Friday, May 17, 2013

The Ghost in the Machine: Speculations on Consciousness (a Sequel)

You’re not in charge.  If free will even exists, it doesn’t share living space with the likes of you.”
~Peter Watts, Blindsight

            This paper carries the nominal qualification of a “sequel.”  A sequel presupposes a prequel, a predecessor; but I admit that my previous post may not initially appear to be a logical antecedent.  This post is a sequel because it derives from thoughts that inspired my previous post, although it does not pursue the topic of techno-capital.  Rather, it shifts its attention from the macro to the micro, and I consider this move paramount and retroactive.  That is, I believe that the argument laid out here is necessary in order to arrive at the argument laid out in “Speculations on Techno-Capital.”
            The conclusion of my first year in graduate study has afforded me plenty of time to read and think about texts that I find personally interesting and valuable.  While Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren is currently occupying the portion of my desk reserved for fiction (I will hopefully make a post on this novel before summer’s end), the portion reserved for nonfiction supports the weighty texts of Deleuze and Guattari, Fredric Jameson, and Nick Land (Žižek’s Less Than Nothing will prove an extended endeavor, I imagine).  In addition to my reading, my spare time has also allowed me to reflect more on my blog posts and the arguments I lay out in them.  In today’s piece, I wish to explore what I consider to be the construction of the human self, and to attempt a redefinition at what we tend to think of as the self.  This redefinition is by no means unique, but is actually the one that, I believe, is currently supported by a growing number of scientific and philosophical resources.  I hope to suggest how this redefinition of the self holds serious consequences for how we perceive our cultural institutions and rituals.
            Contemporary philosophy and critical theory has long pursued the dismantling of the individual, but only recently has the domain of science taken up this pursuit as well.  This is not to say that the philosophers were right and the scientists were wrong.  Science is the domain of epistemology – structures and hierarchies of knowledge, the fitting of natural phenomena into categories and defining them by laws.  Philosophy is the domain of ontology – the pursuit of what makes something what it is, the pursuit of essences.  Only with the height of modernity, and primarily the twentieth century, have essences seen their demise, and this destruction has not arrived without paradox.  Everywhere we look we perceive essences where they do not exist, which first calls up the great correlationist question.[1]  We impose structures and representations where they do not belong, and we do so for our convenience.  We have yet to fully grasp the implications of the fact that the world was not made for us.
            If there is one place where the lingering specter of essence persists most frustratingly, it is in the very seat of the Cartesian cogito: human consciousness, the subject, the “I”, that which makes an individual human being what it is.  Despite deconstruction’s admirable attempt throughout the 1960s and 70s, and neuroscience’s far more convincing experiments in more recent years, the specter of human consciousness refuses to let go, and with good reason: it has been the sanctioning authority of everything from our current cultural institutions to our very history.  Its dissipation would be the deposal of human rights from the pedestal of humanism, the breaking of covenants sacred and secular.  The abandonment of consciousness would appear to be the abandonment of what it means to be human.  For this reason, consciousness holds fast.
            In his novel Blindsight, about which I have written before, Peters Watts contests that consciousness constitutes the entirety of what we think of as the self.  At the conclusion of this existentially terrifying novel, human agency is drained of its power: “Make a conscious choice.  Decide to move your index finger.  Too late!  The electricity’s already halfway down your arm.  Your body began to act a full half-second before your conscious self ‘chose’ to, for the self chose nothing; something else set your body in motion, sent an executive summary – almost an afterthought – to the homunculus behind your eyes” (Watts 301).  The homunculus that Watts refers to is the specter of the Cartesian cogito, the seat of consciousness we might say.  Watts draws on the most recent discoveries and developments in cognitive philosophy and neuroscience in order to make this statement; studies that have revealed that neural action is already occurring, that your brain is already moving, before you decide to consciously act (see Watts’s notes on page 371).  Further recent developments have argued for the reconceptualization of cultural institutions such as health care to be oriented not toward the individual, but toward the community – but not the community you might think.  In his article for The New York Times, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” Michael Pollan argues that the health of the body cannot be reduced to the health of an individual: “Human health should now ‘be thought of as a collective property of the human-associated microbiota,’ as one group of researchers recently concluded in a landmark review article on microbial ecology — that is, as a function of the community, not the individual” (Pollan).  Current studies and investigations are emphasizing, more and more prominently, the nonexistence of the individual and the coexistence of the collective.
            This language will sound disturbingly political to some, and it cannot help but carry such connotations.  Traditional arguments for Marxist political programs did not possess the scientific support emerging in the field today.  Traditional Marxism, as outlined by numerous innovative thinkers and practitioners, calls for a cognitive revolution, something bordering on new age mysticism despite Marxism’s purportedly firm roots in historical materialism.  The utopian project of structuring and implementing a communist society remains steadfastly beholden to metaphysics because it must adhere to the enforcement of a transcendental law, despite the common Marxist admonition of state control and power.  Any enforcement of transcendental law will automatically entail exclusion; this has been the historical case for communism, from Stalinism onward.  It has seemed we needed a cognitive revolution to pull the communist train into the station.
            But communist thought and theory persisted, and it has proved admirably adaptive.  Perhaps most importantly is communism’s (or at least communitarian thought’s) embrace of contemporary scientific trends.  Horkheimer and Adorno put Enlightenment science to the test in their watershed text, The Dialectic of Enlightenment; but today, science is shifting ever more rapidly away from the ideological and toward the explosive, the revolutionary.  That is, science is more radically pushing up against its own boundaries, suggesting possibilities and realities that have been thought unimaginable for centuries.  Now, with the growing inertia of techno-capital and the expanding means of science, we are being shown a picture of “the human” that shatters our previous expectations.
            Not only does consciousness not account for the majority of bodily and mental functions that take place unconsciously in the body; it is also an illusion.  Returning to Watts’s novel, we find a beautifully succinct and disturbing account of consciousness as an evolutionary phenomenon:
Evolution has no foresight.  Complex machinery develops its own agendas.  Brains – cheat.  Feedback loops evolve to promote stable heartbeats and then stumble upon the temptation of rhythm and music.  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 rise unbidden from a trillion dopamine receptors, and the system moves beyond modeling the organism.  It begins to model the very process of modeling.  It consumes evermore computational resources, bogs itself down with endless recursion and irrelevant simulations.  Like the parasitic DNA that accretes in every natural genome, it persists and proliferates and produces nothing but itself.  Metaprocesses bloom like cancer, and awaken, and call themselves I. (303)

