If there is a figure which stands out as the hero of our time, it is Christopher Wylie, a gay Canadian vegan who, at 24, came up with an idea that led to the founding of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics firm that went on to claim a major role in the Leave campaign for Britain’s EU membership referendum. Later, he became a key figure in digital operations during Donald Trump’s election campaign, creating Steve Bannon’s psychological warfare tool. Wylie’s plan was to break into Facebook, harvest the Facebook profiles of millions of people in the US, use their private and personal information to create sophisticated psychological and political profiles, and then target them with political ads designed to work on their particular psychological makeup. At a certain point, Wylie was genuinely freaked out: “It’s insane. The company has created psychological profiles of 230 million Americans. And now they want to work with the Pentagon? It’s like Nixon on steroids.”[i]
Tag Archives: Philosophy
Alors qu’au cours de ces derniers mois, ma vie de veille a été, pour reprendre l’euphémisante expression catalane, «bonne, si nous n’entrons pas dans les détails», ma vie onirique a eu la puissance d’un roman d’Ursula K. Le Guin. Au cours de l’un de mes derniers rêves, je discutais avec l’artiste Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster de mon problème : après des années de vie nomade, il m’est difficile de décider d’un lieu où vivre dans le monde. Pendant que nous avions cette conversation, nous observions les planètes tourner doucement sur leur orbite, comme si nous étions deux enfants géants et que le système solaire était un mobile Calder.
The ideals of the Enlightenment are the basis of our democracies and universities in the 21st century: belief in reason, science, skepticism, secularism, and equality. In fact, no other era compares with the Age of Enlightenment. Classical Antiquity is inspiring, but a world away from our modern societies. The Middle Ages was more reasonable than its reputation, but still medieval. The Renaissance was glorious, but largely because of its result: the Enlightenment. The Romantic era was a reaction to the Age of Reason – but the ideals of today’s modern states are seldom expressed in terms of romanticism and emotion. Immanuel Kant’s argument in the essay ‘Perpetual Peace’ (1795) that ‘the human race’ should work for ‘a cosmopolitan constitution’ can be seen as a precursor for the United Nations.
As the story usually goes, the Enlightenment began with René Descartes’s Discourse on the Method (1637), continuing on through John Locke, Isaac Newton, David Hume, Voltaire and Kant for around one and a half centuries, and ending with the French Revolution of 1789, or perhaps with the Reign of Terror in 1793. By the time that Thomas Paine published The Age of Reason in 1794, that era had reached its twilight. Napoleon was on the rise.
How are capitalism and the prospect of post-humanity related? Usually it is posited that capitalism is (more) historical, and our humanity, inclusive of sexual difference, more basic, even ahistorical. However, what we are witnessing today is nothing less than an attempt to integrate the passage to post-humanity into capitalism. This is what the efforts of new billionaire gurus like Elon Musk are about; their prediction that capitalism “as we know it” is coming to an end refers to “human” capitalism, and the passage they talk about is the passage from “human” to post-human capitalism. Blade Runner 2049 deals with this topic.
The first question to ask is: Why is the fact that two replicants (Deckard and Rachael) formed a sexual couple and created a human being in a human way, experienced as such a traumatic event, celebrated by some as a miracle and castigated by others as a threat? Is it about reproduction or about sex, i.e., about sexuality in its specific human form? The movie focuses exclusively on reproduction, again neglecting the big question: Can sexuality, deprived of its reproductive function, survive into the post-human era? The image of sexuality remains the standard one. The sexual act is shown from the male perspective, so that the flesh-and-blood android woman is reduced to the material support of the hologram fantasy-woman Joi created to serve the man: “she must overlap with an actual person’s body, so she is constantly slipping between the two identities, showing that the woman is the real divided subject, and the flesh and blood other just serves as a vehicle for the fantasy.“ The sex scene in the film is thus almost too directly “Lacanian” (in line with films like Her), ignoring authentic hetero-sexuality where the partner is not just a support for me to enact my fantasies but a real Other. The movie also fails to explore the potentially antagonistic difference among androids themselves, that is, between the “real flesh” androids and an android whose body is just a 3D hologram projection. How does, in the sex scene, the flesh-and-blood android woman relate to being reduced to the material support of the male fantasy? Why doesn’t she resist and sabotage it?
