The call of the weird

On July 12, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

There’s an interesting essay about the allure of the weird and abominable in the fiction of Lovecraft by Ann M. Pillsworth here at the Tor website. Since my partner’s preparing a Greek squid and potato dish, I’m currently well in the grip of tenticular ravishment.

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donovans_brain_PDVD_007001

In a 1993 article “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to survive in the posthuman era”  Vernor Vinge argued that the invention of a technology for creating entities with superhuman intelligence could lead to the end of human dominion over the planet and the beginning of a “post-human” era dominated by intelligences vastly greater than ours. According to Vinge, this point could be reached via recursive improvements in the technology. If humans or  human-equivalent intelligences could use the technology to create superhuman intelligences the resultant entities could make even more intelligent entities, and so on. . . . A technology for intelligence creation or intelligence amplification would thus constitute a singular point or “singularity” beyond which the level of mentation on this planet might accelerate beyond the cognitive horizons of flat-brained humanz.

The “posthuman” minds that would result from this “intelligence explosion” could be so vast, according to Vinge, that our predictive models could have no application to a post-singularity world. Yet some film and television makers have dared look beyond the singularity to imagine the consequences of radical cognitive enhancement. But which ones? The aim of this post is to establish a definitive list of post-singularity TV and Film and I need you to help me complete it. Are there tramp episodes of your favourite SF serial or anthology series, or some visionary movie that I’ve missed? Do tell.

You can see from the list that I’m construing “post-singularity entity” pretty liberally: brains in vats, cyborgs, rogue computers – any speculative technology which produces a synthetic minded being qualifies.

This is pursuant to my article on this topic for the forthcoming  Palgrave Macmillan, Handbook Posthumanism in Film and Television (Eds. Michael Hauskeller, Thomas D. Philbeck, Curtis Carbonell). Usable additions will receive uploaded immortality on my Acer drive and a nod in Acknowledgements!

Films

Metropolis (1927, Dir. Fritz Lang)

Donovan’s Brain (1953, Dir Felix E. Feist)

La Jetée (1962, Dir. Chris Marker)

The Forbin Project (1970, Dir Joseph Sargent)

Alphaville: une étrange aventure de Lemmy Caution (1965, Dir Jean-Luc Godard)

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Dir Stanely Kubick)

Demon Seed (1977, Dir Donald Cammel)

Blade Runner (1982, Dir Ridely Scott)

Alien (1979, Dir Ridely Scott)

The Terminator, (1984, Dir James Cameron)

Robocop, (1987, Paul Verhoeven)

Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991, James Cameron)

The Matrix (1999, Andy and Lana Wachowski)

 

Television

Dr Who, “Tenth Planet” (1966, Kit Pedler, Gerry Davis)

Doomwatch, “In the Dark” (1971, Gerry Davies, John Gould)

Dr Who, “Genesis of the Daleks” (1975, “Terry Nation”)

World on a Wire [Welt am Draht] (1973, Rainer Werner Fassbinder)

Twilight Zone?

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Q Who?” (1989 Maurice Hurley); 1, “The Best of Both Worlds parts I and II”,  (1990, Michael Piller)

Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Elementary, Dear Data” (1993, Brian Allan Lane)

Battlestar Galactica (2004, Ronald D. MooreDavid Eick)

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008, Josh Friedman)

Caprica (2010,  Remi AubuchonDavid EickRonald D. Moore)

 

 

 

 

 

Suckers

On June 25, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

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Conferences in September

On June 21, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

I’ll be attending conferences at either end of our continent in September:

Philosophy After Nature, University of Utrecht, 3-5 September

Posthuman Politics, 25th until the 28th of September 2014, University of the Aegean, Department of Cultural Technology and Communication, Geography Building – University Campus.

I’m presenting the same paper at both. Here’s the abstract, though the details of the argument remain to be filled in!

On Reason and Spectral Machines: an anti-normativist response to Bounded Posthumanism

David Roden, The Open University UK

In Posthuman Life I distinguish two speculative claims regarding technological successors to current humans: an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP) and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism. ABP holds:

1) There are transcendental constrains on cognition and agency that any entity qualifying as a posthuman successor under the Disconnection Thesis (Roden 2012, 2014) would have to obey.

2) These constraints are realized in the structure of human subjectivity and rationality.

