Sunday, 20 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times Still More IV: Personas of Pessimism and Optimism

by Simon Smith 

Looking back at what Agamben has said and what has been said here about it, there seems to be a disconnect. Things aren’t adding up. Agamben’s fears are both legitimate and reasonable and yet the reality of the situation hasn’t entirely borne them out. Perhaps his mistake was to suppose that governments still seek to control their citizens’ movements and their ability to foregather. In truth, governments are more preoccupied with The Economy[1] and rightly so, from their perspective, since economic control is all the control they need. It separates us far more effectively, by making competition our (dis)organising principle and individualism our foundational (anti)social condition. It mollifies social, political, and intellectual desire with a cornucopia of consumables, both literally and figuratively sugar-coated. It obviates our capacity to think and act humanly by entrapping us within a usurious system that forces us to service its requirements, to sustain it, rather than one another. By comparison, the idea that a government might simply stop people doing things sounds almost quaint.

This may explain the superficial similarity between Agamben’s views and those UK Tories/American Republicans who (claim to) believe that we have surrendered too much to precaution and to the virus itself. The cure, we are told by people who have access to the very best in medical care, cannot be worse than the disease. Indeed, and the fact that US infection rates appear to have topped 125,000 per day while their mortality rates are, we are told, averaging a comparatively meagre 1000 per day suggests that this is, indeed, so. Whatever the cure may be, short of complete extinction, it is unlikely to be worse than the disease.

Whilst arguments from the political right are sometimes framed in terms similar to Agamben’s, the differences are important and revealing. What is particularly evident is, as already noted, their concern for and interest in The Economy. Here, in fact, is where I find myself disagreeing, respectfully, with Agamben. For him, the problem is the sanctification of Risk and the new religion, the only ‘true religion of our time,’ that is science. He is likely correct about Risk, but not about the rest. The golden calf before which all others, even the Church, even science, must bow down is The Economy. It directs our lives, conditions our work, sets the terms of our society. It is of supreme and absolute importance and we must be prepared to make every sacrifice to sustain it. That those who are sacrificed are always the most vulnerable, often Black, Asian, and other ethnic communities, is unfortunate but apparently unavoidable. That, it seems, is the great god of Europe and America, that and no other.

The situation is not new. We in the west have never really cared very much about those who had to suffer that we might buy. Way, way back in the ancient days of the 1990s, Peter Singer was calling our attention to WHO statistics showing that 75% of the world’s food resources are consumed by the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population, while the poorest 20% receive just 15% of those resources.[2] Things have changed very little since then. It’s just that, whereas those who are suffering have traditionally been very far away, and therefore easier to ignore, they are now far, far closer. Right on our own doorstep, in fact.

That said, I am not as pessimistic as Agamben, either about covid-present or covid-future. Gloomy, perhaps, but not pessimistic. This is because I am convinced, for reasons philosophical and historical, that it is perfectly possible for people to transcend their circumstances and themselves. We are capable of being better than we are, of recognising the ways in which our actions affect one another, of caring about those affects, and of doing something about it. Human beings are also capable of changing the world for the better. It’s been done before. This capacity for transcendence is what it means to be human. We become ourselves by overcoming ourselves, to coin a phrase. So much, both Farrer and Feuerbach, among others, tell us.

And in case anyone is wondering, self-overcoming or self-transcendence is entirely compatible with Camus views on the Sisyphean nature of existence. To face the absurdity of the universe, to live cheerfully on the edge of the precipice, does not entail nor even tend to suggest that we must surrender our becoming to mere being. Indeed, acceptance of the truth is an essential component of transcendence; how can I strive for better if I do not clearly and honestly recognise the reality of myself and my situation?

In sum, I cannot agree with Agamben that ‘the threshold that separates humanity from barbarism has been crossed.’ The threshold that separates humanity from arseholery has been crossed and re-crossed many times. Indeed, it seems that some people are enthusiastically trying to eradicate that line altogether. It’s called ‘history.’ But humanity is alive and relatively well in the real world, beyond computer screens and quiet, bookish rooms. Human contact is surviving too, though at a distance, obviously; being mostly masked, humanity goes back to its Latin roots, personalising itself with an exaggerated persona.[3] We do what we must to make ourselves understood, to be our understanding selves. More importantly, perhaps, anyone who ventures outside quickly finds themselves paying more attention, looking harder at people, making, in short, more effort to interact. What’s more, it seems we may not be as afraid of others as Agamben supposes. The consensus appears to have coalesced around the idea that wearing a facemask does not protect the wearer per se, it protects others from any infection he or she may be carrying. And if we both wear masks, as many people are willing to do, we protect one another. Not afraid of others, then; afraid for them.

Perhaps such a sunny view of human nature is not to everyone’s taste. Bringing all this to some sort of conclusion, then, one last point. I have, as I say, some sympathy for both Agamben and his critics in all this. It is important to keep in mind that these are strange days indeed. Reading Agamben’s essays, both in Inscriptions and the EJP, it seems clear that he is not enjoining us to rush into the street, there to cough into one another’s faces. However, he is, I think, pointing out some things that ought to genuinely concern if not appal us, perhaps even more than the rampant spread of this plague. Leaving aside the socio-political dangers and the dangers of isolation and separation, we should be horrified that people have been left to die alone in the midst of all this; we should be horrified to learn that our most ancient duties and obligations, those which stand at the very foundation of our distinctly human existence, have been compromised, even abandoned, that ‘cadavers should be burned without a funeral.’ The dead are dead, but we are not, not yet; and Agamben is correct to see this as a sign of barbarism, of inhumanity. We might also point to the hoarding of food and other essentials, the mindless manufacturing of shortages in a crisis, both by those who enthusiastically stampeded into it and those who profited from it. Could we, as a society, as a species, have behaved more shamefully or more foolishly? Almost certainly, ‘yes’; and no doubt we will, given time. Can we, will we, behave better? I should think so, given time.

