Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Echopraxia

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–

Understand.

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.

BATS, DOGS, AND POSTHUMANS

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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KAVMc_AzC00

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Friday, May 25th, 2012

Samuel R. Delany’s new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is over 800 pages, which makes it the longest book he has ever written (even longer than Dhalgren). It is also one of the best novels by anyone that I have read in quite a long time. Indeed, I would go so far as to say (as I already put it on Twitter) that it is the best English-language novel that I know of, of the 21st century so far.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders tells the story of Eric Jeffers and his life partner Morgan “Shit” Haskell. Eric is white, though he has been brought up mostly by his black stepfather; Shit is black, though he has been brought up mostly by his white father. We meet Eric and Shit when they first meet, as teenagers; and we follow them for seventy years, until extreme old age. The location is a kind of backwater, a (fictional) small town on the Georgia coast, with little going on economically except for the summer tourist trade. The novel starts more or less in the present, in 2007 when Eric is just a few days shy of his 17th birthday; and it ends in the 2080s, when Eric is in his nineties. To a degree, the novel is science-fictional; we hear of future cultural ferment (the 2030s sound a lot like a freer and more advanced 1960s), of changes in social mores (though homophobia hasn’t disappeared, same-sex marriages are legal everywhere, and pretty much taken for granted); of terrorist nuclear attacks, of colonies on the Moon and Mars, of gas-free automobiles, of new telepresence and virtual reality technologies, and so on. But all of this happens in the background, and only affects the main characters at second hand (as they live their lives in a backwater, and are largely unconcerned with contemporary media). The emphasis remains firmly on the uneventful happenings of everyday life.

There’s an enormous amount of sex in the book — on a level that at least equals that of The Mad Man, and that is only matched within Delany’s oeuvre by his early “pornographic” novels, Hogg and Equinox. The book is therefore very much of a hybrid — between what might be called mainstream literary ambitions, and those of the two “paraliterary” genres (as Delany has called them in his critical writing) pronography and science fiction. It remains to be seen how this will affect the book’s overall reception. Its ambitions, and its achievements, are immense in ways that recall, and equal, the great novels of the 19th and 20th centuries; but it differs from these because, most notably, its pages are filled with so much gay sex.

Delany’s writing of sex is itself one of the most noteworthy, powerful, and original things about the novel. There is a stylistics to it that already appeared in The Mad Man, but that is brought to a pitch of perfection here. I don’t know how to explain it except to say that Delany is the most materialist fiction writer I have ever encountered. His evocation of sex is very much of a piece with his evocation of other sorts of sensuous details of life and experience. Delany’s autobiography is called The Motion of Light in Water, and descriptions of shimmerings and shadings, of delicate preceptual differentiations, and indeed specifically of sunlight reflecting off the waves at the seashore, are quite prevalent in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, as in many of Delany’s texts. And these are not so different from his descriptions of bodily/sexual sensations. In the present book, Delany gives us an intensely vivid, sensual  and materially thick description of “bodies and pleasures” (to use a phrase from Foucault). A wide range of sexual acts among men are described: from sucking and penetration to snot-eating and piss-drinking, to masturbation and nail-biting (something that comes up in many of Delany’s novels), to various sorts of voyeuristic arousal, to the enjoyment of funky body odors, to just plain cuddling. The only thing uniting them is that they are all exclusively among males, and that they are all consensual.

Although the explicitness of the sexual descriptions in Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders certainly qualifies as “pornographic”, the ethos of Delany’s sex-writing is vastly different from what is commonly understood either about “pornography” or about its more respectable upscale cousin “erotica.” Some readers will find parts of Delany’s descriptions arousing, and others will not — there is no way to assume just who the “reader” is, after all; but in either case the point is much more to describe the arousal of the characters undergoing these acts, than it is to produce arousal in the (ideal or actual) reader. Another way to put this is to say that — even if the sheer plethora of available sexual acts in the world of the novel is something of a fantasy (or better, a fairy tale) — the orientation of the sex-writing is towards desire-fulfilled-as-bodily-pleasure, rather than towards the fantasy of desire-projected-beyond, or desire-that-exceeds-any-possibility-of-fulfillment. It’s desire as concrete production of affects, as in Spinoza, rather than desire as “lack” (as in Hegel and Lacan). We have multiple, concretely- and bodily-rooted arousals and satisfactions, rather than some furious drive towards some infinitude (whether of repletion or of self-annihilation). The characters often speak of doing “nasty” stuff, but there is no sense of (say) Bataille’s transgression or Genet’s willed abjection. I myself regard Bataille and Genet as among the greatest writers of the old past century; but I think it’s important to see that Delany is doing something new and different here, something that is as far from such 20th century art pornography as it is from more commercial (straight or gay) pornography.

