I didn’t have a manifesto. I had some discontent. It seemed to me that midcentury mainstream American science fiction had often been triumphalist and militaristic, a sort of folk propaganda for American exceptionalism. I was tired of America-as-the-future, the world as a white monoculture, the protagonist as a good guy from the middle class or above. I wanted there to be more elbow room. I wanted to make room for antiheroes.
…….– William Gibson, The Paris Review
William Gibson reminisces the future of science fiction’s past in an interview on the Paris Review. Critical of the typical 50’s fare of SF with its Saturday matinee box office appeal, the sunny vision of a prosperous chrome filled futurism and progressive shenanigans, a world of Jetson humor and Asimov industriousness, Gibson says he wanted to get down and dirty, create a form of speculative fiction that was more ‘naturalistic,’ and ‘could crank up the resolution’ on our perceptions of technology and the future of humans, give us a little more of that video game feel “before the invention of fractal dirt” where one could see “dirt in the corners”.
I remember reading Thomas Pynchon a year after I’d come back from an American Nightmare. I speak of Viet Nam of course, a nightmare best left in the sink hole of historians and novelists, documentaries and satire, eulogy and a Wall of the Dead. Sometimes I take a peak into that dark place within where death is more like a friend than an enemy and feel a trembling; a sickening unto death, as Kierkegaard would say at one point when the world lay too heavy on his mind. Even on returning I was a zombie walking, one of the living dead; a sort of ghost seeking the habitation of his former self: a man who’d seen the abyss but had not survived its wounds, instead I was a walking open-wounded abyss in amber smudges of corruption; an open bleeding death awaiting its final unmaking. Then Pynchon happened. I can still recount the moment I read this monstrosity of a novel or epic satyrs play – what I call the banana scene, the moment I was awakened once again to the life of the senses, that I’d suddenly emerged from the death throws of ennui and dark agnosia – and, believed in my body again, believed in the natural cunning of reason and existence; in its organic trust in reality, its ability to receive and interpret the messages of the senses, to smell the rotting earth or the pungent sweetness of fried bananas:
Now there grows among all the rooms, replacing the night’s old smoke, alcohol and sweat, the fragile, musaceous odor of Breakfast: flowery, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight, taking over not so much through any brute pungency or volume as by the high intricacy to the weaving of its molecules, sharing the conjuror’s secret by which— though it is not often Death is told so clearly to fuck off— the living genetic chains prove even labyrinthine enough to preserve some human face down ten or twenty generations . . . so the same assertion-through-structure allows this war morning’s banana fragrance to meander, repossess, prevail. Is there any reason not to open every window, and let the kind scent blanket all Chelsea? As a spell, against falling objects. . . .1
Yes, as a spell against death, against the extreme force and weight of war, pain, misery, politics, hate, injustice – and, most of all the memories of dying friends on battlefields one can never again leave, where one’s own mind cracked and splintered and fell into the bleeding earth among soldiers and rose up like a great howling of madness…. a scream
A SCREAMING COMES ACROSS THE SKY. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.
– Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow
William Gibson: Thomas Pynchon and the Roots of Cyberpunk
In another interview Gibson when asked if Thomas Pynchon had influenced his own work said simply:
Pynchon has been a favorite writer and a major influence all along. In many ways I see him as almost the start of a certain mutant pop culture imagery with esoteric historical and scientific information. Pynchon is a kind of mythic hero of mine, and I suspect that if you talk with a lot of recent SF writers you’ll find they’ve all read Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) several times and have been very much influenced by it. I was into Pynchon early on- I remember seeing a New York Times review of V. when it first came out- I was just a kid- and thinking, Boy, that sounds like some really weird shit!
He admits the moment when he came upon the very notion of cyberspace, when it suddenly became real, congealing out of experience like a thunderbolt, a Eureka! moment: ” I was walking down Granville Street, Vancouver’s version of “The Strip,” and I was looking into one of the video arcades. I could see in the physical intensity of their postures how rapt the kids inside were. It was like one of those closed systems out of a Pynchon novel: a feedback loop with photons coming off the screens into the kids’ eyes, neurons moving through their bodies, and electrons moving through the video game. These kids clearly believed in the space games projected. Everyone I know who works with computers seems to develop a belief that there’s some kind of actual space behind the screen, someplace you can’t see but you know is there.”
Many of us remember David Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome (1983) that one critic castigated as ‘[s]imultaneously stupefying and boring, “Videodrome” is too extreme a blunder to survive exposure to a justifiably disillusioned horror-movie public’.2 I remember laughing at it uneasily one Friday night with my girlfriend at the time, little knowing that Cronenberg’s film was a prefiguration of all those cannibalistic machines of future film and critique, the predator machines whose liquid intelligence would suck us into its networks like a bad joke from Marx’s notions of alienation: “The science which compels the inanimate limbs of the machinery, by their construction, to act purposefully, as an automaton, does not exist in the worker’s consciousness, but rather acts upon him through the machine as an alien power. (1858)” Marx in the Grundrisse would speak of this alienating power as ‘capital’ itself, saying,
The worker therefore sells labour as a simple, predetermined exchange value, determined by a previous process—he sells labour itself as objectified labour; i.e. he sells labour only in so far as it already objectifies a definite amount of labour, hence in so far as its equivalent is already measured, given; capital buys it as living labour, as the general productive force of wealth; activity which increases wealth.It is clear, therefore, that the worker cannot become rich in this exchange, since, in exchange for his labour capacity as a fixed, available magnitude, he surrenders its creative power, like Esau his birthright for a mess of pottage. Rather, he necessarily impoverishes himself, as we shall see further on, because the creative power of his labour establishes itself as the power of capital, as an alien power confronting him.3 (Marx, p. 244).
