T. Zachary Cotler: from Elegies for Humanism

The following three essays are excerpts from Cotler’s monograph Elegies for Humanism, which will be published as a book by Rare Bird Books this year.

“Outlasting Artifacts”

Outlasting Artifacts

Cryopreservation starts to be effective on large mammals. Anti-aging therapies, nanotechnology, and wetware loom. Predictions by futurists, long more science-fictive than pragmatic, that enhancements will extend biology until we’re something more than human, now are keys to cultural planning. Exponential models, e.g., Moore’s Law, outdate linear models. These new data force a reevaluation of the direction of flow in the power-triangle of artist, artifact1, and death. I will define my vertices:

From cave painters to postmodern poets, artists have directed energies against entropy, resisted and distorted their environments, reforming ideas and emotions into artifacts which, lasting beyond many human life spans, seem perennial, thus death is rendered not invincible, despite that artists die.

This triangle produces rhetorics, which have progressed from paintings of totemic, static animals (perhaps to mitigate the fact that living things must be destroyed for food) to the 20th century’s rhetorical zoo, including deconstruction’s ouroboros, in which “death” is no more real or less than any other sign on a page. Throughout, the direction of flow has remained fixed:

artists master artifacts,
artifacts master death,
death masters artists.

Religions and too many artists continue to favor escapist, palliative rhetorics, in which death is “beautiful” and “natural.” If so, it’s been a beautiful, natural tyrant. It can be heroic to rebrand oppression as freedom, but only when there’s no chance whatsoever, not even one in ten thousand, of real manumission; and so, with certain technologies on tonight’s horizon, the monk who absconds into silent surrender, renouncing ego, fame, sex, and complexity, who welcomes his senescence, is no hero judged against a Gilgamesh, a Franklin with his cask of Madeira, ragers in the dying of the light, beyond which is no afterlife.

The Kantian position holds: whatever meld of selves and others molds a human mind, there’s nothing that mind can experience that’s not entirely emergent from the patterns in a brain. Experienced othernesses can be renamed selfnesses with no descriptive loss. Whether a given otherness is an atom of the ego or the universal Tao is a semantic quibble one may flip and analyze ad stuporem via 20th and 19th century existential methodologies. “For I is an other,” Rimbaud reminds, and the reverse is just as true. The inclusive fact of the ego remains, and the ego reckons with death.

When an ego comprehends it is a firefly in the combined shadow of cosmology and death, it is no wiser to embrace inconsequentiality than to proclaim absurd significance. Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus would have us be absurdly noble soldiers in a pacifistic war against invincible mortality: if I am an absurd type, a quixotic, a didact, a Don Juan, a maker of worlds on paper, an actor who dies onstage a hundred ways, I am a solitary soldier confronting a legion; and I will not cut my own throat, because, to do so, translated from metaphor into mentality, is to accept a modest life and death. Instead, I’ll yawp and crow and charge and die, disarming twenty legionaries if I can. In other words, I’ll write the artifacts that will outlast me; I’ll absurdly battle entropy with ink.

That’s better than “embracing my mortality,” but can such an existentialist-Romantic stance stay valid when (assuming, merely out of optimism, civilization does not crash back to the nearest metastable, less advanced state) artists of the decadent first world may opt to undergo cryopreservation2—circa 2050, 2070?—with expectations of revival decades, even centuries, later, maybe even after mental upgrades have outmoded human languages, which will be then too slow and inexact and linear for art and intercourse?

What if homo excelsior’s ego, processing the sum of human artifacts in seconds, will perceive its timeline backward, whether hazily or with hypnotic clarity, to memories recorded by a fully human brain, but will have outgrown and outlasted any artifacts it fashioned with that brain?

What if certain artists currently alive will outlive literature itself? How then should we be writing now? We should be poets of technology of course, but not of songs of praise, because there’s little doubt the ending of the human era will not be a technophile’s utopia. Wealthy nations will acquire enhancements first, and global suffering may not decline. Thirst for oil and water may cause global wars. Environmental changes of uncertain magnitude are on the way. Bioconservative and poorer populations likely will remain entirely or mostly human for a long time, and among these will be artists. Human by choice or force, they will make artifacts, but these will, of necessity, be interesting to progressive cultures anthropologically more than artistically; these will be artifacts comparable to cave art painted in 2015, except the differences between these humans and homo excelsior will be immensely greater than the differences between Cro-Magnon and ourselves.3

We should be poets of the posthuman horizon, but, even more, while we are human, elegists of what, as humans, we have been and done. And we should be as passionate and unsarcastic as the gravity of such an epoch demands. Art we make in this century ought to reflect its bold position in art history (even if we’re wrong, if functional cryonics is five centuries away, let us be excellently wrong, let us have written thinking our position was a bold one); toward such a goal, I offer the ideas that follow.

