‘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).
Justa fictional sketch on the topic of posthuman environments/body variants. Those who know his work might spot the influence of Hannu Rajaniemi.
Might do some more with it subsequently.
The glass desert was filled with the hulks or dead or dormant machines – coiled like burnt snakes against white glare. The air pixelated with things that hummed and chattered on the wind. It held a faint tang of ammonia, burning eyes and throat.
Kame watched the collapsed bodies of the dead machines, alert for signs of raptors – shimmering like a school of fish under metal skin. Raptors hunted for incarnate data, for memories. She sometimes wondered if the chattering things were psychotic remnants of raptor feasts: soul shit.
The implants they had fitted after she had renounced her humanity back at the Reservation didn’t prickle under her air-sealed skin. She was safe, just for now.
She looked across a gap between two elephantine structures, still twitching in what passed for death among the sentient machines of the Abolition. Here was a smooth bowl in the desert, like a giant’s thumbprint. Its rim striated with something like writing that shimmered in the phosphorescent light.
As Kame bounded to the gap, helped by the cultured tendons in her new legs, she could see the writing resolve into thousands of worm-like cilia. The depression was like the mouth of a sea creature, a starfish crater: in fact, a temporary association of atom-scale assemblers known to the human cartographers of this place as “eaters”.
She knew that she did not have much time. The formation was not stable and might dissociate unpredictably. She would not survive here in her current form, however augmented. Either a raptor or incremental fluid loss would take her. Kame approached the eater-colony, stripping first her clothes, then her hard desert-fashion skin.
Underneath, she was just pink, soft meal. The air was corroding her, stripping away sheets of raw meat. The last few meters to the colony was a fog of pain and hemorrhaging lungs.
She almost didn’t make it. Finally, a raw, bleeding approximation flopped into the starfish mouth. Here the eaters could do their work. Gently taking her apart to reformat Kame in ways that would allow her to slip through the air like a manta ray and listen to the keening, inhuman voices beyond the sky.
Live improvisation by clarinettist Pete Furniss using C-C-Combine – a concatenative synthesis patch built by Rodrigo Constanzo in Max MSP. On his website, Rodrigo explains that concatenative synthesis is a form of granular synthesis employing modulation via sound sources rather than prescribed parameters (grain density, jitter, wave form, etc.) to determine how the sound grains (short samples) are played back.
Pete will be a keynote performer at the Philosophy of human+computer music 2 Workshop at Sheffield University on May 27th (Where I will also be chairing a discussion session). In last year’s workshop, some extremely stimulating discussions of computer music aesthetics were informed by input from performers and experts on the electroacoustic coalface. The second iteration is not to be missed!
Eric Schwitzgebel has a typically clear-eyed, challenging post on the implications of (real) artificial intelligence for our moral systems over here at the Splintered Mind. The take home idea is that our moral systems (consequentialist, deontologistical, virtue-ethical, whatever) are adapted for creatures like us. The weird artificial agents that might result from future iterations of AI technology might be so strange that human moral systems would simply not apply to them.
Scott Bakker follows this argument through in his excellent Artificial Intelligence as Socio-Cognitive Pollution , arguing that blowback from such posthuman encounters might literally vitiate those moral systems, rendering them inapplicable even to us. As he puts it:
The question of assimulating AI to human moral cognition is misplaced. We want to think the development of artificial intelligence is a development thatraises machines to the penultimate (and perennially controversial) level of the human, when it could just as easily lower humans to the ubiquitous (and factual) level of machines.
As any reader of Posthuman Life, might expect, I think Erich and Scott are asking all the right questions here.
Some (not me) might object that our conception of a rational agent is maximally substrate neutral. It’s the idea of a creature we can only understand “voluminously” by treating it as responsive to reasons. According to some (Davidson/Brandom) this requires the agent to be social and linguistic – placing such serious constraints on “posthuman possibility space” as to render his discourse moot.
