Just a note…

Out of town at the moment… doing some good reading while I’m visiting my son and daughter in Colorado.

  • Levi R. Bryant’s new work, Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media
  • Takayuki Tatsumi’s Full Metal Apache - Japan and American postcyberpunkedelia
  • Erika Gottlieb’s Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial
  • J. David Osborne,  Low Down Death Right Easy (good old noir for myself )
  • Frank Herbert’s, Hellstron Five ( decided to reread this in the light of present studies in posthumanism)

 

All in all some interesting reads for a couple weeks…. be back soon!

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.

In another brilliant critique of a particularly intelligent philosopher, Reza Negarestani, whose latest work (here and here) brings the enlightenment project up to date with an influx of normative clarity from the neo-Hegelian Robert Brandom’s notions of a new pragmatics. In this upgrade of Kant’s insight into judgments and actions we discover that one must make a normative distinction between knowing and claiming, because the “things we do with language” (pragmatics) is in this model prior to semantics. Why this should be is never fully qualified yet it becomes a part of Brandom’s inclusion of Wilfred Sellars framework in which normative appraisals must be placed within a “space of reason”, and within this space one discovers the inferential patterns by which human “entitlements and commitments” are made explicit. Instead of tying thought to real world referents in some exhaustive manner, the new pragmatists hope to instead work through systematically all our claims and actions that these commit and entitle us to which bring the two practices after Hegel of understanding and reason together.

Now the difference between Kant’s and Hegel’s use of normative status hinges on the notion of responsibility. As Brandom would have it Kant “punted many hard questions about the nature and origins of normativity, of the blindingness of concepts, out of the familiar phenomenal realm of experience into the noumenal realm. Hegel brought these issues back to earth by understanding normative statuses as social statuses…” (Brandom) The whole point for Brandom was that Hegel clarifies and stipulates normativity within the social, which forces all claimants or philosophers, et. al. to become responsible for their claims, and also to become responsible to the world about which these claims are made.

The goal of Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, and his pragmatics, has always been to discover how consciousness arises in the world. For Kant the “I think” was stipulated within a transcendentally deduced conceptual framework if humans as humans were ever to have experience to begin with. For Hegel self-consciousness emerges through a finite grasping of the movements of reason in experience. For Brandom, and here I defer to Iain Hamilton Smith and his cohorts in the excellent Idealism: The History of a Philosophy:

On the back of normative social pragmatics whereby conceptual content is explicated and determinacy negotiated, therefore, it is in the making explicit of the reason implicit in these doings that self-consciousness arises (268).

Like some fantastic Rube Goldberg  contraption Brandom and Negarestani after him boot up self-consciousness as a second order recovery system in which the movements of concepts and selves, of pragmatics and inferential semantics, make their way through the infinite complexity of this hybrid contraption till at some point the truth of the matter is made explicit. In this sense it is a return to Hegel’s notion that the “true being of man is rather his deed”: What the deed is can be said of it. It is this, and its being is not merely a sign, but the fact itself. It is this, and the individual human being is what the deed is (Hegel). As Iain Hamilton Smith iterates, Brandom shows his hand as an idealist in that this showing and giving of reasons is at bottom a rational objectivism of the social, a construction and priority of pragmatics over semantics in which “doings are not only deontologically prior to beings, but that deontology simply replaces ontology altogether, so that doings exhaust being” (Hamilon, 270).

Reza Negarestani

Returning to Reza Negarestani’s The Labor of the Inhuman, Part II: The Inhuman we come to a point in the text where he tells us that “Inhumanism highlights the urgency of action according to a tide of revision that increasingly registers itself as a discontinuity, a growing rift with no possibility of restoration.” This notion of a rupture, a disconnect, a discontinuity beyond what we’ve known so far as the human is at the core of his diagnosis. As he states it:

…inhumanism disrupts a future anticipation built on descriptions and prescriptions provided by a conservative humanism. Conservative humanism places the consequentiality of human in an overdetermined meaning or an over-particularized set of descriptions which is fixed and must at all times be preserved by any prescription developed by and for humans. Inhumanism, on the other hand, finds the consequentiality of commitment to humanity in its practical elaboration and in the navigation of its ramifications. For the true consequentiality of a commitment is a matter of its power to generate other commitments, to update itself in accordance with its ramifications, to open up spaces of possibility, and to navigate the revisionary and constructive imports such possibilities may contain.

What he describes as the rift between a conservative fixed ensemble of concepts and commitments that are overdetermined in their descriptive or discursive matrix, as compared to an inhumanist processual or continuous revisionary movement of elaboration that overcomes its own fixity as new information and reasonings overtake the old truths is for him the political truth of our moment. This battle between tradition and innovation, conservative and inhumanist is played out at least for Reza in the wars for normativity within the social constructivist “space of reasons”. As he argues neither the postmodern anti-humanist nor the pit-bulls of the conservative regimes offer us anything but illusionary returns to pathologies of “history frequently appearing under the rubrics of conservation and progression—one an account of the present that must preserve the traits of the past, and the other an account of the present that must approach the future while remaining anchored in the past”.

For Reza Reason is at best an ad hoc guide to change, a catastrophic construction situated between stability and chaos: “Reason is therefore simultaneously a medium of stability that reinforces procedurality and a general catastrophe, a medium of radical change that administers the discontinuous identity of reason to an anticipated image of human.” So far so good, but then he suddenly throws us into a transcendental autonomous zone outside time and space: “The discernment of humanity requires the activation of the autonomous space of reason. But since this space—qua the content of humanity—is functionally autonomous even though its genesis is historical, its activation implies the deactivation of historical anticipations of what humanity can be or become at a descriptive level.” It’s as if now we need a “space of reasons” a computer modeling system built out of algorithms and complexified data sets of normative calculable information that is not bound to the historical. An ahistorical account that returns us by way of inhumanism to the original intent of the Enlightenment project: “What is important to understand here is that one cannot defend or even speak of inhumanism without first committing to the humanist project through the front door of the Enlightenment.”

All of this to lead us through to a new and glorious future:

To act in tandem with the revisionary vector of the future is not to redeem but to update and revise, to reconstitute and modify. As an activist impulse, redemption operates as a voluntaristic mode of action informed by a preservationist or conserved account of the present. Revision, on the other hand, is an obligation or a rational compulsion to conform to the revisionary waves of the future stirred by the functional autonomy of reason.

A notion of revisionism in which an autonomous reason (think of Stanislaw Lem’s His Masters Voice) stirs the waves of the future through modulated constraints or ever increasing or accelerating revisions. But what is this autonomous Reason that has such power to construct our future? “It is the expression of the self-actualizing propensity of reason—a scenario wherein reason liberates its own spaces despite what naturally appears to be necessary or happens to be the case.” Suddenly Reason is a sort of mortal god that “liberates its own spaces”. An AI or artificial intelligence that models with ever increasing power the zones of freedom within which it can not only formulate its inhuman designs but provide us with reasons to be committed to those reasonings.

For Reza its as simple as connecting the dots, of spelling out what we are entitled to as well as providing the mass of humans with a set of normative practices and obligations to enforce this glorious program:

A commitment to humanity, and, consequently, the autonomy of reason, requires not only specifying what oughts or commitment-abilities we are entitled to, but also developing new functional links and inferences that connect existing oughts to new oughts or obligations.

