We had a really great time, thanks to all the folks who came out for this! Introduced the basic ideas from the book, and some great questions afterwards. Thanks so much to everyone!
On an Ungrounded Ooze: Dark Vitalism, Deleuze, and Ben Woodard’s Philosophy of Radical Disgust, Decay, and Dissolution•March 15, 2015 • 4 Comments
Book Review: “Towards an Ungrounded Vitality – Ben Woodard’s Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0, 2012), and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum, 2013).”
Woodard’s Dark Vitalism: From The Earth to Slime
The horror and fascination of that which is in-between, neither here nor there, neither one nor many, the multiplicitous, the excessive and the extreme – such concerns, and their potential impetus for thought and philosophy – are the primary starting point of the work of Ben Woodard’s philosophy of “dark vitalism” as described in his two recent books Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life (Zer0, 2012) and On an Ungrounded Earth: Towards a New Geophilosophy (Punctum, 2013). An entry point into this porous corpus can be found, amongst many others, in the metaphor of the slime mold, a fantastic yet quite living biological wonder which can either be either a uni- or multi-cellular organism, depending on the circumstances (Slime Dynamics, 6). The slime mold is, in this sense, a concrete and even living deconstruction of the very boundary between uni- and multi-cellular organisms so central to biological classification, as are, Woodard points out, viruses, and their undead cousins in fantasy such as ghosts, zombies, vampires, etc., in relation to the boundaries of the living and dead.
It is this uncanny and disturbing slippery deconstruction of categories, and in particular in relation to the slime mold, its inability to be nailed down as one organism or many, which Woodard takes as fundamental to their importance for thought. For since the time of Parmenides, the notion of the One, the unitary, has fascinated philosophy, and continued its legacy, in various forms, to the Ideas of Plato, the One of Plotinus, the Kantian ding-an-sich, etc. And yet, if what presents itself is neither one nor many, if the boundaries cannot be drawn, or once drawn, flee before one in the manner of what the Buddhists often refer to as “trying to write upon water,” what then? Without the notion of the noumenal ding-an-sich, the entire Kantian apparatus, and so much of the history of Western philosophy which grounded itself in analogous notions into the wake of Kant, is without anchor and ground. And yet, as Woodard, citing Nick Land, points out, noumena “are fanged,” they pierce and bite through any attempt to place them into the categories of Kantian thought which seek to domesticize the stuff of the world into knowable and manageable strictures. It is this messiness, and the disgust it often provokes in those who desire a pure ordering of the world, which provides the very starting point for a thought which, for Woodard, works to go beyond reactionary attempts to restrain the creative destruction which Woodard, Land, and their compatriots see as being at the heart of any and all aspects of our world.
Woodard’s frontal assault is in many ways on organism and bodies. For the boundaries these require to cordon off destruction both within and without are not only, for Woodard, futile attempts to perpetuate what, citing Ray Brassier, sees as the ”circuitous detour” which is life from death, decay, and dissolution. Rather, they are also evidence of endeavors to preserve life which, in the process, actually serve to radically impoverish it, disconnecting life from the “darkness” which makes vitalism vital, a life beyond life and death which is hardly the property of the living. Deconstructing the boundary between living and dead, animate and inanimate, it is decomposition, the fungoid and viral, which for Woodard holds the potential for the new, and it is the already concretized organism which
in its conservative reaction to the true creative destruction of the worlds around and within it which try to hold the “creep of life” at bay. In this sense, life which is truly living is often seen as disgusting to those manifestations of what Freud famously called “the death drive” which, by means of a compulsion to repeat, cling to the boundaries of what they were, the death drive which is in fact the very conatus of the organism, at least to the extent to which it seeks to perpetuate its already existent being, as such. For Woodard, organisms are precisely that which keeps life from being the fully disgusting, protruberant, slimy multiplicitous growth it has the potential to be.
But should we then embrace decay, or following Stanley Kubrik’s turn of phrase, come to “learn to love the bomb,” and all other means of destruction and dissolution for their own sake? Hardly, for what Woodard is advocating is hardly so simple as a mere hatred for life, for in fact, he embraces the putrid profusion of the life beyond the coherent organism, the life of the saprophytic, of worms and bacteria,life-beyond-life and unto-death which perhaps finds its clearest representation in the myth of the lamella (see SD, 56), beloved of psychoanalysis, a creature which supposedly embodies the pure life-drive turned into its opposite, a drive for pure death-in-life and life-in-death, the pure desire to reproduce unto death, destabilizing the very boundary between life and death in the process. Such a creature reaches its embodiment in fiction, as Slavoj Zizek points out, in the creature known as the Xenomorph in the Alien film franchise, a creature which exists purely to reproduce. For if pure death-drive leads to horror, the Freudian “return to an earlier state,” so does pure devotion to the cult of life, the encore! which demands ever more, the Eros which Freud describes as the perpetual “troublemaker” which taken to its extreme, would also lead to, if not an earlier state, then a simpler one. Taken to their extreme, both life and death end in death for Freud, and the only true life, or at least, life worth living, is one which deconstructs the difference between life and death not by means of the extreme but rather the middle ground. Such a life would, to take a phrase from Zizek, “tarry with the negative,” it would be a life which tarries with death without pursuing either pure death or pure life, but rather, giving death the unlife, the perpetual negation of life, which it needs to transcend itself, and with this, the boundary between life and death itself. Only such a life is not a living death, and rather, a perpetually relying and reliving life. Only such a differentiation followed by intertwining can truly be called something like a creativity which goes beyond the strictures of organism as a stagnant and rigidifying living death.
It is this attempt to move beyond the cheerful optimism of organism which helps explain the “darkness” of Woodard’s vitalism. For if the self-enclosure of the bounded entity is one of Woodard’s primary targets, so is facile “humanistic optimism” (Ungrounded Earth, 94) and embrace of “life” which can so often serve, in vitalistic philosophies, as an attempt to valorize particular forms of life against their others. Such boundary policing operations can easily abject the animal, the vegetable, the mineral, and in fact, anything which is inhuman. Humanism’s dark other side, the inhuman, that which Francois Lyotard famously saw as opening onto the politics of the differend, is in fact, for Woodard as much as Lyotard, the very foundation and ground of the human itself. As such, any attempt to value the human bases itself upon an abjection whose violence makes us inhuman. For how many times in history has the notion that some humans are less than “fully” human been used as justification for various forms of violence, from enslavement to genocide, reduction to bare life in its various forms, from sexual violence to closeting, silencing and so many other forms of violence, physical to symbolic and beyond? Few notions are more inhuman than the human, and in this sense, to value the inhuman is an ethical corrective to centuries of justification of colonization and oppression, if not outright attempts at destruction, of what is deemed “other” by those who lay claim to the human. And such notions of the human so often find their inverse and obverse in images of the earth as either “thing to be exploited, or as an object of nostalgia” (OE, 2), interdependent visions of self and world whose constitution is based on an originary repetition of abjection which seeks to exploit and oppress all which is deemed other. It is precisely the attempt to deconstruct such abjective mechanics that Woodard embraces that which promotes destruction, for destruction here is of purity and all the violences which this brings in its wake.
