a) description of the original text and its socio-cultural / historic origins

Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Star Diaries is a series of space adventures starring Lem’s recurring space-voyager protagonist, Ijon Tichey. My project will focus on the 21st Voyage, where Ijon visits the planet of Dichotica.

The inhabitants of Dichotica are automorphists (transhumanists), whose technology had become so advanced that they were eventually able to re-engineer their bodies and brains however they desired. The reader learns about the evolution of Dichotica’s techno-cultural progress by way of Ijon, who is taken captive by a hidden religious order called the Demolition Friars, overseen by Father Dyzz Darg. Ijon is forced to hide out in a monastery because his appearance (a fully-intact human) was censored and his life would be in danger if he were freely walking around. However, the Demolition Friars saw Ijon’s physical form as venerable and a source of worship because it was the most pure form of humanity.

While in hiding, Ijon spends much of his time reading about the history of the planet and its inhabitants. He also has long religious and philosophical discussions with Father Dyzz Darg which reveal the inner struggle of the Dichoticans as they altered their form. At first, their technology was used for improving physical and mental health. Over time, however, it was used to define aesthetics and construct more and more elaborate body re-designs, for the purpose of making fashion statements, such as eyeballs under the armpits for women and jaws with double-bites for men. Eventually, the Dichoticans abandoned their human bodies altogether, which led to societal disruption, rebellion between those who wanted to standardize the physical form and those who wanted to continue to alter the form, uprisings, and full societal collapse.

Even though this is dark subject matter, Lem, in all his genius, manages to make it humorous and thought-provoking.

The Star Diaries was written in 1957, following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Poland (1939), as well as the Nazi invasion of Poland (1941-1944). Lem, who was a Polish Jew, was personally impacted by both of these military occupations. He was barred from studying at Lwow Polytechnic (as he wanted) because of his bourgeouis origin, and was only admitted to Lwow University because of his father’s connections. In addition, his entire family avoided imprisonment in a ghetto only by providing false papers. Lem’s career as a writer actually began seven years prior to his first published work, because all written content had to be officially approved by the communist regime. Lem’s work could not make it past the censors until he began publishing under the subject of “science fiction” which was less scrutinized for content than philosophy or literature.

Lem referred to himself as an agnostic and an atheist at different times, saying he chose this “for moral reasons…the world appears to me to be put together in such a painful way that I prefer to believe that it was not created…intentionally.”

I am particularly fascinated with the idea that this society was able to completely alter their physical body at will, and the philosophical questions this raises about the nature of what it means to be human, the concept of manufacturing individuality, aesthetics and their role in shaping culture, and humankind’s relationship to god and the divine. All of these questions are deeply examined in the 21st Voyage.

b) justification for the new version that explains the new socio-cultural /historical contexts

It is the technological age. Present-day culture is image-driven and replete with marketing and advertising schemes that make people feel insecure about the way they look in order to sell products and services no one actually needs. We are bombarded with images of ideal body shapes and sizes, while simultaneously being told that we should love our bodies just the way they are because “every body is beautiful”. Women, in particular, are spending a larger portion of their income on minor cosmetic procedures in order to look thinner, younger, or more like (fill in the latest celebrity’s name). While the fixation with one’s appearance is nothing new, it has been amplified by the rise of selfie culture and the pressure to constantly share images and videos of yourself online, even if you have no desire to become ‘internet famous’. The new normal is to be utterly narcissistic.

As the internet becomes more ubiquitous and more people begin to have a voice due to social media, the focus on race and gender has also been amplified. Black Lives Matter and #MeToo represent a shift in consciousness that is occurring as we begin to hear from marginalized groups, en masse. A vicious new form of tribalism is on the rise as people cling to the familiar and the past. Groupthink and identity politics have permeated all of our institutions. Finally…in an epic sign of the times, Kanye West is accused of putting on “a minstrel show” by Don Lemon after his bizarre televised meeting with Donald Trump.

I want to know what would happen if we could transform our external packaging to such a degree that we no longer identify and / or define ourselves by our body size, relative symmetry, skin color or sex organs; if we looked so alien that we began to imagine we were something entirely different than human. Would the precise evolution of this undertaking resemble that of the Dichoticans, or would it be different? In what ways? Would the concept of gender finally cease to exist? Could we ‘design out’ unattractiveness? How would the beauty standards change and would we still look to celebrities as icons for worship and symbols of beauty? Would we devolve back into new tribes based on a whole new set of physical attributes?

c) engagements with relevant theoretical perspectives

I am not incredibly familiar with critical theory, but I *believe* I can approach the text from the following three perspectives:

Queer Theory – where the text resists normative definitions of “man”, “woman” and “sexuality”, and resists traditional social, literary, and historical constructions of male and female gender identity

Evolutionary or Darwinist – where understanding the evolutionary process provides understanding into the narrative, characters and setting

Posthumanism and Transhumanism – where the text:
1) strives to move beyond archaic concepts of “human nature” to develop ones which constantly adapt to contemporary
2) seeks to define what it means to be human, displays how our technology reshapes what we consider “natural”
3) examines the human experience for people who are partly or fully bio-mechanical
4) discusses the human experience for people who are no longer biological and no longer possess a physical body

d) work plan for the project

I want to create a program for a future company called “The Body Redesign Institute”. This is a place where humans would go to redesign their body from a menu of options. Things like skin color and texture are just the beginning. You can splice your DNA with all sorts of other biological matter to create your desired look, and the hottest trends in body redesign will be on display, if you aren’t prone to creativity. Everything from lizard skin, to cheetah fur, to coral reefs are at your disposal. If you want nine eyes, you can have them. If you want a literal pencil for a penis, you can have that, too.

I will create Powerpoint slides for of each phase of the design process, made in the style of a video game character build. I am imagining photo-shopping all sorts of bizarre shit onto the faces and bodies of models from various fashion catalogs and presenting them as suggested body redesigns.