Ernst Cassirer: The Last Kantian

ernst-cassirer

Why read Ernst Cassirer?  Cassirer occupies a unique place in twentieth-century philosophy. His work pays equal attention to foundational and epistemological issues in the philosophy of mathematics and natural science and to aesthetics, the philosophy of history, and other issues in the “cultural sciences” broadly conceived. More than any other German philosopher since Kant, Cassirer thus aims to devote equal philosophical attention both to the (mathematical and) natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften) and to the more humanistic disciplines (Geisteswissenschaften). In this way, Cassirer, more than any other twentieth-century philosopher, plays a fundamental mediating role between C. P. Snow’s famous “two cultures.” He also plays a similarly mediating role between the two major traditions in twentieth-century academic philosophy — the “analytic” and “continental” traditions — whose radically different (and often mutually uncomprehending) perspectives on the relationship between scientific and humanistic elements in their subject gave rise to a fundamental split or gulf between philosophy as it came to be practiced in the Anglo-American world, on the one side, and as it was practiced in most of the rest of the world, on the other. Cassirer, by contrast, had fruitful philosophical relations with leading members of both traditions — with Moritz Schlick, the founder and guiding spirit of the Vienna Circle of logical empiricists, whose work in logic and the philosophy of science had a decisive influence on the development of philosophy in the United States, and with Martin Heidegger, the creator of a radical “existential-hermeneutical” version of Husserlian phenomenology which quickly became dominant in continental Europe.1

Cassirer would flee Nazi Germany for America and bring his Philosophy of Symbolic Forms with him. Many of us already know the extent of the symbolic or linguistic turn in France. Alain Caillé suggests, “the bulk of the liveliest French thought of the postwar period gravitates around this notion of symbolism.”2 This is a trajectory with a complicated genealogy, reaching from poststructuralist figures like Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, and Jean Baudrillard back through structuralist thinkers like Roland Barthes, Louis Althusser, Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss to interwar figures like Georges Bataille, Michel Leiris, the Collège de sociologie, and the surrealists to Marcel Mauss, Émile Durkheim, and Ferdinand Saussure.

It is a commonplace that Claude Lévi-Strauss, the key figure steering postwar French thought toward a preoccupation with the symbolic, conceived structural anthropology on the linguistic model pioneered by Saussure, Jakobson, Greimas, and others. Building on Saussure’s exclusion of the historical dimension of language in order to establish a synchronic science of language as a system, Lévi-Strauss defined the symbolic as a closed order of social representations that form a system, the function of which is to render the perception of the world coherent by superimposing on the continuum of reality a grid of taxonomic oppositions and syntagmatic associations. Likewise, Lévi-Strauss drew heavily from Saussure’s semiological principle, in which linguistic values emerge through differential relations among signs. Linguistics, as Marcel Hénaffwrites, opened for Lévi-Strauss a new approach to the study of myth, indeed of all cultural systems: “what is important is not the figures or themes as such but the system of their differences, of their reciprocal relations.” Accordingly, Lévi-Strauss and those directly influenced by him studied symbolism as a code, as an invariant structure, at the expense of acts of speech within living contexts. (Breckman, 10-11)

In a series of lectures in at the Warburg Library during the 20’s Cassirer would formulate his on theory of the culture industry. In these lectures he’d promote the conception of human beings as most fundamentally “symbolic animals,” interposing systems of signs or systems of expression between themselves and the world, then becomes the guiding philosophical motif for elucidating the corresponding conditions of possibility for the “fact of culture” in all of its richness and diversity. Because of his liberal humanist discourse, his proclivities to systematic thought he would for the most part go by the wayside during the so called postmodern era. And, yet, a careful study of his works reveals a man who was already investigating much of the same territory that only now in our post-Marxist age as the notions of Symbolic Order and the manipulation of our socio-cultural matrix by the massive Media-Industrial Complex is more and more exposed we would do well to return to such philosophers.

As Breckman states it the thought and work of Cassirer lie at a deeper, autonomous level that gives rise to the more sophisticated forms by a dialectical developmental process. From mythical thought, religion and art develop; from natural language, theoretical science develops. It is precisely here that Cassirer appeals to “romantic” philosophical tendencies lying outside the Kantian and neo-Kantian tradition, deploys an historical dialectic self-consciously derived from Hegel, and comes to terms with the contemporary Lebensphilosophie of Wilhelm Dilthey, Henri Bergson, Max Scheler, and Georg Simmel — as well as with the closely related philosophy of Martin Heidegger. One need not agree at all with Cassirer. I certainly do not, and yet one can discover in his thought the demise of liberal humanism which he entombs in his systematic philosophy. One might say he gave a rendition and summing up of the whole of Kantian Enlightenment thought in is German Idealist and Romantic streams. So for that alone one could benefit. As one of the last of the neo-Kantians Cassirer defines and delimits that era of thought, bringing the humanist and scientific worlds of culture together in a last ditch effort to provide a foundation of liberal humanist learning. That he would fail in the totalizing effort is not the point, but that his parallel stream of thought should be aligned in hour philosophical histories along with the vogue of all those French Intellectuals we seem to revere at the expense of many others.

In my own pantheon I place Cassirer with the novelist Thomas Mann, who also fled Nazi Germany for America, and represents the last encyclopedic effort of the liberalist humanist in German thought as novelist; an inheritor of Goethe’s Enlightenment and its Romantic and Late Romantic decadence. Mann’s two great novel’s (outside the mythical Joseph tetralogy), The Magic Mountain and Doctor Faustus would portray this symbolic heritage in dramatic fashion.


  1. Friedman, Michael, “Ernst Cassirer“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
  2. Breckman, Warren. Adventures of the Symbolic: Postmarxism and Democratic Theory (p. 10). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

The Grand Illusionist: The Non-Existent Self

Sometimes in those insomniac nights of sleeplessness and ennui  I ponder the reams of paper or the interminable light-bits of datatrash – those computing algorithms that have gone into the veritable destruction of the Great Illusionist: the Subject as Self-Identity and Substance. Everything from the current philosophical speculators to the vanguard research of neurosciences tells us the Self is an illusion, that it doesn’t exist… and, yet, the illusion persists, we get up every morning, we wander into the bathroom, we wash our face, and then look at the sack of shit staring back at us out of the mirror and, say: “You’re just a figment of my imagination, an illusion and linguistic trick, an evolutionary display of memes, ideas, notions, errors all wrapped up in bullshit.” We blink, we laugh, we cry… it’s still there, whatever ‘it‘ is or is not; it want go away, disappear, fall off a cliff.. the illusion of Self persists; it endures your vituperative invective, your satirical jibes, your slow witted verbiage… it blinks back at you, defies you, challenges you to disbelieve in its existence. But it does not go away… this illusion of Self. No matter how many intelligent people show you in report after report, thesis after thesis, image after image that it is an empty thing, a dead concept, a parlor trick… nothing more. We cling to our ‘I’ – our sense of identity, our uniqueness, our eccentric and marginal belief that we are different, that we are singular, unique, and one-of-a-kind beings; that all those who would reduce us to a cipher, an automated process in a vast and complex system of algorithms shifting in the substratum of the brain’s own biochemical vat must be wrong. So that in the end we hang onto this illusion of Self – this self-reflecting nothingness, a mirror world of illusive memetic monstrosities we keep referring to as our intentions, our intentional self; both intelligent and willful. Illusion, as Freud once believed, is not so easily gotten rid of, even the illusion of self and identity.

Most of the great religious systems of the world were built around deprogramming this sense of Self. Buddhism is a veritable registry of this hollowing out of the illusion of Self and Things or Mindedness… One turns to the Gnostics, remembering Basiledes who said: “Show me your face before you were born.” Or, Monoïmus the Gnostic who would tell his followers: “Cease to seek the Self as Self, and sayeth: ‘My god, my mind, my reason, my soul, my body.’ And learn whence is sorrow and joy, and love and hate, and waking though one would not, and sleeping though one would not, and getting angry though one would not, and falling in love though one would not. And if thou shouldst closely investigate these things, thou wilt find the Void in thyself, one and many, just as the atom; thus finding from thyself a way out of thyself.”

One could recite a Thousand and One Nights of such quotes from both religious, philosophical, scientific and other literature. Robert Musil in The Man without Qualities would say of Self and self-reflection: “This non-plussed feeling refers to something that many people nowadays call intuition, whereas formerly it used to be called inspiration, and they think that they must see something suprapersonal in it; but it is only something nonpersonal, namely the affinity and kinship of the things themselves that meet inside one’s head.”

The notion that the sense of Self is a mere congeries of things floating in and out of the voidic hollow of one’s brain is an apt metaphor for out times – a time when we still believe in the notion of Self – of the hollow men and women we call Leaders who presume to represent other selves in a Government based on the illusion of Selves in Nations built on an outmoded liberal model of subject and subjectivity, representation and presence, an illusion of the stable and continuous Liberal Subject-as-Substance and Substance-as-Subject. Amazing, quite amazing…

The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self

In their book The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity  Raymond Martin and John Barresi would trace this sordid history into all its nooks and crannies (at least into its Western Heritage and lineage). Yet, it was in Hume that the defining moment came to turn the mind’s scalpel onto that strange entity. In book 1 of the Treatise , the heart of his account is his argument that belief in a substantial, persisting self is an illusion.1 Hume addressed the task of explaining why people are so susceptible to the illusion of self. And in book 2 he explained how certain dynamic mentalistic systems in which we represent ourselves to ourselves, as well as to others, actually work, such as those systems in us that generate sympathetic responses to others. This was Hume the empirical psychologist at his constructive best. In these more psychological projects, Hume often seems to have taken for granted things that in book 1 he had subjected to withering skeptical criticism.(163)

Next we come to the work of Thomas Cooper (1759–1839). Cooper’s most important philosophical contribution was his Tracts, Ethical, Theological, and Political (1789). 53 In a chapter, “On Identity,” he first surveys the important eighteenth-century literature on personal identity, including Locke, Leibniz, Isaac Watts, Clarke, Collins, Butler, Priestley, Price, and Charles Bonnet. Cooper’s own view, which he expresses all too briefly after his leisurely survey of the views of others, is, in the language of our own times, that personal identity is not what matters primarily in survival. He argued that there is no evidence that people have immaterial souls and ample evidence that all of the matter out of which they are composed is constantly in the process of being replaced, with nothing remaining constant. (172)

Cooper would destroy (or so he hoped) the last metaphysical bastion of the afterlife – the notion of a Soul. In Cooper’s view, no one lasts even from moment to moment, let alone year to year. Rather, there is a succession of similar people, each of whom is causally dependent for its existence on its predecessors in the series. This similarity misleads people into supposing that identity is preserved, that is, that someone who will exist in the future is the very same person as someone who exists now. He concluded that personal identity is an illusion—at best a pragmatically useful notion with no adequate support in the nature of things. In response to the objection that “the man at the resurrection will, upon this system, be not the same with, but merely similar to the former,” he replied that similarity, rather than identity, is the most that can be got even in this life, which no one regards of any consequence. He concluded that maintaining identity should then be of no consequence in connection with the afterlife. (173)

Next we come to Schopenhauer whose notion of Will would replace this thing we call the ‘I’:

When you say I, I, I want to exist, it is not you alone that says this. Everything says it, absolutely everything that has the faintest trace of consciousness. It follows, then, that this desire of yours is just the part of you that is not individual—the part that is common to all things without distinction. It is the cry, not of the individual, but of existence itself; it is the intrinsic element in everything that exists, nay, it is the cause of anything existing at all. This desire craves for, and so is satisfied with, nothing less than existence in general—not any definite individual existence. No! that is not its aim. It seems to be so only because this desire—this Will—attains consciousness only in the individual, and therefore looks as though it were concerned with nothing but the individual. There lies the illusion—an illusion, it is true, in which the individual is held fast: but, if he reflects, he can break the fetters and set himself free. It is only indirectly I say, that the individual has this violent craving for existence. It is the Will to Live which is the real and direct aspirant—alike and identical in all things. (203)

Yet as Schopenhauer declared if our individual selves are at bottom an illusion, how can people overcome their egoistic concerns? Up to a point, he says, by developing the human capacity for sympathy and thereby becoming more virtuous. But what is really needed to overcome our self-centeredness is not mere sympathy but a “transition from virtue to asceticism,” in which the individual ceases to feel any concern for earthly things. In this “state of voluntary renunciation,” individuals experience “resignation, true indifference, and perfect will-lessness,” which lead to a “denial of the will to live.” Only then, when humans have become “saints,” are they released from insatiable Will. (204)

Of course as we know Schopenhauer was steeped in the new influx of translated works from both Hindu and Buddhist literature of that era in German scholarship so that his notions would meld the old Christian apophatic traditions with those of India to create a new deprogramming model for self-abnegation. Nietzsche would catch the drift of this and keep a wary eye on the old pessimist.

Yet, we need to turn back to those old Eighteenth century mechanists of the spirit, too. Among those whom influenced by such notions was Paul-Henri d’Holbach (1723–1789), who in System of Nature (1770) defended secular materialism. In it, d’Holbach argued, at the time sensationally, that humans are a product entirely of nature, that their moral and intellectual abilities are simply machinelike operations, that the soul and free will are illusions, that religion and priestcraft are the source of most manmade evil, and that atheism promotes good morality. (213)

The work of Nietzsche is well known so I want add examples here. A few—Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, for instance—had claimed that there is an irrational, unconscious part of the mind that dominates the rational. But Freud had a much more elaborate theory of how this happens, for which he claimed support from his psychotherapeutic and historical case studies, as well from his analyses of dreams and mental slips.

Freud claimed that most human behavior is explicable in terms of unconscious causes in the person’s mind, a view which he supported by appeal to ingenious interpretations of such things as slips of the tongue, obsessive behavior, and dreams. In short, the mind is like an iceberg, the bulk of which—the unconscious—lies below the surface and exerts a dynamic and controlling influence upon the part which is above the surface—that is, consciousness. It follows from this, together with a general commitment to universal determinism, that whenever humans make a choice, they are governed by mental processes of which they are unaware and over which they have no control. Free will is an illusion. Nevertheless, one can empower the ego by making the unconscious conscious. (256)

Freud had been interested in the process by which children become civilized, productive adults. He hoped that by bringing the contents of the unconscious into consciousness, repression and neurosis would be minimized, thereby strengthening the ego or self. His goal was the development of an ego that is more autonomous. In Lacan’s view, Freud’s goal is an impossible dream. Since the ego is an illusion, it can never replace or control anything, let alone the unconscious. Lacan’s theoretical interest was not in how children become civilized, productive adults but in how they acquire the illusion of self. (267)

Lacan in his notions of the mirror image would see in the child a sense of misrecognition as a category mistake that creates what Lacan called the “armor” of the subject, an illusion of wholeness, integration, and totality that surrounds and protects the child’s fragmented sense of its own body. This illusion of wholeness gives birth to the ego . That, in essence, is Lacan’s famous mirror theory . The idea that one is an ego or self, he said, is always a fantasy, based on an identification with an external image. (268)

Whereas the real is a realm of objects, the imaginary, which is prelinguistic and based in visual perception, is a realm of conscious and unconscious images. In this realm, the mirror image, an “ideal ego,” becomes internalized as the child builds its sense of self and identity. The fiction of a stable, whole, unified self that the child saw in the mirror becomes compensation for its having lost its original sense of oneness with the mother’s body. The child protects itself from the knowledge of this loss by misperceiving itself as not lacking anything. For the rest of its life, the child will misrecognize its self as an illusory other—an “image in a mirror.” This misrecognition provides an illusion of self and of mastery. (269)

In his recent work Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, has, on the basis of reports from his patients who have suffered brain damage, proposed the existence of a neural self . 45 He claims that these patients, deprived of current information about parts of their bodies, have sustained damage to the neural substrate of the self. By contrast, healthy people use their senses of self to access information about the slowly evolving details of their autobiographies, including their likes, dislikes, and plans for the future. They also use them to access representations of their bodies and their states. Damasio calls a person’s representations, collectively, his or her concept of self , which, he says, is continually reconstructed from the ground up. This concept is an evanescent medium of self-reference. It is reconstructed so often that the person whose self-concept it is never knows it is being remade unless problems arise. (291)

