Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past & Future

Bergson tells us, as Deleuze puts it in his Cinema books, that “the hidden ground of time” is “its differentiation into two flows, that of the presents which pass and that of pasts which are preserved.” Or, as Paolo Virno similarly puts it, in his recently translated book Deja Vu and the End of History, memory “captures the same current moment as perception does, but in an essentially different manner. The fleeting present is always grasped in two distinct and concomitant aspects (which are concomitant precisely because they are distinct),” the passing of the present and the memory of the past. What this means, for Bergson, Deleuze, and Virno alike, is that ontological memory, or the preserved past, is identical with the virtual (as opposed to the actual of the fleeting present). Virno goes on to explain how Bergson’s distinction between intuition and pragmatic intelligence is really one between how intuition bathes itself in the virtual, or the past, in contrast to “practical impulse oriented towards the future.”

These formulations have always bothered me, because they seem to privilege the past over the future; since the past is the only location of that virtuality which exceeds the actual, and which allows for things to change. These thinkers claim (rightly) that the future is open, that it is not entirely determined in advance by the past out of which it grows; and yet they seem to belittle the future, by returning us always to the past. I would like a notion of potentiality (or the virtual) that is more open to futurity: that sees potentiality as unactualized futurity, rather than as a reservoir of pure pastness. This would go along with my sense that science fiction gives expression to this futurity: SF does not predict the future, but expresses and explicates the real-but-not-actual elements of futurity that are part of our lived present. (“Real but not actual” is the Proustian phrase that Deleuze invokes on numerous occasions).

It strikes me (all too predictably, perhaps) that I can use Whitehead to resolve this predicament. Whitehead has a dual notion of God: there is both “the primordial nature of God” and “the consequent nature of God.” in my book Without Criteria I only discussed the primordial nature of God, which I equated, roughly, with potentiality or the virtual. God contains all the inactual “eternal objects” that can be actualized in particular events, and that make possible novelty rather than just mere repetition. But it strikes me now that the other aspect of God, the consequent nature, is exactly equivalent to Bergson’s (and therefore Deleuze’s and Virno’s) formulation of the past as preserving everything that happens (in contrast to the sheer passage of the present). That is to say, with his double nature of God, Whitehead separates out potentiality (or the virtual) as the reservoir of change from the “objective immortality” of a past that is preserved in ontological memory (even if not in particular empirical memories). This separation is precisely what is missing from Bergson, Deleuze, and Virno.

I need, at some point, to write an essay developing and expanding on this. (Unfortunately I don’t have the time to pursue this now: I am writing this blog entry as a note to myself for future elaboration).

Whitehead on Feelings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And again:

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

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

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

Fictions and Fabulations of Sentience: Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FKA twigs, Papi Pacify

“Papi Pacify” is a song from FKA twigs’ EP2, which was released in 2013. The song is produced by Arca (who has also recently worked with Kanye West, Björk, and Kelela). The music video for “Papi Pacify” is co-directed by FKA twigs and Tom Beard (who has worked with twigs a number of other times, as well as directing videos for Florence and the Machine and other indie British bands). The song might be described as a ghostly hybrid of trip hop and r&b. The synthesized music features a lot of rumbling sound in the bass register, together with violent and irregular percussive banging. But “Papi Pacify” is also rather slow in tempo; this makes it feel close to ambient music — with its suspended, floating quality — despite the insistent punctuation of the percussion. Like a lot of recent EDM (electronic dance music), the song is devoid of tonal shifts; but it moves between different gradations of intensity, building to a climax through changes in timbre and a thickening of the sound.

In “Papi Pacify,” as in most of her music, FKA twigs’ voice is heavily processed, so that it resonates like yet another electronic instrument. She sings in a high register, contrasting with the instrumental sound. Her voice is also drawn out and amplified, with considerable reverb. There’s a breathless, floating intensity to twigs’ singing, which moves beyond actual words into drawn-out cries of “mmm” and “ahhh.” I cannot avoid hearing this voice as if it were speaking in a near-whisper — even though it stands out, quite loud, at the forefront of the mix.

