Nalo Hopkinson – “Message in a Bottle”

February 5th, 2016

Nalo Hopkinson’s short story “Message in a Bottle” was originally published in 2004; it can currently be found in her recent collection of short stories Falling in Love With Hominids, as well as in her short volume Report From Planet Midnight

[MY DISCUSSION CONTAINS SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY. So you really shouldn’t read this until after you have read the story itself. My method with writing about science fiction always involves going over the plot in tedious detail. This is unavoidable, or at least necessary to what I am trying to do: which is neither to evaluate the story — it should be a given that I think it is great, because otherwise I wouldn’t be writing about it in the first place — nor to interpret it in anything like a hermeneutical or New Critical or deconstructionist close reading — since I pretty much confine myself to overt surface meanings — but rather to elicit, and develop in my own way, and (I’m afraid) according to my own preoccupations, the mindblowing (I hope) feelings and ideas that it already contains.] 

The story is set in Canada, in a near future that is not much different from our actual present. The characters are nonwhite. Greg, the narrator, describes himself as “Indian” — though I am unsure if this means that he is South Asian (like other characters in the story) or First Peoples (he does say that he is “Rosebud Sioux on my mum’s side”). Greg also remarks on the brown skin of his lovers and friends. The story is mostly about Greg’s encounters with Kamala, the adopted daughter of his friends Babette and Sunil. It’s a fraught relationship, because Greg is ambivalent, at best, about children: he admits that they “creep me out,” and says overall that  “I truly don’t hate children. I just don’t understand them. They seem like another species.”

Greg and his girlfriend Cecilia — who he describes as “lush and brown” — don’t want kids of their own; but when she gets pregnant despite their precautions, 

we both got… curious,  I guess. Curious to see what this particular life adventure would be; how our small brown child might change a world that desperately needs some change. We sort of dared each other to go through with it, and now here we are.

So Greg and Cecilia are stuck with what he, at least, calls their “creepy little alien child.” All this is just background to the main action of the story, but it sets the atmosphere. I am the last person to be judgmental about whether other people choose to have kids or not; and Hopkinson clearly isn’t judgmental about this either. But Greg’s highly self-conscious ambivalence gives the story its uneasy tone. It’s not that he’s an unreliable narrator; but his emotional responses to the story he recounts just seem a bit… I’m not sure, askew.

Dealing with another species — as Greg at least metaphorically feels children to be — is quite often, in science fiction, a figure for dealing with another culture, or another gender or sexual orientation, than one’s own (or than the normative white male heterosexual Euro-American perspective that narrative fictions all too often presuppose by default). Hopkinson, a West Indian/Black Canadian fantasy and science fiction author, has long been concerned with white supremacy, and the continuing marginalization of people of color, as well as misogyny and homophobia, both in the writing of SF and related genres, and in the fan culture surrounding the writing. “Message in a Bottle” responds to this history by giving us a narrator who is male and heterosexual, but nonwhite. He’s very aware of racial hierarchies, but maybe not so much of other sorts. His perspective is in between; partly but not entirely normative. At least he is very aware of the particularity of his subject position, rather than taking it for granted as universal. His uneasiness about the otherness of children is not really phobia or panic, though it is certainly marked as a kind of uneasiness, or as an inability to negotiate difference as fluidly and openly as one might hope. I find myself a bit distrustful of Greg, but at the same time I “identify” with the way that he seems to enact and embody tendencies that I recognize in myself, and that I strongly dislike — but that, from my position of unavoidably taken-for-granted privilege — I somehow feel powerless to escape or change.

Greg — as I should already have noted — is an installation artist. He’s a hoarder, and a *bricoleur*, of miscellaneous odds and ends and pieces of junk:

My home is also my studio, and it’s a warren of tangled cables, jury-rigged networked computers, and piles of books about as stable as playing-card houses. Plus bins full of old newspaper clippings, bones of dead animals, rusted metal I picked up on the street, whatever. I don’t throw anything away if it looks the least bit interesting. You never know when it might come in handy as part of an installation piece. The chaos has a certain nestlike comfort to it.

In his art practice, at least, Greg is open to otherness and change. The exhibition that he describes in the story is a mock archeological site. It consists in “half a ton of dirt” covering the floor of the art gallery. In this dirt he has buried “the kinds of present-day historical artifacts” that actual archaeologists “[toss] aside in their zeal to get at the iconic past of the native peoples” they are studying (in this case, people in Chiapas, Mexico). Visitors to the installation become archaeologists of the present, instead of the past. When they enter the gallery, they “get basic excavation tools. When they pull something free of the soil, it triggers a story about the artifact on the monitors above.”

In this way, Greg’s installation undermines notions of aboriginal authenticity, such as well-meaning white Westerners are all too likely to have. Instead, he acquaints his viewers with the actual, present-day material culture of native peoples: a culture that is multiple and heterogeneous, and that bears the traces both of colonialist oppression, and of these peoples’ struggles against it and affirmation of their own lives and values. The installation also relates material culture to narrative; stories matter, because without them objects are deprived of the contexts that give them meaning and importance.

Greg evidently has trouble fitting children into the artifactual stories that he likes to tell. He complains that he they

don’t yet grok that delicate, all-important boundary between the animate and inanimate. It’s all one to them. Takes them a while to figure out that travelling from the land of the living to the land of the dead is a one-way trip.

With their magical beliefs, children strike Greg as being oddly self-contained — in a way that belies their eventual transformation into adults just like ourselves. Greg admits to feeling freaked out that, in just a decade, his toddler son will be “entering puberty. He’ll start getting erections, having sexual thoughts.” Greg is perturbed by the difference of children, as expressed in all the things that they do not understand; as well as by their irksome dependency upon us. But he is equally perturbed by the knowledge that they will not be like this forever, that soon enough they will become fully grown, and therefore entirely independent of us. And all this is even more confusing against the background of our massive social and technological change:

Human beings, we’re becoming increasingly posthuman… Things change so quickly. Total technological upheaval of society every five to eight years. Difficult to keep up, to connect amongst the generations. By the time your Russ is a teenager, you probably won’t understand his world at all.

In these manifold ways, children are indeed like science-fictional aliens (or vice versa). But all these confusions are further intensified, until they finally come to a head, in Greg’s interactions with Kamala. The girl is unusual, to say the least. Even at a very young age, when she is first adopted, Kamala has an “outsized head” that looks “strangely adult.” She also “speaks in oddly complete sentences” for a young child. At the same time, her body seems to develop very slowly: she looks far younger than what her parents believe is her chronological age. Eventually, Kamala is diagnosed with Delayed Growth Syndrome (DGS), a condition shared by other children who came up for adoption at the same time she did:

Researchers have no clue what’s causing it, or if the bodies of the kids with it will ever achieve full adulthood. Their brains, however, are way ahead of their bodies. All the kids who’ve tested positive for DGS are scarily smart.

 Kamala perturbs her parents, and perturbs Greg even more, because of how she disrupts their historical, developmental, and archaeological schemas — in much the same way that posthuman technological developments also do. Kamala stands at a nodal point that compresses together all of Greg’s — and indeed, all of our society’s  — confusions and anxieties about difference, otherness, and change.

“Message in a Bottle” finally offers us — as science fiction generally does — a narrative resolution of all these dilemmas. I say “narrative resolution” here advisedly — rather than speaking of a “solution” in any more expansive sense. This point requires a more detailed explanation, which would be too much of a digression here, but which I hope at some point to develop elsewhere. In brief, I think that science fiction, in its practice of *extrapolation*, and in its presentation of social, technological, and even ontological difficulties in a narrative with individual characters, does something similar to what Claude Levi-Strauss defines as the purpose of *myth*, which is “to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real).” But where myths for Levi-Strauss are synchronic structures (like language according to Saussure), narratives are in their very nature diachronic or temporal; and science fictional extrapolative narratives most of all. It’s not that I want to trade structural anthropology for narrative theory — indeed, I find both of these disciplines insufferable. But SF deals in futurity, rather than being set in the eternal present either of myth or of mimetic fiction (and neoliberal actuality). And in this way, it is counter-actual: it offers us a provisional resolution — one in potentiality — of dilemmas and difficulties that are all too actual.

In any case, at the end of “Message in a Bottle” Kamala offers Greg a futuristic explanation of all that has been going on: this is a resolution, at least, for us as readers, though Greg himself remains reluctant to accept it. It involves a conceptualization of time travel radically different from any that I have encountered in any other science fiction text. Kamala explains to Greg that she is in fact an art curator from the future, who has been sent back in time to our present day, in order to collect cultural artifacts that have otherwise been lost in her own time. Because of the energetic and financial costs of time travel, the future art gallery Kamala works for cannot afford to send adults back in time, nor to bring back the collectors once they have found what they are looking for. “Arts grants are hard to get in my world, too” — apparently, at least some aspects of neoliberal governmentality are still in place several hundred years in the future.

So instead of sending arts curators themselves back in time, the future art galleries genetically engineer “small people… children who [are]n’t children,” to go back in their place. All the DGS kids are in fact far older than they appear; Kamala, who looks like she is 6, and whose adoptive parents think she is about 10, is in fact 23 years old. She is a genetic clone of the curator whose interests she represents, and the curator’s actual memories have been “implanted” within her as well. But her chromosomes have been altered, given extra telomeres in order to “slow down aging.” As a result, Kamala says, “my body won’t start producing adult sex hormones for another fifty years. I won’t attain my full growth till I’m in my early hundreds.” She will physically bring her artifacts back to the future by living through the entire span from our time until then.

“Message in a Bottle” doesn’t spare us any of the grotesque and horrific consequences of this deeply compromised technological strategy. Kamala and her cohort find themselves having to spend all their time and energy in strenuous forms of pretense: “Do you know what it’s like turning in schoolwork that’s at a grade-five level, when we all have PhD’s in our heads?” Their double consciousness on a sexual level is even worse: “the weird thing is, even though this body isn’t interested in adult sex, I remember what it was like, remember enjoying it. It’s those implanted memories from my original.” Some of the seeming-children from the future have an even harder time than Kamala, because they get abused, just as actual children sometimes do; or they find themselves “living in extremely conservative places”; or they fail to get adopted, and have to “make [their] own way as street kids.” In any case, these people from the future have no legal rights, because in appearance they are “never old enough to be granted adult freedoms.” Some of them have already died, Kamala says, and she and the rest will probably be institutionalized at best. All for the sake of an art retrospective: “this fucking project better have been worth it,” Kamala says.

All this is too much for Greg — and probably for us as readers as well. One of the great things about the story is how it has a sort of light tone, even as it drops these atrocious details on us. Because we know that we are reading a science fiction story, we have a much easier time accepting Kamala’s account than Greg does within the frame of the story. The first time I read “Message in a Bottle,” it all seemed kind of cute — the horror only kicked in retrospectively.

But there’s even more. The one thing in Kamala’s story that initially gets to Greg is Kamala’s interest in his art: she has been sent back from the future to get ahold of something from Greg’s installation. “This little girl has dug her way into my psyche,” Greg thinks, “and found the thing which will make me respond to her.” But alas, this too turns out to be a misconception. Kamala isn’t interested in Greg’s installation concept, nor even in the remnants of present-day Indigenous life that he included within it. Rather, she treasures a seashell that plays no real role in Greg’s exhibition; for “some of the artifacts” buried in the dirt “are ‘blanks’ that trigger no stories.” But in the future, this seashell is regarded as a greater work of art than anything Greg or his contemporaries ever created.

Kamala explains to Greg how “the nascent identity politics as expressed by artists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” such as Greg himself, eventually gave birth to a broader understanding that “human beings aren’t the only ones who make art.” In fact, the particular shell that Kamala retrieves from Greg’s installation is a masterpiece: 

Every shell is a life journal… made out of the very substance of its creator, and left as a record of what it thought, even if we can’t understand exactly what it thought… Of its kind, the mollusc that made this shell is a genius. The unique conformation of the whorls of its shell expresses a set of concepts that haven’t been explored before by the other artists of its species. After this one, all the others will draw on and riff off its expression of its world. They’re the derivatives, but this is the original.

