What is it like to be a bat blind brain?

On September 5, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


Roden, David. 2015a. “Aliens Under the Skin: Serial Killing and the Seduction of Our Common Inhumanity”, in Serial Killing: A Philosophical Anthology, Edia Connole & Gary J. Shipley (eds). Schism Press.


Phenomenology is, as I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” – experiencing it only affords a partial and very fallible insight into its nature.[1]  We are not normally aware of this darkness because, as Scott Bakker writes, it “provides no information about the absence of information.”[2] However, this opacity can be exhibited from a third-person perspective in cases of “anosognosia” – conditions where patients are unable to access the fact that they have some sensorimotor deficit, such as blindness, deafness or the inability to move a limb. Sufferers from Anton’s syndrome or “blindness denial,” for example, are blind as a result of damage to visual areas in the brain. But, when questioned they deny that they are blind and attempt to act as if they were not. [3] This shows not only that the people can be radically mistaken about the contents of their conscious experience but that a standard Cartesian impossibility claim – that we cannot make a perceptual judgment without having a corresponding perception – is false. Minds assumed impossible on the basis of armchair reasoning turn out to be quite possible

The blindness of the mind to its true nature is also exhibited among unimpaired agents. We regularly assume that we are authoritative about the reasons for our choices. Yet studies into the phenomenon of “choice blindness” by Petter Johansson and Lars Hall suggest that humans can be gulled into attributing reasons to themselves that they did not have. In one case, subjects in a supermarket were asked to rate jams and teas, following which they were apparently presented with samples of the tea or jam they had chosen earlier and asked to explain their choice. In manipulated trials the samples were sneakily switched with samples of different products. Remarkably, less than a half the experimental participants noticed the switch, despite striking differences between the substituted pairs of flavours. The remainder sought retrospective justifications for choices they had not made.

Lars and Hall have been able to exhibit choice blindness in moral reasoning. In another experiment, subjects were asked to rate their agreement with controversial moral claims in a survey form. Unbeknownst to the experimental subjects, the pages with the original rated statements were switched for subtly altered sentences expressing contrary moral claims. However, when asked to review and discuss their rating, a majority of experimental subjects confabulated reasons for moral positions opposing the ones that had earlier embraced.[4]

Phenomena such as choice blindness and anosognosia suggest that our insight into subjectivity depends on a fallible process of self-interpretation that is subjectively “transparent” and immediate only because we are not aware that it is a process at all. Thomas Metzinger calls this constraint “autoepistemic closure.” By virtue of it, the vivid world “out there” and our vital, rich “inner” life appear not to be models or interpretations only because we are not aware of concocting them.[5]

Metzinger argues that phenomenology is systematically misleading about what phenomenology really is because it needs to be. A system that modeled itself and attempted to model that modeling process in turn (and so on) would require infinite representational resources. Phenomenological darkness thus prevents the self-interpreter from becoming entangled “in endless internal loops of higher-order self-modeling.”[6] It is thus reasonable to argue that the anti-reductionist intuition that subjective experience is inexplicable in terms of non-subjective physical or computational processes is an artifact of this phenomenological darkness.[7]

[1] David Roden, “Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology.” Royal Institute Of Philosophy Supplement 72 (2013), 169-188.

[2] R. Scott Bakker. “Back to Square One: Towards a Post-Intentional Future”. http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/back-to-square-one-toward-a-post-intentional-future (accessed January 8, 2015).

[3].Thomas Metzinger, Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 2004), 429-436.

[4] Lars Hall, Petter Johansson, and David de Léon. “Recomposing the will: Distributed motivation and computer-mediated Extrospection,” in Decomposing the Will, 298-324 (New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press, 2013), 303-4.

[5] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 57.

[6] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 338.

[7] Metzinger, Being-No-One, 436.

Correlationist Spawn

On August 31, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1



(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)


Bakker____2014, “Zahavi, Dennett, and the End of Being” https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2016/05/28/zahavi-dennett-and-the-end-of-being/, Accessed 22 June 2016.

