Excision Ethos

A flat ontology would allow emergent discontinuities between the human and non-human. Here we understand radical differences between humans and non-humans as emergent relations of continuity or discontinuity between populations, or other such particulars, rather than kinds or abstract universals.[1][2]

The most widely accepted definition of emergence holds that an emergent phenomenon P cannot be predicted from from its initial conditions (e.g. existence and microdynamics of precursor populations) short of running a simulation with relevantly similar properties (Bedau 1997, 378). Thus a genuinely predictive simulation of the emergence of some posthuman entity – such a prospective AI or AI+ – would have to be apt to generate the same kinds of differences. Any simulation of an emergent phenomenon is. in this sense, an emergent phenomenon given that it must have structurally similar properties. So there can be no simulation for posthuman emergence short of posthuman emergence itself.

It seems, then, that the epistemological distinction between a singularity and its simulacrum evaporates in perfect Baudrillardian equivalence .

I take it that cyborg or assemblage ontology is also fully compatible with flat theories of difference along these lines. If so, the cyborg ontology which arguably underlies speculative posthumanism (SP) and transhumanism (H+) can be characterized by what I refer to as the double logic of ‘deconstruction’ and ‘excision’.

Cyborg/assemblage ontology deconstructs claims to transcendent and transcendental unity or totality in ways that are now relatively familiar. However, the dynamics of such entities furnishes the basis for an excision – in Deleuzean terms, a line of flight – by which individuals or collectives ‘become other’, diverging in historically actualized ways from parent entities.

Excision is not transcendence in a traditional theological or metaphysical sense. The idea of the posthuman is not the dialectical idea some entity that transcends a specifiable cognitive boundary.

Kant’s noumenon or the God of negative theology are more intellectually domesticated than this, for we know them, at least, in terms of what they are not. In contrast, we cannot know the relations of the posthuman to the human prior to the historical emergence of the posthuman. Nor, given a flat theory of difference, can we deconstruct its possibility on familiar anti-essentialist grounds We can only preclude an a priori conception of what that possibility entails.

We cannot preclude an a posteriori account of posthuman difference. Posthumans will presumably understand themselves in their own way. Otherwise their nature will have to be studied empirically by other kinds of being – perhaps by institutions resembling the ‘theological observatories’ dotting the ‘transcend’ – the computational extremum of a far-future galaxy in Virnor Vinge’s  A Fire Upon the Deep!

Thus applying a flat ontological analysis to the posthuman implies that it is the technological excision of the human. The position is consistent, then, with an ‘anthropological humanism’ – insofar as it holds that there are real discontinuities in the world – but not with any ‘transcendental humanism’ (to cite a very useful distinction Derrida makes in the ‘The Ends of Man’).[3]

I am not claiming that the posthuman is some ’empty’ signifier. There are many recent and contemporary precedents in art, philosophy and literature to prospectively excise the human. Vinge’s original essay on Technological Singularity sets out an imaginary of recursive ontological violence, without discernible limit. Fictions such as Bruce Sterling Schismatrix or J. G Ballard’s Crash enjoin cyborgian transits whose only justification is their formal expressibility.  In plastic and performance art, Stelarc’s speculative coupling  with technological assemblages like industrial robots or prosthetic ‘third’ arms provide compelling intimations of our obsolescence. The musical assemblages of Varese, Cage and Xenakis have metastasized new organs of hearing. In philosophy, likewise, we might mention cultural exemplars of excision in the work of French anti-humanists like Foucault and Deleuze or eliminative materialists such as Paul and Patricia Churchland.[4]

So the term ‘posthuman’ is not semantically void. It is ideationally multivalent, precipitate and unwise – but epistemically null.  In order to acquire knowledge of the posthuman we would – according to the logic of simulation – have to make ourselves, or some of our ‘wide’ descendants, posthuman.

This apparent recalcitrance to prediction or precedent raises an awkward issue for those with an intellectual, aesthetic or political interest in the posthuman. Why should we be interested in a transformed condition which cannot yet be identified?

The idea of a technological excision is of intellectual concern because of direct practical interest.

The human population is now part of a self-augmenting planetary technical system over which we can have little control. Democratizing technology merely ramps up its unpredictability – there can be no exercise of General Will without the relinquishment of technical modernity itself. So this ‘second nature’ is an emergent causal power in its own right, not an ideological expression of an alienated social form.

The fact that technological systems are out of control doesn’t mean that they, or anything else, is in control. There need be no finality to the system at all: technical self-augmentation does not imply technical autonomy. So the assumption that we belong to a self-augmenting technical system (SATS) should not be confused of ‘normative technological determinism’ that we find, say, in the work of Heidegger and Jacques Ellul.

As cyborg assemblages whose actions are extended or amplified by this planetary system, our drives, desires and fixations are also modulated by it. To programme computers I must learn the syntax and semantics of a relevant language, but also internalize the aesthetic standards entailed by some or other approach to software design. I buy junk I can learn to like.

By the same token a desire for technological excision is an iteration of a disruptive self-remaking, expressed in technically constituted beings or macro-assemblages. If the interest in our posthuman prospects expresses a self-excising drive, however, it implies an ethic of technological self-fashioning distinct from the blandly instrumental ethics of H+. The latter, is constituted by public ethical standards. The desire to excise the human, however, cannot be a public ethical standard.

This is not because it is too horrible to be expressed. It has no expression other than a speculative engagement with technique: ontological engineering.

The only reason for the principled unintelligibility of the posthuman is its dated non-existence. Thus if we are engaged in excision we also aim or hope to understand what we are getting ourselves into one day.

References

Bedau, Mark (1997), ‘Weak Emergence’, Philosophical Perspectives, 11, Mind, Causation, and World, pp. 375-399.

Delanda, M. (2004), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.

Derrida, J. (1986), ‘The Ends of Man’, in Margins of Philosophy, Alan Bass (trans.). Brighton: Harvester Press, 109-136.

Roden, David. 2010. Deconstruction and excision in philosophical posthumanism. Journal of Evolution and Technology 21(1) (June): 27-36.

Notes:

[1] Flat ontologies are opposed to hierarchical ontologies in which the structure and evolution of reality is explained by transcendent or transcendental organizing principles: essences, kinds, organizing categories or natural states, to name a few (Delanda 2004, p. 58). I should qualify this ontology, further as a regional ontology rather than a fundamental ontology. It may not be possible to eschew essences or organizing structures tout court. However, while essentialism may be defensible in areas like microphysics or the chemistry of the periodic table, for example, it seems far less persuasive as ontology of complex systems such as mind/brains or cyborg-assemblages. There may be, for example, basic physical laws which are akin to essences. Elementary particles like electrons may legitimately be claimed to have their charge and rest-mass essentially and even chemical elements like gold may have their atomic numbers necessarily.

[2] If we make the artificially simple assumption that humans are members of the biological species homo sapiens, then to be biologically ‘human’ is not to exemplify an eidos consisting of necessary characteristics such as ‘rationality’ and ‘animality’, but to be a part of a larger more geographically extensive and temporally continuous population (Delanda 2004, p. 57).

[3] Thoroughgoing anti-humanists might, at this point, prefer to erase ‘human’ and speak indexically of a transformed ‘us’.

[4] In Scientific Realism and the Plasticity of Mind Paul Churchland memorably describes a group of future people whose common sense conception of reality is informed by modern physical theory: ‘These …’ he writes ‘do not sit on the beach and listen to the steady roar of the pounding surf. They sit on the beach and listen to the aperiodic atmospheric compression waves produced as the coherent energy of the ocean waves is audibly redistributed in the chaotic turbulence of the shallows’ (SRPM, 29).

3 thoughts on “Excision Ethos

  1. You highlight some of the scfiiginant issues that posthumanism raises for education here Kevin, and some really well chosen video clips. First we must agree on what the definition of a post-human should be’. I like part of what you imply in this point, but not sure that we need to *agree*. For me, agreement seems to imply that the posthuman should be pinned down, quantified, rendered ostensible, made generalisable, and I’m not sure that kind of tactic embraces the mutability and flexibility of the theory. Where assumptions about the rational and bounded human being are put into question, the posthuman seems to become an act of definition, but definition in the sense of a contextual and temporal specification. Posthumanism often embraces the idea that the human is performed, in a particular place and in a particular time, rather than being comprised of pre-existing stable foundations. What I mean here is that we might be able to define the posthuman in practice, but not in principle. *Agreeing* on a universal definition for posthumanism would seems to create the very foundational assumptions that the theory attempts to destabalise in humanism. If we consider the (post)human to be something that is persistently created through action and performance, it can have no foundation. Furthermore, the act of definition becomes a constant, integral process. The posthuman *is* the definition. We might say that the posthuman is unknowable’ in principle, but knowlable’ in practice.In this sense, I think your post highlights some fascinating ways in which the human (and hence the nature of knowledge) is culturally defined. It is interesting how knowledge is portrayed as quite alien and dangerous in these clips. In The Matrix, the knowledge associated with flying the helicopter is not only disembodied but transmitted from another world’. The other clips seem to reveal a fear of knowledge, is if it is something that can invade the mind’. Knowledge is viewed with great potential, but also as a scfiiginant danger, a view which appears to situate knowledge’ as a kind of separate substance, upon which the superior rational’ and moralistic’ faculties of the mind can act. Dualisms abound

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