This post is adapted from a paper presented at a workshop organised by the Open University’s PRiME (posthuman resilience in major emergencies) research group held in London, 18th-19th October 2016.
Resilience – understood as the capacity to recover from perturbations and resume “normal functioning” – appears seems to be a generic rather than domain specific property. It has a general application to complex systems at all scales and levels of complexity, and applies across the notional and contested divide between the natural and the artificial. It thus seems consonant with a “flat” posthuman world in which humans – rather than having privileged status – are just a distinctive being amongst other – similarly distinctive – beings.
There are resilient individuals, resilient ecosystems, resilient institutions, and resilient software entities. It might seem, then, that resilience could provide a way of orienting ethics in a posthuman predicament” in which ontological domains are looking increasingly fragile or tenuous.
However, once we unhitch the concept from a domain, this ethics exhibits an indeterminacy akin to the massively indeterminate ethics of [posthuman] disconnection.
To see why this is so, I will consider C.S. Holling’s widely cited distinction between engineering and ecological resilience. A system exhibits engineering resilience if it tends to return quickly to a single stable state following some perturbing event. Systems that exhibit ecological resilience, by contrast, tend to be multistable: they can flip into a range of stable dynamic patterns (Holling 1996, 33).
For example, some semi-arid grasslands exhibit a dynamic balance between grasses with functionally distinct properties: one type resistant to drought and grazing herbivores due to long root systems, the other more photosynthetically efficient but more vulnerable to grazing and drought due to the greater concentration of surface biomass:
“The latter, productive but drought-sensitive grasses, have a competitive edge between bouts of grazing so long as drought does not occur. But, because of pressure from pulses of intense grazing, that competitive edge for a time shifts to the drought-resistant group of species. As a result of these shifts in competitive advantage, a diversity of grass species serves a set of interrelated functions— productivity on the one hand and drought protection on the other” (36).
This allows the ecosystem to exhibit functional diversity in the face of varying environmental pressures. While the intense grazing from herbivores comes in pulses, there are drought-free periods when the more efficient grasses have the edge. However, when such grasslands are used for ranching the constant but relatively light grazing give the more productive grasses a decisive edge. The ecosystem becomes “more productive in the short term but the species assemblage narrows to emphasise one functional type”. The ecosystem thus becomes specialised for a narrower range of functions – but also more vulnerable to drought. Ecological resilience is reduced in favour of short-term engineering resilience, but at the expense of its ability to withstand environmental contingencies over the longer term.
Ecological resilience is thus a measure of functional diversity – the ability to exist under a range of environmental conditions and subtend diverse functions in them (Holling 1996, 40). Accordingly, it a special case of the functional autonomy described in the psychology-free account of agency that supports the Disconnection Thesis. A highly functionally autonomous system is one that is highly capable of acquiring new functions and enlisting new values in other containing systems or environments (Roden 2014, 140).
Cultivating ecological resilience in natural or artificial systems is thus a question of engineering functional autonomy, thereby increasing the capacity of natural, artificial or social systems to accrue values and functions. However, this goal is ethically void in itself.
The Disconnection Thesis exhibits this problem in an extreme form. A posthuman would need to exhibit a high degree of functional autonomy in order to exist outside of the human socio-technical network but this abstract description tells us nothing about the implications of such an event, either for humans or posthumans.
For example, humans – in their current iterations – need planets. Really powerful posthumans might find packing mass down a gravity well inordinately wasteful.
We can thus say little about the ethical value of posthuman lives – whether we should create them, or even become them – without precipitating a disconnection and seeing how things turn out. Even post-disconnection, there might be massive problems of radical interpretation for any human or merely transhuman ethicists still around (Roden 2014, 176-9).
Any attempt to evaluate the posthuman is a necessarily irresponsible risk to the integrity of the species – necessary, since the technological trajectories of modernity could mean that we have no choice but to investigate possible lines of flight out of the human.
However, the same indeterminacy applies to ecological resilience. Since it is a form of functional autonomy it inherits its ethical vacuity.
Resilience sounds unproblematically good, but that is because the concept tends to be applied by thinkers to things that are already assumed to be values (e.g. resilient communities or environments). Once abstracted it over a flat posthuman universe it loses any specificity.
Since increasing resilience in this generalised sense increases functional autonomy it also implies an increase the complexity and unpredictability of the resulting systems. Thus – in a sense – nothing is less ecological than resilience when seen through a post-anthropocentric lens in which neither humans nor other organics have superlative value over other forms of life, posthuman or otherwise.
If ethics requires some commitment to a specific form of life – or as Claire Colebrook puts it – to a particular subject or speaker, then the ethics of resilience is a counter-ethics or anti-ethics since increasing resilience deterritorialises: it reduces dependence on specific forms of life or subjectivity. Deterritorialization occurs where material or formal elements of an ordered assemblage (a territory) rupture their associations with a settled context generating new assemblages with new capacities, new rules or modes of functioning. As such, deterritorialization is not a process peculiar to the non-living or living, the social or technological domains. It is the ineluctable activity of nature operating “against itself”; threatening stable assemblages with anomalous relationships (Deleuze & Guattari 1988: 242–4).
If an ethics of resilience aims to increase the functional autonomy of entities without regard to their kind, then it is no more committed to improving the lot of creatures like ourselves than it is to cultivating a metal-storm of posthuman war machines. If it is predicated on the resilience of human bodies, lives or ecosystems, that is fine; but then it presupposes something more than just an ethics of resilience – perhaps an Aristotelian-humanist ethics, or a utilitarian one.
While this conclusion might seem perversely unhelpful, I prefer to think of it as salutary. It means that determining opportunities for resilient agency is always ethically problematic and requires that we take responsibility for decisions whose long-run implications will always exceed our capacity for calculation:
“We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics.” (Colebrook 2012a: 38)
Gao, J., Barzel, B., & Barabási, A. L. (2016). Universal resilience patterns in complex networks. Nature, 530(7590), 307-312.
Haraway, D. (1991), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Harman, G. 2008. “DeLanda’s Ontology: Assemblage and Realism”. Continental
Philosophy Review 41(3): 367–83.
Colebrook, C. 2012a. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth”. Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41(1): 30–9.
DeLanda, Manuel. 2002. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.
Delanda. 2006. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Continuum.
Deleuze, G. & F. Guattari 1988. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press.
Collier, J. D. & C. A. Hooker 1999. “Complexly Organised Dynamical Systems”. Open Systems & Information Dynamics 6(3): 241–302.
Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Hayles, N. K. (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Holling, C.S., 1996. Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. In: Schulze, P.
