Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

GROOVE, by Mark Abel

Monday, November 16th, 2015

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”

Freedman on Mieville

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

I just finished reading Carl Freedman’s excellent book on China Mieville, which I can heartily recommend to anybody who’s interested in Mieville.

The book is filled with insightful and powerful close readings of Mieville’s fiction, and with commentary on how the fiction conveys Mieville’s own Marxist understanding of things.

I have a few disagreements with Carl, which are pretty much the same ones I had vis-a-vis his earlier book Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), which I expressed in my own book Connected (2003), and to which Carl replied in his very generous review-essay on that book. So a lot of this is ongoing (though Carl here sharpens and revises his theses from the earlier book, in response to criticisms by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay and by Mieville himself).

Basically what it comes down to is that Carl still positions himself in the line of Darko Suvin when it comes to theorizing SF; whereas I would like to see a non-Suvinian theory of science fiction (analogous, I suppose, to Laruelle’s non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy, which itself is modeled on non-Euclidean geometry).

In practice, what does this mean? Carl maintains a somewhat revised and updated version of Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement; Carl mentions extrapolation as only a minor example or component of cognitive estrangement. I want to invert this definition: for me, SF is primarily a literature of extrapolation, and cognitive estrangement is only a minor variant of extrapolation. For me, this is because SF is about, not the actual future, but rather futurity insofar as it really (but inactually) exists in the present.

Writing about Mieville, Carl of course extends the definition of SF to include weird fiction as well — something I would also want to do with my definition of SF — but I don’t think this fundamentally changes either of our positions.

What it really comes down to, I think — and this might allow for a certain reconciliation between Carl’s position and my own — is the opposition we see in the Bas-Lag novels, particularly The Scar, between crisis energy and potentiality. The former is a basic principle of radical (dialectical) change and transformation, whereas the latter is merely a list of alternative choices, or alternative outcomes, or alternative happenings – but in a way that leaves the essential situation unchanged. Although the terms are different, the logic here is the same as that between potentiality and mere possibility in Deleuze. Crisis energy in Mieville (like the virtual in Deleuze) is, as Carl puts it, “a certain ontological instability at the very center of reality… The core of Being itself tends towards hybridity.” This is a real dynamism, in opposition to the “merely additive static pastiche” which we see in the figure of Motley in Perdido Street Station, and which is manifested in the potentiality engine the Lovers are searching for in The Scar. Though Deleuze uses “potentiality” positively, to mean something like what Mieville and Carl mean by crisis, his critique of mere logical possibility is pretty much the same as Mieville’s and Carl’s critique of what Mieville calls potentiality. In both cases, it is a question of actuality merely being added to a pregiven possibility; as opposed to the way that transformation requires a much deeper process of dialectical contradiction (Mieville) or actualization of the virtual (Deleuze). [I used to get all worked up about the differences between dialectical realization in the Hegelian tradition adopted by most Marxists, and the nondialectical account of differentiation as actualization of the virtual in Deleuze; but my present view is that these are actually quite minor differences, the basic point is pretty much the same in both traditions).

In any case, the Marx/Mieville theory of crisis, and the Deleuze theory of virtuality, both point to the way that there are untapped prospects for transformation or radical change even within the seemingly most static and repressive actual situation. Carl’s own treatment of this issue made it more clear to me than ever before; which is why I wish he had brought it back in the conclusion of the volume, and brought it to bear on the question of science fiction and its relation to other genres such as, especially, weird fiction. I think that, on both Carl’s view and mine, science fiction and other “arealistic” genres (as Carl calls them), have a lot to do with the rendering fictively present of these often neglected alternatives that may underlie and undermine even the most stable and repressive actualities. This is a major part of how SF, weird fiction, and other arealistic genres are different from what I once heard Mieville call “mimetic fiction.” And I think that both cognitive estrangement (including what Carl calls the “cognition effect”) and extrapolation can be comprehended under this philosophical distinction.

I will end with one very minor point. Carl only discusses six of Mieville’s novels. I understand the need for some sort of restriction — Mieville is one of those writers whom I could go on about indefinitely — but I still wish that Carl had written about some of the other books, especially Kraken, which is in some ways the most prodigal, to the point of overfullness, of all Mieville’s books (I mean – the embassy of the sea! the explicit engagement with tentacular horror! all the weird folding stuff! the strike by magicians’ and witches’ familiars! and above all the way Mieville gives a brilliant twist to the common process of retconning fantastic narratives!).

But all in all, this is a great book; it will help to hold me during the impatience of my wait for Mieville’s next novel (which is coming out in January).

[ADDED NOTE: When I saw Mieville give a reading from The Scar, during his book tour in support of that novel, somebody asked him about how the eponymous scar could be the edge of the world, since a globe doesn’t have an edge. Mieville replied something on the order of, I never said that the world of Bas Lag was round….]