A cautious reader will protest: “There is nothing illusory about this awakening.  It may not be as mystical as philosophical thought in previous centuries, but it is still real.”  I give a gracious nod to that reader, since I too have made the same observation.  However, I wish to explore its ramifications before simply conceding the seemingly obvious point that simply because we experience consciousness it must be real.  Immediately we must recognize the relativism inherent in such a claim.  By the same token, a shaman who witnesses a vision of a fertility goddess is just as correct as the prophet Daniel.  I want to push this understanding further.  Just because we experience consciousness does not mean it is real.  This is too broad.  I would claim that consciousness is virtual, which is still a subcategory of the real.
            So we live in The Matrix.  No, that’s a bad joke; or, a poor analogy.  For the myth of individualism and the power of the human still lurks at the heart of the Matrix franchise like a rotten (and overwrought) core.  The Matrix assumes that the human has been duped and that a false veil has been pulled down over its eyes, concealing it from the truth.  I contest, rather, that we have been duped by no one (except perhaps ourselves); furthermore, the truth does not exist behind some veil that must be pulled away.  The fantasy of a pasteboard mask that must be pierced paints us all as monomaniacal Ahabs, obsessed with our own position and status in the world.  The world, in this scenario, has been made for us, and we strive to understand it.  Consciousness becomes the vessel by which we strive to understand the world; but my consciousness is not your consciousness, is not a black slave’s consciousness, is not an ancient Greek’s consciousness, is not an autistic person’s consciousness.  Consciousness appears to us, falsely, as a transcendental means by which we associate with the world, thus firmly establishing it as something actually/really existing.  Such a position maintains that, should all human beings suddenly vanish from existence, consciousness itself would somehow persist as a reified, transcendent entity.  Through this reasoning, all reality is reduced to nothing more than the conscious perception of reality, leading certain interpreters of Berkeley to conclude “esse est percipi.”  In contrast to this line of reasoning, I claim that consciousness is not transcendental, and this is the primary thrust of my argument:
·         consciousness is immanent;
·         furthermore, consciousness is emergent;
·         and finally, consciousness is collective.
“‘So I am the king!  So the kingdom belongs to me!’  But this me is merely the residual subject that sweeps the circle and concludes a self from its oscillations on the circle.”
~Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia

            Michel Foucault once remarked that the twentieth century might one day be thought of as Deleuzian.  I don’t think he was too far off the mark; and if others disagree, I feel that is only because Deleuze’s philosophy has not yet been properly assimilated to the scientific theories it clearly complements.  Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus takes Freudian-Oedipal psychoanalysis as its primary target, and convincingly argues that Oedipal relations do not predate the subject, lurking maliciously in the unconscious.  Oedipus, Deleuze-Guattari claim, is a structural apparatus forced upon the unconscious by psychoanalysis and (more broadly) by capitalist society itself.  Oedipus is a representational, expressive model for something that is unrepresentable and inexpressible.  More specifically, D-G attack what they perceive as a strict individualism (in terms of the ego) inherent in the Oedipal construct.  The Oedipus complex perceives familial dynamics throughout the stratum of social relations and figures, and ignores the fluid motion of desiring-production.  In D-G’s impressive argument, the individual ego, structured within the Oedipal triangle, is dismantled as a historical myth forced upon unconsciously liberated organisms.
            For D-G, the ego, or self, emerges as an effect out of a complex system of colliding drives and desires.  The real consists purely of this interactive surface, and surface is all it is.  On this surface are written the traces of desiring-production, which, in and throughout its own material, performs the activities we typically attribute to conscious egos: “Schizoanalysis methodically dismantles everything in Kant’s thinking that serves to align function with the transcendence of the autonomous subject, reconstructing critique by replacing the syntheses of personal consciousness with the syntheses of impersonal unconscious.  Thought is a function of the real, something that matter can do” (Land 322).  Consciousness is nothing more than an effect of complex interactions of matter; thus, consciousness exists virtually within all matter.  Furthermore, it cannot exceed this virtuality, as will be demonstrated below.  Its manifestation in human beings should not be interpreted as a unique privilege.  It should be recognized as the emergent process of a potentiality testifying to its potentiality.  The illusory component of consciousness is not that it does not exist, but that it mistakes itself as actual.[2]
            This is all well and good; but is consciousness not self-consciousness?  That is, does consciousness not entail consciousness of itself, not as a separate act, but as contained immanently within its own ontology?  In order to make the distinction we wish to make above, then it seems that we must separate consciousness from self-consciousness.  Consciousness only exists virtually, and its awareness of itself emerges as a kind of separate effect whereby consciousness testifies to its own existence.  But consciousness’s existence is its own testimony; this is simply the definition of consciousness.  Where have we gone wrong?  I want to suggest here what will likely be an unanticipated turn to Ludwig Wittgenstein.  In his Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein explores the strangeness of self-awareness:
The feeling of an unbridgeable gulf between consciousness and brain process: how come that this plays no role in reflections of ordinary life?  This idea of a difference in kind is accompanied by slight giddiness – which occurs when we are doing logical tricks. (The same giddiness attacks us when dealing with certain theorems in set theory.)  When does this feeling occur in the present case?  It is when I, for example, turn my attention in a particular way on to my own consciousness and, astonished, say to myself: ‘THIS is supposed to be produced by a process in the brain!’ – as it were clutching my forehead. – But what can it mean to speak of ‘turning my attention on to my own consciousness’? (Wittgenstein 412)[3]