Here we see all those great horror scenarios prefigured, of the machinic intelligence at the heart of capitalism, it’s ‘creative power’ is established by through an objectify process in which humans externalize their own creative power, their intelligence in machines; and, in inverse relation to this strange and bewildering alienating process the machine reverses the scenario and becomes the master and alien power of capital over his/her labors, dreams, and life. We are – as the cliché goes: “Our own worst enemies!” As Fredric Jameson in his critique would say of technologies of reproduction – the power of capital to reprogram the human social body into its own image: the ultimate colonization under late capitalism and the ultimate penetration of technology into subjectivity that brings with it the enslavement of humans to the desires and goals of global capitalism. Our intelligence and desires have been cannibalized into the greater systems of mediatainment that in return decomposes and recomposes the socio-cultural body in an ongoing process of subjectifications without end.
Capitaloscene: The End of Privacy, Property, and the Liberal Subject
As Jean Baudrillard (seemingly fallen below the wire in our current critical environment) once stated a pungent truth about this strange and uncanny situation (4, p. 132):
I’ve discussed aspects of the end of Sovereignty which is dissolving subjective, familial, national and other boundaries between private/public formations in another context in End of Sovereignty: Bare Life and the Coming Civil-War? as well as Secular Ecstasy: Kant and the Capitalist Violence of Reason, along with the impact of humanity in The Capitalocene: – China Miéville and the Limits of Utopia. Already in the Grundrisse Marx would describe this process at the heart of Capital:
As long as the means of labour remains a means of labour in the proper sense of the term, such as it is directly, historically, adopted by capital and included in its realization process, it undergoes a merely formal modification, by appearing now as a means of labour not only in regard to its material side, but also at the same time as a particular mode of the presence of capital, determined by its total process — as fixed capital. But, once adopted into the production process of capital, the means of labour passes through different metamorphoses, whose culmination is the machine, or rather, an automatic system of machinery (system of machinery: the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system), set in motion by an automaton, a moving power that moves itself; this automaton consisting of numerous mechanical and intellectual organs, so that the workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages. (Grundrisse, p. 620)
Already here in this passage would hide the kernel of all those future sciences of computing, biogenetics, information and communications as “a moving power that moves itself,” in which human intelligence mutates, transforms, and metamorphosises into a machinic system in which the “workers themselves are cast merely as its conscious linkages”.
Rise of the Machines: The Anthropocene, the Singularity and the End of Western Civilization
What we were prior to our latest batch of technology is, in a way, unknowable.
– William Gibson, The Art of Fiction
The point of the Singularity and the notion of inhumanism or the End of Humanity is not that homo sapiens will vanish into the dustbins of history, but that homo sapiens as a species no longer exists as such. In that past few years we’ve all heard the notion that Nature as “Nature” – as a concept of something out there, something the Romantics once dreamed of as the natural realm has dissolved into its mythical components and in its place the artificial reigns. Some might cry “Oh, that’s just warmed over social constructionism…”. Not. As Timothy Morton in his The Ecological Thought would point out this Romantic view of a “wild nature,” a Nature with a big ‘N’, as “over there” beyond us, that wild untamed world of animals and the unknown fierceness of existence:
thinking, including ecological thinking, has set up “Nature” as a reified thing in the distance, under the sidewalk, on the other side where the grass is always greener, preferably in the mountains, in the wild.5
That great history of the concept of wilderness by Max Oelschlaeger The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology would explore Kant’s notions of wilderness, nature, the wild through the reflections of the minds of five “poetic thinkers and thinking poets,” namely, Thoreau, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Robinson Jeffers and Gary Snyder. He’d be one of the first to argue against any. dubious reconstruction of the Paleolithic notion of a sacred, shared wilderness, whittling away at the modernists’ concepts of wild nature as “matter in motion.” The scientific revolution or Enlightenment project in particular is shown to have widened the fissure in our cultural idea of wilderness, between the idea of nature as our “magna mater”–an organic model of the cosmos–and modernist models in history, cosmology, philosophy, and even in the author’s survey of today’s ecology movement (from “resourcism” to eco-feminism). Oehlshlaeges, a cautious critic and reluctant prophet; nonetheless his proposed “postmodern idea of wilderness” swims against the currents of our intellectual history and invites criticism from members of many disciplines. He cleared the way toward our current notions of the Anthropocene.