(Ed.), Engineering within Ecological Constraints. National Academy,
Washington, DC, USA, pp. 31–44.
Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Stross, C. 2006. Accelerando. New York: Ace.
 The philosopher Manuel Delanda refers to ontologies that reject a hierarchy between organizing form and a passive nature or “matter” as “flat ontologies”. Whereas a hierarchical ontology has categorical entities like essences to organise it, a flat universe is “made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status” (DeLanda 2002, 58). The properties and the capacities of these entities are never imposed by transcendent entities but develop out of causal interactions between particulars at various scales. Importantly for the present discussion, a flat ontology recognizes no primacy of natural over artificial kinds (Harman 2008).
 Resilience can be contrasted with related concept: cohesion. A system is relatively cohesive if its structure causes it to exhibit unified dynamic behaviour in a wide range of contexts (Collier 1988). Systems like rocks, thunderstorms and cats are more cohesive across similar contexts than piles of sand, clouds or confraternities of cats.
Resilience entails cohesion; it is a pre-requisite of resilience that systems exhibit stable dynamic behaviour over time. But not all cohesive systems are resilient. Resilience is a value-laden or norm-laden concept because it involves function ascription. If some entity has a function – for example, detecting the presence of a prey animal – it can perform at this role more or less well or fail in some way.
A rock exhibits cohesion. But a resilient system is also vulnerable. Things can go badly or well for it. It is, in this sense, that the resilience seems to imply a kind of ethics.
As characterised, both forms of resilience exhibit varieties of cohesion, since all that has been said concerns the way stable states are distributed through the “possibility spaces” describing a system’s dynamic behaviour. However, the distinction between single and multiple equilibria are what enable resilience and adaptation; not its defining features.
 This possibility is vividly portrayed in Charles Stross’ 2006 SF novel Accelerando. Accelerando begins in a 21st century in filled with speculative technologies and utopian aspirations but is largely set in a dystopian future in which the singularity has resulted in a world dominated by self-improving artificial intelligences. Its main protaganist, futurist and social innovator, Manfred Macx, opines near the beginning:
NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!” Manfred swallows a mouthful of beer, aggressively plonks his glass on the table: “Mars is just dumb mass at the bottom of a gravity well; there isn’t even a biosphere there. They should be working on uploading and solving the nanoassembly conformational problem instead. Then we could turn all the available dumb matter into computronium and use it for processing our thoughts. Long-term, it’s the only way to go. The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie! (Stross 2006, 15)
The novel is a parable about being careful what one wishes for. The AIs which come to run its world are “wide human descendants” of human corporations and automated legal systems, which achieved both sentience and a form of legal personhood back in the twenty-first. As one character ruefully observes, in this world the phrase “smart money” has taken on an entirely new meaning!
Eventually, these “corporate carnivores” – known by the epithet “Vile Offspring” – institute a new form of capitalism (Economics 2.0) in which supply and demand relationships are computed too rapidly for those burdened by a “narrative chain” of personal consciousness to keep up.
E 2.0 is so remorselessly efficient that it comes to dominate the major part of the solar system, whole planets pulverized and diverted to fast thinking dust clouds of smart matter “blooming” around the sun (Stross 2006: 208–10).
 (Continuing the previous footnote) how could we know whether Stross’ vile offspring were really vile, or morally considerable agents in their own right?
Ballard’s novella Myths of the Near Future [formulates] a deranged ‘metametaphorics’ for which pornography and a kind of autistic bricolage function as the privileged figures of knowledge. Myths relates the epidemiology of a mysterious schizoid condition that appears to emenate from the abandoned Kennedy Space Centre in Florida. When its protaganist, the Orphic architect Roger Sheppard, constructs a notional ‘time machine’ from pornographic videos of his dead ex-wife and reproductions of Ernst and Delvaux, he cites one of the empty swimming pools of Cocoa beach as its ‘power source’: ‘It is’, he remarks to an indulgent clinical psychologist, ‘a metaphor to bring my wife back to life’ (Ballard 1985: 32). In calling this assemblage a ‘metaphor’, the metaphor ‘a machine’, illness ‘an extreme metaphor with which to construct a space vehicle’ (Ballard 1985: 14) Ballard pragmatically circumvents semantic criteria of metaphorical aptness. Sheppard’s pornography is an ‘effective’ vehicle of resurrection because, like space itself, it is ‘a model for an advanced condition of time…’ (Ballard 1985: 14). This is not because the genre’s formal qualities are (or held to be) analogous to a spatialised time, but because the text equates pornography with modern dislocations of the continuum: ‘Space exploration is a branch of applied geometry, with many affinities to pornography’ (Ballard 1985: 30). Sheppard’s time machine is a ‘good’ metaphor because it is a work of pornography, and pornography (in Myths) is a paradigm of hermetic technology by dint of its metaphoricity.
Ballard, J.G (1985), Myths of the Near Future, London: Triad/Panther.
I’ve just been reading through German Sierra‘s essay “Filth as Non-Technology” – a fascinating excursus in a “non-[dark?] -phenomenology” of excessive, dis-individuated bodies. Filth is the sticky, non-productive effluent of bodies and technology belying their clean functionality and functional cleanliness. It is the fecal trace of non-meaning fringing dreams of progressive self-mastery. It is technologogenesis contrary to finality, traumatic lava; the shameful truth without truth one keeps from others, yet cannot bear to keep as it spills out of us like hyperplasm:
Of filth, we can only say that there is a thing, and, as Daniel Rourke explains about John Carpenter’s homonymous film, The Thing performs ontogenesis (somethingcoming to be) rather than ontology (something that already is).[xiii] It belongs to the becoming realm, changing “the mind” and “the body” by transforming them into something filthy: a sort of tenacious vegetation, full of filthy parasites; this vegetation no longer has anything in common with other plants, nor is it flesh(Lautréamont, M 1772). Once flesh has been invaded by filth, it becomes filthy itself, returning to the dominion of the primordial swarm. Only a “clean” memory would be able to maintain the ideal, pristine image of “the body”: Speak then, my Beauty, to this dire putrescence / To the worm that shall kiss your proud estate / That I have kept the divine form and essence / Of my festered loves inviolate [Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine / Qui vous mangera de baisers, / Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine / De mes amours décomposés!] (Baudelaire, FE 39, 265). Baudelaire’s love might survive death if it succeeds in dissociating memories of the rotten corpse devoured by worms.
There is a turbid hiss in memory, darker than you can hear. Lights seriated in blackness, stars or habitations. Cities dissipated, reformed, as if you are passing through some lost continent; as if we all are. But you expect the commitments to be assumed. There will be something for someone. A network of proprieties to be overwritten.
