Archive for the ‘Theory’ Category

Whitehead on Feelings

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Here is the text of the talk I gave this past week at the International Whitehead Studies conference in Claremont, California. It is a bit rough and fragmentary, and it doesn’t have a proper conclusion. But since I do not know when, or even if, I will expand it into a proper article, I am posting it here.

I am especially interested in what Whitehead calls feeling. The word is everywhere in Process and Reality. But it is not necessarily used in the ways we might expect. Whitehead insists that "the word feeling is a mere technical term." He says that he is using it in order to designate "that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own." At another point, Whitehead defines feeling as "the term used for the basic generic operation of of the actual entity in question. Feelings are variously specialized operations, effecting a transition into subjectivity."

In other words, "feeling" for Whitehead means capture and appropriation, and the form of subjectivity that arises from all this. Feeling as "a mere technical term" is pretty much equivalent to what Whitehead elsewhere calls prehension: a more unusual word that doesn’t have common-language connotations (although we recognize it in composite words like apprehension and comprehension). Strictly speaking, a feeling is a positive prehension; Whitehead contrasts this to negative prehension, a mode in which things are not felt, but rather "eliminate[d] from feeling." Positive and negative prehensions are the way that any entity constitutes itself in the process of responding to other entities that precede it. In every encounter, you either feel whatever it is that you have encountered, or else you actively reject it from feeling. Most importantly, an entity encounters, feels, and picks up from, its own state of being in the immediate past, which is to say in "time-spans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second." But an entity also encounters other entities in its vicinity. And ultimately, an entity encounters – at least to some extent, though quite often this extent is "negligable" – its entire world, whch is to say, in the terminology of physics, everything within the light cone of the entity.

Explicitly specifying that "feeling" is just a technical term is a way of warning us that we shouldn’t take it as anthropomorphically as we normally would. On Whitehead’s account, a tree has feelings – but they are probably quite different from the feelings that human beings have. A tree may well feel assaulted, for instance; we know that trees (and other plants) release pheromones when insects start eating their leaves. These emissions both act as a chemical attack on the predator, and warn other trees (or, indeed, other parts of the same tree) to take defensive measures as well. It is not ridiculous, therefore, to claim that a tree has feelings. However, it is unlikely that a tree would ever feel insulted or humiliated – these are human feelings that have no place in the life of trees.

Of course, if Whitehead had really wanted to separate the concept of feeling entirely from our human sense of the term, he could have avoided the word entirely – since it is already synonymous to the technical term prehension. That way he could have easily sidestepped all this baggage of already-existing connotations. Since he didn’t, I must assume that Whitehead wanted to draw on that baggage – even though he also pushes it aside by claiming to be using "a mere techincal term." Why might this be? Whitehead wants us to expand our idea of what feelings are beyond the human context; but at the same time he does not want to completely separate it from human experience. The feelings of a tree are quite different from the feelings of human beings, but there is nonetheless a certain degree of affinity between them.

This, of course, is the point at which many people will accuse Whitehead of anthropmorphism and projection. We can respond to this objection with Jane Bennett’s maxim that anthropomorphism helps us to avoid the far worse problems of anthropocentrism. After all, she notes, "too often the philosophical rejection of anthropomorphism is bound up with a hubristic demand that only humans and God can bear any traces of creative agency." In other words, attributing feeling to trees helps to shake us from our all-too-human, self-congratulatory belief that we are totally unlike all other entities: such as Robert Brandom’s view that we are sapient, whereas other living things are merely sentient. But actually, I don’t think that Whitehead is being anthropomorphic at all: rather, he is inverting the direction of anthropomorphic projections. For Whitehead, human feelings are in fact the exemplification, within our own experience, of a broader kind of process that is far more widely distributed among entities in the world. I cannot remember who first said this, but Whitehead’s actual procedure is – far from attributing human qualities to other organisms –to try to find more general processes, of which the human version that we are familiar with is just one, not necessarily privileged, example. Whitehead’s procedure is actually what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction.

Nonetheless, even with all these explanations, Whitehead’s use of feeling as a mere techincal term remains a bit counter-intuitive. He shores up his position by appealing to a number of philosophical precedents . He says that "this use of the term ‘feeling’ has a close analogy to Alexander’s use of the term ‘enjoyment'; and has also some kinship with Bergson’s use of the term ‘intuition.’ (Just as an aside, I wonder whether it might be a good idea to go back and look at Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity: I have never read it, but Whitehead clearly thinks highly of it, and Deleuze mentions it in passing as a great book).

In any case, Whitehead also – and more surprisingly than with his citations of Alexander and Bergson – closely associates his use of the word feeling with Descartes’ use of the equivalent Latin term sentire. Didier Debaise discusses this connection in his new book L’appât des possibles. For Descartes, sentire, the act of feeling, is the one indubitable fact of existence – my cogito really reduces to a sentio, since even if the content of the feeling is delusive, the fact of having a feeling is not. (Debaise implicitly draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s substitution of sentio for cogito). (It is worth noting that Whitehead quite frequently draws from the history of philosophy in this way; he find precedents by isolating crucial propositions from an earlier thinker whose general, overall position is entirely opposed to his own).

I am entirely convinced by Debaise’s reading, which is deeper and more complex than what I have space to discuss here. But I would like to point to another, equally odd philosophical borrowing in Whitehead’s discussion of feeling. After citing Alexander and Bergson, and before moving on to Descartes, Whitehead notes that "a near analogy [for his own use of the term ‘feeling’] is Locke’s use of the term ‘idea’, including ‘ideas of particular things’." The qualification of "particular things" is important. At several points in Process and Reality, Whitehead notes how – even though this contradicts Locke’s overall sensationalism – Locke nonetheles speaks of ideas that are "determined to one particular existent." What this means, for Whitehead, is that "in some sense one actual existent repeats itself in another actual existent." There is a lot to unpack here. I will only note two things. In the first place, an entity prehends, or feels, an entire prior entity: meaning the entity as a whole, rather than just its particular qualities. I see a tree, not just an aggregation of points of green (leaves) and grey (bark). I feel the entity itself, as well as feeling its "secondary qualities" (which are what Whitehead calls eternal objects). The "data" that we perceive are not just atomistic impressions; rather, "the datum includes its own interconnections."

In the second place, when Whitehead says that an entity "repeats itself", he means that entities do not just represent other entities, or the sensa emitted by other entities, as private mental pictures: rather, the earlier entity really is present in a certain way in the later one. I discuss this at length in my article "Whitehead on Causality and Perception." For Whitehead, causality and perception are the same thing. Or, more precisely: when an entity perceives another entity, this means that it is being affected by that other entity; perception in this way is a subset of being-affected in general, since entities also affect other entities in ways that are not immediately perceived; the sum of all these affections are what we mean by causality. As Michael Halewood mentioned to me, this means that Whitehead understands causality , not as a "law of nature," but rather as the tendency for the present to conform to the immediate past. Such is the baseline, or basic condition, of becoming for Whithead; although it is partly overcome when an entity introduces novelty in its prehension of a previous entity, rather than merely conforming to it.

There are several other places in Progress and Reality where Whitehead refers his own notion of feeling to Locke’s notion of ideas. For instance:

the terms ‘prehension’ and ‘feeling’ are to be compared with the various significations of Locke’s term ‘idea.’ But they are adopted as more general and more neutral terms than ‘idea’ as used by Locke, who seems to restrict them to conscious mentality.

And again:

Locke’s term idea, in his primary use of it in the first two books of the Essay, means the determinate ingression of an eternal object into the actual entity in question. But he also introduces the limitation to conscious mentality, which is here abandoned."

The important point here is that subjective experience need not involve, and can be detached from, consciousness. On the one hand, Whitehead catergorically insists that "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." But he also continually reminds us that most of this "experience of subjects" is nonconscious. We feel more than we can know. And many organisms feel events in the world, without necessarily being conscious of what they feel. Trees for instance, have feelings, as many recent studies have shown (see, for instance, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz). Trees sense and feel the sunlight; they sense and feel water in the ground; they sense and feel when insects eat their leaves. But none of this necessarily means that trees are overtly conscious; most likely, they are not.

Whitehead’s distinction between feeling and consciousness helps to illuminate certain deadlocks in the contemporary philosophy of mind. Many philosophers – David Chalmers is a good example – insist upon a supposed special quality of consciousness, its irreducibility to physical process. Other philosophers – Daniel Dennett for example – deny that consciousness has any special qualities; but in giving a fully physical explanation, they end up by explaining it away. Galen Strawson has recentlly suggested that both positions are fallacious. On the one hand, there is no evidence, in the mind or elsewhere, for anything that transcends the physical. On the other hand, though, we don’t really know everything that physical processes or materiality can do; there is no ground for claiming that physicality somehow excludes mentality. I am inclined to agree with Strawson here; but the larger, Whiteheadian point is that the issue gets entirely confused when we simply equate mentality with consciousness. Neurobiologists have shown that many and perhaps most mental processes occur nonconsciously, and may well be absoutely inaccessible to consciousness. But we need not assume, as neurobiologists and philosophers of mind generally do, that all this nonconscious mental activitty can rightly be described as computation. Whitehead’s discussion of feeling gives us a broader picture of mental functioning than cognitive psychology does. I cannot develop this here, but my hunch is that feeling in this sense is a necessary precondition for cognition, but is not in itself cognitive.

Fictions and Fabulations of Sentience: Introduction

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Here is the current draft of the Introduction to the book I am trying to write this summer, Discognition: Fictions and Fabulations of Sentience. Of course it is subject to revision.

What is consciousness? How does subjective experience occur? Which entities are conscious? Or, to put things as particularly as possible: what is it like to be a bat? — as Thomas Nagel famously asked. For that matter, what is it like to be a dog, a robot, or a tree — or even a human being? Is it like anything at all to be a rock, or a star, or a neutrino? How do we explain the very fact of being aware? What does it really mean to be conscious, to think, to feel, or to know? And what is the difference — if any — between thinking, feeling, being aware, and knowing? Such questions might seem to have obvious answers — until we actually try to answer them. Then we discover that we don’t have a clue, and that these questions have never come close to being plausibly answered. Still today, there no consensus whatsoever upon any of these topics: neither among scientists and philosophers, nor among the general public. We are clearly sentient, and yet we do not know what sentience is, how it can exist, or what it means.

Whenever I come across such intractable problems, my impulse is always to turn to science fiction. Perhaps we will be able to imagine what we are unable to know. Science fiction is a special kind of literature — or better, paraliterature, as Samuel R. Delany calls it — that operates through speculation and extrapolation, and that takes place (conceptually, if not grammatically) in the future tense. It is a kind of thought experiment, a way of entertaining odd ideas, and of asking off-the-wall what if? questions. But instead of approaching its issues abstractly, as philosophy does, or breaking them down into empirically testable propositions, as physical science does, science fiction embodies these issues in characters and narratives. By telling stories, it asks questions about all sorts of things: consciousness and cognition, the future, extreme possibilities, nonhuman otherness, and especially the deep consequences — the powers and limitations — of both our ideologies and our technologies.

The method of science fiction is emotional and situational, rather than rational and universalizing. Philosophical argumentation and scientific experimentation both endeavor to prove and to ground their assertions, however counter-intuitive these may seem to be at first glance. Science fiction also proposes counter-intuitive scenarios; but its effort is rather to work through the weirdest and most extreme ramifications of these scenarios, and to imagine what it would be like if they were true. Where philosophy is foundational, science fiction is pragmatic and exploratory. And where physical science seeks to settle upon predictable and repeatable results, science fiction seeks to unsettle and singularize these results, and to provide us with unrepeatable histories. Science fiction does not ever actually prove anything; but its scenarios may well suggest new lines of inquiry that analytic reasoning and inductive generalization would never stumble upon by themselves.

In Discognition, I look at a series of science fiction narratives in order to raise questions about consciousness and thought — or better, about sentience. I prefer this latter term, because it does not presuppose that mental processes and experiences are rational, nor even that they are necessarily conscious. When certain philosophers elevate human “sapience” over mere animal “sentience,” they are indulging in dubious feats of self-congratulation. For in fact, there is far more of an evolutionary continuity than a sharp distinction between the way that my dog thinks, and the way that I think. I have many unique qualities of mind that he can never hope to possess; but the inverse of this is also true. Understanding and intelligence (which Robert Brandom lists as the characteristics of sapience) are in fact deeply rooted in such features of sentience as sensory awareness, reality testing, irritability, and arousal. The difference is one of degree, rather than one of kind.

Brandom is therefore wrong to scornfully dismiss what he calls the “merely sentient” condition of animals. My dog may not be able to “offer and inquire after reasons,” as Sellars and Brandom would wish — just as he cannot figure out how to extricate himself when he gets tangled up in his leash. Nonetheless, he exhibits a wide range of moods and feelings. He is is quite good at posing and pursuing many sorts of complicated goals. And he is highly skilled at expressing his desires, in ways that I am able to understand; and at comprehending — and responding flexibly to — my own moods and desires. Thinking is a far more common and widely distributed process than we are sometimes willing to recognize.

The narratives that I discuss in this book offer us speculation — fictions and fabulations — about sentience. There is something oddly recursive about this, since sentience itself is arguably a matter of generating (or being able to generate) fictions and fabulations. We ought to resist the all-too-common equation of sentience with cognition. We often find this assumption taken for granted in contemporary philosophy of mind, as well as in neurobiological research. But mental functioning and subjective experience need not themselves be cognitive — even though cognition seems impossible without them. Sentience, whether in human beings, in animals, in other sorts of organisms, or in artificial entities, is less a matter of cognition than it is one of what I have ventured to call discogniton. I use this neologism to designate something that disrupts cognition, exceeds the limits of cognition, but also subtends cognition. My working assumption is that fictions and fabulations are basic modes of sentience; and that cognition per se is derived from them and cannot exist without them.

