Christ didn’t die alone. We all die with him. Most in a long fever dreams of medicalised torment, as our minds dis-arrange screaming and bodies rot. If we’re lucky we die quickly and alone – without becoming pornographic spectacles for our “loved ones”. Else we may have to endure the torrid intimacy of their concern, smile, be brave and help them through it, just so they can delectate on the meaning of it all. Well fuck that! Cohle asserted that he lacked “the constitution for suicide” but that shit-eating attitude just brings you more suffering, or worse, inevitable capitulation: to His terms (Yeah, looking at you TD finale). The bent rules of this squalid antechamber to Hell.
Well, what goes around, comes around, inhabitants of Cancer Planet. Bestir yourselves, slough off your zombie insouciance an fucking kill god!
Last time God was impaled (slowly) and (agonisingly, slowly) soul-sucked on Elric’s cold black rune-sword.
This time round we have an engineering solution to the problem of theology from the late Barrington Bayley, a writer celebrated for his bleak metaphysical passions and picturesque space operas. There is capitulation, of a kind, in this story, but also a satanic ambition that we at EI cannot but endorse. The story is called The God Gun. And you may read it here. I hope it will prove at least consolatory; at best inspirational.
Until next time….
Justa fictional sketch on the topic of posthuman environments/body variants. Those who know his work might spot the influence of Hannu Rajaniemi.
Might do some more with it subsequently.
The glass desert was filled with the hulks or dead or dormant machines – coiled like burnt snakes against white glare. The air pixelated with things that hummed and chattered on the wind. It held a faint tang of ammonia, burning eyes and throat.
Kame watched the collapsed bodies of the dead machines, alert for signs of raptors – shimmering like a school of fish under metal skin. Raptors hunted for incarnate data, for memories. She sometimes wondered if the chattering things were psychotic remnants of raptor feasts: soul shit.
The implants they had fitted after she had renounced her humanity back at the Reservation didn’t prickle under her air-sealed skin. She was safe, just for now.
She looked across a gap between two elephantine structures, still twitching in what passed for death among the sentient machines of the Abolition. Here was a smooth bowl in the desert, like a giant’s thumbprint. Its rim striated with something like writing that shimmered in the phosphorescent light.
As Kame bounded to the gap, helped by the cultured tendons in her new legs, she could see the writing resolve into thousands of worm-like cilia. The depression was like the mouth of a sea creature, a starfish crater: in fact, a temporary association of atom-scale assemblers known to the human cartographers of this place as “eaters”.
She knew that she did not have much time. The formation was not stable and might dissociate unpredictably. She would not survive here in her current form, however augmented. Either a raptor or incremental fluid loss would take her. Kame approached the eater-colony, stripping first her clothes, then her hard desert-fashion skin.
Underneath, she was just pink, soft meal. The air was corroding her, stripping away sheets of raw meat. The last few meters to the colony was a fog of pain and hemorrhaging lungs.
She almost didn’t make it. Finally, a raw, bleeding approximation flopped into the starfish mouth. Here the eaters could do their work. Gently taking her apart to reformat Kame in ways that would allow her to slip through the air like a manta ray and listen to the keening, inhuman voices beyond the sky.
I’m ending an all too brief sojourn in Western Crete, just as Greece seems set to become Europe’s new experiment in post-democratic capitalism – its very own Interzone. Many, if not most, economists claim that the conditions cannot be met and that attempting to do so will shred Greece’s economic, social, educational and cultural life as much as the initial round of austerity.
Nonetheless, a bubble of ease is maintained here for those with euros. We who bask in the light and heat of the Aegean summer can condemn the deprivations heaped upon the Greek state and its citizens without having to experience them.
However factitious, this moment has allowed me to pause and think about some generous philosophical discussion of Posthuman Life on a number of excellent websites. These have forced me to think harder about the basic assumptions in of the book. So here begins a series of reflective responses to my commentators under the rubric of “Dark Posthumanism” – though, as shall become clear, my use of the d-word is seriously tendentious.
I should begin by citing Debbie Goldgaber’s excellent post on Speculative Posthumanism and dark phenomenology. This catalyzed an exchange between deflationary naturalists like Scott Bakker and those like Jon Cogburn or Goldgaber, who favour a deconstructive or “weird realist” construal of dark phenomena. This debate resurfaced during a lively discussion at the New Centre for Research and Practice‘s Posthuman Life 1 seminar, in which Debbie also participated. Its trenchancy was a surprise, although a welcome and productive one, which I’ll try to address in this post.
