A young man Florian: “You really take no account of what happens to us. When I talk to young people of my generation, those within two or three years of my own age, they all say the same thing: we no longer have the dream of starting a family, of having children, or a trade, or ideals, as you yourselves did when you were teenagers. All that is over and done with, because we’re sure that we will be the last generation, or one of the last, before the end.”
—Bernard Stiegler, The Age of Disruption
There are teenagers coming of age right now who already have that dark presentiment that the future does not exist for them. What the late Mark Fisher decried a decade ago has now through media hype and saturation become the mythic framework of our age: the Age of Catastrophe.
Since we know civilization has lost its reason, become absolutely mad across the planet; an age of the “new barbarians of stupidity,” entering an era in which the “thirst for annihilation” is not just a philosophical provocation; but a very real possibility: Omnicide – an absolute from which “nothing human gets out alive,” (Land) becomes not only a possibility but a strange presentiment of the history of the future – then there is no turning away from the imperative to “study this riddle in all its mystifying complexity—to walk the tightrope across which a lone state of delirium might form a hidden route to world-erasure” (Bahbak).
In our age Computational (Digital) Time governs and overrides all other forms of time on the planet, and hooked to the techno-economic servitude of automation all humans are inside the machine that drives us in a circular hell going nowhere and nowhen. As Bernard Stiegler in his latest work suggests:
“In such a purely computational context, individual as well as collective protentions fade away. Such is our ‘desolate time’. And such is the incommensurable tragedy of Florian and his generation. In the time of this generation, which is also that of ‘digital natives’, nobody seems capable of producing intergenerational and transgenerational collective protentions, except ones that are purely negative – such a negative teleology thereby reaches its end without purpose (and not that purposiveness without end that provides the motives of Kantian reason).”1
Our speculations of the future (protentions) hit Null Zero. Karl Popper spent ten years puzzling the strange manifestation of both Left and Right Wing forms of tyranny which ended in Stalin and Hitler. We seem on the verge of entering a new form of tyranny that for the first time may be Leaderless: algorithmic governmentality. And, yet, we might start by listening to what Popper had to say decades ago about those two extreme forms and the optimistic-progressive and hopeful view as compared to the pessimist-depressive-realist mode:
“I see now more clearly than ever before that even our greatest troubles spring from something that is as admirable and sound as it is dangerous— from our impatience to better the lot of our fellows. For these troubles are the by-products of what is perhaps the greatest of all moral and spiritual revolutions of history, a movement which began three centuries ago. It is the longing of uncounted unknown men to free themselves and their minds from the tutelage of authority and prejudice. It is their attempt to build up an open society which rejects the absolute authority of the merely established and the merely traditional while trying to preserve, to develop, and to establish traditions, old or new, that measure up to their standards of freedom, of humaneness, and of rational criticism. It is their unwillingness to sit back and leave the entire responsibility for ruling the world to human or superhuman authority, and their readiness to share the burden of responsibility for avoidable suffering, and to work for its avoidance. This revolution has created powers of appalling destructiveness; but they may yet be conquered.”2
This feeling of doom and gloom about the future, a reaction to the impending crisis in politics, war and migration, the strange and disquieting feeling that we’ve come too late into the world to do anything to stop the juggernaut of all the errors caused by human progress: the Industrial Revolution – the emergence of technological power with its influx of speed in compressing time through transportation and communication, destructive weaponry and aggressions over two centuries of colonial and economic chaos, etc. This sense that along with the socio-cultural advance of capitalism across the globe – so-called Globalization; or, the McDonaldization of the World, that we’ve produced an ever-increasing acceleration of not only economic debt, but an underlying planetary debt in which the greatest atrocities have been committed not against ourselves (humankind), but rather against the very platform of survival that both our and non-human neighbors in the natural order. This accumulation of degradation, waste, ruin, and exploitation of the planet’s resources, along with the destruction of habitat, is a debt that is now slowly coming due: a debt that our children, and their children will be paying for decades or even millennia to come.