Yet, we have it all wrong he tells us, Reason is not some autonomous entity, not some AI that is free to do its own will, no, instead reason is itself just another socially constructed and revisable human artifact. Reason is after Foucault the system of knowledge practices (discursive): “Reason has its roots in social construction, in communal assessment, and in the manipulability of conditionals embedded in modes of inference.” But as we read on we discover that it is not that Reason is autonomous but that the site of normativity, the discursive practices within this autonomous “space of reasons” that is autonomous: “The autonomy of reason is a claim about the autonomy of its normative, inferential, and revisionary function in the face of the chain of causes that condition it.” Only as reason intervenes in this “space of reasons” and pragmatically practices the normative, inferential, and revisionary functions that are enabled by it is change made possible.

Here he basically lets the cat out of the bag by implicitly incorporating the notion of the AI: “Unlike symbolic or classic AI, pragmatic functionalism does not decompose implicit practices into explicit—that is, logically codifiable—norms. Instead, it decomposes explicit norms into implicit practices, knowing-that into knowing-how…” Underpinning this autonomous “space of reasons” is Reza’s acknowledgement of pragmatic functionalism as a new form of artificial intelligence beyond either symbolic or classical types. So that in the next paragraph he makes it more explicit telling us that pragmatic functionalism brings about the “automation of reason, since the autonomy of practices, which is the marker of sapience, suggests the automation of discursive practices by virtue of their algorithmic decomposability into nondiscursive practices.” Let’s forget the old human factor, and let the machines take over where humans fail. The automation of reason in all its ramifications implies the complexities of advance mathematics and computer simulations.

Like some advanced modeling engine this algorithmic codification of the “space of reasons” offers us a supposed new freedom, a modulated game theoretic within which the “actualization of reason” works out its revisionary practices:

Reason liberates its own spaces and its own demands, and in the process fundamentally revises not only what we understand as thinking, but also what we recognize as “us.”

This is where it become interesting. To become free one must first become a slave, a slave of this new autonomous Reason or AI intelligence:

To be free one must be a slave to reason. But to be a slave to reason (the very condition of freedom) exposes one to both the revisionary power and the constructive compulsion of reason. This susceptibility is terminally amplified once the commitment to the autonomy of reason and autonomous engagement with discursive practices are sufficiently elaborated. That is to say, when the autonomy of reason is understood as the automation of reason and discursive practices—the philosophical rather than classically symbolic thesis regarding artificial general intelligence.

Of course he tries to make a split between the philosophical and the 1950′s symbolic thesis “regarding artificial general intelligence” by placing it in this “space of reasons” or Foucauldian realm of knowledge and power (discursive practices). Yet, as we read later on this whole Rube Goldberg machine is part of a rewiring of the human into inhuman into posthuman through a process of engineering epistemology:

Engineering epistemology—a form of understanding that involves the designated manipulation of causal fabric and the organization of functional hierarchies—is an upgradable armamentarium of heuristics that is particularly attentive to the distinct roles and requirements of different levels and hierarchies. It employs lower-level entities and mechanisms to guide and enhance construction on upper levels. It also utilizes upper-level variables and robust processes to correct lower-level structural and functional hierarchies, but also to renormalize their space of possibilities so as to actualize their constructive potentials, yielding the observables and manipulation conditionals necessary for further construction.

Yet, he shows us that there is a difference between liberation and freedom as well. Liberation is not the source of freedom, and freedom by itself is “not an overnight delivery, whether in the name of spontaneity or the will of people, or in the name of exporting democracy”. Instead liberation is a “project, not an idea or a commodity. Its effect is not the irruption of novelty, but rather the continuity of a designated form of labor”. But to attain such freedom we must relinquish our humanity as we’ve come to know it and according to Reza move toward a” synthetic and constructible passage” that leads beyond the “cognitive Rubicon”.

Indeed, the intervening attitude demanded by adaptation to a functionally autonomous reason suggests that the cognitive Rubicon has already been crossed. In order to navigate this synthetic path, there is no point in staring back at what once was, but has now been dissipated—like all illusory images—by the revisionary winds of reason.

So for Reza the heritage of two thousand years is completed and something new has begun, we’ve crossed a river into a far country without even realizing it. Now begins the construction of something else…

R. Scott Bakker

Yet, not so Scott tells us. Let’s back up take a deep breath and see what is happening in Reza’s scenario according to Bakker’s judgment. After a careful reading of Reza’s text Scott comes up against three specific issues or problems:

 1) Even though the human is a thoroughgoing product of its past natural environments, the resources required to understand the future of the human, we are told, lie primarily, if not entirely, within the human.

2) Even though norm-talk possesses a very specific problem-ecology, we are supposed to take it on faith that the nature of norm-talk is something that only more norm-talk can solve, rather than otherwise (as centuries of philosophical intractability would suggest).

3) Even though the natural, for all its high dimensional contingencies, is capable of producing the trillions of mechanical relations that constitute you, it is not capable of ‘evolving human knowledge.’ Apparently we need a special kind of supernatural game to do this, the ‘game of giving and asking for reasons,’ a low-dimensional, communicative system of efficacious (and yet acausal!) normative posits based on… we are never told—some reliable fund of information, one would hope.

(see The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labour of Ghosts)

He narrows these three down to a basic or core problem, saying, “The problem, in a nutshell, is that the meaning of the human is not analytic, something that can be explicated via analysis alone. It arises, rather, out of the game of giving and asking for reasons, the actual, historical processes that comprise discursivity. And this means that unpacking the content of the human is a matter of continual revision, a process of interpretative differentiation that trends toward the radical, the overthrow of “our assumptions and expectations about what ‘we’ is and what it entails.”

Scott informs us that Negarestani’s system of normativity is in reality an “exponential technical process”. It aligns well with Williams and Srinek’s Accelerationist Manifesto, in that as Scott tells it “they commit the very sin of anachronism they level at their critical competitors. They fail to appreciate the foundational role ignorance plays in intentional cognition, which is to say, the very kind of moral and political reasoning they engage in.”

Instead of some return to Enlightenment 2.0 or some acceleration of the normative process into AI synthetic forms of freedom under discursive rules we should Scott admits “rethink of the political in radically post-intentional terms”. What he means by this that instead of attuning ourselves to the House of Autonomous Reason we should begin by “abandoning the normative ideals the Enlightenment” and divest ourselves of the “last blinders of superstition, being honest to our ignorance”. As he sums it up the “time has come to move on”.

Humanity possesses no essential, invariant core. Reason is a parochial name we have given to a parochial biological process. No transcendental/quasi-transcendental/virtual/causal-but-acausal functional apparatus girds our souls. Norms are ghosts, skinned and dismembered, but ghosts all the same. Reason is simply an evolutionary fix that outruns our peephole view. The fact is, we cannot presently imagine what will replace it.

Someday in the near future we may wake up and realize that all those universalizing dreams of the Enlightenment were just that: dreams of a blind Reason. ” We simply assume that our reason is the reason, that our intelligence is intelligence. It bloody well sure feels that way. And so the contingent and parochial become the autonomous and universal. The idea of orders of ‘reason’ and ‘intelligence’ beyond our organizational bounds boggles, triggers dismissive smirks or accusations of alarmism.(Bakker)” Ultimately Scott’s horror at the future bespeaks something Reza is probably not ready to admit, or if he is it is hidden behind the philosophical processes of his normative theoretic:

Extrapolation of the game of giving and asking for reasons into the future does nothing more than demonstrate the contingent parochialism—the humanity—of human reason, and thus the supernaturalism of normativism. Within a few years you will be speaking to your devices, telling them what to do. A few years after that, they will be telling you what to do, ‘reasoning’ with you—or so it will seem. Meanwhile, the ongoing, decentralized rationalization of production will lead to the wholesale purging of human inefficiencies from the economy, on a scale never before witnessed. The networks of equilibria underwriting modern social cohesion will be radically overthrown. Who can say what kind of new machine will rise to take its place?