Woodard’s project is in this sense, like that of so many others fascinated with the “dark” side of theory today, a corrective to the destructive optimism which evidenced itself historically in forms which range from Renaissance humanism and the dream of human perfectibility during the heydey of Victorian colonialism, to the embrace of the fundamentalism of the forced spread of democracy and the “free” market under the Bush regime. But if there is one thing which seems to truly horrify Woodard, it is our “contemporary capitalist drenched being” (UE, 87). For if, as Gyorgy Lukacs famously argued, capitalism is nothing if not a machine for reification, or thing-ification, it is capitalism which today more than anything else convinces us that things are real, necessary, and beyond the play of production and history, a crucial lynchpin linking together so many of the mechanics of abjection at work in the world today as their economic substratum and ideological webbing. It is for this reason that Woodard urges us to foreground, like Lukacs, the very opposite of the thingified, laying bare whenever possible the fact that “bodies themselves are completely envoided, swirlings of matter and forces” (OE, 86), leading to an embrace of “a materiality made of powers and flows and not objects” (OE, 28). It is the reifying power of capitalism and all its related abjections which are in this sense the primary target of Woodard’s critique. For in a world whose boundary policing operations enact the divide-and-conquer logic of capital, a world in which production and labor are alienated and commodities seem to fall like acts of God from a glorious abode in the heavens, it is hardly surprising that Woodard prefers the role of Milton’s Satan against what, if one believes the hype, at least, is the “benevolent” dictatorship of TINA, “there is no other way,” the new world order of capitalist consumerism. And if God is a capitalist, the Leibnizian engineer creating the “best of all possible worlds” (of profit for the masters of the universe, that is), then to be a Marxist in today’s world is a dark and infernal endeavor indeed.
Or yet, perhaps to take a Freudo-Marxist tack on things, perhaps one needs to simply embrace the darkness already at work within all products of life, the pact with the death drive which allows any concrete entity to retain its repetition of corporeality, by pushing the poles of life and death within organisms to their natural breaking points, separating out the tendencies of life and death from each other, unleashing the powers of dissolutive creativity within and without the encapsulated organism. That is, take the very notion of capitalism as, in the Schumpetrian sense, as “creative destruction” literally, and free up the powers of destruction to destroy the capitalist machine which destroys all in its wake to accumulate more capital. Taking capitalism at its word, however, would be to destroy and destabilize its own ability to accumulate. It is this accelerationist approach which is championed by Nick Land today and Jean Baudrillard before him. Embracing the black sun of Bataille, the accelerations desire to liberate the powers bounds by the rigid frozenness of the repetition compulsion of the organistic, the embodied, and the human. The accelerationist, and Woodard with them, thereby flees the solar economy of cheery consumers hating their life working in cubicles so they can imagine being ever more like their idealized images in the media, images more alive than they are, all the while escapistly consuming products which are never as glamorous as their images, up to and including the images of war which are the only possible end for barely constrained aggression which such a dissatisfaction machine produces. Who steals the jouissance of the paranoid masses? The accelerations says the only way to get beyond such dynamics is to up the ante, and to help capitalism dig its own grave by liberating the powers of destruction which it works so carefully to not only nurture but also channel into precisely cordoned zones so as to maximize accumulation for the few. But if accelerated beyond the recuperative strategies of the system, it could all come crashing down, liberating destruction for newly creative ends. Or as Cronenberg would say, “long live the new flesh!”
A Destabilizing Grimoire: From Metaphor in “On An Ungrounded Earth” to Speculative Realisms
If Slime Dynamics is a statement of principles, Ungrounded Earth is Woodard’s grimoire. Continuing the bestiary of the corrupt which began in Slime Dynamics, with its particular emphasis on the fungoid and the viral, Ungrounded Earth is structured around an examinations of various avatars of the decrepit: the demonic and the infernal, the volcanic and the molten, the relic and the hyperbolic alien object, the appetites of worms and the destroyers of worlds, the torsional and Charybidic. There is a method to this madness, however, as metaphors are played off each other, such that a horizontal vector of destruction, a less intense form of ungrounding, is itself undercut, according to Woodard, by the more radical, vertical pole of ungrounding which destroys the very ground within which more superficial unravellings occur. Similar to the Kantian notion of evil and radical evil, beloved of Zizek, particularly in Lacanian comparison to de Sade’s notion of death and second death (or a modern day fantasy of human and final death in vampire fantasies), there is for Woodard not only mere horizontal dissolution but also radical vertical dissolution. The former unweaves bodies and boundaries, while the latter is a principle of unweaving as such. It is the dark sun, the ungrounded earth as opposed to the mere worming of the world. The goal for Woodard, if there can be something like a goal here, is to uncover the more radical potentials of putrescence, an “ungrounded earth,” that which can accelerate the capitalist reificatocracy towards its own breakdown, unfettering the powers of destruction which are the only thing which he sees as being able to lead to something beyond thingified hell.
What is clear within all this is that this is certainly a philosophy which, inspired in part by the theoretical fictions and fictional theories of Reza Negarestani, takes metaphor seriously. For it turns a series of cultural tropes into provocations for thought. This, of course, raises the issue of the status of these metaphors. That is, what might it mean to produce a philosophy of the fungal, the molten, or the viral? Certainly since Nietzsche’s essay “On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense” (1882) it has become a commonplace to see language as a “mobile army of metaphors,” and philosophy as an extension of this. Jacques Derrida radicalized this position in his essay “White Mythologies” (1967), arguing for the ultimately undecidability of any attempt to distinguish the merely metaphorical from the seemingly apodictic, taken-for-granted, or otherwise foundational aspects of a philosophy. Many have claimed, however, that such a line of thinking leads to a radical sort of relativism in which it is not possible to say anything that is more meaningful or true than anything else. From such a perspective, so the argument goes, any attempt to make meaning about the world, and to distinguish this from “the world,” is to fall prey to the ability of language and discourse to capture us with the seductive but ultimately illusory power of metaphor, such that any attempt to separate out the distortions produced by this seduction from what is ‘really there’ is itself ultimately as undecidable as any of the other seemingly undecidable logjams (ie: what is the true, the good, the beautiful? how should I live?) the attempt to find a solution to which, at least in theory, got one into trying to philosophize in the first place. Of course, for Derrida and following Nietzsche, a play of the meta-, of the transfer and slight of hand which is precisely the meta- in both reflexivity and metaphor themselves. That said, Nietzsche does seem to feel that metaphor can be deployed strategically and usefully, as works such as his Zarathustra, with its intentional rewriting of religious tropes towards the development of a philosophical religion of sorts, and Derrida does seem to believe the same, if in a much more local and less grand fashion.
It is in an attempt to sidestep the twin abysses of apodicticism and relativism that the philosophical movement generally known as “Speculative Realism” has come to be. Speculative Realism, a term which both Woodard and myself have at various points used to describe our own work, has generally been seen as arguing, if in incredibly diverse ways, that it is nevertheless possible to speak about the world, and even speculate beyond what appears immediately to our experience, in ways which are productive and useful. Some within this so-called movement, such as the Object Oriented Ontologists (OOO), often seen as including theorists such as Grahman Harman, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, and Tim Morton, have argued that this is because there is an irreducibility in the “objects” which compose our world. From such a perspective, while aspects of objects, from stones to people to fictions to gods, reveal themselves in experience, not all of any of them do. As a result, it makes sense to discuss objects ontologically, as having an existence beyond the ways in which various epistemological filters, including various biases inherent to individual embodiment and psychology, as well as group linguistic and cultural formations, warp our ability to apprehend these objects. On the flip side of the speculative realist movement, there others who argue that it makes no sense to discuss entities ontologically, because we only ever have access to aspects of our world, conceived of as objects or otherwise, through our experience. Rather than dispense with the world, however, these more ‘relational’ or ‘process-oriented’ speculative realists,’ including writers such as Steven Shaviro and Ian Hamilton Grant, argue that we can speak about the world, even the world seemingly beyond our individual experience, because these very notions are in fact aspects of our experience. That is, even the seeming non-relation we have with various aspects of our world is itself a form of relation, such that even if aspects of our world are seemingly withdrawn, this only makes itself manifest by means of their virtual presence in what is not withdrawn.
