Text for my presentation at the Questioning Aesthetics Symposium, Dublin, 12-13 May
Billions of years in the future, the Time Traveller stands before a dark ocean, beneath a bloated red sun. The beach is dappled with lichen and ice. The huge crabs and insects which menaced him on his visit millions of years in its past are gone. Apart from the lapping of red-peaked waves on the distant shore, everything is utterly still. Nonetheless, a churning weakness and fear deters him from leaving the saddle of the time machine.
He thinks he sees something black flop awkwardly over a nearby sandbar; but when he looks again, all is still. That must be a rock, he tells himself.
Studying the unknown constellations, he feels an enveloping chill. Then twilight segues to black. The old sun is being eclipsed by the moon or some other massive body.
The wind moans out of utter darkness and cold. A deep nausea hammers his belly. He is on the edge of nothing.
The object passes and an an arc of blood opens the sky. By this light he sees what moves in the water. Wells writes: “It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it. It seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about.”.
During the Traveller’s acquaintance with it, the creature gives no indication of purpose. Its “flopping” might be due to the action of the waves. It might lack a nervous system, let alone a mind replete with thoughts, beliefs or desires. In contrast, we learn much of the Traveller’s state. He feels horror at the awful blackness of the eclipse; pain breathing in the cold; “a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight”.
It is as if Wells’ text edges around what cannot be carried from that shore. There is no heroic saga of discovery, cosmic exploration or “first contact”; no extended reflection on time and human finitude. There is just a traumatic, pain-filled encounter.
When viewed against the backdrop of “Weird” literature, however, the event on the shoreline seems more consequential. As China Miéville has argued, the Weird is defined by its preoccupation with the radically alien. This is in stark opposition to the Gothic specter, that always signifies a representation in play between an excluded past and an uncertain future (Miéville 2012).
Monsters like H P Lovecraft’s Cthulhu do not put representation in play. They shred it. As Mieville writes:
For Cthulhu, in its creator’s words, “there is no language.” “The Thing cannot be described.” Even its figurine “resembled nothing familiar to geology or mineralogy” (Lovecraft, “Call”). The Color Out of Space “obeyed laws that are not of our cosmos” (“Colour”). The Dunwich Horror was “an impossibility in a normal world” (“Dunwich”).(Miéville 2012, 379)
The monstrous reality is indicated by grotesque avatars and transformations whose causes erode political order and sanity itself. In Jeff VanderMeer’s recent Southern Reach trilogy a fractious bureaucracy in a looking-glass USA is charged with managing a coastline that has been lost to some unearthly power. This proves inimical to human minds and bodies even as it transforms “Area X” into a lush Edenic wilderness. As we might expect, bureaucratic abstraction falters in its uncertain borders. The Reach’s attempts to define, test and explore Area X are comically inappropriate – from herding terrified rabbits across the mysterious barrier that encloses it, to instituting “round-the-clock” surveillance of an immortal plant specimen from an unsanctioned expedition (VanderMeer 2014a, b, c). All that remains to VanderMeer’s damaged protagonists is a misanthropic acceptance of something always too distant and strange to be understood, too near not to leave in them the deepest scars and ecstasies.
This misanthropy is implied in Wells’ earlier shoreline encounter. An unstory from a far future that is perhaps not alive or unalive. A moment of suspense and inconsequence that can reveal nothing because it inscribes the limits of stories.
Yet this alien is not the “gaseous invertebrate” of negative theology – but an immanent other, or as Miéville puts it, “a bad numinous, manifesting often at a much closer scale, right up tentacular in your face, and casually apocalyptic” (Miéville 2012, 381). It is this combination of inaccessibility and intimacy, I will argue, that makes the Weird apt for thinking about the temporally complex politics of posthuman becoming.
In Posthuman Life I argue for a position I call “Speculative posthumanism” (SP). SP claims, baldly, that there could be posthumans: that is, powerful nonhuman agents arising through some human-instigated technological process.
I’ve argued that the best way to conceptualize the posthuman here is in terms of agential independence – or disconnection. Roughly, an agent is posthuman if it can act outside of the “Wide Human” – the system of institutions, cultures, and techniques which reciprocally depend on us biological (“narrow”) humans (Roden 2012; Roden 2014: 109-113).
Now, as Ray Brassier usefully remind us in the context of the realism debate, mind-independence does not entail unintelligibility (“concept-independence”). This applies also to the agential independence specified by the Disconnection Thesis (Brassier 2011, 58). However, I think there are reasons to allow that posthumans could be effectively uninterpretable. That is, among the class of possible posthumans – we have reason to believe that there might be radical aliens.
But here we seem to confront an aporia. For in entertaining the possibility of uninterpretable agents we claim a concept of agency that could not be applied to certain of its instances, even in principle.
This can be stated as a three-way paradox.
- The behavior of radical aliens would not be interpretable as actions.
- Radical alien would be agents.
- An entity whose behaviors could not be interpreted as actions would not be an agent.
Each of these statements is incompatible with the conjunction of the other two; each seems independently plausible.
Something has to give here. We might start with proposition 3.
3) implies a local correlationism for agency. That is to say: the only agents are those amenable to “our” practices of interpretative understanding. 3) denies that there could be evidence-transcendent agency such procedures might never uncover.
Have we good reason to drop 3?
I think we do. 3) entails that the set of agents would correspond to those beings who are interpretable in principle by some appropriate “we” – humans, persons, etc. But in-principle interpretability is ill defined unless we know who is doing the interpreting.
That is, we would need to comprehend the set of interpreting subjects relevantly similar to humans by specifying minimal conditions for interpreterhood. This would require some kind of a priori insight presumably, since we’re interested in the space of possible interpreters and not just actual ones.
How might we achieve this? Well, we might seek guidance from a phenomenology of interpreting subjectivity to specify its invariants (Roden 2014: Ch 3). However, it is very doubtful that any phenomenological method can even tell us what its putative subject matter (“phenomenology”) is. I’ve argued that much of our phenomenology is “dark”; having dark phenomenology yields minimal insight into its nature or possibilities (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 Ch4).
If transcendental phenomenology and allied post-Kantian projects (see Roden 2017) fail to specify the necessary conditions for be an interpreter or an agent, we should embrace an Anthropologically Unbounded Posthumanism which rejects a priori constraints on the space of posthuman possibility. For example, Unbounded Posthumanism gives no warrant for claiming that a serious agent must be a “subject of discourse” able to measure its performances against shared norms.
Thus the future we are making could exceed current models of mutual intelligibility, or democratic decision making (Roden 2014 Ch8). Unbounded posthumanism recognizes no a priori limit on posthuman possibility. Thus posthumans could be weird. Cthulhu-weird. Area X weird. Unbounded Posthumanism is Dark Posthumanism – it circumscribes an epistemic void into which we are being pulled by planetary scale technologies over which we have little long run control (Roden 2014: ch7).
To put some bones on this: it is conceivable that there might be agents far more capable of altering their physical structure than current humans. I call an agent “hyperplastic” if it can make arbitrarily fine changes to its structure without compromising its agency or its capacity for hyperplasticity (Roden 2014, 101-2; Roden Unpublished).
A modest anti-reductionist materialism of the kind embraced by Davidson and fellow pragmatists in the left-Sellarsian camp implies that such agents would be uninterpretable using an intentional idiom because intentional discourse could have no predictive utility for agents who must predict the effects of arbitrarily fine-grained self-interventions upon future activity. However, the stricture on auto-interpretation would equally apply to heterointerpretation. Hyperplastic agents would fall outside the scope of linguistic interpretative practices. So, allowing this speculative posit, anti-reductionism ironically implies the dispensability of folk thinking about thought rather than its ineliminability.
Hyperplastics (H-Pats) would be unreadable in linguistic terms or intentional terms, but this is not to say that they would be wholly illegible. It’s just that we lack future proof information about the appropriate level of interpretation for such beings – which is consonant with the claim that there is no class of interpretables or agents as such.
Encountering H-Pats might induce the mental or physical derangements that Lovecraft and VanderMeer detail lovingly. To read them might have to become more radically plastic ourselves – more like the amorphous, disgusting Shoggoths of Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. Shoggothic hermeneutics is currently beyond us – for want of such flexible or protean interlocutors. But the idea of an encounter that shakes and desolates us, transforming us in ways that may be incommunicable to outsiders, is not. It is the unnarratable that the Weird tells in broken analogies, agonies and elisions. This is why the Weird Aesthetic is more serviceable as a model for our relationship to the speculative posthuman than any totalizing conception of agency or interpretation.
In confronting the posthuman future, then, we are more like Wells’ broken time traveller than a voyager through the space of reasons. Our understanding of the posthuman – including the interpretation of what even counts as Disconnection – must be interpreted aesthetically; operating without criteria or pre-specified systems of evaluation. It begins, instead, with xeno-affects, xeno-aesthetics, and a subject lost for words on a “forgotten coast” (See VanderMeer 2014c).
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 One of the things that binds the otherwise fissiparous speculative realist movement is an appreciation of Weird writers like Lovecraft and Thomas Ligotti. For in marking the transcendence of the monstrous, the Weird evokes the “great outdoors” that subsists beyond any human experience of the world. Realists of a more rationalist bent, however, can object that the Weird provides a hyperbolic model of the independence of reality from our representations of it.
 For example, one that supports pragmatic accounts like Davidsons’s with an ontology of shared worlds and temporal horizons. See, for example, Malpas 1992 and Roden 2014 Ch3.
 I’ve given reasons to generalize this argument against hermeneutic a priori’s. Analytic Kantian accounts, of the kind championed by neo-Sellarsians like Brassier, cannot explain agency and concept-use without regressing to claims about ideal interpreters whose scope they are incapable of delimiting (Roden 2017).
 In Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House” we are told that the demonic entity called “Azathoth” lies “at the center of ultimate Chaos where the thin flutes pip mindlessly”. The description undermines its metaphorical aptness, however, since ultimate chaos would also lack the consistency of a center. The flute metaphor only advertises the absence of analogy; relinquishing the constraints on interpretation that might give it sense. We know only that terms like “thin flutes” designate something for which we have no concept. Commenting on his passage in his book Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy, Graham Harman suggests that the “thin and mindless flutes” should be understood as “dark allusions to real properties of the throne of Chaos, rather than literal descriptions of what one would experience there in person” (Harman 2012: 36-7)