The Nonhuman: Apophatic or Cataphatic?

"Join us!" --the trees in Evil Dead

A major theme to emerge from my current seminar on the nonhuman is the distinction between apophatic nonhumanism and cataphatic nonhumanism. Since these terms don't seem to come up that often in contemporary discussions I figured it would be useful to lay it out here.

The nonhuman is an especially active topic today, as it overlaps with so many important fields of inquiry, from climate change and animal studies, to media archaeology and the turn in media studies toward infrastructure. Of course objects and things have long been at the center of conversations in critical theory, from Marx's inspection of the commodity form, to psychoanalytic theories of the object. I'll also point out the interesting work being done at the Sensory Ethnography Lab, including the astounding 2012 film Leviathan, which may be the best exploration of nonhuman perception that I've ever seen. Speculative realism too has its interest in the nonhuman, that being the crux of the critique of correlationism, or at least as I interpret it. And certainly the largest discourse on the nonhuman comes from theories of the subject, broadly conceived, including examinations of the not-quite-human (the proletarian, the child), the sub-human (the colonized, the leper, the schizophrenic), the post-human (cyborgs, queerness, Afro-futurism, Prometheanism), and the generic person (the common, the whatever).

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Through all this, one truth emerges: the question of the nonhuman is an exceptionally difficult one. The question often bumps up against the very limits of philosophical method. What does it mean to be? What does it mean to know? Often such questions are prefigured precisely in human terms, making the question of the nonhuman practically incompatible with intellectual inquiry as we understand it. And at the same time the category “human” is often predefined, either overtly or covertly, in ways that bar admittance to certain kinds of subjects, putting the very integrity of the term “nonhuman” in doubt. At best we're wildly speculative in our conclusions about nonhuman entities like animals, plants, machines, or physical matter. At worst we sadistically ascribe our own special qualities to them, through a kind of boundless colonial expansion.

In short, to query after the nonhuman is to confront the symbolic apparatus--the language itself--that defines the human, and keeps the rest silent. “I have not tried to write the history of that language,” wrote Foucault in his first book, “but rather the archaeology of that silence.” Continue reading

Versity

In the wake of the Trump election, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and self flagellation in tech communities about the so-called “filter bubble” created by social media. Was Trump elected by Facebook? Is this “our” Twitter revolution -- only in the wrong direction? I wrote about this previously, invoking a strange coinage, versity, as an inversion and mutation of diversity:

I think there is work to be done on collaborative filtering in the context of ideology and identity. Surely this is a type of group interpellation. The technology of collaborative filtering, also called suggestive filtering and included in the growing field of intelligent agents, allows one to predict characteristics (particularly our so-called desires) based on survey data. Identity in this context is formulated on certain hegemonic (negotiated, but never actively negotiated) patterns. In this massive algorithmic collaboration the user is always suggested to be like someone else, who, in order for this to work, is already like the user. As Matt Silvia of Firefly describes: "a user's ratings are compared to a database full of other member's ratings. A search is done for the users that rated selections the same way as this user, and then the filter will use the other ratings of this group to build a profile of that person's tastes." This type of suggestive identification, requiring a critical mass of identity data, crosses vast distances of information to versify (to make similar) objects.

Firefly was one of the very first companies to deploy collaborative filtering technologies. They were bought by Microsoft (and more or less shelved as far as I can remember) -- and the notion of “web 2.0” wouldn't become a viable category until a few years later. But even in these early days it was clear that algorithms for filtering large databases of users were fundamentally oriented around logics of grouping, clustering, similarity, identity, unity-through-diversity... or, we might say, “versity.” They're called clustering algorithms, after all. Continue reading

American Fascism

I've been interviewing McKenzie Wark recently for an upcoming project. Then came November 9, making Trump president-elect. Ken had just posted an interesting piece on mourning, but I wanted to ask him more directly about an old theme, American fascism. His response is pasted below. -AG

McKenzie Wark: It's curious that the political categories of liberal, conservative and so forth are treated as trans-historical, but you are not supposed to use the category of fascism outside of a specific historical context. There are self described neoconservatives, and even supposed Marxists have taken the neoliberals at their word and used their choice of name without much reflection. But somehow there's resistance to talking about fascism outside of its historical context. I have often been waved off as hysterical for wanting to talk about it as a living, present term. Even if it is admitted to the contemporary lexicon, it is treated as something exceptional.

But maybe we should treat it not as the exception but the norm. What needs explaining is not fascism but its absence. What kinds of popular movements can restrain it, and for how long? Or, we could see it as a “first world” variant of the normal colonial state, and even of many variants of what Achille Mbembe calls the “postcolony.” Further along those lines: maybe fascism is what happens when the ruling class wins. When it no longer faces an opponent in whose struggle against it the ruling class can at least recognize itself. And when it no longer knows itself, it can only discover itself again through excess, opulence, vanity, self-regard. Our ruling class of today is so like that. They not only want us to recognize their business acumen, but also that they are thought leaders and taste makers and moral exemplars. But our recognition doesn't quite do the trick because we're just nobodies. So they heap more glory on themselves and more violence on someone else.

Maybe any regime of power is necessarily one of misrecognition. All it can can perceive is shaped by its own struggles. But the fascist regime, the default setting of modernity and its successors, is doubly so. It can recognize neither its real enemies or itself. There is some small irony in an election being won because Florida voted Republican, when the Republican plan to accelerate the shit out of climate disruption may start putting Florida under water in our life time. I'm reminded of a line from Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Fascism keeps punching away at the other but never finds even its own interests in the process.

The Pre-Socratic Brotherhood

The tale of the circle, the dot, and the arrow -- a moral tale -- tells the story of a dominant way of thinking about people in the world. The most common preconceptions about epistemology and ontology are contained in the narrative, both what it means to have knowledge and what it means to have being. Here lie all those who meditate on humanity's authentic position in the world, such as Plato, Kant, and Heidegger, along with many others. Such thinkers offer a story of emergence, of existence, and of orientation. And along the way they also provide a yardstick for measuring what counts as a sincere mode of being within the world. Sometimes this yardstick is called morality. All throughout, the classical narrative adheres to the law of the two: something only exists in relation to something else; here to there, this to that, authentic and inauthentic, the sacred and the profane. Continue reading

The Circle, the Dot, and the Arrow (A Moral Tale)

The circle, the dot, and the arrow, these three forge the inner core of Western philosophy, from its Socratic invention to the modern reinvention of philosophy in the pages of Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger. The circle, the dot, and the arrow, these three form the basic human stance. Circle, dot, arrow: they make a world together; they make the world.

Genitive, the circle is a magic circle from which things emerge. Original, the circle is an origin from which processes commence. Entities emerge “from out of” the circle. They are “given from” it. The circle means just this, from-ness. Where do things come from? What is the origin of the world? Philosophy's answer is the circle. The genitive case marks the origin from which something derives.diagram

From an area to a point, the circle engenders a dot. A derivation entails an identity, and a dot appears at the perimeter of the circle. The dot is a point or a position. Dative, the dot is a fixed point at which things gain definition. A datum, the dot means “being at” or “being there.” As with Heidegger's Dasein, the dot specifies existence or presence in the most straightforward sense. What was given from the circle, is now given at the dot. Not simply from-ness but at-ness, the at-structure. Continue reading

What Is a Hermeneutic Light?

Of the many unresolved debates surrounding the work of Martin Heidegger, the following question returns with some regularity: Is Heidegger’s phenomenology ultimately a question of hermeneutics and interpretation, or is it ultimately a question of immanence and truth? Is Dasein forever questing after a Being that withdraws, or does it somehow achieve a primordial communion with the truth of Being? In other words, is Heidegger the philosopher of blackness or the philosopher of light?

Hermeneutics was an important topic for theory in the 1960s. Hence it is not surprising that Heidegger, who was being rediscovered and rethought during that period, would often be framed in terms of hermeneutics. To be sure, the critical tradition handed down from post-structuralism leaves little room for modes of immanence and immediacy, modes that were marginalized as essentialist or otherwise unpleasant (often for good reason). Thus it would be easy to assimilate into the tradition of hermeneutics a figure like Heidegger, with his complicated withdrawal of Being. For where else would he fit?

Indeed it is common to categorize Heidegger there. But is it not also possible to show that Heidegger is a philosopher of immanence? Is it not also possible to show that he speaks as much to illumination as to withdrawal? That he speaks as much to the intuitive and proximate as to the detached and distanced? Continue reading