In a more recent book, Damasio, proposed that consciousness represents a relationship between the self and the external world. The self model that actually shows up phenomenologically as a more or less constant feature of our consciousness is not the robust self of our narrative reveries but what he calls the core self . It is a representation of a regulatory system in the brain and brain stem, the function of which is to monitor and maintain certain of the body’s internal systems, such as respiration, body temperature, and the sympathetic nervous system. He calls the system being represented, the protoself . In his view, all states of consciousness are bipolar in that they include a representation of the core self in relation to the external world. In this representation, he says, the core self remains relatively stable, while sensory input from the external world changes dramatically and often. Thus, in almost every conscious state, there is something relatively stable, namely the core self, and something changeable, the external world. This fact about consciousness, he claims, generates the “illusion” that there is a relatively constant self that perceives and reacts to the external world. (292)

Ultimately in the conclusion to their survey – dated in 2006 so lacking in current research, they suggest that our notion of a unified self-identity is not only an illusion, but that the disturbing realization that what we are characterized as a unified self is not something that we once had and then lost sight of but, rather, something that we never had to begin with. To whatever extent it may have seemed like we had it, this was an illusion. In this view of things, a better way of characterizing what happened as a consequence of the development of theory is not that we lost something valuable that we once had but that we became better positioned to shed an illusion and finally see what we had—and have—for what it truly is. Shedding an illusion, even the comforting one that there is a unified subject matter of self and personal-identity theory and we can grasp it whole, is a kind of progress. It is not progress of a sort that is internal to any theory but, rather, progress in gaining a better synoptic understanding of the development and current state of theory—metaprogress, if you will. Arguably, it is a sign of the importance of the shedding of the illusions of a unified self and of theoretical closure that it may be psychologically impossible to embrace wholeheartedly that there may be no knowable comprehensive truth about who and what we are and about what lies at the root of our egoistic concerns. (313)

Nevertheless, they argue, each of us seems to have a kind of direct, experiential access to him- or herself that makes the development of theories of the self and personal identity, however interesting, seem somewhat beside the point. This feeling of special access is what fueled Descartes’s contention that one’s own self is first in the order of knowing. The truth, however, seems to be that nothing is first in the order of knowing, that is, that there is no single privileged place to begin the development of theory, no single privileged methodology with which to pursue it, and no practical way to unify the theories that result from starting at different places using different techniques. This was not so apparent until recently, but it seems abundantly clear now. In sum, as “we have already suggested, if there is unity in sight, it is the unity of the organism, not of the self or of theories about the self”. (314)

Such are the quandaries of this strange history, a world built out of words and thoughts, lies and misrecognition, illusory at best; yet, a world that continues to build on such illusions as Self; its secret histories, battles, disjunctive sense of loss, even though we know it to be the Great Illusionist at the core of the human project. But, then again, are we even human anymore? We let the machines answer that, our future progeny may look back on our quandaries and laughingly click metal to metal as if to say, “Those fools who once shared our world and spent so much effort in creating us as the perfection of their dreams of Reason. Little did they know what it was they were doing…” or why?


  1. Raymond Martin and John Barresi. The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self: An Intellectual History of Personal Identity.  Columbia University Press (July 22, 2006) (Page 163).

(Note: I could have brought it up to current speed with both neuroscientific, philosophical and other literature after 2006, but thought it would make this post far too long …)

David Roden’s: Speculative Posthumanism – Conclusion (Part 8)

While the disconnection thesis makes no detailed claims about posthuman lives, it has implications for the complexity and power of posthumans and thus the significance of the differences they could generate. Posthuman entities would need to be powerful relative to WH to become existentially independent of it.1

 In his final chapter David Roden takes up the ethical or normative dimensions of his disconnection thesis. He will opt for a posthuman accounting that will allow us to anticipate the posthuman through participation in its ongoing eventuality. Yet, he recognizes there are both moral, political, and other factors that argue for both its necessary constraint and limits through control pressure from normative and political domains. (previous post) As we approach David Roden’s final offering we should remember a cautionary note by Edward O. Wilson from his The Social Conquest of the Earth would caution:

We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology. We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.2

In the first section Roden will face objections to his disconnection thesis from both phenomenological anthropocentrism and naturalist versions of species integrity, and find both wanting. Instead of going through the litany of examples I’ll move toward his summation which gives us his base stance and philosophical/scientific appraisal. As he states it:

…the phenomenological species integrity argument for policing disconnection-potent technologies presupposes an unwarrantable transcendental privilege for Kantian personhood. Since the privilege is unwarrantable this side of disconnection, the phenomenological argument for an anthropocentric attitude towards disconnection fails along with naturalistic versions of the species integrity argument such as Agar’s. Thus even if we accept that our relationships to fellow humans compose an ethical pull, as Meacham puts it, its force cannot be decisive as long we do not know enough about the contents of PPS (posthuman possibility space) to support the anthropocentrist’s position. What appears to be a moral danger on our side of a disconnection could be an opportunity to explore morally considerable states of being of which we are currently unaware.*(see notes below)

 Reading the arguments of both Agar and Meacham against the disconnection thesis it brings to mind the sense of how many thinkers, scientists and philosophers fear the unknown element, the X factor in the posthuman equation. What’s difficult and for me almost nonsensical in both arguments is their sense of Universalism, as if we could control what is viable a nominalistic universe of particulars through either a universal and normative set of theory and practices (let’s say a Sellarsian/Brandomonian normativity of “give” and “take” in a space of reasons; creating a navigational mapping of the pros/cons of the posthuman X factor and develop a series of reasoning’s for or against its emergence, etc.) as if we have a real say in the matter. Do we? Roden has gone through the pros/cons of technological determinism and found it lacking in any sense of foundation.

Yet, his basic philosophy seems grounded in the surmises of phenomenological theory and practice rather than in the sciences per se. So from within his own perspective in philosophical theory all seems viable for or against the posthuman. But do we live in a phenomenological world. Do we accept the philosophical strictures of the Kantian divide in philosophy that have led to the current world of speculation, both Analytical and Continental?

As Roden will suggest against the threat of phenomenological species integrity is one that attacks the actual foundations of the whole ethical and political enterprise rather than an specific or putatively “human” norms, values or practices (Roden, KL 4130). I think its safe to say that most of the species that have ever existed (99%) are now extinct according to evolutionists. So humans are part of the natural universe, we are not exceptional, and do not sit outside the realm of the animal kingdom. When it comes down to it do we go with those who fear extinction at the hands of some unknown X factor, some unknown posthuman break and disconnect that might or might not be the end point for the human? Or, do we opt for the challenge to participate in its emergence and realize that it might offer the next stage in – if not biological evolution (although transhumans opt for this), but technological innovation and evolution? Roden will try to answer this in his final section.

 Vital posthumanism: a speculative-critical convergence

In this section (8.2) Roden will opt for a post-anthropocentric ethics of becoming posthuman, one that does not require posthumans to exhibit human intersubjectivity or moral autonomy. Such an ethics would need to be articulated in terms of ethical attributes that we could reasonably expect to be shared with posthuman WHDs (wide human descendants) whose phenomenologies or psychologies might diverge significantly from those of current humans (Roden, 4164).

One prerequisite as he showed in earlier sections of the book was the need for functional autonomy:

A functionally autonomous system (FAS) can enlist values for and accrue functions ( § 6.4 ). Functional autonomy is related to power. A being’s power is its capacity to enlist other things and be reciprocally enlisted (Patton 2000: 74). With great power comes great articulation ( § 6.5 ). (Roden, 4168)

To build or construct such an assemblage he will opt for a neo-vitalist normativity, one that is qualified materialism following Levi R. Bryant against any form of metaphysical vitalism. Instead he will broker an ontological materialism that denies that the basic constituents of reality have an irreducibly mental character (Roden, KL 4180). Second, he will redefine the conceptual notions underpinning vitalism by offering a minimal definition of the posthuman as living because they must exhibit functional autonomy. This is a sufficient functional condition of life at best (Roden, KL 4187). This does not imply any form or essentialism either, there is not implied set of properties etc. to which one could reduce the core set of principles.

He will work within the framework of an assemblage ontology first developed by Gilles Deleuze. It assumes that posthumans would have network-independent components like the human fusiform gyrus, allowing flexible and adaptive couplings with other assemblages. Posthumans would need a flexibility in their use of environmental resources and in their “aleatory” affiliations with other human or nonhuman systems sufficient to break with the purposes bestowed on entities within the Wide Human.(Roden, 4202) I’m tempted to think of Levi R. Bryant’s Machine Ontology which is an outgrowth of both Deleuze and certain trends in speculative realism, too. Yet, this is not the time or place to go into that (i.e., read here, here, here).

He affirms an accord between his own project and that of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman. Yet, there are differences as well. As he states it:

“…she is impatient with a disabling political neutrality that can follow from junking human moral subjectivity as the arbiter of the right and the good. She argues that a critical posthumanist ethics should retain the posit of political subjectivity capable of ethical experimentation with new modes of community and being, while rejecting the Kantian model of an agent subject to universal norms. (Roden, KL 4224)”

His point is that Braidotti is mired in certain political and normative theories and practices that bely the fact that the posthuman disconnection might diverge beyond any such commitments. As he will suggest the ethics of vital posthumanism is thus not prescriptive but a tool for problem defining (Roden, KL 4271). The point being that one cannot bind oneself to a democratic accounting, because – as disconnection suggests an accounting would not evaluate posthuman states according to human values but according to values generated in the process of constructing and encountering them. (Roden, KL 4278)

In the feral worlds of the posthuman future our wide-human descendants may diverge so significantly from us, and acquire new values and functional affiliations that it might be disastrous for those who opt to remain human through either normative inaction or policing the perimeters of territorial and political divisions, etc., to the point that the very skills and practices that had sustained them prior to disconnection might be inadequate in the new dispensation. (Roden, KL 4372) Therefore as he suggests:

It follows that any functionally autonomous being confronted with the prospect of disconnection will have an interest in maximizing its power, and thus structural flexibility, to the fullest possible extent. The possibility of disconnection implies that an ontological hypermodernity is an ecological value for humans and any prospective posthumans. … To exploit Braidotti’s useful coinage, ramping up their functional autonomy would help to sustain agents – allowing them to endure change without falling apart (Roden, KL 4376- 4385)

He will summarize his disconnection hypothesis this way:

I will end by proposing a hypothesis that can be put to the test by others working in science and technology, the arts, and in what we presumptively call “humanities” subjects. This is that interdisciplinary practices that combine technoscientific expertise with ethical and aesthetic experimentation will be better placed to sculpt disconnections than narrow coalitions of experts. There may be existing models for networks or associations that could aid their members in navigating untimely lines of flight from pre- to post-disconnected states (Roden 2010a). “Body hackers” who self-administer extreme new technologies like the IA technique discussed above might be one archetype for creative posthuman accounting. Others might be descendants of current bio- and cyber-artists who are no longer concerned with representing bodies but, as Monika Bakke notes, work “on the level of actual intervention into living systems”. (Roden, KL 438)

So in the end David Roden is opting for intervention and experimentation, a direct participation in the ongoing posthuman emergence through both ethical and technological modes. Instead of it being tied to any political or corporate pressure it should become an almost Open Source effort that is open and interdisciplinary among both academic and outsiders from scientists, technologists, artists, and bodyhackers willing to intervene in their own lives and bodies to bring it into realization. He will quote Stelarc, a body hacker, saying,

Perhaps Stelarc defines the problem of a post-anthropocentric posthuman politics best when describing the role of technical expertise in his art works: “This is not about utopian blueprints for perfect bodies but rather speculations on operational systems with alternate functions and forms” (in Smith 2005: 228– 9). I think this spirit of speculative engineering best exemplifies an ethical posthuman becoming – not the comic or dreadful arrest in the face of something that cannot be grasped. (Roden, KL 4397)

One might term this speculative engineering the science fictionalization of our posthuman future(s) or becoming other(s). Open your eyes folks the posthuman could already be among you. In the Bionic Horizon I had quoted Nick Land’s essay Meltdown, which in some ways seems a fitting way to end this excursion:

The story goes like this: Earth is captured by a technocapital singularity as renaissance rationalitization and oceanic navigation lock into commoditization take-off. Logistically accelerating techno-economic interactivity crumbles social order in auto-sophisticating machine runaway. As markets learn to manufacture intelligence, politics modernizes, upgrades paranoia, and tries to get a grip.

—Nick Land, Meltdown

One aspect of Roden’s program strikes me as pertinent, we need better tools to diagnose the technological infiltration of human agency as the future collapses upon the present. Yet, he also points toward a posthuman movement as he sees opportunity in an almost agreement with the tendencies of accelerationism. We might actually see late capitalism as an even more radical form of technological accelerationism which goes beyond any political concerns, and whose goal is reinventing human relations in light of new technology. So that instead of the current mutations  of some phenomenological effort we may be experiencing the strangeness of techno-capital as a speculative opportunity to rethink basic notions of humanity as such. Ultimately, as we’ve seen through time technology and humanity have always already been in symbiotic relationship to emerging technologies from the time of the early implementation of domestication of animals and seed baring agricultural emergence to the world of Industrial Civilization and its narrowing of the horizon of planetary civilization. What next? Roden offers an alliance with the ongoing process, optimistic and open toward the future, hopeful that the alliance with the interventions of technology may hold nothing more than our posthuman future as the next stage of strangeness in the universe. We’ll we become paranoid and fearful, withdraw into combative and religious reformation against such a world; or, will we call it down into our own lives and participate in its emergence as co-symbiotic partners?


*Notes:

Agar: In Humanity’s End, Agar is mainly concerned with the first type of threat from radical technical alteration. His argument against radical alteration rests on a position he calls species relativism (SR). SR states that only certain values are compatible with membership of a given biological species: According to species-relativism, certain experiences and ways of existing properly valued by members of one species may lack value for the members of another species.(Roden, 3869)

Meachem (from a dialogue): Thus a disconnection could be a “phenomenological speciation event” which weakens the bonds that tie sentient creatures together on this world:

This refers us back to a weakened version of Roden’s description of posthuman disconnection: differently altered groups, especially when those alterations concern our vulnerability to injury and disease, might have experiences sufficiently different from ours that we cannot envisage what significant aspects of their lives would be like. This inability to empathize will at the very least dampen the possibility for the type of empathic species solidarity that I have argued is the ground of ethics. (Ibid.)

Meacham’s position suggests that human species recognition has an “ethical pull” that should be taken seriously by any posthuman ethics.

1. Roden, David (2014-10-10). Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human (Kindle Locations 3832-3834). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Wilson, Edward O. (2012-04-02). The Social Conquest of Earth (Kindle Locations 179-181). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Zizek & Deleuze: On Desire

Of late I’ve been tracing down the two forms of desire that interplay through much of the past two-hundred years in discourse. I was rereading Zizek who is a student and epigone of Lacan/Hegel who both conceived desire as lack, while Deleuze on the other hand conceived desire as fully positive. I had discovered in Nick Land’s works this same sense of desire as in Deleuze. There is this undercurrent of philosophers that seem to battle between these conceptions of desire as if it were a central trope and mask for aspects of drive and energy that those following the transcendental Idealists despise with a passion. I’m just taking a few notes here and there as I trace this strange battle of the philosophers over conceptions of desire. It seems important.

 Below is a quote from Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences by Slavoj Zizek:

…Deleuze insists that desire has no object (whose lack would trigger and sustain its movement): desire is “a purely virtual ‘movement’ that has always reached its destination, whose moving is itself its own destination.” This is the thrust of Deleuze’s reading of masochism and courtly love— in both cases, not logic of sacrifice, but how to sustain the desire … According to the standard reading of masochism, the masochist, like everyone, also looks for pleasure; his problem is that, because of the internalized superego, he has to pay for his access to pleasure with the pain, to pacify the oppressive agency which finds pleasure intolerable. For Deleuze, on the contrary, the masochist chooses pain in order to

dissolve the pseudo-link of desire with pleasure as its extrinsic measure. Pleasure is in no way something that can only be reached via the detour of pain, but that which has to be delayed to the maximum since it is something which interrupts the continuous process of the positive desire. There is an immanent joy of desire, as if desire fills itself with itself and its contemplations, and which does not imply any lack, any impossibility.

And the same goes for courtly love : its eternal postponement of fulfilment does not obey a law of lack or an ideal of transcendence: here also, it signals a desire which lacks nothing, since it finds its fulfilment in itself, in its own immanence; every pleasure is, on the contrary, already a re-territorialization of the free flux of desire.