[1] A reified construction that has become so familiar that we frequently forget how little it really means: people buying things they don’t really need in order to ensure that more things no one really needs can be manufactured from the resources of far poorer countries populated by far poorer people for whom ‘the economy,’ if it means anything at all, means ‘getting enough money to buy food.’

[2] Peter Singer Practical Ethics, (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 220.

[3] Because the Latin root of ‘person’ is ‘persona’, which means ‘mask’, geddit?.

Saturday, 12 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times More IV: Agamben's Split and Aristotelian Face-Lickers

by Simon Smith

Being in the UK, I am, naturally, entitled to the moral high ground when it comes to all the sorts of political oppression and corruption and such like shenanigoats noted last time. After all, I live under a government that would never attempt to bypass democratic institutions in the name of reclaiming power for those institutions from invented oppression by a ‘foreign power’ which has been characterised by the liberal, or rather neo-liberal, application of ersatz Churchillian rhetoric. Or mislead the electorate about: a) £350 million a week for the NHS; and b) the “oven ready deal” that would secure those millions. Or seek enact domestic legislation designed to simultaneously override and undermine international law. Or attempt to bully its nearest neighbour into accepting deeply disadvantageous terms in order to bolster its own position while preparing to take a massive dump on an historic peace accord which itself was necessitated by a conveniently forgotten colonial past, a past which, although consigned to ancient history by some, to others is very much alive.

Quite so. How thankful I am to live in a country in which such low blackguardism is entirely alien, or should we say foreign. Let joy be unconfined.

Having ventilated, let us return to Agamben at the plague hospital. He is, I think, correct to remind us that ‘fear is a poor advisor’ – no irony intended here – and that nothing generates fear more efficiently than a perceived threat to one’s survival. Indeed? Not quite. In fact, the underlying point is that the greatest fear arises from a perceived threat to our most cherished and deeply held convictions. Naturally so, since those are the convictions which, most often, form the constitutive layers of one’s identity. Agamben’s point here is that those convictions – formerly social, moral, political, etc. – have been abandoned in favour of a commitment to survival alone or, as he terms it, ‘bare life.’ Blind fingers grab in panic for ‘bare life;’ frantic with fear and, worse, overwhelmed by base desire: to live and nothing more is mere instinct, the desire of beasts and broccoli, not human beings. ‘Bare life’ and the fear of losing it threatens to isolate us from one another as we begin to regard one another, not as human beings but as disease vectors. Shivering tentacles of terror clutch and drag us down, silencing conscience and consciousness as we gladly acquiesce in the dark depths of instinct and animal existence. That, as Austin Farrer averred, is virtually a definition of sin.[1]

This risk, if real, is far greater than that, of course. Isolated, we begin to lose our humanity altogether; for, humanity is a social construct, a shared belief. What makes us human, what makes us ourselves,  does not survive in one or with one. It needs others to reflect and refract, to correct, and to construct it. Literally and metaphorically, which is to say, metaphysically and biologically, humanity is born out of real intercourse. Abandon that and what remains is surely a poor excuse for a human life, framed by fear of the dark, consumed utterly by the demands of survival and nothing but. Here we are on the precipice. What shall we do? Skulk back into chthonic undergrowth of a bestial past? Fling ourselves faithfully into the void to be sustained by angels’ wings? Or shall we do as Camus asks and live where we stand, cheerfully, like human beings?

Agamben places the blame for this state of affairs squarely on the shoulders of the medical sciences. It is they, he suggests, that have ‘split the unity of our vital experience, which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual, into a purely biological entity on one hand and an affective and cultural life on the other.’ It is they who implanted the dualism that lives in the bone of all our thought and action. I don’t doubt his word on this. I’m certain that our friend and occasional contributor, James Beauregard, would wholeheartedly agree too; it is, after all the message which underpins his bioethical efforts. That said, we should keep in mind that the medical sciences have not worked alone.

Separation, dualism, and manufactured antagonism, that ‘split [in] the unity of our vital experience,’ has an ancient pedigree. Dusty philosophical fingers point in Descartes’ direction, he and those who blithely promulgate his realist nonsense; in back of them all stands Aristotle, boldly bearded, tackle out. Lest we be accused of bias, we know very well that logical coincidence makes idealism almost as bad. (Both of which forms of old toot, by the way, the Personalists will frequently and happily be found purveying.) We could also point to behaviourism here, the philosophical kind; but since behaviourists have enough trouble trying to work out who said what, let us be kind to them. Besides, the Church has provided plenty more grist for our mill. Agamben accuses the Church of having ‘radically repudiated its most essential principles:’ visiting and caring for the sick. To be fair, Pope Francis is supposed to be a radical. One might also point, here to the classical doctrine Contemptus Mundi and the necessitarian logic underpinning our Western, Aristotelised version Christianity. The Schoolmen taught us that contingency, finitude, is quite literally nothing before the transcendent majesty, the sheer unutterable reality of Necessary Being. They also taught us that sickness and misfortune are ordained from on high.[2] Perhaps, then, this is all just a matter of consistency.

And should we mention the cult of radical individualism, born out of economic and political neo-liberalism, which almost entirely saturates our lives?  Should we mention the feverish demand of constant competition, grounded as it supposedly is, in the Neo-Darwinist dog-eat-dog dogma?[3] It is, after all, as good a way of separating that ‘which is always inseparably bodily and spiritual’ as any. But let’s not labour the point.

The dangers of isolation and of deifying science are very real and very serious. There is no gainsaying Agamben on that. On the other hand, consider, for a moment, how the situation has actually played out. Agamben fears a retreat from real human contact, substituting at every possible opportunity interaction mediated by technology, pathological and impersonal. Very well, but here in the UK we have also seen public demonstrations, crowds of people coming together, perhaps unwisely, to protest against both mask-wearing requirements and institutional racism. There have been house parties of hundreds and pubs filled to bursting; the British people have taken to the streets to lick one another’s faces for the sheer joy of it. Meanwhile our government, far from striving to restrict our freedom of movement has been desperate to get everyone out of their houses as quickly as possible, first with the ‘Eat out to help out’ discount scheme, then with injunctions to Get Back to School and, irritatingly, to Get Back to Work (irritating, because those of us forced to work at home since March have, by the strongest possible implication, not been working.)

