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).
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.
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.