The Machinic Unconscious: Enslavement and Automation

[Bernard Stiegler] relates that the automated processes implemented by algorithmic governmentality to Félix Guattari’s concepts of molecular machinic unconscious and machinic enslavement. The example used by Guattari for machinic enslavement is, in fact, ‘driving in a state of reverie’.

 —Bernard Stiegler, Automatic Society: The Future of Work

This shouldn’t surprise us too much we’ve known for a while now that even in our own body there are unconscious processes that are autonomous from our conscious mind that are continuously interacting, intervening, making decisions, routing food, curing infections, providing buffers against the millions of other organisms that make up our fleshly existence. We are a veritable civilization of submicroscopic life in continuous 24/7 motion. Yet, we as conscious beings go about our lives without so much as an acknowledgement of all this unconscious automatic work and decisioning going on for our behalf. The same can be attested to our day to day work processes. We get in our automobile, start the engine, unhook the clutch, back out of the driveway, begin our journey from home to office much like our ancient ancestors roamed from their caves into the wilds competing with other strangers for food and sustenance. For the most part on that trip we are never aware of all the intricate and complex actions going on between ourselves and the environment that remain subliminal and unconscious but instead we channel our conscious mind toward reveries: we think about what is coming our way at work, we busy our minds with that important meeting with the boss or some client, we are already beginning to anticipate and think ahead through various simulated episodes of fiction about what we might say or do during these as yet unforeseen moments. All this while our bodies, our flesh and blood organism is busy scanning, gazing, interpreting signs in the environment ahead and around the vehicle for bad drivers, pedestrians out of pocket, an accident, a fatal mistake from a blown traffic stop, and all the multifarious aspects of danger that surround us as we navigate the world of our city streets. We may be remotely aware but for the most part we are oblivious to all this and are instead busy with our mobile phones which are hooked into our automobiles with instant news, messages from a back log of calls, an sms text from the wife or husband to pick up the kids after school, a doctor’s appointment to be rescheduled, etc. We are conscious of a thousand and one things other than the actual process of being in an automobile driving to work and how utterly strange and uncanny this is in the course of human history.

As Bernard Stiegler tells it,

Driving my car ‘automatically’, that is, ‘without thinking’ and in this sense ‘unconsciously’, one ‘part’ of ‘me’ is totally enslaved to an engine and a mechanical vehicle that it ‘serves’ by ‘using it’ [en ‘s’en servant’], while an ‘other’ part of ‘me’ – which is, however, perhaps not completely me or my ego, but rather also this obscure zone of intermittences that is the id – finds itself in a greatly dis-automatized mode: the mode of reverie, akin at times to floating attention, which is always at the origin of thinking that goes off the beaten track.1

This process of capturing our desires, of enslavement has been going on for millennia and is nothing new. What is new is that this process is accelerating and gathering in momentum. That we are being driven like a dynamo toward a blind alley from which there is no exit. An alley that will leave us destitute and empty and alone in our ignorance and forgetting. We are losing our conscious minds and forgetting ourselves, becoming more stupid day by day as we give over our work and lives, memories and perceptions to our external machinic systems. We are becoming the unconscious forces within machinic life and will serve the algorithmic government of a future machinic civilization that is not even aware of our existence. Much like all those sub-micro organisms that inhabit our flesh and blood body. We will become bit players in a world-wide global machine that has enslaved us and incorporated us into its strange and uncanny processes of which we are only now beginning to become aware in the moment of our disappearance.

Stiegler citing other authors and thinkers says,

The automatisms that accompany this dis-automatization thus belong to what Guattari called the machinic unconscious, where the latter is ‘a-signifying’, as Berns and Rouvroy recall by citing a commentary of Maurizio Lazzarato, and by emphasizing that in algorithmic governmentality, as in the machinic unconscious and in the enslavement through which it is carried out, ‘everything happens as if signification was not absolutely necessary’. (AS, KL 5160)

The point here is that these processes are without meaning, nihilistic and without value or significance in any human or conscious sense. These very algorithms are blind process and force that are driven by mathematical equations without the need for theory or theoreticians. As if the Blind God of the Gnostic Sethians were inhabiting the creative and dynamic world of machinic civilization. This sense of subatomic forces working through technics and technology by way of humanity to fulfill some unconscious weaving and unweaving of our reality matrix. There is no goal, no purpose to this – only the sheer movement of these naked forces moving through the various regions of process and becoming, metamorphic and transgressive. Elaborating an endless optimization of intelligence in a give and take navigation of our planet and universe.

