In the philosophy of technology, substantivism is a critical position opposed to the common sense philosophy of technology known as “instrumentalism”. Instrumentalists argue that tools have no agency of their own – only tool users. According to instrumentalism, technology is a mass of instruments whose existence has no specialno escape from the night normative implications. Substantivists like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul argue that technology is not a collection of neutral instruments but a way of existing and understanding entities which determines how things and other people are experienced by us. If Heidegger is right, we may control individual devices, but our technological mode of being exerts a decisive grip on us: “man does not have control over unconcealment itself, in which at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws” (Heidegger 1978: 299).

For Ellull, likewise, technology is not a collection of devices or methods which serve human ends, but a nonhuman system that adapts humans to its ends. Ellul does not deny human technical agency but claims that the norms according to which agency is assessed are fixed by the system rather than by human agents. Modern technique, for Ellul, is thus “autonomous” because it determines its principles of action internal to it (Winner 1977: 16). The content of this prescription can be expressed as the injunction to maximise efficiency; a principle overriding conceptions of the good adopted by human users of technical means.

In Chapter 7 of Posthuman Life, I argue that a condition of technical autonomy –self-augmentation – is in fact incompatible with technical autonomy. “Self-augmentation” refers to the propensity of modern technique to catalyse the development of further techniques. Thus while technical autonomy is a normative concept, self-augmentation is a dynamical one.

I claim that technical self-augmentation presupposes the independence of techniques from culture, use and place (technical abstraction). However, technical abstraction is incompatible with the technical autonomy implied by traditional substantivism, because where techniques are relatively abstract they cannot be functionally individuated. Self-augmentation can only operate where techniques do not determine how they are used. Thus substantivists like Ellul and Heidegger are wrong to treat technology as a system that subjects humans to its strictures. Self-augmenting Technical Systems (SATS) are not in control because they are not subjects or stand-ins for subjects. However, I argue that there are grounds for claiming that it may be beyond our capacity to control.

This hypothesis is, admittedly, quite speculative but there are four prima facie grounds for entertaining it:

  1. In a planetary SATS local sites can exert a disproportionate influence on the organisation of the whole but may not “show up” for those lacking “local knowledge”. Thus even encyclopaedic knowledge of current “technical trends” will not be sufficient to identify all future causes of technical change.
  2. The categorical porousness of technique adds to this difficulty. The line between technical and non-technical is systematically fuzzy (as indicated by the way modern computer languages derived from pure mathematics and logic). If technical abstraction amplifies the potential for “crossings” between technical and extra-technical domains, it must further ramp up uncertainty regarding the sources of future technical change.
  3. Given my thesis of Speculative Posthumanism, technical change could engender posthuman life forms that are functionally autonomous and thus withdraw from any form of human control.
  4. Any computationally tractable simulation of a SATS would be part of the system it is designed to model. It would consequently be a disseminable, highly abstract part. So multiple variations of the same simulations could be replicated across the SATS, producing a system qualitatively different from the one that it was originally designed to simulate. In the work of Elena Esposito a related idea is examined via the way users of financial instruments employ uncertainty as a way of influencing the decisions of others through one’s market behaviour. Esposito argues that the theories used by economists to predict market behaviour are performative. They influence economic behaviour though their capacity to predict it is limited by the impossibility of self-modelling (Esposito 2013).

If enough of 1-4 hold then technology is not in control of anything but is largely out of our control. Yet there remains something right about the substantivist picture, for technology exerts a powerful influence on individuals, society, and culture, if not an “autonomous” influence. However, since technology self-augmenting and thus abstract it is counter-final – it has no ends and tends to render human ends contingent by altering the material conditions on which our normative practices depend.

References

Esposito, E., 2013. The structures of uncertainty: performativity and unpredictability in economic operations. Economy and Society, 42(1), pp.102-129.

Ellul, J. 1964. The Technological Society, J. Wilkinson (trans.). New York: Vintage

Books.

Heidegger, M. 1978. “The Question Concerning Technology”. In Basic Writings, D. Farrell

Krell (ed.), 283–317. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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

Routledge.

Winner, L. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political

Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

 

 

Gathering at the Terminal Beach

On July 21, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

 

I’m delighted to see the publication of my theory-fiction “Letters from the Ocean Terminus” in an issue of Dis Magazine on the ‘postcontemporary‘ edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian.

Its overarching theme is time and art in a globalised order whose stability is undermined by systems for pre-empting its futures. “Letters” blends science fiction and philosophical commentary to imagine a febrile agent at home in this speculative present; one that refashions itself by mining uncanny posthuman futures. Or as I’ve tagged it there “a series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures; a theory-fiction that explores routes out of the present as aberrant transformations and terraforming desires.”