Fictions and fabulations are often contrasted, or opposed, to scientific methods of understanding the world. But in fact, there are powerful resonances between them; they are both processes of speculative extrapolation. In other words, constructing and testing scientific hypotheses is not entirely different from constructing fictions and fabulations, and then testing to see whether they work or not, and what consequences follow from them. For science is far more than just a passive process of discovery, or a compiling of facts that are simply “out there.” Rather, science must actively approach things and processes in the world. This is the reason for making hypotheses. Science needs to solicit and elicit phenomena that would not disclose themselves to us otherwise. It must somehow compel these phenomena to respond to our questions, by giving us full and consistent answers. All this is necessary, precisely because things in the world are not cut to our measure. They have no reason to conform to our presuppositions, or to fit into any categories that we seek to impose.

The modern empirical scientific method is sometimes described as a process of “torturing nature to reveal her secrets” — a phrase often wrongly attributed to Francis Bacon. Philosophers of science also like to quote Isaac Newton’s Hypotheses non fingo (“I feign no hypotheses”). But a much better account of actual scientifc practice is the one proposed by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, who say that scientists work by negotiating with nonhuman entities, and by entering into alliances with them. Scientists do not get very far by treating the things they are interested in as mute and inert objects to be dissected. They do much better when they are somehow able to collaborate with the very entities that they seek to observe and explain.

Alfred North Whitehead, a major inspiration for both Latour and Stengers, notes that if the “rigid… Baconian method of induction” had been “consistently pursued,” it “would have left science where it found it.” Nothing new would ever have been discovered. The same can be said for Newton’s claim of making no hypotheses. Whitehead insists that science needs, not just empirical observation and induction, but also “the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic.” That is to say, a certain degree of speculation is always necessary in scientific research. This speculation has to be “controlled” in some manner; it cannot be altogether arbitrary and unbounded. But without speculation, science is caught in a rut. It cannot stretch beyond the given, immediate facts, in order to provide a plausible explanation for these facts.

The speculative process described by Whitehead is roughly similar to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction. For Peirce, abduction stands in contrast to — and supplements — both deduction and induction. Deduction starts with conditions that are already given, and traces out a chain of logical consequences for those conditions. Induction, for its part, generalizes on the basis of an already given set of particular observations. According to Peirce, neither deduction nor induction can actually suggest anything new. Abduction, in contrast, makes a sort of leap into novelty. It shifts register: suggesting a higher-order explanation for the circumstances with which it is concerned, or positing a possible cause for the effects in view. Science is often praised for having — as other human disciplines do not — an intrinsic self-correcting mechanism. But without first engaging in abduction or speculation, science would never come up with any material to confirm or deny, or to self-correct.

Because it requires flights of speculation, as well as because it requires collaboration among many separate entities, science can never be purely human, nor purely rational. This is why efforts to place science on a pedestal, radically separating it from other forms of thought and endeavor, are so deeply mistaken. Empricial science and rational discourse are largely continuous with other ways of feeling, understanding, and engaging with the world. These include art, myth, religion, and narrative, together with the nonhuman modes of inference exhibited by other sorts of organisms.

We should therefore always be alert to the deep bioligical roots of scientific experimentation and discovery. As Björn Brembs points out, there has recently been a major change of paradigm in neuroscience: a “dramatic shift in perspectives from input/output to output/input.” We can no longer be satisfied with the old stimulus/response model, according to which animals (and other organisms) passively respond to prior, incoming stimuli, and learn by means of conditioning (or associations among these stimuli). For this is only one part of the story. In addition, and probably more importantly, biological entities are active reality-testers. They are always busy “probing the environment with ongoing, variable actions first and evaluating sensory feedback later (i.e., the inverse of stimulus response).” Output tends to come first. Organisms engage their surroundings with spontaneous actions, rather than just waiting for and responding to sensory inputs.

For instance, fruit flies (the special focus of Brembs’ own research) only have tiny brains; but they actively compare the actual results of their reality-testing with what can only be called their prior expectations. They also engage in spontaneous (non-deterministic and unpredictable) actions, so that their behavior “is notoriously variable, even under identical sensory conditions.” The same applies, not just to animals with neurons and brains, but also to non-animal forms of life, like trees, bacteria, and slime molds. That is to say, living organisms are continually engaged, in their own particular ways, in processes of speculative extrapolation and experimentation. When scientists perform experiments and develop theories, actively soliciting responses from the world, they are fundamentally doing the same thing as fruit flies and slime molds — albeit in a far more sophisticated manner, and on a more reflexive meta-level.

Among human beings, speculative extrapolation is not only the method of science. It is also what art in general does — and what science fiction does in particular. As the philosopher Eric Schwitzgabel puts it,

Increasingly, I think the greatest science fiction writers are also philosophers. Exploring the limits of technological possibility inevitably involves confronting the central issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and human value.

In this book, I seek to explore the potentials and implications of sentience by turning to fictions and fabulations — and in particular to written science fiction narratives. Some of the texts that I look at are set in the very near future, and trace out the potential implications of already-existing technologies and research programs. Others are set in a more distant future, and involve more radical flights of extrapolation. Some of these stories can be described as reductionist and eliminativist, in the sense that they seek to demystify and discredit our common sense assumptions about how our minds work. Others might be described as expansive, in that they seek to show that phenomenal consciousness is irreducible, and more widely spread than we sometimes imangine. Some of the narratives deal with human intelligence and consciousness in particular; others propose radically alien sorts of mentality. In all cases, I seek to follow, and extrapolate from, the suggestions expressed by the narratives themselves — rather than viewing them with suspicion, or working to critique them.

More specifically, the hypothesis, or speculative wager, behind this book is that science fiction narratives can help us step beyond the overly limited cognitivist assumptions of most recent research both in the philosophy of mind and in the science of neurobiology. This is because narrative fictions nearly always extend beyond cognition. They are about connecting how and what we know to how we feel, and to how we might act— to what is it like? in short. Even the most reductionist SF stories still work, not just to explain, but to entangle us within their grim scenarios. In this sense, works of art are forms of — or occasions for — rehearsal, as Morse Peckham argued long ago. With their extrapolations, they allow us to respond vicariously to situations that might be extremely dangerous and painful, were they actually to exist. Art readies us for evaluation and action under conditions of uncertainty. In the aesthetic register, Peckham says, “responses are redundantly maintained in situations in which nothing is at stake.” This is precisely what allows narrative (and other forms of art) to explore exteme possibilities.

Psychoanalysis and cognitive science both tell us — albeit for vastly different reasons — that consciousness is only a very narrow and specialized part of mental activity. Most thinking takes place nonconsciously, outside of our attention or awareness. Even more of our thinking slips away — it cannot be retained in memory, or in the form of concepts. Fictions and fabulations can provide us with a sort of feed forward — to use a phrase of Mark Hansen’s — of those mental processes that are not available to introspection. Hansen emphasizes the (quite science-fictional) way that computational microsensors are now able “to stand in for consciousness, to take the place of sense perception in the operations of registering sensory data.” Things beneath or beyond the reach of phenomenal perception are thus made accessible to us, albeit belatedly and indirectly. I want to suggest that fictions and fabulations, whether articulated by human beings or by other entities, are also forms of indirect, nonphenomenological access to nonconscious forms of sentience.

Through fictions and fabulations, we learn that there is more to thought than consciousness. But there is also more to thought than the nonconscious computations of which cognitive science speaks. Before it is cognitive, let alone conscious, thought is primordially an affective and aesthetic phenomenon. This is best grasped as a process of what Alfred North Whitehead calls “feeling.” Whitehead uses this word, he says, as “a mere technical term” in order to designate “that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own.” What this means, in more familiar language, is that every entity becomes what it is by “appropriating” what is left behind by other entities that precede it. Most crucially, an entity perpetuates itself by appropriating its own prior states of existence. But an entity also appropriates other entities in its surroundings. It picks up whatever it encounters: whatever affects it, or provides conditions or resources for its own continued existence.

This primordial act of feeling, or appropriation, happens before I know it, and often without my ever becoming aware of it. I can breathe without having to know anything about oxygen. Feeling, as Whitehead describes it, comes about prior to anything like understanding (in the Kantian sense), or cognition (in the current psychological and analytic-philosophical sense) or intentionality (in the phenomenological sense). Rather, Whiteheadian feeling is closer to Spinoza’s notion of affection (affectio), and to William James’ theory of emotion. Embodied response precedes, and does not require, intellectual apprehension.

In other words, feeling is something that happens without, or before, concepts. Here we can consider Kant’s dictum that “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”; Merleau-Ponty’s insistence that “unreflective experience” must itself be reflected upon, and that such reflection “cannot be unaware of itself as an event”; and Sellars’ attack on the “myth of the given.” All of these philosophers insist that there is no such thing as raw, unmediated experience. Our perceptions and emotions are always already conceptualized. Of course these arguments are in their own terms impregnable; if I want to insist upon a “feeling” that is prior to these modes of conceptualization and self-reflection, then I cannot go on to conceptualize it. I cannot assume its solidity as an idea, or as a point of presence. I must regard feelings, and characterize them, as fugitive and ungraspable; and perhaps also as non-functional, or even dysfunctional.

This means, in Kantian terms, that “feeling” is a matter for aesthetics, rather than for empirical understanding. Despite his strictures against “intuitions without concepts” in the First Critique, Kant nonetheless writes in the Third Critique of “aesthetic ideas,” which he defines as “inner intuitions” which are so powerful that “no concept can be fully adequate to them.” In phenomenological terms, we may say that feeling comes before, and falls short of, any sort of intentionality, or even of Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility. In cognitivist terms, finally, feeling has something to do with what Thomas Metzinger calls Raffman qualia: any such sensation is “available for attention and online motor control, but it is not available for cognition . . . it evades cognitive access in principle. It is nonconceptual content.”

In his recent book Plant-Thinking, Michael Marder credits plants with “non-conscious intentionality.” He means “intentionality” in the phenomenological sense: the idea that thought is of or about something. In this book, I argue pretty much the reverse: that living organisms, beyond and beneath their cognitive accomplishments, exhibit something like nonintentional sentience. Beneath intentionality, or before thought is about anything, there is a thinking process — an it thinks — that is nontransitive, without an object. When it thinks, it feels something; but it does not have any conception or representation of what it is that it feels. As Marder rightly points out, plants do not have anything like a unified or centered self. There is no “I” to a plant, no subject. But for this very reason, there is nothing — as far as a plant is concerned — like an intentional object either. My formulation is not an absolute reversal of Marder’s, because I do not equate sentience with consciousness. I think that Whitehead is right in speaking of the relative rarity of consciousness, and suggesting that most occasions of feeling are nonconscious. Plants are indeed sentient, as recent research has convincingly shown. But this does not necessarily mean that they are conscious. Plants feel, in Whitehead’s sense; they encounter the world. But they do not do so in any manner with which we are consciously acquainted.

In Discognition, I look at science fiction narratives — fictions and fabulations — that consider unusual forms of sentience, both in human beings and in other entities. The first chapter, “Thinking Like A Philosopher”, is not about a science fictional text per se, but rather about a counterfactual narrative — the story of Mary — that has become the focus of much speculation and argumentation among philosophers of mind. The second chapter, “Thinking Like A Computer,” discusses Maureen McHugh’s short story “The Kingdom of the Blind,” which contemplates the possibility of spontaneously arising machine sentience, or artificial intelligence. The third chapter, “Thinking Like An Avatar”, looks at Ted Chiang’s dramatization of the issues surrounding artificial intelligence in his novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” The third chapter, “Thinking Like A Human Being”, considers Scott Bakker’s chillingly eliminativist view of human cognition, as expressed in his novel Neuropath. The fifth chapter, “Thinking Like A Murderer”, looks at Michael Swanwick’s short story “Wild Minds”, which was written before, but almost seems like a deliberate rejoinder to, Bakker’s novel. The sixth chapter,”Thinking Like An Alien”, examines Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight, which raises questions about the very nature of consciousness by imagining radical, posthuman mind alterations alongside a truly alien sort of intelligence. FInally, the seventh chapter, “Thinking Like A Slime Mold”, considers the strange mental powers of an actually-existing organism, the plasmodial slime mold Physarum polyycephalum.

Whitehead on Causality and Perception

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

Here’s my talk from the Whitehead Research Project’s conference on Rethinking Symbolism.

Whitehead discusses symbolism – among other reasons – in order to get a handle on the problem of error. This, of course, is something that has preoccupied Western philosophy for a long time. Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy begins with his worries about "how numerous were the false opinions that in my youth I had taken to be true, and how doubtful were all those that I had subsequently built upon them." Whitehead’s erstwhile collaborator Bertrand Russell similarly opens his own volume on The Problems of Philosophy with the question: "Is there any knowledge in the world which is so certain that no reasonable man could doubt it?" Modern Western philosophy – from Descartes through Kant, and on to today – generally privileges epistemology over ontology. We cannot claim to know the way things are, without first giving an account of how it is that we know. We cannot consider the consequences of a proposition, until we have first assured ourselves that it is free from error.

Whitehead gives his own deceptively bland statement of the problem of truth and error towards the beginning of Symbolism:

An adequate account of human mentality requires an explanation of (i) how we can know truly, (ii) how we can err, and (iii) how we can critically distinguish truth from error. (S 7)

Despite this unexceptionable goal, however, Whitehead does not seem to think that the problem of error is of great importance. Indeed, he takes what most philosophers would consider a cavalier, and indeed irresponsible, attitude towards the whole question. For he holds that "in the real world it is more important that a proposition be interesting than that it be true" (PR 259). A scientific observation, a common-sense hypothesis, or even a rigorous philosophical formulation may have relevent and important consequences, despite the fact that it is erroneous. For this reason, Whitehead is less concerned with eliminating error than in experimenting with it, and seeing what might arise from it. Error is not an evil to be exterminated, but a frequently useful "lure for feeling" (PR 25 and passim). It is a productive detour in the pathways of mental life: "We must not, however, judge too severely of error. In the initial stages of mental progress, error in symbolic reference is the discipline which promotes imaginative freedom" (S 19).

It is worth underlining how rare this position is in Western philosophy. It may well be a cliché of educational method (a subject in which Whitehead himself was deeply interested) that making mistakes is a necessary part of learning. But most philosophers overlook this. They are more concerned with the nature and content of truth, than they are with the question of how we may learn to attain it. Deleuze is the only other major philosopher I know who joins Whitehead in regarding the problem of error as in itself merely trivial (Difference and Repetition 148-151).

