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, 4 October 2020

Life in the Plague Times, Part I

Stands Sisyphus, blue-chinned cheek by rocky jowl with stone-faced fate. Tendons, taut and twanging, muscles standout straining from sweat-slick swarthy skin; grunting, gritted teeth; large hands, calloused, hardup against hard; feet trenching earth below. So Sisyphus drives both body and destiny up and up and up. The rock moves slowly, but it moves.
Eventually, eternally – it seems like an eternity but, in fact, is only the smallest fraction – Sisyphus reaches the top. For a moment of eternity, stretched seemingly but a smaller fraction still, he stands in stasis, balanced on not-being. Time stops, compromising rock on the fine edge of its last up roll, lipping the first back roll. Feet plant hard against the hard, instinctively, bootless toes trying hard to root themselves bootlessly in the unwelcoming hard earth.
Pause. Breathe. A moment of pure peace, non-being-just-being-itself-a-moment.
Before, inevitably, eternally, eternity returns in time and the balance breathes out, unrolls; bootless toes uproot, unbooted, and rough rock roughly shoulders Sisyphus aside, unrolling bolderly back down a track to its resting place at the restart.
Sisyphus, still standing, stretches soundlessly and unsoundlessly: arching aching back his back. Exhaling, clasped hands above his head, he makes the stretching noise. Then, deep breathing, goes jogging down-a-down the hill, following the unrolling, to the place where his rough rock, Michael, waits beardlessly to begin again.
Breathing, back in place, Sisyphus, unsinagain, stretches once again: hip-twisting, ham-stringing and re-stringing, tiptoe touching, shoulder-rolling, neck re-rolling; three by three, east to west, sun by stars; then puffpuff and shake out. Hands to the rough rock-Michael’s face, cool under the white sun, he blows bilabially, bracing for the strain. Rock-Michael, bracing, steady strong and Robert-ready to push and pull together in common cause of common destiny, Bruce-fully back to the stop of the hill, slowly slowly.
Nearby, tantalisingly close, a bather watches from his bowery bath, the run of eternal return and rerun. He watches the rock roll for the umpteenth time while, trip-trotting comes Sisyphus, humming, tum-tumming, to himself behind. By the light of the silvery sun, the bath man makes waves, splashing a greeting as the pair rumble-trumble-never-stumble-trip-trot back to their start-spot.
--- Morning.
--- Morning Tantalus. Sisyphus rolls a wave back, slaps rock-Michael’s rocky flank. Rock-Michael, otherwise unresponsive, rolls, rocking, to a customary halt. What’s the best news?
--- Throwaway for the Gold is the word I hear. Tantalus tapped the side of his knowing nose.
--- Oh very good. And how’s the diet? Is it the keto you’re at? Sisyphus, stretching, rolling, hips and hams, shoulder, neck, sholling, nolling.
--- ‘Tis, ah ‘tis. It’s not so bad, thanks.[1] He gestured vaguely at the plump fruit above and watched as it recoiled sluggishly from feeling fingertips. And you? He asked, how are you liking the music biz?
--- Ah now, well it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, said Sisyphus, wagging his arms and legs.
--- As long as you like it.
Oh how they laughed.
Routine round-ended, dryly, daily, from uncountable aeons to uncountable aeons; mullocking chums chuckle and chortle; rock-Michael says nothing, moss-lessly maintaining stony silence. With a soft sigh and a tear in his eye, Tantalus lay back in his bath while Sisyphus and his rock brace themselves for another hill run.
--- Now tell me this and tell me more­­—
Sisyphus raised his index finger.
--- One moment, he said, timelessly, and began heave-ho-ing at the rock again.
Tantalus sloshed water and gazed up at the rich, ripe fruit sweetly swinging in branches overhead. He did not, he decided, like fruit very much. Cupping empty air from bath below, he turned his trudging thoughts to steak and kidney pie with butteryellow mashed potatoes.
--- Now what it is that I can tell you, Tantalus? Said Sisyphus, jogging alongside his returning rock back to the beginning blocks. Tantalus abandoned the examination of his water-wrinkled toes and leaned against the bank of his bath.
--- Well now, it’s like this, he said, crease-beetling brows. It’s the ‘why’ of it that puzzles me, with you.
--- The ‘why’? Says now scowling Sisyphus, The why the what? Stretch, bend back, and sides slide down each one leg, fingers to toes twotoestips, other hand up reach up and stretch skyward, steering sun by stars.
--- The ‘why’ of why you do it, do you see? That’s what I was wondering.
--- What, this you mean? And Sisyphus pressed his hands to the impassive rock-physog, sombre, stony, rough and rocky, bends to his burden once again.
