by Steven Craig Hickman
I’ve begun of late to wonder if our use of the term ‘post-human’ is more of an acknowledgement not of the End of the Subject or the demise of Liberal Humanist civilization that spawned it, but rather of another problem altogether: the extinction event of technological disconnection. David Roden in his Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human is fairly convinced of such a disconnection:
“I have characterized posthumans in very general terms as hypothetical wide “descendants” of current humans that are no longer human in consequence of some history of technological alteration”. Speculative posthumanism is the claim that such beings might be produced as part of a feasible future history.”1
This notion of ‘technological alteration’ in which the present form of the human loses its integrity and is replaced or altered through either genetic manipulation or some other unforeseen technical event seems eerily prognostic. Of course David has couched his thesis in scholarly garb or academic noblesse of acceptable jargon and discourse. But the radcial underpinnings of such a thesis are there hidden under a thick verbiage of carefully reasoned argumentation and examples.
David asks the right questions, brings up the philosophical quandaries of such a notion as post-human:
“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? Without an answer to this question we cannot say, in general, what it is to become posthuman and thus why it should matter to humans or their wide descendants. In short, we require a theory of human– posthuman difference.”
The above is a philosophical conundrum rather than a scientific puzzle, a metaphysical immersion in an old puzzle of substance and form, distinction and horizon. Is there something essential at the core of the human? Do humans have an essence, something that escapes the mental and physical features that on the surface in appearance we attribute to that entity we term human? And, if the notion of essence is itself in error and there is no core, no essence, nothing that makes of humans something distinct or unique then how do we proceed to speak of the “post” of human? How to make this distinction? Of course being an antagonist of theories of phenomenology and the traditions of presence and substance, I’ve thought long and hard of alternatives. Graham Harman describing what he terms the “prejudice of phenomenology” will quote none other than Jean-Paul Sartre on this very prejudice:
“The essence of an existent is no longer a property sunk in the cavity of this existent; it is the manifest law which presides over the succession of its appearances, it is the principle of the series . . . The phenomenal being . . . is nothing but the well connected series of its manifestations.” 1
Harman will comment on this tradition, saying,
Stripped of its objectivity, though obviously more unified than the separate appearances that announce it, the object is trapped in a difficult position. It is irreducible to its series of appearances, yet it exists outside of them only as an ideal principle, not as something truly independent.2
For Harman phenomenology is the end game of Idealism, trapped in its ideal principles that cannot touch the actual outside vectors of the real, but rather circulate within a realm of abstract and postulated, bracketed by a mistrust in the objectivity of the world.3 The point for Husserl was that the eidetic reduction tries to arrive at the essential kernel of a thing by varying its modes of appearance and stripping away the more transient features until we gain direct intuition into its essence. (GM, p. 30) But if the whole search for an essence is erroneous for the simple reason that there is not essence behind the appearances: What then? The whole tradition of presence, of substantive formalism – the notions of substance and form that were best typified in the works of Plato and Aristotle of which Husserl and Heidegger, and even Jaspers and Sartre were modern heirs has always been there. It’s enemy, too: materialism which would replace presence with absence – or the notion of pure negation or the Void whose modern heirs of the moment are Badiou and Zizek.
But what is this notion of ‘essence’ – how define it? In his dialogues Plato suggests that concrete beings acquire their essence through their relations to “Forms“—abstract universals logically or ontologically separate from the objects of sense perception. These Forms are often put forth as the models or paradigms of which sensible things are “copies”. When used in this sense, the word form is often capitalized. Sensible bodies are in constant flux and imperfect and hence, by Plato’s reckoning, less real than the Forms which are eternal, unchanging and complete. Typical examples of Forms given by Plato are largeness, smallness, equality, unity, goodness, beauty and justice.
Plato began that whole tradition of devaluation of reality in favor of the transcendent realm of the pure Forms, a two-world theory and dualism that sided with the universal at the expense of the concrete and material realms of the cosmos. All the dichotomies of metaphysics and the hierarchical travesty of both religious and secular ideologies can be traced back to these early thinkers (not that they were the first or originators of such ideas, but that they brought the tendencies of their own cultural mindset to fruition). I’ll speak to the materialist traditions later in the essay.
Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, would extend and refine much of this heritage in his master’s thought with a more naturalistic approach, more worldly and in deference to the spiritual aspects for a more earthy ethical approach. In Book Ζ of the Metaphysics, Aristotle takes up the study of substantive theory. He begins by reiterating and refining some of what he said in Γ: that ‘being’ is said in many ways, and that the primary sense of ‘being’ is the sense in which substances are beings. Here, however, he explicitly links the secondary senses of ‘being’ to the non-substance categories. The primacy of substance leads Aristotle to say that the age-old question ‘What is being?’ “is just the question ‘What is substance?’” (1028b4).4
Some say this is where the first error occurred as well. The degradation of non-substantive categories of sense as secondary and of little value as part of our reality, our world as against the primacy of Being and Substance which are not copies or simulacrum but the very incarnation of form (Ideas) set the tone for debates for two-thousand years. As we discover Aristotle turns in Ζ.4 to a consideration of the next candidate for substance: essence. (‘Essence’ is the standard English translation of Aristotle’s curious phrase to ti ên einai, literally “the what it was to be” for a thing. This phrase so boggled his Roman translators that they coined the word essentia to render the entire phrase, and it is from this Latin word that ours derives. Aristotle also sometimes uses the shorter phrase to ti esti, literally “the what it is,” for approximately the same idea.) In his logical works, Aristotle links the notion of essence to that of definition (horismos)—“a definition is an account (logos) that signifies an essence” (Topics 102a3)—and he links both of these notions to a certain kind of per se predication (kath’ hauto, literally, “in respect of itself”)—“what belongs to a thing in respect of itself belongs to it in its essence (en tôi ti esti)” for we refer to it “in the account that states the essence” (Posterior Analytics, 73a34–5). He reiterates these ideas in Ζ.4: “there is an essence of just those things whose logos is a definition” (1030a6), “the essence of a thing is what it is said to be in respect of itself” (1029b14). It is important to remember that for Aristotle, one defines things, not words. The definition of tiger does not tell us the meaning of the word ‘tiger’; it tells us what it is to be a tiger, what a tiger is said to be in respect of itself. Thus, the definition of tiger states the essence—the “what it is to be” of a tiger, what is predicated of the tiger per se. (Cohen)
Ultimately in the above – and, I see no need to explicate further this notion of essence – we see a circular logic to such statements and predications – this predication of a tiger’s essence as the tiger per se. The concept of essence begins to sound more like those universals of Plato, the form and Ideas. The whole point is the separation of appearance and reality, with reality falling into a pure realm of forms while our material universe is but a bad copy of such purity. One could say that Plato was the first Puritan. He tried to purify the world of its mediocrity and error at having not been the famed immortal realm of stable and unchanging forms.
Two philosophers that Plato seems to have despised and even anathematized from his academy by way of total silence were Leucippus and Democritus. Both were the progenitors of that other tradition that would come down through the better known poetry of Lucretius and see a revival during the Renaissance that would pave the way to the Enlightenment atheism and materialism from Spinoza onward. Leucippus is named by most sources as the originator of the theory that the universe consists of two different elements, which he called ‘the full’ or ‘solid,’ and ‘the empty’ or ‘void’. Both the void and the solid atoms within it are thought to be infinite, and between them to constitute the elements of everything. Because little is known of Leucippus’ views and his specific contributions to atomist theory, a fuller discussion of the developed atomist doctrine is found in the entry for Democritus.5
Democritus, known in antiquity as the ‘laughing philosopher’ because of his emphasis on the value of ‘cheerfulness,’ was one of the two founders of ancient atomist theory. He elaborated a system originated by his teacher Leucippus into a materialist account of the natural world. The atomists held that there are smallest indivisible bodies from which everything else is composed, and that these move about in an infinite void. Of the ancient materialist accounts of the natural world which did not rely on some kind of teleology or purpose to account for the apparent order and regularity found in the world, atomism was the most influential. Even its chief critic, Aristotle, praised Democritus for arguing from sound considerations appropriate to natural philosophy.6
Against Plato and Aristotle and the metaphysics of substance, essence, and the real world of Ideas/Forms the materialists offered us a non-substantive theory of absence or the void. Some will argue against Slavoj Zizek’s appropriation and transformation of this tradition, yet he makes some valid points:
Obscurantist idealists like to vary the motif of “almost nothing”: a minimum of being which nonetheless bears witness to divinity (“ God is also present in the tiniest speck of dust …”). The materialist answer to this is the less than nothing. The first to propose this answer was Democritus, the father of Ancient Greek materialism (and also, incidentally, one of the first to formulate the principle of equality—“ Equality is everywhere noble,” as he put it). To express this “less than nothing,” Democritus took recourse to a wonderful neologism den (first coined by the sixth-century-BC poet Alcaeus), so the basic axiom of his ontology is: “Nothing is no less than Othing,” or, as the German translation goes, “Das Nichts existiert ebenso sehr wie das Ichts.” It is crucial to note how, contrary to the late Wittgensteinian thrust towards ordinary language, towards language as part of a life world, materialism begins by violating the rules of ordinary language, by thinking against language. (Since med’hen does not literally mean “nothing,” but rather “not-one,” a more adequate transposition of den into English would have been something like “otone” or even “tone.”)7
But what is this void that is less than nothing, and what is nothing itself? If essence and substance have slipped away from us in materialism then what exactly did these philosophers mean by atomism? Of course the heritage of atomism would reappropriate these entities and turn them into substantive forms making a mockery of the whole gamut of the original materialist thrust. The first order was that there was no separation between atoms and the void, the void was in the atoms themselves – a source of absence at the heart of every object in the universe. But that begs the question, What is Absence? The later apophatic traditions would seek presence in the core of absence, etc. What was said above of God in a grain of sand, etc.We will return to this question later.
