Bruce Robbins

The DeRoy Lecture Series presents:

Bruce Robbins
“Chomsky and Cosmopolitanism”

Friday, January 23, 3pm
English Department Conference Room, 10302, 5057 Woodward
Detroit, Michigan
Wayne State University

Bruce Robbins is Old Dominion Foundation Professor of the Humanities in the department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. He has also taught at the universities of Geneva and Lausanne in Switzerland and at Rutgers University, New Brunswick and has held visiting positions at Harvard, Cornell, and NYU. His most recent book is Upward Mobility and the Common Good (Princeton 2007). He is also the author of Feeling Global: Internationalism in Distress (1999), The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below (1986), and Secular Vocations: Intellectuals, Professionalism, Culture (1993) and is co-author of the Longman Anthology of World Literature (2003). He has edited Intellectuals: Aesthetics, Politics, Academics (1990) and The Phantom Public Sphere (1993) and co-edited (with Pheng Cheah) Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling beyond the Nation (1998). He was co-editor of the journal Social Text from 1991 to 2000 and is on the editorial board of boundary 2.


I am not sure whether this works at all, and at best it is extremely tentative, but I will post it anyway. I am trying to think about contemporary media celebrity, and how it is different from the kind of celebrity associated with movie stars in the early and middle twentieth century. I am writing this especially with Justin Timberlake and Asia Argento in mind, because they are the celebrities with whom I am most obsessed right now. But it should apply just as well to Brad and Angelina (and Jen), and to Britney and to Madonna.

In order to theorize this, I make use of Graham Harman‘s description of what he calls “allure.” But I should probably say that I am abusing Harman’s concept, rather than using it. I am abusing it, in the first place, because, even if I am getting his idea right (which I am not sure I am), I am trying to apply it in a particular historical context. This is wrong, because metaphysical notions, should be “generic,” as Whitehead puts it, or applicable equally to everything in existence. Harman is always driving home a similar point: for instance, to take seriously Heidegger’s ideas about our relation to Being means to reject the claim, which Heidegger sometimes makes, that Germans (unlike Chinese, Americans, or Brazilians, say) would have an especially privileged relationship with Being. In the second place, it’s wrong because Harman has recently rethought the account of allure that he gives in Guerrilla Metaphysics, and upon which I am drawing here.

Nevertheless, here goes…

Post-cinematic celebrities are perturbing presences. They circulate endlessly among multiple media platforms (film, television talk shows and reality shows, music videos and musical recordings and performances, charity events, advertisements and sponsorships, web- and print-based gossip columns, etc.), so that they seem to be everywhere and nowhere at once. Their ambivalent performances are at once affectively charged and ironically distant. They enact complex emotional dramas, and yet display a basic indifference and impassivity. I feel involved in every aspect of their lives, and yet I know that they are not involved in mine. Familiar as they are, they are always too far away for me to reach. Even the Schadenfreude I feel at the spectacle of, say, Britney’s breakdown or Madonna’s divorce backhandedly testifies to these stars’ inaccessibility. I am enthralled by their all-too-human failures, miseries, and vulnerabilities, precisely because they are fundamentally inhuman and invulnerable. They fascinate me, precisely because it is utterly impossible that they should ever acknowledge, much less reciprocate, my fascination.

In short, post-cinematic pop stars allure me. Graham Harman describes allure as “a special and intermittent experience in which the intimate bond between a thing’s unity and its plurality of notes somehow partly disintegrates.” For Harman, the basic ontological condition is that objects always withdraw from us, and from one another. We are never able to grasp them more than partially. They always hold their being in reserve, a mystery that we cannot hope to plumb. An object is always more than the particular qualities, or “plurality of notes,” that it displays to me. This situation is universal; but most of the time I do not worry about it. I use a knife to cut a grapefruit, without wondering about the inner recesses of knife-being or grapefruit-being. And most of the time, I interact with other people in the same superficial way. And this is largely a good thing; if I were to obsess over the inner being of each person I encountered, ordinary sociability would become impossible. It is only in rare cases — for instance when I intensely love, or intensely hate, someone — that I make the (ever-unsuccessful) attempt to explore their mysterious depths, to find a real being that goes beyond the particular qualities that they display to me. Intimacy is what we call the situation in which people try to probe each other’s hidden depths.