Meanwhile, the Philosophical Percolations Summer Reading group on PHL rolls on to Chapter 2 and 3 and the Ultima Thule of Unbounded Posthumanism! I should also bow to John Danaher’s fine clarificatory effort over at Philosophical Disquisitions. He has not yet addressed the role of dark phenomenology, but it will be interesting to see what he makes of it.
Scott’s interview with me over at Figure/Bound communications recapitulates similar tensions while holding me to account for the ethical commitments of the book. I think there’s a connection between the epistemological issues arising from the dark phenomenology hypothesis and the ethics and politics of becoming posthuman. These are taken up in B P Morton’s terrific piece on trans/posthumanism and transgender (also at philpercs) which I to return to in the sequel to this post.
So what’s the deal with Dark Phenomena?
On a first (and extremely shaky) approximation, there is a tension between a thin epistemological interpretation of Dark Phenomena – experiences that furnish no tacit yardstick for their description – and a weird reading that I hesitate to term “ontological”, since its presuppositions seem more difficult to articulate than the naturalist side.
On the epistemological reading, the dark side is a placeholder for structures of experience that phenomenology cannot elucidate without the help of science – in particular, psychology, neuroscience or cognitive science. Dark phenomena reveal the point at which the putative domain of phenomenology eludes the scrutiny of philosophical method. It does not imply any obscurity in principle, since what may elude phenomenology may be explicated in other terms.
On the weird (horror?) reading, the dark side must be understood via its disintegration or truncation of the subject: experiences of horror, alienation, humour or compulsion such as the spectral thing that, for Levinas, depersonalises the consciousness of the insomniac. As Cogburn points out, these incursions and eruptions in experience can be related to the late Idealist view that our experience of embodiment provides privileged insight into a pre-subjective Nature (Schelling) or a noumenal body that eludes representation. I think Eugene Thacker’s discussion of Schopenhauer in his book Starry Speculative Corpse captures the latter idea particularly well:
The Will is, in Schopenhauer’s hands, that which is common to subject and object, but not reducible to either. This will is never present in itself, either as subjective experience or as objective knowledge; it necessarily remains a negative manifestation. Indeed, Schopenhauer will press this further, suggesting that “the whole body is nothing but objectified will, i.e. will that has become representation” (122-3)
So darkness on the naturalist reading is a local problem for phenomenological method, whereas on the weird reading it is an obscure disclosure (“negative manifestation”) of something (some thing) that resists any form of representation or theory. It must also be contentless if it is to do the work of undercutting the claims of transcendental conceptions of the subject, whether phenomenological, existential or pragmatist.
So far this seems as if it might be almost consonant with Bakker’s take on dark phenomenology. As he writes in his commentary on Goldgaber, phenomenology qua method:
assumes we have a reflectively accessible experiential plenum to begin with, that we actually possess a ‘phenomenology’ worth the name. The problem, in other words, is that we have no way of knowing just how impoverished our ‘phenomenology’ is in the first place.
If phenomenology is dark then phenomenological method is at best incomplete and at worst benighted. For example, experienced temporality is as transcendent and inaccessible to us as the structure of matter. Phenomenology can never be more than a descriptive science of nature according to this account and should not aspire to a priori status since there is no good reason to think that its descriptions are authoritative. There are good empirical reasons for thinking that we take our judgements about the contents of our minds or experiences to be based on an unmediated givenness only because we are not mindful of the heavy lifting required to produce them. If phenomenology is dark we are, as Bakker implies, in the dark about the dark.
The weird reading might now seem a little shady. Even the metaphor of darkness is misleading if it implies a phenomenology of the “gaps in presence”. This would be feasible only if we already knew the structure of the plenum and (or so the argument goes) there is no good reason to think that we do.
This seems to warrant a cautious analogy between the thesis that there is a dark side to phenomenology and Derridean deconstruction, which, though drawing on the language of phenomenology, cuts it free of any secure domain by generalizing subjective temporality well beyond anything conceivable as a subject, to the iterable mark, to generalized writing etc. (PHL: 94).
Goldgaber imputes to me the claim that this structure, at least, is generalizable beyond the human:
were it possible to show that there are dark elements in our own phenomenology, experienceable but not amenable to description or interpretation, we would have grounds, Roden thinks, for understanding human subjectivity in terms of both its unity and radical difference or rupture from world–as dependent on structures that are shared by nonhumans.
