Eric Shouse, East Carolina University
Abstract: In 1930 Kenneth Burke wrote a short satire entitled, “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity.” His satire predicted trends as diverse as the sale of bottled water, the widespread use of mood altering drugs, and the increase in our prison population. We1 update this original satire and then apply Burke’s method—satire by entelechy—to envision the future of biotechnology. Our paper concludes with an explanation of how satire can provide equipment for living with the modern exigencies of biological and ecological catastrophe. We argue modern entelechial satire encourages mutual mortification rather than victimage; therefore, it is able to debunk technological excess without promoting the “Cult of the Kill.”
A monkey in North Carolina has the power of telekinesis. She can move objects at a distance of many miles using only the power of her mind. Researchers in the burgeoning field of biotechnology are attempting to help other monkeys communicate with one another telepathically.2 As a result of these sorts of experiments, a former high school football player can use his thoughts to operate a television, open his e-mail, and play the classic videogame Pong.3 A group of blind people in Portugal can see thanks to cameras connected to electrodes implanted in their brains. One day the “technology that has given them sight could beam images from one person’s mind to another’s.” 4 If it seems impossible to believe there are already beings on our planet with telekinetic powers and that telepathic humans may be just around the corner, it is important to note these are but the tip of a larger techno-scientific iceberg.
The telekinetic monkeys and cyborgs who now live among us are more than mere curiosities. They are outward signs of a larger paradigm shift in science and technology. In the past, the relationship between human beings and technology was mediated by our environment:
For all previous millennia, our technologies have been aimed outward, to control our environment. Starting with fire and clothes, we looked for ways to ward off the elements. With the development of agriculture we controlled our food supply…. Now, however, we have started a wholesale process of aiming our technologies inward. Now our technologies have started to merge with our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities, our progeny and perhaps our souls.5The song of the technologist is changing. It is no longer “forward, outward, and up,” as Kenneth Burke once proposed.6 That tune was a good fit for technologists who aimed at altering the outside world. Today, however, many of our most preeminent scientists are composing a new refrain—“downward, inward, and up”—downward (in scale), inward (into the body) and up (because the ethic of progress continues to drive this paradigm as it did its precursor).
Over seventy-five years ago, Burke composed a short satire critical of the cultural changes wrought by consumer capitalism. Burke’s thesis in that satire was “though there is a limit to what a man can use, there is no limit whatever to what he can waste.”7 His satire was intended to be a “perversely rational response” to the emergence of the principle of “planned obsolescence.”8 Burke wrote about what would happen if the technological trends beginning to show themselves in 1930 were followed “to the end of the line” (to their strictly logical although highly irrational conclusions). Scholars familiar with Burke’s later papers will recognize the special place the phrase “to the end of the line” had in his glossary. Burke used that phrase to describe how “Certain artists, or purely speculative minds glimpse certain ultimate possibilities in their view of things, and there is no rest until they have tracked down the implications of their insight, by transforming its potentialities into total actualization.”9 The other way Burke described the act of taking things “to the end of the line” was with a term he borrowed from Aristotle. That term was “entelechy.”
For Aristotle, entelechy denoted a biological process. The point of the term was to highlight the way in which biological outcomes tend to be preordained. For example, Aristotle held that a seed already possessed within itself the goal of the mature tree that it would become.10 Burke adapted this strictly biological concept, using “Aristotle’s biological entelechy only as an analogy for what happens in human symbol-use.”11 The Burkeian entelechy, in contrast to the Aristotelian, “is concerned with the ways in which language induces action in the humans who use it and the ways in which the language which humans use reveals the language-users’ concept of perfection—i.e., the goals of their actions.”12 For Burke, entelechy was a way of describing how words can inspire people to take things to the end of the line.
Perhaps the paradigm case of taking things to the end of the line is the guilt purification ritual in which sacrifice becomes “the end of the line” of a given Order. As Burke put it in The Rhetoric of Religion,
Order leads to Guilt (for who can keep commandments) Guilt needs Redemption (for who would not be cleansed!) Redemption needs a Redeemer (which is to say, a Victim!). Order Through Guilt To Victimage (hence: Cult of the Kill).13Burke wrote his poem about the purification of guilt during the apotheosis of the Cold War because he feared the way “two mighty world orders” had “homicidally armed [themselves] to the point of suicide.”14 An important lesson to draw from The Rhetoric of Religion is that all too often we confront Order with a Counter-Order that incorporates the worst elements of the original Order. Thus, in our homicidal plans to defend ourselves we hasten our own suicide.
