Catherine Malabou has an intriguing piece on the vexed question of the relationship between the “humanities” and science in the journal Transeuropeennes here.
It is dominated by a clear and subtle reading of Kant, Foucault and Derrida’s discussion of the meaning of Enlightenment and modernity. Malabou argues that the latter thinkers attempt to escape Kantian assumptions about human invariance by identifying the humanities with “plasticity itself”. The Humanities need not style themselves in terms of some invariant essence of humanity. They can be understood as a site of transformation and “deconstruction” as such. Thus for Derrida in “University Without Condition”, the task of the humanities is:
the deconstruction of « what is proper to man » or to humanism. The transgression of the transcendental implies that the very notion of limit or frontier will proceed from a contingent, that is, historical, mutable, and changing deconstruction of the frontier of the « proper ».
Where, as for Foucault, the deconstruction of the human involves exhibiting its historical conditions of possibility and experimenting with these by, for example, thinking about “our ways of being, thinking, the relation to authority, relations between the sexes, the way in which we perceive insanity or illness “.
This analysis might suggest that the Humanities have little to fear from technological and scientific transformations of humans bodies or minds; they are just the setting in which the implications of these alterations are hammered out.
This line of thought reminds me of a revealingly bad argument produced by Andy Clark in his Natural Born Cyborgs:
The promise, or perhaps threatened, transition to a world of wired humans and semi-intelligent gadgets is just one more move in an ancient game . . . We are already masters at incorporating nonbiological stuff and structure deep into our physical and cognitive routines. To appreciate this is to cease to believe in any post-human future and to resist the temptation to define ourselves in brutal opposition to the very worlds in which so many of us now live, love and work (Clark 2003, 142).
This is obviously broken-backed: that earlier bootstrapping didn’t produce posthumans doesn’t entail that future ones won’t. Even if humans are essentially self-modifying it doesn’t follow that any prospective self-modifying entity is human.
The same problem afflicts Foucault and Derrida’s attempts to hollow out a reservation for humanities scholars by identifying them with the promulgation of transgression or deconstruction. Identifying the humanities with plasticity as such throws the portals of possibility so wide that it can only refer to an abstract possibility space whose contents and topology remains closed to us. If, with Malabou, we allow that some of these transgressions will operate on the material substrate of life, then we cannot assume that its future configurations will resemble human communities or human thinkers – thinkers concerned with topics like sex, work and death for example.
Malabou concludes with the suggestion that Foucault and Derrida fail to confront a quite different problem. They do not provide a historical explanation of the possibility of transformations of life and mind to which they refer:
They both speak of historical transformations of criticism without specifying them. I think that the event that made the plastic change of plasticity possible was for a major part the discovery of a still unheard of plasticity in the middle of the XXth century, and that has become visible and obvious only recently, i.e. the plasticity of the brain that worked in a way behind continental philosophy’s back. The transformation of the transcendental into a plastic material did not come from within the Humanities. It came precisely from the outside of the Humanities, with again, the notion of neural plasticity. I am not saying that the plasticity of the human as to be reduced to a series of neural patterns, nor that the future of the humanities consists in their becoming scientific, even if neuroscience tends to overpower the fields of human sciences (let’s think of neurolinguistics, neuropsychoanalysis, neuroaesthetics, or of neurophilosophy), I only say that the Humanities had not for the moment taken into account the fact that the brain is the only organ that grows, develops and maintains itself in changing itself, in transforming constantly its own structure and shape. We may evoke on that point a book by Norman Doidge, The Brain that changes itself. Doidge shows that this changing, self-fashioning organ is compelling us to elaborate new paradigms of transformation.
I’m happy to concede that the brain is a special case of biological plasticity, but, as Eileen Joy notes elsewhere, the suggestion that the humanities have been out of touch with scientific work on the brain is unmotivated. The engagement between the humanities (or philosophy, at least) and neuroscience already includes work as diverse as Paul and Patricia Churchland’s work on neurophilosophy and Derrida’s early writings on Freud’s Scientific Project.