I’m not sure that I go this far. I suspect a purer Derridean like Martin Haggelund might. But, like Bakker, I don’t see any reason to see why such claims are on securer ground. Their virtue is salutary rather than informative; exposing the indeterminacy of claims about structure of worldly agency and time.
On the other hand, once we take dark phenomenology (or Bakker’s blind brain theory) as serious epistemological proposals we seem confronted with a darkness without negation, not one contrary to the light side (which, by hypothesis, is already striated with it). And here one is almost tempted to say that harder-than-hard naturalism bites the tail of mysticism. In Speculative Corpse, Thacker distinguishes a metaphysical correlation (between thought and object) presupposed by philosophy from a mystical correlation that can only verify itself by breaking against an impersonal “divine” darkness (84-5) that can never be recuperated by thought. A similar failure of correlation seems to obtain here. Even the tools (concepts like plenum) with which we are attempting to think the absence of a proper topic for phenomenology have to fail us. A thought that reiterates its failure in this way obeys the logic of the mystical as Thacker describes it.
So while we may not have any knowledge of what we could share with unboundedly weird posthumans, or nonhumans of other stripes, we led into a defile that is boundless on either reading. Perhaps the deflationary reading is as weird as it gets. Perhaps as Bakker puts in Neuropath, we are all already “vast and terrible with complexity” . As the tagline to the novel states: you do not know what you are. You do not know what it is that does not know this. We do not know where the darkness ends, how far it extends. And perhaps it is this pervasive boundlessness that can provide a tentative opening beyond the human, freeing us, as Morton might say, to explore the near inhuman, the trans of alterable bodies and desires.
Or maybe this is too quick! It’s easy to make imaginary progress in a frictionless milieu. I’ll return to Morton in Dark Posthumanism II.
If you think about it, the only upside to the existence of a God is that He could, in principle, be killed. He’s devised a universe in which most creatures die pointless, tortuous deaths after disappointing their Dads. The scales of suffering need to be balanced.
Payback’s a bitch. She’s been a long time coming. And forget that little trifle in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. As Borges’ commentator in “Three Versions of Judas” remarks, an afternoon on a cross hardly cuts it. That is, unless Christ, like Judas, was damned and still suffering in some benighted pocket of His own creation.
That’s an admittedly satisfying prospect, but even this doesn’t really get God off the hook; just shows His sadism (and masochism) to be infinitely more messed up than mine or yours. Dear reader, the only solution to immanent theology is Annihilation.
Admittedly, this is not sophisticated theology we’re talking here. We’re assuming that God belongs to the category of beings rather than some bullshit “ground” of same or hyperbolically transcendent posit of Negative Theology. Fuck that. He’s gotta hurt. He’s gotta be properly messed up before the coup de grâce.
So where to begin? Well, I for one don’t know how to flush away a Gaseous Invertebrate. Don’t know enough physics, let alone metaphysics. But in order to sustain us on our path towards his tortuous and inevitable demise we can at least draw inspiration from some fictive Deicidal weapons. So here’s a modest running list that I intend to add to from time to time as the fancy takes me. Any realistic suggestions will be welcome. We’ll need ’em in the struggle to come.
Stormbringer, the black sword wielded by Michael Moorcock’s doomed albino prince, Elric of Melniboné, mulches souls and turns them into an energy drink. If God is a spiritual being, He’ll be vulnerable to soul-sucking black swords. Stormbringer is the shit when it comes to god-killing and Elric cuts a swathe through the divinity of Moorcock’s multiverse. The only drawback I can see to using the black sword on the God of Abraham is that the backwash of energy might turn His killer into a further iteration of the same. You become the thing you hate, eh? Finding the fucker shouldn’t be a problem. He’s co-terminous with all time and space. A simple poke should do.
Here‘s the audio for a fizzy discussion on posthumanism in the arts I participated in at the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London. We talked monsters, posthuman urbanism, science fiction, the speculative/critical divide in posthumanism, whether immersive media and technological arts might help us overcome entrenched dualisms in western thought and political implications (if any) of deconstructing such binaries.
With Debra Benita Shaw (University of East London, Centre for Cultural Studies Research), Stefan Sorgner (University of Erfurt), David Roden (Open University), Dale Hergistad (X-Media Lab) and Luciano Zubillaga (UWL Ealing School of Art, Design and Media).