The emotional tone of the song fluctuates between plaintiveness and outright pleading. The lyrics are deeply ambivalent: twigs begs her lover to “pacify our love,” and “clarify our love,” by assuring her of his faithfulness even if he does not mean it. Empty, lying reassurances are better than none at all. The song is thus about deception and dependency. The singer wills herself to continue trusting her lover, even though she knows that he has already betrayed her. In this way, twigs simultaneously disavows and fuels her own erotic-romantic disquiet.

I cannot really imagine dancing to a song like “Papi Pacify,” despite its formal similarities to EDM. For twigs’ and Arca’s music is just too rhythmically irregular and disruptive — not to mention too slow and depressive — to be easily danceable. The off-rhythms convey imbalance and tension, even as the song’s overall tempo, and its harmonic stasis, create a sense of paralysis.

However, dance is central to FKA twigs’ art, and especially to her music videos. “Papi Pacify” is not literally dance-based, in the way that many of twigs’ other videos are. But the play of the figures on the screen — the movement of their bodies, and even of their hands — is highly rhythmic, suggesting a sort of dance. Even if the gestures and postures in this video are not actually arranged by a choreographer, they still seem to be “choreographed” via cinematography and editing.

The music video for “Papi Pacify” is shot in black and white. It is composed entirely of images of the faces and upper bodies of FKA twigs and her male partner. (I haven’t been able to find any credits identifying this performer). The only bright lighting in the video shines directly on twigs’ face, and on her elaborately sculpted nails. Though the male partner is never illuminated as brightly as twigs is, we do get to clearly see his face and torso. His sexy, muscular, and athletic bulk stands out against twigs’ thin and flexible body. The crisp, gorgeously high-contrast black-and-white cinematography brings out the flesh tones of the two performers. Both twigs and her partner are black; but she is relatively light-skinned, while he is much darker. The video’s up-front beautification of black bodies stands in deliberate opposition to the traditional cinema’s almost exclusive obsession with pale white skin (and its concomitant myths of white female “purity”).

Like many music videos, “Papi Pacify” alternates between two separate series of images. The first series shows twigs engaged erotically with her partner. The second series, in contrast, shows twigs by herself; she wears an ornate necklace and her body is covered with glitter. The first series is confined to medium shots that show us the performers’ faces and upper bodies. But the second series varies from extreme closeups of twigs’ eyes to shots that show us her entire face and torso.

However, these two series of images do not correspond, as they often do in music videos, to two separate locations. This is because the video as a whole offers us no sense of location. In both series of images, the human figures emerge from a murky, undifferentiated background. The darkness behind them is too vague and undefined to seem like any sort of actual place. In other words, the video has no settings, whether real or simulated. The action of the human figures can only be situated within, or upon, the electronic screen itself.

This means that the video is effectively non-diegetic. We respond to the bodies we see, as to the music we hear; but we cannot take what we see and hear as a represented action (or series of actions) in a delimited space. We are rather presented, I would like to say, with a mode of digital and electronic presence that cannot be translated or resolved into analog, representational terms. The bodies of twigs and her partner are not absented in favor of their signifying images, as would be the case in a movie (at least according to traditional film theory). Rather, these bodies impinge upon the screen, and thereby present themselves directly to us, precisely as forces and pulsations.

The video is intensely erotic, even though it doesn’t show us twigs’ breasts, or the genitalia of either actor. For much of the video, the man either has his hands around twigs’ throat, or else sticks his fingers deep into her mouth and down her throat. At times, twigs almost seems to be on the point of choking. In the YouTube comments to the video, there are fierce arguments as to whether this is a representation of abuse, or whether it is rather a positive depiction of consensual BDSM. But as my students pointed out when we discussed it in class, what the video actually shows us is fairly mild, in terms of the actual practices of consensual BDSM.

If the video feels so visceral and intense, this is not just because of the actions that it literally depicts, but also because of the extreme intimacy that it expresses. In every shot, twigs is close to the camera. In the shots that include the male partner, he is always positioned just slightly above and behind her. There is almost no physical distance between the two of them; he is always holding her. They also stare into each other’s eyes, and seem closely attentive to each other’s sightest movements and gestures.

But twigs does not just exchange glances with her partner. At other times, though he continues to look at her, she closes her eyes in apparent sexual abandon. And even more frequently, she stares directly at the camera. This means that there is also no sense of distance between twigs and the viewer. She seems to be imploring us, or even perhaps exchanging glances with us: in any case, she include us within the video’s flows, its acts of bodily exchange.

