Engineering the World, Crafting the Mind
When I first heard of Reza Negarestani—sometime in 2009, through the then-extremely active philosophical blogosphere coalesced around “speculative realism”—his was the kind of name whispered in dark corridors among initiates of an esoteric cult. Almost nothing was known about the mysterious and exotic Iranian author of Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials—an incestuous amalgam of Lovecraftian chthonic horrors, Islamic theology, Deleuzian hallucinations, numerology, and not-so-fictional middle-eastern geopolitics. In this period the new wave of “Weird” fiction, having undergone a massive growth in the previous few years, was finally breaking into the mainstream (and into fringe philosophical circles like the speculative realist one), and Negarestani’s theory-fiction text was surely among the weirdest and most arcane of these. It is not too much of a stretch to claim that, for a few years, Negarestani has been considered, by many wide-eyed anglophone graduate students, as a kind of philosophical Abdul Alhazred: where feverish interest for this obscure and provocative writer/philosopher was shot through with a kind orientalist fascination for the middle-eastern outsider.
Haven’t you read Negarestani? The prophet of the gospel of “mad black Deleuzianism,” proselytizing on little-known niche philosophical blogs? This veil of mystery was also wryly exploited, in a characteristically tongue-in-cheek manner, by his editor and good friend Robin MacKay—mastermind of Urbanomic, which will soon, with collaboration with Sequence Press, publish Negarestani’s second book, Intelligence and Spirit—who a few years ago infamously stated, during a symposium, that “Reza Negarestani does not exist!” I wouldn’t be surprised if many, at the time, suspected that MacKay’s revelation could have been truthful: was Reza Negarestani really just a nome de plume, the product of MacKay’s cynical self-marketing move? The reality is, as it is often the case, more prosaic and trivial than this extravagant series of rumours and half-truths suggested. When I first met Reza, he didn’t quite match this awe-inducing persona, as the thin, bespectacled, and soft spoken man looks more like a mild-mannered piano tutor than a crazed theoretical alchemist.
Before and After Cyclonopedia
Fabio Gironi: As far as I can tell, the elusiveness of Reza Negarestani in the years 2003 to 2012 was due to a combination of your dislike for public exposure and bureaucratic issues with your travel visas. Spotlight-shy and Iranian: not the best combination to be a jet-setting celebrity philosopher. Now that you are, more or less, out in the open, I would like to ask you to do something you probably would rather not do: give us, finally, a brief biographical sketch of the person behind the name. What was it like to grow up, as a man and as an intellectual, in Iran? How and why did you develop a taste for philosophy?
Reza Negarestani: Yes, I am afraid that behind the mystique lies a mundane reality, which is at times weirder than fiction and at times uneventfully ordinary. On the mundane side, I should say that a mixture of draconian travel restrictions imposed on the Middle Easterners, as well as the justified paranoia of being watched at home, significantly contributed to what you call my “fictional status.” When you are deprived of both an outside and an inside, you have no choice other than being an arcane fiction, something that can only be whispered about. The latter is an opportunity to entirely renegotiate the very reality of who you take yourself to be. That is when reality can potentially exceed in its strangeness and weirdness what we call an ordinary fiction. And I did indeed exploit this opportunity to break away from the world in which unfettered thinking was a crime.
I grew up in Shiraz, a city which is considered as one of the most liberal places in Iran, famous for its long tradition of poetry and, of course, wine—of which today you can only get the former. A good portion of my childhood and teenage years coincided with post-Revolutionary changes and the Iran-Iraq war. Only retrospectively I can now say that I have been thoroughly shaped by this landscape where people didn’t have the luxury to think about the future, change, or higher ideals. All that mattered was how to survive from one day to another while standing in long queues to get the coupon for your meal—which could be very well your last. Given the financial constraints in this period, my sister and I had a weekly allowance which was not sufficient to buy toys or go to a theatre. It was only enough to buy books. That was the beginning of my slow entry to the realm of philosophy.
During the frequent air raids and blackouts, my sister used to read me French fairly tales like the Countess of Segur, Persian folklore, Russian science-fiction, or cloak and dagger stories by the likes of Zevaco and Dumas. This sustained indoctrination brought me to the conclusion, at an early age, that all I wanted was to be a writer. My first encounter with philosophy was the Milesian school of the pre-Socratic philosophy. I was fascinated by their cosmological philosophy, but for me philosophy was still something of a mystery. In my high school years, I was enamoured with experimental avant-garde literature and poetry, and could only see philosophy as an auxiliary field. Around the early 1990s, I came across an English collection of Deleuze, Bataille, Barthes, and Foucault, and that’s when I thought: if this is philosophy then I want to be a philosopher. If you know the middle-eastern social climate, you know that there are only two respectable paths forward, either become a doctor or an engineer. I was expected to become a doctor after passing the entrance exam. I didn’t perform well because during the last two years of my high school, I pretended to be assiduously studying the required materials while hiding philosophy books between my science books, reading them in the class and at home. And so I ended up in a system engineering course, because to me it looked closer to philosophy. I took Heidegger’s identification of cybernetics as the metaphysics of the atomic age not as an insult, but an idea worth exploring, both technically and philosophically. Since I seriously started engaging with philosophy, I have never looked back or dreamed of doing anything else.
The post-war intellectual scene was quite inhomogeneous. Academia was monomaniacally focused around Islamic theology rather than philosophy, so the true intellectual scenes were disconnected clusters of few committed people who were translating foreign works and disseminating them among trusted circles of friends. Contemporary works of philosophy were scarce, and hard to find. Every time that we had the opportunity of coming across a new work, we were treating it as if we have discovered a treasure trove. It is only with the rise of the Internet in Iran at the end of 1990s that some of us finally stumbled on these new online scenes which were somehow similar to what we were trying to do with philosophy and experimental fiction in our own isolated world. That’s why I disagree with those friends who think the Internet, blogs and social media are rife for intellectual inanity. We didn’t take anything as given, and that includes the Internet. For us, it was more like a generation spaceship that could finally bring us into contact with an exciting new world, where we naively thought every westerner is a philosopher and western civilization is brimming with intellectual excitements.
Fabio Gironi: As much as the memorable phrase “online orgy of stupidity” (referred to the philosophical blogosphere) still makes me chuckle, I agree with your opinion. I too, mutatis mutandis, had a similar experience: there was something pretty exciting about the online philosophical environment in the mid-2000s, and it is undeniable that this virtual undergrowth allowed people from “intellectual peripheries” (mostly from non-Anglophone countries) to join a fertile conversation.
Reza Negarestani: When stupidity and the apologetics of ignorance are treated as expressions of intellectual egalitarianism or freedom, then their valorisation as universal virtues is inevitable. The so-called orgy of stupidity becomes a planetary phenomenon that spans across the para-academic sphere, Internet and academia are no exception. However, we should also take into account the fact that the majority of people who were or are engaging with philosophy online are young people. Privileging intellectual excitement over cognitive rigor is an essential trait of the youth. It is a positive trait if it is transformed into a gateway to the strange domains of systematic thinking where philosophy is truly the voice of no one. But such a transition can only happen with the support and sympathy of older generations. A generation that ridicules the youth, how they do things or how they think and does not counsel them or give them a hand of support does not deserve to be commemorated. It should rather sink into oblivion.
Fabio Gironi: I suspect that, had been written without this virtual window, Cyclonopedia would have been a very different book, as it is shot through with elements of latter-day cyberculture of clear post-CCRU pedigree. But it is more than that: your biographical sketch gives some support to my feeling—gotten when re-reading parts of it recently—that Cyclonopedia is something of a messy, explosive release of the richness of your intellectual life, imprinting on the pages some of its most significant formative influences: from the use of post-Deleuzian jargon to the references to Zoroastrian and Islamic theology, from F.M. Cornford to mathematical formalism, from Middle-Eastern geopolitics to Lovecraftian horror. These complex influences are made explicit by its form as they are from its content: it is consistently hard to tell where the “weird fiction” novel begins (if ever) and where the philosophical “monograph” ends. How was Cyclonopedia gestated? What made you write it?
Reza Negarestani: Yes, the Internet experience or what I used to call the virtual encounter of the third kind was immensely significant mainly for two reasons. As you say, I stumbled upon a whole new continent of connections. It was absolutely impossible for me to not be influenced by these new scenes. The second reason is because I realized that the Internet is itself fertile for experimentation or to use the CCRU jargon, a crypt full of demons, avatars, spatio-temporal warps, puppets, etc. It was almost like a videogame editor software through which you could manipulate the very fabric of the game-reality.