Delany’s descriptions/evocations of multiple bodily arousals and pleasures also shade into descriptions or evocations of interpersonal relations, or of what is sometimes called “community” (a word I resist, because it has censorious implications in many contexts; but I cannot find a better word here). The sexual acts that Delany describes also involve, and create, forms of affiliation between people. These affiliations are grounded in bodily pleasures, in the pleasures of sharing, and in the multiple ways that people can find mutually enabling forms of contact. It’s a vision of both bodily desire, and human sympathy or being-together, that seems to me in an odd way more reminiscent of the utopian socialist Charles Fourier than it is of Freud. Each person’s particular twists of desire are what enlivens him or her, without having to be “accounted for,” or matched to any norms—so that they are entirely singular and autonomous to but also with the open, outward-looking potentiality of creating affinities with other people who have similar and/or complementary desires (someone who likes to drink piss meets someone who likes to piss in other people’s mouths; and in turn they meet someone else who likes to watch this . . .). With all these singularities of desire, nobody is ever drearily “the same” as anybody else; but also, with the widening circles of these singularities, everyone is likely to find at least some other people with whom to share at least something that moves, excites, or arouses them. It is in the midst of such continual fluctuating action that Eric and Shit, and also some of the other couples or threesomes (or more-than-threesomes) that we meet in the course of the novel must negotiate, both their primary emotional relationships with one another, and their sexual-emotional engagements, of various longer or shorter durations, with other people as well.

With all this, I don’t mean to imply that the novel is only about sex. It is about sex overwhelmingly, but it is also about lots of other things. The key point is that sex is part of the everydayness of Eric’s and Shit’s lives, and of the world they share. What really makes the novel so powerful is the sheer accumulation of incidents and everyday habits in Eric’s and Shit’s lives, over some 800 pages, or over the 70 years that they live together. There is lots of repetition, but also all sorts of subtle modulations of perception, habit, interest, and desire. As the characters get older, the sex diminishes, and also our sense of time gets changed — so that longer periods of time seem to pass more quickly. Reading the novel, we come to live and feel along with Eric and Shit, just because so much of their lives are given to us in the course of those 800 pages — we get the motifs and endless variations which are at the heart of what it means, for anyone, to “have a life.” It’s amazing to have this sort of feeling in a long book where, in a sense, “nothing happens” — there are no great deeds, no striving against mighty dangers, no special adventures — just the adventure which is the stuff of living itself, no matter how quietly and uneventfully. Eric and Shit are not important players in the history of the world, and they know that they are not. They spend twenty years as garbagemen, then thirteen years as managers of a porno movie theater, and finally forty-odd years as handymen on an island off the coast that has found semi-prosperity as a lesbian artists’ colony.

In all these settings, Eric and Shit do their work; they find both sexual (with other men) and simply social (with women) ways to associate with others and feel some sense of community; they have lots of fun (or sexual/sensual enjoyment); and also they strive to help other people when necessary, and to be kind to others, as much as possible. As Spinoza might put it, they work toward ever-greater compositions of positive affects. Indeed, Spinoza is something like the tutelary spirit of the novel. Around the middle of the book (or around the middle of Eric’s life), an older gay man gives Eric a copy of Spinoza’s Ethics; and for the rest of his life (or the rest of the novel), Eric reads this text over and over again. He originally finds it incomprehensible; but gradually he comes to make sense of it. We aren’t directly given Eric’s thoughts about Spinoza; but gradually we discern that the whole impulse and organization of Eric’s life, with his cultivation of positive affects, of widespread generosity, and of ever-widening affiliations with others, is very much a Spinozistic one.