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

Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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

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

Roden, David (forthcoming) ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: Brandom and Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn

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

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

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




[i] In its purest form, this position implies discursive agency thesis (DAT). DAT says that agents must have the capacity for public language because agency requires contentful intentional states, like beliefs; only available to creatures equipped to fulfil the functions of discourse. So a being that cannot interpret others in sentential form (by ascribing proposition attitudes like beliefs, desires, intentions) is not really an agent or is only derivatively so Given the DAT, maze-running robots or crafty raccoons might be predictable from the intentional stance; but their intentionality remains observer-relative; a projection from the attitudes of interpreting subjects.

[ii] Conversely, a creature who we could not interpret as acting for reasons could not be interpreted as believing anything either. It could not occupy the semantic crucible formed by the baseline world.

[iii] According to Peter Carruthers our working memory accesses propositional attitudes indirectly, by co-opting a social mind-reading faculty evolved to understand the intentions of others for the purposes of introspection. If true, this seems like an entirely contingent limitation. Not conditions of possibility for agency – only possibility relative to contingent biological constraints deriving from human evolutionary history.


Tagged with:

British School, Ruins in Moonlight, 19th cent.

From an insomniac moment re-reading my notes for Elie During‘s challenging and thought provoking keynote paper: “Weird Coexistence or What Speculative Aesthetics Could Be” [Hotel air conditioning in England has its not-so-speculative noise aesthetic btw] at the 10th SEP-FEP conference, Regents University, London.

Speculative Realism [SR] expresses a somewhat elusive taste for estrangement and the “weird”. Deleuze: philosophy is part detective novel part science fiction (a propos Hume). But this was intended as a preliminary step in a method rather than an end – that is defining new and more interesting problems regarding this world. Rather than raising the stakes in weirdness, During wants to bring the debate down to Earth by considering a prototype of weirdness – the Thing in Itself (TIS)

Between two TIS coexistence is not straightforward. Jacobi: “Without the TIS one cannot even penetrate Kant’s doctrine.” But once encountered we can escape from it.

Contention: The TIS in its Kantian formulation was weird enough.

The TIS is not an object. It is not even a thing.

The TIS entirely lacks individual unity (In this it is similar to space which is not a concept or a thing, but a form). The TIS is the empty form of externality, or the real. The function of the TIS for Kant is to act as a safeguard against subjective idealism a la Berkley. The real qua TIS is not a thing – it can be anything. This is why it is not a placeholder for substance. It is not individuated. For example, if there are two or more TIS they are already forming coming under the category of the understanding.

The problem that TIS underscores is that of the paradox of coexistence of everything (us included). The coexistence at issue is not phenomenological or about hidden, inaccessible realities. It is the co-existence of everything with everything else in a whole. The whole thus understood is no “superobject” but the medium of coexistence as such and not totality (ether as pure medium of coexistence in the Opus Postumum – a material expression of the inner reality of phenomenal co-presence, such as dynamic space-time). It is important that however characterised, this co-presence is not collapsed in an eternal four-dimensional structure. Co-existence the proper access to totality rather than totality being the entry point to co-existence (as in set-theory).

The co-existence at issue is as much temporal as spatial. In Bergson’s parlance it is a contemporaneous unfolding. It is not just a matter of collection or juxtaposition of things in space. In set theory the totality does not exist. However, before Russell, Badiou or Marcus, Kant already anticipated this. For surely, the set of all objects cannot exist as an object. The Kantian antinomies of the infinite already anticipate the idea of that the world conceived as a quantitative aggregation of objects is metaphysically useless. Co-existence is not temporal but spatio-temporal (Something Bergson missed due to his methodological privileging of time).

All this is already weird enough! The fact of co-existence that is not merely spatial. It is so weird that the sort of defamiliarisation sought by SR is already broached.