I must say that I’m blown away by the images of Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlman. Combining media is a delicate matter, but their work slyly complements the text rather than seeking to replicate its effects. Well, suck it and see. 

Perverse as it may seem, this is the kind of “dermographism” that drew me back into academia in the first place. The piece was caked in my blood and guts, but I’m satisfied enough with the result to want to offer up a few more pints of the good stuff.

 

 

 

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Entering the Phenomenological Cul-de Sac

On June 9, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

My last post ended with a modest conclusion about the relationship between pragmatist accounts of agency and world-hood:

“For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, then, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to believe that they belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of?

Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?”

Clearly, one way we might parse this notion of co-worldliness involves a form of a metaphysical realism owing little to phenomenological approaches.

There are different ways of expressing this realist account. We might say that reality is what some uniquely complete and true theory represents, or perhaps that it is the totality of states of objects on which the accuracy or truth of such representations hinges.

However, in the face of Putnam-style objections to the effect that there can be no such unique theory, the metaphysical realist can opt for a more minimal formulation: claiming only that the non-mental parts of the world exist independently of minded creatures, and that its nature is likewise independent of how it is thought. This does not commit realists to there being “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). There seems nothing incoherent in supposing that the best theories of the real might be incomplete and partial.

Indeed, the world as a whole might not be representable at all because there can be no complete representation of it, or because there are aspects of reality which are not representable at all.

But at this point the commonality of the real seems to be receding. If reality can only be described discrepantly, or if it is not fully representable, then what content can we attach to the idea of a shared world in Davidson’s conditions of interpretation and communication? According to idealists this idea of reality is not even intelligible. So if the common world is the world according to metaphysical realism, this may threaten the intelligibility of pragmatism and thus the local correlationism regarding agency which falls out of it.

I think this is a problem for any account in which, as as Robert Brandom “meaning and understanding are co-ordinate concepts, in the sense that neither can be properly understood or explicated except as part of a story that includes the other” (). For such understanding must be exhibited practically in a social field in which estimates of what speakers say or think are updated given the circumstances in which they are said or acted upon. Different theorists may describe these interpretations using different or discrepant vocabularies, but the presupposition of commonality seems to be built into any theory for which content is manifested through practice.

If pragmatist accounts of thought and agency require a common world, then perhaps they need an idea of world that is not an abstract metaphysical posit, but somehow implicated in agency and thought itself. And this is where phenomenology stands to pick up the slack left by metaphysical realism.

Phenomenologists frequently describe this experience of world-hood in terms of experience of things occurring in contexts or “horizons”. When I see a hammer, I see it from a certain viewpoint, or hear it falling off a workbench as the cat passes by. I may think of it as a force amplifier or a birthday present; but each thought or experience implies the possibility of perspectives further down the line. The hammer cannot be reduced to any of these: it is not determinate but, rather, determinable. Its objectivity consists of being always in excess of its appearances (Mooney 1992). A horizon is that aspect of an experience that implies non-actual possibilities for experience.

Roughly, we share worlds if my horizons overlap with yours. For example, I might not immediately grasp the significance of basil in your cookery, but could, given the opportunity to share food with you. My relationship to basil as it figures your life is not a formal semantic relationship. My conception of basil may involve different stereotypes – desiccated leaves on supermarket shelves, say – whereas you are punctilious about picking it fresh from the herb garden. Still your relation to basil is a determinable for me, even if it bears no relation to the way in which I currently prepare salads and sauces.

So, to recapitulate: local correlationism for agency (Condition 3) or Davidson’s observability assumption is best understood as falling out of pragmatism with regard to psychological and semantic concepts. And pragmatism (I have suggested) needs a correlational account of a world – a world likewise determinable in practice, rather than the transcendent world of metaphysical realism.

Admittedly, this seems to commit the pragmatist to a transcendental account of the world that might sit uneasily with the modestly naturalistic accounts of practices and norms in which such accounts are generally expressed. It also commits the pragmatist to anti-realism since the the world is not a determinate existing thing; nor could there be one transcending determinability (or verification).

But the relationship between pragmatism, realism and naturalism is debatable for other reasons, so it is not clear that naturalistic scruple alone should debar the inference from a pragmatist account of agency and subjectivity to a phenomenological theory of the world.

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning, Jeff Malpas argues that interpretation must have this horizontal structure. All interpretation occurs in a context fixed by certain interests and projects. Any particular project can be frustrated or break down (Malpas 1992: 128). Any project must, moreover, open onto the constitution of a new project, just as each view of the hammer implies the possibility of other views. Thus pragmatism assumes that each project of understanding is “nested” within further possible projects.

This  interleaving of interpretative projects is correlatively an interleaving of things. Beliefs cannot be identified independently of the determinables that believers engage with. By the same token, the identification of salient collections of objects and events occurs against the background of the interpreter’s experience and interests. The nested structure of projects described by Malpas thus constitutes a plausible candidate for a non-reified “world” – a world not of things, but of potential “correlations” between intentional agents and determinable objects.

