In Posthuman Life I define the posthuman in terms of the disconnection thesis (DT). One of the advantages of DT is that it allows us to understand human-posthuman differences without being committed to a “human essence” that posthumans will lack. Rather, we understand the human (or WH, the “wide human”) as an assemblage of biological and non-biological individuals, whose history stretches from the world of Pleistocene hunter-gatherers to the modern, interconnected world, and perhaps beyond. Thus it avoids the accusation that we can render the hypothesis of that there could be posthumans (speculative posthumanism AKA SP) meaningless by denying, or deconstructing the claim that there is a human essence – a set of necessary conditions for being human.
However, DT is in tension with the thought of the radical alien discussed in the preceding post. The problem, again roughly, is that claims about the radical alien seem to imply that the alien is not just difficult to understand – the kind of understanding that could be achieved with time, sweat and ingenuity – but remains beyond human understanding in principle. But this implies that at least one necessary proposition is true of humans – namely that for any radical alien, they would be incapable of understanding it.
Thus there can be radical aliens only if there is (after all) a human essence.
DT does not require that there is no human essence. It is merely consistent with its denial. But I have independent reasons for thinking that there are no necessary cognitive constraints inherent in human understanding. Suppose that there is some kind of human essence and that part of this includes the inability to understand certain radical aliens. It follows that open sentence that the relation term “…. understands R” where R refers to some radical alien, is necessarily false of all humans.
However, this only constitutes a real constraint on humans if each human is necessarily human, that is if there is a necessary limit on the way the cognitive powers of agents could be altered. Maybe there are such limitations, but it seems that either they are knowable a posteriori or a priori. If a posteriori, we need evidence for them. It is not clear that there is such evidence around, or what form it might take. Thus there are reasons for being sceptical here.
Suppose such constraints are the a priori kind buttressed and formulated in transcendental philosophies – e.g. Husserlian phenomenology and some accounts of Kantian philosophy – e.g. the analytical Kantianism associated with thinkers such as Sellars and Brandom.
What these positions have in common is the claim that there are invariant conditions for thought and intelligibility. Here what is at issue is the intelligibility of agents. In the case of phenomenology, the condition is that an agent is embodied in a world shared by humans whose actions and experiences can be understood as directed towards that world. In the case of analytic Kantianism, the condition is similar: the agent’s activity must be interpretable in terms of a set of inferential or practical commitments.
These commitments are social statuses whose content is expressed in the sentences of an interpreting idiom or “metalanguage”. This also presupposes a shared world since this content can only be articulated where enough of the statuses are elicited or prompted by things or states of the world which can be identified by prospective interpreters. In the absence of such referents interpretative idioms would be (as Davidson argues) untestable and lack the non-inferential component required for any plausible inferentialist account of content.
A radical alien would not belong to the set of beings whose agency can – in Davidsons metaphor – be triangulated by reference to a common world. Its agency would be perpetually occult to humans. By the same token it could not belong to the common world of the phenomenological account. It would be a closed book. But here we seemed to be locked in a contradiction.
- The radical alien would not belong to the class of beings whose behaviour can be interpreted as actions.
- The radical alien would be an agent.
- An entity whose behaviours could not be construed as actions, even in principle, would be a non-agent.
After all, where else does our concept of agency get its content than its attribution to the things we could treat as agents in principle?
So 1), 2) and 3) are inconsistent. A paradox! However, we can defuse the paradox by denying 3. 3) implies that a kind of local correlationism for agency. The only kinds of things that could count as agents are those that are amenable to human practices of interpretative understanding, whatever these may amount to. 3) denies the possibility that there could be evidence-transcendent facts about agency such procedures might never uncover.
Have we good reason to drop 3 – other than to avoid the paradox. Yes, I think so – and have argued this at some length elsewhere. We only have to deny that there is some a framework corresponding to the interpretable as such.
And this, of course, is in line with anti-essentialism with regard to the human. If there are no de re modal facts concerning what is possibly (or not-possibly) interpretable, there is no thing such that it is either possibly-interpretable or not possibly-interpretable for us or for creatures relevantly alike. Thus, whatever belongs to the class of agents it is not delineated by any practices of intersubjective interpretation. Another way of putting this is that the concept of agency cannot be totalised. There is no collection of all possible agents.
Thus our concept agent is – in a sense – empty or void. When we speak of agency in the abstract we are not using concepts with which we have an existing, if implicit, mastery. However, it follows that our concept of the radical alien is similarly void. We thought that it must transcend the field of the interpretable. But if, as I’ve suggested, there is no such field, there are no radical aliens if these are understood in the interpretation transcendent sense.
But then what of the intimations of the alien in Lovecraft, Wells and other thinkers? Does my use of idea of the radical alien involve a kind of misprision? In my next post I will argue it does not, but only if we re-interpret the otherness or difference of the alien in aesthetic terms rather than in terms of some metaphysics of agency.
Billions of years in the future, The Time Traveler stands before a black ocean, under a bloated sun. The shore is scaled with lichen and flecked with snow. The crab things and giant insects that menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of dark waves, everything is utterly still.
He thinks he sees something shifting in the waves nearby but dismisses it as an illusion; assuming it to be a rock. Still a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine. Perhaps this anxiety is just prompted by the ultimate desolation of this world.
Studying the unknown constellations, he feels a chill wind. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon, or some other massive body – for it is possible that the Earth has shifted into a new orbit around its star.
Twilight segues to black. The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing. Then the object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky.
And by it he sees what moves in the water: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.
He is terrified of passing out, with the thing waiting for him in the shallows. He recedes back into the past. The familiar contours of his laboratory swim into being around him.
