Philosophical Catastrophism: Posthumanism as Speculative Aesthetics

Philosophical Catastrophism: Posthumanism as Speculative Aesthetics



Traven lost within the blocks

With the exhaustion of his supplies, Traven remained within the perimeter of the blocks almost continuously, conserving what strength remained to him to walk slowly down their empty corridors. The infection in his right foot made it difficult for him to replenish his supplies from the stores left by the biologists, and as his strength ebbed he found progressively less incentive to make his way out of the blocks. (Ballard 2014, 40).

In J G Ballard’s “The Terminal Beach” an ex-military airman, wanders Eniwetok Atoll, a former US nuclear test site dubbed the “nuclear trash can of the Pacific”. Malnourished and delusional, he is haunted by intimations of World War III and tracked across its concrete desert by his dead wife and child, victims of a fatal car crash (31).

There is no psychological pretext for Traven’s presence on the atoll. The narrative is unconcerned with motivation or history which only breaks its surface in fragments: an opening reminiscence of a birthplace in Dakar, images of night bombing raids on Japan, a reference to Auschwitz, the vigilant ghosts of Traven’s family (29). His existence is now equivalent to his exploration of its synthetic landscape:

The system of megaliths now provided a complete substitute for those functions of his mind which gave to it its sense of the sustained rational order of time and space. Without them, his awareness of reality shrank to little more than the few square inches of sand beneath his feet (40).

Traven has become his traversal of the island; what passes for his world the unity of his disparate encounters.  The island is thus a function of temporal synthesis or time binding. As Ballard writes: “if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, 20th century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed, in a sense true of few other places.)”


The reduction of Eniwetok to these obsessive circumlocutions is Ballard’s aberrant version of the philosophical position that the speculative realist philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”. Correlationism gets its initial formulation in Kant’s claim that concepts cannot be dogmatically assumed to hook onto a mind-independent world but, instead, cook or create connections between experiences or judgements. Thus, objects are not external to thought but must be conceived in terms of what thinking performs.

Correlationism holds that “we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other” (Meillassoux 2006, 5). Meillassoux describes Kant as a “weak” correlationist, however, because a non-correlated thing-in-itself remains conceivable in his philosophy, if unknowable (35). Subsequent “strong” correlationisms, such as Husserl’s phenomenology or Hilary Putnam’s internal realism, view the very idea of an absolute reality as incoherent.

For Meillassoux, strong correlationism marks a profound failure of metaphysical nerve, locking philosophy into a closeted reflection upon human experience which struggles to make sense of the inhuman vistas revealed by mathematical natural science (Meillassoux 2006).

Ballard’s writing is likewise forgetful both of the cosmic “great outdoors” explored by traditional science fiction writers and the narrowly personal horizons of literary realism. In the 1995 introduction to Crash, Ballard suggests that the inner life of traditional literature has become pre-empted by mediated lifestyles and identities. There are no “true” or “authentic” needs when we are free “to play games with our psychopathologies” (Sellars and O’Hara, 288).

As Jean Baudrillard points out in his essay on Crash, there is no more perversion in Ballard’s universe, no yardstick to measure the pathology of our sexual aims (Baudrillard 1994,113). A correlationist analysis of our mediascape is justified, then, because the social has already acquired the consistency of a dream. Ballard explores a posthuman topos where the “elaborately signaled landscapes” of motorways and airport termini, the launch gantries of Cape Canaveral, are metaphorical bindings to the future. Their matter or proper function is irrelevant.

Posthuman desire is correlated with technique while technological systems form the crucible of our “time filled” unconscious (Ballard 1995: 5). This “Cyborgian desire” can be revealed in fetishistic enjoyment. In Crash, the central protagonist “James Ballard” observes Gabrielle, a recovering crash victim, finding affinities between her damaged body – sleeved in its enticing orthopedic exoskeleton – and the display vehicles at the Earls Court Motor show (Crash 1995 …).

However, the true sexuality of the novel pivots around the terminal metaphor of its title. Vaughan, the self-appointed ideologist of its Cyborgian world dreams of dying in a car crash with Elizabeth Taylor; remarking that this “unique vehicle collision … would transform all our dreams and fantasies” (Ballard 1995: 130).

