Dark Posthumanism I: summer's ice


I’m ending an all too brief sojourn in Western Crete, just as Greece seems set to become Europe’s new experiment in post-democratic capitalism – its very own Interzone. Many, if not most, economists claim that the conditions cannot be met and that attempting to do so will shred Greece’s economic, social, educational and cultural life as much as the initial round of austerity.

Nonetheless, a bubble of ease is maintained here for those with euros. We who bask in the light and heat of the Aegean summer can condemn the deprivations heaped upon the Greek state and its citizens without having to experience them.

However factitious, this moment has allowed me to pause and think about some generous philosophical discussion of Posthuman Life on a number of excellent websites. These have forced me to think harder about the basic assumptions in of the book. So here begins a series of reflective responses to my commentators under the rubric of “Dark Posthumanism” – though, as shall become clear, my use of the d-word is seriously tendentious.

I should begin by citing Debbie Goldgaber’s excellent post on Speculative Posthumanism and dark phenomenology. This catalyzed an exchange between deflationary naturalists like Scott Bakker and those like Jon Cogburn or Goldgaber, who favour a deconstructive or “weird realist” construal of dark phenomena. This debate resurfaced during a lively discussion at the New Centre for Research and Practice‘s Posthuman Life 1 seminar, in which Debbie also participated. Its trenchancy was a surprise, although a welcome and productive one, which I’ll try to address in this post.

Meanwhile, the Philosophical Percolations Summer Reading group on PHL rolls on to Chapter 2 and 3 and the Ultima Thule of Unbounded Posthumanism! I should also bow to John Danaher’s fine clarificatory effort over at Philosophical Disquisitions. He has not yet addressed the role of dark phenomenology, but it will be interesting to see what  he makes of it.

Scott’s interview with me over at Figure/Bound communications recapitulates similar tensions while holding me to account for the ethical commitments of the book. I think there’s a connection between the epistemological issues arising from the dark phenomenology hypothesis and the ethics and politics of becoming posthuman. These are taken up in B P Morton’s terrific piece on trans/posthumanism and transgender (also at philpercs) which I to return to in the sequel to this post.

So what’s the deal with Dark Phenomena?

On a first (and extremely shaky) approximation, there is a tension between a thin epistemological interpretation of Dark Phenomena – experiences that furnish no tacit yardstick for their description – and a weird reading that I hesitate to term “ontological”, since its presuppositions seem more difficult to articulate than the naturalist side.

On the epistemological reading, the dark side is a placeholder for structures of experience that phenomenology cannot elucidate without the help of science – in particular, psychology, neuroscience or cognitive science. Dark phenomena reveal the point at which the putative domain of phenomenology eludes the scrutiny of philosophical method. It does not imply any obscurity in principle, since what may elude phenomenology may be explicated in other terms.

On the weird (horror?) reading, the dark side must be understood via its disintegration or truncation of the subject: experiences of horror, alienation, humour or compulsion such as the spectral thing that, for Levinas, depersonalises the consciousness of the insomniac. As Cogburn points out, these incursions and eruptions in experience can be related to the late Idealist view that our experience of embodiment provides privileged insight into a pre-subjective Nature (Schelling) or a noumenal body that eludes representation. I think Eugene Thacker’s discussion of Schopenhauer in his book Starry Speculative Corpse captures the latter idea particularly well:

The Will is, in Schopenhauer’s hands, that which is common to subject and object, but not reducible to either. This will is never present in itself, either as subjective experience or as objective knowledge; it necessarily remains a negative manifestation. Indeed, Schopenhauer will press this further, suggesting that “the whole body is nothing but objectified will, i.e. will that has become representation” (122-3)

So darkness on the naturalist reading is a local problem for phenomenological method, whereas on the weird reading it is an obscure disclosure (“negative manifestation”) of something (some thing) that resists any form of representation or theory. It must also be contentless if it is to do the work of undercutting the claims of transcendental conceptions of the subject, whether phenomenological, existential or pragmatist.

So far this seems as if it might be almost consonant with Bakker’s take on dark phenomenology. As he writes in his commentary on Goldgaber, phenomenology qua method:

assumes we have a reflectively accessible experiential plenum to begin with, that we actually possess a ‘phenomenology’ worth the name. The problem, in other words, is that we have no way of knowing just how impoverished our ‘phenomenology’ is in the first place.

If phenomenology is dark then phenomenological method is at best incomplete and at worst benighted. For example, experienced temporality is as transcendent and inaccessible to us as the structure of matter. Phenomenology can never be more than a descriptive science of nature according to this account and should not aspire to a priori status since there is no good reason to think that its descriptions are authoritative. There are good empirical reasons for thinking that we take our judgements about the contents of our minds or experiences to be based on an unmediated givenness only because we are not mindful of the heavy lifting required to produce them. If phenomenology is dark we are, as Bakker implies, in the dark about the dark.

The weird reading might now seem a little shady. Even the metaphor of darkness is misleading if it implies a phenomenology of the “gaps in presence”. This would be feasible only if we already knew the structure of the plenum and (or so the argument goes) there is no good reason to think that we do.

This seems to warrant a cautious analogy between the thesis that there is a dark side to phenomenology and Derridean deconstruction, which, though drawing on the language of phenomenology, cuts it free of any secure domain by generalizing subjective temporality well beyond anything conceivable as a subject, to the iterable mark, to generalized writing etc. (PHL: 94).

Goldgaber imputes to me the claim that this structure, at least, is generalizable beyond the human:

were it possible to show that there are dark elements in our own phenomenology, experienceable but not amenable to description or interpretation, we would have grounds, Roden thinks, for understanding human subjectivity in terms of both its unity and radical difference or rupture from world–as dependent on structures that are shared by nonhumans.

I’m not sure that I go this far. I suspect a purer Derridean like Martin Haggelund might. But, like Bakker, I don’t see any reason to see why such claims are on securer ground. Their virtue is salutary rather than informative; exposing the indeterminacy of claims about structure of worldly agency and time.

On the other hand, once we take dark phenomenology (or Bakker’s blind brain theory) as serious epistemological proposals we seem confronted with a darkness without negation, not one contrary to the light side (which, by hypothesis, is already striated with it). And here one is almost tempted to say that harder-than-hard naturalism bites the tail of mysticism. In Speculative Corpse, Thacker distinguishes a metaphysical correlation (between thought and object) presupposed by philosophy from a mystical correlation that can only verify itself by breaking against an impersonal “divine” darkness (84-5) that can never be recuperated by thought. A similar failure of correlation seems to obtain here. Even the tools (concepts like plenum) with which we are attempting to think the absence of a proper topic for phenomenology have to fail us. A thought that reiterates its failure in this way obeys the logic of the mystical as Thacker describes it.

So while we may not have any knowledge of what we could share with unboundedly weird posthumans, or nonhumans of other stripes, we led into a defile that is boundless on either reading. Perhaps the deflationary reading is as weird as it gets. Perhaps as Bakker puts in Neuropath, we are all already “vast and terrible with complexity” . As the tagline to the novel states: you do not know what you are. You do not know what it is that does not know this. We do not know where the darkness ends, how far it extends. And perhaps it is this pervasive boundlessness that can provide a tentative opening beyond the human, freeing us, as Morton might say, to explore the near inhuman, the trans of  alterable bodies and desires.

Or maybe this is too quick! It’s easy to make imaginary progress in a frictionless milieu. I’ll return to Morton in Dark Posthumanism II.

11 thoughts on “Dark Posthumanism I: summer's ice

  1. well in my own way (as an alienist) i am too, but my interests are more in a mundane sense of the un-canny (pace heidegger not a kind of moody tuning in of Being), much like how we take built infrastructures for granted until they fail and so don’t really attend to how odd/alien/leaky/contingent/etc human-being (and the cosmos for that matter) is, so no spooks or alchemy but all kinds of chemistry and parasites/symbiote and such.

  2. There is a lot about the dark phenomenology stuff I don’t understand yet. But I have always been keen on paying attention to and describing my own experiences, and yet I currently believe that I have been wrong about key aspects of my self and my experience more than once. The problem is not just that our experiential plenum such as it is may have important gaps, but that these gaps may have a pattern of systematically misleading us – our phenomenology may not be simply impoverished but a tapestry of temporarily satisfying fictions … but then do we seek some truth behind by digging, settle down in the uncertainties of skepticism, or make rankings among more and less satisfying fictions … I’ve always been torn between these three options …

  3. hey BPM, I’m very interested in our cognitive-biases and such but don’t see them as being in someway mysterious or keys (or doorways) to something other than physiology and related engineering efforts, just as I don’t think that consciousness is somehow mysterious (a Mystery and or a fundamental feature of some meta-physics, as opposed to a set of fleshy/concrete problems to be hacked as we can). As for “our phenomenology may not be simply impoverished but a tapestry of temporarily satisfying fictions” sure heuristics (a very un-Romantic way of poetic dwelling), may not be impoverished but will very likely continue to keep destroying the biosphere as well as the related brutal efforts of those who extract and otherwise exploit what and who they can, what kept us alive all these generations is also what is destroying us, not so much spooky dark as just everyday disastrous….

  4. Awesome post. ‘Phenomenology’ is the register, here, but I really do think it’s the status of philosophical reflection that is at issue, the notion of some propriety philosophical domain. Thus, even though I agree with your arguments in PL, I worry you’re boxing yourself in with the phenomenologist as much as tearing the box open. Dialectically this might be the best strategy… probably is… This spate of debate is probably a good case in point!

    I agree with dmf about drawing a principled distinction between naturalistically informed skepticism and mysticism more generally. We’re stranded with this tool kit. We have some ability to knap new tools. What lies ‘beyond’ the problem ecologies of these is simply that, what lies beyond. The further characterization of this beyond as ‘mystical’ is just not something the facts warrant.

    Morton: “The problem is not just that our experiential plenum such as it is may have important gaps, but that these gaps may have a pattern of systematically misleading us – our phenomenology may not be simply impoverished but a tapestry of temporarily satisfying fictions … but then do we seek some truth behind by digging, settle down in the uncertainties of skepticism, or make rankings among more and less satisfying fictions … I’ve always been torn between these three options …”

    And it’s the ‘systematic’ nature of the misleading that’s key here, since it’s the systematic nature of these inklings that fool us into thinking them ‘insights.’ (Zahavi relies on systematicity heavily in his defenses of phenomenology, for instance). As Wimsatt always likes to point out, systematic deceptions are a good indicator that something heuristic is going on, that some tool is being applied outside its ecological comfort zone.

  5. Some argument for dark phenomenology is aporetic in character. That’s the deconstructive side that claims that if phenomenology (the domain) is anything like phenomenology (the method) says it is, then it must also escape the bounds of that method.

    Scott’s BBT takes a different route to the same position, arguing from the nigh impossibility of a complex system having the power to represent its internal processing without drastic simplification. This, in turn, is experimentally supported in various ways – e.g. by work on change blindness, choice blindness, the shortfall between sensory discrimination and identification, etc. What seems like “intuition” is a kind of interpretation that only comes to light in experimental conditions – one example of the way in which empirical psychology is indispensable to phenomenology.

    So the argument for the dark side is overdetermined. Scott’s point about systematic error is fascinating. Love to pursue that some time 🙂

    Yeah and still uncertain about the applicability or relevance of mysticism here. But there’s a broken reflexivity to this discussion that fascinates me I admit, which the themes of mysticism, horror and desire provide a way of soliciting. This why I particularly welcome BPM’s contribution. I’m just struggling to say anything that will do justice to it, as yet.

    And if, as Scott says, this isn’t just about philosophy but about the the extreme limitations of our capacity to know the real, then something like this speculative solicitation of limits seems unavoidable.

  6. Like where you’re heading with this turn toward dark phenomenology. In my own work I’ve been slowly moving away from the dialectical materialists and into a sense of alien phenomenology developed in Levi R. Bryant (Ontology of Machines), Pier Paolo Pasolini (“languages of infrastructures”), Maurizio Lazzarato (Guattari’s asygnifying non-human semiotics, etc.). This sense of moving out of human signifying systems and into all those other systems that are productive without any need of signification or meaning or intentional consciousness. As Levi puts it “adopting the perspective of technology itself rather than that of the human designer and users of technology: a non-human history of technique and technology.” This sense that technology has its own agendas – a non-teleological one. In some ways your disconnect thesis seems to prevail in this non-human turn toward a non-signifying form of subjectivity without the linguistic constraints imposed by our long history of logic, dialectics, and analytics. Maurizio Lazzarato will capture much of this in Signs and Machines. Well worth a read.

  7. Hi Steven, Lovely to have you back on this site. And thanks for the reading suggestions. As you might guess, I’m also struggling with tensions opened up in this debate. In part, I suspect, this is a concern with how to write about the posthuman as much as a worry about substantive philosophical issues. But, again, that’s something I’ll try to develop in the next post.

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