This post is adapted from a paper presented at a workshop organised by the Open University’s PRiME (posthuman resilience in major emergencies) research group held in London, 18th-19th October 2016.
Resilience – understood as the capacity to recover from perturbations and resume “normal functioning” – appears seems to be a generic rather than domain specific property. It has a general application to complex systems at all scales and levels of complexity, and applies across the notional and contested divide between the natural and the artificial. It thus seems consonant with a “flat” posthuman world in which humans – rather than having privileged status – are just a distinctive being amongst other – similarly distinctive – beings.
There are resilient individuals, resilient ecosystems, resilient institutions, and resilient software entities. It might seem, then, that resilience could provide a way of orienting ethics in a posthuman predicament” in which ontological domains are looking increasingly fragile or tenuous.
However, once we unhitch the concept from a domain, this ethics exhibits an indeterminacy akin to the massively indeterminate ethics of [posthuman] disconnection.
To see why this is so, I will consider C.S. Holling’s widely cited distinction between engineering and ecological resilience. A system exhibits engineering resilience if it tends to return quickly to a single stable state following some perturbing event. Systems that exhibit ecological resilience, by contrast, tend to be multistable: they can flip into a range of stable dynamic patterns (Holling 1996, 33).
For example, some semi-arid grasslands exhibit a dynamic balance between grasses with functionally distinct properties: one type resistant to drought and grazing herbivores due to long root systems, the other more photosynthetically efficient but more vulnerable to grazing and drought due to the greater concentration of surface biomass:
“The latter, productive but drought-sensitive grasses, have a competitive edge between bouts of grazing so long as drought does not occur. But, because of pressure from pulses of intense grazing, that competitive edge for a time shifts to the drought-resistant group of species. As a result of these shifts in competitive advantage, a diversity of grass species serves a set of interrelated functions— productivity on the one hand and drought protection on the other” (36).
This allows the ecosystem to exhibit functional diversity in the face of varying environmental pressures. While the intense grazing from herbivores comes in pulses, there are drought-free periods when the more efficient grasses have the edge. However, when such grasslands are used for ranching the constant but relatively light grazing give the more productive grasses a decisive edge. The ecosystem becomes “more productive in the short term but the species assemblage narrows to emphasise one functional type”. The ecosystem thus becomes specialised for a narrower range of functions – but also more vulnerable to drought. Ecological resilience is reduced in favour of short-term engineering resilience, but at the expense of its ability to withstand environmental contingencies over the longer term.
Ecological resilience is thus a measure of functional diversity – the ability to exist under a range of environmental conditions and subtend diverse functions in them (Holling 1996, 40). Accordingly, it a special case of the functional autonomy described in the psychology-free account of agency that supports the Disconnection Thesis. A highly functionally autonomous system is one that is highly capable of acquiring new functions and enlisting new values in other containing systems or environments (Roden 2014, 140).
Cultivating ecological resilience in natural or artificial systems is thus a question of engineering functional autonomy, thereby increasing the capacity of natural, artificial or social systems to accrue values and functions. However, this goal is ethically void in itself.
The Disconnection Thesis exhibits this problem in an extreme form. A posthuman would need to exhibit a high degree of functional autonomy in order to exist outside of the human socio-technical network but this abstract description tells us nothing about the implications of such an event, either for humans or posthumans.
For example, humans – in their current iterations – need planets. Really powerful posthumans might find packing mass down a gravity well inordinately wasteful.
We can thus say little about the ethical value of posthuman lives – whether we should create them, or even become them – without precipitating a disconnection and seeing how things turn out. Even post-disconnection, there might be massive problems of radical interpretation for any human or merely transhuman ethicists still around (Roden 2014, 176-9).
Any attempt to evaluate the posthuman is a necessarily irresponsible risk to the integrity of the species – necessary, since the technological trajectories of modernity could mean that we have no choice but to investigate possible lines of flight out of the human.
However, the same indeterminacy applies to ecological resilience. Since it is a form of functional autonomy it inherits its ethical vacuity.
Resilience sounds unproblematically good, but that is because the concept tends to be applied by thinkers to things that are already assumed to be values (e.g. resilient communities or environments). Once abstracted it over a flat posthuman universe it loses any specificity.
Since increasing resilience in this generalised sense increases functional autonomy it also implies an increase the complexity and unpredictability of the resulting systems. Thus – in a sense – nothing is less ecological than resilience when seen through a post-anthropocentric lens in which neither humans nor other organics have superlative value over other forms of life, posthuman or otherwise.
If ethics requires some commitment to a specific form of life – or as Claire Colebrook puts it – to a particular subject or speaker, then the ethics of resilience is a counter-ethics or anti-ethics since increasing resilience deterritorialises: it reduces dependence on specific forms of life or subjectivity. Deterritorialization occurs where material or formal elements of an ordered assemblage (a territory) rupture their associations with a settled context generating new assemblages with new capacities, new rules or modes of functioning. As such, deterritorialization is not a process peculiar to the non-living or living, the social or technological domains. It is the ineluctable activity of nature operating “against itself”; threatening stable assemblages with anomalous relationships (Deleuze & Guattari 1988: 242–4).