Given the continued rise in the number of infections across Europe and, perhaps especially, the United States, isolation and separation may not, in reality, have been the problem. Quite the opposite, in fact.

[1] See Austin Farrer, Finite and Infinite (Westminster: Dacre Press, 1959), 207.

[2] See Wendy C. Hamblet, Punishment and Shame: a Philosophical Study (Maryland: Lexington Books, 2011), Chapter 9 ‘A Christian Penology’, 125-134.

[3] Robert Newman, The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2015), ‘Group Selection’.

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Life in the Plague Times IV: What's Worrying Agamben?

by Simon Smith

Ah, is that the whiff of freshly vaccinated air I smell? (I smell?) Possibly, perhaps, maybe.

Under such finger-crossing circumstances, this seems like an appropriate moment to cast our baby blues or browns, or both, back to the first days of life in the New Pandemonia, back to the days when we all believed that it could never reach our own blithe little first-world hearth and home. Riding gallantly to the aid of remembrance and reminiscence, the very excellent journal Inscriptions recently published two short texts under the title, ‘Giorgio Agamben on health scare and the religion of science.’[1]

Originally written and published during the first weeks of 2020 – a year which, if it were a person, would surely warrant a cricket bat to the plums – Agamben wrote in these lovely slender articles about Italy’s first encounter with the plague. Given the universality of his concerns, some degree of extrapolation and comparison seems fair.

The trouble, our author avers, is plain: we have acquiesced in a state of exception. This state is not new; it predates the plague and has merely been normalised by it, embedded itself more firmly in our cultural consciousness, as it were. In consequence, our humanity is at risk, undermined, not simply by isolation as such – though, certainly by that – but by our enthusiastic embracing of it. Willingly, happily, it seems, we surrender to curfews more severe and more restrictive even than those experienced during WWII.[2] With furrowed brow and eager heart we endorse our governments’ declaration of ‘the most absurd of wars:’ viz. ‘a war with an invisible enemy that can lurk in every other person,’ ‘a civil war.’[3] (One cannot help thinking, somehow, of that other absurd, and ultimately lost, war, the war on drugs.) Science, we are told, has become the new religion and Risk the governing principle of thought and action. As the editors of Inscriptions pithily put it, we have placed ‘our ability to reason calmly and clearly in peril’ and, one supposes, dire peril at that.[4]

I have more than a little sympathy with Agamben here, for the fears he expresses, although I don’t necessarily agree with him. He was, after all, writing in the first days of the pandemic, when much in the way of progress and prognosis remained unknown. Elsewhere, for example, he quotes, Italy’s Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (National Research Council), stating that those catching Coronavirus might reasonably, that is, statistically, expect to suffer ‘mild/moderate symptoms (a sort of influenza).’[5] That wasn’t just the Italian perspective, it was everyone’s perspective; we all believed it and, to some extent, still do. Recent research, however, suggests this may not be the whole story. Evidence of long-term health difficulties, including respiratory, cardiovascular, and neurological damage, has begun to emerge. It may also be worth noting that, under the circumstances, just how long the long-term may be remains unclear.

This is not to deny Agamben’s point, particularly his broader point; but we should remember that, in such discussions, context is important and context changes. Perspective is important too and that is something that, perhaps, we could all make more effort to cultivate; in reminding us of that alone, Agamben’s message is a vital one.

Risking mortal, not to say catastrophic, injury, however, let’s see what kind of view straddling the fence has to offer. As usual, a little of both sides. That’s to say, I’m also sympathetic to those who find Agamben’s words troubling. It requires only the most exiguous sliver of sensitivity to see how easy it is to criticise those who fear a disease which has, lest we forget, killed quite a lot of people. Risk may be low, statistically speaking, but statistics are cold comfort when the coughing comes. We do not, by and large, presume to make life and death decisions for others (although perhaps in some circumstances we should).[6] And considering the way in which the plague has spread, largely unchecked, across the United States, some precautions don’t seem entirely unwarranted.

When Agamben wrote his pieces, some people, although not a great many, had already died from coronavirus. Nota bene, again, being a number in a low body-count is, one supposes, of little comfort to those being counted. Agamben is not blasé about those deaths. He is more concerned with the circumstances and attitudes they imply, however. He is more concerned, for example, with the fact that people have been allowed to die alone and uncomforted than with the cause of death. Hardly surprising, since circumstance and attitude is where the deeper moral questions lie. His job, as he points out, is ‘not to give opinions on the gravity of the disease, but to ask about… ethical and political consequences.’[7]

How sharp their teeth, those political consequences; and how hungry they are when they come back to bite us. Here’s the rub: Agamben is not, or not only, fearful of the present, ‘but what comes after.’ A certain nervousness with regard to political freedom is forgivable. Italian governments are not and never have been above enthusiastic flirtation with fascists and fascism. Agamben himself was born during the most famous totalitarian orgy in recent history; an orgy which was vigorous if, going by the mood, insufficiently lubricated. What’s more, the 21st century has already seen an alarmingly energetic rightwards thrust across Europe and, indeed, globally. That everyone has forgotten the dangers of right-wing politics is both terrifying and mystifying. (Well, perhaps not so mystifying when one considers the Catholic Church’s role in inciting violence against Polish LGBTQ* and feminist groups; it is, as others have pointed out, a matter of power and the fear of being forced to share it with the other.) Even the most recent and unquestionably excellent discharging of infected arse-water that was America’s most recent aspiring dictator has, in reality, only seen a return to so-called ‘centrist’ politics; where the ‘centre’ is most definitely right-of-centre.

Horn of a bull, hoof of a horse, smile of a politician, to misquote Joyce.[8]

[1]Giorgio Agamben on health scare and the religion of science.’ Inscriptions 3, no. 2 (July 2020): 72,

[2] Agamben, 4.

[3] Agamben, 3.

[4] Agamben, 2.