“The Slow Cancelation of the Future”
As the late Mark Fisher puts it “The slow cancellation of the future has been accompanied by a deflation of expectations.”3 We live in a an age that seems teetering into chaos and political morass, a world of reactionary forces that seek to close off humanity from an open society described by Popper in which people are free to move about, to explore, create, and live their lives without a feeling that everything might come tumbling down. Instead nations are closing their borders, policing their citizens, creating a sense of pervasive terror, fear, and authoritarian modes of control. Most of all we seem to be haunted by a future that is missing: a hauntology of the future. It’s this sense that the future has vanished, become a ghost fleeing off into the night of horrors to come.
One facet of this problem has come to the forefront beyond all others: the “quite remarkable inability to comprehend ourselves.”4 If pessimism starts with the notion that the world is not what we think it is, then there is the corollary note in epistemic circles that as R. Scott Bakker reminds us that “we are not what we think we are” either.5 Steven Shaviro in his essay of Bakker’s novel Neuropath – a novel that fictionalizes many of the ideas concerning consciousness that he developed over the years on his blog Three Pound Brain – describes what the book terms the Argument. The Argument describes that baseline of a universe of meaninglessness, a realm in which the sciences rather than philosophy or psychology present us with cosomos that is absolutely indifferent to humans; one in which we understand things “in terms of quantity and function instead of quality and intention”. (D 104) As Shaviro puts it “Physical science is a war machine, a weapon of mass destruction. As a result of its relentless progress over the past several centuries, “science has pretty much scrubbed psychology from the natural world”. We no longer believe that natural events carry omens and convey messages. We use weather satellites to track oncoming storms, instead of blaming Thor for the thunder.” (D 104) Ultimately the Argument as Shaviro clarifies “insists, if naturalism is right, then what holds true for all other entities in the universe must hold true for human beings as well. The things that we have come to understand about the world must be applied as well to our own processes of understanding. And indeed, recent advances in neuroscience and cognitive psychology have taught us a lot about the brain.” (D 105)
The point is that instead of what we’ve been doing ever since pre-Socratics and Plato is washed up, finished, done; all our speculations about existence and ourselves in all its circular arguments brought us to the point of ignorance and stupidity, a moment in which the very systems of thought that have guided humanity have since the Enlightenment slowly devolved into meaningless children tales of the human species, quaint narratives we imposed on a universe to comfort ourselves. The universe has no narrative, no story hidden in its structure; it is as we’ve always suspected just one thing after another, a meaningless realm devoid of intention of design. Yet, as Shaviro remarks “Neuropath’s Argument takes it as a given that science is now in process of scrubbing psychology from the human world, just as it previously scrubbed psychology from the natural world. That is to say, the psyche itself is rapidly being depsychologized, as paradoxical as this might sound. Even the decenterings of subjectivity proposed by psychoanalysis and deconstruction have not really prepared us for this eventuality. We cannot help believing that we have reasons for what we do; “human beings explain and understand themselves in terms of intentions, desires, purposes, hopes, and so on”.” (D 106)
Of course philosophers have yet to accept this verdict and continue to ask themselves “What is philosophy?”. But the scientists who may or may not dabble in such thoughts in thier personal time, leave such speculations at the door when it comes to actual pragmatic understanding of the underlying world both outwardly in the natural world, and inwardly within the human realm of consciousness and brain. This is why the old Socratic dictum of “Know Thyself” is of little use in discovering what we are, in that for all our millennia long accumulation of knowledge it cannot tell us one thing about the actual truth about why we are conscious, or how the brain produces consciousness. We still don’t even know how consciousness evolved out of the natural order to begin with, and all our philosophical speculations are useless in giving us an answer to this. Why? Because as “recent research in neurobiology and cognitive psychology shows that most of the neural processes that go on in our brains are not consciously accessible to us at all. This is why our actual self-awareness is so misleading, incomplete, and prone to illusion and error. This is more thoroughly the case than Freud ever imagined. Our attempts at self-examination through introspection are incompetent at best, and delusional at worst.” (D 107)
Sadly there is a larger truth that the Argument offers: the reality that we our access to both reality and ourselves is a joke, a cartoon:
The Argument tells us that everyday life, as we experience it, is nothing more than such a “cartoon”. We live, inescapably, in “Disney World”: a world that is “papered over with conceit after comforting conceit… anchored in psychological need rather than physical fact”. This is inevitable, because the bulk of your brain’s processing falls outside what you can experience; it simply doesn’t exist for your consciousness, not even as an absence… Our brains… are entirely blind to the deep processing that drives them… The neural correlates of consciousness have no access to the real neurophysiological movers and shakers down below. (D 108-109)
It doesn’t end there, in fact acknowledging this is only the beginning; for once we acknowledge this it opens the doors on certain horrors we can barely even conceive: “Human consciousness may well have always been delusional, but recent technological inventions make it possible to mobilize our delusions in a new way.” (D 114) Think about that for a second. The notion that the neurosciences might uncover just how fatal we are to the power of manipulation by invasive technologies to shape our knowledge, perception, and vision of the world. Political philosophy dealt with the various aspects of how humans in the past sought to manipulate others through the power of ideology, propaganda, and social-control; but all that is child’s play compared to being able to manipulate our brains and produce a directed ordering of intrinsic and extrinsic relations to the world and ourselves. This notions becomes all to apparent in the novel when one character exposes the truth to another (Thomas):
“You want to believe I’m doing things to you, when in fact I’m doing things with you. The only reason I can play your thoughts and experiences like a sock puppet is because that’s what you are”. (D 114)
The notion that a government or other organization could in fact manipulate us like puppets on a string reminds us just how vulnerable we are in ways we are only now begining to understand. What this also entails is that the childhood of the human species is over, there is no returning back to the old tales and narratives that used to comfort us about ourselves and our place in the cosmos. For better or worse we have already hit the singularity of the species, what Bakker terms the “Semantic Apocalypse”:
Human cognition is not ontologically distinct. Like all biological systems, it possesses its own ecology, its own environmental conditions. And just as scientific progress has brought about the crash of countless ecosystems across this planet, it is poised to precipitate the crash of our shared cognitive ecology as well, the collapse of our ability to trust and believe, let alone to choose or take responsibility. Once every suboptimal behaviour has an etiology, what then? Once everyone us has artificial friends, heaping us with praise, priming our insecurities, doing everything they can to prevent non-commercial—ancestral— engagements, what then?
‘Semantic apocalypse’ is the dramatic term I coined to capture this process in my 2008 novel, Neuropath. Terminology aside, the crashing of ancestral (shallow information) cognitive ecologies is entirely of a piece with the Anthropocene, yet one more way that science and technology are disrupting the biology of our planet. This is a worst-case scenario, make no mistake. I’ll be damned if I see any way out of it.
Humans cognize themselves and one another via systems that take as much for granted as they possibly can. This is a fact. Given this, it is not only possible, but exceedingly probable, that we would find squaring our intuitive self-understanding with our scientific understanding impossible. Why should we evolve the extravagant capacity to intuit our nature beyond the demands of ancestral life? The shallow cognitive ecology arising out of those demands constitutes our baseline self-understanding, one that bears the imprimatur of evolutionary contingency at every turn. There’s no replacing this system short replacing our humanity.6
Anthropocene Blues: Climate Change and the End of the Future
Our children faced with such prospects are beginning to see nothing ahead of them but a world full of horrors that can barely be imagined. The Enlightenment promised humans a better world, a world of liberal democracy for all in which humans would no longer be bound to the ancient tyranny of religious or political enslavement. The era of disenchantment of Self and Cosmos has crumbled into a dead zone rather than enlightenment, given us prospects not of progress but of an end game that is producing what has been termed the Sixth Extinction event. As scientist surmise “All signs point to ever more powerful assaults on biodiversity in the next two decades, painting a dismal picture of the future of life, including human life.”
There is even a movement seeking to counter this termed the Extinction Rebellion Movement which is exposing just how fast this world is plunging into extinction not only of non-human species and plant and insect life, but of humanity as well. Effects on global human society, if the climate and ecological emergency is not addressed in time, may spiral out of control: Sea level rise, Desertification, Wildfires, Water shortage, Crop failure, Extreme weather, Millions displaced , Disease, Increased risk of wars and conflicts… which is only the beginning of our woes.