And this leads me to the one major aspect of the novel that could be called “utopian,” or a “fantasy,” in the sense that (even more than wide general acceptance of the sexual acts portrayed throughout the book) it is something that, unfortunately, is scarcely imaginable in America today. Eric and Shit and their friends are able to lead the sorts of lives they do because they receive the discreet backing of the Kyle Foundation, an organization set up by a black gay millionaire, in order to give support to the lives of gay men of color. Because of the Foundation’s backing, Eric and Shit and their entire community have access, even when they are most poor and deprived, to living space and food and good medical care. Also, they encounter & suffer from far less homophobia and racism (though it of course remains present, and comes up at several points in the course of the novel) than would be the case in the “real” world as we know it today. In this way I think the novel suggests that the possibility of a humane life for all really depends upon at least this minimum of protection from the vagaries, not just of bigotry, but of “the market” as well. In effect, this makes the novel into an argument for socialism, as well as for the humane pleasures of nonprocreative sex. And this has something to do, in turn, with the kindness or generosity which is so big a feature of Eric’s life and actions, and is the ethos of the book as a whole.

By the end of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, I found my reading experience to be pretty much overwhelming. Over the course of the book, we get to know Eric and Shit as intimately, and as well, as we have ever gotten to know any of the great characters in the history of modern Western literature. I mean this less in the sense of “depth” than in that of breadth. (“Depth psychology” I think is overrated — and it is far rarer a thing to encounter, whether in “real life” or in novelistic and cinematic narratives, than we often suppose. Neither Hamlet, nor Raskolnikov, nor Leopold Bloom, nor Proust’s narrator have anything to do with depth psychology. They are all defined as rich characters by the range of the discourses and affiliations associated with them, as well as by the absence of any master key to who they are. This is what makes them so, well, lifelike). As we read Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, we gradually accumulate, around Eric and Shit, a wealth of perceptions and sensory impressions and likes and dislikes; of habits and wishes and preferences and physical inclinations; and also of affiliations and alliances, and points of both contact and distance — and it’s often hard (and not really relevant) to discern which of these are internal and which external, which are private, which are shared by the two of them, and which are shared more widely. And with this wealth of connections, with this broad web of feelings and meanings, particular new facts or meetings or happenings or encounters often take on a weight that they could not have just by themselves. Memories surprisingly return in full intensity; but they also weaken, wear away, become general instead of specific, fade or get confused. The latter parts of the novel are rich because of how they follow from, and draw upon, everything that has come before. But they also register a powerful poignancy that comes from people dying, from changes that cannot be reversed, and finally from the very experience of aging, with the gradual lessening of physical vigor and of sexual excitement; the novel goes into great detail on the facts of how getting old changes our relationship to the past, and even to what we most vividly remember.

I don’t know how to conclude this brief account except by reiterating how rich the novel is, and also how generous — in the sheer profusion of what it offers us as readers, and allows us to share. Conservative critics (I mean this both politically and aesthetically) often like to go on about universal values that great works of art are supposed to inculcate. But Delany confirms what Proust and Deleuze already knew: that the only “universality” worthy of the name is one that rejects bland generalities, and instead affirms and passes through the most singular of passions. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is not a book about capital-L Love, but rather one about two boys who fall in love with one another at least in part because they both so greatly enjoy chewing on their own, and each other’s, snot. Something like that might seem disconcerting for those of us (myself included) who are not snot-eaters — or simply for those of us who are not accustomed to talk about such things. But such are the details, or the singular affects, that are composed together to make up an actual life, as well as the fictional depiction of such a life. And it is this sense of actual life — not of something special or heroic or earthshattering, but just of a life — that Delany’s novel brings us.

Carl Freedman, The Age of Nixon

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

I am happy to report that Carl Freedman’s superb new book, The Age of Nixon: A Study in Cultural Power, is now in print from Zer0 Books and available for purchase. I wrote a blurb for this book, which appears on the inside front cover, and which I will reproduce here:

Richard Nixon was real, for all that he seems like a fictional character concocted in the course of some strange literary collaboration between Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Theodore Dreiser, and J. G. Ballard. And Nixon continues to fascinate us, and to haunt our dreams, even these many years after his death. Carl Freedman’s compelling book takes the full measure of Nixon the man, Nixon the media image, Nixon the myth, and even Nixon the ideal type, the quintessential expression, and the most capacious representative of the political and economic system under which we continue to live today.

So, admittedly, I am not a neutral observer with regards to this book. I have known Carl Freedman for something like thirty-six years (can it really be that long? — amazing), and during all that time we have shared a fascination (an obsession?) with Nixon and all things Nixonian.