As the geopolitical chessboard continues to be tossed around by ill winds, an exhausted West wallows in the mire of its own failings, and the planet faces a mounting existential crisis, we might do worse than to pause and reflect on how one of the great minds of a previous generation might help us make sense of these times of trouble.
Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the last towering giants of a Renaissance pantheon concerned with the whole spectrum of human existence. Sharp, independent minds have always enjoyed the Sartrean glow that permeates Western culture (or at least those particles of it not fossilized by academia).
Sartre, via his “protest” philosophy, was indisputably the preeminent moral voice and intelligence of the second half of the 20th century, with “protest” carrying the meaning it was imbued with by Martin Luther. And as with Luther, Sartre’s existentialism has a fulminating formula:
Julian Jaynes was living out of a couple of suitcases in a Princeton dorm in the early 1970s. He must have been an odd sight there among the undergraduates, some of whom knew him as a lecturer who taught psychology, holding forth in a deep baritone voice. He was in his early 50s, a fairly heavy drinker, untenured, and apparently uninterested in tenure. His position was marginal. “I don’t think the university was paying him on a regular basis,” recalls Roy Baumeister, then a student at Princeton and today a professor of psychology at Florida State University. But among the youthful inhabitants of the dorm, Jaynes was working on his masterpiece, and had been for years.
From the age of 6, Jaynes had been transfixed by the singularity of conscious experience. Gazing at a yellow forsythia flower, he’d wondered how he could be sure that others saw the same yellow as he did. As a young man, serving three years in a Pennsylvania prison for declining to support the war effort, he watched a worm in the grass of the prison yard one spring, wondering what separated the unthinking earth from the worm and the worm from himself. It was the kind of question that dogged him for the rest of his life, and the book he was working on would grip a generation beginning to ask themselves similar questions.
‘In moral philosophy it is useful, I believe, to think about plants.’ The words were spoken to an audience of American philosophers in 1989. The speaker was trying to provoke a reaction, but this might have gone unnoticed. After all, Philippa Foot – nearly 70 by then – didn’t look like a heretic.
There is a clue in her reference to moral philosophy. For at least the past 200 years, people who have thought about these things have suspected – or hoped – that morality is the one thing that sets human beings apart from nature (or should one say, the rest of nature?). Nature is the realm of laws, stern and unbreakable, and morality that of freedom. Nature is how things are, morality how they ought to be. If there’s anything to these points of contrast, then what seems at first a mere platitude sounds more like an absurdity. We are not, in the relevant sense, part of nature – not even of that part of nature that consists in our fellow animals, and, still less, plants.
Have we anything to learn about morality from plants? This might well depend on that bigger question: are we, or aren’t we, part of nature? One of the many things that set Foot and her allies in philosophy apart from others of their generation was their refusal to make an either/or of it.
Something has gone badly wrong with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.
According to Ubuntu philosophy, which has its origins in ancient Africa, a newborn baby is not a person. People are born without ‘ena’, or selfhood, and instead must acquire it through interactions and experiences over time. So the ‘self’/‘other’ distinction that’s axiomatic in Western philosophy is much blurrier in Ubuntu thought. As the Kenyan-born philosopher John Mbiti put it in African Religions and Philosophy (1975): ‘I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.’We know from everyday experience that a person is partly forged in the crucible of community. Relationships inform self-understanding. Who I am depends on many ‘others’: my family, my friends, my culture, my work colleagues. The self I take grocery shopping, say, differs in her actions and behaviours from the self that talks to my PhD supervisor. Even my most private and personal reflections are entangled with the perspectives and voices of different people, be it those who agree with me, those who criticise, or those who praise me.
It was, indeed, a Trumpquake. And the sequel was a given; the whole world, transfixed, in real time, 24/7, hanging on every word, tirade, feeding frenzy oozing from the swamp and its various flesh-eating monsters and manmade pathogens, deep state-related or otherwise.The Trump presidency is the ultimate larger-than-life – for many the only – show on earth. It’s open to debate whether the vicious civil war currently in effect between Team Trump and powerful deep state factions enmeshed with the neocon/neoliberalcon galaxy is just shadowplay; or whether this is the real deal underlining the eventual crash and burn of the American Empire.