Both of these sides of speculative realist philosophies, those based in more ‘object-oriented’ and ‘relational-process’ based approaches (and I generally include my networkological philosophy in the latter grouping), can be seen as responses to the challenge posed to traditional philosophy and its discontents by Quentin Meillassoux in his highly influential text After Finitude (2006). In this work, Meillassoux argues that Western philosophy since Descartes, and even moreso following Kant, ascribed to the notion of “correlationism,” a way of looking at the world whereby humans can never have access to the world “itself,” but only a limited experience of the world. Meillassoux sees this as a massive problem, for a reason similar to that of the post-Kantian German Idealists, such as F. Holderlin, F.W. Schelling, and G.W.F. Hegel, who, inspired by Baruch Spinoza, argued that any division of the world into subject and object, as well as any hope of correlation between these, must arise from a ground which precedes these. While Meillassoux takes an almost neo-Kantian, scientistic and mathematically inclined approach to solving this problem, one which replaces the ‘Idealist’ forms of post-Spinozist absolutism with an absolute of mathematical ideals pointing towards a hyperchaotic real, many speculative realists seem to feel that there is a problem with the strictures of Descartes, Kant, and their heirs, whose position Meillssoux calls “correlationist,” without necessarily ascribing to what Meillassoux puts in its place.
And so, followers of OOO replace correlationism with an ontology of objects, while the more process/relational oriented theorists tend to indicate a primordial substrate which cannot ever fully be captured by any one of its aspects. According to the relationalists, all aspects of the stuff of the world are continually in process, related to each other fundamentally, and continually grasping other aspects of this primordial substance in ways which gives rise to what has generally thought of as subjectivity, objecitvity, ontology, epistemology, language, ethics, science, and any other forms of experience, practice, and knowing, even if these are only ever aspects-in-relation as well as aspects-in-process. While some of these theorists pull their basic models from Whitehead (Steve Shaviro), Schelling (Iain Hamilton Grant), of Gilles Deleuze and Complex Systems Science (which is where I’d situate my own work, along with that of many other post-Deleuzians and folks influenced by the complexity sciences), the result is some sort of post-Spinozist alternative to the Cartesian dualisms which have haunted philosophy in and through Kant and beyond. While some of the folks who are often grouped with ‘speculative realists’ do not easily fall into such categories (ie: Catherine Malabou, Ray Brassier), most speculative realist thinking of the past few years has at least generally been understood in regard to the object-oriented and process-relational responses to the challenge initially posed by Meillassoux (for more on these issues, the first chapter of Peter Gratton’s Speculative Realism: Prospects and Problems (2014) lays out this terrain in greater detail). While many of the object-oriented and process-relational responses take issue with the way Meillassoux frames the issues at stake, they nevertheless have grouped around attempts to respond to the waves to which After Finitude clearly gave rise.
Where does Woodard situate himself in all this? Clearly he is greatly indebted to the work of Grant, whose book Philosophies of Nature After Schelling (2006) brought a neo-Schellingan approach to the debates which gave rise to what is now called speculative realism. Woodard is not only influenced by Grant, but also Schelling himself, who plays a crucial role in Woodard’s construction of his own dark vitalism. For Schelling, subject and objects are produced by an unconditioned ground beyond ground which is only ever partially evidenced in the powers and entities which these give rise to in the processural generation of the world of experience. From such a perspective, all we have ever encountered is an aspect of this absolute ground beyond any relative ground, one which only ever shows itself in part in any of its products-in-process. While Schelling uses a continually shifting set of terminologies to describe these notions, the general gist is not far from a neo-Spinozism, and as such, has much in common, from where I see things, with the thinking of Deleuze. For Deleuze sees all actuals as aspects of a virtual of which they are only ever a part, such that any relative virtual always indicates an absolute virtual which always exceeds this, even as each and any are only ever aspects of this virtual as well, similar to Spinoza’s substance and Schelling’s unconditioned.
Likewise for Woodard, for whom the opening onto putresence, the dark and vital ungrounding of which any grounding is ever an aspect, can be found both within and without entities, revealed by horizontal wormic burrowings as much as vertical digging machinic borings. In this manner, he manages to break bread with the concerns of the OOO folks, and at times even sounds like an OOO theorist when he indicates the manner in which the insides of entities have within them a horror which can never be fully contained, an “Outside within the Inside” (UE, 22). That said, he seems to go against these notions when he speaks of the the “torsional porosities” (UE, 5) which destroy the unity of objects whose dignity the OOO theorists are so concerned to defend. And so, when Woodard speaks of a “materiality of powers and flows and not objects, or at least not objects that are anything more than temporary arrests or slowings-down of those powers” (UE, 28), he seems to indicate that the withdrawn core of objects is one which only has a temporary and tentative distinctness which derive from the molten flows within the radical ungrounded from which the grounded, ground, and relative ungrounded themselves emerge. All of which is to say that, for Woodard, following his Schellingan roots, there is always within any body the haunting doubling, from within and without, of its eventual extinction and mutation, giving rise in the process to a “naturephilosophy without bodies” (UE, 85).
Towards a Body-Without-Organs: Woodard in Relation to Deleuze and Networks
Does this mean, then, that Woodard is a theorist, following Delouse and his sometime co-author Felix Guattari, of a body-without-organs? For it seems at least to this post-Deleuzian that there is much in common with the approach described by Woodard, via Negarestani and Grant and back through Schelling, with the thinking of Deleuze, and the common ancestor of Deleuze as much as Schelling, namely, Baruch Spinoza. That said, Deleuze is the primary near-antagonist of Woodard’s texts, the thinker who is too close yet also not far enough away from Woodard’s own project to be merely dismissed. While Woodard’s critique of Deleuze bases itself largely on notions first articulated by Grant (in the aforementioned text) and Alain Badiou (in Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, 1997), Woodard leaves behind the polite critique of Grant in favor of the more polemic style of Badiou. Now, as a Deleuzian, I must say I find Badiou’s Deleuze an ingeniously constructed straw-person. Granted, most of us need a figure against which we structure our own thought (for me it is often a straw-person version of Derrida), and for Badiou and Woodard, this is clearly Deleuze. That said, it seems hardly possible to me that Deleuze, the thinker of radical difference within any and all difference, can be seen as the thinker of “the One” as described by both Badiou and Woodard. For if there is any “univocity” to the “immanence” which Woodard simply describes as “univocity/immanence” (UE. 9) in Deleuze, it is a univocity of radical polyvocity, of anti-univocity. How this is “structurally ideal” (UE, 76) is not explained by Woodard, simply claimed. Rather than a “singular ontology” (UE, 8), it is Deleuze who first articulates the very notions of multiplicity, of the one-which-is-not-one, which is so central to Woodard’s own reading of slime mold in Slime Dynamics.