I’m also puzzled by the suggestion that we need to preserve a place for transcendental thinking at all here. Our posthuman predicament consists in the realization that we are alterable configurations of matter and that our powers of self-alteration are changing in ways that put the future of human thought and communal life in doubt. This is not a transcendental claim. It’s a truistic generalisation which tells us little about the cosmic fate of an ill-assorted grab bag of academic disciplines.
Clark, A. 2003. Natural-born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press.
CALL FOR PAPERS
The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy
Joint Annual Conference
Philosophy After Nature
3-5 September 2014
The Joint Annual Conference of The Society for European Philosophy and Forum for European Philosophy in 2014 will be hosted by the Centre for the Humanities, the Faculty of Humanities and the Descartes Institute, Utrecht University, the Netherlands.
Professor Michel Serres, Stanford University, Académie française
Information and Thinking/l’information et la pensée
respondent: Professor Françoise Balibar, Université Paris-Diderot
Professor Rahel Jaeggi, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
Critique of Forms of Life
Professor Mark B.N. Hansen, Duke University
Entangled in Media, Towards a Speculative Phenomenology of Microtemporal Operations
The SEP/FEP conference is the largest annual event in Europe that aims to bring together researchers, teachers and others, from different disciplines, interested in all areas of contemporary European philosophy. Submissions are therefore invited for individual papers and panel sessions in all areas of contemporary European philosophy. For 2014, submissions that address the conference’s plenary theme – Philosophy After Nature – are particularly encouraged. This would include papers and panels that are after nature in the sense of being in pursuit of nature’s consequences. We invite perspectives on critique, science, ecology, technology and subjectivity as bound up with conceptions of nature and experiment with various positions in contemporary thought.
Abstracts of 500 words for individual paper submissions and proposals for panels should be sent to Rick Dolphijn (firstname.lastname@example.org) by 17 May 2014. Proposals for panels should include a 500-word abstract for each paper within the panel. Proposals from academics, graduate students and independent scholars are welcome.
Conference committee: Rosi Braidotti, Bert van den Brink, Rick Dolphijn, Iris van der Tuin and Paul Ziche.
Enquiries: Rick Dolphijn (email@example.com)
This is a sketch of a partial value theory that I’ve been developing while completing my book Posthuman Life. If there are similar theories out there, I’d be grateful for links to bibdata so that I can properly acknowledge them!
In order to construct an anthropologically unbounded account of posthumans, we need a psychology-free account of value. There may, after all, be many possible posthuman psychologies but we don’t know about any of them to date. However, the theory requires posthumans to be autonomous systems of a special kind: Functionally Autonomous Systems (see below). I understand ”autonomy” here as a biological capacity for active self maintenance. The idea of a system which intervenes in the boundary conditions required for its existence can be used to formulate an Autonomous Systems Account of function which avoids some of the metaphysical problems associated with the more standard etiological theory. The version of ASA developed by Wayne Christensen and Mark Bickhard defines the functions of an entity in terms of its contribution to the persistence of an autonomous system, which they conceive as a group of interdependent processes (Christensen and Bickhard 2002: 3). Functions are process dependence relations within actively self-maintaining systems.
Ecological values are constituted by functions. The conception, in turn, allows us to formulate an account of “enlistment” which then allows us to define what it is to be an FAS.
1) (ASA) Each autonomous system has functions belonging to it at some point in its history. Its functions are the interdependent processes it requires to remain autonomous at that point.
2) (Value) If a process, thing or state is required for a function to occur, then that thing or process is a value for that function. Any entity, state or resource can be a value. For example, the proper functioning of a function can be a value for the functions that require it to work.
3) (Enlistment) When an autonomous system produces a function, then any value of that function is enlisted by that system.
4) (Accrual) An FAS actively accrues functions by producing functions that are also values for other FAS’s.
