Iain Glazer on identity’s TCP/IP moment. Video and full text transcript below.
Theory, Technology & Political Economy
Iain Glazer on identity’s TCP/IP moment. Video and full text transcript below.
Responding to Leela Gandhi & Bhrigupati Singh, “Botched Enlightenment: A Conversation”
This interview is exciting from several perspectives. First, it provides important non-Western perspectives on emancipation and democracy. Second, it highlights how contingency – the focus of much contemporary philosophy since Meillasoux’s seminal book – as well as humility and emancipatory politics might be linked together as a corrective to a Promethean project. Finally, it is an insightful addition to calls for collective self-mastery in accelerationism and xenofeminism, such that in addition to repurposing technological innovations and altering biocultural gender disparities, should also include elevating the collective level of spiritual maturity. In her book, Gandhi weaves together the themes of self-mastery and fragility, the laying bare of human imperfection and the yearning towards emancipation, as well as powerful ideas such as reason and democracy. Her recounting of a minoritarian history of the unfolding of these concepts in the 19th and 20th centuries links Eastern spiritualism, postcolonialism, and Nietzsche, in a manner deeply resonant with the central preoccupations of contemporary discussions on reason and accelerationism.
How would the post-humans of the future cope with immortality and unlimited leisure time? Or access to interplanetary travel? While techno-scientific innovations would be indispensable for achieving these ambitious aims, and the dismantling of the myth of the given not only makes such ambitions possible but demands their realization, it is pure fantasy to imagine that the psychopathologies that haunt the present would not continue to manifest themselves in other guises, even in a post-scarcity and post-mortality future. Such an observation should not serve as an argument for abandoning Promethean ambitions and eulogizing finitude, cruelty and injustice as inescapable elements of human nature, but should instead serve to highlight that the fine line between possible dystopian or utopian futures depends on whether collective self-mastery, or spiritual maturity, can grow in line with technological innovation. Even if the myth of the given is fully dismantled, and scientific nihilism is taken to its final conclusions, with the human fully ‘hacked’ and programmable as the biological machine that it is, the question still remains as to what we ought to do with this amplified power of self-transformation.
Indeed, in this respect, it is not without import how common the Spock character in the science fiction genre is. Primarily existing as already formed, a being of pure logic and dispassionate reason, the Spock character appears either in the guise of an ancient civilization whose history is rapidly explicated in the opening chapters of a narrative, or as an artificial being whose mimesis of human traits elicits comic relief and a somewhat crude mirror of ourselves, but whose story of becoming is rarely foregrounded. Leaving aside the question of whether this fictional creature of pure reason and neutral judgment represents a desirable archetype of self-mastery and reason – this character is obviously a caricature and much more interesting to examine as a symptom than as a role model – the question that begs attention is the story of the genesis of such a creature. As hilarious as we may find characters such as Spock or Commander Data, who does not secretly yearn for their impassive objectivity after a painful breakup or yet another grueling day of senseless labour alongside barely-tolerable colleagues? Or, perhaps, after the emptiness that follows the satisfaction of a desire, obsession or addiction, and the recognition of one’s powerlessness in pursuing satisfaction, no matter how self-destructive it is?
There is a remarkable similarity between the nerd fantasy of Spock and the proliferation of contemporary New Age spiritualisms, since both stem from the pain of encountering one’s limits. Kundera famously defined kitsch as the depiction of a “world without shit”, without the messy content of the everyday, and it is always the other who succumbs to kitsch fantasies, or we admit to succumbing to them ourselves, but the other’s kitsch is always more hilariously ridiculous than ours. One needs only to watch a variety TV show or a comedy from a foreign country to recognise how ridiculous another’s idea of life minus shit is perceived to a foreigner. Hollywood romantic comedies and Bollywood dramas both fall in this genre, indeed, most popular culture, produced as entertainment, provides relief from the everyday through kitsch feel-good narratives. The hero gets the girl and tragic events turn out to not have been meaningless, in the end.
