He Knew He Was Right

The crucial point in my conception of non-empirical theory confirmation is that all three arguments of non-empirical theory confirmation that I’ve described before rely on assessments of limitations to underdetermination. In effect, scientists infer the strength of limitations to underdetermination from observing a lack of known alternatives, the surprising explanatory extra value of their theory or a tendency of predictive success in the research field. Eventually, these observations amount to theory confirmation because strong limitations to underdetermination increase the probability that the known theory is viable. The connection between the number of possible alternatives and the chances of predictive success is intuitively most plausible when looking at the extreme cases: if there are infinitely many alternatives to choose from and just one of them is empirically viable, the chances to pick the correct one are zero. If there is just one possible consistent theory – and if I assume that there is a viable scientific theory at all -, the chance that the consistent theory I found will be predictively successful is 100 percent.

Richard Dawid, on String Theory and Post-Empiricism

This type of reasoning – from bounded probability, given an infinite search space – throws up all kinds of surprises. But there’s another theme here, slightly submerged: it turns out that theory choice, or axiom selection, isn’t really arbitrary (even if it is necessarily “ungrounded”). There are background reasons why a particular theory proposes itself, or a particular collection of axioms seems initially plausible.

The argument I’m familiar with is that such a choice “proves” itself through its own performativity: it’s retroactively validated (in the weak sense of “shown to be useful”, rather than a strong sense of “proven to be true”) by the results it makes available. But this may be a kind of rationalisation – see, we were right to start here after all! – of a choice that was already guided by criteria that aren’t formally specifiable (i.e. you couldn’t generate the “good” starting-points by following a computational procedure). We start out with a sense of the affordances and constructive capacities of particular forms and combinatorial operations, and pick out likely candidates based on practical intuitions.

This is certainly how it goes in programming – to the extent that I’m a “good” programmer, it’s because experience enables me to be consistently “lucky” in picking out a pragmatically viable approach to a problem. There’s usually an “experimental” stage where one sets up a toy version of a problem just to see how different approaches play out – but what one is experimenting with there is theoretical viability, not empirical confirmation.

Often the initial intuition is something like “this is likely either to turn out to be right, or to fall down quickly so we can discard it early and move on to something else”: what we dread, and become practised in avoiding, is floundering about with something which is wrong in subtle ways that only reveal themselves much later on.

heart disease and bootleg clothing

“Speech” is both directly a form of social action, and an activity in which forms of social action can be modelled without being immediately enacted. What we want from “free speech” is freedom to model action in different ways – to anticipate, consider, scope out, render imaginatively tractable the widest possible variety of situations and events. The usual argument is that any restraint on this capacity is a restraint on our ability to navigate the world, to deal with the unknown, to adjust and optimise and reconsider in the light of new information. But it might also be: restraint on our ability to generate dehumanising representations of others which prepare the ground for dehumanising treatment of them, or serve to justify that treatment after the fact.

Even as we understand that the social value of “speech” comes precisely from the absence of a direct causal link between representation and action, we also have a variety of ways of noticing when speech isn’t causally innocuous. Free speech fundamentalism often requires us to not notice these occasions, or to position them as always remediable through further discussion (as Judith Butler, with impeccable liberal logic, ends up doing in Excitable Speech). But the exercise of what Lyotard called “terror” – the forcible silencing and removal of disputants – passes through representations, even if it isn’t confined to them.

The defense of “free speech” often ends up turning into a defence of “free social action” (provided it can be categorised as “speech”) rather than of “free consideration of social action”. This is morally incoherent, but naturally appeals to dickheads, of whom there are remarkably many on the internet. Posting revenge porn on reddit isn’t “modelling” anything: it’s doing something, to someone.

I want at some point to go back and look carefully at MacKinnon’s use of Lyotard in Only Words, because while I think it’s a bit of a missed connection I also think that something interesting nearly happened there. Or that the reasons why it didn’t quite happen may be interesting in themselves.

Lather, Rinse, Repeat

The (possibly alarmist) claim recently surfaced on social media that it was only a matter of time before some enterprising hacker managed to connect the records held by porn sites of their users’ browsing histories to the individual identities of those users, creating considerable opportunities for individual blackmail or general mischief. My personal reaction to this scenario –oh god please no – was balanced by a tranquil sense that a great many people would be in the same boat, and that the likely social impact of mass disclosure was difficult to anticipate. It might be horrific and hilarious in about equal measure. However, sites such as Pornhub already occasionally release their own statistical analyses, showing which US states evince the greatest interest in teenagers, spanking, interracial couples and so on. Public access to their – suitably anonymised – access logs might yield much of sociological interest.