During the Traveler’s brief acquaintance with it, the thing appears devoid of purpose. Its “flopping” motion might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mental life replete with beliefs and desires. But his acquaintance with it is brief, after all, and he knows nothing of it or its world. If it can be said to have one.
It is tempting to suggest alternative scenarios in which the Traveler does not retreat from the thing in the water and remains to study it (and perhaps be studied in turn).
He might find that it is a traveler from some even deeper future, or the representative of an extra-terrestrial culture. Perhaps observation and autopsies would reveal it to be an offshoot of modern Cephalopoda, trawling the desultory shoreline for bite-sized crustaceans.
Again, a Lovecraft-Wells crossover might cast it as the baleful representative of ultimate cosmic evil. Perhaps it locks the Traveler out of his own body, storing his mind like a living fossil. Then it sits in the saddle and return to the present, where, sooner or later, it begins to eat our history.
These narrative possibilities are forestalled, however. Within Well’s fictional world the the nature of the creature remains, undetermined and thus indeterminable. Readers of the Time Machine can only imagine the Traveler’s presentiment on encountering it; wonder why he finds the thought of being near it so terrible. The creature remains hidden, its meaning held in a perpetual tomb.
Given time and effort, radical interpretation might unveil the the obscurities of merely unfamiliar languages or forms of life. But radical aliens would remain obdurately outside thought. In Western traditions, the idea is commonly expressed in apophatic mysticism that treats the divine as an ineffable and unthinkable other. In apophasis, this reality is expressed by what Eugene Thacker calls a “misanthropic subtraction” in which words are stripped of any positive signification so as to hint at a transcendence beyond words (Thacker 2015, p. 140).
The arrest of narrative has a similar effect to the language of mysticism, since, in fiction, the undescribed must remain unknown outside the limits of our encounter with it. Most evocations of the radical alien exhibit a form of arrest: from the work of H P Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson to that of the “New Weird” authors like Thomas Ligotti or Jeff Vandermeer, to the far future science fiction of Hannu Rajaniemi and Charles Stross.
As Graham Harman observes, Lovecraft’ uses a range of literary devices to subtract the legibility of his cosmic deities, the Great Old Ones. This can occur via radical metaphor – for example, “The Dreams in the Witch House” Azathoth, is said to lie “at the centre of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The content of this description undermines its metaphorical aptness since ultimate chaos would be the decentering of centres. The “thin flutes” should then be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7).
The adjective “mindless” does not imply here that this reality is simply non-mental, like the spontaneous production of particle/anti-particle pairs. Rather that conceptions like mindedness or agency are not being applied to the reality in which they carry their usual implications. Recall, the ungainly flopping of Wells’ creature. Is this a sign of its diminished sentience, mute heteronomy before the waves; or of something that is no less a power in the world than us but fundamentally unlike us?
When the sailor Johansen describes an encounter with Lovecraft’s amorphous tentacled god near the end of “The Call of Cthulhu” he must vitiate his own description:
“Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described–there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled.”
Likewise, the dread and physical abjectness related by the Traveler are not attributable to anything he has described; their presence in his account hollows it out without giving us the missing outline. They are prompted by something unmentioned, something perhaps unutterable, which can only be conveyed indirectly through its pernicious effect on the observer.
Wells and Lovecraft, then, both employ discrepant figures or elisions to “refer” to the unknowable and unsayable. Derrida has argued that philosophy is also in the grip of such undeterminable or undecidable tropes, where, for example, a term like “the sun” is used by Plato in Republic IV-VII to refer to the origin of intelligibility itself. Within the terms of Plato’s text there is no criterion of metaphorical aptness that tells us whether this is a “successful” metaphor for the ultimate Good, other than the account in which it already figures. Such radical metaphors constitute an ellipsis of meaning – a solar “eclipse” whose divorce from settled semantic domains free up metaphors to play elsewhere as metaphysical concepts (Derrida 1974: 53-4).
Philosophical concepts are conceptually articulated in ways that distinguish them from the literary use of catachresis in Lovecraft, or in a very different context, J G Ballard’s Crash or his novella “Myths of the Near Future”. There is a good deal be said about Plato’s form of the good; whereas Lovecraft provide no science or metaphysics to limn the ultimate reality of Azathoth; while Ballard’s ontology of the automobile collision is entirely exhausted by its place within Crash’s circuit of auto-destructive desire (Roden 2002). Still, this does not mean that allusion to unknowable entities in Wells, Lovecraft and others is without philosophical significance.
Firstly, both reject something that Platonic philosophy shares with apophatic theology – the jargon of transcendence. Lovecraft’s apophatic method discloses a dark, unknowable cosmos that is, however, devoid of transcendence. The Azathothic other is not beyond or “higher” than matter but intimately involved and active in a unitary, if ultimately chaotic and meaningless, universe.
Wells’ being on the shoreline is alive, even if its status as an agent is left entirely open. Both, then, imply something about what it is to live in a reality that is outside thought, autonomous with respect to it, even if not transcendent or spiritual.
This is connected, secondly, to the relationship between time and sensibility – in the aesthetics of an encounter that pre-empts any articulation of its nature (Sullivan 2010: 197). An encounter that need harbour no meaning, no “fore-having” waiting to be glossed by the phenomenologist, for example. The phenomenology of the encounter can be dark, as I have argued elsewhere. It can be had, without being further accessible through description or philosophical hermeneutics.
The radical alien can be encountered, then, but the encounter breaks the orderly procession of historical time and knowledge production. It leaves its mark in irreducible affects – terror, madness and physical desolation.
