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Tillich, & Cybernetics:
Stanislaw Lems The Futurological Congress & The Star Diaries
|An earlier version of this essay was published in Southwest Review 66.3 (Summer 1981; Southern Methodist University) under the title "Having Everything Is Having Nothing: Stanislaw Lem versus Utilitarianism": 293-306.|
basic dilemma of technology [is] that it facilitates the replacement of real (bilaterally
determined) relationships with fantasied (unilaterally determined) ones.
Phillip Slater, Earthwalk
Although not all the stories fit the mold, Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress and The Star Diaries can be read as Lem's speculation on the problems that advanced technology is likely to cause for Jeremy Bentham's utilitarian philosophy, which is, and has been since the eighteenth century, the comprehensive philosophical foundation for capitalism and Western political and social experience in general. Indeed, Lem mentions Bentham by name in The Futurological Congress, saying that in the world of this novel "Bentham's dream of the greatest happiness for the greatest number has been achieved." Long before Freud, Bentham identified the pleasure principle and said that man's behavior is programmed so that every act is necessarily an attempt to avoid pain and increase the chances for pleasure. Far from defining free courses of action, intelligence becomes a mere cybernetic technique, selecting efficient means to reach the ends programmed by desire. Throughout the course of history, the total gratification of desire has been curbed by the need for a social contract to insure physical survival (cf. Freud's reality principle). Freud told us that the unique individual was produced by the tension between the driving force of unconscious desire and the restraining force imposed by the demands of the physical world.
The super-pharmacology of Lem's future worlds, however, destroys this tension, allowing the unconscious free reign to glut itself. In Bentham's view this can only mean that history is complete. Humans have reached their ultimate goal, becoming entirely good or happy. Goodness is only a euphemism for what is pleasurable, and in Lem's stories man has the ability to indulge every desire. The only problem is that despite this perfect hedonism, not everyone is happy. Indeed the narrator, Ijon Tichy, is often disgusted. Consequently Lem invites us to question the validity of the utilitarian outlook and to ask if the 18th century utilitarian conception of human nature remains plausible for the 21st century. The Cold War generated much of the atmosphere in these two novels that drive Benthams system into absurdity. If we discover, however, that the world imagined by Jeremy Bentham and Adam Smith is implausibly small and provincial, what might replace it? In answering this Lem naturally has problems. He obviously does not propose some Marxist formula; nor does he echo the popular Polish sentiment of returning to Christianity. Although he recognizes the Romantic revolution, which historically challenged utilitarianism (remaining today a vital option in existential theology), Lem implies that its subjective values cannot provide the foundation for objective social or political institutions. Romantic art beckons in the direction of the id, not the super-ego. Moreover, the whole discussion (Romanticism versus Utilitarianism) ignores what Lem considers to be a fundamental philosophical problem in defining human nature: that with the creation of supercomputers, or "intellectronic beings" as Lem calls them, the uniqueness of man as an intelligent creature will vanish. This prompts the question of what intelligence is for. Is it an end in itself? If so, Confucian elegance and aesthetics would seem to provide a better social context than Utilitarian pleasure. Or is intelligence tethered to logos? Western science, tenants of the Enlightenment (e.g., Kants ethics) and some form of Stoic epistemology orbit this belief. Or is intelligence simply a kind of software for increasing animal pleasure? Benthams egalitarian pointthat each person is the best authority for what makes her happyis incommensurate with the elitist and competitive system provided by Confucianism, which is dedicated to elegance. Perhaps intelligence has another purpose? If so, the pragmatists would like to ask, a purpose for whom? The question is, what is a person? With the emergence of intellectronic beings beyond human (embodied or pragmatist) comprehension and control, what will intelligence do when its first function in increasing itself is usurped by the machine? The question to the West is, what are humans other than the possessors of biological computers programmed to increase animal pleasure?