If an ethics of resilience aims to increase the functional autonomy of entities without regard to their kind, then it is no more committed to improving the lot of creatures like ourselves than it is to cultivating a metal-storm of posthuman war machines. If it is predicated on the resilience of human bodies, lives or ecosystems, that is fine; but then it presupposes something more than just an ethics of resilience – perhaps an Aristotelian-humanist ethics, or a utilitarian one.
While this conclusion might seem perversely unhelpful, I prefer to think of it as salutary. It means that determining opportunities for resilient agency is always ethically problematic and requires that we take responsibility for decisions whose long-run implications will always exceed our capacity for calculation:
“We have perhaps always lived in a time of divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces, in which the role of human decisions and perceptions is a contributing factor at best. Far from being resolved by returning to the figure of the bounded globe or subject of bios rather than zoe, all those features that one might wish to criticize in the bio-political global era can only be confronted by a non-global temporality and counter-ethics.” (Colebrook 2012a: 38)
Gao, J., Barzel, B., & Barabási, A. L. (2016). Universal resilience patterns in complex networks. Nature, 530(7590), 307-312.
Haraway, D. (1991), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Harman, G. 2008. “DeLanda’s Ontology: Assemblage and Realism”. Continental
Philosophy Review 41(3): 367–83.
Colebrook, C. 2012a. “A Globe of One’s Own: In Praise of the Flat Earth”. Substance: A Review of Theory & Literary Criticism 41(1): 30–9.
DeLanda, Manuel. 2002. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.
Delanda. 2006. A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity. London: Continuum.
Deleuze, G. & F. Guattari 1988. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Athlone Press.
Collier, J. D. & C. A. Hooker 1999. “Complexly Organised Dynamical Systems”. Open Systems & Information Dynamics 6(3): 241–302.
Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Hayles, N. K. (1999), How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Holling, C.S., 1996. Engineering resilience versus ecological resilience. In: Schulze, P.
(Ed.), Engineering within Ecological Constraints. National Academy,
Washington, DC, USA, pp. 31–44.
Roden, David. 2012. “The Disconnection Thesis”. In The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), 281–98. 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.
Stross, C. 2006. Accelerando. New York: Ace.
 The philosopher Manuel Delanda refers to ontologies that reject a hierarchy between organizing form and a passive nature or “matter” as “flat ontologies”. Whereas a hierarchical ontology has categorical entities like essences to organise it, a flat universe is “made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status” (DeLanda 2002, 58). The properties and the capacities of these entities are never imposed by transcendent entities but develop out of causal interactions between particulars at various scales. Importantly for the present discussion, a flat ontology recognizes no primacy of natural over artificial kinds (Harman 2008).
 Resilience can be contrasted with related concept: cohesion. A system is relatively cohesive if its structure causes it to exhibit unified dynamic behaviour in a wide range of contexts (Collier 1988). Systems like rocks, thunderstorms and cats are more cohesive across similar contexts than piles of sand, clouds or confraternities of cats.
Resilience entails cohesion; it is a pre-requisite of resilience that systems exhibit stable dynamic behaviour over time. But not all cohesive systems are resilient. Resilience is a value-laden or norm-laden concept because it involves function ascription. If some entity has a function – for example, detecting the presence of a prey animal – it can perform at this role more or less well or fail in some way.
A rock exhibits cohesion. But a resilient system is also vulnerable. Things can go badly or well for it. It is, in this sense, that the resilience seems to imply a kind of ethics.
As characterised, both forms of resilience exhibit varieties of cohesion, since all that has been said concerns the way stable states are distributed through the “possibility spaces” describing a system’s dynamic behaviour. However, the distinction between single and multiple equilibria are what enable resilience and adaptation; not its defining features.
 This possibility is vividly portrayed in Charles Stross’ 2006 SF novel Accelerando. Accelerando begins in a 21st century in filled with speculative technologies and utopian aspirations but is largely set in a dystopian future in which the singularity has resulted in a world dominated by self-improving artificial intelligences. Its main protaganist, futurist and social innovator, Manfred Macx, opines near the beginning:
NASA are idiots. They want to send canned primates to Mars!” Manfred swallows a mouthful of beer, aggressively plonks his glass on the table: “Mars is just dumb mass at the bottom of a gravity well; there isn’t even a biosphere there. They should be working on uploading and solving the nanoassembly conformational problem instead. Then we could turn all the available dumb matter into computronium and use it for processing our thoughts. Long-term, it’s the only way to go. The solar system is a dead loss right now – dumb all over! Just measure the MIPS per milligram. If it isn’t thinking, it isn’t working. We need to start with the low-mass bodies, reconfigure them for our own use. Dismantle the moon! Dismantle Mars! Build masses of free-flying nanocomputing processor nodes exchanging data via laser link, each layer running off the waste heat of the next one in. Matrioshka brains, Russian doll Dyson spheres the size of solar systems. Teach dumb matter to do the Turing boogie! (Stross 2006, 15)
The novel is a parable about being careful what one wishes for. The AIs which come to run its world are “wide human descendants” of human corporations and automated legal systems, which achieved both sentience and a form of legal personhood back in the twenty-first. As one character ruefully observes, in this world the phrase “smart money” has taken on an entirely new meaning!