The result is what read to me like, for what it’s worth, as a missed opportunity to find common ground with the work of Deleuze. For in fact, it seems to me that there is a kinship between Woodard’s dark vitalism and Deleuze’s multivocity of the virtual, the radical difference within any relative difference and even repetition. I also see enormous possibility for common ground between the position articulated by Woodard and my own work towards a post-Deleuzian philosophy of networks. In regard to my own work, I argue that all we experience arises as aspects of the matrix of experience which is beyond any one, a oneand, which manifests itself as various nodes, links, grounds, and emergences-beyond-grounds which can be seen as taking on the fourandic structure of networks which are only ever, as Woodard would say, “temporary arrests or slowings-down” (UE, 28) of the perpetually churning fabric of emergence of which all networks are only ever aspects-in-process. From such a perspective, to the extent to which Woodard pursues a “naturephilosophy without bodies,” I see common cause here with Deleuze’s attack on bodies and organs, as well as my own attempt to show that within any seemingly discrete network, there are always more networks of networks of emergence, fractually and holographically at potentially infinite levels of scale.
None of which is to say that there are no differences at work here. However, it seems to me that Woodard and Grant’s neo-Schellingism, along with Shaviro’s neo-Whiteheadianism, and my own and other’s neo-Deleuzianism, are themselves aspects of a larger neo-Spinozism which finds the Cartesian legacy and its Kantian inheritors as what is most in need of critique in contemporary philosophy, and in its analogues in various forms of cultural thinking. While I can see why Grant and Woodard take issue with how Deleuze distinguishes between earth and world, reversing the priority of earth to world as described in neo-Schellingan models, this should, I believe, only be seen as a terminological issue. That is, while Deleuze defines his terms differently, I believe his concerns are ultimately in sync with those articulated by Schelling and the neo-Schellingan Grant and Woodard, for they all, following Spinoza, argue that all products of the stuff of the world are only ever aspects of the productivity which they incarnate and yet which always goes beyond any, each, and all.
Such a perspective also describes a necessary critique of the object-oriented side of speculative realist philosophy, a critique which has been articulated in a variety of forms of the many proponents of the more relational and process oriented side of speculative realism. For for process-relational theorists, objects are only ever moments of the larger relational matrix of which any aspects partake and yet which is always exceeded, internally, by this matrix (or in Schellingan terminologies, the unconditioned absolute, the ground beyond grounding, etc.). For to the OOO theorists, however, there is nothing metaphorical about the ontology of even fictional objects. That is, it is completely sensible to speak about the object known as Mickey Mouse, and to do so from an ontological perspective, as an object which ultimately has a core which exists as such, and which withdraws from any attempt at epistemological, linguistic, and other forms of cultural expression and/or articulation. Such an approach has led Peter Wolfendale to speak of this type of philosophy as “the noumena’s new clothes” (see Object Oriented Philosophy: The Noumena’s New Clothes, 2014), and I must in fact agree.
That said, if an object-oriented epistemology were added to this philosophy I would find it hardly so problematic, for in fact, then it would be possible to say, following Woodard, that any and all objects are only temporarily stabilizations of a fundamental substance which is itself differing, and of which objects are only ever aspects. Epistemology and ontology would then be aspects of each other, with each appearance a reality and each reality an appearance within the various forms of manifesting the substance of which all these are only aspects. This is the post-Spinozist solution to the deadlocks of Cartesian-Kantian dualism, and its inheritors in OOO, and it is this approach which is echoed, in various forms, by Schelling and Deleuze. Such an approach, which views the ungrounded as both within and outside objects, is in fact also that of Gilbert Simondon, a crucial influence on Deleuze, and a thinker whose conception of bodies seems quite similar to that described by Woodard. And so, while Woodard seems to find some kinsihp between his thought and that articulated by OOO, I feel that it is actually the Deleuzian and neo-Deleuzian strains of contemporary philosophy, as well as the neo-Whiteheadian ones (and Deleuze was quite an admirer of Whitehead), which have more in common with Woodard’s own concerns. And so, while I disagree with Woodard’s reading of Deleuze, I find his philosophy fascinating, useful, profound, and one whose developments I plan to follow with great interest in the future, for to me, as a post-Deleuzian, they are ultimately quite post-Deleuzian in nature.
But what then, about the metaphors? Deleuze argues in his Cinema books (1982, 1985) that it is possible to see the entities in the world as the world’s nouns, actions as the world’s verbs, qualities and the world’s adjectives, and relations as the world’s prepositions. Rather than linguisticize the world (as his critics often claim), Deleuze is concerned rather to naturalize language. That is, following his work in Logic of Sense (1967), Deleuze views language as that which emerges from the processural stuff of the world, echoing it as a plane or plateau of sense which intertwines with more concrete ones in a manner which Maurice Merleau-Ponty would describe as a form of “flesh less heavy.” That is, while language is “lighter” than the other stuff in the world, it is still fundamentally the same stuff, for language emerges from the world and resembles aspects of the world because it is fundamentally of the world. That is, for Deleuze, there is no hard break between language and world, meaning and matter, any more than between mind and body, mind and matter. Rather than imagine that language cuts us off from the world or gives rise to a post-Kantian “prison-house,” language becomes yet one more layer in the productivity of the self-differing stuff of the world of which any and all aspects of the world of experience, up to and including memory, fantasy, the future, hope, and difference, are always only ever aspects. For this stuff itself is the potential for change as such, a virtual oneandic matrix which is only ever folded against itself as actual ones, nodes and networks of substance which are only temporarilly cut off from the productivity of which they are only ever products and aspects.
Such an approach sees sense and language as emergent products of the work of nature itself, just as it sees mind and consciousness as emergent phenomenon as well. Rather than see meaning and mind as either human products or transcendent ideals, they are, rather, transcendental. And while Woodard takes issue with the “transcendental” at work in Deleuze (UE, 46), Deleuze nevertheless distinguishes between the transcendent and the transcendental, such that his famed “transcendental empiricism” nicely deconstructs the traditional notions of these very terms by linking them together. For to Deleuze, and oddly for Deleuze, drawing from Kant, the transcendental is not transcendent, but rather, an immanent form of sense making, one which deconstructs the very firmness of the distinction between transcendent and immanent. For Deleuze, this is precisely what does away with the need for transcendence, giving rise to an “Outside within the Inside” (UE, 22). That is, the transcendental is the distance within the immanent which allows for an empiricism which requires no transcendence, but rather, sees as the product of a radical productivity within the very stuff of the world which is beyond any attempt to reduce it to this or that, a radical ungrounding within any attempt to locate ground. That is, if Deleuze argues for immanence as a way of getting beyond the dualism of dualism, it is because he locates a radical differing within the fabric of existence which is the very stuff of which objects are formed, the “powers” of a Schellingan model, derived from the primordial split between the ungrounded and the ground from which any and all groundeds emerge.