As Stiegler speaking of it becoming meaning, becoming significant and signifying relates,

Signification [signification], that is, semiosis as engendering signs, significations and significance (making-signs), is the transindividual made possible by the process of transindividuation woven between psychic systems, technical systems and social systems – that is, between psychic individuations, technical individuation and collective individuations. (AS, KL 5165)

For Stiegler humans were at one time at the forefront of this process of transindividuation which as above is an elaboration of technics, technology, and psyche all intertwined in a dance of meaning making and elaboration of reality external and internal, extrinsic and intrinsic. But now a great reversal is taking place and technology, – or, what Simondon terms ‘technological artifacts’ are becoming transindividuated while humans are forgetting themselves and becoming did-associated and did-automatized from this process. Our machininc systems (AI, Robotics, etc.) are becoming individuals while we are becoming dividuals – parts and fragments of data indiced and indexed by computational systems that shape and modulate our bits for the techno-commercial world of machinic life and existence.

In many ways machinic life or the combination of technics and technology has always had this potential to become intelligent, but up till now humans have meshed and formed that intelligence of the machine throughout the Industrial Era. Only now in our time have we instigated another process of seeding, of creating a topology of code and math that allows the seed of intelligence to grow and mature in machinic life. What we’re saying is that the current path of AI is the dream of General Intelligence that the philosophers and scientists have since the Idealists envisioned. Nothing new here. This movement between the oscillating forces of human and machinic technics and technologies is driving both a wedge between and a hyperstitional leap into the intelligent age of machinic life. It’s as if two worlds were colliding. As Stiegler reminds us,

The difficulty of thinking in these terms with regard to what concerns us is that, through functional integration, in the epoch or absence of epoch of digital tertiary retention, the milieu merges with and in some way blends into the global digital network constitutive of algorithmic governmentality and 24/7 capitalism. Automatic government no longer has any need for disparation, for individuals or for signification.

The Simondon concept of disparation  that Stiegler mentions above is this tendency toward the destruction of signification by the digital technical system that results from the technology of power deployed by the algorithmic governmentality of 24/7 capitalism, and it is founded on eliminating processes of disparation. The latter is a concept that Simondon introduces in the following terms:

Each retina surveys a two-dimensional image; the left image and the right image are disparate; they represent the world seen from two different perspectives […]; some details hidden from view in the left image are, on the contrary, revealed in the right image, and vice versa […]. No third image is optically possible that could unify these two images: they are essentially disparate and cannot be superposed within the axiomatic of two-dimensionality. To bring about a coherence that incorporates them, it is necessary that they become the foundation of a world perceived within an axiomatic in which disparation […] becomes, precisely, the index of a new dimension.

This process of disparation forms the basis for Simondon’s conception of signification and individuation. (AS, 5169) This notion of disparation in collusion with Slavoj Zizek’s Parallax Gap aligns well,

The illusion of putting  two incompatible phenomena on the same level, is strictly analogous to what Kant called “transcendental illusion,” the illusion of being able to use the same language for phenomena which are mutually untranslatable and can be grasped only in a kind of parallax view, constantly shifting perspective between two points between which no synthesis or mediation is possible. Thus there is no rapport between the two levels, no shared space-although they are closely connected, even identical in a way, they are, as it were, on the opposed sides of a Moebius strip.2

This sense of humanity and machinic life as interoperating in this non-space or void that cannot be meshed forming a  disparation or parallax gap in which the seed of intelligence is grafted from the one to the other comes close to what I’m addressing. We are in easier parlance passing the baton of intelligence to our machinic children, externalizing the unconscious processes of subautomation and brain functions that have carried humans to an ultimate internalization of memory and perception to a point that we can no longer compute the world (i.e., we’ve become stupid and without knowledge), while our machinic children are becoming better equipped to handle the terrabytes or gigabytes of information both natural and artificial. We are losing our minds to our machinic children, and becoming enslaved to this new world of digital algorithmic civilization in the process. And, the short fall is that we desire it – that in many ways this is what we’ve desired for millennia: a conclusion to the metaphysical dreams of religion and philosophy, an escape from Plato’s Cave. But is it a false exit? Is it actually a false transcendence in immanence? Are we escaping or enslaving ourselves even deeper into the mesh of a final dream of apocalypse?