I previously mentioned two such genres of kitsch, nerd utopias such as Star Trek and new age spiritualism. Both idealise an ascent beyond the everyday banality of the human and its messy emotions, and both can be ridiculed for providing kitsch speculations of an ascent beyond the contradictions and torments of desire and the quotidian. Such genres maintain a focus on kitsch relief, yet beyond the entertainment of comedy or drama, their utopian dreams exemplify the Übermensch dreams we harbour of overcoming the present and ascending to greater heights, be these in the form of ancient alien races or the attainment of spiritual nirvana. Spock and Data however are baffled by and seem to lack something crucial about being human, this crucial element is human imperfection, and the moral caveat of Star Trek is one of mythologising human finitude: to be Data is to lack not only human weakness but also humanness. Nonetheless Data’s allure is irresistible, and even if this example of kitsch is culturally specific and might appear ridiculous to a non-westerner, underlying it are all too human concerns with imperfection. The converse is true, as the mere mention of eastern spirituality to a westerner will often conjure up new age caricatures and seem incompatible with reason. Regardless of the caricature, there have been many useful exchanges between the east and the west, Nietzsche being just one important example. Gandhi and Singh bring up Nietzsche’s spirituality, and it is amply accepted that Nietzsche’s Übermensch was a spiritual project, influenced by both the classical Greek philosophical tradition and Vedic texts. Abir Taha examines how the Nazis were aware of the spiritual aspect of Nietzsche’s ideas, and how they were in fact much closer to his thought than the edited texts released by his sister, uncomfortably so.
The realisation of a distinguishing excellence, an excellence which if purely individualist – the main problem with new age practices – brings with it a conflicted relationship to collectivity and democracy. This relationship between Prometheanism and democracy must be examined further. The necessary correctives to maintain compatibility between these two concepts which have shaped, for better or worse, much of the past two centuries can be examined with two concepts, one a child of the Western philosophical tradition, the other from Gandhi and Singh’s account of a minor – meant in the Deleuzian sense, rather than to denote its relative importance – Eastern spiritual tradition: contingency and imperfection, respectively. Meillassoux’s central focus on the necessity of contingency vitiates any claim towards historical purity of a people as the chosen ones who will permit the rise of the Übermensch, while also destroying the possibility of grand narratives, be they of progress or of racial purity, by deflating any myth of the given upon which to build the foundational claims necessary for constructing a grand narrative. This focus on contingency has been critiqued for leading to political indeterminacy. This critique is valid if contingency itself is mythologised, leading to contingency mysticism, however if contingency is taken as a fact of reality – amply supported by scientific knowledge – and not a value in itself, then its political implications inevitably lead to a sense of urgency in orienting oneself towards the construction of a desirable future which is not determined in advance. Meillassoux’s theological stance of the virtual god who does not exist but could possibly in the future, is a position that allows for human agency in an indifferent universe.
Moral imperfectionism, on the other hand, ties collectivity firmly to self-mastery, and Ghandi and Singh speak of the doublet of ascent-descent, perfection-imperfection, such that both Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and the real historical figure of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa turn back from total liberation from everyday experience in order to help others in their ascent. This affirmation of imperfection rejects uncritical forms of utopianism which fetishize the circumvention of both conflict and becoming, while positing a critical utopianism that conceived as a process rather than an end state. If we take both contingency and imperfection as inescapable, the Promethean projects of our time must be seen as divested of any fixed endpoint and any final utopia, be it nerd space opera, Soviet communism or hippie localism. Our weakness for kitsch is just one of our many imperfections, but rather than a blemish to be scrubbed away it is due to these many weaknesses that our contingent incompleteness, our eternal work-in-progress is highlighted as what provides the conditions for further collective betterment. The best conclusion to this response essay then, is the following phrase from Gandhi’s conclusion, “We are botched, therefore we are potential.”
 The Xenofeminist Manifesto. (2015). [online] Available at:http://laboriacuboniks.net/ [Accessed 16 Jun. 2015].
 Gandhi, L. (n.d.). The Common Cause.
 Kundera, M. (1984). The unbearable lightness of being. New York: Harper & Row.
 Taha, A. (2005). Nietzsche, Prophet of Nazism. Bloomington, Ind.: AuthorHouse.
 Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986). Kafka. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
 Meillassoux, Q. (2009). After Finitude. London: Continuum.
 Meillassoux, Q. (1996). L’Inexistence Divine.
In early Marx, the 1844 manuscripts, there is an outline of four types of alienation. The first is a wage labourer’s alienation from the object of his labours thanks to industrial capitalism, the second is alienation from the activity of production, since the labour the worker undertakes is forced upon him as his only means of survival and does not spring from his own creativity, the third form of alienation is, thanks to the involuntary relations of production described in the first two forms of alienation, the alienation from one’s life purpose. The fourth form is the alienation from others as the relations of production in capitalism pit the capitalist against the worker.
In Capital, Marx refines the philosophical concept of alienation with economic analysis and his concepts of surplus value and the labour theory of value, which cause the inherent contradictions within capitalism and lead to the alienation both of the worker to the capitalist, due to competing objectives, and the alienation of the means of production, which instead of freeing humans from work, are used in the production of commodities of maximum exchange-value, and end up enslaving the worker. In light of 150 years of capitalism, the rise of the information age, cybernetics, globalisation and new forms of wage labour inconceivable in Marx’s time, his concept of alienation merits re-visiting. Capitalism has entrenched itself more than ever and shows no signs of suffering from its contradictions, many forms of technical labour today could also be considered alienating due to increasing complexity, global interconnectivity and the demand for increasing worker specialisation, however many of these jobs are essential for the functioning of a globalised world and calls for alienation-free work often translate in the left to the idealisation of small-scale artisanal work. Artisanal work is inconceivable today as a scalable alternative to alienating techno-industrial work today. One may also question the Hegelian concept of human alienation as obsolete in today’s world. If a return to feudal territorialities is undesirable, and we take full account of the life improvements of rapid techno-scientific progress, we need to re-visit alienation as an inescapable part of modern life, without however, accepting the injustices and inequality inherent in capitalism. New philosophical and economic concepts are necessary to grapple with the complex abstractions of today’s world by starting with the premise that we live in times never before encountered, and our best hope is a future-oriented engagement with the present, rather than shoe-horning it into 19th century concepts and economic theories.
To counter alienation on the level of political economic theory, we need to look at various forms of labour today, the factory worker is still present, but many other forms of labour blur the clear lines set out by Marx. Today there are many socially indispensible jobs that could be considered alienating, think of public transport or sewage operators, while this type of worker understands the social utility of their job, few would consider full-time toil as bus driver to be their ideal of a life’s goal which expresses their creative nature. Or a further example is work on complex systems, such as indispensible engineering or information systems design, implementation and maintenance. This kind of work relies on the coordinated work of many different specialised workers, who yes could be considered alienated from the objects of their labour simply because those objects are immaterial knowledge artefacts or because these are incomplete objects of a much larger whole. A future-oriented proposal would propose increasing automation with the goal of eliminating repetitive work altogether, and a universal basic income as the right of humanity. The case of automation, this involves yet more abstract, alienating work.
Wally Pfister’s Transcendence appears on the surface to be a conventional tale warning of the dangers of Frankenstein science, but it is actually much more ambivalent than a cursory look at the plot would suggest. The representation of the scientific ‘abomination’ and the ‘good’ humans who destroy it seem almost deliberately unconvincing. The contortions and twists of disavowal the viewer is dragged through in order to cheer the side of the human status quo have precisely the effect of leaving behind a strong case for the vanquished singularity, and the ending note of the film is one of overarching melancholy for a lost possibility, masked as a tragic love story, rather than one of victory. In Avatar, the mourning is for an atavistic organic unity, in Transcendence this mourning is for a missed future