The poignancy of this claim — if we are willing to entertain it — has to do with a new understanding of limits. We need to respect the aesthetic creations of other entities, Kamala says, even though

we don’t always know what they’re saying, we can’t always know the reality on which they’re commenting. Who knows what a sea cucumber thinks of the conditions of its particular stretch of ocean floor?… Sometimes interpretation is a trap. Sometimes we need to simply observe.

Greg isn’t entirely ready to accept Kamala’s claim; indeed, it puts him in mind of a Monty Python routine:

“Every shell is different,” she says. My perverse brain instantly puts it to the tune of “Every Sperm Is Sacred.”

But in the end, Greg feels forced to admit that “a part of me still hopes that it’s all true.” He understands the heuristic value, at least, of Kamala’s story. For the reader, the same thing plays out on a metalevel. “Message in a Bottle” takes up the traditional science fiction figuration of extraterrestrial aliens; it shows us how this figuration works in hegemonic groups’ fears of other human beings as aliens; in the way the narrator cannot help seeing children as aliens; and finally in the unassimilability of other (alien) species to our own. 

Tricia Sullivan – Occupy Me

January 28th, 2016

Tricia Sullivan has long been one of my favorite contemporary science fiction authors. Her past books include the amazing MAUL. It has two plot lines: in one, set in present-day New Jersey, teenage girls engage in gang warfare at the mall; in the other, set in the far future, men are almost extinct due to a plague that kills nearly everyone with a Y chromosome; scientists are busy trying to find a cure by conducting experiments on the few remaining human males who are apparently immune. There is also the DOUBLE VISION / SOUND MIND diptych, which includes among its elements martial arts, the autism spectrum, interplanetary war, corporations testing the effectiveness of TV advertising campaigns, aspects of (I think) the author’s autobiography (from when she was an undergraduate at Bard College), and displacements of the spacetime continuum.

Her new novel, OCCUPY ME, is equally heady and thrilling. The book has just been published in the UK. (There doesn’t seem to be an American publisher at present; I ordered a copy of the paperback directly from the UK). It has a gripping action plot, but at the same time it has ontological implications that I haven’t entirely grasped after just an initial reading. I use the word “ontological” deliberately; as Sullivan says in her blog posting on the book, her aim was

to move beyond what I’d written in the past. Most of my books are about consciousness, which is an ontological subject in its own way, but not the same kind of ontology as cosmology–or so I thought at the time.

Actually, I think that OCCUPY ME is about both consciousness and cosmology. I’ll try to summarize what is at stake without too many spoilers, but [SPOILER WARNING] some account of what happens in the book is unavoidable.

OCCUPY ME seems to start out in the genre of dark paranormal fantasy; but the magical elements — an angel; a briefcase at least as mysterious and potent as the one in Pulp Fiction — are subsumed into what turns out to be much more of a science fiction framework. There are three narrative strands, conveying the points of view of three main characters. But one of the strands is first person, one is second person, and one is third person. This turns out to correspond to the differences among the three protagonists. The first person narrator, Pearl, is the one who seems to be an angel; she has wings and superhuman powers, though she initially works as a flight attendant, and seems ultimately to be some sort of artificial intelligence construct. The third person narration focuses on Alison, a 60-something Scottish veterinarian who is the only character in the novel possessing what might be called (non-pejoratively) common sense; she provides the human anchoring for what is largely a transhuman or posthuman story. The second person narration addresses its “you” to Doctor Sorle, a surgeon working in the US but originally from Africa, haunted by a strange double who takes over his body in the service of an alien agenda. I presume that it’s because of this possession, so that he is impelled by forces that are both strangely intimate and beyond/external to himself, that he is narrated in the second person.

The first background to the story involves a rapacious energy company that wreaks destruction in the developing world in its search for oil to extract, and an equally rapacious businessman, now on his deathbed, who used to work for the oil company, but detourned some of its profits in order to set up his own financial empire. Appropriately for today, we have a world dominated by petrochemicals and derivatives — and it is clear that governments and police forces are subordinated to corporations dealing in these commodities, rather than the reverse. In this sense, the novel is embedded — as much SF is — in the actual social conditions of the time in which it is written.

But there is also a second background, and this is where the cosmology comes in. We have cosmic forces located in the higher dimensions that contemporary physics gives us hints of. We have the power of informatics, in the way that organisms, environments, and subjectivities can be sampled for their quantum “waveforms,” and thereby preserved in virtual form (though never completely — the data are never vast enough to encompass the totality of an organism together with its conspecifics and its environment). We have organic encryption — not just in DNA, but more significantly in carbon nanostructures that introduce higher-dimensional gates hidden in crude oil. The oil that corporations extract today was formed out of organic matter from the Cretaceous — and in OCCUPY ME, the Cretaceous data is still encrypted in the oil, which allows for reversions from the deep geological past to manifest themselves in present day reality (in the novel, this takes the form most notably of a predatory pterodactyl, whose actions are crucial to the plot). And we have the forces or entities that have gathered this data — which becomes a way to suggest influences beyond the present, or beyond our current consensual spacetime reality, without introducing any sort of supernatural authority (whether in traditional religious or in vaguely spiritual new-agey format).

In an odd way, all this makes the novel sort of self-reflexive: a science fiction narrative about the powers and effectiveness of science fiction itself. We know that, to quote Faulkner, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is true of historical time: the colonialist depredations of the oil company are still active twenty or thirty years later in the present time of the novel. But it is equally true of deep time: which the novel dramatizes in the form of the resurgence of the Cretaceous (from which the oil derives) within the moment in which we extract and use the oil. But if the past still subsists within the present (despite our American tendency to dismiss things by saying that they are “history”), then we can equally say that the future already insists within the present moment: its potentialities glimmer in the form of premonitions, and also in the form of alternative outcomes — according to the “butterfly effect,” the way that tiny shifts can have disproportionate consequences.

The novel reflects at one point that these shifts disrupt our pretensions to control the future:

The idea that this principle should work makes it sound like the universe is made of Swiss clockwork, not fickle electrons that might as well be leprechauns. The butterfly effect isn’t real in the sense that people think it is; chaos is chaotic, right? You can’t manipulate it by flapping a particular butterfly on a particular day. The only way you could make the butterfly effect work, to interfere in a chain of events, would be to run against the grain of time. And that really would be resistance to entropy.

In other words, not only can we not calculate the future from the present in a deterministic or Hari Seldon-esque way, we cannot even calculate the broad outcomes of our own small interventions into initial conditions. But the novel also suggests that, under some circumstances at least, it is possible to go against entropy. This reminds me, among other things, of Erik Schneider and Dorion Sagan’s argument that the negentropic organization of living systems is possible because on the larger, more cosmic scale, it works to increase entropy or energy dispersion. In OCCUPY ME, Pearl makes a similar suggestion; just after the passage I quoted above, she says that

the funny thing about entropy is that it loves order. Entropy loves order because more order burns everything down faster…

The novel’s speculations about entropy, together with its citation of higher-dimensional acausal quantum networks, allows some elbow room for a nondeterministic account of futurity (of how it insists in the present, in my language) and of the possibility, therefore, of nudging future events, after all. The physics of this is admittedly speculative (and therefore, unavoidably dodgy). In the blog post I cited earlier, Sullivan lists as her scientific sources for this speculation books by the physicists Lisa Randall (Warped Passages) and Michio Kaku (Physics of the Impossible). Both these books are already somewhat speculative; Sullivan’s extrapolations from them are therefore speculative squared.

Such speculation propels the overall narrative of OCCUPY ME, and especially Pearl’s own quest — which she only discovers in the course of her experiences through the length of the novel. Towards the beginning of the book, we are introduced to a shadowy group called The Resistance, which tries to nudge the future in better directions, as unobtrusively as possible. This falls apart, however, in the course of the novel’s plot, which involves revisions of the past as well as the future, through a recursive feedback process. (I don’t want to be more precise here, because that would involve rehearsing the book’s narrative more than I want to here — although it is very much to the point that part of what makes the novel so powerful is that its narrative, from the point of view of thrills, twists, and character identification, resonates with and is inextricable from its conceptual argument, which is what I am trying to disentangle here). But by the end of the novel, Pearl comes to another, perhaps less fragile, formulation of the same process by which it is possible to nudge causality without violating it. (This also involves how the higher dimensional implicate order is related to the linear order of spacetime as we experience it — but this is one aspect of the novel’s extrapolative argument that I don’t feel ready to work out yet. It also involves elements of both informatics and energetics, which are brought out in some other plot strands).

All this is consistent with my own general claims, that I have been trying to formulate in different ways, about science fiction. In the first place, though SF is not scientifically accurate (its extrapolations involve inventions that will never be experimentally verified, hence that will never come true), it nonetheless performs legitimate acts of metaphysical (or, let’s here say ontological) speculation. In the second place, SF is precisely a “realism”, not of present social and ecological conditions per se, but of the future potentiality that insists or resonates within this present (of course, this does not mean that SF claims to predict the actual future). If Pearl, the first-person narrator, is the most important of the three persons (in both a grammatical and characterological sense) populating the novel, this is because she increasingly discovers, thoughout the course of the novel, how her subjectivity (and her substantial physical power) is a matter (or a function) of waveform data that are virtual rather than actual, or that extend beyond the simple present to more complex and convoluted temporalities. In this way, the novel’s account of cosmology is also its account of consciousness: a double ontology which is not inconsistent with the double plots of some of Sullivan’s earlier novels.

There is a lot more to say than this rough outline; but that will probably have to wait for a rereading of OCCUPY ME. For now, I can just say that the novel both confirms my overall sense of what science fiction can do, and extends this in directions that I haven’t quite been able to work out yet.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension

November 20th, 2015

I posted a shorter version of this yesterday on Facebook; here is a revised and expanded version.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimenson is quite good (despite the predictably negative reviews; the same reviewers who didn’t like the earlier films in the series now say that the new, final installment doesn’t live up to those earlier films). – I should note that I didn’t see it in 3D, so I can’t say what that might have added to the experience. But the overall principle of scary creepy events that you can barely discern, amplified by all the empty waiting and uncertainty that surrounds them, is as well done here as in the earlier entries of the series. And a single setting, an anonymous Southern California suburban one-family home, as in the other entries serves as sole location (aside from some interdimensional pathways) for the entire film. 

Ghost Dimension is perhaps less formally rigorous than some of the earlier entries; but it makes up for this in other ways. The original Paranormal Activity, (2007), the first movie in the series, was shot and directed entirely independently by Oren Pelli for something like $15,000 – though more money was spend when the movie was picked up for general distribution. The remaining films were not made as cheaply, but they were still extraordinarily low budget by Hollywood standards (I seem to remember seeing the figure of $1 million per film somewhere). Pelli was the producer for the subsequent entries, but let others direct. (The new film is directed by first-time director Gregory Plotkin, who edited all the previous films in the series except the first one).

Paranormal Activity 1 distinguished itself with what can be called its performative and instrumental self-reflexivity: the equipment with which the film was shot — a handheld consumer video camera, and several cams on laptops — is itself present within the diegesis, and plays a major role in the events of the film. Things like laptop webcams allow us to record presences that we don’t perceive directly — because we are not there, because we are asleep, or because the subtlety of the physical disturbances being recorded evades our immediate direct notice. The use of supposed found footage in horror is not new to this series — the obvious precursor is, of course The Blair Witch Project (1999) — but what distinguishes Paranormal Activity is how this footage is used. It isn’t just material left behind by the protagonists, but it becomes a major determinant of how they do what they do. In the morning, they look at the footage recorded while they were asleep the previous night. And we as audience scan this footage because of how it is presented to us with fast forwards and jump cuts made evident not only by changes in the image, but by the ubiquitous time codes on the corner of the laptop screen.

