Writing After the Death of Meaning

by rsbakker

[Presented June 2nd, 2015, for the Posthuman Aesthetics Research Group at Aarhus University]

Abstract: For centuries now, science has been making the invisible visible, thus revolutionizing our understanding of and power over different traditional domains of knowledge. Fairly all the speculative phantoms have been exorcised from the world, ‘disenchanted,’ and now, at long last, the insatiable institution has begun making the human visible for what it is. Are we the last ancient delusion? Is the great, wheezing heap of humanism more an artifact of ignorance than insight? We have ample reason to think so, and as the cognitive sciences creep ever deeper into our biological convolutions, the ‘worst case scenario’ only looms darker on the horizon. To be a writer in this age is stand astride this paradox, to trade in communicative modes at once anchored to our deepest notions of authenticity and in the process of being dismantled or worse, simulated. If writing is a process of making visible, communicating some recognizable humanity, how does it proceed in an age where everything is illuminated and inhuman? All revolutions require experimentation, but all too often experimentation devolves into closed circuits of socially inert production and consumption. The present revolution, I will argue, requires cultural tools we do not yet possess (or know how to use), and a sensibility that existing cultural elites can only regard as anathema. Writing in the 21st century requires abandoning our speculative past, and seeing ‘literature’ as praxis in a time of unprecedented crisis, as ‘cultural triage.’ Most importantly, writing after the death of meaning means communicating to what we in fact are, and not to the innumerable conceits of obsolescent tradition.

So, we all recognize the revolutionary potential of technology and the science that makes it possible. This is just to say that we all expect science will radically remake those traditional domains that fall within its bailiwick. Likewise, we all appreciate that the human is just such a domain. We all realize that some kind of revolution is brewing…

The only real question is one of how radically the human will be remade. Here, everyone differs, and in quite predictable ways. No matter what position people take, however, they are saying something about the cognitive status of traditional humanistic thought. Science makes myth of traditional ontological claims, relegates them to the history of ideas. So all things being equal we should suppose that science will make myth of traditional ontological claims regarding the human as well. Declaring that traditional ontological claims regarding the human will not suffer the fate of other traditional ontological claims more generally, amounts to declaring that all things are not equal when it comes to the human, that in this one domain at least, traditional modes of cognition actually tell us what is the case.

Let’s call this pole of argumentation humanistic exceptionalism. Any position that contends or assumes that science will not fundamentally revolutionize our understanding of the human supposes that something sets the human apart. Not surprisingly, given the underdetermined nature of the subject-matter, the institutionally entrenched nature of the humanities, and the human propensity to rationalize conceit and self-interests, the vast majority of theorists find themselves occupying this pole. There are, we now know, many, many ways to argue exceptionalism, and no way whatsoever to decisively arbitrate between any them.

What all of them have in common, I think it’s fair to say, is the signature theoretical function they accord to meaning. Another feature they share is a common reliance on pejoratives to police the boundaries of their discourse. Any time you encounter the terms ‘scientism’ or ‘positivism’ or ‘reductionism’ deployed without any corresponding consideration of the case against traditional humanism, you are almost certainly reading an exceptionalist discourse. One of the great limitations of committing to status-quo underdetermined discourses, of course, is the infrequency with which adherents encounter the limits of their discourse, and thus run afoul the same fluency and only game in town effects that render all dogmatic pieties self-perpetuating.

My artistic and philosophical project can be fairly summarized, I think, as a sustained critique of humanistic exceptionalism, an attempt to reveal these positions as the latest (and therefore most difficult to recognize) attempts to intellectually rationalize what are ultimately run-of-the-mill conceits, specious ways to set humanity—or select portions of it at least—apart from nature.

I occupy the lonely pole of argumentation, the one that says humans are not ontologically special in any way, and that accordingly, we should expect the scientific revolution of the human to be as profound as the scientific revolution of any other domain. My whole career is premised on arguing the worst case scenario, the future where humanity finds itself every bit as disenchanted—every bit as debunked—as the cosmos.

I understand why my pole of the debate is so lonely. One of the virtues of my position, I think anyway, lies in its ability to explain its own counter-intuitiveness.

Think about it. What does it mean to say meaning is dead? Surely this is metaphorical hyperbole, or worse yet, irresponsible alarmism. What could my own claims mean otherwise?

‘Meaning,’ on my account, will die two deaths, one theoretical or philosophical, the other practical or functional. Where the first death amounts to a profound cultural upheaval on a par with, say, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the second death amounts to a profound biological upheaval, a transformation of cognitive habitat more profound than any humanity has ever experienced.

‘Theoretical meaning’ simply refers to the endless theories of intentionality humanity has heaped on the question of the human. Pretty much the sum of traditional philosophical thought on the nature of humanity. And this form of meaning I think is pretty clearly dead. People forget that every single cognitive scientific discovery amounts to a feature of human nature that human nature is prone to neglect. We are, as a matter of empirical fact, fundamentally blind to what we are and what we do. Like traditional theoretical claims belonging to other domains, all traditional theoretical claims regarding the human neglect the information driving scientific interpretations. The question is one of what this naturally neglected information—or ‘NNI’—means.

The issue NNI poses for the traditional humanities is existential. If one grants that the sum of cognitive scientific discovery is relevant to all senses of the human, you could safely say the traditional humanities are already dwelling in a twilight of denial. The traditionalist’s strategy, of course, is to subdivide the domain, to adduce arguments and examples that seem to circumscribe the relevance of NNI. The problem with this strategy, however, is that it completely misconstrues the challenge that NNI poses. The traditional humanities, as cognitive disciplines, fall under the purview of cognitive sciences. One can concede that various aspects of humanity need not account for NNI, yet still insist that all our theoretical cognition of those aspects does…

And quite obviously so.

