Note on Cronenberg and Ontological Masochism

On February 22, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

My first “Cronenberg” was Videodrome (1983). I saw the film with some university friends in a London in jitters about an ongoing IRA mainland bombing campaign.  I think there was a bomb scare in progress when we left our West End cinema, but that this made little impact on me. I was in a state of aesthetic paralysis. I couldn’t pack a judgment about whether it was “well made” or cinematically successful . My (even then, fragile) hold on good sense and taste were overwritten by a cinematic logic indifferent to such nicieties. Its permutations of violence, death and desire should have been familiar to me from the works of Ballard. But Cronenberg’s visceral exploration of the boundaries between eroticism and death, flesh and technology had no precedent for me. Its eroticism – personified in Debbie Harry’s character, the self-destructively masochistic, Nicki Brand – was less disturbing than what, with Leo Bersani, we might call its “ontological masochism”. Cronenberg’s film systematically erodes boundaries between flesh, reality and desire, and expects us to take pleasure in our loss of a world.

Even now, there are few artists with a keener eye for the fragility of ontological boundaries. Later sonata-form works such as The Fly and Dead Ringers showed that he could explore these themes with a lightness and rigor that only Ballard could match. But Videodrome recycles its image-noise, jacks into your brain and turns up the feedback. It is uterly indifferent to sentiment or to its own status as cinematic art, and is all the better for it.

The themes of technology, desire, matter and art are explored in the Virtual Musem of Canada’s rich and fascinating online exhibition devoted to Cronenberg’s work.

Bersani, Leo (1986) The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art. Oxford: ColumbiaUniversity Press.

 

 

 

 

I’ll be destruction testing my paper on Brandom and Posthumanism at the Open University in Milton Keynes, Wednesday 4 March at 2 pm in MR05 Wilson A 1st Floor. The piece is forthcoming in PHILOSOPHY AFTER NATURE Rosi Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn (eds.).

Here’s the abstract:

BRANDOM AND POSTHUMAN AGENCY: AN ANTI-NORMATIVIST RESPONSE TO BOUNDED POSTHUMANISM

By David Roden, Open University

I distinguish two theses regarding technological successors to current humans (posthumans): an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP) and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism (AUP). ABP proposes transcendental conditions on agency that can be held to constrain the scope for “weirdness” in the space of possible posthumans a priori. AUP, by contrast, leaves the nature of posthuman agency to be settled empirically (or technologically). Given AUP there are no “future proof” constraints on the strangeness of posthuman agents.

In Posthuman Life I defended AUP via a critique of Donald Davidson’s work on intentionality and a “naturalistic deconstruction” of transcendental phenomenology (See also Roden 2013). In this paper I extend this critique to Robert Brandom’s account of the relationship between normativity and intentionality in Making It Explicit (MIE) and in other writings.

Brandom’s account understands intentionality in terms of the capacity to undertake and ascribe inferential normative commitments. It makes “first class agency” dependent on the ability to participate in discursive social practices. It implies that posthumans – insofar as they qualify as agents at all – would need to be social and discursive beings.

The problem with this approach, I will argue, is that it replicates a problem that Brandom discerns in Dennett’s intentional stance approach. It tells us nothing about the conditions under which a being qualifies as a potential interpreter and thus little about the conditions for meaning, understanding or agency.

I support this diagnosis by showing that Brandom cannot explain how a non-sapient community could bootstrap itself into sapience by setting up a basic deontic scorekeeping system without appealing (along with Davidson and Dennett) to the ways in which an idealized observer would interpret their activity.

This strongly suggests that interpretationist and pragmatist accounts cannot explain the semantic or the intentional without regressing to assumptions about ideal interpreters or background practices whose scope they are incapable of delimiting. It follows that Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism is not seriously challenged by the claim that agency and meaning are “constituted” by social practices.

AUP implies that we can infer no claims about the denizens of “Posthuman Possibility Space” a priori, by reflecting on the pragmatic transcendental conditions for semantic content. We thus have no reason to suppose that posthuman agents would have to be subjects of discourse or, indeed, members of communities. The scope for posthuman weirdness can be determined by recourse to engineering alone.