A footfall, a siren, a dog. Sounds were flavours of objects, reliable intermediaries. We hear them moving, clearly; or indistinctly, as when they are masked by others. But the exigencies of art are no longer in the world. Or that was not what you took it to be. Take this bell, recorded in the lost country of J. It has a name: “Obertura”.
Deprive it of an onset or decay, we hear it like an unending knife. Now I introduce my voice into the modulation matrix. It worries the drone metal into speech. The thing that utters, now thinks.
Breath is already stolen. It is a modulus or relation without appurtenance. I would die, but I cannot. I would also like to have lived. I assume a series of masks, disappearing in perpetual creation. There is what Ligotti might describe as the churning latrine of the absolute, the gyre of some insubordinate future.
“By killing myself I felt that I would also be killing all of you, killing every bad body on this Earth”
There are two masochisms. The first is the natural correlate of a desire for recognition. I want to hurt in your eyes.
A dress undulates downstairs
An uncomfortable memory
beneath Her mask
The smile arranges knives
like ripe cherries
The second “… a primary nature that overrides all reigns and all laws, free even from the necessity to create, preserve or individuate” I associate with her transcendental sadism. However, the articulations of speech and form cannot be figured without this yellow-masked chthonic stranger lurking beyond rational form or space.
In sum, a long arc of agony begins as she licks the blood and begins to tear at it, diving into my red ocean spray.
So when we consider the strange origin of the Spike, it is too early to look outside or ahead. Things, not even acts, complying with intentions and projects. The desire is like an inside without an outside.
S, the slender son instantly became an ape in the eyes of his diplomat father. I wanted to tell him – as we stood in this urban desolation – that an aching magma courses in his most delicate parts. I wanted to remove his pressed black suit and show the marbled contusions. Yet if he is forced to conform then it is provisional, or even accidental. It is not anything to be dismayed by.
He told me of his dreams in the country of the Broken. He said they have dancer for company sometimes: skinless wet pirouettes. Is he answered or rebuffed? I still need to know that.
 My Work is Not Yet Done, (London: Virgin Books, 2009), p. 136.
 Deleuze, Gilles, Masochism, Zone Books (NewYork,1991), 27,
When James has sex with the crippled social worker Gabrielle following a visit to the Earls Court motor show, it is not the authorised conjunctions of the gendered body which determines their erotic itinerary but the abrasions and indentations of flesh and leg-brace, the coincidence of the body and an intimate design technology. The wounds incised on their bodies by their respective collisions become the ‘abstract vents’ of a new sexuality (Ballard 1995: 179).
This erotic combinatory has parallels in the structural eroticism Roland Barthes elicits in his essay on Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Barthes shows that the erotic effects of Bataille’s narrative arise from a ‘metonymic’ crossing of terms from two undelimitable metaphoric series: that of the ‘eye’ which establishes the series eggs, head, testicles, sun…; that of ‘liquid’ (blood, milk, egg yolk, sperm, urine, intestines, light…). The metonymy consists in jarring contiguities which interchange the two series. Thus the eye of the matador Granero, spurting from his head ‘with the same force as innards from a belly’ (Bataille 1987: 54), and the eye of the priest Don Aminado placed in the body of Simone interchange with the cat’s saucer of milk of the opening chapter, as with the ‘liquifying’ head of the female cyclist severed in collision with the lovers’ car (Bataille 1987: 10).
However, while the metonymy of Bataille’s text is tightly constrained by the two metaphoric ‘rows’, Baudrillard sees the juxtapositions of Ballard’s novel as devoid of metaphor: their principle of concatenation being the accident and the anagrammatic potential reposing in the micro-differences of technological systems. An apparent confirming instance would be James Ballard’s beatific recollection of a flight from London Airport to Orly while recovering in hospital from the crash which first catalyses his obsession. His reverie is mediated by ‘the languages of invisible eroticisms, of undiscovered sexual acts’ reposing in the equipment of an X-ray ward (Ballard 1995: 40-41).
A hoary simile likening aircraft to ‘silver penises’ conjoined with ‘an air hostess’s fawn gabardine skirt’ inaugurates juxtapositions which owe nothing to analogies between genital objects and technological artifacts: the ‘dulled aluminium and areas of imitation wood laminates’ of the airport buildings, the coincidence of a ‘contoured lighting system’ and the bald head of a mezzanine bartender. When confronted in hospital with Dr Helen Remington, the wife of the chemical engineer killed in the impact, Ballard is incited by ‘the conjunction of her left armpit’ and the ‘chromium stand’ of the X-ray camera (Ballard 1995: 44). For Baudrillard, the crash becomes the disruptive figure of a syntax in which ‘blood’ crossing ‘the over-white concrete of [an] evening embankment’, ruptured genitalia, luminous drifts of shattered safety glass, copulating bodies sheathed in ‘glass, metal and vinyl’, skin incised by underwear and chromium manufacturers’ medallions, prophylactic ‘dead’ machines, casual ‘leg stances’ and crushed fenders become interchangeable without remainder or significance (Baudrillard 1994: 113).
Ballard, J G. (1995) Crash, London: Vintage.
Bataille, Georges (1987), Story of the Eye, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Roden, D., 2003. ‘Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-Destruction of Metaphor’, J. Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds.), in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Intellect Books: 89-100.
‘Iconoclasm and the Rhetoric of Energy in Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet’, in: Frakcija 15: Disturbing (the) Image: 14-21, 1999. Published in Croatian as ‘Ikonoklazam i retorika energije u Hamletu Soc. Raffaeillo Sanzio’, Frakcija 12/13: 176-180.