This concept of efficiency that drives our late capitalism toward impossible futures even under its negative impact as “purging inefficiencies” seems the key to any political program in the coming days and years.

The concept of efficiency began in the industrial age when a young man Sadi Carnot along with his father. Lazare wanted to describe the mechanical process. As Jennifer Karns Alexander in her history of efficiency, The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control, tells us that it was Sadi whose mechanical theory allowed such machines to be analyzed “down to their last detail,” he wrote. “Every event is predictable, all possible movements are in accordance with established general principles which are applicable in all circumstances. “1 Ultimately Carnot had described a process fully understood and fully predictable, disrupted neither by unknown movements nor by particular or unique ones. He had described a system that was susceptible to planning and control. What makes efficiency align well with notions of normativity I see in Reza’s sense of the term, as well as how Scott describes it, is not only its association with control, for the use of rational techniques and a reliance on planning also characterize the modern. What efficiency added was a measurable way to assess control. It was managerial, governing both processes and their outcomes; its aim was to regulate behavior, natural, human, or machine.’ This sort of close control was associated not only with Taylor’s efficiency efforts but also with the Fordism of the assembly line and the intrusions of time and motion researchers. Observing and ordering were not themselves the primary objectives; they were instead part of larger visions ofhow the world should be ordered. A single concept, efficiency, brought together both transformative visions and the specific methods to achieve them; it united hopes of dynamic change with the often restrictive measures that might bring it about. (Alexander, KL 2292)

Reza promotes an epistemological engineering project of normativity to remake or construct the new humanity as it passes through the inhuman into something posthuman, but in the process he has implied an enforcement of slavery to an autonomous Reason in the name of Liberation. At the heart of this is still a form of efficiency in a closed system, which as Alexander implies is part of the old entropic engine of Thermodynamics:

Efficiency offered more than a way to compare output to input, as a way of assessing effectiveness; such comparisons had been made long before efficiency was named and codified in theory. What efficiency did when it became a general concept, rather than an incidental tool, was to make fundamental the assessment of almost any action or process on the basis of the same units and qualities it had started with and nothing else. It created a closed intellectual system. The amounts of what went in and came out would differ, but the fundamental categories of measurement, the units, would not. The focus would not shift. (Alexander, KL 2312)

Efficiency was not primarily about knowledge; it was a method by which intellectual constructions could be given material force. In its dimensionless and comparative form, as a percentage without units, efficiency applied equally to rational and mechanical constructions and allowed them to be analyzed and measured on commensurate and parallel scales. Engineers and mechanics sought to increase their effective mastery of the material world by constructing machines whose performance not only paralleled the ways it was intellectually understood but also, and simultaneously, minimized the influence of material behaviors for which no intellectual parallel existed. The uniformity and predictability of static efficiency relied on the elimination of distractions or diversions that were too complex to admit of measurement or management; inherent in the concept of efficiency was the goal of eliminating or minimizing resistance to methods of rational control.(Alexander, KL 2332)

When I think on that last line of ” the concept of efficiency was the goal of eliminating or minimizing resistance to methods of rational control” what comes to mind is our political predicament in the late capitalist globalism. The notion that what is not amenable to the control of reason should be eliminated or minimized brings to mind the elites elimination of disposable peoples around the world through war, imprisonment, apartheid, slave labor, untouchables, etc. The silencing of womens rights, gay rights, transgender rights. The imprisonment in the U.S.A. of black Americans with new Jim Crow laws, etc. One need only return to the efficiency of the German Holocaust to be reminded of where that might lead. Do I exaggerate? Let the reader think through the issues and answer that herself.

For Reza freedom is the power to “reconstitute a supposed constitution, to draw a functional link between identifying what is normatively good and making it true, to maintain and enhance the good and to endow the pursuit of the better with its own autonomy—such is the course of freedom. But this is also the definition of intelligence as the self-realization of practical freedom and functional autonomy that liberates itself in spite of its constitution.” Yet, if normativity is given and taken in the “space of reasons” and is controlled or formed/regulated by an autonomous Reason how is such liberation attained? If we are slaves to Reason who controls this process of give and take? We must remember that efficiency meant mastery; it also meant being mastered. Reason is nothing if not efficient. Will it become our final arbiter and master, too?

Scott fittingly beckons to Negarestani, saying, “My hope is that Negarestani abandons the Enlightenment myth of reason, the conservative impulse that demands we submit the radical indeterminacy of our technological future to some prescientific conception of ourselves. We’ve drifted far past the point of any atavistic theoretical remedy. His ingenuity is needed elsewhere.”

Reason is tied to both control, surveillance, and efficiency, as are all these constraining practices of the normative. Shall we follow Reza’s Siren Song, or listen to Scott and rewire our lives openly toward what the sciences are telling us now.

 

1. Jennifer Karns Alexander. The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control (Kindle Locations 2283-2284). Kindle Edition.

 

 

Levi R. Bryant: First Impressions on Onto-Cartography

Onto-cartography is the investigation of structural couplings between machines and how they modify the becoming, activities, movements, and ways in which the coupled machines relate to the world about them. It is a mapping of these couplings between machines and their vectors of becoming, movement, and activity.

- Levi R. Bryant, Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media

I have barely even begun to delve into Levi’s new work but already I’m pleased with the way he is approaching his investment in materialism. There is an opening preface by Graham Harman that introduces Levi’s previous and current work and situates it within Speculative Realism. Harman is generous with his praise telling us that Onto-Cartagraphy “is not only a thought-provoking and erudite book, but also a thoroughly enjoyable one”.1 I concur so far I’m impressed with Levi’s keen sense of materialism’s many traditions and how he differentiates the subtitles and nuances of these various forms. One thing he does right off the bat is to let the reader in on his own philosophical conversion. Levi like many of us had been weaned on twentieth-century Continental philosophy or as many term it the ‘Linguistic Turn’. Levi had gone the full gamut and become convinced that the socio-cultural or discursive materialism arising out of this era was the only way to go. Yet, something happened.

Again, like many of us the age of computers brought not only a new means of exploring the world of knowledge, but also brought a new form of entertainment: video games. It was one of these games that awakened Levi from his long sleep in late continental thought: Sim City 4. SimCity is an open-ended city-building computer and console video game series originally designed by developer Will Wright. The player must define zones, each having limits on the kind of development that can occur there. Development of the zones is not performed directly by the player, but happens when certain conditions are met, such as power supply, adequate transport links or acceptable tax level. The residential zones, in green, provide housing for Sims; the commercial zones, in blue, provide shops and offices; and the industrial zones, in yellow, provide factories, laboratories and farms. There are three different densities in the game: low density for small buildings, medium density for low to mid-sized buildings, and high density for anything up to large tower blocks.

What Levi realized and what shook his “commitments to the core” was the discovery that social relations are not only constructed out of discursive practices (i.e., the “signifier, meaning, belief…”), but that the underlying infrastructure of our environmental milieu or ecologies we inhabit such as “roads, power lines, pollution, and so on” all have real material properties that affect those relations. As he tells it:

As mundane and ridiculous as it sounds, I was startled by this encounter. My entire theory of social relations, power, and domination was threatened. Despite being mediated through something as apparently immaterial … as a computer game, I had had an encounter with real materiality., with physical stuff, with things, and encountered the differences they make. (6)

Realizing that the basic stuff of reality impacts not only our relations but all relations human or inhuman he opened his materialist eyes toward new ways of relating things. Over the years Levi has used several sliding terms to describe what things are, what the basic stuff of materialism is. But he was never truly satisfied so he came to the conclusion that he’d get out of the business of naming this object and leave our actual understanding of the basic units of matter to the appropriate domain of knowledge: science, and physics in particular. Instead he would deal with both the corporeal and incorporeal modes or forms within which matter structured or coupled itself. This is where his notions of machines comes in. He incorporates Ian Bogost’s notions of an alien phenomenology  in which machines engage and interact with each other and ecologies within a milieu, and environment. There is not just one type of machine but a myriad, and because of this machines exist at different levels of reality and have an ontology that both constrains and affords these machines certain paths of possible interaction or movement. Because of this machine ontology is best understood as discovering the different ways these machines not only interact coupling and decoupling with each other, but also describing their operations, their input/outputs of flows of information, matter, and material incorporated within their activities.

