Transhumanist Visuality: a Critical Iconology of the Technohuman Condition

Frommherz, Gudrun
Theunissen, Petra
Heim, Michael
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

The dream of human perfection, protection and immortality is possibly as old as humanity itself. Creative works of fiction that imagine eternal life have been traced back over four thousand years to the epic of Gilgamesh and beyond. The science fiction genre has constantly played with visions of extending human potential, of embarking into the universe, and of living forever. In contrast to the fictitious tales of literary and visual arts, the recently emerged transhumanist movement pro-nounced the ultimate fulfilment of human potential, the far-ranging enhancement of human capability, and the definite abolishment of death as factual and imminent. Through the insights and techniques of the new sciences – in particular the convergence of synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, robotics and genetics – the evolution of humanity according to trans¬humanist belief will greatly accelerate and lead to a technohuman condition in which technology fully absorbs what today is known as the human species. The brave visions by transhumanism of a superior posthumanity appear in today’s popular culture as images of cyborgs, super¬humans and new technological beings that portray human future as inescapably technological. In order to illuminate the role of popular culture imagery in the design, definition and actualisation of a shared future vision, this research scrutinised the visual regimes of what was proposed as “transhumanist visuality”. More fundamentally, this study concerned the role of the “cyborg image” in the propagation of the transhumanist agenda in public awareness.

The examination of transhumanist visuality involved one thousand images from the public domain of which six hundred were systematically analysed using content analysis alongside a critical iconological framework. This way, both quantitative and qualitative concerns for interpreting visual data were considered. The findings revealed a presence of purposeful iconographic registers that often uncritically supported transhumanism’s belief in the autonomy of technology and in technosciences as the sole key to human future. However, in contrast to the promises of human absolution through technology, it was observed that transhumanist visuality celebrated a narcissistic self-image but did not offer a future lifeworld. Further, the imagined posthuman stereotyped the instant gratification values of contemporary consumer culture mixed with a projected humanistic ethos that maintained – and further urged – a definite anthropocentric worldview. Overall, the findings of this study evidenced an obsession with the self rather than practical visions of the future. The relevance of these findings lies with a recognition of the ways in which popular culture images of the cyborg, often unknowingly, underwrite a technological ideology that serves the narrow interests of an elite more than the avowed progression of humanity.

Transhumanism , Iconology , Human enhancement , Visual studies , Posthumanism , Embodiment , Cyborg , Visual culture , Popular culture
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