by Steven Craig Hickman
“A posthuman is any WHD [Wide Human Descendent] that goes feral; becomes capable of life outside the planetary substance comprised of narrow biological humans, their cultures and technologies.”
– Dr. David Roden, Hacking Humans
“So really think about it now,” Thomas continued. “Everything you live, everything you see and touch and hear and taste, everything you think, belongs to this little slice of mush, this little wedge in your brain called the thalamocortical system. The neural processing that makes these experiences possible—we’re talking about the most complicated machinery in the known universe—is utterly invisible. This expansive, far-reaching experience of yours is nothing more than a mote, an inexplicable glow, hurtling through some impossible black. You’re steering through a dream…”
– R. Scott Bakker, Neuropath
In his novel Neuropath Thomas Bible, one of R. Scott Bakker’s characters – an atypical academic, not one of your pie-in-the-sky type, theorists, reminisces with a friend about an old professor who once presented theories on the coming “semantic apocalypse,” the apocalypse of meaning. He tells this friend, Samantha, that this is when the Argument started and conveys to her its basic tenets:
“Remember how I said science had scrubbed the world of purpose? For some reason, wherever science encounters intention or purpose in the world, it snuffs it out. The world as described by science is arbitrary and random. There’s innumerable causes for everything, but no reasons for anything.”1(58)
After a few arguments on how the neural process of the brain itself weaves the illusions of free-will, mind, etc. Thomas lays down the bombshell of Bakker’s pet theory: Blind Brain Theory, saying: “The brain, it turned out, could wrap itself around most everything but itself—which was why it invented minds . . . souls.”(61) Suddenly Samantha wakes up realizing that all this leads to moral nihilism and begins babbling defenses against such truths as Thomas has revealed. For Thomas this all seems all too familiar and human, he reminisces a similar conversation he’d had with his friend and co-hort, Neil Cassidy, who on realizing just where the argument led stated (stoned and pacing back and forth like a feral beast):
“Whoa, dude . . . Think about it. You’re a machine—a machine!—dreaming that you have a soul. None of this is real, man, and they can fucking prove it.” (62)
Mark Fisher: A Critique of Practical Nihilism: Agency in Scott Bakker’s “Neuropath”
My post was generated by rereading Mark Fisher’s excellent critique of Bakker’s novel in INCOGNITUM HACTENUS Volume 2: here (downloadable in .pdf format). What interested me in Fisher’s critique was his conclusions more than his actual arguments. You can read the essay yourself and draw your own conclusions, but for me the either/or scenario that Fisher draws out is how either the technocapitalists or the technosocialists (‘General Intellect’) in the immediate future might use such knowledge to wield powers of control/emacipation never before imaginable:
For whatever the theoretical implications of neuroscience, Bakker is surely right that its practical applications will in the first instance be controlled by the dominant force on the planet: capital. Capital can use neuroscientific techniques to stave off the semantic apocalypse: ironically, it can control people by convincing them that they are free subjects. This is already happening, via the low-level neurocontrol exerted through media, advertising and all the other platforms through which communicative capitalism operates. Whether neuroscience’s practical nihilism will do more than reinforce capital’s domination will ultimately depend on how far the institutions of techno-science can be liberated from corporate control. Certainly, there are no a priori reasons why Malabou’s question “what should we do with our brain?” should not be answered collectively, by a General Intellect free to experiment on itself. (11)
He brings up two notions, both hinging on the amoral ‘practical nihilism’ of neuroscience itself: 1) the reinforcement by the dominant ideology, technocapitalism, to use such technologies to gain complete control over every aspect of our lives through invasive techniques of brain manipulation; or, 2) the power of some alternative, possibly Leftward, collectivist ideology that seeks through the malleability or plasticity of these same neurosciences to use the ‘General Intellect’ to freely experiment on itself. Do we really want either of these paths?
Before we go into this should we first look the beast in the face, see where either a technocapitalist or technosocialist sociocultural system might lead us? What are the differences if any between them? Who would be the technical managers of such a system, anyway? Would both systems involve some form of hierarchical command and control structure? What type of machines are these, anyway? Are we really ready for the Machinic World that either of these systems offers us as competing alternatives? As Fisher points out the Left in our age has almost become the bearers of traditionalism, as the voice of a new conservatism, in the sense that – as Fredric Jameson says (as quoted by Fisher): “The Left is placed in a very self-defeating nostalgic position, just trying to slow down the movement of history.”(11) As Fisher comments: “The interlacing of melancholic pastoralism and can-do voluntarism has made for a disastrous cocktail, which concedes techno-modernity to capital, while retreating into reminiscences of revolts from the age of quill-pens or retellings of revolutions which happened in feudal conditions.”(11)
Fisher argues that even Marx himself proposed a radical notion of agency, one in which he claimed “that men make history but not in conditions of their own making”. Which leads Fisher to ask, What does this “mean if not that agency is not the same as the assertion of will?” So if there is no ‘free-will’ then are we all caught in the neuronets of machinic plasticity, bound to a blind-brain that can never know its own origins, which invents for us the illusions that keep us struggling on the evolutionary ladder like misguided machines treading a path laid down long ago in that marvelous piece of biotechnology we call DNA. Scientists have even of late begun realizing that DNA itself exists at the core of asteroids, and that since asteroids exist everywhere in the universe then the possibility of some form of potential life forms are latent in these chemical vats. As one scientists tells us “if asteroids are behaving like chemical ‘factories’ cranking out prebiotic material, you would expect them to produce many variants of nucleobases, not just the biological ones…” (here). So we may have potential creatures of even stranger mixtures that our own planetary bios could begin to understand.
Fisher quoting Malibu on plasticity: “Talking about the plasticity of the brain thus amounts to thinking of the brain as something modifiable, ‘formable,’ and formative at the same time. … But it must be remarked that plasticity is also the capacity to annihilate the very form it is able to receive or create.”(11) If this is true then what exactly would either a technocapitalist or technosocialist form take if they could remold our circuitry? What kind of beings would be become or evolve into? Would this truly take on that strange hybridity we’ve all toyed with in these conceptual playgrounds of academia that speak to us of the ‘post-human’?
Yet, Fisher in other essays on his blog shows us the dark underbelly of this precarious future, too. In an essay on David Cronenberg’s film in “You won’t be able to stop yourself, you might as well enjoy it”: eXistenZ and noncognitive labour he describes the notion of subjectivity as simulation: “this emerges through confronting other automated (or rather partially automated) consciounesses: entities who seem autonomous but in fact can only respond to certain trigger phrases or actions that move the gameplay down a predetermined pathway.” Yet, one wonders if this is not what happens all the time to us in our supposed real world, too. Are our brains triggered by certain key words and phrases that make us respond in predetermined ways that seem to us at first glance as choices of free-will, but are in fact automated programmable responses due to biological are socio-cultural factors beyond our conscious awareness embedded into the very fabric of our neuralnet? As Fisher remarks:
More disturbing than the third person (or non-person) encounter with these programmed drones is the experience of having one’s own subjectivity interrupted by an automatic behaviour. At one point, Pikul suddenly finds himself saying, “It’s none of your business who sent us! We’re here and that is all that matters” He is shocked at the expostulation: “God, what happened? I didn’t mean to say that.” “It’s your character who said it,” Geller explains. “It’s kind of a schizophrenic feeling, isn’t it? You’ll get used to it. There are things that have to be said to advance the plot and establish the characters, and those things get said whether you want to say them or not. Don’t fight it.” Pikul later grimly notes that whether he fights these “game urges” or not doesn’t make any difference.
Ultimately as Fisher says toward the close of that essay “free will is not an irreducible fact about human existence: it is merely the unpreprogrammed sequence necessary to stitch together a narrative that is already written. There is no real choice over the most important aspects of our life and work, eXistenZ suggests. Such choice as there are exist one level up: we can choose to accept and enjoy our becoming in-itself, or uselessly reject it. This is a kind of deflation-in-advance of all of the claims about “choice” and “interactivity” that communicative capitalism will trumpet in the decade after eXistenZ was released.”
In other words free will is something we do after the fact, a narrative device to help us think we are in control of our lives, when in fact there are forces just below the threshold of consciousness that are triggering each and every move we make while we like puppets on some invisible string dance to a tune we neither understand nor have any control over.
David Roden: The Disconnection Thesis
David Roden in his essay The Disconnection Thesis provides a detailed analysis of just where all this could be heading (see: Singularity Hypothesis: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment (here):
What is the “humanity” to which the posthuman is “post”? Does the possibility of a posthumanity presuppose that there is a ‘human essence’, or is there some other way of conceiving the human-posthuman difference? I argue that the difference should be conceived as an emergent disconnection between individuals, not in terms of the presence or lack of essential properties. I also suggest that these individuals should not be conceived in narrow biological terms but in “wide” terms permitting biological, cultural and technological relations of descent between human and posthuman. Finally, I consider the ethical implications of this metaphysics If, as I claim, the posthuman difference is not one between kinds but emerges diachronically between individuals, we cannot specify its nature a priori but only a posteriori. The only way to evaluate the posthuman condition would be to witness the emergence of posthumans. The implications of this are somewhat paradoxical. We are not currently in a position to evaluate the posthuman condition. Since posthumans could result from some iteration of our current technical activity, we have an interest in understanding what they might be like. It follows that we have an interest in making or becoming posthumans.