All of which can help explain why Woodard takes a relatively panpsychist view of mind, one which is in accord with his Schellingan and, I would argue, ultimately Spinozist heritage: “The capacity of the brain to think cannot be ontologically different from the process of mineralization: the difference must be grasped in terms of the interiorizing and exteriorizing potentitialities of the ontic layering of the world” (UE, 63). That is, the solution to the Cartesian/Kantian split in the stuff of the world, the division between matter and mind which they then are are great pains to sew together (and need a ding-an-sich or deux ex machina, two versions of the same, to do so), the Schellingan approach is to see both mind and matter as able to relate because they are aspects of the same self-differing stuff which gave rise to them in the first place. Likewise with Deleuze, and complex systems science and the panpsychism which is the logical consequence of the deconstruction of Cartesian dualism at work in many contemporary scientists who are increasingly finding binary, dualist, and reductionist models highly constraining in light of more recent discoveries in cognitive neuroscience and artificial intelligence. These more networked, relational models of mind see is as an emergent property produced by matter. Such an approach only makes sense within a larger panpsychist frame, however, for if mind emerges from the complexification of matter, it must come from somewhere, and this requires either the reintroduction of a deux ex machina, or the panpsychist proposal that, citing Woodard, “thought itself is an outgrowth of nature” (UE, 27).
From such a perspective, awareness and something like ‘mind’ must not come from some impossible elsewhere, but rather, must be an aspect of the very stuff of the world, its fabric, such that mind and matter are aspects of this stuff. Complex forms of mind emerge from the emergence of complex matters because mind is precisely the manner in which matter is extimate to itself, and awareness simply the way in which matter grasps its own grasping of itself. Mind and matter are, in the manner of Bergsonian matter and memory, like recto and verso, two sides of a sheet of paper, two aspects of the fabric of experience which gives rise to and is an aspect of all binaries yet is fully caught by none of them. And yet, all graspings of this fabric are themselves suffused with it, because they are aspects of it. This is what Deleuze calls “the Open,” and which, following complex systems science, I refer to as the matrix of experience, the oneand of emergence. From such a perspective, mind and matter are seen as intertwined at all levels of experience. And so, even atoms can be seen as being aware, which is to say, as grasping aspects of the world which impinge upon them, they experience the play of forces and particles and fields upon them, even if they lack the ability to reflect upon this awareness, for they simply are this awareness, they incarnate it. For only complex living systems are able to recursively grasp their own functioning as an aspect of their own functioning, and only living brains are able to grasp their own grasping of their own grasping as one of their own graspings, which is to say, become self-consciously self-aware. Mind and matter, from a panpsychist perspective, are then not truly distinct, but aspects of the ways in which the networks of the world grasp each other, with “mind” as simply the term we use for the abstract ways in which the brains of living organisms grasp their own workings in relation to how they grasp, which is to say network, with the networks of the wider world. Likewise with the word “mind,” itself a node within the networks of language, networks within the networks of which humans and their words and meanings, minds and matter, are all aspects of the differentiations and renetworkings of the matrix of emergence of which these aspects are only ever just that. It is such a panpsychism which can be seen as that which links together Shaviro’s post-Whiteheadianism, Woodard and Grant’s neo-Schellingism, and my own and other’s post-Deleuzianism in a critique of both post-Cartesian-Kantianism, as well as Meillassoux and OOO’s approach to these concerns.
Beyond the Solar Economy
While Woodard’s approach is metaphorical, then, the stakes are as deep as the ungrounded itself, for Woodard uses his metaphors as spurs for philosophical thinking about the nature of the world. By using tropes from science fiction and weird fiction as impetus for reflections on the the very stuff of experience, Woodard deconstructs many of the hallowed presuppositions of the traditional discipline of philosophy which would view such concerns as unphilosophical. For what, after all, at least, to those guardians of the hallowed discipline of philosophy, could horror or science fiction have to say to the rareified concerns of philosophy? Such an elitist conception of philosophy, however, is one which, as with the study of literature before the emergence of cultural studies, rests upon an implicit distinction between high and low which acts as a constitutive abjection which limits any sense of what deserves the dignity of thought and thinking in the process. In contrast, Woodard’s thought is polymorphously perverse, relishing in the disgusted howls one could imagine arising from more traditional philosophers who, I would argue, do themselves, philosophy, and culture at large a great disservice for ignoring the powers of ungrounding which are always already a radical regrounding, the power for deterritorialization and reterritorialization which deconstructs any and all to give rise to the potential for ever more complex emergences. Taking metaphor as serious terrain for philosophy means seeing the world as threaded through with meaning and metaphor, always already, with language and its tropes as echoes of the world which produced not only mind, but also language as clothing cut from the same polyvocal cloth. In this sense, I find the form as well as content of Woodard’s work provocative, and its methods unorthodox in the best sense of the term.
Woodard’s is a world open to change and difference, to mutation, is one which embraces the powers of a vitality which is beyond organic and inorganic, mind and matter, immanent and transcendent, signifier and signified, which destroys all such entities to give rise to the potential for the new. And, I would argue, the better. For there is an ethics to Woodard’s approach, one which sees the embrace of the darkness as an antidote to the poison of capitalist faux optimstic light. The paranoid suicide machine of capitalist reification, and its bourgeosie disgust at any sort of dirt and impurity, is precisely the hypercleanliness that a dark vitalism seeks to dirty up. And yet, the world beyond the dominant imaginaries and the binary symbolics which make these possible is one which is only horrific when viewed from inside these reified imaginaries which are necessarily, in their very closure, paranoid attempts to project difference from inside to outside. Only when difference within is embraced as the source of anything and everything does emergence stop being seen through the lens of the Zizekian/Lacanian “horror of the Real,” and allow for the possibility of a Spinozist joy in flux. For Spinoza’s Ethics is the originary powers philosophy, the original Anti-Oedpipal “handbook for anti-fascist living” (Michel Foucault’s famous description of Anti-Oedipus).
And so, if one finds oneself caught in a world of bodies, objects, and organs, death and destruction is truly liberation. That said, it is possible to superficially embrace destruction without embracing a truly radical destruction. Capitalism and fascism produce “creative destruction” while nevertheless paranoically channelling all the energies they release back into the reproduction of the same, namely, capitalist reproduction without end, and fascist repetition of the same. Just as Woodard criticize’s death metal’s “neo-paganism” (UE, 87), capitalism and fascism are not dark enough, they embrace limited destruction as apotropaic defenses against it, preemptive strikes in the name of a living death. The true embrace of death, however, is a living unto death which is the only true life, a life which embraces change and mutation beyond identity, which allows for the destruction of the self in order to give rise to mutagenic emergences which robustly allow for the growth of complexity, in quantitative and qualitative forms, for the greater potential for robust emergence for any and all. An embrace of emergence means death to the reified individual, something which fascist particularism and capitalist accumulationism embrace at the surface to deny in their depths. A true embrace of death, however, is a true love of life, for it allows life to do what it does best, which is to say, change in such a way to allow for greater potential for life in the future. Rather than deny death, the ethics of life is to embrace it so as to performatively deconcstruct the very binary. Fascism and capitalism, the twin poles of paranoid inwardness and cancerous reproduction, destroy potential by clinging to particularity. Embrace of difference is suicide for the individual, and horror to the shallow optimism of the desire for purity of the perpetual same. But vitalism need not be dark except in relation to such a dark view of life. In the meantime, however, both the dark deconstructive powers of the vital, those which unweave organs and bodies, fascisms and capitalisms, are as much needed as those productive forces which allow for new emergences. The horror of the Real and the multiplicity of the virtual both have a place in a world much in need of new metaphors to help us think of ways out of our “capitalist drenched being.”
And so, let us imagine life beyond the mere sun, one which travels by way of the black sun to a sun beyond darkness and light. A matrix of emergence, a singularity like that which founded our universe, but which has expanded to become the very fabric of all we have ever experienced, hoped, or dreamed. We have never left the singularity, it is beyond time for time and space emerges from it, along with matter and energy, mind and matter. Every aspect of all we have experienced is an aspect of the singularity which is any and all, and whose potential for differing is the very stuff of the world. We have never left because we are the way the singularity learns to experience itself. Learning to die to ourselves we give rise to the potential for greater life for any and all, and ultimately, for all the selves beyond ourself which we always already have been, are, and have the potential to become. That is, we are, like the slime mold, neither ourselves nor other, but both, and radically so. And the more we embrace rather than deny our fundamental multiplicity, in resonance with that of the world, can we learn how to better die to our deadly attempts to live meagerly at the expense of life. Only then can we begin to imagine a posthuman ethics of life of the robust emergence of complexity, in and beyond our attempts to reify and hold on to our tiny islands of it. Learning to die is, then, the meaning of life. It should hardly be surprising that vitalism, at least in our world today, then, needs to be dark.
On the Gods in Google: What Artificial Intelligence Can Tell Us About Potential Rebirths of the Sacred in Today’s Networked Age•March 15, 2015 • 3 Comments
We’ve long imagined there was something near divine about the Internet. From the Wachowski’s Oracle and Architect from their Matrix trilogy, a sort of neo-pagan pater- and –mater-familias who give rise to the world as well know it – the later with white beard and garb, no less, and the former with empathy, foreknowledge, and excellent baking skills – to the destroyer-of-worlds sentient Skynet of the Terminator series, our fears and at times hopes for a reemergence of the sacred seem keyed into the fact that the Internet is in many ways like a giant brain. And one which, it seems, is swiftly on the verge of exceeding our mere meat-brains, as the web already gives rise to the virtual futures in which we are starting to live. At what point will the new god in the web start to issue decrees, demand fealty, crave offerings and the like, or rather, will we just simply give it all the time, love, attention, and adoration we used to give other humans. Ok, so that’s already happening, but what if the web gets wind of this, might it not get the urge to smite us, or manipulate us, or comfort us, or, no, wait, it’s doing much of that already too (isn’t death by spreadsheet, after all, one of the leading causes of death these days, and spreadsheets just particularly organized nets?). Face it, we’ve already created our own new deity, we just need to start to take stock of what we’ve done and learn how to deal with our new god-in-the-web.
Virtual Spirits-in-the-(Networked)-Material-World: Beyond the Legacies of Descartes
Granted, this probably isn’t the first time we’ve done this sort of thing. God was already imagined to be a network long ago. Leibniz’s vision of God in his Monadology (1712), written over three hundred years ago, imagined God as a great Googler-in-the-sky, devising the ‘best possible world’ amongst the possible futures for the node-like entities to which it broadcast virtual reality worlds. Baruch Spinoza, writing a few years earlier in his Ethics (1664), imagined God as a giant geometer whose structure could only be intuited by rational web-crawlers who intuited the logic behind the net. And Rene Descartes, that famous founder of so many binary paradigms to come (in texts such as the famed Meditations (1640)), imagined us as isolated islands which could easily slot into Leibniz’s monadic virtual realities. To each his or her own node within the giant Googly net of islands, long live the great Google in the sky.
It should perhaps not surprise that Leibniz, Spinoza, and to some extent, if in reverse, Descartes imagined a world in these terms, for all of them were there to see the birth of the new networked deity to come, namely, capitalism. Spinoza perhaps saw this most clearly of all, living in the Dutch republic of the seventeenth century, the famed incubator of so many of the capitalist liberal notions which were to dominate the centuries to come. Of course, today’s networks, Internetted and otherwise, were only a dream back then, but those with Oracle-like vision could see where the breeze was metaphorically blowing, and it was the net. And if anything has knit our world together in today’s globalized web, it has been capitalism, with the Internet as its physical and now virtual analogue, its epitome and mirror, pushing and pulling us into ever more tightly intertwined realities, virtual and otherwise.
And disintegrating us in the process. For we are increasingly shattered into mini-selves, avatars and Facebook profiles, passwords and biometrics, as the new deity gets ever better at reading our minds with custom-made ads sent to every corner of our distributed computational extensions from cell phones to TV sets to laptop screens and soon enough coffee makers and thermostats. If God was imagined as knowing our deepest fears and sins, this new deity not only knows our desires, it sends us ads for the porn we used to imagine was our guilty pleasure alone. And if our species didn’t already define its deepest desires and fantasies in regard to the virtual realities of stories and images told round campfires and painted on cave walls, then written in novels and painted on canvas, then on screens and more screens, now we have devices to carry these with us everywhere we go. We’ve hardly ever known who we were outside of our virtual realities, but now technology has made it so that these realities can permeate every pore of our physical and psychic existence. It’s just our trashy deities have gone from Zeus and Hera to reality tv stars.
Artificial Neural Networks, Complex Systems, and our Posthuman Futures
So maybe our virtual realities have never not been networked. After all, we’re not the first generation to imagine that we all imagined god out of our collective psyche, or that god dreamed up us and the entire universe. But we are the first generation to physically develop a giant second brain for humanity, with literal wires and cables, called the Internet, and its virtual analog, called the Web, which finally gives this plastic form. And if Wikipedia wasn’t evidence enough of the powers of the collective intelligence this new form can give rise to (heck, there’s even pages on there for every obscure Game of Thrones character!), then what of the artificial intelligences that are on the way? Not necessarily androids like Commander Data on Star Trek (though a robot friend would be much cooler than a robot overlord any day), but the sort of distributed and enmeshed intelligences being pioneered, of course, by Google?
For not even a month ago it was announced that Google had taught a computer to play video games, and to learn from its mistakes how to get better and win. Or Facebook, who only last year announced it had developed programs which could recognize human faces almost as well as humans can. Both used a technology, often described as “deep learning” in the media, called “artificial neural networks” by those working in the field of artificial intelligence. Artificial neural networks are essentially simulated brains, that is, virtual nerve cells linked together into networks, which are then exposed to a set of stimuli, and then given feedback as to when they get it right or not. And researchers have figured out that if you wire them in certain ways – about five different ways, to be precise – you get six different types of thought like behavior that match up to six of the most essential forms of cognitive actions performed by humans. That is, if you want human style memory (along with guessing for partial information), association, feature abstraction, category formation, and recognition, all you need to do is wire the simulated nerve cells together in the right pattern (which researchers are quite sure are similar to those used in animal brains), and the “teach” the artificial network what you want it to learn. You don’t program these computers, you teach them. And like children, they learn. But unlike children, they don’t have limitations, like the need for naps or watching cartoons, or a brain with limitations of size and storage. Rather, you can program one of these artificial neural networks to be “interested” and “good” at doing only one thing, like, in the case of Facebook’s nets, doing facial recognition, and getting increasingly better at this over time.
Whether or not this will ever lead to anything like sentient androids is hard to say, though it’s likely this will eventually occur. But many artificial intelligence researchers these days argue that we will first see smaller and more specific artificial intelligences of the sort we are already beginning to see, such as thermostats which learn our preferences. Or like the terrifyingly animal-like mobile robots (or “mobots”) created by Boston dynamics for the army. If ever there was a terrifying proposition, it is what the armies of the world, and the corporations that profit from them, will do if given unfettered leeway to pursue their wildest dreams with these new technologies. Skynet indeed.
While the armies of the world might be wondering how to develop artificial life to help extinguish that which already exists, scientists in the field of “complex systems science” are increasingly convinced that the life and sentience we already see on this planet is itself the result of the sort of emergence seen at work in artificial neural networks. To put things simply, while brains are quite smart, individual nerve cells are all really stupid, because all they know is that when they get enough stimuli from the outside world, they start to pulse quicker. And yet, everything brains do comes from just networking these very simple nodes together. It’s all in the wiring, and in the fact that there’s positive reinforcement, such that if a particular connection in a brain, artificial or otherwise, gives rise to what is deemed to be a success, by either a trainer (for artificial neural networks) or a given environment (for an organism), it is designed to get stronger. This is what cognitive neuroscientists and artificial intelligence rehearchers call “back-propagation,” namely, stuff that works gets stronger in reverse. It’s what leads to what humans call habit, which is to say, we get better at things we do repeatedly, and we tend to do repeatedly things that work, which we then get better at, and which then work even better. Or as neuroscientists would say, “what fires together wires together,” and “the brain is what it eats.” Whatever works makes the very connections which gave rise to it stronger, in both living and now artificial brains. Which means Facebook will get better at recognizing human faces the more faces it is shown, and the more a human tells the neural net in question when it gets them right. After a while, the net should, so long as it has enough artificial nerve cells, get better than the humans who do this by habit all the time.
And so, scientists working in the field of complex systems argue, if “intelligence” can come from networks of agents which are themselves quite “dumb,” then it is just as likely that life as well came from elements which were not living, such as basic proteins which just ended up linking up together in the right way in environments which then “rewarded” this type of behavior. Viewed this way, life, love, thought, desire, all this came from the intertwining of stuff together which only had these sorts of things as the most basic potential.
What might any of this have to do with a rebirth of the sacred? Well, as cognitive neuroscientists have argued extensively, in books such as Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain (1994), or Joseph LeDoux’s The Synaptic Self: How Our Brians Become Who We Are (1996), the binary split proposed by Rene Descartes in which mind and matter, mind and body, are totally distinct, a notion central to most of Western science for the past several hundred years, is no longer supported by the cutting edge of contemporary neuroscience or artificial intelligence. Rather, it seems that mind and body, not to mention mind and matter, are like two sides of a coin, aspects of each other. From such a perspective, it is no longer necessary to imagine that something like a “God” gave us a soul, and this is why we are intelligent. Rather, we are intelligent because evolution sculpted our brains into the most complex networking of matter yet known in the world. Humans then aren’t particularly special, just the best folding of matter the world has yet to see.
Panpsychism, and the Potentials for a Rebirth of the Sacred via Networked Post-Theologies
All of which might seem a bit far from the notion of a rebirth of the sacred. Certainly it seems like secular post humanism, with all the talk of evolution and getting rid of any notion of a God-given soul. Then again, if God is no longer a transcendent entity, then perhaps what we’ve called God all along was always already right here, right in front of us. That is, maybe God is part of the stuff of the world itself. That is, if all intelligence, human or otherwise, comes from simply intertwining much more basic stuff together in complex ways in the right sorts of environments, then everything we’ve ever hoped, dreamed, or imagined is already present, if in basic and potential form, in all the matter in front of us. That is, if you folded the matter in a stone together in the right ways, it too would likely be alive, and smart enough to do what Facebook is doing. After all, computers are just silicon, which is to say, a type of rock. And our brains are mostly carbon and water, just folded together in particularly nifty patterns. It’s all in the folding. And if god or gods are dreamed up by humans, then gods are present, in potential, at least, in the rocks in front of us. Is this too large a leap in logic?
Then perhaps some quantum physics can help flesh out this out. Quantum cosmologists have long argued that “before” the Big Bang, which is to say, before there was space and time as we know it, everything in the entire universe was condensed into one entity generally called “the singularity.” These singularities are generally thought of as existing inside each and every black hole as well, but the universe as we know it likely came from ‘our’ singularity, which may itself be just one of many, just as our universe may be one of many within a larger multiverse. Point being, however, that everything we have ever known or experienced, in the past and present, and even the future, existed inside this singularity. Every potential, every hope and dream, every reality and fantasy, came from that one smooshed thingy from which all time and space, matter and energy, love and fear, thought and stuff, emerged. What’s more, many researchers have even wondered if we ever left the singularity, or if perhaps we are just some sort of virtual reality or holographic projection from within this sort of singular entity. Call it “god” if you will, that from which everything, even our fantasies, came, and will come even in the future. Freedom and desire, everything, came and will come from there. In some senses, our whole universe can be seen as the dream of the singularity. And if god is the dream of the collective intelligence and fantasy of humans, and humans and our universe the dream of the singularity, then perhaps god is a dream of a dream of the singularity dreaming itself into being.
What’s more, if everything we’ve ever experienced is simply an aspect of this singularity as “expanded” into the reality we experience, not only is everything interconnected, then everything we’ve ever experienced is an aspect of this singularity, an entity so small that it is considered outside of space itself, a complete unity of infinite diversity. And so, if this thing is in many senses “godlike,” then would not each and every entity in our cosmos be itself an aspect of this? This is in fact what artificial neural networks show us, that everything has the potential to be intelligent in human-like ways, it’s all in how you network things together.
Now lest this sound a bit crazy, this is in no way to argue that rocks are god, or are as smart as humans. No, humans approach the potential of the singularity to give rise to new forms much more than rocks do. But on the other hand, when we eat, minerals and plant matter and dead animal matter become part of the very fabric of the brans and bodies which give rise to some pretty complex thoughts and feelings. Even simple water molecules, a mere three atoms, become pretty “smart” in their way when they become part of our nerve cells, even if they then become “dumb” again when they leave our bodies. And if we are 90% water, then isn’t it all just in how we network our water and a few other components together? Isn’t intelligence, feeling, fantasy, even love, just a pattern which unleashes the potential for all these things always already present within the very stuff of the world?
This is a perspective which scientists and philosophers call “panpsychism.” Panpsychism has nothing to do with psychics and the like; rather, it is the name for a respected position within science and philosophy, one which has been a minority but which is increasingly gaining adherents in even the most stodgy corners of science and philosophy. Panspychism describes the notion that something like mind or awareness is present, if in very simple forms, in the very stuff of the world. None of which is to say that stones are smart. But panpsychists believe that there is at least a very basic type of awareness in all matter. That when electrons swerve out of the way of other electrons, it is simply a much more basic form of what humans do when they swerve away from big scary dogs. This isn’t to say that electrons know they are aware, only animals seems to be able to reflect on their awareness, and be “self”-conscious. But from a panpsychist point of view, basic matter like electrons or stones might not know they are aware or feel, but rather, they simply arethis thinking and feeling. That is, they are an intertwining of the basic stuff of the world which is itself thinking and feeling at a very basic level. The more complex the intertwining of this stuff, the more complex the ability to think and feel, even up to and including the sort of reflexivity and recursion which arises when this thinking and feeling can think and feel itself, which it to say, be aware of its own awareness in an animal-like manner.