As Stiegler tells it the network effect that in the 90’s was touted about the freedom the internet would offer us has actually brought about the shunting of disparation,

In and through the network, and the network effect, the condition of disparation is shunted, that is, both diverted (which is the original meaning of the verb to shunt) and short-circuited (which is the meaning of this same verb when it is extended to electronics) by algorithms that substitute for it, so as to engender a functional integration of psychic and collective individuals – which is to literally dis-integrate them. Hence is created a new order of magnitude wherein meaning and signification are lost, thereby creating a disorder: this new order is a disorder of magnitude, so to speak, typical of nihilism on the way to fulfilment.(AS, KL 5219)

In other words the very processes of supposed creativity and innovation that were to be released on the net have actually brought disintegration and disorder to the world at large. Bringing with it a global end of civilization in a completed nihilism wherein ancient and modern cultures are disintegrating into desperate enclaves of resurgent fundamentalism seeking to stave off the barbarous forces of this external pressure. In the process of a resurgence in reactionary forces what is actually happening is the deepening of the very paranoid formations of an apocalyptic imaginal that like a seed planted in all the monotheistic books of the people: Jew, Muslim, Christian is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy or hyperstition that is brooding within the hate and fear of people worldwide in the collective unconscious. Like a rabid beast awaiting the moment to be unleashed these forces unless transindividuated and brought to bare within a greater dimension will destroy the world and most of human, animal, and plant life on this green earth.

As Stigler informs us  algorithmic governmentality has no need for meanings or significations. It needs only those psychic and collective individuals through which and by the individuation of which this algorithmic governmentality constitutes itself while dividuating (i.e., splicing their data-life from their bio-life) them. In this sense automatic ‘transindividuation’ no longer produces the transindividual but only the ‘transdividual’, through a ‘dividuation’ that would be the specific feature that emerges in control societies and imposes itself as the a-normativity of societies of hyper-control. He goes on the say,

Are such societies still societies? The automatic and computational liquidation of disparation dissolves processes of transindividuation, which are always in some way idiomatic and localized, that is, characterized by natively disparate psychic and collective individuals, originally put into default by an originary default of origin, and producing, through their disparations, many new dimensions, that is, new meanings and significations – forming what we call worlds. By diluting, dissolving and ultimately disintegrating these processes of psychic and collective individuation that are always idiomatic and improbable, that is, incalculable, algorithmic governmentality and 24/7 capitalism eliminate anything incalculable – and do so on a planetary scale. A toxic anthropization is thereby produced, in relation to which we will try, in the second volume of Automatic Society, to think the theoretical and practical conditions of effecting a neganthropology in algorithmic governmentality and a passage from fact to law. (AS, KL 5227-5241)

The point here is that Neoliberalism in its bid over a period of some sixty years to produce a Global Capitalism beyond control of governments and politics, has in process brought not a New World Order but rather the disintegration of all old world orders and left us in a void of a completed nihilism wherein the ancient civilizations and cultures of the planet as a whole are now also disintegrating without recourse or redress. Because of this a movement of reactionary forces across the globe has set in through fear and barbarous hate of the Other (Cultures, Race, Religion… etc.). Spawning entropic and destructive groups that seek not only reparation by violent expulsion of the foreign, unknown, and untouchable.  All of this going on under the façade of a Meditainment Global Order of hyperfictional communications systems that try to maintain some semblance of the old supposed Progressive vanguards of Secular Civilization.