Even if we demur on this, it could be argued that the idea of a rational subject as such gives us a moral handle on any agent – no matter how grotesque or squishy. This seems true of the genus “utility monster”. We can acknowledge that UM’s have goods and that consequentialism allows us to cavil about the merits of sacrificing our welfare for them. Likewise, agents with nebulous boundaries will still be agents and, so the story goes, rational subjects whose ideas of the good can be addressed by any other rational subject.
So according to this Kantian/interpretationist line, there is a universal moral framework that can grok any conceivable agent, even if we have to settle details about specific values via radical interpretation or telepathy. And this just flows from the idea of a rational being.
I think the Kantian/interpretationist response is wrong-headed. But showing why is pretty hard. A line of attack I pursue concedes to Brandom-Davidson that that we have the craft to understand the agents we know about. But we have no non-normative understanding of the conditions something must satisfy to be an interpreting intentional system or an apt subject of interpretation (beyond commonplaces like heads not being full of sawdust).
So all we are left with is a suite of interpretative tricks whose limits of applicability are unknown. Far from being a transcendental condition on agency as such, it’s just a hack that might work for posthumans or aliens, or might not.
And if this is right, then there is no a future-proof moral framework for dealing with feral Robots, Cthulhoid Monsters or the like. Following First Contact, we would be forced to revise our frameworks in ways that we cannot possible have a handle on now. Posthuman ethics must proceed by way of experiment.
Or they might eat our brainz first.
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.
Radical art defies and transforms collective modes of understanding. Wagner’s famous “Tristan chord” segues between classical harmony, late romanticism and twentieth century atonality due to its ambiguous relationship to its tonal context. The aesthetic value of Xenakis’ Concret Ph lies partly in the technological potentials realized subsequently in granular synthesis techniques which employ global statistical parameters to control flocks of auditory events. Such sensations are, in Brian Massumi words, “in excess over experience” – suspending practices and meanings in ways that catalyse deterritorializing movement towards non-actual futures (Massumi 2005: 136). The aesthetics of excess provides a limit case of the reflective creation of value that occurs when we modify existing modes of sense-making or embodiment. It also provides a window upon the posthuman as potentiality shadowing our interactions with technological environments.
This contingency is amplified in another radical art work, J G Ballard’s novel Crash. As I wrote back in 1999:
In Crash the technology of the car has become the adjunct to a violent sexuality. Its erotic focus and ideologue, Vaughan, is an ambulance chasing ex-TV presenter whose career as a glamorous ‘hoodlum scientist’ has been cut short by his disfigurement in a motorcycling accident. Marking the parameters of vehicle collisions and casual sexual encounters with Polaroid and cine camera, Vaughan is a social being of sorts, assembling around him a crew of co-experimenters whose sexuality has been activated by ‘the perverse eroticisms of the car-crash’. The novel’s narrator ‘James Ballard’ recounts his induction into the crashpack; first through a motorway accident, then via a succession of techno-erotic duels and excursions, culminating in Vaughan’s attempted ‘seduction’ of the actress Elizabeth Taylor in the environs of London Airport . .
It is only in so far as Vaughan ‘[mimes] the equations between the styling of a motor-car and the organic elements of his body’ (Ballard 1995: 170), modulating the symbolic requirements of Ballard’s narrative with his histrionic body, that he can remain its primary sexual focus. . . These impersonal ‘equations’ mediate every affective relationship between the characters and Crash’s residual city of multi-storey car parks, airport termini, hermetic suburbs and motorway slip roads. They are expressed in a language of excremental objects – ‘aluminium ribbons’, Gabrielle’s thigh wound, Vaughan’s sectioned nipples, torn fenders, scars, etc. – whose very lack of quotidian function commends them as arbitrary tokens in the symbolic algebra (Roden 2002).