One version of ABP is implied by normativist theories of intentionality for which original or “first class” intentionality is only possible for beings that can hold one another publicly to account by ascribing and adopting normative statuses (Brandom 1994). If Normativist ABP is correct, then posthumans – were they to exist – would not be so different from us for they would have to belong to discursive communities and subscribe to inter-subjective norms (See Wennemann 2013).

Normativist ABP thus imposes severe constraints on posthuman “weirdness” and limits the political implications of speculative claims about posthuman possibility such as those in my book. In this paper, I will argue that we should reject Normativist ABP because we should reject normativist theories of intentionality. For normativism to work, it must be shown that the objectivity and “bindingness” of social norms is independent of individual beliefs or endorsements. I will argue that the only way in which this can be achieved is by denying the dependence of normative statuses upon the particular dispositions, states and attitudes of individuals; thus violating plausible naturalistic constraints on normativism.

In response, I will argue for an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism for which all constraints on posthuman possibility must be discovered empirically by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. This implies a similarly unbounded posthuman politics for which there is no universal reason or transhistorical subjectivity.

Bibliography

Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-blind-mechanic-ii-reza-negarestani-and-the-labour-of-ghosts/

Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.

Brandom, R.  2001. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Brandom, R. 2002. Tales of the Mighty Dead: Historical Essays in the Metaphysics of Intentionality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brandom, R. 2006. “Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality.” Southern Journal of Philosophy 44: 49–71.

Brandom, R. 2007. “Inferentialism and Some of Its Challenges.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 74 (3): 651–676.

Brassier, R. 2011. “The View from Nowhere.” Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture (17): 7–23.

Davidson, D.  1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs.” In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed), 433-46. Oxford: Blackwell.

Negarestani, Reza. 2014. The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-labor-of-the-inhuman-part-i-human/

Negarestani, Reza. 2014. ‘The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman’ | e-flux. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from http://www.e-flux.com/journal/the-labor-of-the-inhuman-part-ii-the-inhuman/

Roden, D. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281-298. London: Springer.

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

Turner, S. P. 2010. Explaining the normative. Polity.

Wennemann, D. J. 2013. Posthuman Personhood. New York: University Press of America.

 

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Epistemic indeterminacy concerns our representations of things rather than things. Thus the location of a mobile phone with a nokia ring tone may be represented as indeterminate between your pocket and your neighbor’s handbag. This epistemic indeterminacy is resolvable through the acquisition of new information: here, by examining the two containers. By contrast metaphysical indeterminacy – if such there be – is brute. It cannot be cleared up by further investigations.

We can thus distinguish between being indeterminately represented and being indeterminately ?  in situations where it is possible to progressively reduce and eliminate the former indeterminacy (Roden 2010: 153).

Facts are metaphysically indeterminate if they involve indeterminate natures. The nature of a thing is indeterminate if it is impossible to determine it via some truth-generating procedure that will eliminate competing descriptions of it. Clearly, some will cavil with my use of “fact” and “nature” either because they see “facts” as ineluctably propositional or because they have nominalist quibbles about attributing any kind of nature or facticity to the non-conceptual sphere. However, like Marcus Arvan, I don’t see any conceptual affiliation as ineluctable. If the world is structured in ways that cannot be captured without remainder in propositions, it is not inappropriate to use the term “fact” to describe these structures – or so I will proceed to do here.

My favorite case of putative metaphysical indeterminacy are the two versions of the Located Events Theory of sound. LET1 (Bullot et al 2004; Casati and Dokic 2005) states that sounds are resonance events in objects; LET2 says that sounds are disturbances in a medium caused by vibrating objects (O’Callaghan 2009). According to LET1 there are sounds in vacuums so long as there are objects located in them. According to LET2 there are not. So the theories have different implications. There is also nothing to obviously favour the one over the other in the light of ordinary observations and inferences regarding sound.

As I put in in “Sonic Events” most people would probably judge that there is no sound produced when a turning fork resonates in an evacuated jar – “Yet were the air in a jar containing a vibrating tuning fork to be regularly evacuated and replenished we might perceive this as an alteration in the conditions of audition of a continuous sound, rather than the alternating presence and absence of successive sounds” ( Roden 2010: 156). You pays yer money, but it’s hard to believe that the world cares how we describe this state of affairs, or that persuasive grounds will settle the matter one bright day.

