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Composition Forum 38, Spring 2018

Review of James A. Herrick’s Visions of Technological Transcendence: Human Enhancement & the Rhetoric of the Future

Sid Dobrin

Herrick, James A. Visions of Technological Transcendence: Human Enhancement & the Rhetoric of the Future. Parlor Press, 2017. 240 pp.

James A. Herrick’s Visions of Technological Transcendence: Human Enhancement & the Rhetoric of the Future has absolutely nothing to do with composition studies. However, even though he does not say it directly, it has absolutely everything to do with writing and, thus in the same breath, has everything to do with composition studies. Or, writing studies postcomposition, more specifically.

Reductively, and as his title identifies, Herrick’s book presents an elaborate rhetorical analysis of conversations about human augmentation and enhancement toward the end of identifying religious threads within these conversations. He works to show how “an interconnected set of myths present in enhancement, transhumanist, and technofuturist discourse propagate a vision of inevitable technological transcendence” (153). Frankly, I have no interest in the religious, but Herrick provides a substantial case for the importance of religion in transhumanist enhancement myths. That is, he shows us how the rhetorics of transhumanist enhancement not only reflect a religiosity, but, at times, deliberately strive to supplant current religions. In this way, Herrick’s analysis is important—and interesting—to the degree that we understand the reception of particular scientific discourses as akin to religious rhetorics. Of course, given Herrick’s previous scholarship about rhetoric (see his book The History and Theory of Rhetoric or his book Argumentation: Understanding and Shaping Arguments) and his research about religion and spirituality (see, for example, his book The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition), bringing his rigorous rhetorical analyses to bear on the religious and spiritual aspects of increasingly important conversations of human enhancement makes sense. His analysis becomes necessary as transhumanist conversations escalate regarding transcendence and the idea of becoming (as Rob Zombie might put it) more human than human. In this way, Herrick’s analysis is critical and, as I have said, interesting. However, for those of us invested in writing studies and theories of writing more so than religion, Herrick sheds light on a crucial conversation regarding writing, transhumanism, and posthumanism that we cannot shy away from. In fact, I contend that Herrick’s work is important to writing studies’ on-going conversation about posthumanism in the same way that Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network (Sign, Storage, Transmission) is vital to writing studies’ understanding of mobile writing technologies. That is, Herrick gives us not only a comprehensive framework for seeing the transhumanist and posthumanist positions, but is a critical intervention as to how we understand the relationship between transhumanist rhetorics and key facets of writing studies like identity and embodiment.

There is no question that the rapid advances in technology we have witnessed in the last twenty-five years have affected how we understand the very notion of writing. In fact, when we consider the ways in which writing technologies are evolving in congruency with shifts in professional outlooks about writing, we inevitably end up speculating as to the future of writing and writing instruction. On March 19, 2015 at CCCC in Tampa, Adam Banks leveled composition studies with the proclamation “I hereby promote the essay to dominant genre emeritus,” a decree that announced what most of us already saw as inevitable: changes to the ways in which we must teach writing derived from the fact that beyond the academy, people now write very different kinds of documents than the time-honored academic essay. Different, we can say, primarily because of changes to the technologies through which we write, the places where we write, and the methods by which we circulate what we write. As Banks explained it, “the essay is a valuable, even powerful technology that has particular affordances in helping us promote communicative ability, dialogue, and critical thinking. But we have gotten too comfortable relying on those affordances as our writing and communication universe goes through not only intense change, but an ever-increasing tempo of change.” In the three years since Bank’s pronouncement, the field of writing studies, and in turn writing instruction, has been twisted by the sudden ubiquity of mobile writing, by technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), online writing platforms, course management systems, and even non-human writers (writing bots). Research by new field leaders like John Tinnell in his remarkable book Actionable Media: Digital Communication Beyond the Desktop and Tinnell and Sean Morey in Augmented Reality: Innovative Perspectives across Art, Industry, and Academia, among many others, have gnarled the models of composition set forth by our field in the 1970s and 80s and defended through the 90s and 2000s into a remarkably vital and inevitable technological restructuring. The digital, the technological, is the unavoidable future of writing studies and composition studies. Digital creativity and digital literacy emerge as the new dominant metaphors of writing studies.

