In this Sunday’s Age and Sydney Morning Herald I’m quoted talking about robots, consciousness and Descartes

With the publication of my book on contemporary limits and transformations of humanity coming out next month I had the chance this week to talk with John Elder of The Sunday Age about the future possibility of rights for robots. John’s article came out today in The Sunday Age and the Sydney Morning Heraldwith the title “What happens when your robot gets ambitious?

In the course of a stimulating conversation with John I argued that one of the main reasons our society finds the question of robot rights so hard — and so scary — to answer today is that we moderns are still suffering from a Cartesian hangover that makes us to see the world as divided into the two categories of “subjects” (human beings) and “objects” (everything else); we load all agency and power onto the subject side of the equation, with the result that everything non-human is thought to be passive and inert (readers of Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern will find themselves on familiar ground here, as will those versant with Michel Serres’s discussions of subject and object in The Parasite and elsewhere). If robots were to have rights in such a way of thinking, then it would mean that they would have crossed over the subject-object abyss and become “one of us” or even perhaps made “in our image”.

The problem with this view of things, though, is that the two-speed gearbox of subject and object is really not up to the task of parsing out the variegated and complex ways we relate to technology (including robots) today, never mind in the future, and I argue that we need something more sophisticated than the all-or-nothing subject-object dyad if we are to do justice to complex ways in which humans interact with increasingly sophisticated and humanoid robots, as well as with technology more generally.

Hollywood blockbusters aside, it’s not a question of “humans versus robots”, but rather we humans ourselves are irreducibly technological beings: strip away from a human being all the technology and technique (the building of dwellings, cultivation of crops, language, social customs, rituals, religions and symbols, tools, art, complex social groups…) and what you are left with is no longer a human being. As Michel Serres is fond of saying (see YouTube clip below), everyone carrying a laptop today is like Saint Denis walking around with their head under their arm: we outsource significant quantities of our cognitive processing to technology as well as much of our manual work to tools, chemical compounds and engines. That is not some alien technological intrusion into a pristine and untroubled non-technological humanity; it is who, as human beings, we are, who we always have been, and who we will be in the future, no doubt with ever more sophisticated ways of building technology into our existence. Technology in general and robots in particular do not threaten our humanity; without it (and them) we would not be human to begin with.

What about the question of robot consciousness though? Well, it’s certainly an important question, but we make a grave error if we assume that it is the only, or even the salient, question in the public debate about any eventual robot rights. I argue that there’s more to the question of robot rights than whether robots are conscious or not, for the good reason that there is more to human rights than the fact that we humans are conscious. Our finitude and neediness–to take just one set of examples–also irreducibly inform the discourse of human rights, and it is unclear how limiting factors like the need for rest and for recreation, or having a family (or even oneself) to support, would pertain to robots. The cry of the Australian Trades Unions in the 1850s was “8 Hours labour, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest”, a demand that reflects not only human consciousness but human finitude and the web of relationships into which human beings are born.

If not consciousness, then what about capacity? Well, if we define robots’ status or access to rights by what they can do (think rationally, use language, beat humans at board games…) then we are, at least implicitly, consenting to making one capacity or a suite of capacities the shibboleth of human rights too, and in the new book I argue that this “capacity approach” is a dangerous position to hold. We shouldn’t make human capacities the gatekeepers of moral equality or of the right to have rights, because exceptions can always be found to whatever capacity is chosen and it is often some of the weakest and most vulnerable who are left outside the circle of human rights if entry is granted on the basis of this or that capacity. On this basis, capacity should not be our yardstick for assessing robot rights either. It is much too blunt an instrument.

The Age--What happens when your robot gets ambitious

We have always been plastic: Catherine Malabou with Gregory of Nyssa and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola

Catherine Malabou Nyssa Pico

With much coffee and the huge kindness and indulgence of my wife I have just finished the first complete draft of my book on figures of the human in contemporary French thought. The project formerly known as The Human Remains has evolved into the argument that one of the most comprehensive and productive ways to understand the rich diversity of contemporary French thought and to draw links between very different philosophers[1] is to approach the field as a series of attempts to transform the human being in a way no longer determined (either positively or negatively) by the death of God and the end of man.

As part of the collateral damage ensuing from having taken a machete to the draft in order to bring it within the word limit, I have a number of sections that didn’t make it past the group stage (the scars of England’s cricket world cup exit run deep and its metaphor spreads wide) that are now gathering dust on the cutting room floor. Here are some thoughts that were amputated from the final section of chapter 3 (which accounts for the extract starting rather abruptly and referring back to my analysis of Malabou’s Hegel)…

 

Abbreviations

AD          Avant demain

ADH       L’Avenir de Hegel

FOH       The Future of Hegel

 

Catherine Malabou is not offering us a new and innovative figure of humanity but as a plastic transformation of one of the oldest Western figures of the human. The idea that the distinctive human trait is the possibility for self-transformation has a long tradition in the West, commonly accepted to begin with Cappadocian Father Gregory of Nyssa’s (c 335 – c 395) On The Making of Humanity. The way in which Malabou rescues Hegel’s God from the reading according to which divine kenosis is a moment of lack and passivity provides us with a blueprint for re-reading this tradition which understands the human as uniquely indeterminate and open to possibilities not, as is customary, as an apophatic or mystical denial of any determinate human nature but as a series of accounts of the plastic human. In this section I will seek to sketch two examples of this rereading of the tradition necessitated by plasticity, from Gregory’s On The Making of Humanity itself, and from the Florentine Renaissance philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s (1463-1494) Oration on the Dignity of Man. I beg the reader’s indulgence: I treat these two texts briefly and without any pretence of according them the detailed study which they merit. My aim is a very modest one: to indicate how we might begin to think of Malabou’s plastic humanity as itself a plastic transformation of traditional anthropologies that predate Hegel.