The second and third entries elaborated on this by means of a sort of serialist minimalism, like that of an avant-garde experimental film. This is something that Nicholas Rombes discusses in his article on Paranormal Activity 2 (2010).Where the protagonist in the first installment used webcams in laptops, the protagonist in the second film installs surveillance cameras throughout the house. And we get long sequences in which we cycle through the output from these fixed cameras, in repetitive order, while we are just waiting for something to happen. Sometimes we hear ominous noises whose sources don’t appear in any of these visuals. And we find ourselves searching for the most minute changes in the images, each time we cycle through them. It’s sort of like a horror film directed by Michael Snow. (Well, to be perfectly fair, Wavelength actually is a horror film – or at least a thriller – directed by Michael Snow).

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011) is a prequel, set in the 1980s: which means that the technology used and depicted consists mostly of VHS cameras and tapes (a technology which of course is analog, not digital). This constraint allows for some astonishing inventions: especially when the protagonist puts one of his VHS cameras on the chassis from an oscillating fan. This allows the camera to slowly and repeatedly pan back and forth, so that it alternately views the living room and the kitchen of the home. In the course of these pans, we spend a lot of time waiting for something to happen, as well as hearing things that we can’t see because the camera is in the wrong part of its slow pan, seeing things which happen far away from the camera, on the room’s opposite wall, so that we don’t even notice these events the first time we watch the movie), and getting some real shocks when we finally get the payoff for all of the waiting and vague intimations. 

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012) updated the series by adding video chat as well as body scanning through the motion-sensing apparatus of the Kinect. The whole series up to this point is distinguished by the ways in which traditional Hollywood formal structures are constrained by the nature of the footage, not only as it is presented to us, but also as it is developed through the characters’ own uses of their cameras. The use of cameras tied to particular POVs (whether human, as in the handheld video cams, or nonhuman, as in the webcams and surveillance cams) means that the traditional film syntax of continuity editing cannot be applied. It is as if the filmmakers stripped editing language down to zero, and then rebuilt it from scratch, following the technological affordances of the devices they were using. For instance, it is only in PA 4, with the video chats between the teenage girl protagonist and her boyfriend, that we ever get anything like a shot/reverse shot structure. A detailed breakdown of how these formal constraints work, far better than anything I could do, is provided by David Bordwell in his discussion of the series. 

The unnumbered sidequel, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014) is quite entertaining, but doesn’t really do anything new formally with the series. It stays mostly with the handheld video camera. I can’t help feeling the filmmakers missed an opportunity here. It is too bad none of the series made use of cameraphones, which at this point are ubiquitous in a way that dedicated videocams are not.

The new and apparently final entry, Ghost Dimenson, goes off in a surprisingly different direction from the rest of the series. Even leaving aside the 3D, which is evidently something that is still not cheaply available in home consumer equipment, the new movie is not quite as careful as the previous entries in motivating every shot. Sometimes there are quick cuts while the action and the sound continue unbroken, an editorial refinement which couldn’t really be done in camera, and thus conflicts with the home-footage premise. However, we still don’t get anything like conventional continuity editing. The camera is often shaky and wobbly, and it moves around erratically — all this brings us back to the sense that one of the characters is holding the camera, even when it is uncertain which character this might be. It’s almost as if Ghost Dimension is the inverse of Sean Baker’s beautiful Tangerine (also 2015). Where the latter movie was shot entirely on iPhones, yet has a smooth and controlled look that we cannot help attributing to much more expensive equipment, Ghost Dimension looks/feels cheap, flawed, and spontaneous, regardless of the quality and cost of the equipment actually used to make it.

All this relates to the underlying aesthetic of Ghost Dimension, which marks a big change from the earlier films in the series. Where the previous films emulated, and gave a new socio-economic context to, (late-modernist) self-reflexivity and minimalism, Ghost Dimension rather shows an affinity with the more recent experimental trends of glitch art and even “new aesthetics” (machine art). There are a few sequences that switch among multiple fixed cameras as in PA 2, but even this is disrupted when one of the cameras is knocked over by demonic forces. For the most part, instead, we have handheld (and therefore continually moving, sometimes shaking) videocams that operate mostly in darkness or semi-darkness. This has a number of important consequences. It isn’t always easy to tell where exactly the camera is positioned. A lot of stuff is barely visible, because the scene as a whole is either unlit, or lit only in a circle by the highly directional lighting from the camera itself. Sometimes we get switches to what seems like infrared mode. In addition, even in the daytime portions of the movie there often a lot of static and noise, as well as shakiness, in the image. And jump cuts (as I have already mentioned) are far more frequent than in the earlier installments. Not to mention that what I have metaphorically called “noise” in the video image is often accompanied by difficult-to-identify (literal) noises on the soundtrack.It’s an old strategy to use various sorts of darkness and murkiness in horror films, together with offscreen noises, in order to increase uncertainty and fear. But Ghost Dimension pushes this further, to the point where the manifestations of ghostly, demonic activity are not just beyond the ken of the camera (and sound recorder), but rather affect the image and sound tracks by impinging upon them in order to distort them. Or, to put this in somewhat different terms: it is not just that audiovisual devices are able to capture images and sounds that stretch beyond our own perceptual abilities, but that the movements of these imperceptible forces impinge on and distort the capturing/representing devices themselves. It has become common for film and video makers to deliberately include glitches as a way to paradoxically heighten the supposed “authenticity” of the images (for instance, think of all the movies that digitally incorporate lens flare, as a mark that the scene was really recorded by a real camera). But here glitches extend beyond even this sort of use — instead of authenticating the medium, they insist upon the breakdown and incapacity of the medium.

All this is amplified by the one really surprising novum in Ghost Dimension. In addition to their own 2013-vintage cameras (2013 is when the action of the movie takes place), the protagonists find an old video camera, apparently a VHS one, left behind by the protagonists of PA 3. This camera has an odd design (additional lenses or sensors, apparently attuned to something different than the three primary colors a normal video camera is able to capture), and it turns out to be able to actually pick up traces of the otherwise invisible demons. But these entities manifest within the special camera’s feed in strange ways, and precisely in the form of glitches and interruptions, rather than in the form of solid objects or bodies. We see them first as scattered, swirling interference patterns, and then increasingly as dark blotches that ooze into the frame, inhabiting the visualized space without taking on concrete form. The special camera can see the demons precisely as glitches, or formless obstructions of the image. This also seems having to do with the fact that the special video camera is an archaism, analog rather than digital — giving us vagueness and obscurity rather than clear patterns.The idea of archaic equipment is also emphasized when the protagonists find an old VHS player, and pop the old cassettes (in effect, outtakes from PA 3) into it. These involve some wonderfully freaky moments when the people in these 25-year-old videotapes interact with,and respond to, the people in the present watching them, as if they — the ghost images recorded in a distant past — could see their present-day viewers. All this reminds us that the ideal of digital order and clarity can never really be achieved. Glitches intrinsic to the digital go hand in hand with obstructions that date back to older, imprecise analog technologies. You can never get rid of these analog traces from the past, just as you can never entirely cleanse even the supposedly purely digital renderings in the present.

In short, if the earlier movies in the series were about the real phantoms that are generated by surveillance and self-surveillance technologies, Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension is correspondingly about the real phantoms that are generated by the limits of these technologies, and by their breakdowns either because they are (contrary to what we are led to believe) intrinsically limited, or because their malfunctions are a feature and not a bug, the consequence of their being pushed (as they cannot help being) beyond the limits that they seek to define.

GROOVE, by Mark Abel

November 16th, 2015

Mark Abel’s book Groove: An Aesthetics of Measured Time, recently published in the Historical Materialsm book series, offers a new musicological and philosophical account of groove music — which is to say nearly all popular music, in the US and the Americas, and increasingly in other parts of the world as well, for the past hundred years — since at least the start of the 20th century. Ultimately, Abel offers an Adornoesque defense of the very mass-industrially-produced music that Adorno himself despised. This in itself is incredibly useful, given how much of a stumbling-block Adorno has been for decades when it comes to thinking about music — you simply can’t dismiss him, but there are good reasons for refusing to go along with him.

However, Abel’s book aims for a comprehensiveness which means that it actually does much more than that — while I am unwilling to follow Abel all the way, I find that he contributes powerfully to my thoughts about music (given, of course, that I am not a musician, and lack all but the most rudimentary musical training).

Abel starts by giving an overall definition of groove music — one that goes well beyond the relatively feeble attempts at definition that he cites from musical encyclopedias and from past commentators. According to Abel, groove is characterized by four crucial elements:

  1. Measure, or metronymic time
  2. Syncopation
  3. ‘Deep metricality’ or multi-levelled meter
  4. A backbeat

All these characteristics are crucial. Much traditional music from around the world is rhythmical, but not metric. Traditional West African music, for instance, is polyrhythmic (many rhythms going on at the same time), but not metric; there may be an implicit pulse, but there are no measures, and there is no underlying organization of strong and weak beats. Only European music of the last five hundred years or so is really divided into measures, with a strong emphasis on the first beat of each measure (one-two-three-four). And Western music tends to exhibit fractal patterns (though Abel doesn’t actually use the word “fractal”) of metric organization on multiple levels (think of four-bar blues, or of ABAB song forms). Beyond this, neither syncopation (playing against the regular pattern of the beat) nor a back beat (actually a particular form of syncopation, “an emphasis on the off-beats of the bar (beats two and four) and often the off-beats of other metrical levels as well”) would be possible: if the music is not metric in the first place then it cannot play against the regular meter. This means that polyrhythms in funk and other African American music actually work quite differently from polyrhythms in traditional African music, the latter not having metric regularity in the first place, and therefore not having syncopated violations of this regularity either).

On this basis, Abel rejects common claims about the fundamentally African source of American popular music – he says that there are multiple hybrid sources, and that it is essentialistic to insist upon African sounds in particular. This is one of the instances where, even though Abel has a point, he greatly overstates it, protesting way too much against attributions of Africanness to blues, jazz, funk, etc. Abel’s underlying point is the Marxist one (which I don’t disagree with) that modes of production are determinant in the last instance — but here he could really use a bit more flexibility before getting to that last instance. Indeed, Abel is so over-the-top in his denial of there being any sort of specifically African vibe to groove music that he goes so far as to rank the Average White Band as highly as he does James Brown when it comes to funk (in one of the exceedingly rare cases in the book where he mentions particular musicians at all). Many readers will understandably be ready to throw the book down in disgust at this point; which would be unfortunate, since the book really does have a lot to offer.

Abel’s definition of groove is exceedingly broad; and this is both a strength and a weakness. A strength, because it enables him to make wide-ranging observations about popular music of the 20th and 21st centuries, ones that hold across multiple genres. But a weakness as well, because it means that he is unable to recognize or acknowledge the many singular inventions that, within this broad framework, have diversified popular music so remarkably over the past hundred-and-some-odd years.

Abel’s other major point, which I find entirely convincing, is his demonstation (citing a wide range of historians and theorists) of how metric time — time conceived as an empty and homogeneous linear successions — is a product, not just of modern scientific technologies (like the ever-more accurate clocks that have been made since the 17th century), but specifically of capitalism, with its ubiquitous organization of commodity production, its appropriation of labor power as a commodity, and its need for the close measurement of time both in order to discipline workers, and as a mesure of value more generally (since the value of labor power, and of all commodities, is determined in the last instance by “socially necessary labor time”).

Abel makes the historical case for detailed time-measurement as central to capitalist relations, to the point that capitalism could not function without it. This argument is enough of a commonplace that Abel spends a lot more effort and pages on it than is strictly necessary (but I guess what seems a commonplace to anyone with any sort of even semi-Marxist intellectual formation might not be so to others). The importance of the argument is that the underlying structure of capitalism can explain why metric organization is so central to Western music of the last five hundred years or so, while it is absent from other historical forms and traditions of music. Metric organization is central to European classical music, and it is picked up with a vengeance in the groove of popular music ever since sound recording techniques became widespread.