The initial idea of Cyclonopedia was already there before discovering these new connections: a mixture of twisted Persian fairy tales, socio-politically charged folklore, and persistent geopolitical unrest. My aim was to not approach these ideas as a writer who excessively cares about the refinement of the literary craft or the values of literature but rather as an engineer. So that’s when I put my formal education in system engineering in the service of writing a book. From the start I treated it not exactly as a novel or a work of philosophy, but as system endowed with abstract tendencies, trajectories which evolve over time, unpredictable behaviours, multiple scales of information content, etc. As a writer, all I did was to trigger—to a use a system engineer’s expressions—the initial state of the system and let it to have a life of its own. The messiness you are rightly referring to is the result of two different issues. My under-performance as a writer at the level of execution, and my intention as someone who tries to emulate as best as possible the climate of the Middle East, which was my immediate zone of experience. I wrote Cyclonopedia with only one priority, constructing a sense of syncretism and paranoia: both characteristics of the contemporary Middle East. Good fiction can simulate these features, but to emulate and re-enact them one requires to find and invent similar mechanisms that can generate the kind of paranoia, chronic horror, and fertile syncretism which are peculiar to the Middle Mast, rather than describing or reiterate them via the literary medium.
To achieve this goal, the first step was to build on the idea of the unreliable narrator and take it to a different level, using the Internet as an ideal environment that should be taken as seriously as real life. The main experience I wanted to achieve was the branching paranoia of the reader as an initiation to the horrors yet to come: who is this person? Is this some hoax gone bad? Or is it something more sinister? Some clues lead nowhere, some are just plainly ridiculous and some do in fact lead to more intriguing clues which might be very well false. I was less interested in turning reality into fictional quantiles than taking apart reality including my own, dimension by dimension, so as to reinvent it on the level of an unrecognizable fiction. To that end, of course, I had to start with my own avatar as the author. All I can say is that it takes at least three years to refabricate yourself—the author of your text—into the puppet of your fiction.
Fabio Gironi: How do you look back to it now (the question every writer loathes)? Even accounting for the difference in genres, it seems fair to say that your style has changed rather dramatically in the last decade or so: there is little left of the influences of poetry and of the peculiar kind of post-post-structuralist avantgarde wordplay and terminology that characterizes many writers influenced by Nick Land. I think you still have a very recognizable style, but your philosophical writing now has a deliberate and incisive quality that wasn’t there even in your early theoretical pieces.
Reza Negarestani: Yes, predictably I do detest to talk about that book, not only because in hindsight I think it fails to perform and reach the level of its ambitions, but also, because I started writing it sometime around 2002. It took almost three years to finish it. By the time it was finally published I had moved on to different territories. Now, it feels as if Cyclonopedia has been written by a different person—not to resurrect the usual myths—or by me but in a different lifetime. However, I think this question is quite important for any aspiring philosopher or theorist who wants to travel across different areas of expression and inquiry. I have produced quite a few short pieces of fiction and experimental writing since Cyclonopedia. It’s not that I have given up on this extreme form of experimentalism, it’s just that I have realized the rigorous psychosis of experimental writing needs to be implemented within specific parameters and contexts. I imagined Cyclonopedia more as a fiction even though I did not follow the norm of literature. So, it was necessary for Cyclonopedia to have a distinct style. But I agree with you that my style has changed over years. This is because I have come to the realization, after learning the hard lesson, that not everything needs to be stylized or aesthetized.
Style is something that is intrinsic to how one cognizes and re-cognizes the world. It is not, however, a way of peddling ideas or look cutting-edge or scholarly. Philosophy demands as its first priority semantic transparency and a theoretically uncompromising attitude: you should go wherever the impersonal concept takes you, in spite of your psychological convictions. Semantic constraints don’t eliminate the style, rather they positively constrain it so that there is no longer a way to mask the conservatism of content behind syntactic gimmicks, stylistic contrivances, and a libidinal prose. It is in the latter sense that style should be seen as a spurious elitism in opposition to egalitarian semantic transparency, and as such it should be handled with utmost suspicion. When approached systematically and as an unwavering task, thinking is a subversive activity in the broadest possible sense, not only against socio-cultural conventions but also against the most cherished dogmas of the human species. To become the vehicle of this cognitive subversion, one should, at least in the domain of theory, commit to semantic resoluteness or perspicuity in favour of syntactic or stylistic revolutions. This is because the latter, as I implied, is susceptible to safeguard the most conservative, conformist forms of thought in the name of radicality, polysemy, creative ambivalence and the so-called righteous fight against the tyranny of meaning and collective norms of thinking.
Fabio Gironi: It seems to me that you speak having some precise examples in mind here…
Reza Negarestani: Well, take for instance François Laruelle and Nick Land, fundamentally different thinkers and writers. Without questioning or doubting the merits of Laruelle’s work, I think there is a cognitive lesson to be learned here. Once you almost flatten the distinction between content and form, once you unwittingly develop an increasingly esoteric style, then you inevitably open yourself to reappropriation by the most dubious sects. Save for some glaring exceptions, Laruelle’s thought has been hijacked by new age mysticism, politically-motivated negative theology, and colonial pessimism masqueraded as the voice of decolonial emancipation. Land on the other hand is a self-conscious stylist. His industriously crafted libidinal prose is less a product of a harbinger of semantic apocalypse who wages an all-out war against meaning (or inadvertent stylistic overexcitement) than it is a mundane yet effective mobilization of style to recruit the impressionable and those who are tired, rightly so, by stale and intellectually frustrating philosophy. But beneath the facade of this titillating, libidinally charged, and insinuating prose lies a philosophically and politically conservative writer, whose ideas of cybernetics and complexity hasn’t advanced since the 1970s, whose brand of social Darwinism as cosmological laws can be effectively debunked by an undergraduate in physics, and whose idea of the will-to-think is no more than mere a lacquer over petty psychological fixations.
In a nutshell, Land is one of the greatest English-language writers alive, but being a great writer is not, by itself, a register of insight or profundity. It can very well be the symptom of someone who wants to think but is plagued with incessant poetic tics which are purely automatic and non-cognitive. In contrast to these examples, let’s mention Carnap (the writer of the Logical Syntax of Language), Wilfrid Sellars and—a more recent example—Lorenz Puntel, author of Structure and Being. These authors might strike the reader as boring, or even intolerably pedantic. But once you suspend your learned biases, you can see that they are much more exciting, subversive and rebellious than those who boast philosophical egalitarianism and the great outdoors of thought all the while under the shroud of fighting orthodoxy, indulging in conformism, conservatism and intellectual idleness.
Fabio Gironi: This reminds me one of those aphorisms Ray (Brassier) is so good at formulating: “in the conceptual element proper to theory, experiment at the level of form can mask conservativism at the level of content (…) while conservativism at the level of form may harbour extraordinary radicality at the level of content.”
Reza Negarestani: Of course, unsystematic or merely psychologically and libidinally fuelled form, no matter how radical it might be, is by definition a whitewash over prejudices and rooted dogmas. This does not mean that any adventurist who experiments with form tries to intentionally hide the superficiality of the content but rather that, as long as the stylistic form is overpriviledged against the content, we can never be sure what kinds of conservative and myopic ideas lie beneath, our intellectual vigilance notwithstanding. This is not to say that we should exactly imitate Carnap’s semantic acuity and syntactic stringency. The very fact that someone like Land manages to convert young people at a relatively large scale should not only be alarming but also objectively understood. Philosophy should strive for semantic transparency—no matter what the consequences. However, it does not mean we should forgo with libidinal and emotional implications of thinking. If there is an idea of the left that we ought to preserve and promote—in either the philosophical or the political register—it should be simultaneously systematic, semantically open and libidinally conscious. Ideas take time to develop. To disseminate them, however, one has to not only go through the toil of back-and-forth critiques but also commit to the interpersonal emotional labour.
Fabio Gironi: I thoroughly agree, but let me challenge you on this, also in order to introduce another topic I want to touch. In the most general terms, mainstream academic philosophy today fails to have a significant or even quantifiable grip on society at large because of both stylistic and content-related gates (and indeed a context-specific form of this phenomenon is what drove you away from academic philosophy and towards engineering in your youth). As a reaction to this—and to the dismal state of the academic job market—in the last decade or so we have been witnessing the growth of so-called “para-academic philosophy.” This is composed by a loose assemblage of individuals with no or marginal connections with traditional academic institutions, often having heterogeneous backgrounds (from the arts to mathematics), who come together in virtual—and occasionally real—spaces to do the kind of speculative, synoptic, or “avantgarde” thinking that would be frowned upon within philosophy departments.
But avantgardes always act like double-edged swords. On the one hand, they can function as spaces to forge genuinely new and necessary conceptual connections, and to respond to the most pressing but unexplored intellectual necessities of the present. On the other, the very process of “creating novelty” can exercise a grip on impressionable intellects in a way that almost completely bypasses understanding and goes straight for the libidinal dimension of thought—even where the content is genuinely progressive. To put it bluntly then: how do you—Reza Negarestani one of the, like it or not, “hottest” philosophers in this particular microcosm of para-academic philosophy that flourished after the dissipation of the “speculative realist” scene—avoid the production of unreflective followers jotting down on paper “Negarestanian” word salads? Doesn’t the para-academic environment, with its drive to flatten traditional pedigrees and gateways, inevitably invite a headlong repurposing of complex, not fully-digested ideas that can, in the worst-case scenario, merely amount to a new terminological orthodoxy, a self-congratulatory rebellious attitude, and ultimately just a new kind of tribalism? Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to re-establish myopic vetting procedures, and I am also convinced that you cannot do good philosophy without being excited (both a cognitive and a practical excitement) by a problem or a thinker. But I am wary of having this affect be the drive of philosophical production, no matter how well-intended the individual, how straight the moral compass, or how progressive the conceptual delivery.