In the same way that, as Malabou notes, kenosis has most often been interpreted as a moment of passivity and negativity (ADH 130/FOH 91), Gregory’s On the Making of Humanity is most frequently read today as offering an apophatic anthropology, read indeed as “the classic formulation of a mystical or negative anthropology grounded in a mystical and negative theology”.[2] This reading places at the centre of Gregory’s anthropology the assertion in On the Making of Humanity that it is indeterminacy and incomprehensibility that render humanity, uniquely among all the animals, in imago dei:

God […] says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness”. The image is properly an image so long as it fails in none of those attributes which we perceive in the archetype; but where it falls from its resemblance to the prototype it ceases in that respect to be an image; therefore, since one of the attributes we contemplate in the Divine nature is incomprehensibility of essence, it is clearly necessary that in this point the image should be able to show its imitation of the archetype.[3]

The conventional reading goes on to argue that, liberated from the possession of any determinate nature or substance, the mystical Gregory figures the human being as sculptor of himself: “the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will”.[4] This, at least, is the Gregory of the apophatic tradition, including the Gregory of Jean-Luc Marion. But, as we saw when we looked carefully at Malabou’s reading of the figuring of kenosis as divine passivity, this is only half the story. As well as his insistence upon the soul’s self-government, Gregory also argues that “[n]ature, the all-contriving, takes from its kindred matter the part that comes from the man, and moulds her statue within herself”.[5] Is humanity, then, formed or self-forming? The answer is: yes. In On the Origin of Man Gregory argues for the distinction in Genesis 1:26[6] between the “image of God”, which is given to humanity, and the “likeness of God”, which humanity must construct for itself: “But it is proper that one part is given you, while the other has been left incomplete: this is so that you might complete it yourself and might be worthy of the reward which comes from God”.[7] This is neither apophatic nor kataphatic; the term which most adequately describes it is “plastic”, according to Malabou’s understanding of plasticity as a simultaneous giving and receiving of form. Furthermore, even the self-governing capacity of humans is still received as part of the image of God. It is impossible, in a close reading of On the Making of Humanity, to dissociate the giving and receiving of form. What Gregory presents is a picture not of an apophatic but of a plastic humanity.

A similarly one-sidedness can be discerned in modern readings of Pico della Mirandola’s Oration on the Dignity of Man. In the Oration Pico insists that humanity has “no archetype” and is a “creature of indeterminate image”: [8]

We have given you, Adam, no fixed seat or form of your own, no talent particular to you alone. This we have done so that whatever seat, whatever form, whatever talent you may judge desirable, the same may you have and possess according to your desire and judgment. Once defined, the nature of all other beings is constrained within the laws We have prescribed for them. But you, constrained by no limits, may determine your nature for yourself, according to your own free will, in whose hands We have placed you.[9]

The Creator addresses humanity as the “shaper of yourself”,[10] having in its possession “every sort of seed and all sprouts of every kind of life”.[11] Ernst Cassirer is typical of a dominant strain of interpretation which considers Pico as first and foremost a “champion of human dignity and freedom” for whom “man possesses his perfection only as he achieves it for himself independently and on the basis of a free decision”.[12] Giorgio Agamben ploughs a similar furrow when he characterises Pico’s Oration as offering a “definition of man by his lack of a face”, claiming that the text’s “central thesis” is that man “can have neither archetype nor proper place”.[13]

What these and similar interpretations tend to occlude is that Pico’s human is a creature as well as a creator. The “seeds pregnant with all possibilities” are bestowed upon humanity by the Father, and the context of the phrase eulogising humanity as the shaper of its own being is: “We have made you neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, so that you may, as the free and extraordinary shaper of yourself, fashion yourself in whatever form you prefer”.[14] Pico’s human is the created creator, the shaped shaper, the one who receives its own form from God (it is made a “free and extraordinary shaper”) and gives itself its own form (it freely and proudly fashions itself). The “lack of face” to which Agamben refers is itself a form which humanity receives; the human has no archetype, to be sure, but it is equally true that its lack of an archetype is itself a gift from God, just as much as other determinate endowments such as the horse’s speed or the lion’s strength. The one-sided reading of Pico as the champion of utter and unconditioned freedom must be corrected by a closer reading of his text: Pico’s humanity is not Promethean but plastic.

These sketches of plasticity in Gregory and Pico and no more than indications of the contours that a plastic rereading of the apophatic tradition would take. The conclusion towards which they gesture (but that would need a much longer development) is that Malabou’s plastic human is not a new, ex nihilo anthropology that destroys or renders obsolete the tradition that precedes it, but a materialist plastic transformation of that tradition which is both recognisable in its oldest representatives and also faithful to Malabou’s own plastic transformation of Hegelian plasticity.

