My rating: 3 of 5 stars
When I saw Verso’s 2017 reissue of this 1929 book in the library, I picked it up because I vaguely recalled that it had informed Grant Morrison’s work around the turn of the millennium, such as The Invisibles, which I recently re-read. Unfortunately, I can’t find any evidence that this is true, but I read the Irish Marxist scientist Bernal’s brief, spirited utopian tract anyway.
Bernal fell into a disrepute as a thinker in the mid- to late-twentieth century not only because he was a Marxist, but because he was an outright defender of Stalinism, even after those breaking points of the Hungarian and Czechoslovakian uprisings in the 1950s and 1960s. Nevertheless, this new edition of his first book features an introduction by McKenzie Wark (from which I derive the above information) defending its continuing relevance on the two grounds of the political left’s 1.) need to deal with science (and not just philosophy and art) in “the Anthropocene” and 2.) need to appeal to affects other than Adornian miserablism. I certainly sympathize with the latter goal, and was charmed by Wark’s linkage of Bernal not only to the socialist Shaw but to another Irish literary predecessor:
Bernal’s thinking in this era is, among other things, the aesthetics of Oscar Wilde expanded to a scale that imagines making over the cosmos itself as a work of art.
Bernal’s title refers to three areas of human existence that, he hopes, will come increasingly under rational control with the progress of science: the world is nature, the external environment; the flesh is the human body itself; and the devil is the psyche or human consciousness. In other words, as Bernal puts it, the physical, the physiological, and the psychological.
He imagines the future conquest of nature as a conquest of space: we will live, Bernal claims, in small globes among the planets, bounding through open space across low-gravity plains. As for the human body, it will extend its life as a brain in a cylinder connected to the world by various wired and wireless mechanisms; not only that, but it will join itself to collective brains, which will change our perception of what it is to have a self since they will persist in some ineffable quiddity even as constituent parts join up or die off.
Finally, Bernal relies on Freud for his psychology and imagines that as we distance ourselves further and further from nature, sublimation will play a greater and greater role in our experience: the energy that once went for biological reproduction will now go toward technological and social reproduction; Bernal, who uses the word “perversity” as an honorific description of evolution’s ingenuity, gives his latent aestheticism full rein:
The art of the future will, because of the very opportunities and materials it will have at its command, need an infinitely stronger formative impulse than it does now. The cardinal tendency of progress is the replacement of an indifferent chance environment by a deliberately created one. As time goes on, the acceptance, the appreciation, even the understanding of nature, will be less and less needed. In its place will come the need to determine the desirable form of the humanly-controlled universe which is nothing more nor less than art.
Again, I share Wark’s wonder that the left used to be able to strike this tone, before the defeat of its prophecies, at least in their orthodox form, turned it to the “ruthless criticism of everything existing” less as the negative moment in an ongoing dialectic than as an end in itself, whether exhibited by the grandeur of Adorno’s all-encompassing denunciations or by the anhedonic carping of social media.
On the other hand, there are good reasons to mistrust utopianism, from whatever ideological quarter. At the end of this short book, Bernal worries that psychoanalysis will actually make us happy by restoring us to the innocence of our animal desires and thereby turning us away from sublimation’s glorious goad to self-transcendence. The scientists, though, will never be appeased, Bernal speculates; in the evolving Soviet state he imagines that scientific bodies will actually be able to seize political control (“the scientific institutions would in fact gradually become the government, and a further stage of the Marxian hierarchy of domination would be reached”) and take to the stars, leaving psychoanalyzed bovine mankind to graze on the earth, itself now considered by the future star children as a “a human zoo, a zoo so intelligently managed that its inhabitants are not aware that they are there merely for the purposes of observation and experiment.”
Bernal signals by his title that his speculations are religion by other means (he inadvertently echoes Dante: “consciousness itself may end or vanish in a humanity that has become completely etherealized, losing the close-knit organism, becoming masses of atoms in space communicating by radiation, and ultimately perhaps resolving itself entirely into light”), but he often forgets to account for that as he elaborates his eschatologies. As for aestheticism, it is often misapplied when joined to politics, just as politics is often misapplied when joined to aesthetics: artists might provide hints to the multiple agencies who make the world, but in general no one party or guild—not even my own—should have total control, of this planet or any other. With these twentieth-century cautions in mind, though, maybe we can begin to think again about making a future that at least fascinates, if it does not offer salvation.
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