Throughout his career, Burke looked for a way around the “Cult of the Kill,” regularly advocating a comic perspective that critiqued the most destructive aspects of various Orders while avoiding the promotion of equally dangerous Counter-Orders:
The comic perspective . . . does not believe in . . . any kind of rigidified doctrine or in the kind of fanaticism that supports terrorism around the world, whether it is ecoterrorism, antiabortion terrorism, Marxist terrorism, Islamic terrorism, fundamentalist Christian terrorism, democratic terrorism, fascist terrorism, or racial terrorism.15As this list of terrorist activities makes clear, even the most laudable counter-statements (pro-environmental, pro-democracy, anti-racist) can “call to arms” Counter-Orders dedicated to purging guilt through victimage. Comic criticism must dedicate itself to avoiding the potential victimage of both Order and Counter-Order by constantly striving for imperfection, remembering that Order can be opposed not only by “Counter-Order,” but by simple “Disorder” as well.16
The goal of this paper is to face the modern potential of biological Armageddon brought about by the current hyper-technological order—an Order threatening to change what it means to be human—without setting in motion a potentially equally destructive Counter-Order. We will attempt to do so by utilizing the comic resources of “satire by entelechy.” The modern entelechial satire provides a means of critiquing potential technological excesses without promoting the ritualistic purgation of those excesses through victimage. Our paper constructs a satire by entelechy by reviewing and updating Burke’s 1930 satire, “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity.” After demonstrating the continued relevance of Burke’s method, we briefly examine two later satires known as the “Helhaven essays.”17 We then apply the critical method Burke used to produce his satires to contemporary trends in biotechnology. Our “satire by entelechy” of biotechnology concludes with a discussion of how satire can equip us to face the modern potential of biological and ecological catastrophe. We argue modern entelechial satire promotes mutual mortification rather than victimage. Thus, it is an effective way of debunking technological excess while avoiding the “Cult of the Kill.”18
Before proceeding with our discussion of Burke’s satire, a brief caveat is in order. We believe the best attitude to take in judging Burke’s various satires is, itself, a satirical one. Let the reader be forewarned, therefore, that in our analysis of Burke we shall adopt the attitude of the original texts. All that follows should be read in the comic spirit in which it is intended.19
In “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity,” Burke happened across a technique for producing satire that was also an exceptional method of predicting the future. The method Burke developed for writing his satire of planned obsolescence took the following shape: (1) locate a paradigm beginning to take hold, (2) state clearly the rules and norms of that paradigm, and (3) describe what will happen if those rules and norms are applied to specific cultural artifacts and “taken to the end of the line.”
Burke’s ability to predict the future in “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity” was remarkable. If we are willing to give him a measure of latitude in his predictions it is possible to read Burke’s 1930 essay as forecasting trends as diverse as the sale of bottled water, the wide spread use of mood altering drugs, and the increase in our prison population. Although Burke did not predict the arrival of the Garden Weasel or Billy Bass the singing fish, he did foresee a glut of previously unnecessary products that clutter our contemporary cultural landscape. Burke wrote, “[W]hen a man is thrown out of work by the introduction of a new machine for the manufacture of a necessary article, we must set him to work manufacturing some article hitherto unnecessary.”20 Although mass production was in its infancy, Burke could see what would happen if it was taken to the end of the line. Eventually the producers would run out of necessary goods to produce, and an ever-increasing demand for previously unnecessary goods would have to be manufactured. That is the world we and our singing fish live in today.
One of the previously unnecessary goods Burke took note of in 1930 was the disposable razor. He commented, “Before the modern era, the attempt was made to invent a razor blade that would be durable and permanently efficient. . . . Now experts with the good of the country at heart are seriously at work upon the problem of producing a blade which will afford one perfect shave and then [become entirely useless].”21 Today it is obvious Burke did not push the wasteful consumption of razors to the end of the line. If he had, Burke would have foreseen Gillette’s recent plan to introduce a five blade disposable razor with a single blade on the back for trimming sideburns, a microchip that regulates blade action, a low battery light, and a safety switch that turns the razor off after a designated period of time.22 Why waste only one blade per shave when you can waste six blades, a battery, a light, and a microchip? We should give praise to the good people at Gillette for producing this bounty of waste. They have taken the disposable razor to the end of the line in a way not even the brightest of prognosticators could have predicted. It is well planned waste like this that ensures the continued success of our economy.
Although his foresight when it came to razor blades was impressive, it seems to us that one of Burke’s proudest moments was his prediction of the bottled water phenomenon. In 1930, Burke commented:
It must [be] obvious to all right-thinking persons that no system of maximum prosperity is possible without eliminating the use of water for drinking purposes. The amount of labor that goes into the production and supplying of water is lower than that required for any other beverage. . . . If the population could be educated to consume this same amount of liquid per day under some manufactured form, the consumption of manufactured beverages would immediately be increased over a thousand percent.23We should praise Burke here not so much for his insight about how the beverage industry would be shaped by Fordism, but for his good nature and lack of cynicism. He believed the government would have to educate people into the consumption of beverages other than water. A more cynical observer might have hit upon what actually happened: that some corporations would so befoul the water that citizens would pay other corporations to remove the foulness. An even more cynical observer would note it would be even better for business if the supposedly clean water was not actually so clean. The Natural Resource Defense Council—a group marked by their obvious lack of optimism when it comes to such things—actually tested over a thousand units of bottled water. They found about 22 percent of the water contained “chemical contaminants at levels above strict state health limits [that if consumed over a long period of time] . . . could cause cancer or other health problems.”24 We are sure this will come as welcome news to our nation’s many cancer researchers. With the bottled water industry in their corner, their profits are destined to rise. Blessed are the impure water hucksters, for they give us the carcinogens the drugs of the future will help to combat.
If it takes the generosity of a comic spirit to interpret Burke as predicting the five blade razor and bottled water, much less generosity is necessary when it comes to his penitentiary prophesy. Burke was one of the first theorists to realize prisons could be good for the economy. He suggested that so long as the building of prisons kept pace with the production of new crimes, lawmakers “may then proceed unimpeded to the formulation of still other crimes, putting many acts upon the statute books which are not even suspected by the general public as criminal at present. And many seemingly small offenses, now listed as misdemeanors, can be promoted to the rank of felonies, with consequent longer terms of imprisonment for offenders.”25 Burke was about fifty years ahead of the curve in these predictions. In fact, our nation’s “prison population has quadrupled since 1980” as a direct “result of public policy, such as the war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentencing.”26 By criminalizing more and more behaviors that were not previously crimes our brave and noble legislators were able to increase the prison population from 280,000 in 1970 to 2 million in 2000.27 We salute those legislators who have worked so diligently so that so many might be locked away. They have proven Burke correct beyond his wildest dreams.