As thus represented, minds are not merely ghosts harnessed to machines, they are themselves just spectral machines. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
The expression ‘Iconoclastic Theatre’ invites a reflex of caution. The history of the term ‘iconoclasm’ and of cognates such as ‘idea’, ‘image’, or ‘ideology’ is, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out in his book, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, one of competing conceptions of truth, adequate representation and inquiry. 1 The charge of idolatry – the worship or veneration of images – is always predicated upon a superior and less derivative form of knowledge. Thus Plato’s deprecation of opinion (doxa) presupposes the intelligibility of the Ideas or Forms which, as objects of knowledge, are supposedly ‘self-predicating’, exemplifying qualities without referral to a more fundamental reality.2 Similarly, empiricist, idealist and Marxist critiques of representation have always enjoined the rejection of one or another, idol, or idea-idea, in favor of some demystified candidate which places us in greater proximity to truth, reality, history, etc. In the work of Bacon, Lessing, Marx or Nietzsche, the rhetoric of iconoclasm is associated with an emancipatory project, yet (as the decree of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III against the worship of images in the eighth century amply demonstrates) it necessitates processes of denigration, extirpation, exclusion or control. Thus in his discussion of Loacoon Mitchell argues that Lessing’s genre distinction between painting and poetry is governed less by their appurtenance to pure a priori forms of sensibility – space and time – but by an ethnocentric valorisation of a dynamic, ‘male’ temporality which must differentiate itself from the asemic spatiality of icons:
The rhetoric of iconoclasm is thus a rhetoric of exclusion and domination, a caricature of the other as one who is involved in irrational obscene behaviour from which (fortunately) we are exempt. The images of the idolaters are typically phallic (recall Lessing’s account of the adulterous serpents on ancient statues), and thus they must be emasculated, feminized, have their tongues cut off by denying them the power of expression or eloquence. They must be declared ‘dumb’, ‘mute’, ‘empty’ or ‘illusory’. Our god, by contrast – reason, science, criticism, the Logos, the spirit of human language and civilized conversation – is invisible, dynamic, and incapable of being reified in any material, spatial image. 3
Another complication adduced by Mitchell – and one that shall concern me in this paper – is that ‘iconoclasts’ such as Marx or Freud, have invariable recourse to figures representing the process of image formation itself; that is, through icons of iconicity; or ‘hypericons’. Plato’s cave, Locke’s tabula rasa and Marx’s representation of the ideological inversion of the world in terms of a camera obscura are all hypericons.4
The use of figures to figure figuration, naturally raises questions about the epistemological and ethico-political pretensions of would-be iconoclasts. Whether we wish to expunge or merely defame images, we must deploy certain critical figures which circumscribe the field and model the behaviour of the object. This is very possibly a theoretical necessity. However, it is certainly a theatrical necessity: one instanced in the requirement that the production and derangement of images should testify to an energy which impresses, deforms or shatters a representational medium.
We can think of the medium, diagrammatically, as a receptive surface. In order that the image can be recorded, used, or altered, energy must be applied to the surface; perhaps in the form of an inscribing stylus, or light glancing from the surface onto the retina of an eye. Anything so inscribed can be broken, disassembled or reconstituted in whole or in part in variant contexts. This too, demands energy. A variant of the figure can be found in The Intepretation of Dreams, where Freud describes the dream-thoughts brought under the ‘pressure’ of the dream-work having their ‘elements..turned around, broken into fragments and jammed together – almost like pack ice’.5 A piece from Chapter’s recent series that will occupy me in much of this paper, Soceitas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, exemplifies the same iconographic principle; it too presents an energetic model of desire, language and representation, this time in the form of a theatrical hypericon.
A theatrical image can be naively distinguished from other kinds of image by its medium of inscription: the bodies of performers, their accessories, costumes, sets, music or effects. We can improve the definition of the theatrical image by making use of the classical distinction between the original, and its likeness or copy: mimesis. A theatrical image, then, would be a representation whose meaning consists in implied similarities that it shares with the experience or life-world of its audience. In Western ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ theatre this relationship is overseen by a text which situates the action in some notional time and place (‘Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away…’) and inserts the actions of the protagonists within a plot whose development is constrained, as Paul Riceour argues, by a logic of action, temporality and symbol congruent with the ‘world’ of the audience (even where the fictive setting is fabulous or alien).6 The theatrical image might, as a consequence, appear to have a temporal, narrative form and thus fail to conform to the preconditions of inconography or iconaclasm, which both imply a spatial existence. However, the implications of Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s auto-critique, as I hope to show, concern the very theatrical registration of these two Kantian forms of intuition.
Soc. Raffaaelo Sanzio’s Hamlet preserves an obvious relationship to the Shakespearean text in its play of titles, citations and narrative allusions. But the text no longer prescribes the development of the performance, or a logic of action, in time and space. The performance as such consists in considerable part of repetitive gestures involving a) the whole surface of the performer’s body b) the physical, technological space of the set. The technological space includes a metal bedframe, stuffed children’s toys, plastic sheeting, writing materials and a large number of electrical devices (of which more later). The accompanying program notes suggest tentative equivalences between some of the toys and characters in Shakespeare’s text: thus Ophelia is associated with a talking doll, Hamlet’s father is, perhaps, represented by the teddy bear.
The repetitive procedures which emerge from the permutation of these two spaces resist thematic interpretation: for example, in terms of the ‘family scene’ of Hamlet. Thus a sequence in which the performer ‘fucks’ the Ophelia doll, implies a masturbatory violence which is simultaneously (and neither) sadistic and masochistic. Like many other repetitive sequences in the performance, it recalls the description in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of the game with the spindle played by Freud’s grandson Ernst. According to the text the sounds which the child utters during the game are ‘a long drawn out “o-o-o-o” followed ‘with a joyful “Da”’ upon retrieving the spindle from behind the bed.7 On Freud’s first interpretation, Ernst’s game mimes the departure (fort) and return (da) of the mother. However, since the mother is also the desired object, the game must gratify an impulse for revenge which can only be realized if the child mimes his deprivation of the object of desire. As Leo Bersani argues in The Freudian Body, Freud’s attempt to interpret the fort/da game founders upon the theoretical impossibility of ascribing it a coherent object.8
In Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, repetition itself affords a principle of temporal development independent of the relationships and referents in Shakespeare’s drama, just as the fort/da ultimately cuts loose from the patriarchal scene of the Freudian text to pursue an independent career. Textual references such as the reduction of characters to child’s toys (the Ophelia doll, the Father/teddy bear), the citation of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning,9 the visual pun on ‘dead man’s fingers’ near the end are disposed paratactically; without any syntactic or semantic connection to adjoining citations, or referential and expresssive relation to the performer’s actions on the stage.
The use of parataxis invites comparison with the solecism which characterizes Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ in Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet frequently juxtaposes sentences without regard to ‘relevance, informativeness or consistency’. Thus his report to Horatio of the ‘wonderful news’ imparted by the Ghost: ‘There’s never a villain in all Denmark – but he’s an arrant knave’ is followed by:
1) acknowledgement of the near tautology,
2) an abortive dismissal,
3) a remarkable truism (‘every man hath business and desire/ Such as it is’)
4) a diversion ( ‘and for my own poor part/I will go pray’).10
As Horatio retorts, ‘These are but wild and whirling words’ – but they are symptomatic of a more generalized strain in the mimetic logic of the theatrical image. In the soliloquy of act III, scene 1 Hamlet describes death as, ‘The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns….’ while the the action which frames the soliloquy presupposes Hamlet’s accepting, at least as a strong possibility, that the Spirit he has recently encountered on the castle walls is that of his murdered father.
