Reza Negarestani: On Inhumanism

Inhumanism, as will be argued in the next installment of this essay, is both the extended elaboration of the ramifications of making a commitment to humanity, and the practical elaboration of the content of human as provided by reason and the sapient’s capacity to functionally distinguish itself and engage in discursive social practices.

– Reza Negarestani, The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human

On e-flux journal   Reza enjoins us to move beyond both humanism and anti-humanism, as well as all forms of a current sub-set of Marxist theoretic he terms “the fashionable stance of kitsch Marxism today”. Taking up both Sellarsian notions of the “space of reasons” as well as the inferential and normative challenges offered by Robert Brandom. Brandom developed a new linguistic model, or “pragmatics”, in which the “things we do” with language is prior to semantics, for the reason that claiming and knowing are actings, production of a form of spontaneity that Brandom assimilates to the normative “space of reasons” (Articulating Reasons 2000).1

Reza starts with the premise that inhumanism is a progressive shift situated within the “enlightened humanism” project. As a revisionary project it seeks to erase the former traces within this semiotic field of discursive practices and replace it with something else, not something distinctly oppositional but rather a revision of the universal node that this field of forces is. It will be a positive project, one based on notions of “contructivism”: “to define what it means to be human by treating human as a constructible hypothesis, a space of navigation and intervention.” I’m always a little wary of such notions as models, construction, constructible hypothesis, as if we could simulate the possible movement of the real within some information processing model of mathematical or hyperlinguistic, algorithmic programming. We need to understand just what Reza is attempting with such positive notions of constructions or models otherwise we may follow blindly down that path that led through structuralism, post-structuralism, and deconstruction: all those anti-realist projects situated in varying forms of social constructivsm and its modifications (i.e., certain Idealist modeling techniques based as they were on the Linguistic Turn).

Right off the bat he qualifies his stance against all those philosophies of finitude or even the current trend in speculative realism of the Great Outdoors (Meillassoux, Brassier, Iain Hamilton Grant, Graham Harmon). Against in sense of an essence of the human as pre-determined or theological jurisdictions. Against even the anti-humanist tendencies of both an inflationary and deflationary notion of the human that he perceives even in microhistorical claims that tend toward atomism, he offers a return to the universalist ambitions of the original enlightenment project voided of its hypostasis in glorified Reason. Against such anti-humanist moves he seeks a way forward, a way that involves a collaborative project that redefines the enlightenment tradition and its progeny and achieves the “common task for breaking out of the current planetary morass”.

Against the neoliberal thought collective and their minions who tells us there is no alternative to capitalism and globalism Reza offers the “contention… that universality and collectivism cannot be thought, let alone attained, through consensus or dissensus between cultural tropes, but only by intercepting and rooting out what gives rise to the economy of false choices and by activating and fully elaborating what real human significance consists of”. This can only be done not by reverting to essentialist credos that espouse some natural right or birthright to our human intentions, freedoms, etc., but instead tells us that this is a never ending revisionary process of productive labor that “that consists of the extended elaboration of what it means to be human through a series of upgradable special performances—that is rigorously inhuman”.

Such a project entails a new sense of history, of a synchronic and diachronic model which incorporates both the sciences and philosophical critique and constructions. To do this we need to understand the normative consequences that a commitment to becoming inhuman entail. What was it to be “human” in the first place? Were we ever human? Is his an ontological commitment or an epistemic, or is it a combination of both? To define this he starts by telling us that we can only understand commitment by practicing it (i.e., a pragmatics). Being a pragmatics it also entails a working on, a feedback loop that formulates a need for intervention and change on the very movement it seeks to explicate.

