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.
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.