Soceitas Raffaaelo’s Hamlet amplifies the earlier texts’ verbal and logical derangement in a kind of a mimesis of its mimesis: language here, is characterized by extra-linguisticality. However, this formal operation is juxtaposed with what I referred to as the ‘energetics’ of the piece.
Energy – in its most literal sense – is concretized in the staging of Hamlet. Luminous arrays of positive and negative signs over the stage are powered by car batteries distributed across the floor of the proscenium. At the periphery of the stage an assortment of electrical engines and a spark generator – quaintly reminiscent of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001 – convert the electrochemical energy of the batteries into a cacophany of guns and turbines, the immolation of a stuffed toy on the electrified iron bedframe, and, via the irradiation of the audiences’ sensory surfaces, into electrochemical energy within nervous systems. The set and audience of Hamlet is an enormous transducer of energy; a function that is framed and thematized by the presence of batteries and machines.
This real energetics is iconoclastic, if only because it is not an image but a multiplicity of events overflowing the borders allotted by convention to the theatrical image. However, Hamlet’s energetics is also figural and rhetorical: a hardwired icon of psychic automatism.
The notional energetics of Hamlet prefigures the diagrammatic relation between inscribed figure, scriptural surface and violence; inviting an unavoidable comparison with the energetics of Freudian metapsychology. Far from destroying the theatrical image, it generalizes its theatricality by proposing itself as an anterior scene. It is as if both performer and set comprise a homuncular motor whose violent overcharging antecedes the linguistic and psychic pathologies of the Shakespearean text.
In so far as Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet presents a hypericon of the textual unconscious – the unseen, behind the scenes – it repeats the Freudian iconography, yet has the virtue of re-framing some of the theoretical instabilities in Freud’s account. Freud’s model of the mind as a psychic heat engine governed by a principle of constancy – the tendency for free energy in the system to seek discharge, whether in dreams, neurotic symptoms or conscious activity – is fatally compromised by its conflation of energy and information (The model of energy seeking discharge by the most conducive route is patently inadequate as an account of the minimal recognitional capacities of the mind; there is no scientific rationale for extending it to an economics of desire, or of the image).
Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet transposes the botched engineering solution of psychoanalysis into the comedic image of the Ghost in the Machine – to employ Gilbert Ryle’s celebrated phrase.11 Because the body considered in itself is only a zombie, devoid of psychological characteristics, its operational limitations must be supplemented by a spiritual homunculus. In this instance the élan vital is Hamlet-the-performer who offers us the spectacle of a pathetic body which stutters, shits, drools, scrawls and masturbates with the ejecta of its inner life; that impossible non-lieu where the real Hamlet suffers as cause and not merely as symptom.
This rhetoric of anteriority – despite being affirmed by the Society’s dramaturge Chiara Guidi during their post-performance talk – is clearly at odds with the piece’s textual materiality. By the ‘materiality’ of the text, I mean its power to circulate in the form of ambivalently repeatable inscriptions independently of any privileged or source meaning.
In Hamlet textual materiality is exhibited, as we have seen, in the paratactic deployment of freely circulating written and vocal inscriptions: such as the repetition of disjoint phrases – ‘My dream is a crime’/ ‘Love me! Love me!. Love me!’ – or in the performers’ inscription of ‘words’ on a blackboard which allude to so-called ‘natural’ languages without actually belonging to any. This potentiality is addressed at both a philosophical and performative level in the work of Jacques Derrida who argues that all signs or texts – linguistic or non-linguistic – must be repeatable: ‘a sign that could only occur once would not be a sign’.12 Since the identity of the sign is constituted by repetition there can be no signifying essence in advance of its repetitions. There can be no pure meaning or interiority that is sheltered from the chance and fatalities of repetition; that is to say, of history. Derrida uses the neologism ‘iterability’ (from the sanskrit, itara, other) in preference to ‘repeatability’ since the repeatable essence of the text is always divided by difference:
Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called “normal”.13
If, as I believe, Derrida is substantially correct in proposing iterability as a condition of possibility and impossibility of meaning, there must be a fundamental incoherence afflicting any project – whether theatrical or psychoanalytic – which purports to interpret a derivative text in terms of an experience, desire or intention that is anterior or originary. Even the ‘non-meaning’ of automatism or the play of the fort/da are textual, in so far as they are both wrought from repetitions of repetitions.
I do not intend these observation as criticisms of Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s theatrical project. They are, perhaps, worries about the applicability of the term ‘Iconoclasm’: if this is to imply a theatre of time, energy, of auratic moments, or of some other ‘ontological Eden’.14 Nothing could be more nostalgic or hopeless. However, Hamlet seems far too rhetorically vigilant to sustain such a naively expressionist reading. It is an allegory of theatre as a nineteenth century machine; a transducer of chemical energy into mechanical or radiant forms. Such a machine, figurally, would also be a transducer of desires and passions; an expressive instrument.
‘Late twentieth century machines’, as Donna Haraway observes, ‘have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed… Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’.15 If we were to replace Hamlet’s nineteenth century engines with, say, one of the industrial robots employed by the Australian performance artist Stelarc in his piece, ‘Third Hand’ – in which the behavior of the robot is linked by complex cues to a real-time computer model of the behaviour of the performer – the pathos of ‘Hamlet’ in his dead kingdom of machines and auto-erotic toys would be impossible to sustain. The relationship between Stelarc and the robot in ‘Third Hand’ is no longer symbolic, expressive or instrumental, but functional. It represents nothing because its motivating principle is not expressive or formal but determined by a complex feedback process which the performer can regulate but no longer predict or entirely control. Hamlet, by contrast, invokes an ideally compliant theatre of matter-energy exchange: ‘ideal’ in that it is presented only as a potential or reserve, like the energy stored in its car batteries. The absence of even the image of a functional relationship makes possible the piece’s remarkably insistent textual materiality. It is by the consequent denial of a recognizable logic of action that we recognize the character ‘Hamlet’ as an impersonal power of negation:16 a prince whose excrement is a sign and whose ‘death’ is a metynomic allusion to the death of another.
The iconoclastic energies of Hamlet are thus not directed at this or that theatrical image but at a certain hypericon of theatrical mimesis: one ironically redolent of those deployed by avant-garde critiques of theatrical representation – Artaud’s in particular. The theatre of expressive intensities advocated by Artaud is, as Derrida has argued in La parole soufflée, merely a variation upon the theatrical text and not its utopian – or oriental – other.17 Societas Raffaello Sanzio have nonetheless accomplished a critical re-framing of the theatrical image – one which exhibits its dependence upon the regulation, control or exclusion of powers extrinsic to the theatre’s ‘representational engine’. To this degree, at least, theatre in its traditional form both engenders the a priori, dead space of icons and constitutes the dynamic temporality and anterior space presupposed by contemporary iconoclasts.