More copyright idiocy

Monday, November 9th, 2015

So here’s yet another case of over-the-top copyright restrictions involving something I wrote. In December 2014, the Whitehead Research Project held an excellent conference on Whitehead’s short book Symbolism. I was one of the speakers at the conference; I posted an uncorrected version of my talk, “Whitehead on Causality and Perception,” as a blog entry. As has happened with previous conferences sponsored by the WRP, the essays are supposed to be collected in a volume. As far as I knew, the volume was proceeding apace. But today I received the following from the editors in  my email:

As we are only allowed 500 words worth of quotes from any single work within the volume, ALL short Symbolism quotes within your chapter must be paraphrased or removed entirely. This is an unfortunate and difficult requirement, but the alternative is that you pay Simon & Schuster the fee for quotations associated with your chapter, which would also delay the publication of the entire volume up to a year.

This strikes me as completely unwarranted. And actually, I am not quite sure even how to interpret it. Does it mean that no more than 500 words from Symbolism may be quoted in each individual article? Or that no more than 500 words from Symbolism (or any other single text of Whitehead’s) may be quoted in the entire volume of essays?

I haven’t actually counted the number of words I quote from Symbolism in my (approx) 6000-word essay. But my frequent short citations of the volume are entirely to be expected in a scholarly essay that engages in the close reading of a difficult philosophical text. Without the citations from Whitehead’s book, my own essay makes no sense. Whitehead’s Symbolism is itself (approx) 17,000-words long; a short book, in other words, but still I have only cited a small portion of it in my own essay. My citations are clearly protected under fair use. (As far as I am aware, it is only in the case of poetry and song lyrics that such fair use protection is not granted. To extend the poetry rule for philosophical treatises would be a calamity for all intellectual discussion).

In any case, I am not willing either to remove the quotations and substitute paraphrase, or to pay Simon and Schuster whatever extortionate amount they demand for me to exercise my rights under the doctrine of fair use. So my only choice is to withdraw the essay from the volume, unless the current restriction is removed. In any case, I do not blame the editors at WRP for this situation; they have assured me that they are doing their best to get Simon and Schuster to reconsider. But I am angry about the general climate with regards to copyright, in which large publishers (like S&S) can in effect act like bullies, and to impose egregious restrictions like this which contravene the very notion of fair use, simply because they know that nobody else can afford the legal fees that it would cost to contest these restrictions in court.

I should say that I am very proud of this essay; I think it is one of the best and most significant articles that I have ever written. Of course, maybe I am just congratulating myself too much; this is something for every reader to decide. But readers’ judgments can only be made if the article itself is available to read; you can access and download it here.

Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

Tuesday, November 3rd, 2015

Here is my review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ INVENTING THE FUTURE. Cross-posted from The Disorder of Things.

The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising 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.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-Francois Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.” By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” — as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx — is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left — one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

The new technologies — digital and otherwise — of the last several decades are currently straining against the “fetters” of the very system that initially produced them. Information streams are censored and crippled as a result of so-called “intellectual property” laws; companies like Apple and Google appropriate the profits resulting from research that was conducted at public expense. The automation and robotization of so many jobs leads, not to comfort and liberation from toil, but to precarity and dispossession.

Srnicek and Williams argue in their manifesto that we need to adapt these new technologies for emancipatory ends, rather than resisting and opposing them. They argue for a future-oriented left politics, “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” They suggest that we should seek, not to restrain, but rather to “unleash latent productive forces.” They even call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” We might say that Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism stands in relation to that of Nick Land much as early Soviet Constructivism stood in relation to Italian Futurism.

Srnicek and Williams’ important new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers a full-length expansion of the program that was first outlined in their manifesto. The most surprising thing about the book, however, is that the actual word “accelerationism” scarcely appears anywhere within it. As the authors explain in an endnote,

We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has risen around the concept, rather than from any abdication of its tenets as we understand them.

What this means, in practice, is that Srnicek and Williams’ ideas are removed from the incendiary context in which they were first proposed. Though the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference. Without the expressive urgency connoted both by the word “accelerationism,” and the hyperbole that is basic to the manifesto as a genre, Srnicek and Williams’ proposals seem — well, they seem downright moderate and reasonable.

The authors start the book by offering a (mostly) comradely critique of the left’s recent predilection for “horizontalist” modes of organization, for privileging local concerns over global ones, for avoiding any explicit list of demands, and for direct democracy and spontaneous direct action. All these have been prominent features of the Occupy movement and other recent protest actions. But Srnicek and Williams argue that these tactics “do not scale.” They may work well enough in particular instances, but they are not of much help when it comes to building a larger and longer-enduring oppositional movement, one that could actually work towards changing our basic conditions of life.

This line of argument seems irrefutable to me — although it will likely irritate large segments of the book’s potential audience, particularly those whose general orientation is anarchist rather than Marxist. It is not just a question of organizational work — something that, admittedly, I have never done much of, myself — but also of orientation and basic vision. Local and horizontal political tactics are incomplete in themselves; they need to be supplemented by more global, or universal, modes of action and concern.

