“Autonomy means that we make the worlds that we are grow.”
– Tikkun, The Cybernetic Manifesto
“If contingency is to be thought absolutely, it must be thought independently of the map of possibilities.”
– Elie Ayache, The Medium of Contingency
Our notions of voluntarism would arise out of the nominalist traditions of the late Middle Ages theology of such thinkers as John Duns Scotus (c. 1265-1308) and William of Ockham (c. 1288-1349) who inaugurated the modern secular separation of nature from the supernatural and the concomitant divorce of philosophy, physics, and ethics from theology that was reinforced by influential early modern figures such as Francisco Suarez (1548-1616).1
As Pope Benedict XVI would remark “Duns Scotus developed a point to which modernity is very sensitive. It is the topic of liberty and its relation with the will and with the intellect. Our author stresses liberty as a fundamental quality of the will, initiating an approach of a voluntaristic tendency, which developed in contrast with the so-called Augustinian and Thomistic intellectualism. For St. Thomas Aquinas, who follows St. Augustine, liberty cannot be considered an innate quality of the will, but the fruit of the collaboration of the will and of the intellect.”
William of Ockham would affirm the supremacy of the divine will over the divine intellect, and in doing so would encounter a problem: if universals are real (i.e. natures and essences exist in things as Aquinas said they did following Aristotle) then voluntarism cannot be true. Ockham’s solution was unique: he simply denied of the reality of universals. Ockham adopts a conceptualist position on universals: while the universal (or concept) exists in the mind beholding a certain particular, it does not exist in the particular itself. Because there are no universals or common natures, there can only be a collection of unrelated individuals (and arguably the rise of modern individualism). With universals removed from the picture, God is free to will as he chooses.
Nominalism and Voluntarism became eternal bedfellows from that time forward. Yet, they would not always be so… therein lies the tale! With universals removed humans, too, are free to do and make as they see fit. For only what we make can we understand. And in our age we are learning to re-engineer ourselves beyond the confines of those old theological norms that once constrained us to a false equilibrium, and thereby free to experiment in new modes of being and rationality. Beyond the balance lays the contingent realm of creation rather than possibilities, only the new Promethean dares to enter that medium of exchange.
A Modern Prometheanism: Ray Brassier and the Critics
“Voluntarism denotes those philosophers who generally agree, not only in their revolt against excessive intellectualism, but also in their tendency to conceive the ultimate nature of reality as some form of will, hence to lay stress on activity as the main feature of experience, and to base their philosophy on the psychological fact of the immediate consciousness of volitional activity.”
– Susan Stebbing, Pragmatism and French Voluntarism
Ray Brassier in contradistinction to the above tells us that a modern Prometheanism “requires the reassertion of subjectivism, but a subjectivism without selfhood, which articulates an autonomy without voluntarism (471)”.2 He will discover in Martin Heidegger a twentieth century critique of metaphysical voluntarism as his starting point: it will be by way of an essay by Jean-Pierre Dupuy ‘Some Pitfalls in the Philosophical Foundations of Nanoethics’ (download: pdf)3 In Dupuy’s essay the link between technological Prometheanism and Heidegger’s critique of subjectivism come by way Hannah Arendt (471). Brassier will set this religious critique of Prometheanism against the backdrop of both the neoliberal Prometheans found in transhumanist discourse and speculation, and his own account within the Marxist tradition that has been neglected by what Williams and Srnicek in their Accelerationist Manifesto term derisively the Kitsch Marxism of our day.
Brassier will ask: Why Prometheanism? Isn’t this a reversion to myth, to pre-Enlightenment modes of thought and behavior. Yes and no. The central key for Brassier is not so much what the left makes of such notions as it is that the neoliberal Right is banking on it. In fact in Dupuy’s essay we discover, as Brassier will testify, that the U.S. government as well as the so called transhumanist operatives in the private sector are forging alliances in politics and biomedicine for a human enhancement ideology that is centered on the converging NBIC technologies (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology and cognitive sciences). As he states it the political Right advocates such a technological Prometheanism because “it renders possible the technological re-engeneering of human nature” (472). One can see in this an almost lateralization or flattening of the immortality complex at the heart of Christianity or its Secularized Religion in a neoliberal mode. Ever since Alan Harrington published his The Immortalist (1977) with its vaunting cry that “Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable”, the rise of a transhumanist vision became the order of the day for certain neoliberal mindsets.
