Summer 2004

The Post-Man Always Already Rings Twice

Fragments for an understanding of the future

Dorion Sagan

It’s all the same fucking day, man.
—Janis Joplin

There’s no life nowhere.
—Jimi Hendrix

The Future Times
“Today” I received this strange news item but it had no address on it, so I am passing it on to lucky you. By post-man I will have meant (mostly) post-human. And he (so to speak) rings twice. At least.

The first ringing is literal, and refers to that which comes after man in evolution. The first ringing announcement that the post-human has arrived has to do with speciation, guesswork, machines; with loose predictions that fall off a cliff of accuracy as we extrapolate physically non-extrapolatable trends into the future. The classic example of a non-extrapolatable trend is the graph of human transportation modes over time. I discovered this in John Platt’s futurism class at Harvard, which I audited in the 1980s (after 1984, before 2001). Extrapolated, the hyperbolic curve of increasing velocity made by peripatetic pedestrian philosopher, horse-drawn carriage, automobile, airplane, and rocket ship does not take long to exceed the speed of light, a progression that is impossible under Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Another example—more pertinent and potentially horrible—is an extrapolation of human population growth. I committed the “fact” of total world population to memory in grade school. It was three billion. Now it’s almost doubled. We know from the fossil record and observation of bacterial growth in Petri dishes that the greatest species abundance sometimes occurs in generations immediately prior to population collapse. The first ringing of the post-human is thus linear or literally futuristic, and as such speculative, most readily explorable by the science-fiction imagination.

Unfortunately for us as humans, the majority of fictive post-human realities are characterized by the total absence of Man, except of course as the imaginer. (I mean “Man” in the old, general, sexist sense of the term. Of course, some futures include men without women and women without men. In some futures there will be only women, cloned lesbians more satisfied and less ecologically destructive without the Y chromosome. Perhaps they will replicate Arnold Schwarzenegger’s disembodied pectoral muscles for white breast-meat in annual Thanksgiving to their triumph. Nonetheless, my meaning of post-human is inclusive.)

The Future Untimes
The second ringing or meaning of the post-human is for me both more interesting and more accurate with regard to the post-human, the after-man. Because I take it as axiomatic that linear time may be (sometimes is) an illusion, the second, non-linear or metaphysical aspect of the post-human operates not in the science-fiction future but in the present. Logically, of course, the future is a construct. As Saint Augustine of Hippo reportedly said, “I know what time is until you ask me.” The future is always to come; we never get there except in our imaginations, as with the past. It is always now. Mystics and hallucinogen-ingestors sometimes report the experience of seeing time “end-on,” although the word “experience” here is inadequate insofar as it connotes precisely that duration in linear time that is being called into question. Alan Watts has stressed that while ecologists, biologists, and physicists know that the organism and the environment are not two things separated by a subject-object relationship—but are rather a single process, a unified field—they don’t necessarily feel that this is so. This argument is similar to the idea that time is possibly illusory or insubstantial, a conclusion which can be logically arrived at by, say, asking you to point in the direction of the future. According to Benjamin Whorf, the Hopi locate time behind them, because it cannot be seen. The past is solid, visible, because we can see what happened (think of “hindsight”); the future is liquid, open, black, and frightening, but wonderfully full of potential. Outside time, such differences blend or further differentiate. Glossing Heidegger in a footnote, Derrida describes how, in the non-vulgar or “Greek” conception of time, times past, present, and future converge and diverge; they are at once touching and infinitely distant. Perhaps the founding example of such post-human nonlinearity is Nietzsche’s discussion of the last man and the Übermensch in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The last man, the overcoming of man, and the superman are, clearly, not just literal (as in Hitler’s interpretation) but allegorical. On the one hand, Nietzsche, thinking of Darwin, complains how these English are no philosophers. On the other hand, Zarathustra—his prophet up in the mountains who talks to the animals and informs mankind that God is dead (but the news has taken a long time to reach us)—espouses the theory of eternal recurrence as his most important doctrine. At the very least, the idea that everything that can happen will happen, and not once but an infinite number of times, does not go along with simple, linear, evolutionary scenarios.

