Here‘s the audio for a fizzy discussion on posthumanism in the arts I participated in at the Centre for Cultural Studies Research at the University of East London. We talked monsters, posthuman urbanism, science fiction, the speculative/critical divide in posthumanism, whether immersive media and technological arts might help us overcome entrenched dualisms in western thought and political implications (if any) of deconstructing such binaries.
With Debra Benita Shaw (University of East London, Centre for Cultural Studies Research), Stefan Sorgner (University of Erfurt), David Roden (Open University), Dale Hergistad (X-Media Lab) and Luciano Zubillaga (UWL Ealing School of Art, Design and Media).
What follows is a reworking of material in my earlier post on Ray Brassier and Improvisation. It’s part of a longer work in progress exploring whether aesthetic creativity can function as a model for decision-making in a posthuman (or Promethean) world. All comments and criticisms will be gratefully received.
1) Introduction: Improvisation and Agency
Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation. It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by action within the causal order.
According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour.
Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954.) Sellars distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to reflect on concepts using articulate speech. Following Kant, Sellars regards concepts as a kind of rule for connecting judgements. Genuine agency involves capacity to follow or deviate from a rule. An agent must be able to hold herself and others accountable to a rule and this is only possible – for Brassier – if we make concepts explicit as moves within a language game (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226). Selves or subjects are not sources of agency. Instead, rules and their articulation constitute the subjectivity of acts:
The act is the only subject. It remains faceless. But it can only be triggered under very specific circumstances. Acknowledgement of the rule generates the condition for deviating from or failing to act in accordance with the rule that constitutes subjectivity. This acknowledgement is triggered by the relevant recognitional mechanism; it requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self…. (Brassier 2013a)
Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. His text implies that the act of improvisation requires an encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, what their nature is or how the encounter between rules and more rudimentary pattern-governed behaviour occurs.
In what follows I will argue that the reason he does not do this is that there are no such rules to be had. Musical rules in the sense that he requires them do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice. Brassier understands rules as impersonal “applying indiscriminately to everyone”, but claims about what is permissible or implied in musical processes index highly-context sensitive perceptual and affective responses to musical events. These responses exhibit variable degrees of tension within “the musical matter” between the sedimented expectations of a musical culture and open fields of action potentiated by musical event or act.
I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse of “rules” in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.
This adjustment is of more than aesthetic interest. Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act provides a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). In later discussions, I hope to use this model as a clue for developing an ethics or politics that can address the radically open horizons I explore in Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).
2. Harmonic Structure and Succession
I will begin by making use of some analyses of performance practices in post-war jazz and Julian Johnson’s analysis of the disruption of the rhetoric of harmonic accompaniment in the work of Anton Webern to support this model of affective subjectivity in improvisation.
Novice jazz improvisers must internalize a large body of musical theory: e.g. learning modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning and habituation sculpts the musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action that are continuously re-sculpted in the course of improvisations. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise might be distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.
This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of of norms. The statement that tritone (augmented fourth internal) belonging to a dominant seventh chord should resolve to a tonic reflects listener expectations in diatonic environments where a tonal center is defined in practice. This is not an intrinsic feature of the tritone, however, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7 – permitting a resolution to the unrelated key of Gflat. This provides a recipe for substituting a dominant chord at a tritone remove in perfect cadences.
However, it also allows harmonic series to modulate into unrelated keys. As jazz theorist Martin Rosenberg notes, the use of augmented dominants with two tritones by Bebop players such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk produce multiple lines of harmonic consequence and thus an ambiguous context that is not conventionally diatonic, even if (in contrast to free jazz) some adherence to a tonal center is preserved.
Symmetrical chords built of fourths (as used by pianists such as McCoy Tyer and Bill Evans) or major thirds have a similar effect, whether in diatonic contexts (where they can render the tonic ambiguous by stripping it to the 3rd, sixth and ninth) or in modal contexts where a tonal center is still implied by a pedal pass.
