2 September 2015

Finding and Sharing New Frames for Enhancement Discourses?

By Shawn Harmon

Frames are associations that ‘cluster around a single image or phrase, directing the reader into certain familiar channels of cognition’ (Huxford, 2000). Often these frames are less ‘in’ the text, and more projected ‘onto’ the text by the reader on the basis of cues or invitations. Framing is often a critical component of presenting information for consumption, and so for making sense of the world (Cappella and Jamieson, 1997; Fowler, 1991). One of the central frames for the ethical discourses around technology-instigated enhancements in human beings has been that of ‘human nature’, a frame that often allied to competing imaginaries, one utopian and the other dystopian. Those opposed to enhancement are concerned about a loss of humanity, and they construct dystopian narratives characterised by disembodiment, inequality, and a loss of touch with our nature. Those who embrace enhancement see human nature as dynamic and evolutionary, pushing against and beyond limitations, and they construct utopian narratives in which people can better align their physiology with their identity; it is a future of ‘freedom to’ and ‘freedom from’, both grounded in how technology will allow us to unshackle our true self.

While science fiction has long contained a strong vein of scientific ambiguity, and indeed technophobia (Ryan and Kellner, 1990), often conveyed through dystopian imaginaries, it has also been one of the best and more nuanced means of exploring the nature of the changes that face us, the possible consequences of those changes, and the solutions that we might bring to bear to minimise the social disruption or dislocation. In other words, it has been one of the best ways for situating ourselves in the present while looking at the future (Delgado et al, 2012), sometimes in the context of personal stories and challenges, and sometimes against grander backdrops implicating broader public issues. In the process, science fiction has tackled many issues relevant to human enhancement.  Gibson’s Neuromancer (1983), Bear’s Blood Music (1985), and Morgan’s Altered Carbon (2002) all posit futures where cybernetics and nanotechnologies have been deployed to alter our capabilities, with a range of both dystopian and edifying consequences.

Superhero comics have also sought to explore futures or alternative realities where some individuals are enhanced, although they have, arguably, undertaken less nuanced approaches which concentrate on the human ideal (i.e., the costumed—and often handsome/beautiful—übermensch, and their struggle for justice, often as set by the status quo).  In this regard, one might note Wolf-Meyer’s (2003) consideration of Marvel’s The Avengers and DC’s Justice League of America.  Of course, one might also consider Finlay-Day and Gibbons’ Rogue Trooper (1981), as Morrison (2015) has recently in The Motley Coat.  Rogue Trooper arguably offers a more useful case insofar as the main character and his comrades were deliberately designed to achieve specific ends, and their expanded lifespan has some critical trade-offs (much in the manner of those portrayed in Morgan’s Altered Carbon).  In other words, the main character’s enhancement or augmentation is not general and absolute, but rather limited and specific, relating to operational needs, and they set him apart from the rest of humanity.

Unfortunately, despite the rich considerations in both science fiction and graphic literature, very little support has been available for scholars to come together in wider and more open groups to discuss and critique these treatments of enhancement (Sardar, 2010), and to both imagine and create popularly accessible works that explore in balanced ways the ethics of enhancement in more diverse frames than have traditionally found succour. The Costumed Visions Network hopes to not just critique – both internally and comparatively – comic book treatments of enhancement, but also to encourage a broader social debate about how enhancement technologies might engage our socio-moral values and potentially meet some of our social needs. In short, it is our ambition to go beyond an elucidation of dystopian/utopian imaginaries (for surely whatever reality emerges will be more mixed and fluid), and to encourage our members and others to engage with complexity, and to consider how technologies might be regulated and marshalled to achieve just and ethical ends.

On 16 September 2015, at the Manchester Meeting Place, the Costumed Visions Network will have its first meeting. Information on the meeting is available on the Mason Institute website. Attendance at the meeting is free but ticketed, and registration is through Eventbrite. If you wish to join the Costumed Visions Network, please contact David Lawrence (david.lawrence@manchester.ac.uk) or Shawn Harmon (shawn.harmon@ed.ac.uk).

J Cappella & K Jamieson, Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good (NY: OUP, 1997).
A Delgado et al., ‘Imagining High-Tech Bodies: Science Fiction and the Ethics of Enhancement’ (2012) 34 Science Communication 200-240.
R Fowler, Language in the News: Discourse and Ideology in the Press (London: Routledge, 1991).
J Huxford, ‘Framing the Future: Science Fiction Frames and the Press Coverage of Cloning’ (2000) 14 J Media & Cultural Studies 187-199.
M Morrison, ‘From Superheroes to Science Fiction: Archetypes of Enhancement in British Comics’, The Motley Coat, 15 July 2015.
M Ryan & D Kellner, ‘Technophobia’ in A Kuhn (ed.), Alien Zone (London: Verso, 1990) 58-65.
Z Sardar, ‘The Namesake: Futures; Future Studies; Futurology; Futuristic; Foresight—What’s in a name?’ (2010) 42 Futures 177-184.
M Wolf-Meyer, ‘The World Ozymandias Made: Utopias in the Superhero Comic, Subculture, and the Conservation of Difference’ (2003) 36 J Popular Culture 497-517.

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