Derrida, J. and Moore, F.C.T., 1974. White mythology: Metaphor in the text of philosophy. New Literary History, 6(1), pp.5-74.
Harman, G., 2012. Weird realism: Lovecraft and philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.
Roden, D., 2003. Cyborgian subjects and the auto-destruction of metaphor.Crash cultures: modernity, mediation and the material, pp.91-102.
O’Sullivan, S., 2010. From aesthetics to the abstract machine: Deleuze, Guattari and contemporary art practice. Deleuze and contemporary art, pp.189-207.
Thacker, E., 2015. Tentacles Longer Than Night: Horror of Philosophy. John Hunt Publishing.
Just out: a taster for the forthcoming Dis collection on the post-contemporary, which will include contributions from myself, Benjamin Bratton, Elena Esposito, Victoria Ivanova, Laboria Cuboniks, Aihwa Ong, Nick Srnicek & Alex Williams.
I haven’t had a the opportunity to read through the other contributions yet, but my sense is that it will be a fissiparous interrogation of the meaning of historical time in a situation where, to quote Malik, “Systems, infrastructures and networks are now the leading conditions of complex societies rather than individual human agents”.
A provisional abstract for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium in Dublin, 12-13 May,
Speculative Posthumanism (SP) claims that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some technological process. In Posthuman Life, I buttress SP with a series of philosophical negations whose effect is to leave us in the dark about these historical successors (Roden 2014). In consequence, SP confounds us in moral and epistemic darkness. We lack rules specifying the nature of the posthuman or how to recognise it. We do not know what we are becoming; and lack any assurance that our moral conceptions can travel into the future(s) we are complicit in producing.
I argue that the void delineated by speculative posthumanism implies that aesthetics is the first philosophy of the value domain, for it forces us to judge itineraries in posthuman possibility space without criteria. Art practices that engage with technological change thus supply a political model for pursuing and organizing trajectories into the future: one distancing us from any current conception of the good or any normative appeal to universality. This estrangement or abstraction, I will claim, does not express a postmodern ethics of transgression or “transvaluation” but falls out of the ontological structure of planetary technical networks.
Roden, David. (2012), “The Disconnection Thesis”. In A. Eden, J. Søraker, J. Moor & E. Steinhart (eds), The Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, London: Springer.
Roden, David (2013), “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.
Roden, David (2014), Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Roden (forthcoming), ‘On Reason and Spectral Machines: an Anti-Normativist Response to Bounded Posthumanism’. To appear in Philosophy After Nature edited by Rosie Braidotti and Rick Dolphijn.
And how might the return of these possibilities offer a power of resistance? The resistance of biology to biopolitics? It would take the development of a new materialism to answer these questions, a new materialism asserting the coincidence of the symbolic and the biological. There is but one life, one life only.
Biological potentials reveal unprecedented modes of transformation: reprograming genomes without modifying the genetic program; replacing all or part of the body without a transplant or prosthesis; a conception of the self as a source of reproduction. These operations achieve a veritable deconstruction of program, family, and identity that threatens to fracture the presumed unity of the political subject, to reveal the impregnable nature of its “biological life” due to its plurality. The articulation of political discourse on bodies is always partial, for it cannot absorb everything that the structure of the living being is able to burst open by showing the possibilities of a reversal in the order of generations, a complexification in the notion of heritage, a calling into question of filiation, a new relation to death and the irreversibility of time, through which emerges a new experience of finitude.
This is the full text of my presentation at the improvisation panel at The Society of European Philosophy-Forum of European Philosophy joint conference in Dundee, 2015.
1) Introduction: Improvisation and the Politics of Technology
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, arguing 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, self-determination is reflexive and rule-governed. A self-determining system acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour. This is only possible if we make the rules explicit in language (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).
Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of language and meaning (1954.) Sellars analytic pragmatism buys into the Kantian claim that concepts are rules for unifying or linking claims to cognitive significance rather than representations of something outside thought – concepts are “cooks rather than hooks”.
Sellars distinguishes a more or less automatic and unconscious rule following from a metalinguistic level with the logical resources for reflection and self-awareness. Indeed for Brassier’s Sellars, thought and intentional action emerge only with the metalinguistic capacity to make reasons explicit in “candid public speech” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226-8). Or as he puts it: “Autonomy understood as a self-determining act is the destitution of selfhood and the subjectivation of the rule. The ‘oneself’ that subjects itself to the rule is the anonymous agent of the act.”
For Brassier, an avowed naturalist, it is important that this capacity for agency is non-miraculous, and that a mere assemblage of pattern governed mechanisms can be “gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). As he continues:
The act …. 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)
Now, there are criticisms that one can make of this account. For example, Brassier struggles to articulate the relationship between linguistic rules or norms and the natural regularities and behaviours on which they depend. For this reason, I’ve argued that the normative functionalism associated with Sellars and, latterly, Robert Brandom bottoms out in Davidson-style claims about how idealized interpreters (privy to all the facts) might construe a given stretch of behaviour (Roden 2015).
Brassier’s position thus depends on the conception of an interpreting subject it is not in a position to satisfactorily explain. Despite pretensions to naturalistic virtue, his world is bifurcated between a natural real and an order of thought that depends on it without really belonging to it (Brassier 2013: 104).
These issues lurk in the background in Brassier’s short text on improvisation. This claims that the act of improvisation involves an encounter between rule governed reason and pattern governed mechanisms. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, or how the encounter between rules and mechanism is mediated.