The story that most directly conjures these questions is the twenty-first voyage of Ijon Tichy in The Star Diaries. In this story Ijon Tichy encounters a hidden monastic order whose faith rests on seeing through Bentham's pleasure principle: "Nature has dealt with us deceitfully, sending innocent people off on a mission purportedly pleasantin reality hopeless." Although the Demolition Friars are analogous to Christian orders, this declaration suggests the example of the Buddha, who when he discovered that old age, sickness, and death are inescapable, gave up a life of pleasure. He discovered that although people think they are pursuing pleasures, in fact, they are fleeing pain and disappointment in futile attempts to deny the truth about their human condition. The Buddha found that the unenlightened life described by Bentham and Adam Smithas well as by Karl Marxis inherently and inescapably disappointing (dukkha). Another thing the Buddha discovered was that there are no Platonic essences or ghostly entities, such as souls. Lem's monks speculate on anatta (no Atman) and annica (process) from the perspective of future science: "According to dogma God created the soul at the moment of conception, but if one could reverse conception and thereby annul it . . . what then happened to the already created soul?" Or what of cloning? Is a new soul created in the clone, or is the old soul split in half? "The problem of the Ghost in the Machine, posed by intellectronics and its thinking computers, could be dealt with more or less, but it was followed by other problems, by minds and intelligences in liquids."
These neo-Scholastic problems lead the monks to realize that what was in error was the faith in the Platonic notion of discrete and immutable forms. In addition to the tenets that our lives are inescapably disappointing, and that ultimately our personalities are processes without end, the third tenet of Buddhism is that everything is in flux. Lem's monk says, "Neither personality nor individuality remained intact in this world." From the time of Buddha to that of Bentham, humans were programmed by nature to lives ceaselessly driven by the compulsion to escape pain and pursue pleasure (Buddhists call this drive tanha, thirst) only to discover in the end that disappointment is inevitable and that the efforts of denial and evasion were fleeting, trivial, and futile. Enlightened by these discoveries, the religious temperament redefined the fundamental terms of life and its function. The engineering temperament, however, saw the limitations as an objective challenge to overcome. It perceived nothing fundamentally mistaken in Bentham's reductionism. The problem was technical: how to better reach the goal of happiness. Thus Lem's engineers "earnestly believed that Homo Autofac Sapiens, the Self-made Man . . . would achieve the ultimate in harmony and happiness, endowing himself with those aspects of form and qualities of spirit he judged to be most perfect, and break the Mortality Barrier itself if he so desired." In this future world ,Thomas Jeffersons phrase about the "pursuit of happiness" grew to include "by constitutional law . . . the right to acquire whatever psychic or somatic attributes were deemed the most desirable." In perfecting their science, the bio-engineers created "bodies in which life could be lived with the maximum pleasure." In this utopia people boast: "We do not beat our heads against the wall of any physical or inborn limitations to our desires." Here the American dream is realized: engineering creates "completely new organs and members, whose sole function would be to make their possessor feel good, feel great, feel better all the time." Obsessive self-gratification leads to infantile regression. The quest for pleasure reaches an end when people indulge every whim. Experience is no longer produced by an embodied self encountering the world, but is simulated (downloaded) in the mind, "which means that there is no distinction whatever between natural and artificial." In this way the quest for pleasure undercuts Kants phenomenology.
In trying to get out of Descartes solipsism, in which we can doubt the truthfulness of all of our perceptions and ideas, Immanuel Kant reasoned that in order to have access to the contents of my mind, I must first process perceptions and conceptions according to certain categories. These work like the rules of grammar, which we unconsciously follow when we combine letters to write words and then use again to combine words into syntactically correctly sentences. Kant said that I cannot conceive of things without employing such necessary concepts as substance, plurality, or placement in time and space. These categories, which constitute the rules for unifying the contents of consciousness, are the same rules we use in dealing with the perceived world. But Lem's bioengineers have liberated thought from being-in-the-world (Heideggers Dasein). Reasoning from Bentham, Lem writes that "the fondest dream of the historical mind is to achieve complete and total liberty." Ultimately this implies liberation from a body and the kind of thinking that having a body must entail (pragmatism). Lem's monk says: "Freedom to us means something altogether different than it does to you. It means the collapse of all limitations on action, that is, the withering away of all the constraints life encounters at the dawn of intelligence."