[5] Giorgio Agamben, “The Invention of an Epidemic,” European Journal of Psychoanalysis, February 26, 2020,

[6] Arguably, where end-of-life decisions need to be made for clinical reasons but the person concerned is not capable of making them, it is up to others to do the job on their behalf. One would not, after all, leave an animal to suffer needlessly; why should the situation with our loved ones be different? Because they are not animals in the same sense? Precisely so, which is why we owe them more compassion, not less. I am especially grateful to Orla Smith for explicating this point and for giving David Oderberg a proper shoeing when he utterly failed to grasp the point during a Q & A at the University of Southampton several years ago.

[7] This and next, ‘Giorgio Agamben on health scare and the religion of science,’ 3.

[8] James Joyce, Ulysses. See the Joyce Project for an excellent annotated text: Remember to switch on the highlighted notes at the top, though.  

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Material Parity in Values Evolution: Prioritizing Ontology over Rights Attribution in BCI Synchrony

by Denis Larrivee

There is a demand for more and more sophisticated social robots. The ideal of many engineers is to produce machines indistinguishable from humans, on the level of behavior or appearance…

Artificial intelligence and its companion technology robotics promise to revolutionize human-machine relations through their capabilities for analyzing, interpreting, and executing human action. While stimulating both excitement and concern, these capabilities have also invited reflection on the ethics and values guiding technology development. Factors that induce value evolution are of interest, therefore, for influencing the forms the technology we may adopt.

In broad terms these are seen to operate at two levels: 1) by epistemological inference, often through neuroscientific observation – humans are like machines, and 2) by ontological predication, that is, as an imputed analogue of human meta properties – machines are like humans. Due to a design intent of reducing the onus of human intervention, AI devices are increasingly given over to servicing a spectrum of human needs, from lower order motoric assistance to higher-order computational and social functions, e.g., living assistance companions and work colleagues; accordingly, they invite analogy at multiple levels.

Simulation of higher-order cognition, especially, is understood to drive value attribution, which flows from ontological inferences about the operational resemblance of these technologies to higher-order, human cognition. That is, through replication of these uniquely human abilities, there is a growing ontological incursion in the technology, which propels value evolution under the guise of simulating ontological equivalence. Breazeale’s Kismet robot, for instance, explores not merely the social gestures essential to promoting human-machine interactions but also the construction of human social intelligence and even what it means to be human. Recent trends in roboethics, in consequence, no longer assume the normative referencing implicit in Asimov's three laws of robotics, which prioritizes human value over robot rights, having moved on to a more egalitarian value premise.

Simulation thus challenges the traditional value prioritization placing human beings at the apex of organismal life and grounding ethical, bioethical, and neuroethical praxis, a prioritization that has promoted human flourishing while also restricting harmful intervention into the human being. Rather than emphasizing the centrality of human value, simulation promotes a value architecture that is more inclusive, democratic, and horizontal, a trend recently taken up in ethical parity models. Seen through the lens of ethical parity, simulation poses a multidimensional challenge to an ethical system where value is contingent to the human being, a challenge mediated at the level of the ethical subject, i.e., in the siting of value contingency, in its theory of ethics, i.e., in how ethics is normatively anchored, and in ethical praxis. In consequence, it modifies ethical mediation as an intentionalized moral enactment, which is framed by a referential ontology.

The pursuit of value equivalence between robotic technology and the human being has notably highlighted the symbiotic nature of human-machine relations, which is evoked by the reciprocity of ontological exchange. Rather than the merely instrumentalist association identified in Aristotelian and scholastic philosophy, the appropriation of ontological status motivates a physical reciprocity that lies at the intersection of the human and the machine; that is, behind the human lies hidden the machine, and behind the machine lies the human. Hence, symbiosis is understood to actuate an a priorism that is physically operative at the locus of intersection between the two.

Elucidating the philosophical roots of this a priorism is, nonetheless, infrequently considered. While revealing the presence of a physical ‘a priorism’ can be expected to constitute a meta valorization of the processual form of ontological appropriation that distinguishes simulation; that is, through the mutual endowment of ontological identity, epistemological sources that may reveal consilience have yet to trace the physical reciprocity invoked by symbiosis to a meta-physical ground. Modern physics, moreover, broadly views the world as consisting of individual entities embedded in space time, a conception apparently contravened by the sort of symbiosis invoked in human machine chimaeras.

Higher-order cognition, for instance, is thought to align with human ontology - lower-order human capabilities are rarely considered in these ontological derivations – and is widely regarded to emerge from neural activity, which recapitulates machine-like functioning.  Indeed, Levy’s functionalist interpretation of cognition is traced to the semblance between neural activity and computational capabilities. Neural operation, on the other hand, is deeply physical and neural architectures can be expected to adhere to meta principles governing the physical world, including the formation of human entities. How these positions may be reconciled by their grounding in a physical a priorism, therefore, is unclear.

This paper opines that the computational neuroscience generally invoked for semblance with machine technology fails to trace its philosophy of science guises to an a prioristic meta field reflective of the physical structure of the world but rather to its properties. Recent integrationist accounts, on the other hand, reveal a consilience with a notion of dynamic entities; that is, neural architectures reveal an a priorism grounded in the unity of their operation, a finding of relevance for ontology, which is characterized by individuation rather than semblance.

Simulation through Functionalism to Heidegger

And, in spite of the victory of the new quantum theory, and the conversion of so many physicists to indeterminism de La Mettrie's doctrine that man is a machine has perhaps more defenders than before among physicists, biologists and philosophers; especially in the form of the thesis that man is a computer.
Karl Popper, 1978.

