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The Posthuman and the Conditions of Aesthesia

The contemporary allure of a speculative life beyond humanity is rooted in the contemporary chronopolitical zeitgeist according to which humans have exhausted their ‘futurity’. It is endemic of what Fukuyama claimed was western culture’s persistence after the end of history, that is, after having discarded all hope of revolution, a defeatist attitude has eaten away at many socially-viable prospects for the  future. It is now common for theorists to lament the age’s incapacity to imagine the times ahead. To paraphrase Frederic Jameson (and Slavoj Žižek): it has become easier to imagine human extinction than to imagine human life beyond capitalism. It is thus no surprise, given this exhaustion of any sense of futurity as extending human progress or enlightenment, that many find an appealing alternative in the spectre of the posthuman. It is tempting to see the ‘critical posthumanist’ thread running through Harraway, Hayles and Braidotti — which claims that, due to our various cyborg couplings with technology and the mechanic nature of our embodiment, we are already posthuman — as a rhetorical attempt to bootstrap ourselves beyond the deficiencies of our eurocentric, phallocentric, and anthropocentric biases. It is no mere coincidence that the theoretical field is populated with various appeals to non-human agency: actor-network theory, vital materialism, object-oriented philosophy, and various other ‘flat ontologies’, which no longer discriminate between humans and nonhumans in an attempt to eschew anthropocentric favouritism. But there is a risk that this idea of a radical transgression of the horizon of humanity is merely a convenient way of outsourcing actual political concerns to the relativism of an ‘armchair speculation’, which, in extreme cases, confronts the technoevangelical mystics of the ‘singularity’, with primitivists busy preparing for an eventual collapse of civilization and a regression to pre-technological forms of organization. For indeed, the chronopolitics of our age mirror technology’s ever-increasing speed of access, transport and exchange. As Paul Virilio has argued for 40 years, the age is characterized by constantly reinitialized states of emergency. In such conditions of speed there is no time to reflect, to abstract thought from the unabating flow of events. Along similar lines, Bernard Stiegler argues that contemporary western society is maintained in a constant state of shock. Indeed, today there is a perpetual urgency to act before its too late, fear about impending catastrophe, pre-emptive wars, preventive policies, risk assessment and uncertainty management. Today unmanned military machines “kill people based on metadata”, as former NSA chief Michael Hayden readily admits. It is no surprise that the rise of this logic of pre-emption in both military and the market follows the rise of big data. For prediction, pre-emption, and prevention, all require information: probabilities about the future, conditionalized on past experiences, which we are driven to track and analyze to an ever greater degree. But as Niels Bohr famously said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Faced with such dilemmas, my research project proposes to assess the aesthetic, cultural and technical aspects of our contemporary engagements with the future. Following what we might call a neomaterialist approach, these questions are articulated around investigations into the material and logical conditions of aesthesia, which implies that we disentangle several connected notions that intersect the history of metaphysical thought. This includes considering the reality of asymmetrical time, disentangling contingency vs. necessity, possibility vs. compossibility, uncertainty vs. indeterminacy, assessing the problem of whether values and qualia are emergent from material processes, as well as negotiating between vitalist/panpsychist and eliminative materialist tendencies in philosophy. Finally, these considerations are applied to the question of whether our cultural practices and technological environments favour or atrophy the production of aesthesia, and by extension, how they condition our relation to futurity.