Western philosophy in general is so preoccupied with the question of error, because it is deeply concerned with the unreliability of immediate experience – or of the body and the senses. From Plato’s allegory of the cave, through Descartes’ radical doubt about the evidence provided by his physical organs, right on up to Thomas Metzinger’s claim that experience is nothing but an internal, virtual-reality simulation, philosophers have been haunted by the idea that sense perception is delusional – and that, as a result, our beliefs about the world might well be radically wrong.

Even if we trust the evidence of our senses, however, we may still be severely limited in the extent of what we can actually know. Hume is sceptical, not so much of the deliverances of the senses themselves, as of what we can legitimately infer from them. For Hume, "all events seem entirely loose and separate. One event follows another; but we never can observe any tie between them. They seem conjoined but never connected" (Enquiry 47). It is true that we often observe the "constant conjunction" of certain events. But correlation is not causation, and we cannot legitimately infer from the former to the latter. Hume concludes that the "idea of a necessary connexion among events" arises only because "the mind is carried by habit" to expect a second, associated event when it encounters the first.

Kant, of course, endeavors to overcome Hume’s scepticism by means of a transcendental argument. We cannot do without causality. If relations of cause and effect cannot be found in sense data themselves, as Hume maintains, then it must inhere in "our ways of thought about the data" (S 37). For Kant, causality is rescued as an a priori category of the understanding. If we were not able to organize the sense data we receive according to the laws of cause and effect, Kant says, then we would scarcely be able to have subjective experience at all.

Recent philosophy most often treats causality in a Humean spirit, rather than a Kantian one. Thus the late analytic philosopher David K. Lewis maintains that "all there is to the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another" (Philosophical Papers, Volume II, ix). Relations of cause and effect may be observed to supervene upon these particular facts; but Lewis argues, following Hume, that we cannot make any inference from such observations to a deeper sort of necessity. For we can always imagine, without logical contradiction, counterfactual possible worlds in which events could have turned out differently. Analytic philosophers love to float scenarios in which, for instance, water is not composed of H~2~O (Putnam, "Meaning and Reference"), or people devoid of sentience nonetheless act in ways that are indisinguishable from everyone else (Chalmers, The Conscious Mind, 93-122). Indeed, Lewis’s "modal realism" asserts that we must accept the reality of all these alternative possible worlds.

As Jeff Bell has noted, there is a certain similarity between Lewis’s doctrine of Humean Supervenience and the revivial, by the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux, of what he calls "Hume’s Problem" (AF 82-111). For Meillassoux, Hume establishes once and for all that neither experience (which only pertains to the past and present, never to the future) nor a priori reasoning (which can only exclude logical contradictions) is able to guarantee the necessity of causal relations. For "there is nothing contradictory in thinking that the same causes could produce different effects tomorrow" (AF 87). If the prospect of arbitrary change is not impossible, Meillassoux argues, then it cannot be excluded from the world as it is. Where Lewis affirms the reality of all possible worlds, Meillassoux argues for "the absolute necessity of contingency," or of sheer ungrounded possibility, in our own world (AF 65).

Hume and Kant alike, as well as their followers, share what Whitehead calls the "naive presupposition of ‘simple occurrence’ for the mere data" – or better, of "simple location," since it applies "to space as well as to time" (S 38). It little matters for Whitehead, therefore, whether "causal efficacy" is defined with Hume as "a habit of thought" or with Kant as "a category of thought" (S 39-40). In both cases, relations and forms of organization are abstracted away from the matrix of things themselves, and attributed only to the mind that observes these things. "Both schools find ‘causal efficacy’ to be the importation, into the data, of a way of thinking or judging about those data" (S 39).

Whitehead, however, rejects the presuppositions that underlie this whole history of argument. For Whitehead denies that events in themselves are ever merely "loose and separate," or that the world can be reduced to "local matters of particular fact." In the actual world, he says, "there is nothing which ‘simply happens’" (S 38). There are no isolated data, because in every act of experience "the datum includes its own interconnections" already (PR 113). In order to explain how this works, Whitehead distinguishes between two separate modes of perceptive experience: presentational immediacy and causal efficacy. These two modes, together with the ways that they are fused in symbolic reference, form the main subject of Symbolism. The distinction between these two modes is further elaborated in Process and Reality.

Presentational immediacy roughly corresponds to Descartes’ "clear and distinct perceptions," to Hume’s "impressions," and to Kant’s "sensible intuitions." Whitehead defines it as "our immediate perception of the contemporary external world," an appearance "effected by the mediation of qualities, such as colours, sounds, tastes, etc." (S 21). Presentational immediacy is the great source of sensuous richness. But it only provides us with clearly demarcated representations; and it is confined to the present moment, without any thickness of duration. For these reasons, presentational immediacy is severely limited in what it reveals of the world. As Whitehead says, presentational immediacy is "vivid, precise, and barren" (S 23). It "displays a world concealed under an adventitious show, a show of our own bodily production" (S 44). But for this very reason, it leaves us with a hollow sense of depthless mere appearances. This is the root of philosophical scepticism, in Hume and throughout modernity.

According to Whitehead, the problem with standard philosophical accounts of perception is that these accounts are only concerned with presentational immediacy. They entirely ignore other modes of experience. They take it for granted that our empirical experience is limited to individual sense impressions, or to the "local matters of particular fact" that correspond to these impressions. This assumption is what allows Hume to argue that objects are nothing more than hypothetical bundles of qualities. It is also what drives Kant to conclude that only the mind can bring order to what would otherwise be a chaos of unrelated impressions.

Whitehead, however, suggests that Hume and Kant do not even give presentational immediacy its proper due. For he insists that, even if we restrict ourselves to just this mode of perception, "the world discloses itself to be a community of actual things, which are actual in the same sense as we are" (S 21). When we are looking at a wall, for instance, "our perception is not confined to universal characters; we do not perceive disembodied colour or disembodied extensiveness: we perceive the wall‘s colour and extensiveness" (S 15). Contrary to the empiricist assumption of separate, atomistic qualia, in fact "there are no bare sensations which are first experienced and then ‘projected’ into our feet as their feelings, or onto the opposite wall as its colour" (S 14). The supposedly atomistic, qualitative sense-data are not initially isolated from one another. Rather, Whitehead says, such qualities "can be thus isolated only by abstracting them from their implication in the scheme of spatial relatedness of the perceived things to each other and to the perceiving subject… the sense-data are generic abstractions" (S 22).

It is worth noting that Graham Harman, with his object-oriented ontology, also opposes what he describes as "the widespread empiricist view that the supposed objects of experience are nothing but bundles of qualities." Harman rather insists that qualities are never isolable, but always "bonded to the thing to which they belong" (The Quadruple Object 11). Harman attributes this point to Husserl, for whom an "intentional object" is not the sum of its adumbrations, but always more than its multiple aspects or qualities (24-25). "According to Husserl we encounter the intentional object directly in experience from the start"; it does not have to be "built up as a bundle of perceptually discrete shapes and colors, or even from tiny pixels of sense experience woven together by habit" (25).

My reason for mentioning this is that Whitehead makes the same distinction as Husserl does – at least according to Harman’s reading of Husserl. Whitehead most likely makes this point without having encountered it in Husserl. It is true that Whitehead had students – most notably Charles Hartshorne – who had also studied with Husserl and were familiar with his writings. But I don’t see any evidence for Husserl’s influence upon Whitehead, even when – as here – they come to parallel conclusions. The comparison between phenomenology and Whitehead’s thought is too vast a subject for me to go over here in any detail. I will only state, quite flatly and perhaps unfairly, that, for me, one great advantage of Whitehead’s formulations is precisely that they come without the philosophical baggage of intentionality and the epoche. Such basic notions of phenomenology are still centered upon a transcendental subject. I would even argue – though I am well aware how controversial this is – that, despite Husserl’s theory of retention and protention, the phenomenological accounts of perception still don’t give a full enough account of the thickness of what William James called the "specious present." Phenomenologists are aware of the defects what Whitehead calls "the naive assumption of time as pure succession" (S ?). But the theory of intentionality does not allow them to break radically enough with the default assumption that presentational immediacy is the primary form of perceptual experience.

Be that as it may, for Whitehead the major defect in mainstream philosophical accounts of perception is that they leave out any consideration of causal efficacy. The physical sciences, on the other hand, are predominantly concerned with causal efficacy, but they treat it only as an objectified process, comprehended by a "view from nowhere." In this way, the split between presentational immediacy and causal efficacy is a prime instance of what Whitehead calls the bifurcation of nature. The scientists, no less than the philosophers, neglect causal efficacy as a form of perception, or as a mode of experience. It is only by treating causal efficacy experientially, and understanding how it becomes entwined with presentational immediacy in the operations of symbolic reference, that we can overcome the opposition between phenomenology and natural science, or between "the nature apprehended in awareness and the nature which is the cause of awareness" (CN 31).

Whitehead goes to great lengths in Symbolism to argue, not only that causal efficacy is a mode of perception, but also that it is the most primordial mode of perception, far deeper than presentational immediacy. The latter "is only of importance in high-grade organisms" (S 16). But "the direct perception of causal efficacy" (S 39) operates everywhere. For it involves "the overwhelming conformation of fact, in present action, to antecedent settled fact" (S 41). Indeed, Whitehead says,

the perception of conformation to realities in the environment is the primitive element in our external experience. We conform to our bodily organs and to the vague world which lies beyond them. (S 43)

Without this conformation of the present to the past, this physical experience of causal efficacy, the clarities and intensities of presentational immediacy could not even arise for us in the first place. Even our most clear and distinct perceptions are grounded in a deeper sense that is "vague, haunting, unmanagable" (S 43). Our very awareness of sharp and delicious sensations, and our ability to make subtle discriminations among them – what Whitehead describes as our "self-enjoyment derived from the immediacy of the show of things" – is underwritten and made possible by "the perception of the pressure from a world of things with characters in their own right, characters mysteriously moulding our own natures" (S 44). A heavy otherness insinuates itself into even our clearest and most distinct perceptions, which is why there can be no "solipsism of the present moment" (S 29).

This massive underlying pressure of causal efficacy is also what produces and accounts for our apprehension of things as more than just bundles of qualities:

These primitive emotions are accompanied by the clearest recognition of other actual things reacting upon ourselves. The vulgar obviousness of such recognition is equal to the vulgar obviousness produced by the functioning of any one of our five senses. When we hate, it is a man that we hate and not a collection of sense-data – a causal, efficacious man. (S 45)

The vagueness of the emotional experience of causal efficacy does not prevent, but rather actually calls forth, an awareness that things actually do exist outside us and apart from us. In other words, "we encounter the… object directly in experience from the start," as Harman insists, rather than building up a representation of the object from a bundle of separate sense impressions. My direct experience of the object in the mode of causal efficacy subtends my identification of it in the mode of presentational immediacy. And it is only by abstracting away from causal efficacy, with its "overwhelming conformation of fact, in present action, to antecedent settled fact" (S 41) that we can enjoy the subtle and disinterested aesthetic pleasures of presentational immediacy.

This is why, following Whitehead, I dissent from Harman’s insistence that "real objects cannot touch" (The Quadruple Object 73), and that causation can only be "vicarious" (128). For this is only the case from the viewpoint of presentational immediacy. In causal efficacy, objects do literally touch one another. This immediacy of touch follows directly from "the principle of conformation, whereby what is already made becomes a determinant of what is in the making… The present fact is luminously the outcome from its predecessors, one quarter of a second ago" (S 46). The principle of conformation applies equally to my own continuity with who I was a quarter of a second ago, and to my contact with things that have impinged upon me in the past quarter second.

Harman worries that all distinction would be lost if actual contact were possible. He argues that the idea "of indirect-but-partial contact cannot work… Direct contact could only be all or nothing" (Bells and Whistles 34). Harman’s problem is to maintain separation at the same time that he accounts for causal influence. As Harman puts it, even when fire burns cotton, there is no direct contact between these two entities. The fire may well obliterate the cotton with no remainder. But even then, Harman says, "fire does not interact at all" with such qualities as "the cotton’s odor or color" (The Quadruple Object 44). Therefore fire and cotton remain ontologically separate, in accordance with Harman’s dictum that "the object is a dark crystal veiled in a private vacuum" (47).

Now, Isabelle Stengers insists that Whitehead always works as a mathematician, even when he is engaged in philosophical speculation. Whitehead does not posit absolute principles; rather, he always confronts specific problems, by producing a construction that observes all "the constraints that the solution will have to satisfy" (Thinking With Whitehead 33). In this sense, Whitehead’s distinction between presentational immediacy and causal efficacy is itself constructed as a way to resolve the problem of error, and scepticism about causality, that are found in the Humean and Kantian traditions.

I would like to suggest that, in this way, Whitehead offers a construction that resolves what I have just called Harman’s problem. He argues that, at one and the same time, "actual things are objectively in our experience and formally existing in their own completeness… no actual thing is ‘objectified’ in its ‘formal’ completeness" (S 25-26). This allows him to assert both:

  1. that things actually do enter into direct contact with other things, as they partially determine the composition of those other things; and
  2. that no particular thing is entirely subsumed, either by the other things that entered into it and helped to determine its own composition, nor by the other things into which it subsequently enters.

In this way, Whitehead’s construction satisfies – ahead of time – all the conditions of Harman’s problem, without accepting Harman’s vision of objects as inviolable substances. I will note as well that Whitehead’s reappropriation of the old scholastic distinction between "formal" and "objective" existence has an affinity with Tristan Garcia’s version of object-oriented philosophy, according to which a thing is defined as the difference between "that which is in a thing and that in which a thing is, or that which it comprehends and that which comprehends it" (Form and Object 11). Garcia, like Whitehead, refuses to explain away causal efficacy, while at the same time recognizing what Whitehead calls "the vast causal independence of contemporary occasions" which "is the preservative of elbow-room within the Universe. It provides each actuality with a welcome environment for irresponsibility" (AI 195).

The larger point here is that causal efficacy is at one and the same time a mode of perception and an actual physical process. It encompasses both "the perceived redness and warmth of the fire" and "the agitated molecules of carbon and oxygen… the radiant energy from them, and… the various functionings of the material body" (CN 32). In this double functioning, causal efficacy is irreducible to rigid determinism, but also impregnable to philosophical scepticism.