This gets to the heart of Abel’s argument with and against Adorno. 20th- and 21st century philosophies of music necessarily rely on a kind of metaphysics of time that has been central to modernity. Abel says that the time theories of Bergson, Husserl, etc., are idealist, because they do not bring their understanding of time back to the capitalist conditions that generated it. I am much more willing to accept a certain sort of metaphysics than Abel is — thinkers like Bergson and Husserl are vitally important in the ways that they articulate how we experience time, and how this subjective experience relates to other, “objective” modes of registering time (including the scientific and capitalist-industrial ones). Musical experience necessarily involves time-experience on a deep level; and Abel in effect acknowledges this by going over Bergsonian and phenomenological accounts of temporality in great detail.

Both Bergson and Husserl (the latter of whose ideas about time are extended into the consideration of music especially by Alfred Schutz) contrast an authentic inner time sense to the external and spatialized objective measurement of homogeneous, empty time by the sciences. Abel argues that Adorno’s observations on modern art music and popular music (two damaged halves of what should be a whole) are in fact organized by this metaphysical distinction. (I am here using “metaphysical” in a non-pejorative sense, even if Abel is not). The authenticity of personal, inner time is violated by the way that industrial monopoly capitalism subjects everything unremittingly to the commodified standardization that rests, on its deepest level, on the homogenization of measured time. Adorno views 19th-century classical music (Beethoven above all) through the way that it resists homogeneous time, and insteads opens up the experience both of real inner time (which is ultimately Bergsonian duration) and of historical time (which capitalism suppresses by installing an eternal now, and a temporal repetitiveness which denies that the future can be in any real sense different from the present).

[The question of how inner time as duration, and historical time as collective experience, can relate to one another is itself an additional difficult one — I don’t find Abel’s attempts to resolve this entirely convincing, and I don’t think anyone else has really resolved it either. Most Marxists have tended to disdain Bergson on the grounds that his idea of duration is an ahistorical one; but I think that Abel is right in implying — though he never says this directly, and might well reject it — that no modernist defense of any richer sense of time than the empty capitalist one can avoid taking an at least partly Bergsonian stance].

For Adorno, 20th-century classical music struggles, with greater or lesser success, with the same issue of time experience. To simplify a little, for Adorno 20th century classical music at its most successful (e.g. in the earlier Schoenberg, according to Adorno), resists the universal capitalistic imposition of metrical time by refusing meter as much as possible, and by drawing on (or retreating to) the few areas of culture that have not yet been entirely overwhelmed by metrical regularity. For Adorno, all popular music — everything that has a groove, in Abel’s terminology — capitulates to the regularity of meter, and this is what ultimately stands behind Adorno’s criticisms of popular music as conformist and formulaic, as merely filling up a pre-existing form, as offering only trite and inconsequential minor variations which never affect the basic underlying tyranny of meter as commodified or Taylorized time, etc.

Abel’s counter-argument to all this is that it is precisely by being metrical with a vengeance, by using meter in a far more intense way than classical music ever did, and therefore by proliferating syncopations against a metric beat which is the dialectical condition for these violations of metrical logic to take place — it is by doing all this that groove music at its best is able to subvert homogeneous clock time or commodity time.

Thus it is by means of Adorno’s own dialectical logic that Abel defends the emancipatory possibilities of groove music; and even suggests that the 20th century classical music that Adorno at least ambivalently championed only represents a conservative retreat, since it simply disengages from metric time rather than working inside it to challenge it. Groove music at its best

provides an antidote to Adorno’s, and indeed Jameson’s, pessimistic position that resistance to reification can only emerge from spheres of humanity which have not yet fallen fully under the sway of commodification, of which there remain precious few, by directing our attention to the possibilities of fracture from within.

[Abel’s argument parallels my own argument as to why rapid-editing lowbrow films like Gamer and Detention are much better responses to our 21st century media situation than are the slow cinema films championed by many cineastes].

Abel’s thesis seems to me to be essential for any understanding of the multifarious modes in which popular music works today (as well as how it did in the past century). This remains the case even though Abel declines to give anything in the way of specific examples, or even to differentiate between the somewhat different strategies of different popular-music genres, as well as of the increasingly prevalent hybridizations among these genres.

And, to make it as specific as possible: Abel’s thesis makes a lot of sense in the specific case of Afrofuturist music, and more generally of Afro-diasporic music of the Black Atlantic — and this despite Abel’s refusal to attribute any particular degree of “Africanness” to groove music. Note how Afrofuturism calls on science fiction both to describe the experience of oppression (the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans was like an alien abduction) AND to describe future prospects of liberation (Sun Ra’s vision of outer space; George Clinton’s Mothership; etc.). And these are not matters just of discursive elaboration, but are also built into the musical structure of grooves, which both make you a “slave to the rhythm” and offer dancing as liberation, as both body expression and as the experience of funky syncopations.

This is why it is too bad that Abel limits the scope of his argument by rejecting or ignoring not only any privileging of African musical traditions, but also any form of theorization that calls upon this. Abel’s own theorization of how the groove can provide liberation from metric enslavement precisely by intensifying it, by turning the eternal now of capitalist realism into an experience of overfull NOWNESS, draws on Walter Benjamin’s notion of Jetztzeit (nowtime). Abel concludes that,

in contrast to non-groove pulsed music, where many notes occur between the beats, every musical event in groove music is also a beat at some level of the metric hierarchy. This gives each event/beat the character of intense, pregnant presentness — a nowtime — which is lacking in the narrative-style art music tradition.

All this seems fine to me; but Abel would only have strengthened his own argument if he were willing to draw upon formulations like James Snead’s understanding of the way repetition works in black music (he explicitly rejects Snead, and doesn’t even mention thinkers like Tricia Rose and Fred Moten).

There is also the problem — for me, at least — that Abel contends that his own vision of the liberatory temporal potential of the groove “is interestingly at odds with the vision of temporal freedom which emerged earlier from Bergsonian thinkers like Deleuze as well as Jameson’s celebration of temporal incommensurability.” I would like to see more of a confluence than an opposition here — for reasons that I will conclude by explaining.

At heart I remain, as I have long been, a Deleuzian. But to my mind the absolutely worst thing about Deleuze — both in his solo works and in his works with Guattari — is his anti-metrical (and therefore anti-groove) bias when it comes to music. Even when D & G deal with musical repetition in the “Refrain” chapter of A Thousand Plateaus, they insist that the deterritorializing thrust of music must come from the rejection of meter; they insist upon a fundamental opposition between rhythm and meter, instead of allowing for the metric (and also, therefore, cross-metric and anti-metric) rhythms of modern popular music. Their ideal is the pulseless time of Aeon, manifested to a degree in such French modernist composers as Messaien and Boulez. Deleuze and Guattari have no room in their vision (or should I say their audition?) for funk or the groove. Abel rightly traces this position back to Bergson, and shrewdly notes that Deleuze’s high-culture modernism in this respect is actually quite similar to Adorno’s.

One might wish that Deleuze had applied the insights of Difference and Repetition to an analysis of groove music. But unfortunately, any sort of metrical repetition is necessarily, for Deleuze, something like what Bergson denounces as the spatialization of time. (Deleuze rescues the cinema from this aspect of Bergson’s polemic, but he never similarly rescues funk or post-1960 dance music, or even rock ‘n’ roll).

I think that, as Abel explicitly suggests, the problem goes back to Bergson himself. Bergson’s musical analogue for duration (durée) is always melody, which he describes as a continuity that cannot be broken without changing its very nature; it cannot be quantified without altering its qualitative being. Groove music is, as Abel argues, both intensive and extensive, both rhythmic and metrical, both qualitative and quantitative; it breaks down the oppositions between these pairs that Bergson and Deleuze both so strongly insist upon. Their formulations imply a line of flight from capitalism’s imposition of linear, empty, homogeneous time; but for that very reason, they never engage with it directly.

As an alternative to these sorts of formulations, Abel refers to a musicologist whom I had never previously heard of, Victor Zuckerkandl. According to Abel, Zuckerkandl is also deeply influenced by Bergson, but he moves in a very different direction than Deleuze does (or than Adorno does, for that matter). Zuckerkandl agrees with Bergson’s major thesis that time = duration = indivisible change. But he applies this insight to rhythm and meter, as well as to melody. That is to say,

Zuckerkandl argues that the conventional explanation of meter is wrong. Meter is not produced from a pattern of strong and weak accents as it is conventionally explained, but is much better understood as oscillation. Psychological experiments show that a series of equally spaced pulses are perceived not as 1-2-3-4-5 etc., but as 1-2-1-2 etc. where ‘2’ is not number two but ‘away-from-one’. What this implies is that at the heart of meter is a cyclical motion or wave comprising a motion of ‘to-fro’ or ‘away-back’, and that the standard understanding of causality in meter must be reversed: ‘it is not a differentiation of accents which produces meter, it is meter which produces a differentiation of accents.’

This means that meter cannot be opposed to free rhythm in the way that Bergson does implicitly, and Deleuze does explicitly. Rather,

There are forces at work within meter which impart to a tone a different rhythmic impulse depending upon which phase of the metric cycle it falls and which make the counting of beats unnecessary. Metrical order is a dynamic order so that while, as we have seen, for Zuckerkandl, ‘melody [is] motion in the dynamic field of tones, rhythm [is] motion in the dynamic field of meter’.

In short, meter is a wave phenomenon, and “like other kinds of wave, metric waves are not about equality but about kinetic impulse.” In this way, when meter — however much its origin lies in the capitalist homogenization of time — is taken up, not only by Western concert music, but even more so by jazz, funk, and other sorts of groove music, it releases an energy that no capitalist expropriation of surplus value is able entirely to contain. [This is the answer, incidentally, to the question that the FBI agents ask Sun Ra when they kidnap him in the movie Space is the Place: “C’mon, Ra, how do you convert your harmonic progressions into energy?”].

In effect, Zuckerkandl deconstructs the duality between rhythm and meter, or between intensive and extensive, by Bergsonizing (if I may use that expression) the latter as well as the former. Meter is a field and a wave, rather than an emptily homogeneous form of measurement. Zuckerkandl even says, following this, that “The wave is not an event in time, but an event of time.” To listen to music is to experience time itself (in a way that seems to anticipate what Deleuze says about modernist cinema, the cinema of the time-image. But just as we experience time in its pure state, not only in Antonioni’s long takes, but equally (though I am not sure that Deleuze would have accepted this) in Tony Scott’s hyperactive editing, so we experience time in its pure state not only in Boulez’s floating, non-metric melodic lines, but equally — or I would want to say, even more intensely — in the pulses and syncopations of Miles Davis’ On the Corner, my candidate for the greatest piece of music ever recorded.

Obviously I need to read Zuckerkandl. I should note, though, that there are other paths beyond Bergson, which maintain his insights about intensive time without thereby accepting his dualism of time and space, or of intensive and extensive. Another one, not mentioned by Abel, is that of Gaston Bachelard in his books Intuition of the Instant and Dialectic of Duration. Bachelard argues that duration is radically multiple and discontinuous, rather than being the unbreakable continuity insisted upon by Bergson. Bachelard proposes the analogy of duration as rhythm, instead of Bergson’s duration as melody. By insisting on the multiple repetitions and variations of rhythm, Bachelard makes it possible for us to unite rhythm and meter in the ways groove music does, instead of making Deleuze’s absolute opposition between them.

Steve Goodman takes this up in his important book Sonic Warfare, in the course of dealing with the ways that bass and rhythm in dance music are at once despotic and liberating (rather than being only the former, as a strict Deleuzian argument would have to maintain). Goodman also proposes a Whiteheadian ontology of vibration, in place of the Bergsonian ontology of light that we find in Deleuze’s Cinema volumes.

I may seem to be drifting far away from Abel’s book at this point. But the virtue of Groove is precisely that it pushes us to consider groove music in a new manner, one that can accommodate the insights of both Deleuze and Adorno without having to embrace their incompletions and biases. I would add here, that we can read and benefit from Groove without having to embrace Abel’s own incompletions and biases either; I refer not only to his rejection of Afrofuturist currents, but also to his unfortunate claim that “‘dance music’ composed on computers” cannot be liberating in the manner of other groove music, because supposedly it “is blind to the concept of individual parts and tends towards total centralisation.” Here Abel evinces the same Adornoesque prejudice that he rightly demystifies elsewhere.

I won’t deny that Groove is sometimes a frustrating book. I wish that there had been more (or indeed, any) concrete examples, and that there had been less citation of some not-all-that-relevant theorists (like Postone and Sohn-Rethel). But I still found Groove a thought-provoking and stimulating book, one that is highly relevant to my own search for the secrets of “Funkentelechy Versus the Placebo Syndrome.”

Freedman on Mieville

November 10th, 2015

I just finished reading Carl Freedman’s excellent book on China Mieville, which I can heartily recommend to anybody who’s interested in Mieville.

The book is filled with insightful and powerful close readings of Mieville’s fiction, and with commentary on how the fiction conveys Mieville’s own Marxist understanding of things.

I have a few disagreements with Carl, which are pretty much the same ones I had vis-a-vis his earlier book Critical Theory and Science Fiction (2000), which I expressed in my own book Connected (2003), and to which Carl replied in his very generous review-essay on that book. So a lot of this is ongoing (though Carl here sharpens and revises his theses from the earlier book, in response to criticisms by Istvan Csicsery-Ronay and by Mieville himself).

Basically what it comes down to is that Carl still positions himself in the line of Darko Suvin when it comes to theorizing SF; whereas I would like to see a non-Suvinian theory of science fiction (analogous, I suppose, to Laruelle’s non-philosophy or non-standard philosophy, which itself is modeled on non-Euclidean geometry).

In practice, what does this mean? Carl maintains a somewhat revised and updated version of Suvin’s definition of science fiction as the literature of cognitive estrangement; Carl mentions extrapolation as only a minor example or component of cognitive estrangement. I want to invert this definition: for me, SF is primarily a literature of extrapolation, and cognitive estrangement is only a minor variant of extrapolation. For me, this is because SF is about, not the actual future, but rather futurity insofar as it really (but inactually) exists in the present.

Writing about Mieville, Carl of course extends the definition of SF to include weird fiction as well — something I would also want to do with my definition of SF — but I don’t think this fundamentally changes either of our positions.

What it really comes down to, I think — and this might allow for a certain reconciliation between Carl’s position and my own — is the opposition we see in the Bas-Lag novels, particularly The Scar, between crisis energy and potentiality. The former is a basic principle of radical (dialectical) change and transformation, whereas the latter is merely a list of alternative choices, or alternative outcomes, or alternative happenings – but in a way that leaves the essential situation unchanged. Although the terms are different, the logic here is the same as that between potentiality and mere possibility in Deleuze. Crisis energy in Mieville (like the virtual in Deleuze) is, as Carl puts it, “a certain ontological instability at the very center of reality… The core of Being itself tends towards hybridity.” This is a real dynamism, in opposition to the “merely additive static pastiche” which we see in the figure of Motley in Perdido Street Station, and which is manifested in the potentiality engine the Lovers are searching for in The Scar. Though Deleuze uses “potentiality” positively, to mean something like what Mieville and Carl mean by crisis, his critique of mere logical possibility is pretty much the same as Mieville’s and Carl’s critique of what Mieville calls potentiality. In both cases, it is a question of actuality merely being added to a pregiven possibility; as opposed to the way that transformation requires a much deeper process of dialectical contradiction (Mieville) or actualization of the virtual (Deleuze). [I used to get all worked up about the differences between dialectical realization in the Hegelian tradition adopted by most Marxists, and the nondialectical account of differentiation as actualization of the virtual in Deleuze; but my present view is that these are actually quite minor differences, the basic point is pretty much the same in both traditions).

In any case, the Marx/Mieville theory of crisis, and the Deleuze theory of virtuality, both point to the way that there are untapped prospects for transformation or radical change even within the seemingly most static and repressive actual situation. Carl’s own treatment of this issue made it more clear to me than ever before; which is why I wish he had brought it back in the conclusion of the volume, and brought it to bear on the question of science fiction and its relation to other genres such as, especially, weird fiction. I think that, on both Carl’s view and mine, science fiction and other “arealistic” genres (as Carl calls them), have a lot to do with the rendering fictively present of these often neglected alternatives that may underlie and undermine even the most stable and repressive actualities. This is a major part of how SF, weird fiction, and other arealistic genres are different from what I once heard Mieville call “mimetic fiction.” And I think that both cognitive estrangement (including what Carl calls the “cognition effect”) and extrapolation can be comprehended under this philosophical distinction.

I will end with one very minor point. Carl only discusses six of Mieville’s novels. I understand the need for some sort of restriction — Mieville is one of those writers whom I could go on about indefinitely — but I still wish that Carl had written about some of the other books, especially Kraken, which is in some ways the most prodigal, to the point of overfullness, of all Mieville’s books (I mean – the embassy of the sea! the explicit engagement with tentacular horror! all the weird folding stuff! the strike by magicians’ and witches’ familiars! and above all the way Mieville gives a brilliant twist to the common process of retconning fantastic narratives!).

But all in all, this is a great book; it will help to hold me during the impatience of my wait for Mieville’s next novel (which is coming out in January).

[ADDED NOTE: When I saw Mieville give a reading from The Scar, during his book tour in support of that novel, somebody asked him about how the eponymous scar could be the edge of the world, since a globe doesn’t have an edge. Mieville replied something on the order of, I never said that the world of Bas Lag was round….]

More copyright idiocy

November 9th, 2015

So here’s yet another case of over-the-top copyright restrictions involving something I wrote. In December 2014, the Whitehead Research Project held an excellent conference on Whitehead’s short book Symbolism. I was one of the speakers at the conference; I posted an uncorrected version of my talk, “Whitehead on Causality and Perception,” as a blog entry. As has happened with previous conferences sponsored by the WRP, the essays are supposed to be collected in a volume. As far as I knew, the volume was proceeding apace. But today I received the following from the editors in  my email:

As we are only allowed 500 words worth of quotes from any single work within the volume, ALL short Symbolism quotes within your chapter must be paraphrased or removed entirely. This is an unfortunate and difficult requirement, but the alternative is that you pay Simon & Schuster the fee for quotations associated with your chapter, which would also delay the publication of the entire volume up to a year.

This strikes me as completely unwarranted. And actually, I am not quite sure even how to interpret it. Does it mean that no more than 500 words from Symbolism may be quoted in each individual article? Or that no more than 500 words from Symbolism (or any other single text of Whitehead’s) may be quoted in the entire volume of essays?

I haven’t actually counted the number of words I quote from Symbolism in my (approx) 6000-word essay. But my frequent short citations of the volume are entirely to be expected in a scholarly essay that engages in the close reading of a difficult philosophical text. Without the citations from Whitehead’s book, my own essay makes no sense. Whitehead’s Symbolism is itself (approx) 17,000-words long; a short book, in other words, but still I have only cited a small portion of it in my own essay. My citations are clearly protected under fair use. (As far as I am aware, it is only in the case of poetry and song lyrics that such fair use protection is not granted. To extend the poetry rule for philosophical treatises would be a calamity for all intellectual discussion).

In any case, I am not willing either to remove the quotations and substitute paraphrase, or to pay Simon and Schuster whatever extortionate amount they demand for me to exercise my rights under the doctrine of fair use. So my only choice is to withdraw the essay from the volume, unless the current restriction is removed. In any case, I do not blame the editors at WRP for this situation; they have assured me that they are doing their best to get Simon and Schuster to reconsider. But I am angry about the general climate with regards to copyright, in which large publishers (like S&S) can in effect act like bullies, and to impose egregious restrictions like this which contravene the very notion of fair use, simply because they know that nobody else can afford the legal fees that it would cost to contest these restrictions in court.

I should say that I am very proud of this essay; I think it is one of the best and most significant articles that I have ever written. Of course, maybe I am just congratulating myself too much; this is something for every reader to decide. But readers’ judgments can only be made if the article itself is available to read; you can access and download it here.

Accelerationism Without Accelerationism

November 3rd, 2015

Here is my review of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ INVENTING THE FUTURE. Cross-posted from The Disorder of Things.

The term accelerationism was coined by Benjamin Noys in 2010, in order to designate a political position that he rejected. In Noys’ account, accelerationism is the idea that things have to get worse before they can get better. The only way out of capitalism is the way through. The more abstract, violent, inhuman, contradictory, and destructive capitalism becomes, the closer it gets to tearing itself apart. Such a vision derives, ultimately, from the famous account of capitalism’s inherent dynamism in the Communist Manifesto. For Marx and Engels, capitalism is characterized by “constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation… All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” Far from deploring such developments, Marx and Engels see them as necessary preconditions for the overthrow of capitalism itself.

The trouble with accelerationism, according to Noys, is that it celebrates “uncertainty and agitation” as revolutionary in its own right. It doesn’t have any vision of a future beyond disruption. In the 1970s, Deleuze and Guattari suggest that we need, not to withdraw from capitalism, but “to go still further… in the movement of the market, of decoding and deterritorialization,” At the same time, Jean-Francois Lyotard exults over capitalism’s “insane pulsions” and “mutant intensities.” By the 1990s, Nick Land ecstatically anticipates the dissolution of humanity, as the result of “an invasion from the future” by the “cyberpositively escalating technovirus” of finance capital. Today, transhumanists see Bitcoin, derivatives, algorithmic trading, and artificial intelligence as tools for destroying the social order altogether, and for freeing themselves from the limits of the State, of collectivity, and even of mortality and finitude. This is what happens when “creative destruction” — as Joseph Schumpeter calls it, in his right-wing appropriation of Marx — is valued in and of itself.

In 2013, responding to all these currents, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams published their “#Accelerate: Manifesto for an Accelerationist Politics.” In this text, they seek to reclaim accelerationism as a genuine project for the left — one that can pick up the tools of capitalist modernity, and detourn them to liberatory ends. This is not a matter of celebrating disruption for its own sake; Srnicek and Williams emphatically reject Nick Land’s “myopic yet hypnotising belief that capitalist speed alone could generate a global transition towards unparalleled technological singularity.” Instead, Srnicek and Williams return to Marx’s own suggestion that

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or — this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms — with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

The new technologies — digital and otherwise — of the last several decades are currently straining against the “fetters” of the very system that initially produced them. Information streams are censored and crippled as a result of so-called “intellectual property” laws; companies like Apple and Google appropriate the profits resulting from research that was conducted at public expense. The automation and robotization of so many jobs leads, not to comfort and liberation from toil, but to precarity and dispossession.

Srnicek and Williams argue in their manifesto that we need to adapt these new technologies for emancipatory ends, rather than resisting and opposing them. They argue for a future-oriented left politics, “at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology.” They suggest that we should seek, not to restrain, but rather to “unleash latent productive forces.” They even call for a “Promethean politics of maximal mastery over society and its environment.” We might say that Srnicek and Williams’ accelerationism stands in relation to that of Nick Land much as early Soviet Constructivism stood in relation to Italian Futurism.

Srnicek and Williams’ important new book, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, offers a full-length expansion of the program that was first outlined in their manifesto. The most surprising thing about the book, however, is that the actual word “accelerationism” scarcely appears anywhere within it. As the authors explain in an endnote,

We largely avoid using the term ‘accelerationism’ in this work, due to the miasma of competing understandings that has risen around the concept, rather than from any abdication of its tenets as we understand them.

What this means, in practice, is that Srnicek and Williams’ ideas are removed from the incendiary context in which they were first proposed. Though the actual program of Inventing the Future is much the same as that of the manifesto, the change in rhetoric makes for a substantial difference. Without the expressive urgency connoted both by the word “accelerationism,” and the hyperbole that is basic to the manifesto as a genre, Srnicek and Williams’ proposals seem — well, they seem downright moderate and reasonable.

The authors start the book by offering a (mostly) comradely critique of the left’s recent predilection for “horizontalist” modes of organization, for privileging local concerns over global ones, for avoiding any explicit list of demands, and for direct democracy and spontaneous direct action. All these have been prominent features of the Occupy movement and other recent protest actions. But Srnicek and Williams argue that these tactics “do not scale.” They may work well enough in particular instances, but they are not of much help when it comes to building a larger and longer-enduring oppositional movement, one that could actually work towards changing our basic conditions of life.

This line of argument seems irrefutable to me — although it will likely irritate large segments of the book’s potential audience, particularly those whose general orientation is anarchist rather than Marxist. It is not just a question of organizational work — something that, admittedly, I have never done much of, myself — but also of orientation and basic vision. Local and horizontal political tactics are incomplete in themselves; they need to be supplemented by more global, or universal, modes of action and concern.

Unfortunately, Srnicek and Williams do not do themselves any favors when they characterize localist and horizontal tactics as “folk politics.” Such an appellation is deeply condescending. It is derived by analogy from “folk psychology,” the sneering term with which reductionist philosophers of mind and cognitive scientists refer to our common-sense beliefs and intuitions about ourselves. I entirely agree with the cognitivists that there is a lot going on in our minds that is not directly accessible to conscious awareness. But this need not entail that, as Paul Churchland notoriously put it, “our common-sense conception of psychological phenomena constitutes a radically false theory,” so that things like beliefs and desires don’t really even exist. The same holds for “folk politics” as for “folk psychology.” Pointing out the incompleteness of a mode of understanding is one thing; but dismissing it as entirely false and delusional is quite another. Srnicek and Williams convincingly argue that we need a more expansive, and more fully imaginative, form of both action and theorization; but they could well have pointed this out without the contempt and disparagement implied by the term “folk politics.”

In any case, after the opening chapters devoted to “the negative task of diagnosing the strategic limitations of the contemporary left,” Srnicek and Williams turn to the positive project of spelling out an alternative. This is where they do indeed make accelerationist proposals, while avoiding the needlessly provocative (one might even say “infantile leftist”) connotations that the term has taken on in recent years. They suggest, first of all, that the left needs to reclaim the mantle of modernism (the attitude) and modernity (the process) that it held for much of the twentieth century. This means, among other things, embracing and detourning new technologies, and finding a new sort of universalism that includes all the many local needs and forms of struggle, bringing them together without erasing their concrete particulars. (Here I wish that they had given consideration to something like Gilbert Simondon’s notions of transversality and transindividuality — for a discussion of which, in terms of left politics, see Jason Read’s new book The Politics of Transindividuality).

Beyond this, Srnicek and Williams analyze the ways that new technologies are transforming capitalism. They focus particularly on the ways that computerization and robotics are making more and more jobs redundant — without producing new sorts of jobs to replace them, as was the case in earlier waves of automation. We are standing on the verge of a “post-work world.” Given this situation, they suggest four basic demands around which the left can and should unite:

  1. Full automation
  2. The reduction of the working week
  3. The provision of a basic income
  4. The diminishment of the work ethic.

It is not that these demands will solve all problems; obviously they fail to address racism, sexism, and many other pressing needs. I myself would want to add a fifth demand to the list: the right of migration, and abolition of borders. But even without this addition, I think that the demands listed by Srnicek and Williams do indeed make sense as a “minimal” program. For one thing, they would establish the material conditions — freedom from hunger, homelessness, and other forms of severe want — under which racism and sexism could be more forcefully addressed and opposed than is the case today. For another thing, although these demands are in themselves concrete and attainable — as the world today is wealthy enough, and technologically advanced enough, to realize them — their fulfillment would require massive economic, social, and political transformations: ones that would take us beyond the limits of capitalism as it actually exists today.

Even if the left is able to unite around this series of demands, actually attaining them will remain a difficult task. Srnicek and Williams sensibly note that

the power of the left — broadly construed — needs to be rebuilt before a post-work society can become a meaningful strategic option. This will involve a broad counter-hegemonic project that seeks to overturn neoliberal common sense and to rearticulate new understandings of ‘modernisation’, ‘work’ and ‘freedom’.

Along these lines, they offer a number of concrete proposals, most of them good. They remind us, especially, that we cannot hope for immediate results, but need to play a long game. This is not a matter of the old debate between “reform” and “revolution” — an alternative that is now outdated. Rather, it means that a lot of things need to be changed on the ground in order for a massive economic and political transformation to be possible.

To illustrate this, Srnicek and Williams follow Philip Mirowski in tracing the history of the “neoliberal thought collective,” as it moved from a fringe group just after World War II to the dominant ideological force in the world after 1980. I have mixed feelings about this example, however. The story of neoliberalism’s triumph does indeed demonstrate the virtues of patience, cunning, keeping an eye on the long term, and understanding that the “common sense” of the broader society needs to change if policies are to change. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a “Mont Pelerin of the left,” concerned with more than immediate results. But the long-term success of the neoliberals has a lot to do with their access to money and to organs of public opinion. The capitalist class may well have accepted the Keynesian compromise in the post-War period, but they were always amenable to a new formation that would only increase their wealth, power, and influence. Ideological hegemony is a form of class struggle by different means. A left counter-hegemonic project will never be able to command the sorts of resources that the neoliberals had, as the moved from the margins to the center of policy-making.

The larger point here is that, as Fredric Jameson once put it,

It has often been lamented that Marxism seems to be a purely economic theory, which makes little place for a properly Marxian political theory. I believe that this is the strength of Marxism, and that political theory and political philosophy are always epiphenomenal. Politics should be the affair of an ever-vigilant opportunism, but not of any theory or philosophy; and even the current efforts to redefine mass democracy in this way or that are, to my mind, distractions from the central issue which is the nature and structure of capitalism itself. There can never be satisfactory political solutions or systems; but there can be better economic ones, and Marxists and leftists need to concentrate on those.

This doesn’t mean that politics can be ignored; the task of making a better economic order will always require deep political engagement. And Srnicek and Williams’ economic analysis of the material conditions for a “post-work” economy is quite good. But it still remains that they — like nearly all “Western Marxists” over the course of the past century — are a bit too quick in making the leap from economic matters to political ones.

Still, I don’t want to end my comments on such a negative note. The greatest strength of Inventing the Future, to my mind, is that it does indeed turn our attention towards the future, instead of the past. A big problem for the left today is that we have too long been stuck in the backward-looking, defensive project of trying to rescue whatever might be left of the mid-twentieth-century welfare state. While it is perfectly reasonable to lament our loss of the safety net that was provided by mid-twentieth-century social democracy, the restoration of those benefits is not enough to fuel a radical economic and political program. Looking nostalgically towards the past is far too deeply ingrained in our habits of thought. We need to reclaim our sense of the future from Silicon Valley and Hollywood. As Srnicek and Williams put it at the very end of their book,

Rather than settling for marginal improvements in battery life and computing power, the left should mobilize dreams of decarbonizing the economy, space travel, robot economies — all the traditional touchstones of science fiction — in order to prepare for a day beyond capitalism.

Post-capitalism (or better, communism — to use another word that is absent from this book) today has only a science fictional status. It’s a hidden potentiality that somehow still manages — just barely — to haunt the neoliberal endless present. Our rulers have been unable to exorcise this potential completely; but thus far we have been equally unable to endow it with any sort of substantiality or persistence. Inventing the Future looks beyond this impasse, to extrapolate (as all good science fiction does) a future that might actually be livable. This is its virtue and its importance.

Past & Future

September 27th, 2015

Bergson tells us, as Deleuze puts it in his Cinema books, that “the hidden ground of time” is “its differentiation into two flows, that of the presents which pass and that of pasts which are preserved.” Or, as Paolo Virno similarly puts it, in his recently translated book Deja Vu and the End of History, memory “captures the same current moment as perception does, but in an essentially different manner. The fleeting present is always grasped in two distinct and concomitant aspects (which are concomitant precisely because they are distinct),” the passing of the present and the memory of the past. What this means, for Bergson, Deleuze, and Virno alike, is that ontological memory, or the preserved past, is identical with the virtual (as opposed to the actual of the fleeting present). Virno goes on to explain how Bergson’s distinction between intuition and pragmatic intelligence is really one between how intuition bathes itself in the virtual, or the past, in contrast to “practical impulse oriented towards the future.”

These formulations have always bothered me, because they seem to privilege the past over the future; since the past is the only location of that virtuality which exceeds the actual, and which allows for things to change. These thinkers claim (rightly) that the future is open, that it is not entirely determined in advance by the past out of which it grows; and yet they seem to belittle the future, by returning us always to the past. I would like a notion of potentiality (or the virtual) that is more open to futurity: that sees potentiality as unactualized futurity, rather than as a reservoir of pure pastness. This would go along with my sense that science fiction gives expression to this futurity: SF does not predict the future, but expresses and explicates the real-but-not-actual elements of futurity that are part of our lived present. (“Real but not actual” is the Proustian phrase that Deleuze invokes on numerous occasions).

It strikes me (all too predictably, perhaps) that I can use Whitehead to resolve this predicament. Whitehead has a dual notion of God: there is both “the primordial nature of God” and “the consequent nature of God.” in my book Without Criteria I only discussed the primordial nature of God, which I equated, roughly, with potentiality or the virtual. God contains all the inactual “eternal objects” that can be actualized in particular events, and that make possible novelty rather than just mere repetition. But it strikes me now that the other aspect of God, the consequent nature, is exactly equivalent to Bergson’s (and therefore Deleuze’s and Virno’s) formulation of the past as preserving everything that happens (in contrast to the sheer passage of the present). That is to say, with his double nature of God, Whitehead separates out potentiality (or the virtual) as the reservoir of change from the “objective immortality” of a past that is preserved in ontological memory (even if not in particular empirical memories). This separation is precisely what is missing from Bergson, Deleuze, and Virno.

I need, at some point, to write an essay developing and expanding on this. (Unfortunately I don’t have the time to pursue this now: I am writing this blog entry as a note to myself for future elaboration).

Whitehead on Feelings

June 8th, 2015

Here is the text of the talk I gave this past week at the International Whitehead Studies conference in Claremont, California. It is a bit rough and fragmentary, and it doesn’t have a proper conclusion. But since I do not know when, or even if, I will expand it into a proper article, I am posting it here.

I am especially interested in what Whitehead calls feeling. The word is everywhere in Process and Reality. But it is not necessarily used in the ways we might expect. Whitehead insists that "the word feeling is a mere technical term." He says that he is using it in order to designate "that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own." At another point, Whitehead defines feeling as "the term used for the basic generic operation of of the actual entity in question. Feelings are variously specialized operations, effecting a transition into subjectivity."

In other words, "feeling" for Whitehead means capture and appropriation, and the form of subjectivity that arises from all this. Feeling as "a mere technical term" is pretty much equivalent to what Whitehead elsewhere calls prehension: a more unusual word that doesn’t have common-language connotations (although we recognize it in composite words like apprehension and comprehension). Strictly speaking, a feeling is a positive prehension; Whitehead contrasts this to negative prehension, a mode in which things are not felt, but rather "eliminate[d] from feeling." Positive and negative prehensions are the way that any entity constitutes itself in the process of responding to other entities that precede it. In every encounter, you either feel whatever it is that you have encountered, or else you actively reject it from feeling. Most importantly, an entity encounters, feels, and picks up from, its own state of being in the immediate past, which is to say in "time-spans of the order of magnitude of a second, or even of fractions of a second." But an entity also encounters other entities in its vicinity. And ultimately, an entity encounters – at least to some extent, though quite often this extent is "negligable" – its entire world, whch is to say, in the terminology of physics, everything within the light cone of the entity.

Explicitly specifying that "feeling" is just a technical term is a way of warning us that we shouldn’t take it as anthropomorphically as we normally would. On Whitehead’s account, a tree has feelings – but they are probably quite different from the feelings that human beings have. A tree may well feel assaulted, for instance; we know that trees (and other plants) release pheromones when insects start eating their leaves. These emissions both act as a chemical attack on the predator, and warn other trees (or, indeed, other parts of the same tree) to take defensive measures as well. It is not ridiculous, therefore, to claim that a tree has feelings. However, it is unlikely that a tree would ever feel insulted or humiliated – these are human feelings that have no place in the life of trees.

Of course, if Whitehead had really wanted to separate the concept of feeling entirely from our human sense of the term, he could have avoided the word entirely – since it is already synonymous to the technical term prehension. That way he could have easily sidestepped all this baggage of already-existing connotations. Since he didn’t, I must assume that Whitehead wanted to draw on that baggage – even though he also pushes it aside by claiming to be using "a mere techincal term." Why might this be? Whitehead wants us to expand our idea of what feelings are beyond the human context; but at the same time he does not want to completely separate it from human experience. The feelings of a tree are quite different from the feelings of human beings, but there is nonetheless a certain degree of affinity between them.

This, of course, is the point at which many people will accuse Whitehead of anthropmorphism and projection. We can respond to this objection with Jane Bennett’s maxim that anthropomorphism helps us to avoid the far worse problems of anthropocentrism. After all, she notes, "too often the philosophical rejection of anthropomorphism is bound up with a hubristic demand that only humans and God can bear any traces of creative agency." In other words, attributing feeling to trees helps to shake us from our all-too-human, self-congratulatory belief that we are totally unlike all other entities: such as Robert Brandom’s view that we are sapient, whereas other living things are merely sentient. But actually, I don’t think that Whitehead is being anthropomorphic at all: rather, he is inverting the direction of anthropomorphic projections. For Whitehead, human feelings are in fact the exemplification, within our own experience, of a broader kind of process that is far more widely distributed among entities in the world. I cannot remember who first said this, but Whitehead’s actual procedure is – far from attributing human qualities to other organisms –to try to find more general processes, of which the human version that we are familiar with is just one, not necessarily privileged, example. Whitehead’s procedure is actually what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction.

Nonetheless, even with all these explanations, Whitehead’s use of feeling as a mere techincal term remains a bit counter-intuitive. He shores up his position by appealing to a number of philosophical precedents . He says that "this use of the term ‘feeling’ has a close analogy to Alexander’s use of the term ‘enjoyment’; and has also some kinship with Bergson’s use of the term ‘intuition.’ (Just as an aside, I wonder whether it might be a good idea to go back and look at Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity: I have never read it, but Whitehead clearly thinks highly of it, and Deleuze mentions it in passing as a great book).

In any case, Whitehead also – and more surprisingly than with his citations of Alexander and Bergson – closely associates his use of the word feeling with Descartes’ use of the equivalent Latin term sentire. Didier Debaise discusses this connection in his new book L’appât des possibles. For Descartes, sentire, the act of feeling, is the one indubitable fact of existence – my cogito really reduces to a sentio, since even if the content of the feeling is delusive, the fact of having a feeling is not. (Debaise implicitly draws on Deleuze and Guattari’s substitution of sentio for cogito). (It is worth noting that Whitehead quite frequently draws from the history of philosophy in this way; he find precedents by isolating crucial propositions from an earlier thinker whose general, overall position is entirely opposed to his own).

I am entirely convinced by Debaise’s reading, which is deeper and more complex than what I have space to discuss here. But I would like to point to another, equally odd philosophical borrowing in Whitehead’s discussion of feeling. After citing Alexander and Bergson, and before moving on to Descartes, Whitehead notes that "a near analogy [for his own use of the term ‘feeling’] is Locke’s use of the term ‘idea’, including ‘ideas of particular things’." The qualification of "particular things" is important. At several points in Process and Reality, Whitehead notes how – even though this contradicts Locke’s overall sensationalism – Locke nonetheles speaks of ideas that are "determined to one particular existent." What this means, for Whitehead, is that "in some sense one actual existent repeats itself in another actual existent." There is a lot to unpack here. I will only note two things. In the first place, an entity prehends, or feels, an entire prior entity: meaning the entity as a whole, rather than just its particular qualities. I see a tree, not just an aggregation of points of green (leaves) and grey (bark). I feel the entity itself, as well as feeling its "secondary qualities" (which are what Whitehead calls eternal objects). The "data" that we perceive are not just atomistic impressions; rather, "the datum includes its own interconnections."

In the second place, when Whitehead says that an entity "repeats itself", he means that entities do not just represent other entities, or the sensa emitted by other entities, as private mental pictures: rather, the earlier entity really is present in a certain way in the later one. I discuss this at length in my article "Whitehead on Causality and Perception." For Whitehead, causality and perception are the same thing. Or, more precisely: when an entity perceives another entity, this means that it is being affected by that other entity; perception in this way is a subset of being-affected in general, since entities also affect other entities in ways that are not immediately perceived; the sum of all these affections are what we mean by causality. As Michael Halewood mentioned to me, this means that Whitehead understands causality , not as a "law of nature," but rather as the tendency for the present to conform to the immediate past. Such is the baseline, or basic condition, of becoming for Whithead; although it is partly overcome when an entity introduces novelty in its prehension of a previous entity, rather than merely conforming to it.

There are several other places in Progress and Reality where Whitehead refers his own notion of feeling to Locke’s notion of ideas. For instance:

the terms ‘prehension’ and ‘feeling’ are to be compared with the various significations of Locke’s term ‘idea.’ But they are adopted as more general and more neutral terms than ‘idea’ as used by Locke, who seems to restrict them to conscious mentality.

And again:

Locke’s term idea, in his primary use of it in the first two books of the Essay, means the determinate ingression of an eternal object into the actual entity in question. But he also introduces the limitation to conscious mentality, which is here abandoned."

The important point here is that subjective experience need not involve, and can be detached from, consciousness. On the one hand, Whitehead catergorically insists that "apart from the experiences of subjects there is nothing, nothing, nothing, bare nothingness." But he also continually reminds us that most of this "experience of subjects" is nonconscious. We feel more than we can know. And many organisms feel events in the world, without necessarily being conscious of what they feel. Trees for instance, have feelings, as many recent studies have shown (see, for instance, What a Plant Knows, by Daniel Chamovitz). Trees sense and feel the sunlight; they sense and feel water in the ground; they sense and feel when insects eat their leaves. But none of this necessarily means that trees are overtly conscious; most likely, they are not.

Whitehead’s distinction between feeling and consciousness helps to illuminate certain deadlocks in the contemporary philosophy of mind. Many philosophers – David Chalmers is a good example – insist upon a supposed special quality of consciousness, its irreducibility to physical process. Other philosophers – Daniel Dennett for example – deny that consciousness has any special qualities; but in giving a fully physical explanation, they end up by explaining it away. Galen Strawson has recentlly suggested that both positions are fallacious. On the one hand, there is no evidence, in the mind or elsewhere, for anything that transcends the physical. On the other hand, though, we don’t really know everything that physical processes or materiality can do; there is no ground for claiming that physicality somehow excludes mentality. I am inclined to agree with Strawson here; but the larger, Whiteheadian point is that the issue gets entirely confused when we simply equate mentality with consciousness. Neurobiologists have shown that many and perhaps most mental processes occur nonconsciously, and may well be absoutely inaccessible to consciousness. But we need not assume, as neurobiologists and philosophers of mind generally do, that all this nonconscious mental activitty can rightly be described as computation. Whitehead’s discussion of feeling gives us a broader picture of mental functioning than cognitive psychology does. I cannot develop this here, but my hunch is that feeling in this sense is a necessary precondition for cognition, but is not in itself cognitive.

Fictions and Fabulations of Sentience: Introduction

June 1st, 2015

Here is the current draft of the Introduction to the book I am trying to write this summer, Discognition: Fictions and Fabulations of Sentience. Of course it is subject to revision.

What is consciousness? How does subjective experience occur? Which entities are conscious? Or, to put things as particularly as possible: what is it like to be a bat? — as Thomas Nagel famously asked. For that matter, what is it like to be a dog, a robot, or a tree — or even a human being? Is it like anything at all to be a rock, or a star, or a neutrino? How do we explain the very fact of being aware? What does it really mean to be conscious, to think, to feel, or to know? And what is the difference — if any — between thinking, feeling, being aware, and knowing? Such questions might seem to have obvious answers — until we actually try to answer them. Then we discover that we don’t have a clue, and that these questions have never come close to being plausibly answered. Still today, there no consensus whatsoever upon any of these topics: neither among scientists and philosophers, nor among the general public. We are clearly sentient, and yet we do not know what sentience is, how it can exist, or what it means.

Whenever I come across such intractable problems, my impulse is always to turn to science fiction. Perhaps we will be able to imagine what we are unable to know. Science fiction is a special kind of literature — or better, paraliterature, as Samuel R. Delany calls it — that operates through speculation and extrapolation, and that takes place (conceptually, if not grammatically) in the future tense. It is a kind of thought experiment, a way of entertaining odd ideas, and of asking off-the-wall what if? questions. But instead of approaching its issues abstractly, as philosophy does, or breaking them down into empirically testable propositions, as physical science does, science fiction embodies these issues in characters and narratives. By telling stories, it asks questions about all sorts of things: consciousness and cognition, the future, extreme possibilities, nonhuman otherness, and especially the deep consequences — the powers and limitations — of both our ideologies and our technologies.

The method of science fiction is emotional and situational, rather than rational and universalizing. Philosophical argumentation and scientific experimentation both endeavor to prove and to ground their assertions, however counter-intuitive these may seem to be at first glance. Science fiction also proposes counter-intuitive scenarios; but its effort is rather to work through the weirdest and most extreme ramifications of these scenarios, and to imagine what it would be like if they were true. Where philosophy is foundational, science fiction is pragmatic and exploratory. And where physical science seeks to settle upon predictable and repeatable results, science fiction seeks to unsettle and singularize these results, and to provide us with unrepeatable histories. Science fiction does not ever actually prove anything; but its scenarios may well suggest new lines of inquiry that analytic reasoning and inductive generalization would never stumble upon by themselves.

In Discognition, I look at a series of science fiction narratives in order to raise questions about consciousness and thought — or better, about sentience. I prefer this latter term, because it does not presuppose that mental processes and experiences are rational, nor even that they are necessarily conscious. When certain philosophers elevate human “sapience” over mere animal “sentience,” they are indulging in dubious feats of self-congratulation. For in fact, there is far more of an evolutionary continuity than a sharp distinction between the way that my dog thinks, and the way that I think. I have many unique qualities of mind that he can never hope to possess; but the inverse of this is also true. Understanding and intelligence (which Robert Brandom lists as the characteristics of sapience) are in fact deeply rooted in such features of sentience as sensory awareness, reality testing, irritability, and arousal. The difference is one of degree, rather than one of kind.

Brandom is therefore wrong to scornfully dismiss what he calls the “merely sentient” condition of animals. My dog may not be able to “offer and inquire after reasons,” as Sellars and Brandom would wish — just as he cannot figure out how to extricate himself when he gets tangled up in his leash. Nonetheless, he exhibits a wide range of moods and feelings. He is is quite good at posing and pursuing many sorts of complicated goals. And he is highly skilled at expressing his desires, in ways that I am able to understand; and at comprehending — and responding flexibly to — my own moods and desires. Thinking is a far more common and widely distributed process than we are sometimes willing to recognize.

The narratives that I discuss in this book offer us speculation — fictions and fabulations — about sentience. There is something oddly recursive about this, since sentience itself is arguably a matter of generating (or being able to generate) fictions and fabulations. We ought to resist the all-too-common equation of sentience with cognition. We often find this assumption taken for granted in contemporary philosophy of mind, as well as in neurobiological research. But mental functioning and subjective experience need not themselves be cognitive — even though cognition seems impossible without them. Sentience, whether in human beings, in animals, in other sorts of organisms, or in artificial entities, is less a matter of cognition than it is one of what I have ventured to call discogniton. I use this neologism to designate something that disrupts cognition, exceeds the limits of cognition, but also subtends cognition. My working assumption is that fictions and fabulations are basic modes of sentience; and that cognition per se is derived from them and cannot exist without them.

Fictions and fabulations are often contrasted, or opposed, to scientific methods of understanding the world. But in fact, there are powerful resonances between them; they are both processes of speculative extrapolation. In other words, constructing and testing scientific hypotheses is not entirely different from constructing fictions and fabulations, and then testing to see whether they work or not, and what consequences follow from them. For science is far more than just a passive process of discovery, or a compiling of facts that are simply “out there.” Rather, science must actively approach things and processes in the world. This is the reason for making hypotheses. Science needs to solicit and elicit phenomena that would not disclose themselves to us otherwise. It must somehow compel these phenomena to respond to our questions, by giving us full and consistent answers. All this is necessary, precisely because things in the world are not cut to our measure. They have no reason to conform to our presuppositions, or to fit into any categories that we seek to impose.

The modern empirical scientific method is sometimes described as a process of “torturing nature to reveal her secrets” — a phrase often wrongly attributed to Francis Bacon. Philosophers of science also like to quote Isaac Newton’s Hypotheses non fingo (“I feign no hypotheses”). But a much better account of actual scientifc practice is the one proposed by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, who say that scientists work by negotiating with nonhuman entities, and by entering into alliances with them. Scientists do not get very far by treating the things they are interested in as mute and inert objects to be dissected. They do much better when they are somehow able to collaborate with the very entities that they seek to observe and explain.

Alfred North Whitehead, a major inspiration for both Latour and Stengers, notes that if the “rigid… Baconian method of induction” had been “consistently pursued,” it “would have left science where it found it.” Nothing new would ever have been discovered. The same can be said for Newton’s claim of making no hypotheses. Whitehead insists that science needs, not just empirical observation and induction, but also “the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic.” That is to say, a certain degree of speculation is always necessary in scientific research. This speculation has to be “controlled” in some manner; it cannot be altogether arbitrary and unbounded. But without speculation, science is caught in a rut. It cannot stretch beyond the given, immediate facts, in order to provide a plausible explanation for these facts.

The speculative process described by Whitehead is roughly similar to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls abduction. For Peirce, abduction stands in contrast to — and supplements — both deduction and induction. Deduction starts with conditions that are already given, and traces out a chain of logical consequences for those conditions. Induction, for its part, generalizes on the basis of an already given set of particular observations. According to Peirce, neither deduction nor induction can actually suggest anything new. Abduction, in contrast, makes a sort of leap into novelty. It shifts register: suggesting a higher-order explanation for the circumstances with which it is concerned, or positing a possible cause for the effects in view. Science is often praised for having — as other human disciplines do not — an intrinsic self-correcting mechanism. But without first engaging in abduction or speculation, science would never come up with any material to confirm or deny, or to self-correct.

Because it requires flights of speculation, as well as because it requires collaboration among many separate entities, science can never be purely human, nor purely rational. This is why efforts to place science on a pedestal, radically separating it from other forms of thought and endeavor, are so deeply mistaken. Empricial science and rational discourse are largely continuous with other ways of feeling, understanding, and engaging with the world. These include art, myth, religion, and narrative, together with the nonhuman modes of inference exhibited by other sorts of organisms.

We should therefore always be alert to the deep bioligical roots of scientific experimentation and discovery. As Björn Brembs points out, there has recently been a major change of paradigm in neuroscience: a “dramatic shift in perspectives from input/output to output/input.” We can no longer be satisfied with the old stimulus/response model, according to which animals (and other organisms) passively respond to prior, incoming stimuli, and learn by means of conditioning (or associations among these stimuli). For this is only one part of the story. In addition, and probably more importantly, biological entities are active reality-testers. They are always busy “probing the environment with ongoing, variable actions first and evaluating sensory feedback later (i.e., the inverse of stimulus response).” Output tends to come first. Organisms engage their surroundings with spontaneous actions, rather than just waiting for and responding to sensory inputs.

For instance, fruit flies (the special focus of Brembs’ own research) only have tiny brains; but they actively compare the actual results of their reality-testing with what can only be called their prior expectations. They also engage in spontaneous (non-deterministic and unpredictable) actions, so that their behavior “is notoriously variable, even under identical sensory conditions.” The same applies, not just to animals with neurons and brains, but also to non-animal forms of life, like trees, bacteria, and slime molds. That is to say, living organisms are continually engaged, in their own particular ways, in processes of speculative extrapolation and experimentation. When scientists perform experiments and develop theories, actively soliciting responses from the world, they are fundamentally doing the same thing as fruit flies and slime molds — albeit in a far more sophisticated manner, and on a more reflexive meta-level.

Among human beings, speculative extrapolation is not only the method of science. It is also what art in general does — and what science fiction does in particular. As the philosopher Eric Schwitzgabel puts it,

Increasingly, I think the greatest science fiction writers are also philosophers. Exploring the limits of technological possibility inevitably involves confronting the central issues of metaphysics, epistemology, and human value.

In this book, I seek to explore the potentials and implications of sentience by turning to fictions and fabulations — and in particular to written science fiction narratives. Some of the texts that I look at are set in the very near future, and trace out the potential implications of already-existing technologies and research programs. Others are set in a more distant future, and involve more radical flights of extrapolation. Some of these stories can be described as reductionist and eliminativist, in the sense that they seek to demystify and discredit our common sense assumptions about how our minds work. Others might be described as expansive, in that they seek to show that phenomenal consciousness is irreducible, and more widely spread than we sometimes imangine. Some of the narratives deal with human intelligence and consciousness in particular; others propose radically alien sorts of mentality. In all cases, I seek to follow, and extrapolate from, the suggestions expressed by the narratives themselves — rather than viewing them with suspicion, or working to critique them.

More specifically, the hypothesis, or speculative wager, behind this book is that science fiction narratives can help us step beyond the overly limited cognitivist assumptions of most recent research both in the philosophy of mind and in the science of neurobiology. This is because narrative fictions nearly always extend beyond cognition. They are about connecting how and what we know to how we feel, and to how we might act— to what is it like? in short. Even the most reductionist SF stories still work, not just to explain, but to entangle us within their grim scenarios. In this sense, works of art are forms of — or occasions for — rehearsal, as Morse Peckham argued long ago. With their extrapolations, they allow us to respond vicariously to situations that might be extremely dangerous and painful, were they actually to exist. Art readies us for evaluation and action under conditions of uncertainty. In the aesthetic register, Peckham says, “responses are redundantly maintained in situations in which nothing is at stake.” This is precisely what allows narrative (and other forms of art) to explore exteme possibilities.

Psychoanalysis and cognitive science both tell us — albeit for vastly different reasons — that consciousness is only a very narrow and specialized part of mental activity. Most thinking takes place nonconsciously, outside of our attention or awareness. Even more of our thinking slips away — it cannot be retained in memory, or in the form of concepts. Fictions and fabulations can provide us with a sort of feed forward — to use a phrase of Mark Hansen’s — of those mental processes that are not available to introspection. Hansen emphasizes the (quite science-fictional) way that computational microsensors are now able “to stand in for consciousness, to take the place of sense perception in the operations of registering sensory data.” Things beneath or beyond the reach of phenomenal perception are thus made accessible to us, albeit belatedly and indirectly. I want to suggest that fictions and fabulations, whether articulated by human beings or by other entities, are also forms of indirect, nonphenomenological access to nonconscious forms of sentience.

Through fictions and fabulations, we learn that there is more to thought than consciousness. But there is also more to thought than the nonconscious computations of which cognitive science speaks. Before it is cognitive, let alone conscious, thought is primordially an affective and aesthetic phenomenon. This is best grasped as a process of what Alfred North Whitehead calls “feeling.” Whitehead uses this word, he says, as “a mere technical term” in order to designate “that functioning through which the concrescent actuality appropriates the datum so as to make it its own.” What this means, in more familiar language, is that every entity becomes what it is by “appropriating” what is left behind by other entities that precede it. Most crucially, an entity perpetuates itself by appropriating its own prior states of existence. But an entity also appropriates other entities in its surroundings. It picks up whatever it encounters: whatever affects it, or provides conditions or resources for its own continued existence.

This primordial act of feeling, or appropriation, happens before I know it, and often without my ever becoming aware of it. I can breathe without having to know anything about oxygen. Feeling, as Whitehead describes it, comes about prior to anything like understanding (in the Kantian sense), or cognition (in the current psychological and analytic-philosophical sense) or intentionality (in the phenomenological sense). Rather, Whiteheadian feeling is closer to Spinoza’s notion of affection (affectio), and to William James’ theory of emotion. Embodied response precedes, and does not require, intellectual apprehension.

In other words, feeling is something that happens without, or before, concepts. Here we can consider Kant’s dictum that “thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind”; Merleau-Ponty’s insistence that “unreflective experience” must itself be reflected upon, and that such reflection “cannot be unaware of itself as an event”; and Sellars’ attack on the “myth of the given.” All of these philosophers insist that there is no such thing as raw, unmediated experience. Our perceptions and emotions are always already conceptualized. Of course these arguments are in their own terms impregnable; if I want to insist upon a “feeling” that is prior to these modes of conceptualization and self-reflection, then I cannot go on to conceptualize it. I cannot assume its solidity as an idea, or as a point of presence. I must regard feelings, and characterize them, as fugitive and ungraspable; and perhaps also as non-functional, or even dysfunctional.

This means, in Kantian terms, that “feeling” is a matter for aesthetics, rather than for empirical understanding. Despite his strictures against “intuitions without concepts” in the First Critique, Kant nonetheless writes in the Third Critique of “aesthetic ideas,” which he defines as “inner intuitions” which are so powerful that “no concept can be fully adequate to them.” In phenomenological terms, we may say that feeling comes before, and falls short of, any sort of intentionality, or even of Merleau-Ponty’s reversibility. In cognitivist terms, finally, feeling has something to do with what Thomas Metzinger calls Raffman qualia: any such sensation is “available for attention and online motor control, but it is not available for cognition . . . it evades cognitive access in principle. It is nonconceptual content.”

In his recent book Plant-Thinking, Michael Marder credits plants with “non-conscious intentionality.” He means “intentionality” in the phenomenological sense: the idea that thought is of or about something. In this book, I argue pretty much the reverse: that living organisms, beyond and beneath their cognitive accomplishments, exhibit something like nonintentional sentience. Beneath intentionality, or before thought is about anything, there is a thinking process — an it thinks — that is nontransitive, without an object. When it thinks, it feels something; but it does not have any conception or representation of what it is that it feels. As Marder rightly points out, plants do not have anything like a unified or centered self. There is no “I” to a plant, no subject. But for this very reason, there is nothing — as far as a plant is concerned — like an intentional object either. My formulation is not an absolute reversal of Marder’s, because I do not equate sentience with consciousness. I think that Whitehead is right in speaking of the relative rarity of consciousness, and suggesting that most occasions of feeling are nonconscious. Plants are indeed sentient, as recent research has convincingly shown. But this does not necessarily mean that they are conscious. Plants feel, in Whitehead’s sense; they encounter the world. But they do not do so in any manner with which we are consciously acquainted.

In Discognition, I look at science fiction narratives — fictions and fabulations — that consider unusual forms of sentience, both in human beings and in other entities. The first chapter, “Thinking Like A Philosopher”, is not about a science fictional text per se, but rather about a counterfactual narrative — the story of Mary — that has become the focus of much speculation and argumentation among philosophers of mind. The second chapter, “Thinking Like A Computer,” discusses Maureen McHugh’s short story “The Kingdom of the Blind,” which contemplates the possibility of spontaneously arising machine sentience, or artificial intelligence. The third chapter, “Thinking Like An Avatar”, looks at Ted Chiang’s dramatization of the issues surrounding artificial intelligence in his novella “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” The third chapter, “Thinking Like A Human Being”, considers Scott Bakker’s chillingly eliminativist view of human cognition, as expressed in his novel Neuropath. The fifth chapter, “Thinking Like A Murderer”, looks at Michael Swanwick’s short story “Wild Minds”, which was written before, but almost seems like a deliberate rejoinder to, Bakker’s novel. The sixth chapter,”Thinking Like An Alien”, examines Peter Watts’ First Contact novel Blindsight, which raises questions about the very nature of consciousness by imagining radical, posthuman mind alterations alongside a truly alien sort of intelligence. FInally, the seventh chapter, “Thinking Like A Slime Mold”, considers the strange mental powers of an actually-existing organism, the plasmodial slime mold Physarum polyycephalum.