Friday, 27 July 2012

Meet the Superhumans! Channel 4's Paralympics Marketing Campaign

The Olympic Games finally started last night with a huge hullabaloo, but its supposedly ugly little sister, the Paralympics, will not begin before the end of August. However, two weeks ago various TV channels already broadcast a 90-second video promo, produced by a Channel 4 team, advertising the event. There we see a number of disabled athletes, training hard, faces full of determination, visibly ready to kick ass, and get a glimpse of the events that caused them to be what they are today: terrible accidents, war, genetic defects. Yet the film is made in such a way that those athletes don't come across as disabled at all. On the contrary, they appear to be immensely abled, despite the fact that they have got a limb or two missing or are confined to a wheelchair. There's no weakness to be seen, nothing that is apt to arouse compassion, or worse, pity in us. What we feel instead, and are meant to feel, is admiration, or even more than that: something more akin to awe. This impression is reinforced by four lines of text superimposed over the pictures: "Forget everything you thought you knew about strength./ Forget everything you thought you knew about humans./ It's time to battle./ Meet the superhumans." It is thus suggested that we regard the athletes competing at the Paralympics not as disabled, but on the contrary as superabled, not as less than human, as deficient in some way, but as more than human. I find this utterly remarkable, because it turns the usual perspective on its head. Superhumans are normally pictured as gifted with special physical or cognitive abilities that allow them to do things that no mere human can do. They can fly or have X-Ray eyes or read minds or bend time or are indestructable, or what have you. This is the kind of fantasy that informs much of our current thinking about human enhancement. The radically enhanced human or posthuman that transhumanists and others envisage, is really not much different from a comic book superhero. Both are able to do things that mere humans cannot do for the simple reason that for them the boundaries that determine our human existence no longer exist. They have overcome those boundaries by making them disappear. What the Channel 4 video spot about the Paralympics suggests, though, is that real strength does not show itself in a limitless existence, in the creation of an environment that no longer presents any obstacles to the satisfaction of our will, that is, in other words, in virtual omnipotence. Rather, real strength consists in the spirit. Instead of leaving behind all boundaries, we become more than human by deciding to live with them, but at the same time refusing to let ourselves be bullied by them. We prove both our humanity and superhumanity by refusing to buckle, by putting up a good fight and by accomplishing great things despite our limitations. Thus it is not human enhancement, at least not the kind of human enhancement that is commonly discussed as such, that will make us superhuman. If anything, it is resolve, and courage, and related virtues of the mind and heart.

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