Whitehead notes, for instance, that Hume’s own presuppositions contradict his assertion that causal efficacy cannot be directly perceived:

Hume with the clarity of genius states the fundamental point, that sense-data functioning in an act of experience demonstrate that they are given by the causal efficacy of actual bodily organs. He refers to this causal efficacy as a component in direct perception. (S 51)

That is to say, by Hume’s own prior admission we get direct acquaintance with the world through the actions of the body. "In asserting the lack of perception of causality, [Hume] implicitly presupposes it.. His argument presupposes that sense-data, functioning in presentational immediacy, are ‘given’ by reason of ‘eyes,’ ‘ears,’ ‘palates’ functioning in causal efficacy" (S 51).

More generally, Whitehead says,

We see the picture, and we see it with our eyes; we touch the wood, and we touch it with our hands; we smell the rose, and we smell it with our nose; we hear the bell, and we hear it with our ears; we taste the sugar, and we taste it with our palate. (S 50)

The functioning here of experience in the mode of causal efficacy is antecedent to, and necessary for, the very experience in the mode of presentational immediacy within which, Hume says, no causation can be discerned.

Whitehead recapitulates and expands this critique of Hume in Process and Reality. Hume argues that our expectation that a certain effect will follow a cause is merely a product of habit. But Whitehead notes that

it is difficult to understand why Hume exempts ‘habit’ from the same criticism as that applied to the notion of ’cause.’ We have no ‘impression’ of ‘habit,’ just as we have no ‘impression’ of ’cause.’ Cause, repetition, habit are all in the same boat. (PR 140)

Once again, Hume presupposes the power of causal efficacy in his very attempt to explain it away. I am tempted to describe Whitehead’s mode of argument here as a precise inversion of Kant’s. Kant opposes Hume by insisting that we cannot, in principle, escape causality, because it must be imposed transcendentally from above. Whitehead instead opposes Hume by observing that, in point of fact, we do not escape causality because it is always already at work empirically, from below. Whitehead turns Kant around and puts him on his feet, in the same way that Marx put Hegel on his feet.

Whitehead shows that causal efficacy is always already at work in our perception, as a physical functioning of the bodily organs. This would remain the case even if we were brains in vats, getting delusive sense impressions by means of direct stimulation of the neurons. The actual physical functioning of causal efficacy must still be presupposed, even if the picture presented through presentational immediacy does not correspond to an actual state of affairs in the world.

This is why Whitehead says that "direct experience" in itself "is infallible." This assertion is in fact a tautology: "what you have experienced, you have experienced" (S 6). The delusion of a brain in vats, like the delusion exhibited in "Aesop’s fable of the dog who dropped a piece of meat to grasp at its reflection in the water" (S 19), is a failure of symbolic reference, rather than of direct experience in itself. It results, not from any defect of perception per se, but from the way in which "the various actualities disclosed respectively by the two modes are either identified, or are at least correlated together as interrelated elements in our environment" (S 18).

In other words, the dog’s error is a mistake of interpretation, or a failure to respect the limits of abstraction. Whitehead tells us that we cannot live without making abstractions, even though we go wrong when we take our abstractions too seriously, or push them beyond the limits within which they are useful. This is what Whitehead famously calls "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" (S 39); we find it at work not just in a dog’s misjudgement, but also in the most refined examples of philosophical reasoning. It is not the perception of meat in the water that is at fault, but rather the dog’s failure to understand that this meat – which he truly perceived – is a reflection rather than an edible substance. This is why Whitehead remains so relaxed in his treatment of error: "Aesop’s dog lost his meat, but he gained a step on the road towards a free imagination" (S 19).

We experience causal efficacy not only because we are bodies, but also because we feel, and subsist within, the passage of time. Whitehead argues that Hume’s sceptical conclusions "rest upon an extraordinary naive assumption of time as pure succession" (S 34). This notion of "pure succession," or time as an empty form, "is an abstraction from the irreversible relationship of settled past to derivative present" (S 35). In actual concrete experience, we feel time as "the derivation of state from state, with the later state exhibiting conformity to the antecedent… The past consists of the community of settled acts which, through their objectifications in the present act, establish the conditions to which that act must conform." (S 35).

In other words, experience does not only happen in the present moment, in the Now. It also comprehends the past, and projects toward the future. Even the most "primitive living organisms… have a sense for the fate from which they have emerged, and for the fate towards which they go" (S 44). Time is not so much the measure of change, as it is the force of "conformation"; and it is only against the background of this force of conformation that change is even possible:

The present fact is luminously the outcome from its predecessors, one quarter of a second ago. Unsuspected factors may have intervened; dynamite may have exploded. But, however that may be, the present event issues subject to the limitations laid upon it by the actual nature of the immediate past. If dynamite explodes, then present fact is that issue from the past which is consistent with dynamite exploding. (S 46)

In this way, perception and judgment are themselves temporal instances. They are nested within the broad span of "conformation" or causal influence. To perceive something is to be affected or influenced by that something. And willed action – or more generally, what Whitehead in Process and Reality calls decision – can itself only take place within a given framework of causal efficacy. This is the source of Whitehead’s distinction, in Symbolism, between "pure potentiality" and "natural potentiality" (S 36-37) – which is recast in Process and Reality as a distinction between "general potentiality" and "real potentiality" (PR 65). Pure or general potentiality is mere logical possibility; while natural or real potentiality takes account of "stubborn fact," or of the actual "components which are given for experience" (S 36).

From a Whiteheadian point of view, Lewis’ modal realism and Meillassoux’s principle of contingency both fail because they ignore this distinction. Since they only recognize presentational immediacy, they abstract "the mere lapse of time" from "the more concrete relatedness of ‘conformation’" (S 36). In consequence, they regard sheer logical possibility as if it were real potential. "According to Hume," Whitehead says, "there are no stubborn facts" (S 37); and the same must be said for Lewis and Meillassoux. The error of these great thinkers, we might say, results precisely from their endeavor to eliminate error on grounds of epistemological consistency.

For the mainstream of modern Western philosophy, causality is an example of a relation that must be put into doubt, because it is supposedly not given in perception. Whitehead counters this, by showing that causality is not just an abstract condition for perceptive experience (which Kant had argued already), but also an actually given component of experience. Causal efficacy is in fact directly experienced. But beyond this, experience of any sort materially depends upon the functioning of causal efficacy. In this way causality is more than just an example of something whose status in perception we may argue about. In fact it is central to the whole theory of perception. Perception is itself a sort of causal relation – rather than causal relations being instances that we may perceive or not.

In this way, Whitehead’s account of causal efficacy provides a bridge from epistemology to ontology, or to what Whitehead calls cosmology. For Hume, Kant, and their modern successors, we cannot talk about causality without first accounting for how we know that causal relations between ostensibly independent entities can exist. But Whitehead argues that even to raise the question of how we know is already to have accepted the operation of causal efficacy, in the form of the "conformation of present fact to immediate past" (S 41). Whitehead thus cuts the Gordian know of Kantian critique; he frees speculation from the grim Kantian alternative of either

  1. being subjected to critique, which is to say to prior epistemological legitimation, or
  2. being rejected as simply "dogmatic."

It should be noted that Quentin Meillassoux also seeks to escape this infernal alternative. He claims to establish the possibility of "non-dogmatic speculation" (After Finitude 79), as a way of stepping outside the Kantian "correlationist circle" (5) without thereby performing a "pre-critical… regression to the ‘naive’ stance of dogmatic metaphysics" (3). Whitehead describes his own speculative philosophy as "a recurrence to that phase of philosophic thought which began with Descartes and ended with Hume" (PR xi). Nonetheless, I do not think that Whitehead’s constructivist proposal for solving the riddles of perception and causality can be categorized as "dogmatic" in the pejorative Kantian sense. Rather, Whitehead’s speculative "flight in the thin air of
imaginative generalization," together with his subsequent return to the ground "for renewed observation rendered acute by rational interpretation" (PR 5), allows him to perform what he describes, in another act of setting Kant on his feet, as "the self-correction by consciousness of its own initial excess of subjectivity" (PR 15). This is why I have sought to establish a dialogue between Whitehead, on the one hand, and recent speculative realist thinkers like Meillassoux and Harman, on the other. It seems to me that Whitehead anticipates many of the goals of the speculative realists. At the same time, Whitehead offers an alternative both to Meillassoux’s excessive rationalism, and to Harman’s grounding in phenomenology.

I will conclude by mentioning some further consequences of my discussion, even though I lack the time to fully explore them here. Whitehead argues both that causal efficacy is directly perceived, and that the causal conformation of the present to the immediate past is a general process, of which direct perception in either mode is just an example. There is therefore a curious chiasmus between perception and causality, which intersect in something like a feedback loop. This also implies, among other things, that there is no clear dividing line between perception proper, and causal influence more generally. I "perceive" something whenever I am affected by that something – even in cases where this does not happen consciously. For instance, Whitehead notes that

the human body is causally affected by the ultra-violet rays of the solar spectrum in ways which do not issue in any sensation of colour. Nevertheless such rays produce a decided emotional effect (S 85).

This "emotional effect" may well be a modulation of my mood: I always feel better when I am outdoors on a sunny day. But it may also consist in my getting sun tanned, or sunburnt, or even developing skin cancer. Any physical response of this sort is in some sense an "emotional" response as well. Even below the threshold of consciousness, a physical change is also a change of some sort in affective tone. This is not only the case for human experience, but also for organisms that Whitehead c calls "low grade": as when "a flower turns to the light," or even when "a stone conforms to the conditions set by its external environment" (S 42).

A lot of this has been covered in recent writings on Whitehead under the rubric of what he calls, in Adventures of Ideas, "nonsensuous perception" (AI 180ff). "In human experience," Whitehead writes, "the most compelling example of non-sensuous perception is our knowledge of our own immediate past" (181). All this is consistent with what Whitehead says in Symbolism about perception in the mode of causal efficacy. But Mark B. N. Hansen, in his forthcoming book Feed Forward, argues that such an understanding of Whitehead’s expanded field of perception sells him short. Hansen urges us to consider the causal efficacy of "nonperceptual sensibility" beyond the confines of personal memory, referring to the ways in which causal efficacy extends "beyond perception" to a domain that "does not and cannot appear through (human perception)," but that human beings are now for the first time able to access "indirectly… through the technical supplement afforded by biometric and environmental computational sensing." Whitehead’s expanded theory of perception is thus crucial, Hansen says, for grasping our emerging 21st-century media environment. I have serious disagreements with Hansen’s particular interpretation of Whitehead, but I think his overall point is enormously important, and it can be grasped in the terms that I am working through here: the chiasmic relation between perception and physical causality.

On my reading of Whitehead, perception is a subset of causal processes more generally, while at the same time causal processes are themselves "felt," even unconsciously, as they are fed back into direct perceptual experience. This is the basis for what David Ray Griffin calls Whitehead’s panexperientialism – though I prefer to use the more provocative word panpsychism. This means that differences in mentality, or in levels of what Whitehead calls "feeling" (using this word as "a mere technical term" – PR 164), are always differences of degree, rather than of kind. There is no clear boundary line between the different modes of feeling or sentience, just as "there is no absolute gap between ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ societies" (PR 102).

But I think that we can go further than this. Whitehead says that "life lurks in the interstices of each living cell, and in the interstices of the brain (PR 105-106). But feeling – or perception as conformation – doesn’t need to lurk in the interstices; it happens everywhere. This is why I do not think that Whitehead is really a vitalist. Whitehead’s conflation of perception with causal efficacy also implies the priority of sentience over vitality. In other words, perception and feeling are among the necessary conditions of possibility for life, rather than life being a necessary condition of possibility for sentience.

Why is this important? As Eugene Thacker has demonstrated at length in his great book After Life, all our attempts to reinvent vitalism, to explore the possibilities of what Deleuze and Guattari call "inorganic life," and in general to theorize "Life" in general, come up against a series of crippling antinomies. In the actual practices of contemporary biotechnology, as well as in philosophical argumentation, Thacker says, "thought and life approach a horizon of absolute incommensurability; the thought of life becomes increasingly disjunctive with the vague set of phenomena we call ‘life itself’" (After Life ix-x). There are contradictions both between particular instances of life and "life" as an essence or overall concept, and between all these iterations of life and the thought, itself alive, which tries to grasp and conceptualize it. I suspect – though it is only a hunch at this point – that approaching life from the point of view of sentience or feeling, rather than taking sentience as an attribute of life, might help to offer us a way out from these confusions.

“They don’t like spam.”

Friday, May 30th, 2014

The talk I am preparing for next month’s science fiction workshop in Berlin (where I will be speaking together with Iain Hamilton Grant) (event listing here) is really an extended meditation (or consideration, if “meditation” is too pretentious a word) on the several passages from recent science fiction novels.

The first passage comes from Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight. It explains why the aliens from another solar system — who are immensely more intelligent and more technologically advanced than we are, but who seem not to be conscious in any sense we would recognize — have turned their attention to Earth, and why they judge us as a menace to them:

Imagine that you encounter a signal. It is structured, and dense with information. It meets all the criteria of an intelligent transmission. Evolution and experience offer a variety of paths to follow, branch-points in the flowcharts that handle such input. Sometimes these signals come from conspecifics who have useful information to share, whose lives you’ll defend according to the rules of kin selection. Sometimes they come from competitors or predators or other inimical entities that must be avoided or destroyed; in those cases, the information may prove of significant tactical value. Some signals may even arise from entities which, while not kin, can still serve as allies or symbionts in mutually beneficial pursuits. You can derive appropriate responses for any of these eventualities, and many others.

You decode the signals, and stumble:

I had a great time. I really enjoyed him. Even if he cost twice as much as any other hooker in the dome–

To fully appreciate Kesey’s Quartet–

They hate us for our freedom–

Pay attention, now–


There are no meaningful translations for these terms. They are needlessly recursive. They contain no usable intelligence, yet they are structured intelligently; there is no chance they could have arisen by chance.

The only explanation is that something has coded nonsense in a way that poses as a useful message; only after wasting time and effort does the deception becomes apparent. The signal functions to consume the resources of a recipient for zero payoff and reduced fitness. The signal is a viruss

Viruses do not arise from kin, symbionts, or other allies.