This interleaving is only intelligible if we assume each project to have a hermeneutic structure referred to as “fore-having” within the hermeneutic tradition. Each interpretation must potentially fan out onto future revisionary interpretations (Caputo 1984: 158). Without appeal to this tacit or virtual structure, there is little content that can be given to the idea of a single intersubjective world that Davidson and the other pragmatists must appeal to.

It is precisely at this point, according to Malpas, that static concepts of a determinate world seem wholly inadequate and the temporalized models of intentionality and understanding developed in the phenomenological/hermeneutic tradition assume importance.

However, I think it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. This, as I will argue, is disastrous for idea of a temporally structured horizon that otherwise seemed so serviceable for the pragmatist.

References

Caputo, J. D. 1984. “Husserl, Heidegger and the Question of a ‘Hermeneutic’ Phenomenology”. Husserl Studies 1(1): 157–78.

Devitt, Michael. 1991. “Aberrations of the Realism Debate”. Philosophical Studies 61(1): 43–63.

Malpas, J. E. 1992. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mooney, T. 1999. “Derrida’s Empirical Realism”. Philosophy & Social Criticism

25(5): 33–56.

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.

Roden, David (Forthcoming). “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism”. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.

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Just an attempt in progress to clarify an argument regarding the plausible dependence of pragmatist theories of intentionality on phenomenological worlds.

**************

Interpreters can differ in many ways that are irrelevant to their interpreterhood – differences in language, embodiment, gender, etc. However, if there are essential features common to all interpreters these might show up in the way subjects relate to the world and to other subjects. Phenomenology has traditionally been viewed as a powerful method for describing such relations. So if there are minimal conditions for being an interpreter, maybe phenomenology can help us spell them out.

Let’s put more bones on this. Condition 3 in the paradox of the Radical Alien corresponds to what Donald Davidson calls “the observability assumption”. This states that “an observer can under favorable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b, 99) In other words if x is an agent, x must be interpretable given ideal conditions.

This view finds it home a family of broadly pragmatist, post-Cartesian positions according to which the role of concepts such as meaning, belief, desire or intention is to render agency intelligible in the light of reasons. Having intentionality is, at some level, just the ability to conform to standards of rational agency. If so there is no secret to being an agent – beliefs and thoughts are not hidden states of the soul. At a bare minimum, an agent must be an intentional system; one that, as Dennett puts it, is “voluminously predictable”when assessed as a rational subject of belief or desire. A being that could not show up as exhibiting this skill would have failed to exhibit agential abilities.

This buys us local correlationism: an entity whose overt behaviour would be unintelligible the light of normative assessments wouldn’t qualify as an agent! However, for Robert Brandom, Dennett’s intentional stance approach gives us a very sparse and incomplete picture of what it is to be an agent because it is widely applicable to systems like Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs, thermostats, or written texts, whose intentionality seems observer-relative rather than intrinsic to the observed system. Most obviously, it fails to account for the capacity that allows intentional systems to show up as such: namely the capacity to interpret. For Brandom, as for Davidson, intentionality and real agency require understanding as well as the ability to be understood; and this requires the capacity to interpret verbal behaviour and actions in the light of reasons.

For both philosophers, one of the conditions for such understanding is that both interpreter and interpretee have a structured language. Davidson presents a particularly terse argument for this connection:

Belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. Thus a true believer must have a grip on the concepts of truth and error. It follows that only those with a concept of belief can have beliefs. We cannot have a concept of belief without exercising it. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute to others true or false beliefs about common topics (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).

This, in turn, requires a language. For beliefs and thoughts can only be interpreted by those who can compare their take on a topic with those held by the interpretee. Language affords this theatre of perspectives; expressing  facts about things and semantic facts about how things are referred to or represented. It makes explicit that “one can want to be the discoverer of a creature with a heart without wanting to be the discoverer of a creature with a kidney” (Davidson 1984: 163).

Interpretation requires “a coherent pattern in the behaviour of an agent” –  between what agents do, believe or express and the conditions under which action and expression occurs (Davidson 1984,: 159). Were agents systematically duped or confused about the world, this pattern would be lacking; their behaviour would reveal nothing about what they wanted to say, what they believed or desired. Not only is this rapport a condition of interpretation, so is the presupposition that it obtains. To have a concept of belief that I can apply in the second person or the first, I must understand or see the other as engaging with things that I am or could be cognisant of.  The (in)famous principle of Charity just is the assumption of shared cognisance. This is not an ethical embrace of cultural otherness, then, but another way of expressing the pragmatist idea that mentality is the ability to engage with the world in a rationally evaluable way.