This notion of the “Anthropocene” – which appears to have been used by Soviet scientists as early as the 1960s to refer to the Quaternary, the most recent geological period—was coined with a different sense in the 1980s by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and has been widely popularized by atmospheric chemist Paul J. Crutzen, who regards the influence of human behavior on Earth’s atmosphere in recent centuries as so significant as to constitute a new geological epoch for its lithosphere. A January 2016 paper in Science investigating climatic, biological, and geochemical signatures of human activity in sediments and ice cores suggested the era since the mid-20th century should be recognized as a distinct geological epoch from the Holocene.6
One of Paul J. Crutzen’s research interests is the Anthropocene. In 2000, in IGBP Newsletter 41, Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, to emphasize the central role of mankind in geology and ecology, proposed using the term anthropocene for the current geological epoch. In regard to its start, they said:
To assign a more specific date to the onset of the “anthropocene” seems somewhat arbitrary, but we propose the latter part of the 18th century, although we are aware that alternative proposals can be made (some may even want to include the entire holocene). However, we choose this date because, during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several “greenhouse gases”, in particular CO2 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt’s invention of the steam engine in 1784.
The point being that there is an interlocking history between the rise of liberal progressive society – with its attendant revolutions of the machine age, industrialism, automation, assembly line manufacturing, free market economy (so called neoliberalism), and the financialization of reality into the invisible and immaterialization of nature as commoditized resource for profit and exploitation. At the heart of this complex has been the systematic incorporation of nature, man, and his products into a vast System of Homogenized Information and Communications based on auto-reflexive patterns of accumulation and liquidation between the boundaries of the natural and artificial. As Zygmunt Bauman in Consuming Life describes it we are being captured by our products, made over into fully objective, public mode of operation and being, robotized and datafied as part of the reeducation and reprogramming of homo sapiens to serve the monocultural universalism in ways we have yet to fully understand:
The teenagers equipped with portable electronic confessionals are simply apprentices training and trained in the art of living in a confessional society – a society notorious for effacing the boundary which once separated the private from the public, for making it a public virtue and obligation to publicly expose the private, and for wiping away from public communication anything that resists being reduced to private confidences, together with those who refuse to confide them.7
On Becoming Inhuman: Reza Negarestani and the Autonomy of Reason
The Confessional Society is being initiated into machinic normativity, born of algorithmic culture based on what Reza Negarestani in several essays on e-flux (8) describes as the reprogramming of humans into inhumanistic systems:
Inhumanism is the extended practical elaboration of humanism; it is born out of a diligent commitment to the project of enlightened humanism. As a universal wave that erases the self-portrait of man drawn in sand, inhumanism is a vector of revision. It relentlessly revises what it means to be human by removing its supposed evident characteristics and preserving certain invariances. At the same time, inhumanism registers itself as a demand for construction, to define what it means to be human by treating human as a constructible hypothesis, a space of navigation and intervention.9
He sees this inhumanist project as an extension of and logical mutation or metamorphosis of the Enlightenment project of instrumental reason in its ongoing revisionist construction of the Promethean future: the training ground of a new “space of navigation and intervention” in which its mission to link a commitment to humanism along the vector of “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.” So in this sense it’s a continuation of Kant’s Sapre Aude: – “Dare to be wise!” – used it in the essay, “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” (1784).
In part two of that essay Reza would begin by “dissociating human significance from human glory,” and “resolving the content of conflation and extracting significance from its honorific residues, inhumanism then takes humanism to its ultimate conclusions,” saying,
by constructing a revisable picture of us that functionally breaks free from our expectations and historical biases regarding what this image should be, look like, or mean. For this reason, inhumanism, as it will be argued later, prompts a new phase in the systematic project of emancipation—not as a successor to other forms of emancipation but a critically urgent and indispensable addition to the growing chain of obligations.10
Indeed a powerful revision of the Kantian heritage of emancipation, but what does he mean by an “critically urgent and indispensable addition to the growing chain of obligations”? What he is referring to is the growing obligation to construct and emancipate reason: the autonomy of Reason: “It is the expression of the self-actualizing propensity of reason—a scenario wherein reason liberates its own spaces despite what naturally appears to be necessary or happens to be the case. Here “necessary” refers to an alleged natural necessity and should be distinguished from a normative necessity.” Using terms like “self-actualizing propensity of reason,” introduce both the notion of reason as both objective and autonomous from humans, as a power of its own, and the notion that it is our obligation to support this movement of autonomy of reason as a “normative necessity”. He’ll describe it this way:
The functional autonomy of reason consists in connecting simple oughts to complex oughts or normative necessities or abilities by way of inferential links or processes. A commitment to humanity, and, consequently, the autonomy of reason, requires not only specifying what oughts or commitment-abilities we are entitled to, but also developing new functional links and inferences that connect existing oughts to new oughts or obligations.
This whole normative system of interlocking necessities that binds us to a functionally autonomous reason of “new functional links and inferences that connect existing oughts to new oughts or obligations” seems almost algorithmic, as if this was part of a computing system, and humans were the thing being computed and programmed rather than emancipated. In fact in the first paragraph of Part II he makes this explicit:
Enlightened humanism as a project of commitment to humanity, in the entangled sense of what it means to be human and what it means to make a commitment, is a rational project. It is rational not only because it locates the meaning of human1 in the space of reasons as a specific horizon of practices, but also and more importantly, because the concept of commitment it adheres to cannot be thought or practiced as a voluntaristic impulse free of ramifications [my italics] and growing obligations. Instead, this is commitment as a rational system for navigating collateral commitments—their ramifications as well as their specific entitlements—that result from making an initial commitment.