The major thrust of his work is to provide a mapping (Onto-Cartography) of these machine assemblages or ecologies across a spectrum of geophilosophical notions: cartography, deconstruction, and terraformation. Under cartography he provides four distinct types of map: cartographical maps, genetic maps, vector maps, and modal maps. Under deconstruction he offers traditional reading with an emphasis on the politics of oppression. And, under terraformation he offers a vision of worlds or ecologies or heterotopias: “alternatives that would allow people to escape the oppressive circumstances in which they live” (12).

My first impressions extend only through the first chapter so far. Yet, what I’m seeing is that Levi has a great command of the material he is describing. He sets the stage for us by using argument and counter-argument in the typical philosophical or prescribed method. In the first chapter he describes his use of machine ontology as well as his approach to media ontology. He goes into depth on Marshall McLuhan and extends beyond him into a more post-human perspective in the sense that McLuhan was to restrictive in his own theories reducing everything to either extensions of or for us as humans, while for Levi the task at hand is to show that machines also can extend their relations and interactions between each other, too. As he tells us:

To study media is not simply to investigate technologies, tools, artifacts, and forms of communication, but rather the way in which machines are structurally coupled to one another and modify one another regardless of whether or not humans are involved. (35)

Obviously I have a long enjoyable read ahead. The above is just a teaser not meant to detail out his work. I’ll be reading his work for the next few days… hope you will too!

Remember to visit Levi’s blog Larval Subjects as well as read an interview about his new book: here (pdf).

 

 

1. Levi R. Bryant.  Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media (Edinburgh University Press, 2014)

Future Mutation

Shanzhai companies operate in a nebulous, quasi legal zone external to both corporate regulations as well as government rules. The name shanzhai means mountain village and the term signals a kind of bandit, anarchist mode of production that functions outside the formal legitimacy of either capitalism or the state.

- Anna Greenspan, Suzanne, Livingston, Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species

Happened on a post on Nick Land’s Outside In blog on this short work by Anna Greenspan, Suzanne, Livingston, Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species. Seems to be based around a set of concepts Copy, Reproduce, Mutate, Replicate, Evolve, and Rewind. Starts with a couple epigraphs from Nick Land our technofuturist in residence and John Gray ex-Thacherite turned chronicler of liberalism through all its phases. Nick’s is cryptic as usual “You cannot stop what can’t be stopped, you cannot touch without being touched.” Obviously suggesting the juggernaut of our accelerating late capitalist era of globalism as well as the subtle truth of a libidinal materialism in which affective relations will burn or mutate you with use. In Gray we hear the old adage of technological determinism:”Technology obeys no-one’s will. Can we play along with it without laboring to master it?”

A wisdom fraught with a moment of wisdom from such masters of technology lit as Lewis Mumford and Jaques Elul.

Copy

In the new China one is exposed to the multiplying worlds of pop-up cities, a new breed of heterotopian sites, in which the facades of a gray world of concrete and staid architecture is inlaid with inner worlds of electronic paradises, clone shops, bunny runners in rainbow hues. A veritable performance art of anarchist capitalism that shifts between government and corporation just outside the drift culture where neither the rich nor poor exist, but only a new 24/7 breed of worker fences for the never ending supply of global black market goods in electronic copy-cat look-a-like iPhones, etc. In one of these new pop-art cities, Shenzen, the copy-cat industry excels. “Shenzhen is the birth-place of shanzhai, the zone in which copying – which is both inherent to digital technology and a critical part of the cultural traditions of China – have fused with the production of electronics. Shanzhai traces its roots back to 2004, when the Taiwanese company MediaTeK released a multipurpose chip that made mobile phones cheap and easy to produce. A wave of small factories, many of them family owned , immediately seized the opportunity to feed an already ravenous market for counterfeits and began pumping out copies at a delirious speed.”

Reproduce

Here we follow a reading of Samuel Butler’s brilliant Erewhon another heteropian site posing as a Luddite utopia in which we discover the true nature of human machinic design. We are intermediaries in a technological drama that is giving birth to a machinic progeny that will surpass us. Of course we ourselves will go through a process of mutation along with our clever reproductions before that terminable moment. Yet, while we discover this we learn that the people of this future that the machines being unable to reproduce themselves conned us into doing it for them: “According to The Book of Machines, technology has long ago adopted its own clever evolutionary mutation. Without the ability to reproduce on its own it has involved us in its own creation.” With the ultimate repercussion that we are now “to machines as a bee is to a clover, the reproductive organs of a species that is not our own”.

Here they return to the concept o Shanzhai saying:

Shanzhai is a form of copying that drifts to become something new. When it succeeds, the original is left far behind. In this way the process of shanzhai manifests a strong underlying urge in the development of technology – to move beyond the moment where faithful copies of what has gone before are optimally useful and function perfectly well, to the point where they become something novel and distinct. In this way technology designed to serve us carves its own pathways of escape.

The notion that technology has a life of its own, that it has goals, a telos again arises. It also bespeaks the idea that humans have for the most part become mid-wives in a slow process of giving birth to the new, to a technology that will survive us, and not only survive but surpass all our efforts.

Mutate

In this section the authors take a vitalist turn toward Bergson and the notions of coevolution of human and technology, a reciprocal relation between the two based on vitalistic evolutionary determinations. “Bergson presents an explanation of evolution as an inclination towards ever richer and often more dangerous complexity; a tending towards the fringes, which does not stop at an ideal point where a species has reached a smooth and well functioning adaption to their physical environments. But instead adapts again towards the unforeseen.” Yet, Shanzhai is more than this, it is also a form of knowledge and a quest for perfection, it allows the players to seek out the blindness in its opponents, to seek not only opportunities but to grasp the black holes in ones enemies production cycles and levy it toward one’s own greater success. “Shanzhai players seek out the blind spots in a main player’s strategy and with speed on their side, enter a market and surreptitiously grab a substantial, sometimes even shocking, share.”

Instead of perfection as in transhumanism we have the machinic imperative of the posthuman disconnect. “Bergson showed that a non-stop splicing of organisms, entities and their environments is all that there is. We do not evolve into ever more perfect versions of ourselves. Instead, component parts split off and find new avenues to explore, throwing up ever new traits and varieties to investigate and wander through: “we shall not witness the detailed accomplishment of a plan. Nature is more and better than a plan in course of realization. A plan is a term assigned to a labor: it closes the future whose form it indicates. Before the evolution of life, on the contrary, the portals of the future remain wide open. It is a creation that goes on for ever in virtue of an initial movement.”

This notion of the open incomplete future fully awakened to evolutionary potential, a realm of evolving entities whose mutations can never be closed off or faithfully copied or controlled is the core of this violent nativity. In this never ending realm of mutation even the original copy can become infested with the virus of overuse: “shanzhai companies have begun to sue the likes of Apple for the stealing of ideas. The take over of copies has begun”.

Replicate

What is being produced is not a passive, dead technology but rather a gradual awakening of matter, the emergence, ultimately, of a new form of life.

- Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species

The Dream of the Machine has always been self-replication, self-reproduction, the possibility of radical evolution of its own species in the making. Yet, this was impossible until the advent of 3-D Printing. Now as out authors assure us following the RipRap project is a more formidable feat than even it dreamed ten years ago of being able to construct “a complete vehicle that can fly right out of the printer”. As the authors remark, “3D printing might only now be about to find its ways into our homes, but for figures at the forefront of the field like Neil Gershenfeld, it is a technology that is, already, superseding itself.” In this mutation of self-replicating technologies one commentator acknowledges that what is shifting “is not so much how we see computers, but how computers see us.”

Evolve

We learn that robotics fair tales are changing too. In the new world of speed we discover that instead of making robots into human like manifestations we are remaking humans and “disrupting their place within that environment”. They follow the work of Hans Moravec who envisions the notion of a ‘second generation ’ machines that humans engage with as pets. Yet, I wonder something else: When will the tide change and machines begin to engage us as pets instead? Morovec dreams of that as well when he imagines a time when a “a fourth generation robot with “human perceptual and motor abilities and superior reasoning powers,” who “could replace us in every essential task and in principle operate our society increasingly well without us. They would run the companies and do the research as well as performing the productive work.” Moravec invites us to enter the new heterotopia of a completely transformed humanity, a mutated species that no longer resembles its forbears but is fully adapted and adaptable to the changing worlds it may inhabit in the future.

Rewind

This section could have been named reset rather than rewind, yet the notion of rewinding the future into the past to escape the doom of our own constructed worlds or heterotopias might still be appropriate. They remind us of the outcome of Samuel Butler’s dystopian novel of the Luddite destruction of the world of machines and the reversion to an almost pre-Adamic state. They hint at our own doom forecasting in offering Bill Joy’s vision of technology run amok and out of control. Yet, in the end we discover the hard truth:

Humans appear to have an almost willful lack of awareness in the face of technological evolution. It is his recognition of this unconscious , wide ranging apathy, rather than his ultimately implausible appeals for global controls, that is, in the end, what makes Joy’s future imaginings so haunting. We don’t reflect upon new technology. Instead, we passionately, compulsively, addictively, engage.

The Future that Wasn’t

The amazing thing about the future is that it is not amazing at all. We seem to drift among the ruins of the future as if they were the moments of our Facebook or Twitter messages. As the authors remind us “We live in an era of unprecedented technological intimacy, affect and display. Never before have we been so uninhibited . We are constantly, compulsively touching our screens, obsessively uploading every fragment of data about ourselves. Many of us can’t stop.” We are driven creatures, obsessed, unthinking. We use all these new smart toys even as they use us, and mutate us into their own forms. We are being modulated and controlled even as we dream of mastery. We have no clue that the things we make are actually making us, and sometimes not for the better. Some say we are between the times, in an age of transition, of metamorphosis. But as our authors inform us:

Alongside our terror is a yearning for the alien intelligence we are in process of becoming. After all, in the end, we are evolutionary creatures ourselves. We fear change but, as our deep and profound complicity with technology makes clear, what we long for is to evolve.

Future Now

“By 2014, half a decade into the first great economic crises of the second millennium, something is stirring in the realm where humans meet machines.” Our authors see a shift from the postmodern era of virtual worlds and immaterialism toward a new materialism. People want stuff. Instead of all the heady theory we are entering a time of material and pragmatic engineering, of enacting what all the theories once dreamed of. As our authors relate “we are in the midst of a cyclical return from software to hardware (which perhaps explains our current obsession with everything 3D) which more fundamentally affects who and what we are a species”. This is the era when technology enters the body and we become machinic, the cyborgazation of humanity into what comes next. “This new leap in hardware and materiality is bringing about a radical, uncomfortable, uncontrollable leap into the future; one in which machines are not just faster and cleverer than ever before but also more invasive, more embedded in our lives and our bodies.” Let the games begin.

Though we are often blind to the machines that surround us – technology is the ocean within which we swim – these exchanges and interactions fuel us. As evolutionary beings, we are willing participants, hungry to transform. … In Shenzhen companies, factories and markets are adjusting to the new products and modes of manufacturing that they bring. A realization is dawning. The age of the copy is over. It is time to mutate.

1. Greenspan, Anna; Livingston, Suzanne (2014-04-08). Future Mutation: Technology and the Evolution of Species (Kindle Locations 45-47). Time Spiral Press. Kindle Edition.

Stanislas Dehaene: Global Neuronal Workspace Hypothesis

We have discovered signatures of conscious processing, but what do they mean? Why do they occur? We have reached the point where we need a theory to explain how subjective introspection relates to objective measurements.

-  Stanislas Dehaene,  Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts

When did reality leave off and fiction begin? I never did get the memo on that. Maybe that’s the problem with us all, if it is a problem – no one ever told us it had happened, or if they had it was somehow lost in translation long ago. So it goes. T.S. Eliot once stipulated that people couldn’t bare “too much reality”, but he never told us that there might be a further problem, the one I’m facing now: it’s not reality, but too much fiction that has become the issue. I mean we keep getting messages from the media Moghuls about Reality TV. Sure, but whose reality? I keep thinking that reality must be in there somewhere: but where is where? Is this a problem of space or time, or maybe – spacetime? I never could get those figured out either.

What to do? There are those that tell us we need to inquire into the nature of being – as if that was somehow the magic key to reality, as if we could finally discover the truth about life, the universe, and everything if we could only grasp existence as it is (i.e., in the parlance of metaphysics: being qua being - being in so much as it is being or beings insofar as they exist). But then I wondered: What does it mean for a thing to exist? That’s when I stopped thinking about things and existence and realized we’d never have access to such knowledge about things and existence for the simple reason that language is incapable of reaching beyond itself much less describing things or existence, whether that language is natural or as latter day philosophers and scientists presume, mathematical. All one is doing is manipulating signs that point to things and existence, rather than giving us those things as they are in them selves. But that was the point, right? There are those who say things do not exist until we construct them, that reality is a model that the mind constructs out of its own manipulation of those very symbols of natural and mathematical language. These philosophers tell us that there is a mid point between things and mind where reality becomes reality for-us in a new object, or concept. For these philosophers it is the concept that ties the mind and reality together in a communicative act of solidarity. So that if we create effective concepts we can all share in the truth of this reality for-us. So reality is a shared realm of meaning between certain minds as they negotiate the unknown realm of being.

Now I’m no philosopher but am a creature who has read a lot of philosophy and have come to the moment like Socrates before me to the realization that what I know is that I don’t know much of anything. But what is the knowing and unknowing that I don’t know? When we speak of knowing something what do we mean? What is knowing? I thought for this exercise I’d begin a Wiki:

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning. Knowledge can refer to a theoretical or practical understanding of a subject. It can be implicit (as with practical skill or expertise) or explicit (as with the theoretical understanding of a subject); it can be more or less formal or systematic. In philosophy, the study of knowledge is called epistemology; the philosopher Plato famously defined knowledge as “justified true belief“. However, no single agreed upon definition of knowledge exists, though there are numerous theories to explain it.

Knowledge acquisition involves complex cognitive processes: perception, communication, association and reasoning; while knowledge is also said to be related to the capacity of acknowledgment in human beings. (Knowledge)

Well that’s a lot of information on knowledge and ultimately frustrating in that we discover that no one really knows what it is, or at least there is no agreement among those who should know as to what knowledge is. Yet, as we see above it gives us some hints. And, the biggest hint, is that it seems to be connected to the Mind or as that one sentence stipulates: the cognitive processes. This would lead us to that three-pound lump of neurons and biochemical mass in our skull we call the Brain. But, we ask: Can the brain speak for itself? How can we inquire into the nature of the brain and its processes when the very tool we use to inquire with is itself the cognitive processes of consciousness. Can consciousness grab its own tail? Can it see its self in the act of seeing? Isn’t consciousness by its very nature always directed toward something, intentional by its very nature? If it can only ever process that which is outside itself, its environment then how can it ever understand or know itself? Consciousness is no ouroboros  even if we speak about self-reflexivity to doomsday.