Some YouTube commentators say that twigs looks desperate and begging for rescue, and that this is why she stares into the camera. But I myself am unable to see it this way. For me as for many other commentators, twigs’ gaze and facial expressions rather imply trust and acceptance. Indeed, they sometimes come close to ecstasy.

The video is all about intimacy and proximity: between twigs and her partner, and also between twigs and us. There isn’t enough distance between twigs and the viewer to allow for the objectifying effect of the usual cinematic gaze. Video bodies operate according to a different — and more immediate — logic than film bodies do. We are just too close to the lovers to be able to respond voyeuristically to what they do.

Extreme intimacy can of course be suffocating, as much as it can be ecstatic and fulfilling. The video, like the song itself, expresses both of these at once, in a sort of oxymoronic tension. The music and the images lack any forward movement towards a conclusion; there is rather an intensification that at the same time stands in place. At the same time, the sounds and images alike are too tense and off-kilter to suggest any sort of equilibrium or stasis.

The video’s presentation of physical contact to the point of suffocation may well go along with what I have called the breathlessness of twigs’ singing. It is worth noting, however, that the video mostly avoids lip syncing. There are some moments when twigs mouths the words — or nonverbal cries — of the song, but more often she does not. Most music videos (except for the ones that directly document or mimic live performance) tend, in varying degrees, to self-consciously call attention to their use of lip-syncing. “Papi Pacify” pushes quite strongly in this direction. The occasional moments of synchronization fix our attention on twigs’ face and figure. But because she only lip syncs occasionally, we are spared both the pretense that she is actually performing the song, and the opposite pretense that the action of the video is somehow “really” happening independently of the song. This is yet another reason why I consider the video to be non-diegetic and non-representational.

All these tendencies are further amplified by the complex editing of the video. Instead of progressive action, we are given what might be called a series of jump cuts, presenting the same scenes over and over again from a variety of slightly different angles. The camera sometimes modifies its position very slightly, but otherwise it never moves. A lot of the action — the touching and embracing — seems to take place in slow motion. A few times there is extremely rapid cutting and flashing, which gives an oddly disjointed rhythmic effect in contrast to the overall slowness of the song.

Most strikingly, many of the shots in the video are run in loops, forwards and backwards a number of times, sort of like an animated GIF. This seems to happen especially when the partner is pushing his fingers into twigs’ mouth and down her throat. This looping repetition results both in a sense of dreamlike slowness, and in the impression that these actions are not just done once and for all, but rather are repeated over and over. The effect is something like that evoked by the use of the imperfect tense in many languages (though, unfortunately, this form does not really exist in English).

“Papi Pacify” leaves us floating in a strange erotic time, which is not the time of everyday life, but also not the “time in its pure state” of Bergsonian duration. It is rather an uneven, pulsed time, which ebbs and flows in irregular waves. It’s a highly sexualized time. But it is also quite emphatically not the time that leads teleologically to the culmination of male orgasm. We are in a realm of different sexual practices here: one that we might well call “feminine” — but perhaps not, since it is too irregular, too uncertain, and also too intimate, to fit easily on either side of the conventional male/female binary. I would like to say, also, that this is a kind of digital and electronic time: one that is not intrinsic to our new technologies in any essentialistic sense, but that could not have been accessed without them.

Ferrett Steinmetz, FLEX

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Allie X, “Catch”

Jérémie Saindon’s music video for Allie X’s “Catch” is a Surrealist assault on the senses. We see Allie X in numerous discomfiting poses, all within a sleek, mininal, faux-modernist space. At some points in the video, Allie X’s body is buried in a pile of intertwined, and seemingly inanimate, nudes. At others, her body hangs suspended from the ceiling in what looks like an art exhibition space, pierced by many long spikes. At still other points, she stands nude on a pedestal like a sculpture on display, with her hair draped entirely over her face.

We also see Allie X lying splayed out on a dissection table, half of her body replaced by a life-size plastic anatomical model — the kind that opens up to display replicas of the internal organs. And once, just before the video’s three minute mark, her body appears strewn all over the floor, sliced into four separate parts — head and torso, midriff, thighs, and lower legs — all of which are twitching on their own. At other moments, Allie X stands naked except for a sort of white veil or headdress, extending upward in a cone, and completely covering her face. There is just one opening in the headdress, for her mouth; a viscous white fluid oozes out from it. In still other shots, Allie X lies on the floor surrounded by overlaid images of butterflies. At the end of the video, another butterfly emerges from a sort of metallic coccoon in her mouth.