So we have then a double meaning, a double-entendre, of the future: one linear, one non-linear. The post-man’s first ring announces the future of man; the second is uncannily silent, more a buzz or a beep. This is the human future that never arrives because it is already always here.

There are problems with both ringings. But in the end I think the nonlinear, atemporal or polymorphically temporal post-human version is the more resonant. Ironically, the playful and metaphorical view of the human future is not only broader but more literally true than what Heidegger calls the received or “vulgar” view of orderly, progressive, linear time.

But before I veer off into unreconstructed mysticism, let me say that the fragmentary, the fallen, and the derivative do not belong only to the present age—as Derrida argues, against Rousseau, in Of Grammatology. Language itself, the splintering of things into signs, into alphanumeric representations, calls into question our idealized image of the past: the golden age, our happy childhood or, cosmologically, the unity of the singularity at the Big Bang. This seems to be the same absent sense of wholeness, of the halcyon, that we project into the future: heaven, merging with light, a dissolution into the ecstasy of the sexual or the neural which relieves our constitutive sense of loss. Freud’s student Otto Rank located this loss in the original trauma of birth, the loss of the womb—the experience of which might, if we could remember it, be compared to floating in space or lying on a raft on opiates in a sunlit pool. To be alive is to be deprived of this Edenic yesteryear for which we long, and this utopian future for which we strive. Lacan suggests that both are based on the illusion of the uncoordinated, wobbly toddler looking in the mirror, or at its mother, and hallucinating its own unity. Locating the mirror stage in the register of the Imaginary, Lacan marks it as the gateway into language, into the splintering of signification. The idea of wholeness in the past as well as in the future is thus a narcissistic illusion.

One familiar way of illustrating this doubleness, this insistent and split entity arriving at our threshold with the news that never quite comes but is already always here, is to look at radical science fiction scenarios for the far future and to see how they stack up against the present. A visitor from humanity’s future is projected back in time, landing, for example, in lower Manhattan, in the middle of rush hour. “Ah, what peace!” he sighs. The witty geneticist J. B. S. Haldane said the universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose. Truth, or what Lacan calls the Real, is stranger than fiction, including science fiction. (Granted, not all agree. Fiction guru and Cornell professor Paul West scoffs at the idea that anything is stranger than fiction. But I guess that, for me, fiction is a subclass of nonfiction, just as the linear is a subset of the nonlinear.)

There is a branch of science fiction concerned with the idea that life will evolve into robots, that consciousness will be based on silicon or metal rather than carbon. If an MIT graduate student could build such a silica-based robot—one which could make more of itself, a real nanotechnological von Neumann machine—he would get a Nobel Prize. But these nanobots already exist. We call them diatoms and radiolarians, and they build their beautiful tiny skeletons from silica, which they take from the ocean. With regard to metal, magnetobacteria have tiny magnets in them which they use to orient themselves to Earth’s magnetic poles, and chitons scrape corals with their iron teeth. Life is ahead of the human game of fiction.

Or take Isaac Asimov’s novel The Gods Themselves. Asimov depicts an alien world with three sexes, which come together at maturity into permanent union. Members of each sex are attracted to members of the other two. At the end they transform from ethereal beings that can move through each other into “hard ones” that are physically solid. In fact, something very similar has already happened in evolutionary history, when the ancestors of mitochondria penetrated archaebacteria to make amoeba-like cells ancestral to your own. Another lineage was joined by cyanobacteria to make the cells ancestral to all algae, seaweed, and plants. Even the fluidity of bacterial movement, their ease of penetration and genetic transfer, was stalled with the evolution of the real “hard ones”—the eukaryotic ancestors to animals.