1. Artifact will refer primarily to literary creations, as that’s my field of expertise, although I hope my arguments are more or less adaptable to any of the discrete arts as they exist before the (inevitable?) rise of an inclusive art-life continuum or virtual reality. back

2. Skeptics should consider the primitive, but far from quackish, state of cryonics in 2015. I refer them to the Alcor Foundation and similar institutes, which currently vitrify only legally dead persons in accordance with United States law; it is likely such laws will be emended with the maturity of nanotechnology and its applications in cellular repair. Eric Drexler’s 1986 book, The Engines of Creation is a place to begin for artists interested in nanotechnology. Look also into work ongoing at the University of Michigan by Hasan B. Alam, who’s had an 85% success rate bringing pigs into and out of suspended animation. back

3. The ethical considerations generated by assertions and eventualities like these become so fanged and tangled that a dozen essays wouldn’t serve to safeguard this one, so I’ll merely throw my dice into the snake pit and remark that even the most fervent of egalitarians might gaze where I can’t help but gaze. Trotsky’s prophesy from Literature and Revolution: “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.” back


Preparing for the end of humanism by creating human artifacts is Sisyphean and Icarian, an antidote to nihilism. Excluding nihilism, modes of thought and discourse might be arguably sorted into three encompassing perspectives.

Humanism, especially in art, has dominated recent centuries, assigning ultimate importance to the human in an otherwise non-rigid, secular hierarchy.

Supernaturalism, that perspective of religions and the art of the deeper past, assigns to humans an ontology entirely reliant on divinity, with hypothetical, supernal worlds and entities assigned immeasurable supremacy.

Naturalism disregards the supernatural and studies humans as phenomena, equating them in consequence with asteroids, bacteria. It aims at objectivity. Its products have been largely scientific, with a few artistic outliers.

Transhumanism4 is a fourth perspective, more than the sum of the previous three, but for reductive purposes of setting goals for art: transhumanism follows humanism in privileging subjective consciousness, shuns superstition, urges scientific objectivity, not least regarding the approaching advent of augmented, more-than-human subjectivities, and tolerates a nearly supernaturalistic reverence for these subjectivities, preparing consciousness to leave biology behind; and yet, transhumanism is a paradigm in which the thinkers are, and will be for some time, entirely or mostly biological.

Transhumanism is, as a perspective for chaotic minds preparing to be of, and to experience, higher states of order, an attempt to fly toward that which makes us blind, to try to think as if one is more than oneself. But, unlike visionaries of the supernaturalistic past (Muhammad, Blake), we can’t be prophets, true or false. We can’t be more than sober thinkers trying to prepare ourselves and others for a great, intersubjective, natural shift, albeit supernatural in scope and quality.

And so instead of supernaturalistically or humanistically presenting dogmas for the betterment of human ways, instead of telling individuals it’s not so terrible to die, transhuman artifacts aim to ready consciousness for change, both terrible and not, so human ways can fade with dignity instead of outrage. Even if a fifth perspective, one posthumanistic, will not come for centuries, it is in sight, with consequences so immense, transhuman preparation is imperative.

Imperative: an openness to voices more advanced than common human speech, to artifacts that seem to lack the warmth and modesty and/or self-deprecation so much in demand in recent decades. A human with a chaos in her brain, well-circumscribed by her intelligence and memory, may learn to

listen to the Babel-fire
(that is, the aleatory noise
of dictionaries atomized,
reorganized, re-atomized,
the words like flames, now solo,
interburning into holons,
now returning to the total fire)

and, out of it, retrieve the testimony of a “personality” beyond her own. This is not hubris. What’s more humble for a human artist: to seek personalities, perspectives, worlds less humble than those common in her human life, or to extol that human life, effectively to glorify herself?

Transhuman artifacts and artists can be fiercely forward-thinking, ready, untouched by nostalgia, but the stronger artifacts and artists, I suspect, are not quite ready, not untouched. This stronger state is Elegiac, as I’d like to more specifically call artists and artifacts that, while transfixed by the future, principally concern themselves with honoring the long human era as it dwindles.

To compose transhuman, Elegiac artifacts, one cultivates what one might call a trans-temporal sympathy, with which one reads and writes as if contemporary readers and writers are already distant histories or fictions, as if long-dead characters and writers are one’s near-contemporaries. Sympathy for Hamlet or Hafiz or the women who were hanged in Salem (who aren’t likely to return the sentiment) might well be a more impartial, selfless sympathy than what one may feel for one’s citizen and literary peers.