Those of us who still inhabit bodies cannot determine whether such imagined freedom from embodied experience is possible. Nor would real communication between our two species be likely. Instead of continuity between the most intellectual humans and intellectronic robots, Lem illustrates an unbridgeable gulf based on an addiction to embodied pleasures. Thus Lem's humans pursue escalating hedonism by undergoing exquisitely torturous deaths. "The purpose here is to experience sensations as powerful as possible, and not necessarily suffering, for with the aid of stimuli transformers pain becomes an excruciating pleasure." Even as Freud and the Buddha said, pleasure and pain have the same origin. Nor is this the end. For the victims can be resurrected to "have themselves remurdered, that they may experience that awful thrill again." The Buddhists call this continued rebirth into the world of suffering samsara or bondage, because one is still led by desire.If there is no logical end to Bentham's quest for pleasure, there is in Lem's opinion a point at which it becomes absurd and disgusting; a point of boredom reached through the nearly infinite repetition of pleasures at which one becomes, in part, detached from the pleasure and thus able to consider the entire temporal process. As though speaking of samsara, the monk says: ". . . One will fritter away his appointed time leaping frantically from life to life. Such a society, seen from above, looks like a swarm of insects on a heated stove. At a distance its agony has the aspect of a farce, with those comical leaps from wisdom to stupidity, with the fruits of knowledge used so one can play his stomach like a drum, run on a hundred legs or paper a wall with his brain. When it is possible to duplicate the one you love, there is no more loved one, there is only the mockery of love, and when it is possible to become anyone at all and hold whatever convictions you like, then you are already no one . . . ." The monk goes on to say, even as many Americans feel about technology, that "we stand, paralyzed by the attainment of our goal."
If we are right to consider this "pornobiotic" story as a parable for the decline of the West or the entire world, because of the success of technology in the service of utilitarianism, then we are apt to ask Lem for an alternative philosophy, one which might save us from pleasure producing death machines. Obviously the story, largely told by a monk, compels us to consider religion. The monk cannot be a hedonist, because he and all the other monks are robots whose monastery is hidden in sewers. Does it make sense to imagine the religious faith of robots? Are the robots monks only because they cannot savor bodily pleasures? And does this imply that we can be truly religious only when werather intelligencehas literally shed the body to become, in Asimovs words, a cleaner, better breed?
In The Futurological Congress Ijon meets Father Modulus, a Nonbiologican Friar who converts computers even though the Vatican "denies machines equality in the sacraments." If Christianity is based on the hope for deliverance of the soul from the suffering, insecurity, and annihilation of the body, what motivates a soulless robot to profess in religion? Or does the computer, because it simulates intelligence, have a soul, a literal ghost in the machine? Before determining Lem's answer, two points should be considered. First, the hope for salvation is often reduced to a selfish and commercial/utilitarian "pie in the sky" scheme. In the common mind it is often a naive hope for the eternal perpetuation of the psychological self as it presently exists. Yet there is at least one world religion, Buddhism, which dispenses with the concept of a personal soul, calling belief in it a delusion. It thereby undercuts the axiom that Bentham requires to make his system work. There is no a priori, substantive self which can possess pleasure, like a noun possesses an adjective or quality. Secondly, a more profound conception of self, in Christianity as well as in Buddhism, can arise from an encounter with the absolutely mysterious Other in which the separate and individual self is negated and ultimately absorbed. The robotic monk seems to endorse something like this, saying that "the vision of heaven as a bank account and hell as a debtor's prison represents a momentary aberration in the history of faith." He then reminds Ijon of the pragmatic and paradigmatic nature of religion: "The mind has fashioned for itself in history many different models of God, holding each in turn to be the one and only truth, but this is a mistake, for modeling means codification, and a mystery codified ceases to be a mystery."Ultimately religion can effect the very thing that the believer naively requested but long evaded: deliverance from an isolated identity. "Faith doesn't mean telling people that everything will work out in the end," at least not to their selfishly intended ends. The monk continues to give Ijon a theological education, saying that "belief in God has to cast off every selfish motive" and that "we are finished and done with that theodicy based on the world of commercial transactions and payment in kind." Robots with a mystical faith, intelligence without selfhood; have they been liberated from dukkha to become a cleaner, better breed?