The signal is an attack.

And it’s coming from right about there.

The second passage comes from Ken MacLeod’s Cosmonaut Keep. It describes the dominant intelligent lifeform of the Galaxy: superintelligent asteroids, each of which is, in effect, a silicon computer of immense processing power. These beings are described as being like Lucretian gods, calmly pursuing their own interests, and most of the time not concerned with what human beings and other sentient species do. Except there is one exception to their lack of interest in us:

‘The truth is there are billions of the fuckers. There are more … communities … like this around the solar system, in the asteroid belt and the Kuiper and the Oort, than there are people on Earth. And each of them contains more separate minds than, than—’

‘A Galactic Empire,’ said Lemieux.

‘Yes! Yes! Exactly!’ Avakian beamed.

‘How do you know this?’ Camila asked.

Avakian handwaved behind his shoulder.

‘The aliens told us, and told us where to look for their communications. Their EM emissions are very faint, but they’re there all right, and the sources fill the sky like the cosmic microwave background, the echo of the Big Bang.’

‘Sure it ain’t just part of that?’

‘Nah, it’s comms all right.’ Avakian sucked at his lower lip. ‘The point to bear in mind is that our cometary cloud’s outer shells intersect those of the Centauran system, and, well—’

‘They’re everywhere?’

He shrugged. ‘Around a lot of stars, yeah, quite possibly. Trafficking, communicating, maybe even travelling. They have conscious control over their own outgassings, they have computing power to die for, and it only takes a nudge to change their orbits. It might take millions of years between stars, sure, but these guys have a long attention span.’

‘And what do they actually do?’

‘From the point of view of us busy little primates, they don’t do much. Hang out and take in the view. Travel around the sun every few million years. Maybe travel to another sun and go around that a few times. Bo-ring.’ He put on a whining, childish voice. ‘Are we there yet? He’s shitting me. I want to go the toilet.’

He laughed, a genuine and humorous laugh this time, and continued briskly: ‘But from their point of view, they are having fun. Endless, absorbing, ecstatic and for all I know,orgasmic fun. Discourse, intercourse – at their level it’s probably the same fucking thing.’ He underlined the obvious with a giggle. ‘They’re like gods, man, and they’re literally in heaven. And in all their infinite – well, OK,unbounded– diversity they have, we understand, a pretty much unanimous view on one thing. They don’t like spam.’

‘Spam is, um, sort of mindlessly repeated advertisements and shit. Junk mail. Some of it comes from start-ups and scams, some of it’s generated by programs called spambots, which got loose in the system about fifty years ago and which have been beavering away ever since. You hardly notice it, because so little gets through that you might think it’s just a legit advertisement. But that’s because way down at the bottom level, we have programs to clean out the junk, and they work away at it too.’ I shrugged. ‘Spam and antispam waste resources, it’s the ultimate zero-sum game, but what can you do? You gotta live with it. Anti-spam’s like an immune system. You don’t have to know about it, but you’d die without it. There’s a whole war going on that’s totally irrelevant to what you really want to do.’

‘Exactamundo,’ said Avakian. ‘That’s how the ETs feel about it, too. And as far as they’re concerned, we are great lumbering spambots, corrupted servers, liable at any moment or any megayear to start turning out millions of pointless, slightly varied replicas of ourselves. Most of what we’re likely to want to do if we expanded seriously into space is spam. Space industries – spam. Moravec uploads – spam on a plate. Von Neumann machines – spam and chips. Space settlements – spam, spam, spam, eggs and spam.’

There is something similar in a third novel, David Brin’s Existence. Here, Earth receives alien artifacts, which also turn out to be spam. These artifacts contain messages from civilizations on other planets, whose sole content is an invitation to add our own voices, and send more of these artifacts out through the galaxy. Entire planetary civilizations are exhorted to devote all their material resources on proliferating these viral artifacts.

All three novels suggest something similar. Spam is communication without (Shannon) information, or a message that is nothing beyond its medium (McLuhan). Spam has no utility, and no cognitive point, for its only aim is self-proliferation. This is why Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens hate it, and seek to destroy it (or destroy its source). 

Watts again:

Evolution has no foresight. Complex machinery develops its own agendas. Brains–cheat. Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music. The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art. Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection. Aesthetics rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism. It begins to model the very process of modeling. It consumes ever-more computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations. Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself. Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I

In other words, spam is purposiveness without purpose: in Kantian terms, it is aesthetic. Watts’ and MacLeod’s aliens would agree with Ray Brassier, who says: “I am very wary of ‘aesthetics': the term is contaminated by notions of ‘experience’ that I find deeply problematic.” Computational systems don’t need any sort of aesthetic sensibility; this means that they don’t need “experience” or “consciousness.” Indeed, they function all the more efficiently without these things. Big Blue never could have defeated Kasparov if it were weighted down, like he is, with recursive self-consciousness. Brassier understands this dynamic, where most other similarly reductionist philosophers don’t. While cognitivists insist that “consciousness cannot be separated from function” (to cite the title of an article by Daniel Dennett and Michael Cohen), Watts (and to a lesser extent MacLeod and Brin) rather suggest that in fact consciousness cannot be separated from dysfunction. 

This can be restated in Darwinian terms. Spam or aesthetics may have initially been a useful adaptation: this is the only way that it could have arisen in the first place (see Darwin on sexual selection, and Elizabeth Grosz’s recent gloss on this). But spam or art quickly outgrew this purpose; it has now become parasitic, and replicates itself even at its host’s expense (cf: peacock’s tails). It serves no further purpose any more. Spam or art is a virus; and, insofar as we have aesthetic sensibilities (including self-consciousness and dwelling just in the present moment), we are that virus. Our thoughts and bodies, our lives, are “needlessly recursive” and wasteful. Our lives are pointless luxuries in a Darwinian “war universe” (Burroughs). If we are the dominant species on Earth at the moment, this may only be — as Watts suggests — because we are in the situation of flightless birds and marsupials, in areas where the placental mammals have not yet arrived (cf. the biological histories of Mauritius, South America, and Australia).

Watts also suggests that, even on Earth, corporate culture is in process of “weeding out” anything like self-consciousness or nonfunctional recursion. (Evidently, this is why — for instance — humanities programs in universities are being whittled away or destroyed; even the supporters of such programs only dare to justify them in terms of economic utility). At the end of Blindsight, the narrator, off in deep space, but observing from a distance the way that a vampiric (both literally and metaphorically) corporate culture has taken control of everything, speculates that “by the time I get home, I could be the only sentient being in the universe.” And in fact, he is not even sure about himself; he knows that zombies are “pretty good at faking it.”

The logic of spam tells us that sensibility, awareness, and aesthetic enjoyment are all costly luxuries. From a political and economic point of view, they can only be promoted — and they should be promoted — on this basis.

Rethinking Modernism, Somewhat

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

The new issue of Speculations (#5) is now out, dealing with speculative realism and aesthetics. It includes an article of mine, which is really a preview of a section of my forthcoming book, The Universe of Things. But the whole issue is interesting, with articles by, among others, Graham Harman, N. Katherine Hayles, Jon Cogburn and Mark Allan Ohm, Matija Jelaca, Miguel Penas López, and others.

But I wanted particularly to make a short comment on Robert Jackson‘s article “The Anxiousness of Objects and Artworks 2″ (part 1 appeared in a previous issue of Speculations) — or rather on one part of the article, since it is a rich, complex and long one. Jackson is interested in the ways that speculative realism is related to modernist aesthetics. Specifically, he writes about the art critic Michael Fried. In the 1960s, Fried (an inheritor and reviser of Clement Greenberg) famously wrote about art works and/as objects, and made a fundamental distinction between “absorption” and “theatricality.” Fried’s concern was to uphold the modernist tradition in painting and visual art that had previously been defined by Greenberg, and to defend this tradition against the new (at the time) avant-garde strategies of minimalism and conceptualism. Fried (allied in this with Stanley Cavell) gave an account in which great modernist artworks absorb us, and show forth as present to us, precisely by receding from our efforts to capture and contain them. Jackson notes that this is very close to Harman’s aesthetics of “allure,” in which objects attract us precisely by receding from all our efforts to contain and comprehend them — we can only allude to them, metaphorically and indirectly. (Harman’s love for Clement Greenberg’s media-specific self-reflexive formalism makes sense in terms of this aesthetic stance). The opposiing term of “theatricality,” which Fried disparages and sees as the aesthetic failure of minimalism in the 1960s, has to do with the way the literal presence of the object is completely blank and empty — so that the “art” happens exclusively in the mind of the observer. Self-referring modernist works force the contemplating spectator to go outside herself, as part of the impossible task of reaching the receding artwork; minimalist works are simply “there,” with a thereness that precludes any such movement.

Jackson notes that both sides in the dispute mapped by Fried are anti-anthropocentric, in the ways maintained today by speculative realism — they both concern the way that objects escape from correlation with our perceptual categories. He suggests that the two artistic movements are therefore analogous to the two major tendencies of speculative realism. Minimalism has a strategy of what Jackson calls Demonstration, the strategy of Meillassoux and Brassier: “a passive, inert material reality can be epistemologically demonstrated through the formal, inferential properties of thought and an extrinsic principle of the fact, so that thought becomes radically divorced from a non-anthropomorphic being.” The modernist works championed by Greenberg and Fried adopt a strategy much like that of what Jackson calls Description, operating in Harman and other OOO thinkers, and also in a different way in Grant’s neo-Schellingian version of speculative realism: “reality is composed of fundamental entities, objects, things, forces and powers which exist in their own right; the relations of which, in their specific limitations or groundings, are no different in kind from the epistemological limits of cognition. This is an intrinsic principle of the thing. The limitations of the correlation between thinking and being are radicalised and hypostatised such that they are turned into the characteristics of relationality in general.”

I found Jackson’s analysis to be powerful and useful, although my knowledge of art historical discourse, and in particular of the theories of Greenberg and Fried, is quite limited. (For which reason, I am not sure how accurate my brief summary of Jackson’s article is. My apologies to him for any misapprehensions). But what I wondered about is this. What happens when we consider other sorts of 20th & 21st century image production, which are not contained within high art traditions? Jackson notes how Fried has recently, and belatedly, turned his attention to contemporary multimedia and new media art works, thus extending his theoretical musings beyond just painting. But these are still High Art works that are mostly situated in galleries.

What I would like to think about is, how the tradition of aesthetics traced by Jackson through the theorizations of modernist (and even postmodernist) art historians relates to other forms of visual (and audiovisual) production? I am thinking here of cinema and post-cinema, but also of things like comic books. At one point, Jackson quotes Stanley Cavell’s distinction between painting on the one hand, and photography and cinema on the other: “To maintain conviction in our connection with reality, to maintain our presentness, painting accepts the recession of the world. Photography maintains the presentness of the world by accepting our absence from it. The reality in a photograph is present to me while I am not present to it…” Jackson goes on to speak at length about Cavell’s Friedian formula for painting, as an art in which we are present but the world recedes from us. I’d like to think, however, about the other half of Cavell’s formulation, which has become a crucial principle in film studies: the way in which cinema renders the presence of the world, but with ourselves being absent. How would this affect our discussion of speculative realism?

An even better example of what I have in mind is Burke Hilsabeck’s brilliant article “Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin.” Hilsabeck gives a bravura comparison between Clement Greenberg’s famous essay “Art and Kitsch,” and Frank Tashlin’s 1955 film, starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Artists and Models. Hilsabeck notes that “Artists and Models begins by framing the same problem [as that posed by Greenberg], that of medium-specificity and the conflict between avant-garde and kitsch, while reaching a dramatically different set of conclusions.” Tashlin’s film, and even more the “painting” that Lewis accidentally makes within its storyline, is “widescreen, composed somehow of both depth and an overweening superficiality, aglow in garish Technicolor.” It systematically opposes all the aesthetic values championed by Greenberg: flatness, automony, purity of design, etc. (Again, I am oversimplifying a complex argument). But the point is, that Tashin’s shamelessly decorative, externally referential, and self-consciously obvious aesthetic is as big and important a part of what happened to images in the 20th century as either the works championed by Greenberg and Fried, and those they disparaged. This is part of a larger question — can we give an account of mid-20th century visual production that takes, say, Jackson Pollack and Jack Kirby equally seriously? What would it look like to theorize art in a way that had as much room for comic-book pictorialism as it had for abstract expressionism? What would happen if we then extended this history, and this theorization, to the present day? And how would this broader understanding of visual culture relate to the philosophical questions raised by speculative realism?

I have no answers here, only questions raised by Jackson’s brilliant — but to my mind incomplete — formulations.

Panpsychism and Play

Friday, February 28th, 2014

There is much to admire in David Graeber’s recent and much-commented upon article about the importance of play. Graeber playfully proposes a “principle of ludic freedom”: this states that play is a central principle for all living things, and even perhaps for all entities in the universe. Graeber admits that this is (ungrounded for now) speculation, but he draws a line from quantum indeterminacy — the way that an electron or a photon may “choose” its behavior, which is why this behavior cannot be deterministically predicted, but only expressed in terms of probabilities — all the way up to playful behavior in both nonhuman animals and human beings. Graeber is right, I think, to suggest that, at least for biological organisms, the urge to play — or to deploy “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” — is precisely what makes these organisms’ behavior irreducible to the calculus of rational utility maximization that neo-darwinian theorists have borrowed from “rational choice” economics and applied to the evolutionary “survival of the fittest.” (Graeber doesn’t mention Bataille, but his argument is coherent with Bataille’s arguments about non-utilitarian general economy; one reason for this parallelism may be Graeber’s and Bataille’s common interest in the work of Marcel Mauss on gift economies).

In any case, for me the most thought-provoking aspect of Graeber’s essay is that he links this principle of play to panpsychism (the thesis that all entities in the cosmos are in some sense sentient). Graeber cites Galen Strawson‘s argument for panpsychism as an alternative to strong emergentism as a non-reductionist explanation for sentience, consciousness, or experientiality.This is an argument that I find persuasive as well. Emergence has become too much of a catchall explanation for something (like mentality) that cannot be explained any other way. Strawson concludes that, if we are therefore to reject the emergentist explanation of sentience, but we also reject either eliminativism a la Daniel Dennett and Cartesian dualism, then the only alternative is to conclude that sentience already exists as a quality or power of all matter. Graeber draws on this in order to extend his “principle of ludic freedom” beyond (or before) the biological. (Strawson himself rejects casting this in terms of “free will”; but one might think here instead, or as well, of Conway & Kochen’s “free will theorem” in quantum mechanics).