[Explanatory Note: Three additional things need to be noted here. In the first place, Harman’s discussion does not privilege human subjectivity in any way. His descriptions of how objects exceed one another’s grasp in any encounter applies as much “when a gale hammers a seaside cliff” or “when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper” as it does when human subjects approach an object. When I use a knife to cut a grapefruit, the knife and the grapefruit also encounter one another at a distance, unable to access one another’s innermost being. In the second place, I do not have any privileged access into the depths my own being. My perception of, and interaction with, myself is just as partial and limited as my perception of, and interaction with, any other entity. And finally, none of this implies that a person, or any other entity, actually possesses some deep inner essence. The argument is that all entities have more to them than the particular qualities they show to other entities; it says nothing about the status or organization of this more — or at least, what Harman says on these topics is irrelevant to the way I am using or abusing his ideas here.]

What Harman calls allure, however, is what arises in the rare situation — generally an aesthetic one — when an object does not just display certain particular qualities to me, but also intimates, and forces me to become acutely aware of, its deeper, hidden existence as something other than, and more than, these qualities. This inner, or surplus, existence is something that I cannot reach — and yet that I cannot forget about or ignore, as I ordinarily do in my interactions with objects, and other people, in the world. The alluring object displays the fact that it is separate from, and more than, its qualities — which means that it exceeds everything that I feel of it, and know about it. It draws me beyond anything that I am actually able to experience. And yet this ‘beyond’ is not in any sense otherworldly or transcendent; it is situated in the here and now, in the very flows and encounters of everyday existence.

This is why pop culture figures are so affectively charged. They can only be grasped through a series of paradoxes. When a pop star or celebrity allures me, this means that he or she is someone to whom I respond in the mode of intimacy, even though I am not, and cannot ever be, actually intimate with him or her. What I become obsessively aware of, therefore, is the figure’s distance from me, and the way that it baffles all my efforts to enter into any sort of relation with it. Such a figure is forever unattainable. Pop stars are slippery, exhibiting singular qualities while, at the same time, escaping any final definition. This makes them ideal commodities: they always offer us more than they deliver, enticing us with a “promise of happiness” that is never fulfilled, and therefore never exhausted. In terms of a project of affective and cognitive mapping, pop stars work as anchoring points, or as particularly dense nodes of intensity and interaction. They are figures upon which, or within which, many powerful feelings converge; they conduct multiplicities of affective flows. At the same time, they are always more than the sum of all the forces that they attract and bring into focus; their allure points us elsewhere, and makes them seem strangely absent from themselves. Pop culture figures are icons, which means that they exhibit, or at least aspire to, an idealized stillness, solidity, and perfection of form. Yet at the same time, they are fluid and mobile, always displacing themselves. And this contrast between stillness and motion is a generative principle not just for celebrities themselves, but also for the media flows, financial flows, and modulations of control through which they are displayed, and that permeate the entire social field.

Object-Oriented Philosophy

On his marvelous new blog, on which he manages to write more in a day than I do here in a month, and with consistent brilliance, Graham Harman makes a concession (or, I should probably rather say, a restatement) that I had been hoping to hear from him for a long time:

It’s not a matter of forgetting Kant’s exclusion from the in-itself. It’s a matter of questioning why he gives humans a monopoly on such exclusion. In a sense, I’m trying to let rocks, stones, armies, and Exxon join in the fun of being excluded from the in-itself. A sort of Kantianism for inanimate objects.

This is pretty close to one of the major theses of my own forthcoming book on Whitehead:

Whitehead rejects correlationism and anthropocentrism precisely by extending Kant’s analysis of conditions of possibility, and of the generative role of time, to all entities in the universe, rather than confining them to the privileged realm of human beings, or of rational minds. (p. 79)