What the different strands of SR have in common is a concern with thinking of things apart from their relationship to us. Things in and by themselves. SR attempts to think of the way “things attend to their own business” by the sheer power of concepts. But this results in an an “uncomfortable phenomenology of the ungiven” [Thinks, is there any other kind]. If you take this seriously, then “you should reject any privilege of the human access to the world.” Hence the withdrawal of the object into itself.

In Immaterialism Harman says that the real problem with Kant is that TIS haunt humans alone so that a single species “shoulders the burden of finitude”. This is very different from the Kantian understanding of the TIS as form.

So what follows is an attempt to unfold the speculative potential of the Kantian TIS.

The traces of the TIS in different media:

What is the paradoxical mode of presence of the TIS on the phenomenological plane according to Kant? Co-existence takes the form of ubiquity or nonlocality. The TIS names the same reality as the phenomenon – it is the unappearing side of the phenomenon.

The second medium is in the plane of nature, space and time itself.

(Simultaneity incorporates an element of non-simultaneity). One of the key implications of Einstein is an enlargement of the notion of simultaneity. There are however non-standard forms of simultaneity – envelopes and sheathes of simultaneity (in the Twin Paradox).

Although there is no way of establishing simultaneity for the two twins, they remain co-present during their journey, an idea that can be captured by a topological sheath. In Heidegger’s discussion of the lizard in FCM, there is a subterranean problem of how one relates to being without relation to world (even if it has a relation to an environment or umwelt).

In SR the intuition is that what we need to make sense of is the interference effect between two perspectives (e.g. naturalist explanations in a Lovecraft and an ineffable non-perspective). This maps onto Todorov’s perspective on the fantastic, as the co-existence between these perspectives.

[Anthropological digression via Eduardo Viveiros de Castro – multinaturalism {cannibal metaphysics}. In Amerindian ontology everything has a perspective and there is a fundamental homogeneity between creatures (e.g. the jaguar is is as human as we). How does one connect the perspectives? There are different kinds of things but see the same things differently. De Castro: the rationale for this is that different kinds of being see different things in the same way (but how can we justify this claim?). What happens when two worlds or two points of view meets, there is a shamanic transformation of shifting perspectives (relates to the Amerindian concept of the world as a co-incidence of perspectives).}

Kant in the “Transcendental Aesthetic”: since space and time are continuous, a sensible quality or trait given to us by the TIS is always continuous. As a result of this, any sensible quality is diffused or scattered around and thus inherently related to the whole continuum. Entities in space and time are thus diffused or scattered rather than completely localise (See Merleau-Ponty on the sensuous qualities on the surface of a pool in Mind and World). MP – I do not see the water in space. I see it as inhabiting it, with the water visiting these other entities the field of cypresses. In Kant, by the same token, any sensible quantity is diffused across the space-time field. In Bachelard’s “Numenology”, science yields strange quasi-objects (particle/wave, etc.). He concludes that we should work with a concept of relational identity, with entities emerging from their reciprocal encounter.

The TIS then is a radical outside that manifests in the phenomenal world, not as a hidden substance supporting sensuous qualities, but a ubiquity behind the phenomenal world – Whitehead – everything is everywhere at any time. In Kant’s analogy of experience, Kant is attempting to account for the fact that things are not merely presented as a flow, but as simultaneous (category of “community”). He understands this in terms of a model of reciprocal causality. In Einstein, this idea of community is complicated with the insight that connection takes time – it does not happen instantly. There is a finite speed at which information or influence is imparted. This allows for events that could not be causally connected to one another (outside our light cone). Such events, according to Whitehead, can be said to be simultaneous even if they do not interact. To co-exist is to be able to be separate within contemporaneity. There must be disconnection within co-existence.

The impact of the TIS in contemporary physics is by renewing our conception of co-existence to take into account co-existence but also an idea of disconnection.

Interesting point about the space-time differentiation of physics as opposed to the trace in Derrida.

So what is that “speculative aesthetics”? what we need to make sense of an intersubjective community, centring not on the experience of beauty but of co-existence.