Graeber’s connection between play and panpsychism really helps me with something that I have been trying to formulate. One way to understand panpsychism is to say that sentience = information processing. This is why philosophers like David Chalmers have been willing to entertain the idea that something like a thermostat is minimally conscious; the identification of consciousness with information processing is also implicit in formulations like Giulio Tononi‘s phi principle. However, this approach has bothered me, because it seems too exclusively cognitivist; I think that “cognition” and “information” have become way overrated in recent discourse, and that sentience needs to be seen first of all as affective (or as involving “feeling” in Whitehead’s sense) before it is seen as cognitive or informational. Affect or feeling both precedes and exceeds cognition or information, in the same way that play, in Graeber’s formulation, precedes and exceeds utility maximalization. What clicks for me especially in Graeber’s formulation is the way that “the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities” necessarily involves energetics as well as informatics. Sentience as a power or capacity must thus also be understood in energetic terms rather than only informatic ones (and this is for me precisely where the panpsychist leanings of Chalmers and Tononi need to be supplemented). 

I still haven’t worked out in any coherent way how to put all this together. Energetics, as well as informatics, needs to be part of any panpsychist explanation of sentience. Also, an energetic (instead of informatic) understanding of physical processes (including but not limited to biological processes) needs to take in account Eric Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s insights into self-organizing systems (and most complexly, living systems) as ways of reducing energy gradients in accordance with the Second Law of Thermodynamics (a living system is internally negentropic, because this allows it to reduce energy gradients, or increase entropy, in the surrounding environment more thoroughly or consistently than would otherwise be the case. This is where we should be able to find the connection between energy expenditure and sentience. 

I will add, just to make things even more confusing, that all this is not necessarily opposed to eliminativist approaches to consciousness (which I am currently also thinking about through Scott Bakker’s Blind Brain Theory and his novel Neuropath, and through Peter Watts’ novel Blindsight). The eliminativist approaches have the virtue of decentering the disucssion of sentience from that of consciousness: as Whitehead insists from an entirely different line of reasoning, consciousness is only a very narrow and specialized part of mental activity (of of what I call sentience). Panpsychism insists that all entities have some sort of experiential or sentient component, and that all entites in some sense make “decisions.” But Whitehead is right to say that experience and decision far exceed consciousness; which is why the eliminativist accounts of consciousness have the virtue of drawing attention to the other, more basic and substantial, aspects of mental activity. This is despite the fact that I reject the eliminativists’ assumption that mental activity must  be understood in functionalist terms. Rather, I think that Graeber’s play, or Whitehead’s “feeling”, is not primordially functional: although it leads to or grounds functional activity, in itself it is non-functional or even dysfunctional. 

Sorry for the disorganized state of what I am saying: I am just trying to list the pieces of an argument I have not yet succeeded in pulling together, or the requirements for an as yet incomplete theory of universal sentience.

Liking Vs Wanting

Monday, February 24th, 2014

The philosopher Jesse Prinz, in his book Gut Reactions: A Perceptual Theory of Emotion, notes — following research by Kent C. Berridge — that “liking and wanting are actually dissociable and… reside in different neural systems.” At least in the case of rats, “the liking system involves the shell of the nucleus accumbens, the ventral pallidum, and the brainstem region. Wanting involves the dopamine projection system from midbrain to nucleus accumbens.” As a result of this dissociation:

if one creates a lesion in the wanting system of a rat, the rat will not eat. It will starve to death. But if you force the same rat to eat agreeable food (e.g., something sweet) it will display behavior that suggests it enjoys the experience. It likes food, but it doesn’t want food. Conversely, one can stimulate the wanting system to achieve wanting without liking. A rat in this condition will eat everything you give it, including food that it dislikes. It will gorge itself on foods that cause it to display aversive reactions at every bite. Berridge compares this to addiction. Addicts often pursue their drug of choice even after that drug no longer induces pleasure.

Now, leaving aside the sadism of such experiments, and my own lack of knowledge about how much of this can be transferred physiologically from rats to human beings, the comparison of wanting without liking to addiction (or at least, to one sort of addiction) makes a great deal of sense. But what, then, about the reverse? Is there a human analogue for liking without wanting?

I’d suggest that, if wanting without liking is an addictive state, then liking without wanting is an aesthetic one. “Liking without wanting” is more or less what Kant means when he says that aesthetic pleasure is “disinterested.” I am pleased by a certain combination of colors or sounds, by a certain narrative, etc., without being concerned one way or another as to whether whatever is being represented by such colors or sounds or narrative lines exists in actuality. (In many cases, I might well positively not want the thing from whose representation I take pleasure to actually exist — this would be the case with horror novels and films, or with stories about charismatic characters who would certainly harm or kill me were I to meet them in real life). And this may well happen — for me it often happens — in “real life” as well as in the contemplation of works of art (e.g., I might find some person’s sexuality likeable or pleasurable, despite my not having any wish to actually have sex with that person).

The horror of a rat starving to death amidst food it likes, because it doesn’t want to eat is, I think, a good emblem of the aesthetic — or at least of one aspect of the aesthetic. And it explains, perhaps why so many people on the Left have a basically anti-aesthetic stance (“the aestheticizing of politics [i]s practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art”).

However, I think that we should affirm aesthetics as liking without wanting, if only because this is a good antidote to the bombastic exaggerations of theories of desire. I refer here equally to Lacanian theories of desire as lack, and Deleuzian/Guattarian theories of desire as production. Both sorts of theories of desire take wanting, even when divorced from liking, very seriously — desire is either the labor of the negative or the actual process of production. Both sorts of theories of desire tend to marginalize, or leave little room fo,r nonproductive play — which is to say, they leave very little room for the wayward pleasures of aesthetics, even if they exalt certain great works of art.

We might think here even of someone like Roland Barthes, who exalts works of “bliss” or jouissance while denigrating works of pleasure. Barthes is especially interesting here because he is definitely an aesthete, but an avant-garde modernist one, who only loves art when it is difficult and repellent. Barthes associates the art of which he approves with desire (wanting, even when it is without liking) rather than with the aesthetic state of liking without wanting.

In conclusion, I will note that all three of the attitudes I have been describing have their roots in Kant. Desire as lack or negativity comes of course from Hegel, who erects his system by abusively revising the Transcendental Dialectic in Kant’s First Critique. Deleuze & Guattari’s theory of desire producing the real comes directly (as they themselves note) from the Second Critique. Both of these positions emphasize wanting; they may both be contrasted with the liking without wanting that, as I have already noted, is theorized in the Third Critique.

Bats, Dogs, and Posthumans

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

Here’s an essay I have written for a compilation of essays to be published in 2014 entitled Turborealism, following an exhibition with the same title curated by Victoria Ivanova and Agnieszka Pindera at Izolyatsia, Donetsk, Ukraine.


What is it like to be a bat?

The philosopher Thomas Nagel asked this question in a famous essay, first published in 1974. Most people today would assume that bats, like dogs and cats and other mammals, are not mere automata. They have experiences, which is to say that that have some sort of inner, subjective life. In other words, Nagel says, it is “like something” to be a bat. And yet, bats are so different from us that it is hard for us to imagine just what being a bat is like. How can we find a human equivalent for its powers pf echolocation, or its experience of flight? In comparison to human beings and other primates, Nagel says, bats are a “fundamentally alien form of life.” In particular, “bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine.” We cannot easily think ourselves into the mind of a bat.

Nagel’s question is really just a vivid example of a problem that has long been a matter of concern for Western thought. Even since Descartes, philosophers and artists alike have worried about the problem of other minds. Descartes makes subjective experience the ground for all certainty. I think, therefore I am: this means that, even if all all my particular thoughts are delusional or false, the fact that I am thinking them is still true. But how much of a reassurance is this, really? I do not experience anyone else’s feelings from the inside, in the way that I experience my own. Descartes worries that the figures he sees through the window might not be actual human beings, but “hats and cloaks that might cover artificial machines, whose motions might be determined by springs.” However absurd or paranoid such a hypothesis seems, there is no way to absolutely disprove it. Modern science fiction works — think of Philip K. Dick’s novels, or The Matrix movies — still take up this theme: they express the disquieting sense that the world, with all the people in it, is nothing more than an enormous virtual-reality simulation somehow being fed into our minds.

The best answer to this sort of paranoid skepticism is the argument from analogy. Other people generally act and react, and express themselves, in much the same way that I do: we all laugh and cry, groan when we are in pain, agree that the wall over there is painted red. On this basis, I can presume that other human beings must also have the same sort of consciousness, or inner experience, that I do. Of course, this is not an absolute logical proof; and it leaves open the possibility that other people might be shamming or acting: pretending to be in pain when they are not. And yet, the argument from analogy works pragmatically. As Wittgenstein put it, despite his own skepticism about the language of inner experience: “just try — in a real case — to doubt someone else’s fear or pain!” Only a sociopath would do so.

The real problem with analogy lies in the opposite direction: in the fact that we tend to extend it further than we should. We are so good at discerning other people’s feelings, desires, and intentions, that we tend to believe that these things exist even where they do not. We discern patterns in random bits of data. We attribute intention to deterministic mechanisms. We decipher messages that in fact were never sent. We assume that everything in the world is somehow concerned with us. Paranoid credulity is a worse danger than paranoid skepticism.

If we fail to grasp what it is like to be a bat, then, this is less because we fail to recognize it at all, than because we tend to anthropomorphize it unduly. We all too smugly assume that bats are just like us, only not as smart. We tend to subsume a creature like the bat under our own image of thought, forgetting that it might think and feel in radically different ways. For how else could we hope to understand the bat at all? But if we have a hard time grasping the mind of a bat, then how can we even hope to grasp the mind of a much more distant intelligent organism — for instance, an octopus? And what about — to extrapolate still further — the minds of intelligent beings from other planets? Peter Watts’ science fiction novel Blindsight tells the story of a First Contact with aliens who are more advanced than us by any intellectual or technological measure, but who turn out not to be conscious at all, in any sense that we are able to recognize or understand.

Watts imagines his aliens by inverting the argument from analogy. His novel’s title — Blindsight — refers to a well-documented medical condition in which people are overtly blind, but able to see unconsciously. Blindsight sufferers are not aware of seeing anything. But if you throw them a ball, they are often able to catch it; and if you ask them to “guess” the location of a light that they cannot see, they are usually able to turn in the right direction. Apparently their brains are still processing visual stimuli, even though the outcome of this processing is never “reported” to the conscious mind. Such nonconscious mental activity provides the analogy on the basis of which Watts imagines his aliens. In doing so, he manages disquietingly to suggest that consciousness might well be evolutionarily maladaptive, reducing our efficiency and our ability to compete with other organisms.

Watt’s speculative fiction is not an idle fantasy. In fact, nonconscious mental processes are not just confined to people who suffer from blindsight or other neurological disorders. Contemporary neurobiology tells us that most of what our brains do is nonconscious, and even actively opaque to consciousness. At best, we are only aware of the results of all our complex mental activity. The price we pay for conscious access to the world is an inability to grasp the mechanisms that provide us with this access. We cannot “see” the processes that allow us to see. As the neurophilosopher Thomas Metzinger puts it, “transparency is a special form of darkness.”

This puts the whole question of “what it is like” on a different footing. If I do not know what it is like to be a bat, this is because I also do not know what it is like to be a human being. Indeed, I do not even really know “what it is like” to be myself. My consciousness is radically incomplete, and it never “belongs” only to myself. Descartes’ “I think” is generated, and driven, by all sorts of nonconscious (and non-first person) mental processes. Other things think through me, and inside me. My own thought is merely the summation, and to some degree the transformation, of all these other thoughts that think me, and of which I am not (and cannot ever be) aware. Such nonconscious thought may well include — but is surely not limited to — what has traditionally been known as the Freudian unconscious. My thought processes are not self-contained, but broadly ecological or environmental.

In part, this is because all thought is embodied. As Alfred North Whitehead once put it, “we see with our eyes, we taste with our palates, we touch with our hands.” Today we might add that we see with our neurons and cortex, as well as with our eyes. But even this does not go far enough. We should also say that we see with the objects that reflect photons into our eyes. We hear with our ears, but we also hear with the things whose vibrations are transmitted through the air to us. We sense and feel by means of all the things in our surroundings that incessantly importune us and affect us. And these include, but are not limited to, the objects of which we are overtly aware. For the greater part of our environmental surround consists of things that, in themselves, remain below the threshold of conscious discrimination. We do not actually perceive such things, but we sense them indirectly, in the vague form of intuitions, atmospheres, and moods.

This vast environmental surround also subtends our use of analogy in order to grasp “other minds,” or to imagine “what it is like” to be another creature. Degrees of resemblance (metaphors) themselves depend upon degrees of proximity (metonymies) within the greater environment. Consider, for instance, the dog instead of the bat. Dogs are not intrinsically any more similar to us than bats. They operate largely by smell; if anything, this is even more difficult for us to imagine than operating by sound. Blind people can often learn to echolocate with their voices, or with the tapping of their sticks. But it is unlikely that any human being (at least as we are currently constituted) could learn to olfactolocate as dogs do.

Despite this, we feel much closer to dogs than we do to bats. We are much more able to imagine what they think, and to describe what they are like — even on points where they differ from ourselves. This is because of our long historical association with them. Dogs are our commensals, symbionts, familiars, and companions; we have been together with them for thousands of years. We share much more of a common environmental background with dogs than we do with bats. This means that many of the things that think within us also think within dogs — in a way that is not at all true for bats. Evidently, neither visual objects nor olfactory objects affect us, or think within us, in the same way that they affect, or think within, dogs; nonetheless, their common presence helps to bridge the gap between us and them.

No thought is possible without, or apart from, what I am calling the environmental surround. Doubtless this has been true as long as humanity has existed — indeed, as long as any form of life whatsoever has existed. But why is this situation of special concern to us now? Or better: why has it become so urgent now? I think there are two reasons for this, which I will discuss in turn.