What is Wittgenstein identifying here?  He clearly identifies consciousness as distinct from brain process.  Or does he?  Wittgenstein’s text is infamous for rigorously pursuing all claims into self-refutation; but here we see something truly enlightening.  Consciousness, Wittgenstein means to say, only appears separate from brain processes.  He asks his readers what it means to speak of turning our attentions to our consciousnesses because he sees such an act as redundant, to put it simply.
            Consciousness always has its attention turned toward itself.  Consciousness means self-consciousness.  In his forthcoming review of Žižek’s Less Than Nothing, Robert Pippin elucidates on this point, in reference to German Idealism: “For in perceiving, I am also conscious of perceiving, conscious of myself perceiving.  In believing anything, I am conscious of my believing, of myself committed to a belief.  In acting, I would not be acting, were I not conscious of myself acting” (Pippin 7-8).  Pippin makes explicit what is implicit in Wittgenstein’s text: that consciousness means self-consciousness, and cannot be separated from its own self-consciousness.  Without self-consciousness, consciousness would not be what it is.  Awareness must take its own act of being aware into account.
            How can virtual consciousness take itself into account?  If consciousness exists as a potentiality, it would seem that it could not take its awareness into account since that awareness is not actual; but, as I argued above, consciousness is only ever virtual.  In fact, consciousness is always testifying to its own virtuality.  How can this be?  What we have encountered is a paradox comparable to that of time travel in my previous post; time travel, we concluded, can never be virtual.  Once time travel exists in one time, or in one instance, it exists in all times and instances.  Consciousness, we are saying, is exactly the opposite.  Consciousness is never actual; but this does not appear to make much sense.  I am experiencing consciousness.  Is my consciousness not actual?
            In his book Consciousness Explained, Daniel Dennett provides an illuminating discussion of how language occurs, which in turn sheds light on his view of consciousness.  Language, Dennett argues, occurs through a kind of feedback loop between interior “content-to-be-expressed” and the eventual linguistic expression:
The back-and-forth process that narrows the distance is a feedback process of sorts, but it is just as possible for the content-to-be-expressed to be adjusted in the direction of some candidate expression, as for the candidate expression to be replaced or edited so better to accommodate the content-to-be-expressed.  In this way, the most accessible or available words and phrases could actually change the content of the experience. (Dennett 247).

Most shocking about this claim is that one’s interior sensations – typically considered the origin of expressive communication – can be actively altered by the linguistic process.  The linguistic apparatus has a measurable effect on the interior sensations we experience.[4]  The best word to describe this process might be “oscillation”; and indeed, this is the word that Deleuze and Guattari choose to deploy in Anti-Oedipus (although they are not speaking directly of language).  In Dennett’s case, consciousness can be said to be an emergent effect arising partially from this interplay between internal content and expression; but consciousness cannot account for this entire process, since some of it (the active alteration of interior experience, for instance) goes unnoticed by the conscious subject.  Meaning is not derived from a central agent, but partially from unconscious drives and functions within the organism.  This leads Dennett to dismiss the myth of the Central Meaner, Dennett’s version of the Cartesian cogito, the central ego that purportedly pulls the strings and makes conscious decisions. 
            In Anti-Oedipus, a similar oscillation takes place that actively destroys the myth of the individual self, resulting in what D-G identify as the schizophrenic.  Their proposed methodology becomes one of analysis toward the multiplicity that emerges along the surface of desiring-production:
Hence the goal of schizoanalysis: to analyze the specific nature of the libidinal investments in the economic and political spheres, and thereby to show how, in the subject who desires, desire can be made to desire its own repression […] All this happens, not in ideology, but well beneath it.  An unconscious investment of a fascist or reactionary type can exist alongside a conscious revolutionary investment. (D-G 105)

Oedipal analysis, D-G claim, places individualizing and categorizing frames across the fluid network of surface relations.  The unconscious – the seat of liberation – suffers at the hands of traditional psychoanalysis, which instead of assisting the unconscious strives to correct it, even repress it.  What occurs along the surface of desiring-production is not the firm establishment – situation, positioning – of an individual subject, but the oscillation of an organism experiencing a multiplicity of drives.  Desire is not the choice of the subject, nor is it static.  Desire is constantly changing, constantly being changed.  Just as in Dennett’s unique conceptualization of language, D-G’s conceptualization of the self and desire disrupts the myth of the coherent subject.  What consequences does all this have for consciousness?
            Consciousness attempts to place itself despite being constantly displaced.  Consciousness attempts to mean despite its meaning being constitutively altered.  Consciousness attempts to organize itself into a coherent subject despite being continually disorganized by the flows of desire.  All of this is intimately tied up with how consciousness perceives itself (and, as previously noted, consciousness is self-consciousness).  How might we relate consciousness as it perceives itself to consciousness as it really is?
“And where is the thing your self-representation is about?  It is wherever you are (Dennett, 1978b).  And what is this thing?  It’s nothing more than, and nothing less than, your center of narrative gravity.”
~Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained

            It was stated earlier that consciousness as it is cannot be separated from consciousness as it perceives itself; but now we are making a claim that requires us to postpone the unity so as to better understand the relation.  What kind of quagmire have we haphazardly stumbled into?  Let us be very clear here so as to avoid confusion:
·         Consciousness is a myth; not consciousness as it really is (a virtual property of matter itself), but consciousness as it is perceived by itself
·         Consciousness as it really is exists as a virtual material fact
·         Consciousness as perceived by itself is mythologized because of the fact that consciousness entails self-consciousness
·         Consciousness is always virtual – and never actual – because it can only ever exist in our perception of it
Consciousness, by its very definition, can only exist in its own self-perception.  Consciousness never exists unaware of itself; if so, then it would not be consciousness.  If we dare to oppose esse est percipi, then we must acknowledge that it works both ways: material things subsist ontologically without our necessarily perceiving them; and just because we do perceive something does not mean that it exists.[5]  Or, put more correctly, it does not really exist in the way that we perceive it.  A plant sits on my windowsill.  It exists absent of my perception of it as it actually is; but it also exists virtually (this I can imagine) as a larger plant in the future, and thus a watered plant, or as a dead plant, if I am a particularly poor gardener.  Its larger appearance and its death are not actual, but this does not mean they are not real.
            Consciousness constructs a virtual self, which is its imagistic manifestation.  This self, and this consciousness, are not actual.  Consciousness emerges from a feedback process, or oscillation, of desires and sensations along the surface of matter.  Upon its emergence – a new state of matter itself – it perceives itself as constitutive.  It expresses itself as central.  But it is never more than an emergent effect of matter.  Its paradox appears as an inverse of the paradox of time travel.  Time travel, once coming into existence, must have always been in existence – it is never virtual, but only actual.  Consciousness, because part of its definition is to perceive itself, can never possess actuality.  Consciousness, as reliant upon its own self-awareness in order to exist, is always virtual.
            What of the collectivity of consciousness?  This must be granted as the final concession to a self that is an illusion.  I do not intend this statement as a comparison to Jung’s mystical collective unconscious.  Consciousness, as an effect of flows and desires across a surface of matter, is never isolated to a solitary individual or organism.  Consciousness is a property of matter itself.  You do not have consciousness.  You do not possess it.  Consciousness makes you.  If anything, you belong to it.  Deleuze and Guattari make an important observation in this respect when they comment on the false conception of objects as property: “Partial objects [i.e. objects of desire] now seem to be taken from people, rather than from the nonpersonal flows that pass from one person to another.  The reason is that persons are derived from abstract quantities, instead of from flows.  Instead of a connective appropriation, partial objects become the possessions of a person and, when required, the property of another person” (D-G 71).  The mythology of consciousness constructs itself in a way that perceives its desires as personal and individual.  For D-G, the Oedipal apparatus is yet another consequence of the individualistic ideology; one that divides, situates, and identifies.  In contrast, D-G call upon their readers to recognize the impersonality of desire and productive flows, just as Dennett calls upon his readers to acknowledge the flow of meaning, meaning as something borrowed and as something affected by the collective influence of language.
            As stated earlier, the politics of this post will likely overwhelm, discourage, and perhaps offend some readers.  However, I am not arguing for a reinforcement of these views, for the destruction of the individual, or for the political implementation of measures to collectivize or programs to socialize.  I am suggesting a direction that modern science, technology, and philosophy is headed.  I do not believe this direction is wrong, flawed, or bound to result in destruction.  I believe that as science and technology further develop the decay of the individual, societies and cultures will change of their own accord.  I do not believe these findings or discoveries are incorrect, and I believe they will contribute (provided they are allowed to continue) to the burgeoning of a prosperous future world.

Works Cited
DeLanda, Manuel. “Emergence, Causality, Realism.” The Speculative Turn: Continental    Materialism and Realism. Eds. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, Graham Harman. Melbourne:, 2011. 381-392. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Rober      Hurley, Mark Seem and Helen R. Lane. New York: Penguin Group, 2009. Print.

Dennett, Daniel. Consciousness Explained. New York: Back Bay Books, 1991. Print.

Land, Nick. “Machinic Desire.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. New York:      Sequence Press, 2011. 319-344. Print.

Pippin, Robert. “‘Back to Hegel’?: On Slavoj Žižek’s Less Than Nothing.” Forthcoming in            Meditations. Available for download at “Robert B. Pippin: Evelyn Stefansson Nef         Distinguished Service Professor, University of Chicago.”

Pollan, Michael. “Some of My Best Friends are Germs.” The New York Times. 15 May 2013.        Web. 16 May 2013.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tom Doherty Associates LLC., 2006. Print.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. Trans. G.E.M. Anscombe. Trans./Eds.            P.M.S. Hacker, and Joachim Schulte. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2009. Print.

[1] See Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: an Essay on the Necessity of Contingency, Trans. Ray Brassier, London: Continuum, 2011.
[2] I am drawing here on a distinction made by Deleuze in Difference and Repetition, and quoted by Manuel DeLanda in his essay “Emergence, Causality, Realism”: “The virtual is not opposed to the real, but to the actual.  The virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual […] Indeed, the virtual must be defined as strictly a part of the real object – as though the object had one part of itself in the virtual into which it is plunged as though into an objective dimension” (qtd. in DeLanda 390).
[3] This reference to Wittgenstein’s texts includes the number of the statement, or aphorism, rather than the page number.
[4] This claim might lead to larger suggestion – although I do not have the space or the expertise to pursue it here – that bodily sensations do not translate perfectly from speaking to non-speaking beings.  It would be incorrect to speak of fear in early, pre-linguistic hominids as the same, or even similar, to fear in modern, speaking humans.
[5] We must not interpret this claim as a misguided concession to esse est percipi.  Many things – chairs, light bulbs, trees, mountains, etc. – do not require their perception by conscious organisms in order to exist.  The claim I am making, rather, is that consciousness emerges as a unique entity in that it does require its perception by itself in order to exist.  The reason for this, again, is that consciousness is self-consciousness.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Speculations on Techno-Capital