Unfortunately, Srnicek and Williams do not do themselves any favors when they characterize localist and horizontal tactics as “folk politics.” Such an appellation is deeply condescending. It is derived by analogy from “folk psychology,” the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves. I entirely agree with the cognitivists that there is a lot going on in our minds that is not directly accessible to conscious awareness. But this need not entail that, as Paul Churchland notoriously put it, “our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory,” so that things like beliefs and desires don’t really even exist. The same holds for “folk politics” as for “folk psychology.” Pointing out the incompleteness of a mode of understanding is one thing; but dismissing it as entirely false and delusional is quite another. Srnicek and Williams convincingly argue that we need a more expansive, and more fully imaginative, form of both action and theorization; but they could well have pointed this out without the contempt and disparagement implied by the term “folk politics.”

In any case, after the opening chapters devoted to “the negative task of diagnosing the strategic limitations of the contemporary left,” Srnicek and Williams turn to the positive project of spelling out an alternative. This is where they do indeed make accelerationist proposals, while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years. They suggest, first of all, that the left needs to reclaim the mantle of modernism (the attitude) and modernity (the process) that it held for much of the twentieth century. This means, among other things, embracing and detourning new technologies, and finding a new sort of universalism that includes all the many local needs and forms of struggle, bringing them together without erasing their concrete particulars. (Here I wish that they had given consideration to something like Gilbert Simondon’s notions of transversality and transindividuality — for a discussion of which, in terms of left politics, see Jason Read’s new book The Politics of Transindividuality).

Beyond this, Srnicek and Williams analyze the ways that new technologies are transforming capitalism. They focus particularly on the ways that computerization and robotics are making more and more jobs redundant — without producing new sorts of jobs to replace them, as was the case in earlier waves of automation. We are standing on the verge of a “post-work world.” Given this situation, they suggest four basic demands around which the left can and should unite:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

It is not that these demands will solve all problems; obviously they fail to address racism, sexism, and many other pressing needs. I myself would want to add a fifth demand to the list: the right of migration, and abolition of borders. But even without this addition, I think that the demands listed by Srnicek and Williams do indeed make sense as a “minimal” program. For one thing, they would establish the material conditions — freedom from hunger, homelessness, and other forms of severe want — under which racism and sexism could be more forcefully addressed and opposed than is the case today. For another thing, although these demands are in themselves concrete and attainable — as the world today is wealthy enough, and technologically advanced enough, to realize them — their fulfillment would require massive economic, social, and political transformations: ones that would take us beyond the limits of capitalism as it actually exists today.

Even if the left is able to unite around this series of demands, actually attaining them will remain a difficult task. Srnicek and Williams sensibly note that

the power of the left — broadly construed — needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of ‘modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.

Along these lines, they offer a number of concrete proposals, most of them good. They remind us, especially, that we cannot hope for immediate results, but need to play a long game. This is not a matter of the old debate between “reform” and “revolution” — an alternative that is now outdated. Rather, it means that a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible.

To illustrate this, Srnicek and Williams follow Philip Mirowski in tracing the history of the “neoliberal thought collective,” as it moved from a fringe group just after World War II to the dominant ideological force in the world after 1980. I have mixed feelings about this example, however. The story of neoliberalism’s triumph does indeed demonstrate the virtues of patience, cunning, keeping an eye on the long term, and understanding that the “common sense” of the broader society needs to change if policies are to change. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” concerned with more than immediate results. But the long-term success of the neoliberals has a lot to do with their access to money and to organs of public opinion. The capitalist class may well have accepted the Keynesian compromise in the post-War period, but they were always amenable to a new formation that would only increase their wealth, power, and influence. Ideological hegemony is a form of class struggle by different means. A left counter-hegemonic project will never be able to command the sorts of resources that the neoliberals had, as the moved from the margins to the center of policy-making.

The larger point here is that, as Fredric Jameson once put it,

It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself. There can never be satisfactory political solutions or systems; but there can be better economic ones, and Marxists and leftists need to concentrate on those.

This doesn’t mean that politics can be ignored; the task of making a better economic order will always require deep political engagement. And Srnicek and Williams’ economic analysis of the material conditions for a “post-work” economy is quite good. But it still remains that they — like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century — are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.

Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. As Srnicek and Williams put it at the very end of their book,

Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computing power, the left should mobilize dreams of decarbonizing the economy, space travel, robot economies — all the traditional touchstones of science fiction — in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism.

Post-capitalism (or better, communism — to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages — just barely — to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.

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.

Ferrett Steinmetz, FLEX

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

FLEX, by Ferrett Steinmetz, is an interesting and potent (if that is the right word) urban fantasy novel.

In what follows, I have tried to avoid major plot spoilers, but I cannot discuss the novel without giving away at least a little. You have been warned.

Magic is illegal, yet some people practice it. They are called ‘mancers, with the prefix being their source of power — thus a videomancer gets magic from video games, an illustromancer from paintings, and so on. The ability to do magic is rare: nobody can just decide to cultivate it, or inherit the ability to do it. Rather, it is a byproduct of obsession: if you are sufficiently obsessed by something, so that it consumes and becomes your entire life, then you may develop magical powers in connection with it. 

