Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

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.

Dark Eden

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Chris Beckett’s superb SF novel Dark Eden, which won the Arthur C Clarke Award last year, has finally been published in the United States. I wrote briefly about it on this blog a while ago; but now that it is generally available here, I thought I should present the longer version of my comments, which I presented at several conferences, but which I have not previously published. So here goes.

Chris Beckett’s science fiction novel Dark Eden was published in 2012. It won the 2013 Arthur C. Clarke award for the best science fiction novel published in the UK in the previous year. Beckett has been publishing science fiction for more than two decades, but this is the first time that he has received any widespread recognition. Dark Eden is Beckett’s third novel; he is also the author of two volumes of short stories. Mother of Eden, a sequel to Dark Eden taking place two hundred years later in the same world, will be published by the end of 2014.

Dark Eden can best be described as a book about deferred and repeated origins. Needless to say, this phrasing is paradoxical, or even oxymoronic. An origin is what comes first. If it is deferred or repeated, then it really isn’t an origin after all. In these late-postmodernist times – after Derrida and Baudrillard, and in a culture dominated by remixes and remakes – we have of course become accustomed to such self-contradictory twists. The result of this is often a kind of smug cynicism. Either we pass off the-origin-that-is-not-one as an inevitable deconstructionist double bind; or else, we cite it “in quotation marks,” and laugh, ostentatiously registering the irony that any such claim to originality is instantly disqualified by the very fact of having been made in the first place.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that these sorts of doubts and qualifications really apply in the case of Dark Eden. For I think that the book – like many of the most adventurous cultural productions of the last few years – is thoroughly post-ironic. This means that it registers a full awareness of the ironic circumstances that I have mentioned; but it takes them as a beginning-point rather than an end-point. In other words, Chris Beckett takes seriously the condition of living with factitious and always-deferred origins; he sees this condition, not of a loss of some mythical wholeness or authenticity, but as itself the ground of our situatedness.

In Dark Eden, therefore, Chris Beckett tells us the story of an origin that we already know to be a repetition and a regression. The title of the novel is both literal and metaphorical. It presents us with a sort of minor-key paradise, one that is diminished from the outset, because it is devoid of light. And the novel does indeed recount a Fall from this paradise: a descent from myth into history, or from a state of Edenic harmony and stasis into one of violence, rupture, betrayal, and dynamic change. But the starting Edenic situation is itself already a state of loss from which some sort of redemption is ardently desired; and the rupturing of this situation is itself driven by a kind of utopian impulse. Chris Beckett casts a cold eye on all sides of these tangled alternatives. He has no nostalgia for a lost paradise; but he also refuses to idealize the logic of progression or development, or to ignore the human costs of what we now, at a much later state of our own history, call “creative destruction.”

Another way to put this is to say that Dark Eden views both the “primitive” and the “advanced” states of humankind retrospectively, through a kind of inverted science-fictional extrapolation. I use this term advisedly. Science fiction as a genre doesn’t really claim to predict the future. Rather, it works by extrapolating from elements of our actual world. It takes trends and tendencies that are already at work in the world around us, and imagines what might happen if these trends and tendencies were able to develop to the utmost, and to unfold their full potential. We might say that science fiction presents us with a world that “real, but not actual” – which is Gilles Deleuze’s definition of what he calls the virtual. Instead of telling us what the future will actually be like – something that is impossible to do, for the future always surprises us – science fiction portrays and develops those elements of potentiality, or indeed of futurity, that already exist in the present moment. It takes the implicit and makes it explicit; it unrolls and reveals that which exists in a cryptic and undeveloped form.

In this way, science fiction can be both utopian and dystopian. This alternative is a both/and, rather than an exclusive either/or. Science fiction can register the full horror of the social and physical conditions under which we live, in a way that a purely mimetic account could not. But it can also register the utopian seeds of hope – the possibilities of difference and transformation – that are also buried within the present moment. It can nourish these seeds, and allow them to grow, to come to bloom in their full vibrant and monstrous glory. In this way, science fiction offers us what might be called, following Deleuze, as a counter-actualization of the present moment. Even at its most negative, science fiction still embodies what Ernst Bloch called Das Prinzip Hoffnung (The Principle of Hope).