The actual collision, with which the novel opens, is bathetically, Vaughan’s “one true accident” (Ibid., p. 7). His car misses Taylor’s limousine, careening into an airline bus below the London Airport Flyover. Vaughan’s poor aim fuels’ the novel’s fatal machinery, however. Ballard is clear that Gabrielle’s alluring thigh wound or Vaughan’s “heavy nipples” are not erotic in and of themselves.[1] They are pure relata within its mediatized world. It is being-in-relation-to that is of erotic interest.

Early in the novel Ballard’s sexual reveries are occupied by the “dulled aluminum and areas of imitation wood laminates” of airport buildings or the coincidence of a “contoured lighting system” and the bald head of a bartender. These are substituted by a savage inventory of overkill bodies: “the over-white concrete of [an] evening embankment”, ruptured genitalia, luminous drifts of safety glass, copulating bodies sheathed in “glass, metal and vinyl”, skin incised by underwear, or chromium manufacturers’ medallions – all erotically interchangeable (Baudrillard 1994: 113).

There is no ruling metaphor for these functions beyond the one sex=death we know can never happen. Everything can be concatenated with anything because the event these couplings allude to is a dream of unmediated presence beyond the flat multiple of the world.

Towards the end of “The Terminal Beach” Traven discovers the corpse of a Japanese doctor tucked in a crevice at the edge of a vast bunker complex (46). It tells him that the island is an “ontological Eden” which can free him “of the hazards of time and space” if he accepts the plurality of the universe (48).

But acceptance is no solution to the potent yet empty time of the blocks. Traven must look beyond the actual posthuman world, “suspended from the quivering volcano’s lip of World War III.” The “historical and psychic zero” binding modernity’s excremental fragments through the extirpation of sense and history (30-31).

In Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction Ray Brassier enlists catastrophe to explore the relationship between his speculative realist ontology and the crisis of human meaning or “nihilism”, which he proposes as the liberating consequence of scientific reason.

This catastrophe is the extinction of matter following the heat death of the universe, when even nucleonic particles will decay in a shower of gravitons and only an “implacable gravitational expansion will continue … pushing the extinguished universe … into unfathomable darkness” (Brassier 2007, 228).

This absolute terminus pulls the curtain down on Brassier’s dark vision of Enlightenment. It marks the point at which scientific will to know discovers life and thought to be deflections on the path to extinction (Brassier 2007,). It supposedly marks an event for thought that could never be correlated for thought since embodiment and intelligence will have long ceased before the final “asymptopia”. Brassier’s catastrophe is thus a transcendental event that, he claims, forces us to consider radically asubjective and anti-vital conditions for objectivity and truth.

As Paul Ennis observes, death is ontologically flattened in this narrative: “the sun is dying precisely to the same extent as human existence is bounded by extinction” (223). It is no longer human death, or death for us; no longer the horizon of human finitude (Ennis 2016, 23). Reason, meanwhile, is shown as a vector: “for an alien process … that actively undermines attempts to provide our species with a unique, special status within the cosmos”. (26-7)

If everything dies in the same way, everything is equally consequent upon the “purposelessness which compels all purpose” (236). If our experience suggests that the world is meaningful or that we are in a world suffused with purpose, then so much the worse for it. Our phenomenology – as I have argued independently – is dark (Roden 2013, 2014). Cosmic extinction shows reality to be alien to thought: thus thought to be alien to itself. As the tag-line to R Scott Bakker’s ultra-dark thriller Neuropath has it: “You are not what you think you are” (Bakker 2009).

If thought is inimical to life, then what drives it? Brassier likens this all-corroding will-to-know to Freud’s death drive, the tendency for all life to seek a lifeless state. In divesting our humanist conceits thought seeks to become adequate to its death. It copes with the traumatic real of extinction in a universe hurtling towards death – by somehow “identifying” with it:

It is this adequation that constitutes the truth of extinction. But to acknowledge this truth, the subject of philosophy must also recognize that he or she is already dead, and that philosophy is neither a medium of affirmation, nor a source of justification, but rather the organon of extinction (Brassier 2007, 239; Ennis 2016, 26).

Brassier’s catastrophe is thus analogous to the terminal metaphors of Crash and “Beach”. Ballard’s ontological catastrophe lacks all positive qualities beyond the excision of sex=death. The zero-promise ratifying our abrasive sexualities. For Brassier, the zero is the real determining knowledge of itself from outside the correlation between thought and object, even outside chronological time (230). The thing comes to know itself as thing (Woodward 2015, 33).

Yet learning I am dead, or selfless, cannot make me deader. Extinction through the medium of thought is thus not the spatio-temporal extinction of the asymptotic universe (228, 130). If knowledge seeks death it misses its target, just as Vaughan misses his appointment with the actress. Both events are strictly impossible. Brassier will articulate a somewhat a more tenable itinerary for the dead subject; though, as we shall see, this substitutes an encounter the strictly unthinkable for the impossible. Both formulations imply an alien drive to encounter the dark side of our phenomenology.

So who, or what, is in the driver’s seat?

2.     New Flesh Disconnect


My first viewing of David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) was shattering. I was upended by its dislocated narrative rather than the body horror of its denouement, where image extrudes into reality, bodies explode or form erogenous control surfaces. I could not see how this unreality grew from the film it initially seems to be: a paranoid thriller unconventionally crossed with an s/m romance involving Max, a director of a cable TV station specializing in soft porn (James Woods) and a masochistic radio psychiatrist, Nicki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry).

My psychotic blip was aptly mimetic of the ontological catastrophe it depicts. The Videodrome of the title is a snuff TV signal which causes brain cancers and reality-warping hallucinations.

Retrospectively, it is easy to see that Videodrome is never realist. Its cinematic world is potent with disaster from the first.

This is evident in the early scene where Max and Nicki meet on a television panel show hosted by Rena King. The topic is sex and violence on television. Rena challenges Max to justify then erotic content on his station. He responds that it’s a “harmless outlet” for his subscribers. A defense which seems to draw interest the third guest, “Media prophet” Professor Brian O’Blivion.[2]

O’Blivion replicates an exaggerated version of this posthumanist ontology in video monologues curated by his daughter Bianca. She later tells Max that he invented the Videodrome signal to facilitate our “evolution as a technological animal”. In a reveal that might have inspired young Brassier, we learn that the Professor was quietly killed by fascists hoping to use Videodrome to purify North America. Rena’s guest is only a recording from Bianca’s video vault.

Still O’Blivion “responds” as Max speaks. He turns in his baronial chair, stroking his pencil moustache. When Rena asks him about the effects of erotic TV, he again “returns” her glance from the monitor. The content of the interview scene is less important than its formal erosion of the cue or frames distinguishing the real from its electronic simulacra (Browning 2007). Cronenberg cinematic world will deliquesce like old film stock; reforming as “new flesh”; infinitely plastic, deliriously non-compliant. Like Brassier’s extinction, Cronenberg’s catastrophe has already taken place.


The de-framing is reiterated in the gun scene in Max’s apartment. He is watching a recording of O’Blivion stating that the video-induced cancers are new organs of perception:

I think that it is not really a tumor, not an uncontrolled, undirected little bubbling part of flesh, but that it is, in fact, a new organ, a new part of the brain. I think that massive doses of Videodrome signal will ultimately create a new outgrowth of the human brain, which will produce and control hallucination to the point that it will change human reality. After all, there is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there? You can see that, can’t you?

At this O’Blivion’s face fills the screen – effacing the partition between virtual and real. There is a reverse shot of Max’s face and naked torso. He has been absently stroking a sore patch on his abdomen with a gun, which has now opened into a wetly dilating vaginal slit that will double as his data port (Wilson 2016). Max is becoming the incarnation of the “new flesh”.

This brings us to Debbie Harry’s Nicki.

During O’Blivion’s video monologue on the Rina King show, Max asks her out. Back at his apartment, Nicki looks through his VHS’s for “porno” to get her “in the mood”. She picks up the Videodrome tape. He tells her it’s a constant round of torture and murder: “It ain’t exactly sex”.

Nicki is concerned by the poor quality of the pirated tape but she’s “turned on” by its representation of a women being flogged in a bare room with wet clay walls. (14.39) Max is unsettled by Nicki’s insouciance, though he later accedes to her desire for pain.[3] Nicki wears an off-the-shoulder top which allows her to show Max the cuts on her neck by lifting her hair. She invites him to cut her with his Swiss army knife (Browning 2007, 63).

This segues to an incongruously tender scene: Max and Nicki naked together on a rug; Videodrome torture images washing over them while Max perforates Nicki’s ear with a needle (Browning 2007).

The effectiveness of the sequence relies on the vulnerability both leads bring to their characters. The pornographer is revealed as a considerate lover, concerned for Nicki and her desires. Harry, meanwhile, convinces us of Nicki’s vulnerability and self-possession.

These s/m scenes are the erotic core of Videodrome. They seem preoccupied with a secret – Nicki’s “desire” – which is unveiled as another kind of death drive. In a later scene, Nicki tells Max that she’s been assigned to investigate Videodrome in Pittsburgh, where she intends to audition for the show. When he warns that its owners play “Rougher than even Nicki Brand wants to play” she asks him for a lighted cigarette, with which she burns her left breast.

Nicki’s sexuality remains opaque, however. We cannot know whether she always wanted to be killed on the show, whether her statement was foreplay and bravado; or, again, whether, like Max, her desires and fantasies have been accentuated by exposure to Videodrome signal.

At the same time, the ontological catastrophe of Videodrome renders these implied depths irrelevant.

Bianca later shows Max video footage of Nicki being strangled in the room with red clay walls (1.10.31). But, like O’Blivion, she persists as image – except by the end of the film the boundary between image and reality has eroded. As Nicki’s video avatar tells Max near its end, she has learned through Videodrome that “death is not the end”. Videodrome does not allow Nicki – or perhaps anyone – to die. Instead, she is co-opted as a kind of muse for the new flesh.

Max first hallucinates her in this form as a hooded torturer. After showing her garroting O’Oblivion in a coda to one of his video logs, the television tumesces with black veins like an auxiliary sexual organ from one of James Ballard’s machinic reveries. The scene ends with enormous video lips enveloping Max in hyperreal fantasy of sexual availability. The ambivalence of desire is lost.

But what is the new flesh? Its ontology mixes two contrary ingredients: a neuro-reductionism for which experience is a technically manipulable brain process, and a mad dog idealism, in which reality is plastic because nothing (including brain processes) is real.

However, these converge in hyperplasm. Boundaries between desire, fantasy and flesh crash.[4] Videodrome’s catastrophe is fundamentally different to that of Crash – an unthinkable absolute that, like Brassier’s extinction – is outside the correlation. In Videodrome, it is the extirpation of the secret, of death, and reason.

3.     Hyperplasm

Brassier’s eliminativism is complicated by his rationalism. He is prepared to eliminate consciousness, but must place reasons in a dead universe. His philosophy after Nihil follows Wilfred Sellars in proposing that agency arises for beings capable of interpreting their mental lives in terms of moves within communal language games. (See also Negarestani 2014a and b).

This allows them to infer the psychological states of persons from what they do; and what they will do from what they ought to do in the “space of reasons”. Since psychology, unlike physics, is governed by rational norms, strict laws relating mental and physical descriptions is impossible.[5] Such an anti-reductionist physicalism resists arguments for eliminating the manifest image of persons and reasons while leaving natural science sovereign in its own sphere.

However, in a hyperplastic world the manifest image would boil away like plasma without leaving any residue that is even thinkable within the space of reasons.

Define a hyperplastic agent (HP) as one able to alter its body at any grain (without compromising its agency).

Anti-reductionism implies psychological changes in a system cannot be reliably inferred from physical changes in it (or vice versa). So, attributing a psychology to an HP would never tell us what it was going to do. Some auto-intervention could always delete any mental state we attributed to it and reason would be powerless to infer which. Nothing would follow about its future. We could not make sense of an HP using our psychology and neither could it.

We have already seen that Brassier’s analogy between philosophy as the “organon of extinction” and the Freudian death drive is problematic because the itineraries of knowledge and cosmic burn out diverge. In a later essay, he latches onto a speculative passage in the work of philosopher and cognitive scientist, Thomas Metzinger, to lay out a clearer itinerary for a dead subject. The extinction vent is now the neurotechnological ability to model the self as a vastly complex causal system rather than the selves we think we know.

Human personal experience, according to Metzinger, is a dynamic and temporally situated model of the world, which represents the modeler as a distinct and always present part of the phenomenological scene. The phenomenal world model thus includes a phenomenal self-model (PSM). However, neither model represents the subpersonal cognitive processes that generates it. To borrow a phrase from Michael Tye: the phenomenal world- and self-models are “transparent”. It is as if we looked through them into an immediately given world out there and a self-present mental life “in here” (Metzinger 2004 131: 165). However, this is a cognitive illusion generated by the brain’s inability to look under its own hood.

Metzinger calls this constraint “autoepistemic closure”. The world “out there” and our “inner” life appear not to be models or simulations because the brain neglects its own causal complexity. Autoepistemic Closure explains selfhood as a specific computational strategy. If selfhood is a higher-order model there is a rationale for keeping the representational load incurred by modeling process to a minimum.

The vivid immediacy of conscious experience is thus nothing to do with qualia – mythical intrinsic properties of conscious states. It is an artifact of neglect, or phenomenological darkness (Roden 2013): experience is a poor yardstick for understanding experience.

If so, Metzinger claims, we can also conceive of a Self/World model that did include this extra information (Metzinger 2004, 336).

A being with such a world model would lack the immediate consciousness of self or world. It would, in effect, be the completely objectified subject of a completed neuroscience.

The idea of a subject that knows itself as an object might seem paradoxical; but, taking up Metzinger’s hypothesis, Brassier argues that occupying space of reasons does not entail consciousness. Subjectivity, in this Kantian sense, is the practical capacity to acknowledge or deviate from norms or rules. It “requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self….” (Brassier 2013a) Thus, the subject of a completed neuroscience can be understood as the apotheosis of our scientific quest. A zombie subject, maybe, but one lying within the horizon of human thought.

However, if the argument for hyperplasticity goes through Brassier’s prospectus for a completed neuroscience is outside the scope of our normative epistemic vocabulary. This is because the hypothetical selfless agent would have just the information needed to engage in fine grained self-interventions of a hyperplastic kind (Roden 2014, 100-103; Roden Unpublished).

And if hyperplasticity renders the space of reasons inoperative: the self-less agent could not qualify as a rational subject either. The completion of neurotechnology would not only eliminate conscious selves but rational agency as such.


4.     Unbinding and Aesthetics

In Videodrome Cronenberg transposes the correlational posthumanism of Ballard and much of the academic “posthumanities” onto a speculative account of the posthuman as a technological rupture in the correlation.

This idea of rupture can be conceptually tamed up to a point – that is, roughly, what I sought to achieve in Posthuman Life. So, we can wrap up the idea of the posthuman in schemas like SP which states:

SP: Descendants of current humans could become inhuman due to some process of technological alteration.

Where the idea of becoming inhuman through technical alteration is addressed in a distinct schema that I call the disconnection thesis (DT). Very roughly DT equates becoming nonhuman with agential independence from the social-technical systems we designate as human (Roden 2012; 2014, Ch5).

Brassier and Metzinger’s hypothesis of an objectified subject also conforms to this schema for rupture – since it implies a radically different agent, unlike anything humanly attainable. But the argument from hyperplasticity gives it an added twist. This agency (it appears) would lie outside our normative vocabulary. It would be an agent we could not understand as agent.

Speculative posthumanism is consequently unbounded by any concept derived from human experience or sense-making.[6] Or otherwise put, if our concept of agency or subjectivity extends to “hyperagency” we never got agency in the first place.

If I am right, then, speculative posthumanism corresponds to a hole in our understanding of the technological future. Even Brassier’s hyper-bleak futurism founders here, in darkness more absolute than Crash and cosmic burn out.[7] It seems, then, that the conception of the posthuman is threatened by an incoherence not unlike that afflicting Cronenberg’s new flesh ontology. It is, as Derrida might put it, a “regulated incoherence”, however. It allows a thought of posthuman agency even if this thought is forced to confront its own darkness and inadequacy (Derrida 1998, 259).[8]  This dark posthumanism requires us to confront a future beyond intelligibility. In Claire Colebrook’s words, it asks how we orient to a “life beyond humanity, beyond ethics and politics”[9]. But whence this demand, this need for orientation?

Unbounded posthumanism is the Xenomorph blood eating through the pseudo-rigorous formulae defining human/posthuman succession or “disconnection”.[10].  It seems, then, that the desire or demand for orientation is not elicited by a concept.  Yet if our relationship to the posthuman is not conceptual – or ethical – might it be aesthetic?

That is, at least, a model we have traditionally used to understand relationships to things which involve a feeling unbound by concept or need. As Steven Shaviro writes “Aesthetics involves feeling an object for its own sake, beyond those aspects of it that can be understood or used.” (Shaviro 2014, Loc 878).[11]

But there are no posthumans. Whatever demands or elicits feeling here is not the posthuman as such.[12] There is nothing to feel. However, aesthetics need not be occupied by things. Ballard’s and Cronenberg’s texts are not things but blocks of metaphor and sensation whose incoherence is also regulated by formal operations that adjoin disparate or antagonistic elements. They are, likewise, invested in something real – if not object-like – our intimate involvement with a planetary technical system too abstracted to be predicted, interpreted and too complex and large to be felt.[13] Hypermodernity: extreme derangements and shocking metamorphoses.  The protean social in Ballard; the intimate coupling of desiring-media in Cronenberg: micro-disconnections that, far from being oriented by the will-to-know or the will-to-nothing, are counter-final. The zero horizon which cannot be contained in any idea of progress or reason (Roden 2014, Ch7).

The burden of this encounter rows us back from the alien shores of the hyperplastic to a fissure running through the thought of Ballard, Brassier and Cronenberg. SP is constitutively aesthetic because it perceives the human as massively contingent – nested in a space whose limits are inadequately conceptualized, or unknown. Yet this contingency is not thought but executed in machineries of brutal and uncompromising abstraction.


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Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.

Brassier, R., 2007. Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction. Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brassier, R., 2011a. “Concepts and objects”. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism, re. press. pp.47-65.

Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, (Accessed March 2015)

Brassier, R. 2011b. “The View from Nowhere”. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture 17: 7–23.

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[1]  “Vaughan excited some latent homosexual impulse only within the cabin of his car or driving along the highway. His attraction lay not so much in a complex of familiar anatomical triggers – a curve of exposed breast, the soft cushion of a buttock, the hair-lined arch of a damp perineum – but in the stylization of posture achieved between Vaughan and the car. Detached from his automobile, particularly his own emblem-filled highway cruiser, Vaughan ceased to hold any interest” (117).


[2] O’Blivion is an effective caricature of the media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, who claimed that new media alter us in virtue of the way they vehiculate information, not their content. The capacity of television or the internet to stimulate sexual desire through pornographic imagery is trivial to compared to their deracination of sedimented ways of life.

[3] Max is as shocked by Nicki’s interest in pornography (presumably assuming this to be an exclusively male preserve) as by her enthusiasm for a snuff movie.

[4] Apparently, an earlier draft of Videodrome included a scene where Nicki, Max and Bianca merge into an “orgiastic fusion” sprouting “mutated sex organs” from its ancillary orifices (Browning 2007, 70).

[5] See Donald Davidson, “Mental Events,” in Essays on Actions and Events, (Oxford: Clarendon Press 2001), 207-225.

[6] Some might hope to re-impose anthropological horizons by insisting on a local correlationism for agency: i.e. the only agents are those interpretable in principle “our” norms imputing beliefs, desires or actions. However, norms or reasons are not – as Robert Brandom concedes – “part of the intrinsic nature of things, which is entirely indifferent to them.” (Brandom 1994, 48).  So pragmatist accounts presuppose a further subject to interpret some events as normative. Since this extra subject (hors-sujet) remains outside pragmatist theory, the concept of agency is irreducible being interpretable in the light of social norms. “interpretability is ill-defined unless we have some conception of what is doing the interpreting.” (Roden 2014, 128; Roden Forthcoming). In-principle-interpretability is undefined unless we have some idea of what is doing the interpreting (Roden 2014, 128).

[7] Videodrome can be viewed as confused preview of “the semantic apocalypse” obsessively discussed by the psychologist protagonists of Bakker’s Neuropath. This is moment where science’s propensity to expunge meaning from the world doubles back on us, leaving a reality in which there are “innumerable causes for everything, but no reasons for anything.”

The book’s main antagonist, Neil Cassidy is a brilliant rogue neuroscientist who employs technologies acquired during his work for the US government’s anti-terrorist program to warp human mind/brains into terrible shapes of his devising. As Steven Shaviro points out in his book Discognition the epistemological double bind Bakker cultivates leaves the reader unable to apply convenient motivations or labels like “psychopath” to Cassidy. For he has used these same neurotechnologies to “subtract” all his illusions of selfhood and empathic communion. Reason and meaning are no longer on his agenda, as he informs us:

“What you folk-psychologists call anxiety, fear; all that bullshit. They’re little more than memories to me now. But I’ve also shut down some of the more deceptive circuits as well. I now know, for instance, that I will utterly nothing. I’m no longer fooled into thinking that “I” do anything at all” (Bakker 2010, 346)

[8] Bioethicists who take the long view will need to bracket any privileging of anthropoform subjects. For sure, subjects or moral persons may deserve consideration; but we cannot preclude the existence of non-Kantian agents no less deserving of consideration.

[9] “At the very least, it is time to question the ‘we’ who would subtend and be saved by the question of ethics and politics. If that ‘we’ is annihilated what remains is less a subject of thought, a common humanity, a proto-politics, but a fragile life that is not especially human. And once that is all that remains one might ask about the viability of living on: if humanity values life, rather than imagining itself as that which supervenes upon or survives beyond life, then that valuation would have to consider those modes of life beyond humanity, beyond ethics and politics. This would not yield an environmental ethics, for an environment is always that which surrounds or houses a living being as environs or milieu. What it might be is a counter ethic for the cosmos?” (Colebrook 2014: 148)

[10] A standard objection to speculative posthumanism is that it presupposes the kind of essentialist account of humanity which critical posthumanism, not to mention AUP, asks us to drop. In Posthuman Life I argued that we could side-step human essentialism by treating succession as a disconnection between human wrought social systems and some technologically constituted entity formerly belonging to those systems. An entity is posthuman if it acquires the functional autonomy to operate outside this assemblage (Roden 2012; Roden 2014, Chapter 5-6).

The Disconnection Thesis (DT) avoids essentialism by treating the Wide Human as a thing rather than an abstract property: an assemblage with both biological and non-biological components. Becoming posthuman is not a matter of losing a necessary property of humanity, but of moving from one environment and learning to function in another.

DT understand becoming nonhuman in terms of agential independence. An artifact like a robot is a “wide human” so long as it depends on its role in human ecologies to exist. It becomes posthuman if it comes to work outside them and enters other functional relationships – e.g. by learning to utilize free energy from nonhuman sources or replicating itself with foraged waste matter.

This is well and fine, but it still depends on characterizing the robot (or cyborg, AI, post-mortal, synth vampire, etc.) as a technically constituted agent. But what is an agent? AUP, as we saw, renders this question illegitimate because it denies there is a substantive theory agency that could apply to all agents. Not only does DT not tell us what posthumans are like; it has no critera for determining when a disconnection occurs.

It follows that understanding the posthuman (if possible) must proceed without rules. Kant argued the same of aesthetic judgements of taste. There are no rules for determining when something is beautiful (and, unlike the Kantian aesthetician, we cannot even appeal to the presupposition of universal assent when identifying disconnection – Roden 2014, 186-7). Similarly, artistic creation shapes objects or events which generate new rules or affordances; it is not limited by pre-existing rules. Unbounded posthumanism cannot lean on an aesthetic theory; but it is conditioned by aesthetic encounters and by the production of the new. Now, if this is right, then we need to ask what kind of encounters and productions furnish its distinctive content.


[11] “A subject does not cognize the beauty of an object. Rather, the object lures the subject while remaining indifferent to it; and the subject feels the object, without knowing it or possessing it or even caring about it. The object touches me, but for my part I cannot grasp it or lay hold of it, or make it last. I cannot dispel its other-ness, its alien splendor. If I could, I would no longer find it beautiful; I would, alas, merely find it useful” (Shaviro 2012, 4)


[12] Or at least, the only reason why we might think there are is an artifact of the lack of stable critera for identifying an event or a thing as posthuman.

[13] “The self-augmenting/counter-final nature of modern technological systems implies that the conditions under which human ethical judgements are adapted can be overwritten by systems over which we have no ultimate control. A disconnection would be only the most extreme consequence of this “divergent, disrupted and diffuse systems of forces”. An ethics anthropologically bounded by the human world thus ignores its monstrously exorbitant character (Roden 2014, 186).”

8 thoughts on “Philosophical Catastrophism: Posthumanism as Speculative Aesthetics

  1. Fantastic stuff! I especially like the way you use hyperplasticity as the material fly in the intentional ointment. It’s a great way to concretize the limits of intentional cognition, and so give a vertiginous taste of anthropologically unbounded posthuman possibility space.

  2. Yeah, hyperplasticity seemed an economical way to just dramatise the boundedness of human metacognition vs the notional unboundedness of posthuman possibility, without getting all scholastic on people. Thanks!

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