In the first place, recent digital technologies have allowed us to grasp and account for the environmental surround, more thoroughly and precisely than ever before. Media theorist Mark Hansen writes of how digital microsensors, spread ubiquitously within our bodies and throughout our surroundings, are able to compile information, and give us feedback, about environmental processes that are not phenomenally or introspectively available to us. We can now learn — albeit indirectly and after the fact — about imperceptible features that nonetheless help to shape our decisions and our actions: things like muscles tensing, or action potentials in neurons, but also subliminal environmental cues. We can then use this information to reshape the environment that will influence our subsequent decisions and actions.

The science fiction writer Karl Schroeder pushes this even further. In his near-future short story “Deodand,” he envisions a world in which ubiquitous microsensors break down the distinction between subjects and objects, or between human beings, nonhuman organisms, and lifeless things. “Fantastic amounts of data” are not only collected for our benefit, but also “exchanged between the sand-grain sized sensors doing the tagging,” and ultimately between the “things themselves.” Once an entity has a rich enough datafeed, it implicitly declares its own personhood. Objects are able to speak and respond to one another, and thereby to assert, and to act in, their own interests. Schroeder’s story tell us that we must reject “the idea that there’s only two kinds of thing, people, and objects.” For most entities in the world are “a little bit of both.” This has always been the case; but today, with our microsensing technologies, “we can’t ignore that fact anymore.”

The second reason for the current importance of the environmental surround is a much more somber one. Our technologies — both industrial and digital — have devastated the environment through pollution, global warming, and the extermination of individual species and whole ecosystems. This is less the result of deliberate actions on our part, than of our unwitting interactions with all those factors in the environmental surround that imperceptibly affect us, and are themselves affected by us in turn. Climate change and radioactive decay are prime examples of what the ecocritic Timothy Morton calls hyperobjects: actually existing things that we cannot ever perceive directly, because they are so widely distributed in time and space. For instance, we cannot experience global warming itself, despite the fact that it is perfectly real. Rather, we experience “the weather” on particular days. At best, we may experience the fact that these days are warmer on average than they used to be. But even the coldest day of the winter does not refute global warming; nor does the hottest summer day “prove” it. Once again, we are faced with things or processes that exceed our direct perceptual grasp, but that nonetheless powerfully affect whatever we do perceive and experience.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction short story “The People of Sand and Slag” addresses just this situation. The narrator, and the other two members of his crew, are posthumans, genetically engineered and augmented in radical ways. They have “transcended the animal kingdom.” But their bodies and minds are not the outcome of any sort of Promethean, extropian, or accelerationst program. Rather, they have been altered from baseline human beings in order to meet the demands of a radically changed environment. They are soldiers, guarding an automated mining operation in Montana. The three of them share a close esprit de corps; but otherwise, they seem devoid of empathy or compassion. As befits their job, they are extremely strong and fast; when they are hurt, their wounds heal quickly and easily. Sometimes, during sex play or just for fun, they embed razors and knives in their skin, or even chop off their own limbs; everything heals, or grows back, in less than a day. For food, they consume sand, petroleum, mining leftovers, and other industrial waste. They live and work in what for us would be a hellish landscape of “acid pits and tailings mountains,” and other residues of scorched-earth strip mining. And for vacation, they go off to Hawaii, and swim in the oil-slick-laden, plastic-strewn Pacific. They seem perfectly adapted to their environment, a world in which nearly all unengineered life forms have gone extinct, and in which corporate competition apparently takes the form of incessant low-grade armed conflict.

In the course of Bacigalupi’s story, the soldier protagonists come upon a dog. The creature is almost entirely unknown to them; they’ve never seen one before, except in zoos or on the Web. Nobody can explain where it came from, or how it survived before they found it, in a place that was toxic to it, and that had none of its usual food sources. The soldiers keep the dog for a while, as a curiosity. They do not understand how it could ever have survived, even in a pre-biologically-engineered world. They take for granted that it is “not sentient”; and they are surprised when it shows affection for them, and when they discover that it can be taught to obey simple commands.

The soldiers are perturbed by just how “vulnerable” the dog is; it needs special food and water, and incessant care. They find that they continually “have to worry about whether it was going to step in acid, or tangle in barb-wire half-buried in the sand, or eat something that would keep it up vomiting half the night.” In their world, a dog is “very expensive to maintain… Manufacturing a basic organism’s food is quite complex… Recreating the web of life isn’t easy.” In the end, it’s simply too much annoyance and expense to keep the dog around. So the soldiers kill it, cook it over a spit, and eat it. They don’t find meat as tasty as their usual diet of petroleum and sand: “it tasted okay, but in the end it was hard to understand the big deal.”

From bats to dogs to posthumans: philosophy and science fiction alike explore varying degrees of likeness and of difference. The point is not to achieve certainty, as Descartes hoped to do. Nor is the point to conquer reality, or to think that we can master it, or even that we can really know it. The point is not even to “know thyself.” But rather, perhaps. to come to terms with the multitudes that live and think within us, which we cannot ever live and think without, but which we can also never reduce to ourselves.

More on Accelerationism

Sunday, November 17th, 2013

I have recently, without having planned to in advance, found myself giving talks on the subject of accelerationism. First there was an “Introduction to Accelerationism” that I gave as a talk at Grand Valley State University. The video is here. And then, this past week, I gave a talk at the e-flux “Escape Velocity” symposium. What follows is the text of the latter talk. Long-time readers of this blog may recognize that the last portion of the talk actually recycles something that I initially published on the blog seven or eight years ago, and that is an extract from my still unfinished manuscript The Age of Aesthetics (which I swear I intend to return to and finish at some point…). The text that I present here is mostly complete, but there are a few points where I just have notes to myself, which I filled in more or less well while speaking.

In his science fiction novel Pop Apocalypse, Lee Konstantinou imagines the existence of a “Creative Destruction” school of Marxist-Leninist thought. The adherents of this school “interpret Marx’s writings as literal predictions of the future, so they consider it their mission to help capitalist markets spread to every corner of the world, because that’s the necessary precondition for a truly socialist revolution.” This means that the Creative Destruction Marxists are indistinguishable, in terms of actual practice, from the most ruthless capitalists. In the novel, their actions coincide with those of a group of investors who have concluded that “there’s money to be made off the destruction of the world,” and that in fact apocalyptic destruction constitutes “an unprecedented business opportunity.” They therefore seek to precipitate a worldwide nuclear conflagration: “On behalf of our investors, we’re obligated to take every step we can to insure that we corner the Apocalypse market before anyone else does.”

Let us take this satire as a preliminary parable of capitalism and accelerationism. Benjamin Noys, who actually coined the term accelerationism, does indeed present it somewhat like this, as “an exotic variant of la politique du pire: if capitalism generates its own forces of dissolution then the necessity is to radicalise capitalism itself: the worse the better.” But perhaps Noys’ critique is a bit unfair. Accelerationism is a new response to the specific conditions of today’s neoliberal, globalized and networked, capitalism. But it is solidly rooted in traditional Marxist thought. Marx himself writes both of capitalism’s revolutionary effects, and of the contradictions that render it unviable. On the one hand, Marx and Engels write in the Manifesto that capitalism is characterized by

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Note the way that capitalism’s relentless “revolutionizing” of technologies and social relations also revolutionalizes our self-understanding. As capitalism shakes up the material basis of life, it also demystifies and disenchants; it destroys all of the old mythical explanations and legitimations that were previously used to justify our place in society, and in the cosmos. We are left, as Ray Brassier puts it, with a world in which “intelligibility has become detached from meaning.” My difference with Brassier on this point is that he attributes the demystification of old narratives to some supposed “normative ideal of explanatory progress,” when in fact it is, as Marx says, a consequence of capitalism’s overwhelming development of productive forces. This does not mean that science, in practice, is in any sense arbitrary or “socially constructed.” But it does suggest that any talk of the alleged power of inferential links in the logical space of reasons is itself little more than a post hoc rationalization — rather than any sort of actual explanation of the way that science works. We ought to be as wary of Sellarsian neo-rationalism as we are of the meaning-laden narratives the Brassier so categorically dismisses.

In any case, Marx refuses to separate the radically liberatory effects of the “constant revolutionizing of production” from its creation of vast human misery. He insists that these go together, precisely because the development of capitalism is beset by severe internal contradictions. These contradictions are both the reason why capitalist development is not benign, and why it cannot be the ultimate horizon of history or of technological invention. In particular, Marx emphasizes the violent contradiction between the forces of production unleashed by capitalism, and the relations of production that organize it. The discordance between these, he insists, must lead to its downfall:

The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.

At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I will point out that Marx’s diagnosis of the maladies of capitalism has been amply confirmed by subsequent events; even though his vision of a movement beyond capitalism has never come to pass. In today’s neoliberal, globalized network society, “the monopoly of capital” has indeed become “a fetter upon the mode of production.” We can see this in all sorts of ways. Insane austerity programs transfer more wealth to the already-rich at the price of undermining living standards (not to mention spending ability) for the population as a whole. The privatization of formerly public services, and the expropriation of formerly common resources, undermine the very infrastructures that are essential for long-term survival. “Digital rights management” and copy protection restrict the flow of data, and cripple the power of the very technologies that make them possible in the first place. Ubiquitous surveillance by both corporate and governmental entities, and the consequent consolidation of Big Data, leads to stultification at precisely those points where the ruling ideology calls for “flexibility” and “creativity.” Investment is increasingly directed toward derivatives and other arcane financial instruments; the more these claim to comprehend the future by pricing “risk,” the more thoroughly they move away from any grounding in actual (and short-term, much less profitable) productive activity. And of course, massive environmental deterioration results from the way that actual energetic expenditures are written off by businesses as so-called “externalities.”

And yet, none of these contradictions have caused the system to collapse, or even remotely menaced its expanded reproduction. Instead, capitalism perpetuates itself through a continual series of readjustments. Nearly all of us, as individuals, have suffered from these blockages and degradations; but Capital itself has not. Despite the fact that we have reached a point where capitalist property relations have become an onerous “fetter upon the mode of production” that they initially helped to put into motion, this fetter shows no sign of being lifted. The intensification of capitalism’s contradictions has not lead to an explosion, or to any “negation of the negation.” The “capitalist integument” has failed to “burst asunder”; instead, it has calcified into a rigid carapace, well-nigh suffocating the life within.

Accelerationism is best understood as an attempt to respond to this dilemma. On the one hand, we have massive dialectical contradictions that, nonetheless, do not lead to any sublation, or “negation of the negation” such as Marx — in this respect at least, all too faithfully following Hegel — envisioned. On the other hand, and at the same time, actually existing capitalism has in fact brought us to the point where — perhaps for the first time in human history since the invention of agriculture — such a supersession is at least conceivable. With its globe-spanning technologies, its creation and use of an incredibly powerful computation and communications infrastructure, its mobilization of general intellect, and its machinic automation of irksome toil, contemporary capitalism really has produced the conditions for universal affluence. In the world today, there is already enough accumulated wealth, and sufficiently advanced technology, for every human being to lead a life of leisure and self-cultivation. As William Gibson famously said, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

We should not underestimate the significance of this. In principle at least (even if not in fact) we have solved the economic problem — just as John Maynard Keynes, writing in 1930, predicted we would do within a century. “This means,” Keynes added, “that the economic problem is not — if we look into the future — the permanent problem of the human race.” Instead, Keynes predicted,

for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

What the Bloomsbury aesthete Keynes foresaw as the outcome of capitalism — assuming, of course, “the euthanasia of the rentier,” which Keynes hoped would happen gradually, and without a revolution — differs little from the socialism imagined by Charles Fourier and Oscar Wilde, among others. They both saw general affluence as the necessary condition for human beings to be able to flourish, cultivating their individuality or their passions. Keynes’ vision is not even all that far from the communism described by Marx himself in his early writings: a society which “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.”

This seemingly old-fashioned (19th-century aesthete) view of self-cultivation can be connected, not only to late Foucault, but also to the whole question of becoming posthuman.

But of course, the rentier has not gradually faded away; nor has the capitalist organization of production been overturned either by reform or by revolutionary upheaval. In other words, the Hegelian dialectic has definitively failed. The real is unquestionably not rational. Hegelian dialectics is not adequate to describe the delirious, irrational “logic” of capital — even though Marx himself originally analyzed this “logic” with Hegelian categories. For our experiences of the past century have taught us that, the worse its own internal contradictions get, the more fully capitalism is empowered. Marx wrote that “capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks.” But in fact, capital is even more monstrous than this. For it is actively auto-cannibalistic. It feeds, not only on living labor, but also upon itself. As David Harvey reminds us, Marx envisions “the violent destruction of capital, not by relations external to it, but rather as a condition of its self-preservation.” When profit rates decline, then vast conflagrations of value — whether in wars or in economic crises — allow the accumulation of capital to resume anew. The lesson is that capitalism is never undone by its own internal contradictions. Rather, capitalism both needs and uses these contradictions; it continually regenerates itself by means of them, and indeed it could not survive without them.

In other words, we cannot hope to negate capitalism, because capitalism itself mobilizes a far greater negativity than anything we could hope to mount against it. The dirty little secret of capitalism is that it produces abundance, but also continually transforms this abundance into scarcity. It has to do so, because it cannot endure its own abundance. Again and again, as Marx and Engels say in the Manifesto, “there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of over-production.” The wealth that capitalism actually produces undermines the scarcity that remains its raison d’etre. For once scarcity has been overcome, there’s nothing left to drive competition. The imperative to expand and intensify production simply becomes absurd. In the face of abundance, therefore, capitalism needs to generate an imposed scarcity, simply in order to keep itself going. This is the irrational turn that Keynes missed, in his all-too-rational hope for capitalistically-generated affluence. And this is why Deleuze and Guattari, in the notorious and much-quoted passage that is the ur-text of accelerationism, urge us

to go further still… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization… For perhaps the flows are not yet deterritorialized enough, not decoded enough, from the viewpoint of a theory and practice of a highly schizophrenic character. Not to withdraw from the process, but to go further, to ‘accelerate the process,’ as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.