What follows is a reworking of material in my earlier post on Ray Brassier and Improvisation. It’s part of a longer work in progress exploring whether aesthetic creativity can function as a model for decision-making in a posthuman (or Promethean) world. All comments and criticisms will be gratefully received.
1) Introduction: Improvisation and Agency
Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation. It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by action within the causal order.
According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour.
Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954.) Sellars distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to reflect on concepts using articulate speech. Following Kant, Sellars regards concepts as a kind of rule for connecting judgements. Genuine agency involves capacity to follow or deviate from a rule. An agent must be able to hold herself and others accountable to a rule and this is only possible – for Brassier – if we make concepts explicit as moves within a language game (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226). Selves or subjects are not sources of agency. Instead, rules and their articulation constitute the subjectivity of acts:
The act is the only subject. It remains faceless. But it can only be triggered under very specific circumstances. Acknowledgement of the rule generates the condition for deviating from or failing to act in accordance with the rule that constitutes subjectivity. This acknowledgement is triggered by the relevant recognitional mechanism; it requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self…. (Brassier 2013a)
Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. His text implies that the act of improvisation requires an encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, what their nature is or how the encounter between rules and more rudimentary pattern-governed behaviour occurs.
In what follows I will argue that the reason he does not do this is that there are no such rules to be had. Musical rules in the sense that he requires them do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice. Brassier understands rules as impersonal “applying indiscriminately to everyone”, but claims about what is permissible or implied in musical processes index highly-context sensitive perceptual and affective responses to musical events. These responses exhibit variable degrees of tension within “the musical matter” between the sedimented expectations of a musical culture and open fields of action potentiated by musical event or act.
I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse of “rules” in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.
This adjustment is of more than aesthetic interest. Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act provides a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). In later discussions, I hope to use this model as a clue for developing an ethics or politics that can address the radically open horizons I explore in Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).
2. Harmonic Structure and Succession
I will begin by making use of some analyses of performance practices in post-war jazz and Julian Johnson’s analysis of the disruption of the rhetoric of harmonic accompaniment in the work of Anton Webern to support this model of affective subjectivity in improvisation.
Novice jazz improvisers must internalize a large body of musical theory: e.g. learning modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning and habituation sculpts the musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action that are continuously re-sculpted in the course of improvisations. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise might be distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.
This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of of norms. The statement that tritone (augmented fourth internal) belonging to a dominant seventh chord should resolve to a tonic reflects listener expectations in diatonic environments where a tonal center is defined in practice. This is not an intrinsic feature of the tritone, however, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7 – permitting a resolution to the unrelated key of Gflat. This provides a recipe for substituting a dominant chord at a tritone remove in perfect cadences.
However, it also allows harmonic series to modulate into unrelated keys. As jazz theorist Martin Rosenberg notes, the use of augmented dominants with two tritones by Bebop players such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk produce multiple lines of harmonic consequence and thus an ambiguous context that is not conventionally diatonic, even if (in contrast to free jazz) some adherence to a tonal center is preserved.
Symmetrical chords built of fourths (as used by pianists such as McCoy Tyer and Bill Evans) or major thirds have a similar effect, whether in diatonic contexts (where they can render the tonic ambiguous by stripping it to the 3rd, sixth and ninth) or in modal contexts where a tonal center is still implied by a pedal pass.
In consequence, the home key in the modal jazz developed by Miles Davis and Coltrane never prescribes a series of actions but furnishes expectations that can make an improvisation aesthetically intelligible after the fact. As Rosenberg explains, when Coltrane improvises in modal compositions such as “A Love Supreme” he deploys pentatonic or digital patterns modulated well away from the implied tonal center suggested by a bass line or by the “head” (the tune that traditionally opens or closes a jazz improvisation):
During his solos, Coltrane performs constant modulations through a series of harmonic targets or, what avant-garde architects Arakawa and Gins would call tentative “landing sites” (2002: 10) that become deployed sonically over a simple harmonic ‘home’ through the use of centered and then increasingly distant pentatonic scales from that home. In doing so, Coltrane seeks to widen what I call “the bandwidth” of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationships possible. He does so as he maintains the coherence of the melodic line (or narrative) through the aurally comfortable shapes (from the perspective of the audience especially) enabled by those very pentatonic scales, despite the juxtaposition of distant and dissonant tonal centers implied by this method. (Rosenberg 2010: 211-12).