Because of the way that it concretizes futurity – or that which, in the present, is real but not actual – science fiction always demands to be taken literally. Any successful work of science fiction produces a powerful reality-effect. We cannot take its descriptions only as allegories or metaphors. We also need to accept them as factual conditions that have unavoidably been given to us – or to the characters in the world of the novel. In speaking of givenness, I am trying to suggest that these conditions both display to us their contingency or arbitrariness, and at the same time stare us directly in the face with their inescapable, ineluctable actuality.

It is only by reading a science fiction novel literally that we can unlock its visions of the difference and otherness that is paradoxically already contained within the here and now. A science fiction narrative presents us with contingencies that we must accept as factual, but which are also sharply different from our own actual conditions of existence. In doing this, it both underlines the sheer contingency of everything that we take for granted, and provides us with strange alternatives to this taken-for-grantedness. We are led, on the one hand, to envision possible alternatives to the world that we live in, and on the other, to feel the arbitrary and circumstantial – or genealogical, in the sense of the word used by Nietzsche and Foucault – sources of our own embededness.

Dark Eden fits well into the schema that I have just described. But it also complicates this schema somewhat, because it projects towards a future in which we recapitulate our past. The novel reflects upon the ways in which the past, no less than the future, is “real but not actual,” or unexpressed by implicitly at work, in our present. Dark Eden can therefore be described as a work of speculative anthropology. It follows, not only in the tradition of science fictional elaborations of lost or counterfactual social formations, but even more in the tradition of nineteenth-century ethnographic speculation. While Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals, 1887) is probably the best-known of these works today, I am thinking even more of such books as Johann Jakob Bachofen’s Das Mutterrecht (Mother-Right, 1861), Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society (1877), and above all Friedrich Engels’ Der Ursprung der Familie, des Privateigenthums und des Staats (The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, 1884), which draws upon both of these previous works. I don’t think that historians today regard any of these texts as reliable reconstructions of what actually happened in humanity’s pre-literate past; nonetheless, these books still have value as instruments of speculation, detaching us from taking our present contingencies too much for granted.

Dark Eden, of course, engages these themes somewhat differently, as it an explicit work of twenty-first-century science fiction. But this means that it is overtly conscious of, and directly reflects back upon, its own belated position in relation to these earlier texts. Chris Beckett’s speculative anthropology – with its story of tainted origins – does not claim to tell us who and what we really (deeply and truly) are. Rather, it leads us to recognize the contingencies and bifurcations – but also the fatal chains of cause and consequence – that have made us into what we are, and that both limit and allow for what we might become. The novel might well have taken as its motto Marx’s dictum that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” In Dark Eden, this even applies – on a meta-level – to the emergence of history itself.

Dark Eden is set on a dark planet, one that does not circle any sun. Such a situation of course has deep allegorical significance. We are given a “dark,” or diminished, version of our supposed Edenic origins. And this visceral darkness is also a condition of extreme isolation. But if the novel also cries out to be taken literally, this is the case above all because Beckett is so meticulous in his science-fictional world-building. The planet called “Eden,” on which the book takes place, is an orphan, a dark body, a wanderer. It is alone in the cosmos, without a sun, without moons or other planets, and even without a galaxy. Eden seems to be located somewhere beyond the confines of the Milky Way. On the rare occasions that the sky is free of clouds and fog, the inhabitants are able to see what they call the “Starry Swirl”: apparently this is our own galaxy, not viewed from within as we observe it, but seen from the outside, in its full spiraling glory.

As Eden lacks a sun, its sole energy source is geothermal. Heat arises from deep within its core. This warms the surface to Earth-like temperatures. The gravity, too, seems to be Earth-normal, and the planet has an Earth-like atmosphere, and plenty of water. Evidently, there are no seasons, since the causes that would give rise to them are absent.The lower altitudes of the planet’s surface are warm and fertile. Plant and animal life forms have evolved, using geothermal energy for fuel. Of course, the planet’s tree- and other plant-analogues do not photosynthesize. Rather, they pump up heat from deep beneath the planet’s surface, providing themselves with energy and warmth. This activity drives the ecosystem as a whole. Animals do not have any internal sources of heat, but they bask in the warmth provided by the ground and by trees. They either forage on the plant life, or prey upon other animals.