In what follows I will argue that one reason he does not do this is that such rules do not operate in improvisation or in contemporary compositional practice. Claims about what is permissible or implied in music index context sensitive perceptual responses to musical events. These exhibit tensions between the expectations sedimented in musical culture and actual musical events or acts.
However, 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 in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.
This metaphysical adjustment is of interest outside musical aesthetics and ontology, however.
Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act is a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism, Accelerationist Marxism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). I hope to use this suggestion as a clue for refining an ethics that can address the radically open horizons of being I discuss in my book Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).
This paper can, then, be thought of as a staged encounter between Prometheanism and my own Speculative Posthumanism. Brassier’s Prometheanism, like Reza Negarestani’s “inhumanism”, proposes that all reasons and purposes are “artificial”: implicit or explicit moves within language games. (See Negarestani 2014b). Thus the Promethean rejects all quasi-theological limits on artificialisation and enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis” and (2014: 487).
Speculative Posthumanism (SP) does not propose any theological limits to artificialisation. Far from it! However, it holds that the space of possible agents is not bound (a priori) by conditions of human agency or society. Since we lack future-proof knowledge of possible agents this “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” (AUP) allows that the results of techno-political interventions could be weird in ways that we are not in a position to imagine (Roden 2014: Ch.3-4; Roden 2015b).
The ethical predicament of the Speculative Posthumanist is thus more complex than the Promethean. Given AUP there need be no structure constitutive of all subjectivity or agency. Thus she cannot appeal to a theory of rational subjectivity to support an ethics of becoming posthuman. So what – for example – might autonomy or freedom involve from the purview of unbounded posthumanism? What counts as emancipatory as opposed to oppressive violence?
I will argue that the idea of freedom embedded in Brassier’s text on improvisation can be elucidated by comparing the obscure genesis of improvisation to the predicament of agents in rapidly changing technical systems. Thus Brassier’s treatment of improvisation retains its resonance on this posthumanist reading even if it militates against his wider ontological and political commitments.
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. they learn modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning enables musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action during improvisation. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.
This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of norms. The statement that a tritone (augmented fourth) 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, though, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7.
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, not surprisingly, 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, in turn, by a descending piano passage, bathetically marking the absence of the expressive melody portended by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).
Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive patterns of expectation– like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. These exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary works. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe but indirectly describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. Thus in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging or declining musical norms since these are not in place.
Brassier’s conception of autonomy seems ill adapted to musical contexts, then, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of the sovereign self. Thus if we are to tease out the implications of his text for posthuman agency, 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 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 audio processors or midi-filters. It thus consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by subsequent acts.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection” as opposed to a Platonism for which the musical work is only contingently associated with performances or performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space.
If improvisation is a genesis, it implies an irreversible temporality. Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl/Cmd + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.
An improvisation, by contrast, is always a unique and irreversible event on the cusp of another. An omniscient being would be incapable of improvising because its options would be fully known in advance. Unlike the improviser, it could never surprise itself. Its act would be fully represented before it took place and thus reversible.
It follows that an improvisation must exceed the improviser’s power of representation. The improvising agent must work with things or processes that it cannot entirely control or fully know. Paraphrasing Amy Ireland’s discussion of H P Lovecraft and Michel Serres in her excellent paper “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” improvisation requires a “para-site” – an alien interloper capable of disrupting or perverting the prescribed order of events. In Serres’ retelling of La Fontaine’s tale of the country rat and the city rat, this might be the Master who interrupts the rats’ nocturnal feast and sends the country rat scurrying home. Yet from the human position, it is the rodent feast that interrupts the Master’s sleep. The take home moral of this – for Ireland – is that the context in which a disturbance counts as noise requires a subjectively imposed norm that distorts the radical otherness of an inhuman reality to make it comprehensible for a human subject (Ireland 2014; Roden Forthcoming).
With improvising subjectivity, however, parasitism is the rule – the noise that actualizes an always-tentative decision in real time performance. This sensitive, yet tenuous agency implies a complex disunified subject in the dark about its complexity. As the tagline to Scott Bakker’s ultra-dark near-future thriller Neuropath has it: we are not what we think we are (2010, 2014).
Brassier veers towards such a model at the end of his article. It is, in any case, implied by his naturalistic proposal for explaining the evolution of reasons in terms of the organization of pattern governed physical systems. The freedom of improvisation requires, as he puts it, “an involution of [or reciprocal interaction between] mechanisms” to compose the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act.
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 (My emphasis)
The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might appear to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising situation: something that ought to be. However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity and underdetermination of musical expectation described in the previous section.
So what, then, is the nature of the paradoxically compelling, selfless freedom that falls out of this interaction between pattern recognizers, pattern generators and effectors? If we exorcise the specters of transcendental thought –Brassier’s own normative functionalism included – how, if at all, do we conceptualise he calls “the subjectivity of the act” or its “self-determination”?
I think clues about this selfless self-determination can be gleaned from improvising situations we know about. The real of the improvising situation might be all protean complexity, but as with other aspects of the world, we have techniques for coping with that complexity. And these work (more or less).
For example, in a field study of post-hardcore rock musicians, Alec McGuiness provides a vivid example of musicians using a procedural learning technique to prime a series of musical riffs over which their intentional control is fairly limited. Songs are built by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when it “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 a distributed response to a “felicitous performance”. This is a collective judgement expressed though performance act itself rather than by application of formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).
The phenomenology of this act is also dark. All experience is, I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 Ch. 4). Having it only affords a very partial insight into its nature. We are not normally aware of it because, as Bakker writes, consciousness “provides no information about the absence of information.” Experience seems like a gift because we are unmindful of the heavy lifting required to produce it. We are in the dark about the dark.