This differential/transformative structure is, unsurprisingly, characteristic of scored Western art music. In his analysis of Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op 11, Julian Johnson argues that the opening two bars of the first piece allude to the framing and introduction of melody in traditional song and opera. For example, in baroque recitative the onset of a lyrical melody is frequently indicated by an arpeggiated chord. However, the high register chord that occurs in the first bar of the piece follows a single muted cello note and is followed by a descending piano passage that marks the absence of an expressive melody indicated by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).
Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive schemata – like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. The emergence of non-diatonic harmony, polychromaticism and atonality in modern music practice demonstrate that these are subordinate to improvisational and compositional practices. These schema exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary performances such Coltrane’s use of distantly modulated pentatonic figures in “A Love Supreme”. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe what a musician ought to do but describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. The musical agent cannot be the impersonal subject of binding rules if these bend to context in this way.
It follows that if there is an equivalent of Brassier’s subject in the improvising situation, it cannot the tension between rule and application.
Brassier is arguably correct to insist on anti-voluntarism (We are not free in consequence of some acausal causal power unique to selves). But in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging rules either since these are not in place.
Brassier’s impersonal conception of autonomy seems, then, ill adapted to musical contexts, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of agent causation (which I am happy to do). It follows that we need to formulate an alternative account of autonomy in improvisational contexts that is not predicated on the acknowledgement of musical norms.
3. The Time of Improvisation
An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by time. It takes place in a time window limited by the memory and attention of the improviser, responding to her own playing, to the other players, or (as Brassier recognises) to the real-time behaviour of machines such as effects processors or midi-filters.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection”. Hamilton claims that an opposing aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the musical work is only contingently associated with particular times, places or musical performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection, by contrast, celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space:
Improvisation makes the performer alive in the moment; it brings one to a state of alertness, even what Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett has called the ‘state of grace’. This state is enhanced in a group situation of interactive empathy. But all players, except those in a large orchestra, have choices inviting spontaneity at the point of performance. These begin with the room in which they are playing, its humidity and temperature, who they are playing with, and so on. (183)
The aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a real, irreversible temporality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production. This ontology is required to make sense of the aesthetic distinction between the situation of the improviser and composer in traditional art music (or the producer of digital audio work). Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.
This is never the case with improvisation. An improvisation is a unique event on the cusp of another. It thus exposes the improviser to a future outside the “living present” and to a reality exceeding her power to experience or represent it. An omniscient being would thus be incapable of improvising because its choices would be fully known prior to the event. The event would be fully represented and reversible. For improvisation to occur the agent must act alongside and in concert with things or processes that it cannot control; other agents, other things that it does and cannot fully know. Or, to cite from Amy Ireland’s discussion of Lovecraft and Michel Serres, improvisation always requires a “para-site” – a site that exists alongside the site of the notional improviser (Ireland 2014). Even the act cannot just be attributed to a single agent, because there must be something in the act that is not grasped by the agent at all, even implicitly or unconsciously.
This comports with Brassier’s claim that freedom in improvisation is impersonal since the improvising agent must be rethought as a network of things and effects, none of which corresponds exactly to a self or a deliberative agent. Improvisation occurs in networks of patterns, pattern generators, pattern detectors and pattern processors whose cumulative effect is never the will of a single agent within the network (even where the network consists of one musician and an instrument). Moreover, the patterns constituting the inputs to the detectors are always incomplete.
No single node of the network exercises decisive influence on its evolution or has complete knowledge of what is occurring in the remainder of the system. This evolution, in turn, is incomplete until the end of the final pattern.
Accordingly, the player/detector must register emerging “potentials for transformation” – open-ended evolutions – rather than static facts. For reasons discussed above, these are also rhythmically and harmonically undetermined at any point in the performance (Roden 2014: 187).
It follows that the time of improvisation is an impersonal time consisting of multiple processes interacting at different scales, distributed over many locations.
Brassier applies essentially the same model at the end of his article:
The ideal of ‘free improvisation’ is paradoxical: in order for improvisation to be free in the requisite sense, it must be a self-determining act, but this requires the involution of a series of mechanisms. It is this involutive process that is the agent of the act—one that is not necessarily human. It should not be confused for the improviser’s self, which is rather the greatest obstacle to the emergence of the act. The improviser must be prepared to act as an agent—in the sense in which one acts as a covert operative—on behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act.
Importantly, Brassier rejects the claim that the agents participating in the improvising situation need be human. We can unpack this “posthumanism” in three ways:
1. While humans are agents, not all agents are human. Thus it is perfectly conceivable that there be improvisers that are not biologically human – e.g. artificial intelligences.