An elegy is not an atavism. Yet we must aspire to dying standards of high art without defensive sarcasm and/or political uneasiness about that highness. This in mind, transitioning is not as difficult as one might think, considering how long and finely human art has sung of individual mortality. This fundamental angst is easily refocused on the broad mortality of humanism.

If transhumanism threatens to estrange the artist who believes she’ll die too soon for such a radical perspective to be germane to her art, she ought at least to dodge the kitsch-asceticism of “embracing one’s mortality.” Camus’ quixotic, pacifistic war is still the way for her.

4. I use “transhuman” with some trepidation, as the term finds itself increasingly applied to, and assumed by, admirable thinkers (for example: nickbostrom.com/fable/dragon.html), but also ludicrous media-prostitutes, techno-messianics, Hollywoodians, sci-fi conventioneers, New Agers. Nevertheless, I hope the term retains the basic meaning Julian Huxley erected in 1927, because isms are cumbersome things, and a new one would add to the clutter. back


I once heard a poet lament that he,
because he lacked
Dante’s luck
to be
writing heaven
in a pre-Enlightened century,
could not change a river of light to a rose
without surrealism. Unlike
surrealist limbos,
Dante’s heaven

is primarily internally consistent; it was made so by a God made by a careful human, with its transmutations and its more-than-human beings situating it, along the spectrum of the realistic, nearer to the Faerie Queene and 20th century science-fiction than to zones suggested by surrealists, which, in Breton’s words, are governed (or rather ungoverned) by a “point de l’esprit, from which life and death, the real and the imaginary, past and future, communicable and incommunicable…will no longer be perceived as contradictions.”

Breton’s position is robust and will continue to inform art past the end of literature, into immersive media, sophisticated virtual reality, a technology in its infancy today, not yet an art form, traceable in military training simulations, multi-user game worlds, installation art, and Internet communities. Such media increasingly replace, but furthermore, become, our “real” experiences.

The real and imaginary soon will truly cease to contradict. This will not be surreal, but matter-of-fact. Anticipating genre-melding, sensory-immersive art, elegies for old, discrete arts juxtapose the real and imaginary, past and future, life and death, without a bias toward disruption and derangement (except, perhaps, in elegies for surrealism).

It’s not surreal to write, “the rose of rivers folds into a light,” if you’re referring to a virtual experience in which a rose with petals clipped from satellite maps of the Jordan, Mississippi, Ganges, Murray, Danube, Amazon, Yangtze, and Nile, closes at night and becomes a hanging lamp along a path to someone’s website, someone’s home.

In this late era, every canon is already well-supplied with depictions of human affairs on Earth, whereas depictions of human and nonhuman affairs on otherworlds (with such luminous exceptions as Dante, Milton, Spenser, Calvino, Nabokov) have been entertainment more than art. Perhaps this is because the otherworldly, from a humanist perspective, smells of melodrama and escapism. But what if artists now alive will someday visit simulated heavens, mirror universes, hells, and faerie londs. Let’s hope not all of these will be mere entertainments.

One can’t build a world from subjectlessness, vagueness, or the associative permissiveness of dreams. A world has laws and scarcities. A dream is a non-world wherein anything can occur, and therefore nothing that occurs is important. Inhabitants of richly structured literary worlds exist as urgently as do inhabitants of Earth, where we don’t live in deconstructed houses, and even the most unorthodox architects maintain some basic formalisms for purposes of safety. Homo excelsior, like literary characters, will live inside of artifacts. The Internet will be a deck of worlds, with scarcities and laws for purposes of sanity.

Certainly fathomless epics aren’t the only world-building artifacts. Many necessary worlds are miniscule, spare, and manifest hermetically on Earth, behind doors, eyes, in teacups, molecules, or Russian dolls. Many otherworlds are difficult to tell from Earth at first and second glance—the very planet on which I am writing this, I suspect, will soon be one of these, if it is not already.

The vital task is to depict worlds feverishly, to the extent of one’s talent. If flippancy fades in the 21st century, will there be a resurgence of obscene ambition, of complexity, world-building, maybe even a few epics, following Milton’s invocation: “…my adventurous Song, / That with no middle flight intends to soar / Above th’ Aonian Mount…”

No middle flight.

jktpto-cotler-saltpublishing2011-large-alternateCotler is the author of a novel, Ghost at the Loom, a critical monograph, Elegies for Humanism, and three books of poetry, House with a Dark Sky Roof, Sonnets to the Humans, and Supplice. His awards include the Colorado Prize for Poetry, the Sawtooth Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Fellowship. He is a founding editor of The Winter Anthology, which recently gave birth to The Winter Film Company.