Second-generation face robot from Hara-Kobayashi Laboratory. © Peter Menzel/

Another example of scientific truth being stranger than science fiction: In a story by the golden-age science fiction author A. E. van Vogt, two spacecraft rendezvous. They link hulls, breed their human inhabitants and, having accomplished their mission, continue on their interstellar way. Literally, this is a far-futuristic post-human scenario. The spacecraft has become the skin or exoskeleton of the human. The mode of reproduction has radically altered, and the phenomenology of human existence too. How strange. And yet this is, I would argue, an allegory for what has already happened to people. When we look at these lonely, far-future descendants who have forgotten their past but occasionally link up for some quality time in the depths of space, we have to think of ourselves. We are constructed partly of hard parts (e.g., the skull encasing cranial software), and have “forgotten”—lost touch with—the deepest parts of our biological history. The events which induce us to seek each other out and regenerate new beings that grow from amoeba-like cells are part of a bizarre microbial past compared to which our ape heritage seems positively flattering. Insofar as “we” remain cells, the “spaceships” of our bodies are at once glorious crafts carrying us across dry land and cyborg extensions of our soft and slippery inner core.

Moreover, we must assume that the Vogt crafts, in order to avoid needing to restock themselves with food, to be truly space-faring rather than merely “camping out” in space, they must be jointly a recycling, self-sustaining ecosystem. And if they continuously recycle bio-elements to support their symbiont-like humans, then we have not just an allegory but a literal description of present ecological relations on what Buckminster Fuller called Spaceship Earth. A human being feeds collectively on its external ecosystem; one is not a Platonic island separate unto oneself. Thus the post-human lesson from van Vogt’s story (as I choose to interpret it, imagining the necessary details of the life-supporting craft) is that what we call “human” really includes the bacteria, the protists, the plants and fungi—everything we need both within and outside our bodies to be what we are. The meeting of the human-containing spacecraft in the depths of space re-inaugurates the pattern of interconnecting, thermodynamic flows, exposed only partially to conscious control, that established our cellular forms in the first place. We naturally gravitate towards repetition of those processes that allow for the genetically safeguarded repetition of our pattern of metabolic cycles in new, inevitably aging entities. It is instructive to think of machine and organic evolution together. Although, for example, we like to distinguish conscious mechanical creation from unconscious genetic evolution, modern devices such as color televisions depend for their manufacture upon so many globally distributed processes that eventually these decentralized functions become self-perpetuating or “unconscious” at the level of individual worker or company. A woman does not make a baby consciously, and yet her conscious choices can influence embryogenesis. Similarly, mechanical production processes that were once consciously engineered become more automated and “physiological” as consciousness, moving on to new and more pressing tasks, forgets its former triumphs.

The machine craft imagined by van Vogt are no less strange than our dependence upon agricultural machines and cell phones, laboratory-made antibiotics, and factory-made automobiles. A true space-faring ecosystem requires not just ecologically complementary life forms, but also the mechanical “shell” necessary to protect life from astronomic insults, from radiation and collisions. We are open thermodynamic systems simultaneously using high-quality-energy sunlight (through the intermediary of food) to organize our environments, even as we inevitably degrade that energy, adding heat and entropy to our surroundings in a high-stakes process. Technology has appeared on Earth, while many species of mammals, and other animals and plants, have disappeared. We are already cyborgs packed with prostheses—although the prostheses are usually outside, not inside, our bodies. And yet even this may not be true. For, from a deep-ecological standpoint, we ourselves can be seen as spaceships made by massive populations of intermingling cells. Instead of an exoskeleton protecting us from cosmic rays, we have an endoskeleton protecting us from gravitational strain. Instead of sparsely colonizing space from a base on Earth, we celled organisms have densely settled the land from a base in the ocean. The calcium extruded by cells to make bones in our bodies was, for our ancient cell ancestors, a poison. Eukaryotic cells shed calcium ions, and this ancient marine waste was stockpiled; eventually it became involved in the metabolic processes of cell communication and growth, and evolved, in our animal ancestors, into muscle movement and, in us, into thought. The inevitable thermodynamic pollution resulting from life’s growth was shaped by and incorporated into life’s structure. And this appropriation of calcium was not an isolated incident. The same thing happened with free oxygen, which also began as a toxic waste. Over time, the outside becomes the inside, the house a body.