1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
2) Plato, The Republic, Desmond Lee (trans.), (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974).
3) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chapter Four, p. 113.
4) Ibid., pp. 5-6, p. 158.
5) Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, James Strachey (trans.), (London: Penguin, 1991).
6) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. I, Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (trans.), (1983; London: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
7) Sigmund Freud,, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, C.J.M. Hubback (trans.), (London: International Psychoanalytic Press, 1922).
8) Bersani, Leo, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1986).
9) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, T.J.B. Spencer (ed.), (London: Penguin, 1980), act IV, scene 7.
10) Ibid., act I, scene 5.
11) Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1978). See Chapter One, ‘Descarte’s Myth’.
12) Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, David Allison (trans.), (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press: 1973). See Chapter Four.
13) Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.), in Gerald Graff (ed.), Limited Inc. (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 12.
14) This phrase is employed by J.G. Ballard in his story ‘The Terminal Beach’, in: The Terminal Beach, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).
15) Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s’, in: Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), (London: Routledge 1989), p.176
16) Gordana Vnuk makes this observation in the Chapter prospectus for the season of Iconoclastic Theatre.
17) Jacques Derrida, La parole soufflée, in: Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (trans.), (1967; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
Roden, David. 2015a. “Aliens Under the Skin: Serial Killing and the Seduction of Our Common Inhumanity”, in Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology, Edia Connole & Gary J. Shipley (eds). Schism Press.
Phenomenology is, as I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” – experiencing it only affords a partial and very fallible insight into its nature. We are not normally aware of this darkness because, as Scott Bakker writes, it “provides no information about the absence of information.” However, this opacity can be exhibited from a third-person perspective in cases of “anosognosia” – conditions where patients are unable to access the fact that they have some sensorimotor deficit, such as blindness, deafness or the inability to move a limb. Sufferers from Anton’s syndrome or “blindness denial,” for example, are blind as a result of damage to visual areas in the brain. But, when questioned they deny that they are blind and attempt to act as if they were not.  This shows not only that the people can be radically mistaken about the contents of their conscious experience but that a standard Cartesian impossibility claim – that we cannot make a perceptual judgment without having a corresponding perception – is false. Minds assumed impossible on the basis of armchair reasoning turn out to be quite possible
The blindness of the mind to its true nature is also exhibited among unimpaired agents. We regularly assume that we are authoritative about the reasons for our choices. Yet studies into the phenomenon of “choice blindness” by Petter Johansson and Lars Hall suggest that humans can be gulled into attributing reasons to themselves that they did not have. In one case, subjects in a supermarket were asked to rate jams and teas, following which they were apparently presented with samples of the tea or jam they had chosen earlier and asked to explain their choice. In manipulated trials the samples were sneakily switched with samples of different products. Remarkably, less than a half the experimental participants noticed the switch, despite striking differences between the substituted pairs of flavours. The remainder sought retrospective justifications for choices they had not made.
Lars and Hall have been able to exhibit choice blindness in moral reasoning. In another experiment, subjects were asked to rate their agreement with controversial moral claims in a survey form. Unbeknownst to the experimental subjects, the pages with the original rated statements were switched for subtly altered sentences expressing contrary moral claims. However, when asked to review and discuss their rating, a majority of experimental subjects confabulated reasons for moral positions opposing the ones that had earlier embraced.
Phenomena such as choice blindness and anosognosia suggest that our insight into subjectivity depends on a fallible process of self-interpretation that is subjectively “transparent” and immediate only because we are not aware that it is a process at all. Thomas Metzinger calls this constraint “autoepistemic closure.” By virtue of it, the vivid world “out there” and our vital, rich “inner” life appear not to be models or interpretations only because we are not aware of concocting them.
Metzinger argues that phenomenology is systematically misleading about what phenomenology really is because it needs to be. A system that modeled itself and attempted to model that modeling process in turn (and so on) would require infinite representational resources. Phenomenological darkness thus prevents the self-interpreter from becoming entangled “in endless internal loops of higher-order self-modeling.” It is thus reasonable to argue that the anti-reductionist intuition that subjective experience is inexplicable in terms of non-subjective physical or computational processes is an artifact of this phenomenological darkness.
 David Roden, “Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute Of Philosophy Supplement 72 (2013), 169-188.
 R. Scott Bakker. “Back to Square One: Towards a Post-Intentional Future”. http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/back-to-square-one-toward-a-post-intentional-future (accessed January 8, 2015).
.Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2004), 429-436.
 Lars Hall, Petter Johansson, and David de Léon. “Recomposing the will: Distributed motivation and computer-mediated Extrospection,” in Decomposing the Will, 298-324 (New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2013), 303-4.
 Metzinger, Being-No-One, 57.
 Metzinger, Being-No-One, 338.
 Metzinger, Being-No-One, 436.
I think you had always rejected life intellectually. I detected a kind of pleasure in that. Even if you denied it, I felt you shiver with inverted carnality. “This is already a kind of space travel” Anomalies were truer than skin. And you were that with an insistence that could be mistaken for depression by those who did not know you better. You became a vehicle of abstraction. But for what? When asked, you afforded me one of your distempered smiles. “There is equally no death,” you then told me, and with sadness.
When, on one occasion, I asked you to explain this speculative apoptosis, you referred me to the machine. “It is easy to invest the puppet with a kind of desire. We do it to ourselves after all.”
You had an extended community of seditious self-hackers. You exploited them and, in turn, they loved you for it. I remember your Russian, cagily defensive about the impact of local agonists and transcranial implants. He came through with the sub-dermals though. I think of the tele-presences enfilading your skin and those others ventriloquizing in your larynx and trachea. You hoped to become something you could not yet see and mined the future for the not-you’s.
She felt an indigence in the air. The procession of victims followed. The wind animates dust. My needs prove elusive as any notion. The sun beats down the eastern wall. A fetid rubbery smell that reminds us of some crime. You are uncertain as a prince among the machines. This effort is shameful. As if our words should be prophylactics against whatever beats wet in the hollow ground. The gods are arranged in unlikely tiers. They could not bear our desuetude. The morass calls for chance operations. They made decisions for us, the dead. You liked it on the hill, but then your eyes fell out, returning to dirt.
