In a recent futurological piece "science and technology writer" Dick Pelletier declares: "Although many today might find the idea of romance with a machine repulsive, experts predict that as the technology advances and robots become more human-like, we will view our silicon creations in a much friendlier light." At the outset I want to note, but do not mean to dwell on, the customary reference to unnamed "experts" in this extraordinary assertion. I suspect that few of the "experts" Pelletier has in mind are trained in actually existing fields or are calling upon such expertise in making such "predictions." I will also ruefully note -- not for the first time, not for the thousandth time -- that there is no such thing as "technology in general" that may be said to be "advancing" monolithically however indispensable such utterly over-simplifying declarations may be to the smooth operation of futurological discourse.
Although Pelletier seems to anticipate that his claims will seem scandalous, I will admit that after reading a generation of sensationalist futurology enthusing over "cybersex," "teledildonics" and the heady prospects of virtual brothels his themes strike me as rather quaintly retro-futuristic. This nostalgic impression is only amplified when he goes on to assure us that by 2035 -- yes, close to the robotically predictable twenty-year horizon to which the futurological genre is hopelessly devoted -- "our silicon friends could exhibit human-like consciousness with flesh-like skin; and possess traits vital for a loving partner" and that "love-companion robots will be practical in the future, and may one day satisfy all our intimate desires."
I must confess up front that I personally think it is wrongheaded to use the word "romance" to describe what happens when some fellow ejaculates into a watermelon or a blow-up doll, although I don't find such activities particularly repulsive, any more than I do the endlessly many other non-violent and non-exploitative ways human beings find their way to prosthetically facilitated orgasms. I do worry a bit about the ease with which these sorts of discussions seem to leap from claims about "human-like consciousness" to claims about "flesh-like skin," as though the complexities and values involved are indistinguishable from the relevant engineering standpoint. I admit it seems to me curiously evocative and even symptomatic just how often superlative futurologists of the more assertively transhumanoid and singularitarian varieties find themselves hyperventilating about how awesome the sexbots of the future are going to be, or how sex with machines or sex via their own sooper-sexy medical enhancements will soon, so soon, Change Absolutely Everything for them.
One need not linger long in futurological precincts to discern a certain prevalence in them of representations of long-lashed balloon-breasted humanoids megaphoning their sexual availability (insofar as cartoons can be said in some sense to be "available") to the almost always only males whose publications these images tend to accompany. Although the futurologists like to encrust the usual ladyparts with scales and feathers and shiny metal and curiously curvaceous circuit boards there isn't exactly a large chasm to leap from the ubiquitous sex-kitten kitsch of the transhuman imaginary to the standard conventions of Maxim Magazine or Girls With Guns Truck Stop Calendars.
Transhumanists and Singularitarians and other assorted futurologists also have demonstrated, I'm sorry to say, a distressing willingness to pretend that "intelligence" is on exhibition when spell-check software annoyingly "corrects" your proper use of a word that happens not to be included in its programming or when somebody embeds what amounts to a glorified tape-recorder into what amounts to a glorified mannequin and then some low-rent street performer calling himself a "roboticist" indulges in a stale bit of memorized theater with the contraption. So, too, these folks may be very eager to describe as "friends" people they have never and will never meet but who publish minute by minute accounts of their stomach contents in misspelled one-line publications on their "walls" and "feeds." This does not mean that the rest of us are required to share with them in the ridiculous fantasy that boning a hole in something like an animatronic Abe Lincoln from Disney's 1960s state-of-the-art robo-waxworks Hall of Presidents, but, you know, dildonically or pneumatically enhanced in skimpy underpants, constitutes "romance" or something more reciprocally "human-like" while the relevant transhumanoid "experts" bask warmly in their "friendlier light" for cash.
I have argued that futurological discourses are best understood as the extreme edge of the usually deceptive, hyperbolic advertising and promotional forms that now utterly suffuse our public life. It is a truism that "Sex Sells" and it should, by extension, be regarded as no less a truism that it is often through sex or something like it that futurologists will likewise peddle their pet variations of "The Future" to the credulous. But it is crucial to grasp that it is rarely the actual accomplishment of sexual gratification that advertising discourse sells when it sells sex. Indeed, the product advertising sells when it is selling sex, whether it is a hamburger or an automobile or a deodorant or a cellphone is almost never sex itself, and you can be sure that whatever else is happening when advertising is selling sex any actual sex itself is absolutely being deferred and not enjoyed to make time for the sex being sold in it in the first place.