Throughout his books, Harman rightly praises Whitehead for rejecting what Harman calls “the philosophy of human access,” that is to say, the philosophy that gives a privileged position to human subjectivity or to human understanding, as if the world’s very existence depended upon our ability to know it.  Rejecting the philosophy of human access means, among other things, rejecting Kant’s privileging of epistemology. As Whitehead puts it, since the 18th century, and especially since Kant, “the question, What do we know?, has been transformed into the question, What can we know?” (PR 74). What’s so energizing about Harman’s “object-oriented philosophy,” or about “speculative realism” more generally, is that it refuses to subordinate its arguments about the nature of the world (or about anything, really) to (second-order) arguments about how we can know whether such (first-order) arguments are correct. Kant endeavored to use the subordination of what we know to how we can be sure about the validity of what we know as a firm grounding for “any future metaphysics”; but of course this kind of meta-questioning inevitably leads to an infinite regress, or to an infinite argumentation that prevents one from ever making any actual arguments (this, I take it, is the witting or unwitting lesson of Derrida and of deconstruction). When we privilege epistemology, or the question of what we can know, over metaphysics, or the question of what we do know, we fall into the abyssal rabbit-hole that Hegel called the “bad infinity”. [Though in truth, I have always preferred this “bad infinity” to the sort of infinity of which Hegel approved — because the latter seems to involve a kind of fatuous self-confirmation, that would make “what we can know” into the measure of all existence. Kant at least insists that there are things whose existence we must affirm, even though we cannot know anything positive about them — sort of like Rumsfeld’s now famous “unknown unknowns” — whereas Hegel entirely subordinates existence to knowability. But that is a subject for another essay].

Now, I understand that Kant is the godfather of what Harman calls “the philosophy of human access,” or what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism.” Seriously, for all the speculative realists, Kant is the Number One bad guy. Nonetheless, as I have already suggested, it has long bothered me that Harman was (at least until now) unwilling to say about  Kant’s “things in themselves” what he says about Heidegger’s “tool-being”: that the concept is an important one, in underlining how things, or objects, cannot be reduced to our knowledge of them; that is to say, how things have a subterranean existence beyond whatever aspects of them we (or for that matter, any other entities that encounter them) are able to grasp. (Since Harman’s whole point is that there is no sense in privileging my encounter with a stone over, say, the snow’s encounter with that stone — the same problems of limited access arise in both situations). Harman argues that Heidegger makes a crucial step beyond human access with his concept of tool-being, even if he falls back into privileging human access in other aspects of his thought (like whenever he talks about Dasein). Couldn’t one make exactly the same argument vis-a-vis Kant?

Admittedly, I ask this question to a large extent for aesthetic and stylistic reasons. It is simply that (perversely, I admit) I enjoy Kant’s prose, while I do not get any pleasure at all from Heidegger’s. (As I have forgotten what little German I ever knew, I read them both only in translation, which makes the question of my likes and dislikes even more dubious and complicated). These preferences aside, however, the right question to ask is: what difference would it make to Harman’s argument if it were to be founded on Kant’s doctrine of things in themselves, and the impossibility of accessing the in-itself, instead of on Heidegger’s doctrine of tool-being (or the “subterranean reality” of things “which never comes openly to view” — Tool-Being, p. 24), and the irreducibility of things to their mere presence (or present-at-handedness)? How would Harman’s argument change, if it were to credit Kant instead of Heidegger with the discovery of a subterranean reality beyond, and irreducible to, representation and presence?

I am not sure about this, but my preliminary suspicion is that a recourse to Kant instead of Heidegger might force Harman to abandon, or at least modify, one of the most important features of his argument: his brilliant revival of the philosophical doctrines, which have been despised for most of the last several centuries, of substantialism and occasionalism. For Harman, if objects have a “subterranean reality,” beyond whatever relations they enter into, and beyond whatever qualities other objects are able to grasp of them, this means that all things or objects in the world are independent substances, entirely separate from one another. And, given that objects or substances are radically disjointed from one another, the relations between substances — which, ordinarily, we just take for granted — themselves need to be explicitly explained. As Whitehead says (and this is his criticism of substantialism; or his criticism of Harman in advance, as it were):

Such an account… renders an interconnected world of real individuals unintelligible. The universe is shivered into a multitude of disconnected substantial things, each thing in its own way exemplifying its private bundle of abstract characters which have found a common home in its own substantial individuality. But substantial thing cannot call unto substantial thing. (Adventues of Ideas, p. 133)

Harman answers this objection by recourse to occasionalism, or to what he also calls vicarious causation. An “occasion” must be posited to show how independent entities, each locked into its own subterranean existence, could encounter one another at all, even superficially. In the 17th century, occasionalism meant the intervention of God at every moment in every interaction between two or more entities. Harman argues, for the very first time, for a non-theistic occasionalism; he creatively explains how interactions between objects can occur, but can only occur, when both objects are located in the interior of some larger, or more all-encompassing object. The universe has layers of reality, and we never get either to the bottom or to the top.