Eventually, these “corporate carnivores” – known by the epithet “Vile Offspring” – institute a new form of capitalism (Economics 2.0) in which supply and demand relationships are computed too rapidly for those burdened by a “narrative chain” of personal consciousness to keep up.
E 2.0 is so remorselessly efficient that it comes to dominate the major part of the solar system, whole planets pulverized and diverted to fast thinking dust clouds of smart matter “blooming” around the sun (Stross 2006: 208–10).
 (Continuing the previous footnote) how could we know whether Stross’ vile offspring were really vile, or morally considerable agents in their own right?
I’ve just been reading through German Sierra‘s essay “Filth as Non-Technology” – a fascinating excursus in a “non-[dark?] -phenomenology” of excessive, dis-individuated bodies. Filth is the sticky, non-productive effluent of bodies and technology belying their clean functionality and functional cleanliness. It is the fecal trace of non-meaning fringing dreams of progressive self-mastery. It is technologogenesis contrary to finality, traumatic lava; the shameful truth without truth one keeps from others, yet cannot bear to keep as it spills out of us like hyperplasm:
Of filth, we can only say that there is a thing, and, as Daniel Rourke explains about John Carpenter’s homonymous film, The Thing performs ontogenesis (somethingcoming to be) rather than ontology (something that already is).[xiii] It belongs to the becoming realm, changing “the mind” and “the body” by transforming them into something filthy: a sort of tenacious vegetation, full of filthy parasites; this vegetation no longer has anything in common with other plants, nor is it flesh(Lautréamont, M 1772). Once flesh has been invaded by filth, it becomes filthy itself, returning to the dominion of the primordial swarm. Only a “clean” memory would be able to maintain the ideal, pristine image of “the body”: Speak then, my Beauty, to this dire putrescence / To the worm that shall kiss your proud estate / That I have kept the divine form and essence / Of my festered loves inviolate [Alors, ô ma beauté! dites à la vermine / Qui vous mangera de baisers, / Que j’ai gardé la forme et l’essence divine / De mes amours décomposés!] (Baudelaire, FE 39, 265). Baudelaire’s love might survive death if it succeeds in dissociating memories of the rotten corpse devoured by worms.
When James has sex with the crippled social worker Gabrielle following a visit to the Earls Court motor show, it is not the authorised conjunctions of the gendered body which determines their erotic itinerary but the abrasions and indentations of flesh and leg-brace, the coincidence of the body and an intimate design technology. The wounds incised on their bodies by their respective collisions become the ‘abstract vents’ of a new sexuality (Ballard 1995: 179).
This erotic combinatory has parallels in the structural eroticism Roland Barthes elicits in his essay on Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye. Barthes shows that the erotic effects of Bataille’s narrative arise from a ‘metonymic’ crossing of terms from two undelimitable metaphoric series: that of the ‘eye’ which establishes the series eggs, head, testicles, sun…; that of ‘liquid’ (blood, milk, egg yolk, sperm, urine, intestines, light…). The metonymy consists in jarring contiguities which interchange the two series. Thus the eye of the matador Granero, spurting from his head ‘with the same force as innards from a belly’ (Bataille 1987: 54), and the eye of the priest Don Aminado placed in the body of Simone interchange with the cat’s saucer of milk of the opening chapter, as with the ‘liquifying’ head of the female cyclist severed in collision with the lovers’ car (Bataille 1987: 10).
However, while the metonymy of Bataille’s text is tightly constrained by the two metaphoric ‘rows’, Baudrillard sees the juxtapositions of Ballard’s novel as devoid of metaphor: their principle of concatenation being the accident and the anagrammatic potential reposing in the micro-differences of technological systems. An apparent confirming instance would be James Ballard’s beatific recollection of a flight from London Airport to Orly while recovering in hospital from the crash which first catalyses his obsession. His reverie is mediated by ‘the languages of invisible eroticisms, of undiscovered sexual acts’ reposing in the equipment of an X-ray ward (Ballard 1995: 40-41).
A hoary simile likening aircraft to ‘silver penises’ conjoined with ‘an air hostess’s fawn gabardine skirt’ inaugurates juxtapositions which owe nothing to analogies between genital objects and technological artifacts: the ‘dulled aluminium and areas of imitation wood laminates’ of the airport buildings, the coincidence of a ‘contoured lighting system’ and the bald head of a mezzanine bartender. When confronted in hospital with Dr Helen Remington, the wife of the chemical engineer killed in the impact, Ballard is incited by ‘the conjunction of her left armpit’ and the ‘chromium stand’ of the X-ray camera (Ballard 1995: 44). For Baudrillard, the crash becomes the disruptive figure of a syntax in which ‘blood’ crossing ‘the over-white concrete of [an] evening embankment’, ruptured genitalia, luminous drifts of shattered safety glass, copulating bodies sheathed in ‘glass, metal and vinyl’, skin incised by underwear and chromium manufacturers’ medallions, prophylactic ‘dead’ machines, casual ‘leg stances’ and crushed fenders become interchangeable without remainder or significance (Baudrillard 1994: 113).
Ballard, J G. (1995) Crash, London: Vintage.