These native lifeforms also provide the planet with a certain amount of light. The plants’ flowers contain “lanterns,” as do the horns of animals. Of course, nothing here can rival the brilliance of sunlight back on Earth; the inhabitants of Eden recite legends about how the Sun of Earth was “so bright that it would burn out your eyes if you stared at it” – something that they are unable to directly imagine. But the forests and valleys of Eden are illuminated with a soft perpetual glow, more than sufficient for the people to see, and to find their way.

At the higher elevations, however, “with no trees to give off light with their lanternflowers or to warm the air with their trunks,” everything is “dark dark” and “cold cold.” Valleys are separated from one another by nearly impassable snowy ridges and mountain ranges. Once you get up past the treeline, the only light comes from the Starry Swirl’s distant glimmer – at least on those rare occasions when the sky is clear.

A small number of human beings live in this dark and diminished paradise, in what we might call, without too much of a stretch, an artificial but nonetheless actual “state of nature.” There are five hundred or so people altogether, all huddled together in one small valley. These people live in what they call a single (capital-F) Family, subdivided into eight “groups” or tribes. The people all work together, and equally share their food and other goods. Everyday life rests mostly upon the guidance of customs and myths. There are few explicit laws, and most decisions are made by consensus. Authority, such as it is, resides in the hands of the elders, and particularly the women.

All in all, therefore, the society in place at the start of Dark Eden is something like the matriarchal “primitive communism” described by Morgan, Bachofen, and Engels. This is especially evident in the peoples’ sexual practices and gender relations. “Having a slip” – the term the people on Eden use for having sex – is a frequent and quite casual activity. There are some rules about sexual activity – all sex must be consensual, and sex between very near relatives, or between older men and adolscent women, is discouraged. But these rules don’t really have the sense of prohibitions or taboos; they are more or less taken for granted by everyone, so that there is no allure of transgressing them. In consequence of this easy sexuality, there is no monogamy, no sense of anything like a nuclear family, and no “ownership” of wives by husbands. Children are raised collectively; they retain ties with their mothers and their maternal siblings and cousins, but most of the time they do not even know who their fathers were.

However, at the same time that Beckett presents us with a primordial social form, he also forces us to remain aware that these are not “true” human origins. It’s more a question of something like a degraded copy, or a blurred repetition. Eden was discovered by astronauts from Earth, who reached it by passing through a wormhole in space. All the human inhabitants are descended from a founding heterosexual couple, who were stranded on the planet’s surface two hundred Earth years before. (Of course, the concept of “years” makes no sense on a planet that doesn’t orbit a star, and doesn’t have days and nights, or seasons. The younger inhabitants tend to measure the passage of time in “wombtimes,” or the period – nine Earth-standard months – from conception to birth).

The legendary, long-deceased astronauts Tommy and Angela are the Adam and Eve of this lesser Eden. Tommy was a Jewish man from Brooklyn; Angela, a black woman from London. We gather that they didn’t particularly like one another; but as the sole human beings on the planet, they felt impelled to be fruitful and multiply. Generations later, their memories of life on Earth, and their story of how they came to be stranded in Eden, persist among the Family in distorted form. This founding narrative is supplemented by a salvational one: the tale of the other three astronauts who arrived with Tommy and Angela, but then tried to return to Earth on their damaged starship. They were supposed to get help, so that Tommy and Angela could be rescued. Part of what holds the Family together is their quasi-religious belief that one day a spaceship will in fact arrive, in order to transport them back to the bright light of Earth. All these legends are passed down through frequent tellings and reenactments. Gossip grown old becomes myth, as Stanislaw Lec and Harold Bloom have said; such is literally the case for the Family in Eden.

In any case, the people of Eden live diminished lives, compared to their Earth-born ancestors. They are hunter-gatherers, who eke out their lives at a subsistence level. They have lost many Earth technologies. They do not know how to find, process, or use metals. They have no modern medicine, no long-distance communication devices, and no electricity. Also, a good number of them suffer from birth defects, as a result of the lack of genetic diversity: harelips and club feet are common.

What we have in Dark Eden, therefore, is a sort of self-consciously artificial primitivism. I think that this self-consciousness and artificiality deserve underlining. Recent accounts of so-called “evolutionary psychology” have claimed that “human nature” consists in instincts and capabilities that evolved over the course of the Pleistocene, during the time that our distant ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers, when they first evolved into anatomically modern human beings. Moreover, evolutionary psychology often argues from observations of low-technology hunter-gatherers alive today, as if such people were living fossils, closer than anyone else to the condition of primordial humanity.