So against any notion of voluntarism or “free will” in the matter we are exposed to a systematic system based on rational norms and commitments (an ethical system of command and control) – “a rational system for navigating collateral commitments”. In fact as we learn “the autonomy of reason is the autonomy of its power to revise, and commitment to the autonomy of reason (via the project of humanism) is a commitment to the autonomy of reason’s revisionary program over which human has no hold”. So this is a system that human’s have no power over, but are rather both victim and slave, committed to its ongoing project of autonomous reprogramming – he terms it revisioning – of the human. In one dark epiphany, a statement that is at the core of this project admits its mission, the erasure of the human as such:
Inhumanism is exactly the activation of the revisionary program of reason against the self-portrait of humanity. Once the structure and the function of commitment are genuinely understood, we see that a commitment works its way back from the future, from the collateral commitments of one’s current commitment, like a corrosive revisionary acid that rushes backward in time. By eroding the anchoring link between present commitments and their past, and by seeing present commitments from the perspective of their ramifications, revision forces the updating of present commitments in a cascading fashion that spreads globally over the entire system. The rational structure of a commitment, or more specifically, of commitment to humanity, constructs the opportunities of the present by cultivating the positive trends of the past through the revisionary forces of the future. Once you commit to human, you effectively start erasing its canonical portrait backward from the future. It is, as Foucault suggests, the unyielding wager on the fact that the self-portrait of man will be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. Every portrait drawn is washed away by the revisionary power of reason, permitting more subtle portraits with so few canonical traits that one should ask whether it is worthwhile or useful to call what is left behind human at all.
We may wonder ourselves if “it is worthwhile or useful to call what is left behind human at all”. Yet, we would ask the obvious: How has this emancipated humanity, how has this brought the Enlightenment project of Kant to its logical conclusion? Was this already there as a secret task within the Kantian enlightenment project? Was Kant already seeking to erase the human, and replace it with the autonomy of Reason? And, what of this autonomous reason? And, what does
humanity become if under “erasure”?
Toward the Posthuman Rubicon: The Logic of Englightenment
As we saw above Negarestani’s project brings the Enlightenment mission of Kant to its logical conclusion in the erasure of the human(istic) world view, and of the human as such. Instead as he’ll remind us we are now heading to an open field of possibilities, of a view of the human project as unfinished, as only beginning: “Inhumanism is the labor of rational agency on human. But there is one caveat here: the rational agency is not personal, individual, or necessarily biological. … The revision of the alleged portrait of human implies that the construction of human in whatever context can be exercised without recourse to a constitutive foundation, a fundamental identity, an immaculate nature, a given meaning, or a prior state. In short, revision is a license for further construction.”
In other words homo sapiens has no pre-determined essence, no ground or foundation, no absolute universal mode of being, but is rather an unfished project – one open to further revision and construction. Against all those former conservative humanisms that “overdetermined meaning or an over-particularized set of descriptions” of the human as a fixed and absolute essence, that sought to preserve the foundations of humanity in religious or philosophical humanisms, inhumanism “highlights the urgency of action according to a tide of revision that increasingly registers itself as a discontinuity, a growing rift with no possibility of restoration”. There is no going back now. We are on the road to a singular rupture between older forms of the “human,” and what humanity is becoming.
One of the key issues is he Reza remarks is the disconnect between “what we think of ourselves and what is becoming of us”. All of our literatures, philosophies, our humanistic archives and images of the “human” are out of sync with this other we are becoming. When Nietzsche proclaimed the “Death of God” he knew already that this process of erasure of God and Man’s image – its representations was well underway – he termed it nihilism, or the death of meaning. His major contributions was to scope out the destiny of two forms of nihilism, active and passive.
The passive nihilist is one who, when faced with the world’s uncertainty, withdraws and refuses to enagage the world. For him, uncertainty is a sufficient condition not to proceed through life, and so paralysed by fear of the unknown and unknowable he does nothing. Nietzsche described this condition as “.. the weary nihilism that no longer attacks..a passive nihilism, a sign of weakness”. This is the form of all those antihumanist and conservative traditionalists who seek to preserve the human as it is, fixed and unchanging in the eternal order of either secular or religious truth and representation.
The active form of nihilism on the other hand was the tack of the sciences which were already surging forward remaking, constructing, and revising the human project through both pure and practical forms of the sciences. All this has culminated in the various forms of our present NBIC technologies (nanotech, biotech, and information and communications technologies) that are converging toward what many term the Singularity: the technological singularity is a hypothetical event in which artificial general intelligence (constituting, for example, intelligent computers, computer networks, or robots) would be capable of recursive self-improvement (progressively redesigning itself), or of autonomously building ever smarter and more powerful machines than itself, up to the point of a runaway effect—an intelligence explosion—that yields an intelligence surpassing all current human control or understanding. Because the capabilities of such a superintelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence.
