Correlationist Spawn

On August 31, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

crawler

 

(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)

  1. The behaviour of radical aliens is not interpretable as actions.
  2. Radical aliens are agents.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)

References:

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.

 

 

Notes

[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.

 

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Cthulhoid Prometheus

On August 20, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

wcwbt_shirt_design_by_mecha_cthulhu

Prometheanism rejects eco/identity politics and embraces the disequilibrium induced by modernity and radical Enlightenment. Against those who would retain nature as an unbidden “gift” outside the sphere of production, it enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis”. But what is the limit of planetary or cosmic engineering? Since Prometheanism rejects the given of purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. A wholly compliant nature approaches H-plasticity and thus terminates compliance. This is a Cthulhoid invocation to dark negentropic matter flows.

Underneath, you are pink, soft meal. Acid ammonia strips away raw meat. A lateral starfish mouth opens. Cassidy disassembles, phasing to some soulless matter hell . . .

more)

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Angelic abstract for Tuning Speculation IV

On August 18, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

prometheus_cap_14_450x253

 

Abstract (accepted) for the forthcoming Tuning Speculations in Toronto this November
Angel Spike -The Politics of Advanced Noncompliance
The modernist and Promethean projects are self-undermining. The systematic complexity of modern technique precludes binding it to norms or projects. The methods of compliance are noncompliant, disseminative, mutable. Since it rejects givens, purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. It becomes maximally manipulable and thus “hyperplastic”. Accordingly, it terminates the very normativity we hoped might inure us against the real. At the threshold of the dark posthuman, it seems we are condemned to be improvisers and febrile self-killers – whoever, whatever “we” are – as overkill tech dissipates informational structure into Crash space; as “divaricating agencies rip into the substrate of the real” This is the Red Tower burn.
AS-PANC proposes to explore this post-human, post-normative prospectus by interleaving theory and metafiction in the manner of my earlier piece for Dis Mag “Letters from the Ocean Terminus”. The ghosts of Antonioni, Marker, Ballard, Ligotti and others will be co-opted as a modulation source for a virtual noise generator, shattering and escaping the virtual Terrarium.
For a while, we dreamed of death and thought ourselves our own screw ups. As if either is an option when the music of the Angel Spike abreacts melanomas beneath our skins. These auditory cancers are its notational variants.
You call them an “argument”.
We concealed our condition at first. But something in you felt compelled to shout it with a bloody vehemence. “This”, you tell us, “is the truth of the Cthulhoid inversion; of damned Prometheus”.

Gathering at the Terminal Beach

On July 21, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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Dark Posthumanism: the weird template

On May 10, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

 

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

 

 

Dark Posthumanism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This can be stated as a three-way paradox.

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

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

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

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

Have we good reason to drop 3?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More Radical Aliens

On April 14, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Metaphor at the Edge of the Human

On March 31, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

 

Note on aesthetics and dark phenomenology

On February 20, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

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My first Dark Posthumanism post explored some of the discussions of dark phenomenology and naturalism in the course of @philPerc‘s summer reading group on Posthuman Life. Dark phenomena, recall, are experienced affects that provide no or only an insufficient yardstick for their description. We have them, we talk about them, inordinately even; but having does not allow us describe them adequately or even recognise them over time. A microtonal difference between pitches might qualify. We feel a difference and report it; but we are unable to carry that difference with us in memory. We might be haunted by a euphoria that we can never recover, or a crushing terror we cannot articulate. At issue in the earlier discussion, was a tension (in my case “hesitation”) between a thin reading of darkness  as a purely epistemological category and a “thick” reading that interprets the dark side of experience as basic, eluding theoretical reason in principle.

Steven Shaviro subscribes to a very strong version of the thick reading, for example, in On the Universe of Things, where he favourably cites Whitehead’s characterisation of primordial experience as “a sense of influx of influence from other vaguer presences in the past, localized and yet evading local definition”. This darkness is not just for us – an artefact of poor information that could be corrected were we to improve our theories or information gathering techniques; or a consequence of human cognitive or sensory limitations. Shaviro follows panpsychists like Galen Strawson in holding that such basic qualitative awareness is an intrinsic, non-relational aspect of everything – cats, rocks, neutrinos.

