Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Blindsight (Science Fiction and the Ontological Tradition)

DISCLAIMER: My knowledge of philosophy is a work in progress, so excuse any obscure or poorly conceived references.  In light of the extensive discussion of philosophy in this post, I offer an apology to my readers: first, to those who feel they don’t understand; second, to those who don’t care; and third, to those who feel that I’ve absolutely butchered the philosophies herein described (I admit my summarizations are lacking).  Furthermore, portions of this post cite excerpts from Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight.  However, these excerpts are largely decontextualized and do not pose any narrative spoilers.

I'm sure most of my readers (oh ye hapless few) are expecting a post on science fiction. That is, after all, what this blog is all about. However, this post is still somewhat about science fiction, regardless of whatever topics the title might insinuate. Philosophy is another shrew I attempt to tame, but when it comes to writing about it I often discover that I'm no Shakespeare. So everyone will have to make do with this effort, despite its certain errors and omissions.

Let me rephrase.  This post is about science fiction.  I believe that we are witnessing an increasing trend in modern sci-fi to explore unresolved (even non-attempted) philosophical issues.  This was true of Asimov and Clarke, it was true of Dick and Herbert, and it’s still true of Miéville, Harrison, and Gibson (along with a plethora of others).  Today, I want to inform my discussion with some comments on a new addition to the list.

Late in Peter Watts’s brilliant and devastating sci-fi novel, Blindsight, the narrator states: “All those theories, all those drug dreams and experiments and models trying to prove what consciousness was: none to explain what it was good for” (Watts 313).  I only recently finished this novel, but it has lingered with me nearly constantly since.  It’s a tragic elegy to the human condition; a lamentation of what the author perceives as an evolutionary weak link, a developmental accident.  ‘What if,’ the novel essentially asks, ‘consciousness is not the most efficient state for optimal instinctual survival?’  The novel presents a narrative that is terrifying in both the scientific concepts it deals in as well as the utterly alien and unrelenting environment it introduces its readers to.  It is a deep, dark, cold work that thrusts its readers into the abyss, both physically and cognitively.  Many people might claim that this is far from their idea of an enjoyable read; but for me, this is science fiction at its inhuman best.

Blindsight is a contribution to the subgenre known as the “First Contact” story: a tale that deals with the discovery of and attempted interaction with an alien culture.  The novel is also an experiment in something I would deem “brutal realism,” a style that I would also ascribe to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (my favorite American novel) or Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie.  This unique brand of realism (a very recent movement, I might add) is brutal not because of its harsh, unrelenting commitment to portraying or representing reality in the traditional sense, as in the 19th-century tradition of realist literature (Balzac, Flaubert, Dostoyevsky, and their ilk).  Indeed, I would argue that Watts cares nothing for attempting to represent a kind of phenomenological reality (i.e. reality as it appears to us), and this disregard is certainly central to the most important themes of the novel.  By “brutal realism”, rather, I intend a kind of stylistic approach that aims at something communicated in the very non-linearity and unreality of the novel itself.  Some might be tempted to invoke Baudrillard’s notion of hyperreality, of something that is realer than real; but I would discourage my readers from this.

Cormac McCarthy’s wonderful historical novel, Blood Meridian, is far from what any literary theorist would call “realist.”  The meandering narrative, the surreal exposition of chaos and combat, an almost primordial atmosphere that swells in the novel’s pathological obsession with landscape – none of this is realistic.  Rather, the novel achieves a different kind of realism; a brutal realism.  This is a realism that spawns not from its dedication to accurate phenomenological representation, but from an obsession with human dissociation.  Objects, landscape, environment – in brutal realism, these things become strange, unreal, inhuman.  They take on a distance from the human, and impossible separation that no amount of narrative, representation, or communication can overcome.  In brutal realism, humans are exposed to the vacuum of space, but not necessarily the airless, omnidirectional void of outer space; rather, the vacuum of the relations between a subject and object.  In brutal realism, these relations, which have so often donned an anthropomorphic appearance, are deprived of any human context.  They become truly alien.