5) (Functional Autonomy) A functionally autonomous system (FAS) is any autonomous system that can enlist values and accrue functions.
People are presumably FAS’s on this account, but also nonhuman organisms and (perhaps) lineages of organisms. Likewise, social systems (Collier and Hooker 2009) and (conceivably) posthumans. To date, technical entities are not FAS’s because they are non-autonomous. Historical technologies are mechanisms of enlistment, however. For example. Without mining technology, certain ores would not be values for human activities. Social entities, such as corporations, are autonomous in the relevant and sense and thus can have functions (process interdependency relations) and constitute values of their own. However, while not-narrowly human, current social systems are wide humans not posthumans. As per the Disconnection Thesis: Posthumans would be FAS’s no longer belonging to WH (the Wide Human socio-technical assemblage – See Roden 2012).
This is an ecological account in the strict sense of specifying values in terms of environmental relations between functions and their prerequisites (though “environment” should be interpreted broadly to include endogenous and well as exogenous entities or states). It is also an objective rather than subjective account which has no truck with the spirit (meaning, culture or subjectivity, etc.). Value are just things which enter into constitutive relations with functions (Definition 2 could be expanded and qualified by introducing degrees of dependency). Oxygen was an ecological value for aerobic organisms long before Lavoisier. We can be ignorant of our values and mistake non-values for values, etc. It is also arguable that some ecological values are pathological in that they support some functions while hindering others.
The theory is partial because it only provides a sufficient condition for value. Some values – Opera, cigarettes, incest prohibitions and sunsets – are arguably things of the spirit, constituted as values by desires or cultural meanings.
Christensen, W. D., and M. H. Bickhard. 2002. “The Process Dynamics of Normative Function.” The Monist 85 (1): 3–28.
Collier, J. D., & Hooker, C. A. 1999. Complexly organised dynamical systems. Open Systems & Information Dynamics, 6(3): 241-302.
Roden. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis.” The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Edited by Amnon Eden, Johnny Søraker, Jim Moor, and Eric Steinhart.Springer Frontiers Collection.
 An issue I do not have time to consider is that ecological dependency is transitive. If a function depends on a thing whose exist depends on another thing, then it depends on that other thing. Ecological dependencies thus overlap.
 Addictive substances may fall into this class.
In this excellent presentation Saxe claims that Transcranial Magnetic Simulation applied to the temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) – a region specialized for mentalizing in human adults – can improve the effectiveness of moral reasoning by improving our capacity to understand other human minds.
This suggests an interesting conundrum for moral philosophers working in the Kantian tradition, where recognizing the rationality and personhood of offenders is held to be a sine qua non for justifications of punishment. We can imagine a Philip K Dick style world in which miscreants are equipped with surgically implanted TMS devices which zap them where an automated surveillance system judges them to be in a morally tricky situation calling for rapid and reliable judgements about others’ mental states. Assuming that such devices would be effective, would this still constitute a violation of the offender’s personhood – treating the offender as a refractory animal who must be conditioned to behave in conformity with societal norms, like Alex in a Clockwork Orange ? Or would the enhancement give that status its due by helping the offender become a better deliberator ?
Assuming the TMS devices could achieve their aim of improving moral cognition, it seems odd to say that this would be a case of “tiger training” which bypasses the offender’s capacity for moral reasoning since it would presumably increase that very capacity. It is even conceivable that an effective moral enhancement could be co-opted by savvy Lex Luthor types to enhance the criminal capacities of their roughnecks, making them more effective at manipulating others and sizing up complex situations. At the same time, it would be quite different from punishment practices that appeal to the rational capacities of the offender. Having one’s TPJ zapped is not the same as being asked to understand the POV of your victim – though it might enhance your ability to do so.