References:

Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.

Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

 

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Art and Posthumanism

On February 7, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


This is an abstract for a presentation that I will be giving in a roundtable discussion on posthumanism and aesthetics with Debra Benita Shaw and Stefan Sorgner at the University of East London on May 18 2015. Further details will be made available.

Posthumanism can be critical or speculative. These positions converge in opposing human-centred (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas. Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.

CP is interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition. Speculative Posthumanists propose the metaphysical possibility of technologically created nonhuman agents. SP states: there could be posthumans – where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration.

In Posthuman Life I elaborate a detailed version of SP. Specially, I describe what it is to become posthuman in terms of “the disconnection thesis” [DT] (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5). DT understands “becoming posthuman” in abstract terms. Roughly, it states that an agent becomes posthuman iff. it becomes independent of the human socio-technical system as a consequence of technical change. It does not specify how this might occur or the nature of the relevant agents (e.g. whether they are immortal uploads, cyborgs, feral robots or Jupiter sized Brains).

Posthuman Life argues that the abstractness of DT is epistemologically apt because there are no posthumans and thus we are in no position to deduce constraints on their possible natures or values (I refer to this position as “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” [AUP)). AUP has implications for the ethics of becoming posthuman that are generally neglected in the literature on transhumanism and human enhancement.

The most important of these is that there can be no a priori ethics of posthumanity. Becoming posthuman can only be substantively (as opposed to abstractly) understood by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I argue that, given the principled impossibility of a prescriptive ethics here, we must formulate strategies for speculating on and exploring nearby “posthuman possibility space”.

In this paper, I propose that aesthetic theory and practice may be a useful political model for such technological self-fashioning because it involves styles of thought or creation that discover their constraints and values by producing them. This “production model” is, I will argue, the only one liable to serve us if, with CP/SP, we reject an anthropocentric privileging of the human. I finish by considering some examples of aesthetic practice that might provide models for the politics of making posthumans or becoming posthuman.

 

References:

Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

 

 

The Robo Menace to our Morals

On February 5, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

 

Eric Schwitzgebel has a typically clear-eyed, challenging post on the implications of (real) artificial intelligence for our moral systems over here at the Splintered Mind. The take home idea is that our moral systems (consequentialist, deontologistical, virtue-ethical, whatever) are adapted for creatures like us. The weird artificial agents that might result from future iterations of AI technology might be so strange that human moral systems would simply not apply to them.

Scott Bakker follows this argument through in his excellent Artificial Intelligence as Socio-Cognitive Pollution , arguing that blowback from such posthuman encounters might literally vitiate those moral systems, rendering them inapplicable even to us. As he puts it:

The question of assimulating AI to human moral cognition is misplaced. We want to think the development of artificial intelligence is a development thatraises machines to the penultimate (and perennially controversial) level of the human, when it could just as easily lower humans to the ubiquitous (and factual) level of machines.

As any reader of Posthuman Life, might expect, I think Erich and Scott are asking all the right questions here.

Some (not me) might object that our conception of a rational agent is maximally substrate neutral. It’s the idea of a creature we can only understand “voluminously” by treating it as responsive to reasons. According to some (Davidson/Brandom) this requires the agent to be social and linguistic – placing such serious constraints on “posthuman possibility space” as to render his discourse moot.
Even if we demur on this, it could be argued that the idea of a rational subject as such gives us a moral handle on any agent – no matter how grotesque or squishy. This seems true of the genus “utility monster”. We can acknowledge that UM’s have goods and that consequentialism allows us to cavil about the merits of sacrificing our welfare for them. Likewise, agents with nebulous boundaries will still be agents and, so the story goes, rational subjects whose ideas of the good can be addressed by any other rational subject.
So according to this Kantian/interpretationist line, there is a universal moral framework that can grok any conceivable agent, even if we have to settle details about specific values via radical interpretation or telepathy. And this just flows from the idea of a rational being.
I think the Kantian/interpretationist response is wrong-headed. But showing why is pretty hard. A line of attack I pursue concedes to Brandom-Davidson that that we have the craft to understand the agents we know about. But we have no non-normative understanding of the conditions something must satisfy to be an interpreting intentional system or an apt subject of interpretation (beyond commonplaces like heads not being full of sawdust).
So all we are left with is a suite of interpretative tricks whose limits of applicability are unknown. Far from being a transcendental condition on agency as such, it’s just a hack that might work for posthumans or aliens, or might not.
And if this is right, then there is no a future-proof moral framework for dealing with feral Robots, Cthulhoid Monsters or the like. Following First Contact, we would be forced to revise our frameworks in ways that we cannot possible have a handle on now. Posthuman ethics must proceed by way of experiment.
Or they might eat our brainz first.

