Transcendent Men: is transhumanism ready for its close-up?

So, here’s a little reminder for UK people (plus anyone rockin’ the transAtlantic jet-set lifestyle who has nothing else planned for the weekend) that yours truly is appearing on a panel discussion being held by the UK branch of Humanity+ in London on Saturday. The kick-off topic is Ray Kurzweil’s infomercialmoviebiopic, Transcendent Man, though I expect the focus will wander somewhat. (When you put me on a discussion panel, digression comes as standard… and if I’m still as fuzzed-out with a headcold as I am right now, I may struggle to recall my own name, let alone the subject under discussion. Selah.)

I actually watched Transcendent Man a few weeks back; it wasn’t what I was expecting, to be quite honest. I assumed we’d get a lot of flash-bang technowonder footage running through a ticklist of transhuman ideals, spangly visuals and a trendy post-Noughties electronica soundtrack pumping away underneath; instead, Transcendent Man is surprisingly calm and restrained, focussing as much on Kurzweil himself as it does the movement he’s implicitly placing himself at the vanguard of, if not more. I was pleased to see plenty of dissenting opinions from futurist figureheads like Ben Goertzel (novelty hats!) and Kevin Kelly (novelty beard!), but disappointed that these weren’t addressed more thoroughly – though given the restraints of the feature-film format and the underlying propagandist purpose of the movie, I’m not entirely surprised.

But the big takeaway for me was the framing of Kurzweil as a man chasing immortality technology because he wants to reincarnate his father, a talented composer and musician who died an untimely death; to some extent this humanises Kurzweil and his transhuman yearnings, but also (subtly but quite deliberately, I expect) gives him a kind of Christ-like subtext. Sacrifice and resurrection, the father and the son, the transcendence of base human existence, giving sight to the blind, healing the sick… all very Biblical, in a secular kind of way. Given Kurzweil’s undeniable intelligence and focus on long-term goals, I’m reading Transcendent Man as a very literal text; I think it only reasonable to assume that there’s nothing in there that the man himself didn’t want included. He’s a shrewd publicist, and understands the power of narrative; the narrative here is much more about Kurzweil himself than H+ as a movement, but it also seeks to make the connection between the two an explicit one: Kurzweil sees himself as instigator and leader of a crusade to conquer death itself.

Of course, that’s my reading of it, which is – quite naturally – informed by my own sceptical-fellow-traveller status, and I look forward to finding out what confirmed H+ adherents have taken from it. An early taster can be found over at H+ Magazine from none other than R U Sirius:

Transcendent Man is not exactly a portrait of Ray Kurzweil, although there is some of that. And it’s not exactly an exploration of his ideas, although there is some of that too. It’s a portrait of a man on a mission — the person and the message inextricably linked together — and it leaves a viewer with the strong impression that the man is the mission. The film carries, over all, a rather somber ambiance, a feeling that is helped along by a disquieting original soundtrack by Philip Glass. There are lots of shots of Ray popping vitamin and nutrient pills; speaking in public, pontificating on his theories. All this is coupled with his — and his mother’s — memories about the death of his father, which seems to be a mission-defining trauma at the heart of his quest. And there are a fair number of talking heads supporting or criticizing Ray’s visions, including Kevin Kelly characterizing Ray as a prophet… “but wrong.” In a quiet moment, Ray appears to be deeply and sadly reflecting on something as he gazes out at the ocean. A voice off camera asks him what he’s thinking about. He hesitates for quite a few beats before saying (I’m paraphrasing) that he was thinking about the computational complexity of the natural world. A few seconds later, he says something that rings more true — that he always finds the ocean soothing. (So do I.)

(Interestingly enough, the scene Sirius mentions there was the one that felt to me the most staged and false, as if Kurzweil knew he needed to expose his emotional core but struggled to do so with authenticity… which isn’t to suggest he was faking it so much as he was perhaps struggling to let go of the incredible degree of self-control he imposes – by necessity – upon himself.)

The film will probably not leave most viewers with a visceral impression of an energized life full of joy and companionship — the one exception is toward the end of the film when Ray is part of a group that gets to experience zero gravity. We see an expression of pure happiness wash over Ray’s face and notice a real sense of bonhomie among all the participants. But on the whole, a cynic might see in this film a portrait of a life lived in pursuit of more life.

Sirius hits it on the nose for me, here; I came away from Transcendent Man with an image of Kurzweil as a man so driven that he can no longer extricate his life from his desire to extend said life, a kind of tragic Sisyphean figure. I fully expect someone more convinced by the Singularitarian schedule would read his character very differently, though; how the everyman public reads it remains to be seen (assuming it makes enough of a splash that anyone who isn’t already H+-curious bothers to check it out – it doesn’t exactly drip with box-office blockbuster potential).