As Reza will tell it antihumanism and conservative humanism “represent two pathologies of history frequently appearing under the rubrics of conservation and progression—one an account of the present that must preserve the traits of the past, and the other an account of the present that must approach the future while remaining anchored in the past. But the catastrophe of revision erases them from the future by modifying the link between the past and the present”. Yet, for Reza we cannot escape these nihilisms that easily, in fact we must first walk through the front door of the Enlightenment. Our “discernment of humanity requires the activation of the autonomous space of reason. But since this space—qua the content of humanity—is functionally autonomous even though its genesis is historical, its activation implies the deactivation of historical anticipations of what humanity can be or become at a descriptive level”. Which leads to the important conclusion that “one cannot defend or even speak of inhumanism without first committing to the humanist project”.
The inhumanist humanism is first of all a “revisionary catastrophe that travels backward in time from the future, from its revisionary ramifications, in order to interfere with the past and rewrite the present. In this sense, reason establishes a link in history hitherto unimaginable from the perspective of a present that preserves an origin or is anchored in the past.” It’s a “retroactive recoil” as Zizek will term it:
there is another more subtle retroactivity involved here: an act is abyssal not in the sense that it is not grounded in reasons, but in the circular sense that it retroactively posits its reasons. A truly autonomous symbolic act or intervention never occurs as the result of strategic calculation, as I go through all possible reasons and then choose the most appropriate course of action. An act is autonomous not when it applies a preexisting norm but when it creates a norm in the very act of applying it.11
Reinventing Man: Crossing the Valley of the Shadow
Emergent technologies were irreversibly altering their landscape. Bleak House is a quintessential Victorian text, but it is also probably the best steampunk landscape that will ever be. Dickens really nailed it, especially in those proto-Ballardian passages in which everything in nature has been damaged by heavy industry.
– William Gibson, Interview on Paris Review
Continuing with Reza Negarestani’s revisioning of humanity by way of pushing Kant’s Enlightenment project to its ultimate conclusion he comments that to “act in tandem with the revisionary vector of the future is not to redeem but to update and revise, to reconstitute and modify”. In fact as he states:
As an activist impulse, redemption operates as a voluntaristic mode of action informed by a preservationist or conserved account of the present. Revision, on the other hand, is an obligation or a rational compulsion to conform to the revisionary waves of the future stirred by the functional autonomy of reason.
Ultimately the question here is to discern how the Enlightenment project of autonomous reason must be structured so as to allow for the emergence of the symbolic/ normative dimension Negarestani seems so intent in suturing to the project as its inhumanist core. We could almost say that this notion of self-autonomous reason in its self-movement, retroactively “sublates” its own material conditions, turning them into subordinate moments of its own “spontaneous expansion”— in pure Hegelese, it posits its own presuppositions thereby bringing the Enlightenment project to its logical conclusion as auto-reflecting autonomous reason itself.
Yet, as I suggested in a previous post Kant’s enlightenment project would teach us a new path, a path of violence and demolition, of annihilation of imagination as natural intelligence or animal cunning. (FN, KL 1929) At the heart of the Kantian project is the negation and contempt for the body and base matter, a repugnance, disgust, and ultimate horror of sensibility and animality that would drive modernity forward and institute within the capitalist project a death-drive for mastery and accumulation without sacrifice that is in our own time culminating in the Human Security Regime: transhumanism, posthumanism, etc., all those systems of transcending the human order into the machinic and inorganic sublime had their beginnings in Kant’s veritable crucifixion of natural intelligence in which the human animal comes to prostrate itself before universal law. (FN, KL 1930) Kant would destroy man’s natural reason or cunning animality and replace it with an artificial construct, an unnatural and sublime instrumental reason, instead. As Land wryly says,
The Kantian moral good is the total monopoly of power in the hands of reason, and reason finds its principal definition as the supersensible element of the subject, and thus as fundamentally negative. In other words, morality is precisely the powerlessness of animality. (FN, KL 1934)12
So if Reza’s project of autonomy of reason is this final separation from “powerlessness of animality,” does this not portend all those transhumanist and posthumanist discourses we see currently focused on the Singularity? Reza answers: what exactly is the functional autonomy of reason? “It is the expression of the self-actualizing propensity of reason—a scenario wherein reason liberates its own spaces despite what naturally appears to be necessary or happens to be the case. Here “necessary” refers to an alleged natural necessity and should be distinguished from a normative necessity.” What else would he mean by “natural necessity” than Kant’s divisive attack on and destruction of man’s natural reason or cunning animality, and its replacement with the sublime power of autonomous reason?
Or we after all taking about the very forces of the natural in man? What Kant would term the “imagination” the pre-critical animal natural reason or cunning animality? For Reza this is where the political dimension comes to the fore, and the “ought” of the new normativity and commitment entails adherence to this inhumanist logic. Against all those post-Marxist kitsch philosophies of pessimism and defeat he offers this revisioning commitment to the remaking of the human, saying, whether “Marxist agenda, humanist creed, or future-oriented perspective, any political philosophy that boasts of commitments without working out inferential problems and without constructing inferential and functional links suffers from an internal contradiction and an absence of connectivity between commitments. Without inferential links, there is no real updating of commitments.”