The “state of grace” felt in felicitous improvisation is, then, an artifact of our technical underdevelopment. A technics like chaining riffs enables a groove but not groove control. It allows us, in Brassier words, to do “something with time” even as time “does something with us” (2014: 469).
However, if this is self-determination but not rule-governed rationality, what is it? I think we can understand this better by utilizing a conception of autonomy that is not exclusive to discursive creatures (as is the case with Kantian or Sellarsian self-determination).
In Posthuman Life, I call this “functional autonomy”. This idea helps articulate an unbounded speculative posthumanism because it applies to any self-maintaining system capable of enlisting values for its functionings or of becoming a value for some wider assemblage. A functionally autonomous system might be discursive and social; it might be a superintelligent but asocial singleton that only wants to produce paperclips. It might be something whose existence is utterly inconceivable to us, like a computational megastructure leeching the energy output of an entire star.
A diminution of functional autonomy is a reduction in power. Arthritis of the limbs painfully reduces freedom of movement and thus the ability to cultivate agency in other ways. Acquiring new skills increases “one’s capacities to affect and be affected, or to put it differently, increase one’s capacities to enter into novel assemblages” (DeLanda 2006: 50).
To be sure, success at improvising is not like acquiring a new skill. However, it requires that the agent embraces and is embraced a reality and time that interrupts any settled structure of values and ends.
This embrace might seem atavistic, divorced from the Promethean prospectus for engineering nature in compliance to reason. But this assumes that the means for engineering nature are compliant. In Posthuman Life I argue, to the contrary, that the systemic complexity of modern technique precludes binding technologies to norms. Modern self-augmenting technical systems are so complex as to be both out of control and characterised by massive functional indeterminacy – rendering them independent of any rules of use.
As the world is re-made by this vast planetary substance any agent located in the system needs to maximize its own ability to acquire new ends and purposes or bet (against the odds) on stable environments or ontological quiescence. Any technology liable to increase our ability to accrue new values and couplings in anomalous environments, then, is of local ecological value (Roden 2014: Ch. 7). This is not because such technologies make us better or happier, but because the only viable response to this deracinative modernity is more of the same.
In this “posthuman predicament” agency must be febrile, even masochistic. The agent must tolerate and practice a systemic violence against itself and its world. Thus improvisation – because it necessarily embraces and is embraced by the involuted mechanisms of performance – rehearses our tryst with the ontological violence of the hypermodern.
Bakker, Scott. 2010. Neuropath. New York: Tor.
Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-blind-mechanic-ii-reza-negarestani-and-the-labour-of-ghosts
Beaty, R. E. (2015). The neuroscience of musical improvisation. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 51, 108-117
Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.
Brandom, R. 2001. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.
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, R. 2011b. “The View from Nowhere”. Identities: Journal for Politics,
Gender and Culture 17: 7–23.
Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.htm (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.
Budd, M. (2001). The Pure Judgement of Taste as an Aesthetic Reflective Judgement. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 41(3), 247-260.
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.
Roden Forthcoming. “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an anti-normativist response to bounded posthumanism” Forthcoming in Rosi Braidotti Rick Dolphijn (ed.), Philosophy After Nature.
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)
 These determine how one ought to move from one position in the game to another (language-transition rules), assumes an “initial position” in the game – say, by observing some state of the world (language-entry rules) or exits the game by intentionally altering a bit of the world (Sellars 1954, 1974). In the case of assertions, the language-transition rules correspond to principles of material inference such as that allowing us to move to x is coloured from x is red. Language-entry rules, on the other hand, are non-inferential since they are made on the basis of reliable dispositions to discriminate the world (Sellars 1954: 209-10). As Robert Brandom puts it, statements like “This is red” (uttered in response to red things) are “noninferentially elicited but inferentially articulated” (Brandom 1994: 235, 258).
 For example, Robert Brandom cites the conditional (if… then…_statement as “the paradigm of a locution that permits one to make inferential commitments explicit as the content of judgements” (Brandom 29914: 109)
 Compositional prescriptions are regularly honored in the breach: “For hundreds of years musicians have been taught that it is good to resolve a large leap with a step in the other direction. Surely at least some composers followed this advice? The statistical results from von Hippel and Huron imply that for each passage where a composer had intentionally written according to post-skip reversal, then they must have intentionally transgressed this principle in an equivalent number of passages. Otherwise the statistics would not work out.” (David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, p. 84-6). However, the post-skip reversal heuristic is, it seems, applied by musician listeners, which makes sense given that it is easier to apply than a more accurate regression to the mean heuristic – which would require the listener to constantly infer the range (tessitura) of the melody (Ibid.).
 “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)
 As she writes: “Looking from the inside out, the transcendental conditioning of experience establishes clarity by admitting certain contents of an unknowable site of primary production; yet from the outside in, the transcendental conditioning of experience is itself a degenerative noise that degrades the clarity of its external input, rendering it unintelligible and ultimately inaccessible to internal modes of apprehension. What, for the observer-as-subject is clarity, for the observer-as-object is noise. As Niklaus Luhman once remarked: ‘Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it’ “ (Ireland 2014)
 For example, while improvising in the first eight bars of Miles Davis’ “So What” I might decide (more or less consciously) to play some digital patterns in the home key then transpose these up a minor third. I might have a conception of how I’ll land in the home key of Dm: say by transposing down a tone to Eflatm, resolving to Dm with in a semi-tone descent. This will leave much to be resolved on the fly as my body engages the keys. What patterns will I employ? Will they be varied melodically or rhythmically during the root movement from D to F to E flat? Will they employ chromatic elements (outside the related modes) that further muddy the sense of tonality; will I (at the last) refrain from taking that timid semi-tone resolution, instead repeating or varying the modulation into more harmonically ambiguous terrain?