Peter Watts is highly critical of most First Contact sci-fi narratives specifically because, he claims, representations of alien organisms often take the form of either “humanoid[s…] with bumpy foreheads,” or “giant CGI insectoids that may look alien but who act at best like rabid dogs in chitin suits” (375).  Representations of alien organisms almost always are informed by certain anthropocentric standards.  If they look human, then they often possess a kind of enchanted wisdom, or knowledge of technologies vastly superior to our own (of course, humanoid aliens – aliens constructed in our image – must somehow embody the human fantasy of highly developed, futuristic technologies).  However, if the alien organism takes on the form of a colossal insect, or tentacled encephalopod, or some other drastically nonhuman appearance, then of course it must be intentionally hostile.  It was Watts’s goal, in Blindsight, to “create an ‘alien’ that lives up to the word, while remaining biologically plausible” (375).  What this requires, for Watts, is not an organism informed by crude humanist conceptions of how other species are projected in relation to the central, evolutionary superior human (a view Watts strongly criticizes).  Rather, it requires an incredible, nearly unfathomable distance.  The alien must become so strange, so unknowable, so immensely alien that it achieves a form worthy of being called such.  Its hostility, if it exhibits any, must be purely natural rather than intentional, intentionality being something more decidedly human.  Brutal realism allows such a distance.  The very realism of the situation derives from its near-impossibility; the fact that such damning organisms could exist, that life could take such a radical form.

To us, such literary representations often take the form of what we label “science fiction.”  However, as I mentioned above, brutal realism need not manifest only in sci-fi; Cormac McCarthy experiments with it, as does Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho, and it can be traced as far back (I believe) as Robbe-Grillet (more cautiously, I would even venture that brief flickerings of this style can be found as far back as the impressionistic writing of Joseph Conrad).  However, I do believe that it is in science fiction and fantasy that we find this style most prevalently.  In addition to Watts, one can find elements of this style in the work of China Miéville, M. John Harrison, Robert Charles Wilson, William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, or R. Scott Bakker, to name only a few.  It is in science fiction that we often see the truest use of brutal realism, since, to portray something inhuman realistically, one must achieve the ultimate sense of unreality; but not unreality so extreme that it eludes us entirely, like a literary black hole.  Rather, near unreality; reality so extreme that we represent it to ourselves as unreal.  This is the exact opposite of Baudrillardian, postmodern hyperreality.  Where hyperreality insinuates a virtual or artificial apparatus that takes on the appearance of being more real than real, brutal realism is, in a sense, a depiction of reality that is already so real it becomes strange.

The philosophical analogue to brutal realism is the somewhat controversial trend of speculative realism, which is often traced to the recent work of Quentin Meillassoux and Ray Brassier, despite the fact that the latter has made significant efforts to deny that such a movement even exists.  Regardless of whether or not speculative realism is any notable trend in philosophy, if it’s even a trend at all, the works of these philosophers, along with several others, are notable, for reasons concerning their content if not any fashionable label that sports the term “realism.”  This notable cast of the devil’s party stretches back to the recent work of Alain Badiou in the 1980s, could be said to include the Hegelian twist of Slavoj Žižek, and continues on through the work of up-and-coming philosophical elites such as Eugene Thacker, Meillassoux, and Brassier.  All these thinkers share one large goal in common: a complete and radical overhaul of the philosophical process, and a response to the ontological monolith erected by Martin Heidegger in the 1920s.

Martin Heidegger is considered, by many, to be the last truly great philosopher in the Continental tradition, and his magnum opus, the formative Being and Time, still stands to this day as one of the great behemoths of ontological philosophy.  For a long time after Heidegger, “philosophy” in its traditional sense seemed to diminish.  Influential figures emerged such as Hannah Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre; the work of both was strongly informed by that of Heidegger (Arendt was his student and lover, Sartre a colleague and, at times, an enemy).  Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Hans-Georg Gadamer may be other contenders, but their work is also often overshadowed by that of Heidegger.  By the 1950s and 1960s, Western academia has become steeped in the traditions of structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction, all of which owe their existence to a sometimes imbalanced concoction of Frankfurt School Marxism, psychoanalysis, and Heideggerian phenomenology.  Furthermore, it is also after Heidegger and his immediate successors that we begin to take note of that odd shift in the continental tradition whereby philosophy, as it once existed, no longer seems to dominate academic circles, but has given way to the discourses of critical and social theory and, by the late 1970s and 80s, postmodernism.  At this point in time, philosophy seems to take on a new form, and ceases pursuing the traditional route of intense ontological exploration, and instead begins intensely looking at, and critiquing, philosophy itself.  This is why, during the reign of poststructuralism and postmodernism in the later 20th century, master thinkers such as Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida can begin registering and cataloguing previous philosophers in a kind of structural-historical framework, each one being conditioned by certain historical circumstances and informed by previous philosophers and popular knowledge of the day.  Philosophy becomes a philosophy of itself, and Derrida’s unrelenting deconstruction purports to bleed all previously lauded philosophies of any substantial content.  They all become, in a sense, mere empty signifiers in the endless play of philosophical discourse, and the philosophical ontological subject becomes nothing more than a side effect of knowledge structures.

And then, in 1988, something happens.  An obscure gem appears on bookshelves under the name L'être et l'événement - Being and Event.  The author is Alain Badiou, and his goal is to reestablish the ontological tradition in continental philosophy, beginning with the salvation of the subject in the wake of its dismissal by postmodern theory.  In this sense, Badiou aligns himself with the ontological tradition last touched on by Heidegger.  However, Badiou also challenges Heidegger, and Being and Event, down to its very title, is a direct confrontation of the ontological theory laid out in Being and Time.  Badiou writes that Heidegger “remains enslaved, even in the doctrine of the withdrawal and the un-veiling, to what I consider, for my part, to be the essence of metaphysics; that is, the figure of being as endowment and gift, as presence and opening, and the figure of ontology as the offering of a trajectory of proximity” (BE 9).  For Badiou, the answer to the metaphysical trap is mathematics, which, he posits, is capable of illuminating a materialist theory of the Subject and Being.  For Heidegger, phenomenology presented the most applicable approach to ontology.  Being presented itself in temporality, the human subject was bound up in a continual process of opening, of emerging.  As Heidegger says: “time needs to be explicated primordially as the horizon for the understanding of Being, and in terms of temporality as the Being of Dasein, which understands Being” (Heidegger 39).  Badiou’s accusation is that, while Heidegger attempts to circumvent metaphysics, his theory of Being remains inhibited by metaphysical obfuscation.  For Heidegger, Being lurks behind a certain veil, manifesting in phenomenological reality only when a temporal subject engages with phenomenal objects.  In contrast, Badiou seeks a materialist ontology, not a metaphysical, or noumenal, Being that is concealed behind natural phenomenon.  Mathematics, Badiou claims, provides philosophy with the path to such a radical ontology.  For Badiou, a Subject isn’t reducible to an individual, but an individual might become part of a new Subject through participation in truth procedures.  Thus, the act of emergence, of presentation, is Multiple, and one can begin to see how this dense philosophical theory comes to inform Badiou’s allegiance to Marxism: this new Subject is something along the lines of an emerging, revolutionary proletariat.  Time remains important for Badiou, but only insofar as it relates to the temporality of the event, a rupture in which individuals may ingratiate themselves to a new Subject through radical truth procedures.  This involves the instantiation of new possibilities, possibilities that were previously considered to be outside the realm of possibility.  As Badiou clarifies: “The State is always the finitude of possibility, and the event is its infinitization” (IC 7).  Thus, we can begin to see how Badiou’s ontology paves the way for a reinvigoration of the Subject as something constituted by individuals through collective action, a revolutionary call to truth.

I don’t intend this post as an exhaustive exploration of 20th-century ontological philosophy, and I fear that I my efforts at explanation may have been in vain; not because I think my readers will be confused or bored by this description, but because my own understanding of Heidegger and Badiou might very well have failed me.  Regardless, the most important point I wish to communicate is that Heidegger still stands as an indispensable figure in 20th-century philosophy, and Badiou is, in my opinion, the most recent genuine challenge to Heideggerian ontology.

It is with Badiou that we see a return to the discernible ontological Subject in the aftermath of its decimation by the likes of Foucault and Derrida.  I still am not sure which way I lean.  A theory of the Subject is comforting, while theories of its emptiness often appear convincing.  Perhaps a reconciliation of sorts is in order; but for now, I wish to move this discussion along and back into the science fiction realm.  The philosophers I’m about to mention may be offended at being associated with science fiction, but I think the connection warrants attention.  It has nothing to do with the fantastical, fictional aspects of science fiction literature and cinema, and more to do with the themes one can find emerging in 20th-century sci-fi, some of which even began appearing before their philosophical contemporaries got a hold of them.  In the wake of Badiou’s new ontology, a group of radical and welcomed thinkers has emerged.  Meillassoux’s After Finitude, Brassier’s Nihilism Unbound, and Thacker’s After Life are all genuine attempts to track the new Subject into more complicated and dangerous philosophical territory; most specifically, the realm of the nonhuman, or inhuman.  ‘How,’ these texts ask, ‘are we to think the nonhuman?  The nonliving?  The unmediated?’  How can we possibly seize upon something not human without recourse to what is human?  Science fiction may take its readers to fantastic and wholly imagined realms and environments, but its reason for doing so is the same as this new group of philosophers: to explore the difficulty of representing possibility beyond possibility.  It seeks to demolish what Badiou would term the State, and expose our conceptual limits to an unyielding reality that has no concern for us.  However, the difference from Badiou is that, in much contemporary science fiction, this rupture isn’t caused by individual participation in a new Subject, a revolutionary act of truth-seeking.  One merely needs to observe Watts’s Blindsight to find the argument that human thought and action, no matter how hard it tries, is condemned to failure.  The State will not be ruptured by any collective humanist event.  It will be ruptured by the imposition of radically inhuman forms and environments, by an object-realm that posits itself as unflinchingly not-for-us.  And, as in Blindsight, there is very little, if anything, that we can do about it.

And here is the final step, a move that some might deem goes beyond ontology: the decimation of the Subject of Being, but not through recourse to the theories of Foucault or Derrida.  This move is given to us by recent developments in cognitive science.  It is not that the subject doesn’t exist, necessarily, for even Watts acknowledges that subjectivity is an essential part of what we define as ‘human’.  What this new move offers, the move of much recent science fiction, and perhaps even of the style I termed “brutal realism”, is the tragic helplessness of the Subject.  It remains unconscious toward much of its own biochemistry, its own survival instincts, and in fact it impedes its own success.  The subject of consciousness is a weak link.  The subject of consciousness is an evolutionary failure.  Watts writes:

I wastes energy and processing power, self-obsesses to the point of psychosis.  Scramblers [alien organisms in Blindsight] have no need of it, scramblers are more parsimonious.  With simpler biochemistries, with smaller brains–deprived of tools, of their ship, even of parts of their own metabolism– they think rings around you.  They hide their language in plain sight, even when you know what they’re saying.  They turn your own cognition against itself.  They travel between the stars.  This is what intelligence can do, unhampered by self-awareness. (Watts 304).

It is a move that bemoans the impotence not only of institutions such as language, politics, or religion, but of consciousness itself.  This is the final move beyond Heidegger, the final move beyond even ontology; as Watts says, not the question of what consciousness is, but what it’s good for.  Not very much, it turns out.