In consequence, the home key in the modal jazz developed by Miles Davis and Coltrane never prescribes a series of actions but furnishes expectations that can make an improvisation aesthetically intelligible after the fact. As Rosenberg explains, when Coltrane improvises in modal compositions such as “A Love Supreme” he deploys pentatonic or digital patterns modulated well away from the implied tonal center suggested by a bass line or by the “head” (the tune that traditionally opens or closes a jazz improvisation):
During his solos, Coltrane performs constant modulations through a series of harmonic targets or, what avant-garde architects Arakawa and Gins would call tentative “landing sites” (2002: 10) that become deployed sonically over a simple harmonic ‘home’ through the use of centered and then increasingly distant pentatonic scales from that home. In doing so, Coltrane seeks to widen what I call “the bandwidth” of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationships possible. He does so as he maintains the coherence of the melodic line (or narrative) through the aurally comfortable shapes (from the perspective of the audience especially) enabled by those very pentatonic scales, despite the juxtaposition of distant and dissonant tonal centers implied by this method. (Rosenberg 2010: 211-12).
This differential/transformative structure is, unsurprisingly, characteristic of scored Western art music. In his analysis of Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op 11, Julian Johnson argues that the opening two bars of the first piece allude to the framing and introduction of melody in traditional song and opera. For example, in baroque recitative the onset of a lyrical melody is frequently indicated by an arpeggiated chord. However, the high register chord that occurs in the first bar of the piece follows a single muted cello note and is followed by a descending piano passage that marks the absence of an expressive melody indicated by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).
Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive schemata – like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. The emergence of non-diatonic harmony, polychromaticism and atonality in modern music practice demonstrate that these are subordinate to improvisational and compositional practices. These schema exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary performances such Coltrane’s use of distantly modulated pentatonic figures in “A Love Supreme”. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe what a musician ought to do but describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. The musical agent cannot be the impersonal subject of binding rules if these bend to context in this way.
It follows that if there is an equivalent of Brassier’s subject in the improvising situation, it cannot the tension between rule and application.
Brassier is arguably correct to insist on anti-voluntarism (We are not free in consequence of some acausal causal power unique to selves). But in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging rules either since these are not in place.
Brassier’s impersonal conception of autonomy seems, then, ill adapted to musical contexts, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of agent causation (which I am happy to do). It follows that we need to formulate an alternative account of autonomy in improvisational contexts that is not predicated on the acknowledgement of musical norms.
3. The Time of Improvisation
An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by time. It takes place in a time window limited by the memory and attention of the improviser, responding to her own playing, to the other players, or (as Brassier recognises) to the real-time behaviour of machines such as effects processors or midi-filters.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection”. Hamilton claims that an opposing aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the musical work is only contingently associated with particular times, places or musical performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection, by contrast, celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space:
Improvisation makes the performer alive in the moment; it brings one to a state of alertness, even what Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett has called the ‘state of grace’. This state is enhanced in a group situation of interactive empathy. But all players, except those in a large orchestra, have choices inviting spontaneity at the point of performance. These begin with the room in which they are playing, its humidity and temperature, who they are playing with, and so on. (183)
The aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a real, irreversible temporality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production. This ontology is required to make sense of the aesthetic distinction between the situation of the improviser and composer in traditional art music (or the producer of digital audio work). Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.
This is never the case with improvisation. An improvisation is a unique event on the cusp of another. It thus exposes the improviser to a future outside the “living present” and to a reality exceeding her power to experience or represent it. An omniscient being would thus be incapable of improvising because its choices would be fully known prior to the event. The event would be fully represented and reversible. For improvisation to occur the agent must act alongside and in concert with things or processes that it cannot control; other agents, other things that it does and cannot fully know. Or, to cite from Amy Ireland’s discussion of Lovecraft and Michel Serres, improvisation always requires a “para-site” – a site that exists alongside the site of the notional improviser (Ireland 2014). Even the act cannot just be attributed to a single agent, because there must be something in the act that is not grasped by the agent at all, even implicitly or unconsciously.
This comports with Brassier’s claim that freedom in improvisation is impersonal since the improvising agent must be rethought as a network of things and effects, none of which corresponds exactly to a self or a deliberative agent. Improvisation occurs in networks of patterns, pattern generators, pattern detectors and pattern processors whose cumulative effect is never the will of a single agent within the network (even where the network consists of one musician and an instrument). Moreover, the patterns constituting the inputs to the detectors are always incomplete.
No single node of the network exercises decisive influence on its evolution or has complete knowledge of what is occurring in the remainder of the system. This evolution, in turn, is incomplete until the end of the final pattern.