The assumption of charity is only possible,, then, if the interpretee is assumed to live among and think about commonly identifiable things. Understanding that you might have true or false beliefs about things I have beliefs about requires that I locate us a shared field of actual or possible topics. As Davidson puts it again:

Communication depends on each communicator having, and correctly thinking that the other has, the concept of a shared world, an intersubjective world. But the concept of an intersubjective world is the concept of an objective world, a world about which each communicator can have beliefs. (Davidson 2001, 105)

For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of? Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?

Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

____1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.

____2001a. Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Dark Posthumanism: the weird template

On May 10, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

 

Text for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium, Dublin, 12-13 May

 

 

Dark Posthumanism

Billions of years in the future, the Time Traveller stands before a dark ocean, beneath a bloated red sun. The beach is dappled with lichen and ice. The huge crabs and insects which menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of red-peaked waves on the distant shore, everything is utterly still. Nonetheless, a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine.

He thinks he sees something black flop awkwardly over a nearby sandbar; but when he looks again, all is still. That must be a rock, he tells himself.

Studying the unknown constellations, he feels an enveloping chill. Then twilight segues to black. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon or some other massive body.

The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing.

The object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky. By this light he sees what moves in the water. Wells writes: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.

During the Traveller’s acquaintance with it, the creature gives no indication of purpose. Its “flopping” might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mind replete with thoughts, beliefs or desires. In contrast, we learn much of the Traveller’s state. He feels horror at the awful blackness of the eclipse; pain breathing in the cold; “a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight”.

It is as if Wells’ text edges around what cannot be carried from that shore. There is no heroic saga of discovery, cosmic exploration or “first contact”; no extended reflection on time and human finitude. There is just a traumatic, pain-filled encounter.

When viewed against the backdrop of “Weird” literature, however, the event on the shoreline seems more consequential. As China Miéville has argued, the Weird is defined by its preoccupation with the radically alien. This is in stark opposition to the Gothic specter, that always signifies a representation in play between an excluded past and an uncertain future (Miéville 2012).

Monsters like H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu do not put representation in play. They shred it. As Mieville writes:

For Cthulhu, in its creator’s words, “there is no language.” “The Thing cannot be described.” Even its figurine “resembled nothing familiar to geology or mineralogy” (Lovecraft, “Call”). The Color Out of Space “obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos” (“Colour”). The Dunwich Horror was “an impossibility in a normal world” (“Dunwich”).(Miéville 2012, 379)

The monstrous reality is indicated by grotesque avatars and transformations whose causes erode political order and sanity itself. In Jeff VanderMeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy a fractious bureaucracy in a looking-glass USA is charged with managing a coastline that has been lost to some unearthly power. This proves inimical to human minds and bodies even as it transforms “Area X” into a lush Edenic wilderness. As we might expect, bureaucratic abstraction falters in its uncertain borders. The Reach’s attempts to define, test and explore Area X are comically inappropriate – from herding terrified rabbits across the mysterious barrier that encloses it, to instituting “round-the-clock” surveillance of an immortal plant specimen from an unsanctioned expedition (VanderMeer 2014a, b, c). All that remains to VanderMeer’s damaged protagonists is a misanthropic acceptance of something always too distant and strange to be understood, too near not to leave in them the deepest scars and ecstasies.

This misanthropy is implied in Wells’ earlier shoreline encounter. An unstory from a far future that is perhaps not alive or unalive. A moment of suspense and inconsequence that can reveal nothing because it inscribes the limits of stories.

Yet this alien is not the “gaseous invertebrate” of negative theology – but an immanent other, or as Miéville puts it, “a bad numinous, manifesting often at a much closer scale, right up tentacular in your face, and casually apocalyptic” (Miéville 2012, 381). It is this combination of inaccessibility and intimacy, I will argue, that makes the Weird apt for thinking about the temporally complex politics of posthuman becoming.[1]

In Posthuman Life I argue for a position I call “Speculative posthumanism” (SP). SP claims, baldly, that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some human-instigated technological process.

I’ve argued that the best way to conceptualize the posthuman here is in terms of agential independence – or disconnection. Roughly, an agent is posthuman if it can act outside of the “Wide Human” – the system of institutions, cultures, and techniques which reciprocally depend on us biological (“narrow”) humans (Roden 2012; Roden 2014: 109-113).

Now, as Ray Brassier usefully remind us in the context of the realism debate, mind-independence does not entail unintelligibility (“concept-independence”). This applies also to the agential independence specified by the Disconnection Thesis (Brassier 2011, 58). However, I think there are reasons to allow that posthumans could be effectively uninterpretable. That is, among the class of possible posthumans – we have reason to believe that there might be radical aliens.