Now, substantialism and occasionalism are the aspects of Harman’s thought that most perturb his readers (myself included). One would like to accept his “object-oriented,” anti-correlationist argument, his refusal to place “human access” at the center of things, or to give such access a uniquely privileged status, without thereby having to accept the radically anti-relational consequences that he draws from this argument. To think this way, however, is to do Harman an injustice: his substantialism/occasionalism is not a bug but a feature; it is precisely the creative core of his metaphysics. So what follows might well be just another attempt to evade the full audacity of Harman’s argument.

Nonetheless, I do think that reference to Kant’s “things in themselves” might really make a difference here. Heideggerian tool-being is inherently relational and “global,” as Harman explains. But by pushing Heidegger just a little bit, Harman is nonetheless able to argue that “tool-being recede[s] not just behind human awareness, but behind all relation whatsoever” (Tool-Being p. 288). For if human awareness loses its privileges, and is no different from any other sort of relation among objects, then what Heidegger says against the delusions of presence applies just as well to all other forms of relation. I want to suggest, however, that this logic might change if we see Heidegger’s argument about presence as a derivative of Kant’s argument about the relativity of phenomena. For Kant, noumena lurks inaccessibly behind phenomena, just as for Heidegger, the hidden tool-being of all entities lurks inaccessibly behind those entities’ presence-at-hand. But for Kant (unlike Heidegger?) the limitation which grasps of noumena only their reduced phenomenal profile is not only a loss or a reduction, but also a positive act, a construction, a bringing-into-relation. (This is why Whitehead, despite all his criticisms of Kant, nonetheless praises Kant as “the great philosopher who first, fully and explicitly, introduced into philosophy the conception of an act of experience as a constructive functioning” — Process and Reality, p. 156). Phenomena are generated out of the encounter between subject and object in Kant — but if one is willing to “to let rocks, stones, armies, and Exxon join in the fun of being excluded from the in-itself,” then we can say that phenomena are positively generated out of all encounters between objects: this move away from human access, and toward objects indiscriminately, is precisely what Whitehead accomplishes (so that, for Whitehead, “subjectivity” is precisely the result of such a constructive process, rather than what initiates it).

Now, when Heidegger (followed by Derrida) attacks metaphysical and scientific thought for its reduction of the reality of things to mere presence, what he misses is the Kantian sense in which any such reduction is also a positive construction: it is a new event, a creation, a transformation or a “translation.” (I am thinking here of what Levi Bryant calls “Latour’s Principle”: “there is no transportation without translation.” Harman’s own book on Latour is coming soon). Heidegger’s critique of presence might be summarized as the idea that translation is always a betrayal of that which is ostensibly being translated. But Kant’s conception of constructive functioning maintains that translation is the creation of something new: a successful translation (which for Heidegger is impossible) is not a perfectly faithful reproduction of the original, but precisely (to cite the terms of Latour’s Principle in inverse order) an act of transportation, a carrying-across which, in the process, thereby makes something new. From this point of view, both Whitehead and Latour give us a Kantianism without privileging human access, a Kantianism for all entities. And seeing the constructive work of relays and transportations/translations in this manner releases us from the desperate recourse (though, of course, Harman does not see it this way) to positing a universe of occult substances that can only communicate vicariously.

To put this in another way, just briefly (since this is something I am still working on, and trying to work out): Harman’s criticism of Whitehead is that Whitehead’s vision of relationality reduces the world to an endless infinite regress, something that is “too reminiscent of a house of mirrors.” According to Harman’s summary, for Whitehead any entity “turns out to be nothing more than its perceptions of other entities. These entities, in turn, are made up of still further perceptions. The hot potato is passed on down the line, and we never reach any reality that would be able to anchor the various perceptions of it” (Guerrilla Metaphysics, p. 82). This criticism, however, is based on the assumption (precisely rejected by Whitehead) that “perceptions” are nothing positive in themselves, but just passive registrations of that which is perceived. Harman’s objection no longer holds, once we recognize that “perception” (or what Whitehead rather calls “prehension,” precisely to differentiate from the Humean, or classical empiricist, notion of perception) is itself a constructive functioning, a positive, creative and self-creative, process. And it is in all these acts of perception themselves that the “reality” already exists and “anchors” everything around it.

