Aphorism of the Day: In every human ear you will find a little bone that translates, ‘We are nothing special,’ into ‘You fucking loser.’ Thus the will to affirm everything, or at the very least, maintain polite silence. Nothing like an angry loser to ruin your day.
The Problem of Meaning is just one of those problems that refuses to stick.
Many assume it has to be self-refuting. “There must be somebody there,” A. A. Milne wrote in Winnie the Pooh, “because somebody must have said, ‘Nobody.’” Others see it as a kind of social reductio, “a natural consequence,” as Cornell West puts it, “of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and natures.” Meaning, the mass, assumptive consensus seems to be, has to exist somehow. The fact that scientific reason seems to break it down merely indicates, as Adorno would argue, the limitations of scientific reason.
Fair enough. The chips of conviction are made of lead, after all, and the arms of doubt are easily exhausted. Why not place them somewhere safe, comfortable, make-believe?
For more than ten years, now, I’ve been ranting about the way the sciences, after spending centuries purging intentionality from the world, have finally besieged the walls of the human. I’ve argued that epic fantasy is cultural symptom of that siege. I’ve also argued that the ‘Humanities,’ as we know them, are about to go extinct, swept away or radically reconfigured by the findings of cognitive neuroscience and other disciplines. I’ve also argued that this could very well be the beginning of the Semantic Apocalypse, the point at which meaning and cognition, experience and knowledge, irrevocably part ways, leading to the process of profound cultural bifurcation that already seems well under way, one where power, in the pursuit of power, treats us as mechanisms behind the blind of a culture bent on feeding our hunger for false autonomy and meaning.
One where the Cognitive Difference becomes the very spine of society, dividing those who hope and serve from those who know and command. The world Neuropath.
To me, it just seems obvious that, as Nietzche observed, “man has been rolling from the centre toward X” since Copernicus. And because I think it’s important to have some sense of where we’re going, since I loathe stumbling backward anywhere, least of all the future, I happen to think this X-we’re-rolling-into is pretty much the most significant question humanity has ever faced–period.
For all we know, it could be a drain.
Which is why through all these years I’ve been baffled, even dismayed, by the frivolity of contemporary academic fashion and its stubborn refusal to consider the Problem of Meaning now, in an age when machines are translating thought into images, anticipating our choices before any consciousness of making them, or even worse, making those choices for us. For me, the cultural significance of contemporary science just is the Problem of Meaning, the problem of the human. How could it not be, when moral and existential autonomy has been the essence of what humanity has meant since the Old Enlightenment?
The primary dividend of science, thus far, has been power over our environments, the ability to ‘hack’ the mechanisms about us, to intervene and instrumentalize processes with ever increasing efficiency. The human brain, given its forbidding complexity, remained a black box, something that transcended our knowledge and so seemed transcendental. It should come as no surprise, given this new power and our primeval conceits, that the intuition of autonomy would come to frame the new image of the human for Old Enlightenment thinkers. Man, who had been the Meaning Receiver prior to their murder of God, became the Meaning Transmitter.
Before the Old Enlightenment, all creation was a text, something authored. After the Old Enlightenment, ‘creation’ became ‘cosmos,’ something indifferent to the fears and aspirations of the real authors, humanity. For all the cultural tumult and upheaval it occasioned, the Old Enlightenment delivered–in addition to the technological dividends of science–a new and profoundly flattering image of the human: Authorial Man.
And now, on the cusp of the New Enlightenment, it seems there may be no such thing as ‘authors’–at all. The problem is that, far from transcending our environments, we are simply its most complicated pocket, something that differs, not in kind, but in degree. The problem is that we are natural–just one more mechanism that can be hacked and instrumentalized. The problem is that the Old Enlightenment image of semantic autonomy seems to be yet another self-congratulatory myth. And this, given our inherited conceptualities, is a disaster quite literally beyond our comprehension–as it has to be, once you appreciate the degree to which our comprehension turns on those very conceptualities.
So what do you find in academia? The same fractured in-group status scrum you find everywhere else in society of course, one where the importance attributed to a given problematic turns far more on who is fretting than on what is being fretted about. For the bulk of humanities, the Semantic Apocalypse is little more than a preposterous rumour. People continue mining their niche (the one that spared them the horror of having no dissertation topic), parsing esoteric definitions, exchanging hothouse rationalizations, elaborating discourses that will be little more than intellectual curiosities in a generation’s time. A neo-Scholasticism rendered irrelevant by a neo-Enlightenment.
Small surprise, given the bureaucratic immensity of the institution. The only noteworthy thing about this generation of humanities scholars is the sheer extent of their conceit and hypocrisy, the stupendous way they have confused dogmatic orthodoxy for ‘criticality,’ and militant intellectual conservatism as ‘radicalism.’