Of course Zizek goes ballistic at Deleuze’s insistence on the notion that desire lacks nothing… Zizek being a faithful child of Hegel gets exasperated and wants to say, ah ha, I got you Deleuze when he says:

Therein resides the ultimate irony of Deleuze’s critique of Hegel: when, against Hegel, Deleuze claims that creation “is immediately creative; there is no transcendent or negating subject of creation that might need time in order to become conscious of itself or otherwise catch up with itself,”  he thereby imputes to Hegel a substantialization-reification which is not there and, in this way, obliterates precisely that dimension in Hegel which is the closest to Deleuze himself. Hegel repeatedly insists that Spirit is “a product of itself”: it is not a pre-existing Subject intervening into objectivity, sublating-mediating it, but the result of its own movement, i.e., pure processuality. As such, it does not need time to “catch up with itself,” but simply to generate itself. (ibid, KL 169)

What’s truly ironic is that for Hegel ‘Spirit’ is a mask for desire, so that it is Zizek not Deleuze who is bound to a misprisioning of Hegel and Deleuze both. Zizek has a fetish for the self-reflecting nothingness at the center of his own empty being: what he calls subjectivity. He could not find desire there so he has been chasing after it through all the worlds of philosophy, film, art, trash, culture, Lacan, Hegel… will he find it? All he need do is give up his love of nothingness. But that’s the key he desires less than nothing so will continue to revolve in his own black hole of non-being.

Yet, if we remember from his opus Less Than Nothing the basic theme was on desire:

This book tries to demonstrate that the Freudian drive cannot be reduced to what Buddhism denounces as desire or to what Heidegger denounces as the Will: even after we reach the end of this critical overcoming of desire-will-subjectivity, something continues to move. What survives death is the Holy Spirit sustained by an obscene “partial object” that stands for the indestructible drive. One should thus (also) invert Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of how we relate to the proximity of death in the Kierkegaardian sense of the “sickness unto death,” as the series of five attitudes towards the unbearable fact of immortality. One first denies it: “What immortality? After my death, I will just dissolve into dust!” Then, one explodes into anger: “What a terrible predicament I’m in! No way out !” One continues to bargain: “OK, but it is not me who is immortal, only the undead part of me, so one can live with it …” Then one falls into depression: “What can I do with myself when I am condemned to stay here forever?” Finally, one accepts the burden of immortality.2

And, of course, one realizes that Zizek is being beyond ironic in such statements since he is a purist of atheists. Zizek is after that “something continues to move”. The burden of life and immortality for Zizek is to be condemned to this life forever, to repeat it ad infinitum like Kafka’s surveyor in The Castle he is condemned to a novel that will never end because the author left the stage before it was completed. An irony too sweet to be missed: one can also conceive desire as a mode of avoiding the circularity of the drive: the self-enclosed rotary movement is recast as a repeated failure to reach a transcendent object which always eludes its grasp (Zizek, KL 5319). This is Zizek’s desire as lack. A sort of hell where one is condemned like Dante’s lovers to whirl in the winds of infinity just out of reach of each other, condemned to an eternity of longing that can never be fulfilled.

Deleuze will offer his own view on desire in which he will point out that desire always flows from within an assemblage. To desire is to construct and assemblage, to construct and aggregate – a dress, a sun ray, a woman or assemblage of a woman, a vista, a color, etc. To be abstract about it: desire is a constructivism. Everytime someone says they desire something, they first of all desire to construct an assemblage, to shape their desire around a mileu:

 

In the video he goes on to speak of the three points he and Felix Guattari had in disagreement with classic forms of psychoanalysis:

1) they were persuaded with the notion that the unconscious is not a theatre, a place where Hamlet and Oedipus continually play out their scenes. It’s not a theatre but a factory, a production… the unconscious produces, continuously produces… ;

2) the theme of delirium, which is closely linked to desire… to desire is to become delirious… it is opposite to what psychoanalysts discuss – it’s not about the father and mother… the great secret of delirium is that we desire about the whole world… one desires about history, geography, tribes, deserts, people, climates, etc. … it’s not about family, its about tribes and milieu, about one’s place within these…the determinants.

3) desire always constructs assemblages and establishes itself in assemblages, always putting several factors into play, while psychoanalysis is just the opposites and reduces the factors to a single factor: the father, the mother, etc.  While assemblages are a multiplicity, psychoanalysis is a reduction to the one. 

1. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-05-04). Organs without Bodies: On Deleuze and Consequences (Routledge Classics) (Kindle Locations 156-169). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.
2. Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (Kindle Locations 313-321). Norton. Kindle Edition.

Blind Brain Theory and Enactivism: In Dialogue With R. Scott Bakker

Adam from Knowledge Ecology and R. Scott Bakker of Three Pound Brain got together last week for a talk… Adam presents it for us… What was interesting is how close to each other their ideas converged after reading through the conversation. Obviously there are slight disagreements and nuances of metaphor and framework, but all in all a very good and amiable conversation that was indeed enlightening. Adam would say:

“As I am working my way through the meta-theoretical baggage, though, I keep finding less and less to disagree with you on at the level of the constraints you argue for, which I am coming to see I agree with you on to some extent, though these are constraints that I think put you firmly in the skeptical / transcendental tradition you’re at pains to break free from! Anyway, on my end getting through the meta-theoretical layer is important since only then can I learn how to disagree with you better (and rest assured I have a feeling the disagreement will be longstanding!)”.

Also Found it interesting for Bakker to hone in as usual carefully registering his take on what he truly means by his stance on ‘intentionality’:

“Intentional cognition is real, there’s just nothing intrinsically intentional about it. It consists of a number of powerful heuristic systems that allows us to predict/explain/manipulate in a variety of problem-ecologies despite the absence of causal information. The philosopher’s mistake is to try to solve intentional cognition via those self-same heuristic systems, to engage in theoretical problem solving using systems adapted to solve practical, everyday problem – even though thousands of years of underdetermination pretty clearly shows the nature of intentional cognition is not among the things that intentional cognition can solve!”

Knowledge Ecology

tumblr_mkwlanqOci1qzngato1_1280[Image: Hannah Imlach]

Last week I posted a short essay on the question of meaning, style, and aesthetics in the ecological theories of Alva Noë and Jacob von Uexküll. The post resulted in a long and in-depth discussion with science fiction novelist and central architect of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) of cognition, R. Scott Bakker. Our conversation waded through multiple topics including phenomenology, the limits of transcendental arguments, enactivism, eliminativism, meaning, aesthetics, pluralism, intentionality, first-person experience, and more. So impressed was I with Bakker’s adept ability to wade through the issues — across disciplines, perspectives, and controversies — despite my protests that I felt it worth excerpting our dialogue as a record of the exchange and as a resource for others interested in these debates. Whatever your views on the philosophy of mind, Bakker’s unique position is one you should familiarize yourself with — if only, like me, so that you…

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Ray Brassier: Quote of the Day!

“At this particular historical juncture, philosophy should resist the temptation to install itself within one of the rival images [either manifest or scientific], just as it should refuse the forced choice between the reactionary authoritarianism of manifest normativism, and the metaphysical conservatism of scientific naturalism. Rather, it should exploit the mobility that is one of the rare advantages of abstraction in order to shuttle back and forth between images, establishing conditions of transposition, rather than synthesis, between the speculative anomalies thrown up within the order of phenomenal manifestation, and the metaphysical quandaries generated by the sciences’ challenge to the manifest order.”

– Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound Extinction and Enlightenment

*note: my brackets…

Adorno on Kant and Enlightenment (in 1959)

James Schmidt, Professor of History, Philosophy, and Political Science
Boston University, in this essay clears up some of the confusions and doubts that have for too long been cast on both Horkheimer, and especially Adorno’s work and their relations to Kant and the Enlightenment. Well worth the read… it may surprise you!
Schmidt brings clarity and insight in a way that sends you back to those originals to reread and rethink and re- see (not a revisioning, but rather an envisioning) just what they were up too. I’m glad to see Adorno’s work being investigated again. He’s had a great influence on my own thinking over the years (although I admit until recently I’d not reread his works ). I read him heavily for music theory and aesthetics in my younger years, but have of late been spending more time on the political, sociological, and philosophical tracts – along with many of the others of the Frankfurt Institute. Either way… read Schmidt, he has a keen eye and is a closer reader of this tradition he terms the Persistent Enlightenment!

Persistent Enlightenment

Over the last decade or so, the publication and translation of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France have led to a broader reconsideration of how his work ought to be understood. But, unless I’ve missed something, the publication and translation of Theodor Adorno’s lectures at the University for Frankfurt have generated considerably less interest.0804744262 In part, the difference is not entirely surprising. Foucault’s influence has, if anything, grown since his death, while Adorno’s work tends to be regarded with an ambivalence tempered by incomprehension. But the neglect of Adorno’s Frankfurt lecture is unfortunate, if only because (as is also the case with Foucault’s lectures) they sometimes help us to avoid misunderstanding what he was trying to accomplish in his published work. For example, consider his 1959 lectures on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and, in particular, the discussion of Kant’s relationship to the Enlightenment.1 What we find…

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The Aphorisms of Adorno: In The Face of Despair

The only philosophy which can be responsibly practised in face of despair is the attempt to contemplate all things as they would present themselves from the standpoint of redemption.

– Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Having been a fan of the aphoristic style ever since reading Nietzsche as a young man it was a pleasant surprise to refresh my mind with Theodor W. Adorno’s Minima Moralia which of course he began during WWII and its aftermath. The cynicism and despair of the world, of the bourgeoisie, of the fabled hopes of communism – all these become so much bittersweet castigations and incriminations in this deft text. I’m almost hard put to find someone, even E.M. Cioran, who was more bitter and spiteful about his lot – maybe, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes? Yes, this is a work of solitude, of one who has read too long, hoped too well, fallen from the grace of his own being.

Most of the basic triggers, the subjects or objects of his titles are but sparks of spite, goads of a dark intent… yet, intent is not the correct term, for there is no directedness in this, no sense of attentive appraisal with a goal in mind, rather we have the full stop, the judgment of history itself using Adorno’s pen like a saber to cut through the knots of some Gordian priesthood’s mythical attachment to power. No. Adorno could care less of his audience, this is a personal book, a book of meditations on a culture of death, a culture that has, frankly, imploded and is now on the verge to total apocalypse.

He begins with a high point in bourgeois culture, with the author of that book of memory and time, Marcel Proust. Yet, it is not Marcel to which he speaks, rather this is a meditation of bourgeois culture itself, its disdain of such beings as Marcel. “It is not merely that his independence is envied, the seriousness of his intentions mistrusted, and that he is suspected of being a secret envoy of the establishment powers. Such suspicions, though betraying a deep-seated resentment, would usually prove well-founded. But the real resistances lie elsewhere.” Already Adorno sets the stage, reminds us that this is an investigation not into the particular characters, not a moraliste – an aphoristic study in the morality of an age, rather it is an investigation into the structure and the actual material energies that brought such things to pass. It is about power and control, about the machine of civilization itself in the hands of Capital: “The urge to suspend the division of labour which, within certain limits, his economic situation enables him to satisfy, is thought particularly disreputable: it betrays a disinclination to sanction the operations imposed by society, and domineering competence per- mits no such idiosyncrasies. The departmentalization of mind is a means of abolishing mind where it is not exercised ex officio, under contract.” Summing up those like Marcel, who have dared to retreat, dared to escape the machine, to hide out and seek refuge from the hard worlds of work and late capitalism were at last neither envied nor praise, but were judged as expendable: “It is as if the class from which independent intellectuals have defected takes its revenge, by pressing its demands home In the very domain where the deserter seeks refuge.”

And don’t expect that powerhouse of the bourgeoisie, the family, to escape the eye of this harbinger of the demise of Capital: “Our relationship to parents is beginning to undergo a sad, shadowy transformation. Through their economic impotence they have lost their awesomeness. … With the demise of the family there passes away, while the system lasts, not only the most effective agency of the bourgeoisie, but also the resistance which, though repressing the individual, also strengthened, perhaps even produced him.” One remembers that this was written at a time when the institution of the family attacked by the modernists had at last begun to fall away. Women were working in factories, becoming more independent – so to speak, for the truth was that the capitalists needed them out of the home and working alongside men to get ready for that new consumerist economy that was in the offing. So that it was the capitalists themselves that brought about the demise of this fabled institution of the family. But it would loosen desires and strange new illnesses never before seen, schizophrenia would run rampant across the earth like a desiring-machine that had no center: and, it didn’t, the family Oedipal authority was vanishing, the power that had kept this machine under control was dissolving and allowing all the forces latent in this tribal time between times to vacate the rational hold of its caged existence. One need not read Deleuze and Guattari or R.D. Laing to see that as women escaped the bond of the family circle the men went ape, lost their center, their mother, not their father – the drift of this disconnect loosened those bonds around the hearth fires that had stilled the beast. As Adorno would remark: “The rising collectivist order is a mockery of a classless one: together with the bourgeois it liquidates the Utopia that once drew sustenance from motherly love.”

So Adorno was a pop-psychologist, too. Zizek before Žižek – a sort of non-Lacanian mode of analysis, a critical gaze on the failure of the Enlightenment to stay the tide against barbarism. “Since the all-embracing distributive machinery of highly-concentrated industry has superseded the sphere of circulation, the latter has begun a strange post-existence.” The wheels-within-wheels are churning, but going nowhere, while capitalism unbound from its purpose accelerates out of control toward the abyss: “The irrationality of the system is expressed scarcely less clearly in the parasitic psychology of the individual than in his economic fate.” And, the whole notion that there is a private sphere, that an individual could actually have a home, a family, a wife and kids, a place to spend time and energy: “Today it is seen as arrogant, alien and improper to engage in private activity without any evident ulterior motive.” This is a time of probabilities, of calculations, of the mathematical engineering of a planned society, the construction of a free market. The new Spirit of Capitalism: “The evil principle that was always latent in affability unfurls its full bestiality in the egalitarian spirit. Condescension, and thinking oneself no better, are the same. To adapt to the weakness of the oppressed is to affirm in it the pre-condition of power, and to develop in oneself the coarseness, insensibility and violence needed to exert domination.”

Adorno doesn’t leave the Left out of the bag either, his admonitions of those who seek to sympathize, to enter into and live in the midst of these societies (and where else would we live now?) must beware of the temptation to detach oneself, to become indifferent and aloof, to think that one can create a life in a pocket of safety: “He who stands aloof runs the risk of believing himself better than others and misusing his aitique of society as an ideology for his private interest. While he gropingly forms his own life in the frail image of a true existence, he should never forget its frailty, nor how little the image is a substitute for true life.” Even with the best intentions the new intellectual, the Marxist in hiding, the agitator, the worker in transit who assumes the mantle of the critical enterprise should beware in this time of laxity and hedonistic implication: “We shudder at the brutalization of life, but lacking any objectively binding morality we are forced at every step into actions and words, into calculations that are by humane standards barbaric, and even by the dubious values of good society, tactless.”

The dark undertow of the oppressed harbors a special place in the memory system that was Adorno: “The dialectic stems from the sophists; it was a mode of discussion whereby dogmatic assertions were shaken and, as the public prosecutors and comic writers put it, the lesser word made the stronger. It subsequently developed, as against philosophia perennis, into a perennial method of criticism, a refuge for all the thoughts of the oppressed, even those unthought by them.” The negative dialectic unlike its progenitors became in the hands of Adorno an acid bath in which late capitalism was thrown, yet as in all things he knew it would leave bones – and, as we all know, bones can rise and live again: “Negative philosophy, dissolving everything, dissolves even the dissolvent. But the new form in which it claims to suspend and preserve both, dissolved and dissolvent, can never emerge in a pure state from an antagonistic society.” Yet, even the negative is not immune from the enslavement of hell’s own brood: “[Negative dialectic] But it is also the utterly impossible thing, because it presupposes a standpoint removed, even though by a hait’s breadth, from the scope of existence, whereas we well know that any possible knowledge must not only be first wrested from what is, ifit shall hold good, but is also marked, for this very reason, by the same distortion and indigence which it seeks to escape.”