Reza Negarestani: Ironically enough, I wanted to say earlier that I’m more concerned with the lack of constraints in para-academia than the abundance of constraints in academia, some of which are fundamentally necessary—while some unfortunately myopic. Let me start by saying this: even in the presence of non-myopic and required vetting procedures, there is still a good chance that unintelligible or vastly intellectually sub-standard works creep through the great filters of academia. As an example, when Harvard University Press publishes a book on computation and culture that is riddled with patently false claims about concepts developed in computer science, filled with bizarre overextended analogies, fallacies of reasoning which would be covered in a Philosophy 101 course, and questionable references—the sort of book that might be derided as an exercise in para-academic vacuity—then we should realize that such constraints are merely necessary. They are not by any means sufficient to guarantee rigorous and consequential works. There are of course differences among academic publishers as well, some are more vigilant about the content. But a good portion of them publish works as long as they conform to the convention of academic writing and format. This is not all, in the current form of academia, tutors are forced to make many compromises out of diplomacy or bureaucracy. But one can only make so many practical compromises before compromising the theoretical core of its convictions.
Sellars has this wonderful essay on Plato where he talks about the difference between conventions (for example, the building code instituted by the builder’s guild) and objective principles (practices absolutely necessary to make a house that can withstand the passage of time and serve a purpose, namely, sheltering people). The kind of constrains we should strive for and uphold are of the latter kind. Academic conventions can be useful for streamlining the practice of doing philosophy, but as conventions they can also be corruptible just like the codes of a builder’s guild that by virtue of having monopoly over some material ingredients dictates that all houses must be built using this or that material only.
I admit that in the past I have been facile. I used to see all sorts of academic constraints as essentially restricting. It is only when you see the flaws and harsh realities of both para-academia and academia that you grow out of your intellectual slumber. You no longer take pride in having as many followers as possible. You in fact become suspicious of such a phenomenon. There are many friends and readers who now feel betrayed by my more recent work. But a philosopher is a traitor par excellence. A philosopher should not swear allegiance to this or that thinker, this or that trend: the only alliance is with thinking, and thought always betrays the established order of things. To resolutely answer your question: I think if we take the idea of para-academia seriously as a true alternative, an oasis for uncompromising thought rather than a safe haven for anti-academic hubris and individualistic amusements, then we need to have a much lengthier conversation about the adoption of objective constraints, addressing the issues of financial infrastructure, organization, and the ethics of auto-didacticism.
Auto-didacticism is a drudgery, it’s like fighting on multiple fronts while the supply line has been cut off. Nevertheless, in the end—provided you have survived—it can prove more useful in the study of philosophy than academic training.
The latter is particularly important, how to train ourselves, how to turn our lives into an open-ended philosophical life while at the same time grapple with social and economic limitations and survive, how to build a platform for self-discipline that can psychologically and materially sustain us, and so on and so forth. Auto-didacticism in philosophy is not just about the gradual implementation of intellectual self-discipline but also about logistics, of how to stay alive, to live a satisfying life, to financially survive. Without sounding as if I’m romanticising auto-didacticism, I would say that an autodidact has a better chance of identifying and being consciousness of both negative and positive constraints in philosophy or theory than an academic. Auto-didacticism is a drudgery, it’s like fighting on multiple fronts while the supply line has been cut off. Nevertheless, in the end—provided you have survived—it can prove more useful in the study of philosophy than academic training insofar as it makes you desensitized against the ephemeral trends. Over time, your philosophy becomes your life, and vice versa. One becomes intellectually insecure, an insecurity that fuels more learning, more work. It is celebrated rather than repulsed. Having dispensed with the cosy academic position, you never settle for anything, whether it is a research trajectory, your position in the landscape of theory or your conception of yourself as a person.
Coming back to your question about affect: if by “philosophical production” we mean the developmental phase then yes, to prioritize affect over systematic thinking will only result in re-entrenching egocentric views and the liberal soap opera of opinions. However, if we by production we mean the dissemination phase, then I disagree. Shrugging off affect and emotional labour at the level of dissemination of ideas is a sure recipe for what is already the status quo, an incestuous circle of like-minded people talking to each other and a mainstream population frustrated by the arcane discourse of intellectuals. One might object that it is not the job of theorists and philosophers to make their idea vulgar in the original sense “of the people.” I would say that it absolutely is. Hoping for some trickle-down division of cognitive labour in which someone at some point will make these ideas accessible and popular is but a wishful thinking. Every philosopher or theorist should be both an impersonal vector of cognitive hardship and affective labour, without confounding the nature and context of the two.
Fabio Gironi: I don’t want to seem prejudiced against the idea of para-academia: academia is a sick institution and often certain ideas and concepts of questionable utility, whose vagueness is carefully weaponized in order to strike a balance between accessibility and alleged profundity, manage to capture the attention of undiscerning readers also because of the institutional imprimatur granted by “proper” academic publishers, as you noted above. Indeed, your defence of autodidacticism and celebration of intellectual insecurity as a virtue strikes me as necessary, and very timely. But it is also somewhat old-fashioned—I should say ancient. It is no coincidence that your work channels elements from both ancient Greek philosophy and Confucian and post-Confucian Chinese thought in order to defend and celebrate a certain ideal of education, far removed from how this is today understood in the neo-liberal University. Education means more than factual learning: it is rather a concept that refers to a comprehensive intellectual, ethical, and social building and realization of the individual’s potentials—paideia, as the Greeks would put it.
If I’m not mistaken, in the general economy of your thought this has important ramifications that go beyond the inter-generational development of philosophical thought, or even individual self-cultivation (important as they are) and that directly pertain to a progressive and emancipatory political project. As you say, philosophers today tend to have a thinly-veiled disdain for the idea of education, as if their abstractions would be deflated or defiled when interpreted as somehow instrumental for individual character-building—a quintessential academic malaise, betraying the classical ideal of philosophy (as someone like Pierre Hadot has forcefully argued). So, is education—and a philosophy of education—a concept that should be reintroduced, or at the very least updated, in the vocabulary of contemporary philosophy, but also reclaimed as a central topic of political discussion?
Reza Negarestani: Precisely, I would trace such ideas of auto-didacticism back to ancient philosophy, and also works of Islamic philosophers such as Ibn al-Nafis and Ibn Tufail. For them auto-didacticism did not solely mean being self-taught. It was something much more, almost a cosmological conviction about what thinking is and what it can do, and of course what the philosophical individual Will can achieve or contribute in this cosmological scenario of thinking without established arbitrary limitations. The central theme is, as you mentioned, education. Comprehensively understood, education is an extension of philosophy of mind and autonomy. This definition, however, requires a far more expansive formulation of the concept of mind than how it is addressed today.
Without going into much details, this is mind as a recognitive-cognitive space, that is to say, mind both as a social dimension and mind as the “dimension of structure” to use Puntel’s term, or with some caveats, intelligibility (if one looks for a more familiar term). Take intelligibility out and the talk of intelligence in any sense becomes absurd if not impossible. The necessary correlation between the intelligible and intelligence constitutes the core of philosophy of mind and by extension education. But when it comes to the intelligible we should, following Plato and Confucius, speak of different kinds of intelligibilities, in order to avoid narrowing down the idea of the intelligible to theoretical intelligibilities—rather, we should to distinguish and identify theoretical, practical and axiological intelligibilities. Education, in this sense, is concerned with the expansion of intelligibilities which are no longer merely theoretical. And it is in conjunction with the expansion of intelligibilities, in the broadest sense, that we can talk about the cultivation of intelligence or mind as a collective project. This cultivation which is captured in the concept of education is properly speaking the cultivation of autonomy not intended as the end of education but as its very premise. Hegel would have called this concept of autonomy that is entangled with education—or what he calls the quaking of the Will—the concrete self-consciousness which is a matter of practical achievement, a self-consciousness that conceives and transforms itself by seeking its intelligibility in not only the satisfaction and the intelligibility of another self-consciousness but also objective reality. Plato would have called this conception of education—the necessary reinforcing link between the expansion of intelligibilities and the cultivation of intelligence—the craftsmanship of the soul, what likens the human mind to the Good itself, the form of forms. Chinese philosophy characterizes it as the cosmological Dao in the sense of both travelling down a path and the path of way-making. Sellars in his essay The Soul as Craftman, following Plato, calls it cosmological politics.