Inevitable. I said that twice in the last paragraph. It is a term central to Herrick’s project, and Visions of Technological Transcendence does a great job of pulling back the curtain on myths of inevitability. It is one of the aspects of Herrick’s work that writing studies might learn from as technological shifts demand that we reevaluate the myths of inevitability our field adopted and defended in regard to the very definitions of what writing is and can be, as well as what writing instruction is and can be.

Once we set aside the religious aspects of Herrick’s study, what we are left with is a dynamic, eye-opening vision of posthumanism and transhumanism and the emerging technologies that underlie them. Inevitably, writing studies creeps into this conversation as every technology that Herrick addresses can be understood as a form of writing. Ultimately, the transhumanist argument is simple: humans now have and will continue to develop technologies that permit control of their own evolution. In doing so, this control will allow them to enhance their existence, to become better humans. Reductively, transhumanism is a theory of revision, of writing and rewriting. Whether couched as a rewriting of DNA code or rewriting digital code, writing undergirds human enhancement.

Herrick pays substantial attention to the distinctions between what I would call critical Transhumanism and popular Transhumanism—just as scholars have differentiated between critical posthumanism and popular posthumanism—distinguishing between the actual technologies at play and the popularized fantasies of what technologies might do. He separates, that is, the kinds of fictional apocalyptic narratives that promulgate human augmentation as ominous and the actual methods currently in use in biotechnology and medical technology ranging from performance enhancement for athletes to genetic testing for disease in vitro. These distinctions are critical, because, as I watch the brilliant season four of Black Mirror while writing this review, I see how engrained the fear of technology and human enhancement are culturally and how dependent our narratives of apocalypse have become on reacting to the very idea of human enhancement. In fact, such apocalypses and the narratives that circulate their inevitability became paramount at the 2018 “bomb cyclone” MLA plenary session The Matter of Writing, when presenter John Schilb put forward an ill-informed resistance to new materialism and the relationship between humans and objects/technologies in order to defend the inherent value of the human. Interestingly, of course, Schilb did not acknowledge his own enhancement, as he spoke wearing an ocular augmentation device (eyeglasses), wrapped in textiles to protect his body, and dependent upon a digital memory in the form of a mobile device to recall his talk (wasn’t memory a rhetorical canon? Is digital augmented memory, thus, also a rhetorical canon? I wonder how Plato’s Socrates would feel about delivering a talk using an iPad?). Clearly though, Schilb, and others on the panel, defended the human against the posthuman based upon popular, media-driven techno-apocalyptic narratives.

Ideas and technologies like those associated with writing genetic code to ensure genetic characteristics or merging human and technologies to make a better human beget narratives of fear that reveal core assumptions about what it means fundamentally to be human. In turn, such revelations call to question basic values of what we understand identity to be, and certainly for writing scholars and composition studies as an academic endeavor, how identity is written, the power of identity, and the politics of identity fall to a central disciplinary question of the relationship between writing and identity.

The transhuman is a rewritten human. The politics of posthumanism is a politics of writing. The coding and programming associated with rewriting the human are fundamentally writing technologies. Writing is a human enhancement technology. The technologies that are likely to emerge as beneficial to human enhancement will be inextricable from their writing. The technologies through which the transhuman, the posthuman, the non-human, and the human will continue to write require theoretical exploration and pedagogical implementation.

The simple matter is that the discipline of composition studies finds itself needing to continue to adjust to rapidly shifting technological environments. That is not unique; most other disciplines do, as well. In order to do so, however, composition will need to expand its understanding of—and acceptance of—a more expansive interaction between the human and technology toward the end of human enhancement. This requires new attention to the very idea of memory, to the idea of invention, to the idea of revision and so on. The very idea of “student” is redesigned not as subject, but as post-subject, echoing the shifts to the poshuman. Posthumanist writing theories and pedagogies unfold in dynamic new ways.

As I said, Herrick’s book has absolutely nothing to do with composition studies. Yet, for those of us who understand writing studies and writing instruction as evolutionary, as necessarily needing to change in accordance with global cultural, political, technological, and environmental changes, then Visions of Technological Transcendence is one of those books that helps us consider what else or what more we might be.

Works Cited

Banks, Adam. Ain’t No Walls Behind the Sky, Baby! Funk, Flight, Freedom. College Composition and Communication, vol. 67, no. 2, 2015, pp. 267-279, Accessed 5 Jan. 2017.

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