Shaviro’s reading is very strong because it attributes a kind of intrinsic awareness to everything. We might, after all hold, that the darkness is irreducible but probably also local to states of minded creatures. Or, following Metzinger and Bakker, treat it as an artifact of the cognitive inaccessibility of neurocomputational processes for the brain. They are inadequately represented because the system must break out of a metarepresentational loop that would require infinite resources (were each representational process to be itself the subject of grainy higher order modelling).

In any case, there does seem to be something philosophically questionable about claiming that we don’t have an adequate grasp of the nature of subjectivity while holding (on the other hand) that everything is subjective. If we don’t have a secure first-personal grasp of what phenomenology is, then we’re not in a promising position to attribute it more widely. Not only don’t we know what it is like to be a neutrino, we don’t know enough about the phenomenal to be in a position to usefully generalise it. We gain nothing philosophically or scientifically by doing that. For example, we don’t elucidate the concept of non-relational properties unless we know that phenomenal properties are somehow non-relational. And attributing proto-phenomenal properties to neutrinos or electrons just gives us a different emergentist headache from the one we had before.

It is coherent to allow that the thick reading might be true without embracing panpsychism. There are phenomenal episodes. They are dark (We feel them; don’t know much about them, beyond what they make us think or do). Their darkness holds in principle. On this account no matter how much our scientific knowledge improves, their relationship to brains’ computational and functional properties will remain speculative at best. While this claim might be true, it can’t be justified without claiming the kind of intuitive information regarding phenomenal natures that the dark phenomenology hypothesis precludes. Indeed, the position borders on the self-vitiating. If we don’t know what X is, then we’re on weak ground if we insist go on to make irreducibility or ineliminability claims about it: we don’t know that a neurophenomenology of the dark is impossible just because a certain kind of phenomenology is.  So, despite its aura, the dark phenomenology hypothesis is not conducive to wide angle metaphysical theorising.

A more fruitful application perhaps lies in our understanding of the aesthetic and its ontological pertinence. For we can understand the obscurity and insistence of experience as a response to singularity. We experience affects, desires, percepts about which we are certainly in the dark, but nonetheless form part of our congress with the world. I can see and hear things that are too visibly or audibly unlike anything else for more than the most summary description. I could talk a little about the artificial transients in Xenakis’ Hibiki-Hana Ma but this would be a tiny pinprick in the description of this roiling thunderhead of sound. Likewise I can come up with lame comparisons to convey the way Berlinde de Bruyckere sculptures appear to me in photographs  (“Cripplewood looks like a tree !”). Either would fail to capture their sonic or visual appearance.

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No conceptual inventory could do this. These appearances can be subjected to phenomenological analysis, clearly,  but this barely touches what we see, hear or feel in response to them and would be unintelligible without some perceptual encounter.

Much the same could be said of the masses of sound wielded in Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. Analysis is possible – minutely so if we treat a sound sample or digital image as a bit map of changes induced in recording instruments  – but these are better thought as machines for producing further affects. They can be tools for analysis (as when I use a graphical representation of a sample to analyse the envelope of the sound it produces on normal playback). However, the irreducibility of the thing to its bit maps or structural isomorphs does not resolve the ontological status of experience (for example whether it is irreducibly subjective rather than objective) since non-mental or non-phenomenal entities might resist analysis or representation in this way. It implies that the aesthetic relation exceeds and overflows the conceptual. It is, as Shaviro argues, a response to the traumatic liveliness of the universe of things.

Shaviro, Steven (2014). The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. University of Minnesota Press.

 

 

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Krapp Alaska

On April 17, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Saw Krapp and A Kind of Alaska in the Bristol Old Vic’s Pinter-Beckett double bill. Alaska sounds a Liggotiish note of transcendent horror below the familiar beats of alienation and subjection – more terrifying even because the “sleepy sickness” (Encephalitis lethargica) which deprives its central character of her life is just a whim of nature. Krapp ends the evening on a high: reminding us that there’s a much to be said for the word “spool”, bananas and an efficient bowel movement.

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