For Reza this new normativity is not genetic, not biological; but, rather part of current social constructionism: it is really a claim about the “autonomy of discursive practices and the autonomy of inferential links between oughts, that is to say, links between constructive abilities and revisionary obligations”. He goes on to say that “Reason has its roots in social construction, in communal assessment, and in the manipulability of conditionals embedded in modes of inference. It is social partly because it is deeply connected to the origin and function of language as a de-privatizing, communal, and stabilizing space of organization.” Again this notion of breaking down the barriers between private and public, of the de-sovereignizing task of collectivizing humanity in the public sphere without shadows. A totally transparent socio-cultural revisioning of society, culture, and civilization as a collective and distributed intelligence “embedded in modes of inference”.
Following Robert Brandom this new de-privatization of the Enlightenment project reminds us that we become “rational agents once we acknowledge or develop a certain intervening attitude toward norms that renders them binding. We do not embrace the normative status of things outright. We do not have access to the explicit—that is, logically codified—status of norms. It is through such intervening attitudes toward the revision and construction of norms through social practices that we make the status of norms explicit.”13 What he offers is a pragmatic functionalist perspective that, he remarks, must be “distinguished from both traditional AI-functionalism, which revolves around the symbolic nature of thought, and behavioral variants of functionalism, which rely on behaviors as sets of regularities”. Instead pragmatic functionalism is concerned with the pragmatic nature of human discursive practices, that is, the ability to reason, to go back and forth between saying and doing stepwise. Here, “stepwise” defines the constitution of saying and doing, claims and performances, as a condition of near-decomposability. For this reason, pragmatic functionalism focuses on the decomposability of discursive practices into nondiscursive practices.
Brandom’s project is concerned with the displacement from the center of philosophical attention the notion of meaning in favor of that of use … , replacing concern with semantics by concern with pragmatics (see Sanford Shieh, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews). As Shieh maintains Brandom describes three lines of argument for this displacement. First, Sellars criticizes empiricism by arguing that empiricist base vocabularies such as phenomenal vocabulary are not autonomous, in the sense that, in order to use them, one has to be able to talk of how things are, i.e., to use the objective vocabulary which is supposed to be reduced to phenomenal vocabulary. Second, Quine’s critique of empiricism is based on what Brandom calls “methodological pragmatism,” the view that “the whole point of a theory of meaning is to explain, codify, or illuminate features of the use of linguistic expressions”. Quine argues that if postulation of meanings of expressions is to do this, then it must account for the inferential role of these expressions. But the inferential role of an expression cannot be specified independently of collateral information, hence the postulation of meaning cannot account for use. Finally, and most radically, Wittgenstein criticizes the whole idea of postulating meanings to explain use. This idea presupposes that all the various uses of language are ways of doing a single kind of thing, e.g., stating facts or representing states of affairs. But in fact our linguistic practices are a “motley” of many very different, unsystematic, and indeterminate kinds, so that there is no particular reason to think that it’s even possible to specify some one kind of use of language as central and explain others in its terms; language has no “downtown.” From these points Wittgenstein seems to, and some of his followers do, conclude that systematic formal semantics is a fundamentally misguided enterprise, and that the philosophical study of language must be “an anthropological, natural-historical, social-practical inquiry aimed … at demystifying … and … deflating philosophers’ systematic and theoretical ambitions”.14
One sees the obvious turn away from structuralism, language, and theories of meaning (semantics), and toward what Brandom would term the program of analytic pragmatism. Ultimately this leads Brandom to the notion that what is essential to intentionality is the practice of rectifying commitments, “[a]cknowledging the rational critical responsibility implicit in taking incompatible commitments to oblige one to do something, to update one’s commitments so as to eliminate the incompatibility” (189). It’s this radicalizing to updating commitments and eliminating incompatibilities that drives Negarestani’s project. The notion that pragmatic functionalism does not decompose implicit practices into explicit—that is, logically codifiable—norms. Instead, it decomposes explicit norms into implicit practices, knowing-that into knowing-how (which is the domain of abilities endowed with bootstrapping capacities—what must be done in order to count as performing something specific?) (ibid.)
The Open-Source Self: Automation and the New Reason
Negarestani will imply that this pramatics or rationalist functionalism will entail the notion that automation amounts to practical enablement or the ability to maintain and enhance the functional autonomy or freedom. Going on to say that the “pragmatic procedures involved in this mode of automation perpetually diversify the spaces of action and understanding insofar as the non-monotonic character of practices opens up new trajectories of practical organization and, correspondingly, expands the realm of practical freedom”. This is where he comes to the radical heart of the inhumanist project, saying,
Wherever there is functional autonomy, there is a possibility of self-actualization or self-realization as an epochal development in history. Wherever self-realization is underway, a closed positive feedback loop between freedom and intelligence, self-transformation and self-consciousness, has been established. The functional autonomy of reason is then a precursor to the self-realization of an intelligence that assembles itself, piece by piece, from the constellation of a discursively elaborative “us” qua an open-source self.
This is the radical center of Kant’s project of displacing imagination as natural intelligence or animal cunning with an autonomous and automated reason as free of the physical formatting and organic “meat puppet” vision of a suborned humanity bound to the physical worlds that have bound it to both religious and secular humanism for several hundred years (or – as some might have it, since St. Augustine developed the early forms of the liberal self).