One of the things making the dramatic increase in incarcerations possible was the creation of an “incarceration business” wherein private companies charge states for “looking after” their criminals. The largest organization in the prison business, Corrections Corporation of America, collects over $1 billion a year to house inmates. The real beauty of this system is that it makes possible the return of de facto slave labor, and slave labor has solved an economic dilemma. The dilemma is that American companies cannot compete with foreign operations that pay workers twenty cents an hour while concomitantly satisfying American consumer’s desire to purchase products that say “Made in the U.S.A.” What is the smart-minded venture capitalist to do? The obvious answer is to turn U.S. prisons into factories, and this is what politicians have allowed them to do:
Companies such as Boeing, Victoria's Secret, and Eddie Bauer have subcontracted with companies using low-cost prison labor to manufacture everything from aircraft components to lingerie and software packages. TWA contracts with the California Youth and Adult Correctional Agency to use prisoners to make airline reservations. In Nevada, prisoners make waterbeds for Vinyl Products, Inc. Another company, Labor-to-Industry (formerly Lockhart Technologies), employs sixty Texas prisoners making electronic circuit boards. The Washington Marketing Group employs prisoners as telemarketers. South Carolina Cap and Gown, Inc. hires prisoners to make graduation gowns.28Thanks to the contemporary prison industry, when our children walk across the stage at their high school graduation ceremonies they can proudly wear garments sewn by former classmates (those classmates having been tried as adults for crimes that previously did not exist). One way or another, everyone gets to participate in the graduation ceremony. We commend the venture capitalists and our noble legislators for finally delivering on the promise of “No Child Left Behind.”
At the same time Americans have increasingly become willing to take away liberty, we have all but mandated the pursuit of happiness, and that demand has been good for the economy as well. Back in 1930, Burke could only dream that “perhaps we can look forward to the day when the ‘constructive attitude’ can be maintained by a simple medical injection.”29 Today more and more people secretly hope to become depressed so they can receive their fair share of the many mood elixirs the medical profession has to offer. There is so much Prozac floating around our culture these days people have begun giving it to their dogs.30 The dogs of impropriety would surely howl were they not so inebriated.
In sum, “Waste: Or, the Future of Prosperity” predicted the widespread adaptation of previously unnecessary goods like disposable razors, bottled water, and mood altering drugs, and also foretold the increase in the prison population. Rereading his satire, we were taken aback by how thoroughly history has vindicated Burke’s satiric vision of the future. There is only one place in “Waste: Or, the Future of Prosperity” where taking things to the end of the line did not provide an eerily accurate model of the future. Burke envisioned an automobile of the future that would “give super-performance for twelve months” and then “fall into a thousand pieces. . . .”31 While the AMC Gremlin came close, the automobile industry today relies much more heavily upon planned obsolescence. That doctrine continues to victimize people who “are kept busy buying new models of every imaginable commodity while their old models are still in thoroughly serviceable condition.”32 Overall, however, Burke’s satire painted an ironically accurate portrait of the future.
In 1971 and 1974 Burke partially updated his 1930 satire of consumer capitalism in his Helhaven essays, “Toward Helhaven: Three Stages of a Vision,” and “Why Satire, With a Plan for Writing One.” In the Helhaven essays, Burke envisioned environmental pollution so profound it would necessitate the building of a refuge in outer space. Helhaven was described as a “Culture-Bubble on the Moon” where the lucky few could take refuge from the apocalyptic pollution of planet Earth. According to Burke, some sort of “culture-bubble” would eventually become necessary because, “We are happiest when we can plunge on and on. And any thought of turning back, of curbing rather than aggravating our cult of ‘new needs,’ seems to us suicidal, even though the situation is actually the reverse, and it is our mounting technologic clutter that threatens us.”33 The Helhaven essays present a dark vision of our planet’s ecological future. The vision was so dark it caused one critic to wonder if Burke had entirely given in to despair:
Though Burke categorizes his Helhaven as a satire, with the implication that one satirizes only a condition that is capable of being changed, it may occur to the reader who reaches the end of “Why Satire” that there should be a question mark attached to its title. Why should Burke bother to use satire when the world to which he is responding seems to be beyond all hope? Indeed, we get the sense . . . Burke had reached a state of despair about the ecology of the planet—for example, his conviction that the “ultimate impasse” is that humanity victimizes nature and itself simultaneously.34At first we too were depressed by Burke’s ominous prophecy, especially given his aptitude for predicting the future via satire. However, it seems clear to us today that a group of well-meaning scientists and technologists will be able to kill us off long before environmental pollution chokes our planet.
Thanks to the future of GRAIN technologies (genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology) applied to human beings rather than their environment, we predict an internal apocalypse for which there will be no safe haven (Helhaven or otherwise). In the future biotechnologies will make us all over in the image of our environment. We will become the pollution that up until now has only plagued our planet. To explain how biotechnology will take us to the end of the line, we will employ the same methods Burke utilized in “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity.” (1) We will discuss a paradigm that is beginning to take hold (“the singularity”). (2) We will state clearly the rules and norms of that paradigm. (3) We will describe what will happen if those rules and norms are applied to specific cultural artifacts and “taken to the end of the line.”