2. In order to understand the processes involved in improvisation it may be necessary to resolve sub-personal processes or systems within biological humans – e.g. distinguishing between fast sensory pathways in the brain that bypass the sensory cortex en route to the limbic system, generating fast affect, and slower pathways that produce considered sensory appraisals (Huron 2006: 20).
3. The sense of agency involved in improvisation does not require a sovereign subject vested with the power of creating from nothing. Improvisation, for Brassier, involves “releasing” a kind of potential that is already present in the situation.
The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might seem to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising context (something that ought to be). However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity of musical material and the underdetermination of musical expectation described above. So regardless of whether agency is elsewhere constituted by the acknowledgement of rules in the domain of language, there are no grounds for positing analogous rules for music. It follows that if Brassier’s insights into improvising subjectivity are to be retained, they will need to be reframed in a non-normative idiom.
We can do this, I think, by interpreting them as a thesis about the selection of patterns from a range of possible (underdetermined) patterns whose basis lies in affect rather than rules. An affect is an alteration in an agent that makes a difference to its power to act (Hickey-Moody 2009: 273). A pain is obviously an affect; so is a mood. As Steven Shaviro points, out some affects are personal: they are more or less stable tendencies in persons that can be publicly identified within our folk psychological vocabulary. Boredom is a personal affect, as is an emotion such as fear. But more pertinent here are so-called “micro-affects” which may be fleeting, hard to categorize and barely accessible to experience, while still having implications for individual or group behaviour. An experience of a twitchy camera in a music video or the extremely short grains of sound in Xenakis composition Concret Ph are affective in this way (Shaviro 2015).
This idea of affective selection can be illustrated with the help of a field study of post-hardcore rock bands at rehearsal carried out by Alec McGuiness. It provides a vivid example of musicians using procedural learning to prime a series of musical riffs over which their conscious or intentional control is fairly limited. Song structures are laid down by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when “feels right” to do so:
[S]ometimes there’ll be moments when we’re not looking at each other but all four will either hit that heavy thing, or really bring it down […] And yeah, those moments […].. it’s priceless, when everyone just hits the same thing at the same time. […] That’s when you know that that song’s definitely going to work. ‘Cause it’s obviously sort of pressing the same buttons on each of us at the same time. (McGuiness 2009: 19)
So, here, “releasing the act”, involves an awareness of a shared affective response to some “felicitous performance” which prompts a deviation from the regular pattern. The agency, here, is also distributed insofar as it depends on a contagion of affect between the players to drive the variation. However, note that this group decision implies a judgment with a purely affective basis that is expressed through performance itself rather than by application of received folk psychological concepts or formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).
Kant referred to judgements of this nature – which do not apply concepts to things but express the way in which the subject is affected by things – as “reflective judgements”. These are distinguished from more familiar “determinate judgment” – where we apply some concept to one of its instances. For example, when we categorize a thing as a cat, we apply a given concept to organize the field of perception. Judgements of beauty, according to Kant, do not apply a predicate to the object but are based on a pleasurable feeling of accord between our perceptual capacities and a beautiful thing that enlivens them.
Likewise, in artistic creation reflective judgment occurs when the creators find a pattern that enlivens the intellect and imaginations of an audience (Proulx 2011: 21). The feeling of a riff or rhythm pattern gelling for an individual or group provides a kind of micro-example of this enlivening. It may not express transcendent emotions or ideas, but the felt accord affords an assessment of its value that need not be justified in terms of pre-specified rules or canons.
Thus micro-affects can imply micro-evaluations without conformity to rules. A moment in an improvisation might feel right but be completely novel and the only test of this is how it facilitates the response of a player or an audience – spawning further affects and development. Pattern selection in improvisation implies an evaluative response to potentials that are reinforced, then, by subsequent performance. For example, leaving space in an improvisation builds tension and thus an expectation that something is going to occur sometime.
There need be no rules operating in pattern selection, but there is a value judgment, even where what prompts it is so singular that it cannot be replicated or fully described. And where there is a judgment there is agency or, if you will, a subjectivity implicit in the selection. I have argued that this comports well with Brassier’s claim in the final paragraph of “Compulsive Freedom” that the freedom of improvisation requires “an involution of mechanisms” and that it is the relationship between these mechanisms that forms the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act. The agent of improvisation, then, is not a person – if by that we mean, a subject exercising deliberation – but an affective-selective catalyst of events open to the disruptive onset of time.