I can also say that I grew up, as it were, with Nixon. My parents taught me Nixon-hatred from the cradle. Indeed, my parents actually knew (and I once met) Jerry Voorhis, a one-time Democratic Congressman from southern California who had the dubious honor of being the very first victim of a vicious Nixon smear campaign. 

Obviously, American politics today is far different from what it was in Nixon’s time: today, Nixon’s policies would place him far to the left of any of the current batch of Republican Presidential contenders, and in many respects to the left of Obama as well. But Nixon was both the architect (via his “Southern strategy”) of the current, horrifically reactionary political alignment, and the still-unsurpassed master (as well as, in some respects, the inventor) of the sort of over-the-top political sleaze that we take for granted today without so much as a second glance.

But whereas, for me, Nixon-analysis has all been just talk, Carl has actually sat down and written the book. Sifting patiently through vast quantities of Nixoniana, he has detailed “Nixon as the quintessential petty-bourgeois, as a man of ressentiment, as an example of the anal-erotic character, as anti-Semite, as racist.” But Carl also writes, to the disquiet of many who might agree with the preceding designations, of “Nixon as liberal”: which means that, in his very slipperiness and obsessive insistence upon the virtues of the supposed “even playing field”, Nixon signifies or embodies (I am not sure which word is better) an “essential emptiness…at the heart of liberalism,” an opportunism, together with an insistence on proceduralism rather than substantial values, which means that “liberalism, in actual psychological practice, can with fearful ease become the opposite of itself.” (Though I am quoting the book here, my scrambled summary comes off a bit too convoluted; it fails to convey the clarity and eloquence that the book has, if it is read straight through). 

All in all, Carl’s book drives us to the conclusion that everything horrific that Nixon did (or was) is “deeply rooted in American history and tradition.” Carl demonstrates that Nixon was (and still is) truly the “obscene supplement” (to use a Zizek phrase that Carl himself does not employ) of American optimism, idealism, and exceptionalism. I am tempted to put it this way. In the 19th century, writers like Poe and Melville revealed a disturbing underside to the great and beautiful idealisms of Emerson and Thoreau. These are the two sides of American culture, which actually run continuously with one another, and transform into one another, like the seeming two sides (which are really one) of a Moebius strip. Nixon was the 20th century living embodiment of this situation — which is why his twisted legacy continues to haunt us today. And this despite the fact that we live under a neoliberal economic regime far harsher than anything Nixon supported or imposed (remember that Nixon’s Keynesianism caused him to be denounced by Milton Friedman himself as a socialist).

Also — since I have just described Nixon in aesthetic terms, in relation to Emerson, Thoreau, Poe, and Melville — it is important to note that The Age of Nixon wonderfully contains an Epilogue discussing “Nixon in Art.” Carl is the first (to my knowledge) to point up the significance of the fact that Nixon figures prominently as a character in the works of a whole generation of American artists: novelists such as Robert Coover and Philip Roth, painters such as Philip Guston, filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Robert Altman, and even opera composers like John Adams. 

I doubt that Nixon can be as much an object of fascination to younger generations today as he always was to aging Boomers like myself, who actually grew up with him. But The Age of Nixon captures and explains this fascination, and also demonstrates how “the meaning of Richard Nixon” (by parallel with Badiou’s The Meaning of Sarkozy and Richard Seymour‘s The Meaning of David Cameron) remains, unfortunately, all too relevant for us today in the 21st century.

Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms

Friday, October 28th, 2011

My edited volume, Cognition and Decision in Nonhuman Biological Organisms, has just been published as part of the new Living Books About Life series from Open Humanities Press.

I’m excited about the entire Living Books About Life series. It represents a new form of collaboration between scientists and scholars in the humanities. And it is entirely open access as well. Each volume contains a number of crucial science articles, collected (or curated) and introduced by a humanities scholar.

My own volume covers topics such as “free will” in fruit flies, moods and emotional tones in bees, and more generally processes of affect, cognition, and decision found not just in animals, but in other sorts of organisms (trees, slime molds, bacteria) as well.

When the biologist and science fiction writer Joan Slonczewski, in her recent novel The Highest Frontier , envisions plants that display a sense of humor, and that can learn to resolve “Prisoners Dilemma” situations with mutual cooperation, she isn’t extrapolating all that much from what we actually already know about “mental” operations even in entities that have few or no neurons.