As Karl Popper notes, the hypothesis that human cognition simulates the computational abilities of machines has propelled a widely held notion that humans share ontological equivalence with computational machines. Indeed, over the last half century, computationalism - whether classicist, connectionist, or neurocomputing forms - has dominated thinking on cognition. Beginning with McCulloch and Pitts (1943), Karl Lashley, and others, this thesis has evolved through several incarnations. Marr and Poggio extended early computationalism to information processing, which built on lower level computational processes to construct a representational and algorithmic, tri-level scheme for cognition, while Fodor’s version entailed the manipulation of symbols by means of a Turing style computation, which he proposed enabled decision making, perception, and linguistic processing. Fodor’s transposition of machine like computational events to abilities distinguished as human properties of mind, particularly, introduced simulation as a methodological paradigm for arriving at an ontological status of parity. Implicitly claimed, in fact, is an absence of ontological distinction, an absence that flows from the a priorism of material semblance and grounds the physical reciprocity of human and machine, highlighted in human machine symbioses. 

The equating of symbolic computation with cognitive capacities, moreover, has been understood to bridge the divide between computational events and functions carried out by the mind; that is, functions are built on computational processes which link human and machine at the level of capacities that are operative in the human mind. On this basis, Putnam posited that mental states configure these functions; hence, he identified the mind as constitutively functional. Understood this way the mind lacks a unique physical contingency; hence, its properties cannot predicate from a holistic origin. Functionalism, therefore, emerges from an a priorism of material semblance and is inconsistent with ontological distinction. Chalmer and Clark’s extended mind hypothesis, for example, is notably distinguished by its lack of a unique physical origin to which the mind is contingent.

The lack of distinction, however, contrasts with traditional subject/object dichotomies that view the human in opposition to the machine, a dichotomy that has motivated efforts for its removal and the accommodation of ontological parity. The imagery of the cyborg, especially, has been used as a medium for conceptualizing beyond binary oppositions [Rae], which would otherwise foreclose the physical reciprocity evoked by semblance.  This conceptualization is said to require replacement of a monadic derivation of ontology, whereby ‘two distinct entities face one another and define themselves independently of one another’, with a novel process of mutual endowment whereby each entity only ‘is’ by virtue of and through its relationship with another [Haraway; Rae]. That is, the basis for inference about ontology would no longer be drawn from an a priorism determined by the meta ‘structure’ of the world, but by shared attributes that bind the two relationally. As Onishi points out, the emphasis on a least common denominator – a main tenet of the transhumanist vision, for example, is the belief ‘that the worlds' only underlying and universal feature is information – has the serious ontological consequence of allowing technology development to reshape material existence at will, especially the human body. Indeed, such thinking emphasizes the ‘entwined nature of beings’ [Rae]. Such a derivation, therefore, denies the existence of a ‘meta-physical’ order that is the ground of physical reality.

For computationalism the machine-human metaphor has gained traction, nonetheless, from Heidegger’s critique of metaphysical humanism that likewise challenged subject/object dichotomies, but did so at the level of being, a critique that subsequently laid the foundation for the ‘‘anti’’-humanism of structuralist, post-structuralist, and deconstructionist thought. Heidegger’s challenge to the Cartesian metaphysical legacy of binary oppositions (which itself challenged scholastic notions of a priori form and purpose) rooted itself in an understanding of being as that which enabled ‘things to be’ rather than a feature contingent on their reality; that is, he proposed that being, rather than synonymous with being (‘s’),  was something fundamentally different, an excess that, in the case of the human being, allowed the human being to ‘‘exist,” rather than made evident by his existence. Heidegger’s apriorism of a ‘murky’ being, led him to posit a certain ‘nullity’ that now defines the postmodern subject, and indeed all entities; hence, in the absence of predicating properties, the human subject must be recreated from the merger of interactions with external reality; that is, through a relational reconstruction. Indeed, much of the fluid, networked understanding incorporated in posthumanist strands of thinking emerge from this separation of being from its anchorage in entities, and the ensuing requirement to restructure the entity through network interactions.

Human Action and Dynamic Entities in a Metaphysics of Nature

While Heidegger's critique is crucial for structuring ontological parity between humans and machines by means of a novel metaphysical paradigm of being, this latter is not widely invoked as an a priori, meta conception of the physical world. Esfeld for example, points out that according to modern mainstream, meta-physical thought, the physical world consists of independent and individuated things that are embedded in space–time. These things are individual because they have a unique spatio-temporal location and entities because they are (a) each the subject of the predication of properties and (b) are distinguished by qualitative properties from all other individuals.

This broad – indeed historical - recognition that entities comprise the physical meta-structure of the world underscores the significance of individuation to the ordering of physical reality. By contrast, Heidegger’s premise that entities can ‘be’ apart from their qualities leaves open the question of whether being is one or many, thereby denying that individuation is a constitutive feature of reality.  Hence, the understanding of individuation has repercussions for how ontology is conceived.

Individuation reveals, especially, that unity is constitutive, not solely for property predication, but constitutive to what things ‘are’ and the basis for their persistence; hence, in contemporary physical understanding entities are individuated because they are unified. Meta understandings of the physical world, critically, now prominently feature an a priori operational dynamic that is a unifying principle; thus also, the a priori presence of an operational dynamic that ‘individuates’ the entity.

The act of existence is not a state, it is an act, the act of all acts and therefore must not be understood as a static definable object of conception” Phelan,

Here, Phelan implicitly (and merely) recapitulates Aquinas’ dynamic notion of a holism: “every substance exists for the sake of its operation”. Hence, the feature of being is to act - “to be ‘is’ to act” - and to act is to be individuated.

In living systems – here understood as living entities - it is increasingly evident that unity is autonomously mediated through a dynamic of action execution. Indeed, the coherence and unity made evident through living systems’ autonomous engagement in action argues for the presence of a self-organizing principle evoked as a dynamic locus of action origin. Their presence in the world is therefore consilient with an a prioristic principle of self organizing, self actionable individuation that emerges from the meta structure of reality.

Crucially, human unity likewise flows from a global operational dynamic, where functions predicate from this dynamic. The neuroscience of behavioral action, especially, reveals that actions are embedded within a global operative order that is autonomously evoked during action execution; that is, a physical a priorism of unity mediated through operation.  Human ontology, thereby, is an emergent qualification defined by unity, operation, and self-presence; hence, an ontology that is subjectively distinct and that flows from the world’s a priori features.