My review of Tim Jordan’s Information Politics: Liberation and Exploitation in the Digital Society is now up at Review 31.

Psychedelic Investigations (conversation with Trent Knebel)

Leonora Carrington: El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas
Leonora Carrington: El Mundo Mágico de los Mayas

DF: The psychedelic (or phenoumenodelic) is a mode of investigation into perception, periodically renewed by new technical means – drugs, synthesizers, fractals, neural nets. We are now entering into a new phase of psychedelic investigation; that is, investigation into how we perceive what we perceive, what perception is “made out of” or “drawn from”, and what extensions or modifications it is susceptible to.

Psychedelic investigation is sometimes taken to be investigation into the ultimate nature of reality, which it is but not directly. In psychedelia, perception is relieved of its sufficiency and submitted once again to the real. That doesn’t mean that we see what’s “really always there”, but that what we see is other than what our standard frame of perception acknowledges as capable of “being there”. Givens appear outside of the established regime of givenness. The stranger enters into manifestation.

Slug-squirrel
Slug-squirrel

(Give the neural net a picture of some sky, and ask it to extrapolate images of Lucy with diamonds…)

Computer-generated psychedelia
What androids actually dream of

TK: Re: neural networks: I’ll be impressed when a computer can uncover a new correspondence between apparently unconnected domains of reality, progressively deforming things is fairly trivial and I don’t think stretches much past ideas of what computers are capable of (even if it does generate some interesting visuals).

LSD Cat
LSD Cat

DF: I agree, what we’ve seen so far with this is pattern recognition over-egged into hallucination, rather than pattern recognition uncovering previously undiscovered real structures. But I think that has always been true of psychedelia: it doesn’t bring insight into the real directly, but insight into the construction of illusions.

Edge detection
Edge detection

TK: I’ve never tried psychedelic drugs so can’t comment in that area, however, I do think Catren style psychedelia uncovers real structures that are only glimpsed distortedly when seen from any particular perspective, and Zalamea’s oeuvre is filled with example realizations of synaesthetic glimpses of structural kernels.

fractal

DF: I think I have to modify my previous statement: psychedelia is essentially undecided between reality and illusion, it’s an investigation of areas for which there is as yet no decision procedure. The question of whether or not there’s any “there” there is temporarily suspended. Later on it may be possible to discern some “structural kernel”, but the psychedelic moment is about developing the intuition that there is a “there” where something might conceivably be.

60s Psychedelia
60s Psychedelia

TK: Perhaps psychedelia is perceiving a correspondence in a synaesthetic manner without conscious grasp of the higher order principles governing the correspondence- eg synaestheticaly perceiving homotopy and type theory together without formally understanding homotopy type theory.

Bridget Riley
Bridget Riley

DF: Yes, it’s a kind of unchained synaesthesia, a synaesthesia that might always come to nothing.

Diagram from Zalamea
Diagram from Zalamea

TK: Might, but I’d also say that ascension to higher order structures (coupled with rich fleshing out of those structures, which is obviously there in psychedelia. this is opposed to hollow knowledge of higher order structures without understanding the lower level things they control) is one of the most fundamental types of progress, if not the most fundamental.

Transits: Notes on the Xenofeminist Manifesto

It’s a bold gesture, to be sure: to insist on the conjugation of lived experience with stringent formal abstraction, on the compatibility and even identity in the last instance of intersectionality and “the right to speak as no-one”, on the possibility and necessity of a transfeminism that is also a rationalism. As if one wanted to have all the enemies in the world at once. “We must draw a line between ourselves and the enemy”, but here are many lines crossing each other at many points, a mesh of antagonisms. If nothing else, the XFM presents an imposingly compact yet comprehensive mapping of the contemporary terrain of struggle within feminism, or amongst feminisms.