Eternity unfolds, foreknowing, foliating in wide, wild leaves, lief-strewing time revealing leaves along the rock-rolled path, respiring in only only only to out release out last, long last, re-leaving, unfoliating, returning eternally to the first step.
--- I do, said Tantalus, cupped hands squeezed to squirt water, brown studiously, over the side of his bath. I do mean that.
--- Why, said stretching Sisyphus, do I push this rock up that hill? Left leg, right leg, heel to cheek to cheek to heel, then high reach and swan-dive to the toes.
--- The very question, nodded Tantalus. Why do you push that rock up that hill? More to the point, after a forever of pushing that rock up that hill, why do you still push that rock up that hill?
Sisyphus shaking arms and legs out, back twist, neck rolling, shoulder rolling, ready.
--- Ah, now there’s a question, he said and began rock rolling. 
Eternity unwinds, widely wide-eyed, waking, sweeping stretches sighing timelessly, in sweeping time-stretched time-trod unswept tracks towards the top of high hill, inhale, hold, exhale, exit top hill high, returning, trod-time track unswept to start again again.
--- So? asked Tantalus, stretching in Sisyphus time to softly finger unreaching peaches.
--- So what? Said hip-swivelling Sisyphus and seeing Tantalus’ expression. Oh the rock. Oh well, he shrugged shoulder stretching, fate isn’t it? Same as you with the reach-away bath and buffet.
--- Ah, fate. That lad. Flicking water in the direction of bath-wrinkled Tantalus-toes. Punishment, as I recall? Can you remember what for?
--- Not entirely. I’d say the gods were offended about something, however. 
--- They usually are. 
--- That’s true enough. By some more than others, of course.
--- Quite so. But the point of it, that’s what I want to know. What’s the point of any of it?
Answerless, eternity uncoils, curl, twirl and sternabout strides out, rock-rolling ahead apace, roll on and rock, on over round and up and up and up, then slowing, stopping, rolling till-terrupted. Standstill. Then rolling again in return, down to space of start and shrug and stretch and twist and toetouch.
--- The point of it? Well, it’s punishment, as you say.
--- Yes, but what’s the purpose of it as a punishment? What’ll it achieve? What’ll it ever achieve?
--- Nothing, I’d say. I think it’s not meant to achieve anything. That’s sort of the point, it’s pointless. You might say, absurd even.
--- Don’t think I’d say ‘absurd’. ‘Bloody irritating, I’d say that, for sure.
--- That too. But I shouldn’t worry about it.
--- I’m not worried, I’m irritated. I’m irritated at a destiny which consists of doing Sweet Jemima Crankshaft[2] for eternity.
--- I’m not doing Sweet Jemima Whatchamacallit. I’ve got my rock and I’ve got my hill. I’m busy enough, thank you, huffed Sisyphus, unchuffed but unhuffily. Unhuffy hands flat to uphill fate unyielding, Sisyphus and rock-Michael push up and push varder toward tophill headquarters. Tantalus watches, wondering, was it waterflows year?
Unfolding, overflowing, unwaterwinding and uncoiling, eternity relentlessly repeats its reeling rigmarole, along a dry and dusty driven track, muscle-moved upheadquarters hill before back-rolling, baconlike heat-curling and recurling rock-recursively not cursing on itself returning.
--- But what’s the point? Why bother?
--- No alternative, is there.
--- We could just stop.
--- Nope, we could just hide and that won’t change anything in the end. There is no stopping. There’s no appeal. You know that. This the only way to live, if we can find a way to live with it.--- ‘Cept we’re dead. We’re in Tartarus, the underworld, land of the dead.
--- Oh, shut up and drink your bath water.
Above and a-sudden, the sky filled with feather-flapping blackwing blows upon the slap-cracking air, whirling wings soaring and screech-reaching down with long thin talon legs and bone break fingers, clawing cthonically, cawing rookishly. Thus, noisily, cthonically, the Erinyes, garbed in mourning drapery, dropped inelegantly to the ground around the talkers.
Three maids in an Arc slyly six-eyed Sisyphus then turned two and two more Tantalus-wise and twitch a wiry eyebrow each.
--- You Atys again? They croaked, recyclingly. Quit flappin’ yer gums and get on wi’ it! They screech and flap and caw.
With a cheery Sisyphean shrug, accepting not resigned, alive to the abyss without appeal, one turns to rock and rock rolls on to well-worn trail, while Tantalus, ‘teuf teuf’, mutters moodily the words of Wooster-Wodehouse-words, ‘teuf teuf’ and reaches unenthusiastically for ripe retreating peach. Eternity breathes in and, thinking fondly of private priceless pallypeachum, does what it does best.

[1] I’ll give you this one for free, but you’ll have to work the rest out for yourself. The Tantalus being punished in Tartarus was also known as Atys: at  -- is, ah ‘tis. Geddit?

[2] To borrow a phrase from Andy Zaltzman.