In much of his other work, as in Solaris and The Investigation, Lem writes in a phenomenological style that precludes giving moral answers or even straightforward judgments. And although he tries to maintain distance and neutrality, and a flat tone in The Star Diaries and The Futurological Congress, he fails, implying at least some tentative answers. Lems answer is the recovery of a Western mystical consciousness engendered by systematic reasoning (contemplation), symbolized in the form of the robotic monk, and by lion Tichy's Gnostic revulsion from the degrading sensuality and perverted physical forms of people, of biology and physical bodies. Lem offers the view of Plotinus with computers and without Platonic forms. If one takes the huge step of disassociating mysticism from embodied experience, so that it is defined entirely as a phenomenological state of mind, then the mystical state has no content. One can only talk about various ways of "booting-up" a mystical state. If one tries hard enough to disassociate the pragmatist epistemology (which seems necessary to explain an experience that is so dependent on meticulously followed regimes of yoga, meditation, fasting, chanting, obedience, etc.) from the mystical state of consciousness as such, then this experience (of consciousness aware of its own activity) should be viable even for intellectronic beings. Like a Zen roshi (master and teacher), the monk tells Ijon that "in having truly nothing . . . we have everything." For an awakened mind is not driven by desire (tanha, thirst, possessiveness). It clings to no intentions; it is transparent; a pure medium. Thus the monks say, "We entertain no demands, requests, we count on nothing, we only believe." And "Of God I know nothing, and therefore can only have faith."
In the end we must ask how serious Lem is about this conservative and perennial answer to the threat of hedonistic depravity increasingly offered by technology. Institutional religion has certainly declined. It has also mutated into recognizably utilitarian forms dedicated to the principle of utility. From its colonial beginning, utilitarianism was challenged by Calvinism in the American experience. Will the success of technology relax this tension? Is religion in America doomed to become mere entertainment? Lem's vision seems Gnostic. Those dedicated to the pleasures of the body increasingly elaborate technology (health foods, athletics, AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) policies, Medicare) in place of religion. The question is whether this is, as Augustine and Calvin, as well as Bentham and Freud said, biological and hence inescapable. Lem contemplates an arduous monastic lifestyle based on a well-reasoned (Gnostic) hope for the attainment of a mystical consciousness and thereby liberation from the individual ego, which is forever, as Bentham, Calvin, and the Buddha all recognized, easy prey for the alluring pleasures offered by technology.
The Futurological Congress is included in the original Polish version of The Star Diaries. In America it appeared as a separate novel in 1974, two years before The Star Diaries was published. Turning from the problems caused for utilitarianism by computer science and engineering, The Futurological Congress investigates the problem caused by advances in biochemistry and pharmacology in the context of a Malthusian population crisis. On the planet earth for a change, Ijon Tichy attends a meeting of futurologists at the Costa Rica Hilton to examine methods of dealing with the population explosion. Because each of the 198 speakers has only four minutes to give his paper, he is forced simply to mention the paragraph numbers of the text, which has been disseminated before the meeting. Thus: "Stan Hazelton of the U.S. delegation immediately threw the hall into a flurry by emphatically repeating: 4, 6, 11, and therefore 22; 5, 9, hence 22; 3, 7, 2, from which it followed that 22 and only 22! Someone jumped up, saying yes but 5, and what about 6, 18, or 4 for that matter; Hazelton countered this objection with the crushing retort that, either way, 22. I turned to the number key in his paper and discovered that 22 meant the end of the world." A more optimistic U.S. scholar proposes these steps to avert his colleagues number 22: "mass media and mass arrests, compulsory celibacy, full scale deeroticization, onanization, sodomization, and for repeated offenders, castration."
While the congress is in session various manifestations of the population crisis occur, most of them related to terrorism. For example, Ijon Tichy reports that when the U.S. ambassador made a short speech, "he was surrounded by six muscular plainclothesmen who kept their guns trained on us all the time." One delegate is shot when he reaches for his handkerchief. Meanwhile the local guerrillas mail a foot to the Embassy and Ijon is confronted by a papal assassin who, Ijon thinks, "was either a madman or a professional terrorist-fanatic." During a session of the congress, "someone in the spectator gallery hurled a Molotov cocktail into the hall." But even this has come to be expected, and the police simply cover "the broken furniture and corpuses with a large nylon tarpaulin which was decorated in a cheerful pattern." This incident symbolizes how we presently deal with an overpopulated world verging on chaos because each individual is following her own scheme in the pursuit of the inviolable right of happiness, pleasure. Studies and plans concocted by the politicians and their consultants are countered by other studies. The plans float off into a stratosphere of verbosity and inactivity. Meanwhile the social cancer is cosmetically covered and our own shallow pursuits of pleasure divert our attention towards some new toy.