But here we seem to confront an aporia. For in entertaining the possibility of uninterpretable agents we claim a concept of agency that could not be applied to certain of its instances, even in principle.

This can be stated as a three-way paradox.

  • The behavior of radical aliens would not be interpretable as actions.
  • Radical alien would be agents.
  • An entity whose behaviors could not be interpreted as actions would not be an agent.

Each of these statements is incompatible with the conjunction of the other two; each seems independently plausible.

Something has to give here. We might start with proposition 3.

3) implies a local correlationism for agency. That is to say: the only agents are those amenable to “our” practices of interpretative understanding. 3) denies that there could be evidence-transcendent agency such procedures might never uncover.

Have we good reason to drop 3?

I think we do. 3) entails that the set of agents would correspond to those beings who are interpretable in principle by some appropriate “we” – humans, persons, etc. But in-principle interpretability is ill defined unless we know who is doing the interpreting.

That is, we would need to comprehend the set of interpreting subjects relevantly similar to humans by specifying minimal conditions for interpreterhood. This would require some kind of a priori insight presumably, since we’re interested in the space of possible interpreters and not just actual ones.

How might we achieve this? Well, we might seek guidance from a phenomenology of interpreting subjectivity to specify its invariants (Roden 2014: Ch 3).[2] However, it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. I’ve argued that much of our phenomenology is “dark”; having dark phenomenology yields minimal insight into its nature or possibilities (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 Ch4).

If transcendental phenomenology and allied post-Kantian projects (see Roden Forthcoming) fail to specify the necessary conditions for be an interpreter or an agent, we should embrace an Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism which rejects a priori constraints on the space of posthuman possibility. For example, Unbounded Posthumanism gives no warrant for claiming that a serious agent must be a “subject of discourse” able to measure its performances against shared norms.[3]

Thus the future we are making could exceed current models of mutual intelligibility, or democratic decision making (Roden 2014 Ch8). Unbounded posthumanism recognizes no a priori limit on posthuman possibility. Thus posthumans could be weird. Cthulhu-weird. Area X weird. Unbounded Posthumanism is Dark Posthumanism – it circumscribes an epistemic void into which we are being pulled by planetary scale technologies over which we have little long run control (Roden 2014: ch7).

To put some bones on this: it is conceivable that there might be agents far more capable of altering their physical structure than current humans. I call an agent “hyperplastic” if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to its structure without compromising its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity (Roden 2014, 101-2; Roden Unpublished).

A modest anti-reductionist materialism of the kind embraced by Davidson and fellow pragmatists in the left-Sellarsian camp implies that such agents would be uninterpretable using an intentional idiom because intentional discourse could have no predictive utility for agents who must predict the effects of arbitrarily fine-grained self-interventions upon future activity. However, the stricture on auto-interpretation would equally apply to heterointerpretation. Hyperplastic agents would fall outside the scope of linguistic interpretative practices. So, allowing this speculative posit, anti-reductionism ironically implies the dispensability of folk thinking about thought rather than its ineliminability.

Hyperplastics (H-Pats) would be unreadable in linguistic terms or intentional terms, but this is not to say that they would be wholly illegible. It’s just that we lack future proof information about the appropriate level of interpretation for such beings – which is consonant with the claim that there is no class of interpretables or agents as such.

Encountering H-Pats might induce the mental or physical derangements that Lovecraft and VanderMeer detail lovingly. To read them might have to become more radically plastic ourselves – more like the amorphous, disgusting Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Shoggothic hermeneutics is currently beyond us – for want of such flexible or protean interlocutors. But the idea of an encounter that shakes and desolates us, transforming us in ways that may be incommunicable to outsiders, is not. It is the unnarratable that the Weird tells in broken analogies,[4] agonies and elisions. This is why the Weird Aesthetic is more serviceable as a model for our relationship to the speculative posthuman than any totalizing conception of agency or interpretation.

In confronting the posthuman future, then, we are more like Wells’ broken time traveller than a voyager through the space of reasons. Our understanding of the posthuman – including the interpretation of what even counts as Disconnection – must be interpreted aesthetically; operating without criteria or pre-specified systems of evaluation. It begins, instead, with xeno-affects, xeno-aesthetics, and a subject lost for words on a “forgotten coast” (See VanderMeer 2014c).

 

References

Brassier, R., 2011. Concepts and objects. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, pp.47-65.

Bakker, R.S., 2009. Neuropath. Macmillan.

Colebrook, C., 2014. Sex after life: Essays on extinction, Vol. 2. Open Humanities Press.

Derrida, J. and Moore, F.C.T., 1974. White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. New Literary History, 6(1), pp.5-74.

Harman, G., 2012. Weird realism: Lovecraft and philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

Malpas, J. E. 1992. Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Miéville, C., 2012. On Monsters: Or, Nine or More (Monstrous) Not Cannies. Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, 23(3 (86), pp.377-392.