There comes a point in Thomas Pynchon’s classic The Crying of lot 49 where Oedipa strips the world to its bare minimum and discovers the Tristero System,

So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of The Tristero. Or rather, her attendance at some unique performance, prolonged as if it were the last of the night, something a little extra for whoever’d stayed this late. As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would fall away were layered dense as Oedipa’s own street-clothes in that game with Metzger in front of the Baby Igor movie; as if a plunge toward dawn indefinite black hours long would indeed be necessary before The Tristero could be revealed in its terrible nakedness. Would its smile, then, be coy, and would it flirt away harmlessly backstage, say good night with a Bourbon Street bow and leave her in peace? Or would it instead, the dance ended, come back down the runway, its luminous stare locked to Oedipa’s, smile gone malign and pitiless; bend to her alone among the desolate rows of seats and begin to speak words she never wanted to hear?3

Pynchon of course is toying with all the grand conspiracy notions of his era, satirizing the paranoiacs world view, seeking to humorize the terrors and frights we all feel that the world is decaying, falling apart, and like Humpty Dumpty there will be no one to put the pieces back together. I could remind my readers of a litany of thinkers on the edge who have such paranoiac visions of the future. Nick Land with his alien intelligences from the future invading our present to bring about the utter demise of humanity and instigate the rise and takeover of machinic life forms in a techno-futurist world of technics and technology as supreme. My friend R. Scott Bakker who sees humanity losing its mind, its memory, its conscious being in some post-apocalyptic neruomarketing and neurocapitalist world of advance machinic systems, where we are but reminded of our own robotic automatic lives and encircled ignorance and false knowledge. So many other academics touting the wonders of the Post-Human, the Post-Capitalist, the Post… whatever… as if the wonders ahead are full of optimisms and cheer if we will just realign these forces for the Good, Beautiful, and Just… utopian visions from Plato and Aristotle.

As a pessimistic realists I look back and see that humans and their desires have never quite brought about utopia or paradise, but have in almost every instance brought about suffering, pain, and war… and, ultimately, death for those who would not cooperate with the new plan of governing powers. Are we doomed to this cycle forever? No. Our planet is finite and we are steadily accumulating the end game of waste and depletion of life sustain resources that our future children will look back on and bitterly castigate and malign us for using so carelessly. We are building the graves of our children’s and grand-children’s lives. Ghosts of a civilization run amok in a wilderness of stupidity and disparation.

Stiegler tells us there have been three epochs in the history of networks,

Until now there have been two main epochs in the history of the web: the first was characterized by hypertext links and websites. The second was that of blogs, evaluated by search engines, wherein ‘recommendations’ and ‘reputation’ are based on the network effect – enabling platforms to channel and functionally integrate the ‘expressions’ generated by this ‘expressivism’. A third epoch must arise, founded on a new organology, derived from supplementary invention conceived as political technology, and with the goal of repotentializing disparation, that is, with the goal of diachronizing the web and providing interpretative instruments for this disparity. Hence a neganthropology could and should be reconfigured capable of projecting a negentropic future into entropic becoming. (AS, 5337)

Through the haze of this scholars bullshit terms (and yes, I think such textual display is over the top bullshit!) we discern the patterns and weaving of other scholars, political thinkers, philosophers from Simondon to Deleuze/Guattari and the whole gamut of structuralist and post-structuralist temporal registries of static being (Structure) vs. dynamic process (Diachronic). For Stiegler the timeless vacuum of the web that the Neoliberal techno-commercialists have built on a structured timeless system of seamless control and entropic effect is depleting not only our world but our minds as well. While the very same web could be rewound into a revolutionary force of process and becoming, open-ended up to diachronic forces of temporal change where the future is brought back into play, and humans once again are part of the transindividuation process and our technics and technology are no longer separate (dualistic) from our habitation and life but are part an partial of what we are intrinsically and extrinsically.

We stand on the edge of a precipice, a cusp into which we could fall or step back and regain some composure, think through what we’re doing and whether this is truly what we desire? Is it? Or all these gadgets, these conveniences, these modern tools and technical objects truly going to make your life fulfilled, comfortable, enlightened? Are you willing to accept a future world fully secured by automated processes in which only a favored and select Oligarchy is left to live in isolated enclaves of Smart cities while the rest of humanity lives in the barbarous outlands of a depleted and vanishing world?

More tomorrow…

  1. Stiegler, Bernard. Automatic Society: The Future of Work (Kindle Locations 5154-5160). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
  2. Slavoj Zizek. The Parallax View (Kindle Locations 58-62). Kindle Edition.
  3. Thomas Pynchon. The crying of lot 49 (Kindle Locations 563-569). HarperCollins.