Accordingly, the player/detector must register emerging “potentials for transformation” – open-ended evolutions – rather than static facts. For reasons discussed above, these are also rhythmically and harmonically undetermined at any point in the performance (Roden 2014: 187).
It follows that the time of improvisation is an impersonal time consisting of multiple processes interacting at different scales, distributed over many locations.
Brassier applies essentially the same model at the end of his article:
The ideal of ‘free improvisation’ is paradoxical: in order for improvisation to be free in the requisite sense, it must be a self-determining act, but this requires the involution of a series of mechanisms. It is this involutive process that is the agent of the act—one that is not necessarily human. It should not be confused for the improviser’s self, which is rather the greatest obstacle to the emergence of the act. The improviser must be prepared to act as an agent—in the sense in which one acts as a covert operative—on behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act.
Importantly, Brassier rejects the claim that the agents participating in the improvising situation need be human. We can unpack this “posthumanism” in three ways:
1. While humans are agents, not all agents are human. Thus it is perfectly conceivable that there be improvisers that are not biologically human – e.g. artificial intelligences.
2. In order to understand the processes involved in improvisation it may be necessary to resolve sub-personal processes or systems within biological humans – e.g. distinguishing between fast sensory pathways in the brain that bypass the sensory cortex en route to the limbic system, generating fast affect, and slower pathways that produce considered sensory appraisals (Huron 2006: 20).
3. The sense of agency involved in improvisation does not require a sovereign subject vested with the power of creating from nothing. Improvisation, for Brassier, involves “releasing” a kind of potential that is already present in the situation.
The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might seem to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising context (something that ought to be). However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity of musical material and the underdetermination of musical expectation described above. So regardless of whether agency is elsewhere constituted by the acknowledgement of rules in the domain of language, there are no grounds for positing analogous rules for music. It follows that if Brassier’s insights into improvising subjectivity are to be retained, they will need to be reframed in a non-normative idiom.
We can do this, I think, by interpreting them as a thesis about the selection of patterns from a range of possible (underdetermined) patterns whose basis lies in affect rather than rules. An affect is an alteration in an agent that makes a difference to its power to act (Hickey-Moody 2009: 273). A pain is obviously an affect; so is a mood. As Steven Shaviro points, out some affects are personal: they are more or less stable tendencies in persons that can be publicly identified within our folk psychological vocabulary. Boredom is a personal affect, as is an emotion such as fear. But more pertinent here are so-called “micro-affects” which may be fleeting, hard to categorize and barely accessible to experience, while still having implications for individual or group behaviour. An experience of a twitchy camera in a music video or the extremely short grains of sound in Xenakis composition Concret Ph are affective in this way (Shaviro 2015).
This idea of affective selection can be illustrated with the help of a field study of post-hardcore rock bands at rehearsal carried out by Alec McGuiness. It provides a vivid example of musicians using procedural learning to prime a series of musical riffs over which their conscious or intentional control is fairly limited. Song structures are laid down by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when “feels right” to do so:
[S]ometimes there’ll be moments when we’re not looking at each other but all four will either hit that heavy thing, or really bring it down […] And yeah, those moments […].. it’s priceless, when everyone just hits the same thing at the same time. […] That’s when you know that that song’s definitely going to work. ‘Cause it’s obviously sort of pressing the same buttons on each of us at the same time. (McGuiness 2009: 19)
So, here, “releasing the act”, involves an awareness of a shared affective response to some “felicitous performance” which prompts a deviation from the regular pattern. The agency, here, is also distributed insofar as it depends on a contagion of affect between the players to drive the variation. However, note that this group decision implies a judgment with a purely affective basis that is expressed through performance itself rather than by application of received folk psychological concepts or formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).
Kant referred to judgements of this nature – which do not apply concepts to things but express the way in which the subject is affected by things – as “reflective judgements”. These are distinguished from more familiar “determinate judgment” – where we apply some concept to one of its instances. For example, when we categorize a thing as a cat, we apply a given concept to organize the field of perception. Judgements of beauty, according to Kant, do not apply a predicate to the object but are based on a pleasurable feeling of accord between our perceptual capacities and a beautiful thing that enlivens them.