Harman also says that “no relational theory such as Whitehead’s is able to give a sufficient explanation of change,” because if a given entity ” holds nothing in reserve beyond its current relations to all entities in the universe, if it has no currently unexpressed properties, there is no reason to see how anything new can ever emerge” (ibid.). But Whitehead doesn’t quite say this; he says, rather, that what he calls the “subjective aim,” which is the way in which an entity skews or modifies its relations to all other entities, in a process of “decision”, is precisely that which the entity holds “in reserve” in relation to the other entities that it perceives. Once again, because Harman follows Heidegger (instead of Kant), he is unable to give credit to the way that perception as constructive functioning, precisely because it is always incomplete or selective, thereby produces new properties, new twists of relation, and thereby gives us novelty without the need to have recourse to occult substances.

I will be the first to admit that my argument here is incomplete; I need to say something as well about Whitehead’s notorious “eternal objects,” which play an important role in the processes over which I am disagreeing with Harman. I probably also need to say something about Whitehead’s notion of God, and how it relates to Harman’s counter-intuitive attempt to assert an occasionalism without God. And I certainly need to spell out more fully how I see Whitehead as championing a Kantianism without privileging human access. But for now, I have run out of energy and this post is already too long.

Michael Swanwick, Wild Minds

Michael Swanwick’s 1998 short story “Wild Minds” (which I found in the collection The Best of Michael Swanwick) offers a different angle on the issues most recently raised by Scott Bakker’s Neuropath. The story is set in a future world in which “the workings of the human brain were finally and completely understood” by science. As a result, traditional “education” is no longer necessary, since everything can be “learned” by direct bioelectrochemical manipulation: “anybody could become a doctor, a lawyer, a physicist, provided they could spare the month it took to absorb the technical skills.” The complete understanding of the brain also renders traditional notions of guilt, crime, and punishment irrelevant. The narrator of the story has committed a murder; but he recalls that “a panel of neuroanalysts had found me innocent by virtue of a faulty transition function and, after minor chemical adjustments and a two-day course on anger control techniques, had released me onto the street without prejudice.”

In a world where the human brain is completely understood, there is no more learning ‘for its own sake’; nor is education a job requirement. Instead, “most corporations simply educated their workforce themselves to whatever standards were currently needed.” Isn’t this the logical next step, under our current regime of cognitive capitalism? The “valorization” of capital now takes place 24/7, in leisure time as well as in work time, in the processes of circulation and consumption, no less than in those of “production” proper. The automation of education by direct manipulation of the brain would seem to validate Rancière’s axiom of equality, his insistence upon the generic propensity to learn that is equal in all human beings, all intelligences. Yet, far from being liberating, or even resulting in a greater measure of social equality, the mobilization of this generic propensity results in a further exacerbation of corporate control, with its invidious distinctions and its incessant accumulation of capital. Corporations have learned to commodify and exploit, not just “labor power” in the classic sense, but also, and above all, that “general intellect” which (according to Negri, Lazzarato, et al) is the true source of wealth in the postmodern or post-Fordist era. General intellect has been technologized to the point where it can be installed in any given individual at will (and if you can afford the investment — as corporations can). It is therefore entirely open to be exploited for the extraction of surplus value.

In other words, neither the equalization of intelligences, nor the movement of “real subsumption” that leads from the factory floor to the common activities of humankind, is in the least bit liberatory.

Now, it’s become almost a cliche these days to warn against “the kind of remorselessly monopolist accounts of capitalism that act as a kind of intellectual and political bulldozer,” and thereby overlook real possibilities of resistance and a new sort of politics (I am quoting Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory, p. 23). I am inclined to think, however, that this is one kind of criticism that needs to be inverted. There has been way too much unwarranted celebration recently of the alleged creativity of fan cultures and the like, and of “empowered” consumers. If such activities are “political,” then they only point up the irrelevance and lack of import of any sort of “politics” that focuses only on “domination” and “empowerment,” and ignores the harsh realities of political economy. Part of what I like about Swanwick’s fable is that it assumes this point as a background assumption, without calling attention to it, or didactically insisting upon it.