Ink is still spilled on the subject, to be sure. In Nihil Unbound, for instance, Ray Brassier argues that “Philosophy should be more than a sop to the pathetic twinge of human self-esteem. Nihilism is not an existential quandary but a speculative opportunity. Thinking has interests that do not correspond with those of living; indeed, they can and have been pitted against the latter.” But when you consider the political and technological immediacy of the problem, the way neuroscience and its pageant of nihilistic implications now permeates markets, classrooms, courts, and elections as well as mainstream headlines, you would think that the academic humanities, the institution charged with raising profound and pervasive problems to general consciousness, would be responding en masse, rather than relying on iconoclastic courage.
The dimensions of this disconnect are nowhere more apparent than in the academic debates surrounding the question of what comes after the ‘human.’ On the one hand, you have transhumanists like Nick Bostrom, who seem to think the naturalization of the human, though possessing peril, will engender benevolent instrumentalization, a material efflorescence of Old Enlightenment autonomy, that we will become, to steal the Tyrell Corporation tagline, ‘more human than human.’ Given the priority of the material, the brute fact that gunshots to the head do kill, science holds out the promise of human perfectibility as a technical enterprise.
On the other hand you have the posthumanists like Cary Wolfe and Donna Haraway who seem to think the naturalization of the human will at last debunk the Great Lies of the Old Enlightenment (while magically preserving the ‘truths’), and conceptually justify a wholesale revaluation of the nonhuman… That the New Enlightenment will, in effect, overthrow the conceptual hegemony of what they call ‘Anthropocentrism.’
The general idea seems to be that we humans are too inclined to make too much of our own humanity, that the sciences, in the course of revealing all the profound ways we are continuous with nature, have shown us that ‘humanism’ (at least in its self-referentially blind incarnations) is little more than a conceit, a way to justify our crimes against the ‘merely natural.’ Once we set aside anthropocentrism, and the ‘speciesism’ that it underwrites, we will see, just for instance, that factory farms are actually concentration camps in moral disguise. The Problem of Meaning, if there is any such problem at all, is the human presumption to be its sole possessor.
My fear is that these people live in a fantasy world. A vegan Middle-earth. And I want to convince them, not that they do, but that they need to seriously consider the possibility that they might.
The first, most obvious and perhaps most trenchant question, is one of why the naturalization of the human should warrant a wholesale reevaluation of the nonhuman rather than a wholesale devaluation of the human? This might sound horrible, but the question here is epistemic, not moral. Scientific discovery didn’t give a damn about the word of God, so why should it give a damn about vegan scruples–or scruples at all? It discovers what it discovers, and we have good reason to fear the worst where meaning is concerned.
Why? Well, on the one hand you have the pessimistic induction I noted above: science has spent centuries chasing value out of the natural world, so why should we, as something natural, be any exception? If the Old Enlightenment drained the world of intentionality, why, short of wishful thinking, should we assume the New Enlightenment will pour it back in?
On the other hand you have the fact that no one–and I mean literally no one–has managed to convincingly reconcile the intentional and the natural. This is nothing short of the bloody holy grail in cognitive science circles. This is the problem, and something that theorists like Wolfe blithely assume will be solved (or, worse yet, require no solution)–and here’s the thing, in a manner amenable to the very notion of ‘human’ they fervently wish undone.
As Wolfe writes in What Is Posthumanism?:
If it is true that cognitive science has an enormous amount to contribute to the area of philosophy that we used to call phenomenology–if it has even, in a way, taken it over–then it is also true that the textually oriented humanities have much to teach cognitive science about what language is (and isn’t) and how that, in turn, bears on any possible philosophy of the subject (human or animal). This is simply to say that it will take all hands on deck, I think, to fully comprehend what amounts to a new reality: that the human occupies a new place in the universe, a universe now populated by what I am prepared to call nonhuman subjects. And this is why, to me, posthumanism means not the triumphal surpassing or unmasking of something but an increase in the vigilance, responsibility, and humility that accompany living in a world so newly, and differently, inhabited.
New reality? Humility? Here we see how arguments against ‘anthropocentrism’ almost effortlessly lapse into arguments for rampant anthropomorphism, a kind of pan-anthropocentrism. Here I am, struggling to find ways to believe in morality for us, wondering whether there has ever been a subject, in the face of our growing knowledge of the natural, and these jokers are out painting the whole town in ‘value.’
This particular quote follows a reading that paints Daniel Dennett as a closet Cartesian. The strategy in these particular (Derridean) theoretical circles is to show how claims you don’t like follow from implicit commitments to the ‘metaphysics of presence,’ conceptualities that systematically devalue the constitutive role that occluded contexts play in meaning. Since the bulk of animal rights arguments turn on analogistic inferences, Wolfe spends a good deal of time attempting to level what might be called the ‘Linguistic Difference’ between humans and nonhumans, showing how our apparently unprecedented discursive and communicative abilities belong to a natural continuum. He then takes Dennett to task for his representationalism, and the way it “unwittingly reproduces” the commitments to Cartesianism he is elsewhere so keen to critique.