But what to do? How to live? “The only responsible course is to deny oneself the ideological misuse of one’s own existence, and for the rest to conduct oneself in private as modestly, unobtrusively and unpretentiously as is required, no longer by good upbringing, but by the shame of still having air to breathe, in hell.” Yet, even envious demons – like the cowards they are, run rampant in the visible darkness of this hollow cave, and like celebrants in a Burning Man festival, they spin their unlucky nights under false stars navel-gazing, not realizing that hell never ends but only burns deeper and redder as the noise drowns out all thought of escape.

– Theodor W. Adorno. Minima Moralia. (Suhrkamp Verlag 1951)

Lucretius and The Making of Modernity

Karl Marx would relate in his essay on French Materialsm the “overthrow of the metaphysics of the seventeenth century could be explained from the materialistic theory of the eighteenth century only in so far as this theoretical movement was itself explicable by the practical shape of the French life of that time. This life was directed to the immediate present, to worldly enjoyment and worldly interests, to the secular world. It was inevitable that anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, materialistic theories should correspond to its anti-theological, anti-metaphysical, its materialistic practice. In practice metaphysics had lost all credit.”

In our time we’ve seen a resurgence in the other direction which seems to me a dangerous reversion to pre-critical thinking and practice. What was it that brought us to the materialist vision of reality and life to begin with? What seemed so attractive to those of the past few centuries that materialism came to the for rather than the continued dogmatic imposition of theology, metaphysics, and the humanist traditions? We see in such works as Words of Life: New Theological Turns in French Phenomenology (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy) by Bruce Ellis Benson we see such philosophers as -Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Kevin Hart, Anthony J. Steinbock, Jeffrey Bloechl, Jeffrey L. Kosky, Clayton Crockett, Brian Treanor, and Christina Gschwandtner, Dominique Janicaud, Jean-Francois Courtine, Jean-Louis Chrtien, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Paul Ricoeur all enquiring into and revitalizing theological notions, concepts, and frameworks in their own theories and practices. And that’s just in the world of French philosophy and phenomenology in particular. I could name philosopher after philosopher from the Continental and even American Analytical streams who seem to be teasing with this supposed theological turn in philosophy.

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Technocapitalism: War Machines and the Immortalist Imperative

   Having recognized religious doctrines to be illusions, we are at once confronted with the further question: may not other cultural possessions, which we esteem highly and by which we let our life be ruled, be of a similar nature?

– Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

Psychical researchers , supported by some of the leading figures of the day, believed immortality might be a demonstrable fact . The seances that were so popular at this time were not just Victorian parlour games invented to while away dreary evenings. They were part of an anxious, at times desperate, search for meaning in life…

from John Gray’s – The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

The longer one peers into the depths of human history the more one wants to escape it. From the outside history seems one long saga of tyranny, violence, and coercion while from the inside it seems – as Macbeth suggested, a ‘tale told by and idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing’. Yet, we go on. Why? Why do we continue? Why persist? Out of habit? Because we think there must be something better? That if I just try a little harder I can make a go of it, create a happy, healthy life for myself and my children in the midst of all this death and decay? But at whose expense? Isn’t my chance in the sun at the expense of some other poor soul (me being a white Caucasian male living in a first world country with a basic living wage, etc.). And, by poor soul I mean all those millions of beings, other humans living in not only poverty but degradation, decay, and ultimately uninhabitable spaces of death? Why should my life be supposedly blessed with such amenities? Why do I exist in these circumstances that give me opportunities to even think about such things?

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The Rise of the Machines: Brandom, Negarestani, and Bakker

Modern technological society constitutes a vast, species-wide attempt to become more mechanical, more efficiently integrated in nested levels of superordinate machinery.

– R. Scott Bakker, The Blind Mechanic

Ants that encounter in their path a dead philosopher may make good use of him.

– Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice 

We can imagine in some near future my friend R. Scott Bakker will be brought to trial before a tribunal of philosophers he has for so long sung his jeremiads on ignorance and blindness; or as he puts it ‘medial neglect’ (i.e., “Medial neglect simply means the brain cannot cognize itself as a brain”). One need only remember that old nabi of the desert Jeremiah and God’s prognostications: Attack you they will, overcome you they can’t… And, like Jeremiah, these philosophers will attack him from every philosophical angle but will be unable to overcome his scientific tenacity.

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Posthumanism and Transhumanism: The Myth of Perfectibility – Divergent Worlds?

History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

– James Joyce

Enhancement. Why shouldn’t we make ourselves better than we are now? We’re incomplete. Why leave something as fabulous as life up to chance?

– Richard Powers,  Generosity: An Enhancement

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow a point is reached in the text in which the inexorable power of an accelerating capitalism is shown out of control mutating into something else something not quite human:

The War needs electricity. It’s a lively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes— gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands . Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are.1

This notion of a violent nativity, of giving birth to something that is both new and as old as the very “forgotten roots of who we are” seems appropriate to our time of accelerating impossibilities. We who are atheists seem to visualize some secular apocalypse of the semantic, a breaking of the bonds of the Anthropocene era, of a bridging of the gap, a great crossing of some inevitable Rubicon of the inhuman within us into something post-human, something strange and almost unthinkable. Yet, as we study our religious forbears we notice a paradox, a sort of literalization of the Christian mythos of the perfectibility of Man, the veritable myth of a New Adam in the making. But whereas the church going population saw this as a release from embodiment, of a shift into transcendence of spirit, our new atheistic or secular priests of posthumanism and/or transhumanism see it as just an immanent change within the very condition of the human animal itself.

The idea of the perfectibility of man emerges in the 18th century, with the relaxation of the theological barriers protecting the property for God alone. In Enlightenment writers such as the Condorcet and Godwin, perfectibility becomes a tendency actually capable of being realized in human history. Before Kant, both Rousseau and the Scottish thinker Lord Monboddo (1714–99) envisaged perfectibility as the power of self-rule and moral progress. The 19th century represented the high-water mark of belief in perfectibility, under the influence first of Saint-Simon, then Kant, Hegel, Comte and Marx. With the arrival of the theory of evolution it was possible to see successive economic and cultural history as a progress of increasing fitness, from primitive and undeveloped states to a potential ideal associated with freedom and self-fulfilment. This optimism, frequently allied with unlimited confidence in the bettering of the human condition through the advance of science, has taken on a new twist in the pseudo-science of Transhumanism.2

Abraham Maslow, the central figure in “third force” psychology, was one of the first to use the term “transhuman” to describe a new form of secular religion of peak experiences. Maslow described peak experiences as very like orgasms : “the peak experience is temporary, essentially delightful, potentially creative, and imbued with profound metaphysical possibilities.” One cannot live on such peaks but, he insisted, a life without them is unhealthy, nihilistic and potentially violent. The peak experience sat at the summit of a pyramid built on a hierarchy of psychological and physiological needs. At the base of the pyramid was food, shelter, sleep; above that came sexuality, safety and security; above that, love, belonging, self-esteem; and finally, at the peak itself, self-actualization. This last state was regarded as spiritual but in no way religious. One of the achievements of a peak experience, Maslow thought, was that people became more democratic, more generous, more open, less closed and selfish, achieving what he called a “transpersonal” or “transhuman” realm of consciousness. He had the idea of a “non-institutionalized personal religion” that “would obliterate the distinction between the sacred and the profane”— rather like the meditation exercises of Zen monks, whom he compared to humanistic psychologists. Maslow’s idols in this were William James and Walt Whitman.3

George Bernard Shaw, a Fabian socialist, along with H.G. Wells affirmed a view of the perfectibility of human nature. Shaw once stated that the “end of human existence is not to be ‘good’ and be rewarded in heaven, but to create Heaven on earth.” As he wrote to Lady Gregory: “ My doctrine is that God proceeds by the method of ‘trial and error.’ . . . To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching Man to regard himself as an experiment in the realization of God.” (Watson, KL 1959) Shaw also much like Quentin Meillasoux in our own time espoused the notion of inexistent God, of the god that does not yet exist but might. Shaw wrote to Tolstoy in 1910: “To me God does not yet exist. . . . The current theory that God already exists in perfection involves the belief that God deliberately created something lower than Himself. . . . To my mind , unless we conceive God as engaged in a continual struggle to surpass himself . . . we are conceiving nothing better than an omnipotent snob.”(Watson, KL 1930) Notions of perfectibility, good, and progress were all fused into the idea of neverending improvement in Shaw as well in which he “good” is a process of endless improvement “that need never stop and is never complete.”

For Wells on the other hand improvement, good, progress were conceived of within the tradition of “perfectibility” not in a theological way,  but as a three-pronged process— perfectibility of the individual but within the greater structure of the state and of the race. As he stated it:

The continuation of the species, and the acceptance of the duties that go with it, must rank as the highest of all goals; and if they are not so ranked, it is the fault of others in the state who downgraded them for their own purposes. . . . We live in the world as it is and not as it should be. . . . The normal modern married woman has to make the best of a bad position, to do her best under the old conditions, to live as though [as if] she were under the new conditions, to make good citizens, to give her spare energies as far as she can to bringing about a better state of affairs. Like the private property owner and the official in a privately conducted business, her best method of conduct is to consider herself [as if she were] an unrecognized public official, irregularly commanded and improperly paid. There is no good in flagrant rebellion. She has to study her particular circumstances and make what good she can out of them, keeping her face towards the coming time. . . . We have to be wise as well as loyal; discretion itself is loyalty to the coming state. . . . We live for experience and the race; the individual interludes are just helps to that; the warm inn in which we lovers met and refreshed was but a halt on the journey. When we have loved to the intensest point we have done our best with each other. To keep to that image of the inn, we must not sit overlong at our wine beside the fire. We must go on to new experiences and new adventures. (Watson, KL 2566)

John Passmore in his classic study The Perfectibility of Man  begins by distinguishing between “technical perfection” and the perfectibility of a human being. As Harold Coward points out following Passmore Technical perfection occurs when a person is deemed to be excellent or perfect at performing a particular task or role. In this sense we may talk about a perfect secretary, lawyer, or accountant, suggesting that such persons achieve the highest possible standards in their professional work. But this does not imply that they are perfect in their performance of the other tasks and roles of life. Passmore points out that Plato in his Republic allows for technical perfection by allocating to each person that task to perform in which the person’s talents and skills will enable a perfect performance of the task. But that same person might be a failure as a parent; and so, in Plato’s Republic he or she would not be allowed to be a parent. The parent role would be reserved for someone else whose talents enabled him or her to perfectly perform the task of raising children. But Plato distinguishes such technical perfection from the perfection of human nature evidenced by the special class of persons who are rulers of the Republic. These “philosopher-kings,” as he calls them, are not perfect because they rule perfectly; they are perfect because they have seen “the form of the good” and rule in accordance with it. Passimore comments, “in the end, the whole structure of Plato’s republic rests on there being a variety of perfection over and above technical perfection-a perfection which consists in, or arises out of, man’s relationship to the ideal.”‘ Passmore goes on to point out that other Western thinkers including Luther, Calvin, and Duns Scotus follow Plato in talking about technical perfection in terms of one’s vocation or calling. But the perfecting of oneself in the performance of the role in life to which one is called is not sufficient by itself to ensure one’s perfection as a human being.4

Plato by introducing the idea of a metaphysical good as the ideal to be achieved, he also evoked the idea of evil or the lack of good, and the tension between the two. They are related to the terms “perfect” or “perfection” in the sense of an end or goal that is completed (the Greek telos [end], and the Latin perficere [to complete])’ Thus, human nature attempts to perfect itself by actualizing the end (the “good,” in Plato’s thought) that is inherent in it. Insodoing it “completes” itself. (Coward, KL 124) Peter Watson in his The Age of Atheists wonders at such notions of good, perfection, progress, telos, etc. asking: “Is the very idea of completion, wholeness, perfectibility, oneness, misleading or even diverting? Does the longing for completion imply a completion that isn’t in fact available? Is this our predicament?”(Watson, 545)

Vernor Vinge in his now classic The Coming Technological Singularity gave his own answer to this question saying,

The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.5

Vinge brought to fruition many of the ideas of the good from Plato to David Pearce. Illah R. Nourbakhsh commenting on David Pearce’s The Biointelligence Explosion, tells us that Pearce sets up an antihero to the artificial superintelligence scenario, proposing that our wetware will shortly become so well understood, and so completely modifiable, that personal bio -hacking will collapse the very act of procreation into a dizzying tribute to the ego. Instead of producing children as our legacy, we will modify our own selves, leaving natural selection in the dust by changing our personal genetic makeup in the most extremely personal form of creative hacking imaginable. But just like the AI singularitarians, Pearce dreams of a future in which the new and its ancestor are unrecognizably different. Regular humans have depression, poor tolerance for drugs, and, let’s face it, mediocre social, emotional and technical intelligence. Full-Spectrum Superintelligences will have perfect limbic mood control, infinite self-inflicted hijacking of chemical pathways, and so much intelligence as to achieve omniscience bordering on Godliness.6

In this same work, Singularity Hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment, Dr. David Roden of Enemy Industry blog stipulates his Diconnection Thesis. Part of his wider Speculative Posthumanist stance this thesis provides that basic tenets that the “descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration”; and, the notion of a “relationship between humans and posthumans as a historical successor relation: descent.” (Singularity, KL 7390) At the heart of this thesis is the notion “that human-posthuman difference be understood as a concrete disconnection between individuals rather than as an abstract relation between essences or kinds. This anti-essentialist model will allow us to specify the circumstances under which accounting would be possible.” (Singularity, KL 7397) In acknowledgment of Vinge Roden states “Vinge considers the possibility that disconnection between posthumans and humans may occur as a result of differences in the cognitive powers of budding posthumans rendering them incomprehensible and uninterpretable for baseline humans” (Singularity, 7554).

There seems to be a fine line between certain posthuman theorists and transhumanist theorists. Where they seem to converge is in the notion of progress, improvement, and perfectibility of human nature. On the one hand we see the enactment of a total divergence, or transcension, a disconnect between our current embodied natural humans (i.e., you and I), and those that will become our descendents – our posthuman descendents – the yet to be. Yet, the line of difference is more of nuance than of substance. Posthuman seem to seek a transformation to another order of being, a surpassing of the human into the inhuman/posthuman order of being. While the transhumanists seek a new inclusion of existing humanity in an enhanced order of being in which the immortality is the central telos rather than perfectibility of the human condition. Transhumanists find little point in living forever in old bodies, however, even in bodies that remain healthy. So in addition to being immortal, they want humans to engineer themselves to be forever young. Ray Kurzweil, for example, is counting on cloning and stem cells to do the trick, the same technologies that John Harris wants to employ to eliminate the diseases of old age. Our bodies will be rejuvenated, says Kurzweil, “by transforming your skin cells into youthful versions of every other cell type.”7

Secularist dreams of immortality seem more like religionists without a religion, a sort of philosophical humbug trip for disgruntled atheists to wonderland without the need to pay the ticket to Charon. Behind the whole drama of transhuman science is the century old notions of eugenics. The eugenic goals, which had informed the design of the molecular biology program and had been attenuated by the lessons of the Holocaust, revived by the late 1950s. Dredged from the linguistic quagmire of social control, a new eugenics, empowered by representations of life supplied by the new biology, came to rest in safety on the high ground of medical discourse and latter-day rhetoric of population control.8 But the shadow of eugenics has for the most part been erased from our memories. One must be reminded that the original holocaust was part of the progressive movement in medicine within the United States not Germany:

The goal was to immediately sterilize fourteen million people in the United States and millions more worldwide-the “lower tenth”-and then continuously eradicate the remaining lowest tenth until only a pure Nordic super race remained. Ultimately, some 60,000 Americans were coercively sterilized and the total is probably much higher. No one knows how many marriages were thwarted by state felony statutes. Although much of the persecution was simply racism, ethnic hatred and academic elitism, eugenics wore the mantle of respectable science to mask its true character.9

Many might think this is a thing of the past but they would be wrong. Eugenics no longer hides in plain site under the rubric of some moral or progressive creed of eliminating from the human stock a particular germ line. It now hides itself in other guises. One needs only seek out such new worlds of the Personal Genome Project: http://www.personalgenomes.org/ dedicated to what on the surface appears to be a perfectly great notion of health: “Sharing data is critical to scientific progress, but has been hampered by traditional research practices—our approach is to invite willing participants to publicly share their personal data for the greater good.” But such notions were already in place by one of the leaders of the eugenics movement Charles Davenport a century ago:

  • “I believe in striving to raise the human race to the highest plane of social organization, of cooperative work and of effective endeavor.”
  • “I believe that I am the trustee of the germ plasm that I carry; that this has been passed on to me through thousands of generations before me; and that I betray the trust if (that germ plasm being good) I so act as to jeopardize it, with its excellent possibilities, or, from motives of personal convenience, to unduly limit offspring.”
  • “I believe that, having made our choice in marriage carefully, we, the married pair, should seek to have 4 to 6 children in order that our carefully selected germ plasm shall be reproduced in adequate degree and that this preferred stock shall not be swamped by that less carefully selected.”
  • “I believe in such a selection of immigrants as shall not tend to adulterate our national germ plasm with socially unfit traits.”
  • “I believe in repressing my instincts when to follow them would injure the next generation.”10

From the older form of sharing one’s “germ plasm” to the new terms of sharing one’s “personal genome” we’ve seen a complete transformation of the eugenics movement as the sciences transformed from early Mendelian genetics to mid-Twentieth century Molecular Genetics to our current multi-billion dollar Human Genome Project. But the base science of germ line genetics remains the same, and the whole complex of hereditarianism along with it. The reason for this new book which included a facsimile of the original educational manual textbook by Davenport Heredity in Relation to Eugenics is stated by the Cold Harbor review boards as:

…the most compelling reason for bringing Davenport’s book once again to public attention is our observation that although the eugenics plan of action advocated by Davenport and many of his contemporaries has long been rejected, the problems that they sought to ameliorate and the moral and ethical choices highlighted by the eugenics movement remain a source of public interest and a cautious scientific inquiry, fueled in recent years by the sequencing of the human genome and the consequent revitalization of human genetics.