Ancient sources describe atomism as one of a number of attempts by early Greek natural philosophers to respond to the challenge offered by Parmenides. Despite occasional challenges, this is how its motivation is generally interpreted by scholars today. Parmenides had argued that it is impossible for there to be change without something coming from nothing. Since the idea that something could come from nothing was generally agreed to be impossible, Parmenides argued that change is merely illusory. In response, Leucippus and Democritus, along with other Presocratic pluralists such as Empedocles and Anaxagoras, developed systems that made change possible by showing that it does not require that something should come to be from nothing. These responses to Parmenides suppose that there are multiple unchanging material principles, which persist and merely rearrange themselves to form the changing world of appearances. In the atomist version, these unchanging material principles are indivisible particles, the atoms: the atomists are often thought to have taken the idea that there is a lower limit to divisibility to answer Zeno’s paradoxes about the impossibility of traversing infinitely divisible magnitudes . (Berryman)
The Ancient Greeks had two words for nothing, meden and ouden, which stand for two types of negation: ouden is a factual negation, something that is not but could have been; meden is, on the contrary, something that in principle cannot be. From meden we get to den not simply by negating the negation in meden, but by displacing negation, or, rather, by supplementing negation with a subtraction. That is to say, we arrive at den when we take away from meden not the whole negating prefix, but only its first two letters: meden is med’hen, the negation of hen (one): not-one. Democritus arrives at den by leaving out only me and thus creating a totally artificial word den. Den is thus not nothing without “no,” not a thing, but an othing, a something but still within the domain of nothing, like an ontological living dead, a spectral nothing-appearing-as-something. As such, den is “the radical real,” and Democritus is a true materialist. (Zizek) Yet, Zizek would also add that the substantive formalist tradition would appropriate and re-ontologize such notions: “The later reception of Democritus, of course, immediately “renormalized” den by way of ontologizing it: den becomes a positive One, atoms are now entities in the empty space, no longer spectral “othings”( less-than-nothings).” (ibid.)
So against the two-world theoretic of Plato / Aristotle with its primacy of Being/Substance we have a one-world theoretic in Leucippus/Democritus with its primacy of Nothing/Absence (less than nothing: Void or subtraction from Nothing). No sense in boring you with more details, you can follow the trail in the footnotes below to your heart’s content. Of course I side with the materialists against all substantive formalists of whatever stripe. I’m still on friendly terms with many of the current crop of substance based philosophers, and have yet to publish my own ongoing project. Scattered among my blog or bits and pieces, and yet for the most part I’ve tried to keep a neutral non-critique and more commentary based approach for the most part here on this blog from the beginning. I’ve seen where criticizing other philosophers on a blog tend to go: to the dogs in warring and bitter incriminations and judgmental stupidity on both sides. I’ll not have any of that. I leave my bitterness for politics not philosophy.