Dupuy’s religious critique of this illusionary science of transhumanism as the systematic conflation of ontological indetermination with epistemic uncertainty tells us that : “The [advocates of transhumanism] convert what is in fact an ontological problem about the structure of reality into an epistemic problem about the limits of knowledge” (472). What the transhumanists have done Brassier (using Heidegger’s metaphysical assumptions) is to collapse and flatten humanity as existence and humanity as essence, conflating the two by encouraging us to think we can modify the properties of human nature-existence using the same technics that have proved so successful with other natural entities (473). Dupuy will rely on this gnostic self or essence (Heidegger’s Dasein) as the central dictum by which he hopes to salvage the human equilibrium. His critique will take in everything from fables of Golem’s (think Frankenstein or Meyrink’s Golem, etc.) and other failures along the path of transhumanist mythology (i.e., hermetic traditions of test-tube homunculus’ etc.).
Dupuy after Arendt would posit the notion of a ‘fragile equilibrium’ between what is made and what is given by human nature and its conditionings, and it is against the transhumanist agenda that they can intervene in this fragile equilibrium “between human shaping, and that which shapes the shaping – whether given by God or Nature – that Prometheanism threatens” (474). Brassier will remind us that Heidegger would radicalize Kant’s notion of finitude of cognition. Kant would incorporate a view that God being infinite could know things as they are (i.e., things-in-themselves), but that humans being finite could only know things “partially and incompletely” (476).
Brassier will go to the core of the conflict that Dupuy and Arendt see in such transhumanist discourses for human enhancement as breaking of the pact between the given and the made, the fragile equilibrium between human finitude as an ontological fact and its transcendence as Dasein. He will put it pointedly: “Prometheanism denies the ontologisation of finitude” (478). He follows Dupuy’s reasoning through his many works on early cybernetic theory on through his religious works in late life, understanding that from Dupuy’s view it was the whole philosophical heritage of mechanistic philosophy culminating in cybernetic theory that would produce the notion that as we understand ourselves as nothing more than contingently generated natural phenomenon, the less able are we to define what we should be (483). Because of this Brassier remarks our “self-objectification deprives us of the normative resources we need to be able to say that we ought to be this way rather than that” (383).
Brassier then will buy into the Viconian notion that humans can truly only understand what they have made: “Only what is humanly made is humanly knowable” (494). Giambattista Vico (1668—1744) would offer an old theme:
Verum esse ipsum factum, the truth is the made. Yet, Vico would twist this in his New Science by saying that “as rational metaphysics teaches that man becomes all things by understanding them, this imaginative metaphysics shows that man becomes all things by not understanding them (NS, 405). The verum-factum principle holds that one can know the truth in what one makes. Vico writes, “For the Latins, verum (the true) and factum (what is made) are interchangeable, or to use the customary language of the Schools, they are convertible (Ancient Wisdom 45).” This would be the idea of the true (verum) and the made (factum) are convertible: verification is fabrication, fact is fabrication; homo faber, man the forger; at his forge, forging as Joyce would say “the uncreated conscience of his race” (Finnegan’s Wake). Or in the parlance of our current breed of speculative philosophy: re-ontologizing the uncreated system that is the inhuman core of the human. Luciano Floridi will tell us that what is happening in this process is the blurring of the distinction between reality and virtuality; the blurring of the distinction between human, machine and nature; the reversal from information scarcity to information abundance; and the shift from the primacy of stand-alone things, properties, and binary relations, to the primacy of interactions, processes and networks. (see my The Onlife Initiative: Luciano Floridi and ICT Philosophy)
Floridi sums his own stance up saying “as far as we can tell, the ultimate nature of reality is informational, that is, it makes sense to adopt Level of Abstractions that commit our theories to a view of reality as mind-independent and constituted by structural objects that are neither substantial nor material (they might well be but we have no need to suppose them to be so ) but cohering clusters of data, not in the alphanumeric sense of the word, but in equally common sense differences de re, i.e., mind-independent, concrete, relational points of lack of uniformity, what have been defined … as daedomena.
Daedomena (‘data’ in Greek). Daedomena are not to be confused with environmental data. They are pure data or proto-epistemic data, that is, data before they are epistemically interpreted. As ‘fractures in the fabric of Being’, they can only be posited as an external anchor of our information, for dedomena are never accessed or elaborated independently of a level of abstraction. They can be reconstructed as ontological requirements, like Kant’s noumena or Locke’s substance: they are not epistemically experienced, but their presence is empirically inferred from , and required by, experience. (The Ethics of Information, pp. 85-86)
Yet, as Brassier relates it Dupuy falls into the old trap of essentialism in his religious diagnosis of Prometheanism in attributing to the human an essence that can only be construed as divine (484): an almost Platonic or Gnostic reversion to a substantial formalist self, the abiding presence of the ghost in the machine ideology that haunts secularist thought and science to this day (i.e., a philosopho-theological throwback to pre-critical thought). This leads Dupuy into the idea that even if we could create life that we shouldn’t do it, that it would upset the fragile balance between the human divine essence and the natural order, etc. (i.e., a reversion to the notion of hubris, an overreaching of the limits of the human that can only bring retribution by the gods or God). As Brassier points out Dupuy in his religious diagnosis does not tell us why the upsetting of this balance would be destructive (495).