The problem, as it so happens, is that Dennett, unlike Wolfe, is profoundly acquainted with the Problem of Meaning. In fact, you could argue that his signature contribution to the Philosophy of Mind is his ‘intentional stance,’ and his denial of anything resembling ‘original intentionality.’ Even though these views are (unlike those belonging to Wolfe’s theoretical mentors, Derrida or Luhmann) genuinely radical, even though they thoroughly condition what Dennett means when speaking of natural systems like humans or animals, Wolfe does not so much as mention it in his argument. His reading of Dennett is, in effect, almost entirely tendentious. Dennett nowhere argues that humans are ontologically intentional (representational) in a way that animals are not, only that human systems are, thanks to something about their organization, the most conducive to the attribution of intentional sophistication, ‘stance stances,’ such as meta-dissimulation and linguistically reportable beliefs. Accusing him of being Cartesian because he uses the word ‘representation’ when talking about cognition is no different than accusing him of being Creationist because he uses the word ‘design’ discussing evolution. He just doesn’t mean it that way.
If anyone is working through residual commitments to Descartes, here, it’s Wolfe. He’s the one making transcendental arguments for this special thing–value–and the need to spread it far and wide. He’s the one who thinks that transcendental argumentation, despite everything cognitive psychology has discovered, despite thousands of years of abject inability to provide anything but the most meagre consensus, counts as a form of knowledge. Just consider the quote above. ‘The science is all well and fine,’ he’s saying, ‘but it can’t aspire to knowledge short of my philosophy.’
Dennett is a meaning skeptic–perhaps the most famous living. Since Wolfe is a meaning dogmatist who has hidden his commitment to original intentionality behind his fancy for Derrida (who stuck to criticizing Searle for a reason), he needs to make Dennett seem theoretically retrograde somehow. But the sad fact is, Wolfe is the one behind the curve, the one mired in neo-Scholasticism. He would almost certainly balk at the notion of original intentionality, but it really is hard to see how he (or Derrida) could do without some bait-and-switch version of it. Thinking of meaning in terms of the ‘trace,’ as always-already derived, does nothing to change the fact that your conceptual register is wholly intentional, that it begs, at every turn, the question of whether there has ever been such a thing. For that is the radical question, the one that makes Derrida another transcendental conservative.
Is Wolfe arguing that our existing commitments suggest that we take the moral stance toward the interpretation of animal systems, or is he arguing that animals are moral beings, and that only our conceptual conceits have led us to think otherwise? Trust me, I fully appreciate the ugly corner questions like these paint me in, but this is precisely my point: the Problem of Meaning is the ugly corner we all find ourselves painted in. The question of ‘conceptual conceits’ potentially has no bottom–and it almost certainly reaches further than Wolfe is prepared to go.
In “A Difficulty in the Path of Psychoanalysis,” Freud discusses what he calls the ‘three great narcissistic wounds’ to humanity, the way the theories of Copernicus, Darwin, and (in his humble view) Freud have robbed humanity of their ontological privilege. Psychoanalysis, of course, never became the science he thought it would, and so never accrued the cognitive authority to do much more than prick the pride of the odd human here and there. The situation is far, far different with cognitive science, however. It is perhaps inevitable that moralists like Wolfe will cherry-pick its findings in an attempt to undermine the apparent disanalogies between the human and the animal, and so rationalize their arguments for animal rights. Instead of seeing the mechanization of the human and the animal (not to mention the conceptual, social, and political consequences that this mechanization implies), he sees the animalization of the human and the humanization of the animal–what he needs to see. Thanks to confirmation bias, he sees opportunity in this third wound, and utterly fails to consider the most immediate, most crucial question every grave wound raises: whether it is mortal.
Whether meaning–and value with it–might be dead before all is said and done.
Perhaps this is the reason no one wants to confront the Problem of Meaning in humanities circles: it simply does not serve their moral agendas. As Haidt says, human cognition is pretty much the bitch of our intuitive scruples, and these guys are as much skewed judging machines as the rest of us–even more, given that they are professionally trained rationalizers. They have an egalitarian impulse, one that I admire and share, and so, like everyone else, they cook up reasons why that impulse should sweep the table–the facts be damned.
Because the fact is, we are only now learning what the ‘human’ is, and the picture emerging from the fog of our bias and ignorance is troubling to say the least. Wolfe and his cadre will no doubt continue having faith in their hyper-egalitarian intuitions, will no doubt find ways to further rationalize whatever I have problematized here. But the neuroscientific research will continue accumulating all the same, and as it does, those interpretative approaches that ignore it will simply drift deeper into the fog of apologia, greasing the wheels of those who know and command by feeding the preconceptions of those who hope and serve.
Telling people–not unlike the evangelical Christians–that everything animate has a reason, everything animate has a claim.
This is why I catch a whiff of decadence when reading ‘posthuman’ theorists like Wolfe, that moral twinge you get when someone worries pets to the exclusion of starving children. I know that the latter suffer, and I believe this makes a binding claim upon us all. And I see it as the scandal of our age–the signature tragedy–that the faith required to hold this belief grows in proportion to our scientific knowledge of the human soul.
“It is a self-deception of philosophers and moralists,” Nietzsche writes, “to imagine that they escape decadence by opposing it. That is beyond their will; and, however little they acknowledge it, one later discovers that they were among the most powerful promoters of decadence.”