Following Foucault and his knowledge practices Reza tells us we need in this normative project is to explicate the notion of prescription: “a prescription should correspond to a set of descriptions which at all times must be synchronized with the system of modern knowledge as what yields and modifies descriptions. To put it succinctly: description without prescription is the germ of resignation, and prescription without description is whim”. One of the problems of using such synchronizations with a modern “system of knowledge” is that the neoliberals have done this and done it better for 50 years now. One of the great points and also weaknesses of Foucault was in uncovering this aspect of the neoliberal project. Without bringing this discussion into the whole world of neoliberal critique I’ll just mention that base set of practice of that thought collective:

The starting point of neoliberalism is the admission, contrary to classical liberal doctrine, that their vision of the good society will triumph only if it becomes reconciled to the fact that the conditions for its existence must be constructed and will not come about “naturally” in the absence of concerted political effort and organization. As Foucault presciently observed in 1978 (2004, 137), “Neoliberalism should not be confused with the slogan `laissez-faire,’ but on the contrary, should be regarded as a call to vigilance, to activism, to perpetual interventions“(my italics).2

This notion of construction and intervention at the heart of the neoliberal project must be carefully weighed. If the Left is to willy-nilly coopt these same tactics then what does that portend? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t but one needs to be careful and understand the deeper philosophical implication in using these toolsets from the era of computer and information processing notions right out of Hayek and others. Even in Reza’s first paragraph where he mentions “production of a form of spontaneity” one realizes this, too, is a central tenet of the neoliberal playbook:

“There is nothing in the basic principles of liberalism to make it a stationary creed, there are no hard-and-fast rules fixed once and for all. The fundamental principle that in the ordering of our affairs we should make as much use as possible of the spontaneous forces of society, and resort as little as possible to coercion is capable of an infinite variety of applications” (Hayek [1944] 1991, 13).

As Mirowski remarks on this: “Hayek’s frequent appeals to a “spontaneous order” often masked the fact that it was neoliberal theorists who were claiming the power to exercise the Schmittian “exception” (and hence constitute the sovereignty of the state) by defining things such as property rights, the extent of the franchise, constitutional provisions that limit citizen initiatives. As Scheuerman (1999, 216) writes about the comparison to Hayek, “For Carl Schmitt, the real question is who intervenes, and whose interests are to be served by intervention.”(ibid. KL 6009-6013)

I know for Reza what is key is not a return to some foundational text or normative script, but the never-ending and continuous process of revision of prescription/description: “Inhumanism is a nomenclature for the infeasibility of this one-time profession. It is a figure for the impossibility of ever putting the matter to rest once and for all.” In fact the closest he comes to an axiomatic statement is in defining the human as such: “To be human is a mark of a distinction between, on the one hand, the relation between mindedness and behavior through the intervention of discursive intentionality, and on the other hand, the relation between sentient intelligence and behavior in the absence of such mediation.” This marking of a distinction is as Niklas Luhmann reminds us is the thesis “that a system is not a unit, but a difference, and that one thus ends up with the problem that one has to imagine the unity of a difference”.3 The unity here being the concept of the “human”. As Reza remarks on the human he makes an important point: “It is a distinction between sentience as a strongly biological and natural category and sapience as a rational (not to be confused with logical) subject. The latter is a normative designation which is specified by entitlements and the responsibilities they bring about. It is important to note that the distinction between sapience and sentience is marked by a functional demarcation rather than a structural one.” That he aligns it with functionalism is commendable and key. As Carl Sachs commenting on Sellars and Brandom on this issue stated: “”I’d like to use Sellars’ distinction, which has become important to Brandom, between sentience and sapience. Let “sentience” refer to reliable differential responses to stimuli. Let “sapience” refer to conceptually structured relations of material inference. (One of the many reasons I like this contrast is that it forces into the open that by “Nature” we do not mean inert matter (hyle, res extensa) but animal embodiment. And one of Nietzsche’s great achievements, I think, was to put the question of our own animal embodiment back on the agenda.”4

Reza in further thoughts on this distinction continues, saying: “…it is still fully historical and open to naturalization, while at the same time being distinguished by its specific functional organization, its upgradable set of abilities and responsibilities, its cognitive and practical demands. The relation between sentience and sapience can be understood as a continuum that is not differentiable everywhere. While such a complex continuity might allow the naturalization of normative obligations at the level of sapience—their explanation in terms of naturalistic causes—it does not permit the extension of certain conceptual and descriptive resources specific to sapience (such as the particular level of mindedness, responsibilities, and, accordingly, normative entitlements) to sentience and beyond.”