Anti-realists might say that this indeterminacy is practical rather than factive. It reflects discrepant uses of the same lexical item (“sound”) only. So (as in the case of metaphysical indeterminacy) there is no information gathering procedure that would settle the issue. But that is not because the nature of sound is indeterminate in this respect. Rather, there is no deeper (determinate or indeterminate) fact here at all.

However, this ignores the fact that LET1 and LET2 are responsive to an auditory reality that they both describe, albeit in incompatible ways. Sounds existed before there were ontologies of sound and thus have an independent reality to which LET1 and LET2 attest. If so there must be a deeper fact which accounts for the indeterminacy.

Now, either this fact is indeterminate or it is not.

If it is not, then there is some uniquely ideal account of sound: ITS. The ideal theory cannot be improved via the acquisition of further information because it already contains all the relevant information there is to be had and has no empirically equivalent competitors (there is no ITS2, etc.). ITS might or might not be an event theory – e.g. it could be a “medial theory” which represents sounds as the transmission of acoustic energy (Bullot et al. 2004). So ITS ought to replace both LET1 and LET2. We may not be aware of it, but we know that it exists somewhere in Philosophers Heaven (or the Space of Reasons).

If the fact in question is indeterminate, there is no ideal account which captures the nature of sound. Or rather, the best way to capture it is in the alternation between different accounts.

Given indeterminacy, then, there is an auditory reality which permits of description, but which cannot be completely described.

There is an interesting comparison to be made here between the indeterminacy of auditory metaphysics and the claims regarding the indeterminacy of semantic interpretation described in Davidson and others. Again, one can take indeterminacy in a deflationary anti-realist spirit – there are no semantic facts, just competing interpretations and explications recursively subject to competing interpretations ad infinitum (One popular way of glossing Derridean différance!).

Or there are semantic facts. In which case, these may be determinate or indeterminate. If there are determinate semantic facts, then the indeterminacy of radical interpretation is an artefact of our ignorance regarding semantic facts. If semantic facts are indeterminate, however, there is – again – a reality that is partially captured in competing interpretations that is never fully mirrored or reflected in them.

At this point it is interesting to consider why we might opt for factive or metaphysical indeterminacy rather than anti-realist indeterminacy. If we have reasons for believing in indeterminate facts – the ones for which there are irreducibly discrepant descriptions – this is presumably because we think there is some mind-independent reality outside our descriptions whose nature is indeterminate in some respects. If this thought is justified it is presumably not justified by any single description of the relevant domain. Nor by the underdetermination of descriptions (since this is equally consistent with anti-realism). So if we are justified in believing that there are indeterminate metaphysical facts, we must be justified by sources of non-propositional knowledge. For example, perhaps our perceptual experience of sound supports the claim that sounds occur in ways that can be captured by LET1 or LET2 without providing decisive grounds for one or the other.

This train of thought might suggest that some metaphysics bottoms out in “phenomenology” – which seems to commit the metaphysical indeterminist to the “mental eye” theory of pre-discursive concepts disparaged by Sellars and others. However, what is at issue, here, is non-propositional access to the world. One way of saying this is that such access “non-conceptual” – though this seems to presuppose that concepts (whatever they are) are components of or parasitic on propositions, and this may not be the case.

However, there is a further problem. If Scott Bakker and I are right, our grip on phenomenology is extremely tenuous (Roden 2013). So if metaphysical indeterminism is warranted, there are non-discursive reasons for believing there are metaphysically indeterminate facts. But the nature of these facts is obscure so long as our phenomenology is occluded. Now, there is no reason in principle why a subject can believe p on the basis of some evidence without being in a position to explain how the evidence supports p. This weakens their public warrant but does not vitiate it. So we may have weak grounds for metaphysical indeterminism but these are better than no grounds at all.

References

Bullot, Nicolas, Roberto Casati, Jérôme Dokic, and Maurizio Giri. 2004. Sounding objects. In Proceedings of Les journées du design sonore, p. 4. Paris. October 13–15.

Casati, Robert, and Dokic, Jérôme. 2005. la philosophie du son, http://jeannicod.ccsd.cnrs.fr. Accessed 3 June 2005, Chapter 3, p. 41.