One is tempted to say that this automation of discursive practices—”the pragmatic unbinding of artificial general intelligence and the triggering of new modes of collectivizing practices via linking to autonomous discursive practices—exemplifies the revisionary and constructive edge of reason as sharpened against the canonical self-portrait of human,” brings to the fore of a factory from producing new subjectivities already prevalent in capitalism. As Maurizio Lazzarato comments in Economy and the Production of Subjectivity:
The concept of the production of subjectivity as developed in French post-structuralist philosophy – with significant differences – allows a radical break with the Marxist definition of “living work” ( and can, at the same time, regain its original intuition from a different perspective): the subjectivity that is “put to work” is simply any subjectivity at all when it can no longer be called exclusively proletarian.
These mechanisms for the direct creation of economic wealth capture the perceptive functions, affects and unconscious behavior patterns of the pragmatic functionalism of human work, and capitalism takes possession of a capacity for work and desire enslaving it to the norms, rules, and regulations of reason and behavior it seeks to produce through various abstract machines for the production of subjectivity.
It’s this strange logic that will lead Reza to the conclusion that “To be free one must be a slave to reason. But to be a slave to reason (the very condition of freedom) exposes one to both the revisionary power and the constructive compulsion of reason.” This is a strange sort of freedom to say the least. And, of course by reason he means the autonomous reason, not the cunning or natural reason of our base animality. But slave? What are we giving up to become slaves of reason? And, who is it that is doing this? Ultimately it means that we must give up our physical and mental ties to those ancient traditions of religious or secular humanisms, theologies, philosophies etc. bound to essentialist discourses of self and identity. Instead we will become slaves of the “philosophical rather than classically symbolic thesis regarding artificial general intelligence”.
On Becoming Machine: To Be Free is to Be Slaves of Reason
At the heart of this slavery to autonomous reason is augmented rationality. By this Reza means: it is “augmented not in the sense of being more rational (just like augmented reality that is not more real than reality), but in the sense of further radicalizing the distinction between what has been done or has taken place (or is supposedly the case) and what ought to be done”. Again this ultimate rupture with all previous forms of historical and/or discursive knowledge concerning the past of humanity. It’s about the teleological project of remaking, revisioning, and updating the human in an ongoing system of interventions that will alter it beyond any sense of stable or conservation of the human as known in the folk images of humanistic learning.
It’s an engineering project to remake humans. “Engineering epistemology—a form of understanding that involves the designated manipulation of causal fabric and the organization of functional hierarchies—is an upgradable armamentarium of heuristics that is particularly attentive to the distinct roles and requirements of different levels and hierarchies.” Reading this one thinks of white-coated scientists in a laboratory of Social Engineering dreaming up the next phase of AI controlled human engineering. More of a nightmare than something leading to freedom. Remember total slavery to reason in the goal of this pragmatic functionalism. This leaves the decisions in the hands of “artificial general intelligence” rather than in the older forms of natural or cunning reason of the human animal.
In fact, he tells us almost as if it is an imperative, that any “political project aimed at genuine change must understand and adapt to the logic of nested hierarchies that is the distinctive feature of complex systems. This is because change cannot be effected except through both structural modifications and functional transformations across different structural layers and functional levels.” Makes it sound like a group of experts engineering the algorithms that a smart AI will use to automate and update humans who are now implanted with this collective technological access to the general intelligence embedded in their brain from birth will ensure this enslavement without them ever suspecting that there ever was another form of reason. One can see the science fictional logic of where this would lead: total slaver = total freedom; totalitarian freedom guided by the general artificial intelligence you are now so integrated with that there could never be any withdrawal from this public effacement of Self and Identity.
Engineering Humanity: Toward the Synthetic Path
Reza will spend several paragraphs that seem more for the benefits of engineers of some future factory for the maintenance and production of subjectivation. I’ll quote only one fragment: “The engineering loop is a perspectival schema and a map of synthesis. As a map, it distributes both across different levels and as a multitude of covering maps with different descriptive-prescriptive valences over individual levels. The patchwork structure ensures a form of descriptive plasticity and prescriptive versatility, it reduces incoherencies and explanatory conflations and renders the search for problems and opportunities of construction effective by tailoring descriptive and prescriptive covering maps to specificities.” It’s as if he were translating a neuraldiagrammatic installation to better describe the engineering specificity of the engineering process for a group of software engineers or neuroprogrammers. This goes on to the point that he realizes it and stops, saying,
This is why it is the figure of the engineer, as the agent of revision and construction, who is public enemy number one of the foundation as that which limits the scope of change and impedes the prospects of a cumulative escape. It is not the advocate of transgression or the militant communitarian who is bent on subtracting himself from the system or flattening the system to a state of horizontality.
Reza sees this as war, as a project with engineers and their enemies, both a political and scientific/philosophical war for the future: “Liberation is a project, not an idea or a commodity. Its effect is not the irruption of novelty, but rather the continuity of a designated form of labor.” As if this axiom is the Law of best practices for the War we are already waging against the conservative and antinhumanist forces.
