Tag Archives: lyotard

Future Sailors: Notes on Inventing The Future (ii)

What does the “full” in “full automation” mean? Does it mean the automation of literally everything, or the automation of everything in some class of presumably-automatable things? We can rule out the former immediately, because of the halting problem. This is a more abstract, and much less interesting, reason than “what about care work?”; but it also shows that “full automation” can’t interestingly be assumed to mean the automation of literally everything: it must mean the automation of some class of presumably-automatable things, and that immediately opens up the question of how that class is to be specified. (Again, for abstract and not very interesting reasons, it can’t be specified automatically: it’s impossible to have an automatic procedure for determining whether or not something is automatable, at least if we assume that “automatable” implies “computable” in some sense).

Without totally dismissing the idea that some kinds of automation might make some kinds of care work easier to do (in the manner of “labour-saving devices”), I think we can rule out robot mental health nurses, childminders, or other kinds of looker-after-of-vulnerable-human-beings. That human beings are recurrently vulnerable in ways that require looking after, and that this looking-after isn’t amenable to automation, ought to frame our understanding of the ways in which automation can expand our capacity for action, or relieve us of the necessity of having to do certain kinds of work for ourselves. Lyotard makes the point that all human beings pass through a kind of neoteny, which we call childhood, and that this is as much “the season of the mind’s possibilities” as it is a kind of impairment. Childhood is a condition under which the things we want to do, and the things we need doing for us, are complex and dialogical, and we remain substantially under this condition as adults even if we have managed to find transitional objects to tide us over. Automation can do very little to relieve us of the work of childhood (although psychoanalysis is often concerned with a kind of automatism that takes hold in these processes, replacing dialogic tension and release with monologic fixation).

So, the Universal Abstract Subject that finds its opportunities for self-and-other-actualisation enhanced and amplified by technology is in a sense a subject separated from its childhood, a grown-up subject, with relatively stable needs and purposes. I am playing a game, and I want to be more successful at it; I script a bot to execute efficiently some of the combinations of moves I commonly have to make, or to evaluate the state of play and suggest winning strategies. Or: I have been given a well-specified and repetitive task to do, and it occurs to me that something much less intelligent than me could do it instead. Or: I offload part of the cognitive burden of detecting patterns in sensory information to a machine-learning system that has become superlatively good at noticing when something looks a bit like a cat, so that I can concentrate on something the machine-learning system isn’t quite so good at doing. What do these scenarios have in common? That the goals to be achieved are specified in advance, and that technical means exist through which they can be accomplished by a proxy agent with less and less involvement from the agent (me) whose goals they originally were.

“Full” automation, then, means that things we already know we want to do, and already know how to do, should be done less and less by us, and more and more by proxies, so that we can spend more time on things we don’t already know we want to do, or how to do. There isn’t actually any specifiable endpoint to this process: we’ll never know when we’ve finished, when we’ve automated all the things. The argument of ItF, as I understand it, is that we’re lagging a long way behind: that there are still a great many things that human beings are doing unnecessarily, because capitalism (like Sports Direct) will happily use cheap labour rather than even quite “low” technology for as long as it can get away with it. The demand for full automation is then a (perfectly reasonable) demand to “catch up” with what technology has already made possible. But the dynamic I’ve been describing here suggests that this will mean not so much the elimination of work as its ongoing transformation.

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.