O’Callaghan, Casey. 2009. Sounds and events. In Matthew Nudds & Casey O’Callaghan (eds.), Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press. 26–49.

Roden, David. 2010. ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, Objects and Sound Perception, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1): 141-156.

Roden, David. 2013, ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 72 (1): 169-88

 

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Computer Music and Posthumanism

On June 9, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

A possibly ill-advised idea for a presentation on computer music and posthumanism entitled “Computer Music and Posthumanism”.

I will introduce two flavors of posthumanism: critical posthumanism (CP) and speculative posthumanism (SP) and provide an overview of some of the ways in which they might be explored by thinking through philosophical issues raised by computer music practice.
CP questions the dualist modes of thinking that have traditionally assigned human subjects a privileged place within philosophical thought: for example, the distinction between the formative power of minds and subjects and the inertia of matter.
The use of computers to supplement human performance raises questions about where agency is ascribed. Is it always on the side of the human musician or can it also be ascribed also to the devices or software used to generate sound events? If so, what kind of status can be granted to such artificial agents? Does their agency locally supervene on human agency, for example? I will also argue that the intractability and complexity of some computer generated sound confronts us with the nonhuman, mind-independent reality of sonic events. It thus provides an aesthetic grounding for a posthumanist realism.
SP (by contrast) is a metaphysical possibility claim about technological successors to humans. It can be summed up in the SP Schema: “Descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration” CP and SP are conceptually distinct but, I argue, the most radical form of SP converges with the anti-anthropocentrism of CP (Roden 2014). In particular, non-anthropologically bounded SP implies that the only way in which we can acquire substantive knowledge of posthumans is through making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I will argue that computer music development may have a role in this project of engineering a posthuman succession.

Roden, D. 2010b. “Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events.” Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1 (1): 141–156.
Roden, D. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281-298. London: Springer.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. Routledge.

 

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Conference site here

13 May 2014
AAF 2015: Call for Papers and Works

This conference and exhibition address the problem of a non-, post-, trans- or inhuman aesthetics: an ‘aesthetics after finitude’ that is capable of investigating the cultural, technological and ecological demands of a rapidly dehumanising present. As well as being formulated in response to the urgency of the human situation at the beginning of the twenty-first century, this call to develop new trajectories for artistic, poetic, and sonic practice arises alongside the recent and profound shift in contemporary philosophy attributed to thinkers such as Quentin Meillassoux, Ray Brassier, and Reza Negarestani, whose work seeks to divest philosophical writing of its critical and subject-bound dimensions, while giving full weight to a politicised aesthetic, a rigorous, speculative modality of thought.

While the notion of ‘speculation’ might seem native to creative practice, the category of aesthetics as it is traditionally deployed – with its valorisation of the interpretive singularity of the human subject – is largely ill-equipped to reckon with the experimental demands of a creative force that does not ground itself in any fundamental distinction between subject and object. If the question of a speculative aesthetics has largely ben neglected by philosophy, it is because art has not yet posed it with a sufficiently difficult problem.Aesthetics After Finitude takes up this task.

We encourage proposals that consider the possibility of aesthetic experience and practices (artistic, literary, sonic, etc.) that traverse—or operate in excess, defiance or via the augmentation of—traditional human subjectivities. Disruptive and inventive engagements with technology, perception, mathematics, neuroscience, fiction, theory, sound, and other ecologies will all be welcomed.

Abstracts for academic papers or proposals for inclusion in the exhibition from scholars/writers/artists/scientists and other relevant fields are invited. Please send your 300-word abstract or exhibition proposal, along with a short bio to aesthetics.after.finitude@gmail.com by August 15th, 2014

Key words:
Non-philosophy
Speculative Realism
Literature and Mathematics
Digital Media
Rationalism
New Materialism
Robotics, Computation and AI
Accelerationism
Geotrauma
Theory Fiction/Science Fiction
Hyperstition
Ecological Crisis
Neuroaesthetics
Post-phenomenological Experience
Contingency/Affordancn
Cybernetics
Speculation’s Mathematical and Aesthetic Axes
Geophilosophy
++

Aesthetics After Finitude conference team: Professor Stephen Muecke // Amy Ireland // Baylee Brits //Prue Gibson
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Anita Mason’s Confusion of Genre

On April 24, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Anita Mason has a contribution to the long running genre debate here at the Guardian entitled “Genre fiction radiates from a literary centre”. I think her attempt to constitute this supposed center self-deconstructs spectacularly, but in a manner that is instructive and worth teasing apart.