The question, ‘To what degree should we trust ‘reflection upon experience’?’ is a scientific question. Just for example, what kind of metacognitive capacities would be required to abstract ‘conditions of possibility’ from experience? Likewise, what kind of metacognitive capacities would be required to generate veridical descriptions of phenomenal experience? Answers to these kinds of questions bear powerfully on the viability of traditional semantic modes of theorizing the human. On the worst case scenario, the answers to these and other related questions are going to systematically discredit all forms of ‘philosophical reflection’ that fail to take account of NNI.

NNI, in other words, means that philosophical meaning is dead.

‘Practical meaning’ refers to the everyday functionality of our intentional idioms, the ways we use terms like ‘means’ to solve a wide variety of practical, communicative problems. This form of meaning lives on, and will continue to do so, only with ever-diminishing degrees of efficacy. Our everyday intentional idioms function effortlessly and reliably in a wide variety of socio-communicative contexts despite systematically neglecting everything cognitive science has revealed. They provide solutions despite the scarcity of data.

They are heuristic, part of a cognitive system that relies on certain environmental invariants to solve what would otherwise be intractable problems. They possess adaptive ecologies. We quite simply could not cope if we were to rely on NNI, say, to navigate social environments. Luckily, we don’t have to, at least when it comes to a wide variety of social problems. So long as human brains possess the same structure and capacities, the brain can quite literally ignore the brain when solving problems involving other brains. It can leap to conclusions absent any natural information regarding what actually happens to be going on.

But, to riff on Uncle Ben, with great problem-solving economy comes great problem-making potential. Heuristics are ecological; they require that different environmental features remain invariant. Some insects, most famously moths, use ‘transverse orientation,’ flying at a fixed angle to the moon to navigate. Porch lights famously miscue this heuristic mechanism, causing the insect to chase the angle into the light. The transformation of environments, in other words, has cognitive consequences, depending on the kind of short cut at issue. Heuristic efficiency means dynamic vulnerability.

And this means not only that heuristics can be short-circuited, they can also be hacked. Think of the once omnipresent ‘bug zapper.’ Or consider reed warblers, which provide one of the most dramatic examples of heuristic vulnerability nature has to offer. The system they use to recognize eggs and offspring is so low resolution (and therefore economical) that cuckoos regularly parasitize their nests, leaving what are, to human eyes, obviously oversized eggs and (brood-killing) chicks that the warbler dutifully nurses to adulthood.

All cognitive systems, insofar as they are bounded, possess what might be called a Crash Space describing all the possible ways they are prone to break down (as in the case of porch lights and moths), as well as an overlapping Cheat Space describing all the possible ways they can be exploited by competitors (as in the case of reed warblers and cuckoos, or moths and bug-zappers).

The death of practical meaning simply refers to the growing incapacity of intentional idioms to reliably solve various social problems in radically transformed sociocognitive habitats. Even as we speak, our environments are becoming more ‘intelligent,’ more prone to cue intentional intuitions in circumstances that quite obviously do not warrant them. We will, very shortly, be surrounded by countless ‘pseudo-agents,’ systems devoted to hacking our behaviour—exploiting the Cheat Space corresponding to our heuristic limits—via NNI. Combined with intelligent technologies, NNI has transformed consumer hacking into a vast research programme. Our social environments are transforming, our native communicative habitat is being destroyed, stranding us with tools that will increasingly let us down.

Where NNI itself delegitimizes traditional theoretical accounts of meaning (by revealing the limits of reflection), it renders practical problem-solving via intentional idioms (practical meaning) progressively more ineffective by enabling the industrial exploitation of Cheat Space. Meaning is dead, both as a second-order research programme and, more alarmingly, as a first-order practical problem-solver. This—this is the world that the writer, the producer of meaning, now finds themselves writing in as well as writing to. What does it mean to produce ‘content’ in such a world? What does it mean to write after the death of meaning?

This is about as open as a question can be. It reveals just how radical this particular juncture in human thought is about to become. Everything is new, here folks. The slate is wiped clean.

[I used the following possibilities to organize the subsequent discussion]

Post-Posterity Writing

The Artist can no longer rely on posterity to redeem ingroup excesses. He or she must either reach out, or risk irrelevance and preposterous hypocrisy. Post-semantic writing is post-posterity writing, the production of narratives for the present rather than some indeterminate tomorrow.

High Dimensional Writing

The Artist can no longer pretend to be immaterial. Nor can they pretend to be something material magically interfacing with something immaterial. They need to see the apparent lack of dimensionality pertaining to all things ‘semantic’ as the product of cognitive incapacity, not ontological exceptionality. They need to understand that thoughts are made of meat. Cognition and communication are biological processes, open to empirical investigation and high dimensional explanations.

Cheat Space Writing

The Artist must exploit Cheat Spaces as much as reveal Cheat Spaces. NNI is not simply an industrial and commercial resource; it is also an aesthetic one.

Cultural Triage

The Artist must recognize that it is already too late, that the processes involved cannot be stopped, let alone reversed.  Extremism is the enemy here, the attempt to institute, either via coercive simplification (a la radical Islam, for instance) or via technical reduction (a la totalized surveillance, for instance), Orwellian forms of cognitive hygiene.