 For example, space technology, nanotechnology, or the use of brain computer interfaces –
Steve Fuller has a wildly provocative article over at IEET entitled “We May Look Crazy to Them, But They Look Like Zombies to Us: Transhumanism as a Political Challenge”
As the title suggests, the article seeks to portray the political challenge of transhumanism as an existential conflict between transhumanists (who are committed to indefinite life extension) and a bioconservative hoi polloi who believe:
- that they will live no more than 100 years and quite possibly much less.
- that this limited longevity is not only natural but also desirable, both for themselves and everyone else.
- that the bigger the change, the more likely the resulting harms will outweigh the benefits.
Fuller’s argument goes as follows:
i) Biocons are comprehensively wrong. 1, 2 and 3 are false (Transhumanist assumption)
ii) The Biocons are thus programmed for destruction – not only their own but ours.
iii) The Biocons are thus relevantly similar to zombies.
Or to employ Fuller’s overlit prose:
These are people who live in the space of their largely self-imposed limitations, which function as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They are programmed for destruction – not genetically but intellectually. Someone of a more dramatic turn of mind would say that they are suicide bombers trying to manufacture a climate of terror in humanity’s existential horizons. They roam the Earth as death-waiting-to-happen.
This much is clear: If you’re a transhumanist, ordinary people are zombies.
It follows that, for transhumanists,the zombie apocalypse is an ongoing political reality and a substantial proportion of those reading this are its benighted vectors. Fuller derives only three political options from extant zombie survival guides:
a) You kill [the zombies] once and for all
b) You avoid them.
c) You enable them to be fully alive.
All three have their costs, but a) is, in many ways, the most attractive. After all, b) may be just too resource intensive, while c) is similarly problematic. As Fuller concludes:
Here there is a serious public relations problem, one not so different from development aid workers trying to persuade ‘underdeveloped’ peoples that their lives would be appreciably improved by allowing their societies to be radically re-structured so as to double their life expectancy from 40 to 80. While such societies are by no means perfect and may require significant change to deliver what they promise their members, nevertheless the doubling of life expectancy would mean a radical shift in the rhythm of their individual and collective life cycles – which could prove quite threatening to their sense of identity.
Of course, the existential costs suggested here may be overstated, especially in a world where even poor people have decent access to more global trends. Nevertheless the chequered history of development aid since the formal end of Imperialism suggests that there is little political will – at least on the part of Western nations — to invest the human and financial capital needed to persuade people in developing countries that greater longevity is in their own long-term interest, and not simply a pretext to have them work longer for someone else.
I think there’s scope for a transhumanist critique of the Zombie Argument and a posthumanist critique. I’ll say more about the former than the latter in what follows since Fuller’s piece is largely directed at a transhumanist constituency rather than a posthumanist one.
Suppose we understand transhumanism (H+) as a kind of humanism with added gizmos (or control knobs). Then (as I’ve argued in Posthuman Life) H+ is minimally committed to traditional humanist values: in particular, the cultivation of autonomy and rationality. We may construe autonomy as a matter of degree. A person is more autonomous, the more their range of worthwhile choices increases.
A commitment to autonomy seems like a good way to support H+ since increasing our powers to modify nature and ourselves will plausibly increase the ambit of our worthwhile choices. It will make us more autonomous. (We may even add a rider that the cultivation of any power implies a commitment on the part of rational beings to its open-ended extension)
Now I take it that a commitment to rationality includes a commitment to some form of public reason and accountability. I’m not excluding the possibility of emancipatory political violence here, but the rationale for violence must be genuinely emancipatory and framed in terms that could enlist the support of reasonable interlocutors in the game of “giving and asking for reasons”. A commitment to public reason implies a commitment to the politics of recognition: treating others as rational subjects capable of being swayed by the better argument while being reciprocally committed to abandoning one’s claims in the light of persuasive counter arguments. To use Rawlsian terminology, transhumanism has a political as well as a comprehensive component. The political component provides a side constraint on the way in which its comprehensive aims (life extension, intelligence augmentation, etc.) can be promulgated.
I don’t think Fuller’s zombie argument can pass through this political filter. Not only does it assume that other interlocutors are comprehensively wrong, it portrays them as essentially wrong. Non-transhumanists are not fellow people whose reason one can appeal to, but zombies, a plague on the Earth.
Casting one’s political opponents in this way isn’t humanism with control knobs; it’s anti-humanist zealotry with control-knobs. For a humanist, it constitutes a political betrayal of the project of humanism that transhumanists hope to continue.
This holds even for those who accept the conclusion of the zombie argument but opt for persuasion. If we fail to engage with others as rational beings, we’re betraying the core commitments of humanism and foundering into irrational violence. So the zombie argument not only begs the question too strongly in favour of transhumanism, it is pragmatically self-vitiating because it fails the public reason test.
Having set out the bones of a transhumanist rebuttal of Fuller, I’ll content myself with a brief sketch of a posthumanist one. The Speculative Posthumanism that I’ve espoused in Posthuman Life is characterised by a position I call Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism (AUP). AUP holds that the space of possible agents is not bound (a priori) by conditions of human agency or society. Since we lack future-proof knowledge of possible agents AUP allows that the results of techno-political interventions could be weird in ways that we are not in a position to imagine (Roden 2014: Ch.3-4; 2013; forthcoming). AUP note is an epistemic position that is consonant with some of the claims of critical posthumanists, but also with forms of naturalism and speculative realism.