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Anti-reductionist physicalists or materialists deny that psychology can be theoretically reduced to physics but allow physics sovereignty concerning what exists. Anti-reductionist arguments vary but a common line of attack against reductionism is that psychology expresses rational or normative relationships between mental states; not causal or functional relationships of the kind expressed in theories of natural science. Thus in Sellars “Two Images” account physics and natural science tells us what exists but humans still encounter themselves in a normatively structured “space of reasons”. Donald Davidson refers to his own version of this position as “anomalous monism” (AM):
“Anomalous monism resembles materialism in its claim that all events are physical, but rejects the thesis, usually considered essential to materialism, that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations. Anomalous monism shows an ontological bias only in that it allows the possibility that not all events are mental, while insisting that all events are physical” (Davidson 2001: 214)
Davidson’s account seeks to reconcile three claims that appear to be in tension: 1) that mental events causally interact with physical events; 2) that causal relations occur only where the events in question are covered by strict deterministic laws; 3) “that there are no strict deterministic laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained (the Anomalism of the Mental).”
Davidson aims to do this by arguing from the claim that the existence of causal relationships between events only implies that there is some true description of the relationship expressing a strict nomic relationship. The reconciliation is possible because causal relations obtain between token singular events while laws are linguistically expressed generalisations. Mental events can be causally related to one other or to non-mental events.
But, according to Davidson, causality is nomological only in that where two events are causally related, they have linguistic descriptions that express a law. It does not follow that “that every true singular statement of causality instantiates a law” (215). Thus a statement like “Helen’s belief that Justin was murdered was caused by her seeing blood in the kitchen” adverts to a law like relationship between a token of blood in the kitchen and a token belief about murder but does not state it. The law-like relationship, for Davidson, would have to be expressed in terms of the states and dynamics of a physical system which allowed a deterministic inference about a future state – her belief token – again rendered in some physicalistic idiom.
Claim 3) Follows, Davidson thinks, if mental states are those addressed in propositional attitude ascriptions and that such ascriptions depend holistically on overall assessments of the rationality and cognizance of agents in their world. In the space of reasons, where propositional attitudes are ascribed to persons, it is always possible to revise attributions in the interests of overall cogency. There can be no single translation scheme that pre-empts all the evidence that could be relevant to such ascriptions (222-223). Thus whereas the theories in which physical regularities are stated must be closed to allow the formulation of exceptionless laws (homonomic) the language of propositional attitude ascription is necessarily open to multiple idioms or “heteronomic” (219):
“The heteronomic character of general statements linking the mental and the physical traces back to this central role of translation in the description of all prepositional attitudes, and to the indeterminacy of translation. There are no strict psychophysical laws because of the disparate commitments of the mental and physical schemes. It is a feature of physical reality that physical change can be explained by laws that connect it with other changes and conditions physically described. It is a feature of the mental that the attribution of mental phenomena must be responsible to the background of reasons, beliefs, and intentions of the individual.”(222)
In Nagelian terms, it would be impossible to formulate true bridge laws between a reducing theory in some physical idiom and a reduced psychological theory because the intentional side the biconditional could always be revised in the light of holistic considerations irrelevant to the “physical side”. Thus type-type psychophysical reduction appears impossible. Note that an analogous result is obtainable if we view the space of reasons as structured by implicit norms irreducible to behavioral regularities.
Of course, not all accounts of reduction require bridge laws between reduced and reducing theories, or treat theories as interpreted sets of sentences. It is still open to the reductionist to argue for a different form of reduction (Bickle 1993: 222-4). It is also open to the reductionist to argue that psychology is not peculiar in being inexpressible “as sets of generalizations” – this being true of all scientific theories (226) – or in being open to extra-theoretical idioms in which to describe their contexts of application to real systems. Maybe no theory (physical or otherwise) is truly heteronomic.
However, in the argument that follows I will suppose that Davidson’s anomalism is right, or, at least, that his account can be rectified in a form that is proof against neoreductionist assaults.
So let us assume that the psychological perspective in which agents have beliefs and desires and utter meaningful statements is conceptually irreducible (as Sellarsians say) to the scientific image of the world as a causal-physical system.
If so, then the possibility of a certain form of technological descendant of current humans (posthumans) implies that intentional psychology will be instrumentally if not theoretically eliminated.