The video is also deeply concerned with eyes, and with vision. In many shots, Allie X wears sunglasses, or else eyeglasses whose lenses have been replaced by a dense pink flowery growth. This is consistent with Allie X’s previous videos and art projects, in the course of which (according to James Rickman) the singer “never… revealed her eyes” at all. At certain points in the “Catch” video, Allie X finally does unveil her eyes to the camera. But these eyes don’t stare soulfully out at us. Rather, they blink; or else they glare, or ponder without expression. There are several shots in which Allie X lies on a couch, wearing a leaf-print onesie jumpsuit; she looks towards a replica of herself reclining on the floor, whom we see from the back. Then she closes her eyes and opens her mouth wide, holding a replica eyeball between her lips.

I’m reminded, of course, of other Surrealist aggressions against vision, starting with Buñuel’s razor slicing an eyeball. The Surrealists were also obsessed with the nude female body, which they often depicted dead or dismembered or bound in abject poses (think, for example, of Hans Bellmer’s dolls). Allie X detourns these Surrealist tropes for her own ends. Although her body is mutilated and abjected throughout the video, it is not presented as a spectacle for some sadistic, controlling “male gaze.” Rather, Allie X clearly remains in control; she positively assaults us with these grotesque body images. Even when she is naked, we are denied access to her body and her eyes. However uncomfortably near to us this body comes, and even as it is literally and metaphorically opened up, it remains entirely opaque and unreadable. And the circuit of the gaze between her and us is blocked, even when her eyes are visible.

In the video, Allie X only lip synchs occasionally; her efforts to do so are deliberately formulaic and desultory. Because of this, her voice does not seem to be grounded in her body; even when it soars, it is just another layer of the electronic mix. Allie X’s singing is expressive, but also at the same time oddly detached. On all levels, and despite its aggressive display, the music video refuses contact. We are neither able to identify with Allie X, nor objectify her as a sexual figure. We are made all too familiar with her agitation and distress; but at the same time she denies us any intimacy.

The video picks up all these qualities from the song itself. “Catch” is a synth pop tune. It is bouncy and propulsive; but it is not warm. It walks a thin line between mechanical repetition and gleefully upbeat expression. Renato Pagnani aptly describes the song as “a relentless and immediate sugar rush with a slight metallic aftertaste.” The lyrics speak of being victimized by a lover who toyed with the singer’s affections: “turns out you shut me up for fun/ You got away with murder/ Leave me at a loss for the words/… I was devastated by the pain.” But the song does not wallow in romantic lament. It’s too fast and jittery for any such sentiments. Rather, Allie X compares sexual obsession to heroin addiction. “You stuck a needle right into that vein,” she says to the lover who callously abandoned her after getting her hooked. In any case, she doesn’t want to get clean, but only to find a more reliable source for the drug that takes away her pain: “I’m screaming, begging for the one/ That won’t just shoot me up for fun.” And in the song’s coldly exultant refrain, Allie X promises revenge on her betrayer with the incessantly repeated phrase: “just wait until I catch my breath.”

I still haven’t mentioned the most intense and powerful thing about the music video, which is its relentless, jittery visual rhythm. The image is never still. Nearly every sequence consists of images that quickly loop like an animated GIF, or that flash back and forth between two stills like a stuttering repetitive jump cut. (Indeed, Allie X has posted a number of animated GIFs from the video on her Tumblr). On close examination, the organization of the video is quite complex. Sometimes the entire image loops; sometimes the looping figure is composited into a background that remains still, or that loops with a different rhythm. Sometimes the looping figure moves around in a circle, while other times it jerks back and forth, and still other times it just twitches faintly. Then there are the times when Allie X’s figure does not itself move; but the camera pans violently one way and then the other, or the background flashes from one configuration to another and back again, or two separate images are alternated rapidly.