Of course this is nonsense, since all human beings alive today are equally “evolved” and equally “historical.” There is no such thing as a “primitive tribe” whose lifestyle has not been deeply affected by contact with Europeans and other groups that have more powerful technologies. The Yanomami are no closer to human origins than are hipsters from Brooklyn. Beckett underlines this fact by presenting his “primitives” as, precisely, descendants of high-technology cosmopolitians from Brooklyn and London.

The 19th-century speculative anthropology of Morgan, Bachofen, and Engels has often been rejected – from their own time right up into ours – on the grounds that it is nothing more than wishfully romanticized backward projection. In a certain way, Beckett literalizes this critique, since the whole point about his “primitives” is that are not really originary. But the novel also suggests that speculative anthropolgy does have value, precisely to the extent that it is understood as a retrospective projection – which is to say, already as science fiction. In this sense, Beckett’s novel presents itself as a heuristic parable, that helps us to understand our own present, precisely by retrospectively extrapolating it. And it encourages us to understand the texts of Morgan, Bachofen, and Engels in the same way. What I am calling speculative anthropology works, above all, as a necessary riposte to the “just-so stories” of evolutionary psychology. We might say that Engels and Chris Beckett both tell better stories than, say, Steven Pinker, or Leda Cosmides and John Toobey, do; but also that Engels and Beckett, precisely because they are aware that they making retrospective projections, do not commit the evolutionary-psychological error of reading the neoliberal model of Homo economicus back into all of evolutionary history.

Dark Eden, like many SF texts, doesn’t give us any omniscient narration. We infer what the world of the story is like from the voices of narrators who are embedded within it and take it for granted. The storytelling of Dark Eden is divided among eight first-person narrators, who all give their own differing perspectives on the events they recount. In the course of the book, we get to know both their common linguistic conventions, and their divergent interests and desires. The characters’ language is especially interesting, as it reflects the constrained conditions under which these people live. There are odd constructions, like the repetition of adjectives (as in “dark dark” and “cold cold”) to indicate intensity. There is the corruption of words that only appear in the myths, and that refer to things that the inhabitants no longer possess: such as “Veekle” (for “vehicle”) and “lecky-trickity” (for “electricity”). And there is the development of neologisms like “wombtime” and “slip” (both already mentioned) and “newhairs” for “adolscents.” All these help to draw us further into the world of the novel.

This divergences among the narrators, on the other hand, helps to convey the way that Eden’s small society splinters in the course of the novel. The society’s center fails to hold. One index of this general collapse – much more a symptom than a cause – is itself the end of common assent to the Family’s mythical narrative. People stop believing both in the value, here and now, of a communal life, and in the promise of an ultimate salvific return to earth.

In this way, Dark Eden recounts what in other language could be called the “fall” of humanity from a primitive-communist “state of nature” into a more explicitly “historical” situation. This “fall” is the result of a number of pressures. The most important factor, though it is only presented obliquely in the text, seems to be a quite material one: environmental stress. The Family lives in one small valley, and as their numbers expand, they find themselves overexploiting and depleting their limited resources. Animals become scarcer and harder to catch. This stress magnifies the effect of adolescent – particularly male adolescent – restlessness, and serves to awaken a certain drive against tradition, and in favor of innovation. Through these factors, we see in Beckett’s novel, just as we do in Engels’ treatise, the recapitulated “origins” of nascent inequality. (The novel, however is more limited in scope than Engels’ account – it hints at, but does not go long enough in time to depict, the emergence of the full-fledged institutions of the family, private property, and the state).

The most important of the book’s narrators, and the one who comes closest to being a central protagonist, is John Redlantern, a restless “newhair.” John feels the strain of limited and decreasing resources, and he feels stifled by the Family’s conservative adherence to tradition. After coolly and deliberately desecrating the Family’s central symbols, he leaves with his (also “newhair”) followers, in order to establish a new social order elsewhere. Their exodus requires, and thereby leads to, an energetic burst of social and technolgical innovation. John and his followers learn to domesticate the planet’s native fauna; they devise new means of transportation; and they manage to produce warm clothing, which nobody ever needed before, but which they require in order to cross the dark, snowy mountains in search of another fertile region.