It is our belief that by making ourselves over in the image of our environmental pollution we will become just as “rotten with perfection” as the environment we have polluted. It seems clear that our technologists desire in their heart of hearts to produce a synthetic symbiosis: a human who is inhuman enough to live on a planet made uninhabitable by humans. This is a most rational and scientific solution, and we applaud it. When life gives you sour-tasting, genetically modified lemons, why change the lemons? That is regress. Instead, we should utilize our technological prowess to transform our taste buds until lemons taste like Country Time. That is progress!
In physics, a singularity is point at which “everything stops making sense.”35 For example, if human beings were to approach a black hole they would come to a point in space known as an event horizon: “At this singularity . . . the laws of science and our ability to predict the future would break down.”36 Past an event horizon, it is impossible to know what will happen next. We don't know what lies on the other side of a black hole. Technologically oriented futurists have suggested that “our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace” and that this exponential growth will result in a “greater-than-human” form of artificial intelligence.37 These futurists envision super-human forms of artificial intelligence as a new “singularity.” As with the black hole, it is impossible to know what lies on the other side of this “singularity.” (It is unlikely a person with even superior human intelligence will be able to predict how super-intelligent forms of AI will reshape human beings and our planet.) Fortunately, it is not our goal to explain or predict where a technological singularity might take us, but only to write a satire by entelechy of this paradigm’s greatest potential excesses.
Let us begin our satire of biotechnology by thinking about how GRAIN technologies will shape the future of our nation’s greatest natural resources—our children. We can begin in the present. Our cutting-edge biotechnologists have already forever altered the lives of a number of parents and their children:
In the spring of 2001 . . . a fertility clinic in New Jersey impregnated fifteen women with embryos fashioned from their own eggs, their partner’s sperm, and a small portion of an egg donated by a second woman. The procedure was designed to work around the defects in the would-be mother’s egg—but at least two of the resulting babies carried genetic material from all three “parents.”38Rudimentary reproductive technology has given us children with three biological parents, and the fertility specialists who made this happen are to be commended. We sincerely hope the exponential trends in technology growth continue to impact their field. With a little more work, it may one day be possible for children to have thousands of parents. One can only imagine the lavish birthday parties a thousand parents would have the resources to orchestrate. It has been said, “It takes a village to raise a child.” We look forward to the day when all right-minded people of good conscience will take that sentiment literally.
Indeed, it may take the energy of thousands of parents to cope with the precociousness of the tots of the future. The vice president of a major biotech firm recently announced his researchers are “close to being able to add 20 or 30 points to your baby’s IQ.”39 We eagerly anticipate the day when parents will be able to customize their children as easily as we now customize our automobiles. Imagine being able to equip your children with advanced intelligence packages, athletic-enhancement options, and super-sociability features. These are just a few of the things advances in biotechnology may make possible. If parents are allowed to make these sorts of decisions, all of our children will attend Harvard, compete in the Olympics, and have their own daytime talk shows. This would be a glorious future, and what parent would oppose it? However, it will only come to pass in places with a fierce fidelity to the free market. If the nation-state dictates policy we may wind up with a system like the one the English have adopted wherein every couple who wants to use, “any new reproductive technique . . . must first apply to the Human Embryology Authority.”40 Leave it to the English to bureaucratize conception.
If fear mongers in our own nation have their way, our citizens may face similar sorts of bureaucratic obstacles in their quest to improve their children. One such “environmentalist” fears that if the “options” we choose for our children do not work out well parents may want to return a less than perfect child in the same way they would “a defective product.”41 We will admit there is a small “downside” when it comes to these sorts of technological “enhancements.” However, there is also an incredible “upside.” The perfection of our children would be a major boon for our nation’s future economy. Parents already attempt to “reprogram” their children with substances like Ritalin. They do so despite the fact that “lab animals given the option of self-administering either Ritalin or cocaine do not show a strong preference for one over the other.”42 We should salute these parents who regularly hop up their children on legal speed. They are good Americans. Their willingness to push aside personal doubts as they sprinkle the equivalent of pure Colombian blow on their children’s Cocoa Puffs is a testament to their moral fortitude. Success is based upon taking calculated risks. It is these types of parents—millions of them—who will ensure the success of the biotechnology revolution. Biotechnology will help children succeed by giving them a choice. On the one hand, they can succeed. On the other hand, they can be “reprogrammed.” Choice is the root of democracy, and it is democracy that will ensure our nation’s continued technological superiority. As the cyborg President of the future will say, “God bless the enhanced children of the future, and God bless the United States of America.”
If we are to achieve the technological utopia known as the singularity, we must be ever vigilant. “The law of accelerating returns [that will enable the coming singularity] is fundamentally an economic theory. . . .”43 The exponential advances in the fields of genetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology will come because these fields will produce economically viable products. Therefore, one of the only things that could potentially interfere with the arrival of the singularity would be a slowdown of the world’s economy. In less than two generations, the median age in Europe, Japan, and parts of North America will be nearly 60.44 In the long-term we will simply do away with Social Security by doing away with the elderly (by this we mean nanotechnology will allow people to rebuild their bodies and therefore never become physiologically old). In the short term, however, the glut of elderly people in industrialized nations could become a drain on the economy, and thus a stumbling block impeding our progress toward the singularity. Fortunately, nanotechnology may already be providing a solution for this problem.
Sedentary seniors who watch Matlock all day will die of heart disease as nature intended. We need not fear them. It is the “active senior” who is the enemy of our economy and thus of technological progress. Fortunately, the majority of nanotech-enhanced products introduced thus far have been luxury goods, including cosmetics and sporting goods.45 Nanotechnology enhanced tennis rackets and golf clubs may help to solve the problem of having to pay the baby-boom generation’s Social Security and pension costs. These products are designed to appeal to active seniors with high levels of disposable income (the very pension-sucking, economic-destabilizing, old-timers whose retirement could delay the singularity). Many well-off seniors will buy nano-tennis rackets and golf clubs, rub nano-sunblock on their aging bodies and even go so far as pouring nano-supplements down their throats.