Now, being a reaction to global market and economic demands, the idea of education today is hopelessly bipolar. It is either on the side of pure theoretical intelligibility, as instantiated by the empirical sciences, or on the side of pure social intersubjectivity, practices and values, disconnected from modern science. Intersubjectivity without objective reality is a formula for a kitsch culture of virtue-mongering where values increasingly elude the purview of facts, and fear of objective thinking becomes a social convention. On the other hand, science and theoretical focus on objective reality without intersubjectivity leads to something akin to today’s neoliberal science which in having dispensed with criteria of normativity, values and ethics in general ironically traffics the most dogmatic form of politics and human conservatism in the name of scientific or naturalistic disenchantment. These pathologies of education are prevalent as much on the left and as on the right. However, I think intersubjectivity without criteria of objective reality is becoming increasingly the cognitive curse of the left while science without fact-value distinction or the metalogical standards of normativity and ethics is turning into a guard-dog for the most dogmatic strains of philosophy and right-wing politics: techno-traditionalism, social Darwinism, and even feudalism and monarchy.
What is the solution to the current pathologies of mind as manifested in our systems of education? I think the first step to address the problem coherently, even before attempting to resolve it, should be that of a coordinated movement across the socio-political spectrum. The aim of this movement should be to update our existing educational system, both methodologically and theoretically in the sense of alterative theories of education which are as much informed by developmental psychology as they are refined by neuroscience and computation, while at the same time developing a much more expansive concept of education, where the latter would be construed as a goal rather than a premise for autonomy and collective self-determination. The task then would be to coordinate our existing systems with the all-encompassing radical concept of education, whose concrete realization is our long-term goal. But to take any of these steps we need to first concretely acknowledge that it is politics that should treat education as an unconditional factor, not the other way around.
As long as, we are not willing to recognize education in the aforementioned sense as the scaffolding upon which any political movement should be built we are doomed to live in the status quo. Short of an unconditional prioritization of education, all we ever can hope for are quick fixes accompanied with phases of socio-political overexcitement which soon fizzle out, leading us to a position which was worse than before. Politics without education as its premise can never maintain its long-term traction. It effectively exempts itself from the concerns of the next generations. But what is a politics without the potential concerns for next generations—whoever or whatever they might be—if not an extension of our egotism and selfishness here and now? While I consider myself a leftist, I nevertheless think that my frustration with the left is precisely the issue of education. Look at something like left accelerationism: where is the acknowledgment of education or developmental psychology i.e. nurturing as the unconditional factor? Where is your logistical-financial and organizational plan for education? If you lack these then no matter how much you insist on egalitarian ends, you are not going to attain them. However, being the hopeless leftist that I am, I believe that left, has “in principle” more chance to concretely address the issue of education than the right.
I believe in something like a universalist paradigm of education or equality of minds. Here, the appellation universal does not mean a pre-conceived global paradigm that can be indiscriminately imposed upon everyone. Education is all about context sensitivity, fulfilling local exigencies. But at the same time, I think there are deep cognitive frameworks which are common to us all and can be augmented under a universal or global framework. I think Kant was onto something important. His hierarchies of faculties as elaborated under the rubric of transcendental psychology—i.e. the necessary conditions for the possibility for having a mind—are not merely a trivial or arbitrary list of faculties. They were as much a necessary list of abilities as they were an example of an epistemological inquiry into the specific modes of cognition required for critical and objective thinking. For example, what he calls sensibility, reproductive and productive imagination, understanding and reason are actually necessary “classes” or “types” for being a minded subject. If we believe in the equality of all minds then we ought to also believe in complex recipes that can universally augment such necessary classes, regardless of whether we belong to different geographic locations, ethnicities, or even species.
Fabio Gironi: The delicate question of universalism was indeed my next target. Those who grew up intellectually in the leftist academic environment of the late twentieth century were taught, more or less explicitly, that “universalism” is something of a taboo term. Indeed, you just mentioned the left’s penchant for intersubjectivity without objectivity—that is to say for a celebration of irreducible particularities, local practices, identities and so on—which renounces global and universalist ambitions. Now, I think that this anti-totalizing intellectual season (a former teacher of mine once told me how, sometime in the mid-80s, he witnessed a heckler shout “you totalizing bastard!” during a public talk by Fredric Jameson—this peculiar “insult” always makes me chuckle) was a necessary step, contextually justified by a certain post-World War II socio-political environment. However, it has now become unreflective doxa, leading to a counterproductive knee-jerk reaction against a whole constellation of ideas and concepts—many of which you are explicitly committed to. Universalism is one of those and (neo)rationalism is another, and the two are obviously related.
This stance of yours has occasionally led you to a collision course with, let’s say, more “orthodox” leftists, since all too often universalism is equated with authoritarianism, while neo-rationalism is confused with dogmatism and blinkered logicism (just like any talk of “norms” is taken to be an implicit call for normalization—may Foucault save us all!). As if “rationalism” in general was always necessarily guided by an ambition of comprehensive and total control: a reactionary intellectual orientation for the preservation of good societal order, the adversary of the philosophical and political projects prioritizing the bottom-up affective development of vectors of individual freedom. What are the methods and goals of the universalist rationalism?
Reza Negarestani: Calling yourself a rationalist universalist is even worse, it is doubly taboo. It is akin to identifying yourself as an agent of some totalitarian nightmare straight out a postmodern parody where you actually take pride in having a poor sense of humour, being cretinous and shamelessly insensitive. The corresponding image would be not O’Brien from 1984 but a villain from a Donald Barthelme’s story who just wants to liquidate people using absurdist methods for the sheer experimental joy of it. So, the question, as you brought it up, is: how did we come to have such a cultural perception about reason or universalism? Can we ever step outside of this culture? If the answer is positive, what can we accomplish by doing so? And correspondingly, if we continue to remain in this culture what do we lose or risk? The answer to these questions is obviously not straightforward. It requires not just a historical analysis of economic and social conditions using adequately objective diagnostic tools, but also a system of thought for imagining and concretely building an alternative world, one that does not begin with the year zero but is built in continuity with the existing one which we currently inhabit. Both, of course, require the adoption, refinement and development of our concepts of reason and universality as the first step.
As you mentioned, given the historical contamination of these concepts, there is an immense work to be done not just to gain the trust of people but also to repair or discard their negative aspects in theory and practice. Let me begin with universalism. I see universalism as a necessary, concrete and global labour of collectivization. It is very much in tandem with the idea of concrete self-consciousness or collective self-determination as a matter of practical achievement built simultaneously on inter-subjectivity and objectivity, particularities and universalities which are a priori. Even in our particularities and differences, we always begin with abstract or formal universalities, things like being concept-users, private thoughts which are modelled on a public language, deep cognitive faculties and categories which even in their specificity have universal logical structures. So, in a sense, we already live in a universalist state, albeit an abstract one. We are experiencing, thinking and acting individuals to the extent that we are socially constituted through and through. Kant and Hegel—despite their shortcomings in appreciating the true consequences of the sociality of mind—make this point quite clear: we could not have experience—through which it is possible to develop a conception of ourselves in the world—in the first place, if we did not have some shared repertoire of universal and necessary conditions. Speaking of experience as something originally particular or individual is hardly anything more than a symptom of a purely solipsistically perspectival view that is irreconcilable with the reality represented by cognitive science, logic, computation, mathematics, and even evolutionary biology.
However, there is nothing in this abstract universality that safeguards it from pathologies of individuation and particularism precisely because the real social conditions in which it is embedded can in fact be pathological as it is the case. So, universalism in its genuine form is the concrete and critical expression of universalities at the level of real social conditions. And its aim is the maximization of the capacities to think and act, to entertain and actualize possibilities beyond the confines of the existing world in which we live—a world that purports to be a completed totality. To achieve this aim, to build a new world in which the possibility of disenthralled thinking and action coincides with possibilities of a world in which the individual and social problems and pathologies are resolved, however, is impossible without first responding systematically and rationally to the constrains of the world in which we already live. In this sense, I would say universalism is at its core concerned with world-building or more precisely world-engineering to the extent that our premise, resource and space of labour is always this world and not some imaginary world or an afterlife heaven. The possible world cannot be one that is sealed off from this world, a universe or a commune that exists parallel to our world. The former is merely a fantasy, the latter is not only phantasmic but also parasitic upon the pathologies the real world without even realizing it.
To sum up, the path to concrete universalism always begins from particularities of our experience of the world which are constituted by abstract universalities. So, in a sense, the trajectory of universalism should always begin from local conditions of thinking and action, rather than a purported universal condition under which we can all be integrated and unified. But this trajectory does not end with the local, it must pass through stages and encompass the global conditions of thinking and action. Remaining in the ambit the local is actually what suffers from a delusive idealism, not universalism. Why? Because this localism abides by the myth of a closed system in which jobs can get done effectively and perfectly. But a closed system is simply an idealized state, to mistake an idealized model with the messy reality is a hallmark of credulity. Not to mention, the microlocalist setup is destined to be afflicted with what I call theoretical-practical Habsburg syndrome, i.e., you end up breeding thoughts and actions which are increasingly less optimal to address your initial ambitions and problems. In other words, the logarithmic curve of thinking and acting which were supposed to optimally solve your local problems suddenly drops after a sufficient time, precisely because you run out of computational or cognitive resources, the majority of them you have chosen to call enemies. Without interaction with the environment, your system becomes ever more fragile and soon a premature death knocks at your door.