The ethical predicament of the Speculative Posthumanist is (as I’ve emphasised elsewhere) more complex than that of the Transhumanist or their Promethean and Accelerationist cousins (Roden 2014, Chapters 1-2; Brassier 2014). Given AUP there need be no structure constitutive of all subjectivity or agency. Thus she cannot appeal to an unbounded theory of rational subjectivity to support an ethics of becoming posthuman.
It doesn’t follow that SP implies the rejection of the transhumanist objection. It holds locally for beings of a kind for which the politics of recognition makes sense (e.g. as long as we’re not Jupiter Brains or swarm intelligences). But whether or not this is true, AUP seems to go with a far more pluralist value theory than H+. If we have no a priori grip on the kind of agents that might result from some iteration of future technical activity, we have no grip on what will be important to them. Would life extension make sense to a being that lacked a conception of its self as a persistent agent? We might think that such a being could not be a candidate for properly posthuman status, but I’ve adduced plenty of arguments in PHL and elsewhere to undermine this intuition. In addition, AUP is consistent with multiple posthuman becomings, some of which may involve quite subtle adjustments to gender identity, sexuality, embodiment, and phenomenology. These may or may not involve life extension. In fact it does not seem irrational to adopt certain forms of posthumanist alteration in the knowledge that one’s life might be shortened by so doing (space colonisation, anyone?).
So AUP tells against the claim that only one position regarding life-extension is the right one. It doesn’t preclude the project of life-extension either, but provides strong supplementary grounds for not portraying our Biocon friends as zombies.
Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and Avenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.
Roden, David 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.
Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.
Roden Forthcoming. “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an anti-normativist response to bounded posthumanism” Forthcoming in Rosi Braidotti Rick Dolphijn (ed.), Philosophy After Nature.
Justa fictional sketch on the topic of posthuman environments/body variants. Those who know his work might spot the influence of Hannu Rajaniemi.
Might do some more with it subsequently.
The glass desert was filled with the hulks or dead or dormant machines – coiled like burnt snakes against white glare. The air pixelated with things that hummed and chattered on the wind. It held a faint tang of ammonia, burning eyes and throat.
Kame watched the collapsed bodies of the dead machines, alert for signs of raptors – shimmering like a school of fish under metal skin. Raptors hunted for incarnate data, for memories. She sometimes wondered if the chattering things were psychotic remnants of raptor feasts: soul shit.
The implants they had fitted after she had renounced her humanity back at the Reservation didn’t prickle under her air-sealed skin. She was safe, just for now.
She looked across a gap between two elephantine structures, still twitching in what passed for death among the sentient machines of the Abolition. Here was a smooth bowl in the desert, like a giant’s thumbprint. Its rim striated with something like writing that shimmered in the phosphorescent light.
As Kame bounded to the gap, helped by the cultured tendons in her new legs, she could see the writing resolve into thousands of worm-like cilia. The depression was like the mouth of a sea creature, a starfish crater: in fact, a temporary association of atom-scale assemblers known to the human cartographers of this place as “eaters”.
She knew that she did not have much time. The formation was not stable and might dissociate unpredictably. She would not survive here in her current form, however augmented. Either a raptor or incremental fluid loss would take her. Kame approached the eater-colony, stripping first her clothes, then her hard desert-fashion skin.
Underneath, she was just pink, soft meal. The air was corroding her, stripping away sheets of raw meat. The last few meters to the colony was a fog of pain and hemorrhaging lungs.
She almost didn’t make it. Finally, a raw, bleeding approximation flopped into the starfish mouth. Here the eaters could do their work. Gently taking her apart to reformat Kame in ways that would allow her to slip through the air like a manta ray and listen to the keening, inhuman voices beyond the sky.
I’m ending an all too brief sojourn in Western Crete, just as Greece seems set to become Europe’s new experiment in post-democratic capitalism – its very own Interzone. Many, if not most, economists claim that the conditions cannot be met and that attempting to do so will shred Greece’s economic, social, educational and cultural life as much as the initial round of austerity.
Nonetheless, a bubble of ease is maintained here for those with euros. We who bask in the light and heat of the Aegean summer can condemn the deprivations heaped upon the Greek state and its citizens without having to experience them.
However factitious, this moment has allowed me to pause and think about some generous philosophical discussion of Posthuman Life on a number of excellent websites. These have forced me to think harder about the basic assumptions in of the book. So here begins a series of reflective responses to my commentators under the rubric of “Dark Posthumanism” – though, as shall become clear, my use of the d-word is seriously tendentious.
I should begin by citing Debbie Goldgaber’s excellent post on Speculative Posthumanism and dark phenomenology. This catalyzed an exchange between deflationary naturalists like Scott Bakker and those like Jon Cogburn or Goldgaber, who favour a deconstructive or “weird realist” construal of dark phenomena. This debate resurfaced during a lively discussion at the New Centre for Research and Practice‘s Posthuman Life 1 seminar, in which Debbie also participated. Its trenchancy was a surprise, although a welcome and productive one, which I’ll try to address in this post.
Meanwhile, the Philosophical Percolations Summer Reading group on PHL rolls on to Chapter 2 and 3 and the Ultima Thule of Unbounded Posthumanism! I should also bow to John Danaher’s fine clarificatory effort over at Philosophical Disquisitions. He has not yet addressed the role of dark phenomenology, but it will be interesting to see what he makes of it.