At this point in the essay Brassier will turn the tables on Dupuy and discover in this very notion of the equilibrium a hidden element that he finds objectionably theological (495). The point being that for Dupuy the world was designed, made (i.e., a creationist argument); and that instead the truth of things – as Brassier will suggest, is that the world was not made: “it is simply there, uncreated, without reason or purpose” (495) which strikes at the heart of modern nihilism (see Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound). Because of this Brassier will see a new freedom, a release from the false equilibrium, and a way forward: a speculative reasoning for why we as humans should not fear participating in this uncreated world as creators ourselves. “Promethenism is the attempt to participate in the creation of the world without having to defer to a divine blueprint” (495). This leads to another conclusion that if the world is without reason and purpose then whatever disequilibrium we might introduce is no more harmful than the disequilibrium that already exists in the universe (495).
Since the whole edifice of the metaphysics of equilibrium can no longer be justified the power of separation between the made and the given no longer harbors any dire hold over us (i.e., no big bad Other gods of God to bring retribution down on our heads for hubris). Yet, what does remain is the need for certain rules-based systems created for and by humans themselves to constrain the paths taken in this new brave world (i.e., certain normative navigational devices to map our way forward (see Negarestani in accelerationist reader). For Brassier the ways we understand the world through our interactions and productive operations on it are part of a continuous cycle of redeterminations that are interminable (i.e., no final resting place to set our truths, nothing but process till either we are the universe ends), each shifting through phases that superseding the oppositions between order and disorder, recognizing in the “catastrophic overturning of intention, and the often disturbing consequences of our technological ingenuity” (486) the truth of our own future humanity.
Brassier will discover in the fiction of J.G. Ballard the truth that “all progress is savage and violent”. He will see no objection in this truth: “the fact that progress is savage and violent does not necessarily disqualify it as progress” (486). In fact he will insist that there “is indeed a savagery recapitulated in rationality” (486). He says we can wallow in our moral outrage and sentimental justifications for accepting the existing state of things. Else we can follow Marx’s own Promethean project and enter into its core notions fully aware that it entails nothing less than the re-engineering of humanity and re-ontologizing our world on a more rational basis (487).
Brassier will bring everything round to his notions of subjectivation from which he started: that a modern Prometheanism “requires the reassertion of subjectivism, but a subjectivism without selfhood, which articulates an autonomy without voluntarism (471)”. He will turn to Alain Badiou’s account of the relation between event and subjectivation and find it objectionable, yet will also discover the need to reconnect his account of subjectivation to an analysis of the biological, economic, and historical processes that condition rational subjectivation (387). Such is the great task before us, Brassier remarks, a new Prometheanism that “promises an overcoming of the opposition between reason and imagination: reason is fuelled by imagination, but it can also remake the limits of imagination” (487).
Sounds like Brassier has his life’s work set before him. Glad to see him rehabilitating the concept of imagination constrained by speculative reason, and realizing the artistic impulse might be the spark that lights the minds of a generation. Unless we can reach a wider audience through more pragmatic forms such as science fiction, novels, poetry, painting, etc. it will be difficult. Philosophy is for the few who trouble to dive into the cultural abyss. Very few average cognitariat much less the average readers ever get past the base notions in philosophy. This is not some elitist crap, just part of culture we live in at the moment. So we will need some better vehicle of transmission if we are to capture this new generation: film, art, novels, poetry, etc. will all be needed.
One of the difficulties with all of this is that the Left is behind the eight ball so to speak: the finances to support such great projects is massive in itself and we may have the ideas, but our funds are few so the greatest task will be how best to bring so a vision to fruition without becoming capitalists ourselves. Or, maybe this is the point that we will have to radicalize capitalism, join it and work from within its husk to create and forge this new world by sloughing off neoliberalism from within just like they sloughed the left during the era from the Great Depression till now. Is this after all the true mission of the manifesto in its base scenario? Will we need to educate and train a new generation of capitalists to think like us? A radicalization of both capitalism and democracy will entail such a gambit. Is this not what we are seeing in the transformative aspects China?
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1. #Accelerate# the accelerationist reader. Editors Robin Mackay & Armen Avanessian (Urbanomic, 2014)
2. Adrian Pabst. Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy (Kindle Locations 946-948). Kindle Edition.
3. Teachers College, Columbia University. Aesthetics of Technology. (aestech wiki 2013)