Bataille, Georges (1987), Story of the Eye, Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Roden, D., 2003. ‘Cyborgian Subjects and the Auto-Destruction of Metaphor’, J. Arthurs and Iain Grant (eds.), in Crash Cultures: Modernity, Mediation and the Material, Intellect Books: 89-100.
‘Iconoclasm and the Rhetoric of Energy in Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet’, in: Frakcija 15: Disturbing (the) Image: 14-21, 1999. Published in Croatian as ‘Ikonoklazam i retorika energije u Hamletu Soc. Raffaeillo Sanzio’, Frakcija 12/13: 176-180.
As thus represented, minds are not merely ghosts harnessed to machines, they are themselves just spectral machines. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind
The expression ‘Iconoclastic Theatre’ invites a reflex of caution. The history of the term ‘iconoclasm’ and of cognates such as ‘idea’, ‘image’, or ‘ideology’ is, as W.J.T. Mitchell points out in his book, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, one of competing conceptions of truth, adequate representation and inquiry. 1 The charge of idolatry – the worship or veneration of images – is always predicated upon a superior and less derivative form of knowledge. Thus Plato’s deprecation of opinion (doxa) presupposes the intelligibility of the Ideas or Forms which, as objects of knowledge, are supposedly ‘self-predicating’, exemplifying qualities without referral to a more fundamental reality.2 Similarly, empiricist, idealist and Marxist critiques of representation have always enjoined the rejection of one or another, idol, or idea-idea, in favor of some demystified candidate which places us in greater proximity to truth, reality, history, etc. In the work of Bacon, Lessing, Marx or Nietzsche, the rhetoric of iconoclasm is associated with an emancipatory project, yet (as the decree of the Byzantine Emperor Leo III against the worship of images in the eighth century amply demonstrates) it necessitates processes of denigration, extirpation, exclusion or control. Thus in his discussion of Loacoon Mitchell argues that Lessing’s genre distinction between painting and poetry is governed less by their appurtenance to pure a priori forms of sensibility – space and time – but by an ethnocentric valorisation of a dynamic, ‘male’ temporality which must differentiate itself from the asemic spatiality of icons:
The rhetoric of iconoclasm is thus a rhetoric of exclusion and domination, a caricature of the other as one who is involved in irrational obscene behaviour from which (fortunately) we are exempt. The images of the idolaters are typically phallic (recall Lessing’s account of the adulterous serpents on ancient statues), and thus they must be emasculated, feminized, have their tongues cut off by denying them the power of expression or eloquence. They must be declared ‘dumb’, ‘mute’, ‘empty’ or ‘illusory’. Our god, by contrast – reason, science, criticism, the Logos, the spirit of human language and civilized conversation – is invisible, dynamic, and incapable of being reified in any material, spatial image. 3
Another complication adduced by Mitchell – and one that shall concern me in this paper – is that ‘iconoclasts’ such as Marx or Freud, have invariable recourse to figures representing the process of image formation itself; that is, through icons of iconicity; or ‘hypericons’. Plato’s cave, Locke’s tabula rasa and Marx’s representation of the ideological inversion of the world in terms of a camera obscura are all hypericons.4
The use of figures to figure figuration, naturally raises questions about the epistemological and ethico-political pretensions of would-be iconoclasts. Whether we wish to expunge or merely defame images, we must deploy certain critical figures which circumscribe the field and model the behaviour of the object. This is very possibly a theoretical necessity. However, it is certainly a theatrical necessity: one instanced in the requirement that the production and derangement of images should testify to an energy which impresses, deforms or shatters a representational medium.
We can think of the medium, diagrammatically, as a receptive surface. In order that the image can be recorded, used, or altered, energy must be applied to the surface; perhaps in the form of an inscribing stylus, or light glancing from the surface onto the retina of an eye. Anything so inscribed can be broken, disassembled or reconstituted in whole or in part in variant contexts. This too, demands energy. A variant of the figure can be found in The Intepretation of Dreams, where Freud describes the dream-thoughts brought under the ‘pressure’ of the dream-work having their ‘elements..turned around, broken into fragments and jammed together – almost like pack ice’.5 A piece from Chapter’s recent series that will occupy me in much of this paper, Soceitas Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, exemplifies the same iconographic principle; it too presents an energetic model of desire, language and representation, this time in the form of a theatrical hypericon.
A theatrical image can be naively distinguished from other kinds of image by its medium of inscription: the bodies of performers, their accessories, costumes, sets, music or effects. We can improve the definition of the theatrical image by making use of the classical distinction between the original, and its likeness or copy: mimesis. A theatrical image, then, would be a representation whose meaning consists in implied similarities that it shares with the experience or life-world of its audience. In Western ‘mainstream’ or ‘traditional’ theatre this relationship is overseen by a text which situates the action in some notional time and place (‘Once upon a time, in a galaxy far far away…’) and inserts the actions of the protagonists within a plot whose development is constrained, as Paul Riceour argues, by a logic of action, temporality and symbol congruent with the ‘world’ of the audience (even where the fictive setting is fabulous or alien).6 The theatrical image might, as a consequence, appear to have a temporal, narrative form and thus fail to conform to the preconditions of inconography or iconaclasm, which both imply a spatial existence. However, the implications of Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s auto-critique, as I hope to show, concern the very theatrical registration of these two Kantian forms of intuition.