In my epigraph Stanislas Dehaene comes to a point in his brain book in which our need to peer into the mysteries of the brain and bring together our self-reflexive subjective notions and our objective and quantified scientific knowledge. But isn’t that the crux of the problem? Can we ever bring those disparate worlds together? Of course Dehaene thinks we can, and has spent fifteen years inventing through trial and error a set of protocols to do just that. As he tells us he proposes a “global neuronal workspace” hypothesis, my laboratory’s fifteen-year effort to make sense of consciousness.1 Now just what exactly is a “global neuronal workspace”? In my mind I picture a Rube Goldberg contraption of strange electrodes, miles of cable, computers emulating the brain’s processes all in some fantastic Frankenstein laboratory with a brain in a vat connected to electromagnetic imaging processor spun upon a cinematic 3-D Screen. Of course this is all fantasy and the truth is more concrete and less fantasy:

The human brain has developed efficient long-distance networks, particularly in the prefrontal cortex, to select relevant information and disseminate it throughout the brain. Consciousness is an evolved device that allows us to attend to a piece of information and keep it active within this broadcasting system. Once the information is conscious, it can be flexibly routed to other areas according to our current goals. Thus we can name it, evaluate it, memorize it, or use it to plan the future. Computer simulations of neural networks show that the global neuronal workspace hypothesis generates precisely the signatures that we see in experimental brain recordings. It can also explain why vast amounts of knowledge remain inaccessible to our consciousness. (Dehane, KL 2711-2716)

Ah, there we go, so that’s the reason we as Socrates told us we are: Blind as Bats, unknowing of the little we know, or even think that we know. Why? Because our brains function differently than that, and knowledge is not one of its strong points – at least for that part of the brain we call self-reflexive consciousness. We do not have access to “vast amounts of knowledge”, not because the knowledge does not exist, but because our consciousness was configured by the brain to do other things like being attentive to specific temporary bits of information, and as a regulatory device within a larger broadcasting system. One needs also to recognize that there is a subtle difference between knowledge per se and information. Consciousness has access to bits of information fed to it by other processes within the brain. Now Dehaene tries to bring in intentionality with a notion of “current goals” and our ability to “name it, evaluate it, memorize it, or use it to plan the future”. But is this true? Do we truly have goals? Or do the goals have us? What I mean is consciousness the one that has intent or a telos - a sense of directional or goal oriented finality? Is this true? Does consciousness actually have the ability to name, evaluate, memorize for future recall and use? Or is this, too, an illusion of consciousness, too?

We’ve come a long way over the past fifteen years or so toward an understanding of the brain, but have we truly been able to bridge the gap between our knowledge of the brain’s processes and our understanding of just why those processes create consciousness to begin with? As Dehaene comments: “Although neuroscience has identified many empirical correspondences between brain activity and mental life, the conceptual chasm between brain and mind seems as broad as it ever was.” The first thing I notice in his statement is this dichotomy between brain activity and mental life as if brain and mind were two distinct things. But is this true? Is there some dualism between brain and mind? Does the mind in itself exist in some transcendent sphere beyond the brain? How are the two connected? Does the mind even exist? Is this notion of a separate mental activity an illusion of our self-reflexive consciousness? What if consciousness is continuous with the brain activities? What if it were just a specialized function of the brain itself, not some special entity in its own right? What if we are still bound to older theological notions of Self, Identify, Consciousness, Mind, Soul, etc. that just no longer hold water, no longer answer the questions of these physical processes? What if the physical processes of the brain were all continuous with each other and that consciousness is just a function within a myriad of other ongoing processes that are neither permanent nor stable, but rather continuously rise and fall, fluctuate and disperse as needed in the flow of the brains own ongoing activities. Why this need for a dualism of Brain and Mind?

Deheane himself sees the problem but seems to continue its discussion as if he too were blind to its illusion:

In the absence of an explicit theory, the contemporary search for the neural correlates of consciousness may seem as vain as Descartes’s ancient proposal that the pineal gland is the seat of the soul. This hypothesis seems deficient because it upholds the very division that a theory of consciousness is supposed to resolve: the intuitive idea that the neural and the mental belong to entirely different realms. The mere observation of a systematic relationship between these two domains cannot suffice. What is required is an overarching theoretical framework, a set of bridging laws that thoroughly explain how mental events relate to brain activity patterns.

Neural correlates tips the hand. With that one statement we fall back into a dualistic or Descartian approach. But as he realizes this approach to consciousness constructs a division between the two realms of brain and consciousness as if the neural processes and mental processes were of a different order of being. Yet, he proposes a framework, a set of bridging laws to “explain how mental events relate to brain activity patterns”. Hmm… isn’t this still to fall into that same trap? All he’s done is to rearrange the words from neural and mental, to events and patterns. But why do we need such a framework to begin with? Is there really some difference between a pattern and its event? Are not the two one and the same, continuous. Is there are reason to see a separation where none may in fact exist? He goes on – and, I think mistakenly:

No experiment will ever show how the hundred billion neurons in the human brain fire at the moment of conscious perception. Only mathematical theory can explain how the mental reduces to the neural. Neuroscience needs a series of bridging laws, analogous to the Maxwell-Boltzmann theory of gases, that connect one domain with the other. … In spite of these difficulties , in the past fifteen years , my colleagues Jean-Pierre Changeux, Lionel Naccache, and I have started to bridge the gap. We have sketched a specific theory of consciousness, the “global neuronal workspace,” that is the condensed synthesis of sixty years of psychological modeling.(Kindle Locations 2743-2745).

I think his approach, personally, is all wrong headed. I do not think any computer model or mathematical model will ever bridge the gap between the one domain and the other for the simple reason that there is no separate domain to bridge. I’ll have to come back to that at a future time. My reasoning has to do with all the new techniques already available that are being used to study the brain’s activities with much effect: Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), Electronic brain stimulation (ESB), Brain Implants, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS), Vagus Nerve Stimulation (VNS), Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), Transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), Magnetic seizure therapy (MST), and psychotherapy, pharmaceutical and biopower medical applications, etc. Through these we can map the brains activity precisely right down to the decision making processes. So why do we need some grand theoretical framework to describe some mapping of brain to mind? Is this a recursion to outmoded forms of philosophical prejudice and the intentionality that has for so long held us in its clutches? Isn’t it time to release ourselves from the intentional universe of philosophical speculation, of trying the mind to consciousness in some elaborate mapping as if that would describe anything at all much rather just an exercise in complexification?

I mean listen to how complicated it gets when Deheane begins trying to philosophize about this new framework:

When we say that we are aware of a certain piece of information, what we mean is just this: the information has entered into a specific storage area that makes it available to the rest of the brain. Among the millions of mental representations that constantly crisscross our brains in an unconscious manner, one is selected because of its relevance to our present goals. Consciousness makes it globally available to all our high-level decision systems. We possess a mental router, an evolved architecture for extracting relevant information and dispatching it. The psychologist Bernard Baars calls it a “global workspace”: an internal system, detached from the outside world, that allows us to freely entertain our private mental images and to spread them across the mind’s vast array of specialized processors. (Kindle Locations 2749-2755).