Crash thus construct an internally referential system of desire around sites, surfaces and interstices of late twentieth century technological landscapes (Roden 2002). But despite its contemporary setting, the novel does not describe this world: it potentiates it. Crash exhibits the contingency of human subjectivity and social relationships given its irrevocably technological condition.
A similar claim is made about the work of the Australian performance artist Stelarc in Massumi’s “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason”. Massumi argues that the content of Stelarc’s performances – such as his series of body suspensions or his hook-ups with industrial robots, prosthetic hands and compound-eye goggles – is nothing to do with the functional utility of these systems or events. They have no use. Rather their effect is to place bodies and technologies in settings where their incorporation as use-values is interrupted. Of the compound eye goggles that Stelarc created for his work Helmet no. 3: put on and walk 1970 he writes: “They extended no-need into no-utility. And they extended no-utility into ‘art’” (Massumi 2005: 131).
Stelarc’s somewhat elliptical rationale is to “extend intelligence beyond the Earth”. His performances decouple the body from its functions and from the empathic responses of observers – even when dangling from skin hooks over a city street, Stelarc never appears as suffering or abject. They register the body’s potential for “off world” environments rather than its actual functional involvements with our technological landscape. Space colonization is not a current use value or industrial application, but a project for our planned obsolesce:
The terrestrial body will be obsolete from the moment a certain subpopulation feels compelled to launch itself into an impossible, unthinkable future of space colonization. To say that the obsolescence of the body is produced is to say that it is compelled. To say that it is compelled is to say that it is “driven by desire” rather than by need or utility (151-2).
These performances embody a potential that is “unthinkable” because aesthetically disjoined from our phenomenology and world. But, as Claire Colebrook suggests, we have been incipiently “off world” since the dawn of the industrial era:
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 2012: 38).
The counter-final nature of modern technique means that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. Posthumanity would be only the most extreme consequence of this ramifying technics. An ethics bounded by the human world thus ignores its already excessive character (32).
Ballard, J.G. 1995. Crash. London: Vintage.
Massumi, Brian. 2005. “The Evolutionary Alchemy of Reason: Stelarc.” In Stelarc: The Monograph, Marquand Smith (ed). MIT Press: 125-192.
Roden, DAvid 2003. “Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-destruction of Metaphor.” In Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Jane Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds). Intellect Books: 91–102.
Colebrook, Claire 2012. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth.” Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41 (1): 30–39.
Critical Posthumanists argue that the idea of a universal human nature has lost its capacity to support our moral and epistemological commitments. The sources of this loss of foundational status are multiple according to writers like Donna Haraway, Katherine Hayles (1999), Neil Badmington (2003), Claire Colebrook and Rosi Braidotti. They include post-Darwinian naturalizations of life and mind that theoretically level differences between living and machinic systems and the more intimate ways of enmeshing living entities in systems of control and exploitation that flow from the new life and cognitive sciences. Latterly, writers such as Braidotti and Colebrook have argued that a politics oriented purely towards the rights and welfare of humans is incapable of addressing issues such as climate change or ecological depletion in the anthropocene era in which humans “have become a geological force capable of affecting all life on this planet” (Braidotti 2013: 66).
On the surface, this seems like a hyperbolic claim. If current global problems are a consequence of human regulation or mismanagement, then their solution will surely require human political and technological agency and institutions.
But let’s just assume that there is something to the critical posthumanist’s deconstruction of the human subject and that, in consequence, we can no longer assume that the welfare and agency of human subjects should be the exclusive goal of politics. If this is right, then critical posthumanism needs to do more than pick over the vanishing traces of the human in philosophy, literature and art. It requires an ethics that is capable of formulating the options open to some appropriately capacious political constituency in our supposedly post-anthropocentric age.