So an effective moral enhancement that increases the capacity for moral reasoning in the cognitively challenged would neither be a violation of nor an appeal to to their reason. It would not be like education or a talking therapy, but neither would be like the cruder forms of chemical or psychological manipulation. It could enhance the moral capacities of people but it would do so by tying them into technical networks that, as we know, can be co-opted for ends that their creators never anticipated. It might enhance the capacity for moral agency while also increasing its dependence on the vagaries of wider technical systems. Some would no doubt see such a development as posthuman biopower at its most insidious. They would be right, I think, but technology is insidious precisely because our florid agency depends on a passivity before cultural and technical networks that extend it without expressing a self-present and original human subjectivity.
Deep into the morning procrastination ritual – reading two or more blogs and FB instead of the chapter I’m meant to be finishing – I realized that I had forgotten what I had been reading a minute ago. So I let my mouse hover over the IE icon on my task bar and hey presto! I saw a “mouse over” preview of the Discover Post on identical twins I had been perusing. Moral: the extended mind works, but it needs metacognition to patch its resources together.
Distracted from distraction by distraction T S Eliot, Burnt Norton
I’m currently using Davidsonian radical interpretation as a model for understanding the obstructions presented by very alien minds and phenomenologies – posthumans, aliens, cats, etc. However, much as I admire Davidson’s writings I don’t really want to be a Davidsonian. For example, I don’t think that content is constituted by how others might interpret it in ideal conditions. Entertaining or having a certain content is at bottom a power or disposition – it’s a state that makes a difference to what one can do, it exercises influence on actions, etc..
Ray Brassier refers to humans animals “with the capacity to be gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). I find the implicit analogy between concept use and possession suggestive, though it does not incline me to his view that concepts are inferential roles or articulations. If contents are real powers with “grip” then “uninterpretable content” is an oxymoron – for it would be a causally inert property whose possession makes no difference to the possessor or to anything else (Heil 2003, Ch8).
Such properties need not be identical to inferential roles because inferential roles are manifestations of powers and powers are not identical to their manifestations. Nonetheless, assigning inferential roles ( interpreting) may be a good way of predicting and manipulating the behaviour of the possessed.
If one is a Davidsonian radical interpreter, interpretation can be thought of as using a sentence with a familiar role in some interpreting theory or metalanguage – e.g. “The box is a trap” – and proceeding as if a state of the interpretee (an utterance or mental state) has the content which manifests this role. I suggested this approach in 2004 back when I was more sympathetic to the interpretationist cause. At that point, I was only dimly aware that this was a way of instrumentalizing interpretation and divesting it of its pretensions to constitutive status (I’m slow this way). Interpretability is just a spinoff of the fact that concepts and contents exert influence and have results we can track and use.
Thus understood, radical interpretation is semantic modelling as extreme sport. We create an artificial idiom that means something for us – the interpreting “theory” – and consider the degree to which another being shares that idiom (Roden 2004, 200-1). Success in interpretation need not depend on mirroring the content of the alien state we wish to understand. For example, the state by virtue of which the raccoon is able to represent the fact that a box is a trap will presumably differ from “The box is a trap” in not being a grammatically structured sentence in a public language but a brain state of some kind. However, if the modelling procedure helps us to shape and cope with cat, raccoon, posthuman behaviour the interpretation can be warranted on purely pragmatic grounds.
In Donald Davidson’s Philosophy of Language, Bjorn Ramberg imagines an idealized hard case involving people who are solely concerned with events that happened two days ago (Ramberg 1989, 120). We might not be able to appreciate what is it like to be entirely preoccupied with two day old events, but this does not mean that we cannot detect this temporal fixation and interpret those who have it. For example, we might have a theory that says of a temporal displacee that s (an utterance in the displacee’s language) uttered at time t is true if and only if p – where p reports some event two days prior to t. Of course, realizing that use value in the form of fluid communication might require more than just a helpful simulation. It would require the interpreters to become sensitive to the point of view of the displacees. So from radical interpretation we arrive at the threshold of cyborg becomings. But that’s another story.
Brassier, R. (2011). The view from nowhere. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, (17), 7-23.