Review of On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience. Abou Farman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020, 384 pp.

Reviewed Book

On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience. Abou Farman, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2020, 384 pp.

Jean M. Langford

University of Minnesota

Biopolitics In Extremis:

A Comment on Abou Farman’s On Not Dying: Secular Immortality in the Age of Technoscience

On Not Dying is less an ethnography of cryonics than a sustained analysis of secularist takes on death. Rather than investigating the texture of daily practice or knowledge production at facilities that freeze human remains for future reanimation, Farman concentrates on the philosophical stakes of a secular eschatology. But if the immortalists in the book figure largely as representatives of intellectual positions, the absence of characterological complexity opens a space for both an intensive history of secularist perspectives on mortality, and a cornucopia of philosophical provocations on humanism, temporality, cosmos, and more. Since it is impossible to do justice to this feast, I’ll limit myself to a few provocations of my own focused on the implications of secularism’s theological underpinnings for a relational ontology of death.

Early on, Farman distances himself from the idea that “secularism is imbued with a repressed and hidden religiosity,” insisting that secularism has “its own tradition and logic” (p. 17). Rather than debate the extent to which secularism is informed by religiosity, however, I’d like to consider which forms of religiosity have shaped secularism’s relationship to thanatological questions—i.e., those nonpantheist cosmologies (whether monotheistic or polytheistic) in which divinity resides transcendently outside the world rather than immanent within it. After all, the desouling of matter that Farman attributes to secularism (p. 31), was inherited from nonpantheism. Take the term “supernatural,” which Farman employs to distinguish religious explanations from scientific ones (p. 19). This is a meaningful term for both secularism and nonpantheism, rooted as it is in a metaphysics that locates divinity outside of the natural world, yet it is arguably meaningless for pantheism.

Why does it matter what form of religiosity secularism, and hence immortalism, descends from? To approach an answer, let’s consider the concept of mind. Central to Farman’s argument is the recognition of a contradiction within secularism, which, despite its commitment to materialism, cannot fully let go of the notion of mind as separate from matter. As he writes, “The secular person … is not reducible to the materialist body but produced through the … indeterminacies of the mind-body problematic” (p. 195). Immortalism, he argues cogently, attempts a resolution to this problematic, proposing that “the person or self could be disembodied and separated from the original biological body,” but without being “posited as a soul or spirit or some other unaccounted-for substance” (p. 14). In place of a human soul who will ascend to heaven, the contents of the cryonically preserved brain will be uploaded to new neural circuitry in a transhumanist cyborgian existence. Yet, if immortalism thereby disrupts the “fiction of a unified self” (p. 42), it nonetheless reproduces the concept of a person separable from the body, a concept inherited from nonpantheism, in which the image of a personified god or gods independent of the world arguably informs the image of a similarly independent and singular human self.

At stake here, I propose, is not simply the separation of mind from matter, but the concept of mind itself, as a reification of thinking/sensing/signifying. Farman is sympathetic to projects that work to recognize “mind” in nature (p. 23), ultimately staking his own intellectual position alongside “new animism” and panpsychism as ontologies that enable a non-anthropocentric approach to planetary crisis (p. 233). When reflecting on animist interventions into the mind–body problem, he suggests that animism posits a matter that is “mind-like” (p. 33). Yet this observation frames animism in solidly Eurocentric terms. What if animism instead posits a matter that is fundamentally metamorphic and inter- or intra-active (Barad 2007), envisioning thought as a process that does not necessarily inhere in mind at all?

Although Farman declines to speculate on “the consequences of [Amazonian] perspectivism and/or panpsychism for death and continuity” (p. 253), I’ll risk a partial answer. If the relevant question for post-nonpantheist secularism is end versus continuance of entities, the relevant question for animism might be metamorphosis of one entity into another. Farman acutely articulates the quandary of immortalists aspiring to a transhuman life, regarding who will be (re)animated (p. 162). But if they are not that future self, why should they have any stake in animating it, and how would it satisfy the current curiosity about the future that is their primary motive for cryonic preservation? True to their nonpantheist legacy, they remain tethered to a primacy of  personal identity that necessitates a linear temporality.