Likewise, in artistic creation reflective judgment occurs when the creators find a pattern that enlivens the intellect and imaginations of an audience (Proulx 2011: 21). The feeling of a riff or rhythm pattern gelling for an individual or group provides a kind of micro-example of this enlivening. It may not express transcendent emotions or ideas, but the felt accord affords an assessment of its value that need not be justified in terms of pre-specified rules or canons.
Thus micro-affects can imply micro-evaluations without conformity to rules. A moment in an improvisation might feel right but be completely novel and the only test of this is how it facilitates the response of a player or an audience – spawning further affects and development. Pattern selection in improvisation implies an evaluative response to potentials that are reinforced, then, by subsequent performance. For example, leaving space in an improvisation builds tension and thus an expectation that something is going to occur sometime.
There need be no rules operating in pattern selection, but there is a value judgment, even where what prompts it is so singular that it cannot be replicated or fully described. And where there is a judgment there is agency or, if you will, a subjectivity implicit in the selection. I have argued that this comports well with Brassier’s claim in the final paragraph of “Compulsive Freedom” that the freedom of improvisation requires “an involution of mechanisms” and that it is the relationship between these mechanisms that forms the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act. The agent of improvisation, then, is not a person – if by that we mean, a subject exercising deliberation – but an affective-selective catalyst of events open to the disruptive onset of time.
Brassier, Ray & Rychter, Marcin (2011).” I Am a Nihilist Because I Still Believe in Truth”. Kronos (March). http://www.kronos.org.pl/index.php?23151,896 (Accessed 9 May 2015).
Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.html (Accessed March 2015)
Brassier, Ray. 2013b. “Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology”. In Bana Bashour & Hans D. Muller (eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications. Routledge. 101-114.
Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and AVenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.
Hickey-Moody, A. 2009. “Little War Machines: Posthuman Pedagogy and Its Media”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3(3): 273–80.
Huron, D. B. 2006. Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. (MIT press).
Ireland, Amy. 2014. “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” https://www.academia.edu/3690573/Noise_An_Ontology_of_the_Avant-Garde (retrieved 30th April 2015)
Johnson, Julian, 1998. “The Nature of Abstraction: Analysis and the Webern Myth”, Music Analysis, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 267-280.
Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One, 3(2), e1679.
McGuiness, A. 2009. Mental and motor representation for music performance (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).
Proulx, Jeremy (forthcoming). “Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius”. Kant Studies Online.
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.
Rosenberg, Martin E. 2010. “Jazz and Emergence (Part One).” Inflexions 4, “Transversal Fields of Experience”: 183-277. www.inflexions.org
Shaviro, Steven. 2015. Allie X, “Catch”. http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1287 (accessed 6 May 2015)
Anti-reductionist physicalists or materialists deny that psychology can be theoretically reduced to physics but allow physics sovereignty concerning what exists. Anti-reductionist arguments vary but a common line of attack against reductionism is that psychology expresses rational or normative relationships between mental states; not causal or functional relationships of the kind expressed in theories of natural science. Thus in Sellars “Two Images” account physics and natural science tells us what exists but humans still encounter themselves in a normatively structured “space of reasons”. Donald Davidson refers to his own version of this position as “anomalous monism” (AM):
“Anomalous monism resembles materialism in its claim that all events are physical, but rejects the thesis, usually considered essential to materialism, that mental phenomena can be given purely physical explanations. Anomalous monism shows an ontological bias only in that it allows the possibility that not all events are mental, while insisting that all events are physical” (Davidson 2001: 214)
Davidson’s account seeks to reconcile three claims that appear to be in tension: 1) that mental events causally interact with physical events; 2) that causal relations occur only where the events in question are covered by strict deterministic laws; 3) “that there are no strict deterministic laws on the basis of which mental events can be predicted and explained (the Anomalism of the Mental).”
Davidson aims to do this by arguing from the claim that the existence of causal relationships between events only implies that there is some true description of the relationship expressing a strict nomic relationship. The reconciliation is possible because causal relations obtain between token singular events while laws are linguistically expressed generalisations. Mental events can be causally related to one other or to non-mental events.