This metaphorical representation of the literary as the universal and indeterminate hub from which determinate “rule-governed” genres “radiate” does not cohere with her criteria of demarcation between the literary and the non-literary. On the one hand, the literary can be anything; is governed by no determinate rules. On the other, dense psychological characterization is necessary for the literary since, she argues, Brave New World, and Consider Phlebas fail the test of literariness due to their lack of this attribute.

Well, you can’t have it both ways. Despite Mason’s peremptory reading of The Drowned World, Ballard’s oeuvre is famously unconcerned with character and “plot”, such as it is, incidental to one of the most profoundly literary treatments of the condition of modernity in prose. Few modern novels present a more literary and unitary treatment of their subject than Crash, for example, where a brilliantly intricate chain of metaphors and symbols explore the contingency of desire in the face of technical change.

On these grounds we would also have to exclude postmodern fabulists and experimental writers such as Pynchon, Barthelme, Robb-Grillet and Christine Brooke-Rose. So Mason’s Ptolemaic rhetoric of centrality is just a blind for her anthropocentrism. The universe of literature, I hope, is post-Copernican and limitless.

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There is no world

On February 26, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Let this be mistaken as some kind of solipsistic meltdown, I’m not suggesting that we that we’re all living in the Matrix or that there is nothing outside my mind. By “world” I just mean a unique “intersubjective” world in which we encounter fellow subjects and speakers, understand their mental states, interpret or keep score of the grounds and consequences of their statements. Intersubjectivity is a feature of the way we think or experience things. Things are thought or experienced intersubjectively when we understand that they are also there for others or experience them as being there for others. Much of the fun of re-watching the first season of The Wire with my partner, has been our shared appreciation of its grandiloquent dialogue and richly drawn characters. The Wire is not just there for me or her, but for us.

For transcendental philosophers, roughly speaking, intersubjectivity is the sine qua non of objectivity. An object is just something that can exhibit an open-ended set of aspects or properties in a common space and time. A very similar presupposition is at work in the pragmatist idea that rationality is a social trait mediated by norm-governed linguistic behaviour. As Davidson saw particularly clearly, you cannot situate another’s utterance within the “space of reasons” unless there is common topic of conversation:

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

But if this sharing is a mode of thought or experience then it would be an error to identify it with a mind-independent reality since thoughts and experiences are paradigmatically mind-dependent entities.

It follows that intersubjectivity would have to be a property of a certain kind of phenomenology, not of anything that would exist even if the universe was a lifeless place without phenomenology.

But who shares this intersubjective phenomenological world? Could there be creatures – like Scott Bakker’s anemone-like Walleyes – so alien that their phenomenological worlds are utterly disjoint from ours?

If there are disjoint phenomenological worlds, however, there are some topics that we can never share in common with their occupants because we cannot adopt the idiomatic perspectives they afford (unless some radical transcendental re-engineering could insert us their orbit). Thus the space of reasons may be kinked or non-unitary.

I’m not in a position to determine whether this is so. But I think it is arguable that nobody is in a position to exclude this possibility. The only way to exclude it a priori is to show that there are certain structural features of human phenomenology that would have to be shared by any significantly intelligent creature – for example, embodiment, temporality, etc. However, I’ve argued elsewhere (Roden 2013) that there are good reasons to think that much of our phenomenology is “dark” – we gain no insight into its nature from experiencing it. Since this extends to the putative structures of experience, like temporality, pure philosophical reflection gives us no fundamental insight into the nature of our experience of worldhood. Phenomenology cannot tell us what phenomenology is. To be sure, there are other avenues of inquiry that might help us grasp its nature – e.g. devising computer models of neural networks – but these provide no a priori understanding of the structure of phenomenology or the “world”.

Since the shared world is a phenomenological datum and we have no future proof knowledge of our phenomenology, then we have no a priori guarantee that this world is a common, unique intersubjective world. It follows that the “world” as experienced is not  intersubjective in this sense. Thus understood, there is no world.

Davidson, D. 2001. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective. Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

 

 

 

No Future? Catherine Malabou on the Humanities

On February 19, 2014, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Catherine Malabou has an intriguing piece on the vexed question of the relationship between the “humanities” and science in the journal Transeuropeennes here.