The idea of mind, then, seems to be symptomatic of a privileging of discrete identities that depends on a concept of teleological time (aptly critiqued by Farman) wherein humanity represents an apex, rather than one more fleeting expression of the cosmos’s creative force. For Farman, immortalism is a bid to resolve the contradiction endemic to secularism, between individual (or species) finitude and cosmic open-endedness (p. 143). Yet immortalism can also be viewed as the extension of a nonpantheist ontology structured around the continuance of discrete personal identities across progressive time. (This assumption of progress, incidentally, appears to prevent immortalists from envisioning their irrelevance to that future that might reanimate them.)

Other ways of addressing finitude are possible—e.g., transmigration, reincarnation, reabsorption into the cosmos, and even evolution (all of which invoke a cosmos wherein existents coalesce and vanish in continual metamorphosis). But Farman’s use of terms like obsolescence, extermination, and “transformation beyond recognition” in describing evolution (p. 141), suggest a world in which entities take precedent over relation and change, rather than being their byproduct. The concept of immortality itself only makes sense if death is understood as end (p. 91) rather than transformation. The human avoidance of death presumed by immortalists to be natural (p. 5), is intensified by, if not reliant on a fetishization of discrete identity. Why must the fact of annihilation lead to absurdity? What keeps secularists from rejoicing in the chance to participate (however briefly in a chronological sense) in the unfoldings of a limitless and random cosmos? Isn’t it the vestige of nonpantheism that prevents a recognition of the universe as flamboyantly inventive in its own right? If a progressive temporality prompts a fixation on future continuation, a cyclical or spiraling temporality might support a deeper immersion in and enjoyment of the present.

Nonetheless, my suggestion that the nonpantheist inheritance of secularism precludes it from theorizing a relational ontology might be little more than a difference of emphasis in the face of Farman’s most important argument. The final sections of On Not Dying are a tour de force. There, Farman incisively identifies immortalism as the latest frontier of a colonialism rooted in White supremacy. At his most optimistic he argues that the immortalist interpretation of both humans and cosmos as information might open the way to a less passive world, where a paradigm of human–cosmic symbiosis prevails over one of human superiority (pp. 234–35). (Though here we might ask: What if the universe is made not of information, but rather, as some anthropologists or indigenous theorists suggest, of stories?) On the other hand, however, he powerfully voices what many anthropological readers will already have been sputtering in the margins: that the future sought by immortalists is one in which imagination and choice are reduced to the narrowest algorithmic possibilities, dreamed up by technoscientists with an inherently racialized and computational conception of human life. Ultimately, the book offers an astonishingly rich opportunity to rethink relations to mortality through an encounter with those who push the biopolitical fostering of White human life to its extremes. 

In one of the most impassioned passages Farman gestures toward a multitude of possible mentations, conjuring (for me at least) a spectrum stretching from the irrational reaches of human art, to nonhuman animal umwelten,to “how forests think” (Kohn 2013), and perhaps even to the semiosis of star systems—all of which are obviated by the limits of immortalist vision (pp. 271–72). Here he aligns himself philosophically, ethically, and politically, with a posthumanism that seeks not to create the all-too-White uberhuman but to displace the human altogether, along with the teleological timeline that props it up. He comes close to endorsing Braidotti’s (2013) “embrace of death,” with its “cultivation of a humbler relationship and continuity with the cosmos” (233). He stops short of doing so to call again for an engagement with minds, which are, he argues, “matter out of place” for secular theorists like Braidotti. But what if the problem with mind is not that it is matter out of place, but that it inserts a quasi-entity where we might rather perceive a proliferation of relations? When Farman asks, “Is every appeal to … ‘en-minded matter’ religious or spiritual in nature? … And why does this matter?” (p. 232), my response is to recall the historical contingency of the category of religion itself as an entailment of a nonpantheist separation between matter and spirit/mind. When the universe is no longer desouled, the very concept of immaterial spirit becomes unnecessary.

References Cited

Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press.

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Malden, MA: Polity Press.

Kohn, E. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.