In the course of the novel we get a lot of John’s inner feelings. He is genuinely imaginative and innovative, able to imagine alternatives and escape routes where others aren’t even capable of realizing that there are problems in the first place. But he is also a bit of a control freak, continually calculating and manipulating the image he projects to others. He wants things to change, but he also has a compulsion to lead, and doesn’t like to see anyone else take the initiative. John’s character type is what, in our own late-capitalist social setting, would be that of an entrepreneur; but in a world without money, and with very different conditions and institutions, he channels his drives and ambitions quite differently.

John’s most important ally, but also sometime rival, is his cousin Jeff Redlantern. Jeff suffers from a club foot, one of the stigamtized (though all too common) conditions in the world of Eden. Jeff could also be described – to use terms that apply in our own world, but that do not exist in his – as a person who is located somewhere along the autistic spectrum. Jeff is original and inventive in ways that even John is unable to imagine; but he has none of John’s ambitions to lead, or to manipulate and control the way he appears to others.

Tina Spiketree is another particularly important narrator – and the novel’s most prominent female character. She is a “newhair” the same age as John, and there is a mutual attraction between them. But she is also the most “objective” and insightful of all the characters in the novel, the one who is most able to see beyond her own immediate interests. She coolly observes John’s flaws and compulsions, as well as his charismatic appeal. She is aware, for instance, that John is “scared” of her, or of anyone else whom he might have to treat as an “equal” instead of a follower or hanger-on. Tina understands the urgent need for change in Eden’s society more powerfully than anyone else, even more than John himself. But she is also more aware than anyone else of the problems that come along with innovation and change.

Tina is especially aware of a dangerous tipping point in gender relations. She knows that John’s necessary initiatives will also result in bad times for women. “The time of men [is] coming,” she reflects at one point; “in this new, broken-up world it would be the men that would get ahead.” This new inequality also means that having sex will no longer be entirely consensual on both sides; “a time was coming,” she reflects, when a man would be able to “do to me whatever he pleased and whenever he felt like it, with whichever bit of my body he chose.”

Tina, of course, turns out to be correct in this grim assessment. John’s own compulsions toward leadership lead to stresses among his friends and followers. At the same time, in response to John’s secession from the Family, the group of those who stay behind also changes. The older women are eased out of the picture by a group of angry, bigoted, and self-righteously moralistic men who seek to take violent revenge upon the defectors. Almost without anyone’s concrete awareness of what is going on, the portion of the Family that stays behind moves rapidly from an egalitarian matriarchy to what seems like the beginnings of a violent, militaristic, and hierarchical patriarchal order. The conflict between John’s group and the remnants of the original Family also leads, among other things, to the (re)invention of rape and murder, which previously had been unknown on Eden.

Chris Beckett, like Engels before him, is aware of how the state of a given society’s gender relations, in addition to being of concern in itself, is also an index, and a harbinger, of social relations more generally. And Beckett’s narrative also works to demonstrate how gender hierarchies cannot be read off directly from genetic differences between men and women, as today’s evolutionary psychologists like to claim, but have to emerge in the course of complicated developments that cannot be separated into supposedly “innate” and “cultural” components.

In summary: Dark Eden offers us a speculative reconstruction of human origins; but it also forcibly calls our attention to the way that this “origin” is not a true beginning, since it remains parasitic upon the legacies of previous human social developments. Marx famously observed that Robinson Crusoe does not really build civilization from scratch; he starts out with both his already-ingrained bourgeois assumptions, and the large amount of material that he is able to salvage from the shipwreck that threw him on his island. Dark Eden makes this structure of antecedence entirely explicit: the lives of all the human beings on the planet are dominated by a kind of social memory, in the form of the myths, legends, gossip, and practices that have been handed down to them from the founding couple’s reminiscences of life on Earth, and which they cannot help responding to, whether reverently or rebelliously.

There is no true origin, therefore, but only a repetition or “adaptation” (using this word both in the literary sense and in the biological one). The realm of myth is itself the consequence of historical contingency. Dark Eden is an unsettling book, not just because it offers a pessimistic and nonutopian account of human potentialities, but also because it strips this very account of any mythic, originary authority, and places it instead in a context of chance, arbitrariness and existential fragility. In the course of the history recounted in the novel, the form of society and technological development that we take for granted is first dismantled, and then partly built up again.