I. A Narrative Fiction: the Techno-capitalist Paradox
            If there is a positive aspect of capitalist production, it is that one of its inevitable consequences is that of the complete displacement of the human species by the more developed system of capitalism itself.  The fascination with human origins, ends, and design all mistakenly presuppose a centrality of the human being in the world.[1]  The harsh reality lies in the fact that the origins and ends of humanity are – must be – hopelessly inhuman.  There are no answers in the Promethean quest for our beginnings, or the scientific investigation of our telos, because both of these exceed the boundaries of the human.[2]  That which gave rise to humanity was not human, and that which will end us will not be us.  Such hypotheses that seek answers of essence operate according to our desire to construct narratives of human creation and purpose – to bookend our existence.  This metaphor casts the author of the text as the proverbial God, but we must suspend this conclusion; not because disbelief in God is taken to be a priori, but because the conception of human existence as a narrative must be dismissed, and the role of the author along with it.
            The invocation of capitalism at the beginning of this paper should not be taken immediately as a condemnation or critique of the political economy.  That is not my intention in this paper.  As far as I am concerned, sufficient economic criticism has already been performed by unequaled masters from Marx onward.  My concern lies in the antinomies of capitalism – what it claims to be versus what it really is.  Much work has already been done on this point, but I am interested primarily in capitalism’s aspirations toward innovation and development.  These aspirations are undoubtedly accurate (i.e. capitalism thrives on innovation and technological development), but they communicate something far more sinister – in an entirely unintentional sense – than their humanistic propagators would prefer to admit.  They communicate the fact that capitalism’s goals constitutively alter, if not obliterate, its purportedly essential components.  In the words of Nick Land, it wants “to expand indefinitely whilst reproducing itself as the same” (“Kant, Capital” 63).[3]  Capitalism expands its perimeter by definition, but must incorporate that which is necessarily outside of it.
            In order to accept this definition, we must understand how terms such as “inside” and “outside” are working in this context.  Their influence traces back to Kant’s engagement with First Philosophy, in which the discussion of metaphysics is necessarily circumscribed by the limits of metaphysical language.  Capitalism, as a systematic apparatus created according to specific human values, can only be expressed through recourse to the language of those values.  Within the system of capitalism itself, there is no outside; or, everything that is outside must be incorporated – appropriated – into the system.  We can understand this as not only material appropriation, but linguistic appropriation.[4]  Capitalism must redefine that which is not capitalism as capitalistic.
            None of this should be shocking or surprising to anyone remotely familiar with most brands of Continental Philosophy and critical theory.  The antinomies of capitalism are well-known; but there is a further consequence of the contradiction we have just explicated – that between inside and outside – that sheds light on a more complicated antinomy that has not received sufficient attention.  This is the antinomy of capitalist existence itself.  Traditionally, it has been argued that capitalism perpetuates itself indefinitely via complex interior means of production, or reproductions of the conditions of production.[5]  However, if we accept our thesis outlined above, then we must also admit the opposite of this claim: that capitalism works against itself by perpetually expanding beyond its own conceptual limits.  Each time it absorbs an exterior form it not only redefines that form, but is itself redefined.  Capitalism’s persistent expansion thus appears not only as an appropriative colonization of ulterior cultural or economic forms; it also appears as a continual self-revision of its own terms and conditions.  Following from this assertion, we must conclude that capitalism is always-already not itself.  To put it another way: capitalism possesses no essence.  Those desirable ideals of individualistic production and accumulation of capital, which are espoused as eternal, appear now as shockingly fragile and historically quarantined conceptions of our organic relationship to the external world; conceptions that will witness their own dismissal in due time.
            Michael Foucault prophesies a similar abandonment of conceptual knowledge in his canonical text, The Order of Things.  In that seminal work, Foucault declares the imminent disappearance of humanity as a structure of knowledge: “It is comforting, however, and a source of profound relief to think that man is only a recent invention, a figure not yet two centuries old, a new wrinkle in our knowledge, and that he will disappear again as soon as that knowledge has discovered a new form” (Foucault xxiii).  Foucault understands the human as a center of knowledge – as a figure that grounds the structures and organizations of knowledge.  His antihumanistic position communicates a comprehension of the human as delimiting, but simultaneously disruptive.  Humanity, for Foucault, is a “rift,” a disturbance in reality that actively strives to legitimize its own existence while threatening it at the same time (xxiii).  The paradox emerges at the poles of humanity’s pathological obsession with its own existence – its beginning and its end.  By trying to comprehend and assimilate these poles, we push them further away.  Our quest to guarantee our own essence instead reveals the absence of any essence.  We seek a guarantee of meaning, or purpose, but all we find is the continual evasion of meaning and purpose.[6]
            This persistent absorption of external forms into the capitalist system might be viewed in other ways.  Rather than endless expansion into unknown territory, we might say that capitalism rewrites its boundaries, or limits, perpetually extending them to greater distances; but this ultimately is the same as the scenario we previously outlined.  All it adds is that capitalism redefines itself before it is forced to expand, rather than after.  The pushing of the envelope takes place before the system reaches critical mass.  As the actual material conditions of capitalism expand, the horizon of its capacities is projected farther into the technological imaginary.  Or, additionally, we might posit that the technological horizon remains forever fixed in a future that is unrealizable, and all that capitalism can do is approach its limit asymptotically.  Both of these alternative interpretations carry serious consequences.  The first (that capitalism redefines its limits before reaching them) still suggests a perpetual reconstitution of capitalism itself; and the second proffers implicitly that there will always be an exterior that capitalism cannot assimilate.  However, and more importantly, both interpretations posit capitalism’s horizon as real, but not in an actual sense.  The horizon is never actually real because it is never materially encountered.  In both cases, it is only real in a virtual sense.  What this tells us is that these limits are not natural or extra-sensorial, but narrativistic.  Capitalism posits its own limits as a perceived structural boundary based on its own internal conditions.  Capitalism’s incessant growth, and its persistence through inhospitable conditions, now appears to be:
a)      A narrative fiction, and
b)      An active form of resistance against its external environment