To perpetuate Bentham's utilitarianism and our Western heritage of "freedom and dignity" in the face of a Malthusian population crisis requires a "general Theory of Simulation" (a kind of engineering to grant wishes) that creates the "Simulation of Individual Freedom." Added together, the simulations create a cryptochemocracy. This is an illusionary social contract inspired by various hallucinogens. Cryptochemocracy arises when the government tries to pacify revolutionaries by dumping "about 700 kilograms of bromo-benignimizer, mixing equal parts of Felicitine, Placidol and Superjubilan," into the municipal water supply.
Drugs are both a symptom of capitalist hedonism, and a symbol of the values it is dedicated to (pleasure). Since the 1960s, if not before, drugs have been officially declared as a major American problem. Lem implies that they are literally the opiate of capitalism, which have forestalled any real progress toward liberation. Lem's Futurological Congress offers an example for Herbert Marcuse's aesthetics. Fusing elements of Freudianism and Marxism, Marcuse defines art as an enticement to test our freedom and thereby reduce "surplus repression" that advances in technology have made needless, but which tradition conserves as habit and capitalists steal as private profit. Effective art entices us with fantasies of sex and violence to lure us into temporarily, playfully suspending our real, moral identities, which are produced by repression. Art necessarily objects to any repression, which, in some measure, is necessary for the social contract to function. The dialectic between artistic fantasies and social realitiesmeasured by money, political power, and engineering technologyshould create a free space from which normative futurological judgments can be made about both individual freedom and social progress. Marcuse accuses capitalist technology of short-circuiting this process by filling up that space with tinsel and baubles (figurative narcotics) in endless cycles of consumption. Art degenerates into advertising: it sells, pacifies, and narcotizes. In Lem's Futurological Congress we have an even more insidious problem. For in Marcuse's thought art is a temporary rebellion against the demands of the reality principle. The fantasy created by art must always end with the perception of a social reality and the natural world. But crytochemocracy induces the illusion that only the unconscious and its pleasure principle exist.
The pervasive hallucinogens, which provide a basis for a pseudo-social contract, produces epistemological problems, such as: how do I know I am not now hallucinating this incident in which I discover that there are hallucinogens in the air and water? The only way Descartes could get out of a similar solipsism was to suppose that since God is good, every natural appetite or inclination has a natural object in which it is satisfied, including of course the need for God. Advertising and drugs, which are ultimately the same thing, make it impossible to differentiate natural from artificial needs. Indeed, Bentham's radical system must reject the difference. If there is only desire and its satisfaction, addiction is unavoidable.
As a Pole, Lem could not elaborate the escape in American life that has been historically articulated by Calvinism in condemnation of utilitarian pleasure. As a cultural outsider, who was immersed in Communist propaganda, Lem would almost inevitably view this alternative view as weak, lost, or hypocritical. Many Americans would agree. But they are hardly disinterested. In fact, they are most likely to be partisans for some mutated version of Calvinism, which is more ineradicable in the American character than Lem recognizes by construing Americans as robots programmed by Bentham's simple digital opposition of pain and pleasure. More generously, we can credit Lem with the intention to clarify this very point for his American and perhaps world readers.
In any case, Lem does offer the escape of moral disgust. Ijon is nauseated by the bourgeois consumption of an endless swirl of cotton candy pleasures. In despair he asks, "is there no hope?" The answer indicates Lems concern about the continued viability of a social philosophy formulated two hundred years earlier, during a time when technology was incapable of subverting an obvious recognition of reality. Ijon is told that "A dream will always triumph over reality, once it is given the chance." That chance is increasingly provided by technology. If it is true, as Bentham and Freud said, that humans are programmed ineluctably to seek pleasure, then sophisticated technology must offer a gilded suicide. Ijon perceives that "Bentham's dream of the greatest happiness for the greatest number has been achieved," but that it has been achieved at the cost of real , i.e., embodied life. Historical man is finished. Ijon is asked, "What was civilization ever, really, but the attempt by man to talk himself into being good?" That is, to repress his selfish desires for the good of the community. Good , Bentham says, is a euphemism for pleasure. And what is socially good , in Benthams arithmetic? Because society is a nonentity in itself, the good must be partitioned into individual bank accounts. The only incentive to accept the repression necessary for the social contract is the expectation to derive greater personal benefits than are possible without the contract. But in Lems world, technology has liberated us from the physical need of a community. From a consumer view, the social contractual offer is empty. Hence humans are freed to regress to the infantile. "Little boys get patricidol popsiclesthrottle-popsto vent their hostilities." Ijon rebels against "the foulness lurking behind that most elegant, courteous facade!" craving contact with a sewer, because it is the "only talisman and touchstone to reality." The sewer is a fairly obvious symbol for the body: the digestion, urination, flatulence, defecation, sweat, belches, ear wax, nose hair, bald head and stomach rumbling that drags us down from our Gnostic dreams to fly with the angels. As pragmatists know, embodied knowledge is the necessary origin of all epistemological claims. Dreams, illusion, mathematics, and scienceall discourse and all perceptionsare launched from the body and its experience. The sewer is the home of Dostoevskys Underground Man with his toothache. In Lems novel, the sewer as a philosopher's stone brings to mind the monastery hidden in the sewers. But Ijons prophet is Bentham. Thus he resolves to listen henceforth to no one, but to "do everything myself, everything myself! Myself!" Fantasy wins over reality.