This aligns well with a project of naturalization of intentionality as well. This is something R. Scott Bakker has been working on some time with his Blind-Brain Theory (BBT). (see The Last Magic Show). Yet, one of the key differences between the two thinkers is that for Reza we must keep that distinction alive between sentience and sapience whereas Bakker would be skeptical of such distinctions and see instead a continuous monistic interplay between brain and its functions. All the philosophical bracketing of distinctions and complexification surrounding demarcations between biological and normative spaces of reason would be once again to reduce what is natural to the unnatural distinctions of philosophical speculation. As Reza stipulates only through the “stabilization of communication through concepts and modes of inference involved in conception, the cultural evolution as well as the conceptual accumulation and refinement required for the evolution of knowledge as a shared enterprise would be impossible”. That is key to Reza’s project, this need to save conceptuality and modes of inference involved in the creation of further conceptuality, otherwise for him knowledge would no evolve. But is this true? Is this collective project of knowledge as a “system of discursive practices” bound to this need? Bakker would probably scoff as such a notion, seeing it as just one more complexification and mystification in the history of such projects. As Bakker iterates over and over we are our ‘medial neglect’: “our ignorance is our fundamental medium, the ‘stuff’ from which the distinctions pertaining to actual cognition are hewn (Cognition Obscura (Reprise) 2013) As Bakker remarks:

This is the implicit foundational moral of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave: How can shadows come to seem real? Well, simply occlude any information telling you otherwise. Next to nothing, in other words, can strike us as everything there is, short of access to anything more–such as information pertaining to the possibility that there is something more. And this, I’m arguing, is the best way of looking at human metacognition at any given point in time, as a collection of prisoners chained inside the cave of our skull assuming they see everything there is to see for the simple want of information–that the answer lies in here somehow! On the one hand we have the question of just what neural processing gets ‘lit up’  in conscious experience (say, via information integration or EMF effects) given that an astronomical proportion of it remains ‘dark.’ What are the contingencies underwriting what accesses what for what function? How heuristically constrained are those processes? On the other hand we have the problem of metacognition, the question of the information and cognitive resources available for theoretical reflection on the so-called ‘first-person.’ And, once again, what are the contingencies underwriting what accesses what for what function? How heuristically constrained are those processes?(ibid.)

The point being that we are blind to our ignorance, thinking we have sufficient information to pursue our knowledge projects when in fact we are bound only in a dark cave of ignorance ruled by sub-processes of the brain that we have no self-reflective access too. In a final surmise Bakker pointedly tells us: “Placed on this continuum of availabilty, the assumption that introspection, despite all the constraints it faces, gets enough of the information it needs to at least roughly cognize mind and consciousness as they are becomes at best, a claim crying out for justification, and at worst, wildly implausible. To say philosophy lacks the information and/or cognitive resources it requires to resolve its debates is a platitude, one so worn as not chafe any contemplative skin whatsoever.”(ibid.)

Yet, as Reza finally admits the best we can do in his opinion is to accept that ultimately,” the necessary content as well as the real possibility of human rests on the ability of sapience—as functionally distinct from sentience—to practice inference and approach non-canonical truth by entering the deontic game of giving and asking for reasons”. So we are admittedly bound within the cave as prisoners asking those outside or who visit us in to an endless game theoretic of “giving and asking for reasons”. Is this all we are capable of? Is this it? Have two-thousand years of philosophy come down to a series of questions in a dark hole? I kid of course, yet one must think this through. And, yet, we admit with Reza that there is no referee, no one outside the system, no Big Other to intervene in our situation and help us along our way. As he states it: “It is a game solely in the sense of involving error-tolerant, rule-based practices conducted in the absence of a referee, in which taking-as-true through thinking (the mark of a believer) and making-true through acting (the mark of an agent) are constantly contrasted, gauged, and calibrated. It is a dynamic feedback loop in which the expansion of one frontier provides the other with new alternatives and opportunities for diversifying its space and pushing back its boundaries according to its own specifications.”