The video thus renders for us a world in continual agitation. The motion is sometimes more violent and sometimes less; it is sometimes more all-embracing and other times restricted to a few figures. But the image is never completely still. The video for “Catch” is in constant, tumultuous motion, even though it doesn’t take us anywhere, but remains within the same physical space. It is almost as if the video were extending our vision beyond the human scale, by making perceptible to us the incessant molecular turmoil that underlies even the most stable objects. (This helps to explain why the video, like certain films by Kubrick, Cronenberg, and Palfi, combines visceral body agitation with inhumanly icy, formalist distancing effects).

In general, the video for “Catch” effaces the difference between movement by figures in the frame, movement of the camera itself (reframing), and movement effected through fast montage or alternation of frames. Bodies may move, or the camera may move, or motion may be added by means of digital compositing and scanning. Digital processing muddies the conventional distinctions between mise en scene (what is captured by the camera), cinematography (what the camera itself does) and montage (what is done to the material recorded by the camera afterwards). However these movements are produced, they are all equivalent in the spectator’s experience.

The video is almost a compendium of the various ways that images can be looped, alternated, and set into motion. In this way, it exemplifies the database aesthetic that Lev Manovich describes as central to digital media. There is no linear progression among these visual forms, but only a combinatorial display of different configurations, one after another. The underlying logic of a database, as Manovich argues, is spatial rather than temporal. The many possible permutations can only be presented one at a time, in succession; but in such a “spatialized narrative,” there is no rationale for any one particular order rather than another.

This spatialized visual logic is of course complicated by the way that music is an irreducibly temporal form. The video for “Catch” has no storyline, and no logic of development, aside from that provided by the song’s lyrics and its verse-bridge-chorus structure. But the rhythm of the video’s visual jerks and twitches is closely related to the beat of the music. While the visual twitching doesn’t coordinate precisely with the song’s bass line, it does remain closely attuned to it, in a sort of visual syncopation. For this reason, the video’s loops and repetitions do not produce anything like a sense of stable cycles. There is no suggestion of underlying regularity, but only a continually throbbing pulse. We might well say, following Deleuze, that “the unequal in itself” is the only thing that gets repeated, or that returns, in this video. Both sonically and visually, the unevenness of the beat keeps on coming back and pushing us forward.

Saindon’s video exemplifies a new regime of audiovisual images. Time is not just the measure of motion, as is the case in the films of what Deleuze calls the movement-image. But neither is time unveiled in its pure state, as happens in the films of what Deleuze calls the time-image. Rather, we find a different articulation of time and space — and also of sound and vision — than is the case in either of Deleuze’s two image regimes. Time and space are intricated together — and even exchange their roles and characteristics — in the course of the music video’s twitchy rhythms. “Catch” jams the sensori-motor circuits of the movement-image, but it also undermines the “pure optical and sound situations” of the time-image. Instead, it drags us into a strange new realm of micro-perceptions and micro-affects, all subordinated to the song’s and video’s underlying pulse.

Whitehead on Causality and Perception

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More generally, Whitehead says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Here is a short piece I wrote for the art group FLAME, who are having a show that opens this weekend (576 Morgan Ave Apt 3L Gallery, Brooklyn, New York — Opening Saturday November 8, 7-10 PM).

The invitation has a shortened version, but here is the full text:

In the early 1960s, alongside Campbell Soup cans and portraits of Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol also did paintings of dollar bills. As Warhol recounts:

It was on one of those evenings when I’d asked around ten or fifteen people for suggestions that finally one lady friend of mine asked me the right question: ‘Well what do you love most?’ That’s how I started painting money.

Warhol elsewhere expresses his admiration for Pablo Picasso, on the basis of the quantity rather than the quality of the modernist master’s work. Warhol read that Picasso had created 4,000 masterpieces; he decided to do the same. He reasoned that, given his silkscreening technique, he could make 4,000 paintings in just a single day; “and they’d all be masterpieces because they’d all be the same painting.” But Warhol was quickly disillusioned. He discovered that, in an entire month, he was only able to make 500 paintings. At this rate, it would have taken him a whole 8 months to match Picasso’s lifetime output. This was too boring to contemplate, and so he moved on to something else.