 

 

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Scott on the End Times

On November 25, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

There’s a lively debate around Scott Bakker’s recent lecture: “The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse” given at The University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism here at Speculative Heresy.  The text includes responses from Nick Srnicek and Ali McMillan.

 

 

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Hedy Lamarr, inventor of the wireless network

On November 11, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

This piece from Una Sinnott is delicious. It demonstrates how work in the arts (here, experimental music) can feed into fundamental technologies, which can then hop between disparate applications (radio-controlled torpedoes, GPS). It’s case study in how womens’ contributions to technology get marginalised, and how patriarchy blows back.

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Posthuman Landscapes #1: Sorbornost Station

On November 9, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

“The Sobornost Station is large enough to have its own weather. The ghost-rain inside does not so much fall but shimmers in the air. It makes shapes and moves, and gives Tawaddud the constant feeling that something is lurking just at the edge of her vision.

She looks up, and immediately regrets it. Through the wet veil, it is like looking down from the top of the Gomelez shard. The vertical lines far above pull her gaze towards an amber-hued, faintly glowing dome almost a kilometer high, made of transparent, undulating surfaces that bunch together towards the centre, like the ceiling of a circus tent, segmented by the sharply curving ribs of the Station’s supporting frame.

Forms like misshapen balloons float beneath the vault. At first they look random, but as Tawaddud watches, they coalesce into shapes: the line of a cheekbone and a chin and an eyebrow. Then they are faces, sculpted from air and light, looking down on her with hollow eyes.”

(Rajaniemi 2012, 82)

 

Rajaniemi, Hannu (2012). The Fractal Prince. St Ives: Gollanz.

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Goodbye Mytilini

On September 29, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Stopped over in Athens Airport trying to digest three days at the Posthuman Politics conference at Mytilini, Lesbos, 25-28 September. It was an intense experience on so many levels and utterly worthwhile. My work has veered into some relentlessly abstract places recently, because someone has to … But having the privilege of attending Jaime del Val’s metahuman performance and Stefan Lorenz Sorgner’s star turn on metahumanist pedagogy was formative.

I’m not done with posthumanist metaphysics, or Scott’s semantic Götterdämmerung, but Stefan and Jaime are forging a value-pluralist posthuman politics with a real chance of productively mapping human-posthuman modes of embodiment and experience within an interdisciplinary framework. For what it’s worth, I think their open-textured practice may constitute our most tenable (if still precarious) path through the posthuman predicament. It has direct implications for public policy (e.g. Stefan’s argument for genetic engineering in education) – perhaps even for getting out of the neoliberal quagmire. None of this, of course, begins to convey the energy and intellectual openness of the event or the delightful hospitality of Evi Sampanikou and the humans and nonhumans of the University of the Aegean.

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Hyperapocalypse: A Hole in the Space of Reasons?

On September 26, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Continuing the “dark” posthumanism strand from recent blog posts and from my book Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Routledge 2014), I argue that we cannot extend our moral thinking to certain portions of “posthuman possibility space” because our folk psychology and parochial norms of practical reasoning might not apply to “hyperplastic” posthumans. I conclude that there are no good ground to reject the possibility that there are non-persons every bit as morally considerable as persons. Paper on academia.edu here.

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