As we try to imagine the immense journey from cosmic birth through life’s origin some ten billion years later to the evolution from bacteria of humans taking up the most recent third of known time, our temporal sense is strained. Nevertheless, our ability to imagine infinity, so important to mathematics and physics with its eternal laws, suggests a bizarre alliance between infinity and time. In evolution the post-man rings once, but in infinity he has already always rung. “The Earth is no more a rock with some life on it,” it has been said, “than you are a skeleton infested by cells.” The sheer temporal immensity of the evolutionary process may make it difficult, if not impossible for us to picture it without Zen-like perspectival shifts that are apt to emphasize more what we don’t or cannot know than what we can. Our hard parts and cells feel like one skin-encapsulated being—but when I think how, when driving a car, a close scrape impinges upon me physiologically, giving me a sensation as if the metal to which no neurons are attached were part of my own body, I am persuaded that, when it comes to ego, there is no absolute there there.

In other words, our bodies are what Samuel Butler, Darwin’s contemporary and author of The Way of All Flesh, called microbial “tool-kits.” Butler envisions a day “when all men in all places without any loss of time are cognisant through their senses of all that they desire to be cognisant of in all other places, at a low rate of charge so that the back-country squatter may hear his wool sold in London and deal with the buyer himself—may sit in his own chair in a back country hut and hear the performance of ‘Israel in Egypt’ at Exeter Hall—may taste an ice on the Rakaia [a New Zealand river] which he is paying for and receiving in the Italian opera house. ... [This is] the grand annihilation of time and place which we are all striving for and which in one small part we have been permitted to see actually realised.”

This is fascinating, for here, ca. 1865, Butler—who took Darwin to task for making life too mechanical and got back at him by applying evolutionary theory to machines in order to consider them as natural—extrapolates the telegraph to anticipate the Internet.

Perhaps the greatest science fiction story would be a literal description of our present reality, but couched in terms that made it unrecognizable until near the story’s end. We love the future because we don’t know what it will be but because we can, to a slight extent, shape it, and because in our narratives it is always uncannily familiar. In a linear frame, however, we have to be careful with prediction because it is too often simple extrapolation. Butler may have “predicted” the World Wide Web, but in decades past it was also predicted that every home would one day have its own rooftop helipad and that each town would have its own telephone. Linear extrapolation is doomed because exponential rates of change cannot continue. “Only two things are infinite,” said Einstein, “the universe and human stupidity.”

But rather than end with a mysticism-friendly scientist, let’s give the “last” word to a science-friendly mystic. In 1974, Alan Watts, the greatest popularizer of Eastern philosophy we have ever had in the West, wrote in an essay titled “Psychedelics and Religious Experience”:

The Western man who claims consciousness of one-ness with God or the universe thus clashes with his society’s concept of religion. In most Asian cultures, however, such a man will be congratulated as having penetrated the true secret of life. He has arrived, by chance or by some such discipline as Yoga or Zen meditation, at a state of consciousness in which he experiences directly and vividly what our own scientists know to be true in theory. ... There is no way of separating what any given organism is doing from what its environment is doing, for which reason ecologists speak not of organisms in environments but of organism-environments. ... The Western scientist may rationally perceive the idea of organism-environment, but he does not ordinarily feel this to be true. By cultural and social conditioning, he has been hypnotized into experiencing himself as an ego—as an isolated center of consciousness and will inside a bag of skin, confronting an external and alien world. We say, “I came into this world.” But we did nothing of the kind. We came out of it in just the same way that fruit comes out of trees.

Works Cited
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves [1972] (New York: Bantam, 1990).
Samuel Butler, The Shrewsbury Edition of the Works of Samuel Butler, Henry Festing Jones and A. T. Bartholomew, eds., (New York: E. P. Dutton & Company, 1923–1926).
Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, tr., (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976).
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, Walter Kaufmann tr., (New York: Dover Publications, 1999).
Otto Rank, The Trauma of Birth (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1929).
Alan Watts, Does it Matter? Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality (New York: Pantheon Books, 1970).
Paul West, Master Class: Scenes from a Fiction Workshop (New York: Harcourt Brace, 2001).

Dorion Sagan has contributed to Zone Books, Pabular, After Dark, Clean Sheets, Terra Nova, and Black Box, as well as Wired and the New York Times Book Review. His most recent projects include short writings about rocks to accompany Bill Atkinson’s photographs in Within the Stone and the co-authored Into the Cool, a book about complexity, thermodynamics, and living purpose due out from University of Chicago Press.

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