Beckett’s historical reconstruction isn’t particulalry gratifying, or flattering to our own self-conceptions. But as a thought experiment, it has several particular virtues. One is that it demonstrates the contingent emergence of the very gender binaries that, today, despite the past half-century of feminist activism, we still cannot help taking for granted. Another is that it imagines the way that power relations might function, and potentially change, in the absence of anything like capitalism: in a world without money, commodities, regimented production, surplus extraction, and wealth accumulation. It imagines a world that comes before such activities arise, but also after they have been dissipated.

Bats, Dogs, and Posthumans

Sunday, December 22nd, 2013

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


What is it like to be a bat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Friday, October 26th, 2012

I have just submitted a proposal to give a talk on the SF novel Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett.

Here it is:

Chris Beckett’s novel Dark Eden is not literally an adaptation, but in fact it “adapts” and rewrites a number of foundational Western texts regarding the origins of human society and civilization. Its sources range from the Book of Genesis, through Robinson Crusoe, and on to major 18th- and 19th-century works of social theory by such prominent thinkers as Rousseau, Bachofen, Nietzsche, and Engels.

The novel is set on a dark planet, one that does not circle any sun. The only energy source is geothermal, arising deep within the planet’s core. Plant and animal life forms have evolved, using this energy for fuel. “Trees” and other plants draw up heat energy from deep beneath the planet’s surface, and provide the ecosystem with warmth and light. Animals either forage on this plant life, or prey upon other animals.

A small number of human beings — five hundred or so — live on this planet; they are all descendents of a founding heterosexual couple, astronauts who were stranded on the planet, unable to return to Earth. The novel deals mostly with the social organization of this group. At first they live in a tightly-bound, matriarchal, “primitive,” and more or less egalitarian society. But in the course of the book we witness the splintering of this society: a “fall” from a putative “state of nature” into a more “historical” situation.

This “fall” is the result of a number of pressures: most importantly, environmental stress (as a result of overexploitation of limited resources), and the frequent appearance of detrimental recessive genetic traits (cleft palate and clubfoot) due to the restricted nature of the gene pool, combined with adolescent restlessness, and a certain drive against tradition and in favor of innovation.

The consequences of this “fall” include the “invention” of rape and murder, the transition from egalitarian matriarchy to hierarchical patriarchy, a growing tension and discordance between generations, as well as between men and women, and an energetic burst of exploration and technological invention.

In recounting these developments, the novel gives us an updated version of what I would like to call speculative anthropology. Following the classical thinkers I have already mentioned (Rousseau on the origins of inequality; Nietzsche on the origins of morality; Bachofen and Engels on the origins of family structures and differentiated gender roles), Chris Beckett speculates about “primitive” society and the development of the social institutions that today we take far too readily for granted.

I call Beckett’s “adaptation” of these sources an updated one, however, for several reasons. In the first place, Dark Eden is definitely “hard” science fiction; it revises the famous mythological and philosophical accounts upon which it draws in the light of our contemporary understanding of Darwinian constraints. In the second place, Dark Eden forcibly calls our attention to the way that the “origin” it recounts is not a true beginning, but remains parasitic upon previous human social developments. Marx famously observed that Robinson Crusoe does not really build civilization from scratch; he starts out with both his already-ingrained bourgeois assumptions, and the large amount of material that he is able to salvage from the shipwreck that threw him on his island. Dark Eden makes this structure of antecedence entirely explicit: the lives of all the human beings on the planet are dominated by a kind of social memory, in the form of the myths, legends, gossip, and practices that have been handed down to them from the founding couple’s reminiscences of life on Earth.

There is no true origin, therefore, but only a repetition or “adaptation” (using this word both in the literary sense and in the biological one). The realm of myth is itself the consequence of historical contingency. Dark Eden is an unsettling book, not just because it offers a pessimistic and nonutopian account of human potentialities, but also because it strips this very account of any mythic, originary authority, and places it instead in a context of chance, arbitrariness and existential fragility.

Streaming of Talk: Thinking Blind

Monday, August 6th, 2012

A video of my talk in Rio de Janeiro last week is now up on youtube: