Category Archives: Philosophy

bold as (nostalgic) love: Gwyneth Jones and hauntology

A Metafilter thread on the new St Ettienne album (haven’t heard it yet) gave up this comment:

It’s interesting to see the 90s End Of History era displace the Swinging 60s as a lost golden age just out of clear memory.

I’m sharing this here due to its synchronicity with a point I made in a just-filed review of the Gollancz Masterworks reissue of Gwyneth Jones’s Castles Made of Sand.

In the introduction to said book, Adam Roberts draws a connection between the utopian idealism of the 1960s and the original British Romanticism movement of the early C19th, and in my review I leap from there to observe that, while Jones doesn’t only put the Sixties influence front and centre in the Bold as Love cycle, but also leans on the Arthurian mythos of Olde Albion (which was largely constructed by the long wave of Romanticism), the actual texture of the near-future Britain of the first few volumes is very much a Nineties vibe.

This was a great opportunity to wax shamelessly lyrical from the core of my own nostalgia for my formative years, but there was—or so I tell myself—a point to doing so, which is to underscore the way in which the Nineties, however unknowingly to many of us in the countercultural trenches at the time, was an attempt to re-run the Sixties, albeit absent the political theoretics whose influence on the Sixties we have been carefully encouraged to forget, as the cultural artefacts of that period have been pruned and bowdlerised in order to reduce a time of genuine (if misguided and largely failed) revolutionary fervour to an aesthetic: kaftans, badly-rolled joints, twelve-string guitars etc etc.

This has further relevance in light of the recently published last lectures of Mark Fisher, in which he was clearly trying to go back to that period and unearth all the dangerous stuff in order to determine what went wrong, and how that atmosphere of revolutionary change might be rekindled against the backdrop of the neoliberal settlement that has so successfully encased it it in the amber of the Spectacle. There’s an extent to which Fisher and some of his contemporaries were, for all their repudiation of nostalgia, somewhat fixated on the early Nineties as the Last Great Moment of Modernism (with e.g. the music of the “hardcore continuum” representing the last time anything felt to them genuinely new and futuristic), even as the reactionary revivalism of baggy, Britpop and what would become landfill indie rose like a tide to drown it all.

Matt Colquhoun has written a great deal about what we might think of as (post-)Fisherean hauntology, in an attempt to rescue the term from the trackless desert of semantic drift into which it (and so much else) seems to be receding, and I could really do with making the time to dig back into it all properly. But one chunk I recall passing clear is this bit on Boards of Canada, whose work:

… speaks to how important but also unstable acts of creation are in relation to worlding. On the surface, that is an obvious point, but creation is always a tightrope pulled taut between past, present and future; it is often a kind of double articulation, tangled up in maternal and paternal politics (symbolically, if not literally). It is always this complex balancing act between preservation, experimentation, and innovation. An album like Music Has The Right To Children is fascinating, I think, because it captures that tension pretty masterfully. Still, to this day, I listen to that album and feel in the presence of a deep engagement with the past that is nonetheless geared towards the future.

So often the discourse seems split between a kind of manic future-affirmatism (think of Teflon Mask’s hypercapitalist boner for Mars colonies on the right, or Bastani’s FALC solutionist-accelerationism on the left) or a hopelessly Romantic fixation on a largely imaginary and retconned past as the location of the utopian horizon (which has typically been a rightist and reactionary position, but in recent years manifests in a lot of soft-leftish thought as well). The denial of the past (and/or its strip-mining for the raw materials of a futurity intended to bury it), or the fetishisation of the past… neither are genuinely productive, if I understand Colquhoun correctly. But that temporal tightrope he describes above, now that’s interesting—not least because it doesn’t merely attempt to bring together the best of past and future. Rather, in drawing taut that rope between them, it affirms the continuity not of culture itself, but of the recombinative processes by which culture is produced.

Jones’s Bold as Love cycle, then, might be seen as culture that not only enacts that recombination, but actively foregrounds (even as it sort of cartoonises) the theatricality of cultural politics through which it is enacted: she is showing and telling, not just at the narratological level, but the historical as well.