Magic works by apparently violating the laws of physics; or, more precisely, by violating the laws of probability. To work magic is to have extraordinary good luck, so that things that are extremely unlikely to happen nonetheless do happen .The novel is a bit ambiguous on this point, however; in fact, unlikely things do not in themselves violate the “laws” of physics — even aside from the fact that there is no consensus on what it means for there to be physical “laws”. It would not strictly violate any physical laws for all the oxygen molecules in my room to aggregate on the other side of the room from where I am sitting, so that I would suffocate to death; it is just that the probability of this happening is so low that it would require far longer than the 14 billion year life of the universe since the Big Bang for such a combination to ever turn up. All this could well be expressed in terms of entropy. The author would only strengthen his overall schema if he were to add such a layer of explanation to any future novels set in the same world.

In any case, life is negentropic: it maintains internal order by exporting entropy into the surrounding environment. In the world of FLEX, magic is even more strikingly negentropic: it produces desired or positive outcomes that are statistically too unlikely to happen. And as with physical energy, there is a price to pay: magic always has blowback, called Flux, which is statistically anomalous bad luck to counterbalance the good. ‘Mancers can only be successful if they contain the Flux in some way, or redirect it away from themselves. The novel’s protagonist at one point redirects all the Flux from his actions away from himself and into the ground; the result is a massive earthquake, in a region not normally prone to disturbances of this sort. 

In the world of the novel, ‘mancy is illegal, for several reasons. Excessive use of it leads to fractures in the very fabric of reality. Even if this point is not reached, the blowback from Flux can be violently destructive, not only to the ‘mancer but to bystanders as well. Anyone suspected of ‘mancy is arrested and sent to the Refactor, a sort of brainwashing concentration camp. “Mundanes” (non-magical people) sent to the Refactor in error have their minds permanently destroyed; ‘mancers sent to the Refactor have their personalities crushed, and their obsessions refashioned, so that they become sort of robotic clones in SMASH, the Army’s ‘mancer squad, where they are used to suppress all other instances of ‘mancy. 

So the novel envisions a world in which the only thing worse than private obsessions getting out of hand is the socially-sanctioned totalitarian control and rechanneling of these obsessions. It’s like the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” rolled into one. Just as with drugs, the official discourse denies the beauty and exhilaration that can come from practicing ‘mancy. And ‘mancy is also like drugs in this respect: certain ‘mancers can objectify their magic, as it were, by congealing it in physical form as a drug, known as Flex. Mundanes can experience the extraordinary good luck of ‘mancers when they take the drug. But usually the drug contains the Flux as well — so that the blowback after the high dissipates is destructive and deadly.

In other words — and this is a crucial thematic point — ‘mancy is inherently singular and personal — it arises out of particular obsessions. It can only be made “objective” or general by squeezing out the very obsession which produces it, so that this subjectivity no longer inhabits the finished product. This is done in one way by the Army when they brainwash ‘mancers and turn them into depersonalized obedient units. It is done in another way when the drug Flex is made by ‘mancers: they can only make the product by eliminating their own subjectivity from it, and thereby denaturing it. 

The novel’s protagonist, Paul Tsabo, is a ‘mancy-fighter, until he discovers that he is a ‘mancer himself. Now, he must try to use his magic for good — though he finds he also values it in itself, as the most absorbing and joyful thing he has ever been able to do — while continuing to fight the evil ‘mancers, and evading capture or exposure himself (since the law does not discriminate between good and bad ‘mancy). 

The novel’s antagonist, Anathema, is a paleomancer — sort of like the Black Block anarchists, she despises all human civilization, and wants to destroy it so that we may revert to a pre-agricultural state (or perhaps something even before that). She deliberately doses marginally unstable people with Flex, so that they will act out, and then bring down the Flux both upon themselves and others. She sows chaos, death, and destruction, with the aim of bringing down civilization itself. 

Paul must stop Anathema — and he struggles to do this in several ways. For one thing, he makes his own Flex, congealing his magic into a pure (but depersonalized) form — and unlike Anathema and nearly all other Flex dealers, he drains away the Flux, so that the drug doesn’t have any blowback when others take it. Actually, this doesn’t work too well — since the only result is that gangsters get ahold of Paul’s Flex, and by taking it they can get away with just about anything, without any worry about bad consequences or getting caught. In other words, unadulterated Flex is even worse than crack, in the way that it empowers egotistical assholes to do whatever the fuck they want, at everyone else’s expense. There’s a thin line between ‘mancy as an expression and creative amplification, which gives pleasure by transmuting obsession into beauty and a sense of fulfillment ; and ‘mancy as a form of oppression and terror, either when it allows somebody to impose their particular obsessions upon others, or when it gets depersonalized and objectified (whether in the form of the drug, or in the form of Army totalitarian death squads). I can’t help thinking here of the way that billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Bill Gates, due to their vast wealth, are able to impose their obsessions on the country at large; their money is like a form of ‘mancy, allowing them to get away with things and transferring the Flux or blowback to us. (This is not to deny that Gates has done good things with his money — contributing to the cure of diseases in the underdeveloped world — as well as bad things — e.g. so called “educational reform.” Whereas the Koch Brothers’ use of their money is entirely and unequivocally noxious. It is just troubling that certain individuals should have this power, when the vast majority of us do not. It’s inherently undemocratic and oppressive, even in the rare cases where the money is used for good).