But where is this space? Is this the “space of reasons” we’re pushing back? The actual world of experience or the natural continuum? Or something else? Agent or Believer? A never ending game in a black cave of ignorance? Or is it actually the world of discursive practices in which as he tells “is the capacity to engage discursive practices in the way that pragmatism describes it”? Is this a return to the Linguistic Turn, to the textual universe of discursive practices, of Foucault but with a difference? As he remarks and I share in full:

Discursive practices constitute the game of giving and asking for reasons and outlining the space of reason as a landscape of navigation rather than as a priori access to explicit norms. The capacity to engage discursive practices is what functionally distinguishes sapience from sentience. Without such a capacity, human is only a biological fact that does not by itself yield any propositional contentfulness of the kind that demands a special form of conduct and value attribution and appraisal. Without this key aspect, speaking about the history of human risks reducing the social construction to a biological supervenience while depriving history of its possibilities for intervention and reorientation.

So like an infonaut or cybertravelor of the discursive algorithms demarcating the internal maps he tries of distinguish us as being those creatures who have the capacity “to engage discursive practices”, and it is this that defines us a human: as sentient creatures rather than sapient biological machines of the natural order. As Sach’s reminds us it was Nietzsche who also reduced sapience to sentience. That is, Nietzsche refuses to acknowledge the distinction between “the game of asking for and giving reasons” (Sellars) and patterns of activity and reactivity that characterize all living things.(ibid.) I would add that Nick Land does this as well in Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007:

It is ceasing to be a matter of how we think about technics, if only because technics is increasingly thinking about itself. It might still be a few decades before artificial intelligences surpass the horizon of biological ones, but it is utterly superstitious to imagine that the human dominion of terrestrial culture is still marked out in centuries, let alone in some metaphysical perpetuity. The high road to thinking no longer passes through a deepening of human cognition, but rather through a becoming inhuman of cognition, a migration of cognition out into the emerging planetary technosentience reservoir, into ‘dehumanized landscapes … emptied spaces’1 where human culture will be dissolved. Just as the capitalist urbanization of labour abstracted it in a parallel escalation with technical machines, so will intelligence be transplanted into the purring data zones of new software worlds in order to be abstracted from an increasingly obsolescent anthropoid particularity, and thus to venture beyond modernity. Human brains are to thinking what mediaeval villages were to engineering: antechambers to experimentation, cramped and parochial places to be.5

Reza instead wants to hold onto the notion of this distinction between sapience/sentience which is a conserving move and one that squarely puts him in the pack of philosophers who are trying to save this troubled world of philosophy. As Reza argues “deprived of the capacity to enter the space of reason through discursive practices, being human is barred from meaning anything in the sense of practice in relation to content. Action is reduced to meaning “just do something,” collectivity can never be methodological or expressed in terms of a synthesis of different abilities to envision and achieve a common task, and making commitment through linking action and understanding is untenable.” Yet, again is this true? And, if so what does this tell us about our current predicament? For Reza it’s simple, it if is true then “We might just as well replace human with whatever we wish so as to construct a stuff-oriented philosophy and a nonhuman ethics where “to be a thing” simply warrants being good to each other, or to vegetables for that matter.” But this would be too easy and I think he is here trying to escape the challenge of Nietzsche and Bataille and Land and Bakker with nihilistic gestures of evasion rather than confronting the posthuman dilemma. In fact he never even uses the term posthuman in his essay, only human, anti-human, and inhuman. Why? We have to assume he is not ignorant of this world of thought and discursive practices, yet he steers his though by excluding the posthuman as even thinkable as if it was not an object worthy of philosophical speculation.