When Mendel’s laws reappeared in 1900, Davenport believed he had finally been touched by the elusive but simple biological truth governing the flocks, fields and the family of man. He once preached abrasively, “I may say that the principles of heredity are the same in man and hogs and sun-flowers.” 54 Enforcing Mendelian laws along racial lines, allowing the superior to thrive and the unfit to disappear, would create a new superior race. A colleague of Davenport’s remembered him passionately shaking as he chanted a mantra in favor of better genetic material: “Protoplasm. We want more protoplasm!”(Black, KL 1053) Redirecting human evolution had been a personal mission of Davenport’s for years, long before he heard of Mendel’s laws. He first advocated a human heredity project in 1897 when he addressed a group of naturalists, proposing a large farm for preliminary animal breeding experiments. Davenport called such a project “immensely important.”(Black, 1068)

In our own time this notion of redirecting evolution is termed “transhumanism”. In section eight of the Transhumanist Declaration one will find: “We favor morphological freedom – the right to modify and enhance one’s body, cognition, and emotions. This freedom includes the right to use or not to use techniques and technologies to extend life, preserve the self through cryonics, uploading, and other means, and to choose further modifications and enhancements.”11 This freedom would also include the use of the latest biogenetic and neuroscientific technologies to transform or enhance humanity. As one proponent of this new morphological freedom put it:

Given current social and technological trends issues relating to morphological freedom will become increasingly relevant over the next decades. In order to gain the most from new technology and guide it in beneficial directions we need a strong commitment to morphological freedom. Morphological freedom implies a subject that is also the object of its own change. Humans are ends in themselves, but that does not rule out the use of oneself as a tool to achieve oneself. In fact, one of the best ways of preventing humans from being used as means rather than ends is to give them the freedom to change and grow. The inherent subjecthood of humans is expressed among other ways through self-transformation. Some bioethicists such as Leon Kass (Kass 2001) has argued that the new biomedical possibilities threaten to eliminate humanity, replacing current humans with designed, sanitized clones from Huxley’s Brave New World. I completely disagree. From my perspective morphological freedom is not going to eliminate humanity, but to express what is truly human even further.(Transhumanist Reader, 63)

That last sentence holds the key to the difference between most posthumanist and transhumanists: posthumans support in Roden’s terms some for of the disconnect thesis of a divergent descent from humans to something else through some technological transformation; while, most transhumanists want to bring the older humanistic notions into some morphological freedom in which humans become enhanced by technologies in ever greater empowerment.

As one outspoken spokesman tells us “genomic technologies can actually allow us to raise the dead. Back in 1996, when the sheep Dolly was the first mammal cloned into existence, she was not cloned from the cells of a live animal. Instead, she was produced from the frozen udder cell of a six-year-old ewe that had died some three years prior to Dolly’s birth. Dolly was a product of nuclear transfer cloning, a process in which a cell nucleus of the animal to be cloned is physically transferred into an egg cell whose nucleus had previously been removed. The new egg cell is then implanted into the uterus of an animal of the same species, where it gestates and develops into the fully formed, live clone.”12 This same author even prophesies that new NBIC technologies will help us in reengineering humanity in directions that natural selection never dreamed of:

Using nanobiotechnology , we stand at the door of manipulating genomes in a way that reflects the progress of evolutionary history: starting with the simplest organisms and ending, most portentously, by being able to alter our own genetic makeup. Synthetic genomics has the potential to recapitulate the course of natural genomic evolution, with the difference that the course of synthetic genomics will be under our own conscious deliberation and control instead of being directed by the blind and opportunistic processes of natural selection. …We are already remaking ourselves and our world, retracing the steps of the original synthesis— redesigning, recoding, and reinventing nature itself in the process. (Regenesis, KL 345)

As Nick Bostrom and Julian Savulescu suggest that human enhancement has moved from the realm of science fiction to that of practical ethics. There are now effective physical, cognitive, mood, cosmetic, and sexual enhancers —drugs and interventions that can enhance at least some aspects of some capacities in at least some individuals some of the time. The rapid advances currently taking place in the biomedical sciences and related technological areas make it clear that a lot more will become possible over the coming years and decades. The question has shifted from ‘‘Is this science fiction?’’ to ‘‘Should we do it?’’.13 They go on to state:

It seems likely that this century will herald unprecedented advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, cognitive science, and other related areas. These advances will provide the opportunity fundamentally to change the human condition. This presents both great risks and enormous potential benefits. Our fate is, to a greater degree than ever before in human history, in our own hands.( Human Enhancement, 20-21)

Yet, as the great historian of the eugenics movement Daniel J. Kevles admonished speaking of Francis Galton, one of the progenitors of the genetic enforcement of the eugenics heritage tells us:

Galton, obsessed with original sin, had expected that the ability to manipulate human heredity would ultimately emancipate human beings from their atavistic inclinations and permit their behavior to conform to their standards of moral conduct. But in fact, the more masterful the genetic sciences have become, the more they have corroded the authority of moral custom in medical and reproductive behavior. The melodies of deicide have not enabled contemporary men and women to remake their imperfect selves. Rather, they have piped them to a more difficult task: that of establishing an ethics of use for their swiftly accumulating genetic knowledge and biotechnical power.14

Ethics, Law, Politics have yet to catch up with these strange twists of the eugenic heritage as it is brought to fruition by the great Corporate Funds, Think Tanks, Academies, and Scientific laboratories all part of the vast complex of systems that are moving us closer and closer to some form of Singularity. What should we do? Ultimately I wonder if we have a choice in the matter at all. That is my nightmare.

The novelist’s argument is clear enough: genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.

– Richard Powers, Generosity: An Enhancement

1. Pynchon, Thomas (2012-06-13). Gravity’s Rainbow (pp. 133-134).  . Kindle Edition.
2. See more at: http://www.philosophycs.com/perfectibility.htm#sthash.ESqeoqFt.dpuf
3. Watson, Peter (2014-02-18). The Age of Atheists: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God (Kindle Locations 7511-7519). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.
4. Harold Coward. The Perfectibility of Human Nature in Eastern and Western Thought (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies) (Kindle Locations 89-100). Kindle Edition.
5. Vinge, Vernor (2010-06-07). The Coming Technological Singularity – New Century Edition with DirectLink Technology (Kindle Locations 16-18). 99 Cent Books & New Century Books. Kindle Edition.
6. Singularity Hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment (The Frontiers Collection) (Kindle Locations 6222-6229). Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Kindle Edition.
7. Mehlman, Maxwell J. (2012-08-10). Transhumanist Dreams and Dystopian Nightmares: The Promise and Peril of Genetic Engineering (p. 23). Johns Hopkins University Press. Kindle Edition.
8. Lily E. Kay. The Molecular Vision of Life: Caltech, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Rise of the New Biology (Monographs on the History & Philosophy of Biology) (Kindle Locations 4511-4513). Kindle Edition.
9. Black, Edwin (2012-11-30). War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race, Expanded Edition (Kindle Locations 182-186). Dialog Press. Kindle Edition.
10. Davenport’s Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity and Eugenics (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2008)
11.   (2013-03-05). The Transhumanist Reader: Classical and Contemporary Essays on the Science, Technology, and Philosophy of the Human Future (p. 55). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
12. Regis, Ed; Church, George M. (2012-10-02). Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves (Kindle Locations 269-274). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.
13. Savulescu, Julian; Bostrom, Nick (2009-01-22). Human Enhancement (Page 18). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
14. Kevles, Daniel J. (2013-05-08). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Kindle Locations 6624-6629). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 

Radical Change equals Radical Reformation: The Politics of Saul Alinsky

Over the years I’ve kept a promise to myself, one that through everything has helped me to survive, and not only survive but to actually keep my mind alive and radical. Radical? Do we even know what that means anymore? We like to tout our heritage. Oh, let’s say Thomas Paine. Yes, yes, he was a radical, a man of the enlightenment, a creature who paid the price of his beliefs in a radical democracy. Imprisoned by  Robespierre – who was himself the betrayer of the revolution, Paine barely escaped the fate of the chopping block during the great purge. With the ascendency of Robespierre to the Committee an era of anti-radicalism took charge of the revolution. It was a full-blooded Counter-Enlightenment. Condorcet was outlawed and sentenced to confiscation of his possessions in October 1793, Brissot guillotined on 31 October, Pierre-Louis Manuel following a fortnight later. Olympe de Gouges was guillotined on 3 and Bailly on 12 November. In December, Tom Paine, ‘the most violent of the American democrats’ in Madame de Staël’s words, in whose eyes the ‘principles of the Revolution, which philosophy had first diffused’, were ‘departed from, and philosophy itself rejected’ by the Robespierristes, was first expelled from the Convention and then arrested and imprisoned. Already months before, he had become entirely convinced that the Jacobin government was a tyranny ‘without either principle or authority’. Left in his cell, the United States government made remarkably little effort to extricate him.1

At the end of his life the writer and orator Robert G. Ingersoll wrote:

Thomas Paine had passed the legendary limit of life. One by one most of his old friends and acquaintances had deserted him. Maligned on every side, execrated, shunned and abhorred – his virtues denounced as vices – his services forgotten – his character blackened, he preserved the poise and balance of his soul. He was a victim of the people, but his convictions remained unshaken. He was still a soldier in the army of freedom, and still tried to enlighten and civilize those who were impatiently waiting for his death. Even those who loved their enemies hated him, their friend – the friend of the whole world – with all their hearts. On the 8th of June, 1809, death came – Death, almost his only friend. At his funeral no pomp, no pageantry, no civic procession, no military display. In a carriage, a woman and her son who had lived on the bounty of the dead – on horseback, a Quaker, the humanity of whose heart dominated the creed of his head – and, following on foot, two negroes filled with gratitude – constituted the funeral cortege of Thomas Paine.2

Such was a radical democrat in the enlightenment era. When I grew up there was another radical who I did not discover till later in life. I will hold off from sharing his name till you read one of his most pungent statements:

First , there are no rules for revolution any more than there are rules for love or rules for happiness, but there are rules for radicals who want to change their world; there are certain central concepts of action in human politics that operate regardless of the scene or the time. To know these is basic to a pragmatic attack on the system. These rules make the difference between being a realistic radical and being a rhetorical one who uses the tired old words and slogans, calls the police “pig” or “white fascist racist” or “motherfucker” and has so stereotyped himself that others react by saying, “Oh, he’s one of those,” and then promptly turn off.

This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other’s values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America’s hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience. On another level of communication, humor is essential, for through humor much is accepted that would have been rejected if presented seriously. This is a sad and lonely generation. It laughs too little, and this, too, is tragic.

For the real radical, doing “his thing” is to do the social thing, for and with people. In a world where everything is so interrelated that one feels helpless to know where or how to grab hold and act, defeat sets in; for years there have been people who’ve found society too overwhelming and have withdrawn, concentrated on “doing their own thing.” Generally we have put them into mental hospitals and diagnosed them as schizophrenics. If the real radical finds that having long hair sets up psychological barriers to communication and organization, he cuts his hair. If I were organizing in an orthodox Jewish community I would not walk in there eating a ham sandwich, unless I wanted to be rejected so I could have an excuse to cop out. My “thing,” if I want to organize, is solid communication with the people in the community. Lacking communication I am in reality silent; throughout history silence has been regarded as assent — in this case assent to the system.

The words above are from none other than Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and was based on the basic assumption that to change things one first needs to understand not only what communication is but also, and more important one needs to know how to communicate effectively. Without the ability to break down the barriers that divide us from each other democracy is impossible. Humans have got to start from the ground floor, and that entails a total behavioral change in one’s approach to communication. Being radical isn’t dressing up in black and red and bombing institutions, it isn’t sitting on Wall-Street decrying the power of the system, it’s not even bellowing on in blog after blog about the great struggle, etc. No. It’s about the simple things in our everyday lives. As Alinsky reminds us:

As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

Notice he does not say we should destroy the system to change it. No. He says we should start with what is right in front of our noses and begin there working in the midst of the ruins of democracy. We have no other choice. This is our home, our earth, our habitat. If we destroy it what then? Yet, there is another reason:

There’s another reason for working inside the system. Dostoevski said that taking a new step is what people fear most. Any revolutionary change must be preceded by a passive, affirmative, non-challenging attitude toward change among the mass of our people. They must feel so frustrated, so defeated, so lost, so futureless in the prevailing system that they are willing to let go of the past and chance the future. This acceptance is the reformation essential to any revolution.

And, yet, we live in a time when people demand change now, as if the only thing viable were a year of living dangerously, of entering some apocalyptic pact or revolutionary moment of pure violence that would forever change the world. But is this really what we want and need? –

Our youth are impatient with the preliminaries that are essential to purposeful action. Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change, or as I have phrased it elsewhere the demand for revelation rather than revolution.

There are those that would say: What’s the point of working within the system? How has change ever come about from within a failing system? Wouldn’t it be better just to lay it to death, slay the system and start from the beginning? –

What is the alternative to working “inside” the system? A mess of rhetorical garbage about “Burn the system down!” Yippie yells of “Do it!” or “Do your thing.” What else? Bombs? Sniping? Silence when police are killed and screams of “murdering fascist pigs” when others are killed? Attacking and baiting the police? Public suicide? “Power comes out of the barrel of a gun!” is an absurd rallying cry when the other side has all the guns. Lenin was a pragmatist; when he returned to what was then Petrograd from exile, he said that the Bolsheviks stood for getting power through the ballot but would reconsider after they got the guns! Militant mouthings? Spouting quotes from Mao, Castro, and Che Guevara, which are as germane to our highly technological, computerized, cybernetic, nuclear-powered, mass media society as a stagecoach on a jet runway at Kennedy airport?

The point of starting with the system is simple: there is no other place to start from except political lunacy. It is most important for those of us who want revolutionary change to understand that revolution must be preceded by reformation. To assume that a political revolution can survive without the supporting base of a popular reformation is to ask for the impossible in politics.(ibid.)

Did you understand that? No revolution can hope to survive unless there is a strong base of popular support organized around a set of reforms based on a knowledge and understanding of the current ills and malpractices of the current system. Without reformation no revolution will succeed.

Men don’t like to step abruptly out of the security of familiar experience; they need a bridge to cross from their own experience to a new way. A revolutionary organizer must shake up the prevailing patterns of their lives— agitate, create disenchantment and discontent with the current values, to produce, if not a passion for change, at least a passive, affirmative, non-challenging climate. “The Revolution was effected before the war commenced,” John Adams wrote. “The Revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people … This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments and affections of the people was the real American Revolution.” A revolution without a prior reformation would collapse or become a totalitarian tyranny. A reformation means that masses of our people have reached the point of disillusionment with past ways and values. They don’t know what will work but they do know that the prevailing system is self-defeating, frustrating, and hopeless. They won’t act for change but won’t strongly oppose those who do. The time is then ripe for revolution.(ibid.)

