Friday, December 31, 2010

Witness the Last Man

Francis vs Bob

2011 is to the future what twenty-two is to adolescence. In the roll call of millennial benchmarks 1999 was thirteen,  the year we finally become teenagers (and we could finally party like it was Prince had promised us we would). Stanley Kubrick made 2001 a far more adult benchmark, it was more akin to a sixteenth birthday, we got our drivers licence, but we were becoming aware that this future/adult thing was happening right now. 2008 turned out to be our like an eighteen,  it was the year we voted (yes we can). 2010 was the year Aurthur C lark promised we would make contact, it was our twenty-one, the final benchmark of our transition to future-present adulthood, and we all needed a drink. 2011 is our twenty-two because that is the first birthday in which there is no great benchmark to look forward to. It's first year of the rest of your life. Welcome to the future, the end of benchmarks, the end of history. It sounds grim, but it actually isn't, it a really good thing.
In his book, The End of History, Francis Fukuyama writes:
According to Hegel, the universal and homogeneous state fully reconciles the contradiction that existed in the relationship of lordship and bondage by making the former slaves their own masters. No longer is the master recognized only by beings who are somehow less than human, and no longer are slaves denied any recognition of their humanity whatsoever. Instead, each individual, free and cognizant of his own self worth, recognizes every other individual for those same qualities. In abolishing the master-slave contradiction, something was preserved of each of the terms: both the master's freedom, and the slave's work.
Witness: the first man

In the lead up to this non-benchmark New Year I've been thinking about the Man of Tomorrow, and I was reminded of Robert Heinlein's book, Time Enough for Love, in which his Man of Tomorrow, the immortal Lazarus Long, lists the things he felt ever human should be able to do. The list, which comes from Heinlein's book, Time enough for Love,  is something I haven't read since high school. But I remembered it started with "change a diaper" and ended with "die gallantly." Despite its romance-novel sounding title (I remember my girlfriend at the time teasing me about it), and injunction to change a diaper, I remember the the book's main character, Lazarus Long, as a macho-man badass. A master of the future. I imagine him as Harrison Ford in Witness: sweaty, hairy chested, shirt unbuttoned, gulping his lemonade in one long draft while an Amish girl watches with a mixture of fear and desire (forgive me, I was cat sitting over the holiday for a friend who has Cinamax). Heinlein's New Utopian was what Fukuyama calls "the first man," the master, of the master-slave dialectic:
Hegel's "first man" shares with animals certain basic natural desires for food, for sleep, for shelter, and above all for the preservation of his own life. He is to this extent, part of the natural or physical world. But Hegel's ""first man" is radically different from Animals in that he desires not only real, "positive" objects - a steak, or fur jacket with which to keep warm, or shelter in which to live - but also objects that are totally non-material. Above all, he desires the desire of other men, that is, to be wanted by others to be recognized.... Man is fundamentally other-directed and social animal, but his sociability leads him not to into a peaceful civil society but into a violent struggle for pure prestige. This "blood battle" can... terminate in the relationship of lordship and bondage, in which one of the contestants decides to submit to a life of slavery rather than face the risk of violent death.,The master is then satisfied because he has risked his life and received recognition for having so for having done so from another human being
The Hulk: last man containing the first man.

I have a long personal history with Heinlein. The first book I can remember reading for my own pleasure was Heinlein's Have space Suit Will Travel (awesome). And although Heinlein was all about manly individualism (cut from the similar cloth as Ernest Hemingway's Lost Generation) and I was a super skinny arty kid, I remember liking his books a lot as an adolescent. Although I went to the same high school as Hemingway did, I never identified with the Lost Generation's bravado, who at 16 doesn't want to be a master? But I have never been mistaken for a master. I am more solidly what Francis Fukuyama calls  history's "last man... men without chests":
For Nietzsche, democratic man was composed entirely of desire and reason, clever at finding ways to satisfy a host of petty wants through the calculation of long term self interest... Nietzsche believed that no true human excellence, greatness, or nobility was possible except in aristocratic societies... morality involves a distinction between better and worse, good and bad, which seems to violate the democratic principle of tolerance. It is for that reason that the last man becomes concerned above all with his own personal health and safety, because it is uncontroversial.... Men with modern educations are content to sit at home, congratulating themselves on their broadmindedness and lack of fanaticism. As Nietzsche's Zarathustra says of them, "For thus you speak"'Real are we entirely, and without belief or superstition.' Thus you stick out your chests - but alas they are hollow!"
I am skipping past a lot of Fukuyama's youthful neo-con axe grinding - the Leo Straussian desire to artificially re-instill secular life with a moral religiosity I find patronizing. Fukuyama is a lapsed-neo-con, and I like to think The end of History marks the beginning of this split with the ideology of the William Kristals and Scooter Libbys of the world. While the book is loaded with pat right-wing resentment for soft-hearted liberal stuff like "cultural relativism" and "identity politics" (both of which I see as unambiguously positive developments), he rejects Nietzsche's anti-democratic morality of the rule of the strong and begrudgingly admits elsewhere that the end of history is best represented by the bureaucrats of Europe Union not the patriots of the United States (no one is willing to die for the EU). If I take exception with some of Fukuyama's attitudes, I have come to admire him as a thinker.

Sleeper: solidly last man.

I am pretty content to be a man without a chest. I identify with Nietzsche's "democratic man" and really have no desire for greatness if the price is the burden of aristocrats. I never liked Heinlein's militaristic right-wing machismo and I like the neo-con's fraudulent moral high handedness even less. With that in mind I have been worrying the diaper changing opener to Heinlein's list. I've come to the conclusion that it wasn't included as a sop to the slave mastering himself, but something a man of Heinlein's generation would have imagined as heroic - its easy to forget in an age where changing a diaper involves handy-wipes and perfectly engineered disposable diapers the stress that cloth rags and steel safety pins must have involved. The human being of Heinlein's list is no house husband, he is all mast no slave. With that in mind I decided to rework his list from the perspective of 2011's end of history. Answering the twenty-one things Heinlein believed a human being should be able to, with the twenty-one things I imagine the last man should be able to do:
According to Heinlein:                                        According to a man without a chest:
1.     change a diaper                                           unfold a bugaboo
2.     plan an invasion                                          strategize a social network campaign
3.     butcher a hog                                                be humane
4.     conn a ship                                                    protect the sea
5.     design a building                                         hire a contractor
6.     write a sonnet                                                update a blog
7.     balance accounts                                          file for bankruptcy 
8.     build a wall                                                    assemble an Ikea wall unit
9.     set a bone                                                       universalize health care
10.   comfort the dying                                         be a pacifist
11.   take orders                                                     question authority
12.   give orders                                                     be authoritative
13.   cooperate                                                       participate
14.   act alone                                                        stand apart
15.   solve equations                                            love the data
16.   analyze a new problem                               master a new interface
17.   pitch manure                                                  pitch an idea
18.   program a computer                                   update software
19.   cook a tasty meal                                          locate a locavore  restaurant
20.   fight efficiently                                              fight inefficiency
21.   die gallantly                                                  live civilly
Specialization is for insects.                             Specialization is a luxury to be enjoyed.

District 9: The Metamorphosis of the last man

1 comment:

  1. I just found this quote on Kevin Kelly's Technium site:

    "I'm glad I didn't have to fight in any war. I'm glad I didn't have to pick up a gun. I'm glad I didn't get killed or kill somebody. I hope my kids enjoy the same lack of manhood." Tom Hanks

    It's a nice addendum to this post.