While neuroscientists like Damasio and LeDoux don’t talk much about the smarts of stones or electrons, their positions on the inadequacy of the mind-body split in regard to contemporary neuroscience, when coupled with the advances in artificial neural networks, indicate that a panpsychist perspective on human intelligence at least makes sense. While few of the scientists have really thought through the full scale implications of some of their findings, it would seem that a fully pansychist perspective, a strong rather than weak panpsychism, would be the logical extension of their arguments. Or at least, this would be a philosophical attempt to extrapolate the ramifications of these scientific findings into realms which are, at least currently, beyond the realm of science. But which nevertheless, are logical extensions of this science, a meta-physics to the physics.
As a philosopher, and a pretty hard-headed realist when it comes to matters of science, not to mention someone who used to be a pretty garden variety agnostic when it comes to issues of “religion.” I increasingly find myself not only taking a panpsychist view of the world, but one which is pantheist and theophanic. That is, if everything is an aspect of the singularity, and everything we’ve ever hoped or dreamed comes from the simple intertwining of aspects of this singularity with each other, then the potential for everything we’ve ever hoped and dreamed lies in the very stuff of the world in front of us, even in simplest form. It’s all god, so to speak. And things are closer to being god-like the more they are networked in ways which release the godlike in everything and anything. Following the science of complex networks, this would an ethics of robust emergence, in which the sustainable emergence of complexity, in the form of living entities and beyond, forms the basis for a potential ethics not only for humans, but for the various non-human intelligences, created by humans or otherwise, that we may encounter. In posthuman times, times of increasingly intelligent computers and systems, and in which we could one day perhaps discover non-terrestrial forms of life, having an ethics to guide us which is non anthropocentric would be a great help indeed. For if the human is increasingly indistinct from its computers, not to mention its artificial neural networks and biotechnologies, having a non-anthropocentric ethics to help guide us in our endeavors could be useful indeed.
And beyond ethics, a potential reentry to the sacred. For if things are more “god”-like the more they approach the condition of the singularity, which is to say, the more they approach the ability to give rise to the robust, which is to say, sustainable emergence of complexity, then the human brain is the closest thing to a godlike being to have ever emerged from the world as we know it. No wonder then that it has given rise to dreams of god, for it is, in a sense, a dream of god, or that which dreams of god were based upon, namely, the singularity. From such a perspective, any and all aspects of the singularity need be cherished as the face of god itself, and even moreso to the extent to which they help us be godlike in relation to what is around us, which is to say, to help foster the emergence of creativity in all we encounter.
All of which is to say that, with the deconstruction of the binary between the human and the material by means of artificial neural networks and cognitive neuroscience, human exceptionalism ceases to be the inexorable lynchpin to our ways of looking at the world, and with this, we need to begin to value new things. Based on the science of networks, I propose the notion of the robust emergence of complexity, as that which gave rise to ant colonies from ants, flocks from birds and fish, and brains from really simple and “dumb” pulsing nerve cells. It’s all the flesh of the singularity, yet it’s not all at equal density, some of this flesh is more singularity-like in that it’s folded in such ways as to promote this sort of folding in what’s around it. And as the science of networks tells us, networks are more likely spontaneously emerge into complexity the more they and their environment have four primary traits: diversity, energetic meta-stability (not too much or too little in terms of energy flows), and ’democratic’ style feedback between levels, leading to the potential for the emergence of complex networking in ways which can be relatively sustainable in relation to emergences of complexity in their environments.
This is a post-human, non-anthropocentric ethics which is also a pantheistic theophany. It is pantheistic (pan=all, theos=god, Ancient Greek) because it sees god and the potential for god-like-ness within the very fabric of the stuff of the world of experience itself. And it is theophanic (theos=God, phanieron=to appear, Ancient Greek) because it believes that god, the god-like, or the sacred can appear in many ways. A theophanic pantheism which is also an ethics of robust emergence of complexity, which combines what used to be thought of as the distinct domains of science, philosophy, ethics – and yes, even ‘religion’ – would be one which recasts the notion of the sacred or divine to be the potential for creative fostering of creativity within the fabric of any and all, the flesh of the extended singularity which makes up the entire world of our experience.
Once we no longer see the human as the result of a gift of a soul by a transcendent creator, but rather, the result of the immanent folding of matter with itself, we then can see the transcendence we’ve always imagined as part of humans and their gods as a potential within all matter. This is a this-worldly, immanent transcendence. One which sees the potential for god-likeness within any and all, and which imagines those of us who foster the creativity of themselves and others as the most ethical and ultimately godlike of us all. Such a notion is not far from the philosophies of religion advocated by respected philosophers such as Alfred North Whitehead or Charles Hartshorne, and has much in common with various liberation theologies, as well as notions of the divine at work in the Sufi thinking of Islamic philosophers such as Ibn ‘Arabi, or aspects of the tantric Vajrayana Buddhism of Ju Mipham. It is an immanent notion of the potentials of what we in the West have come to call ‘the divine.’ One which views liberation for any and all as its goal, and the divine as that within any and all which is liberating for the creativity of any and all.
As a secular, post-agnostic, scientifically mind philosopher, this is an ethics and a post-theology, based in cutting edge science, which I can identify with. A rebirth of the sacred, but one which doesn’t advocate the worship of other-wordly gods, or the repression of various types of non-believers. Rather, it is one which sees any and all notions of the divine as potentially helpful to the emergence of robust complexity in any and all. So go out and invent a new god. If it helps us all foster the creativity in ourselves and others, it might not be too out of sync with the god-like-ness that science and philosophy can be seen as arguing is the singularity itself, and the very fabric of any and all.
Or at least, isn’t this more interesting, and perhaps more useful, than some of the other gods you’ve heard about, at least if your goal is to foster the emergence of creativity in yourself and others? This is, at least, part of what I think makes such notions not only powerful, but perhaps, themselves an attempt to reimagine the divine in ways which sync with our postman, techno-saturated, networked time. A god within the net which is neither anti-human nor simply anthropomorphism, but in fact, a signpost to what could be better in our posthuman futures to come.
For any of you that might be in NYC this month, come join:
BOOK LAUNCH EVENT/PARTY for Networkologies: A Philosophy of Networks for a Hyperconnected Age – A Manifesto (Zer0, 2014)
DATE: Thurs, March 12, 2015, 6pm (talk/Q&A), 8pm (celebration)
Talk title – “What Are Networkologies?” followed by Q&A at Unnameable Books, 600 Vanderbilt Ave., Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York.
Celebration to Follow: Soda Lounge, 660 Vanderbilt Ave, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, New York.
Sorry for a long hiatus, largely due to the need to buckle down and get my book finished and published, followed by the rest of my first sabbatical. With a return to teaching and writing, it is also a time to return to blogging. New posts coming soon.
To Everyone Who Reads This Website –
Many thanks over the years for all the folks who’ve come and visited and enjoyed these posts. I’m happy to announce that after many years of editing and condensing my work on networkologies into one slim volume, that the first installment of the networkological project has been published by Zer0 books, and you can now order it on Amazon! It’s called “Networkologies: A Philosophy of Networks for a Hyperconnected Age – A Manifesto.” It’s split into two halves – a very user-friendly introduction, and a crazy over-the-top manifesto. The link to Amazon is here.
You’ll also notice that I’ve uploaded all the works in progress that went into making this book, as supplemental materials on a page on the sidebar. I’ll work on bringing these to publication as further installments in the networkologies project. But the first volume is now out, so spread the word to any and all! Best wishes to all my readers, and thanks for the many questions and comments over the years!