The underlying wager is that a connection can be drawn between the theoretical and experiential resources of contemporary transfeminism and those of an earlier feminist transhumanism, in such a way that the white-male-supremacism that is always seeking to inhabit and possess the mutating body of the transhuman can be checked, subverted and put to rout. This is both the resumption of a feminist political project that was active in 1990s cyberculture — notably in the symbolic and theoretical subversions of VNS Matrix — and the mutation of that project in the light of new experience, and by new theoretical means. What has to be repelled, continually, is “the facile tendency of conflation [of the universal] with bloated, unmarked particulars — namely Eurocentric universalism — whereby the male is mistaken for the sexless, the white for raceless, the cis for the real, and so on”. It is a question of discriminating the true universal from the false, and mobilising the former against the latter.

As the postmodern, in Lyotard’s formulation, precedes the modern, so the postmodernism of 90s cyberfeminism precedes and conditions the modernism of the XFM. Modernism extracts new formal techniques from the “paralogisms” of postmodern experimentation, and uses them to extend its logical apparatus. It forms a new canon from diverse materials. Thus: “From the postmoderns, we have learnt to burn the facades of the false universal and dispel such confusions; from the moderns, we have learnt to sift new universals from the ashes of the false”. In the symbolic register, a process of alchemical transmutation; in the logical register, a diagonalisation or transversal procedure.

In playing with the various different valances of “trans-” here, I’m both exploiting an affordance and signalling a danger. The danger is that trans* politics, the politics of trans existence within and against a patriarchal-capitalist and transphobic/transmisogynist social order, will end up being strip-mined for its conceptual and metaphorical resources and put into use by, well, people like me: cis people without all that much skin in the game, for whom those resources can be safely diverted into a more or less “academic” interest in gender and sexuality and so on. So there’s a question of how to affirm what the XFM affirms, which is that any contemporary feminism must be a trans-feminism and that feminism-modulo-”trans” is vitally necessary for the development of a genuinely emancipatory technoculture, without ending up making a rather instrumental and exploitative use of trans* politics, which has some pressing concerns of its own to attend to. If you’re chiefly in it, as I am, for the emancipatory technoculture, then you need to take care that the proposed adjunction between transfeminism and feminist transhumanism provides benefits in both directions.

Here there is a particular tension between the “right to speak as no-one” — access to the scientific-theoretical register, to which belong statements such as “there exists no largest prime number”, or “Earth’s climate is changing due to human release of carbon into the atmosphere” — and the right to be acknowledged as a “someone” who can speak for themselves in a radical democracy of identity positions. The former belongs to what Lyotard called “rights of the infinite”, the latter to what we might call “rights of the finite”. The XFM repudiates the assumption that the former must be subordinated to the latter — that we should seek, for example, a more “democratic” science. It is important here not to confuse science with technoculture: the argument is that in order to have an emancipatory technoculture, we need a science that acts as far as possible as a vector for the inhumanisation of knowledge, since it is this inhumanisation that renders it uniquely capable of overturning socially-entrenched positions and attachments.

In taking a stance of “gender abolitionism”, however, the XFM reveals a preference in favour of inhumanisation — in favour of the “scientific” over the “manifest” image. Should the rights of the infinite trump the rights of the finite; or (to put it more concretely) should our knowledge that gender is a social fiction trump the significance of gender identification as a social act? The XFM asserts that intersectionality — the combination, within the finitude of a subject position, of multiple identifications and attachments; or, within the finitude of lived experience, of multiple oppressions and circumscriptions — just is the generic-universal which undoes every particular identity: “Intersectionality is not the morcellation of collectives into a static fuzz of cross-referenced identities, but a political orientation that slices through every particular, refusing the crass pigeonholing of bodies”. I wish — and the manifesto wishes with me. This seems like a hyperstitional move, however: the positing of an accomplished identity that has yet to be achieved in actuality.

“Scientifically”, the conclusion to be drawn from intersectional analysis is that no cross-referencing of identities, no system of pigeonholes, can ever be adequate to the real complexity of embodied social existence. But what is socially “manifest”, at every moment of our lives, is that we are positioned by and within antagonisms that have no particular regard for that complexity. For example: transmisogyny focuses an intense hatred on “feminine” expression, especially when attached to a body sexually coded as male (and therefore as natively entitled to “masculine” expression). The open expression of a “femme” identification, in this context, brings one (whether male or female, trans or cis) into political conflict with a transmisogynist value system. We have to simultaneously know that “femme” cannot be the whole truth of anyone’s embodied existence, and uphold the right to that expression and to the identification “as” femme that supports it.

“Gender-abolitionism” is taken by today’s radfems to mean that “femme” should be eradicated, immediately or as soon as possible (and in the meantime condescended to, with a certain morose delectation, as a regrettable compromise with the malign imperatives of a fallen world); and the practical consequence of this is that the radfems fall politically into line with the transmisogynists, a consequence that the XFM denounces as an “absurd and reckless spectacle”. So the XFM must mean something different: a revision of our understanding of gender in the light of the scientific image, yes, but not simply the violent suppression of gender’s social manifestation. What, then? What emerges from consideration of this point is the extreme delicacy of the universal, the care that must be taken at every point to preserve its genericity, its quality of being “neither this nor that and both somewhat this and somewhat that”. The universal can never come to rest, assume the status of an accomplished fact; hence the XFM’s proposal of an “open platform”, governed by certain orienting principles, rather than a set of prescriptions. Even as bold a manifesto as this has to hedge somewhat — but for the best of reasons.

anonymous scenes

Announcing a new blog, dedicated to the music of Mark Eitzel and American Music Club: anonymous scenes. The first post concerns The Confidential Agent, considered as a member of the class of songs that are definitely somehow sort of about sex, and considers in passing the strange sauciness of Kate Bush, the Stürm und Drang of A-ha, and the unbearable obscenity of Perry Como.

Poem: “Referring in some way”

REFERRING IN SOME WAY to the body –
your body, mine – the field
of reference in no way a meadow

to lie down in, body-
to-body in the light of fresh
discoveries. Your field

is far-afield, neither enfolding
nor overlapping my unkempt corner,
my dream of you for now.


This is one of the Half Cocks, a series of fifty-word poems I wrote over a period of several years. The capitalised phrases at the beginnings of the poems are usually “seed phrases” of some kind, taken from elsewhere and then expanded on. I don’t remember where this one comes from, and it’s generic enough to have come from almost anywhere. So the reference is floating, unresolvable, perhaps irrecoverably lost.

A number of the Half Cocks are about dreams, and in particular about dreams of connection, intimacy (less often sexual than you might think) and reconciliation, and the feeling of waking from such dreams into a world in which the desired and (dream)-experienced proximity is lacking and seems permanently unavailable. Here the lack is explored as a lack of reference, a failure of the name or image of a person to maintain a stable connection with that person’s reality; in the first place because they are simply not there to be brought into correspondence with the token that represents them.

The gap between token and referent is reflected in the gap between “field” as metaphor – as in “field of reference” – and “field” as literal “meadow”, a place where one might lie down in pastoral comfort and closeness. (Although the latter is still arguably an image. I’ve never really enjoyed picnics. There are usually wasps). While linguistic reference permits many different “ways” for things to be connected, including words and bodies, the field of reference is “in no way” such a meadow: there is in unsurmountable barrier between the permissiveness of fantasy and the reality of human contact. It is only on the far side of that barrier that the “light” illuminating the scene can become “the light / of fresh discoveries”; that visionary dream-seeing can give way to genuine experiential novelty, rather than remaining transfixed by its own static images of fulfilment.

There is a sense of interment, and of separation as having been separately interred. The cue-words here are “far-afield” and “corner”, which in the context will recall Rupert Brooke’s “corner of a foreign field / That is forever England”. A different Half Cock poem has “clammed in sleep’s bathysphere you seek / conciliation amid disarray”: the dreamer is submerged, buried, “clammed in” or pent-up, incapable of action. The “field” is now where the bodies are buried, each in its own “unkempt” or untended corner, lacking even a shared place to “lie down” in. This is a kind of hysterical projection of the everyday feeling that the people one misses are living in a separate universe (Half Cocks has an epigraph from Geoffrey Hill’s “The Songbook of Sebastian Arrurruz” – “You are outside, lost somewhere”) and that there is no common “field of reference” that can bring these separate universes together. Even in death the disjunction must seemingly remain unresolved.

The final line is a re-ordered quotation from Auden’s, “Night covers up the rigid land”, which closes with the couplet “for now my dreams of you cannot / refer to you at all”. Auden’s lines imply finality, a dismissal: since the speaker can no longer “control the moments of your sleep, / nor hear the name you cry”, the addressee may as well “hurry to the fated spot / of your deliberate fall”. By contrast, “my dream of you for now” suggests that the speaker is tided-over by dreams, awaiting an encounter that the dream is felt to prefigure. It seems that the poem’s own internal critique of this expectation is not sufficient to force its abandonment.

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