of society.

We see that the race towards post-humanism leaves many changes in its wake. If we as socially responsible individuals continue to push toward this goal (through debate, intellectual and social pursuits, and a vigilant pursuit of progress) the rise of post-humans will be a form of individuality embraced by and helpful towards the collectives we continue to comprise.