In 2017, humanity was given a second notice. Over 15,000 scientists signed a new and even more urgently worded letter which warned that “To prevent widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss, humanity must practice a more environmentally sustainable alternative to business as usual. This prescription was well articulated by the world’s leading scientists 25 years ago, but in most respects, we have not heeded their warning. Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out. We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home.”
As the ER site declares “It’s clear that we should never have allowed things to get so bad. It’s even worse when we realise that over half of all emissions in history have happened in the last 25 years, while our governments have been talking about dealing with the problem. The government cannot be allowed to continue to kick the ball into the long grass by setting the date for decarbonisation at 2050. We need to start acting now. The 2025 target forces us to do that, whereas 2050 condemns us to a bleak future.”
Something is Not Right With the World: A Pessimists Conclusion
Bernard Stiegler recently suggested that consumer capitalism – whose effects in the United States were described by Adorno and Horkheimer at the end of the Second World War – has destroyed the libidinal economy and, through that, has installed a ‘new kind of barbarism’. It is now trying to compensate for the extreme disenchantment to which exhaustion of the social systems has given rise by radicalizing itself – by becoming purely, simply and absolutely computational, imposing automated understanding on every kind of activity via the algorithms of social reticulation, which outstrips and overtakes every critique of reason. Reason finds itself systemically short-circuited. The reality of disruption is the loss of reason. (AoD 38)
Purely and simply computational capitalism is as such the effective accomplishment and perfect completion of nihilism. Nihilism is the process that solidifies what is now called the Anthropocene. In the epoch of disruption proclaimed by the new barbarians, the Anthropocene is reaching its final stage… (AoD 39)
Maybe this is why in our belated age when the implosion of knowledge meets the explosive saturation of narrative excess as online communities plunder the last resources of our ancient “philosophies, mythologies, theologies, cosmologies, numerologies, fairy tales, mysticisms, occult archives, aesthetic paradigms, symbolic systems, scientific happenings, superstitions, and magical practices can be scavenged across such experiential landscapes,”7 we are beginning to see the emergence of machinic intelligence: robotics, AI, and AGI. The convergence of technology in biotech, neurosciences, and Artificial Intelligence is accelerating our world beyond the human and into certain unforeseeable points of bifurcation: inhuman, transhuman, and posthuman trajectories that are only now registering on the horizon of contemporary thought.
Whether we like to admit it or not the prospects of humanity as it has been shaped and formed by ancient narratives up to the humanistic world view is entering its last stages, falling into an entropic moment of self-forgetting and self-erasure. The post-modern anti-humanists sought to dissolve both Subject and World in the acid bath of post-structuralist systems of erasure. In our time various movements to either accelerate the processes of decay and entropy, else to decelerate this process through negentropic thought and action pervade the intellisphere of contemporary theory.
One thing we can affirm is the possibility that in the near future nothing human as we’ve come to know that term will get out alive. What will remain of life or the possible children and progeny of humanity; either hybrid genetic, or machinic intelligent agents – no one can foresee or predict… the future is open and incomplete. Yet, humanity as a project is about to end in closure and complete annihilation by its own excessive sucesses. Strangely to vanish just at that point when we were beginning to barely understand the truth of our plight…
- Stiegler, Bernard. The Age of Disruption (p. 12). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
- Popper, Karl Raimund, Gombrich, E. H., Ryan, Alan. The Open Society and Its Enemies
- Fisher, Mark. Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures . John Hunt Publishing. Kindle Edition.
- Bakker, R. Scott. On Alien Philosophy. (see: https://www.academia.edu/31152366/On_Alien_Philosophy)
- Shaviro, Steven. Discognitions. Repeater (March 29, 2016)
- Bakker, R. Scott. Enlightenment How? Omens of the Semantic Apocalypse. (see: blog post https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/enlightenment-how-omens-of-the-semantic-apocalypse/
- Mohaghegh, Jason Bahbak. Omnicide . Urbanomic/Sequence Press.