Some might argue that this doesn’t warrant an abandonment of ontological philosophy and discussion, and I would agree.  I’m not claiming that we should abandon the pursuit of Being and consciousness, but simply that the current trend we’re seeing today, the advancements in cognitive science and philosophy of mind, are pointing to this dawning realization that the theory of the Subject as something totally aware of its relation to its biological components and desires is flawed.  Jacques Lacan first began outlining this lack in the human subject in the 1950s, and even Badiou doesn’t reduce the Subject to an I; his theory involves a multiplicity of individuals.  Yet it clings to the hope of progress and prosperity through mutual cooperation.  His philosophical progeny have begun to distance themselves from this notion, to observe the human Subject’s relation to the world around it as something less optimistic, not so facilely proposed.  We as human beings might be radically removed from the world around us, but there is still a way to interact with it, to engage with it; we just have to think more critically.

Blindsight takes a further step.  It doesn’t care as much about what consciousness is, but what purpose it serves.  Watts gives a depressingly blunt answer to this quandary: “You want to know the only real purpose [consciousness] serves?  Training wheels” (302).  In Blindsight, all aspects of what we consider ‘human’ are reduced to a kind of sublimation by the conscious mind: “The rush evoked by fractal imagery, the algorithms used for habitat selection, metastasize into art.  Thrills that once had to be earned in increments of fitness can now be had from pointless introspection.  Aesthetics arise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism.  It begins to model the very process of modeling.”  Consciousness, Watts claims, is a step removed from survival-existence.

However, I want to reiterate that this does not mean we should abandon the pursuit of Being and the Subject altogether, but simply that we should encourage a more meaningful collaboration between the age-old traditions of philosophy and science.  In Archaic Greece they were one and the same, but as the centuries wore on we’ve seen them attempt to impose themselves as discrete fields.  Meillassoux offers an interesting assessment in After Finitude:

Doubtless, where science is concerned, philosophers have become modest - and even prudent. Thus, a philosopher will generally begin with an assurance to the effect that her theories in no way interfere with the work of the scientist, and that the manner in which the latter understands her own research is perfectly legitimate. But she will immediately add (or say to herself): legitimate, as far as it goes. What she means is that although it is normal, and even natural, for the scientist to adopt a spontaneously realist attitude, which she shares with the 'ordinary person', the philosopher possesses a specific type of knowledge which imposes a correction upon science's ancestral statements […] (Meillassoux 13)

Each field privileges itself with its own brand of knowledge which it believes the other to be lacking.  Meillassoux certainly appears to elevate philosophy in this statement, but I believe he intends for a synthesis between the two.  Indeed, perhaps the “realist attitude” of science has demonstrated the fallibility and impotence of human consciousness, especially in regards to the inhuman world around it.  But what does this mean for philosophy?  What responsibility does this place on us if we acknowledge the fact that our own faculties, the instruments by which we interpret the world around us, distort that interpretation?  How should we move forward?  If science and philosophy can each provide their own brand of aid, then I would rather use all the tools at my disposal than one at the expense of the other.

As a final note, some readers might contend that I’ve conflated the terms of ‘Being,’ ‘Subject,’ and ‘consciousness’ in this post, and I would agree with that rejoinder.  It would require far more research on my part to properly distinguish between and among these terms in this context.  However, I would also claim that the emergence of sentience and consciousness is certainly one aspect of Being, and one that remains important even if the object of an ontological discourse is something inanimate; for an understanding of Being concerns itself with the relationship between the conscious Subject and the object-realm, and this relationship can only be fully grasped if the nature and process of human consciousness is taken into account.  I do acknowledge, however, that the entire realm of ‘Being’ does extend beyond the narrow parameters that I’ve described above.  Cognitive science and philosophy of mind attempt to explore and explain merely one facet of that much larger and more complicated field of ontology.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alain. Being and Event. Trans. Oliver Feltham. London: Continuum, 2006.

-. “The Idea of Communism.” The Idea of Communism. London: Verso, 2010. 1-14.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Trans. John MacQuarrie and Edward Robinson. New York:

 Harper & Row, 1962.

Meillassoux, Quentin. After Finitude. London: Continuum, 2008.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tor, 2006.

No comments:

Post a Comment