Made some half-hearted attempt to ask how rodents co-exist with public transport networks – but John Ó Maoilearca quite understandably missed my feeble gesture. Probably for the best, since need to think some more. Preliminary conclusion, This guy is good!

In the philosophy of technology, substantivism is a critical position opposed to the common sense philosophy of technology known as “instrumentalism”. Instrumentalists argue that tools have no agency of their own – only tool users. According to instrumentalism, technology is a mass of instruments whose existence has no specialno escape from the night normative implications. Substantivists like Martin Heidegger and Jacques Ellul argue that technology is not a collection of neutral instruments but a way of existing and understanding entities which determines how things and other people are experienced by us. If Heidegger is right, we may control individual devices, but our technological mode of being exerts a decisive grip on us: “man does not have control over unconcealment itself, in which at any given time the real shows itself or withdraws” (Heidegger 1978: 299).

For Ellull, likewise, technology is not a collection of devices or methods which serve human ends, but a nonhuman system that adapts humans to its ends. Ellul does not deny human technical agency but claims that the norms according to which agency is assessed are fixed by the system rather than by human agents. Modern technique, for Ellul, is thus “autonomous” because it determines its principles of action internal to it (Winner 1977: 16). The content of this prescription can be expressed as the injunction to maximise efficiency; a principle overriding conceptions of the good adopted by human users of technical means.

In Chapter 7 of Posthuman Life, I argue that a condition of technical autonomy –self-augmentation – is in fact incompatible with technical autonomy. “Self-augmentation” refers to the propensity of modern technique to catalyse the development of further techniques. Thus while technical autonomy is a normative concept, self-augmentation is a dynamical one.

I claim that technical self-augmentation presupposes the independence of techniques from culture, use and place (technical abstraction). However, technical abstraction is incompatible with the technical autonomy implied by traditional substantivism, because where techniques are relatively abstract they cannot be functionally individuated. Self-augmentation can only operate where techniques do not determine how they are used. Thus substantivists like Ellul and Heidegger are wrong to treat technology as a system that subjects humans to its strictures. Self-augmenting Technical Systems (SATS) are not in control because they are not subjects or stand-ins for subjects. However, I argue that there are grounds for claiming that it may be beyond our capacity to control.

This hypothesis is, admittedly, quite speculative but there are four prima facie grounds for entertaining it:

  1. In a planetary SATS local sites can exert a disproportionate influence on the organisation of the whole but may not “show up” for those lacking “local knowledge”. Thus even encyclopaedic knowledge of current “technical trends” will not be sufficient to identify all future causes of technical change.
  2. The categorical porousness of technique adds to this difficulty. The line between technical and non-technical is systematically fuzzy (as indicated by the way modern computer languages derived from pure mathematics and logic). If technical abstraction amplifies the potential for “crossings” between technical and extra-technical domains, it must further ramp up uncertainty regarding the sources of future technical change.
  3. Given my thesis of Speculative Posthumanism, technical change could engender posthuman life forms that are functionally autonomous and thus withdraw from any form of human control.
  4. Any computationally tractable simulation of a SATS would be part of the system it is designed to model. It would consequently be a disseminable, highly abstract part. So multiple variations of the same simulations could be replicated across the SATS, producing a system qualitatively different from the one that it was originally designed to simulate. In the work of Elena Esposito a related idea is examined via the way users of financial instruments employ uncertainty as a way of influencing the decisions of others through one’s market behaviour. Esposito argues that the theories used by economists to predict market behaviour are performative. They influence economic behaviour though their capacity to predict it is limited by the impossibility of self-modelling (Esposito 2013).

If enough of 1-4 hold then technology is not in control of anything but is largely out of our control. Yet there remains something right about the substantivist picture, for technology exerts a powerful influence on individuals, society, and culture, if not an “autonomous” influence. However, since technology self-augmenting and thus abstract it is counter-final – it has no ends and tends to render human ends contingent by altering the material conditions on which our normative practices depend.