So if this is true, and if as we previously stated that either the technocapitalist or the technosocialist might gain such technology in the future, then which path do we have an “interest in making or becoming posthumans” in David’s sense? Or do we follow those ultraluddites of the John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, or Steven Best types and destroy the machine altogether? David unlike our luddite anarcho-primitivst brethren tells us that we need to take the notion of the Singularity seriously that the “idea of a technologically led intelligence explosion is philosophically important because it requires us to consider the prospect of a posthuman condition succeeding the human one”. Do we as humans have an ‘essence’? Or as David asks is there a some other way of conceiving the human-posthuman difference? What he argues for is “that the difference should be conceived as an emergent disconnection between individuals, not in terms of the presence or lack of essential properties. He also asks us not to reduce the human to biology but also to think of the ‘human’ in much wider terms allowing for biological, cultural and technological relations of descent between human and posthuman. (Kindle Locations 7322-7323).
With the emergence of NBIC technologies (Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science) in our anthropocene era we now have within our powers the technical and scientific feasibility of actually producing some form of disconnection between humans and whatever comes next through the power of technoscientific interventions. These interventions will allow us to finally leave natural evolution behind us as we boldly or some might say, arrogantly intervene in our own evolutionary process. Some would have us slow down, think about it before we make the great leap into the unknown consequences of our actions. Others say the cat is out of the bag, that its too late to worry over moral consequences of our actions, that if we don’t do it, others will; others who exist outside the moral liberal machines of our eras globalized regimes. Others say that it should be handled by the ‘General Intellect’ the collective power of the people themselves for their own best interest. And, yet, others say we should destroy all these technologies along with the civilization that spawned them.
If Bakker is right about BBT then do we really have any say in the matter at all? I mean are we even free to choose which path will take? Or is there some deep seated pattern already determined within the heart of our DNA, some hidden message revealing itself in the current set of codings/uncodings that are transpiring at some deeper molecular level that have already made the choice for us? Whose in control, anyway? David Roden tells us that we can adopt either of two policies towards the posthuman prospect. Firstly, we can account for it: that is, assess the ethical implications of contributing to the creation of posthumans through our current technological activities. (KL 7350-7352). Yet, David tells us “posthumans might be so much smarter than humans that we could not understand their thoughts or anticipate the transformative effects of posthuman technology.” So instead we might “just opt to discount the possibility of posthumanity when considering the implications of our technological activity: considering only its implications for humans or for their modestly enhanced transhuman cousins. (KL 7357-7358).
Yet, beyond this David offers a third possibility, a Speculative Posthumanism which he clarifies telling us that the descendants of current humans could cease to be human by virtue of a history of technical alteration, and second through some form of descent. He offers this notion of a wider descent as an argument against essentialist theories, saying: “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.” (KL 7397-7399). David’s notion of wider descent he tells us refers to a difference between a Narrow Humanity that can be identified with the biological species Homo sapiens, while a Wide Humanity is a “technogenetic construction or “assemblage” with both narrowly human and narrowly non-human parts”. (KL 7436-7438).
What if we were already products of plasticity from the beginning? What if our very sociality and interventions in the natural environments of the earth had already begun through slow processes of technification and dialectical interactions between our species and the environment that gave rise to those very ‘assemblages’ that have determined who and what we are? As David tells it what if “hominization has involved a confluence of biological, cultural and technological processes. It has produced socio-technical “assemblages” in which humans are coupled with other active components: for example, languages, legal codes, cities, and computer mediated information networks”. (KL 7459-7461). Maybe we were eco-machines from the beginning. That each of these compositional additions onto the biological technicity of hominization was self-reinforcing, producing those systemic feed-back loops of causal determinations that have locked us into a programed algorithmic pattern that has become so habitual that we no longer have access to its evolutionary codes (if we ever did?).
There are scientists who have begun to wonder the same thing, whether our DNA holds the coded designs of some alien benefactor who programmed our DNA aeons ago. We know human genome, for example, consists of some 2.9 billion of those letters — the equivalent of about 750 megabytes of data — but only about 3 percent of it goes into composing the 22,000 or so genes that make us what we are. Certain scientists (here) hypothesize that an intelligent signal embedded in our genetic code would be a mathematical and semantic message that cannot be accounted for by Darwinian evolution. They call it “biological SETI.” What’s more, they argue that the scheme has much greater longevity and chance of detecting E.T. than a transient extraterrestrial radio transmission. Of course, whether one takes seriously such hypothesis or sees them as part of the fluff or pseudo-science of our postmodernity marketing itself within a technoeconomy of Think Tanks and R&D out-of-control monetary schemes is another matter.