Currently, there are at least 276 nanotechnology-enhanced consumer products on the market.46 All of these products have been released even though our “current knowledge of the toxicology of nanoparticles and nanotubes is poor.”47 In one study, a “modest concentration of buckyballs in water caused significant harm to two aquatic animals. Water fleas were killed . . . and fish showed up to a 17-fold increase in brain damage compared with unexposed animals.”48 Buckyballs are one of the most widely utilized building blocks for nanotechnology. They “show promise as components of fuel cells, drug delivery systems and cosmetics that delay aging.”49 Economically successful senior citizens are likely to be early adaptors of both novel drug delivery systems and “age-defying” products. If we are fortunate, early-stage nanotechnology will have one of two celebratory effects: (1) it will kill off “active seniors” like water fleas before their pension-sucking ways become a drain on the economy, or (2) it will saddle them, like large mouth bass, with brain injuries akin to “Alzheimer’s disease in humans.”50 It is obvious the early death of these seniors would be a boon for the singularity. However, the idea that elderly people may one day be afflicted with Alzheimer’s-like brain traumas is only “promising” in a round about way. The key here is that an increasingly feeble-minded elderly population could prove to be the incentive America needs to begin production on our first generation of super-intelligent robots.
Sanyo has already introduced a “robotic bath” that is “effectively a washing machine for frail people to sit in with automatic wash, rinse and dry cycles.”51 In the United States, General Electric plans to sell sensors that can be placed throughout the home to “keep an eye on forgetful people.”52 Not surprisingly, some elderly people initially balk at the idea of being bathed like pets or being watched over by “Big Brother.” However, as a health technology expert with Intel suggested, once elderly people realize the alternative to technology is “boredom or loss of independence” they become far more compliant.53 In other words, as we are sure the robot overlords of the future will remind them, resistance is futile.
In the future, biotechnology and nanotechnology will so improve the state of medicine that accidents will be the primary cause of death. When this level of medical sophistication is achieved, safety will become an even bigger concern for people than it is now. Intelligent individuals will surround themselves with the same sorts of sensors currently being developed to monitor the elderly to protect themselves from slipping in the bathroom and dying prematurely at age 250. The entelechial motive will guide people toward the perfection of safety. (Envision a prison where all the inmates are trustees.) Many people striving for safety have already produced this sort of condition, and if you ask them they will tell you they enjoy their gated communities. We look forward to the day when virtual prisons constructed of data can be used to “protect” us all from a variety of dangers we do not currently even recognize as dangerous. This will be a godsend for robots and other forms of artificial intelligence; it will provide them with an all-encompassing knowledge of human behavior that will eventually help them achieve world domination.
Future forms of artificial intelligence will not only know everything there is to know about our everyday lives, many of them will have access to other forms of knowledge as well. More than a few artificial intelligence researchers envision their progeny “learning” by going out on the Internet and reading material that interests them. One of the things some AIs may find interesting is a study by a group of scientists at the University of Texas. These researchers developed a fuel cell that runs on human blood. “[T]he cell produces electricity sufficient to power conventional electronics and could be used for future blood-borne nanobots. . . . (A newspaper in Sydney observed that the project provided a basis for the premise in the Matrix movies of using humans as batteries.)”54 While we would not put it past our future robot overlords to turn us into an energy source, using human beings as batteries would be a colossal waste of our potential.
The majority of future AIs will be more interested in reading about how they can transform human beings into sophisticated RC cars than into “food” sources. They will be able to read online about how researchers in New York connected three wires to the brains of a group of rats. Two of the wires were used to guide individual rats with a joystick and the other was connected to the pleasure center of the rat’s brain. The rats were rewarded with a synthesized euphoric sensation when they scurried in the direction the researchers desired.55 Given the navigational problems that have plagued robotics from the start, we suspect early AI-enhanced robots will not be all that agile. Thus, it seems likely these AIs will attempt to commandeer the bodies of as many human hosts as possible and send us scurrying over the corpses of our blood-drained comrades. If the feeling of euphoria is intense enough, we can imagine many humans vying for a chance to become exoskeletons for these superior forms of intelligence. At the end of the day, giving up our bodies will probably be good for humans; nothing teaches humility like serving others.
Perhaps we are being too pessimistic? The entelechy of biotechnology could turn out well (as far as the technologists are concerned). Thus, we should ponder: What if the highly optimistic futurists are correct and biotechnology gives humans virtual immortality?56 In that case, we feel certain suicide will become an incredibly popular pastime. After spending 500 years on the planet, the combination of booze, drugs and reality television that currently makes life seem worth living is going to begin to seem bland. Even the newness of the new will begin to feel old. After people spend a hundred or so years on genetically formulated super-anti-depressants, we predict there will be some unplanned for side effects. The urge to purchase a small caliber handgun will be uncontrollable; even members of the British labor party will feel the urge. Suicide is the future! Now is not the time to be thinking about investing in some far off culture-bubble on the moon. Now is the time to start investing in colorful, fully automated, digital, suicide machines. Immortality is the future, and the perfection of immortality is death by suicide.
In what follows we explain why we feel satire is a fitting form of criticism when it comes to the critique of modern technological intrusions into the realms of biology and ecology. We argue the use of satire allows critics to debunk technological excess without giving in to the urge to “purify” the “sins” of this excess. Specifically, modern entelechial satire can purify technological excess though the mechanism of mutual mortification rather than the victimization of others. Satire is an especially useful cure for the potential excesses of biotechnology because while it rejects the most radical applications of biotechnology it has the potential to foster acceptance of more moderate iterations of this technology.
Some individuals may feel the resources of satire are too feeble and indirect to create the type of moral warning needed to fend off the dangers a biotech revolution portends. They might imagine it more fruitful to confront biotechnological excess without the resources of comic ambivalence. One independent scholar did just that, suggesting in all earnestness that the sorts of technologies we have criticized might one day destroy our essential human nature. He wrote,
In the long run (say a few centuries from now) it is it is likely that neither the human race nor any other important organisms will exist as we know them today, because once you start modifying organisms through genetic engineering there is no reason to stop at any particular point, so that the modifications will probably continue until man and other organisms have been utterly transformed.57The author believed the best weapon against counter-nature was nature itself. His argument was that, “Nature makes a perfect counter-ideal to technology” and encouraged his audience to engage in a revolution on behalf of nature.58 Unfortunately, the perfection of this system involved not only the destruction of technology and the return to nature, but the destruction of technologists. The author was Theodore Kaczynski, his text, The Unibomber Manifesto.
Burke’s satire of technology aimed outward and our satire of technology aimed inward share a common denominator with The Unibomber Manifesto: the concern that technology will destroy human life as we know it. Burke believed “without radical changes in its technologic ways, the world was headed for a calamity that might ultimately be as bad as were an actual nuclear war to break out.”59 He imagined a planet inhabited by “scurvy anthropoid[s]” giving birth to “degenerate and misshapen broods.”60 Our satire envisioned biotechnology killing or maiming the elderly and human beings serving as exoskeletons for advanced forms of AI. Burke’s satire highlighted human suffering and death; ours envisioned a loss of humanity and mass suicide. Both we and Burke present disturbing visions of the future, and unfortunately both visions are tied to technological trends already with us.
For things to turn out as badly as we have predicted, current trends need only be perfected by creatures whose very symbol-use encourages us to strive for perfection. The idea that the end of the line of current technological trends is either the destruction of nature (Burke) or human nature (our vision) is a dangerous goad. The parable of Kaczynski teaches us the danger of giving in to the certainty of these visions. Once Apocalypse seems inevitable it is difficult not to be tempted by a spirit of redemption. Satire is a means of confronting the possibility of Apocalypse while avoiding the promotion of a Counter-Order that would enjoin the “Cult of the Kill.”61 The name Ted Kaczynski is the best answer we can muster for Coupe’s question, Why write satire when “the world to which [we are] responding seems to be beyond all hope?”62 Satire is a form of debunking, and we share with Kaczynski the desire to debunk the potential excesses of biotechnology. However, we desire to do so with a less rigid attitude; we hope to keep in mind things only seem to be beyond all hope, and we feel satire makes this attitude possible.
At first blush, satire may appear incongruous with Burke’s comic-humanist orientation. Satire has traditionally been conceptualized as “a triangle with the satirist at one point, the satiric object at another, and the reader or dramatic audience at the third.”63 Critics with this orientation expect the audience to identify with the satirist and to “share in the condemnation of the satiric object that this identification with the satirist entails, in much the same way that the (male) joker and (male) audience combine aggressive forces against the (female) object in Freud’s account of the telling of tendentious jokes.”64 This model of satire has encouraged scholars to think of satire as a type of guilt purification ritual.65 However, as Burke clearly knew, satire does not have to culminate in victimage.
Burke always believed the satirist and the satirist’s victims were far more consubstantial than most satirists let on. In Attitudes toward History he suggested, “the satirist attacks in others the weaknesses and temptations that are really within himself.”66 Modern satire takes this consubstantiality a step further. It is a form of discourse that “dedicated as it is to ‘rejection’” cannot result in scapegoating because it revolves around a “catastrophe [that] implicates us all.”67 There is no Other to scapegoat because “the emphasis in modern satire has shifted from individual man to mankind . . . the satirist is now concerned to save the human race, either from complete extinction, or from a change so fundamental that its essential humanity would be lost.”68 Modern satires attack whole ways of life rather than individuals, and, as a result, modern satirists create divisions that do not necessarily conform to the typical pattern of guilt-purification-redemption. In many cases there is no goat to scapegoat because modernity makes goats of us all.
The goal of modern entelechial satire is to encourage mutual mortification rather than the victimage of an “other.” This approach is useful given the danger of the entelechial motive because “mutual mortification . . . may produce a transcendence beyond the need for a bloody sacrifice.”69 People do not usually follow satirists into battle unless they intend to slay a windmill, and satirists who demand to be taken seriously are no longer satirists.70 For the satiric frame to hold, the satirist must “maintain the dual role of the critic at warning and the comedian at play.”71 Thus, satire is useful equipment for living in a hypertechnological age because it rejects a part in an effort to save the whole. Like burlesque, satire “allows the author and auditor to adopt a frame of acceptance and a frame of rejection at the same time.”72 However, burlesque typically aims at a partial rejection through the pseudo-scapegoating of an individual. Modern entelechial satire, on the other hand, aims at a partial rejection of excesses we all share in common with the goal of mutual mortification.