In any case, corporate control of the automated education process isn’t the only point of “Wild Minds.” There’s worse. “With knowledge so cheap, the only thing workers had to sell was their character: their integrity, prudence, willingness to work, and hard-headed lack of sentiment.” These are indeed the qualities of character that the new “flexible” and “innovative” capitalism requires. It needs people who will not just contribute during working hours, but devote all of themselves to whatever project is at hand; and yet with a sufficient lack of sentimental attachment that, once any given project is over, they will move on without regret or nostalgia to something entirely different. And, given the technology that results from a complete understanding of the human mind, it turns out that this kind of character formation can also be achieved by technological means: “it was discovered that a dozen spiderweb-thin wires and a neural mediator the size of a pinhead would make anybody as disciplined and thrifty as they desired. Fifty cents worth of materials and an hour on the operating table would render anybody eminently employable.”

This process is called “optimization.” It leads to a “blessed clarity that filled my being,” the narrator says; or, more objectively, it leads to an “absolute clarity of thought, even during emergencies. Freedom from prejudice and superstition. Freedom from the tyranny of emotion.” Instead, when you are optimized you have access to “information” that previously you had “ignored or repressed.” When you’re optimized, you realize that (just as Nietzsche said, or as The Argument in Bakker’s Neuropath says) there is no such thing as “free will,” and hence no responsibility. “Self is an illusion. The single unified ego that you mistake for your ‘self’ is just a fairy tale that your assemblers, sorters, and functional transients tell one another.” And so, during a brief simulation of what it is like to be optimized, the narrator finds himself “not regretting a thing. I knew it wasn’t my fault. Nothing was my fault, and if it had been that wouldn’t have bothered me either. If I’d been told that the entire human race would be killed five seconds after I died a natural death, I would’ve found it vaguely interesting, like something you see on a nature program. But it wouldn’t have troubled me.”

Optimization makes for perfect corporate employees. I would think, as well, that it makes for the sort of “bright,” rational, and illusion-free personality type so desired by rationalist crusaders like Richard Dawkins. Indeed, one of the effects of optimization is that it leads almost immediately to the rejection of any prior religious beliefs: their delusive, compensatory quality simply becomes too obvious, and is no longer required. And so, when optimization becomes possible, “the ambitious latched onto [it] as if it were a kite string that could snatch them right up into the sky… Acquiring a neural mediator was as good as a Harvard degree used to be. And — because it was new, and most people were afraid of it — optimization created a new elite.” The optimized are uber-yuppies, living in buildings that are all “shimmering planes and uncertain surfaces… buildings that could never have been designed without mental optimization, all tensengricity and interactive film.” The optimized are separate from the “obsolete people” who have not had the operation; they are virtually a new species, and indeed they “don’t claim to be human.”

The narrator of “Wild Minds,” however, is a reactionary and an ironist; he chooses not to be optimized, and he fervently embraces the illusions and consolations of religion. He clings to Catholicism’s sense of guilt, repentance, and possible redemption. “The thought,” he says, “that a silicon-dosed biochip could make me accept [the murder he committed] as an unfortunate accident of neurochemistry and nothing more, turns my stomach.” He clings to his sense of guilt precisely because he knows that after optimization he would no longer feel this way; that doing what turns his stomach would insure that it would no longer turn his stomach. He accepts that “being human” is no longer “essential”; yet he “cling[s] to the human condition anyway, out of nostalgia perhaps but also, possibly, because it contains something of genuine value.” “Wild Minds” works as a story precisely because its defense of the “human” against the “posthuman” is so nuanced and hinged with irony; the story wouldn’t be in the least convincing if it preached the eternal verities of the human condition in the usual pompous and high-minded terms. Everything depends upon two crucial points, I think. In the first place, the posthumanity that so many of us have imagined over the last several decades is largely a corporate fantasy; it basically envisions re-engineering “human nature” in line with the demands of what David Harvey has called “flexible accumulation,” or of what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello describe as “the new spirit of capitalism.” And in the second place, no humanist nostalgia about our essential inner being or spirit is able to undermine or interrupt the scientific discovery, at an ever-accelerating pace, of the actual ways that our brains work, of the material (bioelectric, biochemical, neurological) basis of thought. What we need, instead, is to comprehend how these discoveries are pragmatic and operational, rather than essential or foundational; they are oriented to power and efficacy, to the ways that the brain can be transformed, manipulated, and controlled. In refusing optimization, the narrator of “Wild Minds” acknowledges (far from questioning) the efficacy of such a procedure. And thereby, he challenges us to imagine — even if he himself cannot — a posthuman transformation that would not merely serve the agendas of capital, and of what used to be called (how quaint this title appears today) “instrumental reason.”