Fabio Gironi: So what are the main obstacles and resistances posed to universalism by its detractors, and how can they be countered?
Reza Negarestani: With regard to the demand to resurrect rationalist universalism—or more broadly the rationalist reconstruction of the world to appropriate the Vienna Circle as opposed to the Frankfurt School—there are at least three major objections:
(1) Universalism will flatten differences and is ultimately, another form of imposed global order whose parameters are set in advance. In response to this objection, I would say that yes this was the case with old traditions of universalism coming from European thinkers such as Kant. But concrete universalism cannot be imagined without the non-trivial or synthetic integration of local conditions. A paradigm of universalism that does not respond to local exigencies in their own context is only a disguised imperialism.
(2) The second objection might come from a communitarian perspective: surely we can build a world sealed off from the pathological systems that plague this planet. I counter this claim by saying that this supposed world is built on two presuppositions: (a) You are implicitly endorsing a metaphysical totality in which everything that is going on in this world of ours has been assimilated by a pathological system (e.g., Capitalism) but this totality is only an illusion which you have chosen to take for reality; (b) your commune in fact parasitizes on the affordances provided by our world. The alleged purity of your thoughts and actions is actually made possible by the pathologies from which you think you have diverged. Your commune is not a solution but only another anonymous contribution to the status quo.
(3) The third objection comes from the neoreactionary doctrine: the whole pursuit of universalism is misguided, for we are particular individuals so entrenched in the particularities of our experiences and ideologies that any recipe for universalism is nothing more than a fable for naive ideologues. My retort to this third objection is: ok, let us believe that universalism, hegemony-construction and consensus-building are just the logics of illusion. But surely your neoreactionary island requires a certain labor to integrate the like-minded individuals. In this process, you have assumed that doctrinal preferences trump over individual preferences, but you are sadly mistaken. For even in your neoreactionary island, you should deal with the problems of hegemony and consensus, albeit in a restricted scope. It is not that your idea of universalism is naïve—even though it really is but rather that you cannot even fathom the scope of particularities. Even in the case of people subscribing to the same agenda, we are always the creatures of our own particular experiences.
There is no such a thing as a zero-claim doctrine. If we look at the early doctrine of fascism—particularly its Italian offshoot—we realize that this is precisely how fascism took root. It began with the claim that we indeed have no claim, no recipe because all recipes are oppressive.
Now, an advocate of neoreaction might object that the institution of such islands does not require any form of unified ideology or consensus-building. Biorealism, or cybernetic circuitry of capitalism and untethered economic competition, can effectively consolidate those who have enlisted for neoractionary experimentations. But again, what is missing in such scenarios is a deeper understanding of the scope of human experiential particularities as dynamic perturbations of the system. Over time, even minor disturbances will have cumulative effects which, if not attended to in a context-sensitive manner, are guaranteed to throw the entire system into disarray. As for biorealist schemas, even if they were more than unscientific and dogmatic fantasies about nature—which they aren’t—that could consolidate and orient populations at an accelerated rate in the fashion depicted by Theodore Sturgeon in his story Microcosmic God: they will be still impinged upon by norms and personal desires of individuals. Not to mention, that the apt metaphor for natural selection is nature as a slow tinkerer rather than a great accelerator. What I would say to my neoreactionary friends is that to the extent that they do not take seriously the depths of incommensurable experiences, their island will eventually sink. For they think that in the Hobbesian game-theoretic jungle, all you need to do is to ward off enemies and make islands for those who believe in the same social experimentations. But as time passes, the Hobbes Inferno will exact its revenge upon you. Without an adequate understanding of particularities even when a common ideology or a so-called universal method of pruning is at stake, you will end up not just devouring your enemies but also eating your kin alive.
(4) The final objection comes from various fatalist doctrines, particularly, the doctrine of anti-praxis with its slogan “let it go.” First of all, I think anti-praxis attempts to present itself as a zero-claim ideology, one that has no claim, no practical norm, and no recipe for collective political action. In this sense, one can get the impression that perhaps anti-praxis is more genuine than the other tenets I listed above, in so far as it does not deceive you with lofty promises of salvation, emancipation or the great outdoors. It is what it is and stands in sharp contrast to the illusions of collective political action. However, such an impression is fundamentally credulous. There is no such a thing as a zero-claim doctrine. If we look at the early doctrine of fascism—particularly its Italian offshoot—we realize that this is precisely how fascism took root. It began with the claim that we indeed have no claim, no recipe because all recipes are oppressive.
This is not to equate anti-praxis with fascism but to simply point out that a zero-claim doctrine—one that sees all practical norms as oppressive—is rife for fascist appropriation. When the proponents of anti-praxis tell us that they have no political norm or recipe, we should look at them with utter suspicion. They are either trying in the worst case to dissimulate their ulterior motives under the rubric of ideological innocence or, in the best case, they are not conscious of their own implicit practical norms because they have already dispensed with the responsibility, authority, presuppositions, and implications involved in consuming and producing norms. Saying that we must abandon all practical norms is already a normative recipe to the extent that is predicated on the impermissibility—i.e. what we ought not do—of practical norms. In this sense, anti-praxis is just a false consciousness of its so-called lack of normativity or purported innocence.
Therefore, either anti-praxis is an implicit normative recipe or it is not. If it is, then it is not really anti-praxis, and it means that it is unaware of its own normative and/or practical assumptions. If it is not normatively practical, then it must be a theoretical position and as such it is predicated upon theoretical norms such as the knowledge of the current state of affairs, and thus beholden to epistemological norms of attaining the knowledge of the current situation. In other words, how do we know that the current state of affairs is thus-and-so? Either we have a procedure of determination that is in accordance with the public norms of doing theory, epistemology, etc, or it is the case that anti-praxis assumes we do not follow norms of theory (which are fundamentally entangled with norms of practical reasoning). In the latter case, anti-praxis is just another variation of the myth of the given and/or private access to reality. Or, maybe it is the case that anti-praxis is not even a theoretical position. In that case, it should be an aesthetic position. But if that is the case, it then has no purchase on the knowledge of the state of affairs on which it is built, nor does it have any saying as what ought to be done and what ought not, even doing nothing. We should realize that doing nothing is itself a practical norm to the extent that we can only say “do nothing” insofar as we assume we ought not do such and such things. I would say anti-praxis is more like a new age monotheistic religion that prohibitively feeds off of practical norms of other religions, all to present itself as the last religion you should embrace.
So, in a nutshell, the first concrete recipe of universalism is the realization of our world: the real world is not a division between us and them, but a trap or enigma in which we are all ensnared. Aiming towards the construction a better world, entails seeking more computational resources. To see an enemy as an enemy is the first unwise strategy. The enemy is he or she who gives us a perspective otherwise unavailable to our intuitive or so-called immediate experience of the world. The abolishment of our pathological particular traits can only start when we diagnose what these particularities are and strive to change them by global or universal conditions.
Fabio Gironi: Let us move deeper into a more explicit political register. Some of your comments above regarding universalism and its detractors remind me of the “first law” of what the late Mark Fisher infamously called the “Vampire Castle,” i.e. the priestly, resentment-ridden left-wing intelligentsia. As he put it: “the first law of the Vampires’ Castle is: individualise and privatise everything. While in theory it claims to be in favour of structural critique, in practice it never focuses on anything except individual behaviour”. Similarly, your polemic against communitarianism and particularism, and against an understanding of the “local” as terminal horizon rather than as synthetic step for the piecemeal construction of a global framework seems in broad agreement with those political-economic stances that in recent years have been assimilated under the banner of accelerationism (as most concretely expounded in Srnicek’s and Williams’ Inventing the Future). I know that you were a friend of Fisher, and that you know Srnicek and Williams well, but can you offer me a clear description of your political stance, in relation to this broad orthodoxy-breaking and future-oriented trend in leftist thinking? Do you have any prescriptive stance regarding political action?
Reza Negarestani: I’m afraid that my political stance—or rather my philosophical view concerning what ought to be done in the arena of politics—oscillates between deep pessimism regarding our methods and optimism about future possibilities. Yet, insofar as any possibility can only be actualized by adequate and malleable methods and tools, and to the extent that our methods, ways of systematization, intervention with socio-economic reality and so on are either quite rudimentary or disoriented with regard to the realization of consequential political changes, I think I am more comfortable to identify myself as a rational pessimist. I reject passive pessimism in the sense that as long as possibilities can be imagined, we have to actively gamble and push beyond any vestige of resignation. Without imagining possibilities and piecewise attempts at actualizing them, there is in fact no good justification for surviving as a species. As Seneca has pointed out, in complete absence of such a struggle, we must perhaps devise the most cunning and artful contrivance for bringing our death about. In that case, even the slogan “let it go,” once inflated, is nothing but a disingenuous pessimism that attempts to fabricate a semblance of profundity. In reality, it is the very exemplification of human conservatism and an adolescent disgruntlement which secretly hopes for a miraculous change even when it tries to seem detached from such concerns. After all, romantic fatalism is the shallowest form passive optimism, rather than genuine pessimism.