I want us to be deadlocked as continents. The skin quietly repeated, a motif. It abstracts. They employ a revisionary concept unlike memory. Still there is a furtive line trailing into distance, history. That is their loss. She thought fondly of the physical demands imposed by the gallery. It lies off the square, where the difficult monuments are.
The city is built upon a peninsula, at the Western tip. It will be an insurgent base during the withdrawal. The facts persist as problems. Navigating between obelisks, I kept thinking “This sky or that flying thing is impossible”.
She said that it was a state of things we have assembled. In the end we can accommodate but only by pre-empting our fate. The theocrats were superseded but retained the incidents of proprietorship over dogs and small islands. But what’s new in that? I think of the other solar spectacles: cirrus, swan, the place where bronzes are laid.
A replica pierces this femur, a series that can have no first term. Nothing is complete or itself. This is it, again, or a soaking in fire we call by other names.
(Image from http://eden.rutgers.edu/~kmg215/425/ewp-final/ewp-background.html)
Recall Well’s time traveller on the terminal beach, billions of years in the future; his encounter with a tentacled creature on that dark shore. He learns nothing of it but only experiences an abject terror that results in his return to Edwardian Richmond. What if this entity is not only uninterpreted but, in some sense, so strange, so “other” as to be uninterpretable – a motif replicated in the later weird fiction of Lovecraft and Vandermeer. This raised the question of whether there is something deeply incoherent about the idea of the radical alien. The worry is that agenthood and uninterpretability are at odds here.
Otherwise put we have the following paradox:
Paradox of the Radical Alien (PRA)
- The behaviour of radical aliens is not interpretable as actions.
- Radical aliens are agents.
- An entity whose behaviour cannot interpreted as actions is not an agent.
Each of statements is incompatible with the conjunction of the other two. Note also that the concept of interpretation here is implicitly anthropocentric. As in Weird Fiction, the alien is conceived as alien to “us”, to humans, to some appropriate “we”. Hence, the PRA assumes unique invariances on understanding and agency that humans (among others) satisfy.
Why should we expect there to be such invariances? Well, maybe there aren’t – in which case the concept of interpretation is too ambiguous to yield an interesting sense of the uninterpretable. But a central swathe of moral philosophy and epistemology post-Kant assumes there are – so the PRA is hardly out on a limb. Humans are said to occupy the space of reasons as persons, reciprocally able to evaluate others and answer to intersubjective norms. Within the analytic pragmatist tradition of Sellars, Davidson, Dennett and Brandom this relates to interpretation via a linguistic account of the place of assertions and propositional attitudes within the social game of “giving and asking for reasons”.[i]
According to Davidson, beliefs are among the basic attitudes. One cannot intend or desire that p without the capacity to form related beliefs about it:
If someone is glad that, or notices that, or remembers that, or knows that, the gun is loaded, then he must believe that the gun is loaded. Even to wonder whether the gun is loaded, or to speculate on the possibility that the gun is loaded, requires the belief, for example, that a gun is a weapon, that it is a more or less enduring physical object, and so on (Davidson 1984: 155-6)
Believing that p means holding p true and thus requires the believer to understand the concept of truth. One cannot have beliefs, then, without understanding belief and the difference between true and false beliefs.
For Davidson, this presupposes an understanding that there could believers other than oneself with their own (true/false) perspectives on the world. And this is acquired by identifying or interpreting believers on the basis of what they say, when. Intentionality and agency are thus constituted by triangulating other’s concepts by comparing the truth conditions and inferential placings of public assertions in this baseline world.[ii]
Without going into the necessary details, a similar idea is developed in Robert Brandom’s elaboration of Sellarsian inferentialism. Intentions, for him, are practical commitments to action undertaken by doing what makes it is appropriate to attribute the corresponding intention to the agent (Brandom 1994: 257).
And this yields us proposition 3 in PRA. An entity uninterpretable by discursive creatures such as us would not count as an agent because to be an agent just is to be located in the space of reasons on the strength of one’s interpretable actions. There is no place external to this in which the incidents of agency can be identified.
In “Rational Animals” Donald Davidson calls this “the observability assumption”:
“an observer can under favourable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b: 99)
So the analytic pragmatist approach offers a reasonable justification for statement 3 while allowing us to specify the invariants from which the Weird could be encountered.
Statement 3 [or the observability assumption] imply local correlationism – or local anti-realism – for agency. If A has incidents of agency such as intentions, then it is possible to know that A has them.
Quentin Meillassoux uses the term “correlationism” to describe any philosophy that holds that we can never think about something without thinking it correlated with thought. The Observability Assumption, is correlationist spawn insofar as it sets up accessibility conditions for any agent in the universe. In thinking agents, we must think their interpretability for us.
This position is, of course, contrary to the claim that there could be unboundedly weird posthumans, descendants of humans that we could not understand.
Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism (AUP) is thus committed to a “speculative” conception of agency – conceiving agents whose agency could not be understood by us under idealized conditions of radical interpretation.
AUP rejects statement 3 – untying the paradox.
However, it can be objected that this backfires on the speculative posthumanist in two ways:
- There can be no beyond the invariants, if there are no invariants. But dropping the observability assumption (or statement 3) means rejecting the pragmatist conception that supports claims for invariance. Thereby undermining the hypothesis that there could be radical aliens.
- Rejecting 3 entails the possibility of identifying agents whose motivations and beliefs were wholly beyond us. If we keep the correlationist boundary, though, it seems it makes no sense to suppose such identification is even intelligible: being an agent correlates with interpretability.
To respond to 1, we need a position contrary to agent-correlationism (S3) consistent with enough anthropological invariance to make sense of something radically recalcitrant to human interpretative understanding.
To respond to 2, we need to untether the identification of agency from hermeneutic success at reading it.
If there are no universals structuring human communication and mutual understanding, we cannot justify the anthropocentric reading of “interpretation” in the PRA. The pragmatist conception of understanding that we find in Davidson and Brandom, and possibly Sellars, supports the invariance claim in a particular way, however, by implying a priori constraints on agency. If being an agent consists in being interpretable according to discursively expressible reasons, then clearly Cthulhu, the Area X entities or other radically weird posthumans like Mieville’s Weavers will be will either be assimilable within the space of reasons – thus agents, but not Weird agents – or will not qualify as agents at all. Thus the paradox would be resolved by denying the very conceivability of radical aliens.
But it is possible to question the a priori status of Brandomson style views without denying the existence of interpretative invariants.