Longtermism is merely a more acceptable mask for transhumanism

This longread by Phil Torres at Current Affairs on the Longtermism/x-risk/Effective-Altruism mob does a pretty good job of setting out the issues with what might be the ultimate in moral philosophies, namely a moral philosophy whose adherents have convinced themselves that it is not at all a moral philosophy, but rather the end-game of the enlightenment-modernist quest for a fully rational and quantifiable way of legitimating the actions that you and your incredibly wealthy donors were already doing, and would like to continue doing indefinitely, regardless of the consequences to other lesser persons in the present and immediate future, thankyouverymuch.

Longtermism should not be confused with “long-term thinking.” It goes way beyond the observation that our society is dangerously myopic, and that we should care about future generations no less than present ones. At the heart of this worldview, as delineated by Bostrom, is the idea that what matters most is for “Earth-originating intelligent life” to fulfill its potential in the cosmos. What exactly is “our potential”? As I have noted elsewhere, it involves subjugating nature, maximizing economic productivity, replacing humanity with a superior “posthuman” species, colonizing the universe, and ultimately creating an unfathomably huge population of conscious beings living what Bostrom describes as “rich and happy lives” inside high-resolution computer simulations.

This is what “our potential” consists of, and it constitutes the ultimate aim toward which humanity as a whole, and each of us as individuals, are morally obligated to strive. An existential risk, then, is any event that would destroy this “vast and glorious” potential, as Toby Ord, a philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute, writes in his 2020 book The Precipice, which draws heavily from earlier work in outlining the longtermist paradigm. (Note that Noam Chomsky just published a book also titled The Precipice.)

The point is that when one takes the cosmic view, it becomes clear that our civilization could persist for an incredibly long time and there could come to be an unfathomably large number of people in the future. Longtermists thus reason that the far future could contain way more value than exists today, or has existed so far in human history, which stretches back some 300,000 years. So, imagine a situation in which you could either lift 1 billion present people out of extreme poverty or benefit 0.00000000001 percent of the 1023 biological humans who Bostrom calculates could exist if we were to colonize our cosmic neighborhood, the Virgo Supercluster. Which option should you pick? For longtermists, the answer is obvious: you should pick the latter. Why? Well, just crunch the numbers: 0.00000000001 percent of 1023 people is 10 billion people, which is ten times greater than 1 billion people. This means that if you want to do the most good, you should focus on these far-future people rather than on helping those in extreme poverty today.

I have one bone of contention, though the fault is not that of Torres but rather the Longtermists themselves: the labelling of their teleology as “posthuman”. This is exactly wrong, as their position is in fact the absolute core of transhumanism; my guess would be that the successful toxification of that latter term (within academia, as well as without) has led them to instead identify with the somewhat more accepted and established label of posthumanism, so as to avoid critique and/or use a totally different epistemology as a way of drawing fire.

Posthumanism would perhaps be a little more intuitive a label were it hyphenated (e.g. post-humanism): it is not about transcending one’s human-ness (that’s transhumanism’s bag), but rather about finding ways to think that move beyond the deep biases of Enlightenment humanism—whiteness, maleness, Europeanness, heterosexualness, all of those things, but also (and most fundamentally) the notion that the human being (however diversely conceptualised) is both the measure and the central pole of the universe.

As Torres’s article makes very clear (though it’s not really disguised), Longtermism and its associated ideological systems (transhumanism very much included) are profoundly anthropocentric, and as such are not at all post-humanist; rather, they are a sort of ultra-humanism, in which the potential value (always estimable in quantitative terms, yet always based on on spurious statistical handwaves and estimates whose mathematical scale serves the purpose of distracting via sensawunda the minds of the statistically untrained) of a human species that is supposedly capable of (and thus morally justified in its attempt to) colonise entire galaxies outweighs anything and everything that might be seen as collateral damage en route to that goal.