But, according to Davidson, causality is nomological only in that where two events are causally related, they have linguistic descriptions that express a law. It does not follow that “that every true singular statement of causality instantiates a law” (215). Thus a statement like “Helen’s belief that Justin was murdered was caused by her seeing blood in the kitchen” adverts to a law like relationship between a token of blood in the kitchen and a token belief about murder but does not state it. The law-like relationship, for Davidson, would have to be expressed in terms of the states and dynamics of a physical system which allowed a deterministic inference about a future state – her belief token – again rendered in some physicalistic idiom.
Claim 3) Follows, Davidson thinks, if mental states are those addressed in propositional attitude ascriptions and that such ascriptions depend holistically on overall assessments of the rationality and cognizance of agents in their world. In the space of reasons, where propositional attitudes are ascribed to persons, it is always possible to revise attributions in the interests of overall cogency. There can be no single translation scheme that pre-empts all the evidence that could be relevant to such ascriptions (222-223). Thus whereas the theories in which physical regularities are stated must be closed to allow the formulation of exceptionless laws (homonomic) the language of propositional attitude ascription is necessarily open to multiple idioms or “heteronomic” (219):
“The heteronomic character of general statements linking the mental and the physical traces back to this central role of translation in the description of all prepositional attitudes, and to the indeterminacy of translation. There are no strict psychophysical laws because of the disparate commitments of the mental and physical schemes. It is a feature of physical reality that physical change can be explained by laws that connect it with other changes and conditions physically described. It is a feature of the mental that the attribution of mental phenomena must be responsible to the background of reasons, beliefs, and intentions of the individual.”(222)
In Nagelian terms, it would be impossible to formulate true bridge laws between a reducing theory in some physical idiom and a reduced psychological theory because the intentional side the biconditional could always be revised in the light of holistic considerations irrelevant to the “physical side”. Thus type-type psychophysical reduction appears impossible. Note that an analogous result is obtainable if we view the space of reasons as structured by implicit norms irreducible to behavioral regularities.
Of course, not all accounts of reduction require bridge laws between reduced and reducing theories, or treat theories as interpreted sets of sentences. It is still open to the reductionist to argue for a different form of reduction (Bickle 1993: 222-4). It is also open to the reductionist to argue that psychology is not peculiar in being inexpressible “as sets of generalizations” – this being true of all scientific theories (226) – or in being open to extra-theoretical idioms in which to describe their contexts of application to real systems. Maybe no theory (physical or otherwise) is truly heteronomic.
However, in the argument that follows I will suppose that Davidson’s anomalism is right, or, at least, that his account can be rectified in a form that is proof against neoreductionist assaults.
So let us assume that the psychological perspective in which agents have beliefs and desires and utter meaningful statements is conceptually irreducible (as Sellarsians say) to the scientific image of the world as a causal-physical system.
If so, then the possibility of a certain form of technological descendant of current humans (posthumans) implies that intentional psychology will be instrumentally if not theoretically eliminated.
That is, whatever its current value for humans, it could not play a similar role for the relevant class of posthuman. And this not because of any logical or ontological vices but because of it would be incapable of functioning as an idiom for interpretation and understanding among these hypothetical successors. So the anti-reductionist argument against theoretical reduction/elimination supports a metaphysical case for instrumental elimination.
The hypothetical entities in question are what I refer to in Posthuman Life and elsewhere as “hyperplastic agents”. An agent is hyperplastic if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to any part of its functional or physical structure without compromising either its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity. For example, suppose a hyperplastic agent dislikes some unpleasant memories associated with the taste of milk. Whereas a merely plastic agent like ourselves might need hours of cognitive behavioral therapy to excise these, the hyperplastic simply needs to locate the neuronal ensembles and pathways associated with these memories and ensure that they are no longer linked in such a way that the memory of milk causes them to activate in turn.
Likewise, a hyperplastic would be in a position to alter any other informational or value-relevant state by physically altering the relevant brain states. Obviously, use the term “brain” broadly here to refer to those systems within the hyperplastic that are associated with “cognition”, “perception” or the “control of behaviour” in some intuitive sense of these terms. The original inspiration for the idea of the hyperplastic came from Steve Omohundro’s speculations about the goal structures of generally intelligent robots in his essay “The Basic AI Drives” (2008). We need not assume that the “brain” in question is a known biological system.