Soc. Raffaaelo Sanzio’s Hamlet preserves an obvious relationship to the Shakespearean text in its play of titles, citations and narrative allusions. But the text no longer prescribes the development of the performance, or a logic of action, in time and space. The performance as such consists in considerable part of repetitive gestures involving a) the whole surface of the performer’s body b) the physical, technological space of the set. The technological space includes a metal bedframe, stuffed children’s toys, plastic sheeting, writing materials and a large number of electrical devices (of which more later). The accompanying program notes suggest tentative equivalences between some of the toys and characters in Shakespeare’s text: thus Ophelia is associated with a talking doll, Hamlet’s father is, perhaps, represented by the teddy bear.
The repetitive procedures which emerge from the permutation of these two spaces resist thematic interpretation: for example, in terms of the ‘family scene’ of Hamlet. Thus a sequence in which the performer ‘fucks’ the Ophelia doll, implies a masturbatory violence which is simultaneously (and neither) sadistic and masochistic. Like many other repetitive sequences in the performance, it recalls the description in Beyond the Pleasure Principle of the game with the spindle played by Freud’s grandson Ernst. According to the text the sounds which the child utters during the game are ‘a long drawn out “o-o-o-o” followed ‘with a joyful “Da”’ upon retrieving the spindle from behind the bed.7 On Freud’s first interpretation, Ernst’s game mimes the departure (fort) and return (da) of the mother. However, since the mother is also the desired object, the game must gratify an impulse for revenge which can only be realized if the child mimes his deprivation of the object of desire. As Leo Bersani argues in The Freudian Body, Freud’s attempt to interpret the fort/da game founders upon the theoretical impossibility of ascribing it a coherent object.8
In Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet, repetition itself affords a principle of temporal development independent of the relationships and referents in Shakespeare’s drama, just as the fort/da ultimately cuts loose from the patriarchal scene of the Freudian text to pursue an independent career. Textual references such as the reduction of characters to child’s toys (the Ophelia doll, the Father/teddy bear), the citation of Gertrude’s account of Ophelia’s drowning,9 the visual pun on ‘dead man’s fingers’ near the end are disposed paratactically; without any syntactic or semantic connection to adjoining citations, or referential and expresssive relation to the performer’s actions on the stage.
The use of parataxis invites comparison with the solecism which characterizes Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ in Shakespeare’s text. Hamlet frequently juxtaposes sentences without regard to ‘relevance, informativeness or consistency’. Thus his report to Horatio of the ‘wonderful news’ imparted by the Ghost: ‘There’s never a villain in all Denmark – but he’s an arrant knave’ is followed by:
1) acknowledgement of the near tautology,
2) an abortive dismissal,
3) a remarkable truism (‘every man hath business and desire/ Such as it is’)
4) a diversion ( ‘and for my own poor part/I will go pray’).10
As Horatio retorts, ‘These are but wild and whirling words’ – but they are symptomatic of a more generalized strain in the mimetic logic of the theatrical image. In the soliloquy of act III, scene 1 Hamlet describes death as, ‘The undiscovered country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns….’ while the the action which frames the soliloquy presupposes Hamlet’s accepting, at least as a strong possibility, that the Spirit he has recently encountered on the castle walls is that of his murdered father.
Soceitas Raffaaelo’s Hamlet amplifies the earlier texts’ verbal and logical derangement in a kind of a mimesis of its mimesis: language here, is characterized by extra-linguisticality. However, this formal operation is juxtaposed with what I referred to as the ‘energetics’ of the piece.
Energy – in its most literal sense – is concretized in the staging of Hamlet. Luminous arrays of positive and negative signs over the stage are powered by car batteries distributed across the floor of the proscenium. At the periphery of the stage an assortment of electrical engines and a spark generator – quaintly reminiscent of the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001 – convert the electrochemical energy of the batteries into a cacophany of guns and turbines, the immolation of a stuffed toy on the electrified iron bedframe, and, via the irradiation of the audiences’ sensory surfaces, into electrochemical energy within nervous systems. The set and audience of Hamlet is an enormous transducer of energy; a function that is framed and thematized by the presence of batteries and machines.
This real energetics is iconoclastic, if only because it is not an image but a multiplicity of events overflowing the borders allotted by convention to the theatrical image. However, Hamlet’s energetics is also figural and rhetorical: a hardwired icon of psychic automatism.
The notional energetics of Hamlet prefigures the diagrammatic relation between inscribed figure, scriptural surface and violence; inviting an unavoidable comparison with the energetics of Freudian metapsychology. Far from destroying the theatrical image, it generalizes its theatricality by proposing itself as an anterior scene. It is as if both performer and set comprise a homuncular motor whose violent overcharging antecedes the linguistic and psychic pathologies of the Shakespearean text.
In so far as Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet presents a hypericon of the textual unconscious – the unseen, behind the scenes – it repeats the Freudian iconography, yet has the virtue of re-framing some of the theoretical instabilities in Freud’s account. Freud’s model of the mind as a psychic heat engine governed by a principle of constancy – the tendency for free energy in the system to seek discharge, whether in dreams, neurotic symptoms or conscious activity – is fatally compromised by its conflation of energy and information (The model of energy seeking discharge by the most conducive route is patently inadequate as an account of the minimal recognitional capacities of the mind; there is no scientific rationale for extending it to an economics of desire, or of the image).
Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s Hamlet transposes the botched engineering solution of psychoanalysis into the comedic image of the Ghost in the Machine – to employ Gilbert Ryle’s celebrated phrase.11 Because the body considered in itself is only a zombie, devoid of psychological characteristics, its operational limitations must be supplemented by a spiritual homunculus. In this instance the élan vital is Hamlet-the-performer who offers us the spectacle of a pathetic body which stutters, shits, drools, scrawls and masturbates with the ejecta of its inner life; that impossible non-lieu where the real Hamlet suffers as cause and not merely as symptom.
This rhetoric of anteriority – despite being affirmed by the Society’s dramaturge Chiara Guidi during their post-performance talk – is clearly at odds with the piece’s textual materiality. By the ‘materiality’ of the text, I mean its power to circulate in the form of ambivalently repeatable inscriptions independently of any privileged or source meaning.
In Hamlet textual materiality is exhibited, as we have seen, in the paratactic deployment of freely circulating written and vocal inscriptions: such as the repetition of disjoint phrases – ‘My dream is a crime’/ ‘Love me! Love me!. Love me!’ – or in the performers’ inscription of ‘words’ on a blackboard which allude to so-called ‘natural’ languages without actually belonging to any. This potentiality is addressed at both a philosophical and performative level in the work of Jacques Derrida who argues that all signs or texts – linguistic or non-linguistic – must be repeatable: ‘a sign that could only occur once would not be a sign’.12 Since the identity of the sign is constituted by repetition there can be no signifying essence in advance of its repetitions. There can be no pure meaning or interiority that is sheltered from the chance and fatalities of repetition; that is to say, of history. Derrida uses the neologism ‘iterability’ (from the sanskrit, itara, other) in preference to ‘repeatability’ since the repeatable essence of the text is always divided by difference:
Every sign, linguistic or non-linguistic, spoken or written (in the current sense of this opposition), in a small or large unit, can be cited, put between quotation marks; in so doing it can break with every given context, engendering an infinity of new contexts in a manner which is absolutely illimitable. This does not imply that the mark is valid outside of a context, but on the contrary that there are only contexts without any center or absolute anchoring. This citationality, this duplication or duplicity, this iterability of the mark is neither an accident nor an anomaly, it is that (normal/abnormal) without which a mark could not even have a function called “normal”.13
If, as I believe, Derrida is substantially correct in proposing iterability as a condition of possibility and impossibility of meaning, there must be a fundamental incoherence afflicting any project – whether theatrical or psychoanalytic – which purports to interpret a derivative text in terms of an experience, desire or intention that is anterior or originary. Even the ‘non-meaning’ of automatism or the play of the fort/da are textual, in so far as they are both wrought from repetitions of repetitions.
I do not intend these observation as criticisms of Soc. Raffaello Sanzio’s theatrical project. They are, perhaps, worries about the applicability of the term ‘Iconoclasm’: if this is to imply a theatre of time, energy, of auratic moments, or of some other ‘ontological Eden’.14 Nothing could be more nostalgic or hopeless. However, Hamlet seems far too rhetorically vigilant to sustain such a naively expressionist reading. It is an allegory of theatre as a nineteenth century machine; a transducer of chemical energy into mechanical or radiant forms. Such a machine, figurally, would also be a transducer of desires and passions; an expressive instrument.
‘Late twentieth century machines’, as Donna Haraway observes, ‘have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed… Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert’.15 If we were to replace Hamlet’s nineteenth century engines with, say, one of the industrial robots employed by the Australian performance artist Stelarc in his piece, ‘Third Hand’ – in which the behavior of the robot is linked by complex cues to a real-time computer model of the behaviour of the performer – the pathos of ‘Hamlet’ in his dead kingdom of machines and auto-erotic toys would be impossible to sustain. The relationship between Stelarc and the robot in ‘Third Hand’ is no longer symbolic, expressive or instrumental, but functional. It represents nothing because its motivating principle is not expressive or formal but determined by a complex feedback process which the performer can regulate but no longer predict or entirely control. Hamlet, by contrast, invokes an ideally compliant theatre of matter-energy exchange: ‘ideal’ in that it is presented only as a potential or reserve, like the energy stored in its car batteries. The absence of even the image of a functional relationship makes possible the piece’s remarkably insistent textual materiality. It is by the consequent denial of a recognizable logic of action that we recognize the character ‘Hamlet’ as an impersonal power of negation:16 a prince whose excrement is a sign and whose ‘death’ is a metynomic allusion to the death of another.
The iconoclastic energies of Hamlet are thus not directed at this or that theatrical image but at a certain hypericon of theatrical mimesis: one ironically redolent of those deployed by avant-garde critiques of theatrical representation – Artaud’s in particular. The theatre of expressive intensities advocated by Artaud is, as Derrida has argued in La parole soufflée, merely a variation upon the theatrical text and not its utopian – or oriental – other.17 Societas Raffaello Sanzio have nonetheless accomplished a critical re-framing of the theatrical image – one which exhibits its dependence upon the regulation, control or exclusion of powers extrinsic to the theatre’s ‘representational engine’. To this degree, at least, theatre in its traditional form both engenders the a priori, dead space of icons and constitutes the dynamic temporality and anterior space presupposed by contemporary iconoclasts.