Torres quotes Simon Knutsson’s conclusion that the Longtermists are “super-strategic”, and that their philosophies are less sincere belief systems than they are elaborate intellectual smokescreens for an otherwise shallow fundamentally self-interested libertarianism; I have repeatedly made a similar argument about what I think of as “core” transhumanism. But I am beginning to wonder whether it is possible that both of those possibilities may coexist, and that the philosophical superstructure here—while developed and emergent from the need to provide a priori justifications for courses of action already decided upon for a posteriori economical reasons—is also, or eventually comes to be, completely sincerely believed by its architects. I will recall once again that the “con” in “con-man” is an abbreviation of “confidence”, and that the first rule of sales is that the successful salesman’s first mark must necessarily be himself: particularly in the realm of politics and philosophy, one will never successfully convince another person of a position that one does not personally hold to. (Of course, that belief is necessary to making the sale, but not necessarily sufficient.) Good salespersons therefore develop a particular version of cognitive dissonance, namely the ability to create a sort of mental partition in which the product (or philosophy) is believed to be exactly the efficacious wonder it is claimed to be.

But, to quote Jerry Cantrell, “slowly all the roles we act out / become our identities / and in the end we are / what we pretend to be“. It’s very tempting to assume that pointing out the inconsistencies of a belief system will oblige its adherents to abandon it—despite the last year and half (or the last century and a half) of solid and disheartening evidence to the contrary. The point is that, while there is value to critique, the critical mode of modern philosophy (as Foucault pointed out long ago) stands on exactly the same epistemological foundations as the hyper-rationalist mode; they can only ever struggle over control of the same fundamental field of thought. As I understand it, posthumanist theory (at its best) is an attempt to go beyond that field of thought to something new—though whether it is or will ever be successful at doing so is a question that we, caught in that very same epistemic paradigm, are unable to answer.

Nonetheless, posthumanism retains my own philosophical loyalties, because of its suggestion of an alternative (rather than a mere opposition) to the ultrahumanism of the Longtermists, whose implications Torres so clearly spells out. For the transhumanoids, the planet on which we live, and the majority of those currently living on it, are merely the shell and albumen of the egg from which homo galacticus are destined to hatch; it is a Manichean religio-philosophical structure which, in its making-transcendant of the category of the human, jettisons even the more noble and well-intended elements of humanism itself.

Posthumanism, by contrast, suggests that we humble the human as one actor among many, and take a place in the universe that recognises both its limits and our own. The revulsion and panic that this idea instills in so many people is perhaps the best indicator of its potential to contribute to a new epistemic paradigm, and with it a way of life for humanity that is something other than an endless succession of roadside picnics.

[a] question of how forgetting is avoided

Interesting aside here from Mark Carrigan, responding to (as he puts it) an “innocuous but in practice […] unsettling” observation in Nicholas Christakis’s Apollo’s Arrow, which is a (surely rather premature?) analysis of the impact of coronavirus(es) on the way we live. Christakis observes that Covid-19 has sparked an awareness of public health challenges in the US in the same way that 9/11 sparked awareness of threats to national security. Cue Carrigan (emphases his own):

It’s certainly preferable that there’s not a post-Covid social amnesia about the risk of pandemics, as the accelerating emergence of infectious diseases means not only won’t this be the last pandemic but the next one might be sooner than we imagine. There has been a tendency for past pandemics to fade into obscurity after they have passed, as can be demonstrated by asking those who lived through the 1957 and 1968 pandemics whether they remember them.

However this leaves us with the question of how forgetting is avoided. This framing by Christakis makes it easy to imagine the war on pandemics as a successor to the war on terror: an ideological and institutional apparatus for hyper-securitisation which transforms everyday life, organisations, the state and the legal frameworks which connect them.

My immediate thought on reading this was “oh, hey—people are starting to find their own way to a position similar to Agamben’s“. The figure of the War on Terror makes the connection particularly clear, given that it was seen by Agamben at the time to be the cresting of the ubiquity of the state of exception, the point at which the Schmittean articulation of politics as a division of the world into friends and enemies has become hegemonic, and the sovereign decision is the only game in town.

Admittedly Agamben’s framing of his position on the pandemic was not well served by his couching it in the most extreme terms possible—as was perhaps inevitable, issuing as it did from a philosopher who has spent a lifetime thinking in very abstracted terms about the horrific teleology of totalising systems. But the twinge Carrigan seems to be feeling here looks to me like a flinch from the very real possibility of a revitalised nationalist biopolitics, which is not just accepted by but actively clamoured for by the middle classes… and that’s a flinch I’ve been having right since this whole business started up.

It is in no way necessary to be a “Covid denier”—an accusation which has been repeatedly levelled at Agamben with, so far as I can tell, no textual justification in anything he’s actually written on the topic, and furthermore levelled at him even by career-contrarian philosophical firebrands such as Žižek, who one would think might know better than to point that particular finger—to suggest that, without some rather clearer thinking about the properly long game of public health and social security—the long game which extends not only past the end of this pandemic, but into and beyond the next ones, and against the background of the even larger and metasystemic contextual hazard of climate change, which is the generative source of this and the subsequent pandemics—the popular demand for, and instigation of, a nationalist biopolitics of “bare life” is likely, if not actually inevitable. It’s genuinely surprising, and in many respects heartening, to see how much quality of life we’re willing to sacrifice to preserve its quantity; the open question is where (and when) that trade-off starts to look like a bad bargain, and whether the arrangements already made can then be adjusted back in the other direction.

Given the genuine threat to life from which it stems, and the fear thereof amplified by forms of media in which the metrics of optimality are instantaneity, sticky-clickworthiness, and alignment with already established partisan positions on the proper response, that demand is completely understandable. But given the prevalence of authoritarian and proto-fascist ideological apparatuses in the world at present, it is very fortunate that the libertarian thread of their ideological tapestry as currently constituted has thus far prevented them from seeing the terrible, powerful opportunity that the pandemic offers as the justification for a popular and permanent state of exception. My fear, and I think Agamben’s also, is that the appeal of a firm grip on authoritarian power will override their ideological objections very quickly indeed; after all, while it was far from the only factor, the socioeconomic impact of the 1918 flu played an important and largely overlooked role in the subsequent rise of fascism. Carrigan’s anxiety above is thus well-founded.

For the sake of absolute clarity: this is not an argument to the effect that “lockdowns will lead to fascism”, which would be as absurd as an argument to the effect that to advance any critique of lockdowns is tantamount to “wanting vulnerable people to die”. It is, however, an argument to the effect that the political polarisation of the discourse around lockdowns (as manifest in the ubiquitous presence of both of those above absurd arguments, and very few in between them), and the associated calculus of financialised risk in globalised systems of capital recirculation, are amplifying the sense of division and alienation that had already given rise to fascist precursors before the pandemic showed up.

(Just a few days of being back on the birdsite has been sufficient to make this very, very obvious. I had thought, naively and from a distance, that four years of Trump and Brexit might have taught us that shrieking and pointing fingers on social media is actively counterproductive, but it seems not.)

Given the ubiquitous popularity of martial metaphors (which, frankly, seems to me indicative of the issue at hand) perhaps I should put it this way: winning the battle at any cost might see you trapped in one more perpetual war against an abstract noun. The only victor in such a war would be Schmitt and those who follow him.

stop press: technologist spontaneously (re)invents postmodernism

Matt Webb thinks through the map’s mediation of the territory. I don’t mean to whale on Webb here, to be clear, as he’s by far one of the more enlightened and well-intentioned thinkers in that space. But nonetheless this is a salutory reminder that, sociologically and philosophically speaking, the tech world is lagging the leading edge by around half a century.

duckrabbit, figureground, mirrorscreen

In this episode of Excerpts Of Other People’s Output Used For The Aggrandization Of Personal Theories Which Remain Stubbornly Underwritten, I will be quoting a newsletter from Drew Austin, riffing on Kyle Chayka’s “ambient TV” essay; the bolding is my own.