This physical a priorism is widely evident:

In the coordinated activity of primitive organisms like C elegans. Despite the participation of hundreds of sampled neurons, their activity is coordinated, and meaningful signals are reduced to far fewer dimensions.

In the multisensory integration of the individual, who becomes the subject of experience.

In mechanisms of action identification and action contextualization. For dynamic motor trajectories – events necessarily occurring in space and time – it is critical that individual motions be set in context with respect to the body’s spatiotemporal framework so that all motions may be coordinated. This framework functions to unify discrete motions into a coherent matrix in which they can be related each to another. 

In action attribution and goal directed activity. Individual motions perform functions necessarily in relation to objectives dictated by the body; hence, the body is understood to be the source of discrete motions.

Humans and Machines in a Physical World

Development of sophisticated AI and robotics technologies is propelling an increasingly intense interaction between humans and the machines they create. This has motivated recognition of a physical semblance in models of cognition with an ensuing emphasis on ontological and value parity. The absence of consilience at global levels with an a priori meta model for semblance, however, weakens the foundation for structuring ontological parity and siting value contingency and is at odds with a general recognition of the individuation of operationally dynamic entities that emerge from meta features of the physical world. These features reveal the presence of dynamic holisms throughout the natural world that recapitulate ontological distinctiveness along an increasing hierarchy of neural complexity, culminating with the emergence of human subjectivity. Physically grounding ontology in a meta world thus offers a basis for siting value contingency and for informing the evolution of human machine interaction.

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Call for Papers Inscriptions 4:2. Open issue

Deadline for proposals: 15 March 2021. 
Full manuscripts due 15 April 2021.

Inscriptions, an international journal of contemporary thinking on art, philosophy, and psycho-analysis, invites contributions to our upcoming open issue (vol. 4, no. 2). We are looking for well-crafted and skilfully written scholarly essays and literary fiction that in some way engage our mandate.

Inscriptions is an interdisciplinary, double-blind peer-reviewed journal that welcomes a wide range of approaches to scholarship and writing. The journal is published online and in print. Inscriptions is indexed by the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ) and others, and archived by the National Library of Norway. Our authors include Wolfgang Schirmacher, Siobhan Doyle, Christopher Norris, and Jørgen Veisland.

Access to content in this journal remains open on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge. We do not charge authors for submission or publication. We encourage our author, readers and supporters to subscribe to our printed edition. Single back issues can also be ordered through our distributor.

Submission instructions: Academic essays should be 3,000 to 4,500 words, while scholarship in the form of interviews, reviews, opinion pieces, etc., may be shorter. We encourage potential authors to submit proposals (150 words) for review prior to their writing/submitting entire full-length manuscripts; include title, institutional affiliation, and a brief author bio with the text of your proposal.

For this open issue we also seek submissions of literary fiction (poetry, aphorisms, short stories, fables, literary essays, etc.), to be reviewed by our Fiction Editor Sally-Ann Murray.

For a full overview of our policies for submission, review, and publication, please see our website

Recent Issues:

  • Inscriptions 4, no. 1: Artificial life, due out 1 January 2021
  • Inscriptions 3, no. 2: Power in a time of pandemic, July 2020
  • Inscriptions 3, no. 1: Outsourced, January 2020
  • Inscriptions 2, no. 2: Kierkegaard, July 2019
  • Inscriptions 2, no. 1: The global unconscious, January 2019
  • Inscriptions 1, no. 1-2: Consecrations, July 2018

Yours sincerely,

Dr. Torgeir Fjeld
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions


Sunday, 18 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part III: A Hero For Our Times

by Simon Smith

Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
A hill he climbs,
From ancient times,
His quiff is all the rage.

Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
A rock he heaves,
But never ‘chieves,
The rest that we all crave.
Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
He knows it be.
For toil he gets no wage.
Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age.
Upon his back,
The tattooed rack,
Of pinup Bettie Page.
Sisyphus, O Sisyphus,
The hero of the age,
                The fan of Betty Paige,
                                Whose quiff is all the rage.

Sunday, 11 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part II

by Simon Smith

On the off chance that anyone hasn’t already guessed, I recently turned, for the first time in many years and only partly because of the present circumstances, to Camus. The Plague is top of my reading list, naturally.[1] Before that turning, however, I re-turned to The Myth of Sisyphus, unread since undergraduate days, sometime in the late fourteen-hundreds. As then so now: ruminating on reality and the absurdity of existence might profit the soul without being particularly amusing. There are very, very few jokes in Camus.
Having glossed Sisyphus and, I hope, drawn out the pricking point of application, the question arises: where, then, does all this leave us? At a moment of awakening, perhaps. Sisyphus’ eternity of punishment is, we know, absurd, meaningless in every possible sense. It achieves nothing; it is no use, even as a punishment, this eternal stone rolling, since one cannot learn from it and no change will come about because of it. Like Hell, its only conceivable purpose is revenge. But one must then ask, what’s the point of that? It is, in fact, all rather too much, too late.
And where does that leave us? Well, let’s not labour the point. Recent months have brought us all closer, much closer, to mortality, our own and that of those all around us. Yet here we are, so very far from the end, being driven back to ‘normality’ and striving with all our might to get there. Sadly, however, ‘normal’ is no longer there; and while the striving itself is, apparently, normal, it may not be healthy; that is to say, potentially fatal and not quite sane. Worse still, this ‘normality’ we yearn for, it is absurd, clearly and unequivocally. It is not worth grieving for, this ‘normality’. Not now that we have learned the truth of Doctor Rieux’s words: that ‘goodbye’ is no longer a mere formality. (Those of us with loved ones who work in hospitals and Health Care are still learning it, we learn it anew each day.)
It does not, of course, matter one jot or tittle whether we agree on this, whether we believe or not; as the good Doctor says, the plague makes opinion redundant. Even faith can’t save us.
So where does this leave us? Simple. Like Hector, atop the shining towers of ancient Ilium; below, the city walls, impregnable, yet girt by fate and bloody battlefields.
The point is not preach inertia, but to ask, can we, like Hector, knowing what we know, go on and meet what is to come. Or Camus’ question: can we live on this precipice without giving up? Can we live cheerfully and without appeal, since there is no one and nothing to appeal to? Or shall we choose negation and sedation; follow Kierkegaard over the edge; or shall we, as Lovecraft wondered, surrender and go mad from the revelation, fleeing into the peace and safety of a new dark age?
We shall see, we shall see

[1] If any readers are able to access it, BBC Radio 4 has broadcast Neil Bartlett’s stage version, recorded during the 2020 lockdown while the actors were isolating in their homes. It’s quite harrowing, but still a remarkable play: Any references to The Plague herein are to this version.

Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Inscriptions Vol 4, No. 1: Final Call For Papers


journal for contemporary thinking on 
art, philosophy and psycho-analysis

Deadline: 15 October 2020.

Ethics, the question of how to live right and well, has been one of philosophy’s key concerns from its beginnings. In the thought of Wolfgang Schirmacher the ethical life is connected to artifice: subjected to the event of technology we recognise our ethical being in mediated form, and it is through reflecting on this our present condition that we can begin regain our composition as ethical subjects.

For our volume 4, n1, Inscriptions, a journal for contemporary thinking on art, philosophy and psycho-analysis, seeks essays that reflect on, interrogate, and bring new perspectives to the notion of artificial life and ethical living in general. Key questions include:

· How must I compose myself in order to live a good, satisfying life?

· What is the good life, and what values are relevant to us in our present time?

· How has the figure of the subject been challenged by our technological order, and how may we begin to ethically reassess our present condition?

Submit your manuscript (of up to 5000 words) through our online platform. Proposals receive a preliminary assessment. All scholarship published by Inscriptions undergoes double-blind peer review. We also accept book reviews, commentaries, and short interventions of up to 1500 words.

Open Access, no APCs

Access to content in this journal remains open on the principle that making research freely available to the public supports a greater global exchange of knowledge. For this upcoming issue we will not charge authors for submission or publication.

Inscriptions is published online and in print, and is indexed by, among others, the Directory of Open Access Journals (DOAJ). Our authors include Wolfgang Schirmacher, Siobhan Doyle, Christopher Norris, and Jørgen Veisland.

Our issues are archived electronically and in print by Norway's National Library.

Recent Issues

· Inscriptions 3, no. 2: Open Issue, July 2020

· Inscriptions 3, no. 1: Outsourced!, January 2020

· Inscriptions 2, no. 2: Kierkegaard, July 2019

· Inscriptions 2, no. 1: The Global Unconscious, January 2019

· Inscriptions 1, no. 1-2: Consecrations, July 2018

Yours sincerely,
Dr. Torgeir Fjeld
Editor-in-Chief, Inscriptions

Sunday, 20 September 2020

Ereignis Centre for Philosophy and the Arts | |

by Torgeir Fjeld

Ereignis: the thought

Ereignis is a way to understand technology and our everyday world, an approach to life, and a distinct philosophy. We begin by unpacking the multiple meanings of the word; we then go on to identify a vision, an obstacle, and a new reality. In the end we ask to what service Ereignis can be put to enable us to become who we are.

1. The meaning of Ereignis

An event is an experience or a happening that fundamentally reconfigures the coordinates of our lives, as a trauma or as a thoroughly exhilarating moment, strictly dividing the “before” from the “after”.

Ereignis is a complex and intriguing word, even in the German. As a noun (an Ereignis) it basically means an unusual or special event, or, simply, something that has happened. However, when we investigate further we realise that there are vast arrays of potential meanings to this term. Synonyms suggested by the dictionary include occasion, interlude, opportunity, experience, happening, thing, and an event. At the etymological root of Ereignis we find that this is an event that is derived from the verb ereignen, designating something that plays itself out, as if by destiny.

One influential interpreter sought to distinguish the prefix er- from the stem eignen. It is when we consider eignen as a cognate of Augen that we get a sense in which ereignen is intimately connected to our vision, to what we see or have in our view. In German, the derived zueignen and aneignen means to acquire and appropriate respectively, and the verb eigen simply means to own. If an event only truly occurs when it is seen or observed, then what has happened can only be determined with by referring to what observers have called it to themselves, their interpretation, or appropriation, of the event.

To er-eignen, then, seems to mean to make something one’s own, in by appropriating it, acquiring it’s key meaning, or giving voice to its sense. This is important, because at the core of the eigen lies eigentlich, designating an event’s underlying cause, or its reality. In other words, what something really is, or what actually happens, can only come out through appropriation, of by distinguishing what it was that we experienced. This event, then, does not only refer to the happening itself, but crucially also to the act of making the event one’s own.

2. Philosophies of Ereignis: Heidegger, Schirmacher, Badiou

Ereignis is an experience and an approach to life. Our technological understanding of the world can bar us from this experience. Opening up for the multiplicity of reality we can rediscover the world as a sacred place.

2.1 Heidegger: nearness

A clearing is the sense we get when we approach a moment of serenity and profound insight.

There is no doubt that it was the game-changing philosophy of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) that brought the term Ereignis onto the stage of modern thought. In an essay on the German poet Friedrich Hölderlin Heidegger described how it feels to descend from the mountainous Alps, the returning and homecoming, and in this essay he associates this descent with a mystical experience of Ereignis.

Heidegger gave the term Ereignis the task of connecting Being, or the divine, with our lives. To Heidegger Being reveals itself as a light which enables it to become visible to itself. Being, or the divinity, gives, sends, or destines beings, such as ourselves, in an ongoing unfolding of self-awareness. Heidegger thought of this double movement as Being alternately disclosing or refusing itself, or, in a word, as a “clearing-concealing.” Ereignis is a term to describe this sense in which Being is self-giving or self-refusing, or what Heidegger mystically referred to as the “Ereignis of presencing.”

The “It” of Being, or the Divine, is inaccessible to ordinary thinking; however we can come into its nearness through recollective, poetic thought.