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

Roden, David (Forthcoming). “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism”. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.

Roden (Unpublished). “Reduction, Elimination and Radical Uninterpretability: the case of hyperplastic agents”

https://www.academia.edu/15054582/Reduction_Elimination_and_Radical_Uninterpretability

O’Sullivan, S., 2010. From aesthetics to the abstract machine: Deleuze, Guattari and contemporary art practice. Deleuze and contemporary art, pp.189-207.

Thacker, E., 2015. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

VanderMeer, J., 2014a. Annihilation: A Novel. Macmillan.

VanderMeer, J., 2014b. Authority: A Novel. Macmillan

VanderMeer, J., 2014c. Acceptance: A Novel. Macmillan.

[1] One of the things that binds the otherwise fissiparous speculative realist movement is an appreciation of Weird writers like Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti. For in marking the transcendence of the monstrous, the Weird evokes the “great outdoors” that subsists beyond any human experience of the world. Realists of a more rationalist bent, however, can object that the Weird provides a hyperbolic model of the independence of reality from our representations of it.

[2] For example, one that supports pragmatic accounts like Davidsons’s with an ontology of shared worlds and temporal horizons. See, for example, Malpas 1992 and Roden 2014 Ch3.

[3] I’ve given reasons to generalize this argument against hermeneutic a priori’s. Analytic Kantian accounts, of the kind championed by neo-Sellarsians like Brassier, cannot explain agency and concept-use without regressing to claims about ideal interpreters whose scope they are incapable of delimiting (Roden Forthcoming).

[4] In Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” we are told that the demonic entity called “Azathoth” lies “at the center of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The description undermines its metaphorical aptness, however, since ultimate chaos would also lack the consistency of a center. The flute metaphor only advertises the absence of analogy; relinquishing the constraints on interpretation that might give it sense. We know only that terms like “thin flutes” designate something for which we have no concept. Commenting on his passage in his book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Graham Harman suggests that the “thin and mindless flutes” should be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7)

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Public Antics – coming up

On April 18, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

This week I’m at NYU at the 2nd Glocal Symposium on Posthumanism reading extracts from my theory-fic “Letters from the Ocean Terminus” and participating in a book panel on Posthuman Life, all on Friday 22 April.

Next month I’m in Dublin for the symposium, Questioning Aesthetics, May 12-13 presenting “Dark Posthumanism”.

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More Radical Aliens

On April 14, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

red_alephIn Posthuman Life I define the posthuman in terms of the disconnection thesis (DT). One of the advantages of DT is that it allows us to understand human-posthuman differences without being committed to a “human essence” that posthumans will lack. Rather, we understand the human (or WH, the “wide human”) as an assemblage of biological and non-biological individuals, whose history stretches from the world of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to the modern, interconnected world, and perhaps beyond. Thus it avoids the accusation that we can render the hypothesis of  that there could be posthumans (speculative posthumanism AKA SP) meaningless by denying, or deconstructing the claim that there is a human essence – a set of necessary conditions for being human.

However, DT is in tension with the thought of the radical alien discussed in the preceding post. The problem, again roughly, is that claims about the radical alien seem to imply that the alien is not just difficult to understand – the kind of understanding that could be achieved with time, sweat and ingenuity – but remains beyond human understanding in principle. But this implies that at least one necessary proposition is true of humans – namely that for any radical alien, they would be incapable of understanding it.

Thus there can be radical aliens only if there is (after all) a human essence.

DT does not require that there is no human essence. It is merely consistent with its denial. But I have independent reasons for thinking that there are no necessary cognitive constraints inherent in human understanding. Suppose that there is some kind of human essence and that part of this includes the inability to understand certain radical aliens. It follows that open sentence that the relation term “…. understands R” where R refers to some radical alien, is necessarily false of all humans.

However, this only constitutes a real constraint on humans if each human is necessarily human, that is if there is a necessary limit on the way the cognitive powers of agents could be altered. Maybe there are such limitations, but it seems that either they are knowable a posteriori or a priori. If a posteriori, we need evidence for them. It is not clear that there is such evidence around, or what form it might take. Thus there are reasons for being sceptical here.

Suppose such constraints are the a priori kind buttressed and formulated in transcendental philosophies – e.g. Husserlian phenomenology and some accounts of Kantian philosophy – e.g. the analytical Kantianism associated with thinkers such as Sellars and Brandom.

What these positions have in common is the claim that there are invariant conditions for thought and intelligibility. Here what is at issue is the intelligibility of agents. In the case of phenomenology, the condition is that an agent is embodied in a world shared by humans whose actions and experiences can be understood as directed towards that world. In the case of analytic Kantianism, the condition is similar: the agent’s activity must be interpretable in terms of a set of inferential or practical commitments.