Modern entelechial satire is useful because of what it accepts as well as what it rejects. In his use of satire by entelechy Burke hit upon a form of comic criticism that can point out the potentially destructive trends inherent in a given Order without promoting an equally destructive Counter-Order. Satire has the ability to “debunk the ideas the satirist seeks to disparage while also facilitating audience acceptance of more moderate versions of those ideas.”73 This characteristic of satire is important because it would be incredibly foolish to entirely reject biotechnology. We should remember the total rejection of biotechnology would entail the denunciation of things like penicillin and novacaine. Needless to say, we advocate no such “return to nature.” Advances in biotechnology are improving people’s lives; they are helping the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the amputee to scratch his nose.74 Any critique of our technological future should recognize and subtly promote these sorts of advances. It would be tragic if we entirely halted scientific and technological research because of our trepidations about biotechnological perfection. On the other hand, it would be just as foolish not to be prepared to reject the biotechnological excesses we have satirized. Satire by entelechy mediates these potentials by creating the possibility of acceptance in the same instant it promotes rejection.
Mutual mortification is an ideal of modern satire by entelechy, a form of discourse that ideally speaks across differences to create a sense of mutual responsibility for the shared “sins” of our collective Order. “A culture or social group infused by the motive of mortification enacts the role of secular sinner. Pollution is removed and redemption is achieved as individuals accept personal responsibility for the culture’s problems.”75 Unfortunately, it is impossible to know beforehand how such striving for imperfection will be received. As a case in point, certain readers of our satire may feel they have been unfairly ridiculed: “Readerly hostility to satiric rejection is . . . entirely understandable [especially when readers respond to] acts that may seem to be directed against us.”76 Parents whose children take Ritalin, for example, may see themselves as “victims” of our satire by entelechy rather than as merely “representative anecdotes” of a hyper-technological-medical-industrial-complex that entangles us all. This is not a unique liability of satire, however. No form of rhetoric can do more than to promote identification and consubstantiality. The special value of modern satire by entelechy is that it can produce complex counter-statements that are unlikely to reify into Counter-Orders despite the fact people are ever on the lookout for new reasons to hate and kill one another.
Burke’s 1930 satire, “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity,” utilized satire by entelechy to criticize the emerging paradigm in consumer capitalism we now know as planned obsolescence. In his satire, Burke described the unstated rules and norms of planned obsolescence, and by applying those rules and norms to specific cultural artifacts, Burke was able to demonstrate the potential menace of seemingly logical technological trends. We feel that technologically advanced nations are on the cusp of a new technological paradigm. Therefore, we applied Burke’s method to biotechnology. Our satire began by describing a paradigm (the singularity) we feel is beginning to take hold in important scientific and technological circles. This paradigm is predicated on the belief that human created technology is expanding at an exponential pace and will result in greater-than-human forms of intelligence. Biotechnology is different than previous forms of technology; it is designed to be applied directly to humans. Therefore, our satire revolved around the ways human beings might become the technological pollution that until now has only choked our planet.
Our satire envisioned our children becoming “polluted” with intelligence, our elderly being “polluted” by nanotechnology, and the entire human race being overcome by greater-than-human forms of intelligence. Despite our satiric pleadings to the contrary, we hope our predictions will not come to fruition. Our satire by entelechy was intended as a small wager against a “too perfect” future. Like Burke, when he wrote the Helhaven essays, we were motivated by the hope that “by carrying [the Apocalyptic] speculations to the end of the line, one keeps the admonitions alive.”77 While we would not advocate a wholesale abandonment of biotechnology, we would also hope the telekinetic monkeys of the future might occasionally slip on the banana peel of humility. If biotechnologists are allowed to strive for perfection without the constraint of humility, we fear we will become our own pollution, and that is a future none of us can survive.
1 Burke refers to himself in the first person plural (“We”) throughout his satire, “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity.” In an attempt to capture the tone and “attitude” of Burke’s original satire, the (single) author of this paper has done likewise.
2 Joel Garreau, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies – and What It Means to Be Human (New York: Broadway Books, 2005) 36-37.
3 Kevin Maney, “Scientists Gingerly Tap Into Brain’s Power,” USAToday.com 10 Oct. 2004, 27 June 2006
4Ramez Naam, More Than Human: Embracing the Promise of Biological Enhancement (New York: Broadway Books, 2005) 2.
5 Garreau 6.
6 Kenneth Burke, On Human Nature: A Gathering While Everything Flows, ed. William H. Rueckert and Angelo Bonadonna (Berkeley: U of California P, 2003) 57.
7 Kenneth Burke, “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity,” Whither, Whither, or After Sex, What? A Symposium to End Symposiums, ed. Walter S. Hankel [pseud.] (New York: Macaulay Co., 1930) 75.
8 Burke, On Human Nature 68.
9 Burke, On Human Nature 73.
10 Stan A. Lindsay, Implicit Rhetoric: Kenneth Burke’s Extension of Aristotle’s Concept of Entelechy (Lanham: U P of America, 1998) 5.
11 Lindsay 76.
12 Lindsay 11.
13 Kenneth Burke, The Rhetoric of Religion (1961; Berkeley: U of California P, 1970) 4-5.
14 Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 4.
15 William H. Rueckert, Encounters with Kenneth Burke (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1994) 120-21.
16 Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 195.
17 Burke, On Human Nature 54.
18 Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 5.
19 The editor of “Waste: or the Future of Prosperity” commented to Burke, “In all his many years as an editor, he had never published a satire that did not provoke a rash of letters from indignant readers who had taken the piece on its face, without allowance for the satiric twist.” We hope that the foregoing caveat helps to prevent as many readers as possible from taking the remainder of our essay on its face. Burke described the conversation with the editor in On Human Nature 55.