Braidotti’s recent work The Posthuman is an attempt to formulate such an ethics. Braidotti acknowledges and accepts the levelling of the status of human subjectivity implied by developments in cognitive science and biology and the “analytic posthumanism” that falls out of this new ontological vision. However, she is impatient with what she perceives as a disabling vacillation and neutrality that easily follows from junking of human subject as the arbiter of the right and the good. She argues that a posthuman ethics and politics need to retain the idea of political subjectivity; an agency capable of constructing new forms of ethical community and experimenting with new modes of being:
In my view, a focus on subjectivity is necessary because this notion enables us to string together issues that are currently scattered across a number of domains. For instance, issues such as norms and values, forms of community bonding and social belonging as well as questions of political governance both assume and require a notion of the subject.
However, according to Braidotti, this is no longer the classical self-legislating subject of Kantian humanism. It is vital, polyvalent connection-maker constituted “in and by multiplicity” – by “multiple belongings”:
The relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all non-anthropocentric elements. Living matter – including the flesh – intelligent and self-organizing but it is precisely because it is not disconnected from the rest of organic life.
‘Life’, far from being codified as the exclusive property or unalienable right of one species, the human, over all others or of being sacralised as a pre-established given, is posited as process, interactive and open ended. This vitalist approach to living matter displaces the boundary between the portion of life – both organic and discursive – that has traditionally been reserved for anthropos, that is to say bios, and the wider scope of animal and nonhuman life also known as zoe (Braidotti 2012: 60).
Thus posthuman subjectivity, for Braidotti, is not human but a tendency inherent in human and nonhuman living systems alike to affiliate with other living systems to form new functional assemblages. Clearly, not everything has the capacity to perform every function. Nonetheless, living systems can be co-opted by other systems for functions “God” never intended and Mother Nature never designed them for. As Haraway put it: ‘No objects, spaces, or bodies are sacred in themselves; any component can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code, can be constructed for processing signals in a common language’ (Haraway 1989: 187). There are no natural limits or functions for bodies or their parts, merely patterns of connection and operation that do not fall apart all at once.
Zoe . . . is the transversal force that cuts across and reconnects previously segregated species, categories and domains. Zoe-centered egalitarianism is, for me, the core of the post-anthropocentric turn: it is a materialist, secular, grounded and unsentimental response to the opportunistic trans-species commodification of Life that is the logic of advanced capitalism.
Of course, if anything can be co-opted for any function that its powers can sustain, one might ask how zoe can support a critique of advanced capitalism which, as Braidotti concedes, produces a form of the “posthuman” by radically disrupting the boundaries between humans, animals, species and technique. What could be greater expression of the zoe’s transversal potential than, say, Monsanto’s transgenic cotton Bollgard II? Bollgard II contains genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis that produce a toxin deadly to pests such as bollworm. Unless we believe that there is some Telos inherent to thuringiensis or to cotton that makes such transversal crossings aberrant – which Braidotti clearly does not – there appears to be no zoe-eyed perspective that could warrant her objection. Monsanto’s genetic engineers are just sensibly utilizing possibilities for connection that are already afforded by living systems but which cannot be realized without technological mediation (here via gene transfer technology). If the genes responsible for producing the toxin Bt in thuringiensis did not work in cotton and increase yields it would presumably not be the type used by the majority of farmers today (Ronald 2013).
Cognitive and biological capitalists like Google and Monsanto seem to incarnate the tendencies of zoe – conceived as a generalized possibility of connection – as much as the” not-for-profit” cyborg experimenters like Kevin Warwick or the publicly funded creators of HTML, Dolly the Sheep and Golden Rice. Doesn’t Google show us what a search engine can do?
We could object to Monsanto’s activities on the grounds that it has invidious social consequences or on the grounds that all technologies should be socially rather than corporately controlled. Neither of these arguments are obviously grounded in posthumanism or “zoe-centricism” – Marxist humanists would presumably agree with the latter claim, for example.