A revolution of the Mind rather than of brute fact is the order of the day when one wants radical change permanent and lasting.

 

1. Israel, Jonathan (2011-08-11). Democratic Enlightenment: Philosophy, Revolution, and Human Rights 1750-1790 (pp. 947-948). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Paine, Thomas (2008). Works of Thomas Paine. MobileReference. Retrieved November 22, 2013.
3. Alinsky, Saul (2010-06-22). Rules for Radicals (Vintage) (Kindle Locations 87-91). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Imperial Cities: Neocameralism, Androcracy, and Militant Feminism

A capitalist trading empire is a developed form of exogamic patriarchy, and inherits its tensions.

– Nick Land

We have yet to fully appreciate the underlying mechanisms that have already incorporated our planet within a systematic network of economic relations divorced from the human equation. Politics is shadowboxing in the dark, while the economic world litters the debris of our best thinkers across its transnational matrix like stars lost in a forgotten cosmos. Nick Land is neither prophet nor charlatan, but a creature turned outside in who wandered into the bitter zones of the enlightenment and found it wanting. The labor of that old charlatan, Immanuel Kant, was to find in Land a figure of impossible dreams constructed on a tissue of lies and deceit. Land found in Kant the figure of the philosopher as devil, a light-bringer who cut us off from reality and ensnared us in a world of speculative fictions:

Kant described his ‘Copernican revolution’ in philosophy as a shift from the question ‘what must the mind be like in order to know?’ to the question ‘what must objects be like in order to be known?’ The answers to this latter question would provide a body of synthetic a priori knowledge, telling us about experience without being derived from experience. It would justify the emergence of knowledge that was both new and timelessly certain, grounding the enlightenment culture of a civilization confronting an ambiguous dependence upon novelty.1

Kant brought us to nihilism, to the dark truth that words – the binary play of light and dark, night and day, noise and silence, etc. no longer capture anything outside us, instead these same fictions have become heuristic models or forms that can be applied not to reality but to the given, to that aspect of appearance that is for-us and is channeled by that mental faculty termed the understanding. In doing this Kant cut both himself and all that followed him off from knowing or understanding anything beyond appearance. Whatever reality is was from Kant on barred from knowledge. Knowledge is of appearances rather than of reality, and appearances are only apprehended through the mind’s faculty of understanding as if that too explained anything. In Kant we see the kernel of all those later threads of hatred and madness that would mark modernity with its dire creed of war and efficiency, death camps and apartheid:

Sociological fundamentalism, state worship, totalitarian paranoia and fascism, they all exhibit the same basic impulse; hatred of art, (real) freedom, desire, everything that cannot be controlled, regulated, and administered. Fascism hates aliens, migrant workers, the homeless, rootless people of every kind and inclination, everything evocative of excitement and uncertainty, women, artists, lunatics, drifting sexual drives, liquids, impurity, and abandonment.(Kindle Locations 2318-2321)

Which brings us to the first point of this essay, that whatever falls outside the purview of appearance and understanding is excluded from the economy of knowledge. As Land remarks,

What falls outside this recognized form is everything that resists commodification, the primordial independence that antedates the constitution of the destituted proletarian. As I have suggested, this inchoate mass of more or less explicit resistance to capital is isolated outside the metropolis by a combination of automatic economic processes (the concentration of poverty) and restrictive kinship practices. (Kindle Locations 950-953).

One could pick one’s example from several Imperial Cities across the planet: Shanghai, Singapore, New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Dubai, Bangalore, Arg e-Jadid, etc. Shining city-states of the new global economy, ‘dreamworlds’ of consumption, property, and power where the nouveau riche and neoplutocracy of wealth lives in realms divorced from the political reach of nations. While these ‘evil paradises’ of the neoliberal world order arise from the depths of surrounding cesspools of slums and migrant/temporary slave workers. In this authoritarian and radical reactionary utopia of the neoliberal order we discover “a program of the methodical destruction of collectives,” from trade unions and mill towns to families and small nations. (Kindle Locations 144-145).2 The new apartheid is developed within the neoliberal world order by extreme colonial patterns of residential segregation and zoned consumption. As Davis remarks: “On a planet where more than 2 billion people subsist on two dollars or less a day, these dreamworlds enflame desires—for infinite consumption, total social exclusion and physical security, and architectural monumentality—that are clearly incompatible with the ecological and moral survival of humanity” (Kindle Locations 224-226).

As Land suggests “[s]ystematic racism is a sign that class positions within the general (trans-national) economy are being distributed on a racial basis, which implies an effective, if not a juridical, apartheid” (Kindle Locations 958-959). Further noting:

It is only with the implicit recognition of the need for a systematic evacuation of rebellion from the metropolis by means of a geographically distorted labour market that racism arises in its contemporary form, which is ultimately that of a restricted franchise (on a national basis) over the political management of the global means of production. It is no longer a question of ‘taxation without representation’ (except by means of interest payments), but rather of a metropolitan capital seeking to abstract itself from all political reference, becoming ‘offshore’, although not to the extent that it loses its geopolitical condition of existence (the US war-machine). The increasingly rigorous differentiation of marriage from trade, or politics from economics, finds its ultimate conceptual definition in the thought of a moral agency which is utterly impervious to learning, communication, or exchange. (Kindle Locations 963-970).

These new Imperial City States are becoming free-zones divorced from political and juridical reach, exposed as realms for the new Corporate Elite as playgrounds for utopic desire in which control is the securitization of paradise where even the new feudal lords can be tamed by their own need for pleasure in a hedonistic paradise. That Kant was the first great theoretician of colonialism and empire as they’d come to be known is for Land central. “Kant’s practical subject already prefigures a deaf führer, barking impossible orders that seem to come from another world” (Kindle Locations 982-983). He goes on to state that if “the first Critique corresponds to appropriative economy or commodification, and the second critique corresponds to imperial jurisdiction, the third critique corresponds to the exercise of war at those margins of the global system that continue to resist both the market and the administration” (Kindle Locations 984-987). Ultimately the third critique for Land offered the future imperial elite the “global victory of capitalized reason as pure and exuberant ambition” (Kindle Location 999).

Neocameralism

…the only conceivable end of Kantianism is the end of modernity, and to reach this we must foster new Amazons in our midst.

– Nick Land

No one knows at what point Nick Land turned away from original investment in leftist thought and instead imploded and reversed course and became a fierce androcratic technofuturist of the neoreaction. Only Land could answer that question. Yet, if one is a careful reader of his primal essays one gathers a deep critique of the enlightenment project and of Kantianism in particular that has guided both our economic, political, and socio-cultural heritage fro two centuries. Of late Land has been fond of Mencius Moldbug’s revitalization of Fredrick the Great’s cameralist project. Developed in the 18th century, cameralism was a German economic and social school of thought that held a primary function of state, in addition to maintaining law and order, was to promote collective prosperity through economic measures. To achieve the goal of collective prosperity, participation of the complete population in the service of the public good was necessary (“Germany,” 2007, p. 156). Under Frederick William I of Prussia (1713-40), cameralism was reflected in the implementation of aggressive policies to stimulate manufacturing and agricultural growth and reduce unnecessary state expenditures. The state had a supreme ruling body whose upper-level bureaucrats came from nobility closely aligned with the King. This centralized body directed all the state’s activities in industry, finance, internal affairs, and the military. Cameralism also reflected a societal work ethic of intense labor, frugal living and dutiful subservience to the state.

Mencius Moldbug’s updated version of this goes by the name ‘neocameralism’:

Let’s start with my ideal world – the world of thousands, preferably even tens of thousands, of neocameralist city-states and ministates, or neostates. The organizations which own and operate these neostates are for-profit sovereign corporations, or sovcorps. For the moment, let’s assume a one-to-one mapping between sovcorp and neostate. (from Neocameralism and the escalator of massarchy)

As suggested above many of the City States of the new Imperial Neoliberal Empire are already in place with many more being brought into the assemblage year by year. As Moldbug declares the new dramatis personae of this neocameral order would be based on the corporate model of the Sovcorp: agents, subscribers, and residents; as well as those excluded or disenfranchised minions outside the gate, suborgs and illorgs (i.e., NGO’s and illegal organizations, etc.). Those who form the elite plutocracy within the city-states are the residents: Residents fit into two classes: patron and dependent. Dependents are not legally responsible, and are under the authority of their patrons. There is no dependent without patron, although subcorps or suborgs may act as patrons. The neocameralist state is not a charitable organization, but it has no reason not to tolerate a genuinely apolitical charity. Run like Wall-Street the new City-States will have sponsors or extra-legal entities: the corporation is incorporated under the oversight of a sovereign protector, or sponsor. So in this sense each City-State is an extra-territorial entity or larger corporation that enfolds and protects its share of subcorps. I’ll not go into the complete details of this neocameral system which one can read in the above link to one’s heart’s content.

That this system of exclusion is based on a new form of fascism, one that is of racism and sexism under an androcratic regime is without doubt. As Land remarks:

Racism, as a regulated, automatic, and indefinitely suspended process of genocide (as opposed to the hysterical and unsustainable genocide of the Nazis) is the real condition of persistence for a global economic system that is dependent upon an aggregate price of labour approximating to the cost of its bare subsistence, and therefore upon an expanding pool of labour power which must be constantly ‘stimulated’ into this market by an annihilating poverty. (Kindle Locations 1001-1004).

For Land only a militant feminism can hope to offer any form of alternative to this global androcratic empire of exogamic racism and sexism of the patronymic elite. The dark powers of the androcracy have combatted this militant feminism by divesting “all the women who fall under it of any recourse to an ethno-geographical identity; only the twin powers of father and husband suppress the nomadism of the anonymous female fluxes that patriarchy oppressively manipulates, violates, and psychiatrizes. By allowing women some access to wealth and social prestige the liberalization of patriarchy has sought to defuse the explosive force of this anonymity, just as capital has tended to reduce the voluptuous excess of exogamic conjugation to the stability of nationally segmented trading circuits. (Kindle Locations 1012-1016).”

“The women of the earth are segmented only by their fathers and husbands. Their praxial fusion is indistinguishable from the struggle against the micro-powers that suppress them most immediately. That is why the proto-fascism of nationality laws and immigration controls tends to have a sexist character as well as a racist one. It is because women are the historical realization of the potentially euphoric synthetic or communicative function which patriarchy both exploits and inhibits that they are invested with a revolutionary destiny, and it is only through their struggle that politics will be able to escape from all fatherlands. (Kindle Locations 1024-1026).

He reminds us that it perhaps only Monique Wittig has adequately grasped the inescapably military task faced by any serious revolutionary feminism,10 and it is difficult not to be dispirited by the enormous reluctance women have shown historically to prosecute their struggle with sufficient ruthlessness and aggression (See especially M. Wittig, Les Guerillères (Paris: Minuit, 1969); tr. D. Le Vay (Chicago, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 2007). This future revolution with its leadership base in militant feminism he comments on, saying:

The state apparatus of an advanced industrial society can certainly not be defeated without a willingness to escalate the cycle of violence without limit. It is a terrible fact that atrocity is not the perversion, but the very motor of such struggles: the language of inexorable political will. A revolutionary war against a modern metropolitan state can only be fought in hell. It is this harsh truth that has deflected Western politics into an increasingly servile reformism, whilst transforming nationalist struggles into the sole arena of vigorous contention against particular configurations of capital. (Kindle Locations 1034-1038). [my italics]

Ultimately this will be an empowered and dynamic guerilla war, but it must go beyond such notions as replacing the existing leaders and institutions. It must destroy the power base of androcratic power itself and no longer allow men in power:

For as long as the dynamic of guerilla war just leads to new men at the top – with all that this entails in terms of the communication between individuated sovereignties – history will continue to look bleak. For it is only when the pervasive historical bond between masculinity and war is broken by effective feminist violence that it will become possible to envisage the uprooting of the patriarchal endogamies that orchestrate the contemporary world order. (Kindle Locations 1041-1044).

The important thing in the above it the breaking of the bond of war from androcracy through the power of militant feminism and the restablishment of matrilinear society— that is, one in which descent and inheritance is traced through the mother. Engels was one of the first to link the emergence of hierarchies and social stratification based on private property with male domination over women. Engels further linked the shift from matriliny to patriliny with the development of copper and bronze metallurgy.

Most Neolithic societies were matrilineal, and in Old Europe most were sedentary horticulturalists prone to live in large well-planned townships. The absence of fortifications and weapons attests the peaceful coexistence of this egalitarian civilization that was probably matrilinear and matrilocal. It was Augustine who described how the women of Athens lost the right to vote at the same time that there was a shift from matriliny to patriliny indicates that the imposition of androcracy marked the end of true democracy. One can find the egalitarian social systems over and over before the rise of men, war, and domination. Will we wake up from this long nightmare of domination and control at the hands of a few powerful elite, or shall we squander our hopes of a better future and allow ourselves to be enslaved by their promises of security and plenty? It we continue down the path we’re going the neocameral future in one form or another seems inevitable, but will we listen to the voices of women across our planet who are bound within socio-cultural systems in which they are no better than cattle to the men of their dark patriarchal systems of politics and religion?

Philosophy, in its longing to rationalize, formalize, define, delimit, to terminate enigma and uncertainty, to co-operate wholeheartedly with the police, is nihilistic in the ultimate sense that it strives for the immobile perfection of death. But creativity cannot be brought to an end that is compatible with power, for unless life is extinguished, control must inevitably break down. We possess art lest we perish of the truth.(Kindle Locations 2322-2326)

1. Land, Nick Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest: A Polemical Introduction to the Configuration of Philosophy and Modernity (2013-07-01). Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987 – 2007 Urbanomic/Sequence Press. Kindle Edition.
2. (2011-07-16). Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism. New Press, The. Kindle Edition.

A Time Out of Joint: Franco (Bifo) Berardi

The time is out of joint—O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

– Hamlet

What is Time that it could ever go cockeyed? For Franco (Bifo) Berardi time as stored capital in banks is out of joint, and if we follow the trail into this time machine we discover there is a deep and abiding relation between money, language, and time.1

“But is the money that is stored in the bank my past time—the time that I have spent in the past? Or does this money give me the possibility of buying a future?” – Berardi

At first I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s novel of that name A Time Out of Joint that describes a society at civil war with itself, a permanent war between earth and its tributary offspring on the moon. In this society only one man can stave off the impending collapse of society, one Ragle Gumm. But he has grown tired of intervention, of keeping at bay the time of disaster, of catastrophe. He hopes to escape the dominion of the neoliberal order of his day and fly  off to the moon colonies and become a part of its anarchic social and exploratory world. So he withdraws into a private fantasy world of his own making, a chapter out of his early childhood where everything existed in a primordial climate of paradise: the world of the 1950’s. The only problem with this is that the earthers, the neoliberal dictators of that era have discovered the truth of his dark fantasy and are using it against him to allow them to control his mind through an almost precursor of The Truman Show effect. The Terran masters create his idyllic town and populate it with mentalists to guide him in giving up his secrets willingly. What does he know? He has an ability to foresee the nuclear future of specific trajectories from moon thereby giving earth command the ability to countermand the weapons and destroy them. Ultimately this ruse by the neoliberal Terrans fails and Gumm slowly recovers his sanity because of the simulated modulations of the governments semantic failures. He notices things here and there in the fantasy that do not make sense, which accumulate and ultimately shift his mind toward the truth and meaning of what is being done to him. Sanity comes back as the fantasy world created by the Terran Empire fails to meet the madness criteria of Gumm’s realigns to the map of the real. It is the failure of the semantic web to meet Gumm’s expectations of a perfect ideal fantasy world that finally awakens him back to reality.

One may wonder why I harp on about a science fiction novel that is now dated, and compare it to Berardi’s essay but one must see the conflict at the heart of the two positions. Dick was portraying the world of neoliberal capital and its victims, showing the use of advanced mind techniques and neuroscience to manipulate time and people’s lives. It’s the interaction of Time and Capital that in Berardi that helps us understand our own world under the thumb of neoliberalism in a age of austerity. As Berardi following Baudrillard’s lead reminds us, it is in our contemporary age that financial capitalism has become essentially the loss of the relationship between time and value. What Berardi discovers between the older industrial age and our newer neoliberal information age is a seismic shift from the physical and material to the immaterial or semiological knowledge realm of cognitive work over the older bodily processes of labor. Of course I think he oversimplifies, since as we know the seismic shift from Factory to Mindhack is not everywhere, but exist solely in the top tier nations. The rest of the third world is still bound to the laws of production and machine labor time: the slavery of the body laboring under the infinite gaze of the time lords.