He’ll go on like this for several paragraphs discussing the politics of engineering freedom and then say, “freedom is not liberation from slavery. It is the continuous unlearning of slavery.” So which is it? Do we become free by becoming slaves to this new autonomous reason: the general artificial intelligence? Or, do we unlearn it? Or does he mean that we are unlearning our former natural and cunning, animalistic reason? Escaping our roots in organic natural and environmental reasoning? Ultimately he equates “freedom is intelligence,” and a commitment to humanity or freedom that does not practically elaborate the cognitive and practical technologies for exercising such feats “has already abandoned its commitment and taken humanity hostage only to trudge through history for a day or two”.
Freedom as Negarestani sees it that abandons through either a “social enterprise or an intuitive idea of being free from normative constraints (i.e. freedom without purpose and designed action), is a freedom that does not translate into intelligence, and for this reason, it is retroactively obsolete”. In other words for him the only freedom that is viable is that which conforms to the new normative enterprise of reengineering human kinds through the enforced give and take of general artificial intelligence as master and practical god:
Adaptation to an autonomous conception of reason—that is, the updating of commitments according to the progressive self-actualization of reason—is a struggle that coincides with the revisionary and constructive project of freedom. The first expression of such freedom is the establishment of an orientation—a hegemonic pointer—that highlights the synthetic and constructible passage that human ought to tread. But to tread this path, we must cross the cognitive Rubicon.
A whole paragraph to tell us that the Age of Man is at an end, we “cross the cognitive Rubicon” and enter the next stage of evolution; one that is no longer bound to biological constraints, but is rather situated to explore humanities own autonomous restructuring and revisionist destiny of becoming Other. In fact as he will suggest “by adaptation to a functionally autonomous reason suggests that the cognitive Rubicon has already been crossed. In order to navigate this synthetic path, there is no point in staring back at what once was, but has now been dissipated—like all illusory images—by the revisionary winds of reason”.
The telling sign is “synthetic path” which seems to portend a future far beyond the past imaginings of natural or cunning reason. Yet, one wonders if Negarestani and others of the new Left Accelerationism – or, Promethean project of remaking humanity are not more like Icarus: “The myth of Icarus is particularly expressive from this point of view: it clearly splits the sun into two—-the one that was shining at the moment of Icarus’s elevation, and the one that melted the wax, causing failure and a screaming fall when Icarus got to close.” – Georges Bataille, The Rotten Sun
Yet, as Bataille would also recognize “Vegetation is uniformly directed towards the sun; human beings, on the other hand, even though phalloid like trees, in opposition to other animals, necessarily avert their eyes.” (The Solar Anus) He would also say “The Sun exclusively loves the Night and directs its luminous violence, its ignoble shaft, toward the earth, but finds itself incapable of reaching the gaze or the night, even though the nocturnal terrestrial expanses head continuously toward the indecency of the solar ray.” Maybe those like Negarestani who seek a freedom in slavery, a freedom above the natural and cunning reason of our animalistic nativity should remember that this autonomous reason – the general artificial intelligence these engineers of human futurity seek might like the rotten sun direct its luminous violence not for the benefit of its benefactors, but rather toward their destruction.
If we leave our natural biological heritage behind, displace our natural and cunning reason for an autonomous – general artificial intelligence, what will we lose in the process? And, doing this: What do we gain that such a sacrifice must be made, permanent and without recourse or redress?
- Pynchon, Thomas (2012-06-13). Gravity’s Rainbow (p. 10). . Kindle Edition.
- Arnold, Gary (The Jumbled Signal Of ‘Videodrome’. ).
- Marx, Karl. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Penguin Classics) Penguin; New Ed edition (November 24, 2005)
- Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication (Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents) Semiotext(e); new edition edition (November 30, 2012)
- Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought (Kindle Locations 57-59). Kindle Edition
- Waters, Colin N.; Zalasiewicz, Jan; Summerhayes, Colin; Barnosky, Anthony D.; Poirier, Clément; Gałuszka, Agnieszka; Cearreta, Alejandro; Edgeworth, Matt; Ellis, Erle C. (2016-01-08). “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”. Science 351 (6269): aad2622. doi:10.1126/science.aad2622. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 26744408
- Bauman, Zygmunt (2013-04-18). Consuming Life (p. 3). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
- see Crossing the Cognitive Rubicon: Reza Negarestani and the Inhuman, Reza Negarestani: Prometheanism, Intelligence, Self-Determination, Reza Negarestani: What Is Philosophy? Part Two, Reza Negarestani asks What is Philosophy Part One
- Negarestani, Reza. The Labor of the Inhuman, Part I: Human. © 2014 e-flux
- Negarestani, Reza. The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman. © 2014 e-flux
- Zizek, Slavoj (2014-10-07). Absolute Recoil: Towards A New Foundation Of Dialectical Materialism (p. 21). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.
- Land, Nick (2013-07-01). Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 (Kindle Locations 1734-1736). Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
- See Robert Brandom, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
- Robert B. Brandom, Between Saying and Doing: Towards an Analytic Pragmatism, Oxford University Press, 2008, 249pp., ISBN 9780199542871. Reviewed by Sanford Shieh, Wesleyan University