Other than the question of methods and tools, another reason for my doubt is what I mentioned in my answer to your previous question and which you brought up through Mark. It is the enigma of the particular. It is enigmatic precisely because the particular as a real condition can shapeshift and come in different guises, play different even contradictory roles in the domains of both the individual and the collective, the local and the universal piecewise integration and mobilization of localities. Mark was one of the best critics of the Hobbesian myth of the state as that which guards the human from their complete transformation into wolves, as that without which humanity is inconceivable. In a sense, Mark was far more radical than Hobbes in that he fathomed the depth of the enigma of the particular. The particular can be pernicious or even illusory through and through. The absolutization of the particular, the individuals—whether in the name of the victim, the sufferer or in the name of individual choices and preferences—completely misses the fact that the conditions of individuation can themselves be pathological. The overemphasis on the particular or the local, accordingly, can very well the blind perpetuation of the conditions of exploitation and misery. But particulars can also be positively non-trivial and implicitly collective perspectives: by making these perspectives explicit, we can shed light onto the problems of the individual and the collective. However, one thing is certain—as Mark would have agreed—the depth of particularities is inexhaustible. So much that, as I argued earlier, even those who dismiss the universalist labour have to deal with its drastic implication within their neo-reactionary floating islands. Absent a diagnosis of different kind of particularities, and short of analysing them with regard to the mechanisms responsible for generating and distinguishing such causal factors or mechanisms at different levels of socio-economic reality, we are all—and I mean everyone—on the same Hobbesian Raft of the Medusa. We will eventually betray ourselves and eat one another, irrespective of whether we think we should strive for a future universalist collective project, we should denounce such endeavours, or we should do nothing and just let it go.
For me the task of politics in conjunction with the support of philosophy and technoscience is to not only show—in theory and in collective imagination—that the reality of our world is neither inevitable nor a completed totality, but also manages to concretely build a new world from whose perspective our reality will be exposed as the illusion of the inexorable and finality.
Given the endless series of particularities, of individuals, and of localities, as well as their protean nature, I think that—given our current tools, modes of thinking and action, methods, etc.—we have at this point a very slim, if any at all, chance to do anything that leads us beyond the nightmare of this auto-cannibalistic raft. While I wholeheartedly support the paradigms raised by people like Patricia Reed, Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams which are focused on consensus-building, hegemony-construction and the critical integration of particularities of the human condition, I think as a philosopher I should take side with the Socratic method of the courage of truth with regard to the political action. And as such, I believe the prospects are now very dim, shockingly so. This claim should not incite the cheer of the right-inclined, resignatory, neo-reactionary, and conservative thinkers. If anything, it should lead them to confront the prospects of their own reality as well in terms of a pure terror, insofar as this dim prospect is not exclusive to the emancipatory politics to which we have subscribed but also includes their recipes or the lack thereof.
This brings me to the main question you raised regarding my political stance. I think this question is predicated on the assumption that we can define our political position by rummaging through and resorting to the concretely instantiated political paradigms which have already been realized and then choose one that fits our methodological and ideal ambitions. I really fail to see such an exemplification that I can hold to or define as my political position. One should engage a great feat of self-deception to see contemporary political paradigms as adequate to respond the existing tribulations and problems. Sure, I am a leftist who believes in the reality of the class struggle, but this is not really a political position, only a consciousness of the socio-economic reality. I take seriously Marx and Engels’s thesis that communism “is not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality (will) have to adjust itself. Communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” This is what I would call—again following Mark—the possibility of actualizing that which is possible but from our perspective, here and now, seem impossible. For me the task of politics in conjunction with the support of philosophy and technoscience is to not only show—in theory and in collective imagination—that the reality of our world is neither inevitable nor a completed totality, but also manages to concretely build a new world from whose perspective our reality will be exposed as the illusion of the inexorable and finality. But then again, even this, is not a clear-cut political position. It is merely a philosophical thesis on the possibility of a different world and the range of political actions that can fully actualize it.
Philosophy and Engineering
Fabio Gironi: You merge this rational pessimism with the “engineering approach” for the construction of a better world, as you explained before. To some, this paradigm of political action will sound like you are vouching for a dispassionate and formalist approach to politics, and a government of experts—a “technocracy,” something that in recent times has become anathema in most public discussion (but that, the critic might enjoy pointing out, has been proven to be a failure at least since Plato’s political misadventure in Syracuse)—or even for a nefarious kind of “social engineering.” I suspect that in large part this depends precisely on am equivocation about the very concept of “engineering.” In our folk understanding “engineers,” broadly conceived, are often considered too naive to deal with the intricacies of politics, a domain fraught with normative considerations.
But if I am not mistaken, your expert engineer is as much a technically-minded problem-solver as it is a creative conceptual builder: a figure that applies his or her intelligence to the resolution of problems by means of more than the unilateral application of simple formulas or pre-packaged precepts. Indeed, it seems to me that this is where many contemporary ideas converge. Srnicek’s and Willams’ proposal to “move beyond folk politics and create a new hegemony” and their insistence on the practical/political concept of “repurposing.” Ben Singleton’s reflection on cunning reason (metis) as employed for the strategic and piecemeal construction of freedom from constraints. And of course, your own “speculative inquiry into the future of intelligence,” or functional reconceptualization of intelligence as an emancipatory tool of self- and collective improvement—as well as for practical action upon the world—where conception and transformation are two sides of the same coin. Is it then correct to say the concept of “engineering” (rather different from its “folk” equivalent) is at the core of both your philosophical and political thinking?
Reza Negarestani: Among computer scientists, there is this joke: when computer scientists go into a room full of political theorists, philosophers, cultural critics and linguists, they say to each other, “get rid of all of them and replace them with engineers.” Well, perhaps this joke is a bit too much but it has a grain of truth. Neither philosophers nor political theorists are able to design proper methods adequate to actualize possibilities, imagined or not. We need politically and philosophically informed engineers and designers. Engineers are indeed not mindless technicians, they are people who have one foot in the domain of thinking and one in the realm of an external reality or worldly affairs. They do not see action as a form of hubristic mastery to the extent that they know whatever we do at any level of reality—be it natural, social or cultural—will meet the resistance of that reality. To use a Sellarsian metaphor, reality in the broadest possible sense is not a block of wax ready to be imprinted. Engineers truly know that. They also never see reality in any sense as a flat universe, they see it as vast and deeply multi-scaled structure. In order to concretely intervene at any level of reality we must not only have a multi-level view of the reality but also know which methods, models or tools should be implemented, and at which level. To cut at the joints without splintering the bones is a description of what engineers—as Plato’s good butchers—do.
There are at least two other important tasks which are deeply entangled with the discipline and philosophy of engineering. One is the labour of modelling and the other, the design of approximation techniques. Michael Weisberg has recently written a wonderful book on models and modelling, a topic which in the past was not being taken seriously but was central to engineering. Weisberg elaborates why all our encounters with reality involve one or another kind of model, for example, descriptive, explanatory and predictive models. Even what we call empirical data are not ready-made, they are products of model projection, which means data can be distorted or even false data may be derived if the model is inadequate, too small or too big, misapplied to a target system or applied to a wrong sector of reality. The thing about models is that they are packed with all sorts of implicit and explicit theoretical, mathematical, logical and computational assumptions. Such assumptions encompass not just the model’s description but also the core of the model i.e. the structure and its interpretive factors or construals which include information about the scope, assignment, and fidelity criteria of the model itself. The latter criteria pertain to the exact information which specify the model’s representational, dynamic and resolution constraints for a given level or scale. Without proper attention to such details and the assumptions underlying them, all data and facts can be fundamentally distorted or erroneous. The whole myth of raw or pure data is perpetuated by people who have no clue about how data is mined—irrespective of what kind of data we are talking about.
The other task, the design of approximation techniques, is even trickier. Mark Wilson sums up the nature of the approximation techniques in his new book, Physics Avoidance. Engineers—like Ben Singleton’s designers as embodiments of metis or cunning intelligence—are adept at trickery, hacking the system and reality. They know that it is not the best solution to modify a given target system by intervening with lower levels or fine-grained scales (like for example, the atomic scale-length of a metal beam). Intervention at such bottom levels is rife for what Wilson calls computational hazards, due to extreme fine-grained details of lower levels, any attempt at modification and intervention will either fail or become sub-optimal. Not to mention that we often lack any solid grasp of lower level mechanisms, sometimes we don’t even have any indication as what these fine-grained scales are, we can only postulate them. So what engineers do is first they model scales or levels pertaining to the structure of the target system or the phenomenon in question. Such modelling always involves a controlled amount of simplification and/or idealization which can at a later time be revised or equipped with more details. Then, they think of how to carefully bridge lower levels to upper levels where the structure is less fine-grained and more accessible and more hospitable to intervention and modification. These bridges—which are essentially mixed-level in that they contain information regarding middle scales between the bottom and the top—are called approximation techniques. These are procedures by which engineers circumvent the messy problems of physics without forgetting about them. Such techniques allow engineers to modify a given system optimally without always the need to deal with all sorts of details which make intervention fundamentally impractical from an applied perspective, from the computational cost standpoint, etc.