Indeed, the reason I expected a more dynamic and exciting experience from Transcendent Man is that I assumed it was intended as a vehicle for popularising the H+ movement beyond its current main catchment zone (which is predominantly affluent white Western males with technological backgrounds). I’ve spent the last four or five years watching H+ memes pop up in pop-culture niches, and I’m now beginning to wonder if Transcendent Man is designed to publicly define the core ideals of an concept that has already started to metastasise and mutate its way through the body politic – not just a statement of ownership, but an attempt to build a canonical “party line”, if you like. What I’m certain of is that the H+/Singularitarian memes are spreading, and that these troubled times are rich loam for the seeds of any transcendent philosophy. Furthermore, it’s a philosophy that can easily be hijacked, remixed and radicalised (transhuman separatism, anyone?), and I suspect Kurzweil can see that coming, too; whether he’ll succeed in becoming the official figurehead for the “classical” core of the movement (and whether that will be an enviable position to be in) remains an open question.

6 thoughts on “Transcendent Men: is transhumanism ready for its close-up?”

  1. Paul,

    Your article sees you “assuming” quite a bit. You should read Aaron Saenz’s interview with Barry Ptolemy (here on Singularity Hub) who is the creative force behind Transcendent Man. As Ptolemy states in that interview (and others) Transcendent Man was an independent production with no affiliation with Kurzweil other than he was the subject of the film. The decisions in the film we’re not made for promotional purposes but were only made for aesthetic purposes. You suggest that the film is a “infomericalbiopic.” According to what Ptolemy has said repeatedly, Kurzweil was not even allowed to see the film until 3 weeks before it’s world premiere at Tribeca. I have this on good authority also from people close to the Kurzweil organization. Again you make assumptions that there is nothing in the film that Kurzweil didn’t want in the film, but according to Ptolemy this is not the case. Your article is full of assumptions that begin to pile up and seem based in a cynical outlook of either Kurzweil or the Singularity movement in general.

  2. Hi Alexander, thanks for the input; given that the interview you mention was posted around the same time I was writing the above, I’d not had a chance to read it, but am about to do so in more detail. A quick skim through makes it plain that Ptolemy was a Kurzweilian Singularitarian before he started work on the movie, though, so while I may have misstated the narrative intent as originating from Kurzweil himself, it is still very clearly a document produced on the pro-Kurzweil side of the fence; this does not invalidate it in any way, but all texts must – by necessity – be read in context, especially when the context is a transcendentalist philosophical movement.

    As for my outlook being “cynical”, I’d prefer the term “sceptical” – I personally believe many of the technologies and achievements lauded by the “Singularity movement” (your words, there, not mine) will eventually come to pass, but I have serious issues with the timescales Kurzweil (and others) moot as plausible, not to mention doubts over whether the Singularity would be a rising tide that floated all boats to the same degree. Indeed, I find myself very much aligned with Kevin Kelly’s viewpoint as portrayed in the movie (and in his writings elsewhere); given that Singularitarianism declares itself to be a movement based on science, I’d have thought it wouldn’t be averse to reasonable critical responses to its claims and methods. 🙂

  3. Kurzweil’s quest to reanimate his father is, to me, deeply creepy. It reminds me of the story “The Monkey’s Paw.”

  4. Hey Paul –

    It was a pleasure to read this article – I’d not seen your blog before. I’m involved with UKH+ and will be at the session tomorrow, so very much look forward to seeing what you have to say.

    Brief tangent on the Transhuman Separatist note that you mentioned at the end: Just to prove you right, things are already getting more complicated – perhaps in a way you may find interesting. The ‘TS’ group now considers itself part of a wider network of explicitly countercultural transhumanists known as “Transhuman X” (TX). The idea is simply to give a voice to H+ sympathisers and ‘fellow travellers’ who don’t feel themselves a good fit with the increasingly media friendly face of ‘mainstream’ transhumanism (e.g. Kurzweil & Humanity+). Different groups within the network – such as the TranSeps – have different interests, aims, opinions, and emphases.

    For example, the very new group I’m involved with – “Zero State” ( – is also part of the TX network. Unlike TS, ZS is not militant, nor even Separatist in any meaningful sense. Instead, the idea there is that transhumanism can and should equally value art and science (and interaction between the two), and that immediate, pragmatic action is to be preferred over fruitless ‘ivory tower’ discussions. Group membership and activity seems to be coalescing extremely fast, despite an emphasis on quality over quantity.

    Long story short, Transhumanism seems to be crossing some kind of critical threshold. Up until now it has been extremely niche (let’s face it), but correspondingly very consistent in terms of conceptual, pragmatic, aesthetic, and ideological approaches. Now that a relatively large number of new (often younger) people seem to be coming to H+, it is diversifying. And quite rapidly, by the looks of things.

    I, for one, think that can only be a good thing.

    – Amon Zero

    “Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences…”

  5. Hi Amon; thanks for the kind words, and for the links to ZS and TX, which I shall do my best to explore when I get a spare moment. Do come say hi on Saturday, it’d be great to have a chat. 🙂

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