Life is said in many ways. – Aristotle, De Anima
Bruce Sterling confronts the reader with the problem of verticality—the dizzying heights of ascent with its slow release from warm temperature and gravity and oxygen and a protective ozone layer. Height has been a long looming quest for humans. In the opening volume of his A History of Religious Ideas, Mircea Eliade begins by explaining that everything changed for us humans once we could walk upright with our spine like a tower pointing upward and defying gravity. Verticality became tied to spirituality. We conscious and self-aware beings rose up over and against nature around us.
In “Tall Tower” the dusty Western old-timer Cody Jennings and his trusty steed Levi attempt a new feat of verticality—they will ascend the Tall Tower. The story intimates that humans have ascended the tower that reaches to the stars and then reached beyond it; humans have propelled their consciousness into outer space and in the process become superhuman. Sterling draws this notion of a superhuman consciousness from the present day transhumanist movement. Transhumanism believes we can reach technological capacities that will allow us to leap beyond human limitations of mortality and organic brain-limited intellect. There are many permutations of how transhumanists believe this will happen, but essentially in a cybernetic union humans will off-load or mesh their consciousness with self-aware artificial intelligence. We will live inside smart computers only not “inside” since we will be these beings.
Sterling’s story is framed by the haunting questions: if humans can become superhuman in a techno-spiritual leap, what about animals? In other words, what will happen to Cody’s faithful beast Levi? This seemingly innocent question is actually a devious device. Depending on the reader’s viewpoint, the problem of Levi either challenges transhumanism to include other animals or it deconstructs the transhumanist idea by claiming that what it means “to be” for humans and for other animals is to be as flesh and blood, as a body. In contrast to transhumanism, a movement called posthumanism asks us to take account of animal being—including the human animal—over and against reason and technological progress which favors humans. What would a superhorse look like? Would it have greater consciousness or greater animal strength or both? And just as we have breed modern horses with their proficiencies could we breed superhorses?
Technologies often help humans overcome limits of our animal being. With our technologies we can lift more, move farther and faster, see more, etc. Yet domesticated animals are also technologies; the horse helped us settle the Wild West. What is the West without the horse—and cattle and dogs for that matter? But these animals are more than technological machines—horses are not just horsepower. As Cody and Levi ascend the Tall Tower, their quest is a way of asking what is the body to humans and what is the role of animals in the civil world? Equipped in space suits like postmodern knight and steed, Cody and Levi seem like Quixote and his horse who tilted the technology of that time, windmills. Tilting windmills, ascending towers, is this a spiritual quest or physical exertion? Or is it both since through exerting bodies perhaps we find something spiritual? Since the time of Aristotle in his De Anima (On Life) humans as rational beings were considered superior to animals since, as the Greek philosopher proclaimed, we have rational souls. Yet, it is Levi (a name echoing a chosen people) who carries Cody on his journey. Could Aristotle and a Western tradition of human exceptionalism be wrong? Is there room for animals in the leap forward, and what will happen to human and animal bodies—do we need them to be who we are?
Ron Broglio is an Associate Professor in the Department of English and a Senior Sustainability Scholar at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University. His research focuses on how philosophy and aesthetics can help us rethink the relationship between humans and the environment.