Here, however, a problem arises that André Carus, in his critique of Wilson’s work, has elaborated with the utmost lucidity. What is this problem? It is the idea that engineering conceived this way would be anti-Enlightenment in the sense that all we can ever do is to reform our local concepts and descriptive pragmatic resources in a piecemeal manner, without hoping to achieve unification. We can no longer have ambitious concepts that can be applied across the board—those global concepts treasured by philosophers such as the Copernican imperative, reason, freedom, etc. Our situation is similar to that of a child who plays in the tub and is in command of a rubber duck. But, of course, the picture of reality is more like that a river where torrential flows, undertows, and chaotic behaviours take hold of the rubber duck. In order to make sure this rubber duck sails in the river, we can no longer adopt a global concept of sail or navigation. We should have atlases of local theory façades which are responsive to such turbulent quandaries. And of course, to conform to such a picture of reality, we can only develop local concepts and heuristic norms which are informational packages that reflect varying and non-unifiable perspectives such as the concept of hardness—as for example applied to a metal beam—which fundamentally varies across different scale-lengths of the metal structure.
While I have a sympathy for such view, I believe Carus is right. Our encounters with reality are not merely such heuristic or pragmatic devices. Engineers always have a main solution—a global concept—in mind. Then they try to bring various real-time scenarios under it such that neither the global concept nor local pragmatic concepts are mutually exclusive but are rather mutually positively constraining and self-reinforcing. Engineering, in this sense, is about the commensuration of the local and the global, the ideal and the messy, the strategic and the tactical. Engineering, therefore, incorporates two senses of the Enlightenment’s rational reconstruction of the world or—to use Carnap’s later term—explication. One in the sense of realism and one in the sense of idealism, naturalism and constructivism. To reengineer and recognize reality, one can neither adopt a universal concept or paradigm nor just local and perspectival concepts. Both the overarching paradigm and local malleable solution are needed.
Now, as you asked, how do we adapt this engineering paradigm to politics? My friend Ray (Brassier) cautioned me regarding this unconditional espousal of engineering as a political method. I fully agree with him. Politics fundamentally differs from engineering from the perspective of norms of political action. The philosophically and politically informed engineering as a political method is predicated on the hard labour of politics which, to a great degree, consists of diagnosing our current situation and then deciding how should we move forward, the work necessary for arriving the global concept. However, I do disagree with the idea that unlike the realm of politics where “what ought to be done” is a matter of antagonism and consensus-building, engineering is centred on a pre-established conventional norm (i.e., this is what the system should do, or this is the agreed upon norm by which the system should behave). Even in engineering, we know that the system can have multiple diverging trajectories of evolution. There is no pre-established norm or consensus as what the system is and how it should behave. For engineers, there is no pre-established function of a given system since such functions do change over time and in accordance with local contexts. Modelling a system is as daunting a task for engineers as it is for political theorists and activists to diagnose pathologies of society, and to find a way to eliminate them. Reality is not a given totality: sometimes you should approach it as a black box that can only be unveiled by systematically playing or intervening with it. Other times, you should do the hard work of modelling under epistemological constraints. All in all, the task is to integrate global concepts with contrasting local concepts.
So yes, in response to your question I take the paradigm of engineering as a profoundly composite—epistemological and practical—way of thinking about the world. And this also leads me to finally answer the question you posed earlier regarding what can be the concrete way of getting political ambitions done. Our first step in a concrete political project should be focused on diagnosing the precise causal mechanism responsible for the pathologies of individuation, to detect the levels at which such mechanism are entrenched, and then proceed to develop tools to intervene at those exact levels—like an engineer. If you don’t have the adequate tools to intervene at that level, then devise approximation techniques, resolve the problem at a different level. And, again like an engineer, attempt to lay out the logic(s) of existing worlds at different scales. Make new tools to construct new worlds from the detritus of the old one. The new different world is not a miracle or a religious afterlife, it is a world engineered from what is available to us. To recapitulate, we need to first understand the plural logics of this world almost like the multi-level ontologies of information science to even think what ought to be done and decide exactly what methods or tools at what level should be exercised.
Intelligence and Spirit
Fabio Gironi: Speaking of new tools, your Intelligence and Spirit is about to be published. It is a very ambitious and hefty volume: both a philosophy book (explicitly ignoring traditional intra-philosophical distinctions between different styles of philosophy) and a book about philosophy itself. In the latter register, you are more interested to ask “what can philosophy allow us to accomplish?” rather than demarcating what is properly philosophical. What can—or should—philosophy do?
Reza Negarestani: Since the beginning of our conversation, I have more or less presented the vision of philosophy to which I am committed as bereft of all spurious philosophical divisions. It is not that I think there are no entrenched distinctions, it is rather the case that such distinctions in methods, styles and ambitions should be finally overcome and abolished because they pigeonhole the very idea of philosophy. Philosophy is the organon of intelligence, the medium by which all relations between intelligence and what is intelligible should be integrated. One cannot be a philosopher without engaging with the history of philosophy—and I do agree with Brandom that philosophy has a history rather than a nature or a mere past—or the comprehensive ambitions of philosophy. Once we look at the deep history of philosophy, we see such distinction are ephemeral trends. Once we conjecture about the ambitions of philosophy, we notice that all such distinctions are obstacles impeding the true vision of philosophy as such. Individual philosophers do not need their own weapons, for philosophy is the ultimate weapon system. Sure, philosophy has been enfeebled by its own fanatic institutional habits, but virtually nothing on this planet can shed off its prejudices and escape the cage of human dogmas without adopting a certain degree of philosophizing. Look at the current state of science in America, those who wear the badge of science-mongering like Neil deGrasse Tyson. These are the errand boys of the neoliberalist politic. Having dispensed with the labour of philosophizing as either an antiquated way of doing science or a waste of cognitive resources, they think that science should carry the torch of radical enlightenment. But they are slaves of their own unconscious metaphysical assumptions if not the very inoculated people who in reality do the most dogmatic kinds of philosophy when defending science or attempt to derive ways of good living from scientific facts. Their so-called “scientifically informed” way of living is a jumble of bad mysticism, entrenched dogmas, and the farce of flattening the distinction between facts and values.
While I am pro-science to such an extent that I am afraid my fellow philosophers might accuse me of scientism, I believe that science without philosophy is akin to what Hegel called a bad consciousness. Even though I have been formally brought up in the way of science, I am ready to claim that science without philosophy is more like an immature genius savant who is neither capable of knowing what it actually does nor is it able to communicate to other people what its latest discovery is. This is what I call the poverty of politically manhandled and malnourished science in the age of hatred for philosophy. This is just one example. On the other pole, we see people who call philosophy a distinctly white and exploitive discipline. But who are these people that call us the recruits of the tyranny of philosophy or the master discourse? They are precisely the last strands of a decrepit western civilization which does not even know what it should do when faced with minor calamities. Long before the western enlightenment became a loved and then a hated paradigm, we Africans, Middle Easterners and Asians began to develop sophisticated philosophical systems encompassing the ways of life as well as the ways of doing science and knowing. Science and the way of reason as we know them today are unimaginable without the coordinated and borderless conversation across continents, between those who are now considered the exploited and those who are identified as working on behalf of the exploiters. This is why I insist that philosophy should not be associated with this or that population, but the very force that should terminate in thought, once and for all, the very condition of exploitation. As such, the political struggle to concretely remove the conditions of exploitation is an extension of the labour of conception. Without this labour, all political actions, even the egalitarian ones, are mantraps for humanity.
Philosophy, once untethered from all its specious limitations, is the vehicle of future intelligence. But given the fact that intelligence is an illusion without the labour of the intelligible—the criteria of intelligibility pertaining to reality, the explanatory work involved in what we call an intelligence, or the recognition of other possible intelligences—philosophy should be acknowledged as a program by which we expand and renew the link between intelligence and the intelligible. In this sense, philosophy reinvents mind or intelligence by constantly demanding us to make new worlds and new universes of discourse, to see intelligence as an exploration of reality of which it is a part. Being is a designation of theory and discourse. Talking about Being without theoretical structure or predication within a universe of discourse is meaningless. Thus, I consider Parmenides and Plato, the progenitors of theoretical structure (the intelligible) as ultimately philosophers of Being who are far more subtle and insightful than their materialist or atomistic counterparts. I believe that even the Eleatic doctrine that thinking and being are one has been misinterpreted. Rather than eliding or confounding the distinction between thinking and being, the Eleatic thesis proposes that Being is ultimately a designation provided and constituted by thinking. Philosophy’s compulsion to think, thus, signifies the expansion of the realm of Being, the renewing link between intelligence and the intelligible through which we can indeed think of new forms of intelligence and correspondingly an intelligible reality in excess of thought. This is the main premise of Intelligence and Spirit. Mind as the dimension of structure or the organon of structuration is also what gives Being or reality its true import. What we call general intelligence implicitly begins with this admission, to expand the conception or form of intelligence, we must expand the notion of Being or reality. But such an expansion is solely the fruit of the toil for the intelligible and the objective.