As Adorno and Horkeimer put the point in 1944 -- decades before Debord said it again, and not necessarily better -- right about when America was busy inventing "The Future" through the promotion of which the neoliberal Washington Consensus would rule the postwar world: "The culture industry perpetually cheats its consumers of what it perpetually promises. The promissory note which, with its plots and staging, it draws on pleasure is endlessly prolonged; the promise, which is actually all the spectacle consists of, is illusory: all it actually confirms is that the real point will never be reached, that the diner must be satisfied with the menu... The culture industry does not sublimate; it represses. By repeatedly exposing the objects of desire, breasts in a clinging sweater or the naked torso of the athletic hero, it only stimulates the unsublimated forepleasure which habitual deprivation has long since reduced to a masochistic semblance."
It is this discursive structure of deferral of sex and substitution of sex in the selling of sex that demands our special attention when we observe the workings of these narrative and attentional mechanisms in the context of futurological discourse. For, to be sure, futurology is all about deferral -- "The Future" in which it invests its participants is forever just out of reach, usually literally twenty years ahead endlessly deferred year by year by year, a rosy premonitory coloration in the present available only to those who Believe In It together in the present and in so believing, grasp its "imminence" in the present and predict its coming.
But, as I have repeatedly insisted, every futurism is always a retro-futurism: In investing us in a vision of "The Future" which mostly consists of the amplification of our present and parochial satisfactions (more, More, MORE! Of the Same... appetites gratified, but, in "The Future" without number, without cost, without end) or the disasterbatory indulgence in our present and parochial fears (dystopic amplifications of generational fears displaced onto clone armies and designer babies, perplexed and alienated negotiations of ever-disappointing landfill-destined techno-gewgaws displaced onto robot armies and brains in a vat) futurology peddles stasis while crowing about "accelerating change," defends the status quo while handwaving about techno-progress, promotes the reactionary police force of incumbent elites in the utopian and dystopian cadences of prophetic utterances. For the open futurity arising in the present out of the diversity of stakeholders to the shared world, futurology substitutes parochial projections of "The Future" endlessly amplifying the elite-incumbent vantage over the present.
Futurological deferral, futurological substitution... Let us redeploy the words of Michel Foucault in our present distress: Given the suffusion of public space with the norms and forms of deceptive, hyperbolic marketing and promotional discourse in which "sex sells" through the deferral of actual gratifications, through the fetishistic substitution of desire for commodities for pleasurable human solidarities driven by desire, we are endlessly promised that "Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again."
What matters about this pronouncement is not that it takes the form, like futurological utterances tend to do, of a prediction -- but that it sexualizes the Good, that it re-writes the freedom of present futurity as a parochially projected Tomorrow in the image of a Good that has been so sexualized. My point is not to denigrate sexual pleasure -- and certainly neither was Foucault's -- but to warn about what happens when what can be good about sexual gratification is hyperbolized into an Aim at which we aspire in the name of the Good, becomes the essential Truth of the Self in the name of which we aim our emancipatory hopes. It is a circumscription, a canalization, declaring itself and mistaken for a thrust, for an opening: And so, it is one thing to bemoan the hypocrisy of the closet, say, or the pointless pain of repressing some harmless idiosyncratic pleasure, but it is quite another to buy into the fantasy that in coming out of the closet (or in boasting about your arcane fetish on the set on Jerry Springer or over drinks at a bar) we overcome the mystery of ourselves and arrive at last at perfect enlightened self-knowledge or that in throwing off an irrational repression of some modest kink we might manage to break through the impasse of politics and experience at last the plenitude of perfect self-expression.
Like a taught tanned supermodel in latex declaring a sexual availability that is in fact utterly unavailable beyond the screen, a vision of perfect satisfaction promiscuously attaching to consumer commodities that, however disappointing they may be to your hopes upon actual consumption, at least are available in your price range, a mirage of gratification that must be deferred in order to be consumed on the terms on which it is offered, to promise what is to come is not the same as what is to come, and to consume the promise of "to come" is not the same as actually to come.
The future as it arrives is always only another present, stratified by differences that make a difference, vestiges of past injuries, diversities of present stakes, struggles for future outcomes. "The Future" the futurologists sell all too often is the deception that technological accumulation can substitute for the heartbreaking convulsive progress of political struggle in history, but in selling "The Future" one is also engaging in a present-day skirmish in that politics, all too often diverting energy and imagination from collective struggles into faithful acquiescence to elite incumbents who deliver consumer goods in the present (rejuvenating skin creams, orgasmic chocolates, prowess via pill-popping) and so promise to deliver amplified enhanced transcendent goods ever more to come.
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