If we carefully understand the logic of the above we see this underlying intentionality written into its less than adequate descriptions. First is the notion that we can “mean” something. As if we can explain information bound to a specific storage area in the brain that then can be retrieved. None of this is actually visible nor explanatory of the actual processes at all, but is rather a human description or construction after the fact of those processes for our delectation. Obviously we have no other choice than to use natural language and try to explain things that are not in fact what the fact is, but for us to say this is what information means? And then he tells us that this information stored is part of what we term mental representations and that consciousness is never aware of all these bits of knowledge and information but only of those that are selected do the “relevance to our present goals”. But one asks who intends the selection and the goalsfollowing Bernard Baars, terms, the “global workspace”. So the conscious systems seems to be this “s vast array of specialized processors”. This sentence spells out the whole intentional fallacy. As if consciousness was a free intentional entity in its own right that could actively and intentionally make its own decisions between the brain and the outside environment and work with its own internalized set of mental images then send them down into the brain for processing.

Again, I ask, is this true? Sounds like he is trying to slip the notion of Self and Subjectivity back into the equation without naming them as the active agent, but instead reduces self and subjectivity to Consciousness as the Agent between Brain and Environment.  Either way I think there is something too complex in this move and that whatever consciousness is it is not some active agent in its own right, but is rather a bit player in a temporary stage play of the brains ongoing productions. Consciousness rather than being like some unruly Hamlet strutting across the stage is more like his friend Horatio who know one ever sees but who rather sees all anonymously without intent and always fully impersonal and disinterested. Consciousness comes and goes at the behest of the brains own physical needs and processes, and when not needed is sent to sleep or withdraws till called out to effect the brains decisions.

 

1. Dehaene, Stanislas (2014-01-30). Consciousness and the Brain: Deciphering How the Brain Codes Our Thoughts (Kindle Location 2710). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

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.

Geographical Ignorance and Americans’ Views on Ukraine

noir-realism:

Political Violence reposted an article dealing with reportage on American’s who seem to be less than adequate concerning geography. In my comment, after reading the Monkey Cage article, I realized this is part of a larger issue in American Culture and Society that was not even touched on by either Political Violence nor the Monkey Cage. That is the deliberate dumbing down of the Education curriculum over the past half century that has been documented repeatedly by some of the educators themselves.

The truth is it has nothing to do with politics, partisan or otherwise. For years critics have been decrying the educational system itself which many believe are actually being forced to dumb down Americans. It’s sad that one points the finger at the people for not knowing, rather than at the system that should have taught them the facts to begin with. I mean there are several older and newer works that describe in detail much of the issues involved:

Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back) by James Delisle Ph.D. (Aug 1, 2014)

Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves But Can’t Read, Write, or Add by Charles J. Sykes (Sep 15, 1996)

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, 10th Anniversary Edition by John Taylor Gatto and Thomas Moore (Feb 1, 2002)

The Deliberate Dumbing Down of America, Revised and Abridged Edition by Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt (2011)

Death By Supermarket: The Fattening, Dumbing Down, and Poisoning of America by Deville, Nancy (Mar 1, 2011)

So instead of poking fun at the working class including the prevaricariat, cognitariat, etc. why not do an article on the educational system itself that has failed Americans.

Originally posted on Political Violence @ a Glance:

By Will H. Moore

Yesterday at the Monkey Cage we learned that the worse Americans were at “pinning the tail on the donkey” with respect to Ukraine, the more they supported intervention in the Ukraine. The post comes with a cool map that depicts the American survey respondents’ attempts to locate Ukraine (click that link only if you are willing to tolerate evidence of serious ignorance), and after eyeballing it I got to wondering whether Americans’ ability to locate Ukraine is strongly and positively correlated with their belief about whether Obama wears “mom jeans.”[1] Unfortunately, the post’s authors do not tell us. They do let us know that Independents were considerably more likely to properly locate Ukraine (29%) than Democrats (14%) or Republicans (15%); youth trumped experience (27% to 14%, respectively); and that respondents with college degrees outperformed those without (21% to 13%, respectively). And then it occurred…

View original 319 more words

The Age of Insomniacs: 24/7 and the Posthuman Dilemma

Amid the mass amnesia sustained by the culture of global capitalism, images have become one of the many depleted and disposable elements that, in their intrinsic archiveability, end up never being discarded, contributing to an ever more congealed and futureless present.

-  Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

If as Berardi argues in Time, Acceleration, and Violence that time is what we store in our bank accounts, then time is the final security deposit that is no longer secured for us time bound creatures of late capitalist society. Like those objects that Graham Harmann tells us continuously withdraw from all relation we too have been cut off from our own accumulated time, set adrift upon the sea of things without the ability to connect, link up, relate. Solitary and isolated, withdrawn from all relation, we too feel like those precarious, depleted, and disposable elements of an inhuman system that no longer needs us.

J.G. Ballard in Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown recounts the slow withdrawal of an anonymous author into a final fugue state of pure insomniac bliss. It is purported that the journal is actually by one Dr. Robert Loughlin who kept a speculative diary of his experiences just before the untimely death of his wife. It describes “in minute detail the events of his personal and professional life. It seems that he was already aware of the erratic nature of his behaviour and of the recurrent fugues, each lasting several days, from which he would emerge in an increasingly dissociated state” (851).1 In another short story ‘Myths of the Near Future’ we discover that this fugue state is a form of space sickness:

At first touching only a small minority of the population, it took root like a lingering disease in the interstices of its victims’ lives, in the slightest changes of habit and behaviour. Invariably there was the same reluctance to go out of doors, the abandonment of job, family and friends, a dislike of daylight, a gradual loss of weight and retreat into a hibernating self.(Ballard, 1064)

In another instance we discover that this fugue state is brought on by a particular implosion of Time: “Time was condensing around him a thousand replicas from the past and future had invaded the present and clasped themselves to him. (Ballard, 1064)” Each of these stories implies the notion that the characters involved are somehow trying to elude historical linear time for some alternative world of time, trying to find a way out of time and into a time Outside.

Marshall McLuhan in Counterblast reminded us that our new media is not a bridge between humans and nature, rather the digital worlds of our posthuman systems are nature – nature as Nature vanished into darkness long ago and was replaced by a facsimile, a dark progenitor, a liquid double of electronic circuitry and lightspeed. McLuhan agrees with Oscar Wilde. Life imitates art, not the other way around. We are all living in an art world, a world of artifice, and artificial world. We are all performative artists, creators of our own fictional lives; or, more bluntly – we have been created by the mechanized media in which we live. We are no longer individual, but as Deleuze and Guattari have iterated we are ‘dividuals’. Or as McLuhan tells us: “Our bridges are gone and the Rubicon is yet to be crossed! We have either to assume a large new role or to abdicate entirely. It is the age of paratroopers.”

That books and essays written on “new media” only five years ago are already outdated is particularly telling, and anything written with the same goal today will become dated in far less time. At present, the particular operation and effects of specific new machines or networks are less important than how the rhythms, speeds, and formats of accelerated and intensified consumption are reshaping experience and perception.2 Governments and private corporations are spending billions in R&D seeking mechanisms and new technologies that will reduce the time interval between decision making processes and the actions affected by these decisions. As Crary reminds us this is what progress means in our contemporary world: the relentless capture and control of time and experience (Crary, 40).

As Crary implies futurism itself has a history, and that it has changed from modernist, postmodernist, to contemporary liquid modernity through differing phases. In modernist conceptions the production of novelty and the new were part of a continuous series of innovations and experiments which were linked over time with empowered visions of “global prosperity, automation benignly displacing human labor, space exploration, the elimination of crime and disease, and so on” (Crary, 40). But from the postmodern age to now the future seemed to implode as time accelerated to the speed of light and became the 24/7 realm of pure illuminated time in which “individual goals of competitiveness, advancement, acquisitiveness, personal security, and comfort at the expense of others. The future is so close at hand that it is imaginable only by its continuity with the striving for individual gain or survival in the shallowest of presents” (Crary, 41).