However, we can find the traces of a zoe-centered argument in Deleuzean ethics explored in the essay “The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible” (Braidotti 2006). This argues for an ethics oriented towards enabling entities to actualize their powers to their fullest “sustainable” extent. A becoming or actualization of power is sustainable if the assemblage or agency exercising it can do so without “destroying” the systems that makes its exercise possible. Thus an affirmative posthuman ethics follows Nietzsche in making it possible for subjects to exercise their powers to the edge but not beyond, where that exercise falters or where the system exercising it falls apart.
To live intensely and be alive to the nth degree pushes us to the extreme edge of mortality. This has implications for the question of the limits, which are in-built in the very embodied and embedded structure of the subject. The limits are those of one’s endurance – in the double sense of lasting in time and bearing the pain of confronting ‘Life” as zoe. The ethical subject is one that can bear this confrontation, cracking up a bit but without having its physical or affective intensity destroyed by it. Ethics consists in re-working the pain into threshold of sustainability, when and if possible: cracking, but holding it, still.
So Capitalism can be criticized from the zoe-centric position if it constrains powers that could be more fully realized in a different system of social organization. For Braidotti, the capitalist posthuman is constrained by the demands of possessive individualism and accumulation.
The perversity of advanced capitalism, and its undeniable success, consists in reattaching the potential for experimentation with new subject formations back to an overinflated notion of possessive individualism . . ., tied to the profit principle. This is precisely the opposite direction from the non-profit experimentations with intensity, which I defend in my theory of posthuman subjectivity. The opportunistic political economy of bio-genetic capitalism turns Life/zoe – that is to say human and non-human intelligent matter – into a commodity for trade and profit (Braidotti 2013: 60-61).
Thus she supports “non-profit” experiments with contemporary subjectivity that show what “contemporary, biotechnologically mediated bodies are capable of doing” while resisting the neo-liberal appropriation of living entities as tradable commodities.
Whether the constraint claim is true depends on whether an independent non-capitalist posthuman (in Braidotti’s sense of the term) is possible or whether significant posthuman experimentation – particularly those involving sophisticated technologies like AI or Brain Computer Interfaces – will depend on the continued existence of a global capitalist technical system to support it. I admit to being agnostic about this. While modern technologies such as gene transfer do not seem essentially capitalist, there is little evidence to date that a noncapitalist system could develop them or their concomitant forms of hybridized “posthuman” more prolifically.
Nonetheless, there seems to be a significant ethical claim at issue here that can be used independently of its applicability to the critique of contemporary capitalism.
For example, I have recently argued for an overlap or convergence between critical posthumanism and Speculative Posthumanism: the claim that descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical augmentation (SP). Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability is pertinent here because SP in its strong form is also post-anthropocentric – it denies that posthuman possibility is structured a priori by human modes of thought or discourse – and because it defines the posthuman in terms of its power to escape from a socio-technical system organized around human-dependent ends (Roden 2012). The technological offspring described by SP will need to be functionally autonomous insofar as they will have to develop their own ends or modes of existence outside or beyond the human space of ends. Reaching “posthuman escape velocity” will require the cultivation and expression of powers in ways that are sustainable for such entities. This presupposes, of course, that we can have a conception of a subject or agent that is grounded in their embodied capacities or powers rather than general principles applicable to human agency. Understanding its ethical valence thus requires an affirmative conception of these powers that is not dependent on overhanging anthropocentric ideas such as moral autonomy. Braidotti’s ethics of sustainability thus suggests some potentially viable terms of reference for formulating an ethics of becoming posthuman in the speculative sense.
Badmington, N. (2003) ‘Theorizing Posthumanism’, Cultural Critique 53 (Winter): 10-27.
Braidotti, R (2006), ‘The Ethics of Becoming Imperceptible”, in Deleuze and Philosophy, ed. Constantin Boundas, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2006, pp. 133-159.
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Colebrook, Claire (2012b.), “Not Symbiosis, Not Now: Why Anthropogenic Change Is Not Really Human.” Oxford Lit Review 34 (2): 185–209.
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