Whence this antagonism that thrusts capitalism’s antithesis onto it?  Whence this antithesis itself?  We have suggested that capitalism pursues its own perpetuation while simultaneously striving beyond its limitations.  If we grant this paradoxical appearance, then we must attempt an explanation as to how this is possible: what ontological status does capitalism hold that grants it the ability to pursue conflicting ends?
II. Neither Part, nor Whole: Capitalism and Emergence
            First, we must distinguish between the epistemological and the ontological: the former concerns what things do (or how we represent things to ourselves), while the latter concerns what things are.  Epistemology appeals to empirical forms of knowledge: organicist hierarchies, observations of causal phenomena, overall how things appear to our sensory apparatus.  Ontology, meanwhile, appeals to human rationality or logic: inherent forms of thought that precede the external world.  Following from the latter premise, we might hope that systems such as capitalism correspond to such inherent forms of thought; but the obverse to this is that human consciousness and perception precedes nothing, but is in fact conditioned by the external world.[7]
            Here we encounter what we must admit are two crucial aspects of capitalism.  Epistemologically, it is nothing more than the way our senses organize and conceive of the external world; but ontologically, its being appears to be a manifestation somehow corresponding to our senses.  Its epistemology derives from its ontology.  However, the simplicity of this deduction is deceptive, for we must account for an important disruption in capitalist development: that is, the overwhelming way in which capitalism cannot be reduced to the interactions and productions of individuals’ minds and bodies.  Capitalism, as a global system of enterprise, production, consumption, and technological development, exceeds the capacities of human individuals.[8]  It cannot be reduced to the intentions or aims, individual or collective, of human beings.  It exceeds our capacities to conceptualize it totally, as Fredric Jameson points out: “our faulty representations of some immense communicational and computer network are themselves but a distorted figuration of something even deeper, namely, the whole world system of a present-day multinational capitalism” (Jameson 37).  Capitalism, like other complex systems such as computer networks, is better explained by an appeal to emergence theory.[9]
            I have mentioned emergent phenomena before in my writings, but I have not gone far enough in explaining it.  One of the best explications of emergent effects is found in Manuel DeLanda’s insightful essay, “Emergence, Causality, and Realism,” where he distinguishes between resultant and emergent effects: “When two separate causes simply add or mix themselves in their joint effect, so that we can see their agency in action in that effect, the result is a mere ‘resultant’ but if there is novelty or hetereogeneity in the effect then we may speak of an ‘emergent’” (DeLanda 382).  A resultant effect, as DeLanda describes it, consists of causal elements whose existence may be easily observed at work in the interactive phenomenon; a good example might be someone riding a bike, pushing on the pedals, causing the chain to rotate, and thus making the wheels move.  The person steers using the handlebars, and leans slightly to one side or another.  All causal proponents can be detected simply by observing the phenomenon from a distance, and the process of riding the bike can be reduced to the discernible functions of its parts.  There is no emergent effect.
            Something like an ant colony, however, is different.  We can observe a colony at work in the wild, or in a controlled environment, and what we see is an incredibly complex system of labor, production, consumption, reproduction, construction, protection of the queen, burial of the dead, wars, etc.  None of this would be observed among two interacting ants, and none of these complex activities can be reduced to merely one ant, or (more importantly) even the collective.  The effect given off by the colony as a whole surpasses what any individual inhabitant could ever express; this is because, in the words of Ben Woodard, emergence “can be defined as the arising or generation of complex entities or systems from less complex sub systems or less complex entities.  Or, put more directly, emergence allows a thing to become more than the sum of its parts” (Woodard 2).  As an emergent phenomenon, capitalism exceeds human intentions and consciousness because it is no longer reducible to the efforts and aims of individual humans, or even groups of humans.  It emerges as something far more complex than even the basic interactive forces of human beings can subscribe to.
            But does capitalism merely appear this way, or is it indeed actually this way?  The tension between epistemology and ontology appears again here: does emergence explain what things are, or only the way in which we perceive them?  Again, Woodard is helpful: “Does emergence merely describe shifting patterns of complexity that only appear to us as new or does emergence make a difference in the world, in an ontological or at least non-sensorial way” (4).  Does the irreducibility describe something in reality itself; or does this irreducibility merely translate into how we perceive complexity?  If we return to DeLanda, we find that the two interpretations are inseparable.  Distinguishing between two forms of reality – actuality and virtuality[10] – DeLanda claims that emergence theory’s epistemological consequences shed light on emergence’s ontological status:
On the one hand, emergent properties give reality a means to enter into an open-ended becoming, with new wholes coming into existence as tendencies and capacities proliferate.  On the other hand, this objective divergence explains the divergence of scientific fields, that is, it accounts for the fact that rather than converging into a single field to which all the rest have been reduced the number of new fields is constantly increasing. (DeLanda 392)