Describing other ambient shows like Netflix’s “Chef’s Table,” which combines pleasant food imagery with soothing narration, Chayka writes, “The shows are functionally screen savers, never demanding your attention; they do draw it, but only as much as a tabletop bouquet of flowers.” If minimalism is the dominant aesthetic of the iPhone era—and Chayka has written about that too, calling it AirSpace—maybe this is the reason: We need our built environment to be a blank canvas onto which this always-available digital content can be projected, figuratively if not literally. Anything more baroque runs the risk competing or clashing with the handheld ornamentation we’ve already provided. I want to call this visual Muzak, but it’s more like the opposite, filling the foreground rather than the background. The physical space itself is the Muzak. Last year I wrote an essay about AirPods in which I described the sparse environments of Sweetgreen and Equinox as “pleasant backdrops for solitary device usage.” Always-in headphones complete the transition by giving us an auditory foreground on par with the phone screen’s visual counterpart. But that’s only what we do in public: Once we’re home, as we have been plenty this year, we’re happy to let all of this recede toward the background once again, if only because more of our own devices are competing for the foreground.

There’s a tension in Austin’s description, here, where the device (or the interface, in my own theoretical ontology) oscillates between performing the roles of ground and figure: either it’s the medium through which selected content flows into the perceptual field (the frame around the painting, so to speak, only reduced to a non-ornamental function of support and display whose unnoticedness is perhaps more rhetorically invasive than the gilt filigree’d baroqueisms of the cliched surrounds of old painterly masterpieces), or it’s the (medium-is-the-)message itself, and the content of the content is reduced to the function of passing the time in consumptive solipsism. This seeming binary suggests to me that actually both roles are simultaneous and constant, and there’s a sort of duckrabbit thing going on in both the user experience in question, and our analyses of such.

Furthermore, this perceptual ambivalence is a kind of evolved technological advantage, the killer meta-application: a medium upon which multiple media meet, enabling the rapid shifting of contexts and contents without any sense of discontinuity. Multimediation is not new, of course, but the convergent multitool interface device (i.e. phone and/or laptop plus peripherals, with the big screen in your home counting increasingly as one of the latter) takes the always-on-whatever’s-on of Nineties-era ambient television to the on-everywhere-anything’s-on of the present moment. Barriers to the continuity of content consumption, and to the curation of that content, are dissolving rapidly; the figureground of the screen, as the primary face of the interface constellation, the duckrabbit black-mirror, flips less its own role as background or foreground than our own role as (notional) actor or audience.

Thinking-out-loud, there… but there’s an older and simpler idea from the archives which also expresses itself here, and is the main reason I wanted to snip Austin’s bit above: the interface is the screen on which the Spectacle is projected. Among the functions of the Spectacle is to misdirect our attention from the prestidigitatory provision of the infrastructural metasystem/metamedium behind (or rather beyond) the interface; in an emergent manner (incentivised by accumulation, enabled by externalities), the metasystem colludes in its own self-effacement, and it does so by acting as the channel of the Spectacular. As the man himself said: “That which appears is good; that which is good appears.” That an already Spectacularised society would successfully evolve/produce interfaces which encourage their users to re-relate to them(selves) across multiple contexts—in a manner that not only justifies their constant use, but practically mandates it—should come as no surprise, especially as the tropisms of media technology have always bent toward the profitable, whether that profit is political or crudely commercial (a distinction that this evolution-like structuration also serves to dissolve with time).

The metaphor of graphical IT interfaces has long been the window, but it has never been a window any more than the vistas of landscape painting were windows. The screen modality came first, in which the Spectacle is projected onto the surface of the interface in an ever-more-sophisticated (and hence spectacular) fashion. But while it was long accessible to the very wealthy in the form of portraiture, the mirror modality has been a much more recent arrival for the rest of us; the black mirror reflects our faces in the literal sense, but also in the sense of acting as a space in which we curate a Muzakal backdrop against which to position the portrait of the personality, the fiction of the Self. Duckrabbit, figureground, mirrorscreen… the instability of the interface is a prelude to its integration into the invisiblity of the metasystem beyond, which is the fate of all interfaces over time. The oft-promised world of tiny wearables (or implants) and augmented/virtual realities is as much the fantasy of the metasystem itself as that of its servants; perpetual and place-agnostic provision ex nihilo, even of provision itself. The window externalises everything, even the Self from the self, and does so through a process of aestheticization. Containment—the Janus-faced phenomenon of keepings-out which are also always already keepings-in, and vice versa—is the inevitably fundamental logic of a world predicated on content. Whether the chicken preceded the egg is a question with no satisfactory answer, and thus perhaps not worth asking.