20 Burke, “Waste” 61-62.
21 Burke, “Waste” 63.
22 “Gillette Unveils 5-bladed Razor,” CNN Money.com 14 Sept. 2005, 12 Feb. 2006
23 Burke, “Waste” 66-67.
24 “Bottled Water FAQ,” Natural Resources Defense Council 4 May 1999, 12 Feb. 2006
25 Burke, “Waste” 70.
26 Gail Russell Chaddock, “U.S. Notches World’s Highest Incarceration Rate,” Christian Science Monitor: CSMonitor.com 18 Aug. 2003, 12 Feb. 2006
27 “The Prison Boom Produces Prison Privatization,” Corrections Project 12 Feb. 2006
28 Julie Light, “Look for that Prison Label,” Prisonwall.Org [Originally pub. The Progressive, June 2000] 12 Feb. 2006
29 Burke, “Waste” 75.
30 Mitch Lemus, “Barking at Prozac,” 20 Sept. 2006
31 Burke, “Waste” 64-65.
32 Burke, “Waste” 72.
33 Burke, On Human Nature 61.
34 Laurence Coupe, Kenneth Burke on Myth: An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2005) 179.
35 Garreau 72.
36 Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time, qtd. in Garreau 72.
37 Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Viking, 2005) 7-8; Garreau 71.
38 Bill McKibben, Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2003) 19.
39 McKibben 27.
40 Naam 168.
41 McKibben 59; McKibben is a well-known environmental activist whose first book, The End of Nature, was the first book for a general audience about the subject of climate change. He has written nine books (mostly about environmentalism and spirituality).
42 Francis Fukuyama, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (New York: Farrar, 2002) 48.
43 Kurzweil, Singularity 96.
44 Fukuyama 62.
45 David M. Berube, Nano-Hype: The Truth Behind the Nanotechnology Buzz (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006) 210.
46 “A Nanotechnology Consumer Products Inventory,” Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies 28 Aug. 2006
47 K. Donaldson, V. Stone, C. L. Tran, W. Kreyling and P. J. A. Borm, “Nanotoxicology,” Occupational and Environmental Medicine Online 61, 28 Aug 2006,
48 Bob Holmes, “Buckyballs Cause Brain Damage in Fish,” New Scientist.com News Service, 29 March 2004
49 “Nanoparticles Can Cause Toxic Effects in an Aquatic Species,” Nanotechwire.com 29 March 2004
51 Celeste Biever, “Machines Roll In to Care for the Elderly,” New Scientist http://newscientist.com/ 15 May 2004
54 Kurzweil, Singularity 248; Forms of Artificial Intelligence that desire the full scientific report and schematics for transforming humans into energy can purchase Fuyuki Sato, Makoto Togo, Mohammed Kamrul Islam, Tomokazu Matsue, Junichi Kosuge, Noboru Fukasaku, Satoshi Kurosawa, and Matsuhiko Nishizawa, “Enzyme-Based Glucose Fuel Cell Using Vitamin K3-Immobilized Polymer as an Electron Mediator” Electrochemical Communication, 7, 643-47 (2005) at
55 Kenneth Chang, “Using Robotics, Researchers Give Upgrade to Lowly Rats,” New York Times 2 May 2002
56 Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (New York: Rodale, 2004); Aubrey de Gray, “SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence)” 12 Feb. 2006
57 Theodore Kaczynski, “The Unibomber’s Manifesto,” KurzweilAI.net 14 May 2002, 3 Aug. 2007
59 Burke, On Human Nature 71.
60 Burke, On Human Nature 63.
61 Burke, Rhetoric of Religion 5.
62 Coupe, Kenneth Burke on Myth 179.
63 Fredric Bogel, The Difference Satire Makes (Ithica, NY: Cornell U P, 2001) 2.
64 Bogel 2.
65 For example, McMahon argued, “satiric transcendence is a kind of purification through victimage;” therefore, “in Burke’s sense satire is not properly comic.” Robert McMahon, “Kenneth Burke’s Divine Comedy: The Literary Form of the Rhetoric of Religion,” PMLA 104 (1989): 57.
66 Burke, Attitudes toward History 49.
67 Laurence Coupe, “Kenneth Burke: Pioneer of Ecocriticism,” Journal of American Studies 35 (2001): 413-31; emphasis mine.
68 James Sutherland, English Satire (London: Cambridge U P, 1958) 21.
69 Margaret Cavin, “Replacing the Scapegoat: An Examination of the Rebirth Strategies Found in William Sloane Coffin’s Language of Peace,” Peace & Change 19 1994): 288.
70 Will Kaufman, The Comedian as Confidence Man: Studies in Irony Fatigue (Detroit: Wayne State U P, 1997) 12.
71 Kaufman 11.
72 Edward C. Appel, “Burlesque Drama as a Rhetorical Genre: The Hudibrastic Ridicule of William F. Buckley, Jr.,” Western Journal of Communication 60 (1996): 270.
73 Lisa Gring-Pemble and Martha Solomon Watson, “The Rhetorical Limits of Satire: An Analysis of James Finn Gardner’s Politically Correct Bedtime Stories,” Qualterly Journal of Speech 89 (2003): 133.
74 The use of cochlear implants by the hearing impaired has become commonplace. On helping the blind to see, see Naam 2. For a video of a man using a remarkably agile prosthetic arm see Darren Murph, “Dean Kamen’s Robotic Prosthetic Arm Gets Detailed on Video,” Engadget 20 May 2007
75 James Jasinski, Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001) 365.
76 Bogel 56-57.
77 Burke, On Human Nature 80.