In any case — I still haven’t mentioned what Paul’s own form of ‘mancy is. And this is the novel’s most brilliant stroke. Paul is a bureaucromancer — his obsession is with bureaucracy, and his magic consists in changing the world by filling out and filing bureaucratic forms. He can access any data that has been collected bureaucratically, by the government or by private businesses. He can pull papers out of thin air, fill then up with forms, checkboxes, and specifications, and by signing the papers conjure what he has written into objective effect. This is because Paul’s philosophy of life — his all-consuming obsession, in fact — is to see bureaucracy as the cornerstone of civilization, as humankind’s unique tool for fending off violence and oppression, for establishing the very possibility of safety, stability, and comfort, and for making fairness and equality at least thinkable and potentially obtainable. This is quite wonderful, because it encapsulates an idea which goes against all the assumptions of our age. If there is one thing that everyone in our neoliberal age hates, it is bureaucracy. Everyone from Rand Paul to David Graeber detests it. Politicians always loudly oppose it. Leftists want to hang the last bureaucrat along with the last billionaire, or the last priest. The Tea Party sees it as a scourge to be eliminated. So-called “centrists” or “moderates” are mealy-mouthed about it, just as they are mealy-mouthed about everything — but they still insist on getting rid of it, as much as they ever insist on anything. Modernist literature, from Kafka on down, figures bureaucracy as the central scourge of 20th- (and now 21st-) century life. FLEX is nearly the only contemporary book I have ever read that supports bureaucracy, and even celebrates it.

Now of course, the deep hypocrisy, or “dirty little secret” of our age is that in fact it runs entirely on (disavowed) bureaucracy. Reagan and Thatcher introduced massive levels of it, precisely as a means of destroying the welfare state, of “deregulating” various institutional practices, and of promoting “efficiency” and “competition”. (We get a lot of this in academia in particular, where things more and more turn upon various mechanisms of supposedly objective assessment, of quantification, etc.). All large corporations are heavily bureaucratized, and perform the very sort of central planning that was ritualistically denounced as an obscenity when governments tried to practice it. Big Data is not just a consequence of computational technology per se, but precisely of the bureaucratization of it. 

In a world where the only thing more ubiquitous than bureaucracy is the fervent denunciation of bureaucracy, it is incredibly refreshing to find a text that pulls bureaucracy into the open, and gives a hopeful and optimistic account of it. Indeed, barring the catastrophic collapse of all social and technological mechanisms (which is what Anathema seeks to make happen in the novel), we will never truly be rid of bureaucracy. Far better, instead of continuing to hysterically denounce bureaucracy, that we embrace — as Paul does in the novel — what it might be able to accomplish at its best. Of course, Paul’s vision of it is an idealization — it is his private obsession after all, which is what allows it to attain magical status. But the novel is very smart in the ambiguous way it treats the questions of universalization and objectification. As I have noted, these processes are dangerous and more than problematic. But the confinement of magic entirely to the private sphere is also problematic, both because it ultimately collapses in on itself, and because it doesn’t provide any real solution the the problem of blowback (Flux). The novel carefully treads the line — as Paul himself carefully treads the line — between these two dangers. Paul finds himself against the whole world, as well as against himself, in his conviction that ‘mancy can be used for the general good — which is something that both ‘mancers and mundanes tend to reject out of hand. The same can be said for bureaucracy, as the particular form that Paul’s own magic takes. We can see here one of the big problems that comes up in, for instance, Srnicek & Williams’ accelerationist manifesto — where they call for central planning, they probably should be calling instead for the sort of bureaucracy that will be necessary if we are ever able to create an alternative to the capitalist nightmare we live in now. The point is not to eliminate bureaucracy, but to allow it to fulfill its positive potentials, rather than serving only as the “obscene excess” and hidden underpinning of neoliberal governance. FLEX is classified, in terms of genre, as “urban fantasy” rather than “science fiction”; but in fact it does what the best science fiction does. It extrapolates from actually existing conditions (in this case, those of neoliberal subjectivity) by proposing a novum, or a potentiality, that already exists in these conditions under the form of a haunting futurity: something that, in the words that Deleuze borrows from Proust, is “real but not actual”. The author never directly comes out and says this — and of course I have no insight into his actual intentions — but FLEX is almost entirely unique in the ways that it proposes a utopian vision (in the Blochian and Jamesonian sense) of a fulfilled bureaucracy. 

[NOTE: I haven’t even gone into the personal/emotional dimensions of the novel. Paul’s relation with his 6-year-old daughter is crucial and heartwrenching — but how it relates to the ideas I have discussed here is complicated, and would require another lengthy discussion].