That is, whatever its current value for humans, it could not play a similar role for the relevant class of posthuman. And this not because of any logical or ontological vices but because of it would be incapable of functioning as an idiom for interpretation and understanding among these hypothetical successors. So the anti-reductionist argument against theoretical reduction/elimination supports a metaphysical case for instrumental elimination.
The hypothetical entities in question are what I refer to in Posthuman Life and elsewhere as “hyperplastic agents”. An agent is hyperplastic if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to any part of its functional or physical structure without compromising either its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity. For example, suppose a hyperplastic agent dislikes some unpleasant memories associated with the taste of milk. Whereas a merely plastic agent like ourselves might need hours of cognitive behavioral therapy to excise these, the hyperplastic simply needs to locate the neuronal ensembles and pathways associated with these memories and ensure that they are no longer linked in such a way that the memory of milk causes them to activate in turn.
Likewise, a hyperplastic would be in a position to alter any other informational or value-relevant state by physically altering the relevant brain states. Obviously, use the term “brain” broadly here to refer to those systems within the hyperplastic that are associated with “cognition”, “perception” or the “control of behaviour” in some intuitive sense of these terms. The original inspiration for the idea of the hyperplastic came from Steve Omohundro’s speculations about the goal structures of generally intelligent robots in his essay “The Basic AI Drives” (2008). We need not assume that the “brain” in question is a known biological system.
Davidson’s anti-reductionism implies token physicalism (each event that can be brought under a psychological description is identical to some physical event, since ontological physicalism is taken as a given).
So for any state in an agent with a psychological description there will be physical description of that state. For any such state there will interventions that the agent can make into the state which will produce a physically distinct successor state such that the former psychological description will no longer be true of it.
Now we can suppose that any hyperplastic agent will have an Agenda at a particular time. That is, it will not tinker with its internal states arbitrarily but wish to do so in ways that don’t kill it, do not undermine its capacity for hyperplasticity and that fulfill whatever desiderata are listed on the Agenda.
The interesting question (assuming Davidsonian anti-reductionism) is how the Agenda can be formulated. Can it be expressed in psychological terms (roughly, in terms of propositional attitudes or values)? If it is expressed in psychological terms, then anti-reductionism implies that for any Agent intervention at the physical level, it will not be possible to reliably infer the psychological outcome of the alteration.
This follows simply because there are no psychophysical laws. Moreover even rough generalisations over past interventions would not be much help. These might be reliable for merely plastic creatures whose basic design and structure remain fairly constant over time. But a hyperplastic agent is protean. Thus it cannot assume that the rough and ready psychophysical generalisations that have held over one phase of its existence will extend into another phase.
It follows that however a hyperplastic agent frames the Agenda it cannot be psychologically expressible because no reliable inferences can be drawn from future physical form to future psychology.
So if hyperplastics have Agenda’s, they would have to represent states that could be reliably inferred from facts about their physical constitution at a given time. But given Davidson’s anti-reductionism, they would have little use for psychological self-description for making generalisations about their current or future actions. Suppose a hyperplastic Agent self-attributes a belief b. A merely plastic agent like you or me might assume generalisations along the lines of “I will continue to hold b unless I find evidence from which some contrary of b can be inferred”. But a hyperplastic agent would not be able to assume such generalisations because there could be no evidence that an auto-intervention would not cause it to lose b regardless of the evidence in its favour.
So a hyperplastic agent could not use propositional attitude psychology to predict its own behaviour. Folk psychology would be equally impotent for predicting the behaviour of its fellow hyperplastics for the same reason.
If hyperplastic agents could exist and plan their self-interventions, they would have to employ an entirely different idiom to understand themselves or one another. A posthuman-making disconnection that resulted in the emergence of hyperplastics would inevitably to result in the instrumental elimination of folk psychological capacities among the population of hyperplastics, at least; since neither the capacity nor the linguistic idiom for attributing propositional attitudes would have predictive or hermeneutic utility.
This means that were humans to encounter hyperplastics, they would not be radically interpretable (in Davidson’s sense) because radical interpretation depends on the principle of charity and this, again, is framed in folk psychological terms.
I conclude that if hyperplastic agents are possible, we could not understand them without abandoning the conceptual framework we currently use to understand ourselves and our conspecifics. They would be radically uninterpretable.
Bickle, John (1992). Mental anomaly and the new mind-brain reductionism. Philosophy of Science 59 (2):217-30.
Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Davidson, Donald (2001). Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Omohundro, S. M. (2008). “The Basic AI Drives”. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications 171: 483