Davidson’s anti-reductionism implies token physicalism (each event that can be brought under a psychological description is identical to some physical event, since ontological physicalism is taken as a given).
So for any state in an agent with a psychological description there will be physical description of that state. For any such state there will interventions that the agent can make into the state which will produce a physically distinct successor state such that the former psychological description will no longer be true of it.
Now we can suppose that any hyperplastic agent will have an Agenda at a particular time. That is, it will not tinker with its internal states arbitrarily but wish to do so in ways that don’t kill it, do not undermine its capacity for hyperplasticity and that fulfill whatever desiderata are listed on the Agenda.
The interesting question (assuming Davidsonian anti-reductionism) is how the Agenda can be formulated. Can it be expressed in psychological terms (roughly, in terms of propositional attitudes or values)? If it is expressed in psychological terms, then anti-reductionism implies that for any Agent intervention at the physical level, it will not be possible to reliably infer the psychological outcome of the alteration.
This follows simply because there are no psychophysical laws. Moreover even rough generalisations over past interventions would not be much help. These might be reliable for merely plastic creatures whose basic design and structure remain fairly constant over time. But a hyperplastic agent is protean. Thus it cannot assume that the rough and ready psychophysical generalisations that have held over one phase of its existence will extend into another phase.
It follows that however a hyperplastic agent frames the Agenda it cannot be psychologically expressible because no reliable inferences can be drawn from future physical form to future psychology.
So if hyperplastics have Agenda’s, they would have to represent states that could be reliably inferred from facts about their physical constitution at a given time. But given Davidson’s anti-reductionism, they would have little use for psychological self-description for making generalisations about their current or future actions. Suppose a hyperplastic Agent self-attributes a belief b. A merely plastic agent like you or me might assume generalisations along the lines of “I will continue to hold b unless I find evidence from which some contrary of b can be inferred”. But a hyperplastic agent would not be able to assume such generalisations because there could be no evidence that an auto-intervention would not cause it to lose b regardless of the evidence in its favour.
So a hyperplastic agent could not use propositional attitude psychology to predict its own behaviour. Folk psychology would be equally impotent for predicting the behaviour of its fellow hyperplastics for the same reason.
If hyperplastic agents could exist and plan their self-interventions, they would have to employ an entirely different idiom to understand themselves or one another. A posthuman-making disconnection that resulted in the emergence of hyperplastics would inevitably to result in the instrumental elimination of folk psychological capacities among the population of hyperplastics, at least; since neither the capacity nor the linguistic idiom for attributing propositional attitudes would have predictive or hermeneutic utility.
This means that were humans to encounter hyperplastics, they would not be radically interpretable (in Davidson’s sense) because radical interpretation depends on the principle of charity and this, again, is framed in folk psychological terms.
I conclude that if hyperplastic agents are possible, we could not understand them without abandoning the conceptual framework we currently use to understand ourselves and our conspecifics. They would be radically uninterpretable.
Bickle, John (1992). Mental anomaly and the new mind-brain reductionism. Philosophy of Science 59 (2):217-30.
Davidson, D. 1984. Inquiries into Truth and Interpretation. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Davidson, Donald (2001). Essays on Actions and Events, Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Omohundro, S. M. (2008). “The Basic AI Drives”. Frontiers in Artificial Intelligence and Applications 171: 483
Live improvisation by clarinettist Pete Furniss using C-C-Combine – a concatenative synthesis patch built by Rodrigo Constanzo in Max MSP. On his website, Rodrigo explains that concatenative synthesis is a form of granular synthesis employing modulation via sound sources rather than prescribed parameters (grain density, jitter, wave form, etc.) to determine how the sound grains (short samples) are played back.
Pete will be a keynote performer at the Philosophy of human+computer music 2 Workshop at Sheffield University on May 27th (Where I will also be chairing a discussion session). In last year’s workshop, some extremely stimulating discussions of computer music aesthetics were informed by input from performers and experts on the electroacoustic coalface. The second iteration is not to be missed!
I’ll be destruction testing my paper on Brandom and Posthumanism at the Open University in Milton Keynes, Wednesday 4 March at 2 pm in MR05 Wilson A 1st Floor. The piece is forthcoming in PHILOSOPHY AFTER NATURE Rosi Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn (eds.).