The post is already too long as is, but wanted to get back to David Roden’s quandary concerning “human essence,” and the division between human / post-human. If you accept as I do that the whole notion of essence is of no value, there being none, then as a materialist one sees a natural disposition toward the gradual and irruptive dislocations in evolutionary theory. Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge would provide an alternative to Darwinian mainstream gradualism in their notion of “punctuated equilibrium”. Gould’s critique of central concepts of the Darwinian paradigm asserts the importance of historical contingency and other factors in evolution besides the mechanism of adaptation to the external environment. The theory of punctuated equilibria, which he first formulated with his colleague Niles Eldredge in 1972, states that the history of evolution is concentrated in relatively rapid events of speciation rather than taking place gradually as slow, continuous transformations of established lineages. Most species during most periods do not evolve radically, but rather fluctuate aimlessly and within bounds given by expected spreads of statistical variation. Gould considers the dramatic implications for this interpretation in the context of his historical critique of the gradualist model of evolution. In Gould’s view, adherence to a belief in directed evolutionary progress expressed cultural and political biases of the 19th century. Charles Darwin in particular was unable to abandon these ideas despite apparent contradictions with his own theory of evolution and his agonizing intellectual struggle with gaps in the fossil record, gaps that could not be explained if evolution moves forward by the accretion of many small changes. (see Presidential Lectures, Stanford)
Yet, in our time there is also the artificial factor of humans instigating changes through technological innovation and technics. Humans are the first animal who through augmentation and prosthetic extensions in technics and technology will perform genetic change upon their own genome. Of course we’ve been doing this with plants and other domestic animals for some time now. Whether Gould’s theories on natural evolution stand the test of time, we can say that humans have in themselves accelerated the process of evolution in plants and animals, in altering their DNA sequences and producing artificial changes into their genomes. This artificial intrusion into the natural evolutionary cycle may have repercussions we as yet do not or cannot fully understand or respond too. If there is no essence and everything is formless and void then almost anything can produce strange and artificial variants because there is not stable pattern or eternal form or universal guiding or establishing the Law of Identity in things. Everything is malleable and changing, always.
David will use the term “technical alteration” against such terms as “enhancement” and “augmentation” because of the controversy surrounding transhumanist discourse. He’ll define what he terms successor species or “wide humans” as the core of speculative posthumanism. As he states it:
SP [Speculative Posthumanism] states that a future history of a general type is metaphysically and technically possible. It does not imply that the posthuman would improve on the human or MOSH state, or that there would be a commonly accessible perspective from which to evaluate human and posthuman lives. Posthumans may, as Vinge writes, be “simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil” (Vinge 1993: np). (Roden, p. 108) [Italics Mine]
The point here is that the Posthuman is a category of the Impossible in our time, a speculative notion that we can tinker with, think about, but not know or reduce to a linguistic or definitional proposition or axiom. In fact as he states it “the possibility that shared “non-symbolic workspaces” – which support a very rich but non-linguistic form of thinking – might render human natural language unnecessary and thus eliminate the cultural preconditions for propositional and sentential thinking. If propositional attitude psychology collectively distinguishes humans from non-humans, users of non-symbolic workspaces might instrumentally eliminate the non-propositional and thus cease to be human. (Roden, p. 109) Another point of clarification is that biological humans or Homo Sapiens are defined as what he’ll call “narrow humanity,” the posthuman is part of a “technogenetic construction or “assemblage” with both narrowly human and narrowly nonhuman parts” (Roden, p. 110).
The notion here that the posthuman or wide humans will be part of an intrusive and manipulative technological and genetic alteration, a project that will form some strange almost Deleuzian “assemblage”. Of course in the works of Deleuze/Guattari assemblage theory assemblages are formed through the processes of coding, stratification, and territorialization. I am not sure that this is what David had in mind at all. And, yet, the basic notion of an assemblage steal holds that, within a body, the relationships of component parts are not stable and fixed; rather, they can be displaced and replaced within and among other bodies, thus approaching systems through relations of exteriority. If we take this stance then instead of some stable and fixed essence within narrow humanity being needed or defined, we move into assemblage theory in which the notion of displacement takes over and nothing is stable or fixed, but rather there are flows and fluidic change and metamorphic movement of relations of exteriority.