Yet, he continues down the path of a planned collective, or collaborative project telling us that it is in the “space of reason that harbors the functional kernel of a genuine collectivity, a collaborative project of practical freedom referred to as “we” whose boundaries are not only negotiable but also constructible and synthetic.” Why synthetic? Why connected to some intuitive notion of experience? This whole notion of constructability, of the social construction of reality as an ongoing, dynamic process that is (and must be) reproduced by people acting on their interpretations and their knowledge of it bogs us in central planning committees etc.. I mean the basic tenets of such notions as social constructs as facets of reality and objects of knowledge that are not “given” by nature, that must be constantly maintained and re-affirmed in order to persist. This as he calls it “revisionary” stance that is interminable seems exactly the neoliberal project exactly. The injunction to act in the face of inadequate epistemic warrant is the very soul of “constructivism,” an orientation shared (curiously enough) with the field of science studies. Classical liberalism and Burkean conservatism, by contrast, disavowed this precept. The fact that during one phase of his career Hayek railed against something he called “constructivism” should not obscure this important fact. This becomes transmuted below into various arguments for the existence of a strong state as both producer and guarantor of a stable market society.(Mirowski, The Road from Mont Pelerin)

Reza’s constructivism comes out grandly in this statement on a revision of the human:

Revising and constructing human is the very definition of committing to humanity. Lacking this perpetual revision and construction, the commitment part of committing to humanity does not make sense at all. But also insofar as humanity cannot be defined without locating it in the space of reasons (the sapience argument), committing to humanity is tantamount to complying with the revisionary vector of reason and constructing humanity according to an autonomous account of reason.(ibid.)

What is an “autonomous account of reason”? As Reza puts it: “In a nutshell, to be human is a struggle. The aim of this struggle is to respond to the demands of constructing and revising human through the space of reasons.” So it is this endless construction and reconstruction of the models of humanity in an autonomous space of reasons (i.e., algorithms of information processing, cyber-modeling, abstract machines, et. al.). And, yet, one asks who are these “we”, this thought collective that are constructing humanity? Is this a Left version of the neoliberal thought collective so well documented by such works as Angus Burgin,  The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets since the Depression, Daniel Stedman Jones in Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics, and Philip Mirowski in The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective among scores of others?

And, like a neoliberal insider Reza attacks current Marxist discursive practice as kitsch: “By virtue of its refusal to recognize the autonomy of reason and to systematically invest in an intervening—that is, revisionary and constructive—attitude toward human and toward norms implicit in social practices, contemporary Marxism largely fails to produce norms of action and understanding. In effect, it subtracts itself from the future of humanity.” As if this failure was even what the Marxian project is about. This whole commitment on Reza’s part to a moral normativity belies the project as a planned collective enterprise of some intellectual elite: “Only through the construction of what it means to be human can norms of committing to humanity be produced. Only by revising existing norms through norms that have been produced is it possible to assess norms and above all evaluate what it means to be human.” Are they going to draw up some normative script, a new secular scripture to guide the ignorant masses to the promised land, the utopian fabled land of plenty? I satirize but am leery of such efforts. In a pointed attack on current Marxian theory he remarks: “Consumption of norms without producing any is the concrete reality of today’s Marxist critical theory.” Is this true? Have Badio, Zizek, Johnston, Balibar, Bruno Bosteels,  Susan Black-Morass, Jodi Dean, Frank Ruda, and Emmanuel Terray just to name a few of our contemporary Leftist and Marixian intelligentsia fall into this quagmire. I’d say not. Each has formulated a normative and ethical account in one form or another.

Yet, he attacks contemporary Marxism in which he perceives that it has ceased to produce norms and refuses to undertake a constructive attitude toward human “in the sense of a deportment governed by the functional autonomy of reason means ceasing to revise what it means to be human.” Why? He gives us his answer:

Because norms are assessed and revised by newer norms that are produced through various modes of construction, complex social practices, and the unlocking of new abilities for going back and forth between saying and doing. Since being human is distinguished by its capacity to enter the game of giving and asking for reasons, the construction of human ought to be in the direction of further singling out the space of reason through which human differentiates itself from nonhuman, sapience from sentience.