Twenty-two theses on nature

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

I have a new short article out, “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.” This appears as part of a special section on “Protocols for a New Nature” in the Yearbook of Comparative Literature, volume 58 (2012). Despite the official year of the publication, it is just out now.

The whole issue looks interesting: you can find the contents at .

But it is firewalled, and you can only access it if your university subscribes. If you are not in a university, or if your university doesn’t carry it (as is the case with mine) then you are SOL.

So obviously I haven’t been able to read anyone else’s contribution. (I am supposed to get a hardcopy eventually, but I don’t know when; and in any case, that doesn’t substitute for online access).

So I decided that the least I could do would be to post the text of my own contribution here.


  1. We can no longer think of Nature as one side of a binary opposition. In an age of anthropogenic global warming and genetically modified organisms, not to mention Big Data and world-encompassing computing and communications networks, it makes no sense to oppose nature to culture, or a “state of nature” to human society, or the natural to the artificial. Human beings and their productions are not separate from Nature; they are just as much, or as little, “natural” as everything else.
  2. We must think Nature without any residual anthropocentrism: that is to say, without exempting ourselves from it, and also without remaking it in our own image. Human beings are part of Nature, but Nature is not human, and is not centered upon human beings or upon anything human.
  3. Above all, we must avoid thinking that Nature is simply “given,” and therefore always the same — as opposed to a social realm that would be historical and constructed. Rather, we must recognize that Nature itself is always in movement, in process, and under construction. We need to revive the great 19th century discipline of natural history, practiced by Darwin, Wallace, and many others. Evolution (phylogeny) and development (ontogeny) are both historical processes; they cannot be reduced to the study of genomes as synchronic structures.
  4. Nature is all-encompassing, but it is not a Whole. It is radically open. However far we go in space, we will never find an edge or a boundary. There is no way of adding everything up, and coming up with Nature as a fixed sum. There is also no way of subordinating Nature to some Theory of Everything.
  5. Nature is radically open in terms of time, as well as space. The future is always contingent and unpredictable. It cannot be reduced to any calculus of probabilities. As Keynes and Meillassoux have both shown us, the future is intrinsically unknowable. It exceeds any closed list of possibilities. The radical unknowability of Nature is not an epistemological constraint; it is a basic, and positive, ontological feature of Nature itself.
  6. In the 19th century, thinkers as different as Schelling (with his Naturphilosophie) and Engels (with his Dialectics of Nature) tried to define an overall “logic” of Nature that included — but that was not reducible to — human developments and concerns. In the 20th century, such projects were abandoned. Instead, humanity was either given a special, transcendental status (phenomenology); or else reduced to its non-organic presuppositions (scientism). Today, in the 21st century, both of these alternatives are bankrupt. We need to return to a project of thinking Nature directly — even if we reject the particular, antiquated terms that thinkers like Schelling and Engels used for their own attempts.
  7. Schelling and Engels both tried to conceive Nature in ways that were grounded in, but not reducible to, the best natural science of their own times. Our task today is, similarly, to conceive Nature in ways that are grounded in, but not reducible to, the best contemporary science.
  8. Nature is neither a plenum nor a void. Rather, conditions or states of affairs within Nature may tend either towards plenitude or towards vacancy. Usually, though, neither of these tendential extremes is reached. Things generally fluctuate in an intermediate range, between fullness and emptiness.
  9. However, we are still on safer ground if we consider that Nature comprises something rather than nothing. We know from modern physics that quantum fluctuations happen even in a vacuum. In this sense, Nature is better understood in terms of more rather than less, or surplus rather than deficiency. Nature will never be finished, never be shaped and structured once and for all; but it has also never been “without form and void.”
  10. Nature is not formless, and not simply homogeneous, It is rather metastable, in the sense defined by Gilbert Simondon. All-encompassing Nature is traversed by potentials and powers, or by energy gradients and inherent tendencies. At any moment, these may be activated and actualized. The most minute imbalance, or the most fleeting encounter, can be enough to set things into motion. And there is generally more to the effect than there is to the cause. The consequences of these imbalances and encounters tend to be orders of magnitude larger than the incidents that set them into motion.
  11. The result of any disruption of Nature’s metastability is what Simondon calls individuation: the emergence and structuration of an individual, together with those of its associated milieu. Examples of this process include the precipitation of a crystal out of a solution, and the emergence and growth of distinct tissues, organs, and parts from an initially undifferentiated embryo.
  12. Nature thus comprises multiple processes of individuation. These must all be understood in two distinct ways: in terms of energetics, and in terms of informatics.
  13. Nature involves continual flows of energy. Energy (or, more precisely mass-energy) can never be created or destroyed, but only transformed from one state to another (the First Law of Thermodynamics). And yet this also means that energy is continually being expended or dissipated, as gradients are reduced, and entropy is maximized (the Second Law of Thermodynamics). As Eric Schneider argues, complex organized systems (from hurricanes to organisms) tend to form, because they can dissipate energy more efficiently, and on a vaster scale, than would otherwise be possible. Such “dissipative systems” are internally negentropic; but this is precisely what allows them to discharge so much energy into their environments, thus increasing entropy and reducing energy gradients overall.
  14. Today, thanks to our computing technologies, we tend to think more commonly in informational terms than in energetic ones. Physicists propose that the universe is ultimately composed of information; cognitive scientists tend to see biological organisms as information processing systems. I fear that our excessive concern with informatics has gotten in the way of a proper understanding of the importance of energetics.
  15. Information, unlike energy, has no “in itself”; for information only exists insofar as it is for some entity (someone or something) that parses it in some way. This might make it seem as if information were inessential. But nothing is altogether devoid of information; for nothing exists altogether on its own, outside of all-encompassing Nature, entirely self-subsistent and without ever being affected by anything else. The transmission and parsing of information, no less than the transfer and dissipation of energy, is an essential process of Nature.
  16. We might link information to perception, on the one hand, and to action on the other. Perception is how we obtain bits of information; and the parsing or processing of information issues forth in the possibility of action. A living organism gathers information by perceiving its environment; and it uses this information in order to respond flexibly and appropriately to whatever conditions it encounters. This is not just the case for animals, or entities with brains. A tree discerns water in the soil, which it draws in with its roots; it discovers insects feeding on its leaves, and releases a noxious chemical to repel them. Information processing thus mediates between perception and action.
  17. Information processing involves — and indeed requires — at least a minimal degree of sentience. But we should not confuse sentience with consciousness; for the former is a far broader category than the latter. Organisms like trees, bacteria, and slime molds are probably not conscious; but they are demonstrably sentient, as they process information and respond to it in ways that are not stereotypically determined in advance. Even when it comes to ourselves, most of the information processing in our brains goes on unconsciously, and without any possibility of ever becoming conscious. Most likely, consciousness is only sparsely present in Nature. But sentience is far more widely distributed.
  18. Perception is only a particular sort of causality. When I perceive something, this means that the thing in question has affected me in some way, whether through light, sound, touch, or some other medium. But if I am affected by something, then that something has had an effect upon me. It has altered me (however minimally) in some manner or other. And this process cannot be confined just to perception. I am often affected by things without overtly perceiving them. I feel the symptoms of a cold, but I do not sense the virus that actually causes me to fall ill. I feel an impulse to buy something, because my mind has been subliminally primed in some way. I lose my balance and fall from a height, pulled by the Earth’s gravitational field even before becoming aware of it. I turn over in my sleep, responding to some change in the ambient temperature. In all these cases, something has caused a change in me; it has given rise to an effect. Information has been processed in some manner, by my body if not my mind.
  19. Nature involves a continual web of causes producing effects, which in turn become the causes of further effects, ad infinitum. This need not imply linearity or monocausality: there are many causes for every effect, and many effects arising from every cause; and potential causes may interfere with and block one another. But just as energy is continually being transformed, so information is continually being processed — even on what we might consider a purely physical level. This is why information, no less than energy, is a basic category of Nature.
  20. Within all-encompassing Nature, the difference between the “physical” and the “mental” is only a matter of degree, and not of kind. A thermostat is, to a modest extent, an information processor; and therefore we should agree that it is, at least minimally sentient — if not, as David Chalmers suggests, actually conscious. That is to say, the thermostat feels — although it does not know anything, and it is not capable of self-reflection. We can make a similar claim for a stone which falls off a cliff, or even for one which lies motionless on the ground. Gravity pulls the stone to the Earth, and the information associated with this process is what the stone feels.
  21. Nature is not itself a particular thing or a particular process; although it is the never-completed sum, as well as the framework, of all the multitudinous things and processes — transformations of energy and accumulations of information — that take place within it. How, finally, can we characterize it? All-encompassing Nature stands apart from every particular instance. And yet it is not anything like a Kantian transcendental condition of possibility for all these instances, since it stands on the same level, within the same immanent plane, as they. Nature is neither outside history, nor the totality of history, nor a particular datum of natural or social history. It is rather what all these particular instances, all these transformations and accumulations, have in common; it is what places them all in a common world.
  22. I will conclude by taking a hint from Alfred North Whitehead, who articulates this commonness more rigorously than I can. Whitehead translates the ancient Greek physis not just as Nature (as is customary), but also as Process. And he equates this physis with the narrower technical term (from Plato’s Timaeus) hypodoche, the Receptacle. Nature, or the Receptacle, Whitehead says, “imposes a common relationship on all that happens, but does not impose what that relationship shall be…. [It] may be conceived as the necessary community within which the course of history is set, in abstraction from all the particular historical facts.”


Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

My review of Peter Watts’ great new SF novel Echopraxia is now up at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

“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.