Near the end of the book, Professor Trottelreiner accepts the necessity of a pragmatic epistemology to account for perception (thereby implicitly criticizing the computer model of the mind as inadequate), telling Ijon that their world has passed beyond narcotics and hallucinogens to use mascons, which subtly falsify experience. The government has been driven to this in order to create the illusion of freedom and dignity and to perpetuate at any cost the right of the individual to pursue happiness. With nearly 100 billion people on earth, the professor says that it was "Out of a deep sense of compassion and for the highest humanitarian reasons that this chemical hoax has been perpetrated." When Ijon, like Dostoevsky, objects that people have a right to the painful truth, which is even more fundamental than their right to happiness, the professor tells him: "You ought to be doing what everyone does, eating and drinking like the rest of us. Then you would get the necessary amounts of optimistizine and seraphinil in your bloodstreamthe minimum daily requirementsand be in the best possible humor." As any Utilitarian moralist would say, the mascons work and everyone is happy, "so what is the harm in them?" There are even dehallucinides, which "create the illusion that there is no illusion" and thus keep the skeptics happy. But Ijon remains disgusted by the hedonism that has destroyed nature.
Ijon discovers that the robots, so prolific and apparently the perfect successors of the working class, were in fact only drugged people who thought themselves robots. Repelled by bourgeois hedonism, which is degrading as much as it is an evasion, Ijon resolves to "hide like a rat," the only awakened one who is thus "shipwrecked in reality." At the edge of the ramshackle world, Ijon meets the last successor of Bentham and the Robber Baron industrialists, who keeps what is left of the world running with illusions and baubles. A true utilitarian politician who understands the difference between means and ends, he defends his deceptions by saying, "We keep this civilization narcotized, for otherwise it could not endure itself." Evidently oblivious of his involvement in the destruction of the world, the controller, who could easily be speaking for Adolf Eichmann or some other monster, issues the last obscenity: "If the truth cannot be altered, let us at least conceal it. This is the last humanitarian act, the last , moral obligation." On this note Ijon falls into the sewer for the last time. Is this a baptism? Does he awake to the real world, the natural world perceived in an undrugged state? Has all this been only a dream? Perhaps, but as Ijon says about another bad dream in The Star Diaries, "I told myself, 'For God's sake, it's only a dream!' Somehow that didn't help." In the company of Ijon Tichy we have imaginatively projected the logical end of Benthams system. What is left is again to ask Lem for an alternative definition and social philosophy that will avert his prophecy of disaster for the West.
Other than implicit Gnosticism, none is forthcoming. This is surprising since, as Jerzy Jarzebski reports, "Lem frankly admits that for him writing is a pulpit from which he delivers certain theses about the society of the future, the evolution of science, the philosophical implication of technological progress"; and since Jarzebski says, "His views are . . . humanist ones." Lem's views may be humanistic, but they are not offered as gratuities for a voyeuristic readership. Lem does not write nineteenth century fiction that militates for an obvious didactic choice. Ijon Tichy, whose adventures must remind us of Odysseus or Dante, is in fact not a symbol for a human character at all, but only for a sequence of logical speculations. In The Cyberiad there is a dictum which informs all of Lem's fiction: "Sometimes men build robots, sometimes robots build men. What difference does it matter, really, whether one thinks with metal or with protoplasm?" This dictum works in Plato's world where only thought epistemologically counts. If the body counts, not positively as in pragmatism, but negatively in the ugly images and motives of a reductionistic utilitarianism, then those with bodies are condemned, as Gnosticism suggested. Yet Lem's tone is never glum and despairing. Where does his optimism come from? It must originate from an understanding of human nature that rejects Bentham's theory. To elaborate Lem's theory of human nature, we must, paradoxically, consider his robots. Why are speculations about pleasure in The Futurological Congress and The Star Diaries articulated by robots and by people who fundamentally believe they are robots? Certainly it makes no sense to imagine that robots will be governed by Bentham's pleasure principle.