As for Picasso, it’s been recorded that he was a cheapskate, who didn’t like to spend his money if he could avoid it. So what he did was, whenever he wrote a check, he would draw a small doodle on it as well. This way, he hoped, the recipient would choose to keep a signed Picasso drawing, rather than actually cashing the check. In this way, everyone benefited; Picasso got to keep his money, and the recipient was able to sell the check for more than its face value.

Alongside Warhol and Picasso, we may place the artist J. S. G. Boggs, who combines and improves on the practices of both. Boggs’ drawings and digital replications of paper money are far more meticulous and detailed than Warhol’s dollar paintings. And Boggs overtly pays his bills with his work, rather than just incidentally turning his means of payment into a work as Picasso did. When he owes money, Boggs makes a picture of currency with the same face value as the amount he owes. He trades this work to his creditor in lieu of cash payment. Boggs’ works do not proclaim themselves to be legal tender — which is what differentiates them from counterfeit bills. But they usually sell for more than the face value of the bills they depict.

Warhol, Picasso, and Boggs all successfully addressed the economics of the art market in the 20th century. But what does their work have to say in the 21st? Do their practices still have import for the art market today? The problem is that paper currency (Warhol and Boggs) and personal checks (Picasso) are on the verge of becoming obsolete. Only relatively poor people still use them. The middle class depends instead on credit cards and online banking. As for the One Percent (the class that accumulates the greatest share of wealth, and that also collects art), it no longer relies on paper money (bills and checks) at all. In the course of the past fifty years, we have moved from a cash economy to a credit economy — and beyond that, to an economy that is largely driven by transactions in arcane financial instruments.

The history of finance, like the history of Western painting, moves in the direction of ever-greater abstraction. The first coins were worth their weight in gold and other precious metals, because that is literally what they were made of. The figure of the king or president on the coin was only a guarantee that the one-ounce gold coin, for instance, really did weigh one ounce. Later on, coins were made from metals of lesser value, or else (in higher demoninations) were replaced by paper. The picture of the king or president now worked as a guarantee that the coin or bill could be exchanged for gold upon demand. But then, in 1971, Richard Nixon abolished the gold standard; now currency is only valuable because of government fiat (which means, in practice, that it is valuable as long as other people accept it, and the government itself accepts it for tax payments). Such is the legal tender that Warhol and Boggs simulated. And once we accept government paper, we are bound to accept paper checks as well — which is what Picasso relied on. And this development is likely irreversible, even though right-wing cranks like Rand Paul demand a return to the gold standard (and even though a Republican Congressman, some years ago, blocked the issuance of a Ronald Reagan coin because he felt it would demean the revered ex-President to have his image stamped on “scrap metal”).

Money has always been something of an abstraction, because it is exchangeable for goods and services without being of any other intrinsic use. But it became far more abstract with the abolition of the gold standard — and that was only the beginning. Starting in the 1970s, corporations realized that, instead of giving raises to their employees, they could simply give them credit cards. So now the vast majority of Americans can purchase all sorts of commodities without ever actually owning them. Corporations are able to sell goods to consumers, keep the money, and eventually get the goods back as well (or at least, collect their cash value a second time). Spending goes on as usual — but the bank can foreclose at any moment. More than a third of US adults are currently being pursued by debt collectors.

The One Percent, meanwhile, can revel in ever-greater powers of fiscal abstraction. From simple interest-collecting loans, they first moved on to commodity futures options: the ability to buy and sell, and collect a profit on, goods and services that don’t even exist yet. These subsequently developed into derivatives: collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and even more abstract financial instruments. These no longer physically “exist” in any conventional sense of the term; they are purely virtual, numbers calculated by supercomputers. They are joined by Bitcoin and other electronic currencies, which don’t have presidential images on them because they are not accepted by governments. But this is no longer considered a danger to the accumulation of value; instead, it is an opportunity, a way of evading taxes altogether.

The philosopher and derivatives trader Elie Ayache points out that advanced financial instruments are so fully abstract that they no longer refer back to any “underlying” whatsoever. They are blank forms, Ayache says, pure contingencies; traders may use them to literally “write the future.” Today the “unacknowledged legislators of the world” are quants, rather than poets and artists.