Roden almost seems to accept such a notion when he says of biological humanity that,
If this model is broadly correct, hominization has involved a confluence of biological, cultural and technological processes. It has produced socio-technical “assemblages” where humans are coupled with other active components: for example, languages, legal codes, cities and computer-mediated information networks. (Roden, p. 110)
In other words assemblages entail the coupling of human/technics, a dialectical movement of these various “biological, cultural and technological processes” all working on and with each other within our modern socio-technical “assemblages”. Technology is not some deterministic force, but rather a part of the externalization of human processes that in turn process humanity in ways we have barely begun to focus on. Taking from the Deleuze/Guattari notions its impact on Manuel DeLanda’s theories Roden comments:
Assemblages are emergent wholes in that they exhibit powers and properties not attributable to their parts but which depend (or “supervene”) on those powers. Assemblages are also decomposable insofar as all the relations between their components are “external”: each part can be detached from the whole to exist independently (assemblages are thus opposed to “totalities” in an idealist or holist sense). This is the case even where the part is functionally necessary for the continuation of the whole (DeLanda 2006: 184; see § 6.5). (Roden, p. 111)
One would have to delve into mereology or part/whole theory to dig deep into this notion, of which I’ll not add more. Instead moving back to David’s central notions of Disconnection we discover the return to the question of essence: “To say that a human essence exists is just to say that there is a set of individually necessary conditions for humanity.” (Roden, p. 113)
To answer the notion of essence he will fall back on what he terms the question of the posthuman impasse and use what many describe as Anthropological Essentialism not a guarantor but as a simplified notion that would “if true, would allow us to identify each path to posthumanity with the deletion of some component of the human essence. This, in turn, would allow us to adjudicate the value of these paths by considering the ethical implications of each loss of an anthropologically necessary property.” (Roden, p. 113)
For David it provides an eliminative or subtractive path forward, one that he follows after those desert monks of “apophatic theology,” or the discovery of the essence of God by way of the elimination and negation of all earthly properties that have become attached to him. One could call this the elimination of appearances or surface textures of the human in favor of that which after everything has been eliminated is left: the irreducible limit of the human, the minimal nothing which remains as something – a something that is less than nothing – not an appearance but rather the appearance of appearance, the essence.
Yet, the point of this exercise becomes muted and unnecessary to David’s project as he says, the “disconnection thesis does not entail the rejection of anthropological essentialism but it renders any reference to essential human characteristics unnecessary” (Roden, p. 113). So once again the whole understanding of essence is unnecessary to the disconnection thesis then what is the point of asking the question to begin with? Why worry about eliminating the unnecessary or even discussing it? If he is not defending a substantive theory then what is he defending? Is he after all a non-substantialist? No, in truth he has been all along building up to an anti-essentialist theory, one that as he says that “essential properties seem to play no role in our best scientific explanations of how the world acquired biological, technical and social structures and entities. At this level, form is not imposed on matter from “above” but emerges via generative mechanisms that depend on the amplification or inhibition of differences between particular entities (for example, natural selection among biological species or competitive learning algorithms in cortical maps). If this picture holds generally, then essentialism provides a misleading picture of reality.” (Roden, p. 114)
Ah, so the whole gamut of metaphysical notions of Being and Substance derived from Plato/Aristotle and the traditions they spawned provide a “misleading picture of reality”. Of course David is working his way into a naturalist philosophy that moves into both the materialist DeLanda and the Object Ontologies of Graham Harman, one in which as Roden says, paraphrasing Harman tells us that “a flat ontology recognizes no primacy of natural over artificial kinds (Harman 2008). (Roden, p. 114)
So again we’re seeing the distinctions between natural and artificial stripped of their metaphysical and hierarchical substance, and by way of subtraction and elimination flattened out onto a plane of immanence (Deleuze). Such a path provides for David the central motif of his disconnection thesis:
A disconnection event would be liable to involve technological mechanisms without equivalents in the biological world and this should be allowed for in any ontology that supports speculative posthumanism. (Roden, p. 115)
The point here is that contrary to most transhumanist thought there need not being any continuity between narrow (biological) humans, and there wide (technogenic) successors. There could be multiple paths such a course might take, all born of technics and either non-biological (robotics) or technological alterations of biology (bio-genetics). Since humanity has no fixed stable presence, no essence, we are formless and malleable open to alteration through technological adaptation and disequilibrium.
David Roden in his book will go further noting the ethical and other dimensions of this future of wide humanity, one we can’t predict or know, thus implicating us in the issue, saying “even if we enjoin selective caution to prevent worst-case outcomes from disconnection-potent technologies, we must still place ourselves in a situation in which such potential can be identified. Thus seeking to contribute to the emergence of posthumans, or to become posthuman ourselves…” (Roden, p. 122)
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