Esposito, E., 2013. The structures of uncertainty: performativity and unpredictability in economic operations. Economy and Society, 42(1), pp.102-129.

Ellul, J. 1964. The Technological Society, J. Wilkinson (trans.). New York: Vintage


Heidegger, M. 1978. “The Question Concerning Technology”. In Basic Writings, D. Farrell

Krell (ed.), 283–317. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

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


Winner, L. 1977. Autonomous Technology: Technics-out-of-control as a Theme in Political

Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.



Entering the Phenomenological Cul-de Sac

On June 9, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

My last post ended with a modest conclusion about the relationship between pragmatist accounts of agency and world-hood:

“For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, then, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to believe that they belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of?

Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?”

Clearly, one way we might parse this notion of co-worldliness involves a form of a metaphysical realism owing little to phenomenological approaches.

There are different ways of expressing this realist account. We might say that reality is what some uniquely complete and true theory represents, or perhaps that it is the totality of states of objects on which the accuracy or truth of such representations hinges.

However, in the face of Putnam-style objections to the effect that there can be no such unique theory, the metaphysical realist can opt for a more minimal formulation: claiming only that the non-mental parts of the world exist independently of minded creatures, and that its nature is likewise independent of how it is thought. This does not commit realists to there being “one true and complete description of the world” (Devitt 1984: 229). There seems nothing incoherent in supposing that the best theories of the real might be incomplete and partial.

Indeed, the world as a whole might not be representable at all because there can be no complete representation of it, or because there are aspects of reality which are not representable at all.

But at this point the commonality of the real seems to be receding. If reality can only be described discrepantly, or if it is not fully representable, then what content can we attach to the idea of a shared world in Davidson’s conditions of interpretation and communication? According to idealists this idea of reality is not even intelligible. So if the common world is the world according to metaphysical realism, this may threaten the intelligibility of pragmatism and thus the local correlationism regarding agency which falls out of it.

I think this is a problem for any account in which, as as Robert Brandom “meaning and understanding are co-ordinate concepts, in the sense that neither can be properly understood or explicated except as part of a story that includes the other” (). For such understanding must be exhibited practically in a social field in which estimates of what speakers say or think are updated given the circumstances in which they are said or acted upon. Different theorists may describe these interpretations using different or discrepant vocabularies, but the presupposition of commonality seems to be built into any theory for which content is manifested through practice.

If pragmatist accounts of thought and agency require a common world, then perhaps they need an idea of world that is not an abstract metaphysical posit, but somehow implicated in agency and thought itself. And this is where phenomenology stands to pick up the slack left by metaphysical realism.

Phenomenologists frequently describe this experience of world-hood in terms of experience of things occurring in contexts or “horizons”. When I see a hammer, I see it from a certain viewpoint, or hear it falling off a workbench as the cat passes by. I may think of it as a force amplifier or a birthday present; but each thought or experience implies the possibility of perspectives further down the line. The hammer cannot be reduced to any of these: it is not determinate but, rather, determinable. Its objectivity consists of being always in excess of its appearances (Mooney 1992). A horizon is that aspect of an experience that implies non-actual possibilities for experience.

Roughly, we share worlds if my horizons overlap with yours. For example, I might not immediately grasp the significance of basil in your cookery, but could, given the opportunity to share food with you. My relationship to basil as it figures your life is not a formal semantic relationship. My conception of basil may involve different stereotypes – desiccated leaves on supermarket shelves, say – whereas you are punctilious about picking it fresh from the herb garden. Still your relation to basil is a determinable for me, even if it bears no relation to the way in which I currently prepare salads and sauces.

So, to recapitulate: local correlationism for agency (Condition 3) or Davidson’s observability assumption is best understood as falling out of pragmatism with regard to psychological and semantic concepts. And pragmatism (I have suggested) needs a correlational account of a world – a world likewise determinable in practice, rather than the transcendent world of metaphysical realism.