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Lee Smolin: Time, Physics and Climate Change

The most radical suggestion arising from this direction of thought is the insistence on the reality of the present moment and, beyond that, the principle that all that is real is so in a present moment . To the extent that this is a fruitful idea, physics can no longer be understood as the search for a precisely identical mathematical double of the universe. That dream must be seen now as a metaphysical fantasy that may have inspired generations of theorists but is now blocking the path to further progress. Mathematics will continue to be a handmaiden to science, but she can no longer be the Queen.

– Lee Smolin,  Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe

What if everything we’ve been taught about time, space, and the universe is not just wrongheaded, but couched in a mathematics of conceptual statements (theorems) that presumed it could map the totality of reality in a one-to-one ratio of identity?  This notion that mathematics can ultimately describe reality, that there is a one to one identity between the conceptual framework of mathematics and the universe – the Cartesian physicist – or, you may know him under the epithet of String theorist – will maintain that those statements about the accretion of the universe which can be mathematically formulated designate actual properties of the event in question (such as its date, its duration, its extension), even when there is no observer present to experience it directly. In doing so, our physicist is defending a Cartesian thesis about matter, but not, it is important to note, a Pythagorean one: the claim is not that the being of accretion is inherently mathematical – that the numbers or equations deployed in the statements (mathematical theorems) exist in themselves. What if all those scientists, philosophers and mathematicians who have pursued this path had in fact taken a wrong turn along the way. This is the notion that Lee Smolin an American theoretical physicist, a faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an adjunct professor of physics at the University of Waterloo and a member of the graduate faculty of the philosophy department at the University of Toronto puts forward in his new book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe.

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Gilles Deleuze: On Hume’s Theory of Society

He presents us with a critique of the social contract…

– Gilles Deleuze, Empiricism and Subjectivity

About half way through his essay on Hume Cultural World and General Rules Deleuze comes upon the central tenet of Hume’s theory of Society: “the main idea is this: the essence of society is not the law but rather the institution” (45). As he relates it the law is the negative underbelly of society, and that the institution, unlike law, “is not a limitation but rather a model of actions, a veritable enterprise, an invented system of positive means or a positive invention of indirect means” (45-46). Against those political philosophers who base their theories on law rather than the institution he has this to say:

The fault of contractual theories is that they present us with a society whose essence is the law, that is, with a society which has no other objective than to guarantee certain preexisting natural rights and no other origin than the contract (45).

He tells us the problem with such theories is that it is an impossibility for society to guarantee natural rights. Why? Because people enter into society precisely for the simple reason that they do not have preexisting rights natural or otherwise. The notion of institution reverses the usual theories by its insistence that outside the social order only the negative, lack, and need exist. He admits that society has always been an artificial construct, an invented whole or totality, not a natural preexisting entity. At the root of the institution of society is the notion of convention which is an important concept for Hume. As Deleuze reminds us placing “convention at the base of the institution signifies only that the system of means represented by the institution is a system indirect, oblique, and invented – in a word, cultural” (46).

“Society is a set of conventions founded on utility, not a set of obligations founded on a contract” (45). In this view the law is a negative factor whose only job is to limit the institution. The corollary to this is the sense of the legislator not as one who legislates but the one who institutes. In this view the notion of natural law and rights is confounded and overturned, even reversed in the order of practice: “there is no question any longer of the relation between rights and the law, but of needs and institutions” (46). This shift to actions and affects rather than the abstractions of rights and the law informs Hume’s theory of society much as it did his understanding of subjectivity. In fact as Deleuze comments:

This idea implies an entire remodeling of rights and an original vision of the science of humanity, that is, of the new conception of social psychology.(46)

What binds need and the institution is utility. But we must not see in this some form of reductionism Deleuze reminds us. Against any “functionalist” reduction of society to nature, and the explanatory framework in which society is explained by utility, and the institution by drives and needs we must refrain because for Hume a drive is satisfied within the institution not the other way around.(46) Of course this is about social institutions not governmental: in marriage, sexuality is satisfied; in property, greed. (47) The institution is a model, a construct, of possible actions, and because it is it does not “satisfy the drive without also constraining it” (47). There is a double edge in every institution of satisfaction and constraint, a normative extension and regulation.

Again we learn that the drive does not explain the institution, but that it is the “reflection of the drive in the imagination” that does. Just as we learned that subjectivity is an affect, an “impression in reflection”(48). So too we learn that association of the drive in the imagination is revealed “as a veritable production of extremely diverse models: when drives are reflected in an imagination submitted to the principle of association, institutions are determined by the figures traced by the drives according to the circumstances” (49). For this reason Hume does not equate the drives to instincts but to the “reflective drive” in the imagination. As Deleuze states it:

This is the meaning of institution, in its difference from the instincts. We can then conclude that nature and culture, drive and institution, are one to the extent that the one is satisfied by the other; but they are also two insofar as the latter is not explained by the former. (49)

That political philosophy is founded on a sense of Justice goes without saying, but for Hume it is where it is situated that counts. Morality is addressed only to those who exist in the State: it “does not involve the change of human nature but the invention of artificial and objective conditions in order for the bad aspects of this nature not to triumph” (50). Once again the notion of a social contract comes under fire. The notion of founding a government as a promise to the people is erroneous, because the “promise is an effect of the specification of justice, and loyalty, its support”(51). The notion of the promise is not the cause of government but an effect of it. The point for Hume is this, that the state is not charged with representing the general interest of the people, but rather with making the general interest an object of belief (51).

Yet, this brings Hume to another conclusion: that of inequality and scarcity. Because of favorable circumstance and acquisition of properties a new rule must be implemented or enabled to bring about a balance: a rule of political economy. At the center of Hume’s theory is the problem of property. As Deleuze relates it property “presents a problem of quantity: goods are scarce, and they are unstable because they are rare” (53). For Hume society offers a quantitative harmony of economic activities which are mechanically established which is not true of property. Out of this Deleuze formulates Hume’s moral categories and rules as follows:

1. Content of the general rule: the stability of possession.
1.1 Support of the general rule: loyalty to the government
1.2 Complement of the general rule: the prosperity of commerce.

2. Specification of the general rules: immediate possession, occupation, etc.
2.1 Specification of support: long possession, accession, etc.
2.2 Specification of the complement: monetary circulation, capital, etc.

3. Correction of the preceding specification by means of general rules, promise, transfer
3.1 Correction: resistance
3.2 Correction: taxes, state service, etc.

I can see here that Hume and Rousseau would have been enemies. For Hume society was a protection against the brute violence of nature, while for Rousseau society was evil incarnate. Hume unlike the utilitarians that would follow did not reduce ethics to nature, but instead offered the reverse course and saw humans utilizing their native gifts within the artificially fabricated institutions based on a sense of justice and harmony that is mechanically established: wherever disputes arise, in philosophy or common life, the best way to settle the question is by ascertaining, on any side, “…the true interests of mankind.” This is the principle of utility that Hume offered. Outside society humans had no recourse but to the violence of nature.

1. Gilles Deleuze. Empiricism and Subjectivity An Essay on Hume’s Theory of Human Nature. trans. by Constantin V. Boundas (Columbia University Press, 1991)

The Rise of Science and the Mathematization of Reality: Competing Views

It [Mathematics] did not, as they supposed, correspond to an objective structure of reality; it was a method and not a body of truths; with its help we could plot regularities—the occurrence of phenomena in the external world—but not discover why they occurred as they did, or to what end.

– Isaiah Berlin, from an entry in Dictionary of the History of Ideas – The Counter-Enlightenment

Isaiah Berlin in his entry on what he termed the “counter-Enlightenment” tells us that opposition “…to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself”. 1 The common elements that these reactionary writers opposed in the Enlightenment project were notions of autonomy of the individual, empiricism and scientific methodology, its rejection of authority and tradition, religion, and any transcendent notions of knowledge based on faith rather than Reason. Berlin himself places Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and his Scienza nuova (1725; radically altered 1731) as playing a “decisive role in this counter-movement”. He specifically uses the term “counter-movement” rather than the appellation “counter-Enlightenment”.

I’ve been following – – blog Persistent Enlightenment, and one of the interesting threads or series of posts on his site deals with the concept of “Counter-Enlightenment,” a term coined by none other that Isaiah Berlin in the early 50’s (see his latest summation: here). I believe that he correct in his tracing of this concept and its history and use in scholarship. Yet, for myself, beyond tracing this notion through many different scholars I’ve begun rethinking some of the actual history of this period and of the different reactions to the Enlightenment project itself as well as the whole tradition of the sciences. One really needs to realize the Enlightenment itself is the culmination of a process that started centuries before with the emergence of the sciences.

Stephen Gaukroger’s encyclopedic assessment of the sciences and their impact on the shaping of modernity has been key in much of my own thinking concerning the history and emergence of the sciences as well as the understanding of the underpinnings of the mechanistic world view that informs it in this early period. One of the threads in that work is the battle between those traditionalist scholars of what we now term the “humanities” who seek to protect human learning – the study of ancient literature along with philosophy, history, poetry, oratory, etc. – as Gaukroger says, “as an intrinsic part of any form of knowledge of the world and our place in it” (1).1  He mentions Gibbon’s remark that during his time that the study of physics and mathematics has overtaken the study of belles lettres as the “pre-eminent form of learning” (1). In our own time this notion that philosophy and the humanities are non-essential to the needs of modern liberal democracies has taken on a slight edge as well.

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Sophie Wahnich: Mimesis, Sacrifice, and Terror

My hypothesis is mimetic: because humans imitate one another more than animals, they have had to find a means of dealing with contagious similarity, which could lead to the pure and simple disappearance of their society. The mechanism that reintroduces difference into a situation in which everyone has come to resemble everyone else is sacrifice. Humanity results from sacrifice; we are thus the children of religion.1

In my post yesterday Brassier reminded us that for Adorno and Horkheimer, both “mimesis and subsumption are intimately connected to fear: a nexus of terror links civilization’s fear of regression, the individual’s fear of social disapprobation, the fear of conceptual indistinction, and the prey’s fear of its predator” (45-46).2

Jean Delumeau in his magisterial Sin and Fear – The Emergence of Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries describes the new “siege mentality” which overtook citizens of Europe during the medieval era, and by the 14th Century would be accompanied by an oppressive sense of guilt, an unprecedented movement toward introspection, and the development of a new moral conscience. With the growth of Humanism came what he termed, the “scruple sickness”:

It was as if the aggressivity directed against the enemies of Christendom had not entirely spent itself in incessant religious warfare, despite constantly renewed battles and an endless variety of opponents. A global anxiety, broken up into “labeled” fears, discovered a new foe in each of the inhabitants of the besieged city, and a new fear – the fear of one’s own self.(1)

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Gilbert Simondon: On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects

On reading Gilbert Simondon’s early dissertation  On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (Accursed Share, pdf) also Scott Bakker pointed me to academia for another translation (see here: pdf)I see many aspects of the Society of Control emerging from his specific forms of the incorporation of technics, regulatory processes, and the technical ensemble (object) into alliance with our current socio-cultural problematique. He thinks that somewhere along the way human culture divorced itself from its technologies and in alienating itself from these technical objects (machines) we became dehumanized. So in effect he goes against the grain of many early theorists of technology, philosophers who said we need a suture between our humanity and the rational, regulatory processes of the Industrial age of machines. Instead he believes we need to reincorporate the machines (technics, technical objects) into our lives rather than keeping them at bay.

Because of our fears of the machine we have portrayed these technical objects as alien robotic presences who have their own threatening intentions toward us. This projection of intentionality onto the technical object has in turn humanized the machine and dehumanized us: an inversion or reversal that has brought about our own cultural fragmentation. Instead we should open ourselves to the machines, even as they are themselves open systems in their own right. He sees humans in the light of orchestral conductors who do not so much dictate as interpret the codes and algorithms for the ensemble of machines as part of an intra-dialectical process or feed-back loop of inventiveness and creativity. Our only responsibility is as arbiters and cultural encoders of certain limiting and indeterminate constraints in this open relationship with these technical objects. This new axiomatic knowledge and enculturation of thus phase shift is to incorporate these technical objects back into our socio-cultural dynamic. And part of that process should include a revamping of our educational institutions by providing this new dynamic as a part of every child’s education.

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Nancy Cartwright: Nomological Machines

What is a nomological machine?

– Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World – A Study of the Boundaries of Science

In a simple, concise, and pithy definition Nancy Cartwright answers her own question, saying: “It is a fixed (enough) arrangement of components, or factors, with stable (enough) capacities that in the right sort of stable (enough) environment will, with repeated operation, give rise to the kind of regular behavior that we represent in our scientific laws”.1

In reading this sentence again we get the feeling that Nancy is not quite as sure of all the required needs of her statement to enact the production of these laws that it supports. With the use of “enough” as “moderately, fairly, tolerably” (good enough) in several places we get the feeling of an unwritten complicit statement that this is all based on a notion of heuristics which  refers to experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning, and discovery that give a solution which is not guaranteed to be optimal. Where the exhaustive search is impractical, heuristic methods are used to speed up the process of finding a satisfactory solution via mental shortcuts to ease the cognitive load of making a decision.

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The Impersonal Self: Autonomy, Ownership, and Eliminative Subject

Most of the time in our everyday lives we talk of this person or that person as having psychological states and who does things, performs actions: as someone who owns their psychological states and actions. The notion of self-ownership has a long history (of which more later). We might call this the Sovereign Self or the Autonomous Subject theory of the person. The invention of autonomy as a concept was the creation of a unique philosopher, Immanuel Kant. As J.B. Schneewind in his epochal history of this concept tells us Kant used the notion of invention for this term of autonomy in the same way as Leibniz, another philosopher of the 17th Century for whom Kant had great respect but often disagreed with:

“Lebniz thought up a simple substance which had nothing but obscure representations, and called it a slumbering monad. This monad he had not explained, but merely invented; for the concept of it was not given to him but was rather created by him” – from Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant

Kant saw autonomy as the moral center of our sense of identity and subjectivity. For Kant autonomy required what is termed ‘contracausal freedom’ or free will: he believed that in the unique experience of the moral ought we are “given” a “fact of reason” (Schneewind, 3). For him free will was part of a mechanism of law, the imposition of certain codified rules and regulatory processes that internalized our need to obey. In his writings he alludes to the sense of persons as agents who are self-governed and in this way were considered autonomous agents with free will. I’ll not go into the full arguments presented by Kant for this view, to do so would entail an explication of his mature moral philosophy.

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Philosophical Truth

Many people, if not most, look on literary taste as an elegant accomplishment, by acquiring which they will complete themselves, and make themselves finally fit as members of a correct society. They are secretly ashamed of their ignorance of literature, in the same way as they would be ashamed of their ignorance of etiquette at a high entertainment, or of their inability to ride a horse if suddenly called upon to do so. There are certain things that a man ought to know, or to know about, and literature is one of them: such is their idea.

– Arnold Bennett, Literary Taste: How to Form It With Detailed Instructions

When we read the above passage we notice right off the bat and from our vantage point how different the situation of literary taste, much less the need to ‘fit as members of a correct society’, has changed. Arnold Bennett was speaking to a particular well defined reader, a member of the upper classes within England who had both the money and the leisure time to afford such pursuits as literary taste. Yet, as Bennett reminds us, “[p]eople who regard literary taste simply as an accomplishment, and literature simply as a distraction, will never truly succeed either in acquiring the accomplishment or in using it half-acquired as a distraction; though the one is the most perfect of distractions, and though the other is unsurpassed by any other accomplishment in elegance or in power to impress the universal snobbery of civilised mankind”.1

For Bennett literature, instead of being an accessory, is the fundamental sine qua non of complete living. What if we replaced this statement with philosophy rather than literature: is philosophy the fundamental sine qua non of complete living? What is philosophy for us? Is it a matter of taste? Is it something else? How do you define philosophy? Is it instead the pursuit of truth? And what is truth?

For Nietzsche truth is a “mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins”.2 For Nietzsche truth is the Naked Emperor whose only authority is our blind allegiance.