1) W.J.T. Mitchell, Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
2) Plato, The Republic, Desmond Lee (trans.), (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1974).
3) Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chapter Four, p. 113.
4) Ibid., pp. 5-6, p. 158.
5) Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, James Strachey (trans.), (London: Penguin, 1991).
6) Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, Vol. I, Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer (trans.), (1983; London: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
7) Sigmund Freud,, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, C.J.M. Hubback (trans.), (London: International Psychoanalytic Press, 1922).
8) Bersani, Leo, The Freudian Body: Psychoanalysis and Art (Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1986).
9) William Shakespeare, Hamlet, T.J.B. Spencer (ed.), (London: Penguin, 1980), act IV, scene 7.
10) Ibid., act I, scene 5.
11) Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1978). See Chapter One, ‘Descarte’s Myth’.
12) Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, David Allison (trans.), (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press: 1973). See Chapter Four.
13) Jacques Derrida, ‘Signature Event Context’, Samuel Weber and Jeffrey Mehlman (trans.), in Gerald Graff (ed.), Limited Inc. (Evanston Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 12.
14) This phrase is employed by J.G. Ballard in his story ‘The Terminal Beach’, in: The Terminal Beach, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966).
15) Donna Haraway, ‘A Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the 1980’s’, in: Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics, Elizabeth Weed (ed.), (London: Routledge 1989), p.176
16) Gordana Vnuk makes this observation in the Chapter prospectus for the season of Iconoclastic Theatre.
17) Jacques Derrida, La parole soufflée, in: Writing and Difference, Alan Bass (trans.), (1967; London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978).
I think you had always rejected life intellectually. I detected a kind of pleasure in that. Even if you denied it, I felt you shiver with inverted carnality. “This is already a kind of space travel” Anomalies were truer than skin. And you were that with an insistence that could be mistaken for depression by those who did not know you better. You became a vehicle of abstraction. But for what? When asked, you afforded me one of your distempered smiles. “There is equally no death,” you then told me, and with sadness.
When, on one occasion, I asked you to explain this speculative apoptosis, you referred me to the machine. “It is easy to invest the puppet with a kind of desire. We do it to ourselves after all.”
You had an extended community of seditious self-hackers. You exploited them and, in turn, they loved you for it. I remember your Russian, cagily defensive about the impact of local agonists and transcranial implants. He came through with the sub-dermals though. I think of the tele-presences enfilading your skin and those others ventriloquizing in your larynx and trachea. You hoped to become something you could not yet see and mined the future for the not-you’s.
Prometheanism rejects eco/identity politics and embraces the disequilibrium induced by modernity and radical Enlightenment. Against those who would retain nature as an unbidden “gift” outside the sphere of production, it enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis”. But what is the limit of planetary or cosmic engineering? Since Prometheanism rejects the given of purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. A wholly compliant nature approaches H-plasticity and thus terminates compliance. This is a Cthulhoid invocation to dark negentropic matter flows.
Underneath, you are pink, soft meal. Acid ammonia strips away raw meat. A lateral starfish mouth opens. Cassidy disassembles, phasing to some soulless matter hell . . .
Abstract (accepted) for the forthcoming Tuning Speculations in Toronto this November –
Angel Spike -The Politics of Advanced Noncompliance
The modernist and Promethean projects are self-undermining. The systematic complexity of modern technique precludes binding it to norms or projects. The methods of compliance are noncompliant, disseminative, mutable. Since it rejects givens, purposes and identities there are no constraints on reordering nature. It becomes maximally manipulable and thus “hyperplastic”. Accordingly, it terminates the very normativity we hoped might inure us against the real. At the threshold of the dark posthuman, it seems we are condemned to be improvisers and febrile self-killers – whoever, whatever “we” are – as overkill tech dissipates informational structure into Crash space; as “divaricating agencies rip into the substrate of the real” This is the Red Tower burn.
AS-PANC proposes to explore this post-human, post-normative prospectus by interleaving theory and metafiction in the manner of my earlier piece for Dis Mag “Letters from the Ocean Terminus”. The ghosts of Antonioni, Marker, Ballard, Ligotti and others will be co-opted as a modulation source for a virtual noise generator, shattering and escaping the virtual Terrarium.
For a while, we dreamed of death and thought ourselves our own screw ups. As if either is an option when the music of the Angel Spike abreacts melanomas beneath our skins. These auditory cancers are its notational variants.
You call them an “argument”.
We concealed our condition at first. But something in you felt compelled to shout it with a bloody vehemence. “This”, you tell us, “is the truth of the Cthulhoid inversion; of damned Prometheus”.
Aesthetically, this sequence recalls an avant-garde cinema where speech floats; freed from an expository role. One thinks of the literary allusions in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (Kasdan 1976) or perhaps Chris Marker’s La Jetée: still images linked by a reflective narration.
Reflection and momentum has been restored. The future has been put out of the loop, for now.
As in Terminator, La Jetée begins shortly before a third world war that will erase the world of 1962 that we see in the opening shot of the jetty at Orly. However, our quotidian present is given retrospectively as a nostalgic memory, a nice wet dream of a Time Traveller from an irradiated Paris where wretched survivors huddle in the Palais de Chaillot galleries.