Here’s the abstract:
BRANDOM AND POSTHUMAN AGENCY: AN ANTI-NORMATIVIST RESPONSE TO BOUNDED POSTHUMANISM
By David Roden, Open University
I distinguish two theses regarding technological successors to current humans (posthumans): an anthropologically bounded posthumanism (ABP) and an anthropologically unbounded posthumanism (AUP). ABP proposes transcendental conditions on agency that can be held to constrain the scope for “weirdness” in the space of possible posthumans a priori. AUP, by contrast, leaves the nature of posthuman agency to be settled empirically (or technologically). Given AUP there are no “future proof” constraints on the strangeness of posthuman agents.
In Posthuman Life I defended AUP via a critique of Donald Davidson’s work on intentionality and a “naturalistic deconstruction” of transcendental phenomenology (See also Roden 2013). In this paper I extend this critique to Robert Brandom’s account of the relationship between normativity and intentionality in Making It Explicit (MIE) and in other writings.
Brandom’s account understands intentionality in terms of the capacity to undertake and ascribe inferential normative commitments. It makes “first class agency” dependent on the ability to participate in discursive social practices. It implies that posthumans – insofar as they qualify as agents at all – would need to be social and discursive beings.
The problem with this approach, I will argue, is that it replicates a problem that Brandom discerns in Dennett’s intentional stance approach. It tells us nothing about the conditions under which a being qualifies as a potential interpreter and thus little about the conditions for meaning, understanding or agency.
I support this diagnosis by showing that Brandom cannot explain how a non-sapient community could bootstrap itself into sapience by setting up a basic deontic scorekeeping system without appealing (along with Davidson and Dennett) to the ways in which an idealized observer would interpret their activity.
This strongly suggests that interpretationist and pragmatist accounts cannot explain the semantic or the intentional without regressing to assumptions about ideal interpreters or background practices whose scope they are incapable of delimiting. It follows that Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism is not seriously challenged by the claim that agency and meaning are “constituted” by social practices.
AUP implies that we can infer no claims about the denizens of “Posthuman Possibility Space” a priori, by reflecting on the pragmatic transcendental conditions for semantic content. We thus have no reason to suppose that posthuman agents would have to be subjects of discourse or, indeed, members of communities. The scope for posthuman weirdness can be determined by recourse to engineering alone.
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.
This is an abstract for a presentation that I will be giving in a roundtable discussion on posthumanism and aesthetics with Debra Benita Shaw and Stefan Sorgner at the University of East London on May 18 2015. Further details will be made available.
Posthumanism can be critical or speculative. These positions converge in opposing human-centred (anthropocentric) thinking. However, their rejection of anthropocentricism applies to different areas. Critical Posthumanism (CP) rejects the anthropocentrism of modern philosophy and intellectual life; Speculative Posthumanism (SP) opposes human-centric thinking about the long-run implications of modern technology.
CP is interested in the posthuman as a cultural and political condition. Speculative Posthumanists propose the metaphysical possibility of technologically created nonhuman agents. SP states: there could be posthumans – where posthumans would be “wide human descendants” of current humans that have become nonhuman in virtue of some process of technical alteration.
In Posthuman Life I elaborate a detailed version of SP. Specially, I describe what it is to become posthuman in terms of “the disconnection thesis” [DT] (Roden 2012; 2014, Chapter 5). DT understands “becoming posthuman” in abstract terms. Roughly, it states that an agent becomes posthuman iff. it becomes independent of the human socio-technical system as a consequence of technical change. It does not specify how this might occur or the nature of the relevant agents (e.g. whether they are immortal uploads, cyborgs, feral robots or Jupiter sized Brains).
Posthuman Life argues that the abstractness of DT is epistemologically apt because there are no posthumans and thus we are in no position to deduce constraints on their possible natures or values (I refer to this position as “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” [AUP)). AUP has implications for the ethics of becoming posthuman that are generally neglected in the literature on transhumanism and human enhancement.
The most important of these is that there can be no a priori ethics of posthumanity. Becoming posthuman can only be substantively (as opposed to abstractly) understood by making posthumans or becoming posthuman. I argue that, given the principled impossibility of a prescriptive ethics here, we must formulate strategies for speculating on and exploring nearby “posthuman possibility space”.