There is an unresolved tension in these two books between Lem's phenomenological method and his desire for moral or qualitative answers. This tension can be formulated as the schism between the analytic tradition in philosophy, which has voiced the notion that the mind is a computer, and the pragmatist tradition, which explains that the mind is inseparably produced by the body as it literally moves through life. In the last chapter of The Star Diaries Ijon writes of his grandfather Jeremiah Tichy. Jeremiah spent most of his life pounding the earth with hammers, 3,219 of them. Ijon says that he "hammered in the name of humanity. He wanted to drive matter to the limit, to torture it, exhaust it, pound from it its ultimate essence and thereby triumph over it." But he is not Thor. Jarzebski quotes Lem on this subject: "I long for the absolute. But at the same time I am firmly convinced that there are no absolutes." Jarzebski goes on to say that Lem is "a rationalist to the bone." And here I believe is a glimmer to find a way out of Lem's dilemma. For Lem's reductive vision of human nature offers us two types: the selfish infantile hedonist (Freuds pleasure principle), or the totally logical computer-like mechanism (with characteristics of Freuds super-ego). Two points come to mind. In Freuds system these two genetic forces temporally produce a unique historical ego. This is close to the ground of pragmatism, which insists that we must start any theoretical system with the actual, temporal experience of a person. Secondly, since there is no transcendental criterion to determine which model might be most true in Lems work, a third or fourth or fifth model seems invited. As with Borges and Nabakov and more recent postmodern writers, Lems fiction is open-ended, inviting more illustrations or theories rather than driving towards a reductive claim. Lem's questions may be framed to anticipate or even illustrate a reductive claim (viz., that minds are computers), but his art ridicules such naive belief.
Western pragmatism and existentialism, along with all four of the traditional outlooks of Asia (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism) recognize embodied or performative knowledge as constitutive of human life. Moreover, all these theoretical outlooks agree that such performative knowledge cannot be construed as objective data. Confining ourselves to the Western tradition, Paul Tillich, the Protestant existential theologian, writes in The Religious Situation that "the way into the profounder levels of life is not to be found by means of physical and psychological analysis [towards some reductionist cause] but only by means of intuitive insight, of apprehension of the basis of one's own aliveness." If this is hopelessly subjective, that is no reason for human beings to reject it. Life is subjective. Does this recognition condemn human nature to Bentham's reductive pleasure-seeking? Not at all. Proposing Bentham's question, Tillich writes in Systematic Theology: "Does not the creative act itself provide a pleasure of a higher order, even if pain is connected with it, and does this not confirm the pleasure principle? It does not; because this principle asserts an intentional pursuit of happiness, and there is no such intention in the creative act itself. It certainly fulfills something toward which life is driven by its inner dynamics, the classical name of which is eros." He goes on to say that "Creative eros implies surrender to the object of eros . . . . The pain-pleasure principle is valid only in sick, uncentered, and therefore unfree and uncreative life."
Measured against this notion of human nature, we see that Bentham, Freud, and the tortured hedonists of Lem's worlds do not accurately name some putative pre-existing, a priori image of human nature. They offer excuses for the neurotic, the defeated, and the vicious. What the rest of us must recover is the moral confidence to see that these endless epistemological puzzles are excuses for the lack of courage to risk a moral commitment in an absurd universe. In his On Moral Fiction, John Gardner opines that modern writers exploit language for its own sake to avoid moral concerns. Nonetheless, "the true artist's purpose . . . is to show what is healthy, in other words sane, in human seeing, thinking, and feeling, and to point out what is not." Like other dystopian writers, Lem's strategy in these two books is to demonstrate what is not sanewhat is laughably ridiculous: that people are robots; that they are incapable of trusting their own feelings because these collapse in addictionin the hope that the stories will disgust us enough to make us act now to avoid drifting into such an inhumane future. Thus Lem is not as culpable as many other writers in neglecting moral considerations in his fiction. But this does not mean that he offers obvious and easy moral guidance, especially for Americans who unconsciously anticipate Calvinist answers.