In such circumstances, it follows that the only art that makes sense is art that is as fully abstract and non-referential as financial instruments themselves. The painterly abstractions of the twentieth century — seen either as pure subjective expressions, or else as pure explorations of the artistic medium itself — are no longer abstract enough. Today abstract art needs to be purged of expression, and of Greenbergian self-reflection, as much as it has been purged of extrinsic representation. It no longer makes sense even to simulate currency, as in the post-representational practice of Picasso, Warhol, and Boggs. Rather, a work of art must actually be an abstract financial instrument, rather than merely mimicking it, or referring to it, or being exchangeable for it. Consider the statement of intent of, which “identifies prime artist prospects based on known trajectory profiles… Our algorithm is intent on assessing the intrinsic value of an artwork, not its survival value. We do not judge any works’ aesthetic or emotional value.” This should be understood as implying that survival values, aesthetic values, and emotional values are entirely extrinsic. They are archaic and outdated in our current economic climate. Intrinsic value can only be defined in terms of a work’s functioning as a financial instrument, entirely divorced from any “underlying.” FLIP ART, as The New York Times has put it, “is just about the nearest thing in today’s fragmented global art scene that approximates to a coherent movement.” It’s only when the art is “flipped,” or sold by one collector to another, that it accretes intrinsic value.

If you are hungry, you can eat a burrito. Alternatively, you can speak the word “burrito”; in that case, something comes out of your mouth instead of going in. You can also take a photo of the burrito, before you eat it; and you can write the word “burrito” instead of speaking it. We like to think that these are ways of preserving the burrito; but in fact, you can’t have your burrito and eat it too. Doubtless, if Jacques Derrida were my dinner companion, he would elegantly prove to me that even my apparent act of nourishing myself with a burrito really comes down to a disavowed abstraction: a naive assertion of metaphysical presence. I can neither have a burrito, nor eat it; I will surely starve to death. But it’s yet a greater abstraction when I don’t even write the word “burrito,” but rather inscribe it on canvas as a meaningless, iterated sign. Now, “burrito” can neither be eaten, nor spoken, nor depicted, nor even read. It has been separated from any underlying. It has no survival value as food, and no aesthetic or emotional value as a sign of food. It can only be flipped, passed in a series of sales from hand to hand (or more properly, from wall to wall, or from bank vault to bank vault).

Labrinth, “Let It Be” and the third image

For the last several years, I have been trying to think about the ways that relations of time and space, and of sound and image, are altered as a result of new digital technologies. I have pondered this by looking at and listening to both recent movies and music videos. One big difference, of course, is that with music videos the soundtrack always comes first; while this is rarely the case in movies. But I think that both movies and music videos in recent years have given more weight to the sonic dimension than was the case before. I try to work through the issues of time/space and sound/image systematically, more or less, in my discussion of Eduoard Salier’s video for Massive Attack’s “Splitting the Atom.” And, in my discussion of Joseph Kahn’s film Detention, I consider how this rearticulation of space and time leads to the need for a new, third sort of image in Deleuze’s taxonomy, after the movement-image and the time-image. The Spanish film theorist Sergi Sanchez suggests calling this new kind of image, that results from digital technologies, the “no-time image.” Although it arises out of Deleuze’s time-image, in which “time in its pure state” is liberated from movement and made present in its own right, this third image treats time quite differently. Digital video is a medium of simultaneity, not only because it allows for instantaneous transmission, but also because (even when it is not broadcast and viewed instantaneously) it tends to replace montage (temporal juxtaposition) with compositing (allowing for disparate things or images to be placed together in the same frame). (Besides Sanchez, Lev Manovich has also written extensively about this). 

There is definitely a sort of temporality to the new digital-video image; space dominates time, in a way, but without being reducible either to the “spatialization” of time denounced by Bergson and Deleuze, or the durational time exalted by Bergson and Deleuze. The temporality of the new digital audiovisual image  is quite different from either the temporality that is measured by movement (Deleuze’s movement-image) or the temporality that frees itself from movement and presents itself as pure duration (Deleuze’s time-image). David Rodowick is not wrong to claim that the digital does not really involve duration; he is only wrong to condemn it for not doing so, instead of trying to work out what the digital audiovisual image does do. There’s a weird split, because it takes time to present, or to explore, the composited screen of the “no-time” image; and because, in this situation, modulations of sound (which is unavoidably temporal) take precedence over modulations of vision. Hence the curious time-of-no-time rhythms we find in “Splitting the Atom”, and in the 19-years-of-detention sequence of Detention