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Ian Hacking: What are scientists doing in the world?

…whenever we find two philosophers who line up exactly opposite on a series of half a dozen points, we know that in fact they agree about almost everything.

Ian Hacking, Representing and Intervening

Ian Hacking’s statement above reflected his appraisal of the philosophers Rudolf Carnap and Karl Popper. Carnap a defender of induction and verification: a bottom-up approach to scientific truth in which one make observations then sees if these confirm or refute one’s theoretical statements; while the other, Popper, a defended  deduction and falsifiability, a top-down approach in which one formulates theoretical conjectures then deduces the consequences through a process of testing to apprehend the truth or falseness of the conjecture. That both, as Hacking relates it, shared a common basis in scientific naturalism is both a marvel and a part of history.

Both thought there were distinct differences between observation and theory. Both believed the growth of knowledge is cumulative. Popper may be on the lookout for refutations, but he thinks of science as evolutionary and as tending towards the one true theory of the universe . Both think that science has a pretty tight deductive structure. Both held that scientific terminology is or ought to be rather precise. Both believed in the unity of science.

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Idealism/Materialism: Is this dichotomy obsolete?

I’m down with using representations/maps/models to do/guide neuroscience research but as for actual “representations” in the brain, not so much…

dmf

In a recent post on the project of neuroscience philosopher William Bechtel I discovered from dmf and R. Scott Bakker that Bechtel is an Idealist, that he affirms representations as real entities or mental entities that exist in the mind. Being a materialist I’ve fought such notions for a while now, but something that Bakker said intrigued me:

This really is the mystery in his[Bechtel’s] work. Both he and Craver like to steer clear the ‘traditionally philosophical’ issues to better prosecute what they see as their superior ‘low altitude philosophy of science,’ where you begin with what scientists actually say and do and build from there rather than philosophical definitions and principles (as per the old covering law model).

So I pressed him after this very talk on this very subject, and I assure you he thinks representations are real entities, and that the ‘mental’ is more than a metaphor. He told me that anti-realism about content, if confirmed, would be ‘disastrous.’ I agreed, but asked what that had to do with science!

The last part of this statement that anti-realism about the existence of real entities in the brain not existing would be ‘disastrous’ spurred this post. Also I wonder, too, what this has to do with science?

In their book on the history of Idealism Iain Hamilton Grant defines Idealism as the “realism of the Idea”. By this Grant and his team explicate Idealism as:

The concrete universal, or the whole determined by the particular it generates and that differentiate it in turn, is the Idea exactly as Platonism conceived it: as the cause of the approximations of becomings to particular forms, and as the “setting into order of this universe” from disorder (ataxia), as organization. When idealism is therefore presented as realism concerning the Idea, this means: first, that the Idea is causal in terms of organization; second, that this is an organization that is not formal or abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relates part to whole as the whole; and third, therefore that such an idealism is a one-world idealism that must, accordingly take nature seriously.1

This notion of the Idea as causal in terms of organization, of the concrete relation of part/whole as whole, and the notion of naturalism as Idealism is the baseline of this philosophical perspective.

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Posthumanism, Neuroscience, and the Philosophy of Information, Science and Technology

As you gaze at the flickering signifiers scrolling down the computer screens, no matter what identifications you assign to the embodied entities that you cannot see, you have already become posthuman.

N. Katherine Hayles,  How We Became Posthuman

Do you use a digital phone, receive text messages? Have an iPad or other comparable device that allows you to interact with others visually, seeing and talking to them as if they were virtually present in the room? How do you know that these messages and images are truly from your friends and loved ones? What makes you assume that these signs on the digital blackboard represent the actual person who is in fact absent while present? Is there something about the message that reflects the essential features of this person hiding behind the screen of digital light and sound? Is it that you trust images, pictures, moving representations on the digital light fields of this technological wonder to be truthful, to show forth the actuality of the embodied figure of your friend or loved one on the other side of the screen? What if someone had faked the messages, spliced together a video program of your friend that was so real that you actually believed this was in fact the person themselves rather than the fabricated images of a very adept machinic intelligence imitating the patterns of your friends behavior?

What if these digital objects we now take for granted in our everyday lives are no longer mere tools but have become a part of our person? And, I may add, that we should not narrow this to just these digital tools, but every tool that we use day by day. What if all these objects that we take for granted as useful things that help us do our work have remade us in their image, transformed our very identities as humans? What if as Katherine Hayles suggests we are, through our daily interactions with these tools merging with our technologies and have already become posthuman?

As I type these words, sitting at my desk, listening to iTunes from some distributed network that might be situated in any city of the U.S., I begin to realize that I and the machine in front of me have become a new thing, a new object. That I’m no longer just me, no longer this singular person whose body is devoid of connection from other things, cut off in its own isolated chamber of integrity. No. Instead I’ve merged with this thing, this object in front of me and become something else, a new thing or object with a distinctly different set of capabilities than if I were not connected to it. What does my use of a computer make me? I use a keypad, a terminal screen, which is in turn connected to a harddrive, which is connected to various devices: sound, networks, storage, etc., all of which have for the most part become almost invisible in the sense that I no longer see these tools in their own right, but as part of a cognitive environmental complex that consists of me, the computer, and the thousands of physically distant terminals across our planet through this interface that defines my machinic relations.

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Franz Brentano: The Intentionality Thesis

Every psychic phenomenon is characterized by what the Scholastics of the Middle Ages called intentional (also indeed mental) in-existence of an object, and which we, although not with an entirely unambiguous expression, will call the relation to a content, the direction toward an object (by which here a reality is not understood), or an immanent objectivity. Every [psychic phenomenon] contains something as an object within itself, though not every one in the same way. In presentation something is presented, in judgment something acknowledged or rejected, in love loved , in hate hated, in desire desired, and so on.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

This famously over quoted statement describes the basic thrust of Brentano’s Intentionality Thesis. The intentionality thesis harbors within it Brentano’s prospects for understanding the foundations of thought itself. He held to the notion that any  intentionalist metaphysics of mind would be distinguished by its acceptance of psychological from nonpsychological or extrapsychological phenomena. Brentano proposes to apply the concept of intentionality, which he significantly describes as “the mark of the mental” in a unidirectional way of thought to its intended object.

One of those aspects of his thought revolved around a specific form of the intentional thought he termed “intentional in-existence,” which many have seen as a form of epistemic idealism. What, however, does intentional in-existence mean? What did Brentano intend by the concept of immanent intentionality? The doctrine has been the least popular of his theories in philosophical psychology, and the cause of the greatest and most productive dissent among his students and followers. The majority of later Brentanians have agreed that thought is intentional, but denied that thought is immanently intentional or that its intended objects are intentionally in-existent. And for good reason. The implications of immanent intentionality or intentional in-existence are far-reaching and mostly counterintuitive. If the intended objects are somehow internal to the thoughts by which they are intended, then it appears that no two persons can ever possibly think about precisely the same thing. This is problematic to say the least. It is unclear in that case how thoughts can ever reach beyond their own internal states in order to contact or make reference to entities in the external world, to avoid what Brentano himself referred to as a kind of epistemic idealism, “the mad dance with ideas.”1

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Franz Brentano: Catholicism, Idealism and Immortality

My psychological standpoint is empirical; experience alone is my teacher. Yet I share with other thinkers the conviction that this is entirely compatible with a certain ideal point of view.

The laws of gravitation, of sound, of light and electricity disappear along with the phenomena  for which experience has established them. Mental laws, on the other hand, hold true for our life to come as they do in our present life, insofar as this life is immortal.

Franz Brentano,   Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

Even in this 1874 preface to his now famous work we get the hint of an Idealist framework working its way insidiously into the very fabric of this otherwise naturalist and empirical perspective. If as Iain Hamilton Grant and his fellow commentators in Idealism: The History of a Philosophy are correct and Idealism is a Realism of the Idea, a one-world idealism that takes nature seriously, and that sees the Idea as a causal agent in terms of organization as well as being neither a pure formalism nor abstract in the separable sense, but rather concretely relating part to whole “as the whole”, then we must know how this transcendental realism entered into the sciences of our day by way of none other than those early practioners of the higher sciences in the twentieth-century: such as Albert Einstein whose mathematical-theoretical cosmology displaced the earlier mechanistic materialist perspective of Newton. But that is a longer tale than my particular post is set to problematize. Much of what we take to be scientific realism and modern science itself is based on many of the unmanifest suppositions of Idealism according to Grant and his fellow commentators.

One aspect of Brentano we should not overlook is his life’s tale. Franz Brentano studied philosophy at the universities of Munich, Würzburg, Berlin (with Trendelenburg) and Münster. He had a special interest in Aristotle and scholastic philosophy. He wrote his dissertation in Tübingen On the manifold sense of Being in Aristotle.

Subsequently he began to study theology and entered the seminar in Munich and then Würzburg, preparing to become a Roman Catholic priest (ordained August 6, 1864). In 1865 – 1866 he writes and defends his habilitation essay and theses and begins to lecture at the university of Würzburg. His students in this period include among others Carl Stumpf and Anton Marty.

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Franz Brentano: The Age of Intentionalism

One of the most important innovations is that I am no longer of the opinion that mental relation can have something other than a thing [Reales] as its object. In order to justify this new point of view, I had to explore entirely new questions, for example I had to go into the investigation of the modes of presentation.

Franz Brentano, Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint

The recursive nature of the mind goes back as far a Kant (1787) who spoke explicitly of ‘inner sense,’ and Locke (1690) defined consciousness as the ‘perception of what passes in a man’s mind.’ Brentano (controversially) interpreted Aristotle’s enigmatic and terse discussion of “seeing that one sees” in De Anima III.2 as an anticipation of his own ‘inner perception’ view.

In some ways the Age of Intentionalism is coming to an end. We’ve been skirting around this issue for some time now but have yet to meet it on its own terms. If we are moving toward a post-Intentional view of the Mind then we should be reminded once again of Wilfred Sellars admonition:

Once again, as so often in the history of philosophy, there is a danger that a position will be abandoned before the reasons for its inadequacy are fully understood, with the twin results that: (a) it will not be noticed that its successor, to all appearances a direct contrary, shares some of its mistakes; (b) the truths contained in the old position will be cast aside with its errors. The almost inevitable result of these stampedes has been the ‘swing of the pendulum’ character of philosophical thought; the partial truth of the old position reasserts itself in the long run and brings the rest of the tangle with it.

– Wilfred Sellars, Phenomenalism

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“Merchants of Knowledge”: The New Sophists of Our Post-Intentional Dilemma

There is a time and a place in philosophy for rigorous arguments, with all the premises numbered and the inference rules named, but these do not often need to be paraded in public. We ask our graduate students to prove they can do it in their dissertations, and some never outgrow the habit, unfortunately. And to be fair, the opposite sin of high-flown Continental rhetoric , larded with literary ornament and intimations of profundity, does philosophy no favors either. If I had to choose, I’d take the hard-bitten analytic logic-chopper over the deep purple sage every time. At least you can usually figure out what the logic-chopper is talking about and what would count as being wrong.

– Daniel C. Dennett,  Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking

Of what variety are you: Logic-Chopper or Purple Sage – or, maybe an Expert? Cognitive bias and the striptease of scientific writing seem to force our new generation of journal authoring philosophers into an almost mathematical straightjacket. Yet, as Dennett explains: “I have always figured that if I can’t explain something I’m doing to a group of bright undergraduates, I don’t really understand it myself, and that challenge has shaped everything I have written” (12).1 He tells us that scientists are wary of words, preferring the precise forms of mathematical exactitude because the “language of mathematics is a reliable enforcer of cogency” (11). Most of this all came about due to the International appeal of the sciences and the ability to use the English language as the medium of choice for translatability. Yet, Dennett realized early on that if one is to reach the public at large then he’d have to forgo this mathematical perfection and dip down into the old informal language of the masses:

The level of mutual understanding achieved by this international system is invaluable, but there is a price to be paid: some of the thinking that has to be done apparently requires informal metaphor-mongering and imagination-tweaking, assaulting the barricades of closed minds with every trick in the book, and if some of this cannot be easily translated, then I will just have to hope for virtuoso translators on the one hand, and the growing fluency in English of the world’s scientists on the other.(11)

This brings me to the subject of my present post. Under the hood of Dennett’s charitable tip of the hat to Public Joe is this hidden or not-so-hidden acceptance of a division of labor between the average Joe Public on the street and the Expert of the academic or scientific world. Being a Joe Public myself as well as a self-taught polymath I’ve acquired no academic credentials of worth, and yet have attained both a wide and encyclopedic learning in a vast number of fields of what used to be termed the liberal arts. Having entered that cybernetic world of math and binary code early on I became a self-made expert within the Computer Industry as multi-tooled software developer and now architect. Yet, I never wanted titles are justifications, for me it was all about the learning, the search to understand, to explore worlds that had not been there before. Having lived through the Internet explosion and been in on it at the beginning as a heavy duty coder – or, in the old parlance, Hacker (not the illegal variety I might add) – I’ve seen the speed of intelligence remake the rules of our postmodern world in software. And, of course, the great beast of capitalism has driven this giant planetary shift in directions that might have best taken other more creative courses. But it is what it is.

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Wilfred Sellars: Roots of Eliminativsm and Sensory Consciousness

To reject the Myth  of the Given is to reject the idea that the categorial structure of the world — if it has a categorial structure  — imposes itself on the mind as a seal imposes an image on melted wax.

– Wilfred Sellars, Foundations for a Metaphysics of Pure Process

To think is to connect and disconnect concepts according to proprieties of inference. Meanings are rule-governed functions supervening on the pattern-conforming behaviour of language-using animals.

– Ray Brassier, Ray Brassier interview with After Nature blog

As I’ve been slowly tracing down some of the ancestry of this eliminativist naturalism I’ve seen in R. Scott Bakker recently I’ve begun rereading Sellars among others, W.V. Quine, Paul Feyerabend, and Richard Rorty.  It is in this essay quoted above in the second section of article 95 that Wilfred Sellars offers what we have now come to know as the eliminative thesis: “It is rather to say that the one framework is, with appropriate adjustments in the larger context, replaceable by the by other — eliminable in favor of the other. The replacement would be  justified by the greater explanatory power of the new framework.” 1 This is the central insight of the eliminativist argument that then in many ways has taken on its own subtractive life and been used to other effects within a myriad of philosophers, scientists, etc.

As we begin to move toward a post-intentional framework within philosophy we still need to be reminded of the roots within which it was first cast. Sellars was still very much a part of the Kantian tradition, and locked into his own form of intentional philosophical perspectives. I will not go into this in this short post, which is readily available to anyone willing to work through his books and essays. Instead this is specifically trying to understand the elminiativist argument itself.

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Wilfred Sellars: Knowing Our Way Around

The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.

– Wilfred Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality

Analytic and Systematic Wilfred Sellars brought together a deep historical understanding of the problems facing modern philosophy. Knowing one’s way around is, to use a current distinction, a form of “knowing how” as contrasted with “knowing that.”(Kindle Locations 92-93). Sellars did not see his systematic approach to a broad spectrum of problems as static, but as part of an ongoing ever revisable program without end. For him philosophy is universal in scope, its ultimate aim practical (i.e., a for of know-how), distinct from any special discipline – although reliant on those disciplines and their presuppositions and the truths they reveal; it is reflective, both in the sense that it is a second-order knowledge that puts all our other knowledge into perspective, and in the sense that it must itself be pursued reflectively; and, finally, it is neither fully analytic nor synthetic:

… while the term ‘analysis’ was helpful in its implication that philosophy as such makes no substantive contribution to what we know, and is concerned in some way to improve the manner in which we know it, it is most misleading by its contrast to “synthesis.” (Kindle Locations 137-139).

For Sellars the modern philosopher is confronted by two conceptions, equally public, equally non-arbitrary, of man-in-the-world and he cannot shirk the attempt to see how they fall together in one stereoscopic view  (Kindle Locations 175-177). The modern philosopher is confronted not by one complex many-dimensional picture, the unity of which, such as it is, he must come to appreciate; but by two pictures of essentially the same order of complexity, each of which purports to be a complete picture of man-in-the-world, and which, after separate scrutiny, he must fuse into one vision. Let me refer to these two perspectives, respectively, as the manifest and the scientific images of man-in-the-world(Kindle Locations 161-164).

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