Confused and reeling from the multiplicity of choices, the dazed reader feels she can make none in the contexts offered by the fiction. But then, Lem's fiction is not a didactic manual, nor advertising. In any case, the dramatic terms and illustrations are too abstract to argue for familiar social choices. Furthermore, Lem's modern art aesthetic tends to enhance the amoral position of epoche, of suspending moral and/or metaphysical judgments about worth or even reality. Jarzebski says that "aesthetic experience holds a key position for Lem." Then, speaking of the enigmas of Lem's Solaris, Jarzebski goes on to say that "since there is no possibility of getting into contact with the 'others' or to understand the essence of their worldaesthetic experience is the only form open to us for integrating our impressions into a whole." Surprisingly, the last two points are most forcefully articulated in Confucian societies, such as Japan.
From a pragmatist viewas well as from the view of Asiawe need to keep the priority or ontology straight in this instance. Embodied knowledge and life experience can be rendered into aesthetic patterns. The pattern is manifest only by a relationship among events or elements. A moral pattern is manifest by select temporal incidents that (morally) define an identity or a life. Except for Taoism, the pattern does not exist a priori in the other traditions (Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism). Even in Taoism, the transcendental Tao is a matter of faith. For what we discern is its trace in yin and yang phenomena. In Systematic Theology Tillich writes that "the act in which man actualizes his essential centeredness is the moral act. Morality is the function of life by which the realm of the spirit comes into being." The spirit is not some pseudo-vaporous essence or ghost in the machine. Nor is it locatable in lines of computer code. It is human meaning, a pattern of life (requiring a temporal dimension), for which people must be willing to risk their desire for reason and logic, if they are to be human beings instead of robots. Choosing the pattern (dharma, li, Tao) in moral decisions is always a risk and a struggle and never entirely successful, but it is life, not dreaming. Tillich talks about the attraction of art as a state of dreaming innocence, which partially explains the attraction of Lems fairy tale world. "Man is caught between the desire to actualize his freedom and the demand to preserve his dreaming innocence." Moreover, "the transition from essence to existence, from the potential to the actual, from dreaming innocence to existential guilt and tragedy, is irrational." This is the step that Lem as a rationalist and theoretician is unwilling to take, and that is why his characters never achieve a believable humanity. Rather, Lem's characters are mythic, robots who illustrate theoretical possibilities and potentials. Lem's art informs us about what is morally at stake. It does not attempt to reveal a pattern from historical or even quasi-historical events (as Confucianism demands), much less offer an a priori template for the future.
In any case we should be very cautious about Lems sleight of hand, evident for example in the Turning thesis, which offers the positivist equation that if man and machine demonstrate approximately equivalent intelligence (which must be a judgment made by a third, presumably intelligent, observer about the performative knowledge in question), they are in fact equivalent beings. Lem suggests that in order to avoid the dystopias illustrated in his fiction, we must take issue with this axiom and "hold to the [pragmatic and existential] principle that 'being precedes speaking'" (Tillich). Neither Lem, his character Ijon Tichy, nor the reader is satisfied by the promise of an endless succession of vapid consumer pleasures. Lem's criticism of the West, with its utilitarian narcissism, prompts readers to recognize that they are not merely equivalent to the logical function of their mind or grammar, nor are they robotic pleasure-seekers. Lems fiction prompts readers to claim that they are more than they presently know and that their destiny is greater than they can presently imagine. Lems fiction challenges novelists to cease writing prescriptions for narcotic drugs and to cease writing didactic manuals that turn people into predictable robots. Lem's charming and silly stories prompt us to analyze the moral patterns of our personal and social experience.
Lem, Stanislaw. The Cyberiad:
Fables for the Cybernetic Age. Translated by Michael Kandel. New York, 1974.
Lem. The Futurological Congress. Translated by Michael Kandel. New York, 1974.
Lem. The Star Diaries. Translated by Michael Kandel. New York, 1976.
Jarzebski, Jerzy. "Stanislaw Lem, Rationalist and Visionary." Translated by Franz Rottensteiner, Science-Fiction Studies 12 (July 1977): 110-26.