In this paper, I propose that aesthetic theory and practice may be a useful political model for such technological self-fashioning because it involves styles of thought or creation that discover their constraints and values by producing them. This “production model” is, I will argue, the only one liable to serve us if, with CP/SP, we reject an anthropocentric privileging of the human. I finish by considering some examples of aesthetic practice that might provide models for the politics of making posthumans or becoming posthuman.
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. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Eric Schwitzgebel has a typically clear-eyed, challenging post on the implications of (real) artificial intelligence for our moral systems over here at the Splintered Mind. The take home idea is that our moral systems (consequentialist, deontologistical, virtue-ethical, whatever) are adapted for creatures like us. The weird artificial agents that might result from future iterations of AI technology might be so strange that human moral systems would simply not apply to them.
Scott Bakker follows this argument through in his excellent Artificial Intelligence as Socio-Cognitive Pollution , arguing that blowback from such posthuman encounters might literally vitiate those moral systems, rendering them inapplicable even to us. As he puts it:
The question of assimulating AI to human moral cognition is misplaced. We want to think the development of artificial intelligence is a development thatraises machines to the penultimate (and perennially controversial) level of the human, when it could just as easily lower humans to the ubiquitous (and factual) level of machines.
As any reader of Posthuman Life, might expect, I think Erich and Scott are asking all the right questions here.
Some (not me) might object that our conception of a rational agent is maximally substrate neutral. It’s the idea of a creature we can only understand “voluminously” by treating it as responsive to reasons. According to some (Davidson/Brandom) this requires the agent to be social and linguistic – placing such serious constraints on “posthuman possibility space” as to render his discourse moot.
Even if we demur on this, it could be argued that the idea of a rational subject as such gives us a moral handle on any agent – no matter how grotesque or squishy. This seems true of the genus “utility monster”. We can acknowledge that UM’s have goods and that consequentialism allows us to cavil about the merits of sacrificing our welfare for them. Likewise, agents with nebulous boundaries will still be agents and, so the story goes, rational subjects whose ideas of the good can be addressed by any other rational subject.
So according to this Kantian/interpretationist line, there is a universal moral framework that can grok any conceivable agent, even if we have to settle details about specific values via radical interpretation or telepathy. And this just flows from the idea of a rational being.
I think the Kantian/interpretationist response is wrong-headed. But showing why is pretty hard. A line of attack I pursue concedes to Brandom-Davidson that that we have the craft to understand the agents we know about. But we have no non-normative understanding of the conditions something must satisfy to be an interpreting intentional system or an apt subject of interpretation (beyond commonplaces like heads not being full of sawdust).
So all we are left with is a suite of interpretative tricks whose limits of applicability are unknown. Far from being a transcendental condition on agency as such, it’s just a hack that might work for posthumans or aliens, or might not.
And if this is right, then there is no a future-proof moral framework for dealing with feral Robots, Cthulhoid Monsters or the like. Following First Contact, we would be forced to revise our frameworks in ways that we cannot possible have a handle on now. Posthuman ethics must proceed by way of experiment.
Or they might eat our brainz first.
There’s a lively debate around Scott Bakker’s recent lecture: “The End of the World As We Know It: Neuroscience and the Semantic Apocalypse” given at The University of Western Ontario’s Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism here at Speculative Heresy. The text includes responses from Nick Srnicek and Ali McMillan.
“The Sobornost Station is large enough to have its own weather. The ghost-rain inside does not so much fall but shimmers in the air. It makes shapes and moves, and gives Tawaddud the constant feeling that something is lurking just at the edge of her vision.
She looks up, and immediately regrets it. Through the wet veil, it is like looking down from the top of the Gomelez shard. The vertical lines far above pull her gaze towards an amber-hued, faintly glowing dome almost a kilometer high, made of transparent, undulating surfaces that bunch together towards the centre, like the ceiling of a circus tent, segmented by the sharply curving ribs of the Station’s supporting frame.
Forms like misshapen balloons float beneath the vault. At first they look random, but as Tawaddud watches, they coalesce into shapes: the line of a cheekbone and a chin and an eyebrow. Then they are faces, sculpted from air and light, looking down on her with hollow eyes.”
(Rajaniemi 2012, 82)
Rajaniemi, Hannu (2012). The Fractal Prince. St Ives: Gollanz.