To be present, then, or to experience a presencing, is in Heidegger’s terminology to be in the nearness of Being. When Heidegger held that this nearness nevertheless can never be fully present he began from the assertion that the German phrase Es gibt, there is, not merely points to an empty placeholder “Es,” it/there, but that it serves to highlight the giving of the Es, rendering the phrase as literally “It gives.” In so far as the “It” here refers to Being, the giving that is provided by it is its own presence. However, even Heidegger acknowledges that this “It” is inaccessible to ordinary thinking; therefore we should turn to the poets, and particularly the recollective verse of Hölderlin, to be brought into “Its” nearness.

2.2 Schirmacher: metaphysical technique

Now, what is the reason that we find ourselves removed from Being, at a distance from our own existence, in our daily lives? Heidegger was quite clear on this, referring to the reduction of the world from a place of transport and enchantment to an experience where we are oblivious to the things themselves as Gestell. Rather than a world revealing itself as a holy place, and the things within it as radiant, sacred beings, Gestell reduces things to mere resources that can only serve as means to ends. Wolfgang Schirmacher, a philosopher of technology, continues Heidegger’s thought to name this blockage “metaphysical technique,” a complex expression of attempts to dominate life by technical mastery, a technological fix which we often think of as either technological optimist, or utopianism.

Metaphysical technique reduces our world and other people to means to an end, making us oblivious to the things in themselves, seeking instead to dominate them by bringing the exterior world under our complete control.

Governed by an “instrumental prejudice,” Schirmacher writes, the metaphysical technique is an “ingenious expression of a technology of survival” where all objects, everything we encounter, are regarded with suspicion, as “potentially hostile.” This is why the dominant metaphysical technique seeks to bring the entirety of our external world “under control under all circumstances and by all means.” It is this naïve belief in technological supremacy which leads to the present explanation of all our shortcomings as a “lack of technology:” when our world is gradually brought to an end and destroyed with the aid of modern technology the often misunderstood response is to claim that it is not modern technology, or, rather metaphysical technique, that has brought this upon us, but the wrong use of instruments or an insufficient determination of their purpose; in this view our current fix is due to an incorrect application of technology. When metaphysical technique encounters failure its answer is to stubbornly pursue the same path with even more determination, and to explore and exploit further its beaten path of domination by technical knowledge.

Against this Schirmacher holds that the destructive effects of metaphysical technique cannot be defeated on its own ground, i.e. by further pursuing an accumulation of data, or positive knowledge. Technology, or, more precisely metaphysical technology, serves to conceal the world to us, and more knowledge of this kind will not reveal the world anew. In the words of Schirmacher:

If the concealment of technology is not revealed by knowledge, but paradoxically rather strengthened, only ignorance can help. Ignorance does not only mean the absence of knowledge, but indicates the Socratic admission of ignorance, which is to say a knowledge that deprives knowledge of its self-evident right.

What Schirmacher prescribes is the ancient philosophical cure: truth telling, but not as a simple mechanism to verify positive knowledge, but, rather, the Socratic model as an approach to life. Truth of this kind cannot ultimately be found by testing hypotheses but emerges from a technique in which “facts are shown as they are conceived by us.” Against metaphysical technique with its “emptiness artfully filled with an abstract language of evidence and justifications,” truth technique makes the world in its entirety appear in a glimpse, and yet as if eternally.

To overcome metaphysical technique it is required of us to pose an entirely different subject, or I, so that we again can enter into an essential and poetic relation to the world. Overcoming metaphysical technique does not mean that we leave modern technology behind, but that we abandon its use as “denizens of the night-time,” and instead treat machines and practice the sciences behind them as “dwellers of the radiant world of the Ereignis.”

Somewhere along this path we join in with others who have abandoned the cage of metaphysical technique, fellow travellers who seek to give up on exploitation and abuse so as to become guardians, custodians, and nurturers of beings, and, by implication of the Event itself. Our question is how we are going to conceive of Ereignis in this sense.

2.3 Badiou: the new reality

The void is at the core of our existence, an empty space around which our experiences evolve.

One way to approach this seminal Event is suggested by the philosophy of Alain Badiou. Here, the event is a way to understand how reality intrudes into our everyday experience. To Badiou reality is a void grounded in an inconsistent multiplicity, a structure which cannot ultimately be upheld in any social or personal totality. Therefore, countless elements of this reality are excluded from the totality we perceive as our everyday existence, and it is when any of these elements imposes itself upon us, engendering a complete shift in our structure of perception, that we truly can talk about an Event in Badiou’s sense.

To Badiou the event opens up our everyday appearance of normality, enabling a sudden opportunity to rethink our lives as a whole. Since the event can be compared to a ripping open in the fabric of established reality it offers exhilarating possibilities for participants that can nevertheless be experienced as demanding for those who are tasked with assimilating the event. In Badiou’s view a real event generates not only new ways of thinking about the world, but also new truths. What previously didn’t count, Badiou writes, comes to interrupt the continuity of determinism, thereby generating something completely new.

An inconsistent multiplicity lies at the core of reality and is generally hidden and concealed.

An utter reformulation of prevalent prejudices and assumptions cannot be programmed in advance. Rather, Badiou holds that a true event can only be grasped retrospectively and that it cannot have a presence. The event, in effect, suspends the chronology of time, becoming ubiquitous: at the moment of the event it is everywhere and nowhere. In other words, we cannot really realise an event until after it has passed, when we try our best to assimilate it into an opportunity we couldn’t have lived without.

3. Becoming who we are

Ereignis is about approaching the clearing, letting things stand out as they are, and the festive experience, i.e. the sense in which we let the world reveal itself as a sacred place. When we overcome metaphysical technology, an approach to life that only allows the world and others to appear as instruments or means to an end, we can again be brought into the nearness of a Being that gives and reveals itself. By returning to telling the truth we can experience the void of an inconsistent multiplicity that constitutes reality, and out of this void we can begin to rethink our lives and generate an entirely new reality.

It is when we regain this new ground we can begin to realise and become who we truly are. Thus is the experience of Ereignis.