Note on aesthetics and dark phenomenology

 

dead_android_selfie

My first Dark Posthumanism post explored some of the discussions of dark phenomenology and naturalism in the course of @philPerc‘s summer reading group on Posthuman Life. Dark phenomena, recall, are experienced affects that provide no or only an insufficient yardstick for their description. We have them, we talk about them, inordinately even; but having them does not allow us to describe them adequately or even recognise them over time. A microtonal difference between pitches might qualify. We feel a difference and report it; but we are unable to carry that difference with us in memory. We might be haunted by a euphoria that we can never recover, or a crushing terror we cannot articulate. At issue in the earlier discussion, was a tension (in my case “hesitation”) between a thin reading of darkness  as a purely epistemological category and a “thick” reading that interprets the dark side of experience as basic, eluding theoretical reason in principle.

Steven Shaviro subscribes to a very strong version of the thick reading, for example, in On the Universe of Things, where he favourably cites Whitehead’s characterisation of primordial experience as “a sense of influx of influence from other vaguer presences in the past, localized and yet evading local definition”. This darkness is not just for us – an artefact of poor information that could be corrected were we to improve our theories or information gathering techniques; or a consequence of human cognitive or sensory limitations. Shaviro follows panpsychists like Galen Strawson in holding that such basic qualitative awareness is an intrinsic, non-relational aspect of everything – cats, rocks, neutrinos.

Shaviro’s reading is very strong because it attributes a kind of intrinsic awareness to everything. We might, after all hold, that the darkness is irreducible but probably also local to states of minded creatures. Or, following Metzinger and Bakker, treat it as an artifact of the cognitive inaccessibility of neurocomputational processes for the brain. They are inadequately represented because the system must break out of a metarepresentational loop that would require infinite resources (were each representational process to be itself the subject of grainy higher order modelling).

In any case, there does seem to be something philosophically questionable about claiming that we don’t have an adequate grasp of the nature of subjectivity while holding (on the other hand) that everything is subjective. If we don’t have a secure first-personal grasp of what phenomenology is, then we’re not in a promising position to attribute it more widely. Not only don’t we know what it is like to be a neutrino, we don’t know enough about the phenomenal to be in a position to usefully generalise it. We gain nothing philosophically or scientifically by doing that. For example, we don’t elucidate the concept of non-relational properties unless we know that phenomenal properties are somehow non-relational. And attributing proto-phenomenal properties to neutrinos or electrons just gives us a different emergentist headache from the one we had before.

It is coherent to allow that the thick reading might be true without embracing panpsychism. There are phenomenal episodes. They are dark (We feel them; don’t know much about them, beyond what they make us think or do). Their darkness holds in principle. On this account no matter how much our scientific knowledge improves, their relationship to brains’ computational and functional properties will remain speculative at best. While this claim might be true, it can’t be justified without claiming the kind of intuitive information regarding phenomenal natures that the dark phenomenology hypothesis precludes. Indeed, the position borders on the self-vitiating. If we don’t know what X is, then we’re on weak ground if we insist go on to make irreducibility or ineliminability claims about it: we don’t know that a neurophenomenology of the dark is impossible just because a certain kind of phenomenology is.  So, despite its aura, the dark phenomenology hypothesis is not conducive to wide angle metaphysical theorising.

A more fruitful application perhaps lies in our understanding of the aesthetic and its ontological pertinence. For we can understand the obscurity and insistence of experience as a response to singularity. We experience affects, desires, percepts about which we are certainly in the dark, but nonetheless form part of our congress with the world. I can see and hear things that are too visibly or audibly unlike anything else for more than the most summary description. I could talk a little about the artificial transients in Xenakis’ Hibiki-Hana Ma but this would be a tiny pinprick in the description of this roiling thunderhead of sound. Likewise I can come up with lame comparisons to convey the way Berlinde de Bruyckere sculptures appear to me in photographs  (“Cripplewood looks like a tree !”). Either would fail to capture their sonic or visual appearance.

 

berlinde_de_bruyckere_cripplewood_2012-13bjpg

No conceptual inventory could do this. These appearances can be subjected to phenomenological analysis, clearly,  but this barely touches what we see, hear or feel in response to them and would be unintelligible without some perceptual encounter.

Much the same could be said of the masses of sound wielded in Hendrix’s Star Spangled Banner. Analysis is possible – minutely so if we treat a sound sample or digital image as a bit map of changes induced in recording instruments  – but these are better thought as machines for producing further affects. They can be tools for analysis (as when I use a graphical representation of a sample to analyse the envelope of the sound it produces on normal playback). However, the irreducibility of the thing to its bit maps or structural isomorphs does not resolve the ontological status of experience (for example whether it is irreducibly subjective rather than objective) since non-mental or non-phenomenal entities might resist analysis or representation in this way. It implies that the aesthetic relation exceeds and overflows the conceptual. It is, as Shaviro argues, a response to the traumatic liveliness of the universe of things.

Shaviro, Steven (2014). The Universe of Things: On Speculative Realism. University of Minnesota Press.

13 thoughts on “Note on aesthetics and dark phenomenology

  1. my pleasure, worth a read i think so hope folks stop in, don’t think we need the sort of operatic drama of “traumatic liveliness” or certainly don’t need to make it a general or even common feature/phenomena when we have what keller easterling diagnoses as the “lumpy” qualities of the world:
    https://deterritorialinvestigations.wordpress.com/2016/02/20/anxious-to-share-brian-holmes-keller-easterling/
    “Uncertainty doesn’t preclude action,” Easterling writes elsewhere. “It is the stuff of a more finely grained and stealthy political world where one works with the indeterminate to be not only more practical but also more vigilant.”

  2. Yea: “these are better thought as machines for producing further affects. They can be tools for analysis (as when I use a graphical representation of a sample to analyse the envelope of the sound it produces on normal playback). However, the irreducibility of the thing to its bit maps or structural isomorphs does not resolve the ontological status of experience (for example whether it is irreducibly subjective rather than objective) since non-mental or non-phenomenal entities might resist analysis or representation in this way. It implies that the aesthetic relation exceeds and overflows the conceptual.”

    Of late been rereading most of Felix Guattari’s works… between his and Deleuze’s notions of abstract machines and diagrammatic or nonconscious thinking as cartographic, seems to fit well with where you’re heading: “Diagrammatic thinking is, however, not so much about the concrete shapes and forms of the geometrical configuration of knowledge represented as about the dynamic of how the structures of connectivity and separation—together with attentive abstractions and the relation of points of connectivity (territorialization) and disconnection (deterritorialization) and reconnection (reterritorialization)—are performed, evolve, and show forces of change.”

    This post from the Atlas of Transformation: http://monumenttotransformation.org/atlas-of-transformation/html/d/diagrammatic-thinking/diagrammatic-thinking-alexander-gerner.html is worth a read.

  3. just trying to get at what it is like to live/experience-life, I enjoy reading folks like Jane Bennett as I enjoy reading Whitman but when you look at the actual experiences (as I have as a clinician) of hoarders and the like you don’t find what she is describing at work what is there is more uncanny (and not Sublime) in the sense that we aren’t taken with magical tokens/talismans/totems but buried under fears/anxiety and piles of ordinary, trashed if not trashy, items, not unlike much of our planet these days.
    As for the limits of modeling/grasping so it is to be human I think, perhaps we can remember on occasion, as good neo-pragmatists, not to forget to con-fuse our maps with the terrains, take our efforts at mangling/manipulating/grasping as proto-types and not arche-types.
    http://syntheticzero.net/?s=prototypes

  4. sorry typing/grammar just meant we should try to keep in mind that we are making things (models, experiments, etc) more than dis-covering things, and so shouldn’t fall into the tyranny of the means.

  5. I suppose I’m more interested in writing about extreme art that threatens to overwhelm its commentators. Not that concerned with the ordinary. I can understand the appeal of pragmatism to others, but have a hysterical aversion to it, which may be a character flaw – i’m a bad joiner, i’m not interested in the collective or the common. I can see its appeal and importance, but it just doesn’t preoccupy or concern me. So I’m not even a bad neo-pragmatist. Always hated those complacent zombies in the philosophy common room who quoted Wittgenstein at you forever. Became one for a while.

  6. ah neo pragmatism wasn’t much interested in (argued against often) the collective or the conservative common (that’s part of the neo, needless to say the orthodox folks weren’t every pleased), see Rorty of Davidson and “living” metaphors.
    I would say that Wittgenstein was a maker of extreme works that threatened to overwhelm his audience but eventually all cutting edges get dulled with use. Now is there really (my interest in not in the common but the actual) art that does overwhelm it’s commenters and not just give the thrill of a threat, the shock of the new?
    my old prof Charles Winquist wrestled with this before he more or less drank himself to death yer library might have a copy of Epiphanies of Darkness.
    http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2012/07/marjorie-perloff-to-change-your-life-wittgenstein-on-christianity/

  7. Lovely post, and a very pithy critique of ‘dark panpsychism.’ All this reminds me of Block, strangely enough, and his arguments for dark phenomenal consciousness, or ‘phenomenological overflow.’ My criticism of him would be my worry vis a vis dark phenomology: to not make the mistake of confusing the ‘absence of representation with the representation of absence.’ So when you say:

    “It is coherent to allow that the thick reading might be true without embracing panpsychism. There are phenomenal episodes. They are dark (We feel them; don’t know much about them, beyond what they make us think or do). Their darkness holds in principle. On this account no matter how much our scientific knowledge improves, their relationship to brains’ computational and functional properties will remain speculative at best.”

    On my (thin-skinny-thin) approach, there are no ‘phenomenal episodes’ high-dimensionally speaking, so nothing ‘dark’ impinging on something ‘luminous,’ but there is information aplenty, and only a slice of it available for broadcast and only a slice of this available for report (as ‘experiences’ and so on). So in a sense, I think your account runs afoul the same criticism Dehaene, for instance, levels against Block, that of confusing the ontic difference between these slices (the information selected for broadcast versus the information selected for report (as so clearly evidenced in Sparling and Raffman, for instance)) for an ontological difference.

  8. Thanks for that clarification, Scott. A very helpful one. I had a dim realisation while I wrote this that I needed to re-read Block on phenomenal overflow. I don’t think that I’m committed to an ontic difference, however. I’m committed to dark phenomenal episodes. But this is consistent with varying accounts of their nature: from pansychism to functionalism. So it’s not an ontological commitment in the usual sense.

    I think also we also need to be careful not to make dimensionality a test of reality, or at least should clarify what that involves if we do. Standardly, the dimensionality of a system is a property that applies to it modulo some extrinsic co-ordinate system. If so, really we should talk of dimensionalities of descriptions rather than things. As I understand it, there’s a inductive definition of dimensionality in topology https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inductive_dimension defined on open sets that treats dimensionality as an intrinsic property of structures like spaces or manifolds. But it’s speculative (to overuse that term) how this applies to non-mathematical objects. This being the case, I think it’s legitimate to start with an aesthetic claim whose metaphysical interpretation is just left open and obviously includes naturalistic or even eliminativist construals. This then allows us to formulate a position where aesthetics becomes a partner to first philosophy without prescribing anti-naturalism.

    Finally, i allow that the information selected for report could be of many different kinds in my Dark Phenomenolog paper. Dark phenomenology need not be informationally more dense than light phenomenology, just more indeterminate. But, as I say, this is most helpful since this is a position I still need to clarify, as is obvious in this post.

  9. By ‘high-dimensional’ in this context I simply mean where information availability maxes out (the ‘material,’ ‘mechanical,’ ‘causal,’ ‘physical’ and so on). I like it primarily *because* it allows me to skirt the intrinsic/extrinsic conceptual Necker Cube. Unlike these other terms, it’s not so overdetermined as to immediately cue intentional assumptions. It let’s us think the ‘real’ outside the subject/object box.

    Raising Block is just another way of raising the worry I raised on Philosophical Percolations: that by framing the problem with phenomenology within the idiom of phenomenology, you’ll find yourself (as I think Derrida did) stuck (residually or otherwise) within the phenomenological/semantic ambit–‘reinscribed’! 😉 As you go down this road, I think you’ll discover the old problems cropping up in attenuated guises. Dark phenomenality inherits the theoretical inscrutability of ‘phenomenality,’ does it not?

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