Alexander Wilson on Nonhuman Aesthetics and Disconnection

PXIII by Berlinde De Bruyckere MONA Hobart.jpg
Berlinde De Bruyckere, PXIII, Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

Alexander Wilson’s  paper ‘What Aesthetics Tells us About Posthumans’ (WA)  provides a synopsis of a challenging account of aesthetics developed at greater length in his new book Aesthesis and Perceptronium (AP). This is nothing less than an aesthetics generalized beyond the human phenomenology cited in philosophies of aesthetic judgement. I’m currently working through AP, so the following remarks about this wider account and its relevance to Speculative Posthumanism should be treated as tentative reflections.

The question asked by AP and WA is: what are the minimal (or most general) conditions for aesthetic experience, not necessarily human aesthetic experience? By ‘aesthetic experience’ Wilson does not only refer to experiences that prompt judgements of aesthetic value among optimally placed humans (e.g. according theories of the beauty or other forms of aesthetic validity). This is because judgements of aesthetic value can be treated as species of a wider genre of indistinct cognitions, discussed in the work of early moderns such as Baumgarten and Leibniz, but also in the work of later thinkers such as Kant, Husserl, James, Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Lyotard and Deleuze, to name but a few.

Following Leibniz, the spectrum distinct/confused should be distinguished from that running from clear to obscure ideas. The clear/obscure spectrum refers to the subjective conditions of cognition – that is, to the precision or lack of ambiguity with which a given cognitive state refers to or picks out its object. The other distinguishes objects whose nature is such that they can be adequately represented with finite sequences of distinct marks (syntactically discrete representations) and those whose adequate representation is always approximate and thus potentially infinite.

What we call – following Kant – ‘Judgments of taste’ or aesthetic worth are examples of such confused cognitions since,  even if we allow that our aesthetic judgements are generally clear (reliably distinguish aesthetically worthy things), there are no explicatable criteria for beauty or other aesthetic desiderata. Or as Leibniz puts it in ‘Meditations on Knowledge, Truth and Ideas’:

we see that painters and other artists correctly know [cognosco] what is done properly and what is done poorly, though they are often unable to explain their judgments and reply to questioning by saying that the things that displease them lack an unknown something. But a distinct notion is like the notion an assayer has of gold, that is, a notion connected with marks and tests sufficient to distinguish a thing from all other similar bodies.

However, this condition of indistinctness plausibly generalizes beyond the aesthetic (narrowly conceived) to many or most objects of phenomenal consciousness. We distinguish phenomenal differences along a colour or pitch spectrum while often having only the crudest explicit concepts to express these differences. That is, the number of phenomenal states that we can reliably discriminate outruns the number we can ‘apperceive’ under introspective concepts that pick out tokens of the same phenomenal type at different times. As Thomas Metzinger explains it, such states may be attentionally available or play a refined role in motor control without being conceptually available in ways that could ‘transport them out of the specious present’ (Metzinger 2005, 82; Roden 2019a, 521).

What we might – question beggingly – refer to with the philosophical term of art ‘qualia’ are just the states of mind whose phenomenology is (in my terms) ‘dark’ (Roden 2013; 2014, Ch 4). Having them as ‘subjective’ states, responding appropriately to them, responding differentially to them, etc. does not entail a conceptual understanding of their nature or identity conditions.

As Wilson goes on to argue at some length in his book, this already generalizes aesthetics to an inquiry into those conditions of knowledge and cognition that are in some way undecidable or that resist precise explication by the cognizer. It is thus far from being an enquiry into some epistemically self-intimating given but – in an elegant segue between Quine’s naturalized epistemology, Jamesian radical empiricism and the poststructuralism of Deleuze and Derrida – a speculative enquiry into those boundary conditions of thought that cannot be explicitly thought (AP, 47-50).

Indeed, it is important that this speculative concept of aesthetics does not eschew some kind of naturalization: that is, the use of formal or scientific models of nature and mind as tools for exploring the indistinction of the aesthetic at a more abstract level. This is where Wilson’s account cuts across the theory of posthumanity as disconnection developed in Posthuman Life. For just as disconnection requires a model of agency that generalizes beyond (say) intentionalist concepts of agency or rational subjectivity (Roden 2014, Ch6), so a generalized aesthetics cannot rest with a parochial human-centred discourse on consciousness that (given phenomenological darkness) is at best an partial and thus highly fallible account of experience in general. If our phenomenology is dark, phenomenological discourse does not tell us what phenomenology is and thus provides an inadequate groundwork for aesthetics in the wide sense proposed by Wilson.

Since the aesthetic is that part of our cognition that exceeds apperception, the aesthetician is better advised to abstract from actual phenomenology and consider – as Wilson does – the relation between indistinction and distinction within cognitive agents in general. Wilson achieves this by relating Leibniz’s procedural account of indistinction (that which resist finite expression) to current computational accounts of embodied cognition and predictive processing in a way that allows him to generalize aesthesis beyond the human to any living system.

Here, he exploits the idea of a ‘markov blanket’ used in Karl Friston’s Free Energy interpretation of the predictive processing model of cognition. A markov blanket is a set of causally interconnected states which comprise the internal milieu of a living system such as a singled cell bacterium or an animal. It includes internal states (‘the  beliefs’ which influence actions); action states that influence external states in the world outside the blanket, while the external states influence perceptions that influence internal states/beliefs, giving rise, as Friston puts it, to a ‘circular causality’, a continuous sampling of the environment which results (given the assumption of ergodicity) in it tending (on average) to occupy regions of the blanket’s state space that are the most probable for the system (Friston 2016). Wilson puts this nicely where he writes that the living system can be interpreted as a cognitive agent which tends to maximise the evidence that it exists or is differentiated from its environment.

Otherwise put, the system’s action will tend to minimise (act as an upper bound on) the ‘surprise’ associated with representational states, keeping it within ‘physiological bounds’. Interestingly, the markov formulation provides a way of identifying the phenotype of a given creature with the surprisal associated with given environmental states relative to the kind of creature that you are (Hohwy 2013, 52).

Wilson’s crucial move, then, is to use this model to provide an operational account of indistinctness in terms of the distinction between states that tend towards maximizing evidence of the model (cognizer’s existence) and those which are idiomatic, providing no criteria for minimizing the surprisal associated with the organism’s internal states:

An indistinct cognition provides no such algorithm or recipe. While it is also surprising and contrasts with our inferential model … crucially, it does not provide a finite series of operations by which we might correct our inference in order to re-maximize our model or boundary (WA).

In Deleuzean terms, indistinct cognitions (Wilson’s aestheta) are the surprising events which puncture our ‘phenomenal bubble’, alerting us to the fact that something happens without supplying organismic or conventional criteria for ‘carrying on’ (Deleuze 20014, 139). ‘Events’ are anti-normative cognitive disturbances that defy apperception or rule governed cognition, though they can furnish material for new rules or concepts (as per Kant’s account of reflective judgement).

This conception of the aesthetic, incidentally, comports well with the account of improvisation in terms of idiomatic affects provided in my paper ‘Promethean and Posthuman Freedom’. Improvisation involves fast and very refined affects that are too idiomatic to be assigned phenomenal categories such as stereotypic emotions or feelings (Roden 2019a, 521-22). These generate spontaneously variable, if patterned, behaviour that has no direct representational role (they aren’t definitive of the phenotype in the sense supported by the markov blanket conception of cognitive systems). In WA Wilson also associates such conditions with Adorno’s concept of the ‘shudder’, which penetrates subjectivity without conceptually subordinating its object:

Shudder may be likened to the effect of an experience that, while operational, is undecidable. Thus, as Adorno suggests, it threatens the dissolution or dispersion of the subject. In our terms, we might say that shudder is the operational result of an experience that provides evidence that the Markov blanket is approaching a critical threshold, while also not simultaneously providing any constructive means of correcting the inference such that model evidence may be reestablished (WA).

It follows that if we define the human in terms of a typical markov blanket, the aesthetic corresponds not to a particular kind of phenomenological description (e.g. in terms of a refined species of pleasure) but to marginal, anti-normative states that provide no ‘decision procedure’ whereby the flow of its dynamics undertakes a gradient descent towards minimal surprisal. Many forms of art may induce such states, but also forms of erotic experience or other extreme or limit experiences (Wilson cites the example of extreme sports). Thus, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, transgressive forms of eroticism may disable hyperpriors (high level assumptions) about expected states of the body.

While I haven’t plumbed the depths or extent of Wilson’s account of the aesthetic, I hope to have shown that it suggests a promising operational account of aesthetic subjectivity which – as I’ve indicated – generalizes from the human in precisely the way that a posthuman or anti-anthropocentric account of aesthetics requires, without falling into – in my opinion – the extravagances of panpsychism.

In WA Wilson goes onto use this model to question whether a posthuman disconnection could ever be neat or absolute. For even if phenotypes are defined by their most probable states (the ones that minimise surprisal) the aesthetic or limit events are atypical and thus can overlap in principle. In particular, to understand the posthuman ‘other’ we must always contaminate or extend our phase boundaries in novel, anti-normative ways (which is why the term ‘other’ is best put in scare quotes ). That is, we cannot conceptualize the posthuman adequately – e.g. by doing posthuman bioethics – other than as an aesthetic/erotic/transgressive encounter. This is ultimately the moral impasse of speculative posthumanism explored in Posthuman Life and later work such as Roden 2019b and Roden (Forthcoming). It implies that any ontology of the posthuman must be considered firstly as marker of aesthetic disturbance. Here, the formal idea of disconnection is not representational but expressive of an aesthetic encounter with disruptive technological change.


Ariew, R. and Garber, D., 1989. GW Leibniz Philosophical Essays. Hackett.

Deleuze, G. 1994. Difference and Repetition, P. Patton (trans.). London: Athlone Press.

Friston, K., 2016. ‘I am therefore I think’. In The Unconscious (pp. 127-151). Routledge.

Hohwy, J., 2013. The predictive mind. Oxford University Press.

Metzinger, T. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Roden, D., 2012. The disconnection thesis. In Singularity Hypotheses (pp. 281-298). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

Roden, D., 2013. ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology’. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 72, pp.169-188.

Roden, D., 2014. Posthuman life: Philosophy at the edge of the human. Routledge.

Roden, D., 2019a. ‘Promethean and Posthuman Freedom: Brassier on Improvisation and Time’. Performance Philosophy, 4(2), pp.510-527.

Roden, D., 2019b. Subtractive-Catastrophic Xenophilia. Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender and Culture, 16(1-2), pp.40-46.

Roden, d. 2020b. ‘Posthuman: Critical, Speculative, Biomorphic, in Mads Rosendhal Thomsen and Joseph Wamburg (eds) The Bloomsbury Handbook of Posthumanism, Bloomsbury Academic: London, pp. 81-94.

Wilson, A., 2019. Aesthesis and Perceptronium: On the Entanglement of Sensation, Cognition, and Matter. University of Minnesota Press.

Wilson, A. Forthcoming. ‘What Aesthetics Tells us about Posthumans’. In The Bloomsbury
Handbook of Posthumanism, Mads Rosendhal Thomsen and Joseph Wamburg (eds) Bloomsbury Academic.

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