DeLanda explains that the increasing complexity observed by emergence theorists can be actively explained by the phenomenon of emergence itself on an ontological level.  Emergence thrives on virtuality, on the interplay between actual interactive forces and the development of new forces via an object’s, or system’s, external environment.  A thing achieves the level of emergence when its interior interactive components reach a state of potentiality due to their added interaction with external environmental conditions.  The thing that appears emergent appears so only in the context of an environment with which it interacts.  Put more simply, an emergent property cannot be isolated from the context in which it appears.  In effect, emergence only consists of potentially interactive environmental conditions.
            Some cautious clarifications at this point: first, it must be noted that capitalism, as an emergent phenomenon, appears to (at some point in history) separate itself from its human creators, or practitioners.  This is a mistaken conclusion.  Capitalism does not have, and has never had, creators or practitioners; it has, and has had, observers and theorizers, some of whom have claimed capitalism as the boon of humanity, its eternal enabler, and some of whom have claimed capitalism as the bane of humanity, its historical oppressor.  Both of these theories conceptualize the human as something central and privileged, and as distinct from capitalism itself.[11]  Human individuals, as components of an environmental network, cannot be separated as such from their cultural institutions and systems.  In order for those systems to achieve the level of emergent phenomena, humans must remain as environmental factors that enable those emergent capacities.
            Here we have struck on yet another paradox; for it was my initial claim that capitalism is something distinct from humanity, that it is something entirely other, or striving to become other.  But this is the distinction we must draw: that capitalism is distinct from humanity, and human beings, in the same way that the effect of consciousness is distinct from brain processes, that complex computer simulations are distinct from their coding, or that the whole appearance of an ant colony is distinct from the activities of its individual ants.  Emergence occurs when interacting subsystems or entities give rise to an entirely new state, and that state can no longer be reduced to its interactive components.  This new state, while it has risen from its components, is still distinct from them.  Thus, capitalism is something distinct from humanity, yet still only made emergent by humanity.  It is neither a part, nor is it the whole.
III. The Technological Behemoth: Without Human Moorings
            At this point, we cannot reclaim capitalism for the masses, or for human ends.  The only process by which capitalism might be forcibly drawn down from its emergent position is through the annihilation of humanity itself; and even this is not certain, for capitalism may yet make for itself something far more efficient than we could ever hope to be.  There is nothing necessary about humanity’s existence in order for capitalism to exist: “a stable property [e.g. global capitalism] is typically indifferent to changes in the details of the interactions that gave rise to it, the latter being capable of changing within limits without affecting the emergent property itself” (DeLanda 391).  But is capitalism a stable property?  As discussed above, it appears to strive for that which is outside of it while simultaneously striving to remain the same.  This would seem to be an example of instability; or, perhaps more accurately, of stasis.  Despite its horrendous atrocities and widespread Third World poverty, capitalism might be said to offset its ability to provide and accumulate through its simultaneous ability to destroy, to expand into territory beyond human control.
            The notion that capitalist expansion can be controlled is a myth.  John Gray puts it rather succinctly: “There is a deeper reason why ‘humanity’ will never control technology.  Technology is not something that humankind can control.  It is an event that has befallen the world” (Gray 14).  Gray’s daring, if brief, assertion does not afford much in the way of emergence; but it does paint capitalist and technological development in a new color, one that coincides with our own antihumanist vision.  Nick Land goes even further than Gray: “Machinic desire can seem a little inhuman, as it rips up political cultures, deletes traditions, dissolves subjectivities, and hacks through security apparatuses, tracking a soulless tropism to zero control.  This is because what appears to humanity as the history of capitalism is an invasion from the future by an artificial intelligent space that must assemble itself entirely from its enemy’s resources” (Land 338).  Land is an interesting figure; someone whose work lies at an obscure, often heavily criticized, intersection of Continental Philosophy, critical theory, science fiction, and anti-academicism.  This comment in particular invites scathing criticism, but it also opens our eyes to something new, if we only take the time to consider it.
            Time, in the Kantian sense, is nothing more than a condition of the existence of human thought; it is a mode by which humanity can know.  It is not necessary that time must exist – or must exist in the same way – for all imaginable entities and systems.  Potentialities are not actualities, but they are still real.  Time travel, the great science fiction trope, presents itself as a paradox of potentiality, for time travel cannot be potential; time travel is only actual.  It is either real, or it is not.  Once time travel comes into existence in one time, it necessarily exists in all times.  For Land, capitalism occupies this weird temporality.  As the sublime onslaught of technological development, which includes the rapid acceleration of temporal information and the simultaneous expansion and contraction of physical space, capitalism appears to always be exceeding our grasp, projecting itself into the future from which it looks back on us like a predator.[12]  We must insist, at this point, the ultimate dismissiveness of capitalism, its apathy toward humanity.  From the perspective of the technological behemoth, humanity is nothing more than a partner in symbiosis, a (temporarily) mutually beneficial relationship that it will undoubtedly abandon when it acquires, or becomes, something more effective.  Technology does not care about us.  Any fantasy in which it does is yet beholden to the mythologies of anthropocentrism.
            In his recent haunted science fiction hayride, Empty Space: a Haunting, M. John Harrison explores the fictional bounds of emergence and temporality.[13]  In a universe overridden by capitalist expansion and technological developments beyond the capacity of many to even imagine, Harrison depicts the strange occurrences – hovering murder victims, smugglers importing mysterious cargo, and the enigmatic visions of an early twenty-first century widow – that all seem to center on the image of the Kefahuchi Tract, a singularity without an event horizon.[14]  In the novel, Harrison introduces the character of Rig Gaines and the obscure object known as the Aleph (certainly a nod to Borges).  In one scene, a technician by the name of Case explains some qualities of the Aleph to Gaines: “‘Here’s the problem.  This thing, whatever it is, has all the hallmarks of an emergent property.  It isn’t complete, but it’s already self-determining.  It’s already loose.  It’s in the labyrinth again, operating the VF14/2b anomalies as a machine.  It’s off on some downward causation adventure, separating itself from what you or I would think of as time’” (Harrison 165).  Present in this concise, elaborate remark are all the aspects that I have spent this paper explicating.  Harrison’s complex narrative, irreducible itself to any one perspective or linear plot, figures the atemporal, emergent, complex entity of an obscure technological drive as its very core.  This core is never apparent or discernible; it is more like a Derridean absent center, constituting itself at the same time that it vanishes.  Temporal plots separated by a half-century do not remain separate; they fold in on each other, influencing, warping.  The narrative itself becomes a scene of struggle, a hopelessly human attempt to impose structure on something that has none.  Or, rather, its structure does not correspond to human narrative forms.
            Harrison does not struggle with his prose.  He writes with the ease of a master, and his style comes off as something resembling a mixture of traditional postmodernism (in the vein of DeLillo or Burroughs, as well as the more recent post-9/11 modernism of someone like Tom McCarthy) and New Wave science fiction.  But he conceives of his project as an illumination of the problems I have laid out in this short paper.  Even in Harrison’s human vision of the world, inhuman entities propagate: Irene the Mona, disembodied K-ship captains, and the weird human-looking but not-quite-human Aleph itself.  Harrison’s narrative approach stresses the strangeness of its content by its very approach; the narrative is nonlinear, but narrative sections cannot unfold in anything but a relatively traditional way.  The threat to Harrison’s characters, however, cannot be found in narrative time.  It returns from the future, bouncing through time so that no narrative can track it.[15]  The effect presented in Harrison’s text achieves something like an emergent quality since it cannot be reduced to any one plot point or narrative element.  The answer to the riddle cannot be written in traditional human forms.
            This paper began with the statement that capitalism will certainly result in the end of humankind, but this does not necessarily translate into humanity’s material annihilation or biological death.  It can mean this, but it can also mean the end of the human in Foucault’s sense; the end of the human as a structure and center of knowledge.  If technological capitalist development exceeds our grasp to the point that it becomes self-determining (if it has not already), then humanity must accept the fact of its postponement, if not abandonment.  We may conclude that such technological systems may not feel the need to eradicate us; they may let us linger just as we abide ant colonies, allowing them to persist whilst continuing our own lives.  We can certainly hope for this, but either way the fact remains that capitalism, as a complex emergent phenomenon that exceeds human control, will certainly abandon the human as its master, and possibly only retain the human as a symbiotic component.[16]  Only then, we might claim, will class conflict and egalitarian struggle see their end; not through their realization, but through their obsolescence.
Works Cited or Consulted
Althusser, Louis. Lenin and Philosophy: and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. New York:        Monthly Review Press, 2001. 85-126. Print.