But why should this path between saying and doing be the magic key to a new humanity? And why is it that Marxists should enter into a “game of giving and asking for reasons”? And, most of all, why is it we should be setting up barriers between the human and nonhuman, sapience and sentience? Isn’t this to revert to the liberal and neoliberal dogmas of intentional consciousness and the quagmires of the enlightenment project of an autonomous Reason that we have been seeking to overcome in recent debates? Laying the bolt he tries a final jibe at what he perceives as current kitsch Marixian theory without ever naming names, or even bringing in any supporting evidence (strange): “It is in the wake of this antihumanism or hostility toward ramifications of committing to human that the identification of kitsch Marxist agendas with humanism appears at best as a farce, and at worst as a critical Ponzi scheme for devoted humanists.”

Yet, in the end what he wants is a return to a full blown humanism/inhumanism:

In its mission to link the commitment to humanism to complex abilities and commitments, inhumanism appears as a force that stands against both the apathy of resignation and the active antihumanism implicit in practical negativity as the fashionable stance of kitsch Marxism today. Inhumanism, as will be argued in the next installment of this essay, is both the extended elaboration of the ramifications of making a commitment to humanity, and the practical elaboration of the content of human as provided by reason and the sapient’s capacity to functionally distinguish itself and engage in discursive social practices.

Staking his conceptual rigor in the distinction that what makes us human is our capacity for discursive social practices and the elaboration of normative rules to guide us under the aegis of autonomous Reason seems to me a rearguard action and a conservative move back toward the enlightenment project at best. How can this be considered an inhumanism? Robinson Jefferies would be a better example of the Inhumanist stance:

Humanity is the start of the race; I say
Humanity is the mould to break away from, the crust to break through, the coal to break into fire,
The atom to be split.

Tragedy that breaks man’s face and a white fire flies out of it; vision that fools him
Out of his limits, desire that fools him out of his limits, unnatural crime, inhuman science,
Slit eyes in the mask; wild loves that leap over the walls of nature, the wild fence vaulter science,
Useless intelligence of far stars, dim knowledge of the spinning demons that make an atom,
These break, these pierce, these deify, praising their God shrilly with fierce voices: not in a man’s shape
He approves the praise, he that walks lightning-naked on the Pacific, that laces the suns with planets,
The heart of the atom with electrons: what is humanity in this cosmos? For him, the last
Least taint of a trace in the dregs of a solution; for itself, the mould to break away from, the coal
To break into fire, the atom to be split.

Robinson Jeffers, The Inhumanist

Or, as Nick Land once remarked:

From Kant onwards exploratory philosophy ceased to generate the outcomes favourable to established (theistic) power, and we were suddenly told: “this game is over, let’s call it a draw”. The authoritarian tradition of European reason tried to pull the plug on the great voyages at exactly the point they first became interesting, which is to say: atheistic, inhuman, experimental, and dangerous.

– Nick Land, , Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007

Is Reza departed the challenge? At one time he seemed to me to be a member of that tribe of experimental thinkers who would show us the way forward, but of late seems to be falling into step with that whole tradition of normativity that stinks of moralism and central planning committees of collective thought tanks, etc.  Has he lost the nerve of his Cyclonpedic nerve? Is the old immersion in the atheistic, inhuman, experimental, and dangerous now become a thing of the past? Is he becoming a defender of the tribunal of Reason? Just another normative hack filtering the wisdom of autonomy?

**Go to the next post in series which is a reading of his second essay: Reza Negarestani: Back to the Future.


1. Reza Negarestani, The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human (e-flux journal 2014)
2. The Road from Mont Pelerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective (Kindle Locations 5780-5783). Kindle Edition.
3. Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011-04-15). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Ideas Explained) (Kindle Locations 761-762). Open Court. Kindle Edition.
4. Carl Sachs, Nietzsche, Habermas and factual validity distinction . . .(2005)
5. Land, Nick (2013-07-01). Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 3980-3988). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.

5 thoughts on “Reza Negarestani: On Inhumanism

  1. Pingback: Reza Negarestani: Back to the Future | noir realism

  2. Pingback: The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labour of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain

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