[1] I deal explicitly with Alain Badiou, Quentin Meillassoux, Catherine Malabou, Michel Serres and Bruno Latour, but the schema of interpretation I elaborate in the book is intended to be expandable to other contemporary thinkers.

[2] Thomas A. Carlson, The Indiscrete Image: Infinitude and Creation of the Human (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009) 126.

[3] Philip Schaff (ed.), NPNF2-08. Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetic and Moral Treatises, Philosophical Works, Apologetic Works, Oratorical Works, Letters, vol. 8, Nicene and Post-Nicene Church Fathers: Series 2 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2015) 90.

[4] Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 80.

[5] Schaff (ed.), NPF2-08, 144.

[6] ‘Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”’ (Genesis 1:26, English Standard Version).

[7] Gregory of Nyssa, On the Origin of Man, in Andrew Louth (ed.), Genesis 1-11, Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament I (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001) 33.

[8] Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, Oration on the Dignity of Man: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Francesco Borghesi, Michael Papio and Massimo Riva (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) 117.

[9] della Mirandola, Oration 117.

[10] della Mirandola, Oration 117.

[11] della Mirandola, Oration 121.

[12] Cassirer, Ernst. “Giovanni Pico della Mirandola: A Study in the History of Renaissance Ideas.” In Journal of the History of Ideas 3:3 (June 1942): 319-346, 323. I was helped in my reading of Pico by April Capili’s unpublished article “Hidden Keynote in Giovanni Pico della Mirandola’s Understanding of Human Dignity and Freedom”, available at academia.edu

[13] Giorgio Agamben, The Open: Man and Animal, trans. Kevin Attell (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004) 29.

[14] della Mirandola, Oration 117; CW’s emphasis. As Capili points out, this argument is also made by Paul Miller in Pico della Mirandola on the Dignity of Man; On Being and the One, trans. Charles Glenn Wallis et al. (Indianapolis, MN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1998) xv.

A table showing who is part of the new materialism, and an argument as to why it is not a “turn”

I’m currently writing the introduction to The Human Remains, discussing the figure of the human in the new materialism. I thought I would share the table I drew up of all the thinkers identified as part of the new materialism in different monographs and collected volumes. I have excluded individual journal articles from the list below in order to keep it under a page, and the table also excludes occasional references to the term “new materialism” by writers in the list (Catherine Malabou, for example, uses the term on a number of occasions).

Some of these texts employ the “new materialism” tag explicitly, while others have been included because the themes they identify in contemporary thought overlap substantially with at least some of the main concerns of NM. I was inspired by the table drawn up by Joe Hughes in his review of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy for NDPR.

If you think I’ve missed any important entries, let me know and I’ll update the table. It does not attempt to be exhaustive, but it does attempt to include all the main book-length treatments of the new materialism. The full bibliographical references are given below the table.

new materialist thinkers, ordered alphabetically

Bryant, Levi, Nick Srnicek, and Graham Harman, eds. The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Melbourne: re.press, 2011.

Coole, Diana, and Samantha Frost. New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.

Crockett, Clayton, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2014.

Crockett, Clayton, and Jeffrey W. Robbins. Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Dobrin, Sidney I. Ecology, Writing Theory, and New Media: Writing Ecology. London: Taylor & Francis, 2011.

Dolphijn, Rick, and Iris van der Tuin. New Materialism: Interviews and Cartographies. Ann Arbor, MI: Open Humanities Press, 2012.

Galloway, Alexander R. Les Nouveaux Réalistes. Paris: Editions Léo Scheer, 2012.

Gratton, Peter. Speculative Realism: Problems and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Hallward, Peter. “The One and the Other: French Philosophy Today.” Angelaki 8, no. 2 (2003).

James, Ian. The New French Philosophy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012.

Johnston, Adrian. Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism: The Outcome of Contemporary French Philosophy. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2013.

Mullarkey, John. Post-Continental Philosophy. Transversals. edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson London: Continuum, 2006.

Pfeifer, Geoff. The New Materialism: Althusser, Badiou, and Žižek. London: Routledge, 2015.

 

Here is a passage from the introduction to The Human Remains, sketching why I think it misleading to refer to the new materialism as a “turn”. The extract jumps in towards the end of a reading of Ian James’s The New French Philosophy:

In the final paragraph of the introduction to The New French Philosophy, James makes a brief but very telling remark: “these philoso­phers seek to renew the way in which they think, to transform the manner in which they come to write philosophy itself” (James 2012: 16). In his conclusion James returns to this idea in order to establish a three-fold chain of influence which accounts for the emergence of the new materialism, a chain which leads from a demand, through a technique, to a philosophy. The new materialism, he argues, has heeded a new demand and generated in response to that demand a new technique or techniques, which have in turn produced the philosophy that we now call “new materialism”. The demand is issued by the real:

it can be argued that a transformation in philosophical practice or technique has occurred in response to the necessity of rethinking the real outside of the linguistic paradigm and in response to the necessity of repo­sitioning of the real itself as immanent to the techniques or technicity of thought. […] The task of thought which these philosophers take up, and the demand of thought to which they respond, is one of thinking material immanence and worldly, shared existence. They do so by way of techniques which affirm themselves as resolutely mate­rial. (James 2012: 187,8)

What I find compelling about James’s analysis at this point is that, with the emergence in French thought of what is coming to be called the “new materialism”, we are dealing not only with a new set of thoughts but with a new way of thinking, not just of new philosophy but at least new “technique”, and perhaps a little more as well. There are parallels to be drawn here with the emergence of “postmodernism”, however unwieldy we consider that term to be.

This is why it is misleading to speak of a “turn to the material”. The genus “turn” comes in two prepositional species: the “turn in” and the “turn to”. Perhaps the classic example of the first variant is the “theological turn in French phenomenology”. He we have a relatively consistent (though contested) theoretical framework, namely phenomenology, deployed to investigate new sets of phenomena, namely theological ones. This “turn” is a relatively modest change, and that is why it has courted such controversy. If the theological phenomenologists were claiming to be doing something completely new, departing radically from phenomenology, then the non-theological phenomenologists would not feel the need to enter the lists against them. This sort of “turn in” is an extension of a way of thinking that already exists. Turns “to” cover much the same ground. A technique of thinking that already exists turns to redirect its critical and analytic gaze onto a new subject matter or a new problem. A cursory Google search turns up “the turn to technology in social studies of science”, “the affective turn in philosophy”, the turn to religion in early modern English studies“ and “the turn to community in the arts”. To describe the new materialism in these terms would misunderstand what it is. As James rightly points out, it is not just that something new is being thought about, but that thinking is happening in a new way, with a new technique and a new style.

I would, however, nuance and develop James’s helpful account in two ways. First, the influence of the demand on the technique and the technique on the philosophy should not be thought to be unidirectional. Secondly, I would question the extent to which we can differentiate between a new demand and a new capacity or predisposition to apprehend and respond to a demand. I want to re-frame James’s new demand as what I will call a new “disposition”. Disposition is to technique as technique is to the content of philosophy.

A philosophical disposition includes, to be sure, a new fundamental set of assumptions about the nature of reality, but it articulates and deploys those assumptions as part of a new way of holding oneself in the world and new style of writing which are just as fundamental as the assumptions that take root in their soil. Such a new disposition informs and engenders not only a new set of concepts and ideas, and not just a new set of philosophical questions, themes, and areas of investigation but also, along with them, new rhythms of language and of engagement with the world, along with a demand for a new way and rhythm of reading.

[…at this point in the introduction I work through the notion of “disposition” systematically. I’ll cut to the concluding paragraph…]

What is captured by evoking a new disposition but missed when we refer merely to a new “turn”, “event” or “technique” is that the change we are witnessing with the rise of the new materialism implies and predisposes not only to a way of thinking and writing but to away of holding oneself in the world, and that this in turn brings forth a new world, where “world” is understood as the objects, concerns and ideas that appear to a particular philosophical disposition, and that appear important. It is not only that certain things appear more important than before (that would be a “turn”), nor that certain things appear simpliciter, in the sense that they are now written about when previously they were not considered at all (that would be an “event”), but that a new way of holding oneself in the world brings forth a new set of concerns, objects and ideas that also in turn form and inform that same emerging disposition.

I then go on in the introduction to relate my notion of “disposition” to ideas from Jean-Luc Nancy and other thinkers.

 

Next week I plan to press on with re-drafting the first chapter, which deals with Jean-Pierre Changeux and Paul Ricœur’s respective readings of Spinoza in What Makes us Think? and elsewhere.

Seres at SEP-FEP: Think human language, distinctiveness and responsibility metonymically, not metaphorically

Among the aspects of Serres’ paper that provoked the most animated discussion this morning was his contention, in ‘Information and Thinking’ and elsewhere, that human beings are not the only entities to think. The idea was articulated most powerfully in the snippet of the talk reproduced below:

20140903_215324

This thought returned in the final paragraph of the address:

They [material elements] encode, we encode; they count, we count; we speak, they speak.[1]

The thought that exercised some of the panel members in the round-table discussion following the intervention was the way in which ascribing language (and by implication, it seemed to be extrapolated, agency and responsibility) to non-human objects was a metaphor unwarranted by the very clear differences between a human being and (to use Serres’ example from Verne’s cave) a crystal.

This understanding of how Serres is deploying terms like ‘encode’, ‘speak’ and ‘count’ is not the only one available, however, and indeed it is not the one that cuts best with the grain of his arguments. The issue can be clarified by considering the difference between metaphor and metonymy.

The contributions of some panelists seemed to imply that there are only two options available to us: either a ‘flat ontology’ (attributed to Serres) in which there is no way to account for distinctively human responsibility (for the environment, for example), and a human exceptionalism that eschews a flat ontology but legitimates political and social concerns in a way that the flat ontology cannot.

This is not a dichotomy I recognise from my own reading of Serres, and I think that the confusion comes through taking Serres to be speaking metaphorically when in fact he is speaking metonymically.

The (spurious) metaphorical reading of Serres goes something like this: Language simpliciter, language as such, is human language. All other uses of the term ‘language’ are (legitimate or illegitimate) metaphorical extensions of this literal sense of the term. ‘Humans speak’ is not metaphorical; ‘material elements speak’ is. The metaphorical sense here is parasitic on the literal (human) sense; if there is no ‘plain’ sense of what it means to speak, then there can be no metaphorical sense.  We start with human language—or human responsibility—as traditionally understood and then every other instance of the term ‘language’ or ‘responsibility’ must be a metaphorical extension of that first, human sense.  It’s when we think of Serres in this way that he seems to be painting a Romantic, enchanted, Toy Story world in which stones whisper to each other behind our backs and objects come out to play when we are absent.

But I don’t think that reading of Serres is most faithful to what he is seeking to communicate. We get closer to Serres’ thought when we read him as speaking not metaphorically but metonymically, or more precisely synecdochically (I argue this at greater length in a forthcoming article on Serres in SubStance). In arguing that material elements, too, encode, count and speak, he is not seeking to extend the human meanings of these terms to the non-human world. That would indeed–as was rightly pointed out by the panel–be anthropomorphic and anthropocentric.

He is doing something more radical and much less anthropocentric: contesting that there is a literal sense of language that is to be identified with human language in the first place. Rather, for Serres human language is one local and distinctive instance of a phenomenon that is in no way properly human, but that belongs to all entities. Crystals do not speak with syntactic human language (whoever suggested they did? After all, humans do not undergo an existential crisis when we realise that we don’t transmit information in the same way that crystals do, so why would we assume the reverse?), but it is still quite true and not in the least metaphorical for Serres to insist that crystals speak and human beings speak. (In this he is very close indeed to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of ‘renvois de sens’ between all entities in the world in L’Adoration).

Serres’ rethinking of language is intended to be a challenge to the privileging of the mode of syntactic language as the paradigm of which all other instance of language are metaphors, not a universalisation of this paradigm. In this sense, it is akin to a Wittgenstinian argument about definitions: when we say ‘language’ we must take it to mean any emission, storage, processing or reception of information, not only what humans do in communicating with words.

Where does this leave human responsibility and human distinctiveness? Smoothed away on some universal ironing board of flat ontology? Not a bit of it. Serres can (and does) retain a notion of human distinctiveness—he is a self-avowed humanist, after all—but it is a distinctiveness traceable to a quantitative difference, not an ontological difference between the human and, say, the crystal.

There are different sorts of difference, and we must be careful not to fall into the sloppy binary of ‘no difference at all’/’irreducible ontological difference’. Serres’ account is more fine-grained than that. To reconstruct  it quickly (and elaborate it beyond what Serres says himself, to the best of my knowledge of his work):

  1. Both the human and the crystal receive, store, process and emit information.[2] There is no ontological difference.
  2. But there is an indisputable quantitative difference: the amount, variety and complexity of information that I receive, store, process and emit, is many orders of magnitude greater than the crystal (though the crystal can also perform some tasks of information storage, processing and emission better than I can).
  3. This quantitative difference between humans, animals and crystals tips over, in a Hegelian way, into what is to all intents and purposes a qualitative difference: my information processing is so different to a crystal’s that, looked upon in terms of their results, they hardly seem the same thing at all.
  4. This quantitative-qualitative difference does the heavy lifting that ‘human distinctiveness’ is usually called on to schlep: humans bear a peculiar weight of responsibility, not because they are ontologically or at bottom qualitatively unique, but because they are quantitatively (and therefore qualitatively–think Hegel again) set apart within the entities of the world by virtue of HOW they process information and HOW MUCH they process, not THAT they process it.
  5. So we can, after all, draw a line between human speech and crystal speech, and we don’t need to see fairies under every rock (though the post-Baconian fact-value distinction also needs interrogating afresh in the light of Serres’ ontology, and the odd ‘fairy’ here and there might not always be unwarranted).
  6. And the question is not whether there is a line to be drawn, but the nature of that line, and the point at which a difference of quantity tips over into a difference of quality.

[1] Incidentally, note the inversion of order of ‘we’ and ‘they’ in the third element of this ternary rhythm and its subtle reinforcement of the argument being made: Serres is on his game!

[2] If Serres’ account is to be challenged, it is at the point of the adequacy of this information paradigm, not at the point of the denial of distinctive human responsibility. Can the reception, storage, processing and emission of information act as a sufficient (let alone necessary) paradigm for human being in the world (or, for that matter, for crystalline existence)?

Update on current books: _The Human Remains_ and _Humanity After God_

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Photograph: Durham University/PA

Since giving a brief sketch of my current research project in January 2014, the focus of The Human Remains has tightened and developed. I have moved the material on the imago dei motif out of this book and into a new project in which I want to look at eikon and mimesis, image and imitation, as twin figures of the human in the Western tradition, teasing out the theological implications of both, as well as their relation to each other. The project will draw heavily on Quentin Meillassoux and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, inter alia. The tentative title of this book is Humanity After God.

That leaves The Human Remains with a more focused argument about the complexities of situating the human, along with its attendant notions of dignity and equality, in the landscape of contemporary French thought. THR will have chapters on Jean-Pierre Changeux, Catherine Malabou, Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Paul Ricoeur and Michel Serres.

Ex uno plures!

Current Research: The Human Remains

Leonardo skullI am currently working on a book provisionally entitled The Human Remains: French Philosophy in the Image of God. The first part of the book looks at the ways in which the imago dei motif is explicitly taken up in contemporary French thought. The second, longer part takes debates from the philosophical reception of the imago dei motif and uses them to provide a fresh comparative reading of contemporary French philosophical anthropology in its humanist, post-humanist, neuroscientific and ecological guises. Chapters discuss Catherine Malabou, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Pierre Changeux, Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, Jean-Luc Nancy, Jean-Luc Marion and Michel Serres. The book’s thesis is that the human persists in contemporary thought, however radically altered its trace might be from traditional philosophical understandings. In order to argue that point it shows how reading contemporary thought through the lens of the imago dei motif helps us see how very different accounts of the human can be made to talk to and critique one another.

The Pantasm: Heraclitus, Michel Serres, and the Changeux-Ricœur exchange. On naming the human

The Heraclitean panta

HeraclitusIn Plato’s Cratylus, Heraclitus is quoted as holding that ‘πάντα χωρεῖ’ (panta chōrei, everything changes), a reality he sees symbolised in the element of fire:

All things are an exchange for fire, and fire for all things, as goods for gold and gold for goods. (Heraclitus, Fragment 22 in the  Diels-Kranz collection of Presocratic sources.)

This ‘everything changes’ or the more usual ‘all is flux’ is familiar to us as one of pre-Socratic attempts to discern a principle (ἀρχή, archē) underlying, uniting and explaining all of reality (for Thales it was water; for Anaximander, the indefinite; for Anaximenes, air).

Pantasm: everything is x

Contemporary thought continues to struggle with this figure of the panta, seeking to route our understanding of being through one particular element or discourse. It is a tendency that does not only rear its head in relation to being, however. I have been struck recently by a similar panta in descriptions and definitions of what makes human beings human, and (which for many thinkers amounts to the same thing) what sets humans apart from other animals.

In the notes for my book on humanism, antihumanism and posthumanism, this move has taken the name ‘pantasm’. The epithets we customarily employ to qualify the human are implicit pantasms, locating humanness as such in one particular aspect of human existence, more often than not an innate human capacity that, it is thought, underwrites and/or justifies human uniqueness. The assumption is that everything essential to the human is, or can be reduced to, this one capacity. It may be our wisdom (homo sapiens), our rational principle (ζῷον λόγον ἔχον, zoon logon echon), our sociality (ζῷον πολιτικόν, zoon politikon), our creativity (homo faber), our capacity for play (homo ludens) or any number of other epithets used by the hard sciences, social sciences and arts alike.

Another different but related aspect of this pantasmatic thinking is the attempt to privilege one account for the human, one discourse about the human being, above all others as giving privileged access to understanding the human as such. For example: although we as humans participate in many overlapping spheres of existence (mathematical, physical, biological, economic, social, religious…), each with their own discourses, the claim might be made that the discourse of (to take one among many possible examples) neuroscience can give us access not to one aspect of humanity but to the human as such, humanity unqualified, the human simpliciter, in a way that grounds all of the spheres of our existence and in terms of which they can all, ultimately, be exhaustively described and understood.

There are weak and strong versions of this pantasmatic thinking. In its weak form the claim is that one discourse is privileged above the others in accounting for the human as such, and other discourses are better viewed in relation to it and informed by it. In its strong form, the claim is that one particular discourse can exhaustively account for the human as such, and all other discourses can sooner or later be reduced to it.

Michel Serres and pantasmatic thinking

Serres

One problem with this pantasmatic thinking, both in terms of epithets for the human and in terms of privileged discourses to account for the human, is the risk of a Procrustean reduction of complexity in the attempt to shoehorn the human simpliciter into this or that pantasmatic account. Elements or aspects of human life and human experience that do not fit the privileged account are either ignored or explained away in terms that fail to do them justice in their own terms.

In the case of epithets of the human, this risks calling into question the humanity of those who lack sufficiently—or lack at all—the particular marker or ‘host property’ of humanity privileged by a particular epithet. Humans are the rational animal? What, then, of those who, through birth, accident or old age, are “reduced” to the mental functioning of an “animal”? What of those who seem to display more rationality than others? Answers exist to these questions, of course, but they are frequently far from convincing and constitute special pleading for an approach that seems flawed from the outset.

Hominescence

This past week I have been enjoying Michel Serres’ Hominescence, a magisterial romp through what he calls the ‘big story’ (‘grand récit’, not to be confused with Lyotard’s ‘metanarrative’, also ‘grand récit’, in The Postmodern Condition) of human development, from the beginnings of the universe through the birth of agriculture and the domestication of animals to what he calls the contemporary homo universalis, with the capacity for the first time to bring about change on a global (ecological and cultural) scale.

In Hominescence, Serres rehearses a complex dance with pantasmatic thinking. Early on he identifies the (Galileian) mathematisation of nature as ‘the greatest contemporary discovery’. Galileo showed that the natural world is written in the language of mathematics, but with the discovery of DNA we have now gone further and established that life itself is written in algorithms (Hominescence 95).

Later in the book, in evoking a chain of mathematisers including Leibniz, Buffon, Mendel, Darwin, Turing and Perrette, he makes the claim that ‘all is number’:

Everything, here, comes back to the digital. Everything is number: from the necessity of laws which are measured, weighed, calculated according to a range of possible combinations and filtered through constraints of all sorts, up to the original and contingent uniqueness of living things, individually nameable by an exclusive code: everything is number. (197) [Tout est nombre : de la nécessité des lois mesurées, pesées, chiffrées à l’éventail combinatoire des possibles et à leur filtrage par contraintes de tous ordres, jusqu’à l’unicité originale et contin­gente du vivant, individuellement nommable par un code exclusif; tout est nombre.]

Serres’ claim that ‘everything is number’ pushes us to clarify a distinction between two meanings of ‘everything’, only one of which is pantasmatic. The non-pantasmatic way to read ‘tout est nombre’ is as a claim that there is no object, experience or event that cannot be understood digitally, but that this digital understanding does not monopolise anything it touches and should not a priori be considered the privileged discourse for accessing any object, experience or event simpliciter. The ‘everything’, in this case, is an ‘everything without distinction’. There is nothing that mathematics cannot touch, but it does not exhaust anything it touches.

The second, pantasmatic understanding also includes this ‘everything without distinction’, but it goes further, to say that the digital is the only (strong pantasm) or privileged (weak pantasm) discourse to give direct access to what it discusses. This is not only ‘everything without distinction’ but, in addition, ‘everything without remainder’.

Serres seems to come close to this second, pantasmatic understanding in his discussion of his own name. In a section of Hominescence entitled ‘Ego. Who signs these pages?’  he dismisses the capacity of any aspect of what he calls his ‘belonging’ (appartenance) to name him adequately. The name on his identity card does not designate a singularity but replaces that singularity with a series of ‘belongings’: family name, given name, sex, date and place of birth… (Hominescence 103). In a lecture entitled ‘L’Homme nouveau’ (‘The New Man’), this sort of ‘belonging’ is contrasted with ‘identity’: my identity cannot be reduced to the various classes to which I belong, he argues:

Who am I? Me. Everything else, including what the civil service requires me to write on my identity card, describes the groups to which I belong. If you confuse belonging with identity you commit a logical error which may be grave or harmless, but you risk a deadly error: the racism that consists in reducing a person to one of these collectivities. [Dans  un  ouvrage  précédent,  j’écrivais  :  mon  identité  ne  se  réduit  point  à  mes  appartenances.  Ne m’appelez  donc  point  vieillard,  mâle  ou  écrivain,  rangez-moi  plutôt  dans  tel  sous  ensemble,  groupant respectivement âge, sexe ou métier. Au-delà de ces implications, qui suis-je ? Moi. Tout le reste, y compris ce  que  l’administration  m’oblige  à  écrire  sur  ma  carte  dite  d’identité,  désigne  des  groupes  auxquels j’appartiens. Si vous confondez appartenance et identité, vous commettez une erreur logique, lourde ou bénigne, selon ; mais vous risquez une faute meurtrière, le racisme, qui consiste, justement, à réduire une personne à l’un de ses collectifs.]

However, in Hominescence Serres does identify one discourse that names him adequately: his genetic code, proclaiming ‘that is my name’ (‘voilà mon nom’):

For the first time this is my true name, the code that corresponds so well to my body that it constituted it, and no other code corresponds to it. […] Yes, all things are numbers. The real is a product of this exact coding. (104) [pour la première fois, il s’agit de mon vrai nom, du code qui correspond si bien à mon corps, qu’il le constitua et qu’aucun autre ne lui correspond. […] Oui, toutes choses sont nombres. Le réel provient de ce codage exact.]

This claim that his genetic code can designate him adequately is puzzling on a number of levels. First of all, later in the book he makes the observation that identical twins have the same genetic code. Secondly, he addresses elsewhere in Hominescence the issue of whether the cloning of human beings would result in an identity crisis, and concludes (for some fascinating reasons having to do with theology and Pauline universalism) that it would not. So genetic code is not a rigid designator for the ‘me’ of Michel Serres, despite it being the one code he is happy to call ‘my name’.

Elsewhere, Serres seems to take a resolutely non-pantasmatic view of the human being. In his contribution to the slim volume Qu’est-ce que l’humain? He laments the tendency of twentieth century thought to account for the human in terms of a handful of privileged discourses (he singles out ethnology, sociology and psychoanalysis) to the exclusion of the hard sciences. The nineteenth century saw the birth of the human sciences; the twentieth saw their flourishing; the twenty-first will reunite them with the hard sciences, not in one meta-discourse but in a mutually informing web: ‘I have written Hominescence and L’Incandescent to make fluid bonds between the nodes of this new network’, he claims (Qu’est-ce que l’humain? 75) [J’ai écrit Hominescence et L’Incandescent pour souder fluidement les nœuds de ce nouveau réseau.].

In Hominescence Serres does, in the end, fasten upon a definition of the human, but he chooses a definition that seeks to decouple humanity as such from any determinate pantasmatic qualification. He claims that we can now, for the first time, answer humanism’s age-old question ‘what is the human being?’: we are ‘the animal that refuses to know who it is, because all its richness consists precisely in not knowing it’ (Hominescence 78). Other animals, ‘brute beasts and fixed plants’, he claims, are what they are, they have a definite being, but since the emergence of homo habilis humanity has been exempt from such a fixed identity. In an adumbration of Bruno Latour’s Modes of Existence project, he suggests that humans do not have being, but modes of existence:

No, being does not concern us. Being, perhaps, concerns animals, plants, mushrooms and bacteria, sand and lakes, fire and rock, the air and the clouds scudding along with the wind, though we cannot verify it. We do not exist as beings (comme étants) or as having being (comme êtres), but as modes. (79) [Non, être ne nous concerne pas. Être, peut-être, concerne les bêtes, les plantes, champignons et bactéries, sables et lacs, feu et roche, l’air et les nuages courant dans le lit du vent, encore que nous ne puissions pas le vérifier. Nous n’existons ni comme étants ni comme êtres, mais comme des modes.]

Here, it is not the possession of any particular determinate capacity that designates the human, but the lack of any stable or fixed capacity. The question of whether this negative capacity, this capacity to change identity, runs into the same problems as the fixed determinants Serres uses it to replace is moot, and I intend to work it through in the humanism book. My point in this present post is that these modes of existence, I am increasingly convinced, should not be cannibalized by each other or subordinated in a ‘one mode to rule them all’ pantasm.

Ricœur and Changeux: neuronal man

What makes us think

A similar point is made by Paul Ricœur in his exchanges with neuroscientist Jean-Pierre Changeux in What Makes us Think?. Ricœur takes exception to the move he sees exemplified in the title of Changeux’ Neuronal Man, qualifying ‘man’, a general, phenomenological term, with the specific and determinate objective qualifier ‘neuronal’. In the language I am developing for the humanism book, Ricœur accuses Changeux of operating a pantasm. The body-object (corps-objet) can act as a ‘substrate’ for understanding the lived body (corps-vécu), Ricœur argues, but it should not be allowed to qualify the human as such.

This is a quintessentially Ricoeurian move, resonating with his insistence on the polysemy of being, the necessity of a series of ‘long detours’ in understanding the self, and his engagement with incommensurable scales of value through his readings of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice and Luc Boltanski and Laurent Thévenot’s On Justification: Economies of Worth (De la justification: les économies de la grandeur). The stakes, for Ricœur, are to resist pantasmatic thinking and yet not end up with the paralysis of incommensurable fragmentation. A similar concern, although pursued with a different approach, is also central to Jean-Luc Nancy’s project.

Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy

French Studies

My article ‘Thinking Equality Today: Badiou, Rancière, Nancy’ has just been published in French Studies. You can click through to a PDF version from this page.

The article is part of the project on humanism and anti-humanism I am working on at the moment. I argue that Badiou and Rancière both end up, despite themselves, with problematic understandings of equality because they both hitch their understanding of the human being to the wagon of a particular determinate capacity. Nancy, on the other hand, in seeking to decouple the human from any determinate capacity or capacities, has to address a different set of problems in relation to equality. In the article I conclude with a preference for Nancy’s set of problems, but the wider question raised by the article’s analysis, and that I deal with in the broader project, is whether it is possible to understand the human neither as hostage to determinate capacities nor as detached from capacities altogether, and so avoid both sets of problems laid out in this French Studies article. I think you can, but I don’t think that Badiou, Rancière or Nancy give us the tools to do it.

Abstract: Recent work on Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière has rightly identified equality both as a central theme in their own thinking and as the key notion in contemporary radical political thought more broadly, but a focus on the differences between their respective accounts of equality has failed to clarify a major problem that they share. The problem is that human equality is said to rest on a particular human capacity, leaving Badiou’s axiomatic equality and Rancière’s assumed equality vulnerable to the charge of having a blind spot for some of society’s most vulnerable. This article introduces an alternative understanding of equality drawn from the thought of Jean-Luc Nancy, an equality that does not rely on a human capacity to guarantee or verify it but rests on Nancy’s notion of sense. The article explores the advantages of Nancy’s account of equality in relation to sense over and against an alternative reading that focuses on Nancy’s evocation of the suffering human body, before addressing, in conclusion, the problems with which Nancy’s idea of equality will have to grapple, and why, despite these problems, it is still preferable to the Badiouian and Rancièrian approaches.

Rewriting the Death of the Author with Jacques Rancière

BarthesI was pleased to hear this week that a piece I’ve written on the death of the author has been accepted by Philosophy and Literature. The article is entitled ‘Rewriting the Death of the Author: Rancièrian Reflections’ and it re-thinks the death of the author in the light of Jacques Rancière’s little essay ‘Auteur mort ou artiste trop vivant?’: ‘The death of the author or the life of the artist?’ in Chronicles of Consensual Times (London: Continuum, 2010) pp. 101-105. This reading of the death of the author will eventually provide part of the groundwork for the project on humanisms (including post- and anti-humanism) in contemporary French thought.

Here is the abstract:

For decades critics of the death of the author have worked themselves up about a paradox which supposedly undermines Barthes’ and Foucault’s work on the theme: these theorists cannot banish the authorial voice from their own writing. Taking a lead from Jacques Rancière this article tells a different story of the death of the author, one that makes better sense of this supposed case of double standards, refutes the paradox thesis and uses Nietzsche’s ideas on authorship to show that Barthes and Foucault are doing something much more powerful and interesting than simply contradicting themselves.