It is dominated by a clear and subtle reading of Kant, Foucault and Derrida’s discussion of the meaning of Enlightenment and modernity. Malabou argues that the latter thinkers attempt to escape Kantian assumptions about human invariance by identifying the humanities with “plasticity itself”. The Humanities need not style themselves in terms of some invariant essence of humanity. They can be understood as a site of transformation and “deconstruction” as such.  Thus for Derrida in “University Without Condition”, the task of the humanities is:

the deconstruction of « what is proper to man » or to humanism. The transgression of the transcendental implies that the very notion of limit or frontier will proceed from a contingent, that is, historical, mutable, and changing deconstruction of the frontier of the « proper ».

Where, as for Foucault, the deconstruction of the human involves exhibiting its historical conditions of possibility and experimenting with these by, for example, thinking about “our ways of being, thinking, the relation to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness “.

This analysis might suggest that the Humanities have little to fear from technological and scientific transformations of humans bodies or minds; they are just the setting in which the implications of these alterations are hammered out.

This line of thought reminds me of a revealingly bad argument produced by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborgs:

The promise, or perhaps threatened, transition to a world of wired humans and semi-intelligent gadgets is just one more move in an ancient game . . . We are already masters at incorporating nonbiological stuff and structure deep into our physical and cognitive routines. To appreciate this is to cease to believe in any post-human future and to resist the temptation to define ourselves in brutal opposition to the very worlds in which so many of us now live, love and work (Clark 2003, 142).

This is obviously broken-backed: that earlier bootstrapping didn’t produce posthumans doesn’t entail  that future ones won’t. Even if humans are essentially self-modifying it doesn’t follow that any prospective self-modifying entity is human.

The same problem afflicts Foucault and Derrida’s attempts to hollow out a reservation for humanities scholars by identifying them with the promulgation of transgression or deconstruction. Identifying the humanities with plasticity as such throws the portals of possibility so wide that it can only refer to an abstract possibility space whose contents and topology remains closed to us. If, with Malabou, we allow that some of these transgressions will operate on the material substrate of life, then we cannot assume that its future configurations will resemble human communities or human thinkers – thinkers concerned with topics like sex, work and death for example.

Malabou concludes with the suggestion that Foucault and Derrida fail to confront a quite different problem. They do not provide a historical explanation of the possibility of transformations of life and mind to which they refer:

They both speak of historical transformations of criticism without specifying them. I think that the event that made the plastic change of plasticity possible was for a major part the discovery of a still unheard of plasticity in the middle of the XXth century, and that has become visible and obvious only recently, i.e. the plasticity of the brain that worked in a way behind continental philosophy’s back. The transformation of the transcendental into a plastic material did not come from within the Humanities. It came precisely from the outside of the Humanities, with again, the notion of neural plasticity. I am not saying that the plasticity of the human as to be reduced to a series of neural patterns, nor that the future of the humanities consists in their becoming scientific, even if neuroscience tends to overpower the fields of human sciences (let’s think of neurolinguistics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuroaesthetics, or of neurophilosophy), I only say that the Humanities had not for the moment taken into account the fact that the brain is the only organ that grows, develops and maintains itself in changing itself, in transforming constantly its own structure and shape. We may evoke on that point a book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that changes itself. Doidge shows that this changing, self-fashioning organ is compelling us to elaborate new paradigms of transformation.

I’m happy to concede that the brain is a special case of biological plasticity, but, as Eileen Joy notes elsewhere, the suggestion that the humanities have been out of touch with scientific work on the brain is unmotivated. The engagement between the humanities (or philosophy, at least) and neuroscience already includes work as diverse as Paul and Patricia Churchland’s work on neurophilosophy and Derrida’s early writings on Freud’s Scientific Project.

I’m also puzzled by the suggestion that we need to preserve a place for transcendental thinking at all here. Our posthuman predicament consists in the realization that we are alterable configurations of matter and that our powers of self-alteration are changing in ways that put the future of human thought and communal life in doubt. This is not a transcendental claim. It’s a truistic generalisation which tells us little about the cosmic fate of an ill-assorted grab bag of  academic disciplines.

References

Clark, A. 2003. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.