This passage has in fact been taken out of context, and interpreted much more broadly than I think Deleuze and Guattari ever intended. For the statement only makes sense in the light of their overall understanding of how scarcity under capitalism “is never primary,” but rather “is created, planned, and organized in and through social production.” More specifically, they say that scarcity “is counterproduced as a result of the pressure of antiproduction” arising from Capital as the socius, or monstrous “body without organs” of social being.

The larger point here is that political economy needs to be understood first of all in terms of abundance instead of scarcity. The classical economics of Smith and especially Ricardo, and after them Marx, and revived in the 20th century by Sraffa, was concerned with social production, distribution, and expenditure. These political economists asked how a society could materially reproduce itself, as well as how it could grow by generating a surplus. And they were therefore concerned with the management and distribution of such a surplus. But neoclassical economics, ever since the late 19th century, and especially today, has a very different set of concerns. It deals, not with the problem of surplus, but with the problem of scarcity. It asks how individuals make decisions, given limited resources. Rather than noticing that we in fact have more than we can use, neoclassical economics insists that we are bedeviled by infinite desires and only finite means. This mimics the way in which capitalism must suppress the very abundance it produces, by subjecting it to an imposed scarcity.

Keynes also opposes the argument from scarcity:

Now it is true that the needs of human beings may seem to be insatiable. But they fall into two classes-those needs which are absolute in the sense that we feel them whatever the situation of our fellow human beings may be, and those which are relative in the sense that we feel them only if their satisfaction lifts us above, makes us feel superior to, our fellows. Needs of the second class, those which satisfy the desire for superiority, may indeed be insatiable; for the higher the general level, the higher still are they. But this is not so true of the absolute needs — a point may soon be reached, much sooner perhaps than we are all of us aware of, when these needs are satisfied in the sense that we prefer to devote our further energies to non-economic purposes.

This can also be linked to self-fashioning, in opposition to the 19th/20th century idea of infinite desire.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, Keynesian policies were replaced by neoliberal ones — precisely because the latter are premised upon the imposition of a universal requirement for competition in all areas of life. over scarce resources, as Foucault was the first to note.

This is a question for environmental considerations as well. Do we think in terms of resource scarcity, which would mean that we must learn to live with less? Or do we understand our destruction of the biosphere, our causing mass extinctions, etc., as a kind of imposed scarcity (in contrast, perhaps, to the Bataillean overabundance and sheer gift of solar energy?). General economy needs to be decoupled from fictions of the infinitude of desire.

Everything I have said so far about contradictions and going further needs to be understood in terms of one of the most contentious doctrines in Marxism, that of the fall of the rate of profit. Although Marx refers to “laws” of capitalist political economy; but he also says that these laws are tendential ones. The “the law of the tendential fall of the rate of profit” (Gesetz des tendenziellen Falls der Profitrate). There are many countervailing factors to any tendency. The tendency is real in itself; it is a part of the present situation. But because of the countervailing factors, there is no guarantee that the tendency will actually happen.

What Marx calls a tendency has some similarities to what Deleuze calls the virtual. Both are fully real, without being entirely actual. It is a question of futurity. Science fiction articulates the futurity that already exists as a virtual component of the present. It grasps both technology and socio-politico-economic organization.

Among all its other accomplishments, neoliberal capitalism has also robbed us of the future. It turns everything into an eternal present. The highest values are supposedly novelty, innovation, and creativity, and yet these always turn out to be more of the same. The future exists only in order to be colonized and made into an investment opportunity. The genuine unknowability of the future is transformed, by means of derivatives trading, into a matter of calculable risk. I am haunted by the condition of what Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, in which — as Fisher puts it, channeling Jameson and Zizek — “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” In this way, accelerationism is an attempt to answer a problem of imagination, no less than than a problem of economics.

Deleuze and Guattari’s reconceptualization of capitalism was of course picked up in the 1990s by the British philosopher Nick Land. Land pushes the deterritorializing schizophrenia of D & G to the maximum, while dropping the anti-capitalist rhetoric. Instead, Land celebrates absolute deterritorialization as liberation, to the point of total disintegration and death. He sees Capital as an alien force that exceeds and ruptures the human; but he celebrates this destructive force (whereas Marxists denounce it; and defenders of capitalism deny that such is the case).

Land offers a science-fictional view of capitalism. But he identifies with Capital itself — against human beings, or any other sort of organic life. This picks up the monstrosity of Capital as body without organs or socius. But do we need therefore to identify with it, against ourselves? Land develops a kind of Stockholm Syndrome with regard to capital. Contrast the way Hardt and Negri try to reclaim the multitude as a monstrosity that the ruling order has always tried to repress. But they are wrong and Land is right; it is really Capital that is excessive and monstrous. Of course, we cannot remain the same and deal with this monstrosity. In order to survive the monstrosity of capital, let alone flourish under it or despite it, we need to change. This is where we become posthuman.

Paul De Filippo’s science fiction short story “Phylogenesis” deals directly with this situation. The story is an accelerationist one, in the way that it pushes to the end of the full monstrosity of the body of Capital, and especially of the ecological catastrophe that is one of its most important consequences. “Phylogenesis” is a story about living on in the face of monstrosity.

The literal premise of “Phylogenesis” is that an alien species of enormous “invaders came to Earth from space without warning… In blind fulfillment of their life cycle, they sought biomass for conversion to more of their kind.” As a result, “the ecosphere had been fundamentally disrupted, damaged beyond repair.” The invaders’ massive predation leaves the earth a barren, ruined mass: “the planet, once green and blue, now resembled a white featureless ball, exactly the texture and composition of the [invading species].” Human beings are reluctant to accept the hard truth that they cannot repel the invasion: “only in the final days of the plague, when the remnants of mankind huddled in a few last redoubts, did anyone admit that extermination of the invaders and reclamation of the planet was impossible.” The human agenda is reset at the last possible moment: with victory unattainable, sheer survival becomes the only remaining goal. In this situation of general dispossession, there is no longer any environment capable of sustaining humanity. It is necessary, instead, “to adapt a new man to the alien conditions.”

And so the “chromosartors” get to work, genetically refashioning Homo sapiens into a new species. We are reborn as viral parasites, living within the very bodies of the spacefaring invaders. On the outside, the host presents a smooth surface: it is a “tremendous glaucous bulk,” with skin “like a bluish-gray compound of fat and plastic,” possessed of “a relatively high albedo,” and shaped like a “featureless ovoid.” The host, just like Deleuze and Guattari’s body without organs, “presents its smooth, slippery, opaque, taut surface as a barrier.” But beneath this surface, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, the body without organs “senses there are larvae and loathsome worms… so many nails piercing the flesh, so many forms of torture.” Or, as Di Filippo tells the story, a whole ecology pullulates beneath “the sleek uniformity of the host’s thick skin.” Its “interior structure” is “a labyrinth of cells and arteries, nerves and organs, structural tubules and struts… A nonhomogeneous environment of wet and dry spaces, some cluttered with pulsing conduits and organs, some home to roving organelles, others like the empty caverns formed in foam.” And this is where the genetically refashioned human species takes up residence.

Most of the text of “Phylogenesis” lovingly recounts the physiology, psychology, and overall life cycle of the new parasitic humanity. The bioengineering is precise and efficient. Everything is optimized in accordance with the physiology and metabolism of the host, and in the interest of flexibility. Anything deemed superfluous to survival is unsentimentally jettisoned. The “neohumans” mate quickly, reproduce in great numbers (in “litters” of five or more), and mature rapidly. They exhibit both swarm behavior — ganging up together when necessary to overwhelm the host’s defenses — and nomadic distribution — “scattering themselves throughout the interior of the gargantuan alien” to reduce the chances of being all wiped out at once by the host’s counterattacks. Once they have killed their host, they go into hibernation within “protective vesicles,” in order to survive the vacuum of deep space until they can encounter another host. In this way, they are able to perpetuate both their genes and their cultural heritage. Since they unavoidably “possess a basically nonmaterial culture,” they only use light-weight technologies that have been interiorized within their bodies. They are especially gifted with “mathematical skill,” including a genetically-instilled “predisposition toward solving… abstruse functions in their heads.” Aesthetically, they are all masters and lovers of song, “the only art form left to the artifact-free neohumans.” Mathematics and music are the sole “legacy of six thousand years of civilization” that has been bequeathed to them. The lives of the neohumans are short and intermittent; they are “mayflies, fast-fading blooms, the little creatures of a short hour. Yet to themselves, their lives still tasted sweet as of old.”

We can see Di Filippo’s story as an allegory of capitalist realism and accelerationism. The story turns upon devising a brilliant strategy for adapting to catastrophic monstrosity. When “There Is No Alternative” — when it no longer seems possible for us to defeat the monstrous invasion, or even to imagine things otherwise — Di Filippo’s parasitic inversion is the best that we can do. The neohumans of “Phylogenesis” evade extinction at the hands of the monstrous aliens, by devising a situation in which their own survival absolutely depends upon the continuing survival of the monstrosities as well. The parasitic neohumans end up killing whatever host they have invaded; but their continuing proliferation is always contingent upon encountering another host. The extinction of the invaders would mean their own definitive extinction as well.

As far as I can determine, Di Filippo never intended “Phylogenesis” to be read as an allegory of Capital. Yet the traces are there, in every aspect of the story. The downsizing of the neohumans (adults are “four feet tall, with limbs rather gracile than muscular”), the rationalization of their design in the interest of mobility and flexibility, their uncanny coordination and ability to “monitor the passage of time with unerring precision, thanks to long-ago modifications in the suprachiasmatic nuclei of their brains, which provided them with accurate biological clocks,” the “inbuilt determinism” by means of which their sexual drives are canalized “for a particular purpose,” their severely streamlined cultural heritage, and the ways that even their nonproductive activities (singing and nonprocreative sex) serve a purpose as “supreme weapons in the neohumans’ armory of spirit”: all these are recognizable variations of familiar management techniques in the contemporary post-Fordist regime of flexible accumulation. The neohumans make use of the only tools that they find at hand; they parasitize and mimic the very mechanisms that have dispossessed them.

The emotional lives of the neohumans are effectively streamlined in a post-Fordist manner as well. Feeling an overwhelming sense of loss, and aware of all the ways that their potential has been constrained, these people nonetheless conclude that “we just have to make the most of the life we have.” As for the prospect of these monstrous hosts ever going away, “we can’t count on it, we can’t even dream about it.” Both socially and affectively, Di Filippo’s neohumans are thus the very image of the multitude invoked by Hardt and Negri, and even more explicitly by Paolo Virno. They exercise a genuine creativity under extremely straightened circumstances; and they produce, and themselves enjoy, an experience of the common. But Di Filippo recognizes, more clearly than Virno or Hardt and Negri do, the limitations of any “mobilization of the common” in our current situation of the “real subsumption” of labor (and forms of life more generally) under capitalism. “Phylogenesis” is a demonstration of a kind of vitalism in spite of capital, but that is also the reslience that neoliberalism demands (cf. Robin James on this): “Life is tenacious, life is ingenious, life is mutable, life is fecund.”

Notes on Sensation

Sunday, July 7th, 2013

In his fine new book Levinas Unhinged, Tom Sparrow writes about how Alphonso Lingis both radicalizes Levinas in the direction of materiality, and goes beyond the accpunt of perception elaborated by Merleau-Ponty. Lingis insists upon the radicality of sensation, something that orthodox phenomenology excludes. For Merleau-Ponty,Sparrow says, “our most elementary experiences are always already meaning-laden, figural, given to us as a thing that we can get our hands around.”

Now, as far as I can tell, Merleau-Ponty is basically saying the same thing that Wilfrid Sellars is saying, when he denounces the “myth of the Given” and insists that all our experiences are always already conceptualized or theory-laden. These two philosophers come from very different traditions, and their terminology is correspondingly different. (Thus Sellars denounces the idea of what he calls “givennnes,” but Merleau-Ponty uses this very same term to refer to the way that, for him just as for Sellars, what we experience is already conceptualized and meaningful).

The parallel between Merleau-Ponty and Sellars is that they both descend ultimately from Kant; they are both affirming the Kantian principle that “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.” And doubtless, Kant, Sellars, and Merleau-Ponty are all correct in rejecting what we might call the illusion of simple presence.

Nonetheless, as Sparrow points out, sensation for Lingis is a point at which the Kantian/phenomenologica/Sellarsian structures break down. Lingis, in contrast to all theseearlier figures, “reminds us that ‘to sense something is to be sensitive to something, to feel a contact with it, to be affected by it’.” (Sparrow quoting Lingis). Sparrow also (rightly, I think) aligns this affirmation of sensation with a moment in Levinas where Levinas is asserting the priority of the aesthetic, rather than (as he usually does) the ethical. It is true that we should beware (as Kant, Merleau-Ponty, & Sellars all tell us) to simply hypostasize non-conceptual (or non-categorical) aesthetic sensation as a higher or more pure form of presence. But it is equally true that we need to avoid the error of thinking that what does not fit into our conceptual categories does not exist at all. Sparrow finds this latter concern in Levinas and in Lingis. I find it, initially, in Kant himself, in the discussion of aesthetics in the Third Critique, where we have “intuitions” (sensory impressions) that cannot be contained within any concept. I find traces of this also in Deleuze (with his aesthetics of sensation), in Laruelle (with his insistence on the radical immanence of the photograph), and also in Erin Manning’s account of autistic thought.

The larger point is that both cognitivists and phenomenologists affirm the Kantian idea of subordinating sensation or affect to cognition, or conceptualization, or meaning; and yet both cognitivism and phenomenology offer us margins, or moments, where we still encounter a radical, non-categorizable aestheticism. (These margins can be found, for instance, in Metzinger’s discussions of “Raffman qualia”, and in some of Merleau-Ponty’s more speculative gestures, including those where he is writing under the influence of Whitehead — for which see this book). I think that David Roden’s recent discussion of “dark phenomenology” fits here too (although I don’t agree with Roden’s conclusion that this might be accessed via third-person naturalism).

Both in the book I am finishing now (on speculative realism) and in the two that I hope to write next (one on theories of mind in science fiction, and the other on post-continuity in contemporary film and video) I am pursuing these aesthetic margins.