These commitments are social statuses whose content is expressed in the sentences of an interpreting idiom or “metalanguage”. This also presupposes a shared world since this content can only be articulated where enough of the statuses are elicited or prompted by things or states of the world which can be identified by prospective interpreters. In the absence of such referents interpretative idioms would be (as Davidson argues) untestable and lack the non-inferential component required for any plausible inferentialist account of content.

A radical alien would not belong to the set of beings whose agency can – in Davidsons metaphor – be triangulated by reference to a common world. Its agency would be perpetually occult to humans. By the same token it could not belong to the common world of the phenomenological account. It would be a closed book. But here we seemed to be locked in a contradiction.

  1. The radical alien would not belong to the class of beings whose behaviour can be interpreted as actions.
  2. The radical alien would be an agent.
  3. An entity whose behaviours could not be construed as actions, even in principle, would be a non-agent.

After all, where else does our concept of agency get its content than its attribution to the things we could treat as agents in principle?

So 1), 2) and 3) are inconsistent. A paradox! However, we can defuse the paradox by denying 3. 3) implies that a kind of local correlationism for agency. The only kinds of things that could count as agents are those that are amenable to human practices of interpretative understanding, whatever these may amount to. 3) denies the possibility that there could be evidence-transcendent facts about agency such procedures might never uncover.

Have we good reason to drop 3 – other than to avoid the paradox. Yes, I think so – and have argued this at some length elsewhere.[1] We only have to deny that there is some a framework corresponding to the interpretable as such.

And this, of course, is in line with anti-essentialism with regard to the human. If there are no de re modal facts concerning what is possibly (or not-possibly) interpretable, there is no thing such that it is either possibly-interpretable or not possibly-interpretable for us or for creatures relevantly alike. Thus, whatever belongs to the class of agents it is not delineated by any practices of intersubjective interpretation. Another way of putting this is that the concept of agency cannot be totalised. There is no collection of all possible agents.

Thus our concept agent is – in a sense – empty or void. When we speak of agency in the abstract we are not using concepts with which we have an existing, if implicit, mastery. However, it follows that our concept of the radical alien is similarly void. We thought that it must transcend the field of the interpretable. But if, as I’ve suggested, there is no such field, there are no radical aliens if these are understood in the interpretation transcendent sense.

But then what of the intimations of the alien in Lovecraft, Wells and other thinkers? Does my use of idea of the radical alien involve a kind of misprision? In my next post I will argue it does not, but only if we re-interpret the otherness or difference of the alien in aesthetic terms rather than in terms of some metaphysics of agency.

  1. [1] See Posthuman Life, Ch 3-4 and here.

 

Metaphor at the Edge of the Human

On March 31, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

end_earth_sunBillions of years in the future, The Time Traveler stands before a black ocean, under a bloated sun. The shore is scaled with lichen and flecked with snow. The crab things and giant insects that menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of dark waves, everything is utterly still.

He thinks he sees something shifting in the waves nearby but dismisses it as an illusion; assuming it to be a rock. Still a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine. Perhaps this anxiety is just prompted by the ultimate desolation of this world.

Studying the unknown constellations, he feels a chill wind. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon, or some other massive body – for it is possible that the Earth has shifted into a new orbit around its star.

Twilight segues to black. The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing. Then the object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky.

And by it he sees what moves in the water: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.

He is terrified of passing out, with the thing waiting for him in the shallows. He recedes back into the past. The familiar contours of his laboratory swim into being around him.

During the Traveler’s brief acquaintance with it, the thing appears devoid of purpose. Its “flopping” motion might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mental life replete with beliefs and desires. But his acquaintance with it is brief, after all, and he knows nothing of it or its world. If it can be said to have one.

It is tempting to suggest alternative scenarios in which the Traveler does not retreat from the thing in the water and remains to study it (and perhaps be studied in turn).

He might find that it is a traveler from some even deeper future, or the representative of an extra-terrestrial culture. Perhaps observation and autopsies would reveal it to be an offshoot of modern Cephalopoda, trawling the desultory shoreline for bite-sized crustaceans.

Again, a Lovecraft-Wells crossover might cast it as the baleful representative of ultimate cosmic evil. Perhaps it locks the Traveler out of his own body, storing his mind like a living fossil. Then it sits in the saddle and return to the present, where, sooner or later, it begins to eat our history.

These narrative possibilities are forestalled, however. Within Well’s fictional world the the nature of the creature remains, undetermined and thus indeterminable. Readers of the Time Machine can only imagine the Traveler’s presentiment on encountering it; wonder why he finds the thought of being near it so terrible. The creature remains hidden, its meaning held in a perpetual tomb.