I think we find another, inventive instance of this in the beautiful new video for the song “Let It Be” by  Labrinth (Timothy McKenzie). (The song has no connection, as far as I can tell, with the classic Beatles song of the same title). The video is directed by the duo known as Us (Christopher Barrett and Luke Taylor). The video consists in an apparent single take, which moves through a single warehouse space. The camera glides and stops and zooms in and circles around and twists and turns and swoops, as it moves through this space. In different parts of the warehouse space, we have different groupings of fixtures and furniture, like the decors of various rooms in a home and in a recording studio, but all incomplete and without walls or ceiling — each setting is just a certain amount of furniture, surrounded by empty expanses of floor. In each of these spaces, we see Labrinth and his bandmates and friends engaged in various activities, ranging from composing the song, to recording it in multiple stages (singing, guitar, drumming, and horn section, all separately, to having a business pitch meeting, to buying a car, and then shooting a music video that features the singer getting out of the car, to people just hanging in the living room. There is even a scene of a postman delivering mail by putting it through a slot in the front door (but the front door stands by itself in one section of the warehouse); and another of Labrinth standing alone in his kitchen drinking coffee, with the sink filled to the brim with dirty cups.

All these events must have been dispersed in time and space when they “really” happened; but in the video they are all happening at once in the same location, with the secondary temporality of the camera exploring them. Usually the camera just contemplates one of these scenarios at a time, but sometimes (and especially when the camera is gliding between them) we see several scenes on the screen at once, or other scenes in the background when one is in the foreground. A whole history — the singer’s life, on the one hand, and his specific experience of composing, pitching, recording, producing, and making a video for the song, on the other — is compressed (or better, composited) within the confines of the warehouse (which provides, as it were, bare-bones simulacra of all the locations), and within the confines of the video itself, as we watch it unfold in its single camera movement. The camera never holds still for very long; it is usually gliding, but it is always steady and never jerky or agitated. (Presumably, the videomakers used motion control to shoot all of the parts of the video separately, but make sure they could be composited together seamlessly — as is suggested here).

The song itself is a beautiful, heartfelt and expressive neo-soul number. It starts plaintively, but builds to a dramatic conclusion. The lyrics suggest a mix of struggle and fatalism — the singer has done his best, but he doesn’t have total control and reaches a point where he just needs to “let it be” and have whatever happens, happen. At the end of the video, lights go out and then flash on and off — all the other scenes have disappeared, and the camera zooms in on Labrinth, standing alone, in a circle of spotlights in the otherwise dark space. We are left with just the performer, performing — after having seen all the layers of work, preparation and construction, and subjective experience that made the performance possible. Everything is framed within the temporality and rhythms of the song, with its repetitions (verse and chorus) as well as its build-up to a crescendo of culmination; though the video begins before the song does (the camera glides across the floor before the music starts), and continues to zoom in and then hold on the image of Labyrinth lit up in the otherwise darkness for a few seconds after the music ends.

There’s a whole nexus of feeling and experiencing here — but (as Rodowick might well say) it cannot be characterized as duration in the Bergsonian and Proustian and Deleuzian and Antonioniesque sense. It’s a quite different mode of temporalization, or of “experience” — though one for which I don’t have the right words yet. It’s implosive rather than expansive, not “a bit of time in its pure state” (Deleuze paraphrasing Proust) so much as a concatenation of things and processes that don’t really fit together or “harmonize” (literally or metaphorically? I’m not sure) with one another, and yet somehow coexist nonetheless. I would want to resist a phenomenological vocabulary here as well as a Deleuzian one — there is none of the “commutative reversibility” between spectator and screen described by Vivan Sobchack, or “attunment” evoked so powerfully by my colleage Scott Richmond. It’s rather something both more abstract, and yet less reflexive, than any of that. I’d want to think of it, rather, in terms of the (often non-human) affordances of new digital technologies, in the ways that (for instance) Mark B. N. Hansen has been looking at — but I don’t quite see the way of working this out yet. In any case, I think that “Let It Be”, like “Splitting the Atom” and Detention, is a harbinger of a new sort of techno-social sensibility — one that (to paraphrase what Deleuze wrote in a different but analogous context) we may at least hope will not prove worse than the previous ones.