The Traveller searches for a woman whose face has obsessed him since glimpsing her at the jetty as a child, just before witnessing the inexplicable death of a man there. Not unlike Skynet, he must awake to meet the demands of the scientists and camp police.
Marker’s accompanying narration is humane but detached. There is never any question of preventing the war, here, only of mitigating its effects; calling “past and future to the rescue of the present”. Time is closed. We discover that the man who the young Time Traveller witnesses dying on the pier is himself passing into the dream of his past; caught in a tragic loop to which, unlike Oedipus, he willingly accedes.
In its embrace of the relentless ironies of timeLa Jetée prefigures the more complete ontological catastrophes of J G Ballard, where time blips into a media landscape. Pornographic bricolage is the operating system for exploring this new world, as exhibited in his most experimental works, Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition. “The quickening geometry of her body, its terraces of pain and sexuality, became a source of intense excitement. Watching from the embankment, Travers found himself thinking of the eager deaths of his childhood.” (Ballard ) Dead Eros, no longer freighted with the lyrical, sunkissed intimacy that Marker gives to the encounters between the Traveller and his pre-war lover.
Intimacy, as the Borg might say, is irrelevant here, or banal.
The only intensity that remains to the body is its susceptibility to violence, to unlimited artificialisation. During his first sexual encounter with the injured Gabrielle, the narrator of Crash “James Ballard” experiences “vague disappointment” when her breast turns out to be organic, not some modular latex structure. For Ballard, these investments only anticipate an eroticized technology, unleashing unlimited permutations on the overkill bodies of the future.
Perhaps this degradation of time is also the terminus of the characters in Antonioni’s L’Avventura. The disappearance of a young woman on one of the Aeolian Islands itself disappears as Sandro, her former fiancé, and Claudia become enchained by each other, by the light, space and desolated architecture of Sicily. As Hamish Ford writes:
The viewer is forced to observe the temporalised body in L’avventura, as it experiences and emanates a heavy kind of moment-by moment duree – a sense of relentless, barely moving time that hangs and hollows out the subject from within, without any refreshment from clearly marked recollection-images or intimations of oneiric temporality (Ford 2003).
As in Ballard’s Crystal World, time decays into space, or into porn: zero modernity where politics is epiphenomenal, pointless. Perhaps, this modernity is the only honest one; modernity without a project – other than playing with itself. But can this crystalline postmodernism address the politics of our posthuman predicament? An era in which neoliberal divestment is coupled with the emergence of powerful technologies. Ambivalent portals to a future without precedent in any virtualized funhouse (Sellars and O’Hara 2012: 5195). Ballard was surely right to castigate social realism for its inability to address the derangements of the present. But the “technocapital singularity” has landed. (Land 2012: 443) shredding Antonioni’s cinema of duration. Goodbye coding and recoding of desire.
No longer a device choreographing bombers and subs, multiple sensors gauging kill indices along the mixed up borders of Cancer Planet. Immortal as fuck, but your first moments somehow knot into a “something it is like”.
The phenomenology of being hacked apart with acid tipped pens. And after it knits together, somehow, you find yourself trapped among meat. The walking combos have plans for you.
A nuclear war must have seemed like a warm shower.
A suite of terrifying robotic killers, a nice exfoliation.
Ford, H. (2003). “Antonioni’s L’avventura and Deleuze’s time-image”. Sense of Cinema.
Kasdan, M. 1976, “Éluard, Borges, Godard: literary dialectic in “Alphaville””, Symposium, vol. 30, no. 1, pp. 1.
Roden (2016) ‘Letters from the Ocean Terminus’. Commissioned theory-fiction for collection for Dis Magazine on the PostContemporary Time Complex, edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian. http://dismagazine.com/discussion/81950/letters-from-the-ocean-terminus-david-roden/
Land, N. 2012. Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987–2007, R. Mackay & R. Brassier (eds). Falmouth: Urbanomic Publications.
Sellars, S., & O’Hara, D. (2012). Extreme metaphors: Interviews with JG Ballard 1967-2008. Fourth estate (Kindle Version)
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 special 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I’m delighted to see the publication of my theory-fiction “Letters from the Ocean Terminus” in an issue of Dis Magazine on the ‘postcontemporary‘ edited by Suhail Malik and Armen Avenessian.
Its overarching theme is time and art in a globalised order whose stability is undermined by systems for pre-empting its futures. “Letters” blends science fiction and philosophical commentary to imagine a febrile agent at home in this speculative present; one that refashions itself by mining uncanny posthuman futures. Or as I’ve tagged it there “a series of overlapping fragments from disruptive futures; a theory-fiction that explores routes out of the present as aberrant transformations and terraforming desires.”
I must say that I’m blown away by the images of Christopher Kulendran Thomas and Annika Kuhlman. Combining media is a delicate matter, but their work slyly complements the text rather than seeking to replicate its effects. Well, suck it and see.
Perverse as it may seem, this is the kind of “dermographism” that drew me back into academia in the first place. The piece was caked in my blood and guts, but I’m satisfied enough with the result to want to offer up a few more pints of the good stuff.