Who cares if they were embedded by some alien species (which seems like a return to some theological origins in the guise of science), or whether they are actually just the deep molecular accidents of a universe without purpose or design working itself out in chance algorithms of bifurcated codings, uncodings, recodings is beyond the purview of this post. The point of David Roden’s article is that it’s too late to worry about the message or its (non)maker. Why? Because as David remarks:
Biological humans are currently “obligatory” components of modern technical assemblages. Technical systems like air-carrier groups, cities or financial markets depend on us for their operation and maintenance much as an animal depends on the continued existence of its vital organs. Technological systems are thus intimately coupled with biology and have been over successive technological revolutions. (KL 7461-7464).
So we’re way beyond samplings or resamplings of DNA/RNA etc. we’ve evolved beyond that elementary root system to a point that our coupling with technology has taken on a life of its own and is molding is in ways that that original message may or may not have intended ( if it ever did intend?). For if Bakker is right there may never have been any intended intentional program to begin with, and that everything from the beginning was just an accident a strange quirk, a one-off mistake and that humanity is nothing more than a unique horror in an otherwise unconscious universe of creatures who never took that turn toward self-reflexive nothingness that is our burden and our glory.
All of which leads me finally to David’s disconnection thesis which states that a wide human descendent is a posthuman if and only if it has ceased to belong to WH (The Wide Human) as a result of technical alteration; or, is a wide descendant of such a being. (KL 7497-7498). For David we should begin a viable research program to understand just what this might entail, because in some not so distant future the technology might exist to create posthumans, then the same technology might support “interfaces” between human and posthuman beings, and we will need the research of those bi-formatted propositional/ non-propositional thinkers to help us breach the gulf or gap between our progeny and ourselves. (KL 7632-7633).
Although David offers a cultural research program for understanding what we face, he doesn’t offer us, within the short space of his essay, a Political Vision of what this entails, so we are still left with the dilemmas between technocapitalism and technosocialism that Mark Fisher describes as our culpable destiny. So which path do we take? The technocapitalist neoliberal commodification of posthumanity? Or, the collectivization of the technosocialistic ‘General Intellect’ the collective subjectivity of some posthuman sociality? Or, do we with the anarcho-primitivists blow the whole thing up along with all the technological knowledge that spawned it? Are we headed for Bakker’s ultimate ‘semantic apocalypse of meaning’, where if Catherine Malibou is correct, our very memories of our former humanity will fall away as we enter the brave new world of the Neuropath? It’s up to you, dear reader, to decide; or, is it? Maybe it has already been determined long ago by some alien intervention in our DNA and like a Philip K. Dick novel we are only the messengers of a message sent by one alien species to another species eons ago? And if we unlock the message what will it say to us? Or, is this all just a grand fiction, a new mythology for our age, a way of marking time on a nihilistic journey between two nothings. Free will or determinism? Do we have a choice? As David asks:
A posthuman is any WHD that goes feral; becomes capable of life outside the planetary substance comprised of narrow biological humans, their cultures and technologies.
This formulation leaves the value and worth of the posthuman open. Since we cannot evaluate the posthuman ex ante, we can only assess its value by exploring posthuman design space for ourselves. This is where Rachel’s biohacking manifesto comes into its own, I think, for it questions who gets to decide the shape of the posthuman – military corporate systems, venture capitalists, or you and me? (Hacking Humans)
Or, as Mark Fisher remarks “capital can use neuroscientific techniques to stave off the semantic apocalypse: ironically, it can control people by convincing them that they are free subjects. This is already happening, via the low-level neurocontrol exerted through media, advertising and all the other platforms through which communicative capitalism operates. Whether neuroscience’s practical nihilism will do more than reinforce capital’s domination will ultimately depend on how far the institutions of techno-science can be liberated from corporate control. Certainly, there are no a priori reasons why Malabou’s question “what should we do with our brain?” should not be answered collectively, by a General Intellect free to experiment on itself.”
Are we so eager for either path?
1. Bakker, R. Scott (2010-04-01). Neuropath. (Macmillan)
2. (2013-04-03). Singularity Hypotheses: A Scientific and Philosophical Assessment (The Frontiers Collection) Springer Berlin Heidelberg. Kindle Edition.
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