Admittedly, this seems to commit the pragmatist to a transcendental account of the world that might sit uneasily with the modestly naturalistic accounts of practices and norms in which such accounts are generally expressed. It also commits the pragmatist to anti-realism since the the world is not a determinate existing thing; nor could there be one transcending determinability (or verification).

But the relationship between pragmatism, realism and naturalism is debatable for other reasons, so it is not clear that naturalistic scruple alone should debar the inference from a pragmatist account of agency and subjectivity to a phenomenological theory of the world.

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning, Jeff Malpas argues that interpretation must have this horizontal structure. All interpretation occurs in a context fixed by certain interests and projects. Any particular project can be frustrated or break down (Malpas 1992: 128). Any project must, moreover, open onto the constitution of a new project, just as each view of the hammer implies the possibility of other views. Thus pragmatism assumes that each project of understanding is “nested” within further possible projects.

This  interleaving of interpretative projects is correlatively an interleaving of things. Beliefs cannot be identified independently of the determinables that believers engage with. By the same token, the identification of salient collections of objects and events occurs against the background of the interpreter’s experience and interests. The nested structure of projects described by Malpas thus constitutes a plausible candidate for a non-reified “world” – a world not of things, but of potential “correlations” between intentional agents and determinable objects.

This interleaving is only intelligible if we assume each project to have a hermeneutic structure referred to as “fore-having” within the hermeneutic tradition. Each interpretation must potentially fan out onto future revisionary interpretations (Caputo 1984: 158). Without appeal to this tacit or virtual structure, there is little content that can be given to the idea of a single intersubjective world that Davidson and the other pragmatists must appeal to.

It is precisely at this point, according to Malpas, that static concepts of a determinate world seem wholly inadequate and the temporalized models of intentionality and understanding developed in the phenomenological/hermeneutic tradition assume importance.

However, I think it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. This, as I will argue, is disastrous for idea of a temporally structured horizon that otherwise seemed so serviceable for the pragmatist.


Caputo, J. D. 1984. “Husserl, Heidegger and the Question of a ‘Hermeneutic’ Phenomenology”. Husserl Studies 1(1): 157–78.

Devitt, Michael. 1991. “Aberrations of the Realism Debate”. Philosophical Studies 61(1): 43–63.

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

Mooney, T. 1999. “Derrida’s Empirical Realism”. Philosophy & Social Criticism

25(5): 33–56.

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.

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Just an attempt in progress to clarify an argument regarding the plausible dependence of pragmatist theories of intentionality on phenomenological worlds.


Interpreters can differ in many ways that are irrelevant to their interpreterhood – differences in language, embodiment, gender, etc. However, if there are essential features common to all interpreters these might show up in the way subjects relate to the world and to other subjects. Phenomenology has traditionally been viewed as a powerful method for describing such relations. So if there are minimal conditions for being an interpreter, maybe phenomenology can help us spell them out.

Let’s put more bones on this. Condition 3 in the paradox of the Radical Alien corresponds to what Donald Davidson calls “the observability assumption”. This states that “an observer can under favorable circumstances tell what beliefs, desires, and intentions an agent has.” (Davidson 2001b, 99) In other words if x is an agent, x must be interpretable given ideal conditions.

This view finds it home a family of broadly pragmatist, post-Cartesian positions according to which the role of concepts such as meaning, belief, desire or intention is to render agency intelligible in the light of reasons. Having intentionality is, at some level, just the ability to conform to standards of rational agency. If so there is no secret to being an agent – beliefs and thoughts are not hidden states of the soul. At a bare minimum, an agent must be an intentional system; one that, as Dennett puts it, is “voluminously predictable”when assessed as a rational subject of belief or desire. A being that could not show up as exhibiting this skill would have failed to exhibit agential abilities.