Yet, as Crary reports it we must not see this modulation between modernist and postmodern 24/7 time as separate, but rather as part of a system that forms a continuous loop or modulated performance of capitalism in our age. Some of the key features of early-twenty-first-century capitalism can still be linked with aspects of the industrial projects associated with the early pioneers of technological capital. As he states it the “consequences of these nineteenth-century models, especially the facilitation and maximization of content distribution, would impose themselves onto human life much more comprehensively throughout the twentieth century” (Crary, 41-42).

Yet, in our time of the unsleeping consumer new forms of  social regulation and subjection, new modes of management of the economic behavior of individuals towards compliant docile consumers. Corporations arelinking the individual’s needs with the functional and ideological programs in which each new product is embedded. One’s status is defined by the services and interconnections one inhabits, which in turn become the “dominant or exclusive ontological templates of one’s social reality” (Crary, 43). The individual as dividual or encoded application or datafeed connected to the systems and controlled by its algorithms becomes part of a continuous process of distension and expansion, occurring simultaneously on different levels and in different locations, a process in which there is a multiplication of the areas of time and experience that are annexed to new machinic tasks and demands. A logic of displacement (or obsolescence) is conjoined with a broadening and diversifying of the processes and flows to which an individual becomes effectively linked.(Crary, 43)

We as humans are slowly being purged of our humanity and slowly devolving into pure commodities to be incorporated in the machinic system of capital as part of the process rather than as isolated and withdrawn consumers of the process. Yet, not all former humans will become a part of this new machine. As Crary relates:

At the same time, there are vast numbers of human beings, barely at or below subsistence level, who cannot be integrated into the new requirements of markets, and they are irrelevant and expendable. Death, in many guises, is one of the by-products of neoliberalism: when people have nothing further that can be taken from them, whether resources or labor power, they are quite simply disposable. However, the current increase in sexual slavery and the growing traffic in organs and body parts suggest that the outer limit of disposability can be profitably enlarged to meet the demands of new market sectors.(Crary, 44)

We are all products of the new media systems that have become naturalized inside us. The assertion by some neoliberal pundits that technology is neutral that it actually provides new forms of emancipatory politics and services to counter the effects of consumerism are according to philosopher Giorgio Agamben lies, he refutes such claims as Crary explains saying that “today there is not even a single instant in which the life of individuals is not modeled, contaminated or controlled by some apparatus.” He contends convincingly that “it is impossible for the subject of an apparatus to use it ‘in the right way.’ Those who continue to promote similar arguments are, for their part, the product of the media apparatus in which they are captured.”(Crary, 46-47)

Critics of the neoliberal world order are quickly marginalized or silenced by the new mediatainment systems. As Crary reports any questioning or discrediting of what is currently the most efficient means of producing acquiescence and docility, of promoting self-interest as the raison d’être of all social activity, is rigorously marginalized. To articulate strategies of living that would delink technology from a logic of greed, accumulation, and environmental despoliation merits sustained forms of institutional prohibition.(Crary, 50).

Crary points out philosopher Bernard Stiegler who believes we are living in a fugue time, a time fully synchronized and synchronizing consciousness and memory. An age of amnesia in which humans are forgetting themselves. He calls urgently for the creation of counter-products that might reintroduce singularity into cultural experience and somehow disconnect desire from the imperatives of consumption.(Crary, 51) Yet, as Crary defines it is not the capture of consciousness by things, but is rather the reprogramming of consciousness itself to become a system of repetition and response embedded in an ever present milieu of narrowed consumptions.

Ultimately we are becoming passive followers of the new order, no longer questioning our role within this new economic world of products of which we, too, are one among many. Soon our DNA will be patented and owned by some synthetic biotech corporation to be used in some future R&D project to clone or mutate or splice. We “choose to do what we are told to do ; we allow the management of our bodies, our ideas, our entertainment, and all our imaginary needs to be externally imposed. We buy products that have been recommended to us through the monitoring of our electronic lives, and then we voluntarily leave feedback for others about what we have purchased. We are the compliant subject who submits to all manner of biometric and surveillance intrusion, and who ingests toxic food and water and lives near nuclear reactors without complaint. The absolute abdication of responsibility for living is indicated by the titles of the many bestselling guides that tell us, with a grim fatality, the 1,000 movies to see before we die, the 100 tourist destinations to visit before we die, the 500 books to read before we die.” (Crary, 60)

Who needs a Bucket List in such a world that is already manufactured for you? Planned obsolescence never had it better. The new leisure society – the perfect android: safe, secure, compliant.

1. Ballard, J. G. (2012-06-01). The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard (p. 851). Norton. Kindle Edition.
2. Crary, Jonathan (2013-06-04). 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (pp. 38-39). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

The Great Purge: How Greed brought us the Great Semantic Apocalypse

I’ve long thought that the real ‘Skynet Doomsday Scenario’ will involve financial AI systems, which are hungry to hoover up and ‘comprehend’ as much information as they can get their circuits on. The crazy thing is the way the AI seems to metastatizing throughout the system, so that you now have systems to automatically report ‘financial news’ for consumption by HFT systems. The whole thing bears very careful watching because the way the inefficiencies of the human are being purged from these systems could very well provide the model for the way the human will be purged elsewhere. For me all this is simply proof of concept: the more machines do semantic double-duty, the more apparent it becomes that the semantic is an illusion.

- R. Scott Bakker, Three Pound Brain

In the above Scott reminds us that there really is a process and a method to computing madness apparently going on below the surface of Wall-Street. I know recently reading Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt that one of its key arguments is that those powerful institutions of financial capital, the banks, that have for so long dominated the markets have themselves become their own worst enemies and are being purged of their human element. Their need for what Paul Virilio once termed speed or in the new financial parlance as high-frequency trading is now part of an inhuman intelligence system that no one corporation can either understand nor master. As he tells us the bankers are now semantically caput: ” The high-frequency traders would always be faster than Goldman Sachs— or any other big Wall Street bank.”1

He continues telling us that the great Wall Street banks based as they are on large bureaucracies are no longer able to keep up with the new intelligence systems, that these obsolete financial institutions are going the way of the dinosaurs. The new boys in town the HFT or High Frequency Traders had devised methods to capture 85 percent of the market shares and leave a mere 15 percent of the crumbs for their former taskmasters. These great institutions of greed that have for so long ruled the world of finance are imploding due to their own need for speed.  As he states it the “new structure of the U.S. stock market had removed the big Wall Street banks from their historic, lucrative role as intermediary” (265). What had happened beyond the technical aspects of improving hardware (i.e., adding microwave transmitter towers between Chicago and New Jersey which shaved 4 milleseconds off the older fiber-optic cabels, etc.), and software (i.e., new AI technology and high-speed algorithms to the system that could outpace human decisioning processes)? As Lewis tells it a limit or threshold or Rubicon had been crossed from which there would be no return: “People no longer are responsible for what happens in the market, because computers make all the decisions” (270).

As my friend Scott Bakker would have it humans have been purged from the decision making process altogether. Humans are no longer needed and have become a detriment to the late capitalist system they started up several hundred years ago. Humans are being replaced by vast impersonal intelligence systems whose inscrutable designs far outpace the three pound sack of meat we call a brain. Wall Street financial systems are slowly being purged of their human progenitors and the financial decisions of late capitalism are now in the hands of the machines. The economy is now controlled by machinic intelligences. What next?

 

1. Lewis, Michael (2014-03-31). Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt (p. 263). W. W. Norton & Company. Kindle Edition.