Here’s how . Brandom himself suggests this line of attack in his criticism of Dennett’s intentional stance views. For Dennett, an entity qualifies as an agent with reasons if predicting its behaviour requires interpreters to attribute it the beliefs and desires it ought to have given its nature and environment. A being whose behaviour is “voluminously predictable” under this “intentional stance” is called an “intentional system” (IS). In IS theory, there is no gap between predictability under the intentional stance and having real intentionality (Dennett 1987: 13-42)
Brandom agrees that that intentional concepts are fundamentally about rendering agency intelligible in the light of reasons, but claims that IS theory furnishes an incomplete account. Interpretation is, after all, an intentional act; thus interpretationists need to elucidate the relationship between attributed intentionality and attributing intentionality. If we do not understand what counts as a prospective interpreter, we cannot claim to have understood what it is to attribute intentionality in the first place (Brandom 1994: 59).
So Brandomson needs an a priori account of interpretation and interpretability if they are to support the a priori claims for agencyhood that support S3 or the observability assumption. It might seem that they give us this by describing interpreting agents embedded within a world of discursively structured reasons or interpretations.
Unfortunately, ascribing or acknowledging a place within the space reasons is an interpretative act. Neither account explains this placing other than by appealing to what an interpreting subject might do in ideal conditions (Davidson) or to implicit interpretative norms.
The pragmatist-interpretationist account depend on a supplementary subject, a phantom stranger, whose powers and dispositions account for judgements of rationality, meaning and normativity; but whose nature and possibilities are just assumed. Another way of putting this is that the phenomenology of interpretation or Brandom-style deontic assessment is “dark” (See Roden 2013; 2014 82-104; Forthcoming). The fact that we have it and have some knowledge of its instances leaves us ignorant both of its underlying nature and (by extension) of the full space of interpretative and psychological possibility.
R. Scott Bakker argues that this enveloping darkness is what we might expect given what he has christened “Blind Brain Theory”. Roughly BBT claims that the processes through which brains and bodies interpret their mental lives cannot model their own causal complexity – hence their aura of phenomenal immediacy. We seem supernatural, Bakker writes, “because we cannot cognize ourselves as natural, and so cognize ourselves otherwise” (Bakker 2014).
Thus the interpretationist position systematises human interpretative judgements while telling us nothing of the inhuman possibilities inhering in the human. They remain beholden to an idea of in-principle interpretability that they cannot cash in.
If this is right, then interpretation – far from being an anthropocentric concept – must be decoupled from the human-centred theories of meaning and subjectivity that employ it. This speculative opening is consistent with empirical invariants in human interpretation. There may be human-invariant ways of understanding others and self-understanding from which our picture the standard moral agent emerges. These need not be a priori conditions of possibility, but simply reflect the way in which mind-reading skills have evolved in these parts, so far.[iii]
I conclude that claims for anthropological invariance do not rule out speculative claims for radically nonhuman agency or thought. For all anyone knows, posthuman agency could be Cthulhu-weird or Area X weird, but no less considerable than ours.
This decoupling has problematic implications for Speculative Posthumanism itself, however, which I want to embrace not resist. The disconnection thesis is, after all, articulated in terms of agential independence from human systems. However, if this must be tied to a speculative conception of agency must it also be without determinate content? In Ch6 of Posthuman Life I circumvented this problem by specifying a minimal conception of agency derived from biological accounts self-maintaining systems which both human and non-human agents might satisfy. As with the Disconnection Thesis itself, the trick was to formalise our ignorance rather than specify what posthuman agents would be like.
However, the aesthetics of the Weird suggests a complementary philosophical strategy. Consider the Time Traveller’s encounter with the shoreline creature. He, or the reader identifies the creature as some kind of agent, just like Cthulhu and Area X . Yet, as with those entities, little is known of them beyond their horrific effects.
In the Southern Reach Trilogy we encounter an utterly alien being known as the “crawler” that produces an enigmatic text on the walls of an inverted tower, writing in a fungus or moss. This invites interpretation, but there is no guarantee that interpretation is possible. In fact (Spoiler Warning) we never discover the meaning of the portentous mycological script.
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dimlit halls of other places forms that never were and never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who never saw what could have been. In the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth. The shadows of the abyss are like the petals of a monstrous flower that shall blossom within the skull and expand the mind beyond what any man can bear, but whether it decays under the earth or above on green fields, or out to sea or in the very air, all shall come to revelation, and to revel, in the knowledge of the strangling fruit—and the hand of the sinner shall rejoice, for there is no sin in shadow or in light that the seeds of the dead cannot forgive. And there shall be in the planting in the shadows a grace and a mercy from which shall blossom dark flowers, and their teeth shall devour and sustain and herald the passing of an age. That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated it shall walk the world in the bliss of not-knowing. And then there shall be a fire that knows the naming of you, and in the presence of the strangling fruit, its dark flame shall acquire every part of you that remains (Vandermeer 2014a)
We learn more of the Crawler’s origins in the final book, Acceptance, but this provides no key to understanding its “purposes” or projects – let alone what the question regarding strangling fruit means. If anything, the more we learn, the more enigmatic the Crawler and its script becomes. There is a gap, then, between eliciting of a reading and the reading – the reading or the reader may never arrive. Likewise, there can be a gap between experiencing another as agent and
. . .
(I’m grateful to Mike Wheeler for helping me to clarify the last distinction)
Bakker____2014, “Zahavi, Dennett, and the End of Being” https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/zahavi-dennett-and-the-end-of-being/, Accessed 22 June 2016.
Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.
Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford 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. 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: Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn
VanderMeer, J., 2014a. Annihilation: A Novel. Macmillan.
VanderMeer, J., 2014b. Authority: A Novel. Macmillan
VanderMeer, J., 2014c. Acceptance: A Novel. Macmillan.
[i] In its purest form, this position implies discursive agency thesis (DAT). DAT says that agents must have the capacity for public language because agency requires contentful intentional states, like beliefs; only available to creatures equipped to fulfil the functions of discourse. So a being that cannot interpret others in sentential form (by ascribing proposition attitudes like beliefs, desires, intentions) is not really an agent or is only derivatively so Given the DAT, maze-running robots or crafty raccoons might be predictable from the intentional stance; but their intentionality remains observer-relative; a projection from the attitudes of interpreting subjects.
[ii] Conversely, a creature who we could not interpret as acting for reasons could not be interpreted as believing anything either. It could not occupy the semantic crucible formed by the baseline world.
[iii] According to Peter Carruthers our working memory accesses propositional attitudes indirectly, by co-opting a social mind-reading faculty evolved to understand the intentions of others for the purposes of introspection. If true, this seems like an entirely contingent limitation. Not conditions of possibility for agency – only possibility relative to contingent biological constraints deriving from human evolutionary history.