This buys us local correlationism: an entity whose overt behaviour would be unintelligible the light of normative assessments wouldn’t qualify as an agent! However, for Robert Brandom, Dennett’s intentional stance approach gives us a very sparse and incomplete picture of what it is to be an agent because it is widely applicable to systems like Maze-running robots or fly-catching frogs, thermostats, or written texts, whose intentionality seems observer-relative rather than intrinsic to the observed system. Most obviously, it fails to account for the capacity that allows intentional systems to show up as such: namely the capacity to interpret. For Brandom, as for Davidson, intentionality and real agency require understanding as well as the ability to be understood; and this requires the capacity to interpret verbal behaviour and actions in the light of reasons.

For both philosophers, one of the conditions for such understanding is that both interpreter and interpretee have a structured language. Davidson presents a particularly terse argument for this connection:

Belief is an attitude of “holding” true some proposition: for example, that there is a cat behind that wall. Thus a true believer must have a grip on the concepts of truth and error. It follows that only those with a concept of belief can have beliefs. We cannot have a concept of belief without exercising it. Thus we cannot believe anything without the capacity to attribute to others true or false beliefs about common topics (Davidson 1984: 170; 2001b: 104).

This, in turn, requires a language. For beliefs and thoughts can only be interpreted by those who can compare their take on a topic with those held by the interpretee. Language affords this theatre of perspectives; expressing  facts about things and semantic facts about how things are referred to or represented. It makes explicit that “one can want to be the discoverer of a creature with a heart without wanting to be the discoverer of a creature with a kidney” (Davidson 1984: 163).

Interpretation requires “a coherent pattern in the behaviour of an agent” –  between what agents do, believe or express and the conditions under which action and expression occurs (Davidson 1984,: 159). Were agents systematically duped or confused about the world, this pattern would be lacking; their behaviour would reveal nothing about what they wanted to say, what they believed or desired. Not only is this rapport a condition of interpretation, so is the presupposition that it obtains. To have a concept of belief that I can apply in the second person or the first, I must understand or see the other as engaging with things that I am or could be cognisant of.  The (in)famous principle of Charity just is the assumption of shared cognisance. This is not an ethical embrace of cultural otherness, then, but another way of expressing the pragmatist idea that mentality is the ability to engage with the world in a rationally evaluable way.

The assumption of charity is only possible,, then, if the interpretee is assumed to live among and think about commonly identifiable things. Understanding that you might have true or false beliefs about things I have beliefs about requires that I locate us a shared field of actual or possible topics. As Davidson puts it again:

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

For Davidson, and for pragmatists more generally, the ability to interpret and be interpreted in turn is a condition of intentionality and thus agency. But this requires both that each agent understand the other to belong to a shared world. Moreover, it requires that there be such a world – in some sense: absent this condition, there would be nothing to interpret.

But what is this idea of a shared world an idea of? Under what conditions can two creatures be said to belong to one?

Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

____1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation, E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.

____2001a. Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

____2001b. Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective, Vol. 3. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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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.


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.


Dark Posthumanism II – Dublin Abstract

On March 2, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

A provisional abstract for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium in Dublin, 12-13 May,


Dark Posthumanism

Speculative Posthumanism (SP) claims that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some technological process. In Posthuman Life, I buttress SP with a series of philosophical negations whose effect is to leave us in the dark about these historical successors (Roden 2014). In consequence, SP confounds us in moral and epistemic darkness. We lack rules specifying the nature of the posthuman or how to recognise it. We do not know what we are becoming; and lack any assurance that our moral conceptions can travel into the future(s) we are complicit in producing.

I argue that the void delineated by speculative posthumanism implies that aesthetics is the first philosophy of the value domain, for it forces us to judge itineraries in posthuman possibility space without criteria. Art practices that engage with technological change thus supply a political model for pursuing and organizing trajectories into the future: one distancing us from any current conception of the good or any normative appeal to universality. This estrangement or abstraction, I will claim, does not express a postmodern ethics of transgression or “transvaluation” but falls out of the ontological structure of planetary technical networks.




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 (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.



Note on aesthetics and dark phenomenology

On February 20, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1


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.








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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