Given time and effort, radical interpretation might unveil the the obscurities of merely unfamiliar languages or forms of life. But radical aliens would remain obdurately outside thought. In Western traditions, the idea is commonly expressed in apophatic mysticism that treats the divine as an ineffable and unthinkable other. In apophasis, this reality is expressed by what Eugene Thacker calls a “misanthropic subtraction” in which words are stripped of any positive signification so as to hint at a transcendence beyond words (Thacker 2015, p. 140).

The arrest of narrative has a similar effect to the language of mysticism, since, in fiction, the undescribed must remain unknown outside the limits of our encounter with it. Most evocations of the radical alien exhibit a form of arrest: from the work of H P Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson to that of the “New Weird” authors like Thomas Ligotti or Jeff Vandermeer, to the far future science fiction of Hannu Rajaniemi and Charles Stross.

As Graham Harman observes, Lovecraft’ uses a range of literary devices to subtract the legibility of his cosmic deities, the Great Old Ones. This can occur via radical metaphor – for example, “The Dreams in the Witch House” Azathoth, is said to lie “at the centre of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The content of this description undermines its metaphorical aptness since ultimate chaos would be the decentering of centres. The “thin flutes” should then be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7).

The adjective “mindless” does not imply here that this reality is simply non-mental, like the spontaneous production of particle/anti-particle pairs. Rather that conceptions like mindedness or agency are not being applied to the reality in which they carry their usual implications. Recall, the ungainly flopping of Wells’ creature. Is this a sign of its diminished sentience, mute heteronomy before the waves; or of something that is no less a power in the world than us but fundamentally unlike us?

When the sailor Johansen describes an encounter with Lovecraft’s amorphous tentacled god near the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he must vitiate his own description:

“Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described–there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”

Likewise, the dread and physical abjectness related by the Traveler are not attributable to anything he has described; their presence in his account hollows it out without giving us the missing outline. They are prompted by something unmentioned, something  perhaps unutterable, which can only be conveyed indirectly through its pernicious effect on the observer.

Wells and Lovecraft, then, both employ discrepant figures or elisions to “refer” to the unknowable and unsayable. Derrida has argued that philosophy is also in the grip of such undeterminable or undecidable tropes, where, for example, a term like “the sun” is used by Plato in Republic IV-VII to refer to the origin of intelligibility itself. Within the terms of Plato’s text there is no criterion of metaphorical aptness that tells us whether this is a “successful” metaphor for the ultimate Good, other than the account in which it already figures. Such radical metaphors constitute an ellipsis of meaning – a solar “eclipse” whose divorce from settled semantic domains free up metaphors to play elsewhere as metaphysical concepts (Derrida 1974: 53-4).

Philosophical concepts are conceptually articulated in ways that distinguish them from the literary use of catachresis in Lovecraft, or in a very different context, J G Ballard’s Crash or his novella “Myths of the Near Future”. There is a good deal be said about Plato’s form of the good; whereas Lovecraft provide no science or metaphysics to limn the ultimate reality of Azathoth; while Ballard’s ontology of the automobile collision is entirely exhausted by its place within Crash’s circuit of auto-destructive desire (Roden 2002). Still, this does not mean that allusion to unknowable entities in Wells, Lovecraft and others is without philosophical significance.

Firstly, both reject something that Platonic philosophy shares with apophatic theology – the jargon of transcendence. Lovecraft’s apophatic method discloses a dark, unknowable cosmos that is, however, devoid of transcendence. The Azathothic other is not beyond or “higher” than matter but intimately involved and active in a unitary, if ultimately chaotic and meaningless, universe.

Wells’ being on the shoreline is alive, even if its status as an agent is left entirely open. Both, then, imply something about what it is to live in a reality that is outside thought, autonomous with respect to it, even if not transcendent or spiritual.

This is connected, secondly, to the relationship between time and sensibility – in the aesthetics of an encounter that pre-empts any articulation of its nature (Sullivan 2010: 197). An encounter that need harbour no meaning, no “fore-having” waiting to be glossed by the phenomenologist, for example. The phenomenology of the encounter can be dark, as I have argued elsewhere. It can be had, without being further accessible through description or philosophical hermeneutics.

The radical alien can be encountered, then, but the encounter breaks the orderly procession of historical time and knowledge production. It leaves its mark in irreducible affects – terror, madness and physical desolation.

References

Derrida, J. and Moore, F.C.T., 1974. White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. New Literary History6(1), pp.5-74.

Harman, G., 2012. Weird realism: Lovecraft and philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.

Roden, D., 2003. Cyborgian subjects and the auto-destruction of metaphor.Crash cultures: modernity, mediation and the material, pp.91-102.

O’Sullivan, S., 2010. From aesthetics to the abstract machine: Deleuze, Guattari and contemporary art practice. Deleuze and contemporary art, pp.189-207.

Thacker, E., 2015. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.