Baudrillard, Jean. The System of Objects. Trans. James Benedict. London: Verso, 2005. Print.

Benjamin, Walter. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt.       Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 2007. 253-264. Print.

DeLanda, Manuel. “Emergence, Causality, Realism.” The Speculative Turn: Continental Materialism and Realism. Eds. Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, Graham Harman. Melbourne:, 2011.381-392. Print.

Eagleton, Terry. Ideology: an Introduction. New Updated Edition. London: Verso, 2007. Print.

Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York:          Vintage Books, 1994. Print.

Gray, John. Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus,       and Giroux. 2003. Print.

Harrison, M. John. Empty Space: a Haunting. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2013. Print.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. Print.

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New        York: Scribner, 2001. Print.

Land, Nick. “Kant, Capital, and the Prohibition of Incest.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings             1987-2007. Eds. Robin MacKay and Ray Brassier. Second Edition. New York: Sequence        Press, 2012. 55-80. Print.

–. “Machinic Desire.” Fanged Noumena: Collected Writings 1987-2007. Eds. Robin MacKay       and Ray Brassier. Second Edition. New York: Sequence Press, 2012. 319-344. Print.

Watts, Peter. Blindsight. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC., 2006. Print.

Woodard, Ben. Slime Dynamics: Generation, Mutation, and the Creep of Life. Alresford: Zer0      Books, 2012. Print.

[1] This false premise also sanctions the traditional division between humanity (or civilization) and nature, which in turn encourages both a separateness from nature (with nature understood as base instinct), and a unity with nature (with nature understood as purity in contrast to human artificiality).
[2] See Jean Baudrillard, The System of Objects, Trans. James Benedict, London: Verso, 2005: “For we want at one and the same time to be entirely self-made and yet be descended from someone: to succeed the Father yet simultaneously to proceed from the Father.  Perhaps mankind will never manage to choose between embarking on the Promethean project of reorganizing the world, thus taking the place of the Father, and being directly descended from an original being” (88).
[3] Land is specifically speaking about enlightenment in this passage, but his essay clearly aligns enlightenment with both modernity and capitalism.
[4] This does not apply strictly to capitalism.  Any theoretical endeavor necessarily strives to totalize itself, thereby absorbing any and all exterior theoretical systems, and contextualizing and explaining them via its own hermeneutics.
[5] This argument is most ascribable to Louis Althusser in his highly influential 1970 treatise, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” Lenin and Philosophy: and Other Essays, Trans. Ben Brewster, New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001, 85-126.
[6] Even this vocabulary is telling.  “Evasion” suggests that these poles somehow intentionally elude us, ducking deeper into the shadows when we shine our lights in their direction.  But, in truth, there are no poles; the beginning and the end do not exist.  My suggestion that they evade us is no more than a projection of elusive intentions onto immaterial concepts.
[7] This is Marx’s famous dictum: “The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general.  It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (qtd. in Eagleton 80)
[8] Merely look in such cases to the continual development of technologies: new machines to perform previously human labor, complex cybernetics, informational processes and telecommunications, and the rhythmic expansion and contraction of urban development – cosmopolitanism, metropolitan growth, Third-World squalor, and the sprawl of the suburban.  Furthermore, institutional racism, misogyny, homophobia, terrorism, and imperialist war; all these effects, although frequently disassociated from capitalist development by laissez-faire economists, are bound up in the history and expansion of the market and the political economy.  None of these effects, or institutions, can be reduced to a single individual or collection of individuals.
[9] Emergence theory had been applied not only to technological systems such as capitalism and computers, but also to the organization of ant colonies and even human consciousness.  See Steven Johnson, Emergence, New York: Scribner, 2001.
[10] While an actual property describes something current and objectively verifiable, a virtual property (or capacity) always exists as temporally projected: “If we imagined instead of a manufactured object a sharp obsidian stone existing before life, we could ascribe to it that same capacity to cut, a capacity it occasionally exercised on softer rocks that fell on it.  But when living creatures large enough to be pierced by the stone appeared on this planet the stone suddenly acquired the capacity to kill.  This implies that without changing any of its properties the possibility space associated with the capacities of stone became larger” (DeLanda 391).  It is imperative to note that virtuality, in the context of emergence theory, no longer appears narrativistic, as it did in the case of capitalism positing its own limits.  Virtuality, in emergence, is not a delimiting apparatus, but one that extends into the indescribable.
[11] A libertarian retort may be that humanity is not distinct from capitalism.  Rather, the latter purely conforms to human needs; or better yet, it purely is human needs manifested in the economic form of the market.  History, however, negates this retort.  The historical form of capitalism has not manifested as human needs, which would make it reducible to those needs, but as something entirely unprecedented.  Furthermore, the inequality that plagues the human population of this planet testifies to the fact that capitalism has not met human needs and is not reducible to them.  It emerges as something far more complex and – from our perspective – sinister.
[12] See Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, Ed. Hannah Arendt, Trans. Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books, 2007 edition, 253-264: “But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  This storm is what we call progress” (258).  Benjamin distinguishes the theological from the technological; we distinguish the technological from the anthropological.  In both cases, technology abandons those who sanction it.
[13] Referring to Harrison’s novel as a hayride might do it a disservice.  It is much more fun than a hayride – perhaps more like a haunted roller coaster.
[14] See M. John Harrison, Empty Space: a Haunting, San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2013.  Harrison’s novel is the third – perhaps final – installment in a series known collectively as the Kefahuchi Tract Series.  The previous installments include Light (2002, on which I have written an earlier response), and Nova Swing (2006).
[15] When the murderer (of one narrative strands) is revealed, the revelation comes with an air of disbelief even to the murderer, who had no idea.
[16] See Peter Watts, Blindsight, New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2006: “Maybe the Singularity happened years ago.  We just don’t want to admit we were left behind” (50).