Afterparty – Daryl Gregory

Sunday, May 4th, 2014

Daryl Gregory’s Afterparty is a near-future science fiction thriller about designer drugs — specifically designer neurochemicals. It seems to be set about twenty years from now, with a flashback to events ten years or so from now  — enough time for its scientific vision to be plausible. In terms of plot, it’s an extremely well-done thriller; but I agree with Warren Ellis that what matters in fiction of this sort isn’t the plot — which is there to get us involved — so much as what it gets us involved in, which is the characters and the ideas. The characters in Afterparty are all pretty compelling, and all pretty much damaged, as a result of the neurochemicals they have ingested — which is to say, they are all affected by, and embodied symptoms of, the novel’s ideas, which are themselves made real in the form of the drugs that the novel describes. The book’s main actor, if I can put it that way, is a drug called Numinous on the street (though it has other, more official, names). It was developed by the protagonist, Lyda Rose, and her collaborators in a small start-up; the idea was to make a drug that would enhance feelings of well-being by promoting the growth of neurons in the temporal lobe. The drug works extraordinarily well on mice; but when human beings take it, it turns out that the way it enhances feelings of well-being is by generating a hallucination of God. The drug’s stimulation of the temporal lobe is similar to what happens in cases of epilepsy. The user experiences the vision, voice, and feeling of a Deity who has a close personal relationship with him or her, assuring him/her that he/she is loved and cared for, and has a place in the cosmos. Each person has a different vision of God, but these Gods all appear to them as absolutely physically real, despite being invisible and inaudible to anyone else. (Though the novel does not reference this in particular, I was immediately reminded of Julian Jaynes‘ thesis that, as recently as Homeric times, people literally heard voices in their heads, which really were one brain hemisphere “speaking” to the other, but which they took to be the voices of gods.

One problem with the drug is that you become emotionally dependent upon it — if you can’t get it anymore, it feels as if God has abandoned you — which is extremely depressing and can lead to suicide. Another problem, it turns out, is that if you have an extreme overdose of the drug, the God hallucination becomes permanent. For most of the novel, Lyda Rose is torn between her absolute and unshakeable emotional conviction of the truth of her personal God, and her knowledge that this is just a neurochemical effect (backed up with her Dawkins-esque intellectual certitude that religion can never be anything more than such an effect. She argues with her personal God, telling her that she (her God-version is a female angel) is nothing more a mental projection; but she also cannot do without the help and reassurances given to her by this God (who tells her at one point that Dawkins and Hitchens have been sent to Hell), and at times even experiences her God’s actions as physically efficacious. 

Anyway, all this is tied in — as how could it not be? — with business and political implications. Lyda and her partners in the startup quarrel about selling their company (which seems to be on the verge of success due to Numinous) to a major pharmaceutical firm. It is at a party celebrating the sale, which will make them all millionaires, that the partners are all blasted by an overdose of Numinous. They are all pretty much fucked up by their permanent condition of unasked for religious ecstasy. There’s also a baby who is dosed with Numinous in the womb. The present-time events of the novel take place ten years later; they have to do with picking up the pieces of shattered lives, and also with the ongoing question of major corporations peddling these drugs despite their questionable side effects. 

As the plot advances, we encounter other victims of other designer neurochemicals. There’s Clarity, a drug that enhances your ability to recognize patterns when sifting through vast quantities of data, by stimulating neural growth in the prefrontal cortex. This drug is taken, with official encouragement, by analysts working for the NSA. The trouble is, that Clarity also foments paranoia, by leading the user to infer patterns that do not actually exist. There’s also a drug used to treat victims of post-traumatic stress syndrome; when taken in high enough doses, it reduces qualms and emotional difficulties enough that the user can act as a remorseless contract killer. All these drugs have their antagonists, which however have equally bad side effects. When Lyda is hospitalized, her religious visions are neutralized by anti-epileptics; the paranoid effects of Clarity are nullified by anti-psychotics that make it difficult for the patient to recognize any patterns at all (including the shapes of bodies and familiar objects). 

All of this highlights the radical contingency of our mental states; the novel also contains discussions of what “free will” can possibly mean under such conditions. In a way, Afterparty presents us with a 21st-century version of the old Cartesian dilemma. Even in an age where we have definitively discredited any dualism, and established beyond doubt that the mind is entirely physical — because we can in fact manipulate it physically — I am still left with the actuality of inner experience, which is full and efficacious regardless of my intellectual knowledge that it has no objective validity, but is generated entirely by neurochemical processes. It may well be, the novel suggests, that the experiences generated by Numinous make us both more capable and more empathetic, and therefore better people (this would remain the case even if Dawkins and Hitchens are right about the pernicious effects of organized religion). Such a possibility will not seem strange or ridiculous to anyone who has taken LSD or other mind-altering chemicals. Afterparty doesn’t give us any political or philosophical answers; but it suggests that the age of brain manipulation is rapidly approaching, and cannot be averted; and it at least suggests that brain self-manipulations might be workable from below, on an individual or microsocial basis, rather than only being imposed from above, by government security agencies and large corporations. There are no panaceas here, and no seamless alterations of (either inner or outer) reality without unforeseeable and uncontrollable side effects; but Gregory’s vision is not as grim as that of Scott Bakker in Neuropath.