Fabio Gironi: Among the many formulas you use I find one particularly enlightening: philosophy would be a productive “compulsion to think,” a compulsion common to all rational minds or intelligences. What is the outcome of this compulsion?
Reza Negarestani: The main theme of Intelligence and Spirit which is connected with the philosophical compulsion to think is that intelligence, broadly understood, is the organon of worldmaking (to use Nelson Goodman‘s term); our resources of world representation are indebted to the worlds we make and the domains of discourse we put forward. Making an unrestricted universe of discourse—the universe under which many worlds can be seen as one and the one world can be addressed as many alternative worlds—defines what philosophy as the true medium for the cultivation of intelligence is. Only to the extent that we can toy around with our existing world and make new ones, can we represent the world anew, to delve further in an abyssal reality. The ways of worldmaking are many. Sometimes they involve reduction, sometimes pure construction. To engage with philosophy as that which enriches or reengineers reality one must integrate Heraclitus, the destroyer of worlds, and Parmenides, the builder of worlds. This is how philosophy becomes the craftsman of the mind under whose way of thinking all allegedly completed totalities will be revealed as incomplete and new alternatives can be imagined even if the reality of our world appears to be final and inevitable. This why I think Intelligence and Spirit is more than anything is a deep dive into the history of philosophy with no prior commitment to the current distinctions. Its aim is to resurrect that nasty bug we call the itch to philosophize. But this time the bug is more resistant to anti-philosophical pesticides. It is armed with theoretical computer science (the philosophy of computation), complexity and cognitive sciences as well as a renewed commitment to the future intelligence whoever or whatever it might be. For this reason, what I call philosophy of intelligence is philosophy itself, but one that is in the process of achieving its concrete self-consciousness. If philosophy begins with the truth-candidate—i.e., a plausible and tentative datum—that thinking is possible, then philosophy of intelligence is about the full elaboration of such a possibility. It is then essentially an answer to the question of what can be done with thinking, and more importantly, what kind of transformations do we undergo in concretely answering this question and what is ultimately born out of thinking about thinking, or as we begin to investigate both the presuppositions and consequences of the possibility of thought.
Fabio Gironi: This compulsion towards worldmaking is a process that also feeds back upon the human or the mind that does the thinking, a creative intelligence part of the intelligible world that is re-made. A crucial commitment of yours is indeed a precise form of rationalist inhumanism, obviously to be differentiated from anti-humanism (of various post-Foucauldian varieties) and trans-humanism (or technologically-enhanced humanism), but also from more refined forms of speculative post-humanism keen to abandon any constraining element of humanist normativity. If I am correct, the key to understand your inhumanism is a conception of reason as an abstract computational tool or universal blueprint for action, multiply realizable in various substrates and thus unbound by human biology. This has momentous and seemingly contradictory consequences: on the one hand the erasure of the natural/artificial distinction, when it comes to the production of thought and the understanding of what the “humanity” who bears it is (and can become) turns a scientific research project like that of AGI into an intrinsically philosophical problem (in fact, only quantitatively different from the Platonic project). On the other, your stance also opposes those neuroscience-fuelled attempts to predict the obsolescence of all of our normative concepts of reason in light of future discoveries about our neuro-physiology. At the core of this vision there exists a dialectic between constraints or conditions (be it biological or normative) and freedom. How do you conceptualize the freedom sought by the rationalist inhumanist, and what is the price of such freedom for “the human?”
Reza Negarestani: Nelson Goodman argues that every worldmaking is a remarking of the available world. The worlds which are made are re-cognized worlds. In other words, there is no such a thing as a new world without its continuity with parts and elements of old worlds. World-versions can sometimes be made by construction of the available worlds and sometimes by their reduction to more elementary components which can be once more put together under a different integrative schema. But reduction is neither a unique nor an indiscriminate method. There is no ur-world—neurological, physical, etc.—to which such versions can be fully reduced. The talk of a total foundation, as Goodman remarks, is not a philosophical or even a scientific talk. It is a talk that should be bestowed upon and consigned to theology. The reason I am referring to Goodman’s work is because I think there is a parallel between ways of worldmaking and thinking about intelligence, specifically the future intelligence as a world of cognitions. To reduce the idea of a future intelligence to an ultimate foundation—whether under the name of biological homo sapience or sentient intelligent behaviours—is a theological way of thinking. It is not philosophical or scientific. In the same vein, the construction of worlds for the sake of multiplicity and diversification—to imagine possible worlds of intelligence disconnected from this world of ours—is also a theological thesis, albeit one that is put forward under the rubric of technology or technological deep time, the new paradigm of theological tyranny. Ways of worldmaking are, at their core, the ways of knowing. Imagining different kinds of intelligence does not engender a future intelligence, just as the posthumanist penchant to welcome all possible alternatives to the human allows no escape from human quandaries and its entrenched dogmas. Intelligence without the labour of intelligibility is a conservative humanist scam. Thinking about a future intelligence requires both the recognition of our limitations and abilities for explaining why we call something intelligent — or what involves in calling something intelligent and the hard work to, in a piecemeal manner, overcome such limitations — and to augment our theoretical and practical abilities in order to renew the link between what is deemed intelligence and the intelligible reality. Without these criteria, imagining different worlds or intelligences is nothing more an exercise in negative theology and what Kant calls enthusiasm, vagary or whimsicality.
If we think about the ways of worldmaking as the ways of imagining new kinds of intelligence then, as you say, there is no way to envision a future intelligence without the dialectic — or more generally the back and forth movement — between the existing constraints of cognition and computation, and the possibility of thinking of an intelligence that is not exactly limited by our local and contingently given conditions of constitution. Freedom is therefore a consciousness of established limitations as well as the understanding that what intelligence ought to do and think once having shed such limitations, once it graduates from passivity of accepting its given conditions to crafting entirely new and more objective, but also broadened, conditions. The price of such freedom is great. It involves risk, and a gambling informed by the current variables. But I would say that this is exactly the risk we humans have taken so far against all odds of a purported fixed nature, and the the judgement of ancestors and tradition. If we entitle ourselves to such a gamble, then there is no good justification to deprive a future intelligence—whether it is a new generation, i.e. our children, or something different—of making this informed gamble. Absent this risk which is constitutive of our own self-conception, we should put an end to our so-called life. To live an intelligible reality always involves risk, we either assess the very nature of this risk and make informed decision to the best of our capacities or we die as that species which could make fabulations about other kinds of world but was ultimately unwilling to take risks in its own world. This is why, for me, what is called posthumanism for a good part is simply a different face of conservative humanism: You can dream of other intelligences—aliens, angels, superintelligences, gods, etc.—how they can evolve, what might be the consequences of their so-called reality, but still you are not willing to even imagine a new world for humans or rethink what it means to be human, and what might be the consequence of such a concrete and thoroughgoing renegotiation.
Fabio Gironi: I began with an attempt to demythologize Reza the prophet and here we are, discussing the existential imperative of a future computational refashioning of human nature. So, let us close on a lighter note: what does Reza the man do for fun when Reza the philosopher takes a break?
Reza Negarestani: As you well know philosophy is, without question, a demanding exercise, particularly so from the psychological point of view. Short of some sort of balance in the philosophical ascesis, one sooner or later either gives up on philosophizing or worse starts romanticizing about the depression and the psychological afflictions which usually come with philosophy. It’s not that I equivocate thinking hard with being depressed, it’s just that philosophy robs us—for the better—of the tools by which we can psychologically deceive ourselves about ourselves and the world that surrounds us. I don’t see how one cannot sink into the depths of depression without strategies of self-deception. So yes, I try to do things other than philosophy—in order to do more philosophy in the long run, without being burned out. I do cooking, gardening and daily chores which are not explicitly fun but put me in a different mood. Other than these, I particularly take great pleasure in playing video games. Even given the current adolescent culture around them, to me videos games are like supercolliders where literature, cinema, art, the concept of play, philosophy, and many other things are fused together. It’s essentially what you might define the prototype of a popularized and popularizable medium which philosophy currently lacks. A guiltier pleasure of mine is riding particularly sinister rollercoasters. Other than being engineering marvels, rollercoaster rides suspend thinking and with that all anxieties that derive from your being slowly disillusioned. The brain locks into a different mode which I find equally refreshing. I’m afraid that’s about it. Philosophers don’t typically have a great or an expansive sense of fun.
Fabio Gironi is an IRC Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Philosophy, University College Dublin. He previously studied at the University of Rome “La Sapienza,” the University of London, and Cardiff University, where he obtained his Ph.D.
Reza Negarestani is a philosopher. He has contributed extensively to journals and anthologies and lectured at numerous international universities and institutes. He is the author of Cyclonopedia (re.press, 2008) and Intelligence and Spirit (Urbanomic / Sequence Press, 2018).