Scott’s interview with me over at Figure/Bound communications recapitulates similar tensions while holding me to account for the ethical commitments of the book. I think there’s a connection between the epistemological issues arising from the dark phenomenology hypothesis and the ethics and politics of becoming posthuman. These are taken up in B P Morton’s terrific piece on trans/posthumanism and transgender (also at philpercs) which I to return to in the sequel to this post.
So what’s the deal with Dark Phenomena?
On a first (and extremely shaky) approximation, there is a tension between a thin epistemological interpretation of Dark Phenomena – experiences that furnish no tacit yardstick for their description – and a weird reading that I hesitate to term “ontological”, since its presuppositions seem more difficult to articulate than the naturalist side.
On the epistemological reading, the dark side is a placeholder for structures of experience that phenomenology cannot elucidate without the help of science – in particular, psychology, neuroscience or cognitive science. Dark phenomena reveal the point at which the putative domain of phenomenology eludes the scrutiny of philosophical method. It does not imply any obscurity in principle, since what may elude phenomenology may be explicated in other terms.
On the weird (horror?) reading, the dark side must be understood via its disintegration or truncation of the subject: experiences of horror, alienation, humour or compulsion such as the spectral thing that, for Levinas, depersonalises the consciousness of the insomniac. As Cogburn points out, these incursions and eruptions in experience can be related to the late Idealist view that our experience of embodiment provides privileged insight into a pre-subjective Nature (Schelling) or a noumenal body that eludes representation. I think Eugene Thacker’s discussion of Schopenhauer in his book Starry Speculative Corpse captures the latter idea particularly well:
The Will is, in Schopenhauer’s hands, that which is common to subject and object, but not reducible to either. This will is never present in itself, either as subjective experience or as objective knowledge; it necessarily remains a negative manifestation. Indeed, Schopenhauer will press this further, suggesting that “the whole body is nothing but objectified will, i.e. will that has become representation” (122-3)
So darkness on the naturalist reading is a local problem for phenomenological method, whereas on the weird reading it is an obscure disclosure (“negative manifestation”) of something (some thing) that resists any form of representation or theory. It must also be contentless if it is to do the work of undercutting the claims of transcendental conceptions of the subject, whether phenomenological, existential or pragmatist.
So far this seems as if it might be almost consonant with Bakker’s take on dark phenomenology. As he writes in his commentary on Goldgaber, phenomenology qua method:
assumes we have a reflectively accessible experiential plenum to begin with, that we actually possess a ‘phenomenology’ worth the name. The problem, in other words, is that we have no way of knowing just how impoverished our ‘phenomenology’ is in the first place.
If phenomenology is dark then phenomenological method is at best incomplete and at worst benighted. For example, experienced temporality is as transcendent and inaccessible to us as the structure of matter. Phenomenology can never be more than a descriptive science of nature according to this account and should not aspire to a priori status since there is no good reason to think that its descriptions are authoritative. There are good empirical reasons for thinking that we take our judgements about the contents of our minds or experiences to be based on an unmediated givenness only because we are not mindful of the heavy lifting required to produce them. If phenomenology is dark we are, as Bakker implies, in the dark about the dark.
The weird reading might now seem a little shady. Even the metaphor of darkness is misleading if it implies a phenomenology of the “gaps in presence”. This would be feasible only if we already knew the structure of the plenum and (or so the argument goes) there is no good reason to think that we do.
This seems to warrant a cautious analogy between the thesis that there is a dark side to phenomenology and Derridean deconstruction, which, though drawing on the language of phenomenology, cuts it free of any secure domain by generalizing subjective temporality well beyond anything conceivable as a subject, to the iterable mark, to generalized writing etc. (PHL: 94).
Goldgaber imputes to me the claim that this structure, at least, is generalizable beyond the human:
were it possible to show that there are dark elements in our own phenomenology, experienceable but not amenable to description or interpretation, we would have grounds, Roden thinks, for understanding human subjectivity in terms of both its unity and radical difference or rupture from world–as dependent on structures that are shared by nonhumans.
I’m not sure that I go this far. I suspect a purer Derridean like Martin Haggelund might. But, like Bakker, I don’t see any reason to see why such claims are on securer ground. Their virtue is salutary rather than informative; exposing the indeterminacy of claims about structure of worldly agency and time.
On the other hand, once we take dark phenomenology (or Bakker’s blind brain theory) as serious epistemological proposals we seem confronted with a darkness without negation, not one contrary to the light side (which, by hypothesis, is already striated with it). And here one is almost tempted to say that harder-than-hard naturalism bites the tail of mysticism. In Speculative Corpse, Thacker distinguishes a metaphysical correlation (between thought and object) presupposed by philosophy from a mystical correlation that can only verify itself by breaking against an impersonal “divine” darkness (84-5) that can never be recuperated by thought. A similar failure of correlation seems to obtain here. Even the tools (concepts like plenum) with which we are attempting to think the absence of a proper topic for phenomenology have to fail us. A thought that reiterates its failure in this way obeys the logic of the mystical as Thacker describes it.
So while we may not have any knowledge of what we could share with unboundedly weird posthumans, or nonhumans of other stripes, we led into a defile that is boundless on either reading. Perhaps the deflationary reading is as weird as it gets. Perhaps as Bakker puts in Neuropath, we are all already “vast and terrible with complexity” . As the tagline to the novel states: you do not know what you are. You do not know what it is that does not know this. We do not know where the darkness ends, how far it extends. And perhaps it is this pervasive boundlessness that can provide a tentative opening beyond the human, freeing us, as Morton might say, to explore the near inhuman, the trans of alterable bodies and desires.
Or maybe this is too quick! It’s easy to make imaginary progress in a frictionless milieu. I’ll return to Morton in Dark Posthumanism II.